Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: LETTERS CONCERNING %u201CTHE AGE OF REASON.%u201D - The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. IV (1791-1804)
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III.: LETTERS CONCERNING %u201CTHE AGE OF REASON.%u201D - Thomas Paine, The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. IV (1791-1804) 
The Writings of Thomas Paine, Collected and Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894). Vol. 4.
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LETTERS CONCERNING “THE AGE OF REASON.”
AN ANSWER TO A FRIEND.
May 12, 1797.
In your letter of the 20th of March, you give me several quotations from the Bible, which you call the word of God, to shew me that my opinions on religion are wrong, and I could give you as many, from the same book to shew that yours are not right; consequently, then, the Bible decides nothing, because it decides any way, and every way, one chooses to make it.
But by what authority do you call the Bible the word of God? for this is the first point to be settled. It is not your calling it so that makes it so, any more than the Mahometans calling the Koran the word of God makes the Koran to be so. The Popish Councils of Nice and Laodicea, about 350 years after the time the person called Jesus Christ is said to have lived, voted the books that now compose what is called the New Testament to be the word of God. This was done by yeas and nays, as we now vote a law. The pharisees of the second Temple, after the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, did the same by the books that now compose the Old Testament, and this is all the authority there is, which to me is no authority at all. I am as capable of judging for myself as they were, and I think more so, because, as they made a living by their religion, they had a self-interest in the vote they gave.
You may have an opinion that a man is inspired, but you cannot prove it, nor can you have any proof of it yourself, because you cannot see into his mind in order to know how he comes by his thoughts; and the same is the case with the word revelation. There can be no evidence of such a thing, for you can no more prove revelation than you can prove what another man dreams of, neither can he prove it himself.
It is often said in the Bible that God spake unto Moses, but how do you know that God spake unto Moses? Because, you will say, the Bible says so. The Koran says, that God spake unto Mahomet, do you believe that too? No. Why not? Because, you will say, you do not believe it; and so because you do, and because you don’t is all the reason you can give for believing or disbelieving except that you will say that Mahomet was an impostor. And how do you know Moses was not an impostor? For my own part, I believe that all are impostors who pretend to hold verbal communication with the Deity. It is the way by which the world has been imposed upon; but if you think otherwise you have the same right to your opinion that I have to mine, and must answer for it in the same manner. But all this does not settle the point, whether the Bible be the word of God, or not. It is therefore necessary to go a step further. The case then is:—
You form your opinion of God from the account given of him in the Bible; and I form my opinion of the Bible from the wisdom and goodness of God manifested in the structure of the universe, and in all works of Creation. The result in these two cases will be, that you, by taking the Bible for your standard, will have a bad opinion of God; and I, by taking God for my standard, shall have a bad opinion of the Bible.
The Bible represents God to be a changeable, passionate, vindictive Being; making a world and then drowning it, afterwards repenting of what he had done, and promising not to do so again. Setting one nation to cut the throats of another, and stopping the course of the sun till the butchery should be done. But the works of God in the Creation preach to us another doctrine. In that vast volume we see nothing to give us the idea of a changeable, passionate, vindictive God; everything we there behold impresses us with a contrary idea,—that of unchangeableness and of eternal order, harmony, and goodness. The sun and the seasons return at their appointed time, and every thing in the Creation proclaims that God is unchangeable. Now, which am I to believe, a book that any impostor might make and call the word of God, or the Creation itself which none but an Almighty Power could make? For the Bible says one thing, and the Creation says the contrary. The Bible represents God with all the passions of a mortal, and the Creation proclaims him with all the attributes of a God.
It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man. That bloodthirsty man, called the prophet Samuel, makes God to say, (1 Sam. xv. 3,) “Now go and smite Amaleck, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.“
That Samuel or some other impostor might say this, is what, at this distance of time, can neither be proved nor disproved, but in my opinion it is blasphemy to say, or to believe, that God said it. All our ideas of the justice and goodness of God revolt at the impious cruelty of the Bible. It is not a God, just and good, but a devil, under the name of God, that the Bible describes.
