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The Connection of Deism to American Unitarianism

Nathan De May

Faith, freedom, reason – the motto of the AUC defines the core values of American Unitarianism. Those same values can be found in a religious philosophy that shares much in common with American Unitarianism – Deism.

What is Deism?

The word Deism is derived from the Latin word for God, Deus. Simply defined, Deism is the belief in God based on the use of reason and the observation of the natural world, as opposed to belief in God based on supernatural revelation.

Generally speaking, Deists:

· Believe that God is Uni-personal God (no Trinity).

· Reject the divinity or deity of Jesus.

· Reject the validity of any scripture based solely on its status as "revealed."

· Believe that the magnificence and natural order of the Universe is testament enough to the existence of the Creator.

· Reject that God punishes humanity infinitely for finite acts.

· Believe that God respects human free will, and does not interfere in human affairs.

· Believe that God governs the Universe via natural laws, and does not therefore perform miracles.

· Believe in the importance of reason in religion, and that reason can produce a practical morality without resorting to revelation or dogma.

The Development of Deism in the West

Deism in England

In the 1600’s advances in the natural sciences lead some people to question traditional religious beliefs. Scientists were demonstrating the benefit of the scientific method in studying nature. If methodical thinking can reveal to us the true nature of the world around us, then why not use methodical thinking to study religion?

The first of the prominent English Deists was Lord Herbert of Cherbury. In 1624 he published a work called De Veritate in which he outlined the five basic beliefs of the English Deists:

1. A belief in a single, supreme Deity.

2. The duty of humanity to revere the Deity.

3. The identification of morality with practical worship.

4. The obligation to repent of sin and abandon it (God forgives those who sincerely repent).

5. Divine reward or punishment in the afterlife, befitting the actions in this life.

The early English Deists rejected the idea that the Bible was inerrant and divinely inspired. They supported studying the Bible as an historical document, rather than as a communiqué from God. In this sense, they would probably have been supportive of the modern, scholarly approach to Biblical exegesis.

Deism in America

Deist ideas were not limited to England and the 17th century. Thomas Paine was an English-born American Revolutionary War hero. In 1805 John Adams wrote "I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine."

Thomas Paine was a radical, and he wrote on many controversial issues of his time. In 1774, he met Franklin in London and decided, at Franklin’s suggestion, to come to Pennsylvania. By this time, Paine had failed both at his first marriage and his business.

After moving to America, he began to publish anonymous works, including African Slavery in America an article that condemned the practice of slavery in the Colonies, and later in 1776 Common Sense advocated an end to British rule in the Colonies, and the institution of a republic instead of a monarchy. 

After the American Revolutionary War, Paine became involved in the revolutionary movement in France, eventually becoming a French citizen and serving in the National Assembly. He was opposed to executing the French king, however, and when his political enemies gained control in the government, they imprisoned him for his opposition to the planned regicide. It was while in prison that he began to write his great work on Deism, The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason focuses on, often sarcastically, Paine’s rejection of common Christian doctrines. He dissects the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, the virgin birth of Jesus, Jesus’ genealogy, the vicarious atonement and the resurrection. He exposes inconsistencies in Scripture, citing them as one of many reasons to reject the inerrancy of the Bible. Paine is concerned not only with the irrational aspects of supernatural dogma, but the moral problems in orthodox Christian belief as well. For example, he rejects vicarious atonement as unjust, saying:

"If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge." 

Paine wrote other essays to on Deism, including On the Religion of Deism Compared With the Christian Religion (which, along with The Age of Reason can be found on this website).

Ethan Allen was another American Revolutionary War hero who in 1784 wrote about Deism in Reason The Only Oracle of Man. Less sarcastic than Paine’s Age of Reason, Oracle covers much of the same territory.

Allen supported the use of reason in religion, identified it as a divine attribute, and stressed its importance especially in examining claims of revealed religion. Also like Paine, Allen is troubled by the moral implications of some orthodox Christian beliefs. He criticizes the morality of vicarious atonement by saying:

"The practice of imputing one person's crime to another, in capital offenses among men, so that the innocent should suffer for the guilty, has never yet been introduced into any court of judicature in the world, or so much as practiced in any civilized country; and the manifest reason in this, as in all other cases of imputation, is the same…it confounds personal merit and demerit."

