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America's Culture War: Christian Origins

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Thomas Paine Lost His Common Sense

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

As one of the Founders of the American Republic, Thomas Paine is particularly known for his literary production, Common Sense, which served to galvanize American sentiments against British oppression. First published anonymously early in 1776, the pamphlet argued strongly for complete independence from England. Many have insisted that, more than any other single factor, Common Sense strengthened American will to fight the Revolutionary War. Historian Gordon Wood described it as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era” (2002, p. 55). Helena Costa considered Common Sense to be “by far the most influential tract of the American Revolution.... [I]t remains one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language” (1987, p. 27). The pamphlet, written in a style that connected with the average American, coincided with the popular sermon style of the day and relied heavily on biblical references to argue the case.

Courtesy of the
Library of Congress

Yet, despite his significant role in the founding of America, Paine was among the small handful of Founders who were not particularly pleased with the Christian religion. Styling himself a “deist,” he is especially conspicuous for his production of The Age of Reason—a scathing denunciation of the Christian religion (1794). Written nearly two decades after the Declaration of Independence, Paine challenged the inspiration of the Bible, denounced the formal world religions, including the abundant perversions of Christianity, and opposed the promotion of any national church or religion.

Skeptics and atheists of today like to align themselves with Paine (e.g., “Tom Paine Award...,” 2006; cf. Dawkins, 2006, p. 38). Nevertheless, Paine was not an atheist. He claimed to believe in God and afterlife: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” (1794). He also wrote: “Were man impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought to be with the belief of a God, his moral life would be regulated by the force of that belief; he would stand in awe of God and of himself, and would not do the thing that could not be concealed from either” (1794). Paine not only believed in “the certainty of his existence and the immutability of his power,” he asserted that “it is the fool only, and not the philosopher, or even the prudent man, that would live as if there were no God.” In fact, he stated that it is “rational to believe” that God would call all people “to account for the manner in which we have lived here” (1794).

Paine certainly did not represent the views of the majority of his contemporaries. In fact, several of the Founders rebuked Paine for his treatise (Miller, 2005). One Founder even wrote a lengthy refutation. That Founder was the prominent and influential figure, Elias Boudinot (1740-1821). He has a long and illustrious list of achievements and capacities in service to the country. A member of the New Jersey Assembly in 1775, Boudinot served as Commissary General of Prisoners for the Revolutionary Army (1776-1779). He served in the Continental Congress (1778-1779, 1781-1784), as its President in 1782-1783. He signed the Treaty of Peace with England and was elected as a Pro-Administration candidate to the First, Second, and Third Congresses (1789-1795), when he helped frame the Bill of Rights, and was the first attorney admitted to the Supreme Court bar (1790). He was Director of the U.S. Mint (1795-1805), founding president of the American Bible Society, member of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and president of the New Jersey Bible Society. He died on October 24, 1821 in Burlington, New Jersey and was buried in St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church Cemetery (see “Boudinot, Elias,” n.d.; Boudinot, 1896).

In direct contradiction to the infidelity espoused in The Age of Reason, Elias Boudinot published a masterful rebuttal in 1801, which he titled The Age of Revelation. The title signified that, contrary to the vain machinations of fallible human reason unguided by divine insight, we humans have access to God’s revelation in His Word, the Bible. Consider a few of Boudinot’s choice remarks regarding The Age of Reason and its author (though this brief perusal is not intended to provide the reader with Boudinot’s specific rebuttals to Paine’s points).

