Editor’s Note: This is Steve Farrell’s second article on Thomas Paine. Critics who say America’s founding wasn’t steeped in Christianity often look to Thomas Paine for support. They need to look again. Read Part 1 here)
Was founder Thomas Paine ever a Christian, and ever anything other than a man who shouted the Bible down as, “Fraud!”
Most of Paine’s backers and critics enthusiastically cry “No!” To hear it from them, Paine was at once, a Deist, a Theosophist, a Secular Humanist, an Infidel, an Atheist, a Positive Atheist, a Free Mason, BUT NEVER A CHRISTIAN.
“Just look at ‘The Age of Reason,'” they say, “Look at all the Bible bashing essays Paine wrote in Europe!”
They’re right; after Paine left the United States, he picked up a black pen that seemed to have little more than the capacity to wander and scribble in the dark, void of any fixed or distant point of light, or of any memory that any such light ever existed.
The longer he and his piceous pen wandered, the easier it became for the disillusioned man to deny his past, curse his former country and friends, and spit on the Bible.
However, viewing a man and his work in slices is not always the most charitable, nor the most honest way of looking at a man, especially when those who do the slicing, discard the pieces they don’t like.
In honesty, one cannot deny that Thomas Paine became an opponent of the Bible and of Christianity. But neither can one in honesty deny that when liberty hung in the balance in the United States, nearly every essay that flowed from Thomas Paine’s pen applied the gospel of Christ to the cause of liberty.
So let’s, for a moment hear the better side of Thomas Paine (via a Q & A session) from his American essays, or those essays which few ‘educated’ men have the guts and candor to quote (or if they do quote them, they do so, minus each essays Christian context); even though these were the only valuable words the man ever spoke, and the only words his fellow founders ever praised.
Q. Mr. Paine, why is slavery wrong?
A. “[S]ince the time of reformation came, under Gospel light. All distinctions of nations and privileges of one above others, are ceased; Christians are taught to account all men their neighbours; and love their neighbours as themselves; and do to all men as they would be done by; to do good to all men; and Man-stealing is ranked with enormous crimes. Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbours, and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with the Divine precepts! Is this doing to them as we would desire they should do to us? If they could carry off and enslave some thousands of us, would we think it just?” (1)
Q. And are there other reasons slavery is wrong?
A. “[I can think of two more: 1. Many] evils [attend] the practice, selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening up the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all which the guilty masters must answer to the final Judge.” (2)
2. “The past treatment of Africans must naturally fill them with abhorrence of Christians; lead them to think our religion would make them more inhuman savages if they embraced it; thus, the gain of that trade has been pursued in opposition of the Redeemer’s cause, and the happiness of man.” (3)
Q. Who’s religion and what cause are they opposing?
“[I said,] our religion . [and] the Redeemer’s cause.” (4)
Q. Sorry, just checking. There are those who say Thomas Paine never believed in Christ, nor in the commandments of God. Shall we proceed?
Q. What ought Americans do to rectify this assault on both Africans and Christianity?
A. “[W]hen the Almighty shall have blest us, and made us a people dependent only upon Him, then let the first gratitude be shown by an act of continental legislation, which shall stop the importation of negroes for sale, soften the hard fate of those already here, and in time procure their freedom.” (5)
Q. Yes, we’ve done that. What else?
A. “Are we not . bound in duty to Him (God) and to them (the Africans) to repair these injuries, as far as possible, by taking some proper measures to instruct, not only the slaves here, but the Africans in their own countries? Primitive Christians labored always to spread their divine religion; and this is equally our duty while there is a heathen nation.” (6)
Q. We should be missionaries for Christ?
Q. You continue to use Christian and Biblical persuasion to call slavery wrong, and yet, some will say, “the practice was permitted to the Jews.” (7) This is a tough question. Was slavery permissible under the Law of Moses?
A. “[That claim] is, in a great measure, false; they [the Children of Israel] had no permission to catch and enslave people who never injured them.” (8)
Q. Oh, I see, bondsmen under the Law of Moses were not slaves, as we understand that term, but criminals working off their time, serving those whom they violated, rather than doing so in a prison cell. Is that right?
