An essay on Thomas Young followed by four of his texts:
By Shane Devine
I have attempted here to provide an overview of the deist Thomas Young and the role he played in the American Revolution, but I will immediately point readers to Matthew Stewart’s book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic as a superior and more comprehensive source on the subject. Stewart refers to Young’s writings throughout the book, which are very difficult to find online, so I have included them here after the essay. Deism (or “Natural Religion”) has become increasingly interesting to me as a way out of the crisis that modern America and the modern west as whole has found itself in, without being neo-pagan, Christian, or atheistic, and it has become even more interesting to me after discovering through Stewart that its roots seem to extend far deeper than the late 1700s, reaching back to the Renaissance, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece.
Thomas Young was an American revolutionary who played a prominent role in the Sons of Liberty, the secret network of radicals that organized the revolutionary forces in Boston before the War began. The group included famous names like Joseph Warren, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Rush, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and John Hancock, all of whom dwarf Young in terms of historical legacy. But the Boston Tea Party, the event that the Sons are most well-known for, was Young’s idea, and it was Young who distracted a crowd so that the colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians could dump the British tea into Boston harbor. Young was also a founding member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, an organization of revolutionary leaders of whom John Adams had said “the history of the United States can never be written” without understanding their pivotal importance to the Revolutionary cause.
Young went on to help draft Pennsylvania’s 1776 state constitution, the most fiercely democratic of the state constitutions, achieving near-universal free male suffrage (owning property was not a requirement for voting rights according to this constitution, unlike the other state constitutions; this would not be realized on a national scale until the mid-1850s after waves of Jacksonian Democratic reforms, which even then was incomplete and subject to corruption and rollbacks). Pennsylvania’s constitution inspired Madison in writing the Bill of Rights, clearly seen in the similarity of language between the two documents concerning arms, speech, and searches. But Young’s most profound accomplishment was joining up with Thomas Paine, Timothy Matlack, George Bryan, and James Cannon in Philadelphia during the Spring of 1776 to practically overthrow the moderate parties of the Continental Congress in a coup, halting the counter-revolutionary ruling class’s attempt to reconcile with Great Britain, which directly led to the Declaration itself that summer.
Hailing from upstate New York, Young was a man of humble origins, born in 1731 to poor farmers who had immigrated to the States from Ulster County, Ireland. Although his family could not afford to send him to school, Young proved to be a disciplined autodidact and eventually became a professional physician through his medical learning. In his travels he met a younger man named Ethan Allen, a farmer from the territory that is now the state of Vermont. Young became a mentor to Allen, teaching him about philosophy and even performing an early form of inoculation – a sort of primitive vaccination – on him at Allen’s request, a medical practice that was illegal due to its status as a heretical act according to the religious lawmakers of their day. Allen’s interest in Young’s unorthodox religious beliefs led them to collaborate on a book about deism, what contemporary writers also called “Natural Religion” (as opposed to Revealed Religion), a form of skeptical modernist philosophy that denied miracles, revelation, and the Bible and inserted in their place a belief in an ordered, harmonious naturalistic universe which was to be worshiped through contemplating it rationally and studying it scientifically. Young was unable to continue helping Allen write the book, but Allen – after his illustrious acts of heroism during the American Revolution, such as leading the capture of Fort Ticonderoga from the British and distributing their cannons to George Washington, who could not have laid siege to Boston in what was the first victory of the war without them – finished and published the work himself, entitling it Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, or a Compendious System of Natural Religion. The book is good, despite its rough language and style (it was written by a mountain man, after all), and I would paste the text of it below as I think it is just as important as Young’s sermon, but it is much longer and easy to find. Allen’s view on the universe is somewhere in between pantheism, which sees every piece of matter as a part of the divine, and transcendent deism which asserts the existence of a deity located outside of the universe and operating beyond its law. Allen believed the laws of nature, the laws of physics, to be the divine. This view is more or less the same as Young’s deism, although Young leans more toward pantheism, as he is more adamant about immanence and the divine nature of the universe, and rejects any supernatural realm unlike Allen, who in a brief passage makes room for a vague conception of an afterlife. I would rather not go down into the rabbit hole of terms — “pandeist,” “panentheist” — created by German scholars to explain the different types of natural religion. Behind the terms “deist” and “pantheism” there are really only three concepts: transcendence, immanence, and the natura naturans-natura naturata monism of Spinoza. All three concepts fall under the umbrella term “natural religion” or “naturalism.” Transcendent deism is the belief in a God who is meta-physical, completely outside of the universe in the same manner of the Abrahamic religions, except he does not interact with the world in anyway besides its creation. Thomas Young’s natural religion is not of this sort, since he denies all forms of the supernatural or the supersensual and likens the deity to nature. Immanent pantheism would be the belief that everything in the universe and the universe as a whole is God, similar to animism except it’s “monotheistic” or mono-spiritualistic, if you will. This purest version of pantheism would have no structure, would not discern any difference in quality between things in the universe, as everything would be equally divine – this variant can only be found among mystics who rely on emotion alone. Spinoza’s monism is the most sophisticated form of the three, because it separates the active part of Deus-sive-Natura (‘God-or-Nature”) from the passive part: Natura Naturans (“Nature Naturing”) is the substance which undergirds the entire cosmos