Chapter 12

An Impersonal Creator: Understanding Deism

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Dust particles dance in the shaft of light penetrating the dirty windowpane as the soothing tick-tock of numerous clocks fills the small workshop. Tiny springs, gears, and screws glisten in the morning sun as they lay scattered across the watchmaker’s workbench, while the welcome heat from the crackling fire in the woodstove drives the chill from the morning air.

Softly whistling a favorite tune, the watchmaker carefully plies his trade, adding the finishing touches to his latest masterpiece. One by one, he meticulously assembles the individual pieces until he has crafted a beautiful work of mechanical timekeeping ingenuity. With a few tweaks here and a slight adjustment there, the job is finished. Polishing the crystal to a shiny luster, he holds the piece at arm’s length and surveys his work. Nodding his approval, the great craftsman sets the hands, winds the spring, and then presses the piece to his ear to listen to the smooth sound of the steady ticking of the works. His job now complete, the watchmaker places the sparkling new pocket watch on the workbench, puts on his coat, and steps outside, locking the door behind him. The cold air forces a shiver from his body as he walks down the street, leaving the watch to run all alone.

Anyone who has studied anything about deism has no doubt heard the watchmaker story. Even though the simple story of a watchmaker who makes a watch only to leave it functioning on its own cannot fully explain what deists believe, it does, in a very general sense, state the core of their faith. At its basic level, deism teaches that God made the universe and its natural laws, and then left it running on its own, free from any divine interference or interaction.1 Admittedly, there is no uniform belief among deists on this point and their beliefs range from viewing the Creator as a distant, uninvolved deity to accepting the possibility that He can and does (although rarely) interact with His creation. As deist Brutus Tipton explains it:

. . . the Creator, if he acts upon the manifest world at all, does so rarely and according to his own purpose . . . that is assuming he is “concerned” at all. That’s not to say, of course, that some people and events are not possibly “acted” upon by the Creator.2

All Alone

Many struggle to understand why deists so eagerly embrace the concept of a distant and uninvolved Creator/God. Most people find the idea of being left all alone, for all practical purposes, in this vast universe incredibly unappealing. By nature, we humans crave social interaction, and the long history of human civilization certainly suggests that the interaction we most crave is that with our Creator. Civilizations from the earliest recorded periods of Mesopotamia, from the Greeks and Romans to modern times, all fashioned gods with whom they could interact. Distinct among those is Christianity, which teaches that the God of the Bible fulfilled the spiritual craving in the person of Jesus Christ, which is consistent, since we are made in the image of an interacting God in Genesis 1.

On the opposite side of the religious spectrum is deism, which teaches that a personal, intimate relationship between man and his Creator is a practical impossibility, insisting instead that all that can be known about God is revealed by the cold, impersonal laws of physics alone. Armed only with his sheer logic and reason, the deist hacks his way through the spiritual wilderness of life in his quest to understand a God who refuses to speak directly. Rejecting all divine revelation as spurious, deists rob themselves of any possibility of the deeply satisfying experience of actually “knowing” their Creator.

A Short History

Deism’s relatively short story began when the term “deist” first surfaced in the middle 1500s in the writings of a Swiss theologian by the name of Pierre Viret. It appeared a few decades later in England in the early 1600s in Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s work, De Veritate. Although not a deist in the truest sense (since deism would not become a distinct philosophy until years later), many consider Herbert the “father of deism” in the English world. In De Veritate, which means “concerning truth,” Herbert postulated that man could use his human reason and other innate human faculties to discover truth, and by extrapolation, God. Extremely revolutionary for that time, his writings helped to ignite a firestorm of progressive thought that swept over Europe and led to the eventual development of deism as a distinct philosophy.

Spurred on by unending wars in Europe, many of which were fought over religion, and the many advances in science, especially in astronomy, deism’s star continued to rise into the late 17th and early 18th centuries. With the corruption that had taken hold in the “established” Christian Church of this time (which in many instances was far from the traditional, biblical Christian Church), many became disillusioned with traditional religion.

As the pendulum began to swing the other way, many of these disillusioned seekers turned to autonomous human reason (apart from the Scriptures) as an alternative to a faith that, in their view, had failed. Rejecting the idea of divine revelation altogether, deism became their default “religion.” Finding a welcome home among these “seekers,” deism spread to France, and with the efforts of men like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, it became a powerful engine of the age of enlightenment. Eventually jumping “the pond,” this new “religion of reason” made its way to the shores of America. Once introduced to the American intelligentsia, numerous notables such as Thomas Jefferson3 and Benjamin Franklin embraced deism, or at least were heavily influenced by it. Foremost among America’s deists was Thomas Paine who, though not a Founding Father, did become deism’s primary American evangelist and whose teachings continue to be heralded by deists to this very day.

A Working Definition

When studying any philosophy/religion, establishing a working definition is crucial. In his 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, the English writer and literary giant Samuel Johnson defined deism as “the opinion of those that only acknowledge one God, without the reception of any revealed religion.”4 Seventy-three years later in his own dictionary, Noah Webster defined deism as:

The doctrine or creed of a deist; the belief or system of religious opinions of those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny revelation: or deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to discover by the light of reason, independent and exclusive of any revelation from God. Hence deism implies infidelity or a disbelief in the divine origin of the scriptures.

Although numerous nuances have developed within deism since the time of Johnson and Webster, at its core, its basic tenets remain essentially the same. The World Union of Deists, a leading deist organization founded in 1993 by Robert Johnson, confirms this with their modern definition:

. . . the recognition of a universal creative force greater than that demonstrated by mankind, supported by personal observation of laws and designs in nature and the universe, perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of claims made by individuals and organized religions of having received special divine revelation.5

So at the very heart of deism lies the emphatic declaration that, other than creation itself, there is no divine revelation of God. According to deists, not even the Holy Bible has a valid claim to divine inspiration. Thomas Paine, the “patron saint” of many deists, said:

The creation is the Bible of the Deist. He there reads, in the handwriting of the Creator himself, the certainty of his existence and the immutability of his power, and all other Bibles and Testaments are to him forgeries.6

Adding insult to injury, The World Union of Deists harshly declares that the Bible “. . . paint[s] a very evil and insane picture of God.”7

No Divine Revelation, No Divine Intervention

Rejecting all “spiritual truths” that cannot be substantiated by physical science, deists contend that any talk of sin, judgment, redemption, etc., is irrelevant, since creation teaches nothing of these concepts and can only be found in inspired writings like the Bible — a book they vehemently reject. Void of any divine revelation, the deist must resort to his imperfect reason/logic when attempting to understand God. Stating it succinctly, The World Union of Deists declares, “God gave us reason, not religion.”8

In drastic contrast to Christianity, which teaches that the God of the Bible longs to have a meaningful and personal relationship with humans, deism leaves man to make assumptions about a God who refuses to interact with His creation. Believing the Bible to be the divinely inspired Word of God, Christians base every belief concerning God’s nature and His will on the clearly articulated doctrines laid down in Scripture. Relying on passages such as 2 Timothy 3:16–17, Christians believe the Bible to be the literal breath of God:9

All Scripture is given by inspiration [theopneustos /Greek/—God-breathed] of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Unlike deists, Christians, do not speculate about God; they believe men can know with absolute certainty the things God has revealed about Himself in His Word.

At one level, Christians wholeheartedly agree with deists that creation does “scream” the existence of a God who intelligently designed and created a universe of space, time, and matter. Paul declared as much in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.

Therefore, it is biblically correct to say that the creation is proof that there is a Creator/God. But this knowledge alone does not provide answers to such important questions as: “How did the universe come to be? How did mankind come to be? How should man relate to his Creator? What about the concepts of sin, righteousness, eternal life, and eternal judgment?” In short, a long list of questions essential to man’s spiritual understanding and wellbeing cry out for answers that creation alone cannot provide.

For example, when Lord Herbert Cherbury articulated his early deistic postulations about truth, he summarized them with five “common notions”:

  1. There is a supreme deity.
  2. This deity ought to be worshiped.
  3. Virtue combined with piety is the chief part of religious practice.
  4. Men are wicked and must repent of their sins.
  5. There is reward and punishment from God, both in this life and after it.10

It is impossible to imagine how creation alone could have revealed all of that to Herbert. But let’s take this one step further. From the creation alone, how can the deist know that logic and reason really exist? Reason has no mass and is conceptual (nonmaterial), so how can a physical creation reveal the nonphysical notion of reason? Even though this is devastating to the deist, let’s grant that he can use reason and with that, it is easy enough to see how he might have conceived the first two notions from a “reasoned” study of the universe; but how could he possibly have understood the concepts of sin, repentance, and eternal punishment/reward without some additional source of divine revelation?

Formulating explanations to these deep spiritual issues without an authoritative, divine revelatory source is certainly a tall order indeed. Left to himself, the seeker of truth must either resort to his imagination for answers or he must simply ignore these critical issues altogether, hoping all eventually turns out well in the end; hence, this religion is purely arbitrary and left to the whims of each individual. What a terrible way to deal with such serious issues. Even more serious is the terrifying proposition of “guessing” incorrectly about these eternal questions or of completely ignoring them only to discover in the end that there actually was a divine revelation that provided answers to these critical queries. The eternal consequences will be catastrophic (Matthew 25:46).