A. [That is right.]
Q. Alright then; I understand you. But let me expand upon this line of questioning, if I a may?
A. [You may.]
Q. You pointed out in your essay, “African Slavery in America,” there are those who “[allege] the Sacred Scriptures . to appear contrary to the plain dictates of natural light, and the Conscience, in a matter of Common Justice and Humanity, which they [the Scriptures] cannot be.” (9) Those are your words; are they not?
A. [They are.]
Q. So what is your opinion, then, of the sort of man or woman who would intentionally twist the sacred record to justify slavery and many other gross sins and crimes, on the one hand, or to use these same words to discredit the Bible and Christianity, on the other?
A. “[One] would have thought none but infidel cavilers.” (10)
Q. What ought Christians and freedom loving Americans think and do about those within their ranks who encourage or practice such things and do so in the name of Christianity and the Bible?
A. “[They] should be called Devils, rather than Christians. (11). [E]very society should bear testimony against [them], and account obstinate persisters [as] bad men, enemies to their country, and exclude them from their fellowship.”
Q. Thank you for clarifying that Christianity, like all other groups, certainly cannot be held accountable, nor discounted as to its validity, simply because ignorant, sinful, and ambitious men use the cloak of being a Christian to justify the unseemly.
A. [You’re welcome.]
Q. Thus far you have spoken about the moral issues, the Christian issues that persuaded you to speak out publicly against slavery and its attendant evils. What would you say to those today who believe that the laws of a nation should never come under the influence of the great moral principles of religion, that men ought to be forbidden to speak of such things in public halls, and that the morality of public servants is of no concern; that only efficiency matters?
A. “[I would think them madmen and lunatics. T]he domestic tranquility of a nation, depends greatly on the chastity of what might properly be called NATIONAL MANNERS”. (12) “[And] as nothing but Heaven is impregnable to vice, . this will point out the necessity of government [in the first place], to supply the defect of moral virtue.” (13)
Q. I see, you are in agreement with Washington “that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” of “political prosperity.” Would you also agree with him “[that] the pure and benign light of Revelation . [is at] the Foundation of our Empire”? (14)
A. “[Indeed, but I shall take his point further. P]olitical as well as spiritual freedom is the gift of God through Christ.” (15)
Q. Mr. Paine. Your “Age of Reason” fans won’t like that quote. They’ll accuse me of producing it out of thin air?
A. [Yeah, oh well. No comment.]
Q. But wait a minute. I’m not through with this topic. If political freedom comes from Christ, as you say, what then, in your opinion, is the most important end of government?
A. “[A]bove all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” (16)
Q. Do you mean to say, protecting religious freedom is more important than, let’s say, protecting property?
A. “[I do. T]here is a point to view this matter in of superior consequence to the defence of property; and that point is liberty in all its meanings. In the barbarous ages of the world, men in general had no liberty. The strong governed the weak at will; ’till the coming of Christ there was no such thing as political freedom in any known part of the earth.” (17)
Q. You feel strongly about this, don’t you?
A. “[Yes.] First. Because till spiritual freedom was made manifest, political liberty did not exist, [as I just stated]. Secondly. Because in proportion that spiritual freedom has been manifested, political liberty has increased. Thirdly, whenever the visible church has been oppressed, political freedom has suffered with it. . [Thus,] as the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both. And defense in the first instance is best.” (18)
Q. Your points are well taken. Till the coming of Christ there was no such thing as political freedom. Your words need repeating today, in Congress, in the courts, in the classroom. Can we talk about miracles now?
Q. Mr. Paine, this commentator receives much ridicule for bringing to light God’s hand in establishing this nation, whether through His miraculous intervention in the War for Independence on the side of the Americans, or His inspiring the mind’s of the Founders in the establishment of our constitution. It has been said that you, and the other Founders, did not believe in miracles, and that Christian men ought to stop injecting their private agenda into their writing. Would you please comment on that.
A. [Yes, oh well, there they go again. Who ever said that about American Founder Thomas Paine, is wrong. I do believe in miracles. I, in fact, wrote and testified of the occurrence of miracles in the Bible and in America during this period.]