and all other hypothetical worlds we cannot access, while the Natura Naturata (“Nature Natured”) are the contents of the world – items, people, mountains, etc. All of the corporeal or theoretical entities in the universe are “modes” of the “attributes” Extension and Thought (body and mind). In this way, Spinoza does away with the problems of Descartes’ dualism, as many people during their time objected to Descartes’ metaphysics by asking how the mind could operate upon its body and upon other bodies if they were truly metaphysically, absolutely distinct substances. For Spinoza, there is only one substance, Nature, and it has a potentially infinite number of attributes, of which we as human beings are familiar with two (thought and extension), both of which are produced from the God-or-Nature substance but are still distinguishable from one another, and their combinations produce human beings, animals, and the natural world at large. These modes which we see all around us, the things of the natura naturata category, are not “God” proper but they are modes of God, God modifying himself in various ways; they are directly produced from the substance that is God: they are of God, in God, they are made of God’s body, and therefore oriented by the divine laws of physis and blessed by the divine totality. This warrants a deep affirmation of the world, but still leaves room for some sense of order and authority rather than losing one’s sense in a mystic whirlpool of animism, even if the order arises from an immanent substance, a substance which does not exist outside of or before the existence of the world. And while Spinoza’s philosophy does not permit the existence of an afterlife in a supernatural heavenly realm, it does have a lot to say about the immortality of the soul. Spinoza’s concept on this is similar to Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, but Spinoza’s immortality is collapsed into a state of being brought on by a series of specific thoughts rather than a repetition of life in real time. To reach this, Spinoza thinks that we have to direct our behavior toward virtue, which is to practice the “intellectual love of God” by contemplating our own mind with the accompanying idea of God-or-Nature as its cause, in the same way that God would contemplate his own mind with the accompanying idea that he is his own cause. By doing this, we direct our thoughts to the Whole, and to the faultless logic of Nature, because when we step out of the mire of ignorance that is our own Particular perspective and into the Universal viewpoint of God, who understands that each thing and event has a cause and are operating according to an established order of physical law, we are then able to admire the universe’s harmonious perfection, which more importantly also reveals that every event is thus necessary. Viewing all things under the light of necessity allows us to reach a mental state of ultimate affirmation of and satisfaction with existence. Nothing appears crooked, there are no mistakes, there are no miracles, and thus there is no such thing as evil: everything is bound by Fate, sealed away from any possibility of metaphysical intervention by the all-encompassing and self-producing forms of nature. In this mental state, our minds are participating in God himself, for they have mirrored his thoughts by understanding things, like him, sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity). Abstracted from the mortal (and moral) here-and-now present, we take on the state of permanence, and our soul in this way becomes immortal while thinking these thoughts: focusing on eternity makes our minds participate in eternity and become eternal. We access the eternal recurrence, the infinite powers of the all-creating force of life, by dedicating ourselves to the understanding of nature and reaching this peak of philosophical realization. As Heraclitus put it in a few fragments, “The cosmos works by harmony of tensions, like lyre and bow.” “Good and evil are one. / Without injustices, justice would mean nothing.” “On the one hand God always sees well, good, and fair; on the other hand a human being sees injustice here, justice there.”
The title of Allen’s book is very close (he “borrowed” it) to the title of a similar work on the same topic, The Oracles of Reason by Charles Blount, an English philosopher who wrote books on Hobbes, Spinoza, and deism and was the first person to translate Spinoza into English. Blount’s Oracles prompted English theologian Richard Bentley to write his essay “The Folly of Atheism or What Is Now Called Deism,” which accidentally introduced Benjamin Franklin to deistic thought and convinced him of deism’s validity. Franklin wrote a tract on natural religion as a young man after reading Locke, Shaftesbury, and Anthony Collins, and while he came to dislike the work in his later life he admitted that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ (transcendence) six weeks before he died.
Franklin, of course, was not the only mainline Founding Father to have found himself under the sway of this radical philosophy: Thomas Jefferson described himself as an Epicurean, a follower of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher whose materialistic conception of the universe acts as the anchor of Spinoza, deism, and the entirety of Enlightenment thought (see Stewart, Stephen Greenblatt, and Jonathan Israel for more on the Epicurean basis of modernity, Spinoza merely being the best attempt at bolstering up Epicureanism into a modern, post-Christian rationalistic philosophical program). In his letters pertaining to this topic he discourses at length about the inadequacies of Plato and Christian theology and their historical connections in a way reminiscent of Nietzsche’s later works – see his letter to Adams from the summer of 1814. Jefferson was such an admirer of Lucretius’ Epicurean epic poem De Rerum Natura that he might have carried it around with him in his pocket everywhere he went and possessed at least five copies of the work in various languages. He was also a fan of Alexander Pope, the Augustan age English poet who wrote a long poem on natural religion entitled Essay On Man, which he dedicated to Sir Bolingbroke, a member of parliament who wrote several volumes on republicanism and deism. Bolingbroke was a favorite of John Adams’, who said that he had read the entirety of his works five times. The young Madison collected deistic writings privately and was most likely a deist, as was Hamilton, both of whom nevertheless resisted the more radical democratic politics of Young and Jefferson in favor of a federal system partially influenced by the legal ideas of Montesquieu and Blackstone.
Young himself wrote a few pieces dedicated to the subject of radical philosophy and natural religion, the longest of which was published anonymously and is assumed to be Young’s by a careful analysis performed by Matthew Stewart in his book Nature’s God and in this essay of his published by Politico.
