One of the most prevalent misconceptions about the Enlightenment period (1687-1794) is that its thinkers believed in a watchmaker God who never performed miracles because he governed the world through immutable natural laws. The historian Carl Becker articulated this common conception of the Enlightenment God; he said that the Enlightenment thinkers “denied miracles ever happened” because their God “having performed his essential function of creation, it was proper for him to withdraw from the affairs of men into the shadowy places where absolute being dwells.”[i] The Enlightenment thinkers supposed denial of miracles is commonly portrayed as part of their larger worldview which saw God as remote, impersonal and abstract, and as an important aspect of their march towards secular modernity.
Peter Gay’s work, with its emphasis on the French experience, was the epitome of viewing the Enlightenment as a steppingstone to modern secularism.[ii] In the last couple of decades this view of the Enlightenment has been challenged by many scholars and the French experience is no longer taken as paradigmatic. The non-secular character of the period has been highlighted in S. J. Barnett’s The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity[iii] and in the book Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe, edited by James E. Bradley and Dale K. Van Kley.[iv] This paper is part of this trend of emphasizing the period’s non-secularism by showing that a significant number of the most prominent and influential figures of the period believed in miracles.
These thinkers included Newton, Locke, Hutcheson, Reid, Wolff, Franklin, Priestley, Linnaeus, Euler, and Kant. They flourished in every period of the Enlightenment and came from many different countries. While it is not possible to take a poll of dead white men to see whether they believed in miracles or not, from a decade of researching a book on the Enlightenment thinkers’ conception of God, I found the vast majority of them who expressed an opinion on the subject believed in miracles.
Most Enlightenment thinkers defined a miracle as God changing the usual order of the laws of nature. The vast majority of Enlightenment thinkers believed God had made the natural laws and could suspend them whenever he wished. For example, In his “Essay on Miracles,” the English deist John Trenchard said a miracle was when God altered the usual order of the universe: “A Miracle or actio mirabilis, is an action to be wondered at; as when God Almighty interposes, and by his omnipotent power alters the order he at first placed the universe in, or enables or empowers other beings to do so.”[v] Sometimes the Enlightenment thinkers used the words “particular providence” interchangeably with the word miracle. A particular providence happened when God or an angel cared for someone outside the general course of nature (which was seen as God’s general providence).[vi]
Deciding whether someone believed in miracles is complicated by the fact that many thinkers would say that God always worked through immutable natural law and then in the next sentence, paragraph, chapter or a later book they would say that God also worked miracles. The German philosopher Leibniz was an example of this. He thought a wise God would not need to do miracles as that meant that he had not had enough foresight to do things right at the beginning of time. For this reason Leibniz attacked Newton’s idea that God periodically did miracles to keep the world clock running well. Nevertheless, as will be discussed later in this paper, Leibniz thought God and the angels did miracles. Some commentators see this as inconsistent thinking, which it certainly seems to be. But after seeing this inconsistency many times, I decided that saying God worked through immutable natural laws was often shorthand for saying God almost always worked like that. If a person said God did miracles or particular providences, regardless of their status on the inviolability of natural laws, I counted them as believing in miracles unless they believed in miracles when they were younger and they later changed their beliefs.
The dividing line between someone believing in miracles or immutable laws sometimes gets fuzzy. Two British deists, William Wollaston and Thomas Morgan, said natural laws were never violated but they also said there were miracles or particular providences. They were not being inconsistent because they said the miracles were done by angels who, while caring for us, never violated any natural laws.[vii] Would we count these two thinkers as believing in miracles? If we think of miracles as emphasizing divine caring outside the natural laws that apply to humans and other physical beings or forces, then it is obviously a miracle. If a car is about to hit someone’s child and an angel swoops down and saves him, even if the angel is not breaking any natural laws, it sure seems like a miracle to the child’s parent. But if a miracle is defined as breaking natural laws and angels are considered part of nature, then maybe it is not a miracle because the angel was just swooping as angels naturally do. Counting these two English deists as believing in miracles is not problematical, though, because they both say the angelic actions are particular providences or miracles.
The scientist Joseph Priestley considers situations like this and concludes from them “it is improper to say that the laws of nature are violated in [the] working of miracles.”[viii] Priestley, like Wollaston and Morgan, thought superhuman interventions do not break the laws of nature from the perspective of the higher spiritual beings. This means that all three of these writers are including the actions of angels and the deity as part of the normal course of nature and so they are not breaking the laws when they help people. Priestley decides that something is a miracle “if it demonstrates the interposition of a power superior to human.”[ix] While this definition has its own problems, I think Priestley’s definition of a miracle is the best that can be arrived at in short order. Thus I will count people as believing in miracles if they say angels or God intervened to help (or chastise) someone, regardless of whether they thought any natural laws were broken. This accounts for the fact that many Enlightenment thinkers thought angels and God acted in accord with natural laws when they performed what humans consider miracles.
Another problem telling whether someone believed in miracles or not is whether a prayer answered by God counts as a miracle. Casanova, the great lover, said that God had saved him from dire situations many times by answering his prayers.[x] Does he believe in miracles because of these answered prayers? The answer probably depends on the situations he was saved from (which he does not elaborate on), our feelings towards his activities, and how God helped him. The great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler makes the case of answered prayers even more complicated. Euler defended the conventional religious view that we should pray and said God would answer prayers “provided they are conformable to the precepts which he has given us.” He then says philosophy however teaches that everything happens in strict accordance with the laws of nature. Euler reconciled these two ideas by saying that from the beginning of time God knew who would pray to him and when. God then set up the natural course of events to answer the prayers that he wanted to without violating any natural laws. Would these answered prayers count as miracles or not? That could be a difficult call, and Euler does not really say, but considering that he said elsewhere that the Biblical miracles happened, he is in the camp of those who believed in miracles.[xi]
Considering all the nuances of what exactly counts as believing in a miracle is beyond the scope of this paper. Moreover, it is not necessary to deal with these nuances as the vast majority of thinkers that will be discussed state a clear belief in miracles or particular providences in which God or angels helped or chastised people. My strategy in this paper is to discuss the most important thinkers from the three likeliest groups to be against miracles: scientists, philosophers, and deists. These people were the leading thinkers of the time. If the Enlightenment thinkers in general emphasized a distant clockmaker God who always worked through natural law, scientists, philosophers and deists would generally be against miracles. I will particularly emphasize the scientists as they would have been the most likeliest group to have been for immutable natural laws and thus be against miracles. I will discuss many prominent thinkers from different time periods and countries and show that they believed in miracles. This will hopefully convince the reader that the common conception that Enlightenment thinkers in general were against miracles is mistaken.
