The American Deists

Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic

Kerry S. Walters

Challenging carved-in-stone tenets of Christianity, deism began sprouting in colonial America in the early eighteenth century, was flourishing nicely by the American Revolution, and for all intents and purposes was dead by 1811. Despite its hasty demise, deism left a theological legacy. Christian sensibility would never be quite the same.

Bringing together the works of six major American deists—Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer, and Philip Frenau—an dthe Frechman Comte de Volney, whose writings greatly influenced the American deists, Kerry Walters has created the fullest analysis yet of deism and rational religion in colonial and early America. In addition to presenting a chronological collection of several works by each author, he provides a description of deisms historical roots, its major themes, its social and political implications, and the reasons for its eventual demise as a movement.

“Walters has assembled a balanced and detailed inventory of essays, correspondence, periodical literature, book excerpts, and verse that illustrates the intellectual agenda and the diverse emphases of leading American deists, plus one European writer whose formulations profoundly influenced them.

—Journal of Religion

“An excellent anthology, particularly welcome at this time because of the fresh winds blowing in the field of American religious history. The major intellectual assertions of deism have rarely been presented so cogently or so usefully. This book highlights the particular arguments, spirit, and opponents of the deist tendency in the age of the American Revolution. It is particularly strong in showing how standards of reason, readings of Nature, and confidence in human capacity combined for a number of consequential Americans to make a significant contribution to the nation's religious and intellectual history.”

—Mark Noll, author of Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America and Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: the Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith

Essential readings from the three major deistic periodicals of the period—Temple of Reason, Prospect, and the Theophilanthropist—also are included in the volume. This is the first time they have been reprinted since their original publication.

American deism is more than merely an antiquated philosophical position possessing only historical interest, Walters contends. Its search for a religion based upon the ideals of reason, nature, and humanitarianism, rather than the blind faith, scriptural inerrancy, and miracles preached by Christian churches at the time, continues to offer insight of real significance.

About the Author

Kerry S. Walters is professor emeritus of philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of 48 books, including Revolutionary Deists: Early America’s Rational Infidels and Harriet Tubman: A Life in American History.