This longer essay, entitled A Sermon On Natural Religion by “A Natural Man,” acts as a kind of overview of the 18th century deistic argument: not the longest, most methodically reasoned, or learned, but the most straight forward and comprehensive presentation of these ideas. Young draws on the greatest writers of the Enlightenment, among them Leibniz, Spinoza, and Pope, to reproduce their highest insights in a succinct way that simplifies their at times superfluously complex systems into a narrative which does not get distracted, and recomposes their philosophical jargon into a rough but somewhat lyrical English that could be understood by the average American of his time and of our time too.
In fact, I believe that the doctrine evinced in Young’s essay is the doctrine that most Americans naturally believe unless they are surrounded by tireless proselytizers from any given sect, and will fall back into believing in this “God of Nature” if they escape such proselytizers’ propaganda. Most people I have met truly believe in this conception of religion already, even if they call themselves Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Pagan. It is the religion everyone wishes they could name but cannot, for its terminology has been forgotten, and its supernaturalist detractors are more fervent for, unfortunately, anxiety about eternal damnation combined with an insecurity about one’s inability to clearly demonstrate the veracity of one’s beliefs is a very efficient formula for creating zealous psychologies.
While the Sermon was published anonymously, the short piece “Creed” which follows it was published under his real name. Its contents are not nearly as daring, and by design: in it, Young states his beliefs in a way that would help prove himself innocent before a scrutinizing Christian ruling class. Regarding the historical background of “Creed,” scholar A. Owen Aldridge in his essay “Natural Religion and Deism in America before Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine” wrote:
In November 1772, Young met with other patriots of Boston to discuss measures to be taken against Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his enforcement of unpalatable royal decrees. Objecting to the radical nature of the proposals put forth by the patriots, Aaron Davis, Jr., a merchant and captain in the local artillery, declared at a subsequent meeting in Roxbury that he did not choose to be involved in any measures in which he must follow the leadership of such men as Young. When informed of Davis’s remarks, Young addressed an open letter to the Massachusetts Spy, indicating that he believed that his reputation in regard to virtue and religion was solid and well known, but that he would nevertheless publicly declare his beliefs.
Young’s creed did not silence his antagonist, who accused him in a letter to another newspaper of trying to palm himself off as a Christian. Davis also maintained that there was nothing in the creed to distinguish Young “from the most thorough paced infidels, and virulent opposers of our holy Religion.” It is significant that Samuel Adams, given his personal conservative Christianity, immediately defended Young in a spirited letter in another journal. He accused Davis of hypocrisy in attacking Young on grounds of religion when it was Young’s political influence that he wished to undermine. Making no adverse reflections on Young’s metaphysical beliefs, Adams affirmed that Davis’s “illiberal slander” would “shock decency and common sense” more than any article in Young’s creed. Young’s own reply to Davis also steered clear of religious controversy other than accusing Davis of adopting his “cloke of Christianity” for political ends. He pointedly asked Davis whether, if he were on an armed vessel being attacked by pirates, he would refuse to act in the common defense until he had catechized all the sailors to be sure that they were all as orthodox in their beliefs as he himself.
The ideas in Creed are much more Christian, but the basic tenets of the Epicurean-Spinozist worldview espoused in his Sermon still shine through, like the idea that virtue is a “reward” in of itself and that we are rewarded in the body for our good deeds. It is an immanent, this-worldly ethical doctrine, which understands virtue as Epicurus’s tetrapharmakos does: the regulation of our behavior and our desires that brings about mental tranquility, free from the terrors caused by both the guilted asceticism induced from a fear of supernatural judges and the enslavement to our bellies and genitals that comes with an overindulgence in costly and fleeting pleasures.
Beyond that, I find the Christian opposition to Young’s deism to be very fascinating. It reminds me of Savonarola versus the Medici, the Borgia, and the Renaissance at large: Savonarola with his heaving-bosom of chastising re-ssentiment re-acting against a second coming of pagan vitality, destroying irreplaceable sculptures, instruments, tapestries, original works by Botticelli and Michelangelo, and copies of Dante and Boccaccio in his great “bonfire of the vanities.” For this wave of deism was not without its re-actionaries: I by no means want to imply that the average colonist believed in these ideas, and that there wasn’t a strong presence of Christian authority in mainstream society. But the men involved in the Revolution, especially the few at its most esoteric, organizational, and world-changing levels rather than the many names that signed the Declaration or composed the first congresses, were very aware of the radical philosophies coming out of England, and these philosophies were derived from continental philosophies collectively making up the Epicurean revival that had been spawned by the Renaissance and Poggio Bracciolini’s rediscovery of Lucretius’s immanent pagan philosophical cosmology. If the return of philosophical and artistic paganism was not accepted by all in Renaissance Florence, then it was certainly not accepted in colonial America, whose Puritan settlers were by no means a distant memory. Nor could they have been a memory, for there was a real presence of Christian authority even in the Founders’ time, still influenced by Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening that had occurred in the beginning of the century. The activity of the Founders’ generation could be interpreted as a revolt not only against the British Empire but against the Great Awakening and the Ecclesiastical authorities. Many of the most notable Christians of their time were decidedly Loyalist and anti-Revolutionary, such as Ezra Stiles, the seventh president of Yale and a founder of Brown University, who wrote a sermon in defense of monarchy entitled The United States elevated to Glory and Honor in which he compared America to ancient Israel. Nathan Perkins, a Congregationalist minister of means from Hartford, Connecticut kept a journal while on a mission trip through Vermont, which he described as a wasteland of “deists & proper heathens,” lamenting that all its men of learning were deists, and the common folk not better off in their apathy for Christianity. While passing through Sunderland, Perkins spotted the house of the recently deceased Ethan Allen, whom he called “ye awful Deist Ethan Allyn … who delighted in calling himself ye old philosopher.” “Arrived at Onion-river falls & passed by Ethan Allyn’s grave,” he later added. “An awful Infidel,” Perkins continued, “one of ye wickedest men yet ever walked this guilty globe. I stopped & looked at his grave with a pious horror.”