Additionally, if man is left to develop his own explanations about spiritual essentials, what happens when these many explanations end up contradicting each other, as they no doubt will? Who decides which answers are correct? Can all positions be correct even if they contradict with each other? How can two opposing views of the same thing both be correct in the same sense at the same time? Wouldn’t that contradict the law of non-contradiction?

This is the dilemma with which deists have grappled since the birth of their “religion” in the 1600s. Brutus C. Tipton, once an orthodox Christian and now leading deist, admits:

As a Deist I must allow that there are very many things that are not currently known to us through scientific inquiry and perhaps there is much that will never be known. . . . As a Deist I am very much content to say that I just don’t know when it comes to questions such as the existence (or lack thereof ) of an afterlife. . . . Perhaps science will someday validate the belief in an afterlife (or at least some form of consciousness which continues after physical death) and perhaps it may someday validate the power of prayer and other spiritual and religious practices. Nothing would please me more and although I personally stop short of faith I believe in keeping an open mind.11

Even the famed deist Thomas Paine was forced to admit his inability to possess any real certainty concerning his own afterlife:

I consider myself in the hands of my Creator, and that He will dispose of me after this life consistently with His justice and goodness. I leave all these matters to Him, as my Creator and friend, and I hold it to be presumption in man to make an article of faith as to what the Creator will do with us hereafter.12

Of course, if Paine was correct when he reasoned that the Bible is not God’s divine revelation, then eternity may turn out well for him (this is what he hopes and placed his faith in). But, since he was wrong and the Bible is correct, then Paine is in for quite a rude awakening on Judgment Day. Interestingly, for those who believe and obey Scripture, right or wrong, eternity turns out well for them. This is a rehash of Pascal’s Wager, but it leaves the truth of God as a probability. Let’s take this one step further for the readers: the God of the Bible does exist and we have certainty of that (e.g., 1 John 5:20).

In spite of this eternal risk, deists remain adamant that their impersonal and disconnected God has provided no divine revelation of Himself short of creation. Since creation is subject to interpretation, then really the deist can’t know anything for certain: not even their claim that creation is the only revelation, which is self-refuting. Sadly, the rank and file deist concludes that he is left with little or no hope of receiving any assistance or illumination from God. What a depressing and lonely existence this must be — especially in those moments of personal crisis when a personal, interactive God is what one needs most.

Deists and Revealed Religions

With their rejection of any valid source of divine revelation, it comes as no surprise that deists also reject all revealed religions as unreasonable, corrupt, and even insane. They argue that if these religions ever possessed any significant truth, centuries of human manipulation and myth have tainted and tarnished them beyond usefulness. And yet so often, deists fail to realize the human manipulation of their own religion! Even so, according to many deists, mankind would actually be much better off had he not been beguiled by the deceptive myths and superstitions of religion in the first place. The Union of World Deists implies as much when it declares:

Much of the evil in the world could be overcome or removed if humanity had embraced our God-given reason from our earliest evolutionary stages.13

Deist Robert Johnson goes on to blame religion, especially Christianity, for much of the suffering in the world:

I believe the Christian mind-set that is so eager to accept guilt and original sin, as well as the additional unnatural idea of redemption by proxy, is much to blame for the suffering of millions of people who allow themselves to be victims of negativity.14

Johnson even insinuates that had deism been the dominant religion centuries ago, life for mankind would be a virtual utopia by now:

Every invention and discovery we have today could have been in effect 2,000 to 5,000 years ago. . . . We could be enjoying a virtually disease free, peaceful progressive society extending well beyond our planet Earth. . . . As we generate a peaceful worldwide religious revolution through Deism and the World Union of Deists we will bring about the emancipation of the individual’s mind and spirit. The soul of society will then be lifted to a new level, never before thought possible. A level of progress and international cooperation that will make warfare just an archaic oddity of the dark, superstitious past.15

Of course, Johnson and most other deists fail to mention the good that religions, particularly Christianity, have brought to the human experience (despite the fact that a true deist cannot state if something is really good or bad as their god has not revealed what is good or bad!). They fail to mention the massive humanitarian efforts performed throughout history mainly by Christians. They fail to mention that most hospitals and medical missions in America, and around the world for that matter, were originally founded and operated by Christian organizations. They seem not to notice that in every country where Christianity has become the dominant faith, those citizens experience the greatest amount of liberty, enjoy the most prosperous economies, have the greatest opportunity for personal advancement, and have, generally, enjoyed the best living conditions of all peoples. Like Johnson, Christians also wonder where mankind would be without these pesky “revealed religions” — Christians simply draw a much different conclusion than do Johnson and his like-minded deists.

