Joseph Waligore has sent over a chapter of a book he is working on about English and American Deism. The chapter is about the kind of Deism that influenced Ben Franklin. I am going to publish it in three parts. Below is part one.
The earlier chapters demonstrated the English deists, the ones who influenced the Founding Fathers before they declared their independence, believed in an active God who performed miracles. In fact, the English deists young Franklin read were so far from believing in a non-intervening deity that their deity was more active than the Protestant deity. Protestants generally believed God and the angels had directly communicated with people in biblical times from the Garden of Eden to Jesus’ time. But almost all the English Protestants in the early eighteenth century believed this communication had ceased once the Christian church had been established near the end of the first century C. E. On the other hand, classical philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Marcus Aurelius believed God, gods, angels, or angelic-like beings never stopped directly communicating with people and actively guiding them. This means any English deist who asserted that God or angels still communicated with people was clearing showing that he was not a stereotypical Enlightenment thinker who emphasized a cold, distant, and withdrawn deity. Instead, he was showing that he shared the Greek philosophers’ spiritual worldview or at least was deeply influenced by it.
When Franklin was formulating his ideas about deism as a teenager, scholars know that he studied seven English deists because he mentioned reading them in his autobiography, quoted them, or encountered them in London. These seven were Anthony Collins, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Thomas Tryon, Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, William Wollaston, and Doctor Lyons. All seven of these deists were deeply knowledgeable about the Greek philosophical tradition. For example, in his most influential book, A Discourse of Free-thinking, Anthony Collins called Socrates the first free-thinker. (Free-thinker was often synonymous with deist during the eighteenth century.) Collins then listed other Greek and Roman sages as free-thinkers, and later on he worked on a project to translate Cicero, one of the most important Roman philosophers.1 The same goes for the other six deists. Of these seven English deists, six believed divine beings directly communicated with people by giving them messages to help them or guide them. Most importantly, these deists explicitly claimed divine communications were still happening nowadays, and so these deists were not influenced by their mainstream Protestant contemporaries. Three of these deists, Shaftesbury, Thomas Gordon, and John Trenchard, believed God communicated with people and this did not stop when the Protestants claimed it did. More interestingly three deists, Thomas Tryon, William Wollaston, and Dr. Lyons, believed angels or angelic-like beings still communicated with people.