Deism

This designates a rationalistic mode of explaining God's relationship to the world which evolved in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Following the classical illustration of God as a clock-maker, used by Nicolaus of Oresmes in the fourteenth century, the Deists stated that God gave the world its initial impetus and then left it to run its course. Consequently divine providence, revelation, and a supernatural scheme of salvation were called in question. Samuel Clarke* in his Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1704-6) could distinguish four separate classes of Deists, for there was no single school of thought.

The religious wars and the beginnings of modern science in the seventeenth century created an atmosphere where reasonableness would replace intolerance and authoritarianism. Isaac Newton* had begun to unlock the secrets of the universe and John Locke* those of the human mind. Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) was a spur to the rationalization of the Christian faith, though he disavowed claims of Deists to be following his lead. As early as 1624 Lord Herbert of Cherbury had taught that all religions had five basic ideas in common and denied the need for revelation. One strand of Deism was not hostile to Christianity, but the tendency was toward a natural religion. In 1696 John Toland* published Christianity not Mysterious, and Matthew Tindal* produced the most competent exposition of this natural religion in Christianity as old as the Creation (1730).

Opposition by the orthodox provoked hostile attacks on Christian “evidences” cited in defense, especially fulfilled prophecy and miracles. Anthony Collins disputed the authority of the Bible; Thomas Woolston* questioned Christ's miracles and resurrection. Several ended in pantheism or atheism. Such attacks called forth a multitude of replies, the most famous being Joseph Butler's* Analogy of Religion (1736). While Deism never won a substantial following in England, it was widely acclaimed on the Continent in Germany and France, where Voltaire* and J.-J. Rousseau* became its chief advocates.

The Deists lacked any historical sense in assessing the biblical revelation. Faith was dethroned and man's rationality viewed with a false optimism. The initial revelation in nature was sufficient.

C.J. Abbey and J.H. Overton, The English Church in the Eighteenth Century (1896); L. Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, vol. I (1902); W.R. Sorley, A History of English Philosophy (1937); F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. V (1964).