Rise of Deism from Reform Christianity

by Lewis Loflin

A Deist Benjamin Styles wrote an essay titled, Doom of Deism? and noted, "Many of the Founding Fathers were Deists, semi-Deists, Christian Deists, Half-Deists, or some other kind of Deist..." He wonders why Deism doesn't become a fully formed "religion" in its own right. Excellent question. I'd invite one to read his full essay as I will look into this issue.

See Doom of Deism?

Religion is a Human Institution

Religions serve two important functions be it good or bad: they provide a guide to one's life, and a personal identity. Anything can be a religion in the social sense of the word.

On June 25, 1819, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Ezra Stiles Ely,

"I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."

We have to define just what a "religion" really is. The term is often applied in a negative context today usually meaning something backward, superstitious, or simply wrong belief system. I have the truth, others have religion. Going beyond simple dictionary definitions a "religion", leaving aside arguments of theology, beliefs, etc., is a human institution because it is organized with a hierarchy (political-social structure) and dogma or fixed sets of beliefs deemed beyond refute or discussion.

This political and social structure can't be separated from culture that dogma and the religious hierarchy can come to dominate and the "religion" originates from. This might be through its status as a state religion or in partnership with a ruling power - or is fused with the state in the case of Islam, where the religion, political structure, and culture are all the same.

Ancient Judaism and even modern Islam have no separate religious or secular sphere as where Christianity always has due to Roman politics. Christianity was never a separate state itself outside Vatican City. Thus it was easy to de-tangle them once the "church" fell from political power.

In England this occurred when King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, then the long struggle between the Puritans (Calvinists) and Anglican Church and British Crown. They were so busy struggling with each other various "heretics", if they kept a low profile, were largely ignored. Two notable groups of heretics were Deists and Unitarians.

This was true of Calvinism as it struggled with the Catholic Church and tolerated non-Catholics even Jews. Calvinist' Holland became one of the most religiously tolerant places in Europe. Heretics and dissenters fled there by the thousands including remnants of the Polish Unitarians wiped out as heretics in Racow (Krakow), Poland. From there their works made it into the hands of English readers. 7

Note that, " Joseph Priestley brings Socinian Unitarianism to the United States." He was an influence and personal friend of Thomas Jefferson. Poland had its own reformation in the latter 1500s before being crushed by the Inquisition. Unitarianism in Transylvania would be protected from the Inquisition by the Ottoman Turks.

So were Deists and Unitarians a "church"? Unitarians yes because they maintained a church structure even though they allowed personal variation in belief and little dogma. Deists, no being individuals often off-shoots of Unitarians. Liberal (no relation to the modern term) Protestants in England, Deists, Unitarians, etc. often associated with each other all products of the move towards rationalism and away from superstition and dogma.

Note that "Richard Hooker** (1554-1600) was not only the premier Anglican theologian and standard bearer against Reformed theology (Calvinism), he was a seminal modern thinker...Hooker assigns to reason a natural sovereignty over the other faculties of the human system. He explanation is also a good specimen of Natural Law thinking." 4 He would influence John Locke a great influence on our founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson.

Deists did not create the concept of separation of church and state, the Anabaptists and Unitarians did, both predating Deism. Anabaptists were really a group of churches seeking "...the restitution of the true church on an apostolic model than with any other sort of reform." 1 This went beyond mere questions of adult baptism to how churches operated within society as they saw fit. They were met with violence from both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther, himself a violent superstitious thug, whose intolerance wasn't limited to Jews.

Revealed Religion Versus Philosophy

As my friend wrote, "Thousands of years earlier, in ancient Greece, a form of philosophical Deism arose thanks to Platonism, Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism." But does this make sense? Plato and Aristotle were at complete odds with each other - in fact Aristotle rejected many of Plato's main ideas. This was not "philosophical Deism", but philosophical Christianity! 2

While Christianity claims the "authority" of revelation over mere philosophy, it's beyond a doubt it's a product of Hellenist' philosophy. 3 This is why Thomas Jefferson often referred to Christians as Platonists. To quote January 9, 1816 Jefferson to Charles Thomson,

I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel...