Scientists for miracles
The most important scientist in the Enlightenment was Isaac Newton. Newton was very religious, and he was adamant that a god who only made the world and did not actively direct it was not really God. He thought an inactive divinity was just another word for fate. Newton said of God that “we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion, for we adore him as servants; and a god without dominion, providence, and final causes is nothing else but Fate and Nature.” [xii] Newton believed in miracles and also had an important place for them in his scientific scheme: he thought God continually fixed the irregular planetary orbits and thus stopped the solar system from collapsing into itself. Newton said there were “some very small irregularities which may have arisen from the mutual Actions of the Planets and Comets upon one another; and which tis probable will in length of Time increase more and more, till the present System of Nature shall want to be anew put in Order by its Author.” [xiii] Newton also believed that gravity was not inherent in matter because matter was totally passive. Instead, gravity was caused by God’s continual action and without God’s continuing activity, gravity would cease. So Newton’s God was not a detached, shadowy figure because the clock that was the universe needed periodic rewinding as well as God’s continual activity to keep it moving.
The German mathematician and scientist Gottfried Leibniz wondered about Newton’s God; he said that a god who needed to continually improve his creation was not an allwise god. With Newton’s help and approval, the English divine Samuel Clarke responded to Leibniz. Clarke said that an intervening God was not a lesser God. He asserted that as God always governed and directed the world, nothing was ever done without God’s involvement. Nor did it diminish God to be involved with the world because nothing could ever possibly exist independently of God.[xiv] For this reason, the distinction between natural and supernatural events was not an important one because God did all things. It was a distinction merely from our viewpoint, not from God’s point of view.[xv] Finally, Clarke charged that Leibniz’s conception of God excluded God’s providence from the world and would ultimately end in materialism and atheism. Clarke said that God
is himself the author and continual preserver of their [all things in the world] original forces or moving powers. And consequently ’tis not a diminution but the true glory of his workmanship that nothing is done without his continual government and inspection. The notion of the world’s being a great machine, going on without the interposition of God, as a clock continues to go without the assistance of a clockmaker, is the notion of materialism and fate and tends (under the pretense of making God a supramundane intelligence) to exclude providence and God’s government in reality out of the world . . . so whoever contends that the course of the world can go on without the continual direction of God, the supreme governor, his doctrine does in effect tend to exclude God out of the world.
Clarke’s view of God’s direct and continual involvement in the world was Newton’s view, and a common one in the period, especially for scientists.
The most important proponents of Newtonian science thought God performed miracles. William Whiston, who followed Newton in the Lucasian chair at Cambridge, and who was among the first to give popular lectures on Newtonian science, believed strongly in miracles. He said that “God appears to act by certain and constant Laws of Motion … at all Times, and in all Places…Those only cases are to be excepted wherein God is pleased to interpose in a more immediate manner; and by leaving or contradicting the settled Course of Nature and ordinary Providence, does more effectually demonstrate his Divine Power and particular Providence in some extraordinary and miraculous Cases, for the greater Benefit of any of his Creatures.”[xvi] The Scottish mathematician John Keill, who in 1701 published a popular treatise on Newtonian philosophy, also believed in miracles. Keill said that some mechanical philosophers were trying to explain everything by scientific means, but he was going to show “an universal Deluge [Noah’s Flood] from Mechanical causes altogether impossible.”[xvii] He further said, “why ought we then to deny this universal destruction of the earth to be miraculous. Miracles are the great and wonderful works of God, by which he sheweth his Dominion and Power…. And that he does not confine himself to the ordinary methods of acting but can Alter them according to his pleasure…we are not to detract from the value of the true ones [miracles] by pretending to deduce them from Natural and Mechanical causes, when they are no ways explicable by them”[xviii] The Scottish mathematician Colin Maclaurin disagreed with Leibniz’s belief that it showed God’s lack of wisdom if he interfered in his creation. Maclaurin said that Leibnitz “had been misled by an excessive fondness for necessity and mechanism” to try to exclude God from doing miracles. Instead he agreed with Newton that God interfered in nature through miracles: “sir Isaac Newton thought it altogether consistent with the notion of a most perfect Being, and even more agreeable to it to suppose that he should form his work dependent on himself, so as after proper periods to model it anew, according to his infinite wisdom.”[xix]
Newton’s continental supporters also believed in miracles. The Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek said God made all the natural laws. “We know they will be perpetually be observed, because the divine will acts always in the most constant and regular manner.” But then he immediately said: “By having recourse to these laws, we know when a thing falls out in a natural, and when in a miraculous manner. For there are natural phenomena, which are constantly observed to happen after the same manner when bodies are placed in like circumstnaces. And there are miraculous phaenomena, which happen contrary to these laws.”[xx] Bernard Nieuwentijt, who introduced Newtonian ideas to Holland through his work The Religious Philosopher, believed in miracles.[xxi] Finally, the person who held Newton’s Lucasian chair at Cambridge at the end of the Enlightenment, Ed Waring, wrote a short essay defending miracles in 1794.[xxii]
Leibniz argued against the Newtonian worldview, saying that it lessened God if he had to intervene and wind up the clock which was our world. One might therefore think he would be against miracles, but he thought God could and did do miracles. He wrote, “I say that God’s miracles and extraordinary concourse have the peculiarity that they cannot be foreseen by the reasoning of any created mind.”[xxiii] Furthermore, Leibniz said that angels did what humans would consider miracles. Leibniz discussed the angel who flew Habakkuk through the air, and the angel who agitated the waters of Bethesda. He wrote, “It may be said that the angel who flew Habakkuk through the air, and he who troubled the water of the pool of Bethesda, worked a miracle. But it was not a miracle of the highest order, for it may be explained by the natural powers of angels, which surpass those of man.”[xxiv] So while Leibniz sometimes described God as a clock maker, he also believed in miracles.
