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The Age of Revelation

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For several years, American Vision has been republishing a number of classic books that rarely see the light of day. When they can be found, they are extremely expensive to procure. We began with David Brewer’s The United States: A Christian Nation and Charles Galloway’s Christianity and the American Commonwealth. Benjamin F. Morris’s The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, first published in 1864, was republished by American Vision in 2007. It was newly typeset with added subheads. It’s been a huge seller for us. In the next month, we will be debuting Elias Boudinot’s The Age of Revelation, a response to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. The Age of Revelation was published in 1801. It, too, will be newly typeset and printed as a quality hardback. We have plans for several more books in this series of classic reprints.

Elias Boudinot (1740–1821) was a lawyer and served three terms as a Congressman from New Jersey (1789–1795). He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, served as President of the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1783, and was Director of the United States Mint from 1795 until 1805. After his retirement from politics, Boudinot was a trustee of what is now Princeton University where he founded the natural history department in 1805. He was an early opponent of slavery. This led him to found the American Bible Society in 1816 of which he served as its first president until his death in 1821. In accepting the position, Boudinot stated the following:

I am so convinced that the whole of this business is the work of God himself, by his Holy Spirit, that even hoping against hope I am encouraged to press on through good report and evil report, to accomplish his will on earth as it is in heaven. So apparent is the hand of God in this disposing the hearts of so many men, so diversified in their sentiments as to religious matters of minor importance, and uniting them as a band of brothers in this grand object that even infidels are compelled to say, “It is the work of the Lord, and it is wonderful in our eyes!” Having this confidence, let us go on and we shall prosper.

Boudinot donated $10,000 to the ABS. At the time, this was a huge sum of money. What is often not known about Boudinot is that he wrote a lengthy response to Thomas Paine’s An Age of Reason  titled The Age of Revelation which was first written as a pamphlet to his daughter in 1795.  In a letter to his daughter, Boudinot described his motives for his critique of Paine’s attack on the Bible:

I confess that I was much mortified to find the whole force of this vain man’s genius and art pointed at the youth of America. . . . This awful consequence created some alarm in my mind lest at any future day, you, my beloved child, might take up this plausible address of infidelity; and for want of an answer at hand to his subtle insinuations might suffer even a doubt of the truth, as it is in Jesus, to penetrate your mind. . . . I therefore determined . . . to put my thoughts on the subject of this pamphlet on paper for your edification and information, when I shall be no more. I chose to confine myself to the leading and essential facts of the Gospel which are contradicted or attempted to be turned into ridicule by this writer. I have endeavored to detect his falsehoods and misrepresentations and to show his extreme ignorance of the Divine Scriptures which he makes the subject of his animadversions— not knowing that “they are the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth” [Rom. 1:16].[1]

While Paine’ Age of Reason gets almost all the press, almost no one mentions Boudinot’s response. Paine is considered to be an American Founding Father, and yet, unlike Paine, Boudinot actually served in a civil capacity in the United States. Paine’s only elective office was in France. Boudinot is a true American Founding Father. Paine had no role in the founding conventions of America and their documents. Boudinot expressed the religious views of the majority of Americans at a critical point in America’s history. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist wrote the following in his Dissent in the 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree Separation of Church and State decision: “On the day after the House of Representatives voted to adopt the form of the First Amendment Religion Clauses which was ultimately proposed and ratified, Representative Elias Boudinot proposed a resolution asking President George Washington to issue a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. Boudinot said he ‘could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.’ Boudinot’s resolution was carried in the affirmative on September 25, 1789.”[2]

Boudinot waited some time before deciding to respond to Paine’s Age of Reason. His measured rejoinder to Paine’s work is contemplative. A great deal of thought and humility went into the well argued reply:

For a considerable time past, I have ardently wished to see some more able hand, meet Mr. Paine more on his own ground, in a plain and simple manner—but after waiting several years, I have lost all hopes of being gratified; and therefore have been more easily persuaded to undergo, amidst a variety of other business, the labor of copying once more, what was designed for a particular and special purpose; and altering the address, by applying it more directly to the author of the Age of Reason, and through him to all his brethren in skepticism.

I am averse to increasing the number of books, unless it be on important occasions, or for useful purposes; but an anxious desire that our country should be preserved from the dreadful evil of becoming enemies to the religion of the Gospel, which I have no doubt, but would be introductive of the dissolution of government and the bonds of civil society; my compliance with the wishes of a few select friends, to make this work public, has been more easily obtained.

Boudinot feared what we are experiencing today in America. Even though there are tens of thousands of churches and tens of millions of Christians, it seems that the skepticism of Paine has the upper hand. The prevalence of skepticism is more the inaction of Christians than the accomplishment of skeptics. Boudinot knew that he could no longer wait for someone else to respond. He understood that the duty was his, even if he did not consider himself worthy of the task. It’s remarkable that The Age of Revelation was written by a layman who had a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, classic philosophy, and history.

