1902 Encyclopedia > Deism


DEISM is the received name for a current of theological thought which, though not confined to one country, or to any well-defined period, had England for its principal source, and was most conspicuous in the last years of the 17th and the first half of the 18th century. The deists, differing widely in important matters of belief, were yet agreed in seeking above all to establish the certainty and sufficiency of natural religion in opposition to the positive religions, and in tacitly or expressly denying the unique significance of a supernatural revelation in the Old and New Testaments. They either ignored the Scriptures, endeavoured to prove them in the main but a helpful republication of the Evangelium teternum, or directly impugned their divine character, their infallibility, and the validity of their evidences as a complete manifestation of the will of God. The term deism is not only used to signify the main body of the deists' teaching, or the tendency they represent, but has of late especially come into use as a technical term for one specific metaphysical doctrine as to the relation of God to the universe, assumed to have been characteristic of the deists, and to have distinguished them from atheists, pantheists, and theists,—the belief, namely, that the first cause of the universe is a personal God, but is not only distinct from the world but apart from it and its concerns.

The words deism and deist were treated as novelties in the polemical theology of the latter half of the 16th century in France, but were used substantially in the same sense as they were a century later in England. By the majority of those historically known as the English Deists, from Blount onwards, the name was owned and honoured. They were also occasionally called rationalists. Free-thinker (in Ger many, freidenker) was generally taken to be synonymous with deist, though obviously capable of a wider signification, and as coincident with esprit fort, and with libertin in the original and theological sense of the latter word. Naturalists was a name frequently used of such as recognized no god but nature, of so-called Spinozists, atheists; but both in England and Germany, in the 18th century, this word was more commonly and aptly in use for those who founded their religion on the lumen natures alone. The same men were not seldom assaulted under the name of theists ; the later distinction between theist and deist, which stamped the latter word as excluding the belief in providence or in the immanence of God, was apparently formulated in the end of the 18th century by those rationalists who were aggrieved at being identified with the naturalists.

The chief names amongst the deists are those of Lord Herbert (1581-1648), Blount (1654-1693), Tindal (1657-1733) Woolston (1669-1733), Toland (1670-1722), Shaftesbury (1671-1713) Bolingbroke (1678-1751), Collins (1676-1729), Morgan (1-1743), and Chubb (1679-1746). Annet, who died in 1768, and Dodwell who made his contribution to the controversy in 1742, are of less importance. Of the ten first named, nine appear to have been born within twenty-five years of one another ; and it is noteworthy that by far the greater part of the literary activity of the deists, as well as of their voluminous opponents, falls within the same half century.

The impulses that promoted a vein of thought cognate to deism were active both before and since the time of its greatest notoriety. But there are many reasons to show why, in the 17th century, men should have set themselves with a new zeal, in politics, law, and theology, to follow the light of nature alone, and to cast aside, to the utmost of their ability, the fetters of tradition and prescriptive right, of positive codes, and scholastic systems, and why in England especially there should, amongst numerous free-thinkers, have been not a few free writers. The significance of the Copernican system, as the total overthrow of the traditional conception of the universe, dawned on all educated men. In physics, Descartes had prepared the way for the final triumph of the mechanical explanation of the world in Newton's system. In England the new philosophy had broken with time-honoured beliefs more completely than it had done even in France ; Hobbes was more startling than Bacon. Locke's philosophy, as well as his theology, served as a school for the deists. Men had become weary of Protestant scholas-ticism ; religious wars had made peaceful thinkers seek to take the edge off dogmatical rancour ; and the multiplicity of religious sects provoked distrust of the common basis on which all founded. There was a school of distinctively latitudinarian thought in the Church of England ; others not unnaturally thought it better to extend the realm of the adiaphora beyond the sphere of Protestant ritual or the details of systematic divinity. Arminianism had revived the rational side of theological method. Semi-Arians and Unitarians, though sufficiently distinguished from the free-thinkers by reverence for the letter of Scripture, might be held to encourage departure from the ancient landmarks. The scholarly labours of Huet, Simon, Dupin, and Cleri-cus, of Lightfoot, Spencer, and Prideaux, of Mill and Fell, furnished new materials for controversy ; and the scope of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus had naturally been much more fully apprehended than ever his Ethica could be. The success of the English revolution permitted men to turn from the active side of political and theological controversy to speculation and theory ; and curiosity was more powerful than faith. Much new ferment was working. The toleration and the free press of England gave it scope. Deism was one of the results.