Deism and America’s Founding Fathers

(Editor’s note to our international readers: this section dives into deism’s influence in the founding of the United States. Though you may not think this is important, it could still be very valuable to understand what is occurring in the United States today and why certain debates occur in the United States that are often seen on news sources around the world.)

“America was founded mostly by atheists and deists!” This is the incessant mantra that is peddled by the media/educational elites of our day. In this post Christian era, rarely do these “authorities” mention our Founding Fathers without insinuating or emphatically declaring that the majority of them were either deists or atheists. Are they correct? Certainly not — but most will not know this if they listen to the majority of today’s commentators and educators. Those dining on a steady diet of their anti-Christian ranting are commonly quite surprised to learn that very few of our Founders even claimed to be deists. Accomplished historian Gregg Frazer says that after some thirty years of research, he can only identify two Founders who were definitely deists.16

But does it even matter here in 21st-century America what religion our Founders embraced, if any? As it so happens, it matters a great deal — especially if we want to properly understand the philosophical roots of our form of government and if we are to properly interpret our founding documents. To our Founding Fathers, religion was essential to self-governance. Consider the sentiments of George Washington. Though it is unknown whether or not he was a “born-again” Christian (reasonable arguments concerning his faith can be made both ways), Washington considered “religion” vital to the survival of our Republic:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.17

According to the “Father of Our Country,” religion (most believe he was referring to Christianity) is the primary pillar that upholds our Republic; therefore, any “ism” that would seek to strike at that pillar (as deism obviously does) would pose a real threat to our Republic’s existence. Historian Gregg Frazer observes:

. . . for them [the Founders], the critical element in religion was morality. And this is where the left is wrong with their wall of separation notion and the idea that the founders wanted to keep religion out of public life. . . . they were creating a republic, a free society, without the iron fist of the government controlling people. And so the question they then had to deal with was, “How do you control such people? How do you get them to behave?” And their answer was that you get them to behave, you control them, through morality. And where do you get morality? You get it through religion. So they did not want to divorce or separate religion from public life; . . . they believed that morality was indispensible for a free society and that religion was the best source for morality. . . .18

This statement starkly contrasts to the common emphatic claim that our Founders intended to create a totally secular government completely free from religion and its influence (that is with the exception of the secular religions of course!).

It is important, though, to remember that these men were, among many things, also politicians. They were not attempting to lead a church or a denomination; they were attempting to create a new country with a form of governance (representative republic) that was a radical departure from the prevalent form of government for that time (monarchy). They understood that the success of self-governance would hinge on Christian morality — not necessarily Christian doctrine. For example, Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”19 In 1776, John Adams declared, “. . . it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”20

Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, warned, “Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time . . . the solid foundation of morals, [is] the best security for the duration of free governments.”21 In 1798, John Adams, in commenting on the importance of morality to the effectiveness of our Constitution, said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”22 Summing up this concept, Robert Winthrop, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, declared in 1849, “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled, either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the word of God, or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible, or by the bayonet.”23

In defense of those who claim that deism greatly impacted our Founders, they are partially correct. By the middle of the 18th century, deism was definitely on the rise in America, due mainly to the influence of the French Enlightenment. Devout Christian and Founding Father Patrick Henry lamented the wave of deism sweeping over America:

The view which the rising greatness of our country presents to my eyes is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism, which, with me, is but another name for vice and depravity.24

Historian Gregg Frazer argues that many of our Founders, who are today labeled as deists, actually embraced a “mixture of Christianity, natural religion (deism), and rationalism.”25 Coining the term “theistic rationalism” to describe their faith, Frazer says they “took elements of Christianity and elements of natural religion and then, using rationalism, kept what they considered reasonable and rational while rejecting everything else.”26 Unfortunately for some like Thomas Jefferson, that meant rejecting many of the supernatural parts of the Bible, especially in the New Testament. For example, Jefferson was willing to accept Jesus as a good moral teacher but refused to fully accept His claim to deity — denying that He had the power to work miracles defying the laws of physics.27

But even with deism’s growing acceptance among America’s ruling class, there remained a friendly coexistence between deists and Christians. Historian Gordon Wood claims that the major difference in the rivalry between deism and Christianity then and now is that “Enlightened rationalism and evangelical Calvinism were not at odds in 1776 . . .”28 — certainly not to the extent they are today. Still, in the face of this rising tide of deism, Christianity remained by far the primary religious force in early America and was the religion of the masses and many of the Founders.

So how have the revisionist historians been able to convince a significant number of Americans that the Founders were mostly deists and atheists? Easy. They simply restrict their discussions to the views of the Founders who were mainly deistic — Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In a sound byte age when most people know little about our history, the results are predictable: these two Founders end up being the only ones most know anything about. From there, the next step is simple. Americans with a shallow view of their history are then easily led to believe that the spiritual views of Jefferson and Franklin were representative of most of the other Founders — when the exact opposite is actually true. Even conceding the point that Franklin was probably a deist and Jefferson a “theistic rationalist,” it is worth noting that they both retained a healthy respect for Scripture and certainly seemed to believe in an interactive God.