First, throughout the treatise, Boudinot identifies Paine’s endeavor to destroy Christianity as typical of the vain attempts of skeptics in every age. He lays Paine’s errors bare, labeling them as “falsehoods and misrepresentations,” “extreme ignorance of the divine scriptures” (p. xiv), “worse than bare misrepresentation” (p. 71), “asserted with a licentious boldness, that refused the aid of proof or reason” (p. 251). The Age of Reason “must be admitted to arise, either from a total want of knowledge of the subject, or a willful perversion of the truth” (p. 71), from “either his ignorance or wickedness” (p. 131), from an “obstinate mind” (p. 209). Indeed, “truth and consistency seem to be no part of the creed of the author of the Age of Reason” (p. 158)—a “rhapsody of nonsense” (p. 247). Boudinot suggests that Paine “seems to have collected together a few technical expressions, belonging to particular subjects, and with which he seems much pleased, in hopes, that by repeating them over and over, he might persuade himself, and perhaps his readers too, that he was acquainted with the doctrines to which they were attached” (p. 72). A good summary of Boudinot’s assessment of Paine’s writing, which he suggests was “styled rather ludicrously ‘the Age of Reason,’” is seen in the following words:

Is it not on the whole, a collection of the most artful deceptions, hidden under a veil of ridicule; dangerous falsehoods, covered by an easy flow of language; and malicious sneers, made palatable by an attempt at wit and satire, that ever disgraced the pen of a pretender to philosophy, and that on a subject of infinite consequence to the essential interests of mankind? (p. 156).

In stark contrast, “True philosophy is the great supporter of the religion of Jesus Christ” (p. 156). Indeed, “take any religion but the Christian, and bring it to the test, by comparing it with the state of nature, and it will be found destitute and defenceless” (p. 157).

As if addressing himself to the evolutionists, atheists, and anti-Christian skeptics of the 21st century, Boudinot declared concerning Paine:

Had he thought proper to have used reasoning and argument, founded on proof, to enforce his observations, he might have expected a suitable reply; but when he contents himself with advancing the most palpable falsehoods and misrepresentations as facts, from which to draw the most important conclusions, and these so enveloped in sophistry, and tainted with ludicrous insinuations, as seem only calculated to impose on the young and unwary mind in matters of infinite importance, he has no right to expect any thing farther, than a positive denial of the gross misrepresentation of facts he has imposed on the public (p. 97, emp. added).

If these characterizations by Boudinot seem harsh or unloving, one must recognize the gravity and seriousness of Paine’s infidelity and the threat posed to society—a fact Boudinot well understood:

The writer of the Age of Reason, may think it harsh to be charged with falsehood in every page of his work; but it would ill become an advocate for the Gospel, not to declare it boldly, and would be doing great injustice to the cause of truth, when the everlasting interests of his fellow man are at stake; and the guilty person has no one but himself to blame for this severity, having presumed to enter on a subject with which he had not taken pains to make himself acquainted; no, not with its alphabet (p. 97, emp. added, italics in orig.).

Second, Boudinot pinpointed Paine’s primary aim, a common tactic of those who promulgate opposition to Christianity, i.e., to advance their cause by subverting the youth:

When I first took up this treatise, I considered it as one of those vicious and absurd publications, filled with ignorant declamation and ridiculous representations of simple facts, the reading of which, with attention, would be an undue waste of time.... I confess, that I was much mortified to find, the whole force of this vain man’s genius and art, pointed at the youth of America...in hopes of raising a skeptical temper and disposition in their minds, well knowing that this was the best inlet to infidelity, and the most effectual way of serving its cause, thereby sapping the foundation of our holy religion in their minds (p. xii, emp. added).

Boudinot felt that Paine’s words “are apparently designed to mislead the young and unwary mind, into the fatal vortex of skepticism and infidelity” (p. 215).

Third, those who rail against the Bible and Christianity would like their victims to believe that they have arrived at some great evidence, proof, or argument that disproves the authenticity of the Bible, the existence of God, and the Christian religion. The fact is that their assertions have all been decisively answered long ago, a point that Boudinot reiterated repeatedly to Paine:

[T]his author’s whole work, is made up of old objections, answered, and that conclusively, a thousand times over, by the advocates of our holy religion. Some of them he has endeavoured to clothe with new language, and put into a more ridiculous form; but many of them he has collected almost word for word, from the writings of the deists of the last and present century (pp. xiv-xv, emp. added).

