Deism is a belief that God initially set natural laws in motion but has done nothing more.
In other words, this is the belief that God started everything and then left it alone. This belief rejects the divinity of Jesus, and rejects prayers for divine intercession.
This philosophy became popular in England during the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries, and some of the founding fathers of the U.S. were self-described deists. Thomas Paine espoused deism and popularized the term in his book The Age of Reason. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography about an earlier period in his life,
- Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.
The only other Founding Father described as a deist was Thomas Jefferson , but he increasingly embraced Christianity as he grew older and was never a deist. Jefferson personally struggled with the divinity of Christ and produced an edited version of the Gospels, later known as the Jefferson Bible, which contained only the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and omitted third-person accounts of his life, particularly the accounts of the miracles.
Ten years from his death Jefferson described himself as "a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author never said nor saw."
The closer Jefferson approached his death, the more Christian he appeared. He read the Bible daily as the end grew near. His grandson described Jefferson as follows:
- He was regular in his attendance [at] church, taking his prayer book with him. He drew the plan of the Episcopal church in Charlottesville, was one of the largest contributors to its erection, and contributed regularly to the support of its minister. I paid, after his death, his subscription of $200 to the erection of the Presbyterian church in the same village. A gentleman of some distinction calling on him and expressing his disbelief in the truths of the Bible, his reply was, 'Then, sir, you have studied it to little purpose.'"
- Jefferson, Letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1815
- Thomas Jefferson Randolph, undated letter to biographer Henry S. Randall, reprinted in Masfield et al., The Real Thomas Jefferson, p. 321.