James Turner, in his book Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, suggests Barlow is a plausible candidate for America’s first atheist. There may, of course, have been an underground of unbelief in America in the late 1700s, but the evidence we have of the era’s skepticism indicates it was directed towards the authority of the clergy, the specifics of creeds and dogmas, and the status of revelation.
“Almighty Freedom! give my venturous song
The force, the charm that to thy voice belong;
Tis thine to shape my course, to light my way,
To nerve my country with the patriot lay,
To teach all men where all their interest lies,
How rulers may be just and nations wise:
Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee,
Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.”
— Joel Barlow, The Columbiad: Book I.
Barlow is not thought of as a significant figure of late 18th, early 19th century America. He’s a little noted epic poet, and a minor diplomat remembered only really for drafting the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which contains the controversial clause, “As the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion.”
He is significant, though, as possibly America’s first atheist.
James Turner, in his book Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, suggests Barlow is a plausible candidate for America’s first atheist. There may, of course, have been an underground of unbelief in America in the late 1700s, but the evidence we have of the era’s skepticism indicates it was directed towards the authority of the clergy, the specifics of creeds and dogmas, and the status of revelation. Not towards God per se. Skepticism was skepticism of “superstition,” but that didn’t often extend to include metaphysics as such, or the idea of God as revealed in the order of things. The deists and those of that inclination wanted to rationalize religion, but considered atheism a slur to be avoided. Tom Paine, for example, started out his attack or revelation and organized religion by stating, “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.”
According to Turner, God was understood as epistemologically necessary, even for those who rejected organized religion. Knowledge was thought only possible via science, and science required nature be consistent and regulated by discoverable rules. “God” was the ground of those rules, and thus the guarantor of rationality. To be skeptical of God was to be skeptical of the possibility of knowledge.
That was more radical than most of the era’s radicals were willing to be.
Turner writes, “The known unbelievers of Europe and America before the French Revolution numbered fewer than a dozen …. disbelief in God remained scarcely more plausible than disbelief in gravity.”
One of those who came to disbelief with the French Revolution was Barlow.
At least to an extent.
Turner suggests Barlow flirted with the idea of atheism, but then drew back. Perhaps because it was too radical. Perhaps because that active unbelief was only sustainable in the context of France at the time of revolution. Even if he didn’t withdraw from the idea of atheism, or at some point again take up deist beliefs, Barlow masked his unbelief, and didn’t openly proclaim it. This might of been because, as his biographer Richard Buel, Jr., explains, with the failure of the revolution in France and the increase in religiousness in America with the Second Great Awakening, an outright rejection of all conceptions of God was politically untenable. Propagating atheism would have completely marginalized Barlow, so he maintained a public position of “rational religion,” skeptical but within the bounds acceptable to the American public.
Barlow came to his tentative atheism through the influence of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, who published anti-religious works anonymously in Amsterdam and hosted the Parisan salon that contained many or most of the known unbelievers preceding the French Revolution. D’Holbach argued that “The universe, that vast assemblage of every thing that exists, presents only matter and motion: the whole offers to our contemplation nothing but an immense, an uninterrupted succession of causes and effects.” Holding to that conception of materialism, he was, it has been noted, “long and loud” in his “expressions of atheism.” This was so provocative a position, at that point, even Voltaire disavowed it.
In 1795, six years after the French Revolution began, Barlow wrote a letter from France to America praising d’Holbach’s work. “I rejoice,” he wrote, “in the progress of good sense over the damnable imposture of Christian mummery.” In the same letter, Barlow endorsed d’Holbach’s depiction of the Apostle Paul as a “famous Montebank.”
According to Buel, Barlow was slow, though, to move from criticism of Christianity to outright atheism. Buel writes,
“Entries Barlow made in his notebooks between 1799 and 1801 are sprinkled with references to writings that maintained there was no such thing as an intelligent God and that all religions were illusions. By 1802 these ideas had become Barlow’s own. He then objected to prayers to a sentient Supreme Being on the grounds that reason and intelligence were attributes of a dependent rather than an independent agent. If God were indeed sovereign, he would be the equivalent of nature and, as such, without intelligence.”
Implicit in this account of his rejection of the God of deists is the epistemological problem of atheism Turner describes. Whereas “natural theology,” be it orthodox or deist, posits a supernatural designer of nature, ensuring the orderedness of nature, Barlow finds this idea of an intelligent Supreme Being nonsensical. Specifically because he thinks the conditions necessary for “Supreme” and for being “intelligent” are contradictory. Note, though, that this would also imply that nature is reason-less, which, as Turner explains it, would have undermined the foundational idea of the science of the time, which was that reason and order, in the forms of natural laws, could be detected. It’s not clear how or if Barlow imagined himself getting out of this conundrum, but it seems possible, at least, from what Buel says, that he managed it with what might be called philosophical secularization. That is, by just not allowing reference to an “ultimate reality” grounding the rules of nature, preferring instead what Charles Taylor calls “the ethic of freedom and mutual benefit” that constitutes the “Modern Moral Order.”
Barlow may not have gone that far, though. These are tentative steps. The move from appealing to the ultimate reality of the order of things to appealing to immediate, immanent question of mutual benefit is at least embryonic in this advent of American atheism, but then it’s embryonic, also, in a lot of the political philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries. That doesn’t mean it could have been articulated.
Comparing his earlier and later poems, one can note the progress of disbelief in Barlow’s thought, from generic Christian sentiment to deism to something more (or less).
