As I’m about to teach a six-week class on a forgotten freethinking founder of America, it becomes clearer to me that Thomas Paine is used and abused by people across the political and religious spectrum. He’s quoted by pious politicians when it suits them, and claimed by others as a hero for atheists.
The truth is, Thomas Paine is a pain in everyone’s backside, because he built bridges. Let me explain.
Paine was an inventor and he loved tinkering with his iron bridge design. As Moncure Conway wrote in The Life of Thomas Paine: “He had shown in all his writings … that he would build a constitution as he built his bridge.”
Raised by a Quaker father and Anglican mother, Paine mixed it up by getting converted by John Wesley and became a Methodist lay preacher for a while. Yet, he never gave up his Quaker sensibilities when it came to the inner light — Reason, given by the “Almighty.”
Paine was a radical freethinker who made revolution his mission in life. First, a revolution in government followed by a revolution in religion. The Age of Reason clearly lays out his reasoning. He believes in God and ethics and nothing else. No organized religion, no clergy, no churches, no bibles. And definitely no “divine right of kings.”
Paine was not an atheist. And he was not a Christian. His “Deism” was a kind of Newtonian philosophy or natural religion that was centered and founded on reason and the common good.
How could Paine’s worldview potentially serve as a bridge between the world of faith and the secular world? I’m intrigued by that question.
I wrote this essay last year to address some of these thoughts:
“Thomas Paine in the Ages of Reason and UnReason”
The forgotten Founder, Thomas Paine, addressed his little bombshell of a book, “The Age of Reason” (1794), to the American people, with these words:
“I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every one to their own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. The one who denies to another this right, makes a slave of themselves to their present opinion, because they preclude themselves the right of changing it.
The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.”
Remarkable marketing. Armed with his pen and dangerous ideas, Paine entrusts his free opinions to the protection of his readers, as he has fought to protect their freedoms.
This was the writer of the first bestseller in American history, “Common Sense” (1776), the pamphlet that ignited the fire of the American Revolution. Now, he’s presenting more revolutionary pages that many, if they even bothered to read it, might like to ban or burn.
No wonder Thomas Paine does not have a memorial in Washington alongside Jefferson and Lincoln or a likeness carved in stone on Mount Rushmore. Though he was the first person to use the phrase, “The United States of America,” one of the first to call for more humane treatment of Native Americans and an end to slavery (1775) and though he inspired the treasonous revolt that founded a new nation, Paine’s memory has been painful to many faithful for two hundred years.
Paine was in prison while he crystallized his thoughts for the second part of “The Age of Reason.” Behind bars in Paris for stirring things up after the French Revolution, he scribbled his thoughts on theology and the bible, though the only bible he had was the one in his head. It seemed the guy couldn’t stop himself from fanning flames of freethought anywhere people were claiming their basic rights. As he wrote in “The Rights of Man” (1791): “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” A very quotable phrase that barely masks its heretical message.
Why did this hero of Rights and Revolution choose to forever tarnish his place in history with this one book? Once again, the plain-speaking pamphlet writer spells it out distinctly:
“Soon after I had published the pamphlet ‘Common Sense,’ in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.”
Later he boldly asserts that earthly kings and heavenly Kings (God) are “crowned ruffians” who don’t want commoners to think for themselves or act upon their rights. This flies in the face of the “true theology” that centers on science, philosophy and reading the “scripture of the creation.”
Here’s the surprise that shouldn’t be. Paine was a believer. He was not an Atheist. He was a Deist who saw the “works of the Almighty” revealed in the universe. For this reason, he distrusted and disbelieved any claim to special “revelation” so he didn’t accept “revealed” books, creeds, theologies or the authorities who claim they represent the Creator of all.
Here again is good reason Paine is not honored in his homeland. He couldn’t rationally assent to any religion and he couldn’t stomach an atheistic worldview. After prison, returning to the country he helped create, he had few friends left. James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson were still his supporters. But even they couldn’t write good reviews on the cover of his blasphemous book.
Jefferson himself, in a letter to his nephew Peter (1787), encouraged belief based on critical thinking. “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfold fear.”
Paine was devoted to removing the blindfolds. As he saw it, every “Church” (Religion) is a “human invention” upheld by power and profit. So, where did he go to church?
“My own mind is my own church.”
A thumbnail Freethinker’s Creed. Not the best way to gain friends or respect in a culture of belief, but how could the writer of “Common Sense” speak the truth any other way? He must have known that lighting these matches in the mind of the masses would eventually burn him, though the writer of “The American Crisis” was used to conflict.
How was reason a “formidable weapon” for Thomas Paine? Joel Barlow, a diplomat and chaplain to the Continental Army, perhaps put it best: “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
Chris Highland, 2018
Good article Chris. Thomas Paine is one of my Enlightenment heroes as he took on the institutional church of his day as not the moral beacon they projected to the masses and influenced a more “sane” revolt under the leadership of Washington. His involvement in the French Revolution against the indulgent monarchy, turned sour as he was against the use of torture and the death penalty for one’s enemies which resulted in his imprisonment by the Jacobin radicals . Fortunately he was released but like Aaron Burr he was a man without a country as his Age of Reason alienated the religious right of the US and England. The fact that maybe the greatest freethinker of the period died in abject poverty in New York city after getting out of prison was not a noble end to one of our great Humanist writers and social activists. Thanks for reviewing his life again for us.
Thanks for the comment filling out my brief overview, Marty. I was just reading a letter from Jefferson to Paine in 1792 where TJ says, “Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.” He continues with a remarkable line about “reformation,” that it is “more [practical] by operating on the mind than on the body.” Both men were reformers and revolutionaries of ideas as well as society. Cheers.
I have a copy of Age of Reason beside the bed and refer it regularly. Very nice recap. Thank you
Heresy! I hope you read it “religiously.”
Not at all, but reasonably. I accept that people seem to need belief (although unreasonable) and ultimately lack confidence to trust their own eyes. A deist position fits many other religions as well as animism and panpsychism. If I were to postulate I would go there, but I have no spiritual inklings but a passing interest in what is humanity.