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(from Lat. Deus, God). Basic and original meaning of the term: belief in one Supreme Being, in distinction from atheism* and polytheism*; now gen. assoc. with what some call natural religion, based on reason and the natural* knowledge on God, rather than revelation, and may thus be mistinguished from theism.*

Deism holds either that the universe is a self-sustained mechanism from which God withdrew immediately after creation or that God is still active in the universe, but only through the laws of nature.

I. Antecedents. The sources on which deism drew were many. 1. Some arguments of deists were taken from early opponents of Christianity (Celsus,* Porphyry,* Philostratus*), from statements made in the course of early controversies (Gnostic [see Gnosticism], Trinitarian and Christological,* Pelagian,* Arminian [see Arminianism]), and from pre-Christian philosophers (Socrates,* Plato,* Democritus,* Leucippus,* Epicurus,* M. T. Cicero,* Plutarch*). 2. Discoveries and explorations of the 15th and 16th cents. brought information to Eur. regarding various religions; this stimulated comparative religion. 3. Scientific discoveries undermined many views held in the medieval ch. I. Newton's* scientific works led deists to conclude that observation of laws est. by God is a sufficient basis for religious conviction. 4. Many arguments of deists were taken from contemporary controversies, with RCs quoted against Prots. and vice versa. 5. Deists criticized abuses in the ch., “lifeless dogmatism,” ritualism, and the lack of true spiritual life. 6. Deists criticized the narrow scholasticism of RCs, but developed scholastic statements concerning God into a conception of a master mechanic who created the world and then let it operate on its own. 7. Deists drew heavily on results of textual* criticism and higher* criticism. 8. Dissatisfaction with fanaticism and atrocities ascribed to religious communions prepared the way for many deistic arguments. See also Rationalism.

II. Method. Much writing of the deists is negative. Inspiration, text of Scripture, miracles, prophecies, deity of Christ, Bible characters, ordinances, institutions, rites and doctrines of the ch., character of the clergy, and other religious matters were subjected to their attacks. The smaller part of their writings was devoted to developing a religion of nature.

III. History.

1. Deism is gen. considered as beginning with E. Herbert* (ca. 1583–1648) and ending with Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; Am. statesman; works include The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, often called “The Jefferson Bible”). Herbert granted the possibility of revealed religion, but held that perception occurs through the correspondence of objects with ideas innate in the mind; held 5 principles to be common to all religions: (1) rationally derived belief in the existence of deity; (2) obligation to worship deity; (3) close connection bet. worship and practical morality; (4) obligation to repent of sin and abandon it; (5) divine recompense in this world and the next. T. Hobbes* (1588–1679) held that religion arises out of fear and superstition and is to be controlled by the state. Deists disliked Hobbes's intolerance but were influenced by his rationalism.

2. T. Browne* (1605–82) regarded faith and reason as hostile forces, and tried to keep them apart; opposed dependence on authority and adherence to antiquity. J. R. Tillotson* (1630–94) opposed intolerance; regarded ethics and reason as chief elements in religion.

3. J. Locke* (1632–1704), though not a deist, was extensively quoted by deists and gave new directions to deistic thought. His empiricism replaced Herbert's doctrine of innate ideas. His statement that it was difficult to prove the soul immaterial was seized on by deists, as well as his remark that time weakened evidence for traditional revelation.

4. C. Blount* (1654–93) marks the transition bet. Herbert's doctrine of innate ideas and Locke's empiricism; opposed revelation by trying to parallel Bible narratives with heathen legends; held that what is necessary for salvation must be known to all since there is no special revelation. TOLAND>J. Toland* (1670 to 1722) est. deism on the empiricism of Locke. A. A. Cooper (1671–1713), 3d Earl of Shaftesbury,* emphasized natural ethics and introd. wit and mockery as weapons.

5. M. Tindal* (ca. 1656–1733) reduced Christianity to naturalism*; regarded it unreasonable to hold that truth is withheld from most of mankind. Other Eng. deists: Thomas Woolston (ca. 1670–ca. 1733); A. Collins* (1676–1729); H. St. J. Bolingbroke* (1678–1751); Thomas Chubb (1679–ca. 1747; works include The Supremacy of the Father Asserted; A Discourse Concerning Reason; The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted); Thomas Morgan (1680–1743; works include The Moral Philosopher); P. Annet* (1693–ca. 1769).

6. H. Dodwell, Jr. (see Dodwell, 2), paved the way for transition from deism to skepticism; denied reason a place in religion. This trend was accelerated by D. Hume's* denial of causality* as a force (see also Cause, 5).

IV. Factors in the decline of deism: Christian apologies (G. Berkeley,* J. Butler,* W. Law,* J. Leland,* G. Lyttelton,* W. Paley,* G. West*); differences among deists; exhaustion of the subject of deism; Meth. revival (see Methodist Churches, 1).

V. Eng. deism influenced men in Fr. (J. J. Rousseau,* Voltaire*), Ger. (J. K. Dippel,* I. Kant,* G. E. Lessing,* M. Mendelssohn,* H. S. Reimarus,* C. Wolff*), and Am. (B. Franklin, T. Jefferson [see also par. III 1 above], T. Paine*). It influenced philos., Modernism,* and Freemasonry* in the 19th and 20th cents. and is studied by antichristian movements. EL

See also Freethinker.

J. Orr, English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1934); S. G. Hefelbower, The Relation of John Locke to English Deism (Chicago, 1918); H. M. Morals, Deism in Eighteenth Century America (New York, 1960); L. Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 3d ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1902; repr. 1927); G. A. Koch, Republican Religion: The American Revolution and the Cult of Reason (New York, 1933; repr. Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1964).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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