Monday, April 8, 2013

Bolingbroke and the Influence of the "English Deists"

In his seminal paper on James Madison's faith, Dr. James H. Hutson wrote:
[A] statement in 1833 in which the aged ex-president lauded Christianity as the "best & purest religion" ... sounds very much like the deistical maxim, frequently indulged by Jefferson, that the "pure" religion of Jesus had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers.
Some might find it strange that "deists" who aren't supposed to regard ANY special revelation from God to man as valid would have such a thing to say about Christianity. But Dr. Hutson, apparently, is familiar with that special breed of "deist" who did say such things.

These deists fall prey to the "No True Scotsman" accusation. So I guess they weren't "deists" then? Were they Christians? Well as "Christians" they fall prey to the "No True Scotsman" accusation too. Hence Dr. Gregg Frazer's opting for a new term: "theistic rationalists." Or we could settle for Dr. David L. Holmes' term "Christian Deists."

After reading Dr. Frazer's innovative thesis and subsequent excellent book I understood a lot of unitarians and divines who weren't quite orthodox Trinitarian Christians influenced the political theology of the American Founding. What Frazer's book understates is just how common this hybrid religion was among historical figures whom most scholars label "deists."

Dr. Joseph Waligore asserts arguably most of the names associated with deism -- at least most of the English ones -- believed in this hybrid religion that wasn't quite strict deism or orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

And while Dr. Frazer's book does deal with Lord Shaftesbury -- the "English Deist" who wasn't quite a strict deist, disciple of John Locke and influencer of Ben Franklin -- it makes only small reference to Viscount Bolingbroke.

Frazer does mention that Allen Jayne makes an impressive circumstantial case for Bolingbroke's influence on Jefferson.  But Frazer, understandably, chooses to focus more on Joseph Priestley and Conyers Middleton as Jefferson's influences because Jefferson explicitly NAMED those two.

One reason, however, why minimizing Bolingbroke illuminates not is that Priestley's influence on Jefferson didn't really take hold until after 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was written.  (I'm not sure about the periods where Middleton's influence on Jefferson's was greatest).  So it's likeliest that the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration was Bolingbroke imbibed, rather than Priestley imbibed.

Indeed Bolingbroke used the term "Nature's God."  I have paid little attention to Bolingbroke because I concluded (wrongly) he was an ordinary deist and I wanted to focus more on those with the more middle ground position that accurately tracked the religious beliefs of the "key Founders."  Even if Bolingbroke, whatever his religious views, is responsible for the "laws of Nature and of Nature's God" in the Declaration, that phrase seems very amenable to strict deism.

But Bill Fortenberry turned my attention to Bolingbroke.  It turns out he was a "Christian-Deist" or "theistic rationalist," that he had a fascinatingly nuanced theological position AND it is now clear to me that Bolingbroke's influenced on Jefferson never waned.

Bolingbroke believed in the truth of both reason and revelation in a God speaking to man sense; but he thought Christianity corrupted by ecclesiastical influences, from the very start.  He was the quintessential "deist" about whom Dr. Hutson said lauded "the 'pure' religion of Jesus [that] had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers."

Jesus' words, according to Bolingbroke, were "revelation." Insofar as the Gospel writers didn't deviate from the message and interpolations were not added, so too were the writings of other men. But out of all of them, St. Paul intermixed his own "artificial" pharisaical theology into the Bible.

