Retracing life, writing history

The biography of Elihu Palmer, North American free thinker of XVIIIe century, brings to life the intellectual and spiritual conflicts at a time when the young Republic sought to establish the meaning of the notions of democracy, free expression, freedom of conscience and religion.

For around forty years, following studies carried out by David Brion Davis in the United Kingdom or Jill Lepore in the United States, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie or Jacques Le Goff in France, biography has experienced a notable revival of interest in within the historical discipline. This approach undertakes to make the lives of famous or little-known women and men, not the subject of a hagiography or a romanticized reconstruction, but the revealer of an era in all that it can carry with it. controversies and contradictions. In the biographical depth of individual trajectories the complexity of a period is revealed where sometimes antagonistic dynamics intertwine, at the crossroads of social, political, intellectual and cultural forces that cross society.

Kirsten Fischer’s work is part of this historiographical vein by focusing on the free-thinking career of Elihu Palmer (1764-1806) whose personal journey echoes the debates and questions that mark the history of the United States in the early years of the Republic. By tracing Palmer’s evolution towards free thought with deist and vitalist accents, the historian describes the progression of a man towards a form of intellectual and spiritual independence, at the cost of his reputation and his social position. In doing so, the author highlights the questions of an American society still uncertain about the meaning to be given to the concepts of democracy, free expression, freedom of conscience and religion.

Influences and religious formation of a child of Independence

We owe to Kirsten Fischer a remarkable work of exploration and analysis of the sources relating to Elihu Palmer, whose scattered and fragmentary nature the historian clearly underlines. If we knew the deist through his public writings, notably his work Principles of Nature (1801), his contributions in the press and through the newspaper Lead of which he was editor-in-chief between 1801 and 1803, we knew almost everything about his youth, his relationships or even his family (p. 8-9). Meticulously, the author manages to reconstruct Palmer’s intimate, professional and geographical journey by relying on a multiplicity of untapped sources in order to reveal the formidable intellectual and spiritual mobility of the first years of the young Republic.

The society in which Palmer grew up was initially marked by the debate between supporters of a religious orthodoxy steeped in the principles of Calvinism, and followers of a more direct and intimate relationship with God driven by the religious and evangelical awakening of the 1740s. Born in Connecticut into a family of practicing Christians, Palmer grew up in a community and social circle reluctant to the religious outpourings encouraged by evangelical Methodists and Baptists. Distrust of what was then called enthusiasm forged Palmer’s mind, inclined to favor the rational approach and the moderation of affects rather than emotion and the disruption of the senses in the relationship to faith (p. 14- 18).

The young Palmer, who was destined for the priesthood, was also influenced by the liberal doctrines of Socinianism and Arminianism. These currents which emerge in XVIe And XVIIe centuries within Protestantism itself preached a softening of the frameworks of Calvinist doctrine, refuted the principle of predestination and rejected belief in the Trinity and in the divinity of Jesus. Also, from the end of the 1780s, Palmer adopted a position close to universalism, a branch of Protestantism which advocated the salvation of all instead of the limited election defended by Calvinism (p. 38-41). ).

At the beginning of his ecclesiastical career, Palmer stood out for his liberal positions, but it would be anachronistic to qualify him as a deist since he himself considered himself Christian, underlines the historian. It is through these encounters that he is introduced to vitalist philosophy from which he draws inspiration to develop a thought postulating the double immanent and transcendent nature of a divine force both superior to nature and present in each atom of material which constitutes it.

Between disillusionment and marginalization, the breeding ground of Palmer’s vitalist deism

The second part of the work shows the obstacles that Palmer encounters in his quest for free thought free from the dogmas of positive theologies. While attempting to establish himself in Philadelphia, known for its relative religious tolerance, Palmer was rejected by the Universalist Church which feared that his heterodox beliefs would encourage the development of infidelity. Banished from the Church, he finds refuge with a deist society whose members debate religion, politics and philosophy (p. 95-97). This dynamic allows Fischer to show a dichotomy between public and private spheres in the young Republic where heterodox beliefs expressed within private associations or the family circle are permitted, but excluded from the public space, on the grounds that their expression would fall under blasphemy.

In search of reconversion, Palmer embraced the profession of lawyer in 1793 without renouncing his criticism of revealed religions. While the United States observed and commented on revolutionary events in France, Palmer committed himself to the French Revolution with the Democratic-Republicans who were opponents of the Federalist Party. He extends his denunciation of the ecclesiastical apparatuses with a political condemnation of the federalists accused of encouraging censorship and oppression through their conservative positions and their distrust of the people whose impulses they deem necessary to curb. Like Thomas Paine who published a year later The Age of Reason, Palmer associates political conservatism and religious orthodoxy as two facets of the same desire to restrict democracy. His legal and political career was cut short, however, as the yellow fever epidemic which overwhelmed Philadelphia in the summer of 1794 took away his wife and struck Palmer, who lost his sight.

Controversies, conjurations and slanders: Palmer or the evanescent trajectory of a deist

In a third and final part devoted to the internal dissensions and external attacks to which the deist current is the subject in a context of partisan rivalries and political reversals, Kirsten Fischer recounts the last years of Palmer whose declining trajectory would follow that of the deism.

Continuing the work carried out by Amanda Porterfield and Eric Schlereth, the historian places deism at the center of power issues between antagonistic political and religious forces. Established in New York where he founded a deist society dedicated to the criticism of the Bible, miracles and Christian dogmas, Palmer became the target of slanderous propaganda carried out by political and religious opponents of Thomas Jefferson even though the latter , newly elected president, and his Democratic-Republican allies in search of moderation and political respectability are trying to distance themselves from a deist current considered too sulfurous. The campaign to discredit deism at the turn of the century was then based on Illuminati conspiracy rhetoric associating deism with a dangerous form of anarchy and immorality.

When he died from pleurisy in 1806, the landscape of deist free thought was divided and weakened (pp. 190-191). Symbol of the political and religious developments of his time, Palmer embodies the evanescent trajectory of deism which seems to fail to establish itself as an institutionalized movement. However, the free thinker also personifies the spirit of independence and the vitality of the debates around religious pluralism and the limits of freedom of expression which animate the young Republic and are observed throughout a XIXe century punctuated by reform movements, some of which are, in many respects, part of a form of deist genealogy.

Deism in America: a singularity to defend

Kirsten Fischer’s book is an important contribution to the history of deism across the Atlantic, long neglected with regard to its British and European variants. Its main contribution is to have been able to highlight a forgotten actor of the young Republic and to illuminate the multiple facets of a protean deist current. The vitalist accents detected in Palmer attest to the complexity of a deist thought which is distinguished from positive religions and mechanistic materialism to embrace a form of pantheistic immanentism.

The work, however, struggles to get rid of a historical reading essentially centered around Protestantism. The author thus tends to present deism as a default spiritual option for Palmer who fails to be accepted within liberal Christian denominations such as the Universalist Church. Furthermore, the historian seems to see in Palmer a figure of Unitarianism even before the institutionalization of this liberal Protestant branch which rejects the Trinity and defends a rational reading of the Bible purged of its supernatural elements. By making Palmer a “proto-unitarian”, Kirsten Fischer returns the free thinker to the fold of Protestantism and subjugates the deist current of the turn of the century. XIXe century to a still unfinished version of religious liberalism that came to be established by Unitarianism from the 1800s.

The study would have benefited from showing more radically the specificity of deism, not as a negative of orthodox Protestantism nor as a precursor or vector of a liberalization of the Protestant tradition, but as an intellectual and spiritual matrix in its own right. If it cannot be presented as a solidly structured movement, it is precisely because deism is a moving current whose influences cannot be understood through the sole prism of criticism of positive theologies and Protestantism. A more developed historical perspective on vitalism – of which the work says nothing about the European origins and the theories which precede it or arise from it such as hippocratic-Galenic physiology, phlogiston or animal magnetism – would have been useful in order to contextualize more before Palmer’s thought.

Written in a dynamic, clear and erudite style, Kirsten Fischer’s work remains a fascinating dive into an era whose depth and complexity the historian has been able to restore, bringing to life before our eyes figures so embodied that they seem abolishing over the pages the centuries that separate us.