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Deism And Changes In Religious Tolerance In America

2270 words - 9 pages

Deism and Changes in Religious Tolerance in America

    Religious conscience in America has evolved considerably since the first settlers emigrated here from Europe. Primary settlements were established by Puritans and Pilgrims who believed "their errand into the wilderness [America] was above all else a religious errand, and all institutions - town meeting, school, church, family, law-must faithfully reflect that fact" (Gaustad 61). However, as colonies grew, dissenters emerged to challenge Puritan authority; indeed, many of them left the church to join untraditional religious sects such as "the Ranters, the Seekers, the Quakers, the Antinomians, and the Familists" (Westbrook 26). Debates over softening the stance on tolerance in the church engendered hostility in many religious leaders, priming some officials to take action. Whether it was in direct response to "the liberalizing tendencies beginning to take hold in some [. . .] New England churches" (Westbrook 65), or a "reaction against the attempt in the Age of Reason to reduce Christian doctrine to rationalistic explanation" ("Great Awakening"), the Great Awakening impressed upon the issues of religious conscience. Moreover, what spawns from this controversy is a query over the juxtaposition of morality and spirituality: the question of whether these conditions are actually related. The gradual escalation of unconventional thinking in religious affairs facilitated new ideas on what defined spirituality; one religious theory, boosted by Thomas Paine and his book, The Age of Reason, denounced both Christianity and Atheism, proposing instead, a new concept: the middle path of Deism.


As a progressive religious view rising in popularity during the middle of the eighteenth century, Deism appears to be the first notably radical diversion away from the traditional Christian belief in New England. Rejecting the assumption that God controls all actions on earth, "most Deists believe that God created the universe, [. . .] and then disassociated himself from his creation" (Robinson 3). This definition leads to the supposition that deistic thought was partly conceived out of scientific discovery: a Darwinian takeover theory. Perhaps the nuances of scientific knowledge manifested a directive in the argument for religious freedom. Certainly, Deist's supported what Benjamin Franklin termed, "spiritual Liberty," which asserted that "no man ought to resign his Liberty," in "mak[ing] Choice of his Minister as his Judgement and Conscience direct him" (qtd. in Walters, Franklin 138). Thomas Paine, Deism's most notable advocate, maintains this line of thinking saying, "I do not believe in the creed professed by [. . .] any church that I know of," but, "I do not mean this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine" (22). Religious tolerance would gain many formidable voices among America's Founding Fathers, a development that...

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