Did the Founding Fathers Accept Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason?
By Bo Perrin
Thomas Paine is the Skeptic’s most prominent poster boy. The typical Skeptic believes Paine provides incontrovertible evidence that the founders were Deists or atheists and clearly not Bible-believing Christians and therefore, America is a secular nation. Thomas Paine is best known for Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.
Common Sense is attributed with turning the Colonists’ minds against the King of England despite the fact that a number of those during this time had some reservations about Paine. Interestingly, Paine used the Old Testament of the Bible profusely to deny the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Skeptics are mute on this point.
The Rights of Man was written in response to Edmond Burke, a prominent English politician, who wrote a scathing rebuke of the people’s movement leading to the French Revolution. The book became a huge hit with the lower classes in England and so infuriated the upper class that Paine was tried in absentia in an English court for treason and was never allowed into England again.
The Age of Reason is the book to which the Skeptic loves to point to show how America was not founded on Judeo-Christian principles but rather the Deist philosophy. But of course, if the Skeptic did not have Deism by which to broad brush every one’s beliefs they would invent something. Deism and Unitarianism, which are very close to each philosophically, were both accepted religions in America during the Revolutionary war. Deism and Unitarianism did have a number of differences and the Deism in the Colonies differed from Deism on the European Continent. (1) The Skeptic never takes these differences into consideration. In addition, Skeptics brandish about the term Atheist yet, the term did not have the meaning as it does today. Thomas Jefferson called Calvin an Atheist for accepting the Triunity of God. (2) But then again there are some who call themselves believers who claim to have greater insight than the Skeptic who due to their own myopic vision of America’s founding come to the same conclusion as the Skeptic but from a different route.
Skeptics make the same mistake with Paine that they do with Jefferson. Neither Jefferson, Paine and some of the other founders were mainstream believers to be sure. Whether Jefferson, Paine or some other founder was a mainstream believer is not the real question. It is a red herring because it diverts our attention and resources to fighting issues which are not at the heart of the issue. The question is, did these men ground our Republic upon Judeo-Christian principles? In the Age of Reason, Paine was especially vehement against organized religion as he saw and understood it in his day and miracles. In this sense, Paine and Jefferson saw eye-to-eye nevertheless, neither could fully accept the other for each stated that they were a sect of one. (3, 4) Jefferson, a Unitarian, believed God did operate in our world as Providence and Paine did not by the time he wrote the Age of Reason. (5)
Skeptics hold up the Age of Reason as the quintessential example that believers are so very wrong to claim that America’s Constitutional Republic is built upon Biblical values. There are a number of ways to show that the Skeptic is premature in putting so much emphasis on Paine. What I will do in this article is examine how Paine’s contemporaries accepted the Age of Reason. So, how was the Age of Reason accepted among the founders of country?
Benjamin Franklin viewed the manuscript and had quite a bit to say.
I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.
But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.
I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it. I intend this letter itself as a proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours,” (6)
There are rumors that Franklin could not have made this statement, that the statement is anonymous and that it was made to someone other than Paine. The evidence is not conclusive despite the Skeptic’s dogmatic attempt and generally, this statement is accepted as legitimate. It is historically clear that Franklin was not the most religiously minded of the founding fathers nevertheless, he clearly rejected Paine’s Age of Reason because he believed that without God there is only infidelity and with infidelity there is no virtue and the founders clearly believed that virtue was indispensable to our Constitutional Republic. But what if the quote is apocrypha? Franklin also stated, “”I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God Governs the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Benjamin Franklin clearly did not accept The Age of Reason.
Sam Adams vehemently and respectfully rejected Paine’s work. He stated;
I have frequently with pleasure reflected on your services to my native and your adopted country. Your “Common Sense” and your “Crisis” unquestionably awakened the public mind, and led the people loudly to call for a declaration of our national independence. I therefore esteemed you as a warm friend to the liberty and lasting welfare of the human race. But when I heard that you had turned your mind to a defense of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States.
The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love. Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy, at a time when they are hastening to unity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your “Age of Reason.”
Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause? We ought to think ourselves happy in the enjoyment of opinion without the danger of persecution by civil or ecclesiastical law.”
Our friend, the President of the United States, has been calumniated for his liberal sentiments, by men who have attributed that liberality to a latent design to promote the cause of infidelity. This and all other slanders have been made without a shadow of proof. Neither religion nor liberty can long subsist in the tumult of altercation, and amidst the noise and violence of faction.” (7)
Sam Adams makes it very clear that he believed that Paine’s work was purely to undermine the religious beliefs to which that the vast majority of Colonists held. He refers to Paine as a “slander” and implicitly states that liberty and freedom need religion which for Adams is Christianity. Clearly, Sam Adams did not accept the Age of Reason.
