The Spirituality of Thomas Paine

Edward J. Dodson

[A talk delivered to the Thomas Paine Unitarian Fellowship,
Collegeville, Pennsylvania, 1998]

Good morning, everyone. I thank you for this invitation to tell you something of the spirituality of one of the great socio-political philosophers, Thomas Paine, whose ideas identifying just relations between individuals - living in society with one another -- I have come to describe as cooperative individualism. Paine would have been quite satisfied, I think, to know he is thought of as the architect of a set of principles championing individual liberty within a cooperative societal framework.

In 1776, words Paine put to paper were read all up and down the coastal towns and villages of North America. Those who lived in these communities were divided, unsure which path to take. Loyalty to the sovereign, to one's interests, or to principle? Paine's pamphlet, which you may remember is titled Common Sense, served to arouse the majority to action in defense of principle and the experience of near self-government that existed throughout much of the colonies.

Paine spoke and wrote with great certainty about the rights of Americans and the appropriateness of resistance to unjust government. "Society in every state is a blessing," he declared, "but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one." Powerful words from someone without property, position or family and only recently arrived in North America. Yet, with this one pamphlet his place in history was probably assured.

Common Sense began a thirty year commitment by Paine to a campaign to bring liberty to people in every society he might touch. He was already nearing his fortieth birthday. He had come to North America to find his destiny, his most valuable possession at the time a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, with whom he had become acquainted in London just a few years earlier. He now thought of himself as American and gave his pen to the cause of independence from British authority. He was pulled along this path by events, by inclination, by opportunity and by a sense of duty.

When the fighting began in earnest, Paine accompanied the colonial army under General Nathanael Greene. In the wake of defeat and retreat, Paine took on the role of war correspondent. In the first of his open letters, what he termed Crisis Papers, he appealed to European-Americans with language that still moves one today. Read aloud, Paine's words reach deep within and draw on our emotion:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value."

And, as we know, much was sacrificed. Many lives were given. The newly-sovereign (and barely united) States of America struggled to form a new society and governments. Their first attempt recognized an inherent distrust of central authority and affirmed the sovereignty of the States formed out of the colonial experience. After only a few years of what seemed to nationalists like Alexander Hamilton a state of semi-anarchy, the States sent representatives to a convention to discuss how to improve the Articles of Confederation.

Ironically, at this formative moment for his adopted country, Paine's personal interests took him back to the Old World, where he would remain until 1802. A letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin opened doors for Paine in Paris. He already knew Lafayette from the war. Now, he met intellectuals of the French Enlightenment such as the mathematician and philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet. Moving freely back and forth between London and Paris between 1787 and 1792, Paine became embroiled in the radical and republican politics of both countries. In England, he befriended the great Parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, who had argued to extend the rights of citizenship to England's American colonials. Paine would eventually cross swords with Burke over the French Revolution.

When Paine next returned to France, late in 1789, the upheaval had already begun. Paine was sure the French were at the vanguard of a broad republican revolutionary movement. Writing to Burke, he exclaimed: "The Revolution in France is certainly a forerunner to other revolutions in Europe." Burke, fearful that such folly might upset all that had made Britain great, declared: "The French had shown themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world."

After Burke expanded his attack on the French Revolution, Paine felt compelled to defend what he still believed to be the French people's struggle for liberty. In this remarkable book, Rights of Man, Paine first touches on the link he sees between the realm of humankind and the creator:

"Though I mean not to touch upon any sectarian principle of religion, yet it may be worth observing that the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man? I will answer the question. Because there have been an upstart of governments, thrusting themselves between, and presumably working to un-make man."

Paine agreed with the pioneering English philosopher John Locke that people came together in society voluntarily, and formed government to protect their rights - to life, liberty and property. It was clear to Paine that those who governed had long ago taken from the people their liberty and used all manner of coercive powers to maintain power. Wherever possible, the State had embraced and captured the Church to further cement its control.

History revealed that the State had captured and converted the Christian religion for ends unworthy of the memory of Christ. In Rights of Man, he wrote:

"The key of St. Peter and the key of the treasury become quartered on one another, and the wondering, cheated multitude, worshiped the invention."

Publication of Rights of Man catapulted Paine into the center of the French Revolution. In Britain, he was charged with sedition. An order for his arrest was issued in May of 1792, and all copies of his book were to be confiscated. Paine barely escaped the grasp of the authorities, sailing for France in September. Arriving in Calais, he received a heroes welcome. The citizens of Calais elected him as their representative to the National Convention. Soon, however, Paine was to discover that the heart of the French Revolution had been stolen, replaced by a new tyranny. Many of the people Paine came to know and feel close to - including Condorcet -- were executed upon the orders of the new Committee of Public Safety. Early on, Paine and Condorcet had collaborated on a constitution creating broad political liberties and democratic institutions. The reactionaries would have none of it; their revolution was war against aristocrats, papal authority and moderates alike.

