University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
expand section 
expand section 

expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
collapse sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 


Deism is the belief that by rational methods alone men
can know all the true propositions of theology which
it is possible, necessary, or desirable for men to know.
Deists have generally subscribed to most of the follow-
ing propositions, and have ranged widely from Chris-
tian rationalists or fideists to atheists:

  • 1. One and only one God exists.

  • 2. God has moral and intellectual virtues in perfec-

  • 3. God's active powers are displayed in the world,
    created, sustained, and ordered by means of di-
    vinely sanctioned natural laws, both moral and

  • 4. The ordering of events constitutes a general provi-

  • 5. There is no special providence; no miracles or
    other divine interventions violate the lawful natu-
    ral order.

  • 6. Men have been endowed with a rational nature
    which alone allows them to know truth and their
    duty when they think and choose in conformity
    with this nature.

  • 7. The natural law requires the leading of a moral
    life, rendering to God, one's neighbor, and one's
    self what is due to each.

  • 8. The purest form of worship and the chief religious
    obligation is to lead a moral life.

  • 9. God had endowed men with immortal souls.

  • 10. After death retributive justice is meted out to each
    man according to his acts. Those who fulfill the
    moral law and live according to nature are “saved”
    to enjoy rewards; others are punished.

  • 11. All other religious beliefs or practices conflicting
    with these tenets are to be regarded critically, as
    at best indifferent political institutions and beliefs,
    or as errors to be condemned and eradicated if
    it should be prudent to do so.

Deism is thus the name given to a set of epistemologi-
cal and metaphysical claims. It has sometimes been
discussed in the light of what it positively affirms but
more often with respect to what it denies. To discrim-
inate positive or constructive deism as a view different


from negative or critical deism, while it may be useful
in emphasizing the characteristics of particular deists
or their works, obscures the fact that deism is critical
in its affirmations and constructive in its denials. Pyr-
rhic or academic skepticism, fideism, any view which
relies upon nonrational intuitions or feelings to estab-
lish religious truth, or any claims to a nonrational
revelation are implicitly rejected by deists. Also re-
jected is any philosophy which affirms the nonexistence
of God or which claims that nothing can be known
about any relations asserted to exist between God and

Deists have varied considerably in their views of
what constitutes a rational methodology. Some have
held their religious beliefs to be warranted by a priori
arguments, while others claimed that their conclusions
were based on wholly empirical evidence. A deistic
view of the world is a static one which exacts from
all men an identical religious response. Any thorough-
going relativism is incompatible with deistic teleolo-
gies. Equally clear is the deistic presupposition of a
uniform human nature. All reasoning men have and
always will have the same religious views in any time
or place. These views receive no support from tra-
dition or authority, which, according to deists, are
sources of pedantic error and corruption. History con-
tains a history of religious error but not of religious

Deists claim that all or most of the true propositions
of theology are and have been known with certainty
whenever men have reasoned correctly about theology.
Variations in religious belief, not the tenets of true
belief, have to be explained and accounted for. Reli-
gious cults, the chief form taken by such variations,
are the products of innocent or malicious human error.
Among the innocent errors and mistakes giving rise
to religious diversity are sickness, madness and delu-
sion, fear, mistaken reasoning, and the transmission of
false information. Malicious errors are propagated by
priests, rulers, artists, and generally unscrupulous men
who, having no regard for truth, impose false reasoning
upon men whom they wish to control or in some
manner use to their own advantage. Error once estab-
lished is maintained by the force, authority, and cun-
ning of men no different from the first deceivers.

Truth may be discovered only when men are free
to reason. It can be maintained only where they have
liberty to criticize errors, even those dogmatic errors
maintained by authority. No society which wholly
prohibits criticism, in the form of argument or ridicule,
can be good, happy, or enduring. Free discussion is
a necessity; any political practices or institutions which
prevent this should be overthrown. Censorship and
repression, if legitimate and feasible at all, should be
extended only to the propagators of known falsehoods.

Abstractly considered, deism has an optimistic view
of the human condition: there can be no radical evil
in the well-ordered world created by a good God.
Moreover it assumes that the true religion, if known,
will be followed by men because they find it true and
in their interest to follow it. Regarding the actual
situation of men, deists could only be pessimistic, criti-
cal, and even politically subversive in their demands
for reform.

