Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Distant God?

Mark David Hall sent this along, a paragraph in his forthcoming book on Roger Sherman:
Some scholars have argued that the use of “distant” words for God or “vague and generic God-language” like “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Providence” in the Declaration is evidence that the founders were deists. However, indisputably orthodox Christians regularly used such appellations. For instance, the Westminster Standards (a classic Reformed confession of faith), both in the original 1647 version and the 1788 American revision, refer to the deity as “the Supreme Judge,” “the great Creator of all things,” “the first cause,” “righteous judge,” “God the Creator,” and “the supreme Law and King of all the world.” They also regularly reference God’s providence and even proclaim that “[t]he light of nature showeth that there is a God.” Similarly, Isaac Watts, the “father of English Hymnody,” referred to the deity as “nature’s God” in a poem about Psalm 148: 10. Jeffry H. Morrison has argued persuasively that the Declaration’s references to “‘divine Providence’ and ‘the Supreme Judge of the World’ would have been quite acceptable to Reformed Americans in 1776, and conjured up images of the ‘distinctly biblical God’ when they heard or read the Declaration.” [i]

[i] See, for instance, Holmes, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, 47, 65; Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, 131–133, 136; Lambert, Founding Fathers, 163; Dershowitz, Blasphemy, 11–12; and Green, Second Disestablishment, 31–32, 53–54. Westminster Standards, 1: 10; 5: 1, 2, 6; 19: 5; 23: 1; 1: 1, 7; 5; 21: 5; The Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Isaac Watts (London, 1753), 4: 356; cf. The Windham Herald, April 15, 1797, 4. Such examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely. Jeffry H. Morrison, “Political Theology in the Declaration of Independence,(paper delivered at a conference on the Declaration of Independence, Princeton University, April 5–6, 2002). I am grateful to Daniel L. Dreisbach for pointing me to the language of the Standards.


bpabbott said...

Sounds like MDH is confusing the Deism of the founding with the modern distant watch-maker.

Early Deism embraced five common notions.

* There is one Supreme God.
* He ought to be worshipped.
* Virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship.
* We ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them
* Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it.

These five common notions are consistent with “the Supreme Judge,” “the great Creator of all things,” “the first cause,” “righteous judge,” “God the Creator,” “the supreme Law and King of all the world," and Providence.

My understanding is that Deism is consistent with General revelation, and is not consistent with is Special revelation.

Mark Hall said...

The point of this paragraph is not that deists did not refer to God with these phrases, but that indisputably orthodox Christians used them as well. Accordingly, it is problematic to conclude that someone is a deist of any stripe because he refers to the deity as "Creator," "first cause,""Nature's God," etc.

jimmiraybob said...

Of course it does matter what the understanding of Deism was and what constituted being a Deist during the late 18th century in the colonies and subsequent new nation.

From the 1828 Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language(1):

DEISM, n. [L. God.] The doctrine or creed of a deist; the belief or system of religious opinions of those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny revelation: or deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to discover by the light of reason, independent and exclusive of any revelation from God. Hence deism implies infidelity or a disbelief in the divine origin of the scriptures.
The view which the rising greatness of our country presents to my eyes, is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism, which, with me, is but another name for vice and depravity. P. Henry, Wirys Sketches.

DEIST, n. One who believes in the existence of a God, but denies revealed religion, but follows the light of nature and reason, as his only guides in doctrine and practice; a freethinker.

From Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary(2):

“The opinion of those that only acknowledge one God, without the reception of any revealed religion.”

As to the post, the terms that are described may have been in use by orthodox Christians during the period (as well as those considered deists), and I've read them in many contexts myself and don't disagree at all, but the orthodox Christian at the time adds another element that I think is illustrated by a quote from Patrick Henry's widow upon his death in 1799(2):

"He met death with firmness, and in full confidence that through the merrits of a Bleeding Savour his sins would be pardoned. . . . I wish the grate Jefferson & all the heroes of the Deistical party could have seen my . . . husband pay his last debt to nature."