Consider Benjamin Franklin. Even though he was raised an Episcopalian by devout Christian parents and later attended a Presbyterian church for some time, in his own autobiography he called himself a “thorough deist” and said that, the “Arguments of the Deists . . . appeared to me much stronger [than the arguments of the Christians.]”29 His deistic beliefs are clearly evident in a 1790 letter to Rev. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale:

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. . . .30

Yet this same Benjamin Franklin, when the Constitutional Convention was gridlocked in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, made the following appeal, which, sadly, was never officially adopted:

In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. . . . And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: . . . I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.31

These are hardly the words of a man who believed God was unconcerned and uninvolved in the activities of men. He was even quoting Scripture (e.g., Psalm 127:1, Matthew 10:29)!

Although not an orthodox Christian himself, Thomas Jefferson was certainly no enemy to Christianity. Consider the design for our national seal that he, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin proposed to Congress. Although it unfortunately was not adopted, it was a circle with the words “Rebellion To Tyrants Is Obedience to God” written around its circumference with a drawing of Moses and the Children of Israel looking on as the Egyptians are drowning in the Red Sea, with God’s presence depicted by a pillar of smoke and fire in its center, as described in the Bible. This is quite amazing considering the fact that these three supposedly rejected the Bible, all revealed religions, and an interactive God.

When serving as president, Jefferson exhibited no inclination to slight or diminish the importance of religion’s role in America. For example, three times he signed into law extensions of a 1787 act that ordained special lands “for the sole use of Christian Indians” and reserved lands for the Moravian Brethren “for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity.”32 On April 10, 1806, he approved the rules and regulations for the Armies of the United States, of which the second of the 101 articles began with the admonition, “It is earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers diligently to attend divine service. . . .”

Clearly, even though Jefferson and Franklin were deistic in their thought, they harbored no hostility toward revealed religions and apparently embraced a God who was involved in the affairs of men. Though prominent among the Founders, their religious views were by no means predominant. Tragically, because of today’s almost exclusive focus on the two, many Americans are led to the mistaken notion that the majority of our Founders were deists like Franklin and Jefferson.

In taking a closer look at the faith of our Founders, it is significant to note that most of them attended Christian churches that were orthodox in their teaching. Of course, this fact alone does not prove that they were true believers, but it does seem to strongly indicate that most of them were far from being deists. But there is an even greater source that reveals the authenticity of their faith — their official writings. Though imperfect and sometimes inconsistent, as all humans are, many of our Founding Fathers gave strong indications of the sincerity of their Christian faith. Consider:

  • Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence — “On the mercy of my Redeemer I rely for salvation and on His merits; not on the works I have done in obedience to His precepts.”33
  • Robert Treat Paine, signer of the Declaration of Independence—“I desire to bless and praise the name of God most high for appointing me my birth in a land of Gospel Light where the glorious tidings of a Savior and of pardon and salvation through Him have been continually sounding in mine ears. . . . in full belief of [H]is providential goodness and [H]is forgiving mercy revealed to the world through Jesus Christ.”34
  • Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence — “My only hope of salvation is in the infinite, transcendent love of God manifested to the world by the death of His Son upon the cross. Nothing but His blood will wash away my sins. I rely exclusively upon it.”35
  • Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence — “I bequeath my Soul to the Lord that gave it me trusting in his mercies that he will Receive it again. . . .”36
  • John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence — “Believe it, there is no salvation in any other than in Christ. His atoning blood will reconcile you to God: His grace and love will captivate your souls; His holy and blessed Spirit will write His laws in your hearts. Believe in Him. . . .”37
  • John Hart, signer of the Declaration of Independence — “Thanks be given unto Almighty God — therefore, and knowing that it is appointed for all men once to die and after that the Judgment. . . . first and principally I give and recommend my Soul into the Hands of Almighty God who gave it, and my Body to the Earth to be buried in a decent and Christian like manner . . . not doubting but to receive the same again at the General resurrection by the mighty power of God. . . .”38
  • Roger Sherman (Signer of the Declaration of Independence & the U.S. Constitution) — “I believe that there is one only living and true God, existing in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. . . . that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are a revelation from God. . . . that God did send His own Son to become man, die in the room and stead of sinners, and thus to lay a foundation for the offer of pardon and salvation to all mankind so as all may be saved who are willing to accept the Gospel offer.”39
  • William Samuel Johnson, signer of the U.S. Constitutuion — “Remember, too, that you are the redeemed of the Lord, that you are bought with a price, even the inestimable price of the precious blood of the Son of God. . . . Acquaint yourselves with Him in His word and holy ordinances.”40
  • George Mason, member of the Constitutional Convention and called the “Father of the Bill of Rights” — “My soul I resign into the hands of my Almighty Creator, whose tender mercy’s are all over his works, who hateth nothing that he hath made, and to the Justice and Wisdom of whose Dispensations I willingly and chearfully submit humbly hopeing from his unbounded mercy and benevolence, thro the Merits of my blessed Savior, a remission of my sins.”41
  • Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia and leading patriot — “This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed.”42

