Thomas Paine and Religious Liberty
In Thomas Paine’s day, no idea was more accepted than the idea that the church was inextricably connected to the state. In the 1700s, the concept had centuries of precedent in nearly all corners of the world, including England, France, and even America – where several states featured official religious establishments into the 19th century.
Regardless, as I point out in my new book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, Paine argued the rigid bond between religion and state was a dire mistake for civilization. The novel decision on the part of several American states to sever all ties to their religious establishments, then, was a momentous stride toward both religious liberty and republican virtue.
In The Rights of Man, Paine’s seminal political treatise, he commended France’s 1791 constitution for recognizing freedom of conscience and for barring the state from intervening in the church. This reversal was wise, the penman wrote, because “engendering the church with the state” had created “a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying.” Established churches, he wrote, had only divided peoples against each other and encouraged civil conflict. The American states, however, had begun to rectify this classical error:
Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is alway the strongly-marked feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity. In America, a catholic priest is a good citizen, a good character, and a good neighbour; an episcopalian minister is of the same description: and this proceeds independently of the men, from there being no law-establishment in America.
To Paine, there was a wide gulf that separated the United States from Europe in regard to such matters. Whereas “the union of church and state has impoverished Spain,” Paine observed, the disestablishment of official churches and removal of religious oath requirements in several of the American states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, proved more conducive to human liberty and domestic tranquility.
“It was by observing the ill effects of it in England, that America has been warned against it,” he wrote. Consequently, France should borrow from their brethren in the United States that were reaping the benefits of a system that terminated state-bestowed religious subsidies.
As to whether Paine maintained a fervent dedication to freedom of conscience, there can be no doubt. Nevertheless, he personally shunned institutionalized religion, even after being raised as Quaker. Paine abandoned all attachment to orthodox religions by the 1780s, but never explained his theistic beliefs until he drafted The Age of Reason in France.
Within the contentious work, Paine denied the divine nature and miraculous aspects of Jesus Christ and argued the natural world was sufficient to prove the existence of God. “It is only by the exercise of reason,” he wrote, “that man can discover God.” Furthermore, he scoffed at the idea of miracles and prophecies, both of which he considered to be incongruent with reason.
Paine’s conception of God was that of a clockmaker creator who formed the world, then left it to develop naturally without intervening afterward. He admitted the importance of the moral teachings of Jesus, but he came to believe that religious institutions had corrupted humanity’s conception of God, creating doctrine to encourage the defilement of liberty and to justify violent acts. The Bible, Paine argued, was merely “a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men,” he wrote.
Paine’s religious beliefs drew intense criticism and lost him several personal friends. Among them was Benjamin Rush, the esteemed Philadelphian doctor who once helped him publish Common Sense. In addition, Samuel Adams chastised the scribe for his heretical positions. “Do you think that your pen or the pen of any other man can unchristianize the mass of our citizens,” he asked Paine, “or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?”
Paine’s widely-publicized opinions did not stop several Presbyterian ministers from attempting to convert him on his deathbed in 1809.
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, elaborates upon Paine’s response to these proselytization attempts, expounds upon his religious beliefs in detail, and highlights Paine’s earnest attempt to launch an American deistic movement. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!