Nor was Leibniz the only Enlightenment scientist who emphasized God as a clockmaker while also believing in miracles. The English chemist Robert Boyle compared the world to the great clock at Strasbourg, but he also said God did intervene in the world sometimes and he discussed particular incidents of God’s intervention. Boyle said, “God does sometimes in a peculiar, though hidden way, interpose in the ordinary phenomena and events of crises; but yet this is done so seldom, at least in a way we can certainly discern, that we are not hastily to have recourse to an extraordinary providence.”[xxv] The English naturalist William Derham also wrote a book about God as a clock maker, but he said that Joshua’s miracle of stopping the sun and Hezekiah’s wheel turning backward were “miraculous Perversions of the Course of Nature…. They are great Arguments of the Power of God.”[xxvi]
After Newton, the most important scientist of the Enlightenment was probably Benjamin Franklin. Franklin believed in miracles, saying “the Deity sometimes interferes by his particular Providence, and sets aside the Events which would otherwise have been produc’d in the Course of Nature.”[xxvii] Franklin was adamantly against the view that God never intervened in the world; he said that a God who just made nature and never intervened in it was “inconsistent with the common Light of Reason” and, even worse, a useless idol. “If you say he has in the Beginning unchangeably decreed all Things….[but] he has divested himself of all further Power, he has done and has no more to do, he has ty’d up his Hand and has now no greater Power than an Idol of Wood or Stone; nor can there be any more Reason for praying to him or worshipping of him.” [xxviii] With this concept of an active God, it is not surprising that Franklin believed that God had often helped the Americans with miracles in the Revolutionary War. Nor is it surprising that he said to the delegates assembled to write the American constituition that if they prayed for help in writing the document, God would help them.[xxix]
After Newton and Franklin, the third most important scientist of the period might have been the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus. Linnaeus’ belief about God’s active involvement in human affairs focused on God chastising and punishing immoral people. He kept a notebook, labeled Nemesis Divina, with a hundred forty pages of reports which recorded the times he saw God punish wicked people. One example he gave was of a guard named Schleicher, who was murdered by three buckshots in the stomach. He says it is fitting that Schleicher’s murderer, a few years later, “develops stomach cancer; there are three cavities and he dies a dreadful death.”[xxx] Linnaeus said this judgment came about through Fate, and he thought Fate was “the judgment of God” and God controlled Fate, so it came about through God.[xxxi] An even more obvious case of God interposing in human activities was his explanation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Linnaeus said that the earthquake happened because every All Hallow’s day the papal inquisitors cruelly burnt heretics. He thought “there is no more horrendous or cruel crime on earth than this parading of the devil’s work in the name of God.” So it was fitting that the earthquake destroyed Lisbon on All Hallow’s day as “the full force of God’s punishment was visited upon these obdurate sinners. Half the earth trembled; God revealed that He could sense, hear, and feel pity for the unfortunates.”[xxxii] Linneaus drew the obvious conclusion from God’s close supervision of human affairs: “If you seek happiness, know that you are always in God’s sight, Live irreproachably, He is near.”[xxxiii]
Nor was Linneaus the only scientist who thought God actively scourged wicked people through earthquakes. The naturalist John Ray thought God had sent an earthquake in 1692 to chastise the wicked city of Port Royal, Jamaica as a “Sweeping Judgment” on that city.[xxxiv] Ray thought that God also made use of insects as scourges “to chastise or punish wicked persons or Nations.”[xxxv] While Ray is early in the Enlightenment, in a 1750 address to the scientists of the Royal Society, the English botanist Stephen Hales said earthquakes were sometimes sent by God to chastise people. Hales said God sometimes “changes the Order of Nature, with Design to chastise Man for his Disobedience and Follies, natural Evils being graciously designed by him as moral Goods. ”[xxxvi] Hales thought God did not just use earthquakes to chastise nations, he also used droughts, hail storms, snow storms, wind storms and diseases to do that. Hales went even further: God not only uses natural means to chastise nations, he “also influences the Actions of moral Agents, turning as he pleases the Hearts of the Governors of the Nations, so as frequently to chastise Mankind by that severe scourge, and great Disgrace of human Nature, War.”[xxxvii] The French naturalist Buffon said that Noah’s Flood was God’s way of chastising people. He said that “the deluge ought to be regarded as a supernatural mode of chastising the wickedness of men, not as an effect preceeding from any natural cause. The universal deluge was a miracle.“[xxxviii]
After Newton, Franklin, and Linneaus, the next most important scientist in the period might have been Joseph Priestley. Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, was a Unitarian: while being a Christian, he did not think Jesus was God. Furthermore, he lived until the very end of the Enlightenment. So if anyone should be a secular thinker who did not believe in miracles, he should. Nevertheless, he believed in miracles and in his Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion, he writes over a hundred pages defending them. He starts by saying that some people argue against miracles by saying God should have made things perfectly at first and thus would never need to intervene in his creation. He replies that this neglects the power of “occasional deviation” to get people’s attention so that people may “more easily preserve a just sense of our connection with, and dependence upon God.”[xxxix] He then dismisses Hume’s attack on miracles, saying they prove nothing. He says that all Hume is saying “is that there have been no miraculous events because there have been none. At least, it is judging from the experience of one age, against the express testimony of former ages, and in a case in which there is no contradiction between them; since both may be equally true. For the course of nature may be perfectly uniform now, and yet may not have been so, in all cases formerly.”[xl] He concludes the witnesses to Jesus’ miracles were credible and we should believe them. Priestley even argues that God would either not let devils do miracles or would let humans easily see through them as, otherwise “the divine being would leave himself no certain method of making his own power and design known to his creatures, [and] whatever occasion there might be for his interposition.”[xli]
