Thomas Paine was not naïve, and he was aware that his popularity haddramatically diminished. This led Paine to believe, rightfully so, that his time was limited. Since the summer of 1793, the Jacobins had been guillotining all who stood in their path. By autumn of that same year, they began to slowly execute God himself in their incessant quest for liberation from oppressive traditions. This process was contrary to Paine’s deist beliefs. He had desired since the beginnings of his career to write a strictly theologically oriented work but hesitated time and time again. He informed John Adams in 1776 that he wanted to write a pamphlet against the Old Testament, for the widely held beliefs of Christianity were of constant irritation to Paine. By 1793, all religions in France were in grave danger. In a letter to Samuel Adams, Paine explains his motivations: “I saw my life in continual danger. My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off, and as every day I expected the same fate, I resolved to begin my work.” Paine did not write The Age of Reason with any malicious intent towards Christianity per se. His reasoning behind expressing his deist views in such a fashion was to prevent the people of France from “running headlong into atheism.” Paine clearly saw atheism as a byproduct of a stifling religion. He wanted to offer an option other than the two extremes of Christianity and atheism. So during the months of November and December 1793, Paine sat “through the watches of the night at his devout task.” He was communing with his God and composing what he perceived to be his last will and testament.
The first part of The Age of Reason was hastily completed. Paine did his writing at the farmhouse at Faubourg St. Denis with very few resources. He did not even have access to an English Bible, relying solely upon his well-stocked memory of the scriptures. He lived in constant fear of the inevitable knock upon his door. In June 1793, a law calling for the imprisonment of foreigners hailing from nations at war with France had been passed. This had been of fairly little consequence to Paine. He considered himself to be an American, a nation on good terms with France. Morris had been busy, however, convincing all that would entertain him that Paine had friends across the channel in England, a nation which had a centuries-old adversarial relationship with France. The law passed in early December that banned foreigners from Convention membership was also unimportant to Paine, for his new obsession resulted in a string of absences anyway. Finally, with any governmental immunity Paine might have possessed lifted, the unavoidable happened on December 27; a warrant was issued for the arrest of Thomas Paine. With historically impeccable timing, Paine finished the first part of The Age of Reason six hours before his arrest early the following morning.
With the ink still wet on his manuscript, Paine attempted to contact his friend, the American Joel Barlow. Although not entirely a deist, Barlow was a fellow freethinker who was familiar with deist literature. Barlow not only knew several skilled printers around Paris, but he was also a translator. He was widely recognized for his translation of Comte de Volney’s Ruins: or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires into English. Yet as fate would have it, Barlow could not be reached. Paine then proceeded to go to White’s Hotel at Passage des Petites Peres in hopes of contacting his friend. The hotel was also Paine’s official residence in Paris, so it was naturally the first place the Committee of General Security went to apprehend him. The polite agents confronted Paine and then unsuccessfully searched his living quarters for any incriminating documents. Thinking quickly, Paine told the arresting agents that he might have some incriminating papers at Barolw’s residence. At three o’clock in the morning, the group roused the sleeping Barlow in order to search his house. Paine deliberately created this opportunity so he could pass his manuscript to Barlow for printing. He did so in full view of the agents, who briefly examined the work. The captain, who spoke virtually no English, could see that it was theological in nature and let it pass to Barlow without incident. By the middle of the following afternoon, Paine was in prison in Luxembourg. The Age of Reason, Part One did not accompany its creator, however. Joel Barlow did as Paine had instructed him and sent the manuscript to Barrois, a Parisian printer skilled in English. Yet, the author was not finished with his project; in fact, he had just begun.