[T]hese inefficient fragments of the writings of the last century, repeated by the late king of Prussia, Voltaire, and others, now new vamped up, with the aid of ridicule, under the title of “The Age of Reason,” and this addition, “By the Author of Common Sense,” though so often fully answered by learned men, are again introduced into the world, as new matter, in hopes of deceiving the ignorant and unwary... (p. 26, emp. added).

This author, throughout his performance, seems to have taken leave of all pretensions to modesty and decorum, or he certainly would have paid some respect to the learning and wisdom of multitudes of Christian writers and professors, who have so long and so ably defended the Christian system, against the many attacks of more formidable, as well as more modest and decent adversaries, than our author (pp. 189-199, emp. added).

Indeed, “[t]he boldness of impiety is often mistaken for knowledge” (p. xxi). It is uncanny, surreal, and deeply tragic that the last three generations of Americans have been subjected to incessant and comparable denigrations of God, the Bible, and the Christian religion through the university system of the nation, without the benefit of also receiving the decisive refutations that have been available from the beginning. Hear Boudinot:

Let me ask this man...who it is that he supposes will be alarmed by the boldness of his investigations? He must, I conclude, mean the weak and ignorant alone. What has he done to give this apprehended alarm to those who understand the subject? He had done very little more, than change the style and language of his predecessors, though they have been so fully answered (p. 250, emp. added).

Finally, Boudinot well notes that those who are sufficiently versed in the Scriptures, and the abundant evidence for the truth of the Christian religion, will remain unaffected by the propaganda of Paine and other skeptics: “To Christians, who are well instructed in the Gospel of the Son of God, such expedients rather add confirmation to their faith” (p. xiii).

As to the serious and devout Christian, who has felt the transforming power of the religion of Jesus Christ, and has experienced the internal and convincing evidence of the truth of the Divine Scriptures, the treatise referred to, will rather have a tendency to increase his faith, and inflame his fervent zeal in his master’s cause, while he beholds this vain attempt, to ridicule and set at nought, the great objects of his hope and joy, by one who plainly discovers a total ignorance of every principle of true Christianity, as revealed in the Scriptures (p. 27, emp. added).

Jesus Himself expected no one to believe Him unless He provided sufficient evidence, which He did (John 10:37). The evidence for the existence of God, the inspiration of the Bible, and the validity of the Christian religion is available to all who desire to have it. No one can stand before God on the Day of Judgment and legitimately excuse himself on the grounds of unintentional ignorance or lack of access to the evidence. Jesus declared: “If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” (John 7:17). He also assured: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). The Apologetics Press Web site is a storehouse of just such evidence.

Referring to the apostle Thomas in John 20:24-29, Elias Boudinot’s prayer for Thomas Paine embodies the same hopeful spirit that faithful Christians have for the unbelieving world population: “May God Almighty, of his infinite mercy, grant, that another unbelieving Thomas may be yet added to the triumphs of the cross, though it should be that despiser of the Gospel, the author of the Age of Reason himself” (p. 179).

REFERENCES

Boudinot, Elias (1801), The Age of Revelation, or, The Age of Reason Shewn To Be An Age of Infidelity (Philadelphia, PA: Asbury Dickins), http://www.google.com/books?id=XpcPAAAAIAAJ.

Boudinot, Elias (1896), The Life, Public Services, Addresses and Letters of Elias Boudinot, ed. J.J. Boudinot (New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.).

“Boudinot, Elias” (no date), Biographical Directory of the United States, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=B000661.

Costa, Helena Rodrigues (1987), Bibliographical Supplement: A Covenanted People, the Religious Tradition and the Origins of American Constitutionalism (Providence, R.I.: John Carter Brown Library).

Dawkins, Richard (2006), The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Books).

Miller, Dave (2005), “Deism, Atheism, and the Founders,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/650.

Paine, Thomas (1794), The Age of Reason, http://www.ushistory.org/paine/reason/singlehtml.htm.

“Tom Paine Award for Exemplary Service to Humanity” (2006), Atheist Foundation of Australia, September 8, http://www.atheistfoundation.org.au/tompaineaward.htm.

Wood, Gordon (2002), The American Revolution: A History (New York: Modern Library).




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