What makes this pretended order to destroy the Amalekites appear the worse, is the reason given for it. The Amalekites, four hundred years before, according to the account in Exodus xvii. (but which has the appearance of fable from the magical account it gives of Moses holding up his hands,) had opposed the Israelites coming into their country, and this the Amalekites had a right to do, because the Israelites were the invaders, as the Spaniards were the invaders of Mexico; and this opposition by the Amalekites, at that time, is given as a reason, that the men, women, infants and sucklings, sheep and oxen, camels and asses, that were born four hundred years afterwards, should be put to death; and to complete the horror, Samuel hewed Agag, the chief of the Amalekites, in pieces, as you would hew a stick of wood. I will bestow a few observations on this case.
In the first place, nobody knows who the author, or writer, of the book of Samuel was, and, therefore, the fact itself has no other proof than anonymous or hearsay evidence, which is no evidence at all. In the second place, this anonymous book says, that this slaughter was done by the express command of God: but all our ideas of the justice and goodness of God give the lie to the book, and as I never will believe any book that ascribes cruelty and injustice to God, I therefore reject the Bible as unworthy of credit.
As I have now given you my reasons for believing that the Bible is not the word of God, that it is a falsehood, I have a right to ask you your reasons for believing the contrary; but I know you can give me none, except that you were educated to believe the Bible; and as the Turks give the same reason for believing the Koran, it is evident that education makes all the difference, and that reason and truth have nothing to do in the case. You believe in the Bible from the accident of birth, and the Turks believe in the Koran from the same accident, and each calls the other infidel. But leaving the prejudice of education out of the case, the unprejudiced truth is, that all are infidels who believe falsely of God, whether they draw their creed from the Bible, or from the Koran, from the Old Testament, or from the New.
When you have examined the Bible with the attention that I have done, (for I do not think you know much about it,) and permit yourself to have just ideas of God, you will most probably believe as I do. But I wish you to know that this answer to your letter is not written for the purpose of changing your opinion. It is written to satisfy you, and some other friends whom I esteem, that my disbelief of the Bible is founded on a pure and religious belief in God; for in my opinion the Bible is a gross libel against the justice and goodness of God, in almost every part of it.
CORRESPONDENCE WITH THE HON. SAMUEL ADAMS.1
[To the Editor of the “National Intelligencer,” Federal City.]
Towards the latter end of last December I received a letter from a venerable patriot, Samuel Adams, dated Boston, Nov. 30. It came by a private hand, which I suppose was the cause of the delay. I wrote Mr. Adams an answer, dated Jan. 1st, and that I might be certain of his receiving it, and also that I might know of that reception, I desired a friend of mine at Washington to put it under cover to some friend of his at Boston, and desire him to present it to Mr. Adams. The letter was accordingly put under cover while I was present, and given to one of the clerks of the post office to seal and put in the mail. The clerk put it in his pocket book, and either forgot to put it into the mail, or supposed he had done so among other letters. The postmaster general, on learning this mistake, informed me of it last Saturday, and as the cover was then out of date, the letter was put under a new cover, with the same request, and forwarded by the post. I felt concern at this accident, lest Mr. Adams should conclude I was unmindful of his attention to me; and therefore, lest any further accident should prevent or delay his receiving it, as well as to relieve myself from that concern, I give the letter an opportunity of reaching him by the newspapers. I am the more induced to do this, because some manuscript copies have been taken of both letters, and therefore there is a possibility of imperfect copies getting into print; and besides this, if some of the Federal[ist] printers (for I hope they are not all base alike) could get hold of a copy, they would make no scruple of altering it, and publishing it as mine. I therefore send you the original letter of Mr. Adams, and my own copy of the answer.
Nov. 30, 1802.
I have frequently with pleasure reflected on your services to my native and your adopted country. Your Common Sense and your Crisis unquestionably awakened the public mind, and led the people loudly to call for a Declaration of our national Independence. I therefore esteemed you as a warm friend to the liberty and lasting welfare of the human race. But when I heard that 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. The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love. Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy, at a time when they are hastening to unity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your Age of Reason. Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause? We ought to think ourselves happy in the enjoyment of opinion without the danger of persecution by civil or ecclesiastical law.
