Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born American. As a youth he attended an English Grammar School (Thetford) for five years (1744-49) before he was apprenticed to his father as a corsetmaker at age thirteen. Later as a master corsetmaker he opened his own shop in Sandwich, Kent in England. He emigrated to America in 1774 at age thirty-seven, where he blossomed into a political activist, philosopher, political theorist, revolutionary, and Bible critic. He is best known for his political pamphlet (1776) Common Sense that had a profound influence on the common folk of the American colonies leading them to support the cause for independence from England.1
He was born into a religious family (his father was Quaker and his mother, Anglican), but he himself in his maturity described himself as a Deist, which meant the following to Paine:
I believe in one God, and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.2
The true deist has but one Deity; and his religion consists in contemplating, the power, wisdom, benignity of the Deity in his works [i.e., nature], and endeavoring to imitate him in every thing, moral, scientific, and mechanical.3
When we behold the mighty universe that surrounds us, and dart our contemplation into the eternity of space, filled with innumerable orbs revolving in eternal harmony, how paltry must the tales of the Old and New Testaments, profanely called the word of God, appear to thoughtful man.4
Paine was severely critical of organized religion of any sort5 and particularly harsh in his condemnation of Christianity and “revealed religion”:
The Christian mythologists, calling themselves the Christian Church, have erected their fable, which for absurdity and extravagance is not exceeded by anything that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients.6
As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of atheism; a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up chiefly of man-ism but with little deism, and is near to atheism as twilight is to darkness.7
[T]he church has set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears. It has set up a religion of pomp and revenue in pretended imitation of a person whose life was humility and poverty.8
He had no documented formal training in biblical criticism and did not know Latin or the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew.9 Nevertheless he wrote several pamphlets critical of the Bible, which were collected to form the Age of Reason10 by applying what scholars have later come to know as “literary criticism” in analyzing the biblical texts. Basically his analysis relied on human reason and common sense in reading the texts. What is surprising is that he claimed to have written Part One of the Age of Reason without access to a written Bible at the time of writing but rather he was writing from memory.11
Paine was arrested in France on charges of treason and jailed in the French prison at Luxembourg on December 28, 1793.12 His release was secured by his friend James Monroe on November 4, 1794.13 Before he was arrested, he hurriedly finished Part One of the Age of Reason, and entrusted it to a friend, as he was on his way to prison.14 While he was in prison, Part One was translated into French and published without Paine having proofed it.15 Not knowing what might happen to him or the manuscript he had written, Paine says he committed it through his friend Joel Barlow “to the protection of the citizens of the United States.”16 Part Two of the Age of Reason was written in the home of James Monroe while he was recovering from his incarceration of nearly a year. Monroe found him in prison “more dead than alive from semi-starvation, cold, and an abscess. It was not supposed that he could survive.”17
After his release from prison, he acquired “a Bible and a Testament,” and commented “that I have found them to be much worse books than I had conceived. If I have erred in anything, in the former part of the Age of Reason, it has been by speaking better of some parts than they deserved.”18
Much of Paine’s critique of the Bible in the late 18th century surprisingly parallels many of the insights of contemporary critical biblical scholarship. Paine’s critique of the Bible and modern critical scholarship will be the subject of a second essay to follow.
Missouri State University
2Thomas Paine, Thomas Paine Collection. Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, An Essay on Dream, Biblical Blasphemy, Examination of the Prophecies: Age of Reason (1793-94), 152. [No editor or publication information given.]
3Paine Collection, 173.
4Paine Collection, 233.
5Paine Collection, 152.
6Paine Collection, 156.
7Paine Collection, 167.
8Paine Collection, 162.
9Paine Collection, 169-70, 172.
10Age of Reason consists of two parts and a never published third part, consisting of several essays: an Essay on Dream, Biblical Blasphemy, Examination of the Prophecies, Appendix; and an essay entitled, My Private Thoughts on a Future State: Paine Collection. Table of Contents.
11Paine Collection, 183.
12Luxembourg Prison was formally a palace but turned into a prison during the French Revolution: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/thomas-paine-is-arrested-in-france#:~:text=Thomas%20Paine%20is%20arrested%20in%20France%20for%20treason.&text=Paine%20moved%20to%20Paris%20to,for%20crimes%20against%20the%20country.
13Paine Collection, 149.
14Paine Collection, 183.
15Paine Collection, 145, 183.
16Paine Collection, 183.
17Paine Collection, 149.
18Paine Collection, 184.