Many scientists of the highest rank in the period, but not well-known nowadays also believed in miracles. The Swiss naturalist Elie Bertrand, whose book on fossils was one of the most popular scientific books of the period, agreed with Hales and Ray about God and earthquakes. After the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Bertrand said in a sermon that quakes demonstrated God was the master of nature, and as God had made the natural laws, he could suspend them at any time.[xlii] The Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller agreed with Bertrand’s view saying that God “hath established the laws of nature, and hath the power of suspending their actions in such circumstances, as his dispensations for the benefit of mankind may require.” [xliii] The American astronomer David Rittenhouse, in a 1775 address to the American Philosophical Society, agreed that God could suspend natural laws to help people.[xliv] The discoverer of the polyp, Abraham Tremblay, believed the Bible was revealed by God and miracles happened in both the Old and New Testament.[xlv] To just quickly cite a few more examples, the American doctor Benjamin Rush (best known nowadays for bleeding George Washington to death) believed in miracles,[xlvi] as did the English mathematician and doctor George Cheyne,[xlvii] the English biologist John Needham,[xlviii] and the English scientist Robert Hooke.[xlix]
I do not mean to give the impression that scientists who were not mentioned were against miracles. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Roger Boscovich, and William Herschel were some of the most important scientists of the time. It is highly likely that Leeuwenhoek, as a sincere Dutch Reformed Christian, believed in miracles. It is even more likely that Boscovich believed in them as he was a Jesuit priest. Herschel as a sincere Christian probably believed in them too. I could not find any evidence these men believed in miracles, although a better researcher might find this evidence. Many other significant Enlightenment scientists almost assuredly believed in miracles too. After discovering that the most prominent scientists of the period believed in miracles as well as numerous other scientists, and these scientists flourished in the beginning, middle and end of the period, it seemed no more evidence was needed to establish my point: the considerable number of important scientists who believed in miracles shows that the common idea that the Enlightenment thinkers were against miracles because miracles were unscientific or irrational is mistaken.
Philosophers for miracles
Some major philosophers believed miracles never happened. These philosophers included Voltaire, Baron d’Holbach and Julian Offray de La Mettrie. Moreover, David Hume was at least skeptical that miracles ever happened. The majority of important Enlightenment philosophers, however, did believe God performed miracles. Most importantly, like the scientists, these philosophers came from many different countries and flourished from the beginning of the period to the end of it.
The most important philosophers of the early part of the period were Leibniz (whose belief in miracles was already discussed) and the English empiricist John Locke. Locke was a very religious man who often wrote about Christianity. He not only believed in miracles, he thought miracles proved the divineness of the messenger. He said rational people must believe in a messenger who could do miracles as that shows the messanger has “God with him.” Thus Jesus’ miracles proved his divineness as “the number, variety, and greatness of the miracles wrought for the confirmation of the doctrine delivered by Jesus Christ, carry with them such strong marks of an extraordinary divine power, that the truth of his mission will stand firm and unquestionable.”[l] Locke ends this train of thought with an interesting point which shows his total reliance on miracles: if some later person does greater miracles in opposition to Jesus and the apostles, then Christianity will not “stand firm and unquestionable.”[li]
Two other important early philosophers also believed in miracles. The French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche said that God generally worked through immutable natural laws and this showed his wisdom and foreknowledge. On the other hand there were times when God did miracles as this showed his glory and goodness. Malebranche said, “If you ask me when it happens that God acts as much or more according to His nature by abandoning rather than following His general laws, I reply to you that I know nothing of that. But I do know that it sometimes happens.”[lii] Pierre Bayle, whose works were called the arsenal of the Enlightenment because they had so many critical arguments in them, was not skeptical about miracles. Bayle considers the situation of angels doing miracles (such as causing the Red Sea to part) and he said that something “happening contrary to the general laws known to us are miracles.” He said this even though an angel might have done the miracle in accord with natural law from an angel’s perspective.[liii]
In the middle period of the Enlightenment, the most important philosophers were Bishop Berkeley, Christian Wolff, and Francis Hutcheson. Unsurprisingly, considering the important role of God in his idealism, Berkeley believed in miracles. He said that “the will of God hath been promulgated, by the preaching and miracles of our blessed Saviour and his apostles.”[liv] More surprisingly, considering that Christian Wolff praised the Chinese rational system of morality over the revelation-based one of Christianity, Wolff also believed in miracles. Wolff thought miracles showed God’s power, but the regular order of nature showed God’s power and his wisdom together. “For this reason,” he said, “a world where miracles occur only very sparingly is to be esteemed more highly than one in which they occur frequently.” But he then said miracles did sometimes occur.[lv]
Francis Hutcheson sometimes said God generally worked through immutable natural laws and some scholars have thought he did not believe in miracles. But in a Latin work that was very popular and went through seven editions in the eighteenth century, Hutcheson said some people do miracles. The problem was deciding if these miracles were done with the help of God, an angel or a demon. He said we can decide this by the teachings given by the miracle doer: “If the teachings are holy and leading to people’s happiness, we rightly believe that their announcer or teacher was filled with the divine spirit in accomplishing the miracles. And so NATURAL THEOLOGY will lead us to the embrace of what is called REVEALED THEOLOGY.”[lvi]
In the final period of the Enlightenment, the three most prominent philosophers were Immanuel Kant, Thomas Reid, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Kant and Reid both thought God performed miracles. Rousseau’s position is a little more difficult to pin down, but he also believed God could do miracles.
