Reasons for the Decline of Deism
Deism did not decline because Christians had unanswerable arguments against it. Deism did not decline because it had a distant, lifeless deity only suitable for cold-blooded intellectuals. Nor did it decline because of Hume’s skeptical arguments or the rise of science. Deism, at least in England, did not even really decline: instead it was ruthlessly strangled by the English government in the 1790s because the deists were the leading political reformers at this time. In the 1790s, the French Revolutionary government had instituted deist religious practices and had killed the French king. Deists in England were thrilled that the tyranny of the priests and the kings were finally being overthrown. In the mid 1790s, the deists had taken over the London Corresponding Society and other groups that were calling for extensive political reform in England. These deists/political reformers were attracting thousands and even tens of thousands of people to their meetings. To destroy these reforming deists, the English government used extremely repressive tactics of arresting them for treason, transporting them to Australia, and making their meetings illegal. These measures suppressed for two decades both deism and the activists calling for political reform.
In America and France, it is quite clear when and why deism declined, the much harder question involves England. In both America and France, deism was at the height of its popularity in the 1790s. In America, at the beginning of the 1800s, the Second Great Awakening, a Christian revival that lasted for many years, put deism into a decline it never recovered from. In France, the deists took over the government in the 1790s and set up deist religious services, but they were never able to set up a stable government. When Napoleon took over in he made peace with the Catholic Church in 1801, deism declined. England is a much more disputed question and so I will spend much more time discussing it.
The generally accepted history of English deism is that it started in the seventeenth century when Herbert of Cherbury published a book advocating natural religion, or religion our minds can grasp through reason alone without a divine revelation. Charles Blount was Herbert’s leading advocate in the 1680s, but it was not until the laws against publishing blasphemous books were changed in the 1690s that deism become more prominent. At the end of the 17th century, John Toland published the first controversial deist book, Christianity not Mysterious. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, Anthony Collins, Shaftesbury, Matthew Tindal, and Thomas Woolston were all major advocates of deism, with Tindal causing a considerable controversy in 1730 with his book Christianity as old as Creation.
There are a number of scholars who say that English deism declined around the 1730s. The most popular explanation was that it was intellectually defeated by the Christian’s superior arguments, with many scholars crediting Bishop Butler’s book Analogies of Natural and Revealed Religion. The scholar Gerald R. Cragg said Butler’s book “virtually ended the debate” between the Christians and the deists, as “it was clear the fundamental issues had been settled.”[i] S. J. Barnett said that Butler “is more or less unanimously credited with finally defeating deism.”[ii] One scholar, Peter Gay, did not so much credit the Christians for supposedly winning the battle, as blamed the deists. Gay said the English deist debate ended in the 1740s, as “the intellectual caliber of leading deists was none too impressive” and deists such as Thomas Chubb and Thomas Morgan were a “dreary parade.” Gay said the deists had no chance of winning the debate with their Christian opponents as it was “a debate the deists were bound to lose: the opposing side engrossed most of the talent.”[iii]
Most scholars’ favorite English deists are John Toland and Anthony Collins because these deists were closely connected to intellectually advanced circles in Holland. Spinoza was very influential in these circles and his type of radically secular philosophy denied any possibility of a divine revelation to humans. Some scholars of English deism have so far favored these radical deists they equate English deism with Spinoza’s ideas.[iv] The radical English deists who were inspired by Spinoza’s work and who had connections with other radicals in Holland died in the 1720s and 1730s. But it is a major mistake to equate these radical deists with English deism. Anyone saying English deism faded into oblivion in the 1730s or 1740s is ignoring three important kinds of deism that continued to flourish in England: Christian deism, working class debating society deism, and French deism (meaning the tremendous popularity in England of recycled English deist ideas in the writings of French deists such as Voltaire).
