From the Preface
Once in a while you find an old book that speaks to you in such a way that you feel as if you are the first person ever to have read it. You might come across it in a secondhand store, on a friend’s bookshelf, or on the curb in certain parts of Brooklyn where the neighbors like to share their old finds. This project began many years ago when I discovered Ethan Allen’s Oracles of Reason of 1784 in an electronic database at a public library. And it is distinctly possible that I was the first person to have read it in a very long time, if you don’t count the half-dozen scholars who decided that the book was so bad that there was no point in reading it…
Sometimes, too, you come across an individual in history who makes you wonder why you have never heard of him before: the kind of person whose very existence stands like a riddle over the old stories. That was how I felt upon encountering Thomas Young—the man historians have fingered as the actual perpetrator of Ethan Allen’s crime against literature. Every American deserves a “Forgotten Founding Father.” Mine turned out to be Thomas Young. The more I learned about his life and ideas, the more I felt that I was awakening from a dogmatic slumber. Much of what I thought I knew about the people and the ideas that guided the American Revolution wasn’t quite right. (And much of what the scholars thought they knew about Allen, Young, and their alleged literary conspiracy turned out to be wrong.) …
In their own time, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, and a surprising number of their fellow founders were identified as “infidels” and “atheists.” They were also called—more accurately, but mostly to the same effect—“deists.” Allowing for the inevitable idiosyncrasies of personality and circumstances, we could describe them loosely as “heterodox.” That is, they had some religion, but it wasn’t by and large of the kind that the representatives of the mainstream religions of their time found acceptable. From the moment of creation to the present, there have been many attempts—most of them misinformed, some shamelessly deceitful—to deny or emend this basic fact of American history. Yet the interesting question has never been about its truth but its interpretation. What exactly did it mean to be an “infidel,” “atheist,” or “deist”? And what does it tell us, if anything, that a reputedly godly country came to be founded by so many ungodly leaders?
W.W. Norton & Co, July 4, 2014
Also by Matthew Stewart
Matthew Stewart is an independent writer and philosopher.