Most scholars have dated the beginning of English deism to Herbert of Cherbury. Herbert of Cherbury was born in 1587 and so was a late Renaissance figure. This is significant because he was not a secularist concerned with advancing the cause of rationality against the forces of superstition. Instead, he was extremely interested in theology and developed his deism in opposition to Calvinism. He developed English deism based on a pre-Enlightenment foundation of innate ideas and an intense sense of the importance of God and piety. While some scholars think Herbert’s piety and devoutness mark him as significantly different from the later deists, this is not true.
It is important to realize Herbert was reacting to the Calvinist conception of God and human nature that formed the basis of much of the theology of the Church of England. John Calvin emphasized God’s sovereignty and God’s liberty to do anything he wanted. Most importantly, God was not bound by our human ideas of morality and justice. Calvin referred to St. Paul’s words in the Epistle to the Romans declaring God was to humans as a potter was to his pots. St. Paul thought humans owed everything to their creator, and thus had no right to complain about how they were treated. John Calvin referred to this verse when he defended the notion of predestination. Calvin said predestination seemed immoral by our standards, but our view of justice and goodness could not be the measure of God’s actions. He declared, “divine justice is too high to be scanned by human measure, or comprehended by the feebleness of human intellect. . . . It is a monstrous infatuation in men to seek to subject that which has no bounds to the little measure of their reason.”
Instead of putting God’s power and sovereignty first, Herbert emphasized God’s goodness. He declared that every person acknowledged “God to be the Most Good and Great, and Good before Great, thinking it inconsistent, that he should be most Great, that was not Most Good, for the Goodness of God must necessarily be antecedent to his Power.” Herbert believed one ramification of God’s goodness was that God had to provide a way to salvation for all humans and so be impartially good to all humans. “For being Most Good, he did provide for all, in doing which he must be Just, Merciful and Liberal.”
Herbert believed a good God had to love and care for all his children, but the Christian God, according to the Christian theologians he consulted, did not do this; instead, according to the theologians, the Christian God never gave the pre-Christian pagans an opportunity to gain salvation. Herbert could not believe that a truly good God would be so severe, so he declared that the lack of concern for the pagans was “too rigid and severe to be consistent with the Attributes of the Most Great and Good GOD.” He decided that God would have given the virtuous heathens a way to achieve eternal salvation, and so asserted that “some Means should be afforded unto all Men, by which they might come to God.”
By what means did God give non-Christians a way to salvation? Herbert read many philosophy and religious books, but he could not find an answer. He then prayed and asked God for help in finding this answer. He wrote, “I sought no other hold but that of God. To this I turned, and with sincere faith, with prayer, and with all the powers at my disposal by which I could invoke His Grace and Special Providence I besought His saving help.” He felt led by God to see that the essence of every religion was five truths God had imprinted on everyone’s mind. Furthermore, if people followed these truths, they would earn eternal salvation. He called these truths the common notions, a concept he borrowed from classical Stoic philosophy. He said these common notions were bestowed on people “in all ages as media of His divine universal Providence.”
The first common notion was that one Supreme, omnipotent, and all good God existed. The second was that this God should be worshipped. The third was that we ought to revere God while acting virtuously to other people. The fourth was that if we sinned, we should repent for our sins, and this repentance restored us to God’s good graces. The last common notion was that after people died, God rewarded the virtuous people, while he punished the evil ones.
God did not just imprint these five common notions into our minds; he also implanted a conscience to ensure we paid attention to them. The conscience was directly connected to the common notions as the conscience used them to make its judgments. Herbert asserted that the conscience was the faculty “through which we examine not only what is good and evil . . . by means of the high authority of the Common Notions, with the aim of reaching a decision concerning what we ought to do.” This meant the conscience was not merely something put into us by our parents, teachers, or society; instead, the conscience was “the court of God.” In our conscience, “God doth preside, as in his tribunal; wherein also he makes himself so conspicuous, as no place for tergiversation remains, unless like those that shut their eyes against the light, they do obstinately blind themselves.” Not only did God give us this divine conscience, the conscience actively led us to do the right thing by making our bodies feel unpleasant when we sinned, and pleasant when we were virtuous. According to Herbert, when we sin, the conscience “impresses it [our body] with the disagreeable and unpleasant sense of sin; while on the other hand, when the action is moral, it produces a pleasant and agreeable sensation.”
The Catholics claimed the way to eternal salvation was by following the Catholic Church and its teachings. The Protestants claimed the way to eternal salvation was following the Bible. Herbert believed the only way to salvation was by following the common notions and the conscience. Herbert so revered the common notions he called them the universal church. Herbert declared it was upon “common notions of which the true Catholic or universal church is built.” The common notions were such a perfect and good church, that according to Herbert, “it is only through this church that salvation is possible.” So not only was Herbert asserting the common notions gave people a way to eternal salvation, they were the only way to it.
Herbert considered the common notions and our conscience as part of our reason. Thus his view of reason was very different from John Locke’s empiricism, which dominated the Enlightenment. Locke declared that our mind was a tabula rasa, a blank slate. In Locke’s view, God had not imprinted any idea of his existence or morality on our minds; instead our knowledge of everything came from our senses and reflection. Herbert thought reason had innate ideas which told us of God and a conscience which actively pushed us to be moral. Thus his view was a pre-Enlightenment idea of reason.
Herbert’s view of reason was deeply influenced by the Stoics and Platonists who thought human reason was linked or united with God’s reason. Herbert declared God gave us a portion of his divine wisdom, and God himself was revealed in these common notions. He asserted “that God has bestowed on us not only a representation of His form but also some portion of His divine wisdom. I make bold to say that the Creator Himself is revealed in some of these Common Notions.” Not only was God revealed in these common notions, but God himself used them to make decisions. “I hold them [the common notions] also to be the basis not only of human judgment, but also of the divine, eternal counsel of the universe.” This meant when we used our conscience we were linking ourselves to God’s divine order. “Let a man use his conscience as a sacred bond linking the higher order to the lower.”
