Main point: There were many deists in the eighteenth century who were Christian deists, intent on restoring what they saw as true Christianity. Scholars have ignored their importance for our understanding of Enlightenment deism. I look at the most influential group of eighteenth-century Christian deists, the English ones, discuss their beliefs, and show how they force us to change our ideas about Enlightenment deism. (This is part of an academic article was published in th International Journal of Philosophy and Theology in the beginning of Cotober 2014. . I have published a related article, “The Piety of the English Deists,” in the July 2012 issue of the Intellectual History Review.)
The English deists were the most intellectually influential deists in the eighteenth century, developing the arguments that influenced American, German, and French deists. It is commonly thought the eighteenth-century English deists believed in a distant, uninvolved, clockmaker deity, and so they did not believe in miracles or revelation. For example, J. C. D. Clark, an influential scholar of English religion, said the English deists rejected revelation and Divine Providence because “God was conceived as a Creator or First Cause who subsequently stood aside from his creation to allow it to run according to its own rules.” Peter Gay, in his introduction to an anthology of deists’ writings, said the deists loved “the grand unalterable regularity of nature” and “rejected both revelation and the Christian God altogether.” Gay said, “the deists might be religious men, but in their nature religion, nature was primary and religion evaporated.” These characterizations of English deism ignore the importance of Christian deism, or deists who emphasized restoring what they saw as pure or genuine Christianity. These Christian deists number about half of the eighteenth-century English deists and were among the most influential ones, and so they cannot be marginalized as outside the mainstream of English deism. Other scholars, like Jonathan Israel, Wayne Hudson, Jeffrey Wigelsworth, and Diego Lucci, have noticed a few English deists claimed to be Christian. These scholars, however, miss the tremendous importance of Christian deism because they think there were only a couple Christian deists in eighteenth-century England. I show that there were at least thirty-five Christian deists in eighteenth-century England who left a significant amount of written work. Another reason the category of Christian deism is often ignored is that most of the deists’ contemporaries and some modern scholars think these deists were insincere, but I give many good reasons to believe the vast majority, if not all, of the Christian deists really considered themselves Christians. The importance of Christian deism in eighteenth-century England means we have to significantly change our understanding of the nature of English deism, and it means we have to realize that some deists in other countries, such as Benjamin Franklin, were Christian deists.
By the phrase “Christian deist” I mean more than a deist (defined in the next section) who occasionally stated that he believed in Christianity or admired Jesus; I mean someone who took his Christianity very seriously. A Christian deist is a deist (and so not a member of the Unitarian Church) who was deeply concerned about restoring what he saw as true Christianity. By my take, a deist has this deep concern for Christianity if his theological work was focused on clearing away what he saw as the priestly additions to Christianity and then spreading what he saw as true Christianity. A deist like Shaftesbury, who focused on polite, gentlemanly and classical concerns while occasionally saying he believed in Christianity, is not a Christian deist as I use the phrase.
By calling them “Christian,” I am not claiming these deists were orthodox Christians. If the reader does not consider any of these deists Christian, she can attach a more cumbersome label to them like “deist who mistakenly thought he was Christian and was different than a secular, anti-Christian deist” or “deist who claimed he was a genuine Christian, but really was an infidel.” The important concern from my point of view is that there were a significant number of eighteenth-century English deists who were claiming to be genuine Christians, and, however we label them now, they had considerably different beliefs from our normal conception of deists, and thus change our conception of English deism.
List of Christian deists in England in the eighteenth century
There are three categories of thinkers who can legitimately be considered Christian deists. The first is people who said they were Christian deists, made equivalent statements, or actively spread deism while also writing seriously about pure or genuine Christianity. The second are people who wrote seriously about their interpretation of pure Christianity while being considered deists by their contemporaries. The third are people who share the outlook of the other two groups.