Though this is but a small sampling of our Founders’ declarations of faith, it sufficiently reflects the beliefs of a good number of them and certainly refutes the notion that most of them were deists and atheists.

What Really Motivates Deists?

Like all other religious/philosophical persuasions, there is a core conviction that drives deists to believe what they believe. In the final analysis, their rejection of divine revelation appears to be propelled by a deep desire to avoid any possibility of the unpleasant prospect of having their reason “shocked” by a faith-based religion. Essentially, deists adamantly refuse to embrace anything that offends human reason. Thomas Paine clearly articulated this when he wrote:

There is a happiness in Deism, when rightly understood, that is not to be found in any other system of religion. All other systems have something in them that either shock our reason, or are repugnant to it, and man, if he thinks at all, must stifle his reason in order to force himself to believe them.43

In his search for God, the deist looks in two directions: outward at creation and inward to his own logic. His reliance on human reason alone to guide him to the truth makes him, in the words of Albert Einstein, a “religious nonbeliever”:

I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. . . . My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe forms my idea of God. . . . I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.44

Even though Einstein could not conceive of a god like the God of the Bible, billions of people across the centuries have (1 Corinthians 12:3). They have chosen to trust the most verified book in human history rather than “the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world.”

Admittedly, the gospel is indeed “repugnant” to the natural man and its message definitely “shocks his reason.” Paul taught this in 1 Corinthians 2:14 when he warned that human reason/logic cannot, on its own, comprehend the infinite God:

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

In Romans 9:33, Paul acknowledged to the Christians in Rome that God’s message of redemption is indeed offensive to the unbeliever:

Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.

But before discounting Paul’s teachings, one should seriously consider the strong words of Jesus to all who would ignore this “rock of offense.” In Luke 20:18, Jesus warned: “Whoever falls on that stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”

No Faith, Just Reason

On the 1960s television series Dragnet, Sergeant Friday was famous for wanting only the facts. Similarly, deists also claim to be interested in only the “facts.” In their search for the facts, they reject faith altogether, convinced that faith and fact are mutually exclusive. It is ironic that they have such faith in what they perceive as fact! The suggestion of a “factual faith” is anathema to them. They insist on seeing everything in life through the filter of human logic/reason (and human sense perception), thus eliminating any place for faith in their system of belief. Voltaire, the French philosopher and deist, put it this way:

It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason.45

Deists condemn faith as nothing more than the suspension of God-given reason for a subjective, experiential leap into a logical vacuum. Deist Stephen Van Eck put it like this: “When propagating a religion where proof is not available, one that contains logical absurdities, it is essential that the logical processes of the mind be short-circuited.”46 To them, faith masquerades as truth when it is actually nothing more than superstition/myth and is the bait spiritual hucksters in the church use to reel in the gullible to accept “such insane and unreasonable claims and ideas as original sin, walking on water, healing the sick without medical care, splitting the Red Sea, etc.”47 Deists naively believe that there is no objective proof to substantiate the “insane claims” of revealed religions. Of course, we can ask, what objective proof do they have of the contrary?

Although deists are certainly correct when they claim that most spiritual truths and absolutes cannot be proved using the laws of nature, this in no way means that the Bible’s claims are completely without evidence or that faith and reason are mortal enemies.48 After all, it was Jesus who said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Human reason, when illuminated by the Holy Spirit, can aid us in our search for truth. In spite of what deists claim, Christians are not required to “check their minds at the door” when they enter the faith.

Christians would argue that logic exists because God exists, and we are made in the image of this logical and reasoning God (Genesis 1:2–27). This is what makes logic possible for a person in the first place. In a deistic worldview, man is not made in the image of a logical God, so how can the deist really know that logic and reasoning really exist and that they are in a position to be able to do it and use it? Even so, are deists correct when they insist that there is no concrete proof to validate the claims of Scripture?