Kant is often seen as the embodiment of rationalism, but he said that God had the power to perform miracles if he so wished. In a long passage in a philosophical work, he talked about his belief in miracles in general and how God performed them because he could not accomplish his providential care for humans through natural means.
Since every event given in the world is directed by God’s supreme will, the divine direction is partly orderly and partly extraordinary. The former consists in God’s setting up an order in nature, so that its laws accord with what he decrees for the world. And God’s extraordinary direction consists in the fact that he sometimes determines in accordance with his aims that events should not correspond to the order of nature. It is not at all impossible that in even the best world the powers of nature may sometimes require the immediate cooperation of God in order to bring about certain great purposes. … These exceptions to the rules of nature may be necessary because without them God might not be able to put many great aims into practice in the usual course of nature.[lvii]
Thomas Reid, the Scottish common sense philosopher, attacked Liebniz’ analogy that God was like a clockmaker. In lectures delivered in 1780, Reid said that there were many differences between the two, because God, unlike the clockmaker, made the materials and God’s action through the cohesive power of gravity held the material of the universe together, a power which the clockmaker obviously did not have.[lviii] He also stated that God did miracles: “These laws of nature neither restrain the power of the Author of nature, nor bring him under any obligation to do nothing beyond their sphere. He has sometimes acted contrary to them, in the case of miracles, …miraculous events, which are contrary to the physical laws of nature… GOD is the cause of them, and to him only are they to be imputed.”[lix] As God constantly watched over us and cared for us, Reid drew a conclusion common in the period: we should pray to God to protect us. He said, “Nature leads us to conceive the Maker of the universe as its constant governor, and leads us to apply to him as the hearer of prayer and the kind protection of his rational offspring.”[lx]
Rousseau was accused of not believing in miracles after writing his book Emile which contained a section with a deist vicar. He replied to his critics in a long discussion of his view on miracles in Letters Written from the Mountain. He asserted it was “impious, if not absurd,” to say an omnipotent God could not do miracles. In fact, he said a person who asserted such a point should not be punished as that would be too good for him; instead, he should be “confined to straw and a dark chamber. But then who hath ever denied the power of the Deity to work miracles?”[lxi] He asserted that the best proof of a divine revelation was the sublimity, morality, and utility of a doctrine. The second best proof was the holiness, spotlessness and virtue of the messenger. The third best was miracles.[lxii] Rousseau also contended there were major problems with miracles proving the divineness of a revelation. First he argued that humans could not judge if a miracle had been done or not because we did not know all the laws of nature. He also argued that we could not tell if a divine being or a devil had done the miracle.[lxiii] This meant miracles compared to the goodness of the doctrine or the messenger were vastly inferior in establishing whether someone was a divinely sent teacher. Rousseau, however, continually said in this work that Jesus did miracles.
Many philosophers who are not currently very well known, but who were very influential in the Enlightenment also believed in miracles. These include the French common sense philosopher Claude Buffier,[lxiv] the English thinker Bishop Butler,[lxv] the English philosopher and psychologist David Hartley,[lxvi] the Scottish common sense philosopher James Beattie,[lxvii] the Scottish philosopher George Turnbull,[lxviii] the French economics minister and philosopher Turgot,[lxix] the English thinker Richard Price,[lxx] and the English philosopher William Paley.[lxxi] Significantly the last five of these thinkers were flourishing at the end of the Enlightenment.
The reader should not get the impression that philosophers I did not mention were against miracles. After much research on the subject, I came to the same conclusion about philosophers as I had with the scientists: so many Enlightenment philosophers believed in miracles, and they flourished in all parts of the period, that more research was not needed to prove my point that it is a mistake to think the Enlightenment philosophers in general were against miracles.
Deists and miracles
So far it has been shown that many of the Enlightenment’s greatest scientists and philosophers believed in miracles. The last group of thinkers to consider are the deists. As individuals, the deists are not well-known nowadays, but they had an extremely widespread influence during the time and their idea of God is often seen as paradigmatic of the Enlightenment’s idea of God.
The English deists were the most influential ones as they wrote the first significant books on the subject, came up with most of the arguments and were often merely copied by later writers from other countries. In my paper “The English Deists and Miracles,” I show that almost all the English Deists believed in miracles and a significant number of them also believed in related ideas such as the importance of praying, direct divine signs, and direct implanting of thoughts into our minds by God or the angels.[lxxii]
It has already been discussed at the beginnning of this paper how two of the English deists –William Wollaston and Thomas Morgan — thought natural laws were never violated but angels did miracles. Eight more English deists– Charles Gildon, Thomas Gordon, Matthew Tindal, Herbert of Cherbury, John Trenchard, Thomas Chubb, Bernard Mandeville, Henry Dodwell—also left unambiguous statements that they believed in miracles.[lxxiii] For example, in Charles Gildon’s book, the Deists’ Manual, Gildon had a long discussion on miracles, focusing on how to discern if the agent performing a miracle was God, a good angel or an evil angel.[lxxiv]
Only one of the remaining English deists, Peter Annet, was consistently against miracles; [lxxv] the others present more complicated cases, although I think most of them believed in miracles. Thomas Woolston published six discourses trying to show that Jesus never performed many of his miracles and that these supposed miracles were “full of Absurditys, Improbabilities and Incredibilities.”[lxxvi] Most commentators have concluded that these attacks meant that Woolston did not believe in any miracles, but they are wrong. He said that he did believe in some of Christianity’s most important miracles: “I do believe…that Jesus was born of a pure Virgin, and that he arose from the Dead,”[lxxvii] and he said that “I am apt to believe with the Fathers, that Jesus actually did raise the dead.”[lxxviii] Lord Shaftesbury was ambiguous, but his final position was that believing in miracles as evidence of a divine revelation was acceptable once the moral goodness of the revelation had been established. John Toland and Anthony Collins both asserted in their works that they believed in miracles. While some contemporary scholars assert we should not believe them because they were lying to maintain their social standing, I think that has not been established. Two of the English deists—Lord Bolingbroke and Charles Blount– were inconsistent in their statements. Lord Bolingbroke often said that the scriptural miracles had happened, but then in his last work he spent almost a hundred pages giving many cogent reasons why a wise God would never do miracles. Bolingbroke, who had been an extremely important politician, probably did not believe in miracles and was only being socially astute. Blount’s case was the opposite: in an early work Blount said that miracles were impossible because God never contradicted the laws of nature, but in a later, posthumous, work he said that God did miracles. Unlike Bolingbroke, Blount had no social position to maintain as he had become a social outcast for trying to marry his dead wife’s sister, so he might have believed in miracles, if we can trust his last work to be his final thoughts on the subject.[lxxix]