Though Barlow was apparently never exactly orthodox, he was a Congregationalist, earlier in his life, and served, even, as a chaplain during the American Revolution. In an early poem written for his graduation from Yale and noted mostly for strongly stating opposition to slavery, Barlow imagines “the Lord of Life” addressing Christopher Columbus, offering a somewhat standard Christian account of the coming resurrection.
The Lord of the poem says the “sons of earth” will “Rise to life” and “behold the promised birth.” In the final moment of human history, as described by the God of the poem, “Stern vengeance softens and the God descends, / The atoning God, the pardoning grace to seal, / The dead to quicken and the sick to heal.”
In 1787, nearly a decade later, the year before leaving for France, Barlow published his epic The Vision of Columbus. In that, the deity discernible is less Christian, more deist. The God described seems more an abstract principle, the first cause and ground of the laws of nature held to be deists. As found in the first book of the poem, the divine is “that great Source, that life-inspiring Soul, / Suns drew their light and systems learn’d to roll.” Barlow’s poem speaks of the “trace” of “Heaven’s own conduct,” which is visible when people “look thro’ nature” and has been “stamp’d the mind of man.”
Twenty years later, Barlow published an expanded and revised version of the epic, re-titled The Columbiad. Here, in 1807, the divine seems almost completely rejected — or if not rejected, replaced. Barlow invokes no god but Freedom, and proclaims, “Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, / Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.”
As the Guardian noted in a review of Buel’s book last year, The Columbiadinvolved some major revisions of the earlier poem, “transforming his Christian epic The Vision of Columbus into a secular, republican epic.” In the later poem, “one of the strangest pieces of literature produced by a 19th-century American,” released just five years after Barlow’s notebooks evidence a personal atheism, Barlow
“versifies about geological evidence contrary to the Christian creation story, describes the secular apocalypse that will come if Americans fail to emancipate their slaves, and ends with representatives of the major religions discarding the symbols of their faith to join into one world-governing council, based in a crystal palace in Mesopotamia.”
A progression of skepticism is visible in Barlow’s poetry, but the final version visible in The Columbiad does not actually seem to go as far as outright atheism. What’s presented would not be problematic for deists, though it would be for Christians. The skepticism presented in the poetry doesn’t seem to go as far as his private notebooks.
It’s notable, too, that when Barlow was attacked as an atheist in the American press in subsequent years, his defenders argued he wasn’t an atheist, but merely another deist. Atheism was beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse, and Barlow didn’t publicly cross that border. Even if hewas a committed atheist, he made sure he could still pass as a deist.
Whether this is because he himself wasn’t entirely confident in the position, as Turner claims, or because taking such a controversial stand would have been political suicide, as Buel argues, may be a matter of speculation. Perhaps it was both. But Barlow wasn’t open about his lack of belief, whether he lacked with deep conviction or was merely flirting.
He didn’t publicly promote d’Holbach-style atheism with something like the equivalent of Tom Paine’s book. To the extent he did promote such ideas, he did so anonymously.
In 1802, for example, the year “these ideas had become Barlow’s own,” he translated the final portion of Constantin Volney’s Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires (The Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires). The first half of the work, which exposited a philosophy of history, had been translated by Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson stopped before translating the sections of the book dedicated to religion, realizing it would open him up to significant criticism from his political opponents. Volney had already fled America ahead of an expected deportation, and acknowledged the final section of his book was meant to provoke doubt about religion. Barlow finished the work, including the controversial chapter entitled “The Origin and Filiation of Religious Ideas,” which argued that humans had invented religion and gods to explain astronomical phenomena. He did this secretly, though. Neither Jefferson nor Barlow had themselves cited as the book’s translator.
“both of the responsible parties now preferred avoiding public identification with Volney’s ideas …. Barlow grew increasingly mindful of his reputation among his countrymen. The Ruins would prove to be a tough sell in an America beset by the religious fervor accompanying the Second Great Awakening.”
Barlow managed to keep his unbelief quiet enough to be appointed in 1811 to negotiate a commercial treaty with Napoleon. Not that he was entirely free from suspicion. The New York Evening Post, opposing the diplomatic appointment, called Barlow an “apostate priest and reviller of the very religion he publicly professed … a phrenzied and bloody-minded jacobin, a modern philosopher and a sycophant of those in power” (sic). This seems to have been pretty standard political rhetoric, though, of the sort common directed at deists and those sympathetic to the French Revolution.
If Barlow was America’s first atheist, he was tentative about it. “Flirtation,” Turner’s term, seems to be accurate. He came to his unbelief privately, in the context of his reading and his private notebooks, and he kept it private too. It’s significant, nonetheless, that he did go so far as to disbelieve, even if only cautiously. It was, in his notebooks, a crazy thought. And not one without consequences. Barlow hesitated, in the face of those consequences, but still might be rightly understood as marking an early moment in a significant societal shift.
Barlow’s private unbelief, as possibly America’s first atheist, is an important moment in that move Charles Taylor describes as “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood as one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace,” the shift from a society in which “it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believes, is one possibility among others.”
In this sense, Barlow is significant to late 18th, early 19th century America. There may have been a historical moment, there, where in the privacy of his notebooks Barlow was the only American anywhere who thought of himself as rejecting all conceptions of God. Where he was the one who thought what was almost unthinkable, that there is no God, and thought it even to the point of tentatively, privately, accepting for himself what to most was an insult, a slur, the name “atheist.”