The last piece is an article Young wrote during the Constitutional Convention for the state of Vermont (which Young himself named in honor of the Green Mountain Boys, the militia of farmers that Allen led during the Revolutionary War and pre-revolution property battles with land speculators from New York and New Hampshire). This piece likewise lacks the overt theological radicalism of the sermon, but its purpose is to take its principles and apply them to politics, to reveal to his most dedicated readers the connections between a deistic conception of the universe and the politics of democratic-republicanism. The Sermon is to Spinoza’s Ethics as the To the Inhabitants of Vermont is to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and the Tractatus Politicus. Notice how Young characterizes the colonists’ newfound independence not as a miracle but as God “put[ting] it fairly in your power to help yourselves,” which he calls “the best thing commonly done for our species.” I heard the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” all the time growing up, used by my nominally Catholic mother and grandmother as a clever way of saying “stop complaining and just do it.” The phrase actually comes from famous English deist and republican freethinker Algernon Sidney, and was subsequently popularized by Ben Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack. It sums up the deist worldview quite well: God, or Nature, cannot grant miracles, but if you deduce His rules from reason and experience and participate in them virtuously, you will acquire all that you need to attain a tranquil life. I do not know how famous it is in other countries, but I would wager the phrase is unique to America and perhaps England alone, further showing the extent to which the mythology of deism is intertwined in our culture.
Another point of interest in this final short piece is Young describing the new country’s digest as “drawn from the purest fountains of antiquity,” highlighting the continuity between the new American republic and classical philosophy and republicanism, but adds that these inheritances have been improved upon, not weakened as some of our contemporary reactionary pagans would have it, by Franklin and the astronomer David Rittenhouse: in other words, by the materialistic science and the rationalist philosophy of Enlightened modernity.
Reinterpreting the Enlightenment revolutions in this way can allow us to affirm modernity in a way that wasn’t possible before, if the reader was inclined to a Nietzschean or Burckhardtian view of history.
The American Founders weren’t the best “philosophers” in a strict sense: there have been writers throughout history who wrote more comprehensively, systematically, stylistically, or profoundly on the nature of being and human society. What can be said to the Founders’ credit is that they pulled all of this off without any help, and it worked. They created a new government without a clergy and it did not descend into chaos as it did with the French. The Founders are the most victorious philosophers of all time, because while spectacular minds like Goethe and Nietzsche had great things to say, the Founders performed it, they created a country based in nature alone and it became the sole superpower of the world. They show us that only two things are needed to carve upon the history of mankind as upon wax: philosophers and guns.
But what sort of political and philosophical program is worthy of our fighting a revolution for, of pledging “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”?
Contemporary leftism for the most part is the pity-morality of the New Testament without the social strictures of monarchism and organized clericalism of medieval Christendom, and it is eating away at our civilization’s will. Conservative Christianity, on the other hand, seems to exist only to perform damage control for this version of the Left’s desires: to explain how pity-morality is good but should be done by capitalism rather than by the government. And if Christian morality gave birth to leftism, going back to Christianity would simply reset and start again the same process that led to our decadence. Our decadence: mass immigration, welfare, mob mentality, a castrated foreign policy, and physical and aesthetic vulgarity.
On the other hand, the passive position that is atheism – secularism in the general sense that does not necessarily need lead to a belief in Christian morals – is still incapable of truly producing a culture, as all culture is birthed by mythopoetic splendor. The atheist’s barren empiricism can only lend an ear to what science tells him to make of the cosmos. He cannot create values on his own, whether political, aesthetical, or ethical. When atheism attempts to create values, it can only produce anarchism, the realization of the absence of an arche: ruling via the absence of rule, a vacuum of meaning, a relativistic and subjective criterion for art, and a slackening of the will.
Anarchism can be Primitivist, which is subject to evisceration by governments should they decide to reject the arbitrary humanitarian rules asserted by the primitivists and seize their property; Capitalist, which would in the end be indistinguishable from feudalism, as “CEOs” would use private armies to turn populations into permanent “employees”; or it can use technology and mass politics to rend the social contract in the name of Social Darwinism, which will always be defeated by the larger out-group of the “un-ideal” mankind. The only other option for atheism is Austrian-school neoliberalism or establishment libertarianism, which merely recodes the flows originally decoded by capitalism in its relentless deterritorialization of traditional social relations, the profits of which will just fund leftism in the form of the welfare state or institutional philanthropy.