While the vast majority of the English deists believed in miracles, the major American deists were split on the subject. As has been shown above, the most important American deist, Ben Franklin, believed in miracles. Thomas Jefferson did not. The Revolutionary war hero Ethan Allen agreed with Peter Annet and said miracles were impossible because natural laws were inviolable.[lxxx] George Washington thought God had performed many miracles helping the Americans in the Revolutionary War. After Benedict Arnold was caught as a traitor, but before Arnold could cause the British to capture West Point, Washington said “In no instance since the commencement of the war has the interposition of Providence been more conspicuous than in the rescue of the post and garrison of West Point from Arnold’s villainous perfidy.”[lxxxi] John Adams also believed in miracles. He said, “the great and almighty Author of nature, who first established those rules which regulate the World, can as easily suspend those Laws whenever his providence sees sufficent reason for such suspension.”[lxxxii]
Tom Paine’s view on miracles is more complicated. He argued that humans could not determine if something was a miracle or not because we did not know the full extent of the laws of nature. Furthermore, even if someone said she had seen a miracle, from someone else’s perspective, the odds were better that person was lying than a miracle actually happened. On the other hand, he thought we would never be deceived by creation which continually showed God’s wisdom, power and goodness. He thought miracles were mere tricks of an inferior showman compared to the great glory of nature’s regularity and thus they were unworthy of God’s wisdom. He said of miracles that “the reality of them is improbable and their existence unnecessary.”[lxxxiii] He did not, however, say God never performed them nor did he say that God could not perform them.
The major German and French deists were significantly less inclined to believe in miracles than their British or American counterparts. The major German deists, J. C. Bahrdt and Samuel Reimarus, as well as the major French deists Voltaire, C. F. Volney, Simon Tyssot de Patot, Jean-Paul Marat, Jean Meslier and Marquis D’Argens were all against miracles.[lxxxiv] Only a small number of the major German or French Deists believed in miracles, with the most interesting one being the French Revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre, the leader of the radicals in the French Revolution, discussed God’s providential care for his cause in an address to the Jacobin Club in 1792. Robespierre said that French policies would have led to disasters “had not Providence, which always watches over us better than our own wisdom, struck down Leopold [the Emperor of Austria] and disconcerted for a time the schemes of our enemies.” After some listeners made a commotion, Robespierre asserted that “these are not idle words in my mouth.” After more listeners made a commotion, Robespierre replied ”there is nothing outrageous in involving the name of Providence, and expressing a conception of the Eternal Being who intimately affects the destinies of nations, and who seems to me personally to watch over the French Revolution in a very special way.”[lxxxv] Robespierre could have said his talk of miracles and God’s providential concern for the French cause was merely propaganda meant for the masses, but he deeply believed in God’s active concern for humanity.
Like the scientists and philosophers, the deists who believed in miracles came from many different countries and were still flourishing at the end of the period. While not as large a percentage of significant deists believed in miracles compared to the scientists and philosophers, still the majority or a significant number (depending on how and whom you count) did believe in them. This is a remarkably different picture from the older secondary literature which usually paints all the deists as totally dismissive of miracles because they had a remote, abstract impersonal, and uncaring God. It fits in with the work of current scholars such as B. W. Young and Jeffrey Wiggelsworth which emphasize that the English deists were not as irreligious as older scholars thought.[lxxxvi]
It has been shown that a significant number of the most important Enlightenment scientists, philosophers, and deists believed in miracles. Those thinkers came from many different countries and all the time periods of the Enlightenment. Franklin, Kant, Lessing, Price, Reid, Priestley, Bonnet, von Haller, Beattie, Rittenhouse, Robespierre, Washington, Adams, Rush and others were all alive in the latter part of the period. Thus a belief in miracles cannot be easily dismissed as just a holdover from an earlier way of thinking. It is a major disservice to the Enlightenment figures to say they did not believe in miracles as that allows us to ignore their deep piety and falsely believe they had an abstract, remote deity.
This essay was written by Joseph Waligore. He dedicated his life to following the will of the Universe when he was 20. Seven months later he received a message from his Higher Self or inner connection to the divine to quit Dartmouth College. Through following a deep intuition in a dream and after many synchronistic experiences, he met his soulmate and married her. He and his wife followed their spiritual intuitions in their daily lives, including receiving messages to have children. For twelve years he stayed at home and raised his three children while his wife worked. Then, his wife told him he needed to make some money, so he got a Ph. D. in philosophy from Syracuse University. He currently has a part-time job teaching philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. More information about him can be found at his MySpace profile. He also has a website with information about his own spiritual journey and his spiritual philosophy.
There is a Facebook group called Flowing. People interested in meeting other people who are interested in these ideas and/or participating in discussions about these ideas are invited to join the group.
Many people reach this site through keyword advertisements. It might be of interest that Joseph got the money for these ads through his daytrading profits.
[i] Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), p. 31 & 50.
[ii] Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1968).
[iii] S. J. Barnett, The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
[iv] James E. Bradley and Dale K. Van Kley, eds., Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).
[v] John Trenchard, “Essay on Miracles,” in Essays on Important Subjects, (London, 1755), p. 5.
[vi] Thomas Chubb made a representative statement of this equivalence in The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted, (London, 1738), p. 207.
[vii]Thomas Morgan, Physico-Theology (London, 1741), p. 96, 314-7. William Wollaston, The Religion of Nature Delineated (1724; reprint, Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1974), p. 107-8.
[viii] Joseph Priestley, Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Birmingham, England: 1782), vol. 1, p. 255.
[ix] Priestley, vol. 1, p. 255.
[x] Giacomo Casanova, History of Life, Volumes 1 and 2, trans. Willard R. Trask (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UniversityPress, 1997), p. 25.
[xi] Leonhard Euler, Letters to a German Princess, 2 vols. (London, 1795), vol. 1, p. 394-6 for prayers and miracles, p. 508 for Jesus doing miracles. The letters were written in 1760-1.
[xiii]Isaac Newton, from the Optics, as quoted in Samuel Clarke, “A Collection of Papers which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leinitz and Dr. Clarke, in the years 1715 and 1716,” 1st Reply, in The Works, vol. 4 (New York: Garland Press, 1978), p. 587.
[xiv]Samuel Clarke, “A Collection of Papers which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leinitz and Dr. Clarke, in the years 1715 and 1716,” Second Reply, in The Works, vol. 4 (New York: Garland Press, 1978), p. 598.
[xvi] William Whiston, Astronomical Principles of Religion, Natural and Reveal’d (1717, reprint: Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1983), 127.
[xvii] John Keill, An examination of Dr. Burnet’s Theory of the earth: with some remarks on Mr. Whiston’s New theory of the earth (Oxford?, 1734), p. 18.
[xviii] Keill, p. 27-8.
[xix] Colin Maclaurin, An account of Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophical discoveries, in four books (London, 1748), p. 84-5.
[xx] Peter van Musschenbroek, The Elements of Natural Philosophy, trans. John Colson, 2 vols. (London, 1744), vol. 1, 6.
[xxi] Bernard Nieuwentyt, The Religious Philosopher, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1721), vol. 3, p. 1034-1074 where he answers objection to the resurrection of our bodies in heaven based on natural philosophy and vol. 1, p. xi where he states that the Bible is the revealed word of God.
[xxii] Edward Waring, “On miracles,” in An Essay on the Principles of Human Knowledge (Cambridge, 1794), 85-88.
[xxiii]Leibniz, “Discourse on Metaphysics,” in Philosophical Essays, ed. and trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), p. 49.
[xxiv]Leibniz, “Letters to Clark, Fifth Letter,” in Philosophical Essays, p. 345.
[xxv] Robert Boyle, A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 101.
[xxvi] William Derham, Physico-Theology, 7th ed. (London, 1727), p. 45.
[xxvii] Benjamin Franklin, “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World,” in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), vol. 1, p. 268.
[xxviii] Franklin, p. 267.
[xxx] Linnaeus, Nemesis Divina, ed. and trans. M. J Petry (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), p. 148.
[xxxi] Linnaeus, p. 217.
[xxxii] Linnaeus, p. 196.
[xxxiii] Linnaeus, p. 86.
[xxxiv] John Ray, as quoted in John Gates Taylor Jr., Eighteenth Century Earthquake Theories (Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1975), p. 258.
[xxxv] John Ray, The wisdom of God manifested in the works of the creation, 7th ed. (1717: reprint: New York: Arno Press, 1977), p. 375, p. iv.
[xxxvi] Stephen Hales, Some considerations on the causes of earthquakes (London, 1750), p. 6.
[xxxvii] Hales, p. 7.
[xxxviii] George Louis Leclerc Buffon, Natural History, general and particular, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (London, 1791), vol. 1, 128-9.
[xxxix] Priestley, p. 253-4.
[xl]Priestley, p. 267.
[xli]Priestley, p. 257.
[xlii] John Gates Taylor Jr., Eighteenth Century Earthquake Theories (Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1975), p. 257.
[xliii]Albrecht von Haller, as quoted in Margaret Hochdoerfer, “The Conflict between the Religious and Scientific Views of Albrecht von Haller,” in Shirley A. Roe, ed., The Natural Philosophy of Albrecht von Haller (New York: Arno Press, 1981), p. 20. (&&&&&)
[xliv] Rittenhouse said that “neither Religion nor Philosophy forbids us to believe that infinite wisdom and power, prompted by an infinite goodness, may thoroughout the vast extent of creation and duration, have frequently interposed in a manner quite incomprehsible to us, when it became necessary to the happiness of created beings of some other rank or degree.” This was quoted in Brooke Hindle, David Rittenhouse, Princeton: 1980), p. 118.
[xlv] John R. Baker, Abraham Tremblay of Geneva, Scientist and Philosopher, 1710-1784 (London: Edward Arnold and Company, 1952), p. 224.
[xlvi] Benjamin Rush, The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His “Travels Through Life” together with his commonplace Book for 1789-1813, ed. by George W. Corner, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), p. 339.
[xlvii] George Cheyne, An Essay on Regimen, 2nd ed. (London, 1742), 17. Cheyne said that “infinite Wisdom must act uniformily, with… nothing but general Laws…unless infinite Wisdom and Power suspend them for a limited Time, to manifest Power, or for moral Ends and Purposes.”
[xlviii] John Needham, in Shirley A. Roe and Renato G. Mazzoline, Science Against the Unbelievers: The Correspondence of Bonnet and Needham, 1760-1780, (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1980), p. 278.
[xlix] Robert Hooke, “A Discourse on Earthquakes,” in The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke (London, 1705), p. 423. Hooke said of Moses crossing the Red Sea that “the Lord caused the East Wind to blow, which made the Sea to go back and to leave the bottom dry Ground.” Hooke also said of Noah’s Flood that “God caused it to Rain forty days and forty Nights.”
[l]John Locke, A Discourse of Miracles, in The Works of John Locke, 10th ed. 10 vols. (London, 1801), vol. 9, p. 259.
[li] Locke, Miracles, p. 261.
[lii]Nicolas Malebranche, Dialogues on Metaphysics, in Philosophical Selections, ed. Steven Nadler (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992), p. 253.
[liii]Pierre Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary: Selections, trans. Richard H. Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1991), p. 319.
[liv]George Berkeley, Sermons: “On the Will of God,” The Works of George Berkeley, ed A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessup (London: Thomas Nelson & SonsLtd., 1955) vol. 7, p. 131.
[lv] Christian Wolff, as quoted in Thomas P. Saine, “Who’s Afraid of Christian Wolff?” in Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany, ed. Alan Charles Kors and Paul D. Korshin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), p. 102-133, p. 109.
[lvi] Francis Hutcheson, Synopsis Metaphysicae Ontologium et Pneumatologiam (Glasgow, 1744), p. 123. My translation.
[lvii] Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Philosophical Theology, trans. Allen W. Wood and Gertrude M. Clark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), p. 154.
[lviii] Thomas Reid, Thomas Reid’s Lectures on Natural Theology (1780), ed. Elmer H. Duncan, (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1981), p. 113. This is lecture 86, delivered March 3, 1780.
[lix] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of Man (Edinburgh, 1788), p. 345.
[lx] Thomas Reid, Thomas Reid’s Lectures on Natural Theology (1780) ed. Elmer H. Duncan, (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1981), p. 72
[lxi]Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Letters Written from the Mountain, in The Miscellaneous Works of J. J. Rousseau, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: 1774), vol. 3, p. 79.
[lxii] Rousseau, Letters Mountain, p. 66-7.
[lxiii] Rousseau, Letters Mountain, p. 80-5, 90.
[lxiv] Claude Buffier, First Truths, (London: 1780), p. 232-3.
[lxv] Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature, 14th ed. (New York: Dayton and Newman, 1843), p. 217, 230-1, and passim.
[lxvi] David Hartley, Observations on Man, 2 vols. (London: 1749), p. 145-9.
[lxvii]James Beattie, Elements of Moral Science (Edinburgh: 1790), p. 684-8.
[lxviii] George Turnbull, who taught Thomas Reid, said that God worked by general laws but “ the ministry of angels, and of special miraculous interpositions of providence on certain occassions, is not inconsistent with government by general laws.” George Turnbull, Principles of Moral Philosophy, vol.2, p. 173.
[lxix]Turgot, “Religious Liberty,” in The Life and Writings of Turgot, ed. Walker Stephen (New York: Burt Franklin, 1895), p. 213.
[lxx] Richard Price, Four Dissertations (London, 1767), p. 437. Dissertation IV is on miracles. It starts on p. 361 and ends on p. 439.
[lxxi]William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity (Dublin, 1794): p. 8-11.
[lxxii] Joseph Waligore, “The English Diests and Miracles.” Currently submitted to the Journal of Ecclesiastic History.
[lxxiii] Waligore, “Enlish Deists.”
[lxxiv] Charles Gildon, The Deist’s Manual, (1705: reprint, New York: Garland, 1976, p. 240-250.
[lxxv] “God has settled the Laws of Nature by his Wisdom and Power, and therefore cannot alter them consistent with his Perfections: This is a demonstrative Proof of the Impossibility of the Miracles a priori.”Peter Annet, “Supernaturals Examined,” in A Collection of Tracts of a Certain Free Thinker, 1750(?), London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1995, p. 128.
[lxxvi] Thomas Woolston, A Discourse on the Miracles of Our Saviour, (London, 1727), p. 56. This is his first discourse.
[lxxvii] Thomas Woolston, Discourse on Miracles, (London, 1727), p. 55. This is the first discourse.
[lxxviii] Thomas Woolston, A Fifth Discourse on the Miracles of Our Saviour, 2nd Edition, (London, 1728), p. 5.
[lxxix] Joseph Waligore, “The English Deists and Miracles.”
[lxxx] Ethan Allen, Reason The Only Oracle of Man (1784: reprint, New York: Scholars’ Fascimiles & Reprints, 1940), p. 235.
[lxxxi]George Washington, as quoted in James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974), p. 148.
[lxxxii] John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), vol.1, p. 11. The entry was written March 2, 1756.
[lxxxiii] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974), p. 92-6.
[lxxxiv] Sten Gunnar Flygt, The Notorious Dr. Bahrdt (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1963), p. 255-265; Hermann Samuel Reimarus, Fragments from Reimarus (Lexington: American Theological Library Association, 1962), p. 232-5, 249-51.
[lxxxv]Robespierre, as quoted in J. M. Thompson, Robespierre, Vol. 1 (New York: Howard Ferty, 1968), p. 215. This was a March 26, 1792 address.
[lxxxvi] B. W. Young’s Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century England: Theological Debate from Locke to Burke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth, Deism in Enlightenment England: theology, politics, and Newtonian public science (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
My name is Joseph Waligore. I currently have a part-time job teaching philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. More information about me can be found at my MySpace profile or my Facebook profile.
This website is one of four websites I have. At makingyourconnections.com I have a posted a significant portion of a self-help book I am currently writing. This book helps people succeed in the world by making their connections, the special people in their lives. Another website, www.followingtheflow.com is for spiritually oriented people and discusses very similar ideas from a more spiritually oriented perspective. Another one, www.josephwaligore.com is for academically or intellectually oriented people. It has my writings about spiritual philosophies such as Stoicism, Socrates, the Deists, the Enlightenment period, and the rise of modern science.
There is a Facebook group called Flowing. People interested in meeting other people who are interested in these ideas and/or participating in discussions about these ideas are invited to join the group.
Many people reach this site through keyword advertisements. It might be of interest that Joseph got the money for these ads through his daytrading profits.