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Where Eighteenth Century Deism Went Wrong

In order to learn from deism’s decline, we have to first accurately understand when it declined and the reason it declined.  Deism was popular in the eighteenth century throughout Europe and America, and was particularly prominent in America, France, and England.  In all three countries, it experienced a steep decline in the six years of 1796 to 1802.

 In America, scholars all agree deism’s popularity gradually grew through the eighteenth century until reached its peak from about 1794 to about 1802.  At that time, Thomas Paine’s book Age of Reason was read throughout the land.  Even farm boys were reading it, and college students adopted deist nicknames.  In the 1801 there was a national deist newspaper, the Age of Reason.  Thomas Jefferson, who was widely thought to be a deist, was elected president, and deists were proclaiming that the light of reason was rising in the land.  American Christians were deeply troubled that America was going to be overrun with deism, and some denominations started praying for a revival of Christianity.  The revival, often called the Second Great Awakening, happened.  Camp meetings sprung up throughout the country, with thousands of people coming to a single camp meeting.  So many people embraced Jesus, the religious mood of the country changed, and deism went into a steep decline it never recovered from.

In France, there was the same trajectory: deism gradually grew in popularity until it reached its peak in the 1790s.  The French Revolution started in 1789 and soon the French changed not only their mode of government by becoming a republic, they also became a government ruled by deists.   The Revolutionary government saw Catholicism as an intractable supporter of the monarchy, and the government actively supported deist religious festivals and ceremonies to replace Catholicism. 

The problem was that the deists were not able to establish a secure government and Napoleon took over.  In 1801, Napoleon made peace with the Catholic Church and deism went into a steep decline.

In England, many scholars wrongly think deism declined in the late 1730s and early 1740s.  But as I show in detail on the site, these scholars are only focusing on the more radical kind of deism influenced by continental thought.   The radical deism of John Toland and Anthony Collins did go into decline around the end of the 1730s.  But other kinds of deism in England, especially Christian deism and working class deism, did not decline. Instead, deism flourished in England until it became tremendously popular in the 1790s.  At that time, the events of the French Revolution made English radicals hopeful they could change English society.  Tom Paine became the most popular spokesman for political reform with his Rights of Man.  A few years later, Paine was the most popular advocate for anti-Christian deism with his Age of Reason.  Paine was an extremely popular writer who appealed to the workers, artisans, shopkeepers, and dockhands.   In Paine’s books, political reform and deism were portrayed as two parts of the same program of getting rid of tyranny.  This identification of deism and political reform became even stronger when the most important group calling for political reform in England, the London Corresponding Society, became completely dominated by deists.  The government tried to suppress Paine’s deist books by arresting the printers, but Paine’s ideas spread.

In 1795-6, England experienced a grain crisis with grain being at its highest price since the sixteenth century.  In parts of the country, grain was not even available.  Food riots broke out in many places and the militia was called out to protect and transport grain.  The leaders of the call for political reform, the London Corresponding Society, had enormous crowds showing up for their meetings in October 1795.   One day, when the king drove to Parliament, there were huge crowds shouting for peace.  The people hooted at the king, one man tried to pull him out of his carriage, and someone shot at the king, probably with an airgun.[x] There was an immediate, tremendous public outcry against the political reformers and thus the deists.   Laws were proposed which said inciting contempt of the king, constitution, or government were treason.  The deists had made political reform and deism into one movement, and now deism paid the price as both movements were crushed.  Deist leaders in England were continually hounded and persecuted for the next twenty years. 

The time when deism declined in England, America, and France is pretty clear: 1796-1802.  Before then deism was growing in force in all three countries, and in all three countries it reached the peak of its popularity.  Then, it went into a steep decline it has never recovered from.  What lessons can be learnt from this?

Christians have a pessimistic view of human nature.  They say that people have been fundamentally corrupted by original sin.  Human reason, conscience, and desires have been twisted and depraved.  In America, the message of the Second Great Awakening was that people were so wretched, there was nothing they could do by themselves to clean it up; instead, they needed Jesus to wash their sins away.  The Americans who embraced Christianity at the beginning of the nineteenth century were not doing it because they had been brainwashed by religious leaders.  They were embracing it because they personally felt deeply sinful and believed they experienced an inner darkness that was too deep to deal with by themselves.  They were making a personal choice to turn to Jesus to help deal with their sin.

            On the other hand, deists have a very optimistic view of human nature.  Deists believe people are not tainted by or corrupted by original sin.  They believe people have access to God’s truth through an inner revelation of their conscience, moral sense, or reason.  Deists believe people can be moral and spiritual without needing any external divine revelation.  They do not need an external authority mandating the proper doctrines they must believe in.  With their optimistic view of human nature, the deists needed an answer for why people did not listen to their conscience or reason.  The deists blamed the priests and ministers throughout human history for misleading the people and brainwashing them.  The religious authorities became the equivalent of the snake in the Garden of Eden.  Once the religious authorities were no longer supported by the state and once people were no longer persecuted if they did not believe in the state supported religion, the deists believed people would follow their reason or conscience and become deists.

            This optimism manifested in the political sphere in both France and England.  The French Revolutionary government had an optimistic view of human nature and so did the English anti-government supporters.  In England, deism lost out because it had identified religious tyranny with political tyranny.  It then became identified as the leading force against the monarchy.  This fueled its tremendous popularity in the 1790s, but also led to a tremendous government backlash that destroyed it.   In France, deism fought the power of the Catholic Church and lost. In both cases, the deist leaders over-emphasized the speed at which things would change.  In England, the deists were on the right side of history in that the monarchy has no political power now and is just ceremonial.  But the deists vastly overemphasized the speed at which history was moving.  In France, the deists vastly under-estimated the hold of Catholicism and its power over the people.  In both cases, deists over-estimated the power of their message and under-estimated the power of their opposition.

            I believe the lesson deists must learn from history is to not have such an optimistic view of human nature in general and the speed at which people will change.  Deists must learn from the Christians and realize there is more darkness and sin in human nature than the eighteenth century deists believed.  Another lesson is that deists must make peace with Christianity and other strong political forces instead of opposing them.




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© Joseph Waligore