A great part of the deistical teaching was the same from first to last ; but though deism cannot be said to have any marked logical development, it went through a sufficiently observable chronological growth.

Long ere England was ripe to welcome deistic thought, Lord Herbert earned the name " Father of Deism " by laying down the main line of that religious philosophy which in various forms continued ever after to be the backbone of deistic systems. He based his theology on a comprehensive, if insufficient, survey of the nature, founda-tion, limits, and tests of human knowledge. And amongst the divinely implanted, original, indefeasible notitice corn-mimes of the human mind, he found as foremost his five articles :—that there is one supreme God, that he is to be worshipped, that worship consists chiefly of virtue and piety, that we must repent of our sins and cease from them, and that there are rewards and punishments here and here-after. These truths, though often clouded, are found in all religions and at all times, and are the essentials of any religion—their universal prevalence being, along with their immediacy, an unmistakable mark of their verity. Thus Herbert sought to do for the religion of nature what his friend Grotius was doing for natural law,—making a new application of the standard of Vincentius, Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab onmibus.

Herbert had hardly criticised the Christian revelation either as a whole or in its details. Blount, a man of a very different spirit, did both, and in so doing may be regarded as having inaugurated the second main line of deistic procedure, that of historico-critical examination of the Old and New Testaments. Blount adopted and expanded Hobbes's arguments against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; and, mainly in the words of Burnet's Archeo-logia Philosophica, he asserts the total inconsistency of the Mosaic Hexaemeron with the Copernican theory of the heavens, dwelling with emphasis on the impossibility of admitting the view developed in Genesis, that the earth is the most important part of the universe. He assumes that the narrative was meant ethically, not physically, in order to eliminate false and polytheistic notions ; and he draws attention to that double narrative in Genesis which was elsewhere to be so fruitfully handled. The examin-ation of the miracles of Apollonius of Tyana, professedly founded on papers of Lord Herbert's, is meant to suggest similar considerations with regard to the miracles of Christ. Naturalistic explanations of some of these are proposed, and a mythical theory is distinctly foreshadowed when Blount dwells on the inevitable tendency of men, especially long after the event, to discover miracles attendant on the birth and death of their heroes. Blount assaults the doctrine of a mediator as irreligious ; and much more pronouncedly than Herbert he dwells on the view, afterwards regarded as a special characteristic of all deists, that much or most error in religion has been invented or knowingly maintained by sagacious men for the easier main-tenance of good government, or in the interests of themselves and their class. And when he heaps suspicion, not on Christian dogmas, but on beliefs of which the resemblance to Christian tenets is sufficiently patent, the real aim is so transparent that his method seems to partake rather of the nature of literary eccentricity than of polemical artifice; yet by this disingenuous indirectness he gave his argu-ment that savour of duplicity which ever after clung to the popular conception of deism.

Shaftesbury, dealing with matters for the most part different from those usually handled by the deists, stands almost wholly out of their ranks. But he showed how loosely he held the views he did not go out of his way to attack, and made it plain how little weight the letter of Scripture had for himself ; and, writing with much greater power than any of the deists, he was held to have done more than any one of them to forward the cause for which they wrought. Founding ethics on the native and cultivable capacity in men to appreciate worth in men and actions, and associating the apprehension of morality with the appre-hension of beauty, he makes morality wholly independent of scriptural enactment, and still more, of theological forecast-ing of future bliss or agony. He yet insisted on religion as the crown of virtue ; and, arguing that religion is insepar-able from a high and holy enthusiasm for the divine plan of the universe, he sought the root of religion in feeling, not in accurate beliefs or meritorious good works. The theology of those was of little account with him, he said, who in a system of dry and barren notions " pay handsome compliments to the Deity," " remove providence," " explode devotion," and leave but " little of zeal, affection, or warmth in what they call rational religion." In the protest against the scheme of "judging truth by counting noses," Shaftesbury recognized the danger of the standard which seemed to satisfy many deists; and in almost every respect he has more in common with those who afterwards, in Germany, annihilated the pretensions of complacent rationalism than with the rationalists themselves.