Deism has flourished only among rationalists posses-
sing, in relatively closed societies, the freedom and
leisure to criticize popular and authorized religious
beliefs. Its concern with reason, its reliance on classical
sources, and its dislike of popular superstition contrib-
uted to make it rather aristocratic in outlook. Where
it has not been so, notably in the United States, it has
been a form of protest allied to republicanism. Lacking
exponents of the first intellectual rank and exercising
little hold on the emotions, it has never been a popular
creed, not even in the Englightenment. As is appropriate
to a view with a negative philosophy of history, it has
scarcely varied since its first appearance.

Elements of the deistic position are as ancient as
critical religious thought itself. False gods and impos-
tors appear in the Old Testament, as does a providential
God who is both creator and preserver of the world.
Saint Paul's statements concerning the law of the
Gentiles (Romans 2:13-15) yield the base for a natural
religion. Among the pre-Socratics there are sixth- and
fifth-century B.C. fragments dealing with being, the
One, and the logos which suggest attempts at the con-
struction of a rational theology. The imposture theory
of the origin of the gods and of popular, politically
useful religious cults can be found in the fragment from
the Sisyphus of Critias of Athens. Plato and Aristotle,
in their differing ways, contributed both to rational
theology and to the critical literature on the origin
of the gods. Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics further
elaborated and criticized rational theologies resembling
deism, discussing the existence, attributes, and relation
of gods to men. Cicero, who transmitted these specula-
tions both to the Romans and to later thinkers, deserves
the title, and perhaps was, the father of deism, the first
deist, even though he never gives wholehearted assent
to the deistic position.

All of the defining principles of deism appear in
Cicero's works, notably in De natura deorum (Book
III). Cicero, like later deists, distinguished between
philosophical and popular religions, defending the lat-
ter by appeals to authority, reason, and utility. Writing
in an age of political chaos and religious credulity in
which cults were seen as political contrivances, Cicero
outlined views appealing to later thinkers who found


themselves in similar circumstances. Such views sur-
vived in the ancient schools, in the philosophical
paganism of men such as Plutarch, Celsus, and the
emperor Julian, even in works Christian apologists
devoted to their refutation.

The Christianization of Europe put an end to deism
until the Renaissance. Yet even in this long period ideas
essential to a deistic outlook were kept alive in a
variety of ways. Controversy over the limits of faith
and reason usually ended with the assignment to reason
of proofs for the existence of God and often allowed
for the discussion of some of His attributes. Natural
law remained an expression of divine general provi-
dence and specified moral obligations which, if fulfilled,
entailed some merit if not saving grace. Christian and
Muslim scholars speculated about the eternity of the
world and the immortality of souls. In doing so they
put their arguments more rigorously than the Stoics
or Cicero had done. Schism, heresy, and anticlericalism
were common to all of the western countries producing
or keeping alive theories of imposture as well as giving
convincing examples. The Middle Ages thus preserved
ideas which, taken from their Christian contexts, might
be reformulated in more rigorously monotheistic syn-
theses than they had received in classical or Christian

Deism revived with the new philosophy, science, and
culture of the Renaissance but also owed something
to the concomitant religious upheaval which offered
freedom, opportunity, and incentive to the critical
proclivities of religious thinkers. Moreover, concern
rationally to ground revealed religion in natural reli-
gion, to find an irenic and fundamental basis for Chris-
tian unity, and to end sectarian controversies furthered
the development of deism in the sixteenth and seven-
teenth centuries. Socinians and Baptists as well as
Renaissance philosophers and scientists played a role
in the reemergence of deistic views in Europe.

Perhaps the first reference to deists which employs
that term is found in Pierre Viret's Instruction Chres-
(1564), reliably reprinted in Bayle's Dictionnaire
entry, Viret. To the Calvinist Viret, deism was a new
species of heresy brought forth by Italian Renaissance
naturalism in the turmoil of reform. Allowing the dé-
a belief in God like the Turks and Jews (comme
les Turcs & les Juifs
), he went on to say that they
thought the doctrine of the evangelists and apostles
only “myths and dreams” (la doctrine des Évangélistes
& des Apostres
only fables & resveries). Deists tended
to treat the creator in an Epicurean fashion. “There
are some among them who have a belief in the immor-
tality of the soul: others agree with the Epicureans,
and likewise about the providence of God with respect
to men: as He did not concern Himself with the con-
duct of human affairs, so these would be governed by
chance, prudence, or the folly of men accordingly as
things happen” (trans. R. Emerson).

