What is Deism?

One thing that is common these days is to assert that the Founding Fathers were Deists.  Since I doubt that the term deism is especially well understood, let us start with a definition.

Deism\De”ism\ (d[=e]”[i^]z’m), n. [L. deus god: cf. F.
d[‘e]isme. See Deity.]
The doctrine or creed of a deist; the belief or system of
those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny

Note: Deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those
truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to
discover by the light of reason, independent of any
revelation from God. Hence, deism implies infidelity,
or a disbelief in the divine origin of the Scriptures. (from here)

As a religious philosophy, the key word is “reason”.  Because they do not believe it reasonable to accept relevation such as the Bible, Deists claim to derive their beliefs about God from God’s creation.   Curiously, however, with little actual proof some Deists readily accept the notion that the Founding Fathers were Deists.

Who were the Deists?

During the time of the Founding Fathers, Americans were not especially tolerant of non-Christians.  The idea of religious freedom was still being invented and only slowly being accepted.  Thomas Paine, one of the few known Deists amongst the Founding Fathers attests well to this fact as he begins The Age of Reason.

IT has been my intention, for several years past, to publish my thoughts upon religion. I am well aware of the difficulties that attend the subject, and from that consideration, had reserved it to a more advanced period of life. I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow-citizens of all nations, and that at a time when the purity of the motive that induced me to it, could not admit of a question, even by those who might disapprove the work.

The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.

As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself. (from here)

Paine began his last great work in France as that nation sank into the Reign of Terror.  In his own way, Paine feared for the loss of the theology that is true.  So he started to write. Yet he had been right to wait.  Although The Age of Reason sold well, its publication helped to destroy his reputation.  Not content to explain his own beliefs, Paine directly attacked, particularly in Part 2 of The Age of Reason, the authenticity of the Bible.

The religious sensitivities of early Americans were such that the Founding Fathers avoided the mention of God in the Constitution.  They spoke about reverence for Almighty God and encouraged religious toleration, but many avoided discussing their personal beliefs.  So which of the Founders were Deists?  Most often the Founding Fathers included amongst Paine’s allies are spoken of as Deists.  These allies included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

  • Was Washington a Deist?  Washington was closed-mouth about his personal religious beliefs.   He attended church services, but in the later part of his life he was not a communicant.  He promoted religious toleration, and he promoted the belief in God.  Washington established the tradition of chaplains serving in the United States military (see here).  In addition, Washington inaugurated the first Thanksgiving (see here).  Nonetheless, as he never made his personal beliefs about Christianity publicly known, Washington could have been a Deist.
  • Was Franklin a deist?   In his autobiography, Franklin makes it clear that he was a Deist.  Nonetheless, it is also apparent that Franklin had great respect for the teachings of Jesus.  Franklin had this to say a month before he died in a letter to Ezra Stiles.

    As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

  • Was Jefferson a Deist?  In a letter to Ezra Stiles, Jefferson wrote “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know” (see here).  Jefferson clearly questioned the divinity of Jesus.  At the same time, like Franklin, Jefferson had respect for the teachings of Jesus.  Jefferson studied the Bible intensely, trying to separate what he considered the myth from Jesus’ teachings.  Based upon what he extracted from the New Testament, he wrote two works:  “The Philosophy of Jesus” (1804) and The Life and Morals of Jesus (1819-20?).  Unsatisfied with the first work, Jefferson wrote the second (see here).  The second is also known as The Jefferson Bible.

If these men were Deists, then they were Christian Deists.  Even if they had trouble accepting the divinity of Jesus, they did have faith in His religious teachings.  What Jefferson discovered about himself, is perhaps true of everyone.  We are each our own religious sect.   Consider that as Paine, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson approached the end of their years, each handled this crisis in his own way.  Paine sought to explain and convince others of the principles his own religious beliefs.  Washington gracefully accepted his role as a political leader; he set for others an example of resolute honor, Christian forbearance, and calm demeanor.  Franklin approached his end with humble faith.  And Jefferson scoured the Bible for something in which he could believe.

Other Founding Fathers

I have a book I bought in a bookstore at a national park some years back, The Signers of the Constitution by Robert G. Ferris and James H. Charleston.  In the fall of 1787, fifty-five delegates attended the Constitutional Convention.  Thirty-nine of those men completed the work and signed the document.  The book provides a brief biographical sketch of each of these men.  When I was first confronted with the notion that the Founding Fathers were Deists, I decided to look at the book once again.

