The Deists’ Belief in Revelation
The majority of English deists said they believed in revelation. Some even said they were not deists if denying revelation was the hallmark of deism. Shaftesbury said he was against the “name of Deist, when taken in a sense exclusive of revelation.”[i] Chubb also said deism was not prejudicial against “Revealed Religion in general and to Christianity in particular.”[ii]
Bolingbroke had a position very common amongst the deists: he was an advocate of natural religion, but he also thought the Christian revelation was directly related to it. He said “the Christian law is nothing else than the law of nature, enforced by a new revelation.”[iii] While he allowed for supernatural revelation, he called natural religion “natural revelation.”[iv] Bolingbroke was more satisfied with natural religion, not because it meant God was distant and uninvolved with our lives, but because he thought natural religion had more positive features than supernatural religion. Natural religion did not rest on other people’s authority or testimony; its testimony was always available and it was more fair. Bolingbroke said that “the missionary of supernatural religion appeals to testimony of men he never knew . . . for the truth of the extraordinary events which prove the revelation he preaches. But the missionary of natural religion can appeal at all times, and everywhere, to present and immediate evidence, to the testimony of the sense and intellect, for the truth of those miracles which he brings in proof: the constitution of the mundane system being in a very proper sense an aggregate of miracles.”[v]
Many deists agreed with Bolingbroke’s position that revelation and reason were harmonious. Matthew Tindal thought natural religion and supernatural revelation were complementary. He said, “the greater stress we lay upon Reason, the more we establish Revelation.”[vi] Thomas Gordon thought revelation addressed itself to reason, and the Bible was the revealed word of God.[vii] William Wollaston thought rather than natural religion undermining revealed religion, it paved the way for it.[viii] Anthony Collins said that revelation could not contradict the “Dictates of natural Light”[ix] and God “speaks to us either by Reason or Revelation.”[x]
Other deists thought revelation added important elements to natural religion. John Trenchard said that the narrowness of our minds left us in the dark about a future state after this life, but divine revelation filled that gap.[xi] Thomas Morgan said Christianity was a revival of the religion of nature but it “more clearly stated, and explained, enforced by stronger motives, and encouraged with the Promises of more effectual Aids and Assistances by Jesus Christ.”[xii] Morgan also said that because the pagans had intermixed “so much superstition and so many gross absurdities” into natural religion, Christian morality was superior to the pagan morality.[xiii] According to Morgan, the pagans had gone astray because humans suffered from original sin.[xiv] Because of these positions, Morgan considered himself a Christian deist.[xv]
Thomas Chubb agreed with Morgan that because reason had been neglected by the pagans, revelation was needed to bring people back to the right use of reason.[xvi] While he thought that the New Testament was a revelation of God’s will,[xvii] that did not mean there were no errors in the Bible. He said the apostles and first preachers “were infallible and did not err with respect to the grand errand they were sent upon because God would, and did interpose to rectify any error with respect to it,” but not so “with respect to every other point of lesser moment.”[xviii] So for Chubb, the Bible was accurate in its overall portrayal of Jesus and the early Christians, but it was not accurate in all its lesser points.
It is important to understand that while many deists emphasized natural religion which was based on reason, their notion of reason was not an autonomous judging faculty that humans used for ends we chose independent of God. Bolingbroke saw reason as intimately connected to God. He described reason as “a real divine illumination.”[xix] For Thomas Morgan, reason was the faculty through which divine inspiration was received. Thomas Gordon went even further. He said reason “is justly styled Divinae particula Aurae, a Ray or impulse of the Divinity. And in what sense can a Man be said to be made after the Image of God, unless by his possessing that REASON which is a divine particle of the GODHEAD?”[xx] Other deists likewise thought of reason as connected to God: they thought it was a gift from God and a faculty which showed us our divine moral duty. For this reason, Justin Champion said that for the deists “reason was lauded not as a secularizing principle, but as part of the ‘spiritual’ nature of humanity.”[xxi]
[i] Shaftesbury, “Moralists” in Characteristicks, 2:19.
[ii] Thomas Chubb, An Enquiry into the Ground and Foundation of Religion (London, 1740), viii.
[iii] Bolingbroke, Philosophical Works, 4:26.
[iv] Bolingbroke, Philosophical Works, 2: 279.
[v] Bolingbroke, Philosophical Works, 2:279.
[vi] Tindal, Christianity, 213.
[vii] Gordon, The Independent Whig, 2:20 & 1:8.
[viii] Wollaston, Religion Nature, 211.
[ix] Anthony Collins, A Further Discourse of free-thinking: in a letter to a clergyman (London, 1713), 5.
[x] Anthony Collins, A Letter to the Reverend Dr. Rogers (London, 1727), 6.
[xi] John Trenchard, The Natural History of Superstition (London, 1709), 7.
[xii]Morgan, Moral Philosopher, 1:392.
[xiii] Morgan, Moral Philosopher, 1:145.
[xiv] Thomas Morgan, A Letter to Mr. Thomas Chubb (London, 1727), 29-30.
[xv] Morgan, Moral Philosopher, 1: 392.
[xvi] Thomas Chubb, “Discourse on Reason,” in The comparative excellence and Obligation… (London, 1730), 14-15.
[xvii] Thomas Chubb, “An Enquiry Concerning Covenants,” in Two Letters, containing… (London, 1736), 81.
[xviii] Thomas Chubb, “An Enquiry Concerning Books of the New Testament,” in Four Tracts (London, 1735), 37
[xix] Bolingbroke, Philosophical Works, 2: 279.
[xx] Gordon, Independent Whig, 2:18-20.
[xxi] Champion, Pillars Priestcraft, 212.