Viret thought these “atheists” greatly abused the
liberty which the Reformation had given them to criti-
cize idolatry and superstition. With horror he berated
deists, much as Roger Ascham, writing the Schole-
at the same time, did “Italianate Englishmen.”
Like Roger Ascham, he gave no names. As a represen-
tative thinker exemplifying these views we might pick
Jean Bodin, the author of Colloquium Heptaplomeres
(1588), a dialogue on religion which includes a diest
among the discussants. One might also choose from the
list of deists given by Robert Burton in the Anatomy
of Melancholy
([1621], Part 3, Sec. 4, Member 2, Sub-
sec. 1). Or, one could examine the natural religion in
the Utopia (1516) of Sir Thomas More as a model of
what sixteenth-century thinkers, inspired by discoveries
in the New World, thought a religion of reason could
be—a religion whose saving efficacy they denied.

Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century
produced few deists. Numerous controversies over the
nature and source of religious truth produced a body
of literature used in the formation of deism in the
second half of the century. Skepticism deriving from
classical sources, the works of Michel de Montaigne
and Protestant and Catholic fideists, was developed
philosophically and applied to historical and religious
works by libertins such as Cyrano de Bergerac and
érudits, including Gabriel Naudé, La Mothe le Vayer,
and Giovanni Diodati—respectively two nominal
Catholic fideists and a somewhat indifferent Protestant.
In the skeptical and fideistic literature can be found
most of the arguments of critical deism. Other studies
placed a premium upon reason and natural law which
was to nourish the positive claims of deism. Jurists like
Hugo Grotius appealed to reason and natural law as
the bases of morality and law; religious thinkers such
as the great Anglican apologist Richard Hooker sought
in reason an irenic principle and recognized that reason
constituted the common meeting ground of all religious
polemicists. Christian humanists trained in Scholastic
philosophy who sought to be reasonable men believed
in a rational religion prior to, but compatible with,
Christianity. Philosophers who refuted skepticism,
René Descartes or Lord Herbert of Cherbury (often
called the first English deist), to name but two, usually
attempted to prove the existence of God and to work
out a rational religion as part of their philosophic
system. Thomas Hobbes did this in such a fashion that
religion was reduced to a wholly natural phenomenon
and one not very reasonable at that. As yet science
played little role in the growth of deism which insofar
as it emerged at all, did so in the context of debates
in theology, philosophy, and history.

The deists of the early seventeenth century asked


only to be allowed to believe, in peace, the religion
of wise men; like most wise men they did not impru-
dently preach it. We glimpse it as the rebellious pro-
tests of wits in the circle of Théophile de Viau, long
thought to be the author of Les Quatrains du Déiste
(ca. 1626), and we occasionally find it as an easy surro-
gate for conviction among wits and gentlemen who
regarded it as quite compatible with the established
religion. Among the scholars Thomas Campanella in-
troduced it in his utopia, The City of the Sun (ca. 1602,
published 1627), where it is joined to radical social and
political views and to a philosophic outlook common
in the Italian Renaissance. In France its most distin-
guished exponent was probably Isaac de la Peyrère,
the author of Du Rappel des Juifs (1643) and Praeada-
(1655). In England Lord Herbert of Cherbury's
later works De religione laici and Dialogue between
a Tutor and His Pupil
(ca. 1641-45, published 1768),
exemplify its critical side as his De veritate (1621) had
stressed its constructive arguments.

The middle and late seventeenth century saw a
change in the character of European deism. Conti-
nental deists continued to maintain their beliefs largely
as they had in the past but modified them by supplying
new scientific evidence of design in nature while sup-
plementing the argument from universal consent by
citations from travel literature. The skeptical tradition
was nourished by Cartesianism. Libertine érudits found
their natural successors in men like Simon Tyssot de
Patot, Charles de Saint-Évremond, and Pierre Bayle,
the first two of whom were deists while the latter
shared and diffused their critical arguments. European
deism continued to be both scholarly and aristocratic,
apolitical even while condemning the vulgar religion.
It existed in the protected homes of the wealthy, in
the Bohemian world of journalism, among a few
scholars, and in the places of exile and refuge such
as Holland. In Rotterdam Peyrère's deism supplied
Benedict Spinoza with a few critical analyses of the
Old Testament; elsewhere Giovanni Marana's L'Espion
du Grand Seigneur
(The Turkish Spy, 1684) could
defend a natural religion that was not Islam, and the
Baron Lahontan's imaginary member of the Huron
tribe, whom he named Adario, would show that even
savages could reason better than Jesuits. The epistemic
claims, the uniformities which deism asserted, and its
rationalism, appealed to those who thought vulgar
religion an imposture, sects equally wrong, and mira-
cles unlikely to happen in a world composed of sub-
stances and modes behaving according to rules known
with near mathematical exactitude.