Q. You did? Tell me more.
A. “[Yes, I did. But let me preface my remarks with a request that the reader remember that any comments I made during the Founding Era on miracles that appear to be against a belief in miracles, ought to be kept in their intended context, that is, I was concerned, as was General Washington, about Americans who refused to take up arms to defend family and country, under the delusion that God alone would fight our battles. I felt this a false manifestation of Christianity, and the sort of response one expects of cowards, not Christians. I wrote to the Quakers:] ‘Could the peaceable principle of the Quakers be universally established, arms and the art of war would be wholly extirpated. But we live not in a world of angels. The reign of Satan is not ended; neither are we to expect to be defended by miracles. The pillar of the cloud existed only in the wilderness. In the nonage of the Israelites. It protected them in their retreat from Pharoah, while they were destitute of the natural means of defense, for they brought no arms from Egypt; but it neither fought their battles nor shielded them from danger afterwards.'” (19)
“[It was to say, as I wrote later,] ‘throw not the burden of the day upon Providence, but ‘show your faith by your works,’ that God may bless you.’ (20) [You see, God brings about His miracles, by common and natural means, most often when humans meet Him half way.]” (21)
Q. Nevertheless, were there miracles that occurred during the American Revolution?
A. [Yes. In “The American Crisis,” I wrote of General Washington’s miraculous retreat from the Delaware and the forces of General Howe. Howe was checked by the Almighty, which God may, in his wisdom, choose to do on special occasions-for] if we believe the power of hell to be limited, we must likewise believe that their agents are under some providential control.” (22)
A2. “[But let affirm, this was my faith before I witnessed such miracles. God gave me to foresee in a dream, (which I published in May of 1775), the role He would play in the coming War for Independence, to bring us victory, and to raise up the United States as a city on a hill. I quote from the interpretation He gave me:] ‘America will rise with new glories from the conflict, and her fame be established in every corner of the globe; while it will be remembered to her eternal honour, that she has not sought the quarrel, but has been driven into it. He who guides the natural tempest will regulate the political one, and bring good out of evil. In our petition to Britain we asked but for peace; but the prayer was rejected. The cause is now before a higher court, the court of Providence, before whom the arrogance of kings, the infidelity of ministers, the general corruption of government, and all the cobweb artifice of courts, will fall confounded and ashamed.'” (23)
Q. Let me see if I have this right, it is your conviction that God intervened on the side of the Americans by putting restraints upon the Brit’s satanically inspired cause?
A. “[As I remarked to a Tory I accidentally fell in company with,] that ‘it appeared clear to me, by the late providential turn of affairs, that God Almighty was visibly on our side,’ [to which] he replied, ‘We care nothing for that, you may have Him, and welcome; if we have but enough of the devil on our side, we shall do.’ However carelessly this might be spoken, matters not, ’tis still the insensible principle that directs your conduct and will at last most assuredly deceive you and ruin you’, (24) said I to him.”
“[Now, I have more to say on this subject. I wish to reveal a matter of common belief among us American Christians.] There are such things as national sins, and though the punishment of individuals may be reserved to another world, national punishment can only be inflicted in this world. Britain, as a nation is, in my belief, the greatest and most ungrateful offender against God on the face of the whole earth. Blessed with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished, by a vast extension of dominion, with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get. Like Alexander, she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodigality’s sake. The blood of India is not yet repaid, nor the wretchedness of Africa yet requited. Of late she has enlarged her list of national cruelties by her butcherly destruction of the Caribbs of St. Vincent’s, and returning an answer by the sword to the meek prayer for “Peace, liberty and safety.” These are serious things, and whatever a foolish tyrant, a debauched court, a trafficking legislature, or a blinded people may think, the national account with heaven must some day or other be settled: all countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better. As I wish it over, I wish it to come, but withal wish that it may be as light as possible.” (25)
Q. Oh, I see. As it is with individuals, so it is with governments, as it is in private, so it is in public-morality matters-and God will either bless or withhold blessings from the individual or nation which pursues good or evil. May we now speak of America and her destiny?
A. [Yes, we may.]
Q. I believe, as do millions of other Americans, that God set this country apart for a special purpose. Could you please comment?