Although Ferris and Charleston did not write their book to expound upon the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, their work does provide clues.  One signer at least was a religious minister.  On at least two other occassions, the church affiliation of a signer was sufficiently strong that the authors remarked on  this fact.  However, what is most revealing in the book is where most of these men are buried.  In an era when there was a great deal of empty land, and the families of most upstanding citizens had acreage of their own, at least twenty-eight of the signers were buried in the cemetery next to a Christian church.


    1. To be fair to RR Edwards, sort of, I am a lifelong non-theist, and yet recognize the existence of evil in the world. Far too much of it, in fact. But I see RR Edwards as not rising to the level of evil per se, but acting as an enabler of it through willful distortion.

      Christianity has been, to my thinking, generally a force for good — especially in modern incarnations. There have been problems, and serious ones indeed! But these seem to be the exception, and I have never had the hostility toward it that is expressed by RR Edwards.

      The 3/5ths issue in the Constitution, for example, was a compromise aimed against slavery, and was fought by the Southern delegations, who wanted slaves counted fully in the census for representational purposes. The North wanted them not counted at all, to reduce the number of slave-supporting delegates in future Congresses. This 3/5ths deal was a compromise originally proposed by Franklin. It was the official beginning of the end of slavery, despite how much a part of life it was in the country at the time.

      RR Edwards’ profound misunderstanding of this — and perception of the Constitution as “blatantly more evil” than the Nazi doctrines as a result of this misunderstanding — is rather sad. But at least Edward does not have to worry that I’ll pray for him.

      ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

      1. Keith – I would not worry too much about being fair to R. R. Edwards. He is the only genuine troll to ever plague this blog. I don’t mind people expressing their opinion, but when it became obvious he was just trying to provoke people, I found it necessary to ignore him.

        Otherwise, thank you for a very interesting comment. Although I knew Franklin advocated the end of slavery, I was not aware Franklin proposed that compromise.

        I have a question for you. You clearly recognize the existence of evil. Without God, by what standard do you define evil?

        1. Heinlein made a comment one time (I think in Time Enough for Love): “Sin is hurting other people unnecessarily.” By his lights, suicide thus wasn’t a sin, it was merely stupid. It is perhaps too broad a brush, but still resonates with me.

          Killing other people — oppressing them — enslaving or injuring or constraining them unnecessarily, all qualifies as “evil.” Not the same size evil, of course.

          The framers set up an excellent system. Whether one believes that rights are “natural” or “God-given,” it is possible to agree that they are not simply manufactured by a government for its convenience. But even if you accept that rights are a government construct, the Constitution provides for a way to preserve them against the machinations of the majority. Attempts to deprive citizens of these rights would be evil (in my view), graded in size based on the nature of the right involved.

          What about jail? Capital punishment? Self-defense? This, to me, falls into the space left open by the “unnecessarily” in Heinlein’s quote. Not always — it is not always just to jail someone, even if the government is doing so. But at least there is a presumption that “necessarily” is possible in such cases, and they are not automatically “evil” in the Heinlein sense.

          I’ve got to travel again, but did want to reply with something before departing.

          ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  1. Oh stop your guys and your “love” and “concern” and “reason” are too overwhelming for my hateful, evil, trollness self. It makes me blush. You did forget to do apparently is read the constitution of the Nazi party which, as I mentioned requires each one to be a Christian. Yes, I am sure you know better than history or the pope or their bishops or the individuals or god himself, you are the soul decider of who is a Christian. I forgot for a moment this is your fantasy. What need for you to have “proof” or “reason” or “truth”?

  2. Citizen Tom:

    You finally realize you can’t reason with the bigoted troll Mr. Edwards. Again you allowed him to tie up this for days. I stooped reading his garbage long ago.

    He’s just another Humanist without a clue. Humanism has given us many great things: fascism, communism, Nazism. (National Socialism) As far as evil, these humanist philosophies have killed between 100-200 million people in the 20th Century. Evil? Edwards doesn’t have clue.

    1. Lewis – Citizen Tom just let R.R. Edwards have his say. Edwards made himself look foolish, and that was the expected result.

      When someone is saying hateful things, it does no hurt to examine their reasoning. Once we do that that our anger usually changes to pity. Then it is easier to forgive.

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