In England a political and religious upheaval
affected the course of development in several ways.
The spectacle of sectarian strife, prophets in the coun-
tryside, and saints at Westminster deepened or pro
duced a distrust of enthusiasm and religious emotion
not to be overcome until the end of the eighteenth
century. “Priestcraft,” which until the 1640's had been
primarily a sin of Catholics, now appeared as a univer-
sal clerical trait. Irenicism, based on appeals to natural
theology and reason as essentials in religious debate,
had marked Anglican apologetics since Archbishop
Jewel's (1522-71) time. Richard Hooker was succeeded
by men like William Chillingworth, John Hales of
Eton, the Cambridge Platonists, and latitudinarians,
who throughout the century in the interests of Chris-
tian unity appealed to reason and formulated a justifi-
cation of Anglican practices which made Christianity
itself supportable only as a reasonable revelation,
moralistic rather than sacramental in character. Natu-
ral theology became, as it was not among Calvinists
or Catholics, the apologetic mainstay. English rational
theology, which became increasingly liberal as the
century progressed, was the product of religious con-
troversy, not a philosophic inquiry into epistemology.
So much was this the case during the 1620's, '30's, and
'40's that Lord Herbert's deistic works were not refuted
until after the Restoration. Religion became an openly
political issue in England and those who found repub-
licanism congenial often tended to maintain religious
views equally rationalistic. Levellers and near deists
such as Henry Marten, William Walwyn, Major John
Wildman, reputed deists like the first Lord Shaftesbury,
James Harrington, and Henry Neville were republicans
in political theory as English deists tended to be in
the 1690's and throughout the eighteenth century.
Political and religious protest joined not only in these
men but in Puritans like Milton who moved progres-
sively in the direction of a rational religion. Even
Puritan mystics, Quakers or pantheistic Ranters, and
those disturbed by the inner light often spoke in ra-
tionalistic terms, thus introducing into popular par-
lance a rational religion of sorts. “The light of reason,”
“the spirit of reason” were for the Digger, Gerrard
Winstanly, synonyms for the divine in human con-
sciousness: “When Mankind lives in the unity of the one
Spirit of Righteousness, he lives in the light and the
light lives in him, which is Christ in him, the light
of the Father, or the restoring power.” Such talk made
a less heated rationalism in religion acceptable to many
who on the Continent would have had no exposure to
it. London judges worried over Peyrère's work on the
pre-Adamites published in translation in 1655. Bul-
strode Whitelock related in his Memoirs (March 22,
1651) “That one Boston... was cashiered for holding
some dangerous opinions, as that god was reason, etc.”
Heresy was for a longer time more freely expressed
than it had been hitherto in any Christian country save
perhaps in Luther's Germany. From this confusion
deism grew either as a rejection of sectarian extrava-


gance or from revulsion against enthusiasm or in some
cases as an outgrowth of the ideas held by Puritans
and Anglicans themselves.

The Restoration of Charles II brought a reaction to
Puritanism which made fashionable among rakes like
Charles Sedley, George Etherege, the Duke of Buck-
ingham “a general creed and no very long one” such
as the Marquis of Halifax ascribed to Charles II. Hali-
fax, “the Trimmer” in politics, was himself a Trimmer
in religion. Thomas Shadwell and the young John
Dryden shared the literary interests of the courtiers
whose “atheism” they occasionally displayed on stage.
Seldom really godless, it was much more a religion of
reason and nature quite compatible with neo-classic
tastes. Generally critical, as in Shadwell's The Lanca-
shire Witches
(1685), it could be more explicitly con-
structive. Dryden's The Indian Emperour (1665) has
a Montezuma capable of the following statement of
natural religion:

That which we worship, and which you believe,
From Nature's common hand we both receive:
All under various names, Adore and Love
One power Immense, which ever rules above.
Vice to abhor, and Virtue to pursue,
Is both believed and taught by us and you.
... this must be enough, or to Mankind
One equal way to Bliss is not design'd.
For though some more may know, and some know less,
Yet all must know enough for happiness

(Act 5, Scene 2).

