An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


A teaching about God which appeared in both Christian and non-Christian forms during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England and France, under the influence of rationalism and the rise of natural science. Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1580-1630) introduced deist thought to England. It was developed by Matthew Tindal (1653-1733) and John Toland (1670-1722), among others. The title of Toland's book, Christianity Not Mysterious, expresses the tone of this body of thought.

Deists used the cosmological argument to prove the existence of God, who created the universe and governed it through natural law. Natural laws were discoverable by reason, according to this "natural religion." Teachers, among whom Jesus was regarded as definitive, taught humans the divinely inspired moral law to keep their behavior in harmony with the divine plan. People were to be moved to obey the moral law by the expectation of future rewards and punishments. Some Deists viewed God as an original architect and initial mover of creation. Deism denied that God exercises providential care for humanity or the universe. It believed in a "divine clock-maker" who merely set the universe in motion. Deism also denied our need of special revelation, holding that human reason alone leads to the principles of natural reason and morality. Matthew Tindal, whose Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730) became known as the "Bible" of Deism, held that the gospel added nothing to the law of nature, that true religion was a "republication" of the law, and that God's design was to free humanity from superstition. A number of eighteenth-century Anglican theologians endeavored to show that Christianity did not contradict natural religion (Joseph Butler's Analogy of Religion), or that it could be understood in deistic terms (William Paley's Natural Religion). Deistic works were produced in America by Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine.

The mechanical, astronomical model of the universe which informed deistic thought remained theologically influential until supplanted by biological models in the nineteenth century. See Rationalism; see Evolution.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.