Allen reinforces the Deist belief in pure free will by rejecting the Calvinist assertion that humanity is both a free moral agent, and subject to God’s whims in terms of salvation.

Deism and Unitarianism in America

While Deism has been spelled out clearly in a number of works from the 17th and 18th centuries, a Deist religious movement as such never materialized.

In the 19th century, however, American Unitarianism became a home for people influenced by Deist thought. In 1867 the Free Religious Association was created in response to tensions between Unitarians who were solidly Christian, and those who wanted to break out of the Christian-only mold. The Western Conference, a group organized to spread Unitarianism westward, also endured tensions between Christians and "scientific theists" who were de facto Deists. To address this tension, the secretary of the Conference, Jabez Sunderland, tried to create a statement for the group that would encompass both factions. He tried to sum up Unitarianism as love to God and love to man. Neither the Christians nor the scientific theists were happy with the statement and it was never passed. 

In 1887 the Western Conference finally passed a statement of compromise between the two groups. Entitled Things Commonly Believed Among Us it expressed elements of both scientific theism (aka Deism) and Christianity. While the statement is not anti-Christian it clearly leaves out reserving a special and unique position for Christ, Christianity, and revealed religion in general. Sunderland did not attend the meeting at which the statement was passed -- a clear sign that he was not satisfied with it. 

This theological conflict forced the National Conference in 1894 to adopt a statement that said, essentially, that Unitarians support the religion of Jesus -- that of love to God and to man -- and that due to the congregational polity of the denomination, no test or definition of faith can be forced on any congregation or fellowship, and that it welcomes all who are in general agreement with its purposes. 

Many Deists, both contemporary and classical, oppose organized religion. But for those who do not, the 1894 declaration created a religious community and safe haven for people of a Deist belief.

Similarity in Belief between Unitarianism and Deism

It should be no surprise that Deists joined Unitarian churches. The rational, practical, free religion of the Unitarians shares much with Deist ideas:

1. Belief in One Unipersonal God (Channing, Unitarian Christianity "The proposition, that there is one God, seems to us exceedingly plain.")

2. Generally reject the infallibility of revealed scriptures (James Freeman Clarke Manual on Unitarian Belief "Unitarians do not believe in the infallibility of the Bible. Inspiration leads to the sight of truth and reality, but not necessarily to a perfectly accurate description of what is seen.").

3. Rejects the traditional interpretation of revelation (Alfred Hall, from "Revelation and Inspiration" in The Beliefs of a Unitarian "Unitarians believe that revelation comes in a progressive order. As man develops intellectually, morally and spiritually, so are the truths of God's wonderful worlds made known. The discovery in every sphere of human activity has been gradual, and religion forms no exception to this rule.")

4. Believe that the natural order of the universe is testament to the existence of a Higher Power (Alfred Hall in The Beliefs of a Unitarian "Unitarians believe that order prevails in the realm of nature. They are ready to accept the truths which science has discovered, and to adopt their theological conceptions to ascertained facts.")

5. Reject the idea that God would punish humanity as a whole for the misdeeds of an individual, and the idea of infinite torture for finite deeds: (George Burnap On Original Sin "That the condemnation of mankind to endless misery on account of Adam's sin, would be unjust, is a proposition so plain, that it only requires to be stated to strike the intuitive sense of justice, which God has implanted in every bosom. It is so plain that no reasoning can make it plainer.)

6. Believe that humanity has true free will, and that God does not violate our free will by interfering with humanity (Channing On God and Free Will "One of the greatest of all errors, is the attempt to exalt God, by making him the sole cause, the sole agent in the universe, by denying to the creature freedom of will and moral power, by making man a mere recipient and transmitter of a foreign impulse. This, if followed out consistently, destroys all moral connexion between God and his creatures."

7. The necessity of reason in religion (Channing, Unitarian Christianity "We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible.")

While not interchangeable, Deism and Unitarianism have many common beliefs. Both subscribed to the necessity of using reason in matters of religion. Both cherish freedom in matters of faith, and place high importance on morality over doctrine. Due to a lack of Deist religious institutions, many Deists have associated themselves with Unitarianism. Both Deism and Unitarianism present a positive, practical view of religion that successfully combines Faith and Reason.


© 2003 American Unitarian Conference