And, I get the feeling that she was no secularist.

1) http://1828.mshaffer.com/

2) http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring09/deism.cfm - this is a very interesting article and helps shed light on contemporary founding thought regarding Deism.

jimmiraybob said...

Mark - "Accordingly, it is problematic to conclude that someone is a deist of any stripe because he refers to the deity as "Creator," "first cause,""Nature's God," etc."

Yes but it's a start. As I alluded to above, there are certainly other elements of evidence that can be used to help make the distinction. If a founder were a Deist, then language like "Creator," "first cause,""Nature's God," etc." would allow them to participate in a common discussion with the more orthodox Christian believers. which, in my opinion, is what was happening.

If a Jefferson, or an Adams or a Franklin, by examining their writings, meet the criteria set out above as being deistic and no more (such as belief in special revelation, the divinity and atonement of Jesus the Christ, etc.ostsFer 991), then there would seem to be justification to view them as Deists as it would have been understood at the time(1).

1) To emphasize what derivation of what pba said above:


Deism’s invention is often credited to Edward, the first Lord Herbert of Cherbury, England, who died in 1648. In The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David L. Holmes, a professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, catalogues Herbert’s “classic five points of Deism”:

+ That God exists
+ That “he ought to be worshiped”
+ That practicing virtue is the primary way so to do
+ That sins can be repented of
+ That there is life after death

bpabbott said...


Thanks for clarifying your intent. In fact, my impression was that the point of this paragraph was that Deism was *not* consistent with the God language mentioned.

I've never understood how God language of Deism is inconsistent with orthodox Christianity. I think it must be consistent.

Re: "Accordingly, it is problematic to conclude that someone is a deist of any stripe because he refers to the deity as "Creator," "first cause,""Nature's God," etc."

I'm not necessarily in agreement here. In my opinion Deism is general revelation and Christianity is General revelation + Special revelation. Which can be viewed as meaning Christianity is Deism + Special revelation.

Mark Hall said...

I agree that it is necessary to examine other writings to get a decent take on the religious beliefs/commitments of individual founders. And when one does so in the case of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin it is clear they are not orthodox Christians. I am open to calling them "providential" or "warm" deists, but I think Gregg Frazer's phrase "theistic rationalist" can be put to good use here.

But we need to go beyond these three founders. With respect to the Declaration, for instance, we might consider the religious views of Roger Sherman and other Reformed signers, including Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine, William Ellery, William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, John Hart, Abraham Clark, James Smith, James Wilson, Thomas McKean, and Lyman Hall. I would suggest that none of these founders thought the Declaration’s “Creator” was anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--and many of them appear to have been orthodox Christians.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think a lot of those folks you mention (Sherman, Witherspoon, etc.) clearly are orthodox Christians. I do wonder about all of them (Robert Treat Paine, John Hancock and others) and wonder if you may be falling into the ME Bradford trap of determining these Founders' personal beliefs by their religious affiliation. If we didn't know better, we'd think Jefferson believed in all of the doctrines of Anglicanism/Episcopalianism by his affiliation.

I also wonder about an additional categories beyond orthodox Christian, Deist and theistic rationalist (unitarian). Many orthodox Christians, Gregg Frazer, but also others at the CPS conference are dedicated to the historic creedal understanding of orthodoxy. Among the Bible believing self professed Christians of the Founding era, I detect an anti-creedal zeitgeist in the air. They might not be self conscious unitarians but rather say something like I believe the Bible as Word of God and Jesus His Son (Messiah), but I'm unsure about the Trinity because I don't care about creeds. We see this not just among the Quakers but others influenced by this Quakerish idea. If William Livingston was not a self conscious unitarian, he was THIS.

JMS said...

I appreciate Professor Hall's insights so much more than fruitlessly trying to shed some light on Gary Amos' book.