Four thinkers familiar to scholars called themselves Christian deists or the equivalent: Thomas Morgan, Matthew Tindal, Thomas Chubb, and Peter Annet. Thomas Morgan was the most forthright, saying that he had “the Honour of being a Christian Deist.”[x] Matthew Tindal was not as forthright as Morgan: he did not actually call himself a Christian deist, but three times he called those believing in his most important ideas “Christian deists.”[xi] Thomas Chubb said he believed in the Christian revelation[xii] and his work was “designed and calculated to promote and encourage Deism.”[xiii] Peter Annet considered himself a defender of deism[xiv] and in his last book said he was a true Christian.[xv]
Six other thinkers who are not known to scholars also called themselves themselves Christian deists.
The second group of Christian deists is eighteenth century thinkers who wrote a significant amount about their own idea of real or genuine Christianity, and were called deists (or related names such infidels, blasphemers, apostates, skeptics, unbelievers, or free-thinkers) by their contemporaries in other printed works. The There were a large number of attacks on deism in the eighteenth century, but individual deists were not generally named in these attacks, especially in the first half of the century. The best known writer discussing deism is John Leland.[xvi] But there were ten other books discussing them, including some in other countries.
From these works we can see which thinkers who were seriously concerned about pure Christianity were considered deists in the eighteenth century. Anthony Collins, John Toland, Lord Bolingbroke, and Thomas Woolston were mentioned as deists in every work or almost every work. Bernard Mandeville and Henry Dodwell were each mentioned in about half of these books. (This does not consider the very early lists of deists which were published before some of these writers’ works were published.) These thinkers should all be considered deists.
I would also include thinkers commonly mentioned in the early works about deism but who were not included in Leland’s list and were neglected by later writers. There were five other thinkers mentioned often on these lists.
Ten eighteenth-century English thinkers called themselves Christian deists or the equivalent. Eleven thinkers whose writings were focused on Christianity were commonly considered deists by their contemporaries. If we want to understand Christian deism we need to look closely at these thinkers’ writings.
Christian deists believed in miracles, revelation, and other kinds of supernatural activities
The deists are generally seen as having a distant, watchmaker God because they rejected all forms of Christian supernaturalism. For example, Darren Staloff, in a recent article on deism, said that deism was the “religion of nature,” and because the deists were “devotees of natural religion, they rejected all the supernatural elements of Christianity.”[xvii] But if the works of the Christian deists are read closely, it can be seen that almost all of them believed in miracles and revelation, and a significant number of them believed in other supernaturalist elements of Christianity such as a divine Jesus and active angels.
While this picture of the deists has been received wisdom for a long time, in a recent article I have challenged it. I say we should stop assuming what their Christian enemies said about them was true and instead read the works of the English deists closely. I shows that almost all of the most prominent English deists believe in miracles and revelation, and over half of them believed in direct divine inspiration outside of the Bible, or what their contemporaries called religious enthusiasm. English deists in general not at all have a clockmaker, detached god, in fact with direct divine inspiration more active in some ways than orthodox Christian god. [xviii]
I was writing about English deism in general in the earlier article. In this one I extend these insights to the Christian deists in particular and show almost all of them believed in miracles and revelation, half had a divine Jesus, and many believed in direct divine inspiration and angels.
Only one of the twenty-one Christian deists consistently denied God did miracles. Three others never mentioned them in their works, one sometimes denied them and sometimes affirmed them, and the rest (seventeen of them) said God did miracles. Thus the vast majority of them believed in miracles.
This can be hard for people to understand as these deists often make statements that seem to indicate they do not believe in miracles. So some Christian deists said God works through general laws and never broke them to do miracles. For example, Thomas Morgan denied God ever broke his general laws to do miracles. He said that God governed the world “by general, uniform and established Laws,” and so “does not miraculously interpose, as they would have him, by suspending or setting aside the general, established Laws of Nature.”[xix] Also, some Christian deists question the evidence for Jesus’ miracles and decide he never did them. The best known deist in this category is Thomas Woolston who ridiculed the Bible’s account of Jesus’ miracles, maintaining they could not have happened as they were ‘full of Absurditys, Improbabilities and Incredibilitys.’ Despite Morgan and Woolston’s seeming denial of miracles, they, and other Christian deists who made statements like them, actually believed in miracles.