Tolaud, writing at first professedly without hostility to any of the received elements of the Christian faith, insisted that Christianity was not mysterious, and that the value of religion could not lie in any unintelligible element; though we cannot know the real essence of God or of any of his creatures, yet our beliefs about God must be thoroughly consistent with reason. Afterwards, Toland discussed, with considerable real learning and much show of candour, the comparative evidence for the canonical and apocryphal Scrip-tures, and demanded a careful and complete historical exami-nation of the grounds on which our acceptance of the New Testament canon rests. He contributed little to the solution of the problem, but forced the investigation of the canon alike on theologians and the reading public. Again, he sketched a view of early church history, further worked out by Semler, and surprisingly like that which, as elaborated by the Tubingen school, is still held with modifications by a large number of students of Christian antiquity. He tried to show, both from Scripture and extra-canonical literature, that the primitive church, so far from being an incorporate body of believers with the same creed and customs, really consisted of two schools, each possessing its " own gospel " —a school of Ebionites or Judaizing Christians, and the more liberal school of Paul. These parties, consciously but amicably differing in their whole relation to the Jewish law and the outside world, were subsequently forced into a non-natural uniformity. The cogency of Toland's argu-ments was weakened by his manifest love of paradox.

Collins, who had created much excitement by his Discourse of Free-thinhing, insisting on the value and necessity of unprejudiced inquiry, published at a later stage of the deistic controversy the famous argument on the evidences of Christianity. Christianity is founded on Judaism; its main prop is the argument from the fulfil-ment of prophecy. Yet no interpretation or re-arrangement of the text of Cld Testament prophecies will secure a fair and non-allegorical correspondence between these and their alleged fulfilment in the New Testament. The inference is not expressly drawn. Collins indicates the possible extent to which the Jews may have been indebted to Chaldeans and Egyptians for their theological views, especially as great part of the Old Testament would appear to have been re-modelled by Ezra; and, after dwelling on the points in which the prophecies attributed to Daniel differ from all other Old Testament predictions, he states the greater number of the arguments still used to show that the book of Daniel deals with events past and contemporaneous, and is from the pen of a writer of the Maccabean period.

Woolston, at first to all appearance working earnestly in behalf of an allegorical but believing interpretation of the New Testament miracles, ended by assaulting, with a yet unknown violence of speech, the absurdity of accepting them as actual historical events, and did his best to over-throw the credibility of Christ's principal miracles. The bitterness of his outspoken invective against the clergy, against all priestcraft and priesthood, was a new feature in deistic literature, and injured the author more than it furthered his cause.
Tindal's aim seems to have been a sober statement of the whole case in favour of natural religion, with copious but moderately worded criticism of such beliefs and usages in the Christian and other religions as he conceived to be either non-religious or directly immoral and unwhole-some. The work in which he endeavoured to prove that true Christianity is as old as the creation, and is really but the republication of the gospel of nature, soon gained the name of the " Deist's Bible."

Morgan criticised with great freedom the moral character of the persons and events of Old Testament history, developing the theory of conscious " accommodation " on the part of the leaders of the Jewish church. This accommodation of truth, by altering the form and substance of it to meet the views and secure the favour of ignorant and bigoted contemporaries, Morgan attributes also to the apostles and to Jesus. He likewise expands at great length a theory of the origin of the Catholic Church much like that sketched by Toland, but assumes that Paul and his party, latterly at least, were distinctly hostile to the Judaical party of their fellow-believers in Jesus as the Messias, while the college of the original twelve apostles and their adherents viewed Paul and his followers with suspicion and disfavour. Persecution from without Morgan regards as the influence which mainly forced the antagonistic parties into the one-ness of the catholic and orthodox church.