John Adams stated, “”The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel, rogue] Paine say what he will.” (8) In addition, John Adams make it clear that the Bible was the book upon which America was founded. He said in a letter to Thomas Jefferson;
“Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty. Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.” (8)
I have quoted Adam’s whole statement because his statement has been misinterpreted and misapplied by Skeptics and believers have reduced the quote to a synopsis to save space and in so doing, have left out important information needed to fully understand what Adams was saying. One Skeptic argues that Adams’ phrase “general principles of Christianity” does not refer to the Bible. Rather, he states that Adams does not define what he means by these general principles yet, despite the lack of a definition the Skeptic was able to somehow concluded “In other words, Adams had in mind the common system of morals held by all humankind throughout history.” (9) What a quaint double-standard. What double-speak. But the real answer might be that Adams did not believe he had to define the phrase in the letter since Jefferson knew him and his beliefs so well. Speaking to Jefferson about Paine’s Age of Reason, John Adams clearly states the Christian religion is the only true religion. Therefore, if we simply take Adams at his word the “general principles of Christianity” are the principles in the Bible. The Skeptic’s unsubstantiated conclusion as to what Adams meant is impossible to prove for it would demand the Skeptic prove (A) there has been a single common moral system held by all mankind and (B) if such a moral system exists it has from the very beginning. Remember, this is the Skeptic’s not Adams’ conclusion. Clearly, John Adams did not accept Paine’s Age of Reason.
One interesting objection is from the publisher of the Age of Reason. Elias Boudinot vehemently disagreed with The Age of Reason and wrote a little known but very important 324 page rebuttal called “The Age of Revelation or the Age of Reason” for his daughter. (9) Boundinot’s purpose was to strengthen his daughter’s faith so that (A) she could give a defense of what she believed and (B) she would not be taken in by this unbeliever. In a letter to Susan his daughter, Susan Bradford, Boudinot states;
“When I first took up this treatise [Paine’s The Age of Reason, BIP] 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; but afterwards, finding it often the subject of conversation, in all ranks of society; and knowing the author to be generally plausible in his language, and very artful in turning the clearest truths into ridicule, I determined to read it, with an honest design of impartially examining into its real merits. 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, and her unlearned citizens, (for I have no doubt, but that it was originally intended for them) 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 foundations of our holy religion in their minds. To Christians, who are well instructed in the Gospel of the Son of God, such expedients rather add confirmation to their faith. They were forewarned near two thousand years ago, of these things, by their great Lord and Master; ‘that when the time should come, they might remember, that he had told them of them.’ They indeed rest in this strong confidence, ‘that when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, with his mighty angels in flaming fire, he will take vengeance on them, who know not God, and who obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ….’” (10)
Clearly, Boudinot had nothing good to say about the Age of Reason. Significantly, unlike Paine, Boudinot had tremendous influence on the crafting and wording of our National Constitution being referred to as the father of the First Amendment.
The above are only a few of the many, many Colonists whether founders or everyday citizens of our early great nation who rejected wholesale Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. The fact is The Age of Reason seemingly had little impact on the Continent being rejected by Christians, Deists and Atheists (as the terms were used then) wholesale.
As they dance on the grave of Christianity, modern-day Deists love to flout the book as (A) accepted by the majority of Americans during Paine’s time and (B) the final say on religion especially the supernatural. Neither are true. Both are lies. Deists would be better not to use the Age of Reason because once an investigator looks below the surface of Deistic absurdity they learn how shallow is the Deist argument, ideologically driven modern-day Deists are and utter uselessness is the Age of Reason to our national principles. The apostle John quotes Jesus saying;
“Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” (10)
It is still true today. Skeptics have used millions of gallons of ink and hundreds of thousands of man-hours to prove that America’s philosophy is secular. I have yet to find one argument that does not collapse under the weight of a thorough investigation. Truth is truth and the truth is the founders rejected the extreme deistic beliefs of The Age of Reason believing that our national philosophy is found within the pages of the Bible. As John Adams stated;
“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. . . ”
1) Jim Peterson, “The Revolution of Belief”, (Early American History date unknown, accessed June 17, 2011) available from http://www.earlyamericanhistory.net/founding_fathers.htm
2) Bo Perrin, “Atheism and Demonism”, (The American Heritage Project dated September 3, 2009 accessed June 17, 2011) available from http://theamericanheritageproject.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/atheism-and-demonism/
4) Thomas Paine, “The Age of Reason”, Part 1, available from http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Paine/AOR-Frame.html
5) Bo Perrin, “Atheism and Demonism”, (The American Heritage Project dated September 3, 2009 accessed June 17, 2011) available from http://theamericanheritageproject.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/atheism-and-demonism/
6) Wall Builders, “Benjamin Franklin’s Letter to Thomas Paine”, (Wallbuilders.com date unknown accessed June 17, 2011) available fromhttp://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=58
7) Infidel.com, “Letters Concerning ‘The Age of Reason’”, (The Secular Web date, unknown, accessed June 17, 2011) available from http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/thomas_paine/age_of_reason_letters.html
8) Rational Rant, “Adams and the General Principle of Christianity”, (Fake History dated 8 May 2010, accessed June 17, 2011) available from http://fakehistory.wordpress.com/2010/05/08/adams-and-the-general-principles-of-christianity/
9) Elias Boudinot, “The Age of Revelation verse the Age of Reason”, (Philadephalia: Columbis-House, 1801) available from http://www.classicapologetics.com/special/boudrevel.pdf
10) John 8:31-32, NKJV