Morgan, in the same book in which he denies God ever breaks natural laws, made it clear he actually believed in miracles: they were just done by angels in harmony with the natural laws.[xx] Morgan said just as we care for animals while never breaking any natural laws, angels care for us in the same way. Our actions must seem miraculous to the animals, and angelic actions seem miraculous to us. Morgan said that if we could see the
other intelligent free Agents above us, who have the same natural establish’d Authority and Command over us, as we have with regard to the inferior Ranks and Classes of Creatures, the Business of Providence, moral Government, and particular Interpositions by general Laws of Nature would be plain enough.[xxi]
Angels do what we consider miracles, but they never break the laws of nature doing them.
Thomas Woolston so ridiculed Jesus’ miracles, he was put in prison for blasphemy. Woolston said he was attacking the literal interpretation of Jesus’ miracles in order to defend an allegorical interpretation of them, but he was even more eccentric than that. In one of his seldom-read books, he said Jesus performed literal miracles, but not the ones in the Bible. Woolston shared a basic deist assumption that God was completely good and wise and so acted always in the wisest and most effective manner. Woolston decided this meant that Jesus would not do his miracles in the obscure province of Palestine, but in Rome, in front of the Roman Emperor as this gave Christianity the best chance to prosper. Woolston even thought God did literal miracles to protect the Roman Empire as long as the Empire was useful in helping Christianity be spread.
Other Christian deists who seem to deny miracles because they say God does not break natural laws or they question the evidence for biblical miracles are in the same category as Morgan and Woolston. In my article, “The Piety of the English Deists,” I demonstrate that while Bernard Mandeville, Lord Bolingbroke, and Thomas Chubb make statements that appear to mean they do not believe in miracles, they actually did. I also showed that Peter Annet was inconsistent on the subject: sometimes he denied God ever did miracles, but less often, including his last work, he said God did them.[xxii]
Ten Christian deists stated clearly that they believed in miracles. While only one Christian deist denied them. Four of them did not state their position on the subject.
Of the twenty-one Christian deists, sixteen said they believed in miracles, while only one of them consistently denied it. The numbers are almost the same about revelation: sixteen of them affirmed it, and only three denied it.
The vast majority of the Christian deists clearly stated they believed in the Christian revelation. They, did not, however, all agree with the orthodox that humans were tremendously damaged by the Fall and thus needed to be redeem by Jesus. Six Christian deists (the best known being Dodwell, Mandeville, Morgan, and Woolston) agreed with the orthodox view that Jesus redeemed us from the damaging effects of the Fall.[xxiii] On the other hand, eight of them (with the best known being Bolingbroke, Chubb, Tindal, and Toland) believed pre-Christians had ignored their non-corrupted reason because greedy, power-hungry priests had misled them. All these thinkers said humans needed a divine revelation to bring them back to their reason.[xxiv] Two deists, Collins and another, said they believed in the Christian revelation, but did not, as far as I know, say why the revelation was necessary.[xxv]
Two Christian deists did not state clearly if they thought Christianity was a divine revelation or not, but only three denied it. Two said the Gospel was a republication of the law of nature, but neither made it clear if this was a divine revelation or not. Peter Annet and two others said there was no divine revelation in Jesus’ time; instead, all three believed exclusively in inward revelation.[xxvi]
It is often assumed that every deist considered Jesus merely a great ethical teacher. But of the twenty-one Christian deists, almost half of them explicitly said Jesus was divine, with most of these thinkers saying he was part of the Trinity. For example, one called Jesus “the great God,” and said Jesus is he “who is the Divine Logos.” Another said Jesus was “the God himself . . . the divine Logos who was incarnated to instruct us as well as redeem mankind.” Even those who did not explicitly state Jesus was divine, did not necessarily conceive of him as an ordinary man. For example, one called Jesus Christ “the Messiah, the anointed of the Lord, the Son of God, and his Messenger to Mankind. . . . our Saviour.” This deist did not make it clear exactly what he meant by these words.
