This post by Robert L. Johnson originally appeared at World Union of Deists.
What is it that filled the souls of many of America’s founders with such passionate altruism that they were willing to risk everything they had, including their families, careers, and very lives, for an ideal? Was it their strong convictions in the teachings of Christianity and the Bible? Or was it something else?
People like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were avid readers of the great philosophers of the European Enlightenment. They treasured the ideas found in the works of such thinkers as Descartes, Voltaire, Bacon and Locke.
One of the cornerstone ideas of the Enlightenment was to give every idea and assumption the test of reason. When they applied reason to religion they found it necessary to strip it of revelation and they ended up with Deism. Deism is belief in God based on reason and nature. The differing alleged revelations of the various revealed religions are conspicuously absent from Deism. It is a natural religion as opposed to a revealed religion such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
Deism first started to evolve when Edward Herbert of England wrote a book called Of Truth in 1624. His book took the position that belief in God can be based on reason, not just revelation.
In 1696 the Irish philosopher John Toland wrote Christianity Not Mysterious. This book claimed that both God and God’s revelations were accessible to human reason and that the so called Christian mysteries are nothing but the manipulations of the clergy.
These two works broke the taboo of questioning Christian dogma, which was very courageous at the time, for this was the time of the Inquisition. People who questioned Biblical dogma could meet the same fate as Giordano Bruno who was convicted of being a heretic because he stated that the earth is not the center of the universe. For exercising his God-given reason Bruno paid the heavy price the superstition of revealed religion demanded – he was burned alive. In addition, these books took the additional positive step of injecting the use of reason in religious matters. Latter Deists were to completely reject any idea of revelation and base their ideas of God simply on the application of their reason on the creation. The order of nature to them was evidence of design. The design they detected in nature lead them to believe there is a Designer of nature, which is God.
In Peter Byrne’s book NATURAL RELIGION AND THE NATURE OF RELIGION – THE LEGACY OF DEISM, it’s stated the paramount difference between Deism/natural religion and revealed religion is, “… a distinction between a supposed set of divine truths specially communicated by God in history and a real system of truths available to all by the use of the unaided reason.” This cornerstone of Deism was welcomed by people like Jefferson and Washington because it brought ideas of God current with modern science and knowledge.
The Enlightenment philosophers saw no need for the revelations, rituals, and dogmas of Christianity and the other revealed religions. And neither did key figures in American history.
Many sincere people believe that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Even the powerful US Senator and candidate for US President, John McCain said, “The Constitution of the United States established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” He says this even though the Constitution does not! In fact, nowhere in the Constitution is the word “God” ever even mentioned!
The Declaration of Independence mentions God but ONLY in Deistic terms! Nowhere in the Declaration is Jesus, Moses or the Bible ever mentioned. If America was founded as a Christian nation this would not be the case.
One important US document that not many people are aware of is the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. Article XI of this treaty which was started in the administration of George Washington and which was ratified in the administration of John Adams reads, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion …” This makes it very clear that America was not founded as a Christian nation or on Judeo-Christian principles!
The reliance on reason that Deism demands enabled those who used it at the time of the American Revolution to overcome the Biblical prohibition against rebellion in political and governmental matters. This prohibition is found in Romans 13:1-2 which reads, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
One of those who employed Deistic principles was Benjamin Franklin. As a young man in Philadelphia he read some Christian books that were written in opposition to Deism. Franklin wrote in his autobiography: “Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”
Franklin goes on to say that he converted a couple of his friends to Deism. These converted friends latter wronged him and he felt that their lack of honesty and integrity in their dealings with him was due to their lack of Christianity. He wrote that “Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; …”, but he felt the average person needed the reward/punishment mentality of Christianity.
A fellow committee member with Ben Franklin on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson held deep Deistic beliefs. He even thought Jesus to be a Deist.
In a letter to Benjamin Rush dated April 21, 1803 Jefferson wrote, “To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”
Jefferson went on to write in this same letter, “Jews. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious. He” (Jesus) “corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.”
