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James Pitt

I

 

James Pitt was one of England’s premier advocates for Christian deism in the eighteenth century.  In 2016 I published an article in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography showing that Pitt probably influenced Benjamin Franklin’s Christian deism.  (I have posted the full article at Academia.edu.)    Below is the portion of the article that deals with Pitt’s religious beliefs.

He was born in Norwich and first worked as a schoolmaster. In early 1729, he was hired by the English government to edit and write political articles for the London Journal. Pitt not only wrote political articles supporting the government’s policies, but he also wrote many pieces about his own religious views. In these articles, Pitt declared that the original Christianity Jesus taught was solely piety and morality.  He further declared that throughout history crafty and greedy priests and ministers had added other doctrines and rituals. Because of his total focus on piety and morality, as well as his emphasis on reason and his attacks on priestcraft, Pitt was often considered a deist by his contemporaries.[1]

With the government’s support, the London Journal became the most popular newspaper in England during Pitt’s tenure. Considering how eighteenth-century newspapers were consumed, each one of Pitt’s essays was likely read or heard by as many as a hundred thousand people.[2] The newspaper was even read in America. Franklin started publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette not long after Pitt began writing for the London Journal, and between 1730 and 1735 Franklin reprinted nine of Pitt’s Christian deist essays in his own newspaper.[3] These nine Christian deist essays contained the essentials of Pitt’s Christian deism, and Pitt’s beliefs were very similar to Franklin’s 1735 Christian deist beliefs. [RM1] 

So far I have assumed that James Pitt wrote these religious articles in the London Journal, but these articles did not carry the byline “James Pitt.” Instead, the author was always listed as either “Socrates” or “Publicola.” It is highly likely the same person wrote all the Christian deist articles the newspaper published between December 1728 and May 1734, as these pieces advocated the same Christian deist ideas. They were also written in the same style, used the same words and phrases, shared the same type of references, and showed the same level of education. It is almost certain that the author of these articles was James Pitt. First, they appeared at the time he was hired as the editor and main writer of the newspaper, and they stopped when he ceased his association with the newspaper. Second, James Pitt was arrested for blasphemy for writing one of Publicola’s articles, “A Second Letter on Superstition.”[4] Third, it is well known that Pitt wrote the political articles signed “Francis Osborne” and that under that name he occasionally discussed the true nature of religion in the same unorthodox terms as he did in the articles signed “Socrates” and “Publicola.”[5] Most other scholars agree with my assessment, as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that between 1729 and 1734 James Pitt wrote many articles in the London Journal under the pen names of “Francis Osborne,” “Socrates,” and “Publicola.”[6]

Pitt never outright labeled himself a Christian deist, but, considering that he had already been arrested for blasphemy, he came as close to it as was prudently advisable. He started by saying he was a Christian, declaring he had the “greatest reverence” for “true original primitive christianity.”[7] [cl2] He then cautiously identified true Christianity with the ideas of the well-known philosopher and deist Lord Shaftesbury, whom he declared “the wisest and most reasonable writer on Moral Virtue and Deity that ever appeared in the world.”[8] [RM3]  Pitt then argued that Shaftesbury’s ideas, which emphasized piety and morality, were real deism: “by Deists we declare once for all, that we mean only those who are in Lord Shaftsbury’s System of Morality and Deity; for that System alone is true Deism.”[9] The important claim Pitt made was that Jesus’s teachings emphasized only piety and morality and were thus identical with Shaftesbury’s teachings. Pitt concluded that true Christians were true deists and vice versa. He stressed, “Lord Shaftsbury is (upon this true Plan of Christianity,) a real Christian, without the Name of Christian; and such Christians, are real Deists, with the Name of Christians.”[10] In this roundabout manner, Pitt cautiously declared himself a Christian deist.