Dryden was later to attack such views in Religio laici
(1682). In a more popular genre Richard Head's picar-
esque novel The English Rogue (1665) contains a por-
trait of an “atheist” whose deism is plainly apparent.

The publication of Dryden's Religio laici and the
answer to it by Charles Blount in a pamphlet of the
same name began in England a controversy over deism
which was to last until after 1750. The initial years
of this controversy, to which Blount was a major con-
tributor, show that English deists had begun to appeal
to the new science as well as to the classics and the
philosophers. Science was widely held to reveal the
will of God in a natural and rational way and it bol-
stered arguments from design with new evidence. The
philosophy of Herbert, Hobbes, and Spinoza was
searched for biblical criticism and their psychologies
applied to the analysis of religion. The latter were
plagiarized by the anonymous pamphleteers like the
author of Miracles No Violation of the Law of Nature
(1683) to show “that the power of God and the power
of Nature are one and the same, and that
all her laws
are his eternal decrees” (p. 3). Due to the relative
freedom of the press, deism could be openly advocated
and was in a pamphlet by Charles Gildon entitled A
Summary Account of the Deist's Religion

These developments in philosophy, science, and re-
ligion were given renewed impetus by the work of John
Locke whose empirical methodology, reasonableness
in religion, and conviction that the new physics re-
vealed God's design in nature were widely shared. John
Toland and Anthony Collins, whose writings appeared
after Locke's great works of the 1690's and also after
the lapsing of censorship laws in 1694, elaborated the
implications of the new science and philosophical
empiricism. For them clear and distinct ideas con-
forming to “their Objects, or the Things we think
upon” are the “ground of all right Persuasion” (Toland,
Christianity Not Mysterious [1696], p. 16). Reason,
“That faculty of the Soul which discovers the Certainty
of God's own Existence, so we cannot otherwise discern
his Revelations but by their Conformity with our natu-
ral Notices of him, which in so many words, do agree
with our common Notions,” reason was to be the sole
base of religion (ibid., p. 13). With ideas limited by
experience and the mind's ability to reflect and com-
pare ideas there could be no mysteries in religion.
Toland wrote biblical criticism designed to rationalize
the apparent mysteries found there. In Nazarenus
(1718) and Tetradymus (1720) he used apocryphal and
pseudo-epigraphic literature as well as Muslim sources
to catalogue the errors and deviations from the true
religion taught by Christ and reason. His biblical criti-
cism went beyond that of Benedict Spinoza and Jean
Le Clerc and fell short of Richard Simon's not in design
but in erudition. Toland's history of religious error
placed Christianity firmly in a secular context while
his comparison of it with Celtic and Muslim sources
stripped it of uniqueness. Without radically breaking
with the Christian conceptions of history he introduced
techniques which would make it imperative to do so.
Collins and Toland both, like most English deists, were
more interested in philosophical and critical problems
than in the application of the discoveries of the new
science to religion. Both argued forcefully against cen-
sorship but did not go as far in their demands for free
expression as did Trenchard and Gordon.

Other English deists of this generation, e.g., Lord
Shaftesbury, Matthew Tindal, Thomas Woolston,
Thomas Chubb, John Trenchard, Conyers Middleton,
Lord Bolingbroke, are of interest in several respects.
They kept alive a controversy in religion, which,
merging into polemics about the trinity and the nature
of the church, kept England in heated debate for the
better part of fifty years and provided open discussions
of what had to be clandestine elsewhere in Europe.
It was a discussion known on the Continent through
translation, refutation, and even bibliographies such as
those of Trinius, Alberti, and Thorschmid. Second,
these writers show that empirical philosophy was not


