Palmer, Elihu

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Palmer, Elihu (1764-1806): American philosopher.

Elihu Palmer was one of the early Republic’s most vocal advocates of philosophical deism and in 1801 published his major work on the subject: Principles of Nature; or a Development [sic] of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species. In Principles, Palmer states his case against Christianity’s faith in supernatural experience arguing that it undermines nature’s principles and furthers human misery by setting up unreasonable expectations. Palmer’s masterpiece is both a thoroughgoing defense of his naturalistic philosophy and a political critique of institutionalized Christianity, which he denounces as morally and politically oppressive.

His deistic turn of mind soon followed upon his graduation from Dartmouth in 1787 and, ironically, after he trained for and accepted a post as a Presbyterian minister. After rejecting the Calvinist doctrine of Presbyterianism, Palmer became somewhat of a physical, spiritual, and intellectual wanderer, ultimately making his way to New York City, where he formed the “Deistical Society” in 1796. Through the Society, and its many branches, Palmer tirelessly promoted deism and its guiding principle of natural religion while denouncing the supernatural religion of Christian doctrine. And though he lost his sight from a bout of yellow fever, he kept writing until the end of his life in 1806, founding two newspapers, The Temple of Reason (1800) and Prospect, or View of the Moral World (1803), revising his Principles, and writing his unfinished piece of political philosophy, The Political World.

Further Reading:

Walters, Kerry S., Elihu Palmer’s “Principles of Nature”: Text and Commentary, 1990.

Jason Horn

Gordon College