There are two other significant supernatural elements many Christian deists believed in: angels and direct divine inspiration. A large number of these thinkers believed angels and devil were very active in the world. Also, as I mentioned earlier, in an earlier article I have demonstrated that eight Christian deists believed in direct divine inspiration outside the Bible. I have shown that Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard, Thomas Morgan, Henry Dodwell, Bolingbroke, Thomas Chubb, Thomas Woolston, and Matthew Tindal all believed in God or angels planted thoughts or impressions in our minds.[xxvii] I do not have the space to go through all of their various beliefs on both subjects, so I will just mention one example on each.
One deist thought God sometimes sent angels to help nations win battles. This deist said angels had helped the English defeat the Spanish Armada, and they had helped bring future King William to England during the Glorious Revolution. He said that sometimes God even helped his favorite nations win battles by sending evil angels to vex the armies of their enemies.
Thomas Morgan discussed direct divine inspiration more extensively than any other Christian deist. In one place he gave advice on how a person could receive direct divine inspiration. Morgan said the person should be focused on being spiritual, and become calm and reflective. In such a contemplative state, God speaks to a person’s reason. Morgan said a person “hears the clear intelligible Voice of his Maker and Former speaking to his silent, undisturb’d attentive Reason.”[xxviii] The important thing is that reason and divine inspiration are not seen as in conflict. Morgan also thought angels planted inspirations in our mind, even going so far as to say their inspirations were behind humanity’s greatest discoveries and revolutionary thoughts.
Almost all the Christian deists believed in miracles and revelation. Half of them believed Jesus was divine, and many believed in direct divine inspiration. Many of them also believed angels and devils were active in the world. Clearly scholars are wrong to think all the deists denied the supernatural elements of Christianity. Scholars are also wrong to think every deist believed in a deity who was uninvolved with the world. Considering many Christian deists believed in direct divine inspiration outside the Bible, their deity was sometimes more active, concerned, and helpful than the Christian deity.
Different types of Christian deists
The Christian deists did not have a distant, uninvolved watchmaker God and so they cannot be distinguished from the orthodox by their disbelief in miracles or revelation. About half of the Christian deists assumed the Bible was the inspired word of God and then used reason to examine whether contemporary Christianity was consistent with the Bible. These deists thought Christians misunderstood parts of the Bible or inappropriately added something to it. These thinkers generally saw themselves as continuing the Protestant Reformation by ridding Christianity of non-scriptural doctrines and practices. Unitarian criticisms of the orthodox focused on the nature of Jesus, Anabaptist criticism focused on infant baptism, but these deists criticisms did not have such a common focus. It was particular to individuals and what mattered to them. The other half of the Christian deists assumed the moral goodness of God and then examined the Bible to see if it was consistent with this moral goodness. This group said significant portion of the bible, or all of it, was not consistent with God’s moral goodness. Most of this group then said only some books of Bible contained divine revelation. Some of this group went even further and said the Bible was not a record of God’s revelation and Christianity had to be understood in an allegorical or mystical way.
The Protestant reformers wanted to rid Christianity of what they saw as non-scriptural doctrines, but they did not agree on when these doctrines had been added. Some thought the Church Fathers had added doctrines, others blamed paganism, still others emphasized events at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Four of the Protestant reformers claimed modern Protestantism had many non-scriptural doctrines and traditions it had absorbed from the Church Fathers. These reformers claimed the Bible had simple, clear teachings emphasizing morality. This simplicity, however, did not benefit the early priests, who increased their own power and status by adding non-scriptural mysteries, doctrines, and ceremonies.