On 27 December 1793 Paine was himself arrested and taken away to prison. Seven months later, Robespierre signed the order for his execution. Not surprisingly, Paine despaired of the Revolution in France. He also became quite ill. Yet, before his arrest he managed to complete the manuscript that would become the first part of his treatise on religion, The Age of Reason. In this work, Paine minced no words. He declared his belief in what he called natural religion, Deism. God created the universe but we were responsible for our own circumstances and for the improvement of the human condition. God did not intercede. Paine attacked organized religions as attempts at mass manipulation through the methods of superstition and priestcraft. "All national institutions of churches," wrote Paine, "appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit." The time of Jesus was a time of mythology and superstition. Reason now prevailed, and the time had come to cast aside ancient beliefs that could not be substantiated . The myth of Mary's immaculate conception, for example, "has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it," wrote Paine. The Bible, in fact, could not be trusted or in any way treated as divinely inspired:

"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it as I detest everything that is cruel."

Paine survived. Robespierre fell from power and was immediately executed. But, Paine remained in prison, becoming progressively more ill and embittered. Only after James Monroe arrived to take the position of Minister to France, and pressure the French government for Paine's release, did Paine regain his freedom. Once his strength returned, Paine began work on the second part of The Age of Reason, which he completed in the summer of 1795. He continued his attack on the organized church:

"The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits no conclusion."

In order to understand God and the universe God had created, Paine directed his fellow human beings to the study of science:

"We can have only a confused idea of His power, if we have not the means of comprehending something of its immensity. We can have no idea of His wisdom, but by knowing the order and manner in which it acts. The principles of science lead to this knowledge; for the Creator of man is the Creator of science, and it is through that medium that man can see God, as it were, face to face.

"It is only by the exercise of reason, that man can discover God. Take away that reason, and he would be incapable of understanding any thing; ...

"The Almighty lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if he had said to the inhabitants of this globe, that we call ours, 'I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort and learn from my munificence to all, to be kind to each other'."
These truths were self-evident to Paine, and he credited God for having the wisdom to provide humankind with the ability to think and to reason, to search for truth and understanding.

While Paine announced the age of reason had arrived, he wrote that "the age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system" which was "only another species of mythology." In the midst of continuous attacks from representatives of established religion, Paine's emerging spirituality brought him to form, with other Deists, a new ethical society they called Theophilanthrophism. Meetings of this group consisted of discussions of moral and spiritual matters.

In 1802, Thomas Paine returned to North America, arriving first at Baltimore. Welcomed back by Thomas Jefferson, now in the Presidency, and by numerous others in the Jeffersonian camp, Paine's religious writings were not mentioned in the Republican press. Jefferson's opponents, the Federalists, were not inclined to leave Paine alone if attacking him could harm Jefferson's reputation as well. Paine, now over sixty years old, often ill, and sometimes ill-tempered, lashed out in the press. His attack on the Federalists will sound familiar from what I have read above:

"Ask a man who calls himself a Federalist, what federalism is, and he cannot tell you. Ask him, what are its principles, and he has none to give. Federalism, then, with respect to government, is similar to atheism with respect to religion, a nominal nothing without principles."

Despite the fact that a good many of the revolutionary war leaders shared Paine's spiritual belief in Deism, they pragmatically realized that the America of the early nineteenth century Paine's attack on organized religion was foolish, politically. Even Paine's staunch friend Samuel Adams broke with him because he thought Paine had declared himself to be an athiest. Writing to Adams, Paine tried to explain:

"The case, my friend, is that the world has been overrun with fable and creeds of human invention, with sectaries of whole nations against all other nations, and sectaries of those sectaries in each of them against each other. Every sectary, except the Quakers, has been a persecutor. ...The key to heaven is not in the keeping of any sect nor ought the road to it be obstructed by any."

Benjamin Rush, who had been instrumental in getting Paine to write Common Sense, refused to see Paine in Philadelphia, writing that Paine's "principles avowed in his Age of Reason were so offensive to me that I did not wish to renew my intercourse with him." None of this deterred Paine. He soon joined with the Reverend Elihu Palmer to form the Theistic Society and establish a new journal to advance Deistic principles. His writings from this point on were almost entirely focused on religious subjects. He continued to challenge the stories in the Bible. Unlike the Catholic and Protestant sects that worshipped "someone once named Jesus, deists worshipped only God."

Paine's last years were difficult. His finances dissipated. His health continued to deteriorate. He ended his days living with different supporters in New York City. After his death on 8 June 1809, he his body was taken to New Rochelle, New York, and buried. Most of his former friends chose not to publicly acknowledge his passing. In fact, Paine's legacy of controversy was still sufficiently strong in 1813 that Thomas Jefferson refused permission to have his letters to Paine published until after his own death, because, as he said, "they might draw on me renewed molestations from the irreconcilable enemies of republican government."