The founder of the offshoot of Deism that found a place in England during the Reformation and reached the colonies was Lord Herbert of Cherbury.  He came up with 5 essentials of Deism which are "(1) a belief in the existence of the Deity, (2) the obligation to reverence such a power, (3) the identification of worship with practical morality, (4) the obligation to repent of sin and to abandon it, and, (5) divine recompense in this world and the next". This was a rather odd variant mixing in many Christian virtues without Jesus, and rather foreign to traditional Deism.
Dictionaries' definitions of deism include:
- The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.
- "a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe."
The first definition refers to a conception of God sometimes called the deus otiosus.
The Catholic Church would denounce Deism as a Heresy in the 1500s, for it's rejection of the divinity of Jesus Christ, the importance of the church, and eschewing the idea of Divine Intervention. While Lord Herbert would found the movement, by the 1800s his arguments were largely demolished by the philosopher Locke and his deconstruction of the concept of an 'Innate Truth'(Upon which much of Herbert's views on Deism were founded).
Matthew Tindal is generally credited with the modern incarnation of Deism and that practiced by the Founding Fathers who were Deists. "God designed all Mankind should at all times know, what he wills them to know, believe, profess, and practice; and has given them no other Means for this, but the Use of Reason."
Deism would enjoy a brief rise in the Western world through the 1800s, but by the early 20th century, it was on the decline. The Unitarian movement would absorb most of it's teachings and eventually produce the Unitarian Universalists. Deism today is a mixed bag without dogma or teachings beyond the idea that one should employ Reason to understand the universe. As a result, Deists who believe in Divine Intervention, Intelligent Design, and many other ideas that would have been alien to the earlier Deists are now around.
Deism and the Founding Fathers
While almost all of the Founding Fathers were devout Christians, some it is believed were deists, at least according to some definitions of the term.
A famous deist in early American history was the Englishman Thomas Paine, who espoused deism and popularized the term in his book The Age of Reason. It is believed this had an influence on deism in the colonies. 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.Franklin later repudiated many of his earlier views and he believed in a God that "ought to be worshiped," and at the Constitutional Convention less than three years from his death Benjamin Franklin advocated public prayer. He praised Christianity, but his letter to Ezra Stiles a month before his death was noncommittal as to the divinity of Jesus:
"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and His Religion as he left them to us, is the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see.. I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubt as to his Divinity; tho' it is a question I need not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect Soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble. I see no harm in its being believed, if that belief has good consequences, as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed."
Another Founding Father described as a deist was Thomas Jefferson. 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 stated that "[The Jefferson Bible] show that I am 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.'"
Modernly, as noted above, Deism has both declined and fractured, with some of its original ideas being adopted as part of "new age" movements. Variations of Deism that have developed or been proposed include Pandeism (enunciated in the 1850s, and merging Deism with Pantheism, the idea that God is equal to the Universe); Polydeism (merging Deism with polytheism, proposing that multiple Gods created then abandoned the Universe); and Panendeism (merging Deism with the 1830s idea of Panentheism, that the Universe was part of God, but was also transcended by God). None of these offshoots has garnered a significant following relative to organized religions.
- American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition
- Merriam-Webster online: deism
- 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.
- An Account of the Growth of Deism in England by William Stephens.