the only source of eighteenth-century deism, nor reli-
gion its only concern. Tindal and Chubb relied upon
a priori reason to perceive the natural law and the
eternal and immutable relations of things and less on
the argument from design bolstered by science. Tindal's
Christianity as Old as the Creation (1731) is probably
the best summary of deism in its a priori form. Their
work and that of Shaftesbury helped to divorce ethics
from the religion of the churches. Third, Thomas
Woolston and Conyers Middleton, the first a professed
allegorist who scurrilously likened Christ to a gypsy,
the second a clever historian and polemicist whose
works on miracles cast doubt on the authenticity of
any, forged arms which Voltaire and Gibbon were to
employ against the “infamous” with greater effective-
ness. Likewise John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (d.
1750), editors of the London Journal, Cato's Letters,
and The Independent Whig, extreme Whig opponents
of Walpole, joined religious and political radicalism
in amusing essays almost unique in the history of deism.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury,
made deism not only a good-natured religion, the mark
of breeding, wit, good taste, and refinement but also
gave its most optimistic formulation. Buoyed by
Shaftesbury's moral-sense theory and aesthetics, tinged
with a self-conscious rhetorical enthusiasm, it made a
mark on the continent where Shaftesbury was trans-
lated by Diderot, and eagerly read and used by German
writers, including Christlob Mylius, Johann Spalding,
Gotthold Lessing, and Hermann Reimarus. In France
there was less need of translation since many of the
older philosophes had become deists. Bernard de Fon-
tenelle, the Abbé de St. Pierre, Voltaire, and Montes-
quieu could be added to the list along with many
authors of clandestinely circulated tracts.

Deism penetrated and influenced many aspects of
life. Debated in the coffee houses and salons, it formed
an essential ingredient of freemasonry and had the
allegiance of philosophes, princes, soldiers, statesmen,
abbés, and tradesmen. Its simple message of equality,
optimism, and reason contributed to the ideas of pro-
gress and the complacency of the enlightened. Ex-
pressed in such works as Joseph Addison's rendition
of Psalm 19, Alexander Pope's Universal Prayer (1738),
James Thomson's Seasons, or the plays, essays, and
stories of Voltaire, it became a cliché of poets and the
readers of periodicals like Le Journal Encyclopédique
(1756-93). Given a measure of endorsement by works
as diverse as Samuel Clarke's Demonstration of the
Being and Attributes of God
(1704) or Maupertuis'
Essai de philosophie morale (1750), it helped to liberal-
ize Christianity and to accommodate it to the age of
reason. It is central as a unifying conception in Les-
sing's plays and in the moral philosophy of Adam
Smith. Even the political opportunism of Bolingbroke
and Napoleon is partly explained by deistic views of
vulgar religion and the credulity of the people. For
republicans from Toland to Robespierre, Gordon to
Thomas Paine, it justified and sanctioned republican
government and served as a counterweight to theories
of divine right. As a regulative principle its teleology
structured the works of Abbé Pluche and other physico-
theologians in the eighteenth century as well as scien-
tists in royal societies and academies throughout
Europe. In America Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine,
and Thomas Jefferson among the great, and Ethan
Allen and Elihu Palmer among the lesser, testified to
the truth, political usefulness, and scientific accuracy
of the deists' creed.

The eighteenth century saw not only the heyday of
deism but the beginning of its demise. David Hume
exposed its shoddiness: its teleology was unproven; its
easy epistemology unsound; its rationalized universal
human nature a myth exploded by the passions, diverse
habits, and customs of essentially unreasonable crea-
tures who never possessed a rational religion, just as
they never lived in a state of nature. Bishops George
Berkeley and Joseph Butler showed the deistic argu-
ments to be fallacious or inconclusive, while a host of
minor apologists in England attacked individuals, their
scholarship and claims, with arguments now as dead
as the deists' own. In France materialists put together
not only a competing radicalism but evolved a theory
of self-regulating nature which needed no creator and
led to no divinely sanctioned moral duties. Denis
Diderot's rationalism implied a vitalism which out-
moded the stable mechanisms of the deistic cosmos.
Rousseau's romantic appeal to conscience and the
emotions as a source of religion and his concept of
a normative general will undermined the deists' super-
ficial religion and political rationalism. Gotthold
Ephraim Lessing's conception of a progressive educa-
tion of mankind, indeed the idea of progress as the
immanent teleology of unfolding reason, was inimical
to the deists' assumption of the fixity of things. The
cultural pluralism of Edmund Burke and of J. G.
Herder, insofar as it implied and prized uniqueness and
variation, had no room for the uniformities upon whose
existence deism was predicated. Even notions of utility
called in question the deists' easy appeal to imposture
and fraud.