Our friend, the President of the United States,1 has been calumniated for his liberal sentiments, by men who have attributed that liberality to a latent design to promote the cause of infidelity. This and all other slanders have been made without a shadow of proof. Neither religion nor liberty can long subsist in the tumult of altercation, and amidst the noise and violence of faction.
Felix qui cautus. Adieu.
I received with great pleasure your friendly and affectionate letter of November 30, and I thank you also for the frankness of it. Between men in pursuit of truth, and whose object is the Happiness of Man both here and hereafter, there ought to be no reserve. Even Error has a claim to indulgence, if not to respect, when it is believed to be truth.
I am obliged to you for your affectionate remembrance of what you stile my services in awakening the public mind to a declaration of Independance, and supporting it after it was declared. I also, like you, have often looked back on those times, and have thought that if independance had not been declared at the time it was, the public mind could not have been brought up to it afterwards. It will immediately occur to you, who were so intimately acquainted with the situation of things at that time, that I allude to the black times of seventy-six; for though I know, and you my friend also know, they were no other than the natural consequence of the military blunders of that campaign, the country might have viewed them as proceeding from a natural inability to support its Cause against the enemy, and have sunk under the despondency of that misconceived Idea. This was the impression against which it was necessary the Country should be strongly animated.
I come now to the second part of your letter, on which I shall be as frank with you as you are with me.
“But, (say you) when I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of Infidelity I felt myself much astonished &c.”—What, my good friend, do you call believing in God infidelity? for that is the great point maintained in The Age of Reason against all divided beliefs and allegorical divinities.1 The bishop of Landaff (Doctor Watson) not only acknowledges this, but pays me some compliments upon it (in his answer to the second part of that work). “There is (says he) a philosophical sublimity in some of your Ideas when speaking of the Creator of the Universe.”
What then (my much esteemed friend for I do not respect you the less because we differ, and that perhaps not much, in religious sentiments), what, I ask, is this thing called infidelity? If we go back to your ancestors and mine three or four hundred years ago, for we must have had fathers and grandfathers or we should not be here, we shall find them praying to Saints and Virgins, and believing in purgatory and transubstantiation; and therefore all of us are infidels according to our forefathers’ belief. If we go back to times more ancient we shall again be infidels according to the belief of some other forefathers.
The case my friend is, that the World has been over-run with fable and creeds of human invention, with sectaries of whole Nations against all other Nations, and sectaries of those sectaries in each of them against each other. Every sectary, except the quakers, has been a persecutor. Those who fled from persecution persecuted in their turn, and it is this confusion of creeds that has filled the World with persecution and deluged it with blood. Even the depredation on your commerce by the barbary powers sprang from the Cruisades of the church against those powers. It was a war of creed against creed, each boasting of God for its author, and reviling each other with the name of Infidel. If I do not believe as you believe, it proves that you do not believe as I believe, and this is all that it proves.
There is however one point of Union wherein all religions meet, and that is in the first article of every Man’s Creed, and of every Nation’s Creed, that has any Creed at all: I believe in God. Those who rest here, and there are millions who do, cannot be wrong as far as their Creed goes. Those who chuse to go further may be wrong, for it is impossible that all can be right, since there is so much contradiction among them. The first therefore are, in my opinion, on the safest side.
I presume you are so far acquainted with ecclesiastical history as to know, and the bishop who has answered me has been obliged to acknowledge the fact, that the books that compose the New Testament were voted by Yeas and Nays to be the Word of God, as you now vote a law, by the popish Councils of Nice and Laodocia about 1450 years ago. With respect to the fact there is no dispute, neither do I mention it for the sake of controversy. This Vote may appear authority enough to some, and not authority enough to others. It is proper however that everybody should know the fact.1
With respect to The Age of Reason, which you so much condemn, and that I believe without having read it, for you say only that you heard of it, I will inform you of a Circumstance, because you cannot know it by other means.
I have said in the first page of the First Part of that work that it had long been my intention to publish my thoughts upon Religion, but that I had reserved it to a later time of life. I have now to inform you why I wrote it and published it at the time I did.
In the first place, I saw my life in continual danger. My friends were falling as fast as the guilleotine could cut their heads off, and as I every day expected the same fate, I resolved to begin my Work. I appeared to myself to be on my death-bed, for death was on every side of me, and I had no time to lose. This accounts for my writing it at the time I did; and so nicely did the time and the intention meet, that I had not finished the first part of that Work more than six hours before I was arrested and taken to prison. Joel Barlow was with me and knows the fact.
In the second place, the people of france were running headlong into Atheism, and I had the work translated and published in their own language to stop them in that carreer, and fix them to the first article (as I have before said) of every man’s Creed who has any Creed at all, I believe in God. I endangered my own life, in the first place, by opposing in the Convention the execution of the king, and by labouring to shew they were trying the Monarchy and not the Man, and that the crimes imputed to him were the crimes of the monarchical1 system; and I endangered it a second time by opposing Atheism; and yet some of your priests, for I do not believe that all are perverse, cry out, in the war-whoop of monarchical priestcraft, What an Infidel, what a wicked Man, is Thomas Paine! They might as well add, for he believes in God and is against shedding blood.
But all this war-whoop of the pulpit1 has some concealed object. Religion is not the Cause, but is the stalking horse. They put it forward to conceal themselves behind it. It is not a secret that there has been a party composed of the leaders of the federalists, for I do not include all federalists with their leaders, who have been working by various means for several years past to overturn the federal Constitution established on the representative system, and place Government in the new World on the corrupt system of the old.2 To accomplish this, a large standing army was necessary, and as a pretence for such an army the danger of a foreign invasion must be bellowed forth from the pulpit, from the press, and by their public orators.
I am not of a disposition inclined to suspicion. It is in its nature a mean and cowardly passion, and upon the whole, even admitting error into the case, it is better, I am sure it is more generous, to be wrong on the side of confidence than on the side of suspicion.3 But I know as a fact that the english Government distributes annually fifteen hundred pounds sterling among the presbyterian ministers in England and one thousand among those of Ireland;4 and when I hear of the strange discourses of some of your ministers and professors of Colleges, I cannot, as the quakers say, find freedom in my mind to acquit them. Their anti-revolutionary doctrines invite suspicion even against one’s will, and in spite of one’s charity to believe well of them.
As you have given me one scripture phrase I will give you another for those ministers. It is said in Exodus xxii. 28, “Thou shalt not revile the Gods nor curse the ruler of thy people.” But those ministers, such I mean as Dr. Emmons,5 curse ruler and people both, for the majority are, politically, the people, and it is those who have chosen the ruler whom they curse. As to the first part of the verse, that of not reviling the Gods, it makes no part of my scripture. I have but one God.1
Since I began this letter, for I write it by piece-meals as I have leisure, I have seen the four letters that passed between you and John Adams. In your first letter you say, “Let divines and Philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavours to renovate the age by inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy. “Why, my dear friend, this is exactly my religion, and is the whole of it. That you may have an Idea that The Age of Reason (for I believe you have not read it) inculcates this reverential fear and love of the Deity I will give you a paragraph from it.
“Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom: We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the Earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful.”
As I am fully with you in your first part, that respecting the Deity, so am I in your second, that of universal philanthropy; by which I do not mean merely the sentimental benevolence of wishing well, but the practical benevolence of doing good. We cannot serve the Deity in the manner we serve those who cannot do without that service. He needs no service from us. We can add nothing to eternity. But it is in our power to render a service acceptable to him, and that is not by praying, but by endeavouring to make his creatures happy. A man does not serve God when he prays, for it is himself he is trying to serve; and as to hiring or paying men to pray, as if the Deity needed instruction, it is, in my opinion, an abomination. One good schoolmaster is of more use and of more value than a load of such persons as Dr. Emmons and some others.1
You, my dear and much respected friend, are now far in the vale of years; I have yet, I believe, some years in store, for I have a good state of health and a happy mind, and I take care of both, by nourishing the first with temperance and the latter with abundance. This, I believe, you will allow to be the true philosophy of life. You will see by my third letter to the Citizens of the United States that I have been exposed to, and preserved through, many dangers; but instead of buffetting the Deity with prayers as if I distrusted him, or must dictate to him,2 I reposed myself on his protection; and you, my friend, will find, even in your last moments, more consolation in the silence of resignation than in the murmuring wish of a prayer.