The concept of immanence in Spinoza’s philosophy may allow us to overcome the nihilism of our time without falling into the trap of reactionary thought, which is also nihilism, for it collapses into an infinite regress of No-saying, a process by which the reactionary rejects ever older theological and historical developments in the name of generacy – which should immediately register to a discerning mind as a contradiction. How can we produce, go forward, by obsessively looking backward in search of where it all started “going wrong”? The notion that things have went wrong itself is unfounded – it may have always been like this (unlikely in terms of societal conditions, but human nature itself has never fundamentally changed), or maybe we are just in a transitional stage of growing pains.
For Spinoza, religion and politics are intimately entwined in roughly the same way that Plato has it in his Alcibiades: the political regime that we have is a projection of our cosmological worldview, so if we believe in a monotheistic transcendent deity or deities we will end up with feudal monarchy, but if we believe in an immanent materialistic divine substance we will view the members of mankind as fundamentally equal in a broad sense and be inclined to Republicanism. This version of equality is utterly devoid of moralism, for Spinoza’s ontology operates in a world of the Conatus, or Power, where subjects are viewed as entities which desire an increase of their power with no consideration of the transcendent concepts of good and evil. However, to increase one’s power most effectively, mankind has learned that it must form social bonds that will increase their leisure time to cultivate their abilities in peace, since all men, even if they have different levels of muscular strength or intelligence, have an equal capacity to murder one another – an insight that Spinoza picked up from Hobbes and Machiavelli. This version of political equality does not seek to “improve” our fundamental nature in the manner of the sort of social reformers Nietzsche had in mind when he mocked the ““Improvers” of mankind,” still less is its goal to level mankind into a flat plane as Jefferson made clear with his assertion of a “natural aristocracy among men,” but rather to address the shattering of the Divine Right of Kings brought on by the Death of God in a productive fashion, where we can use this newfound knowledge, namely that all the members of mankind are constituted with the same atomic material including those who claim to have the right to rule, to increase our excellence by reinstituting the notions of the classical republic and civic virtù and put an end to the medieval age’s blind toiling in internecine conflicts caused by delusions of grandeur and the politically expedient tools of Revelation, such as eschatology or God’s will.
Immanence, and especially in its 18th century deistic, Spinozistic, and Republican variations, seems to be the only way to continue in the line of flight of Greek antiquity and the Renaissance – time periods where Pity-morality loses to Self-Reliant-morality, because Nature gets the upper hand and defeats the transcendent moral-worlds dreamt up by the pitiful, and great individuals freed from the danger of pity thus emerge whose artistic, militaristic, and philosophical gifts illuminate entire millennia. This is only possible with the reemergence of the feeling for the divine essence of nature and thus of man as a part of nature, nature as a self-enclosed, eternal whole, guided by Fate, and entirely perfect if viewed from the perspective of eternity, that ultimate perspective which has the power of blessing everything under the sign of Necessity. And this naturalization of the universe leads to the demystification of the mind of man and sends him to the realization of republicanism. Classical republicanism is really synonymous with self-governance. Classical republicanism establishes the res publica, the public thing, the interrelations of our section of mankind, as that thing most worthy of our dedication and our efforts; for only by improving the republic, insofar as the republic is well-constituted and has not passed the threshold into terminal corruption (at which point we are to simply found another one), do we fight in our own interests and resist the irrationality of serving ends that weaken us into subjugation and servility, that state which has been the norm of human history. Republicanism is the only form of this-worldly politics, because it is the only way of ordering social relations so that political discourse addresses the real world and looks reality in the face, for it derives its power solely from the consent and political participation of the governed, while all other orders’ rely on mysticism, idealism, and transcendence in some form or another.
Immanence and classical Republicanism are Yes-saying: they say Yes to the world, to nature, to the God of Nature, to God-as-a-vicious-circle, to Life, to the future. They are pointed in the direction of the future, as all of the universe’s movements and changes, the universe’s constant process of coming-to-be, are Divinized by the logic of immanence. To fight for the future of this world is to worship at the altar of Natural Religion.
A SERMON ON NATURAL RELIGION. BY A NATURAL MAN
America: Boston, printed by I. Thomas, for the Author
O JEHOVA, ELOHIM ADONAI! Thou incomprehensible, deign us to adore Thy perfections; let us admire Thy wisdom, power and goodness: We praise Thee, almighty GOD, and give Thee thanks, for forming us in the manner Thou hast done: Glorified be Thy name: Every creature existing shews Thy glory, Thy might, and Thy bounty. Amen.