Two of the Protestant reformers claimed modern Protestantism had non-scriptural doctrines that it had absorbed from early pagan culture. One said the Bible did not teach a separate, immaterial soul that existed after a person’s death; he said later thinkers absorbed this doctrine from Greek philosophy. Another said true Christianity involved controlling the passions and desires, and Christians had mistakenly picked up from the pagans a concern for money, honor and social esteem.
Four Protestant reformers generally focused their criticism on the Reformation and later beliefs. Two focused their writings on individual liberty of conscience or freethinking, and how the Church of England did not adequately allow that. Another claimed the idea, which was particularly emphasized around 1650 and afterwards, that Christian faith was based on rational argument was not biblical. The last said the Reformation was very incomplete because the Protestant clergy had adopted the same tyrannical and self-aggrandizing habits of the Catholic clergy.
In his early writings, Matthew Tindal was a Protestant reformer, but in his last major writing, Christianity as Old as Creation, he went farther. In this book, he identified true Christianity with the common notions, or ideas of morality God had implanted in us.[xxix] He said what separated a Christian deist from the orthodox was a willingness to examine scripture by these moral ideas.[xxx] Tindal did not reject any part of scripture in his writings, but he said that these moral ideas were the judge of what could be considered divine.
The second group of Christian deists were less reticent than Tindal and were willing to explicitly judge scripture by their ideas of morality. Half of this group said that taking natural religion with its emphasis on morality seriously meant that significant parts of the Bible or all of it could not be divinely inspired. One did not specify what books of the Bible were immoral and thus were not divinely inspired; the others in this group were more forthright. Three said the Old Testament was not divine revelation. One accepted the actual words Jesus said as divine revelation, but not the epistles or the historical parts of the Gospels.
The other half of this group of deists said all the books of the Bible had to be rejected because they were not consistent with a morally good God. They then said the Bible could only be correctly understood in an allegorical or spiritual way. These deists then said that real Christianity was something quite different than the orthodox’s literal way of understanding it. Two said Christ was really an allegory for using our spiritual reason. So one said, “The outward Christ must die, and all our dependence on him must go away, that the internal and spiritual Messiah, the mystical Jesus, the intellectual light and divine understanding may arise and shine in our souls.” Thomas Woolston said Bible should be seen as containing allegorical and mystical truths like the early Church Fathers understood it.
All the Christian deists used reason to criticize important religious beliefs of their contemporaries. Half of the Christian deists saw themselves as continuing the Protestant Reformation and advocated believing only what was in Scripture. Another half assumed God was totally morally good and rejected some or all of the Bible’s books.
More Christian Deists
With this understanding of the Christian deists, it is possible to include other eighteenth century English thinkers into this category. I found these thinkers by combing through book reviews in eighteenth century periodicals and it is only a matter of luck that I found them. There easily could be other, more well-known figures that I just was not lucky enough to stumble upon. The best known figure is
Conyers Middleton, but there were ten others. Four thinkers were Christian deists of the Protestant reformer type. Besides these four Protestant reformers, there were seven Christian deists who rejected some whole books or significant parts of the Bible. So besides the twenty-one Christian deists who called themselves deists or were often called that by their contemporaries, there were at least eleven other thinkers who should be considered Christian deists because they share similar beliefs of those in the first two categories.
Most scholars’ understanding of Enlightenment deism is based on deists who denied miracles, revelation, and other types of supernaturalism. These deists thought our only way of knowing God was through reason and natural religion. But there was another kind of deism in the eighteenth century: Christian deism. The writings of Christian deists were focused on restoring what they considered to be primitive or pure Christianity and almost all of them believed in miracles, revelation, and other forms of supernaturalism. The Christian deists were especially significant in eighteenth-century England and I identify over thirty Christian thinkers who either called themselves Christian deists, were considered deists by their contemporaries, or share the same beliefs as those in the first two groups.
