Gregg Frazer is the best-known scholar trying to exclude thinkers like the Christian deists from being considered Christian. Frazer asserts that in the eighteenth century there was a remarkable unanimity about the basic core content of Christianity. These core, defining doctrines were clearly listed in the official creeds of the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations. According to Frazer, these central doctrines were the Trinity, original sin, Virgin Birth, Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, hell, justification by faith, the atonement, and the inspiration of all of Scripture. Frazer maintained belief or non-belief in these doctrines constituted a clear dividing line in the eighteenth century between Christians and infidels. He thus declared that thinkers like the Christian deists I am discussing should not be called Christian as they were considered infidels by all their contemporaries.[lviii]
Frazer is focused on eighteenth-century American thinkers, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. By my definition given earlier that Christian deists were deists who dedicated their theological writings to restoring pure Christianity, I would include both of these thinkers as Christian deists. (Elsewhere I argue that both Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by English Christian deists.)[lix] Frazer says the thinkers I am calling Christian deists considered themselves Christian based on their ‘own definition of Christianity, which did not comport with the way every major church defined it.’ He goes further, saying these thinkers ‘appropriated the word Christianity and attached it to a belief system that they constructed and found more to their liking than authentic Christianity.’ He concludes by saying these thinkers ‘rejected Christianity. Consequently, it is improper and misleading to include a form of the word Christian in a term for those whom I describe as theistic rationalists.’[lx]
Frazer’s argument for the exclusion of the Christian deists from Christianity, and from using the name Christian is based on the churches’ creeds establishing a strong dividing line between Christian and non-Christian in the eighteenth century. These creeds, however, did not actually perform this function in the eighteenth century. For example, in the most important English church, the Church of England, the church’s beliefs were legally encapsulated in the Thirty-nine Articles, and every minister had to subscribe or say he believed in these articles. These articles clearly state that the doctrines Frazer mentions were the official doctrines of the Church of England. The problem for Frazer’s argument, though, was that during this time there were two main factions in the Church of England, and they had very different ideas about what subscribing to these Articles meant. One faction of the church’s clergy, the conservative, tradition-minded High Church faction, said that subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles meant believing in the traditional doctrines that Frazer mentions. The other faction in the Church of England, the Latitudinarians, did not agree.
The Latitudinarians emphasized reason and natural religion as well as the Bible. When scholars refer to an English clerical Enlightenment in which the ministers emphasized reason and science, they are primarily thinking of the Latitudinarians. Many of the Latitudinarian ministers were prominent figures in English science: one Latitudinarian, Joseph Glanvill was a major apologist for the Royal Society and New Science; another, Samuel Clarke, was a collaborator with Isaac Newton on his scientific and mathematical works. As proponents of science, the Latitudinarians had a very positive attitude towards reason. One prominent Latitudinarian minister, Richard Bentley, said the Latitudinarians were “as much concerned” as the deists “for the use and authority of reason in controversies of faith.” He thought reason so supported Christianity “that the Christian religion is so far from declining or fearing the strictest trials of reason, that it every where appeals to it, is defended and supported by it. . . .”[lxi] The Latitudinarians also had a very positive attitude towards natural religion. One Latitudinarian bishop, Dr. Sherlock, identified Christianity with natural religion, saying, “the Gospel was a Republication of the Law of Nature, . . . which was as old as the Creation.”[lxii]
Many Latitudinarians, because of their emphasis on reason and natural religion, no longer believed in the doctrines contained in the Thirty-nine Articles. They even openly announced that subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles did not mean they believed in the doctrines the articles said were the official church teachings. One of the Latitudinarian bishops, Gilbert Burnet, with the blessing and encouragement of many other Latitudinarian bishops, wrote a long book explaining the Latitudinarian way of interpreting the articles.[lxiii] Burnet said the articles were deliberately written in such a way they “can admit of different literal and grammatical senses.” He wrote that people could interpret the articles to contain the beliefs Frazer describes. But he also wrote the articles could be interpreted in a sense which contradicted some of its traditional doctrines. Burnet said that this meant people who did not agree with the traditional doctrines “may subscribe the Article with a good Conscience, and without any Equivocation.”[lxiv]
Leaders of the High Church faction accused Burnet, one of the foremost bishops of the Church of England, of heresy. In 1701, they even convened a formal investigation of his book by a committee of the lower house of convocation. The committee charged Burnet’s book with endorsing positions that were “contrary to the true meaning of them [the articles] and to other receiv’d doctrines of our Church.” They argued his methods of interpretation stripped the creeds of any authority and encouraged people who did not agree with the creeds to subscribe to them. They further charged that Burnet’s subordination of revelation to reason and natural religion logically led to deism.[lxv]
The High Church faction was unable to have Burnet declared a heretic,[lxvi] and they were unable to force the Latitudinarians to accept that subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles meant agreeing with the traditional church doctrines. In fact, Burnet’s book became mandatory reading in the eighteenth century for future ministers during the process of their ordination, thus ensuring that future ministers of the Church of England were exposed to the Latitudinarian way of viewing the articles.[lxvii] A German visitor to England at the end of the eighteenth century, Gebhard Friedrich Wendeborn, described the results of the ministers’ exposure to Burnet’s views. Wendeborn said he heard that a great part of the English clergy were inclined to the heresies of either Arminianism or Socinianism. He said these ministers did not resign as they wanted a minister’s salary, and ‘they have even bishop Burnet for an advocate, who is of opinion, that every one who subscribes to the Thirty-Nine Articles, has a right to interpret their meaning as he thinks proper, and consistently with his private opinions.’[lxviii]
Official church creeds fail to give a clear dividing line between Christian and non-Christian for members of the Church of England. Creeds also fail to give this clear dividing line in the eighteenth-century Presbyterian Church. Frazer is right that the Westminster Confession of Faith was the official creed of the Presbyterian Church. However, in the early eighteenth century, the Presbyterian ministers in England decided that their ministers no longer had to agree with this creed. After one prominent Presbyterian minister was accused of preaching Arianism, in 1719 the Presbyterian ministers held a synod in London at Salters’ Hall to discuss whether it should be required that all ministers believe in the Trinity. The synod decided this important belief, and every other belief in the Westminster Confession, should not be required of English Presbyterian ministers. Instead, all Presbyterian ministers were free to believe and preach whatever they thought the Bible contained. As a result of the synod at Salters’ Hall, one scholar said, “the majority of Presbyterians were on the side of rejecting the authority of the Westminster Confession and the 39 Articles. . . .” After this time, Arianism became an acceptable and even popular opinion among the Presbyterian ministers in England.[lxix]