What Is Deism?

The claim that any of the Founding Fathers were deists generates pushback among certain conservatives. This helps to account for the firestorm of controversy (which I covered for WORLD Magazine) over David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies and the book’s subsequent abandonment by Thomas Nelson Publishers. Barton argued that until late in life, Jefferson was an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian, but critics showed that Barton neglected evidence from early in life where Jefferson, among other things, denied the Trinity.

When I get questions about deism and the Founders, I quickly point out that we know Ben Franklin was a deist because he called himself a deist. That quiets most potential critics because, after all, we don’t want to argue with the Founders’ own words. (Although I did once have someone insist that Franklin does not, in fact, call himself a deist in his autobiography, but a Christian. Perhaps this was a postmodern interpretation of Franklin’s statement “I soon became a thorough Deist”?)

Part of the problem with calling any of the Founders deists is the difficulty of defining deism. What did that term mean in the eighteenth century? Could you be a deist and somehow believe in prayer, as Franklin apparently did, at least as of the Constitutional Convention? (Franklin made a failed motion for the convention to open its sessions in prayer.) Could you be a deist and say with Jefferson, “I am a real Christian”?

Arguments about whether any or all the Founders were deists usually are hamstrung by overly precise definitions of deism. Deists believed in God as the cosmic watchmaker, critics protest, so any sign that a person believed in prayer or Providence automatically disqualifies them. But deism in eighteenth-century Europe and America could mean many different things. Its adherents could range from people who had qualms about Calvinism, to those who criticized the corruptions of the church as “priestcraft,” to more radical deists who espoused beliefs that seem close to atheism.

We should also remember that “deism” and “deists” were terms probably more often used by critics against their opponents, rather than by deists themselves. Self-identifying deists like Franklin were quite rare in America, although scholarly work by Amanda Porterfield and others has recently suggested that deism and freethinking may have had a stronger presence in post-Revolutionary America than we had previously realized. Evangelical writers also magnified the perceived threat of deists to the Christian character of the republic, just as some popular Christian authorities today herald the imminent fall of most teenage Christians into the hands of secularists.

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So what was deism? In spite of all its diversity, deism was a strain of rationalist religion – many of its advocates, like Jefferson, would have called themselves Christians – which focused on the ethical, rational requirements of true faith and criticized the authority of ministers and institutional churches. Many of them, especially in England and America, believed that there was a true core of Christianity that one could recover through attention to Jesus’s teachings alone. One important aspect of deism that we often miss is that its adherents could hardly imagine a world not organized on theistic moral categories, such as the inherent goodness of charity. Most deists really did consider themselves serious theists, and many considered themselves devotees of Jesus and his teachings. Their deism was not just a convenient cloak for atheism.

Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted to dispense with Christian dogma and recover the true faith, which was a quality of living rather than a set of arcane propositions which (as they saw it) the guardians of orthodoxy defended in order to protect their own power. This is why Franklin gave so much attention to tests of personal virtue, and experimented constantly with charitable projects. Likewise, Jefferson was almost obsessed with the person and teachings of Jesus, but believed that in his teaching and behavior Jesus served as the preeminent example of “human excellence,” and that his followers imposed claims about his divinity and resurrection after the teacher’s death. But neither Jefferson nor Franklin imagined that we could do without this recovered rationalist Christianity – it was the best guide we had to real virtue.

The deists’ closest descendants today are not the “new atheists” who have stirred up so much media chatter in recent years. Their closest descendants are probably liberal mainline Christians who see Jesus as their model but who eschew (or even deny) the particular, exclusive doctrines that have been associated with Christian orthodoxy for millennia. Even though it has had some very influential devotees, that kind of non-orthodox faith has never seemed to win or hold many adherents in America.

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  • Warren Throckmorton

    Thanks for drawing out important facets of how deism was viewed at the time of the founding. Gregg Frazer calls founders like Jefferson and Franklin rational theists which seems quite consistent with what you developed here.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Good post. I’ve long said that Jefferson and co. were essentially 18th century liberal Christians.

  • abb3w

    While I’d tend to agree with most of your assessments, I’m not sure that it’s accurate to say the new atheists are not among the closest modern philosophical descendants of the earlier deists. The deist writers in the era of the Founding Fathers influenced the Freethinker groups the 1800s, such as “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll; who in turn has had considerable influence since, reaching even to the modern New Atheist movement. In contrast, while there absolutely are such mainline Christians as you suggest, and while their attitudes might be the most similar, there does not seem such a clear chain of descent of philosophical influence.

    The “Ethical Culture” movement might be closer still, I suppose.

  • Deist1737

    Interesting article – thanks! I’m a Deist and find it interesting that Thomas Jefferson looked at Jesus as being a Deist. In a letter written on April 21, 1803 to Dr. Benjamin Rush Jefferson wrote regarding Jesus, “He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.”

    Progress! Bob Johnson
    http://www.deism.com

  • John Turner

    Have you read Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God? He argues — partly by suggesting that Locke was more beholden to Spinoza than most have recognized — that founders such as Jefferson (and Adams to a lesser extent) were more radical than most allow (and more radical than they themselves sometimes expressed). In other words, when they spoke of Nature’s God or the Creator, they were really only speaking of nature and the natural laws of the universe. He argues that “deism” meant something closer to radical skepticism than mainline Protestant liberalism, in essence he makes the “cloak for atheism” argument that you reject here.

    I’m largely inclined to reject it as well, but Stewart’s punchy book gave me some pause. One has to take the founders on a case by case basis, I think.

  • 1captainhooker1

    Wondering where Thomas Paine fits into this conversation as well. He called science the ‘one true theology’. he at least initially believed in God but denied the trinity and denied the divinity of Jesus as well.

  • EqualTime

    A fine article, a worthwhile contribution to the discussion, though a bit too gentile in its treatment, via omission, of Jefferson’s harsh and voluminous condemnation of the same types of institutional religion and its leaders which is manifested today in the likes of, say, Ted and Rafael Cruz.

  • https://twitter.com/DykeVanTom Tom Van Dyke

    FTR, the full Franklin quote

    “…I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but each of these having wronged me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful.”