Christian deists can be divided into three groups. The first thought every book of the Bible was the inspired word of God and saw themselves as continuing the Protestant Reformation by eliminating teachings that had been added to the Bible. The second group said some books of the Bible contained immoral teachings unworthy of God and so parts of the Bible was not God’s word. The third group said the Bible was not God’s revelation and insisted that Christianity had to be understood in a mystical of allegorical way. All of these deists were willing to stand outside of tradition and social consensus and criticize an important religious belief of their contemporaries.
Approximately half of the deists in eighteenth-century England who left a significant amount of written work were Christian deists. Scholars need to considerably change their understanding of deism to include the Christian deists with their belief in miracles, revelation, and other forms of supernaturalism. Moreover, Christian deists lived in other countries besides England. Our understanding of deism in these countries, as well as who should be considered a deist, has to be include an understanding of Christian deism.
[i] John Fea, “The Founding fathers were not deists” http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Founding-Fathers-Were-Not-Deists-John-Fea-02-02-2011.html. Accessed April 12, 2011.
[ii] Frank E. Manuel, The Changing of the Gods (Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1983), 34.
[iii] Wayne Hudson, The English deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009), 38.
[iv] Diego Lucci, Scripture and Deism: The biblical Criticism of the eighteenth century British deists (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), 186.
[v] David Berman, ‘Deism, Immortality, and the Art of Theological Lying,’ in Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment: Essays Honoring Alfred Own Aldridge, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 61-78.
[vi] John Toland, Clidophorus, in Tetradymus (London, 1720), 68.
[vii] Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth, ‘The Disputed Root of Salvation in Eighteenth-century English Deism: Thomas Chubb and Thomas Morgan Debate the Impact of the Fall’, Intellectual History Review, 19: 1, 29-43: 30.
[viii] B W Young, Religion and Enlightenment in eighteenth-century England: theological debate from Locke to Burke (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1998), 3, 14-15.
[ix] Joseph Waligore, “The piety of the English deists,” Intellectual History Review, June 2012.
[x] Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher, 2nd ed., corrected (London, 1738), 165.
[xi] Matthew Tindal, Christianity as old as the creation (London, 1731), 337, 340, 342.
[xii] Thomas Chubb, Two Letters, containing . . . (London, 1736), 81.
[xiii] Thomas Chubb, An enquiry into the ground and foundation of religion, (London, 1740), viii.
[xiv] Peter Annet, Deism fairly stated, and fully vindicated . . . (London, 1746).
[xv] Peter Annet, Lectures on the following subjects (London, 1769?), 32-42 & 114-135.
[xvi] Philip Skelton, Deism Revealed, 2 vols. (London, 1751). John Leland, A View of the Principal Deistical Writers, 5th ed., 2 vols. (London, 1761).
[xvii] Staloff, Darren. “Deism and the Founding of the United States.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. Jan 27, 2012. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/deism.htm>
[xviii] Joseph Waligore, “The piety of the English deists,” Intellectual History Review, June 2012.
[xix] Morgan, Physico-Theology, 96.
[xx] Morgan, Physico-Theology, 314-5.
[xxi] Morgan, Physico-Theology, 314-15.
[xxii] Joseph Waligore, “The Piety of the English Deists,” Intellectual History Review, June 2012
[xxiii] Thomas Chubb (London, 1727), 29-30; Dodwell, Christianity Argument, 73, 30, 26-30, 83-5. Mandeville, Fable Bees, 2:431; Thomas Morgan, A Letter to Mr. Woolston, 10-11;
[xxiv] Bolingbroke, Works, 2: 306; Thomas Chubb, The comparative excellence and Obligation (London, 1730), 14-15; Tindal, Christianity Old, 379; John Toland, A Collection of Several Pieces, 2 vols. (London 1726), 2:130.
[xxv] Collins, Discourse Free-thinking, 10.
[xxvi] Annet, Collection of Tracts, 459-60.
[xxvii] Waligore, Piety deists.
[xxviii] Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher, 2nd ed., corrected (London, 1738), 429-30.
[xxix] Tindal, Christianity old, 47, 52.
[xxx] Tindal, Christianity old, 340.