A. “[Indeed, I will.] The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open up a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.” (26)
Q. Columbus’ discovery was part of a Divine plan?
Q. And in that plan America was to be a sanctuary for the world’s persecuted?
A. “[Yes.] The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” (27)
Q. And is America’s Independence, part of that divine plan as well?
A. “[I believe it so.] Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of heaven . and the manner in which it was peopled, encreases the force of it.” (28) “[And let me add a little prophecy. T]he Almighty will finally separate America from Great Britain. Call it independence, or what you will, if it is the cause of God and humanity it will go on.” (29)
Q. What about other nations, will they ever subvert our independence?
A. “Our independence with God’s blessing we will maintain against all the world.” (30)
Q. Mr. Paine, you have given us much to consider regarding the injustice of the British cause, the justice of the America cause, and why God was on our side from the start;-and yet, the question some Christians will ask is this: Was this a just war, and while you are at it, do you believe in the Christian Just War Doctrine?
A. “My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light. Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to “bind me in all cases whatsoever” to his absolute will, am I to suffer it? What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my countryman or not my countryman; whether it be done by an individual villain, or an army of them? If we reason to the root of things we shall find no difference; neither can any just cause be assigned why we should punish in the one case and pardon in the other. Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man. I conceive likewise a horrid idea in receiving mercy from a being, who at the last day shall be shrieking to the rocks and mountains to cover him, and fleeing with terror from the orphan, the widow, and the slain of America.” (31)
Q. Mr. Paine, before closing, I need to readdress a matter of great concern, more bluntly than earlier. Is that okay?
A. [Fire away.]
Q. There are individuals today who take courage in attacking Christianity and the Bible, some of them for political reason, some of them for religious reasons, and they hold you up as their hero. Could you please clarify how you felt about this matter before the French Revolution, that is, back in the days when your soaring language inspired a nation to rise up as true men and true Christians, to shake off the chains which held them bound, and to liberate themselves in a moral, brave and valiant fashion, such as the world has never seen before or since?
A. “[I will. I wrote to the Quakers: ‘I am] one of those few who never dishonors religion either by ridiculing or caviling at any denomination whatsoever. To God and not to men are all men accountable on the score of religion.'” (32)
A2. “[And then to all of America, I wrote, and I write again:] ‘Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be diversity of religious opinions among us: It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness. Were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle, I look on the various denominations among us, to be like children of the same family, differing only, in what is called, their Christian names.'” (33)
Q. Thank you Mr. Paine. Regarding a similar matter, in our day men seem to quote only your sayings about reason and about conscience, and more specifically, about a reason and conscience void of revelation and the Divine influence of Christ. Could you please repeat for our audience what you said shone in the conscience of man and checked him in his sins?
A. “[I said, or truly, Barclay said it first, ‘it is the] light of Christ which shineth in the conscience, and which neither can nor will flatter thee, nor suffer thee to be at ease in thy sins.'” (34)
Q. Say on, concerning this light of Christ, this component of the conscience moderns would have us know nothing about.
A. “The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts. They distinguish us from the herd of common animals. The social compact would dissolve, and justice be extirpated from the earth, or have only a casual existence were we callous to the touches of affection. The robber and the murderer would often escape unpunished, did not injuries which our tempers sustain, provoke us into justice.” (35)
Q. Mr. Paine, as an extension to this matter of conscience, or the light of Christ implanted in every human breast, you once stated, “There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did.” (36) Were you referring to your belief that there are some sins, so grossly against nature that every man’s conscience bears testimony that they are wrong, and that even nature itself cries out against them, and exacts punishment?
A. [Yes, you kept it in the context I put it in. I suppose you have a purpose in mind.]
Q. Well, yes. There’s a place for that statement in the American debate today; which leads me to yet another question. What are your views on marriage?
A. “God made us all in pairs; each has his mate somewhere or other; and ‘t is our duty to find each other out, since no creature was ever intended to be miserable.” (37)
Q. “Men are that they might have joy,” is how I would say that. We are almost done, now. One more question.
A. [All right.]
Q. In your “Age of Reason” days, you denounced riddles and mysteries. You asserted that “everything” in the gospel ought to be plain. Your earlier writings bear quite a different testimony, however. Could you please inform our readers how the Christian Thomas Paine approached mysteries and riddles?