 

The Basic Christian Deist Beliefs of James Pitt

                  The foundation of Christian deist theology was the belief that conventional Christians were not practicing true Christianity. Christian deists thought that priests and ministers had twisted Jesus’s original religion into superstition in order to increase their power. “Crafty and Ambitious Men,” Pitt asserted, “thro’ an unreasonable Love of Power, have, by Degrees, in most Parts of the World, established what they call Religion, but what is, in reality Superstition.”[11]

Instead of listening to priests and ministers who had perverted Christianity, Christian deists urged people to use reason to examine all religious claims. As Pitt wrote:

By Reason they must judge of all Things, visible and invisible, natural and supernatural, divine and humane; by this, they must judge of the Authority and Meaning of all Books; the Truth of all Doctrines, and the Reality of all Miracles. This Divine Principle they must never give up on any Pretence whatever.[12]

Pitt believed an individual should not just accept the religion he had been taught; instead, he insisted, that all religious doctrines had to be examined by reason.

                  The most crucial point scholars miss about Christian deists is that while they emphasized reason, theirs was not a modern, secular view of reason. Pitt called reason a “Divine Principle” and “our celestial Guide, and divine Light.”[13] Christian deists called reason a divine principle because they believed reason itself gave humankind reliable knowledge about God and morality. Reason did this because it included innate moral ideas, a conscience, or a moral sense that God had implanted in humans. Pitt said that people could tell right from wrong as easily as they could distinguish one geometrical figure from another. Pitt insisted a person “is as able to distinguish Justice from Injustice, and Benevolence from Cruelty, as he is to distinguish a Cube from a Square.” Pitt asserted that these ideas of right and wrong did not come from our social training but were part of our constitution. He thought there were “natural Ideas; or Ideas of Right and Wrong, which naturally grow up with us, and thrust themselves upon us whether we will or not, without any Teaching or Instruction.” Pitt then concluded God was teaching us through these implanted moral ideas: “In this Sense, we are all taught of God; and these Ideas, all Men, of all Countries, and of all Ages, do agree in, or would agree in were they not led wrong, by Men whose Interest ‘tis to deceive them.”[14]

Christian deists did not believe that reason and conscience had been perverted through original sin. Instead, they maintained that humanity had turned away from natural religion because priests and ministers misled them. They believed that Jesus had been sent by God only to bring people back to the knowledge of natural religion. According to Pitt, Jesus “was Sent of God.[15] He also believed that disputes about Jesus’s nature and whether he was part of the Trinity were fruitless. As he argued,

All those Controversies which have been so hotly agitated at the Expence of the Peace, and Blood of the Christian World, about the Person of Jesus Christ, concerning the Trinity, and a Thousand other Things, make us neither wiser nor better. We may embrace one Scheme, or t’other, or neither, as Evidence appears to us, and be equally good Christians, and faithful Subjects of the Kingdom of God.[16]

As long as a Christian was moral, Pitt believed that person could have any view about Jesus’s nature. Pitt personally believed, however, that Jesus would raise people from the dead on the Day of Judgment, implying that he thought of Jesus as more than human.[17]

                  The Christian deists revered Jesus and equated true Christianity with his teachings and the similar first sermons of the early apostles. For this reason, Pitt pronounced,

The first Sermons of Christ and his Apostles must contain the whole Will of God in relation to the Salvation of Men, because Thousands were converted, or made Christians, by those Sermons; which could not have been, had not the Sermons contained all that was necessary to make them Christians.[18]

Pitt believed Jesus’s sermons could only have had salvific efficacy if they had contained all that was essential to be a Christian. The rest of the Bible was superfluous to him; as he wrote, “we may be saved without understanding the true Meaning of the rest of the Bible.”[19]

Most importantly, Christian deists believed Jesus taught only natural religion, meaning that Jesus taught that piety and morality were enough to earn an eternal reward. Pitt pointed out that the first discourses of Jesus, which Pitt was convinced contained all that was necessary for our salvation, were focused purely on piety and virtue:

In these first Discourses we find nothing inculcated but the Practice of moral Virtue, or Obedience to the Eternal Universal Law of God written in Mens [sic] Hearts. . . . Jesus Christ therefore, the Messiah or Sent of God, could come amongst us with no other Intention than to repeat, restore and enforce the great Law of Nature.[20]

Pitt declared that on the Day of Judgment, Jesus would reward “those who have done well to everlasting Life.” Pitt was sure, however, that Jesus would only reward the virtuous, writing that “Happiness and Misery were, by him [Jesus], always join’d to Virtue and Vice; not to Opinions or Speculations; to Rites or Ceremonies.”[21]

