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The extinction of Deism: Historical riddle solved & lessons for today
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
August 23, 2012

Originally published December 30, 2004

Deism had a rapid rise to popularity and an even more rapid fall into oblivion. The rapid extinction of the once popular and politically influential Deism in the early nineteenth century is an old riddle of history — which has now been solved by Avery Cardinal Dulles with important lessons for today.

Deism is the belief that after God created the world and gave man reason, He retreated and left man to fend for himself, trusting man to use reason to solve all His problems. Man was expected to use reason to discover the laws of nature and employ them for his benefit and to discover the Universal Moral Law and obey it. Mainstream Deism included a Last Judgment based upon the individual's obedience or disobedience to the moral law. Some Deists believed in divine providence, but not in answers to prayer or miracles.

The rise of Deism

Deism was invented in the late seventeenth century in England and was inspired by the philosophers and scientists of the Age of Reason. Deism was probably the inspiration for the creation of Masonry (or Freemasonry) in England in the early eighteenth century. Contrary to many popular myths and slanders about Masonry, mainstream English and American Masonry is essentially a form of Deism in its relationship to God and its rationalistic, moralistic, fraternal, and philanthropic character. It is not Christian, but welcomes all monotheists including Christians as members. Masonry is a quaint vestige of the now extinct eighteenth century quasi-religion/philosophy of Deism.

Deism was popularized during the French Enlightenment as a reaction to French clericalism. The French bishops were tightly linked to the monarchy. The Catholic church was doomed to share in the growing popular discontent against the Monarchy. The high taxes and inhuman regulations of the bureaucratic statist machine developed by the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV was easy to dislike in spite of the brilliant culture the regime sponsored.

One of Voltaire's complaints against the clergy was religious persecution of heretics and Protestants. The church employed the powers of the state as its muscular enforcement arm. The influential Paris intellectuals of the mid-nineteenth century vigorously protested the state-sanctioned religion being forced down their throats. The same protests are used by modern liberals today, even though no such condition of religion being forced on people exists today in the West, and no danger of it is anywhere on the horizon. Moribund Liberalism is two hundred and fifty years out of date.

The French activists imported Deism from England to serve as a bland generic contra-religion which was tolerant to all forms of monotheism. It was a convenient format for French rebels to protest the old regime in which the Monarchy and the Catholic Church were institutionally united.

Deism was imported to the American colonies via English Masonry and the French Enlightenment. Secular historians have made much of the Deism of the Founding Fathers and the role of Deism in the founding of the nation. During the last week, a study was published of the religious beliefs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, I cannot lay my hands upon it now, but fortunately, I can remember a few of the numbers and names. Historians can only identify the religious beliefs of twenty of the signers of the Declaration of independence. Ten were Christians of orthodox doctrine. Three were non-Christian Deists. Seven held hybrid beliefs that mingled liberal Christianity and Deism. The young Jefferson was one of the three pure Deists. Later, he seemed to soften his views to a vague hybrid Deism. The founders with hybrid beliefs included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Washington, who was not a signer of the Declaration because he was leading the colonial army at the time, was a Mason, an Anglican, and seemed to adhere to a complex mixture of Deist, liberal Christian, and Biblical snippets.

The Deistic beliefs that influenced the founders were not a pure Deism of an impersonal God on the English and French models. They leaned towards a Deism tempered by liberal Christianity. Washington and Franklin were advocates of public prayer to seek help from God, a practice that is absent from pure Deism.

The influential founders who practiced a hybrid Deism made several contributions to the founding of the nation as follows:
  1. They emphasized a Universal Moral Law that is understandable by all men through reason. Deists seem to have borrowed the concept of a Universal Moral Law from the Roman Stoics. This concept was very compatible with Christianity and was almost universally accepted in the early years of the American Republic. This consensus about the moral law was source of long-lasting political stability and social order. Men of every Christian denomination, as well as Jews, Muslims, Atheists, heretics, schismatics, and pagans, were subject to these moral restraints and wholesome laws incorporating universal moral principles — because all possessed reason and free will. The belief in a Universal Moral Law was an essential part of a Natural Law philosophy which long survived the death of Deism.

  2. They encouraged acceptance by American Deists and Masons of all monotheistic and pantheistic religions. This made possible a Republic under one God which had many states with a different established church in each state, or no established church as the state founders might prefer. The principle of America as one nation under God is now under attack by our elite liberal secularists.

