The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

An Exercise in Historical Revisionism: Part 3

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George Washington
Next on Professor Geoffrey Stone’s list of historical witnesses is George Washington. During the War for Independence, Washington wrote the following to Brig. General Thomas Nelson: “The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”[1] As President, Washington stated that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” He went on in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of October 3, 1789, to write, that as a nation “we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”[2] Professor Stone’s contrary evidence is at best hearsay. Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation is direct evidence that he was no deist. When a person offers “prayers and supplication,” he expects some sort of response. There is no response possible for the deist who operates as an absentee landlord.

In his Farewell address of 1796, Washington stated the following:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.[3]

Notice the connection of religion and morality and that religion and morality lead to “political prosperity.” While noting that there are “slight shades of difference,” the people “have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles.” This “same religion” was Christianity.

Thomas Paine

As usual, Tom Paine is called forth as a Founder of the American Republic. But is it the Paine of Common Sense or the Paine of The Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1793–94)? Since Common Sense was written on the eve of the Revolution and The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason were written after the ratification of the Constitution, we should begin with Common Sense. Paine’s Common Sense put forth arguments for independence from Great Britain. How did he argue his case? What were his sources?

A. J. Ayer remarks that “the first argument that Paine brings against the institution of kingship is scriptural.”[4] Paine declared that “government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from which the children of Israel copied the custom. . . . As the exalting of one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings [Judges 8:22–23; 1 Sam. 8]. All anti-monarchical parts of scripture have been smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form. ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’ is the scriptural doctrine of courts, yet it is no support of monarchical government, for the Jews at that time were without a king, and in a state of vassalage to the Romans.”[5]

Paine has an extended discussion of Judges 8:22–23 where he describes “the King of Heaven” to be Israel’s “proper sovereign.”[6] He then spends several pages quoting, discussing, and making application of the importance of 1 Samuel 8 to the modern situation. He concludes this section of Common Sense with these words: “In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) by the world in blood and ashes. ’Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.”[7]

It seems that Professor Stone trimmed this bit of history from Paine’s body of work. Instead, he only quotes from his later publications which are anti-Christian but not atheistic. But how much support did Paine get from the Founders in his later works? We’ve already read that Adams called him a “blackguard.” Samuel Adams wrote Paine a stiff rebuke, telling him, “[W]hen I heard you had turned your mind to a defence 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.”[8] In his Introduction to Common Sense, Gregory Tiejen writes that Paine’s “explicit expressions of disbelief roused the faithful to fury and earned Paine an enmity that destroyed the good reputation he enjoyed for his earlier activities in behalf of the American cause. . . . [H]is polemics against President Washington had lost him the loyalty of many patriots, and his religious beliefs had earned him the wrath of the Christian faithful.”[9] Even the usually tolerant Quakers refused him burial in a Quaker graveyard.

Professor Stone describes the views of the later Paine as “shockingly blunt and ‘politically incorrect’ to modern ears, but they were in fact the views of many of our most revered Founders. The fable that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation is just that—a fable.” Paine’s Common Sense with its biblical arguments from the Old and New Testaments is direct testimony that Stone is wrong. Mark A. Noll, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, argues, “If Paine’s Age of Reason (with its dismissive attitude toward the Old Testament) had been published before Common Sense (with its full deployment of Scripture in support of republican freedom), the quarrel with Britain may have taken a different course. It is also likely that the allegiance of traditional Christian believers to republican liberty might not have been so thoroughly cemented. And it is possible that the intimate relation between republican reasoning and trust in traditional Scripture, which became so important after the turn of the new century, would not have occurred as it did.”[10] Robert Royal comments that “for Paine—a skillful polemicist whose attachment to Christianity was always uncertain and seems eventually to have evaporated—to use an argument such as this at a delicate moment testifies, at the very least, to the power of religious arguments for liberty in America.”[11] John Orr’s remarks that Paine received a “cold reception . . . when he returned from France after publishing his deistic book The Age of Reason.” This reaction “does not suggest that deism was as popular in America as some” historical accounts “might lead one to suppose.”[12]

Footnotes:
[1]
George Washington’s letter of August 20, 1778 to Brig. General Thomas Nelson, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), 12:343.
[2] George Washington, “Proclamation: A National Thanksgiving,” A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1902, ed. John D. Richardson, 11 vols. (Washington, DC: Bureau of National Literature and Art, 1907), 1:64.
[3] George Washington, “Farewell Address” (1796)
[4]
A.J. Ayer, Thomas Paine (New York: Atheneum, 1988), 40. Ayer remarks that that his appeal to the Old Testament is curious “in view of the want of respect he was later to show for the Old Testament” (40).
[5]
Thomas Paine, Common Sense (New York: Barnes & Noble, [1776] 1995), 10. Common Sense can be accessed online
[6]
Paine, Common Sense, 11.
[7]
Paine, Common Sense, 11–14.
[8]
Jared Sparks, The Works of Benjamin Franklin (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1840), 10:281–282.
[9]
Gregory Tiejen, “Introduction,” Common Sense, xii.
[10] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 84.
[11]
Royal, The God that Did Not Fail, 216.
[12] Orr, English Desim, 219.
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