Annet made it his special work to invalidate belief in the resurrection of Christ, and to discredit the work of Paul.

Chubb, the least learnedly educated of the deists, did more than any of them, save Herbert, to round his system into a logical whole. From the New Testament he sought to show that the teaching of Christ substantially coincides with natural religion as he understood it. But his main contention is that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life, not the reception of a system of truths or facts, but a pious effort to live in accordance with God's will here, in the hope of joining him hereafter. Chubb dwells with special emphasis on the fact that Christ preached the gospel to the poor, and argues, as Tindal had done, that the gospel must therefore be accessible to all men without any need for learned study of evidences for miracles, and intelligible to the meanest capacity.

Dodwell's ingenious thesis, that Christianity is not founded on argument, was certainly not meant as an aid to faith; and, though its starting-point is different from all other deistical works, it may safely be reckoned amongst their number.

Though himself contemporary with the earlier deists, Bolingbroke's principal works were posthumously published after interest in the controversy had declined. His whole strain, in sharp contrast to that of most of his predecessors, is cynical and satirical, and suggests that most of the matters discussed were of small personal concern to himself. He gives fullest scope to the ungenerous view that a vast proportion of professedly revealed truth was ingeniously palmed off by the more cunning on the more ignorant for the convenience of keeping the latter under. But he writes with keenness and wit, and knows well how to use the materials already often taken advantage of by earlier deists.

In the substance of what they received as natural religion, the deists were for the most part agreed ; Herbert's articles continued to contain the fundamentals of their theology. Eeligion, though not identified with morality, had its most important outcome in a faithful following of the eternal laws of morality, regarded as the will of God. With the virtuous life was further to be conjoined a humble disposi-tion to adore the Creator, avoiding all factitious forms of worship as worse than useless. The small value attributed to all outward and special forms of service, and the want of any sympathetic craving for the communion of saints, saved the deists from attempting to found a free-thinking church, a creedless communion. They seem generally to have inclined to a quietistic accommodation to established forms of faith, till better times came. They steadfastly sought to eliminate the miraculous from theological belief, and to expel from the system of religious truth all debat-able, difficult, or mysterious articles. They aimed at a rational and intelligible faith, professedly in order to make religion, in all its width and depth, the heritage of every man. They regarded with as much suspicion the notion of a " peculiar people " of God, as of a unique revelation, and insisted on the salvability of the heathen. They rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and protested against mediatorship, atonement, and the imputed righte-ousness of Christ, always laying more stress on the teaching of Christ than on the teaching of the church about him; but they repeatedly laid claim to the name of Christians or of Christian deists. Against superstition, fanaticism, and priestcraft they were incessantly lifting up their testimony. They all recognized the soul of man —not regarded as intellectual alone—as the ultimate court of appeal. But they varied much in their attitude towards the Bible. Some were content to argue their own ideas into Scripture, and those they disliked out of it; to one or two it seemed a satisfaction to discover diffi-culties in Scripture, to point to historical inaccuracies and moral defects. Probably Chubb's position on this head is most fairly characteristic of deism. He holds that the narrative, especially of the New Testament, is in the main accurate, but, as written after the events narrated, has left room for misunderstandings and mistakes. The apostles were good men, to whom, after Christ, we are most indebted; but they were fairly entitled to their own private opinions, and naturally introduced these into their writings. The epistles, according to Chubb, contain errors of fact, false interpretations of the Old Testament, and sometimes disfigurement of religious truth. Fortunately, however, the points on which the private opinions of apos-tolic men might naturally differ most widely, such as the doctrine of the Logos, are matters which have nothing to do with the salvation of souls,

The general tendency of the deistical writings is sufficiently self-consistent to justify a common name. But it is vain „o speak of deism as a compact system, or to regard it as the outcome of any one line of philosophical thought. Of matters generally regarded as pertaining to natural religion, that on which they were least agreed was the certainty, philosophical demonstrability, and moral significance of the immortality of the soul, so that the deists have sometimes beengrouped into "mortal" and "immortal" deists. For some the belief in future rewards and punish-ments was an essential of religion; some seem to have questioned the doctrine as a whole; and, while others made it a basis of morality, Shaftesbury protested against the ordinary theological form of the belief as immoral. No two thinkers could well be more opposed than Shaftesbury and Hobbes ; yet sometimes ideas from both were combined by the same writer. Collins was a pronounced necessitarian; Morgan regarded the denial of free will as tantamount to atheism. And nothing can be more misleading than to assume that the belief in a Creator, existent wholly apart from the work of his hands, was characteristic of the deists as a body. In none of them is any theory on the subject specially prominent; save in their denial of miracles, of supernatural revelation, and a special redemptive interposition of God in history, they seem to have thought of providence much as the mass of their opponents did. Herbert starts his chief theological work with the design of vindicating God's providence. Shaftes-bury vigorously protests against the notion of a wholly transcendent God. Morgan more than once expresses a theory that would now be pronounced one of immanence. Toland, the inventor of the name of pantheism, was noto-riously, for a great part of his life, in some sort a pantheist. And while as thinkers they diverged in their opinions, so too the deists differed radically from one another in their character, in reverence for their subject, and in religious earnestness and moral worth.

The deists were not powerful writers; none of them was distinguished by wide and accurate scholarship; hardly any was either a deep or comprehensive thinker. But though they generally had the best scholarship of England against them, they were bold, acute, well-informed men; they appreciated more fully than their contemporaries not a few truths now all but universally accepted ; and they seemed therefore entitled to leave their mark on subsequent theological thought. Yet while the seed they sowed was taking deep root in France and in Germany, the English deists, the most notable men of their time, were soon for-gotten, or at least ceased to be a prominent factor in the intellectual life of the century. The controversies they had provoked collapsed rather than were finally settled; and deism became a by-word even amongst those who were in no degree anxious to appear as champions of orthodoxy.

The fault was not wholly in the subjectivism of the movement. But the subjectivism that founded its theology on the " common sense " of the individual was accompanied by a fatal pseudo-universalism which, cutting away all that was peculiar, individual, and most intense in all religions, left in any one of them but a lifeless form. A theology consisting of a few vague generalities was sufficient to sustain the piety of the best of the deists; but it had not the concreteness or intensity necessary to take a firm hold on those whom it emancipated from the old beliefs. The negative side of deism came to the front, and, communicated with fatal facility, seems ultimately to have constituted the deism that was commonly professed at the clubs of the wits and the tea-tables of polite society. But the intenser religious life before which deism fell was also a revolt against the abstract and argumentative ortho-doxy of the time.

That the deists appreciated fully the scope of difficulties in Christian theology and the sacred books is not their most noteworthy feature; but that they made a stand, sometimes cautiously, often with outspoken fearlessness, against the presupposition that the Bible is the religion of Frotestants. They themselves gave way to another presup-position equally fatal to true historical research, though in great measure common to them and their opponents. It was assumed by deists in debating against the orthodox, as it is now by orthodox Protestants in contending against the Eomish Church, that the flood of error in the hostile camp was due to the benevolent cunning or deliberate self-seeking of unscrupulous men, held to by the ignorant with the obstinacy of prejudice.