Has anyone ever read Donald Lutz’s article, “The Declaration of Independence as Part of an American National Compact” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3330564, which is also Chapter 9 in Lutz’s book, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (LSU Press, 1988))?

IMHO, it is the best 13+ page analysis of the DoI, including the best explanation I’ve encountered about what Jefferson really meant by the phrase, “all me are created equal.” Unlike Amos, Lutz is a “lumper” rather than a “splitter,” and thus is able to support his thesis with solid evidence.

In the section entitled, GOD AND SIDNEY IN THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (Sidney being one of the Christians to whom Jefferson and Joe refer) Lutz makes the following points (which have also been made via different examples by Gregg Frazer, John Fea and Frank Lambert). The key point is that the DoI “simulataneously appealed to both [Enlightenment] reason and [Christian] revelation,” because unlike today, these two entities were “not at odds in 1776.”

1) One does not need to be religious to accept the reasoning in the first paragraph of the Declaration. The term "Nature's God" will activate the religious grounding, but the term "Laws of Nature" will activate an equivalent conclusion using a natural rights theory, such as Locke's. The Declaration is thus simultaneously appealing to both reason and revelation as the basis for the American right to separate from Britain, create themselves as a new and independent people, and be considered equal to any other nation on earth.

2) Jefferson's task was considerably eased because, as Gordon Wood so nicely puts it: "Enlightened rationalism and evangelical Calvinism were not at odds in 1776; both when interpreted by Whigs placed revolutionary emphasis on the general will of the community and on the responsibility of the collective people to define it."9 Put another way, few American Whigs saw any conflict between what they read in Locke and what they read in the Bible when it came to the erection and operation of civil societies.

3) The phrasing appears to be pure Locke, but in fact, it is just as close to that used by a contemporary of Locke who was usually mentioned in the same breath with him-Algernon Sidney. Sidney, in his “Discourses Concerning Government” published in 1698, the year before Locke's Second Treatise, quotes liberally from Aristotle, Plato, the Bible …

4) It is difficult not to conclude that Algernon Sidney was Jefferson's source for seeing Aristotle and Cicero as relevant to the Declaration. Our intent here is not to replace Locke with Sidney, or to say that Locke was not important for the Declaration's phrasings, but rather to expand our sense of the Declaration's pedigree. Sidney is an especially interesting case because he combines reason and revelation in his analysis, and thus shows how easy it is for the Declaration to be an expression of earlier, biblically based, American constitutional thought.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dr. Hall, wonderful to see you.

I'm with Ben Abbott here on "special revelation": Once a "deist" believes the Bible is the Word of God [even if he believes it's been corrupted], you're moving under the Christian umbrella.

I put Jefferson outside the umbrella, Washington unknown, Franklin actively agnostic as in, maybe.

As for a longer list of "key" founders, it's nice to see such a comprehensive one. The post-presidential Adams and especially Jefferson letters are ridiculously overemphasized in no small part because we have so many of them!

[Where did you lose it?
---Over there.
Why are you looking here?
---The light's better.]

Joe Winpisinger said...

Well done Jon... I assume this is in response to my posts...

Joe Winpisinger said...

"IMHO, it is the best 13+ page analysis of the DoI, including the best explanation I’ve encountered about what Jefferson really meant by the phrase, “all me are created equal.” Unlike Amos, Lutz is a “lumper” rather than a “splitter,” and thus is able to support his thesis with solid evidence."

Have you even read his book? If so then bring forth "solid evidence" to support your assertions that he is wrong. I have gone through a few paragraphs of a long book and mostly in preliminary to frame the discussion and you say that he is wrong? That is absurd.

I still maintain that American was built on ideas not men. Rothbard calls Locke a "Protestant Scholastic" which means that he soteriology and doctrines were Protestant(at least in general) but his political theory was Catholic. At least the form of Catholicism that the Scholastics preached on rights.

Doctrines change but political rights theory did not. It is the latter than is relevant to the Declaration and the rights theory that is contained in it....