Consider the historical integrity of the Bible. It is no stretch to say that practically every time an archeologist sinks his spade into the sands of the Middle East, he unearths some new evidence that verifies the historical narrative of Scripture. Millar Burrows, biblical scholar and leading authority on the Dead Sea scrolls, put it quite simply: “More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine.”49

Many are the historians who have eaten a huge piece of humble pie, admitting they were wrong in doubting the historicity of Scripture. As archeologist Dr. Joseph P. Free aptly said:

Archaeology has confirmed countless passages which have been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contradictory to known facts. . . . Yet archaeological discoveries have shown that these critical charges . . . are wrong and that the Bible is trustworthy in the very statements which have been set aside as untrustworthy. . . . We do not know of any cases where the Bible has been proved wrong.50

Renowned archaeologist and Bible scholar William F. Albright said, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament tradition.”51 The famous Jewish Rabbi and archeologist Nelson Glueck echoed:

It may be state[d] categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.52

Given that Scripture has been repeatedly confirmed by the historicity test with flying colors (and every other apologetic test that can be employed to scrutinize its message), it is reasonable to say that the Bible and its message, though the most critiqued and attacked literary work in history, remains the most enduring account ever given to man. Compared to all other religions, Christianity, rather than being a “suspension of our God-given reason/logic,” is uniquely a faith accompanied and confirmed by logic and reason.

If deists would only embrace the claims of God’s Word, they would discover that rather than taking a huge leap of faith into intellectual darkness, they would, instead, be taking an illuminating step of faith into the wonderful light of God’s truth. The renowned physicist/cosmologist Robert Jastrow put it this way:

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.53

Summary of Deistic Beliefs
Doctrine Deistic Teaching
God A distant deity or force that has no intimate interaction with the world
Authority/Revelation Deny any special revelation from God; acknowledge natural law discerned by human reason and practice
Man A rational being who directs his own destiny
Sin Varies by individual; generally rejected as any absolute standard
Salvation Varies by individual; some acknowledge an afterlife
Creation Generally evolutionary explanations instigated by a deity

World Religions and Cults Volume 1

In many of cases, manmade religions openly affirm that the Bible is true, but then something gets in their way. The common factor: man’s fallible opinions!