The prison in Luxembourg was far from a dungeon. It housed a number of high-profile prisoners, with whom Paine developed friendships. One such friendship was with General O’Hara, who had surrendered for General Cornwallis at Yorktown over a decade earlier. Paine even went so far as to loan O’Hara a sizable amount of money for his return to England. The residents had a few, somewhat menial, daily chores to occupy their time. But the routine existence that the occupants shared was broken every night at midnight, when the municipal police would come with their daily list of “winners in the lottery of the blessed guillotine.” Paine used his time in the Luxembourg prison to write the second part of The Age of Reason. It was similar to its predecessor in that it was produced in the ominous shadow of uncertainty and possibly death. It was different from the first half, however, in that Paine had ample time in which to write. Paine’s extended stay can be partly attributed to his old nemesis Gouverneur Morris. Still holding the position of American minister, Morris could simply claim Paine as an American citizen and he would no longer be imprisoned. Morris, however, could not have been happier with the situation. He wrote a cynical letter to Thomas Jefferson in America disarmingly informing him of the situation, stating, “Lest I should forget it, I must mention that Thomas Paine is in prison, where he amuses himself by publishing a pamphlet against Jesus Christ… I believe he thinks I ought to claim him as an American citizen.” Morris went on to give his opinion that such an action would be “inexpedient and ineffectual.” He still promoted the notion that Paine was a potentially dangerous, wandering Englishman. Barlow even led a group of seventeen fellow Americans who repeatedly attempted to free their comrade through letters and correspondence, but to no avail. From prison, Paine constantly wrote Morris assuming he bore him no ill will. As long as Morris was the sole link between Thomas Paine and freedom, nothing would be done. It was not until James Monroe replaced Morris as American minister that Paine was released. Ten months after his arrest, Paine was again free. His health had suffered slightly during his stay in Luxembourg, but he emerged on November 7, 1794 somewhat triumphant, with The Age of Reason Part Two in his hand.
While the complex theological assertions of The Age of Reason are not the subject of this paper, it is essential to briefly discuss some of its basic principles in order to understand the criticism it spawned. The work is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the general idea of revealed religion and Paine’s objection to it. As the author claimed, “The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way of God was not open to every man alike.” This forms the foundation for Paine’s argument that permeates The Age of Reason Part One. The term “doubting Thomas” was never more appropriate than in this case, for in his work, Thomas Paine doubted everything. He devoted a major portion of the first part of the book to a generalized assault on the validity of the scriptures. Paine called the Bible a “book of riddles” that was assembled by what he called “Church Mythologists.” He harbored a strong objection to the brutality of the Old Testament in particular. Paine was in such disagreement with its “cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness” that he said it “would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God.” The New Testament is not spared from the might of Paine’s pen either. Although Paine possessed a great admiration for Jesus Christ as a historically significant, benevolent philosopher, he did not view him as divine in nature. His main argument for this view was that Jesus himself never wrote anything down. Thus, all that are accessible are second hand accounts . Paine concluded the first part of The Age of Reason by asserting three major points: any “Word of God” in print is an unreasonable concept; creation is the only Word of God; and the duty of man is to do good, imitating God as exemplified through his creation. Paine essentially built upon these same principles in The Age of Reason Part Two. He meticulously pointed out every conceivable inconsistency that might be hidden within the pages of the Bible. The jarring frankness of Paine’s attack, no matter how benign his intentions might have been, truly produced significant waves throughout the English-speaking world.
Response to The Age of Reason was immediate. Its very publication caused a great deal of controversy in Paine’s native country of England, where people had temporarily forgotten about Paine during his stay in Luxembourg. Many assumed that he had been executed in 1793. A few copies of Part One crossed the channel in 1794, followed by Part Two in 1795. In October of 1795, H. D. Symonds pirated a limited number of copies, selling them at an inflated price. Upon hearing this, Paine immediately sent a manuscript to Daniel Eaton for publication in a single, less expensive volume. Eaton was widely known for his printing of Paine’s works regardless of an official ban. The initial brunt of the government’s intolerance of the revolutionary writer’s material was directed towards Thomas Williams, a London bookstore owner who, by 1797, had printed over two thousand copies of The Age of Reason and was in the process of printing even more. The Society for Carrying into Effect His Majesty’s Proclamation Against Vice and Immorality hauled Williams into court claiming that Paine’s new work had provoked countless anti-clerical rebellions throughout the British Isles. Although these rebellions might have been a slight exaggeration, there were a number of societies springing up in England with Paine’s style of deism at their base. After all, the king had taken a vow to protect the church. Williams was prosecuted by Thomas Erskine who, a few years earlier, defended Paine’s Rights of Man. By 1797, however, Erskine had become Lord Chancellor and consequently made a remarkable turn towards a more conservative stance. The former champion of Thomas Paine now claimed that The Age of Reason had to be suppressed for the betterment of mankind. During the trial, the defense was not permitted to read passages orally from the work in question. All references had to be in writing only. Williams was sentenced to one year of hard labor at the Middlesex House of Corrections. Paine was kept abreast of the events transpiring in England. He wrote to Thomas Erskine pleading for a lighter sentence for Williams, explaining to him in a more personal manner the principles contained within The Age of Reason. Paine was not at all surprised at the dramatic turn Erskine took against him. Paine said that he had always been “lawyer-like, undoes by one word what he says in the other.” The Age of Reason clearly did not obtain much of a foothold in Britain. The true opposition to Paine’s work would not come from the courts but from theologians.
