Monday, October 17, 2011

Thomas Paine: America is a Protestant Nation

Thomas Paine was the Founding's most famous "deist-not Christian," but really, that's what he said, I kid thee not. You could look it up. In fact, I'll save you the trouble---I did a near-complete exegesis of Thomas Paine's famous "Common Sense" awhile back, almost line-by-line.

"Common Sense" actually a short pamphlet, sold over 500,000 copies in the colonies to a population of only 2,500,000, and Lord knows how many other people read it---or had it read to them---as it was passed around. Megamax historian Gordon S. Wood calls it "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era," a rather modest claim.

The funny thing is, it's not as Enlightenment as you might think from the Founding era's truest Deist; it's very Biblical. While it's true the colonists had many selfish economic reasons to favor independence---the "marxist" interpretation, if you will---it's pretty clear they needed to assuage their religious consciences that revolution was OK with God.

"Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of Heaven. The time likewise at which the Continent was discovered, adds weight to the argument, and the manner in which it was peopled, encreases the force of it. 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."

Divine Providence created America as a safe haven for Protestant dissenters? Yup. There you have it.

Now, since Thomas Paine later wrote "The Age of Reason" in the 1790s, where he rejected the Bible and Christian dogma [America liked it so much that only 6 people attended his funeral], he probably didn't believe this part of "Common Sense," probably. [Although you never know...]

But there it is, and there it was, in Paine's own words. Now relax, this isn't to say that the United States of America should be a Protestant Nation in 2011, or people thought that by the time they wrote the Constitution in 1787.

I will betcha, though, that not one person in a 100 knows that Thomas Paine, the Revolution's most famous deist, was saying it in 1776, in the most famous and popular essay of his times.

Because I didn't know, until I read the damn thing for meself. Read the whole thing here for yrself, or peek at this annotated version. History isn't dead, it's alive, if you dog it a little on your own.


Jason Pappas said...

Paine’s “argument from design” is amusing. He views America as a haven for refugees from religious persecution, but, unlike the Puritans, not for a theocracy. He’s clearly antiauthoritarian--almost an anarchist. Notice he also attacks “checks and balances” and advocates a unicameral democracy. His hostility to government, as known in the English-speaking world, prompts John Adams to write a rejoinder. Thanks to John Adams' uncommon sense we became America and not France.

No doubt, however, that Paine knows how to address his audience. Paine pulls out all the stops. And you're right, it tells us something about the common man circa 1776.

Jonathan Rowe said...

This is good stuff again. The first thing that came to mind was my comment that I made on your first post about whether this doesn't represent the "Protestant" component of theistic rationalism, the radical revision of the Bible for political purposes that Gregg Frazer notes. And whether this understanding of the Bible isn't in face a "Whig-Enlightenment" one.

Daniel said...

"The Age of Reason" argued in favor of a Creator God. And a God who guides history through natural and subtle processes is consistent with 18th century natural religion.

Paine may have believed what he said about the Almighty's hand. I haven't read "The Age of Reason" with the question in mind, but there may not be an inconsistency here. The inconsistency is with our ideas of Deism or of the Enlightenment.

Interesting post. The more I read here, the more I suspect that there is no one among the 'key framers' or the circle around them who fit in any of our boxes.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"The Age of Reason" argued in favor of a Creator God. And a God who guides history through natural and subtle processes is consistent with 18th century natural religion.

Paine may have believed what he said about the Almighty's hand.

I did have that thought meself, Daniel, but glossed over it for simplicity's sake.

It's my pet theory, more an induction from his writings and biography, that Madison opposed state-financed churches because they would ossify existing doctrines rather them grow or liberalize them into something Madison may have preferred, say unitarianism.

And Paine could have contemplated America as a divinely-ordained safe haven for similar theological "progress."

Thx for the sharp observation, and do let me know if you discover anything further along these lines.

Daniel said...

TVD, Your insight about Madison seems sound.

jimmiraybob said...

...the "marxist" interpretation, if you will...

Or, the "Adam Smithist" or the "Jesus of Nazarethist" interpretation if we're looking for other people* concerned with economic interpretation of human actions.

Not sure why every time someone brings up the possibility of an economic incentive for action it's necessary to shout Marxism right away.

*Assuming the fully human nature only at this time of course.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, "Marxist" is a pejorative in popular speech, but I don't intend it that way. Even used a small "m" to take some of the sting out of it.

If you read Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," his first and some say better book, you'll mind he's not "marxist" atall: he's more in the "people want to be admired" school.

As for Jesus, I don't think he's really into materialism either.


Brian Tubbs said...

Great article, Tom. Paine had so few people at his funeral in large part because he publicly attacked both Christianity and George Washington. A double no-no in late 18th/early 19th century America.