Book Review: Revolutionary Deists
By James Zimmerman
In the latter half of the 18th century, America was in the throes of revolution. In the midst of the better-known political revolution, there was also a revolution of thought. Kerry Walters, in his latest book Revolutionary Deists: Early America’s Rational Infidels (©2011, Prometheus Books), takes readers on a cogent journey that explores the roots and major icons of the deism movement.
Revolutionary Deists begins with an introduction to deism in 18th century America. Walters deftly explains the foundations of deism laid by Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and dissects the factors for deism’s apparent sudden popularity at the time. Culling from a wealth of first-hand and scholarly sources, Walters argues that the American flavor of deism was a reaction against the Calvinist tradition, combined with “the steady infiltration of French Enlightenment ideals” and the newfound national independence (page 35). What’s more, Walters argues that the Great Awakening itself may have nurtured the growth of American deism. Walters also looks into possible reasons why the deists did not always trumpet their views, and argues that American deism occupied a precarious middle ground between the more radical French atheism and the staid British sensibilities of the time.
Walters claims that the deists of colonial America essentially agreed that “reality is rational, defined by immutable and absolute natural laws, that these laws were set in motion by a supreme architect whose nature is essentially reflected in creation; that humans are likewise imbued with a spark of divine reason that permeates reality, and hence are capable of understanding that reality” (page 46). Working from this de facto agreed-upon definition of deism, Walters devotes the next six chapters (the majority of the book) to six influential deists: two that every schoolchild knows, two that every high school graduate knows, and two that only history majors would know: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer, and Philip Freneau.
His selection of these six deists is apt. In discussing the more well-known figures, Walters skips on the biographical sketches and delves right in to an examination of their beliefs. He details how such beliefs were acquired, modified, and explained during the figures’ lives. In exploring Franklin’s turn from his Christian upbringing, for example, Walters quotes the influential American – whom he terms “the ambivalent deist” – as having discerned: “the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutation; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist” (page 52).
Walters spends more time familiarizing readers with the less-familiar deists. Liberal quoting from their writings allows them to speak for themselves while simultaneously making readers acquainted with these relatively obscure figures. In the case of Elihu Palmer, for instance, we learn that Palmer determined the doctrine of original sin violated every “standard of distributive justice” and discover that though Palmer admitted the scriptures had “some good moral maxims,” he concluded that they were not unique to the Christian view. They had been routinely defended by pagans antedating Jesus – and more systematically… “Normative passages are thinly interspersed in the scriptures and are inaccurate, incomplete, trifling and often without utility” (page 191). And it is in exploring the life of Philip Freneau, upon whom Walters bestows the moniker ‘Deism’s Poet,’ that we uncover the crux of deists rationale for a creator: “God’s presence is obvious in all creation, not because the divine is identical to creation, but because he manifests himself in his works” (page 231).
In the concluding chapter, Walters delineates the reasons for deism’s waning. He expounds on his earlier claim that deism’s “failure to sustain itself as a widespread popular movement is that it succeeded so well in ameliorating the dogmatic supernaturalism of orthodox Christianity” (page 11). Oddly, Walters next makes the claim that because the deists did not have the forethought to look at the scriptures as allegorical, their arguments were cast aside as pedantic. Church leaders were able to initiate a revival (the “Great Awakening”) that, in part, relied upon the reinterpretation of specific holy texts – such as the Genesis accounts – as figurative. Walters then counters his own argument by excusing the deists, noting “that a literal reading of the bible was the usual mode of interpretation” by their Christian contemporaries. Their insistence on pointing out scriptural contradictions and absurdities was understandable in their time, Walters says, even though our modern minds may find such strategies irrelevant (page 258). With all due deference to Walters and his impressive historical research, a quick look at modern American religiosity exposes a continued insistence by many denominations of biblical literalism and inerrancy.
Still, Walters’ unusual argument in the concluding pages does not negate the superb insights Walters has brought to our nation’s history. Indeed, his closing case will give readers much to ponder and debate, even if they do not find themselves fully convinced by Walters’ conclusions.