Though The Age of Reason prompted an official denunciation by the government of England, the greatest criticism of Paine would come by the pen and not the gavel. The majority of these reactions originated primarily from the country Paine claimed to be his home: America. The citizens of America were initially puzzled at this new theological work. Although deist statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were not uncommon, none had dared to vocalize their opinions in such a brutal manner. Paine’s brand of deism was designed for a mass audience, not merely for the aristocratic. The true extent to which The Age of Reason was circulated is not known. What is known, however, is that it was so popular that eight editions appeared in America in 1794, seven editions in 1795, and two in 1796. Paine’s work was particularly popular on college campuses in America. The clear, bold and orderly quality of The Age of Reason greatly aided its success among the young and idealistic. The graduating class of 1799 at Dartmouth, for example, was said to contain only one publicly professed Christian. Similar situations were observed at Princeton and Harvard. Students reveled in confronting their professors with the arguments proposed in The Age of Reason. Other major deist works began supplementing Paine’s. During the late 1790s, the newly translated works of Volney and Voltaire found their way across the Atlantic in more abundance. As Timothy Dwight of Yale asserted, it was as if Europe was “vomiting” irreligious ideas upon America. Anti-clerical and anti-Biblical organizations soon sprang up in major urban areas and, in some instances, the rural backcountry as well. Deist newspapers such as The Temple of Reason in New York and Philadelphia, and The Prospect View of the Moral World, were beginning to circulate throughout the nation. Many of the organized movements were either founded or greatly contributed to by Elihu Palmer, the former Baptist minister turned deist missionary. Simultaneously, another movement began which aided in the popularity of Paine’s The Age of Reason, although it was designed to have the opposite effect. Perhaps the most interesting aspect in the tale of this revolutionary book is the reactions it provoked from the men who dedicated their lives to the principles Paine vandalized: the clergy.
The Protestant clergy had grown accustomed to controversy. The Age of Reason was different, and was not to be dismissed so easily. Orthodox groups were unprepared for such a brutal attack on all the assumptions by which they lived. Paine’s book was not a mere, timid questioning and rearranging of the Bible; it was an assault. It seemed the most frequent form of retaliation was personal vilification. The clergy’s deep concern for the spiritual welfare of the nation was quite apparent in the fifty written responses that were composed in opposition to The Age of Reason from the time of its publication until 1800. Of these, roughly half were written as soon as Paine’s work hit the shores of America. Practically every major Protestant group in America and England contributed at least one negative response directed towards Paine. To analyze each and every one of these works would be an unfathomably time consuming exercise. Some of these works are indicative of the movement as a whole and represent them accurately. Most authors abandoned the notion of a theological debate in favor of a personal attack on Paine’s character in an often rude and sometimes juvenile manner. As Moncure Daniel Conway, Paine’s most widely known biographer, stated, “It was no answer to the antiquity of Genesis to call Paine a drunkard, had it been true.” David Nelson wrote An Investigation of that False and Fabulous and Blasphemous Misrepresentation of Truth, set forth by Thomas Paine, in which he described Paine as “deceitful, degenerate and lacking in knowledge.” Uzal Ogden in his Antidote to Deism labeled Paine as a “sot, devoid of reason, grossly ignorant and totally unoriginal.” This newfound pastime of writing against Thomas Paine was not exclusively a Protestant activity. David Levi wrote Defense of The Old Testament to “save” the Jews from The Age of Reason. The Unitarians in England, while not as viciously, also wrote against Paine. This much more liberal religious group was represented by Joseph Priestley and Gilbert Wakefield. Both agreed that religion needed a certain degree of reason, but should not be so rational as to deny the divinity of Christ. However sympathetic the Unitarians might have been, they still pointed out the ignorance of Paine pertaining to the subject of theology. Priestley stated that, “Had Paine been better acquainted with the Scriptures which are a constant subject of his ridicule, he might have made a more plausible attack upon them.” Of the multitude of responses to The Age of Reason, Dr. Richard Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff, wrote the one that is given the most attention by both Paine's biographers as well as by Paine himself.