S E R M O N
I. CORINTHIANS, chap. ii. verse 14:
The natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
IF Saint Paul understood by the spirit of God the perpetual motion and the universal direction of all things, by which the infinite and all powerful Being governs and regulates the world, then the natural man must certainly receive the things of the spirit of God, because all his actions and motions must be necessarily directed by this perpetual, eternal and universal spirit, and without it he cannot exist at all, or have any being. But when the spirit of God is taken to be a different divine essence and substance of the almighty regulator of all things existing; then certainly the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned; that is, he understandeth them not, they are incomprehensible, supernatural and mysterious doctrines, acquired by inspiration, faith, and extraordinary divine instruction, which a natural man is entirely incapable of. Wherefore this natural man can know no more than what natural reason dictates, and leads him to. Reason is that power in the human mind, whereby it compares its several sensations, ideas, &c. either immediately one with the other, or mediately by some common measure, as Mr. LOCKE most beautifully exemplifies: if for instance we would compare two fields of different dimensions together, we can only take a chain, rod, &c. and apply it to the one in such manner, as to find the length of every side, and by casting that up, settle the contents of the one: and then proceed in like manner with the other, and then setting down the less number under the greater, subtract, and find the difference; or, should the number turnout equal, pronounce them alike. Now, if a natural man by said reason compares many objects, which occur to his contemplation, together, and considers the beautiful structure of the world, he must naturally be brought to the sublimest admiration, and adore the supreme director of all these consummate works of nature: And in reasoning in this manner he will find, that there can be no more but only one single individual, which has produced, regulates and directs all these immense bodies which we daily see; and that it is impossible, that an infinite God can have equals, or that anything can exist without or besides himself, as infinity comprehends the whole, and every atom in the universe. Such a consideration must excite in us the most awful reverence of this divine motor of all things, and induce us to adore him with the greatest religious fervour, and to praise his incomprehensible wisdom, his infinite goodness; and his consummate and all-exceeding omnipotence. Such reasoning undoubtedly will conduct a natural man to the observance of natural religion. This induces me to consider the state of a truly natural man, and how much natural religion can contribute to the happiness of such a man. To proceed herein, let us examine,
First, What is nature: Secondly, the natural man: Thirdly, Religion in general: and, Fourthly, Natural religion.
First, RIDER in his dictionary under the article of nature says, “Nature is the established order and course of material things; the series of second causes, or the law which God has impressed on matter: The action of providence, or that spiritual power diffused throughout the creation, which moves and acts in all bodies, and gives them certain properties; this, though by the ancients held to be a cause distinct from the deity, or acting together with him, is no other than God, the first cause of all things, and the preserver and ruler of all the phaenomena of nature. Sentiments or ideas consistent with the truth or reality of things; natural affection and reverence, or the principles implanted in us by the deity.” Thus far RIDER.
Secondly, The second consideration is that of a natural man: According to my conception, a natural man is a person who directs all his actions by the dictates of reason, and who contemplates the works of nature with an awful and reverent admiration.
Thirdly, Religion in general is the worship of one or more deities, according to the ideas and tenets which have been imprinted in the minds of the worshippers.
Fourthly, Natural religion is a worship and contemplation of an only infinite and eternal Being, and of his attributes, as far as human nature is capable of the investigation of them. If therefore natural religion is a worship and contemplation of an only infinite and eternal Being, &c. which I suppose no reasonable man can deny; then it follows naturally, by what has been advanced here, the natural man must certainly be of said religion, and consequently a deist. But to be the more exact, and to go distinctly to work, let us consider what is a Deist, Polytheist, and Atheist. A Deist (I comprehend in this list Arians and Unitarians) is a person who acknowledges, adores, and reveres an all-powerful wisdom and director of all the immensity, who admires the stupendous effects of his consummate productions, and who with astonishment takes a survey of the marvelous symmetry and surprizing order, wherewith all these immense bodies are directed in a most perfect regularity: What high idea must this Deist, this natural man, conceive of such an all-powerful God, when he considers the universe, and turns his mind to the contemplation of him and his works? I know the clergy commonly define a Deist, to be a person believing an only God, but denying all inspiration and revelation in general: But I believe, if I am not deceived, that they have a wrong notion of Deists; for I imagine, that no Deist or Naturalist denies an inspiration of the spirit of God, or that summum and perpetuum mobile, but is contrary convinced, that every thing is directed by it in the most beautiful manner. And how can a Naturalist deny a revelation, when God reveals himself every day to him, in the contemplation of those immense and enormous bodies, which revolve in such regular order within the boundless space of the universe? What can be to him a more convincing proof of the existence of such a perfect, all-powerful infinite Godhead? Many of the clergy will perhaps object to me in regard of what I have advanced before, and will say, It is not the question here of a natural inspiration and revelation; here is meant a particular praeter and supernatural one, delivered to some particularly chosen and elected men! Men after the heart of God, to whom he revealeth himself in visions, dreams, trances, apparitions, &c. Lo! here stands my natural man, the honest Deist. Must he not confess, that the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them &c. Stand still Deist! leave of thy reasoning, these are praeternatural, supernatural things, incomprehensible things for a man, who is guided only by reason, and knows nothing of a spiritual revelation. Captivate thy reason! Is it possible for thee to comprehend Moses’s history of the creation? What do you say of God’s planting the tree of life in the garden? What of the cunningness of the serpent? What of God forbidding Adam and Eve to eat of the tree, lest they die, and of the first parents having their free will? Confess unbelieving Deist, it is too high and too wonderful for thee! What subterfuge, what shift can you have to extricate yourself out of this labyrinth, out of this dilemma? I think there are two ways to escape this intricate abyss in some manner: Either, you must submit to an absolute implicit faith, though it seems impossible for you to believe it, and consequently turn a hypocrite; or (but incidit in Scyllam qui vult vitare Charybdim, i.e. He falls in a greater and worse danger, when he intends and strives to escape a small one.) You may say, that Moses did write in a mystical, figurative, and hyperbolical style, or rather that he, like others, who did give us the history of the aborigines, as Ovid in his metamorphoses, &c. was obliged to mix the real with the fabulous; and then beware of the ecclesiastical ban, excommunication and inquisition! Be it sufficient for the present what we have said of the Deist.