A. “[I would be glad to.] There are certain circumstances, which, at the time of their happening, are a kind of riddles, and as every riddle is to be followed by its answer, so those kind of circumstances will be followed by their events, and those events are always the true solution. A considerable space of time may lapse between, and unless we continue our observations from the one to the other, the harmony of them will pass away unnoticed: but the misfortune is, that partly from the pressing necessity of some instant things, and partly from the impatience of our own tempers, we are frequently in such a hurry to make out the meaning of everything as fast as it happens, that we thereby never truly understand it; and not only start new difficulties to ourselves by so doing, but, as it were, embarrass Providence in her good designs.” (38)
[Hmmm. I see your point.]
Q. I hope your latter day followers see it as well! Well, we must now conclude our interview; and it is time for me to thank you. You, Mr. 1770’s Thomas Paine-American Patriot, American Founder-don’t sound anything like the Secular Humanist, or the Deist, or the Theosophist, or the Infidel, or the Atheist, or the Free Mason, they say you are or were-nor can I in a spirit of honesty say that you sound like anything else but a Christian-a devout Christian, I would think-one who matched his faith with his works, and his private thoughts with his public words, for which every American, if not every citizen of the world, owes you and the God who inspired you, a debt.
A. [Why yes. I will be the first to admit it after reviewing the record; and those who claim otherwise are, as you have said, ‘liars and scoundrels,’ and as I have written, ‘infidels and cavilers.’ Thank you for setting the record straight.]
Keep an eye out for part 3 of “Paine’s Christianity,” which will examine Thomas Paine’s Biblical/Christian rejection of Kings.
Meridian Columnist Steve Farrell is associate professor of political economy at George Wythe College and the author of “Dark Rose,” an inspirational novel about faith and family reviewers are calling “a modern classic.” Read the reviews or order Dark Rose now.
1. Van der Weyde, William M. editor. “The Life and Works of Thomas Paine,” Patriots Edition, Volume II, New Rochelle, New York, Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 1925, “African Slavery In America,” p. 6-7.
2. Ibid, p. 7-8.
3. Ibid, p. 10
5. Ibid, “A Serious Thought,” p. 2.
6. Ibid, “African Slavery in America,” p. 10.
7. Ibid, p. 6.
8. Ibid, p. 6.
9. Ibid, p. 5-6.
10. Ibid, p. 5.
11. Ibid, p. 6.
12. Ibid, “Common Sense,” p. 169.
13. Ibid, p. 100.
14. The Papers of George Washington, Washington to John Hancock, June 11, 1783.
15. Van der Weyde, William M. editor. “The Life and Works of Thomas Paine,” Patriots Edition, Volume II, New Rochelle, New York, Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 1925, “Thoughts on Defensive War,” p. 82.
16. Ibid, “Common Sense,” p. 146.
17. Ibid, “Thoughts on Defensive War,” p. 81-82.
18. Ibid, p. 83.
19. Ibid, p. 79.
20. Ibid, “The American Crisis,” p. 272-273.
21. Ibid, “Epistle to Quakers,” p. 189.
22. Ibid, “The American Crisis,” p. 268.
23. Ibid, “The Dream Interpreted,” p. 71.
24. Ibid, “The American Crisis,” p. 293-294.
25. Ibid, p. 294-295.
26. Ibid, “Common Sense,” p. 131.
27. Ibid, p. 95.
28. Ibid, p. 131.
29. Ibid, “A Serious Thought,” p. 2.
30. Ibid, “Common Sense,” p. 307.
31. Ibid, “The American Crisis,” p. 274-275.
32. Ibid, “Epistle to Quakers,” p. 183.
33. Ibid, “Common Sense,” p. 163.
34. Ibid, “Epistle to Quakers,” p. 187.
35. Ibid, “Common Sense,” p. 150.
36. Ibid, p. 149.
37. Ibid, “Reflections on Unhappy Marriages,” p. 78.
38. Ibid, “The American Crisis,” p. 311.
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