Thomas Jefferson’s Deistic mind would not let him accept the Biblical Book of Revelations. According to Charles B. Sanford’s book THE RELIGIOUS LIFE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, Jefferson described the Book of Revelation as, “… merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”
In fact, Jefferson thought the Bible to be so violent and degrading to the image of God and to the true teachings of Jesus he literally cut and pasted the gospels, removing reference to supernatural assertions such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, and came up with what he called THE LIFE AND MORALS OF JESUS OF NAZARETH, but is now more commonly referred to as THE JEFFERSON BIBLE. This treatment Jefferson gave to the Christian scriptures demonstrates his rejection of the claim that they are divinely inspired.
When Thomas Jefferson gave advice to his nephew Peter Carr regarding religion Jefferson wrote: “RELIGION. Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
Thomas Jefferson must have sincerely held his Deistic beliefs in order to offer this Deistic advice to his nephew.
Like his contemporary Benjamin Franklin, George Washington seems to have held the belief that religion was necessary to induce people to civil behavior. However, in his personal life he embraced Deistic beliefs.
In the book Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller, Jr., we read on page 92, “Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and, as we have seen, he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no mere rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington’s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was as deep-seated and meaningful for his life as, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s serene confidence in a Universal Spirit permeating the ever shifting appearances of the everyday world.”
On page 82 of the same book, Boller includes a quote from a Presbyterian minister, Arthur B. Bradford, who was an associate of Ashbel Green another Presbyterian minister who had known George Washington personally. Bradford wrote that Green, “often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist.”
Two Outspoken American Deists
In stark contrast to the above mentioned American Deists, who were somewhat reluctant to openly express their personal opinions on God and religion, are Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. Both of these men not only openly spoke and wrote of their Deistic beliefs but they actually wrote complete books about them. Paine and Allen both believed individuals and society as a whole would be better off with the natural religion/spiritual philosophy of Deism in place of the various revealed religions.
Thomas Paine wrote The Age of Reason in which he openly and honestly stated his views on religion. Paine said he had wanted to wait until his twilight years to write about God and religion because he felt this would elicit the most honest ideas since death would not be far off. He ended up writing The Age of Reason in December of 1793 when he was 57 years old, yet death was at his door, literally.
Paine was then living in Paris, France and was a member of the governmental body, the Convention. Because he spoke out against executing the King and Queen of France, yet called for abolishing the title, he made powerful enemies in the Convention. He writes in the preface to the second part of The Age of Reason, “Conceiving, after this, that I had but a few days of liberty, I sat down and brought the work” (the first part of The Age of Reason) “to a close as speedily as possible; and I had not finished it more than six hours, in the state it has since appeared, before a guard came there, about three in the morning, with an order signed by the two Committees of Public Safety and Surety-General for putting me in arrestation as a foreigner, and conveyed me to the prison of the Luxembourg.”
After The Age of Reason was published, Tom Paine was attacked by both preachers and politicians alike! A book seller in England who dared to carry Paine’s Deistic work was even arrested for blasphemy!
Although The Age of Reason points out many contradictions in both the Old and New Testaments, it also offers a look at the more positive part of Deism. And it does this in a most beautiful way.
Paine writes, “First – Canst thou by searching find out God? Yes; because, in the first place, I know I did not make myself, and yet I have existence; and by searching into the nature of other things, I find that no other thing could make itself; and yet millions of other things exist; therefore it is, that I know, by positive conclusion resulting from this search, that there is a power superior to all those things, and that power is God.
“Secondly – Canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection? No; not only because the power and wisdom He has manifested in the structure of the creation that I behold is to me incomprehensible, but because even this manifestation, great as it is, is probably but a small display of the immensity of power and wisdom by which millions of other worlds, to me invisible by their distance, were created and continue to exist.”
Deism teaches that the only word of God is the Creation. Paine expounds on this profound idea throughout The Age of Reason.
“But some, perhaps, will say: Are we to have no Word of God – no revelation? I answer, Yes; there is a Word of God; there is a revelation.
“The Word of God is the creation we behold and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.”
He continues, “It is only in the Creation that all our ideas and conceptions of a Word of God can unite. The Creation speaks a universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this Word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.”
Reason played a big part in 18th century life. With the horrors of the Inquisition still officially in place in Mexico at the time of the American Revolution, far-sighted people like Paine and Jefferson believed reason should not only apply to government, but to religion as well. Not only did these people want to prevent more witch and heretic hangings and burnings, they thought God deserved our best. Reason was looked at as the greatest gift from God other than life itself.
In The Age of Reason Paine wrote regarding reason, “It is only by the exercise of reason that man can discover God. Take away that reason, and he would be incapable of understanding anything; and, in this case, it would be just as consistent to read even the book called the Bible to a horse as to a man. How, then, is it that people pretend to reject reason?”
Tom Paine’s contemporary and fellow Deist Ethan Allen was just as outspoken regarding religion as Paine was. In Allen’s book, Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, he gives a very in-depth look at Deism. Reason was written between 1780 and 1784 and was published in November 1785. Allen had to sell large parcels of his land in order to pay for the printing of his book.
Ethan Allen came into national prominence in the early days of the American Revolution. America desperately needed a victory against the British, as well as guns and supplies. Ethan Allen helped in a critical way to provide both with the American capture of Fort Ticonderoga.
Allen was living in Connecticut, when at that time inoculation was illegal. Because Allen already considered himself a Deist and strongly embraced the “question authority” philosophy of the Enlightenment, he had himself inoculated – on Sunday in front of the Salisbury meetinghouse! When his cousin Jonathan Lee, who was a Calvinist preacher, threatened Ethan Allen with prosecution (for this was pre-revolutionary America where government and religion were tightly entwined) Allen, “made several unpleasant references to Jesus Christ, Beelzebub, hell, and every little insipid Devil.” This caused him to be tried for blasphemy. He and his family were later ostracized from the community. An outstanding book that covers this is Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart.
When Ethan Allen stated that he did not believe in the Christian doctrine of original sin he was told that without original sin there is no need for Christianity. After reflection Allen agreed, there is no need for Christianity, he reasoned.
The person credited with introducing Allen to Deistic thought is the same doctor who gave him the inoculation that caused so much trouble with the Christians, Thomas Young. After reading the works of some of the great Enlightenment philosophers that Young made available to him, according to Stewart, Ethan Allen became a Deist.
Ethan Allen demonstrated the same type of altruism that was in the character of many of America’s founders. But, like Paine, he exhibited it not only on the battlefield and in his readiness to risk everything for the Revolutionary cause. He also gave up his personal goals and political career after the Revolutionary War in order to speak and write freely concerning his spiritual beliefs. The publication of Reason coincided with the termination of his political career.
In Reason, Ethan Allen confronts Christianity’s argument of faith versus reason. He writes, “Those who invalidate reason, ought seriously to consider, whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle, that they are laboring to dethrone, but if they argue without reason, (which, in order to be consistent with themselves, they must do) they are out of the reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.”
Ethan Allen also points out the danger of surrendering our reason. If his Deistic philosophy was followed by people in our day, tragedies such as Jones Town, Waco, and Uganda would never have happened.
“Such people as can be prevailed upon to believe, that their reason is depraved, may easily be led by the nose, and duped into superstition at the pleasure of those, in whom they confide, and there remain from generation to generation; for when they throw away the law of reason, the only one which God gave them to direct them in their speculations and duty, they are exposed to ignorant or insidious teachers, and also to their own irregular passions, and to the folly and enthusiasm of those about them, which nothing but reason can prevent or restrain; nor is it a rational supposition that the commonality of mankind would ever have mistrusted, that their reason was depraved, had they not been told so, and it is whispered about, that the first insinuation of it was from the Priests.”
We are very fortunate to have the historic and political legacy America’s founders have left us.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
In Humanity We Trust (on behalf of the Giordano Bruno Foundation, 2014)
The True Core Of The Jesus Myth
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