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Deism vs Puritanism in 18th Century America

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The back half of the 18th century was a time of great change in the Thirteen Colonies. The road to independence was being established, while at the same time, significant shifts in theology, thinking, and reason were taking place. The Puritans and the Deists, two groups who were seemingly worlds apart exemplify this movement. Puritans, present in the colonies since the 17th century, were English Protestants who held strict religious beliefs. Deists, on the other hand emerged late in the 18th century, determined to measure everything through reason. Behind the writings of Puritans such as John Winthrop, Michael Wigglesworth, and Samuel Willard and Deists such as Benjamin Franklin, it becomes clear that colonists living in immediate proximity had entirely different views on the proper way to live. In this paper, I will examine the social impact of the contrasting Puritan and Deist views on human nature, God’s interaction and influence in colonists’ everyday life, and the existence of an afterlife, all while holding the analogous belief in a God who created the universe.

Nearly all groups throughout the history of mankind have held strong views on human nature; the Puritans and Deists are no different. However, there is a reversal of thought between the groups. The Puritans held the belief that mankind was intrinsically evil, destined for hell from birth unless predetermined by God to go to heaven. Puritans considered people to have free will to do evil and good, however, “This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority… This [kind of liberty] is the great enemy of truth and peace”. Winthrop speaks to the free will of man and states that without God, humans will grow more evil over time until they are worse than beasts.

Despite this, the presence of God allows for moral liberty, “…in reference to the covenant between God and man… This liberty is the proper end and object of authority and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest”. In this view, Winthrop is conveying that living through God is the only way to stay on the righteous path, without God humans will always revert to their intrinsically vile nature. Starkly at odds, the Deists believed that all men were created equal, and their dealings with the surrounding world resulted in their lives, free of outside influence. Deists believed that humans could shape themselves, in Franklin’s case, he forms a “club of mutual improvement… require that every member, in his turn should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy”. This desire to better oneself lead Deists to gain a new confidence in what humans were capable of, resulting in a will to learn, discuss, and make discoveries. Essentially the prevailing Deist thought on human nature is that humans’ equality at birth allows any person to make their life what they want it to be, hinging on the way they choose to live.

Religious conflict between the Puritans and Deists can immediately be seen through their contrasting ideas of God’s daily interaction with people. The puritans fanatically lived their religion at the expense of human leisure on earth. The held steadfast in a belief of an inherently wicked mankind resulted in a human race unworthy of the eternal salvation that only God could provide. By this line of thought, Puritans attempted to serve and honor God in all aspects of life, with the eventual hope of salvation. Acting out against the church was seen as abhorrent, an offense punishable by death. At the same time, they believed that God put people through trials and tribulations in order to test their worthiness. This can be seen through the possession case of Elizabeth Knapp, documented by Samuel Willard, a minister in Massachusetts. In this case, a teenage Knapp claims the Devil tempted her with, “…things that suited her youthful fancy: money, skills, fine clothes, ease from labor”, before possessing her. Although the outcome and circumstances of this case are not clear as Knapp is suspected of lying by some, Willard would go on to publish a sermon about the event, suggesting god used Knapp as a, “divine warning to young people to mend their ways, and if they did not let Christ reign over them, He might give them to Satan”.

On the other hand, Deists did not believe their god played any part in day-to-day life. Deists did believe in a god, just not the way Puritans did. Where Puritans saw miracles as supernatural achievements, Franklin saw acts that could be explained by science, or lessons that were not to be taken literally. Although Franklin grew up Puritan, “The Bible had indeed no weight with me” he considered it as a moral guide instead of the word of God. This attitude was held by most Deists and led them to live their lives in a manor based on morals and reason rather than in honor of God.

Another theological conflict between the Puritans and Deists comes in the belief of an afterlife. Puritans not only believed in heaven and hell, they held a concept known as predestination, meaning that God has chosen who is blessed to heaven and doomed to hell before they are born. Puritan minister Michael Wigglesworth’s 17th century poem, The Day of Doom exemplifies this concept. In it, he states, “the Son of God most dread; Who with his Train comes on amain; To Judge both Quick and Dead”. Jesus Christ, the Son of God has come back to judge and doom those not deserving to hell, or take the destined ones to heaven. This poem goes on to explain that everyone who does not hear or understand the gospel will be doomed to hell, meaning that babies, young children, and the mentally retarded are all doomed. In contrast, Deism is built on the grounds that there is no afterlife at all.

The Deist god created the world and left it to run in the way humans see fit, there is no need for an afterlife. “Pleasure is that Satisfaction which arises in the Mind upon, and is caused by, the accomplishment of our Desires, and by no other Means at all; and those Desires being above shown to be caused by our Pains or Uneasiness, it follows the Pleasure is wholly caused by Pain, and by no Thing at all”. Here Franklin explains that pleasure is purely response to pain, and they act as yin and yang to balance each other out perfectly. Therefore, if this is the case there is no need for salvation through an afterlife and all that exists is a human’s life on earth.

One of the few similarities between the Puritans and the Deists is the belief in a God, who created mankind and the universe, placing all things in perfect order and for reason. However, the Puritans believed that God heavily influenced their day-to-day lives, and demanded their lives to be in his honor. Likewise, Franklin believed in an all-powerful God who created everything for a reason, however, Franklin thought of God as a figure of order who played no part in the everyday lives of humans. Although opinions of God’s interactions were different between the groups they both held onto to the stance of not questioning an omniscient creator.

The lives of Puritans and Deists in the back half of the 18th century was shaped by their contrasting views on human nature, belief of God’s impact in everyday life, and fear (or lack thereof) of admittance into the afterlife. While the Puritans believed the common man to be wicked and evil, and hopeless without God, the Deists thought of everyone as equal, with the opportunity to better themselves. While the Puritans lived in constant fear of a majestic yet vengeful God, the Deists aimed to live in a way that was influenced by their thought and reason, without supernatural influences. Finally, while Puritans attempted to honor God in everyday tasks in the hope of one day gaining eternal salvation, Deists acted in the present to gain better understanding of the world around them through thought and reason, with no hope for life after death. These contrasting ideas led two groups, living in immediate proximity to lead lives that were worlds apart.

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