According to Christian deists, Jesus restored natural religion, a religion all humans could understand because of the innate ideas or conscience God had instilled in them. Human moral standards were the same as those that applied to the actions of every intelligent moral being, whether that being was a human, an angel, or God. “Wisdom and Goodness are the same in all intelligent Beings in the Universe,” Pitt believed.[22] Therefore, Christian deists were certain God’s actions were always moral. Pitt had confidence that the will of God “is always in Conjunction with Right.”[23] He also insisted, contrary to the Calvinists who emphasized God’s sovereignty, that God could never deviate from the laws of reason. God, Pitt declared “is obliged by the eternal Laws of Reason, from which he can never deviate.”[24]

Because humans have innate ideas of morality and God acts by the same standards of morality that humans do, Christian deists reasoned individuals had a reliable rule to judge whether something was a divine revelation. Christian deists declared that a person should only accept an alleged revelation as divine if it agreed with the individual’s internal moral standards. Pitt asserted that “in order to know whether that Message be from God, we must compare what the Messenger delivers in his Name with what by the Light of Nature and Reason we already know of Him, and see whether they agree.”[25]

Because of the conviction that natural religion gave people the criteria to judge any revelation, Christian deists were willing to reinterpret or reject any part of the Bible that did not accord with natural religion. For example, Pitt agreed that many biblical passages emphasized faith, but he disagreed with the traditional Protestant doctrine that people were justified by faith alone. Instead, Pitt reinterpreted these passages to say that faith was always related to virtue. To Pitt, faith meant “Faith of a moral nature; not a Sett [sic] of speculative Opinions; not Faith absolutely considered in itself; but Faith as it relates to Virtue.” He explained that true faith was a belief that God had ordered the universe so that morally good people would be rewarded in the next life. Pitt thought Christ came to teach this belief, and so he wrote, “This Faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah, or Sent of God, is a supernatural Means of believing in God, or acknowledging the Truth of this practical Proposition, That God will finally make Good Men happy.”[26]

While Christian deists emphasized natural religion, almost all of them thought it included supernatural elements, and all of them saw natural religion as a form of spirituality in which a person had a personal relationship with God. Pitt believed Jesus was resurrected from the dead and that Saint Paul performed miracles.[27] He also thought that natural religion included duties to God such as adoration, prayer, worship, and service to others. Pitt thought God’s goodness was obvious, not only because God created and governed us, but also because God made laws that worked in “every way tending to make us good and happy.” For these reasons, Pitt believed humans owed God homage and gratitude: “As his Creatures, we owe him the most profound Veneration, Worship, and Homage, the most humble Acknowledgments, and the highest Gratitude.”[28] The best kind of homage and service people could do to God was to help others. For this reason, Pitt wrote that “Piety to God, is Love to Mankind.”[29] He thought that God wanted individuals to serve others; “it follows, that doing all the Good we can to Men, is true Religion. He who promotes the Happiness of Men to the utmost of his Power, his Will is One with the Will of God.”[30]

 

 

[1] Eustace Budgell, The Bee: or, Universal Weekly Pamphlet, 9 vols. (London, 1733), 1:14; Weekly Miscellany, Jan. 27, 1733, 1, col. 2.

[2] Simon Targett, “Pitt, James,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 61 vols. (Oxford, 2004), 44:440.

[3] Here and following all the Pitt articles were on page one of the London Journal unless otherwise noted. The Franklin reprints were all in the Pennsylvania Gazette. 1) “A Dialogue between Philocles and Horatio,” Pitt: Mar. 29, 1729; Franklin: June 18–23, 1730. 2) “A Second Dialogue between Philocles and Horatio,” Pitt: Sept. 20, 1729; Franklin: July 2–9, 1730. 3) “An Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” Pitt: Nov. 15, 1729; Franklin: July 9–16, 1730. 4) “A Second Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” Pitt: Nov. 22, 1729; Franklin: July 16–23, 1730. 5) “A Third Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” Pitt: Dec. 6, 1729; Franklin: July 23–30, 1730. 6) “An Essay on Temperance,” Pitt: Dec. 20, 1729; Franklin: Oct. 7–14, 1731. 7) “A Discourse in Honour of the Queen,” Pitt: Aug. 26, 1732; Franklin: Feb. 1–8, 1733. 8) “A Discourse on the Principles of some Modern Infidels,” Pitt: Nov. 25, 1732; Franklin: June 14–21, 1733. 9) “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Summum Bonum, or Chief Good of Man,” Pitt: Aug. 12, 1732; Franklin: July 17–24, 1735. Before Franklin bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, the previous publisher reprinted two other Pitt essays. “On Superstition” was originally published in the London Journal on February 15, 1729. It was reprinted July 11, 1729. “A Second Letter on Superstition” was printed in the London Journal on April 26, 1729, and reprinted in the Pennsylvania Gazette on July 18, 1729.

