by Steve Farrell
Of all the attempts to affix to the Founding Father’s the faithless brand, “non-Christian secularist”, the only Founder who appears to deserve such a burning indictment is Thomas Paine.
After all, Tom Paine was responsible for that infamous shadowboxing match with the Bible, called “The Age of Reason;” wasn’t he? As a result, a host of so-called scholars declare Paine an Atheist, and/or the founder of secular humanism;-and to these claims they add, “here’s another layer of proof that America was not founded upon nor influenced in its founding by Christian men and Christian principles.”
It’s true enough; Paine wrote the “nasty little book.”
And, here it ought to end.
As for the supposition that the other founders embraced “The Age of Reason,” or its mindset: Jefferson advised Paine never to publish the book. Benjamin Franklin, Paine’s patron and friend, gave his protg the same advice. After reading a draft, he noted, “He who spits against the wind spits in his own face. If men are wicked with religion, what would they be without it?” Enthusiasts of the French Revolution: Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, et al. supply the answer. John Adams, once a fan of Paine’s, having received his copy, called Paine a “blackguard,” who writes out of the depths of “a malignant heart.” And Washington, previously one of Paine’s fiercest advocates, attacked Tom Paine’s principles in his Farewell Address (without reference to his name) as unpatriotic and subversive.
A Disgraced Ending
Despite sending pleas for help to his former brethren in America, Thomas Paine, unaided, rotted in a French prison awaiting the guillotine. Gouverneur Morris, observing Paine’s activities, reported to Jefferson that the fallen angel was now a drunk who amused himself writing essays against Christ. And although James Monroe eventually rescued Paine, Paine came back to America in disgrace. He was denied citizenship in his home state, and buried, upon his death, with no monument to mark the spot, no memorial to remember the man who previously had united a country under the inspirational sway of “Common Sense” and “The Crisis.” His grave was desecrated.
This might seem cruel; but Paine’s treatment by his former friends provides a clear cut, unequivocal message for our time-which is this: It is flat out deception to claim that Paine’s Bible-bashing “Age of Reason” is representative of America’s Founding Era. Those who do so are at best, ill informed, and at worst, liars and scoundrels.
Mr. Paine’s conduct after having left America, spit on her sacred Christian beginnings-and so this former patriot returned from the bloodthirsty turbulence of France without honor. A sad and pathetic ending that scarred and grounded a soaring past.
That said, there is much to learn from the former Paine-a man whose writings brimmed and bristled with Christianity. As for the latter Paine, “all men sin and fall short of the glory of God,” we read. The Bible, itself, is full of individuals who rose and fell-some repenting and rising to fight another day-others failing to beat the count. Yet, we study their inspired words and works with interest and benefit.
Besides, on Paine’s worst day, he was far from being the modern founder of atheism or secular humanism that many claim.
Why The Age of Reason?
I ask; shall the claimants take Mr. Paine on his own word as to why he wrote “The Age of Reason”?
In a letter to Samuel Adams, he explained: “[T]he people of France were running headlong into Atheism, and I had the work translated and published in their own language to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article of every man’s creed, who has any creed at all-I believe in God.”
In the first paragraphs of “The Age of Reason,” Paine restates this purpose:
“The circumstance that has now taken place in France, of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest, in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.”
Is it sinking in? Thomas Paine-though he failed in this attempt-sought to rescue the French Revolution from the extremes of atheism and secularism, lest France’s new found freedom would be precisely as opponent Edmund Burke had predicted, “[like] a madman”, or else “a highwayman and murderer who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights.”
As for “the theology that is true” that Paine pled for, much has been said by others about its Deism; and yet oddly, Paine’s Deism incorporated Jesus’ grand summary of the law and the prophets as its founding and nearly, only principle.
Wrote Paine “with sincerity and frankness”:
“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
“I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
Or in other words, love of God and love of neighbor;-and add to this, a belief in the equality of every man as a child of God (the basis of Paine’s rejection of monarchy);-and lastly, a belief in immortality, and thus, final judgment, which belief imbues a sense of moral accountability in every man and every nation.
The Question of Christ’s Divinity
It is true, Mr. Paine rejected the divinity of Christ, and yet, which of his proponents will admit that Paine said of Jesus in “The Age of Reason,” “Nothing that is here said can apply, even with the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached . it has not been exceeded by any.”
Paine’s concerns about Christ’s divinity were focused on a not too uncommon concern about the Bible having passed through the hands of corrupt national churches and other manmade institutions. How much of the Bible had been tainted? How much of it was mixed with Greek mythology? Jefferson expressed similar concerns-the difference being, Jefferson kept them private and attempted to mine for the gems in the Bible and push away the gravel. He was not in the business of tearing down Christianity; Jefferson believed himself a Christian.
By contrast, a bitter and embattled Paine bragged he could write a better book than the Bible.
This was Paine’s greatest mistake; in his efforts to reclaim a people who Burke accurately said, had “total contempt . [for] all ancient institutions,” Paine, ironically, did just that, ripping out the very foundation of morality and law he sought to save, which foundation was found in the Bible.
And yet, the dark brush with which the author of “The Age of Reason,” painted Christianity, as presently constituted, wasn’t all dark. It’s opening offered a ray of hope for the future, a prophetic remark characteristic of his earlier Christian days-FOR IT WAS FROM HIS EARLIER CHRISTIAN DAYS.
A Revolution in Religion
“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. The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it had taken place, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, had so effectually prohibited, by pains and penalties, every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow. Human inventions and priest-craft would be detected; and man would return to the pure, unmixed, and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more.”
That is, out of the religious reformation and the religious and political liberty it spawned, would come a people enlightened and prepared for a new dispensation of gospel light. This would occur in the United States. Millions believe it so.
Paine’s involvement in the French Revolution and in the writing of “The Age of Reason” was a dreadful mistake and an ugly scar on an otherwise illustrious life. His learning, his pride, his new associations with false friends of liberty, turned out the light on a formerly Christian heart.
Yet, I prefer to remember Thomas Paine when he was still every whit a Christian, when he was where God intended him to be, when the destiny of America and humanity hung in the balance. In those better days, Heaven spoke, Thomas Paine listened, Thomas Paine wrote, and all the world is a better place for him having done so.
Meridian Magazine columnist Steve Farrell is 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.
To learn more about Thomas Paine’s Christianity, keep an eye out for Part 2 and 3 of Steve Farrell’s examination of the writings of Thomas Paine.
2003 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.