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The Faith of the Founders 3

The argument regarding the faith of the founders is essentially between Christian orthodoxy and what was is called deism.

A good modern definition of deism from Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:

Deism is the teaching that God exists, that he created the universe and everything in it, but that he stopped being involved in the universe and in people’s lives after he made the universe. Another way of looking at it is to say that God created the universe with everything in it and is letting everything go its natural course without any further intervention on his part. Deism teaches that there are no more miracles, and that the Bible is not inspired of God.
Another definition from a deist website:

Deism is the recognition of a universal creative force greater than that demonstrated by mankind, supported by personal observation of laws and designs in nature and the universe, perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of claims made by individuals and organized religions of having received special divine revelation.

The most radical (and notorious deist) in colonial times was Thomas Paine, the guy that wrote Common Sense. Here’s how Paine defined deism as cited in Holme’s book:

[Deism] is free from all those invented and torturing articles that shock our reason…with which the Christian religion abounds. Its creed is pure and sublimely simple. It believes in God, and there it rests. It honors Reason as the choicest gift of God to man and the faculty by which he is enabled to contemplate the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Creator displayed in the creation. And reposing itself on his protection, both here and here after, it avoids all presumptuous beliefs and rejects, as the fabulous inventions of men, all books pretending to revelation. (pg. 39, The Faith of the Founder’s, David L. Holmes)

Thomas Paine. President TR called him a “filthy atheist” a label not quite true. Paine was a deist who was ruthless in criticizing Christianity. I think he lacked “common sense” when it came to criticizing others.

In summary form a deist elevates human reason as authoritative and rejects revelation (special revelation such as the books of the Bible as authoritative). Yet, the deist believes in a creator. Paine, as cited above believed that creator to be good.

Holmes quotes a contemporary clergyman of Paine as he tries to define deism:

Deism is what is left of Christianity after casting off everything that is peculiar to it. The Deist is one who denies the Divinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement of Christ, and the work of the Holy Ghost; who denies the God of Israel, and believes in the God of nature.

According to Holmes deism was popular in continental Europe (Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire being in the deist camp), the British Isles and by extension Britain’s American colonies. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (what would become the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) and Frederick the Great of Prussia were also deists.

While Thomas Paine was the most radical and notorious deist Thomas Jefferson was the most famous.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky.

When I say that Jefferson was a deist I do not mean he was a deist in the sense that Thomas Paine was. Like many of the founders Jefferson was a nominal Anglican while Paine had nothing to do with a denomination nor Christianity. In fact when Paine died only six people attended his funeral so turned off were others by Paine’s Christianity bashing. (If Paine were alive today he’d work for a major network.)

On the other hand Jefferson’s funeral was conducted by an Episcopalian (Anglican) clergyman which illustrated he had good standing in that church.

If one were to look merely at membership within a given Christian church one could conclude that person was a Christian. In Jefferson’s case, a Christian who held to some deistic views and certainly a “Jesus ethic.”

But, the deistic views Jefferson held ruled out the supernatural just as Paine’s did. While holding to a “Jesus ethic” Jefferson would not hold to Jesus’ divinity, nor the atonement. The Jefferson Bible or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth is notable for Jefferson’s cut and paste methodology whereby he omitted any reference to miracles, the supernatural and the Resurrection of Jesus.

Cover of "The Jefferson Bible"

Cover of The Jefferson Bible

I am rather fond of Thomas Jefferson and he was a larger than life figure but it is difficult to, no impossible, to put him into a Christian category. While not as rude and radical as Paine Thomas essentially held to the same views with the possible exception of considering Jesus to be a notable moral teacher. Jefferson, I’m sad to say falls well short of being an orthodox Christian despite his membership in the Anglican\Episcopalian Church. Jefferson would fit the definition of deist very well.

To be continued…defining Unitarianism

2 comments on “The Faith of the Founders 3

  1. Bruce,
    Methinks TJ was quite possibly the most intelligent, complex and ill defined character in our history. It is true that there exists much evidence to indicate a lack of belief in the divinity of Jesus, but he certainly praised Jesus’ moral precepts. If one would read the record of his inaugural addresses and his 1805 prayer for peace, among other writings and speeches, we might posit that Jefferson most certainly embraced a superintending supernatural entity, which places him somewhat beyond the chosen definition of a deist.
    I forget where, but I have read that he may have held beliefs consistant with early Unitarians. I’m not too well versed on those folk.

    • I’m not either Bill, which is why I purchased Holmes’ book. I liked how he sorted through the evidence.Yes about Unitarianism, now Unitarian-Universalists. I’m going to deal with that in the next post. The founders that Holmes’ deals with fall along a continuum that looks something like this.

      radical deist–deist–Unitarian–orthadox Christian–evangelical Christian

      This is a generality but it illustrates that toward the middle one could have a foot in each camp. Most. like TJ would be hard to put in a single box.

      Thanks for the comment Bill.

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