In every thing which you say in your second letter to John Adams, respecting our Rights as Men and Citizens in this World, I am perfectly with you. On other points we have to answer to our Creator and not to each other. The key of heaven is not in the keeping of any sect, nor ought the road to it be obstructed by any. Our relation to each other in this World is as Men, and the Man who is a friend to Man and to his rights, let his religious opinions be what they may, is a good citizen, to whom I can give, as I ought to do, and as every other ought, the right hand of fellowship, and to none with more hearty good will, my dear friend, than to you.
January 1, 1803.
The Hon. Samuel Adams (1722–1803) was from the Stamp Act agitation of 1764 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 the pre-eminent revolutionary leader in Massachusetts, and General Gage was given orders to send him over to London, where a newspaper predicted that his head would appear on Temple Bar. He was sent by Massachusetts, with his cousin, John Adams, afterwards President, to the first Continental Congress (1774), where he was suspected, with justice, of being favorable to separation from England. When Paine published his famous appeal for American Independence (January 10, 1776), Samuel Adams was the first member of the Congress at his side, and a cordial lifelong relation existed between the two. It is to my mind certain that these two men were the real pioneers of American Independence, and they were both inspired therein by their widely different religious sentiments. Samuel Adams was the son of a deacon of the Old South Church, Boston, who sent his son to Harvard College with the hope that he would graduate into a minister. The son had no taste for theology, but he made up for it by retaining through all his career as a lawyer and public man a rigid Puritanism, of which the first article was hatred of the British system of royalty and prelacy. While Adams’s desire for American independency was largely an inheritance from New England Puritans, Paine beheld in it a means of establishing a Republic based on the principles of Quakerism,—the divine Light in every man by virtue of which all were equal. Samuel Adams died October 2, 1803. The correspondence here given was printed in the National Intelligencer, Washington City, February 2, 1803, as one of a series of Ten Letters addressed to “The Citizens of the United States” on his return after his fifteen eventful years in Europe. These Letters were printed in a pamphlet in London, 1804, by his friend Thomas Clio Rickman, whose task, however, was achieved under sad intimidation. Rickman’s preface opens with the words: “The following little work would not have been published, had there been anything in it the least offending against the government or individuals.” Under this deadly fear the much prosecuted Rickman mutilated Paine’s letter to Adams a good deal. I have been fortunate in being able to print the letter from Paine’s own manuscript, which was recently discovered among the papers of George Bancroft, the historian, when they passed into the possession of the Lenox Library, New York, to whose excellent librarian I owe thanks for this and other favors.—Editor.
The ten concluding words of this sentence were omitted from Rickman’s edition, the close being “in the work alluded to.”—Editor.
This paragraph was omitted by Rickman with a footnote saying: “A paragraph of eleven lines is here omitted, it being a principle with the Editor to offend neither the government nor individuals. Its insertion is also unnecessary, as the curious reader will find it answered in a way well worth his notice by the bishop of Llandaff. See his apology for the Bible, from page 300 to 307.” The title “Age of Reason” is also suppressed in the next paragraph, and elsewhere.—Editor.
This word is omitted by Rickman.—Editor.
The words “of the pulpit” omitted by Rickman.—Editor.
The preceding fourteen words omitted by Rickman.—Editor.
The words “it is better” and “on the side of Confidence than” are dropped out of the sentence in Rickman’s edition.—Editor.
See vol. iii. p. 85, of my edition of Paine’s Writings, where the amounts are stated as £1700 to the dissenting Ministers in England, and £800 to those of Ireland.—The preceding 29 words, and the remainder of this paragraph, are omitted by Rickman.—Editor.
Nathaniel Emmons, D.D. (1745–1840), fifty-four years minister of the Franklin, Mass., Congregational Church. He was a vehement Federalist, and assailant of President Jefferson.—Editor.
This and the preceding sentence are omitted by Rickman.—Editor.
This and the preceding sentence omitted by Rickman.—Editor.
This and the seventeen preceding words omitted by Rickman.—Editor.