A Polytheist, is a person who believes and worships more than one God. Now, if we, as according to the definition we may do, reckon those among the Polytheists, who adore and revere a good being or God, and a bad being or the Devil; a Naturalist will discover, immediately the absurdity of such an opinion, because his reason will convince him, that there cannot be two equally powerful directors and governors of the universe, acting diametrically opposite one to another: Of the Polytheists, who worship a great many deities, the most part may be admitted to be reasonably addiction to their religion, if we suppose them, as I believe really the most part do, to adore the supreme Being, by paying worship to some of his productions, as they are ignorant in what manner they can pay sufficient homage and veneration to that infinite and all-powerful God, who comprehends every thing contained in the infinite system of this world; and I imagine this was the reason that at Athens they erected an altar, and dedicated it, To the unknown God.
We come now to consider the Atheist. An Atheist is such as believes no God at all, or an infinite eternal Being, and pays no reverence to him; on the contrary, ridicules every thing which is said of him. I cannot imagine there ever hath been, can be, or will be in future times an Atheist in theory. For as soon as a man begins to reason, and to make speculative observations, wherein theory consists, he must immediately perceive how absurd it is to think, that all that he sees and observes to move in such a beautiful order, should, or can be by chance, or without any direction; consequently he will conclude there must be an infinite regulator and perpetual motor of this universe, and that such a Being deserves to be adored, admired and respected. That there may be some Atheists by practice, I will admit, but then I do not think they can have a firm and real belief, but as stupid thoughtless brutes with only by a capricious nonsense that there might be no God. And such are unhappy enough, for they are detested, abhorred and despised by every body, as pest and plague to society. Having considered the natural man and his religion, let us make some observations on it. As the natural man is led by the dictates of nature and reason only, he never can be persuaded, that, as different even as the religious sentiments one of another may be, any one can be damned to all eternity for differing in opinions one from the other, even an Atheist himself; because every thing is by the Almighty’s direction, and all the difference of sentiments cannot detract or lessen the least thing in regard to his all-goodness or omnipotence, on the contrary, these diversities contribute to the perfection, beautifulness and accomplishment of a variegated infinite universe. The Naturalist knows, that all things by the all-powerful directions of the all-wise Being are regulated so as they happen; consequently that nothing can happen otherwise than it happens, and that all what is, is good and perfect in his kind, and contributes to the beauteous structure of the universe. The infinite Being is like a consummate Florist, who embellishes his flower-garden with all sorts of flowers of different kinds, and mixes them in such an order, and with such diversities, vicissitudes and varieties of colours and smells, that by the contrast of them, he causes such a surprising enchantment, that it turns out the most charming and most perfect object and ornament of the senses: And so has God Almighty formed the world with such varieties of actions, motions, sensations, opinions, &c. that the contrast of them gives us the highest idea of the supreme Director of all those diversified motions and actions, &c. Further, the natural man, when he reflects on the attributes of God, and reasons according to this principle, it is impossible that a thing can be and not be in the same time; he will conclude it is impossible that God can be perfect and not perfect in the same time; and as he must he necessarily perfect, that nothing whatsoever can be attributed to him, which is imperfect and hatred, envy, wrath, &c. so that all such expressions must in his opinion be taken in an hierogryphical [sic], mystical and figurative sense; that his God must be all goodness, and consequently that he cannot decree any one to everlasting damnation, as he formed every thing for the best of its kind: Who can therefore with more propriety enjoy to much happiness, and the real summum bonum than the natural man, who by infallible principles is fully persuaded that he has nothing to fear from, nor to do with, an irascible, cruel, wrathful or vindictive Deity, but with an all-good, all-perfect, and all-powerful God, who directs and modifies every thing with the most surprising order in such a manner, that all what is, and exists, is in its kind perfect, and for the best of the world, and all what it contains. It is likewise very difficult for a man, who is a Naturalist, to imagine or believe, that only this little earth should contain rational animals called men, and that no others of that kind should any other way subsist, but solely the descendants of Adam, and that out of those, according to the doctrine of some theologers, at least ninety-nine in a hundred should go to Hell and eternal damnation. No! he rather supposes, and with great reason, that other celestial bodies comprehend as well rational animals as this earth; and as for Adam’s descendants, he thinks that never a-one is to go to Hell, and burn everlastingly, as it is inconsistent with the perfections of God Almighty. I shall conclude with the sentiments of a natural man: Mr. Ferguson in his astronomy, p. 24 gives us his spirited thoughts in the following lines, “Every person who looks upon and compares the many systems of moons together, which belong to Jupiter and Saturn, must be amazed at the vast magnitude of these two planets, and the noble attendance they have in respect of our little earth, and can never bring himself to think, that an infinite wise creator should dispose of all his animals and vegetables here, leaving the other planets bare, and destitute of rational creatures: To suppose that he had any view to our benefit in creating these moons, and giving them their motions round Jupiter and Saturn, to imagine that he intended these vast bodies for any advantage to us, when he well knew that they could never be seen but by a few Astronomers peeping through telescopes; and that he gave to the planets regular returns of days and nights, and different reasons to all where they would be convenient, but of no manner of service to us, except what immediately regards our own planet the earth; to imagine, I say, that he did all this on our account, would be charging him impiously with having done much in vain, and as absurd as to imagine that he has created a little sun, and a planetary system within the shell of our earth, and intended them for our use. These considerations amount to little less than a positive proof that all the planets are inhabited, for if they are not, why all this care in furnishing them with so many moons, to supply those with light which are at the greater distance from the sun. Do we not see, that the farther a planet is from the sun, the greater apparatus it has for that purpose? Save only Mars, which being but a small planet may have moons too small to be seen by us. We know that the earth goes round the sun and turns round its own axis, to produce the vicissitudes of summer and winter by the former, and of day and night by the latter motion, for the benefits of its inhabitants. May we not then fairly conclude by parity of reason that the end and design of all the other planets is the same? And is not this agreeable to the beautiful harmony which exists throughout the universe? Surely it is, and raises in us the most magnificent ideas of the supreme Being, who is every where and at all times present, displaying his power, wisdom and goodness among his creatures, and distributing happiness to innumerable ranks of various beings.
