The deists have been misunderstood as Enlightenment thinkers who believed in an inactive deity. Instead, the deists were spiritually oriented people who believed God treated all his children fairly. Unlike the biblical God, the deist God did not punish entire nations with plagues, curse innocent people, or order the extermination of whole nations. In deism, for the first time in modern Western history, God “became” good.
The Spirituality of the English and American Deists: How God Became Good explores how the English deists were especially important because they formulated the arguments that most of the later deists accepted. Half of the English deists claimed they were advocating the Christianity Jesus taught before his later followers perverted his teachings. Joseph Waligore call these deists Jesus-centered deists.
Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams studied these Jesus-centered deists and had similar beliefs. While some of the most prominent American Founders were deists, deism had little or no influence on the religious parts of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
Deism did not die out at the end of the Enlightenment. Instead, under different names and forms it has continued to be a significant religious force. Informed observers even think a deistic spiritual outlook is the most popular religious or spiritual outlook in contemporary America.
Joseph Waligore is a retired philosophy and religious studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Chapter One: The Myth of Deism’s Inactive and Distant God
Chapter Two: The Origins of Seventeenth-Century English Deism
Chapter Three: The Protestant Background of Eighteenth-Century English Deism
Chapter Four: God’s Fairness and Eighteenth-Century English Deism
Chapter Five: The English Deists and the Socratic Spiritual Tradition
Chapter Six: Jesus-centered Deism in England
Chapter Seven: The Religious Beliefs of Ben Franklin
Chapter Eight: The Religious Beliefs of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams
Chapter Nine: The Religious Beliefs of George Washington
Chapter Ten: Deism and the American Founders
Chapter Eleven: The Popularity and Decline of Thomas Paine’s Kind of Deism
Chapter Twelve: The Rebirth of Jesus-centered Deism in Liberal Protestantism
Conclusion: Contemporary American Deism
Appendix One: Supernatural Beliefs of the English Deists
Appendix Two: A Register of the English Deists
About the Author
Heavily researched yet conversationally written, this book dispels common myths about 17th- and 18th-century deists. The stereotypical understanding of deism is belief in a distant, inactive God and a world that operates according to strict mechanical laws. Through engagement with abundant primary resources, Waligore shows that the majority of deists believed in an active God, miracles, and the effectiveness of prayer. The book is extremely well documented, making verifying the author's claims easy for readers—which is important in the myth-busting genre. Because of the conversational prose, the relevant background information discussed, and the use of endnotes, the book is appropriate for scholars and non-scholars alike. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.
This profound book changes our gaze on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious culture. It has also important implications for an understanding of the Founding Fathers, and of American culture until the present day. Exploring the thought both of major figures and of little-known authors by examining a wide range of sources, it challenges common misconceptions of deism: deists did not usually believe in a distant God, and were not secularists. Walligore takes his reader on a journey into a world of warm religious feelings and hopes.
This is an important and groundbreaking work of intellectual history. Through voluminous research, Waligore liberates deism from its clichéd association with both Enlightenment secularism and a distant, clock-making God and presents, instead, a powerfully provocative portrait of early deism as a deeply spiritual religious movement. Waligore’s sensitive recasting of deism frees it from stereotypical conflation with atheism, secularism, scientific materialism, or sterile rationality. Indeed, the deists that populate Waligore’s pages espoused the rationalism of natural religion and, at the same time, believed in a surprisingly active God committed to human fairness. Importantly, Waligore’s book fundamentally re-thinks the nature of deism in Western thought and, in the process, offers a compelling argument for the cultural relevance and resiliency of deistic ideas from their founding in the 17th century through the mid-19th century. The book is engagingly written, exhaustively researched, and surprises its readers with an unexpected and thought-provoking portrayal of a religious movement freed from the shackles of clichéd understandings.
Waligore convincingly demonstrates that the current scholarship's definition and understanding of deism is mistaken, at least as applied to a strong majority of historical figures commonly assumed to be deists. Most deists arguably were Providential. That is, their deity was "warm," not "cold," responding to prayer and performing miracles in a way we have been told such a God does not do. This book thus properly revises the record and is must reading for those seriously interested in the differences between deism and other theological systems.