The Deist Revolution

The Deist Revolution March 27, 2015

I echo pretty much everything my colleague Tommy Kidd wrote in his recent column What is Deism?, but I would add a footnote.

Perhaps the most important contribution the Deists made to religious thought was in terms of understanding the Bible, and in sparking the movement that became known as higher criticism. So much “higher” was it in fact, at a very early date, as to challenge conventional assumptions about modern approaches to Biblical scholarship, and when they developed. This story also helps place Jefferson’s “Deism” in context.

Between about 1690 and 1740, the British Isles were home to several quite brilliant scholars and thinkers who applied critical scholarship to the Bible and Christian tradition generally. I stress “British Isles” because some were Irish or Scottish as well as English. We know them collectively as the Deists. Major figures included John Toland, Thomas Woolston, Thomas Chubb, Anthony Collins, and Matthew Tindal. Their assault on orthodoxy was many sided, but they ranged widely over both the Old and New Testaments.

All were influenced by the work of Baruch Spinoza, who published his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1670, and his scholarship had a huge influence in England. John Toland’s best-known book appeared in 1696 under the title Christianity Not Mysterious: Or, A Treatise Shewing, That There Is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor Above It: And That No Christian Doctrine Can Be Properly Call’d A Mystery. Toland’s principle was simply stated: Reason was the absolute standard of judgment, and “The New Testament (if it be indeed Divine) must consequently agree with Natural Reason, and our own ordinary Ideas.”

As early as 1718, Toland’s Nazarenus made an argument that will sound eerily familiar to contemporary ears. In his view, Jesus was a Jewish teacher whose miracles and Resurrection were entirely invented by later generations of superstitious disciples. However, said Toland, the true Jesus could still be found in rediscovered “lost gospels” suppressed by the early Church. This book even invented the now standard term “Jewish Christians”.

In 1730, Matthew Tindal wrote a blistering attack on mainstream religion in his Christianity as Old as the Creation, which became known as the “Deists’ Bible.” Tindal focused on the horrific violence supposedly commanded by God during the conquest of Canaan, and the wars against the Amalekites. He denounced the conquest texts as a possible justification for later militarism and imperialism, especially in the Americas, but his book went further in its complaints against the Bible’s offenses against human reason. He began with a simple principle: “that though the literal sense of the scripture be ever so plain, yet it must not stand in competition with what our Reason tells us of the nature and perceptions of God.” Once a person accepted that idea, reading the Old Testament demanded a substantial process of weeding.

In fact, noted Tindal, so much in the Bible was topsy-­turvy: “The holier men in the Old Testament are represented, the more cruel they seem to be.” Reason demanded better. Tindal thought that the contradictions resulted from a kind of warped reason, or rationalized self­interest: “’Tis no doubt the interest of wicked priests to have God represented under opposite characters, and to give in one Testament rules contrary to those in the other that they, as it serves their turn, may make use of either.”

Other Deists likewise extolled the supremacy of Reason to assert the impossibility of miracles, and they exploited apparent contradictions between the various Gospel accounts. It was in the early eighteenth century that there came into existence a culture with the critical tools and the relative freedom to examine this question, and the Resurrection soon came under attack.

In England, this was a central issue in the pamphlet wars known as the Deist Controversy (c.1725-35). Woolston wrote (1727-29) an attempted demolition of the literal Resurrection, together with most of the Miracle stories. The resulting legal reaction led to Woolston dying in prison; but other Deists continued the attack, for example in Chubb’s rejection of the Resurrection (1738).

The controversy provoked orthodox responses, notably Thomas Sherlock’s Tryal {sic} of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1729). This work – in the form of a trial – concluded with the jury acquitting the apostles “of giving false evidence in the case of the resurrection of Jesus.” In 1744, Peter Annet wrote a Deist response to Sherlock, in his Resurrection of Jesus.

Sherlock is largely forgotten today, except that a nineteenth century author borrowed his surname as the first name of a certain famous detective.

That critical tradition continued in the Enlightenment, so that a debate over the Resurrection was rather a tired issue even before the nineteenth century “Quest for the Historical Jesus” began. A lengthy list of Scriptural contradictions was provided in the mid-eighteenth century Fragments of Reimarus, who in essence asked whether any modern court of law would treat seriously such divergent accounts of an incident (was he explicitly challenging Sherlock’s “trial” device?). And Reimarus was conservative by modern standards, at least in accepting the apostolic credentials of the authors of the first and fourth Gospels.

A few years later, Thomas Jefferson resolved these difficulties quite simply in his “harmonized” account of the life of Jesus. The Jefferson Bible ends with the crucifixion and burial: “There laid they Jesus: and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” The End. No Resurrection.

So, yes, Jefferson stood exactly in that century-old Deist tradition.

And you will see why I am very skeptical when I read that nineteenth or early twentieth century critics were so daring in their criticism of Biblical orthodoxy – for example, in the US during the years of the Briggs controversy of the 1890s and the rise of Fundamentalism. Those ideas were already very familiar indeed before Jefferson was born in 1743.

Here’s a thought. Maybe the most important theme to highlight in any history of Biblical criticism is that of serial amnesia.


By the by, the British Deists have been much discussed in the writing on the Radical Enlightenment by Margaret Jacob, Jonathan Israel, and others. I am puzzled as to why Israel sees the movement as so wholly derivative of Spinoza, as little more than a footnote in fact. Just call me a skeptic.

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  • RoyMix

    The serial amnesia comes possibly from the sociological nature of the revisers, they can have difficulty in passing the reason of their refusal of orthodoxy on because their descendants are so rarely raised on scripture and orthodoxy, particularly the second generation following them.

    I think it also is a particular problem for the kind of person who has decided to resolve his or her theological problems by rewriting scripture. The one who purges miracles or tries to decide to that divine action in scripture can’t be true because it is immoral in their eyes.

    The person who just tosses it out, or adds new books is on safer grounds here.

    Once you deny the resurrection what makes Jesus special? The Buddha or a romantic poet become just as valid, at that point your descendants will either reject your teaching or just toss scripture out whole. This is the story of how you go from the halfway covenant to Unity church.

    Theology has to be based on text, and since I am Catholic, of part Lutheran family origin, I will also say tradition. So it is kind of like the secular law, if you get to reinvent it out of whole cloth constantly you can’t count on your version to become tradition.

  • MesKalamDug

    I think Deism is implicit in Calvin’s thinking and requires no explanation beyond
    absolute predestination. If everything is predestined God has made no contact with the world since creation and is essentially the deist God. I haven’t made a study of Calvins’s thought but I suspect most of it is devoted to how to avoid this conclusion.
    Once you deny divine interventions you become a deist (or worse).