Richard Watson’s Apology for the Bible, in a Series of Letters to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, written in 1796, was perhaps the most scholarly and respectful response ever written against Paine. Paine even intended for his rebuttal to Apology for the Bible to be published as the third installment of The Age of Reason. In his reply to the Bishop’s work, Paine restated the same basic ideas contained in Part One and Part Two, only he did so in direct response to Watson’s statements. Paine ended by asserting that the Bible is “fit only for imposters to preach and fools to believe.” Nevertheless, Watson was the primary weapon in the arsenal against the raging infidelity. Apology for the Bible was also designed for a mass audience. It often found its way to more remote areas than did Paine’s work, particularly in England. As for America, Watson’s work was heavily distributed there as well. Harvard students were issued copies of Apology for the Bible, but the issuance had an adverse effect. Students who could not obtain The Age of Reason could easily enjoy an abbreviated version in Watson’s lengthy quotations within his text. This same type of adverse effect plagued the entire anti-Paine movement. The publicity of the clergy’s attempt to muzzle this irreligiousness resulted in greater publicity for The Age of Reason in general. The constant literary attacks and public denunciation from the pulpit gave Paine’s work a “forbidden fruit” style of appeal. In actuality, Protestant America was in no real danger of falling prey to Paine’s radical ideas. The Christian infrastructure of seminaries, Sunday schools, and missionaries proved the deist movement to be only a passing trend of the idealistic. All the deist newspapers, magazines and societies had a relatively small number of subscribers and memberships and proved to be short lived.
Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason proved to be too much for even his former allies in the cause of American liberty. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania, a former friend of Paine’s, was repulsed by his new work and had no interest in renewing his friendship after its publication. Patrick Henry, a firm believer in the Bible, is suspected to have written a negative rebuttal of The Age of Reason but it has failed to survive. Perhaps the most well known of these objections was voiced by Samuel Adams. Adams wrote Paine saying that he enjoyed his previous works, remembering fondly their experiences in 1776, but he was disappointed in his recent project. Adams wrote, “I felt 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.” Paine’s theology was frequently associated with Jeffersonian Republicanism, mostly by the clergy that tended to be aligned with the Federalists. Among many in America, a vote for Thomas Jefferson was perceived to be a vote for Satan himself. Virtually everyone wanted to disassociate himself from the controversy surrounding Thomas Paine.
The Age of Reason was written to combat atheism in France. It spawned dozens upon dozens of fierce rebuttals, government condemnations, and lost its author the friendship of many former allies. As Thomas Edison stated over a century after Paine’s death, “If Paine had ceased his writings at the Rights of Man he would have been hailed today as one of the two or three outstanding figures of the Revolution.” In true historic irony, The Age of Reason’s intended audience of France showed very little interest in or reaction to the work. Paine’s image would forever be soiled in the eyes of the world for his expression of his deeply held beliefs. Yet it is important to remember the author’s good intentions in composing this uproarious work. In the words of Conway, The Age of Reason “is not a mere book—it is a man’s heart.”