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What ‘Deist’ Meant to Thomas Jefferson

Over at Cato Unbound, I recently participated in a roundtable on religion and the American Founding. One issue I addressed was the meaning of “deist” in the 18th century, which did not always entail the idea of an absent “clockmaker” god.

People in 18th-century Anglo-America did not always use our textbook definition of a deist. Deist could mean a person who denied God’s providence, but it could mean other things as well. Sometimes it referred to a person who was critical of Reformed theology and its emphasis on humankind’s lack of free will. Or someone who did not believe that the whole Bible was the Word of God. Sometimes “deism” meant monotheism. Sometimes the use of deism had no skeptical connotations at all, such as when it was used as an antonym for “atheism.” Ben Franklin and others rarely unpacked all those variant meanings, but it would have surprised few people in Revolutionary America to find that a “deist” also believed in God’s providence.

It would be an interesting study to tabulate the ways in which the word deism was used in the 1700s. My suspicion is that when it was used in the sense of someone who rejected traditional Christian doctrine, it commonly was coming from critics accusing someone of that kind of heterodox deism. That was the case with the Rev. William Linn’s religious attack on Thomas Jefferson (who was a deist, as of 1800) in the presidential election against John Adams. Linn said that Jefferson was unfit to be president because of “his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.”

Jefferson had indiscreetly aired a couple of his less-than-orthodox beliefs prior to 1800, but Jefferson rarely used the terms “deist” or “deism” in his vast correspondence. I count only about 10 references total to deism in Jefferson’s writings. He certainly would not have wanted to casually apply the term to himself (in the way Franklin had in his autobiography), since he knew that anything he said about religion would likely get leaked to the media. He did refer to attacks on him as a deist, but he was more likely to refer to the deism of the ancient Jews, or that of Jesus (!).

To cite one important instance, Jefferson wrote in 1803 to the scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley, who was helping Jefferson to affirm his own idiosyncratic version of Unitarian Christianity. He told Priestley that he was thinking of composing an outline of the “Christian system” and the reasons for the superiority (though not perfection) of Jesus’s ethical teachings. After reviewing the moral codes of the great philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, he said, “I should then take a view of the deism, and ethics of the Jews, and shew in what a degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of the incorrectness of their ideas of the deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of god.”

For Jefferson, deism in this case simply meant belief in a monotheistic creator God. He knew the term had widely known skeptical connotations, too, and perhaps he took pleasure in describing Jesus as a deist. Once Jefferson reconciled himself to believing in Unitarian, naturalistic Christianity, he was eager to present himself as a true follower of Jesus, as opposed to critics like Linn. To Jefferson, traditional Christians clung to the churches’ accretions of mystical and incomprehensible beliefs, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. Jefferson touted his devotion to the true deism of Jesus alone.

Much more to come on these issues, as I am completing the manuscript of a new book on Jefferson, tentatively titled Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale Press).

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