Many scholars denigrate Christian deism because it does not have the radical flavor of earlier Dutch-influenced deism. Spinoza and the Dutch philosophers are commonly seen as the most important forerunners of modern secularism and the Enlightenment project, especially since Jonathan Israel’s books on the subject.Christian deism, however, was a considerably different thing: rather than looking forward to modern secularism, it looked back to the Reformation and early Christianity. Most Christian deists assumed that God had made a revelation to humans in Jesus’ time and then argued about the terms of this revelation. Few modern scholars find this very interesting, as modern scholars writing on deism are generally Christians who are on the side of orthodox Christianity or modern secularists looking for the roots of secularism. Nevertheless, it is a tremendous mistake to ignore Christian deism, as it was a continuing presence in the intellectual life of eighteenth century England.
Matthew Tindal set the pattern for most later Christian deism by indentifying Christianity with natural religion and saying all scriptural doctrines and books have to be judged by our moral ideas. Tindal did not say if he thought any biblical books could not be divine revelation because they were immoral, but the two most popular Christian deists of the 1730s and 1740s, Thomas Morgan and Thomas Chubb, did. Morgan caused a controversy by saying that the Old Testament was too immoral to be a divine revelation. He also thought St. Paul’s epistles, which were against the necessity of Christians following Jewish customs, were divinely inspired. Peter Gay puts down Thomas Chubb as untalented, but Chubb was often considered extremely talented by his contemporaries. The poet Alexander Pope called him a “wonderful phenomenon” and it was thought he would rival John Locke.[v] Chubb said that Jesus’ words were a divine revelation but the historical part of the Gospels as well as the Epistles were not the inspired word of God.
After Morgan died in 1743 and Chubb in 1747, Conyers Middleton was the leading Christian deist. Middleton was a highly esteemed divine and librarian of Cambridge University and he caused a major sensation with his position that miracles did not continue after the death of the apostles. He said that if you looked at the evidence, the Church Fathers were very credulous people who were poor judges of the evidence and they believed in miracles that just never happened. One reason Middleton’s work on miracles was such a sensation was because he was impugning the Church Fathers, men who had set the biblical canon. Thus he was seen as attacking the foundation of Protestantism. David Hume had published his much more secular and modern attack on miracles at the same time, but he complained no one was paying attention to his attack on miracles because all England was focused on Middleton’s book.
As I show in my article on Christian deism, there were at least thirty English thinkers in the eighteenth century who should be considered Christian deists. These thinkers were still going strong at the end of the century, with one group of them starting a church in 1798 that lasted for over thirty years.
Besides Christian deism thriving until the end of the century, so too did working class debating society deism. Many scholars say deism was the exclusive preserve of the upper middle class intellectual elite. They say deism was too coldblooded with a too distant and lifeless deity to appeal to normal people. The trouble with that analysis is that it ignores the evidence of deism’s appeal to working class people, artisans, mechanics, and small business owners. The basic message of deism is pretty simple: “God is good, wants you to be moral, and will reward you in heaven. But those priests have hijacked religion because they want power over you! The priests are trying to control your religious life by feeding you garbage ideas! Everything will be better if we get rid of their control over our lives!” In an era when people were forced to pay tithes, and people were expected to be deferential to their priestly betters, who claimed to be ambassadors appointed by God to direct people’s souls, deism had vast emotional appeal. After all, history has shown that one of the most emotionally appealing messages is that things will be so much better once we get rid of “those people” (such as Jews, communists, or liberals) who are the cause of our problems.
Many of the earlier, Stoic-influenced deists had an active deity who intervened in people’s lives, but many later deists said God did not intervene in human affairs. If you thought God had a more active involvement in people’s lives, then Christian deism could appeal to you. Its basic message was also easily communicated: “God was good and the Gospel was God’s message to humanity. Jesus’ message was pure and simple: he told people to love God and their neighbor. But those horrible, power-hungry, money-grabbing priests have corrupted Jesus’ message with mysteries and abstruse doctrines! Why? So they can control you and take your money! Let’s get rid of the priests and get back to the Bible!”
Deism started amongst the intellectual elite, but the working classes found it very appealing also. After all, deism’s basic message does not take much intellectual wattage to absorb, and Christian deism had the advantage of being consistent with significant parts of Jesus’ character and statements. It was a popular activity to go to a tavern where a debating society held its meeting, pay a small fee which would get you beer and tobacco, and then hear speakers laughing at some of the stories in the Bible and talking about how the snooty priests were after power and money. People had grown up hearing about the Bible, and it does not take sophisticated learning to wonder if the God of the Old Testament was a totally loving, morally pure deity. Nor does it require much learning to wonder if the penalty for Adam’s sin was too harsh, or if it was fair for God to predestine some people to hell, or curse all the descendants of Ham to slavery. Of course, it obviously does not take any intellectual effort to laugh at priests.
One newspaper writer of the time said, “In almost every Tavern and every Alehouse . . . it is common to hear Disputes concerning everlasting Happiness and Misery, the Mysteries of Religion and the attributes of GOD.” This writer was horrified as these discussions were intended to destroy Christianity and establish deism, and were “intermingled with Lewdness and Blasphemy . . . wanton Negligence and absurd Merriment.”[vi] In other words, the lower classes were having fun at the expense of priests and their version of Christianity. Another writer said at these debating society meetings they discussed doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, the Trinity, the truth about Jesus’ miracles, and the authority of Scripture. Maybe worse from this writer’s point of view was that one pro-Christian speaker referred to the authority of the eminent divine Samuel Clarke, and a deist speaker said Clarke “knew no more of the Attributes of GOD, than a Hackney Coachman.” The writer was horrified at the lower classes’ attacks on religion at these debating societies and thought these infidel attacks on religion should be squelched.[vii]
The best known of these debating societies was the Robin Hood society. Frances Gentleman’s The history of the Robinhood Society listed many different deist speakers at the society. One was Richard M*C**L*Y, a clerk, who borrowed his religious ideas from Collins, Hobbes, and Tindal. Mr. C**D**L was an illiterate brazier with a voice like a “Crier of wild Beasts at a Country Fair.” Mr. B*RR***T*N was a former plantation governor who ridiculed Christianity. Mr. Gr***s was a painter, Mr. B**D**GT*N was an irreligious, flashy orator, and Mr. M*R*Y was a tailor and former Quaker. M. Robles was a Jewish stockbroker and an orator. He sold pamphlets privately as he was afraid of censure, but he also published a deist book.[viii]
The ecclesiastical and governmental powers were willing to tolerate deist discussions as long as it was confined to polite discussion among the upper classes. But they did not want deism spreading to the lower orders as that destroyed the system of social deference that was an important element in English society. So when George III became king, there was a renewed attempt to assert authority of the Anglican hierarchy and attack those in the lower orders who were threatening this system. So in 1762, they went after the intellectual leader of the Robin Hood Society, Peter Annet, who was then an old man. He was accused of blasphemy and put in jail at hard labor for a year.[ix]
The debating societies peaked around Annet’s arrest and then ebbed some in the 1770s. In 1781, there was so much concern about them, that Bishop Beilby Porteus got Parliament to pass a law prohibiting them from them from meeting on Sundays.
Finally, there is no reason to think English deists wanted to only read English deist writers. In the middle of the century, many French writers became very popular in England. If homegrown English deism had few well-known champions after the middle of the century, that was not because deism in England had declined, but because it had extremely talented French advocates. Why would an English publisher publish a local product when he could publish French deists like Voltaire and Rousseau who were some of the most talented writers in human history? And it was not just Voltaire and Rousseau, there were author French writers such Marmontel and Argens. These writers were extremely talented and popular, and many of their arguments were heavily influenced by English deism.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, French writers were the most popular advocates of deism in England. But that does not mean homegrown natural religion deism died. English natural religion deism had an extremely popular advocate in the middle of the century in John Wilkes, the leader of political reform in England. In the 1770s, David Williams opened a deist church with deist religious ceremonies. Williams was supported by richer deists such as the industrialists Thomas Bentley and Josiah Wedgwood, as well as General Melville and the writer Thomas Day. Benjamin Franklin helped write the liturgy for the meetings. This deist church garnered international interest with Frederick the Great, Rousseau and others praising Williams effort to establish a deist church.
The French Revolution started in 1789 and soon the French changed not only their mode of government by becoming a republic, they also became a government ruled by deists. The French government usually saw Catholicism as an intractable supporter of the monarchy, and the government actively supported deist religious festivals and ceremonies to replace Catholicism. The events in France made English radicals hopeful they could change English society. Tom Paine, the deist writer, became the most popular spokesman for political reform with his Rights of Man book. A few years later, Paine was the most popular advocate for anti-Christian deism with his Age of Reason.
Paine was an extremely popular writer who appealed to the workers, artisans, shopkeepers, dockhands and such. His books were wildly popular, and he encouraged extremely cheap editions by giving up his copyright on the books. In Paine’s books, political reform and deism were portrayed as two parts of the same program of getting rid of tyranny. This identification of deism and political reform became even stronger when the most important group calling for political reform in England, the London Corresponding Society, became completely dominated by the deists. The government tried to suppress Paine’s deist books by arresting the printers, but Paine’s ideas spread.
In 1795-6 there was a grain crisis with grain being at its highest price since the sixteenth century. In parts of the country grain was not even available. Food riots happened in many places and the militia was called out to protect and transport grain. The leaders of the call for political reform, the London Corresponding Society, had enormous crowds showing up for their meetings in October 1795. The deist John Thelwall kept the crowds calm, and the crowd voted a remonstrance to the king. Three days later, when the king drove to Parliament, there were huge crowds shouting for peace. The people hooted at the king, one man tried to pull him out of his carriage, and someone shot at the king, probably with an airgun.[x]
There was an immediate, tremendous public outcry against the political reformers and thus the deists. Laws were proposed which said inciting contempt of the king, constitution, or government were treason. These laws also said no meeting of more than fifty people could be held without permission, lecture halls could be classed as disorderly places, and resistance to magistrates was punishable by death. While there were massive demonstrations against these measures, these laws passed, and dissent was stifled. Troublesome agitators were impressed into the navy or transported to Australia. The government had a vast number of spies reporting to it about the reformers’ meetings. The leading political reformer and deist, John Thelwall, kept trying to lead meetings, but he was attacked by paid gangs.[xi] The deists had made political reform and deism into one movement, and now deism paid the price as both movements were crushed.
The deist leaders were continually hounded for the next twenty years and more. Around 1818, Richard Carlile organized a movement of working class radical deists, but it never reached its former height.
One thing to keep in mind is that the two most popular answers for deism’s decline—the Christians defeated it in argument and it was too cold of a philosophy to appeal to anyone but intellectuals– are ways of diminishing deism and hiding the truth. From their point of view, the Christians often say they won the argument, but they did not from the deists’ point of view, as evidenced by the survival of deism for so long in England, America, and France. Finally, Deism died in England not because it was a cold philosophy for the elite only, but because it was too hot of a philosophy and was accepted too easily by the common people.
[i] Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789 (n. p.: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962), 165.
[ii] S. J. Barnett, The Enlightenment and religion: the myths of modernity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 30.
[iii] Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology (Princeton: D. van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1968), 9-10, 140.
[iv] Rosalie L. Colie, “Spinoza and the early English deists,” Journal of the History of Ideas January 1959 Vol. 20, no. 1, 23-46: 29.
[v] Alexander Pope, October 23, 1730 letter to Mr. Gay, in The Works of Alexander Pope, vol. 8, p. 212.
