Confounding the Enfightemnent
Deism was the most crystallized version of Enlightenment religion in the eighteenth century. It expressed clearly and cogently quintessentially Enlightened thinking about God and God's relation to humanity. The French and German Enlightenment thinkers also talked about God, religion, and humanity's moral obligations to God, but none conceived of religion so programmatically as their deist counterparts in England. When either the philosophes or the German philosophers departed from deist thinking, the departures were more in degree than kind; they extended the reach of deist claims and broadened their implications, but their differences were more quantitative than qualitative. Therefore when Jonathan Edwards set his sights on deism and confronted its claims, he was doing battle with Enlightenment religion. The contest between Edwards and the deists was a contest of religions.
Yet deism was more than just a set of religious claims. Its interests and influence extended further -- to epistemology, ethics, ontology, and even politics. For that reason it is instructive to look at Henry May's analysis of the American Enlightenment. May has shown that the Enlightenment in America was not one thing, but a series of interrelated movements with diverse emphases and perspectives. What makes his analysis relevant to our purposes is the discovery that deism's reach extended to each phase of the American Enlightenment.
May has distinguished four phases or categories of Enlightenment thought that influenced American minds in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Moderate or Rational Enlightenment, inspired by Newton and Locke, preached balance, order, and religious compromise. It carried the day until the middle of the eighteenth century. Then the skeptical Enlightenment developed in Britain and