[4] Daily Journal, “Port News,” May 8, 1729, 1; Monthly Chronicle, “Affairs of Great Britain and Ireland,” May 1729): 101.

[5] Pitt, “A Second Discourse on the Causes and Remedies of Corruption,” London Journal, Mar. 27, 1731, col. 2; Pitt, “Discourse in Honour of the Queen,” London Journal, Aug. 26, 1732, col. 2 (the discussion of Clarke and Wollaston); Pitt, “A Review of the Principles which have been Laid Down in these Papers,”  London Journal, July 22, 1732, cols. 1–2.

[6] Targett, “Pitt, James,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 44:440.

[7] Pitt, “On True Religion,”  London Journal, Feb. 8, 1729, col. 2

[8] Pitt, “A Vindication of Lord Shaftsbury’s Writings and Character,”  London Journal, June 10, 1732, col. 2.

[9] Pitt,  “The Vindication of Lord Shaftsbury’s Writings Continued,” London Journal, June 17, 1732, col. 1.

[10] Pitt, “The Vindication of Lord Shaftsbury’s Writings continued,” London Journal, June 17, 1732, 2, col. 1.

[11] Pitt, “A Third Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” London Journal, Dec. 6, 1729, col. 1.

[12] Pitt, “On True Religion,”  London Journal, Feb. 8, 1729, col. 2.

[13] Pitt, “On True Religion,” London Journal, Feb. 8, 1729, col. 2; Pitt, “An Answer to Mr. Woolaston’s Third Question,” London Journal, Mar. 14, 1730, col. 3.

[14] Pitt, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Summum Bonum, or Chief Good of Man,”  London Journal, Aug. 12, 1732, col. 3.

[15] Pitt, “An Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” London Journal, Nov. 15, 1729, col. 3.

[16] Pitt, “An Answer to Mr. Woolaston’s Third Question Continued,” London Journal, Mar. 21, 1730, col. 3.

[17] Pitt, “An Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” London Journal, Nov. 15, 1729, col. 2. .

[18] Pitt, “An Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” London Journal, Nov. 15, 1729, col. 1.

[19] Pitt,  “A Second Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” London Journal, Nov. 22, 1729, col. 1.

[20] Pitt, “An Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” London Journal, Nov. 15, 1729, col. 1.

[21] Ibid., col. 2.

[22] Pitt, “An Answer to Mr. Woolaston’s Third Question,” London Journal, Mar. 14, 1730, col. 3.

[23] Pitt,   “An Enquiry into the Original of Right,” London Journal, Dec. 14, 1728, col. 1.

[24] Pitt, “An Essay upon Piety,” London Journal, Jan. 17, 1730, col. 2.

[25] Pitt, “The Vindication of Lord Shaftsbury’s Writings Continued,” London Journal, June 17, 1732, col. 1.

[26] Pitt, “An Essay on Original Primitive Christianity,” London Journal, Nov. 15, 1729, cols. 2 and 3.

[27] Pitt, “A Second Essay on Original Pure Christianity,” London Journal, Nov. 22, 1729, cols. 1, 3; Pitt, “An Answer to Mr. Woolaston’s Third Question Continued,” London Journal, Mar. 21, 1730, col. 2.

[28] Pitt, “An Essay upon Piety,” London Journal, Jan. 17, 1730, col. 2.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Pitt, “On True Religion,” London Journal, Feb. 8, 1729, col. 1.


 [RM1]awkward

 [cl2]This sentence is missing something. What did he maintain about “true original primitive Christianity?”

 [RM3]We Shaftsburian Free-Thinkers do what?J

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