The Corner

No, the Original Tea Partier Was Not an ‘Atheist’

In Politico, Matthew Stewart writes:

Generations of devoted American history buffs have spent countless hours reading and writing long books about the American Revolution without ever having come across the name of Dr. Thomas Young. Yet it was Young who came up with the idea for the original tea party—the one in Boston Harbor. And he went on from there to help kick off the Revolution in Pennsylvania, co-write the first modern constitution, and name the state of Vermont. The reason he isn’t well remembered today is just this: The grandfather of today’s Tea Party was an atheist in all but name.

Later, Stewart fleshes out this claim, albeit with a notable lack of direct quotations:

In a number of newspaper essays, anonymously published pamphlets and uncomfortably personal confessions, he announced that he was not a Christian but a “deist.” What he meant by that was something quite radical indeed.

The universe, said Young, is infinite, eternal and everywhere abounding in life. There is no other world, no heaven but the starry sky above, no hell but the fictions that other people create. There is a deity, worthy of great praise, but it acts only according to reason and through the laws of nature. It has no need for holy books, prophets or priests. It is ultimately indistinguishable from its creation: nature itself. The study of nature, or science, is the only acceptable form of worship. Morality is grounded entirely in nature. And the moral life is itself the only religion worth the name.

Young called his creed “the religion of nature” and “the religion of nature’s God.” And he made abundantly clear that, in his own mind, this radical philosophical religion was the axis on which the Revolution turned. For him, the project to free the American people from the yoke of King George III was part of a grander project to liberate the world from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion.

This theory has but one small flaw: It’s nonsense. As Phil Kerpen noted earlier in the week, Young doesn’t seem to have been an “atheist” at all. Instead, he appears to have been a pretty standard Deist — with the emphasis on the “Dei.” Having been attacked for his lack of orthodoxy in 1772, Young wrote the following letter to the Massachusetts Spy:

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 for 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 order of nature and providence, the man who most assiduously endeavors to promote the will of God in the good of his fellow creatures, receives the most simple reward of his virtue, the peace of mind and silent applause of a good conscience, which administers more solid satisfaction than all of the other enjoyments of life put together.

5thly. On the other hand I believe, that the man who endeavors to build up his fortune or fame on the ruin of the estate or character of his neighbor, 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 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 decrees.

We have, then, a man who believed a) that there is a God, and b) that this God has a “will,” is concerned with the “happiness” of people,” and is capable of “approbation.” Moreover, we have a man whose religion, in his own words, was predicated upon two major ideas:

1st. To believe that God is, and the rewarder of all those that diligently seek him. 2d. To do justly, and to love mercy among us being, As ye would that others do unto you do also unto them in like manner.

This is not “atheism.” Atheism is the belief that there is no God. It is not the belief that there might be a God, or that God doesn’t have a beard, or that God is there but that he’s not interested in the NFL. It is the belief that there is no God at all. If one wishes to be honest, one can’t merely take the words of a Deist and, comparing him to the more ardent beliefs of his contemporaries, designate him as an “atheist.” Thomas Young, by his own testimony, was not an atheist. Like Thomas Jefferson, he was a Deist. Deists are not atheists, however hard one squints. The case falls.

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