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AMERICAN DEISM

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

Franklin published this statement of the basic American Deist doctrine in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. I present it here because reading it will give the student an understanding of the Deist stand in pre-revolutionary America. As you will see, it is a purely rational concept of God and religion, yet it does not in any way conflict directly with the "Great Awakening" that was going on at the same time. Considering the history of religious strife in England and Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we can understand why the relationship between church and state was so important.

Doctrine to be Preached

Doct. to be preached

That there is one God Father of the Universe.

That he is infinitely good, powerful and wise.

That he is omnipresent.

That he ought to be worshipped, by Adoration Prayer and Thanksgiving both in public and in private.

That he loves such of his creatures as love and do good to others: and will reward them either in this World or hereafter.

That Men's minds do not die with their bodies, but are made more happy or miserable after this life according to their actions.

That Virtuous men ought to league together to strengthen the interest of Virtue, in the World: and so strengthen themselves in Virtue.

That Knowledge and Learning is to be cultivated, and ignorance dissipated.

That none but the virtuous are wise.

That Man's perfection is in Virtue.

The literacy rate in the colonies was greater than that in Europe. Men of letters, like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin, were men as interested in science and technology as they were in literature. Franklin in particular made great strides in our understanding of electricity, and he made it in spite of, perhaps because of, the time delay between advances on the continent and their arrival in America. The gulf that later opened up between the intellectual and the average American did not exist in the latter eighteenth century. Franklin became America's elder statesman and represented America in Europe. He undoubtedly came closer to representing all Americans than any ambassador since.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he leaned heavily on John Locke's theory of the rights of man. Locke had listed two kinds of rights that every man held. The first were those rights that men can relinquish. These are the rights that a man may, in a social contract, turn over to the state. These are called alienable rights. He also developed another set of rights. These rights, the right to life for example, no man could voluntarily give up. These are called inalienable rights. Many scholars are quick to point out that the impositions that King George III placed on the American colonies were not particularly burdensome. They may have been felt more strongly because the colonies were experiencing an economic downturn at the same time. However, seen from historical distance, they don't appear to have been so strong as to call for revolution. Some years after the evolution was over John Adams wrote to Jefferson and stated this simple fact; 'The American Revolution was a revolution of ideas. The fighting was only an aftermath.' John Locke called usurpation the act of a government of taking alienable rights from the people without their consent. Tyranny, he said, was the taking of inalienable rights. As Jefferson stated in the Declaration of Independence, King George's usurpation of the rights of the American Colonists was to be considered the first steps toward tyranny. Therefore, based on the Lokean theory of the right of revolution, it was the duty of America to overthrow the English rule and establish one of her own. The real power of this statement was in the simple fact that it expressed exactly what the people felt.

The followers of Jonathan Edwards added that such tyranny would remove from them the liberty of following the will of God as each individual person saw it. The American "Great Awakening" was a reaction to the enlightenment. Isaac Watts suggested that the new work of God must begin in America. The prophet Isaiah had foretold that stirrings would occur in a remote part of the world. America would be the site of a new earth and new heavens. It became the duty of every American Christian to shake off the evil of the old world.

Unlike Europe, America was a fresh start. The American colonies were not subject to the kind of traditions that were so fundamental to most European communities. Most Europeans of the period admired the new sense of freedom that developed in the new American nation. However, for them it represented a rash step, a rejection of long-standing traditions. Yet it was purely rational. Although, as we shall see, the idea that the world is a rational place remained an unassailable assumption for all westerners, many Europeans saw the drift towards rationality as a rejection of tradition and thus as an example of man overextending his powers. Thus European philosophy from the late eighteenth century on became involved with a rejection of rationality.