To quote February 27, 1821 Jefferson to Timothy Pickering,

No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in it’s advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic...

Divine revelation is the claim of communication between selected individuals and a higher supernatural power - God, angels, etc. Unitarianism while centered on the Bible placed reason over revelation rejecting literal interpretation of Scripture.

Deism Arose from Christianity

Now we return to Calvinism and the Puritans. They certainly were dogmatic and intolerant, but setup the rise of Deism, the Protestant ethic, literacy, and democracy. Yes, democracy believing each church should be its own "political" unit free of state control. The function of the state was to protect the liberty of the church, later American government was founded to protect individual liberty. Even the concept of the individual having a direct relationship to God would become individual worth and autonomy as we know it today. This is under attack by collectivist philosophies such as Progressivism.

Often known as "Reform Churches" they too sought separation of church-state in the sense of overthrowing the King (rejection of Divine Rights of Kings) and establish their democratic theocracy. Puritans didn't want to be simply another state church such as the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, but to purify the faith from what they believed were non-Biblical influences from the Catholic Church. Their religion wasn't persecuted in England as much as their politics.

On the positive side they resorted to the Bible only* as a source of knowledge of Christ, promoted mass literacy even for women. Like for Martin Luther, St. Augustine would be a great influence. To quote Richard Hooker (no relation to the above), "Calvin created the patterns and thought that would dominate Western culture throughout the modern period. American culture, in particular, is thoroughly Calvinist in some form or another; at the heart of the way Americans think and act, you'll find this fierce and imposing reformer." 5

*Sola scriptura (Latin: by Scripture alone) is a Christian theological doctrine which holds that the Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.

Going beyond the revulsion to Calvinist' Predestination and political tyranny their ideas once free of authoritarianism and moderated by thinkers such as Hooker and Locke became the basis of American culture. In their search Biblical "truth" Calvinists went back to the Jews to better understand the Bible, reintroducing many Jewish concepts of business, etc. into the culture.

Rejection of Calvinist' dogma led to rise of Unitarianism in Poland and Europe, and in England - a rejection of Paulism and Augustine. Many Congregational Churches in New England became Unitarian, Deists arose form both. Jefferson was a Unitarian or "deistic" Christian. To quote,

Of course Jefferson injected originality into what he learned; but he relied heavily upon the works of...four key philosophers: John Locke, Thomas Paine, Viscount Bolingbroke (Lord Kames), and Joseph Priestley. 6

The claim Deism (not the near atheist French version) arose from Greek philosophy is wrong, it originates as a revolt against and within Christianity, in particular against Calvinism. French atheistic "deism" sought to replace deism stripped of everything with Greek philosophy and Eastern religion. (IEP)

The American Revolution was not the French Revolution due to one very important reason - culture. France failed and resorted to religious violence when America did not. France merely created a secular "deistic" secularism steeped in revolution and authoritarianism, killing thousands.

Deism in its various forms is widespread today, it is mostly submerged in other religions. When members of those religions, say rationalist' and tolerant Muslims or Jews, etc. they are de-facto deists. Deism will never work as a formal religion in itself and can only exist within a particular type cultural influences in my opinion.

1. Anabaptists Separate By Choice, Marginal By Force by Elizabeth Scott.

2. Platonism and Christianity

3. Religious Syncretism, Hellenism, and Christianity by Lewis Loflin

4. At the Origins of English Rationalism by T.E. Wilder.

5. Calvin and Calvinism

6. The Exaltation of a Reasonable Deity: Thomas Jefferson's Critique of Christianity by Jeremy Koselak

7. Socinianism in 16th-17th Century Poland

**Richard Hooker (March 1554 – 3 November 1600) was an English priest in the Church of England and an influential theologian. He was one of the most important English theologians of the sixteenth century. His defence of the role of redeemed reason informed the theology of the seventeenth century Caroline divines and later provided many members of the Church of England with a theological method which combined the claims of revelation, reason and tradition...a growing number of scholars have argued that he should be considered as being in the mainstream Reformed theology of his time and that he only sought to oppose the extremists, (Puritans) rather than moving the Church of England away from Protestantism. Wikipedia.