Of the many controversies which were rife during the first half of the eighteenth century, none raised a question of greater importance than that which lay at the root of the Deistical controversy. That question was, in a word, this—How has God revealed Himself—how is He still revealing Himself to man? Is the so-called written Word the only means—is it the chief means—is it even a means at all, by which the Creator makes His will known to His creatures? Admitting the existence of a God—and with a few insignificant exceptions this admission would have been made by all—What are the evidences of His existence and of His dealings with us?
During the whole period of pre-reformation Christianity in England, and during the century which succeeded the rupture between the Church of England and that of Rome, all answers to this question, widely though they might have differed in subordinate points, would at least have agreed in this—that some external authority, whether it were the Scripture as interpreted by the Church, or the Scripture and Church traditions combined, or the Scripture interpreted by the light which itself affords or by the inner light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, was necessary to manifest God to man. The Deists first ventured to hint that such authority was unnecessary; some even went so far as to hint that it was impossible. This at least was the tendency of their speculations; though it was not the avowed object of them. There was hardly a writer among the Deists who did not affirm that he had no wish to depreciate revealed truth. They all protested vigorously against the assumption that Deism was in any way opposed to Christianity rightly understood. ‘Deism,’ they said, ’is opposed to Atheism on the one side and to superstition on the other; but to Christianity—true, original Christianity—as it came forth from the hands of its founder, the Deists are so far from being opposed, that they are its truest defenders.’ Whether their position was logically tenable is quite another question, but that they assumed it in all sincerity there is no reason to doubt.
It is, however, extremely difficult to assert or deny anything respecting the Deists as a body, for as a matter of fact they had no corporate existence. The writers who are generally grouped under the name wrote apparently upon no preconcerted plan. They formed no sect, properly so-called, and were bound by no creed. In this sense at least they were genuine ‘freethinkers,’ in that they freely expressed their thoughts without the slightest regard to what had been said or might be said by their friends or foes. It was the fashion among their contemporaries to speak of the Deists as if they were as distinct a sect as the Quakers, the Socinians, the Presbyterians, or any other religious denomination. But we look in vain for any common doctrine—any common form of worship which belonged to the Deists as Deists.