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This date, Jan. 29 (or according to some historians Feb. 9) marks the 273rd birthday of Thomas Paine.
Although he was an American revolutionary, calling Paine an American Founding Father is a bit of a stretch. He emigrated from England in 1774, just in time for the War for Independence. He never held elective office in America, although he did serve as secretary to a congressional committee. He returned to Europe around 1787, alternately claiming French citizenship while serving in the French Parliament and American citizenship when he was jailed by the French revolutionists and wanted American help, and he ultimately returned to America in 1802. He was so ostracized by Americans because of his attacks on Christianity that when he died in 1809, only six people attended his funeral.
Paine had his detractors. John Adams called him an “insolent Blasphemer of things sacred” and said of him, “It is indeed a disgrace to the moral Character and the Understanding of this Age, that this worthless fellow should be believed in anything.”
A century later, Theodore Roosevelt called Paine a “filthy little atheist” – an unfair assessment, because even in his sophomoric attack on Christianity known as “The Age of Reason,” Paine clearly and resolutely affirmed his belief in one God.
But as a pamphleteer Tom Paine was sublime, and in this respect he made his major contribution to American independence. Gen. George Washington ordered that Paine’s pamphlet, “The American Crisis,” be read to the troops; and no wonder, for the pamphlet opened with a resounding call to arms:
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.
In 1776, Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” sold 100,000 copies in the first three months after publication. But ironically, it struck a responsive chord with the American people because, regardless of what he believed, Paine based his arguments for American independence and against monarchy squarely upon the Bible:
Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry. … Monarchy is ranked in Scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them. … All anti-monarchical parts of Scripture, have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form. … But where, say some, is the king of America? I’ll tell you, friend: he reigns above, and does not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Britain. … The Jews, elated with success [in Gideon’s victory over the Midianites], and attributing it to the generalship of Gideon, proposed making him king, saying: “Rule thou over us, thou and thy son and thy son’s son.” Here was the temptation in its fullest extent; but Gideon, in the piety of his soul, replied: “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” Gideon doth not decline the honor, but denieth the right to give it. … These portions of Scripture are direct and positive; they admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the Scriptures are false.
Paine further argued that independence was God’s plan for America:
Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of one over the other, was never the design of heaven. … The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.
Why, one might ask, would this “Blasphemer of things sacred” base his case for American independence on the Bible? Two possible reasons come to mind: (1) Paine believed the Bible when he wrote “Common Sense” in 1776 but later became a skeptic (unlikely, because he says in “The Age of Reason” that he began to have doubts about Christianity as a child); or, more likely (2) he didn’t believe the Bible, but he knew he had to base his case on the Bible or the American people would never accept it.
Oscar S. Straus, secretary of commerce under President Theodore Roosevelt, declared that among the American colonists “the Bible was studied as no people excepting only the Jews had studied it.” Like the Hebrews of old, the American colonists were the “people of the Book.” They learned to read using the Bible as their basic text, and from the Bible they derived their worldview, their knowledge of right and wrong, and the way of salvation. Paine recognized that the American colonists were a deeply Christian people who would never assert their independence unless convinced the Scriptures justified them in doing so. According to John Quincy Adams, the glory of the American Revolution was that “it laid the corner stone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.”
And so, as this unbeliever used the Scriptures to make his case to a Bible-believing people, Thomas Paine’s infidelity is in itself a strong testimony to America’s Christian heritage.
John Eidsmoe and Ben DuPré serve as legal counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law, a religious-liberties organization founded by Judge Roy Moore in Montgomery, Alabama.