  3. American Deism served as a bland, inoffensive civic religion that could honor a distant figurehead God and encourage national patriotism. The vague civic religion of America long survived the collapse of Deism. Masonry, with its Deism, patriotism, and grand ceremony was to have a long-lived popularity in the army as a soldier's cult of God and country. The same God and country civic religion is at the core of the Boy Scouts. No homosexuals are admitted because it is against Nature and against the Universal Moral Law. Masonry was popular among members of the liberal denominations. In modern times, the decline of Masonry is directly tied to the decline of liberal Protestantism.

  4. The "laws of nature" of Deism led to those "certain unalienable rights" which are "endowed by the Creator," as written into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, a Deist. Jefferson's brilliant protege James Madison wrote the Constitution and the first Ten Amendments which we know as the Bill of Rights. The philosophical basis of Human Rights is Natural Law Theory, of which Deism was once the chief promoter.
The extinction of Deism

Avery Cardinal Dulles provided seven reasons for the collapse of Deism in The Deist Minimum, published in the bimonthly First Things. I have deduced six additional reasons. First, let's hear from the Cardinal.
  1. Deism was a reactionary movement against religious intolerance. When the intolerance ceased, Deism lost one of its reasons for being. In America, some denominations of Protestants took up the banner of religious tolerance, thus filling the role once played by Deism. Oddly, modern liberals still have not yet received the message that the old intolerance has ceased. Is that because liberals fear they will lose their reason for being if the word gets out that the oppression no longer exists? Then perhaps they will become extinct like the Deists did.

  2. Deism is a derivative of Christianity. It had an appeal for people who were raised in a Christian home but dissented from their parents about religion. Children of Deists, in turn, seemed to have little interest in the impersonal religion they were raised with. Deism has trouble surviving the passage of generations, much in the way that the children raised in liberal churches today are often terminally bored with their parent's church and part with the denomination the instant they leave home.

  3. Deism is philosophically shallow and flimsy. It crumbled before the metaphysical critiques of Hume and Kant. Orthodox Christian theology is metaphysically robust. Hume and Kant were impotent in their challenge to the metaphysics of Christianity when it was built upon the Rock and the Word. Academic philosophers, unable to subvert Christian metaphysics, banned the Christian philosopher from academic posts. The ban was lifted in many places some fifteen years ago.

  4. Deism has internal tensions. An omnipotent and wise Creator is claimed to be impotent or disinterested in His creation as he watches or ignores human affairs in detachment and at a distance. This fickle, impersonal, arms-length Deity — albeit brilliant and lovingly meticulous — makes no sense, of course. The claim that human reason can discover all divine truths is an implausible and arrogant assertion. The omniscient God must know divine mysteries that are beyond the limited reach of cumbersome, stumbling earthbound reason. There are some things man cannot know unless God tells him. Man cannot know the divine mysteries except through divine revelation. God is not silent, like the imaginary god of Deism or the stony idols of the Canaanites. He is a God who speaks, and therefore, he sent Prophets and Apostles to provide us with an authoritative Bible which tells us what God said.

  5. Deism is a half-way house to atheism or pantheism. I might add, it is a halfway house to religious liberalism. Few people stayed in Deist belief all their lives. Therefore, Deism evaporates as soon as the new recruits stop appearing.

  6. The Deists attempted to revise the Bible and strip Jesus of His Deity, His miracles, His Resurrection, and His stern judgments. The defanged milquetoast Jesus who remained was implausible, if not laughable. In our own era, the search by religious liberals for the "historical Jesus" is an exercise in speculation that often brings the milquetoast Christ back out of cold storage. After hearing this nonsense, one might return to the full-bodied masculine Christ of scripture, or lose interest in the lame image of Christ sketched by the liberals and give up religion as a bad job.

  7. The Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century involved fiery revival meetings, fervent conversions of faith, and deep seriousness about Biblical truth. The spiritually-flat Deist cut a very poor figure in the midst of this mighty storm of pietistic spirituality. One can discern the same strange spiritual flatness when one goes to a modern liberal pastor for advice.
Here are six more reasons I have added for the decline of Deism:
  1. During the heyday of the Romantic movement, national patriotism rose to an unprecedented fervor. The American civic religion of God and country no longer needed the artificial supports of a dry and flimsy Deism. Romantic patriotism of that day was powerful. During the Civil War, the Romantic-patriotic American civic religion of the Yankees was able to confront the Romantic blood and soil nativism of the Confederates, and not find itself outmatched.

  2. Transcendentalism, a form of Romantic Pantheism, was very popular in nineteenth-century America, especially in the first half of the century. Many Deists became Transcendentalists. The emotional and poetic spirituality of Transcendentalism was a relief after the spiritual dryness of Deism.