Yet deism deserves to be remembered as a strenuous pro-test against bibliolatry in every degree and against all traditionalism in theology. It sought to look not a few facts full in the face, from a new point of view and with a thoroughly modern, though unhistorical spirit. It was not a religious movement; and though, as a defiance of the accepted theology, its character was mainly theological, the deistical crusade belongs, not to the history of the church, or of dogma, but to the history of general culture. It was an attitude of mind, not a body of doctrine; its nearest parallel is probably to be found in the eclectic strivings of the Renaissance philosophy and the modernizing tendencies of cisalpine humanism. The controversy was assumed to be against prejudice, ignor-ance, obscurantism ; what monks were to Erasmus the cl ergy as such were to Woolston. Yet English deism was in many ways characteristically English. The deists were, as usually happens with the leaders of English thought, no class of professional men, but represented every rank in the community. They made their appeal in the mother tongue to all men who could read and think, and sought to reduce the controversy to its most direct practical issue, making it turn as much as possible on hard facts or the data of common sense. And, with but one or two exceptions, they avoided wildness in their language as much as in the general scheme of theology they proposed. If at times they had recourse to ambiguity of speech and veiled polemic, this might be partly excused by the death of Aikinhead on the scaffold, and Woolston's imprisonment.

French, deism, the direct progeny of the English move-ment, was equally short-lived. Voltaire was to the end a deist of the school of Bolingbroke ; Eousseau could have claimed kindred with the nobler deists. Diderot was for a time heartily in sympathy with deistic thought ; and the Encyclopédie was in its earlier portion an organ of deism. But as Locke's philosophy became in France sensationalism, and as Locke's pregnant question, reiterated by Collins, how we know that the divine power might not confer thought on matter, led the way to dogmatic materialism, so deism soon gave way to forms of thought more directly and ex-tremely subversive of the traditional theology.

In Germany there was a native free-thinking theology nearly contemporary with that of England, whence it was greatly developed and supplemented. The compact rational philosophy of Wolff nourished a theological rationalism which in Reimarus was wholly nndistinguishable from dog-matic deism ; while, in the case of the historico-critical school to which Semler belonged, the distinction is not always easily drawn—although these rationalists professedly recognized in Scripture a real divine revelation, mingled with local and temporary elements. It deserves to be noted here that the former, the theology of the Aufklarung, was, like that of the deists, destined to a shortlived notoriety ; whereas the solid, accurate, and scholarly researches of the rationalist critics of Germany, undertaken with no merely polemical spirit, not only form an epoch in the history of theology, but have taken a permanent place in the body of theological science. Ere rational-ismus vulgaris fell before the combined assault of Schieier-macher's subjective theology and the deeper historical in-sight of the Hegelians, it had found a refuge successively in the Kantian postulates of the practical reason, and in the vague but earnest faith-philosophy of Jacobi.

In England, though the deists were forgotten, their spirit was not wholly dead. For men like Hume and Gibbon the standpoint of deism was long left behind ; yet Gibbon's famous two chapters might well have been written by a deist. Even now, between scientific atheism and speculative agnosticism on the one hand and church orthodoxy on the other, many seem to cling to a theology nearly allied to deism. Rejecting miracles and denying the infallibility of Scripture, protesting against Calvinistic views of sovereign grace and having no interest in evan-gelical Arminianism, the faith of such inquirers seems fairly to coincide with that of the deists. Wherever religious indifferentism is rife, the less generous forms of deism are still alive. And even some cultured theologians, the his-torical representatives of latitudinarianism, seem to accept the great body of what was contended for by the deists, though they have a fuller appreciation of the power of spiritual truth, and a truer insight into the ways of God with man in the history of the world.

The deists displayed a singular incapacity to understand the true conditions of history ; yet amongst them there were some who pointed the way to the truer, more, gener-ous interpretation of the past. When Shaftesbury wrote that " religion is still a discipline, and progress of the soul towards perfection," he gave birth to the same thought that was afterwards hailed in Lessing's Erziehung des Menschen-gescldechtes as the dawn of a fuller and a purer light on the history of religion and on the development of the spiritual life of mankind.

See Leland's View of the Principal Deistical Writers, 2 vols. 1754 ; Lechler's Geschichte des Englischen Deismus, 1841; Rev. John Hunt, Religious Thought in England, 3 vols. 1870-72; Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the 18th Century, 2 vols. 1876. (D. P.)

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