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Footnotes

  1. By affirming this position, the deist runs into a serious problem. If God upholds the universe’s existence, then God is interfering and interacting. If God doesn’t uphold the universe, then how can it remain in existence?
  2. Brutus C. Tipton, “Deism: A New Beginning,” World Union of Deists, http://www.deism.com/deismbeginning.htm.
  3. There is still some debate over Jefferson’s views to this day. In a letter to Charles Thomson on January 9, 1816, Jefferson openly proclaimed to be a Christian, which was clearly not the mark of a deist. Though he was likely influenced by deism to say the least and struggled in particular with the supernatural in the Bible, showing the influence of naturalism and deism. For all practical purposes, we will treat him as a deist in this chapter
  4. Samuel Johnson, LL.D., A Dictionary of the English Language (London: 1755, 1785) Sixth Edition, accessed from http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/samuel-johnsons-dictionary-of-the-english-language-1785/.
  5. http://www.deism.com.
  6. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, In Two Parts (New York: G.N. Devries, 1827), p. 173.
  7. World Union of Deists, www.deism.com.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Scripture in this chapter is from the New King James Version of the Bible.
  10. Accessed from christiandeistfellowship.com/truth.htm, cited 1/9/15.
  11. Ibid., Brutus C. Tipton, “Deism: A New Beginning.”
  12. Thomas Paine, The Theological Works of Thomas Paine (London: R. Carlile, 1824), p. 261.
  13. Ibid., World Union of Deists.
  14. Robert Johnson, “The Beauty of Deism,” http://www.deism.com/beautyofdeism.htm.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Frazer/Mohler interview, “What Did America’s Founders Really Believe? A Conversation with Historian Gregg Frazer,” transcript, interview with Al Mohler on Thinking in Public, September 10, 2012, accessed from http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/09/10/what-did-americas-founders-really-believe-a-conversation-with-historian-gregg-frazer-transcript/, cited 1/7/15.
  17. George Washington, Farewell Address, September 17, 1796, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress , 1741–1799.
  18. Frazer/Mohler interview.
  19. Benjamin Franklin, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (London: Macmillan & Co., 1906), Albert Henry Smyth, ed., Volume 9, Letter to Messrs. The Abbes Chalut and Arnaud, April 17, 1787, p. 569.
  20. John Adams, letter to Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776, accessed from national archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0011, cited 1/27/15.
  21. Bernard C. Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry (Cleveland, OH: The Burrows Brothers, 1907), p. 475, letter from Charles Carroll to James McHenry, November 4, 1800.
  22. Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1856), Vol. 9. Chapter: “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798.”
  23. Robert Winthrop, Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions (Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1852), “An Address Delivered At The Annual Meeting Of The Massachusetts Bible Society In Boston, May 28, 1849,” p. 172.
  24. William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, third ed. (Philadelphia, PA: James Webster, 1818), p. 836.
  25. Mohler/Frazer interview.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Miracles do not always defy natural law; some are by timing, and some may well be within the laws of nature, as we simply do not know all the laws of the physical creation. The fact that Christ did miraculous things was a testimony to His deity regardless; for more see Paul S. Taylor, “Did Miracles Really Happen?” Answers in Genesis, June 7, 2011, https://answersingenesis.org/apologetics/did-miracles-really-happen/.
  28. Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787, “Republicanism,” ( Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969) , p. 60.
  29. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964), p. 113–114.
  30. Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York: The Viking Press, 1938), p. 777.
  31. Library of Congress, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Religion and the Federal Government, Part 1,” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel06.html#obj145.
  32. The Laws of the United States of America, From the 4th of March, 1789, to the 4th of March, 1815, Including the Constitution of the United States, The Old Act of Confederation, Treaties, With Many Other Valuable Ordinances and Documents; With Copious Notes and References (Philadelphia, PA: John Bioren and W. John Duane and Washington City: R.C. Weightman, 1815), Vol. 1, p. 569.
  33. The Last Will and Testament of Charles Carrollton, Life of Charles Carrollton, p. 226, accessed from https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=FkYSAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA226, Kate Mason Rowland, Life of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890), Vol. II, p. 373–374, will of Charles Carroll, Dec. 1, 1718 (later replaced by a subsequent will not containing this phrase, although he re-expressed this sentiment on several subsequent occasions, including repeatedly in the latter years of his life).
  34. Robert Treat Paine, The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, Stephen Riley and Edward Hanson, editors (Boston: MA Historical Society, 1992), Vol. I, p. 98, March/April, 1749, https://books.google.com/books?id=-vcWuNWxNkwC&pg=PA98#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  35. Benjamin Rush, The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, George Corner, editor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press for the American Philosophical Society, 1948), p. 166, accessed from http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Autobiography_of_Benjamin_Rush.html?id=g3IrAQAAMAAJ.
  36. Richard Stockton’s will, July 21st 1775, Albemarle County, Virginia, Will Book 2, page 324, accessed from http://www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/stockton/2235/, cited 4/2/15.
  37. John Rogers, The Works of John Witherspoon (Philadelphia, PA: William W. Woodward, 1800), Vol. I, p. 256, accessed from http://books.google.com/books/about/The_works_of_the_Rev_John_Witherspoon_D.html?id=7kUVAAAAYAAJ, cited 4/2/15.
  38. John Hart’s last will and testament, attested April 16, 1779, which is in the custody of the State of New Jersey Library, Archives and History, Trenton, accessed from http://www.laurellynn.com/genealogy/hart/john_hart_marriage_children.htm, cited 4/3/15.
  39. Lewis Henry Boutell, The Life of Roger Sherman (Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg and Company, 1896), p. 272–273, accessed from http://books.google.com/books/about/The_life_of_Roger_Sherman.html?id=RVQCZ9VD0lIC, cited 4/2/15.
  40. Beardsley Edwards, Life and Times of William Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (New York: Hurd and Houghton; Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1876), William S. Johnson’s address to the graduating class of Columbia Univ., 1789, p. 141–143, accessed from http://books.google.com/books/about/Life_and_times_of_William_Samuel_Johnson.html?id=rdmfGCDg6YIC, cited 4/2/15.
  41. George Mason, Last Will and Testament, March 20, 1773, accessed from http://www. virginia1774.org/GeorgeMasonWill.html; http://www.consource.org/document/georgemasons-last-will-and-testament-1773-3-20/, cited 4/3/15.
  42. Patrick Henry, Last Will and Testament, November 20, 1798, accessed from http://www.redhill.org/last_will.htm, cited 4/3/15.
  43. Thomas Paine, “Of the Religion of Deism Compared with the Christian Religion,” Age of Reason, 1794-1796.
  44. Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p. 387-388, 536.
  45. Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, “Faith,” I, accessed from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/v/voltaire/dictionary/chapter196.html.
  46. Stephen Van Eck, “Dissecting Christianity’s Mind-Snaring System,” accessed from http://www.deism.com/christianhype.htm.
  47. World Union of Deists, www.deism.com.
  48. Jason Lisle, “Faith versus Reason,” Answers magazine, September 13, 2010, https://answersingenesis.org/apologetics/faith-vs-reason/.
  49. Millar Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 1.
  50. Dr. Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History (Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press, 1969), p. 1.
  51. William F. Albright, Archaeology and Religion of Israel (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1953) p. 176.
  52. Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York: Farrar, Strous and Cudahy, 1959), p. 31.
  53. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, chapter 6, “The Religion of Science” (New York: Reader’s Library, Inc., 1992 ), p. 107.

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