Herbert maintained the basis of all true religion was these common notions. He explained why the world’s religions contained more than these basic truths by asserting that religious leaders were “prone to avarice,” and the mere teaching of piety and virtue was not enough for them to make money. In order for religious figures to earn money and status, “they have introduced much under the pretext of Religion which has no bearing upon Religion.” According to Herbert, throughout all time and in all places, religious leaders had faked or imagined revelations, oracles, prophecies, and miracles. From these faked or imagined things “they extracted and composed a doctrine of rites and ceremonies, according to their own fancies, and possessed the silly people therewith, who believed that God had prescribed those forms to worship him by.”
This meant that people who wanted to practice true religion could not merely accept what religious authorities told them. Instead of trusting the religious authorities, Herbert maintained we should trust our conscience and the common notions. He believed, because the common notions and conscience have been given to us by God, God meant for us to use them as the “standard of discrimination in revelation.” So when evaluating an alleged divine revelation, we should use the common notions and reject any doctrine that was inconsistent with them. Herbert asserted that “any thing that contradicts the said principles [the five common notions] must not by any means be admitted” as revelation. In practice this meant judging the goodness of a doctrine. Herbert declared we should not believe anything claimed to be a revelation based on the authority of the person who claimed it or the authority of the people who believed it. We should only accept a revelation “from the Goodness of the doctrine itself . . . unless the thing in itself be right good and honest I should not conceive it was God that spake. But some evil spirit that would seduce and deceive me.” Herbert assumed we could trust our sense of goodness because this sense came from our conscience, which God had implanted it in our soul. He maintained that it “pleased God so to implant the love of Goodness & Truth in the Soul that he hath made them a part of Common Reason and Conspicuous by their own Light.”
While Herbert thought Christian doctrines should be judged by the common notions or our conscience, he was too cautious to list the specific Christian doctrines that were immoral. Instead, he mostly concentrated on the immorality of predestination; he contended this doctrine was not consistent with our idea of God. “I readily acknowledge, That God’s devoting some to Eternal Damnation out of his meer good Pleasure, and for his Glory and Honour, is not consistent with these Attributes; but it is impious to entertain such thoughts of the Supream [sic] God.” Herbert so despised predestination that he declared that those who supported the idea make “the Deity strange . . . or capable of condemning men for His own pleasure. Such a God is nothing but an idol of the imagination, and exists nowhere else.”
Herbert claimed the common notions were the true church and were the only way to gain salvation. So it would seem there would be no place in his system for any type of revelation or scripture. Herbert, however, maintained that reading sacred scripture was valuable in that it stimulated our awareness of the common notions. He declared scriptures were not superfluous as “they are of the highest value in that they serve to arouse Common Notions. Let them be read.” Because he believed the Bible had the best moral precepts of any scripture, he highly recommended reading it. He declared, “I bent myself chiefly to the Christian faith contained in the holy Bible as having in it more exact precepts for teaching us a good life and repentance then any other book whatsoever I could meet with.” He also declared the Bible was the best of all books: “I regard this Book, in distinction from all other books, with profound respect, and find nowhere else a surer source of consolation and support. . . . the whole inner man is stirred to life by this Book.” While he gave the Bible a revered place in this passage, at the end of the passage, he quickly reiterated that the common notions and God’s goodness were more to be trusted than the Bible. He declared,
if carelessness or the passage of time has allowed to creep into a sacred or profane book any passage which maligns God or calls in question those divine attributes which are universally recognized, why should we not agree to either amend the work . . . or charge its interpreters with error . . . since they have stated views which conflict with Common Notions?
While Herbert esteemed the Bible, he revered more the common notions God had implanted in us and which we could know naturally.
Herbert had written his first book De Veritate but was not sure if he should publish it. So he got down on his knees and prayed fervently to God for a sign instructing him what to do. Herbert wrote:
Being thus doubtfull in my Chamber, one fair day in the Summer, my Casement being opened towards the South, the Sun shining clear and no Wind stirring, I took my book, De Veritate, in my hand, and, kneeling on my Knees, devoutly said these words: “O Thou Eternal God, Author of the Light which now shines upon me, and Giver of all inward Illuminations, I do beseech Thee, of Thy infinite Goodness, to pardon a greater Request than a Sinner ought to make; I am not satisfied enough whether I shall publish This Book, De Veritate; if it be for thy Glory, I beseech Thee give me some Sign from Heaven, if not, I shall suppress it.” I had no sooner spoken these words, but a loud ‘tho yet gentle Noise came from the Heavens (for it was like nothing on Earth) which did so comfort and cheer me, that I took my Petition as granted, and that I had the Sign I demanded, whereupon also I resolved to print my Book.
Herbert here asserted that, after praying for a sign, he heard a ‘gentle noise’ that cheered and comforted him so deeply that he took it for a divine response to his prayer.
Herbert’s deism was a kind of spirituality, one that the majority of other English deists shared.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), III.23.4
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 Herbert of Cherbury, an unpublished manuscript of Religio Laici in Herbert G. Wright, “An Unpublished manuscript by Lord Herbert of Cherbury Entitled ‘Religio Laici’,” The Modern Language Review Vol 28 no. 3 (July, 1933), 295-307. 299. Checkeddec192015 (The spelling of some words has been modernized.)
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Herbert, The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury (Dublin, 1771), 244-45.
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