6/19/13 - the hostility between christians and deists

In today's selection -- a growing number of early Americans -- including James Madison and other founding fathers -- became deists, people who did not believe in the divinity of Christ and instead viewed reason as the source of religious knowledge. From the perspective of today, this seems unsurprising and in keeping with the Enlightenment philosophy of the time. But at the time it was highly controversial -- with Christian pastors excoriating deists as heretics and "infidels," and some deists actively asserting their deist faith in opposition to Christianity -- taking actions designed to taunt Christians and attending "infidel conventions":

"[While] individual proponents of deism stressed different principles, ... nearly all deists agreed on two basic points. They accepted the existence of a God in one form or another, but they rejected Trinitarian theology. Jesus, in their view, was only a human, not the son of God. Second, all deists de­nied that the Christian Bible contained a special, divine revelation of God's will. At its core, deism was a complete rejection of supernatural revelation in favor of reason as the only source of true religious knowledge. Some deists used these positions to offer moderate calls for the reformation of Chris­tianity. Yet others hoped that deism would entirely overturn Christianity; indeed they believed that deism would destroy all religious systems that included supernatural or metaphysical teachings. ...

"[And] by all accounts, [the] infidelity [of deism] was on the rise. Specifically, more, not fewer, Americans publicly announced their deism be­tween the 1770s and 1830s.

"Thomas Thompson was one such deist. He was born in 1775 on the eve of American independence and by 1829 had abandoned Christianity. Perhaps he embraced deism after reading Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, published in 1794 when Thompson was nineteen. Or maybe Thompson reacted to Fed­eralist attacks on Thomas Jefferson's [lack of] piety during the contentious election of 1800 by committing himself to the very opinions that the Federalists feared. Thompson may have even found the emotional highs of evangelical revivals and their demands for new birth experiences too psychologically taxing. Re­gardless, by 1829 he was moderator at the Hall of Science, a prominent two-story building with Greek columns on Broome Street in New York.

"Located in a former church, the Hall of Science was a venue for critics of Christianity to debate their ideas and a site where Sunday morning gatherings were held as alternatives to church services. The hall's proprietors adorned its win­dows with pictures of Thomas Paine and William Godwin in order to taunt visitors and employees of the Bible repository located directly across the street. Before Thompson died in Brooklyn in 1852, he had attended 'infidel conventions' in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1836 and much larger ones in New York City in 1845 and 1846, where he was appointed manager of the organization that hosted the meetings. Thompson also served as trea­surer of the Paine Monument Fund, and as trustee and treasurer of the Free Enquirer's Library Association. The latter organization formed to counter Christian tract societies by publishing and circulating inexpensive editions of writings critical of Christianity, including The Age of Reason and atheistic works by eighteenth-century French philosophers. ..."


Eric R. Schlereth


An Age of Infidels


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2013 by the University of Pennsylvania Press


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