[vi] A newspaper writer quoted in Frances Gentleman, The history of the Robinhood Society (London, 1764), 210.
[vii] Richard Lewis, The robin-hood society (London, 1756), vi, xiv-xv, xi. CHECKED
[viii] Frances Gentleman, The history of the Robinhood Society (London, 1764), 152, 132-8, 181, 139, 143, 194, 145, 154-5. CHECKED
[ix] John Wilkes Libertine, 151.
[x] Gwyn A. Williams, Artisans and Sans-cullotes: popular movements in France and Britain during the French Revolution (London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1968), 99-100.
[xi] Williams, Artisans, 100-6.
Wrong Reasons scholars give for its decline
Bishop Butler’s arguments
Several scholars claim that deism was defeated by the arguments of Bishop Butler in his Analogies of Nature. One problem with this argument is that Butler’s work was written in the 1730s and deism was at the height of its influence in the 1790s. The second problem is this argument assumes that the deists and people interested in deism were primarily intellectuals who would read learned books and weigh the arguments of the books. The majority of deists were not so learned and would hear about deism from more accessible books such as Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason. The third problem with this argument is that it assumes Butler had a devastating critique of deists’ ideas. In this book, Butler argued that whatever problems revealed religion had, natural religion had too. But by natural religion, he meant religion based at looking at nature. This argument was not a good critique of those whose natural religion referred to the inner morality God had implanted in us. It also was not a good critique of the many deists who saw themselves as Christian deists. The fourth problem with this argument is that it assumes people became deists for rather abstract intellectual reasons, rather than they were primarily motivated by more emotional reasons such their hatred of the abuses of priests and their dislike of the Christians they were acquainted with.
David Hume’s arguments
Some scholars say that David Hume’s arguments in his books were such a devastating critique of deism that they caused deism’s downfall. The first problem is that this tremendously inflates the importance of Hume’s philosophical work during his time. Hume himself complained that his work on miracles was ignored while the deist Conyers Middleton’s work on miracles had created a sensation. Hume’s work on miracles is praised now because it has a modern, secular sensibility about it; it was pretty much ignored then for the same reason. His work on miracles did not address the issues people of the time were concerned with. His critique of religion was not published until after he was dead, and it too was not widely popular. Hume’s critique of the argument from design is a devastating critique of the most important foundation of deist thought. Nevertheless, intelligent deists, people like Tom Paine, continued to believe in the argument from design.
Religion for the elite
Many scholars say that it was a religion for the elite. This is wrong. In the 1790s, in England, France, and the United States, deism was very popular amongst the common people. In these countries, Christianity was identified with the ruling classes and the powerful people. Some kind of Christianity was legally supported by the government in France and England and by various American states. People were often forced to pay for these ministers, even if they were not Christians or did not attend that church. The Christian ministers or priests were an important part of the support for the government and were also part of the local elite. Deism was identified with the common people who hated both monarchial and priestly tyranny. So it was the opposite of being a religion for the elite.
This argument is also very unfair. In England in the eighteenth century, if someone talked with his friends advocating deist ideas, no one cared. But if this person published a book on deist ideas and particularly addressed the common people, such as Peter Annet or Tom Paine did, he was persecuted. Not only that, people who sold and published these books were persecuted. Thus the Christian power structure persecuted deists for trying to become a popular movement, and then modern scholars inaccurately blame the deists themselves for not becoming a popular movement. In America, in the 1790s and early 1800s, deist organizations which tried to spread their ideas were persecuted by Christians who harassed any landlord who would rent space for a deist meeting.
A cold and abstract God
Many scholars say that deism declined because it had a cold and abstract God, and people needed a more loving God that was personally involved in people’s lives. This argument assumes that the deists actually believed in a cold, abstract, and distant deity. This assumption is just false. The deist God was often very involved in peoples’ lives and many deists had a more active, involved deity than did conventional orthodox Protestantism.
Accurate Reasons for the Decline of Deism