Tom Van Dyke said...

To Joe:

I like Murray Rothbard, but he was not an exacting scholar, so he should be used more as a compass than a roadmap.

"Protestant Scholasticism" is an interesting concept: "The "Father of Anglicanism" Rev. Richard Hooker was a Thomist [Thomas Aquinas = "scholastic"] and was quoted approvingly often by John Locke.

Stephen Grabill is awesome:



The dominant Reformed scholastics, however, were Beza, Vermigli, Adrianus Heerebout, and, most importantly, Francis Turretin (1623 - 87). Turretin's Institutio became the standard work for modern Protestant scholastics, as it was used as a textbook to shape the modern Princeton Theology. Reformed scholasticism in this tradition led to what is generally labeled Calvinist orthodoxy.


Now, I don't know much about that, the connection between Aquinas and Calvin, but we pass it on.

The most interesting part to me is what Peter Lawler calls an "Accidental Thomism," that America found its own way to Aquinas' thought.

I rather agree, although I don't think it was "accidental" any more than the fact we often quote the Bible or Shakespeare without knowing where we got it. It's just in the fiber of our cultural being, in the air we breathe, as was the Aristotle and Aquinas and Suarez and Hooker were in the air the Founding era breathed.

Have you even read his book? If so then bring forth "solid evidence" to support your assertions that he is wrong.

Joe, you have the floor here at American Creation on this, so let's get busy. Perhaps you should send an invitation to Gary Amos himself to stop by as a commenter or guest poster!

We ain't Harvard, but this here American Creation blog has been honored by visits from luminaries such as Jeremy Bangs, Chris Rodda, Gregg Frazer and Mark David Hall, gentleman scholarpersons all, doing cutting-edge scholarship on Religion and the Founding.

Gary Amos could do worse.

Joe Winpisinger said...


All good information... Amos is going to take a while to unfold... I have only gotten to LONANG... Though that might be enough to make his case...

I think "Protestant Scholastic" tells us more the "Theistic Rationalism" does.... I know that is going to open up a can of worms but good... :)

Joe Winpisinger said...


Amos is going to be a compass more than a road map too. He does not go into some of the issues surrounding this topic in enough depth to leave radical secularists no wiggle room. Mainly because he wrote the book with Christians being his primary audience.

I chose him because I think he focus on the Declaration of Independence is adept, he has read a lot of Brian Tierney's work and cites it, he avoids the tall weeds of theology that Tierney gets in so he is understandable, AND HE IS A CHRISTIAN EXPERT ON THIS TOPIC THAT IS NOT DAVID BARTON....

Tom Van Dyke said...

Joe, I think you should let Gary Amos know what's been going on around here. Perhaps he'll be tempted to speak for himself.


I'm greasing the wheels for what you're trying to say, not throw a monkey wrench in them.

jimmiraybob said...

Shouldn't the discussion of Amos be one post back?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jimmiraybob, the bench rules that:

JMS first brought up Gary Amos

I appreciate Professor Hall's insights so much more than fruitlessly trying to shed some light on Gary Amos' book.

in an implicit slap at Joe Winispringer, and with an explicit one later, calling out Joe by name.

However, the bench allows JMS' objection per Lutz' work as largely substantive, but in fairness must also grant Winispringer equal time to defend himself and his good name.

And frankly, in the quest for truth I have found gentlepersons like Joe extremely valuable in turning over every rock in the search for gold beneath. "Reliable" scholars tend to all look under the same rocks over and over again, as though there is new gold to be found there. Meh.


jimmiraybob said...


Just sayin', the gentleperson, having accepted the challenge, might have invited the other gentleperson to join him in the appropriate nearby venue, rather than continuing the throwdown in the other gentleperson's parlor.

On that note, thanks Mark Hall for sharing some time with us. I do think that modifying the term "deist" helps with clarity. I also think that dropping the term "deist" in favor of "theistic rationalist", while not necessarily inaccurate, loses the sense of historical place.