It was Boudinot’s opinion that if The Age of Reason had not been written by the popular author of Common Sense, the 1776 pamphlet that argued that America was justified in breaking away from the British monarchy, the book would not have been given much of a hearing. Boudinot shows that Paine did not uncover anything new under the sun. Modern-day atheists have only repackaged Paine for an audience that is not familiar with Elias Boudinot’s The Age of Revelation. It will prove to be helpful at this point to learn something about the religious regression of Thomas Paine, from Common Sense in 1776 to The Age of Reason in 1794.

Thomas Paine and Common Sense

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was constructed on “arguments from materials that were familiar to the average colonist, favoring allusions to popular history, nature, and scripture rather than Montesquieu, Tacitus, and Cicero.”[3] There is no hint of deism in Common Sense or criticism of the Bible.

Alfred J. Ayer, a recent biographer of Paine, 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. 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.”

Paine makes an often neglected point. Using Matthew 22:21 to support the claim that civil governments are not to be questioned or confronted by lesser magistrates or the people is misplaced and misunderstood. Israel was under the domination of Rome. We don’t live under Caesar today, and the Americans didn’t live under Caesar in the eighteenth century. Their dispute with the British monarchy and Parliament was over contractual issues. England had violated an agreement made by two sovereign powers and governments. Actually, in terms of the states, there had been multiple violations because there were 13 state governments.

Paine has an extended discussion of Judges 8:22–23 where he describes “the King of Heaven” to be Israel’s “proper sovereign.” 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.” Yet, in his Age of Reason, Paine had no problem attacking the source of some of his best Common Sense arguments.

The Later Paine

It’s the later Paine, the author of The Age of Reason, that secularists turn to in support of their claim that he was a deist and an ardent critic of Christianity and organized religion in general. While Common Sense was written in 1776, The Age of Reason was published around 1794, several years after the initial drafting (1787) and ratification (1791) of the Constitution. While Americans in general embraced Common Sense (surprisingly the French did not)—“fifty-six editions had been printed and 150,000 copies sold by the end of 1776”[5]—there was no public support for The Age of Reason by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin:

As for the supposition that the other Founders embraced “The Age of Reason” or its mindset: Jefferson advised Paine never to publish the book. Benjamin Franklin, Paine’s patron and friend, gave his protégé the same advice. After reading a draft, Franklin noted: “He who spits against the wind spits in his own face. If men are wicked with religion, what would they be without it?”

* * * * *

John Adams, once a fan of Paines, having received his copy, called Paine a “blackguard”[6] who wrote out of the depths of “a malignant heart.” And Washington, previously one of Paine’s fiercest advocates, attacked Paine’s principles in his Farewell Address (without referring to his name)[7] as unpatriotic and subversive.[8]

Paine’s later views were so opposed by the public that he spent his last years in New York in relative obscurity. “Paine had expressed a wish to be buried in a Quaker cemetery, but the Society of Friends denied his request. In attendance at his graveside on his farm were his Quaker friend Wilbert Hicks, “Madame Bonneville, her son Benjamin, and two black men who wished to pay tribute to Paine for his efforts to put an end to slavery. It is probable that a few others persons were there but no one who officially represented either France or the United States.”[9] Stokes and Pfeffer, writing in Church and State in the United States, state that “For a long time Paine, notwithstanding his great contributions to the Revolutionary cause, was held low in American public opinion.”[10] Theodore Roosevelt’s description of Thomas Paine “as a ‘filthy little atheist’ represented all too accurately the public estimate”[11] of him at the time. Although Paine was not an atheist—he believed in God and the immortality of the soul—the expression of his religious views in The Age of Reason put him outside the religious mainstream which was generally Christian.

The Thomas Paine of Common Sense and the Thomas Paine of The Age of Reason must be kept separate, both by time and philosophy. The later Paine cannot be superimposed on the earlier Paine. Without Paine’s biblical arguments in Common Sense the book would have been studied with great suspicion and might have sunk without a trace. Mark A. Noll, Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, makes a similar argument:

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.[12]

The next time someone says that America was founded by deists, ask them to define deism and produce an official document from the founding era that explicitly uses deistic expressions. When Thomas Paine comes up in a discussion, ask if it’s the early Paine or the later Paine. There is a big difference, as Elias Boudinot made clear more than 200 years ago in The Age of Revelation.

Endnotes:

[1] Elias Boudinot, The Age of Revelation, or the Age of Reason Shewn to be An Age of Infidelity (Philadelphia: Asbury Dickins, 1801), xii–xiv.
[2]
United States Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist’s Dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree (472 U.S. 38, 105 S.Ct. 2479 [1985]): www.belcherfoundation.org/wallace_v_jaffree_dissent.htm.
[3] Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to American Independence (Philadelphia Press, 2003), 20.
[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]
Ayer, Thomas Paine, 35
[6]
“The Christian religion is, above all the Religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern Times, the Religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity, and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel] Paine say what he will; it is Resignation to God, it is Goodness itself to Man.” (John Adams, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L.H. Butterfield [Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962], 3:233–234).
[7]
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . And let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle.” (Excerpted from George Washington’s 1796 “Farewell Address”).
[8] Steve Farrell, “Paine’s Christianity”—Part 1: www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2003/9/4/212340.shtml
[9] Ayer, Thomas Paine, 180.
[10]
Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer,Church and State in the United States, one-volume ed. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964), 50
[11]
Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, 50.
[12]
Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 84.

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