In this lesson, we will tackle the issue of deism as it related to America’s ‘Founding Fathers.’ We will learn what deism is and explore the way in which it differs from traditional Christianity. In addition, we’ll discover which American founders were deists and examine the effects of deism on their thinking.
What is Deism?
Let’s begin with the term deism. What is it? Deism is a theological view that affirms the existence of God, but denies miraculous or supernatural occurrences in the natural world. Deists often compare God to a clockmaker: just as a clockmaker creates a clock, winds it up, and lets it operate, so too God created the world, and then let it ‘operate’ according to natural law. Deism places high importance on scientific theory, and regards supernatural occurrences as impossible. In the deist view, God exists, but does not interact personally with the universe. Deism also places high value on human reason.
Typically, a deist would regard Bible stories containing miracles as little more than myths.
Origins of Deism
Where did deism come from? Deism, as we know it, was a direct product of the Enlightenment. What was the Enlightenment? The Enlightenment was a 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement that championed human reason and scientific thinking. The Enlightenment is closely tied to the Scientific Revolution of the 16th – 18th century. As Europeans gained an understanding of modern science, they increasingly became skeptical of traditional religious teachings. Many intellectuals of the Enlightenment considered much of traditional Christianity as superstition.
‘How could Moses have parted a sea?’ ‘How could Jesus have raised a man from the dead? That is contrary to science. These must be myths…’ That is how many Enlightenment intellectuals thought. Yet, they were not intellectually prepared to affirm atheism (the belief that God does not exist). Therefore, deism developed as a theological approach that affirmed God’s existence, but denied supernatural occurrences.
Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury has been called the ‘Father of English Deism’ His writings, along with others like John Locke, proved tremendously influential. Deism spread from England to other European countries, like France and Germany, and also to the United States.
Deism and the Founding Fathers
As ‘children of the Enlightenment,’ many of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ were deists. There is much debate among historians over which Founding Fathers were or were not deists. This is because many of the writings of our Founders contain varying degrees of deist thought. It is important to keep in mind that deist thinking was often synthesized with Christianity, and also tended to be vague. So historians often disagree over who was an outright deist, and who was a Christian ‘with deist sympathies.’ That said, many of our Founders were influenced by deist thinking to varying degrees.
Thomas Jefferson is generally considered a deist. In fact, he was so skeptical of supernatural occurrences that he took a knife and cut out passages in his Bible that referred to miracles. ‘Jefferson’s Bible,’ as it has been called, is still around today and belongs to the Smithsonian Institute. Benjamin Franklin is also widely believed to have been a deist. James Madison is thought to have been a deist, though there is much debate over this. A leading American deist was Thomas Paine, writer of The Age of Reason, Common Sense, and many other works. How about George Washington? Debate over his religious views is particularly heated. The truth is that no one is really sure. Washington commonly referred to ‘Providence’ instead of ‘God,’ yet he is generally thought to have been an Episcopalian.
In terms of their religious views, the Founding Fathers were a relatively diverse group of men. Some were Christians; some were deists. Nevertheless, as a whole, they were heavily influenced by deist thought.
Okay, let’s summarize: deism is a theological belief system that affirms the existence of God, but denies his supernatural interactions in the universe. Deism places high value on human reason and the scientific method. Deist theology does not allow for miracles, but insists biblical references to miracles are myths. Deists often conceive of God as a grand clock-master who created the universe (like a clock), set it in motion, and then stepped back to let it operate according to its own natural principles. Deism was a direct product of the Enlightenment. As men influenced by the Enlightenment, many of America’s Founding Fathers were deists. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine were prominent American deists. There is much disagreement among historians over who was or was not a deist.
Lesson at a Glance
Deism is a theological belief system that affirms the existence of God, but denies his supernatural interactions in the universe. Many deists owe their belief to the Enlightenment, a period of increased human reasoning and scientific thought. It is believed that many of the Founding Fathers were deists, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
By exploring this lesson, you’ll enhance your capacity to:
- Define deism and recount its roots
- Converse about some of the Founding Fathers’ religious views