Deist Monsters and Divine Hierarchies

Paul Harvey

The latest Journal of American History features a terrifically interesting piece by Christopher Grasso of William and Mary: "Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution (subscription required for link). Besides following a murder mystery in the Early Republic, Grasso concludes with an exploration of what a philosophical reliance on "common sense" meant in the constitutional era, and how it tied into ideas of Deism. His conclusion:

Beadle [a Connecticut merchant who in 1782 murdered his family and then killed himself, and who was thought to have done so after embracing "Deistical beliefs"] had raised troubling questions that could not be easily brushed aside, shouted down, or answered simply with a "thus saith the Lord." Without the guidance of the scriptures, did deism collapse the relation between God and man into fatalism—turning a moral agent into merely God's machine? That may have been true for Beadle, but the same was being said of Calvinism. Did deism instead encourage man to overemphasize his free will, divinize the self, and supplant God? Even those who derided Ethan Allen's arrogance did not misread him to such an extent. Without the Bible, was sanity itself threatened? Yet Beadle had seemed to his neighbors a reasonable and virtuous man until that final morning. What, then, was the relation between religious belief and public virtue?

The deist provocations of Ethan Allen and William Beadle expose the cultural politics involved in the making of American religious common sense. Public champions of Christianity realized that given the social, cultural, and economic disruptions the Revolutionary War had caused, and in the new political environment the Revolution had created, making the United States a Christian nation would require more than the simple perpetuation of a religious heritage. To maintain Christianity as the foundation of a nation that had rejected traditional authority by appealing to self-evident truths, many American Protestants felt compelled to defend scripture by invoking common sense, insisting that the Bible's divine origin was obvious to any sensible person. Most invocations of common sense by antideist writers in the 1780s were not yet intentional references toward the logical edifice of Scottish philosophy; they were rhetorical attempts to claim that the divine inspiration of the scriptures was a fact that could not be contested by reasonable American citizens. Mentioning common sense, though, could be a double-edged sword. The philosophy that readers might associate with that term (whatever the writer's intentions) grounded ethical reasoning on universal moral instinct or on the epistemologically trustworthy faculties of normal human perception; it could therefore be seen as threatening to scriptural authority. Common Sense philosophy had been embraced by some political thinkers, especially those who had been influenced by John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey. But before the last years of the eighteenth century, most orthodox Christians and evangelicals avoided resting too much weight on this mode of thinking because doing so seemed to flatter sinful human nature and to render God's revelation in the scriptures unnecessary. In short, Common Sense philosophy could seem more deist than Christian. So while defending Christianity against deism in a new political climate pushed apologists toward the rhetoric of common sense, for theological reasons many in the 1780s were still wary of the philosophy being attached to that term.

In for a rhetorical penny, however, the defenders of a Christian America were soon in for a philosophical pound. America's Protestant theologians and educators would draw from Scottish thought and learn to finesse the problem, showing, to their satisfaction at least, how Common Sense philosophy and the Bible were mutually reinforcing. The subsequent dominance of Common Sense philosophy in American intellectual history from the 1790s to the Civil War grew out of the broader cultural strains and conflicts laid bare in the 1780s. The deist monster helped bring to the surface fundamental concerns that this christianized common sense would eventually (if temporarily) answer—concerns about the moral nature of the new American citizen and about how the newly united states could secure religious liberty and yet create a society still beholden not just to Nature's God but to the God of the Old and New Testaments.

The same issue has my review of Sean McCloud, Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies, a new work that we've discussed on the blog before.

Finally, J. M. Floyd Thomas of Texas Christian University reviews Ed Blum's W. E. B. DuBois: American Prophet. In this appropriately admiring review, he concludes:

As the first significant examination of Du Bois's religious thought, Blum's work powerfully evokes both the spirit and substance of Du Bois's moral vision in ways that will greatly benefit students and scholars of American religious and intellectual history for years to come.


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