St. Paul was a loose paraphraser, a cabalistical commentator, as much at least as any ancient or modern rabbin; and though his gospel was, in the fundamental principles of it, the same as theirs, yet he mingled it up with so much of his own theology, that he might not improperly, and in our sense, call it his own, and that we may call him the father of artificial theology.  
The original gospel, such as the other apostles preached it, was a plain system of belief and practice, fitted for all times, and proportioned to all understandings. St. Paul's gospel, if it may be said to be fitted as much as the others for all times, of which I doubt, cannot be said to be proportioned to all understandings. It is evidently not so to the understandings of the deepest divines, and the most subtile metaphysicians; since they have been wrangling about it from that time to this, and have established the most opposite doctrines on the same texts, to the breach of all charity, and the disturbance of the Christian world. 
It may be said that some passages in the four gospels, and even some expressions of Christ recorded in them, have been liable to various interpretations, and have produced such disputes and contents as these which I ascribe to the writings of St Paul. But although this be undoubtedly true, the difference between the original gospel, and that of St. Paul is very real, and very manifest. One is a plain and clear system of religion, with here and there a doubtful phrase that casts no obscurity on the rest. The other is an intricate and dark system, with here and there an intelligible phrase that casts no light on the rest, but is rather lost in the gloom of the whole.  
It's clear where Jefferson derived his disdain for St. Paul.

I've always been surprised that while Jefferson rejected the entire Book of Revelation as not valid, Joseph Priestley, who termed the plenary inspiration of the Bible as "corruption of Christianity," believed in that book as valid revelation.  But Bolingbroke did not.

St. John had been long confined in the Island of Patmos, to which Domitian had banished him, and where it is pretended that he wrote the Apocalypse, that strange rhapsody of unintelligible revelations, as they are called most absurdly. It is much more probable, and more for the honor of the evangelist, as well as of Christianity, to believe that they were composed by Cerinthus, by a visionary of the same name as that of the apostle, or by some other enthusiast.
It's clear where Jefferson derived his disdain for the Book of Revelation.

So how, according to Bolingbroke, did Revelation end up in the Bible?
They were not admitted into the canon at Laodicea, nor would have been ever admitted to disgrace it, if Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian, in whom the love of mystery was a kind of delirium, and after their example several of the other fathers, had not crowded them into the canon by receiving them as canonical.
Bolingbroke had disdain for the early church fathers who selected the books that made it into the biblical canon.  The Bible did not, as some seem to pretend, just drop out of the sky from Heaven.  It is a series of books selected as canonical by the early church.

As the argument goes, the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible made sure the early Church selected the correct books.  Bolingbroke's problem was he thought this church was corrupt and uninspired.

These "Christian Deists" oft-speak of a primitive, uncorrupted "Christianity."  Folks sympathetic to the Christian Nation thesis oft-argue it was just Roman Catholicism with which these kinds of thinkers had problems.  No.  Certainly, the Roman Catholics were the worst from this perspective.  But it was the whole artifice of creedal, confessional Christianity.

But these corrupt "ecclesiastical councils" of the early church didn't just formulate the early orthodox creeds, they also selected the books that comprise the biblical canon.

So this method of the "Christian Deists" doesn't just deconstruct the orthodox creeds, but notion of the Bible itself.  They believed in "some revelation" (in a God revealing directly to man sense), but not the Bible.


Tom Van Dyke said...

What Frazer's book understates is just how common this hybrid religion was among historical figures whom most scholars label "deists."

Actually, outside of Jefferson, it's completely overstated in considering the American Founding.

English deism had its share of luminaries, but the American version was far less occupied with it. And of the English, Bolingbroke published posthumously, and Priestley fled to America after an English mob burned first his church then his house down!

As for Tom Paine, we all know the disrepute he fell into after publishing "Age of Reason." Here's an interesting link to numerous rebuttals of it. I mean A LOT.

What's understated by the prevailing orthodoxy is just how rare and unpopular these deists indeed were. It was for damned good reason that Jefferson kept his theology on the downlow.

Tom Van Dyke said...


"By calling them “Christian,” I am not claiming these deists were orthodox Christians. If the reader does not consider any of these deists Christian, she can attach a more cumbersome label to them like “deist who mistakenly thought he was Christian and was different than a secular, anti-Christian deist” or “deist who claimed he was a genuine Christian, but really was an infidel.”

