Deism – You Keep Using That Word

DeismReligiously Classifying America’s Founding Fathers

Part 2: Deism Defined

It would be impossible to determine the validity of the claims cited in the previous introduction to this series, without first establishing what the actual definition of the term”deism” constitutes. Most modern dictionaries similarly define deism as being something along the lines of:

“A religious belief holding that God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws but does not intervene in human affairs through miracles or supernatural revelation”[1]

“The belief in a single God who does not act to influence events, and whose existence has no connection with religions, religious buildings, or religious books, etc.”[2]

“A movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe.” [3]

“Belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism ). Belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.”[4]

Historian and professor Jon Butler has, for example,described deism as having “masqueraded as religion but was thoroughly irreligious” arguing that “Deists admitted the justice of religious claims, but they made religion irrelevant to contemporary life. The deists’ god was dead.”[5] Fellow historian and professor Gregg L. Frazer gives a slightly more accurate definition, referring to deism as “the primary expression of natural religion in the eighteenth century…a belief system on its own and a critique of Christianity” and that its essence was “the effective absence of God and the denial of any written revelation.”[6]  

Flaws in Frazer’s definition force him to have to create his own term, Theistic Rationalism,  to classify the more unorthodox Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton). Frazer refuses to consider any of these individuals to be, in even the slightest sense, Christians.  But he runs into a significant problem because by his definition, these men couldn’t be considered deists. If Frazer would have applied the more historically and practically correct definition, then he’d have struggled less. The various problems with Frazer’s means of classification and terminology will likely be addressed throughout this series, but for an excellent analysis of Frazer, see The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism by Bill Fortenberry.[7]

The most accurate approach to understanding the ideas intended to be communicated by a historical figure is to look at the definitions of the words used according to their historical context. Given how frequently the meanings and connotations of words change, a modern dictionary is not always a reliable source.  The earliest confirmed occurrence of an entry for the word “deism”in an English dictionary can be found in Edward Phillip’s  The New World of English Words. First published in 1658, the third-edition from 1720 defines deism as “the belief of those who only acknowledge one God, without distinction of persons.”[8]

In the 1726 edition of his An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (first published in 1721 with the final 30th edition published in 1802), fellow English lexicographer Nathan Bailey defined deism as:

“the Belief of those who, denying all revealed Religion, acknowledge only the Natural. viz the Existence of one God, his Providence, Virtue and Vice, the Immortality of the Soul. and Rewards and Punishments after Death.”[9]

Previous to his death in 1742, Bailey also published a second, but less popular, volume in 1727 closely titled  The Universal Etymological English Dictionary that contained additional words not contained in the first. In his initial volume and its later revisions, Bailey gave a simple definition for “deists” as  being “those who adhere to Deism.” However, in this second volume, which was intended to be more technical, he provided a subtly different but more enlightening definition for the word “deists”:

“a sect among the Christians of most or all denominations, who believe there is one God, a Providence, the immortality of the soul, virtue and vice, rewards and punishments: but reject revelation, and believe no more than what natural light discovers to them, and believe no other article of the Christian religion or any other.”[10]

Bailey’s second definition indicates that, during that time period, deists were considered as being a sub-classification within Christianity. These early definitions are nearly synonymous with the later terms non-Trinitarian and Unitarian which both came into more popular usage during the mid-late 18th Century in attempts to lump together the various sects of Christians who rejected the Athanasian Creed. Essentially, within the religion of Christianity, the first sub-classification would be into Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians (or Unitarians). Each of these two categories contained sects that eventually branched out further, for example the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches being the three main Trinitarian groups and the Arians and Socinians being the two main Unitarian groups.

As evidenced by Samuel Johnston’s A Dictionary of the English Language, the definition for deism had already starting shedding most of its inherent Christian influence by 1755. In his best-selling dictionary of the 18th Century, Johnston gave a simplified definition for deism, referring to it as being “the opinion of those that only acknowledge one God, without the reception of revealed religion.”[11]  This lack of descriptiveness in this definition might help explain why so many were incorrectly deists during the Enlightenment.