  3. Natural Law philosophy became popular and was no longer the unique preserve of Deism. This removed a key reason for becoming a Deist. This parallels Cardinal Dulles' observation that religious toleration was no longer unique to Deism and thereby Deism lost a source of support. Deism was the victim of its own success.

  4. Liberal Christian churches and Masonic lodges absorbed Deists and superseded the Deist movement. For some reason, Deism as a religion never gained much institutional traction outside of England. Once American Deists entered liberal churches, they experienced the delight and comfort of worship and personal prayer to God, something Deism denied them. When they entered Masonic lodges, they met a brotherhood of men and observed majestic ceremonies honoring "The Great Architect of the Universe."

  5. The end of the war of 1812 brought an extended period of peace. The army dwindled drastically, and Masonry, as the military cult of national patriotism, lost its most effective recruiter. The rising tide of pietistic Evangelicalism worked to the detriment of Masonry. The mutual hostility between the two has lasted until the present day. Masonry endured some embarrassing scandals in the early nineteenth century, giving rise to an Anti-Masonic political party. With the sharp decline of Masonry, Deism lost a key source of reinforcement. When Masonry revived during the Civil War, Deism as a separate movement did not revive with it. Masonry without a vigorous Deism gradually became a shadow of its former self.

  6. Human experience confirms the necessity of reason and morality. However, reason and morality are inadequate to steer one through the storms of life because of the weakness and corruption of human nature and the limitations and deceptions of reason. Therefore, a religion of reason and nature shorn of prayer, faith, grace, revealed truth, and a source of spiritual power outside of ourselves is doomed to failure if the churches who are not crippled in this manner have their welcoming doors open.
The present ordeal

Two hundred and thirty years have passed since the heyday of Deism. Evangelical Christianity is alive, well, and growing. Deism — in its original formulation — is long dead. Liberal Christianity and Masonry have been in continuous decline for forty years.

Postmodern liberal Christianity has lost its interest in reason and has become weak in its commitment to morality. Many liberal churches have gone over to the New Age movement, which involves a mystical Pantheism that is similar to Transcendentalism. Evangelicalism survived the collapse of Transcendentalism, and it shall also survive the inevitable collapse of New Age. Both New Age and Transcendentalism involve a radical individualism, a vague, misty spirituality, and the absence of a doctrine or a concept of truth or morality. New Age and Transcendentalism share another fatal flaw — an impersonal Deity. Something dies in the human heart when one is told that God is a thing and not a person.

The national civic religion of God and country patriotism is under attack by elite secular liberals. The Romantic movement is over and cannot rescue the civic religion. Evangelicalism is ambivalent about the civic religion. Love of country must not become a substitute god. Liberal Christianity, which used to be the best friend of the civic religion and patriotism, has become an enemy. Multiculturalism in the schools, a flood of illegal aliens with a different culture and different loyalties, ACLU lawsuits against religious symbols in the public square, and left-wing anti-Americanism in politics is undercutting the civic religion.

Can America endure as a united country without the civic religion? I don't know. Can the civic religion be saved? Well, Ronald Reagan did a good job of reviving it, after the dark period of Jimmy Carter's "malaise." A large majority of the people are still patriotic. There is still a general sense of "American exceptionalism," the idea that America was chosen by God for a special destiny. Some of the enemies of the civic religion are weak. The New Age movement and Multiculturalism are intellectually and morally bankrupt. The hatred for America by the left is largely inarticulate and incoherent. Their lies are easily refuted. The incredible stupidity of political correctness is resented or laughed at by many. The Democrats are trying hard to relearn patriotic and religious lingo because they are tired of losing elections.

We are entering an era of prolonged war against radical Islam. We cannot persevere in this marathon contest and remain united without religious faith and a strong national patriotism. However, the call to arms has partly energized a latent patriotism in many people.

Just before the Civil War, a great revival of prayer broke out in the Northern cities. During the war, revivalist preachers visited both the Northern and Southern camps. The results were spectacular. This, I think, is why the union endured this time of tribulation. After the war, the South was a burned-out ruin. The revival meetings continued throughout the South after the war and turned it into the Bible Belt. As a result, the South healed and rejoined the union. Today, the South is the most patriotic and religious part of the nation and is one of the most industrious and prosperous regions.

I cannot guess what God will do this time to prepare us for the ordeal ahead. History teaches that He will not spare us great ordeals, but is faithful to strengthen and equip us for the fiery trial. Until the nation fulfills its divinely-appointed destiny, the hand of God will hold us up, and the government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31