So that's that--the difference between how the historian views religion and those who have a dog in the fight. Well done, sir.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I gotta respect Waligore.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I don't have time to write a lengthy response to this at the moment, Jon; but let me quickly point out that you are using flawed definitions in order to label Bolingbroke as either a Christian Deist or a Theistic Rationalist. I've already pointed out the flaws in Frazer's term in a rather lengthy analysis that can be read at:, so I will simply ask you to consider that work as my reason for suggesting that the term Theistic Rationalism is poorly defined. In regards to Christian Deism, let me mention that this term refers to those who accept the Christian moral system, but reject all of the Christian Scriptures as revelation from God. You have already admitted that Bolingbroke accepted some Scripture as divinely inspired revelation. Therefore, Bolingbroke cannot be labeled as a Christian Deist.

To illustrate this fact, let me draw your attention to what was probably the most notorious book on Christian Deism in the eighteenth century, a book entitled The Moral Philosopher in a Dialogue between Philalethes a Christian Deist, and Theophanes a Christian Jew. This book drew tremendous response the Christians of that era, and the response of the famed American Baptist John Leland is particularly worthy of note because of his concise definition of the two terms Christian Deist and Christian Jew. Here is what Leland wrote:

"This may give the Reader some Notion of this Writer's Candour and Sincerity, and what we are to think of his pretended Regard for Christianity, which in Effect amounts to this: That the Christianity revealed in the Writings of the New Testament is Jewish Christianity; that is, Christianity corrupted and adulterated with Judaism, which according to him is the worst Religion in the World. But the true and genuine Christianity is Christian Deism, to be learned not from the Writings of the New Testament, but from the Volume of Nature, from every Man's own Breast, from the Heavens, the Earth, and especially the Brute Creatures,the genuine uncorrupted Instructors in our Author's Christianity. So that the "Gentlemen that assume to themselves the Title of Deists, seem resolved that for the future they only shall be called the true Christians too. Those that look upon the New Testament to be divinely inspired, and receive it as the Rule of their Faith, and take their Religion from thence, must be called Christian Jews, who only put a strange Mixture of inconsistent Religions upon the World for Christianity : whereas these Christian Deists teach it in its Purity, and in order to propagate pure uncorrupted Christianity they do their utmost to discard.the Writings of the New Testament"

Bill Fortenberry said...

By the way, you can read Leland's book at:

Tom Van Dyke said...

You have already admitted that Bolingbroke accepted some Scripture as divinely inspired revelation. Therefore, Bolingbroke cannot be labeled as a Christian Deist.

The weeds are getting tall. As a point of order, let me submit that we need to make the distinction between those who believed in direct divine revelation and those who did not. The metaphysical difference between the two is primary.

The labels and the "lumping" keep getting in the way and if they continue to conceal more than they reveal, they should be taken out and shot.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I was going to ask, given what we see and agree on about Bolingbroke's creed (that he saw divine inspiration in at least parts of the New Testament, but rejected a substantial portion of the NT, and apparently, the OT as well) how do you, Bill, label him?

You can label him any way you want. I think both theistic rationalist and Christian Deist are fair game.

As I noted in front of Dr. Frazer and a host of very important scholars when I presented with him at Gordon College last summer, it seems fair to define and understand both Deism AND Christianity either strictly or loosely together.

That is, narrowly speaking the "key Founders" were neither Christians nor Deists; broadly speaking, they were both.

What's unfair is to try to define one term broadly and one term narrowly to try to capture the Founders for a particular side: Which is exactly what you do for the "Christian" label. And what more secular scholars wedded to the "Deist" theory do when confronted with the facts that some of these figures believed in an active God, miracles, some revelation, etc.

So as far as I'm concerned, to be fair, Bolingbroke was either a Christian and a Deist or neither, depending on how terms define. And if he was neither then "theistic rationalist" is as good a label as I can think of.

Bill Fortenberry said...

In my rebuttal of Frazer's Theistic Rationalism, I outlined a proper historic definition of Christianity. According to that definition, a Christian is anyone who believes in the gospel which was expressed by Paul in I Corinthians. Paul wrote:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”

As near as I can tell, Bolingbroke believed in the gospel. He said in one place that "we might rise to immortality indeed by the merits of his [Christ's] passion," and in another place he wrote:

"They disputed not only about the miracles that had been wrought, and were daily working among them, even about that decisive concluding miracle the resurrection of Jesus; but about the interpretation of their prophecies, which foretold the coming of the Messiah, and about the application of them to him."

