Sunday, June 8, 2014

Matthew Stewart: "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic"

This is a book I'll have to put on my reading list. Here is the author's website. And below is from Amazon's site:
Not only the erudite Thomas Jefferson, the wily and elusive Ben Franklin, and the underappreciated Thomas Paine, but also Ethan Allen, the hero of the Green Mountain Boys, and Thomas Young, the forgotten Founder who kicked off the Boston Tea Party—these radicals who founded America set their sights on a revolution of the mind. Derided as “infidels” and “atheists” in their own time, they wanted to liberate us not just from one king but from the tyranny of supernatural religion.
Thomas Young. That's a name I know very little about!

The book's thesis seems to focus more the "deistic" side of the American Founding.

Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were "key Founders" and not strict deists. Rather, they occupied that "in between" position, whatever you want to term it: "Christian-Deism," "theistic rationalism," small u "unitarianism" (as neither Franklin nor Jefferson were members of the Unitarian Church; both, rather, were affiliated with Trinitarian Churches in whose official creeds they did not believe).

The others were not "key Founders," but nonetheless notable.* Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen were closer to the "strict deist" side. And Thomas Young ... well I have no idea there ... yet.

*At least Allen and Paine were notable. Whether Young is notable, I have to be convinced.


J. L. Bell said...

For Dr. Thomas Young, check out FOUNDERS by Ray Raphael. There's never been a full biography of Young, but he was influential in Albany around the Stamp Act, Boston in the late 1760s and early 1770s, and Philadelphia during the installation of the first state government. He also coined the name "Vermont." Many scholars think that he wrote most of REASON, THE ONLY ORACLE OF MAN, which his friend Ethan Allen published after his death during the war.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Many thanks. I'll check it out.

jimmiraybob said...

For another source on Dr. Thomas Young I recommend William Hogeland's Declaration(1), which I think is a worthwhile read regarding events just prior to July 6, 1776.

Young's is an interesting profile of an outspoken "infidel" working in league with Sam Adams (an "inveterate Calvinist", James Cannon (a mathematician and educator), and Christopher Marshall (an "unreconstructed Quaker").


Jonathan Rowe said...


Thanks! I'll check it out.

JMS said...

Jon – as noted by JRB, I first learned about Dr. Thomas Young from William Hogeland, who has a great WORD PRESS website that carries a torch for the more radical democratic aspects of the American Revolution, that continue to be overlooked by many historians. Dr. Young became a colleague of Paine, Franklin, Rush, Hancock, S. Adams (he was at the Boston tea party) and Ethan Allen. He is usually described as a radical deist or an atheist, who wrote Oracles of Reason with Allen (which is credited with influencing Paine’s Age of Reason nine years later), while Hogeland emphasizes that he was a radical democrat. Young gets credit for naming Vermont as a free and independent republic (VT largely adopted the radical PA constitution). But his untimely death at age 46 in 1777 (from typhoid fever in patriotic service as a military doctor).

Thomas Paine and the Democratic Revolutionaries

The Founding Fathers, Deism, and Christianity
July 26, 2010 by William Hogeland
mentions AC and Jon Rowe

George Washington, Secular Saint?
July 27, 2010 by William Hogeland
“These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right.”

Thomas Young to the Inhabitants of Vermont

Also – two great articles

Re-Discovering Ethan Allen and Thomas Young Reason the Only Oracle of Man: The Rise of Deism in Pre-Revolutionary America by Benjamin Kolenda

Deists: Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Thomas Paine - Oracles of Reason and the Age of Reason
by Vernon Turner at

and finally a brief mention by Merrill Jensen via google books:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Young gets credit for naming Vermont as a free and independent republic (VT largely adopted the radical PA constitution).

Something like that. "New Connecticut" was already a free and independent state. Young tabbed it "Vermont," meaning Green Mountain, and it stuck.

Vermont's adoption of the "radical" Pennsylvania constitution was not without difficulty, acc John Adams, who might put "radicals" Young and Thomas Paine as footnotes to the history of Bad Ideas:

"The other third part relative to a form of Government I considered as flowing from simple Ignorance, and a mere desire to please the democratic Party in Philadelphia, at whose head were Mr. Matlock, Mr. Cannon and Dr. Young. I regretted however, to see so foolish a plan recommended to the People of the United States, who were all waiting only for the [illegible] Countenance of Congress, to institute their State Governments. I dreaded the Effect so popular a pamphlet might have, among the People, and determined to do all in my Power, to counter Act the Effect of it. My continued Occupations in Congress, allowed me no time to write any thing of any Length: but I found moments to write a small pamphlet which Mr. Richard Henry Lee, to whom I shewed it, liked it so well that he insisted on my permitting him to publish it: He accordingly got Mr. Dunlap to print it, under the Tittle of Thoughts on Government in a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend. "Common Sense" was published without a Name: and I thought it best to suppress my name too: but as "Common Sense" when it first appeared was generally by the public ascribed to me or Mr. Samuel Adams, I soon regretted that my name did not appear. Afterward I had a new Edition of it printed with my name and the name of Mr. Wythe of Virginia to whom the Letter was at first intended to have been addressed. The Gentlemen of New York availed themselves of the Ideas in this Morsell in the formation of the Constitution of that State. And Mr. Lee sent it to the Convention of Virginia when they met to form their Government and it went to North Carolina, New Jersey and other States. Matlock, Cannon, Young and Paine had influence enough however, to get their plan adopted in substance in Georgia and Vermont as well as Pennsilvania. These three States have since found them, such Systems of Anarchy, if that Expression is not a contradiction in terms, that they have altered them and made them more conformable to my plan."

[Also Adams' thoughts on Paine and "Common Sense" follow]

Jonathan Rowe said...

JMS: Thanks for this. And I agree Hogeland's website is a great resource.

Tom Van Dyke said...

*At least Allen and Paine were notable. Whether Young is notable, I have to be convinced.

Yah, Jon, there is that. It's not even about "notable" as much as whether his influence remains part of the American highway, or is a dead end.

It's only human for us all to look for ourselves in American history--in this case heretical/agnostic/irreligious [not to mention in Mr. Hogeland's proto-socialists of Philadelphia], but at some point, we have to stop focusing on the footnotes and get back to business.

jimmiraybob said...

Here's a discussion with Mathew Stewart about the book: