July 4th brings out the historical revisionists. One of the more kooky revisionist claims is that our Founding Fathers were Deists. Deism is a philosophical belief system that claims that God exists but is not involved in the world. While God created all things and set the universe in motion, He is no longer involved in its operation. Given this definition of deism, which of the founding fathers were Deists? Which documents express the fundamental tenets of Deism? Official congressional documents, written before and after the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, mention Jesus Christ, sin, the need for forgiveness, and the justice of God. These are hardly Deist documents.
Benjamin Franklin was certainly no Deist based on his remarks at the Constitutional Convention. I don’t know how you get Deism out of “God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?,” and “without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.” This is one of the most anti-Deistic statements ever made. The Declaration of Independence is hardly Deistic with phrase like “the Supreme Judge of the world” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” The Deist argument is bogus.
But it’s Thomas Paine who is singled out as America’s true philosophical Deistic founder. Paine’s Common Sense did put forth arguments for independence from
A. J. Ayer remarks that “the first argument that Paine brings against the institution of kingship is scriptural.” Paine declared that “government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from which the children of
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 then 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.”
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 in early 1790, more than 15 years later and after the drafting of the Constitution in 1787. While Americans in general embraced Common Sense—“fifty-six editions had been printed and 150,000 copies sold by the end of 1776”—there was no 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:
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John Adams, once a fan of Paine, having received his copy, called Paine a “blackguard” 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) as unpatriotic and subversive.
Paine’s later views were so opposed by the public that he spent his last years in
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, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, 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
The Blogsters who perpetuate the Deism myth are ignorant of history. They rarely read original source documents. They parrot the party line from notes they took in their freshman Western Civilization class by professors who haven’t read an original source document since they completed their doctorate.
Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to American
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).
Ayer, Thomas Paine, 35
“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).
“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.”
Steve Farrell, “Paine’s Christianity”—Part 1: www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2003/9/4/212340.shtml
Ayer, Thomas Paine, 180.
Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, one-volume ed. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964), 50
Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the
Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (