American Vision ran an ad on Facebook for the republication of The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States. The ad went to a broader audience. Some historical crazies responded. Keep in mind that no one who had responded had read the 1000-page book that is filled with original source documentation. It’s easy to argue a case when you are ignorant and assume others are equally ignorant.
One person accused American Vision of not understanding of the First Amendment and its no establishment of religion statement. The prohibition is addressed to Congress: “Congress shall make no law…” It does not say anything about religion, in particular the Christian religion, not having an impact on the nation’s civil institutions. The facts show that Christianity did have an impact on our nation’s founding, from the state constitutions and proclamations and its many laws and its reference to Jesus Christ and Sabbath observance in the Constitution.
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 [Matt. 10:29], 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 [Gen. 11:1–9].” This is one of the most anti-Deistic statements ever made. The Declaration of Independence is hardly Deistic with a 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 although he did not have anything to do with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Paine’s book Common Sense did put forth arguments for independence from Great Britain, but how did Paine argue his case? What were his sources? Did he follow deistic lines of argumentation like those of the French revolutionaries? “He constructed his arguments from materials that were familiar to the average colonist, favoring allusions to popular history, nature, and scripture rather than Montesquieu, Tacitus, and Cicero.” There is no hint of Deism in Common Sense.
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 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’ [Matt. 12:40] 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 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: 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?”
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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.
Elias Boudinot, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress and served as President of Congress from 1782 to 1783, wrote The Age of Revelation in response to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.
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.” Theodore Roosevelt’s description of Thomas Paine “as a ‘filthy little atheist’ represented all too accurately the public estimate” of him at the time. Although Paine was not an atheist — he believed in God and immortality — 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, 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 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.
It’s sad that our schools don’t teach critical thinking. It’s easy to perpetuate the Deism myth if you don’t know much 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.
Christian Life and Character
The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States is back in print! Retail price $45.00. Special American Vision price $39.95 plus shipping. Order today. A limited number of copies available.