Let us praise the Lord! Praised be the Governor of the universe, his infinite power, the immensity of his works, and his incomprehensible bounty be praised! Glorified be the name of God! His incomparable goodness, his wisdom and all his perfections be adored, admired and exalted. AMEN.
My creed is this.
I believe in one eternal God, whose being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice and beneficence are altogether inconceivable to such atoms of animated matter as are yourself and I.
2dly. I believe that this God possessing infinite space with all its amazing furniture of habitable mansions, created forth beings as we are, that they might enjoy the bounties of his grace which must otherwise have run to waste or at least have existed to no purpose.
3dly. I believe that the happiness of his creatures being the concern of the supreme God himself, might in consequence be the concern of every intelligent [being?] under his government.
4thly. I believe, that in the order of nature and providence, the man who most assiduously endeavours to promote the will of God in the good of his fellow creatures, receives the most simple reward of his virtue, that peace of mind and silent applause of a good conscience, which administers more solid satisfaction than all the other enjoyments of life put together.
5thly. On the other hand I believe, that the man who endeavours to build up either his fortune or fame on the ruin of the estate or character of his neighbour, acts contrary to the rule of right, and in consequence must fall short of that approbation from God and his own conscience, which the performance of his known duty would have ensured him of.
6thly. I, most explicitly believe that all men shall be rewarded for the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or evil, according to the eternal rule of right, by which the sovereign judge of the universe squares all his decrees.
Two Major Principles:
1st. To believe that God is, and the rewarder of all those that diligently seek him.
2d. To do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. The standard of justice among us being, As ye would that others should do unto you do ye also unto them in like manner.
To the INHABITANTS of VERMONT, a Free and Independent State, bounding on the River CONNECTICUT and Lake CHAMPLAIN.
G E N T L E M E N, P H I L A D E L P H I A, April 11, 1777.
NUMBERS of you are knowing to the zeal with which I have exerted myself in your behalf from the beginning of your struggle with the New-York Monopolizers. As the Supreme Arbiter of right has smiled on the just cause of North-America at large, you in a peculiar manner have been highly favored. God has done by you the best thing commonly done for our species. He has put it fairly in your power to help yourselves.
I have taken the minds of several leading Members in the Honorable the Continental Congress, and can assure you that you have nothing to do but send attested copies of the Recommendation to take up government to every township in your district, and invite all your freeholders and inhabitants to meet in their respective townships and chuse members for a General Convention, to meet at an early day to chuse Delegates for the General Congress, a Committee of Safety, and to form a Constitution for your State.
Your friends here tell me that some are in doubt whether Delegates from your district would be admitted into Congress. I tell you to organize fairly, and make the experiment, and I will ensure your success at the risqué of my reputation, as a man of honor or common sense. Indeed they can by no means refuse you! You have as good a right to chuse how you will be governed, and by whom, as they had.
I have recommended to your Committee the Constitution of Pennsylvania for a model, which, with a very little alteration, will, in my opinion, come as near perfection as any thing yet concerted by mankind. This Constitution has been fisted [?] with all the criticism that a band of despots were masters of, and has bid defiance to their united powers.
The alteration I would recommend is, that all the Bills intended to be passed into Laws should be laid before the Executive Board for their perusal and proposals of amendment. All the difference then between such a Constitution and those of Connecticut and Rhode-Island, in the grand outlines is, that in one case the Executive power can advise and in the other compel. For my own part, I esteem the people at large the true proprietors of governmental power. They are the supreme constituent power, and of course their immediate Representatives are the supreme delegate power; and as soon as the delegate power gets too far out of the hands of the constituent power, a tyranny is in some degree established.
Happy are you that in laying the foundation of a new government, you have a digest drawn from the purest fountains of antiquity, and improved by the readings and observations of the great Doctor FRANKLIN, DAVID RITTENHOUSE, Eiq; and others. I am certain you may build on such a basis a system which will transmit liberty and happiness to posterity.
Let the scandalous practice of bribing men by places, commissions, &c. be held in abhorrence among you. By entrusting only men of capacity and integrity in public affairs, and by obliging even the best men to fall into the common mass of the people every year, and be sensible of their need of the popular good will to sustain their political importance, is your liberties well secured. These plans effectually promise this security.
May Almighty God smile upon your arduous and important undertaking, and inspire you with that wisdom, virtue, public spirit and unanimity, which ensures success in the most hazardous enterprizes!
I am, Gentlemen, Your sincere friend and humble servant,
T H O M A S Y O U N G
A POEM SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF JAMES WOLFE
A narrative poem Young composed at 28 dedicated to Major-General James Wolfe of the British Army who died during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Despite his heroic death, his men were victorious. The battle was pivotal and led to Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War, solidifying British control over North America.