A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations/Deists

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DEISTS, a class of men whose distinguishing character is, not to profess any particular form or system of religion; but who merely acknowledge the existence of a God and profess to follow the law and light of nature, rejecting all divine revelation, and consequently Christianity. The denomination was first assumed early in the sixteenth century, by some persons who wished to clear themselves from the charge of atheism. P. Viret, in 1653, speaks of desists as a new name, applied to those who professed to believe in God, but rejected Jesus Christ.

Lord Ed. Herbert, baron of Cherbury, who flourished in the seventeenth century, has been regarded as the most eminent of the deistical writers, and appears to be one of the first who formed deism into a system; and asserted sufficiency, universality, and absolute perfection of natural religion, with a view to discard all extraordinary revelation as useless and needless. He reduced this universal religion to five articles, which he frequently mentions in his works. 1. That there is one supreme God. 2. That he is to be worshipped. 3. That piety and virtue are the principal part of his worship. 4. That is we repent of our sins, God will pardon us. 5. That, there are rewards for good men, and punishments for bad men, in a future state.[1]

The Deists are classed by some of their own writers into two sorts, mortal and immortal deists. The latter acknowledge a future state, the former deny it, or at least represent it as a very uncertain thing.

Dr. S. Clarke, taking the denomination in the most extensive signification, distinguishes deists into four sorts. 1. Such as believe the existence of an infinite, eternal Being, who made the world, though they suppose he does not concern himself in its government. 2. Those who believe not only the being, but also the providence of God, with respect to the natural world; but who, not allowing any difference between moral good and evil, deny that God takes any notice of the moral conduct of mankind. 3. Such as believe in the natural attribute of God and his all-governing providence, and have some notion of his moral perfections, yet deny the immortality of the soul; believing that men perish entirely at death, without any further renovation. 4. Such as admit the existence of God, together with his providence, as also all the obligations of natural religion; but so far only as these things are discoverable by the light of nature alone, without any divine revelation.

Some of the desists have attempted to overthrow the Christian dispensation, by representing the absolute perfection of natural religion. Others, as Blount, Collins, and Morgan, have endeavoured to gain the same purpose, by attacking particular parts of the Christian scheme, by explaining away the literal sense and meaning of certain passages, or by placing one portion of the sacred canon in opposition to the other. A third class, wherein we meet with the names of Shaftsbury and Bolingbroke, advancing farther in their progress, expunge from their creed the doctrine of future existence, and deny or controvert all the moral perfections of the Deity.

The deists of the present day are distinguished by their zealous efforts to diffuse the principles of infidelity among the common people. Hume, Bolingbroke, and Gibbon addressed themselves solely to the more polished classes of the community; and would have thought their refined speculations debased by an attempt to enlist disciples among the populace. But of late, the writings of Paine, and others, have diffused infidelity among the lower orders of society; and deism has even led to atheism, or a disbelief of all superior powers.[2]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Leland's View of Deistical Writers, vol. i. p. 2, 3.
  2. Leland's View of Deistical Writers, vol. i. p. 2, 3. Broughton's Hist. Lib. vol. i. p. 316. Voltaire's Universal Hist. vol. ii. p. 259. Ogilve's Inquiry, p. 57. Hall's Sermon on Modern Infidelity. Dwight's Century Sermon preached Jan. 7, 1801.