It would not be until the closing years of the Founding Era that a dictionary would again provide a more accurate definition for deism. Founder Noah Webster, in his 1828 work, the first edition of what would become the most popular line of American-English dictionaries in history, defined deism as being:

“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 [Christian] Scriptures.”[12]

Webster also made sure to differentiate between deism, theism and atheism writing that :

“[Theism is] the belief or acknowledgment of the existence of a God, as opposed to atheism. Theism differs from deism, for although deism implies a belief in the existence of a God, yet it signifies in modern usage a denial of revelation, which theism does not.” [13]

These definitions from Webster are the ones that should be considered the most historically and practically correct for what the word deism entails, as distinguished from theism (for our purposes, Christianity) and atheism. Though the word deism quickly lost its Christian roots, equally interchangeable words eventually came into usage that accurately describe what deism originally was intended to identify. Thus when henceforth referenced, the terms non-Trinitarian and Unitarian should and will be considered as being classifications within Christianity, albeit with doctrinal distinctions being addressed.

By using these correct definitions, this series will reasonable demonstrate that while not every American Founding Father can be classified as an orthodox Christian, none but an extremely small minority can be considered as adherents of deism.

Previous In This Series: Introduction           |       Up Next In This Series: Christianity Defined

Notes:

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2013)
  2. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster Inc., 2014)
  4. Random House Dictionary (Random House, Inc. 2013)
  5. Jon Butler, Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, edited by Richard D. Brown (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000) “Was There a Revolutionary Millennium?” p.333
  6. Gregg L. Frazer, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall and Jeffry H. Morrison (Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2009) “Alexander Hamilton, Theistic Rationalist”, p. 105
  7. Bill Fortenberry, The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism (Increasing Learning) online
  8. Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words (London: 1720) p. 210, online
  9. Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1726) p.222, online
  10. Nathan Bailey, The Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1731) p.227 online
  11. Samuel Johnson and John Walker, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: William Pickering, Chauncey Lane; George Cowie & Co. Poultry, 1775)  p.190 online
  12. Noah Webster,American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) online
  13. Ibid. entry for “theism” online
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Categories: Articles, Founding Fathers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Deism – You Keep Using That Word

  1. Pingback: The Founders – Christians or Deists? | American Christocrat

  2. Tracy Freedman Stefanov

    By websters definition, Jefferson was a deist.

    • Thomas Jefferson cannot be considered a deist by either the 1828 Webster definition or the present day “Webster” definition because he did not completely deny revealed religion. He was undoubtedly a theist. Was he a Christian? If so, to what level of Christian orthodoxy did he fall in? Don’t worry, I will address those questions in a future article within this series, dedicated specifically to Mr. Jefferson. I ask you to reserve your judgement, and presumably your countering opinions, for then.

  3. Tracy Freedman Stefanov

    He most certainly is a deist according to the 1828 dictionary. He may have acknowledged the existence of one God, but he certainly denied the existence of the essence of Christian dogma.

    • Neither Webster’s definition for “deism” nor “theism” even contain the word “Christian” in it. Stop playing off your words as if they were his as doing so is the epitome of intellectual dishonesty. Furthermore, you completely disregarded my request about waiting to discuss Jefferson until the article on him has been written. I don’t take blatant disrespect for my rules and requests lightly. I advise you take them a bit more seriously if you wish to ever have another comment approved 😉

    • Joe Gallagher

      Jefferson denied the existence of Christian dogma yet produced two personal biblical works specifically promoting…the New Testament dogma of Jesus Christ. Sure, that makes sense. Who is this Tracy lady?

      • Tracy was banned from the David Barton Facebook page almost two years ago and she accused me of doing it, despite the facts confirming that I was not even a moderator at the time and had no power to do so. Ever since, Tracy has stalked me and criticized nearly everything I’ve written. She presents herself as sincerely wanting to engage in intellectual discussion but her past indicates quite clearly that her actual purpose here is to instigate and cause conflict… she is by definition, an internet troll.

  4. I hope you take each of the founding fathers and give their individual beliefs and how you obtained that opinion.

    • This is indeed the plan. While I likely won’t do a dedicated article for each of the 250+ individuals, I’ll hit all of the usual and most controversial suspects (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin) and a good portion of the “Forgotten” Founders (Samuel Adams, Rush, Sherman, Witherspoon, Henry etc).

  5. Patriot Ginger

    Please fix the link for “Christianity Defined”. Thank you. Patriot Ginger

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