Attempts to understand the minds of primitives, or
in the case of Jean Astruc, Robert Lowth, and Herder,
the genesis and form of inspired poetry, forced men
to make less simple analyses of the origins and function
of myth than deism had purveyed. Of equal importance
was the fact that most Christians were willing to accept
the validity of a natural religion as the basis upon


which a revealed religion might be asserted. Fideism
was dead. Imposters and fanatics no longer menaced
states where standing armies moving over good roads
had replaced the established religion as a means of
control. Only in the United States, among republican
revolutionaries and proletarians, was deism to have a
further career. Tom Paine's style, thought, and appeal
were vulgar; so were the readers of his books and those
published by Elihu Palmer, Richard Carlisle, and the
half-literate Chartists of the 1840's. As a secularizing
force making for order and placing a premium upon
reasonableness in all areas of life, deism ceased to live
after 1800. This judgment, however, has been ques-
tioned by some scholars, notably E. C. Mossner, who
point out that the heirs of deism are to be found among
the liberal and freethinking religious critics of the
nineteenth century and among those who defended


Bibliographical Works. J. A. Trinius, Freidenkers Lexicon
(Leipzig and Bernburg, 1759); many attributions are wrong
but Trinius' work is useful as a guide not only to European
deists but to the freethinking background from which they
stemmed. U. G. Thorschmidt, Versuch einer Vollständigen
Engelländischen Freydenker-Bibliothek,
3 vols. (Halle,
1765-66). N. R. Burr, A Critical Bibliography of Religion
in America
(Princeton, 1961), Parts I and II, pp. 184-237.

General Works Bearing on the History of Deism Con-
taining Bibliographical Information. D. C. Allen, Doubt's
Boundless Sea
(Baltimore, 1964). H. Busson, Les Sources et
le développement du rationalisme dans la littérature
française de la Renaissance,
rev. ed. (Paris, 1957). E. Cas-
sirer, Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (Tübingen, 1932),
trans. as The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton,
1951). J.-R. Charbonnel, La Pensée italienne au XVIe siècle
et le courant libertin
(Paris, 1919). P. Gay, The Enlighten-
ment: An Interpretation
(New York, 1966); contains a useful
bibliographical essay. P. Hazard, La Crise de la conscience
(Paris, 1935), trans. as The European Mind
(Cleveland, 1963); idem, La Pensée européenne
au XVIIIe siècle
(Paris, 1946), European Thought in the
Eighteenth Century
(New Haven, 1954). A. O. Lovejoy, “The
Parallel of Deism and Classicism,” Modern Philology, 29
(1932), 281-99, reprinted in idem, Essays in the History of
(Baltimore, 1948). R. Pintard, Le Libertinage érudit
dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle
(Paris, 1943). R.
Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Des-
Part I (Assen, 1960). T. S. Spink, French Free Thought
from Gassendi to Voltaire
(Bristol, 1960). L. Stephen, History
of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century,
3rd ed.
(London, 1902). R. N. Stromberg, Religious Liberalism in
Eighteenth Century England
(Oxford, 1954).

Studies of Deism and Deists. R. F. Birn, “Pierre Rousseau
and the philosophes of Bouillon,” Studies on Voltaire and
the Eighteenth Century,
29 (1964), 170-79; a summary of
the views of a typical deist, 1756-93. F. Brie, “Deismus
und Atheismus in der Englishen Renaissance,” Anglia Zei-
48 (1924), 54-98, 105-68. R. L. Colie, “Spinoza and
the Early English Deists,” Journal of the History of Ideas,
20 (1959), 23-46. G. Gawlick, “Cicero and the Enlighten-
ment,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 25
(1963), 657-79; idem, Moralität und Offenbarungsglaube:
Studien zum englischen Deismus
(Stuttgart, 1965). F. H.
Heineman, “John Toland and the Age of Reason,” Archiv
für Philosophie,
4 (1950), 33-66. G. V. Lechler, Geschichte
des Englischen Deismus
(Tübingen, 1841). D. R. McKee,
“Isaac de la Peyrère, A Precursor of Eighteenth Century
Critical Deists,” PMLA, 59 (1944), 456-85. H. M. Morais,
Deism in Eighteenth Century America (New York, 1934).
G. L. Mosse, “Puritan Radicalism and the Enlightenment,”
Church History, 29 (1960), 33-66. E. C. Mossner, “Deism,”
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8 vols. (New York and London,
1967), II, 326-36.


[See also Agnosticism; Enlightenment; God; Nature; Reli-