Similar statements indicating his belief in the gospel can be found throughout his writings, and I am not aware of a single instance in which he denied the sacrificial death of Christ and His resurrection. For this reason, I consider Bolingbroke to be a Christian.

That is not to say, however, that he held solely to Christian doctrines. Bolingbroke's theology had many flaws, and he either denied or expressed doubt about several of the essential doctrines of Christianity. The important thing to keep in mind is that the denial of Christian doctrine does not cause someone to cease being a Christian. Frazer's failure to mention this fact is one of the greatest shortcomings of his book. It is possible to hold to non-Christian doctrines and still be a Christian.

Consider what Paul wrote in his epistle to the Christians at Galatia:

"I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed."

The Galatian Christians had succumbed to a non-Christian doctrine that was so heinous that Paul said that the men preaching it should be cursed. But did the Galatians themselves cease to be Christians because they were "removed unto another gospel"? Not at all, for Paul referred to them as fellow believers no less than nine times throughout the course of his epistle. The Christians at Galatia continued to be Christians in spite of the fact that they had come to accept a doctrine which was antithetical to the Christian faith. It is therefore fully in line with the teachings of Scripture to conclude that Bolingbroke's belief in the gospel was sufficient to make him a Christian and that he remained a Christian even when he strayed into heretical ideologies.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And hey, don't forget the Monophysites. Heretics of the world unite!

Jonathan Rowe said...

Very ironic that Bolingbroke gets to be a "Christian" according to this understanding even though he thought Paul was full of it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This stuff has been going on for 1000s of years.

St. Jerome [d. 430 CE], preface to his commentary on Titus:

Licet non sint digni fide qui fidem primam irritam fecerunt, Marcionem loquor et Basilidem et omnes haereticos qui vetus laniant testamentum, tamen eos aliqua ex parte ferremus si saltem in novo continerant manus suas, et non auderent Christi, ut ipsi iactitant, boni dei filii, vel evangelistas violare vel apostolos. nunc vero quum et evangelia eius dissipaverint et apostolorum epistolas non apostolorum Christi facerunt esse, sed proprias, miror, quomodo sibi Christianorum nomen audeant vindicare.

"Though they should be unworthy of faith who have made their first faith void, I speak of Marcion and Basilides and all the heretics who mangle the Old Testament, nevertheless let us bear with them to some extent if they at least contain their hands in the New and do not dare to violate either the evangelists of Christ, the good son of God, as they call him, or the apostles. At the moment they will have both thrown aside his gospels and made out that the epistles of the apostles are not of the apostles of Christ, but that their own [are], I am amazed [to say], just as they dare to claim the name of Christians for themselves."

Cool stuff here:

Bill Fortenberry said...

Why should it be thought ironic, John? The church at Ephesus was praised by Christ Himself because: "thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars," and the Bereans were said to be "more noble than those in Thessalonica" precisely because they did not take Paul at his word but rather "searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." Mere skepticism never disqualifies one from being a Christian.

jimmiraybob said...

Off Topic

If anybody is in the Midwest, William Hogeland, author of Declaration and Founding Finance will be speaking at the Kansas City Public Library on April 17(1). I look forward to taking the train over from St. Louis and, in addition to the talk, dabbling in a bit o'the KC BBQ and perhaps a bit of Rock & Roll, KC style.

Oh yeah, will practice some freedom of conscience too.

JMS said...

Jon - I second TVD's kudo.

I associate LOC with Dr. Hutson.

In regards to Bolingbroke's influence on Jefferson, I point my students to:

"Bolingbroke's Influence on Thomas Jefferson - Lord Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), an English deist, was a lifelong favorite of Jefferson. In his Literary Commonplace Book, a volume compiled mostly in the 1760s, Jefferson copied extracts from various authors, transcribing from Bolingbroke some 10,000 words, six times as much as from any other author and forty percent of the whole volume. Young Jefferson was particularly partial to Bolingbroke's observations on religion and morality."