The Reading Room
Ethan Allen, Individualism, and Deism
It is extraordinarily telling that Ethan Allen returned at the end of his life to the project of his teens, the manuscript he started with Thomas Young decades earlier. He completed it in 1785 and struggled to find a publisher to face the controversy inevitable when a Revolutionary War hero declared for deism and against Christianity.
A Vermont publisher, with a subsidy from Allen, brought out the book in 1785 as Reason: The Only Oracle of Man. It is described even today as an Allen “polemic,” like his earlier tracts on political controversies, but directed now at religion, the Bible, churches, and the “priesthood.”
The book failed to sell, and critics execrated Allen. The future president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, theologically conservative even for the time, called the style “crude and vulgar” and “the sentiments…coarser than the style, flimsy and unmeaning, and the conclusions…fastened on the premises by mere force.”
Not that Allen was alone among deists prominent in the period. Commonly mentioned along with Allen are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer, and Philip Freneau. (Among their counterparts in Britain were Matthew Tindal, Thomas Morgan, and Thomas Amory.) The thinking of American deists had been shaped by English and French Enlightenment philosophers.
And, of course, Enlightenment premises of reason, free will, earthly happiness, man’s rights, and limited government informed the American Revolution and shaped the U.S. Constitution. It is safe to say those ideas in politics were anathema to British conservative opinion. But when it came to deism, Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine, at least, wrote in positive terms. Allen did, too, but also asserted deism to the extreme prejudice of the sacred doctrines of Christianity and its churches.
Allen began by explaining he thought himself a deist but had not read the deists. In fact, he did espouse deism, but also the naturalistic views of Benedict Spinoza and an early version of Transcendentalism. His nevertheless is unmistakably an Enlightenment philosophy, adamant that reason is man’s window on reality, efficacious, and that we can know God only through the natural world—not by any supernatural knowledge.
The critical attacks appear to have left Allen untroubled. He expected them from the professional religious fraternity.
His book, in fact, is impressively reasoned Enlightenment philosophy. His arguments unfold from epistemology to natural theology to consideration of man’s ability to discern good and evil—and then to challenges to the ideas of eternal damnation and the metaphysical reality of evil and to the contradictions in the scriptures and comparative religion. Arguments from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas such as God as First Cause can be discerned. At times, Allen makes arguments in defense of reason that today are often forgotten:
Those who invalidate reason, ought seriously to consider, whether they argue against reason, with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle, that they are laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason, (which, in order to be consistent with themselves, they must do,) they are out of the reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.
How radical are Allen’s positions? He asserts God’s omnipotence, his absolute goodness, and his authorship of Creation. He asserts the supreme importance of human morality guided by reason. He affirms an afterlife that may involve limited punishments for evil in this life but not eternal damnation.
His opposition to organized religion and its roots in divine revelation is uncompromising as is his scorn for demands of faith, the concept of those “elect” versus those damned, claims to Biblical infallibility, and a fatalistic or deterministic view of human life.
Allen repeatedly cites history, quotes scripture, and challenges religious sects; but always he recurs to the credo of Enlightenment:
Duty to God “lays an indispensable obligation on the philosophic friends of human nature, unanimously to exert themselves…to reclaim mankind from the ignorance and delusion……I am persuaded that if mankind would dare to exercise reason as freely on those divine topics as they do in the common concerns of life, they would, in great measure, rid themselves of their blindness and superstition, gain more exalted ideas of God and their obligations to him and one another, and be proportionally delighted and blessed with the view of his moral government, make better members of society, and acquire many powerful incentives to the practice of morality which is the last and greatest perfection that human nature is capable of.”
Allen’s impassioned involvement in the American Revolutionary war cannot be understood in isolation from his deism. A crucial concept of America’s founding philosophy was that man’s reasoning mind, his capacity for independent judgment and action, justified an entirely new level of individual responsibility. That, in turn, required historically unprecedented freedom under limited government.
The same philosophical premises and logic gave rise to deism. In the same year that Allen completed Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, James Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance, On the Religious Rights of Man (1784-85):
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.
Could there be a more radical assertion of individual responsibility? And the same arguments are heard in advocacy of individual freedom and responsibility under a government constitutionally limited in its powers.
Deism can be understood as one logical extension of the Protestant Reformation, which was propelled by arguments of Martin Luther and others for the individual’s empowerment in religion based upon a direct, unmediated relationship with God made possible by the Bible.
This became “a core part of the identity of the United States: The Bill of Rights explicitly forbids ‘establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Over 400 years in the making, this belief in personal empowerment and independence in religious matters, with its roots in the Protestant Reformation, has become an enduring part of the American mindset."