Portrait of Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos
In the opening year, 1793, when revolutionary France had beheaded its king, the wrath turned next upon the King of kings, by whose grace every tyrant claimed to reign. But eventualities had brought among them a great English and American heart — Thomas Paine. He had pleaded for Louis Capet — “Kill the king but spare the man.” Now he pleaded, — “Disbelieve in the King of kings, but do not confuse with that idol the Father of Mankind!”
In Paine’s Preface to the Second Part of “The Age of Reason” he describes himself as writing the First Part near the close of the year 1793. “I had not finished it more than six hours, in the state it has since appeared, before a guard came about three in the morning, with an order signed by the two Committees of Public Safety and Surety General, for putting me in arrestation.” This was on the morning of December 28. But it is necessary to weigh the words just quoted — “in the state it has since appeared.” For on August 5, 1794, Francois Lanthenas, in an appeal for Paine’s liberation, wrote as follows: “I deliver to Merlin de Thionville a copy of the last work of T. Payne [The Age of Reason], formerly our colleague, and in custody since the decree excluding foreigners from the national representation. This book was written by the author in the beginning of the year ’93 (old style). I undertook its translation before the revolution against priests, and it was published in French about the same time. Couthon, to whom I sent it, seemed offended with me for having translated this work.”
Under the frown of Couthon, one of the most atrocious colleagues of Robespierre, this early publication seems to have been so effectually suppressed that no copy bearing that date, 1793, can be found in France or elsewhere. In Paine’s letter to Samuel Adams, printed in the present volume, he says that he had it translated into French, to stay the progress of atheism, and that he endangered his life “by opposing atheism.” The time indicated by Lanthenas as that in which he submitted the work to Couthon would appear to be the latter part of March, 1793, the fury against the priesthood having reached its climax in the decrees against them of March 19 and 26. If the moral deformity of Couthon, even greater than that of his body, be remembered, and the readiness with which death was inflicted for the most theoretical opinion not approved by the “Mountain,” it will appear probable that the offence given Couthon by Paine’s book involved danger to him and his translator. On May 31, when the Girondins were accused, the name of Lanthenas was included, and he barely escaped; and on the same day Danton persuaded Paine not to appear in the Convention, as his life might be in danger. Whether this was because of the “Age of Reason,” with its fling at the “Goddess Nature” or not, the statements of author and translator are harmonized by the fact that Paine prepared the manuscript, with considerable additions and changes, for publication in English, as he has stated in the Preface to Part II.
A comparison of the French and English versions, sentence by sentence, proved to me that the translation sent by Lanthenas to Merlin de Thionville in 1794 is the same as that he sent to Couthon in 1793. This discovery was the means of recovering several interesting sentences of the original work. I have given as footnotes translations of such clauses and phrases of the French work as appeared to be important. Those familiar with the translations of Lanthenas need not be reminded that he was too much of a literalist to depart from the manuscript before him, and indeed he did not even venture to alter it in an instance (presently considered) where it was obviously needed. Nor would Lanthenas have omitted any of the paragraphs lacking in his translation. This original work was divided into seventeen chapters, and these I have restored, translating their headings into English. The “Age of Reason” is thus for the first time given to the world with nearly its original completeness.
It should be remembered that Paine could not have read the proof of his “Age of Reason” (Part I.) which went through the press while he was in prison. To this must be ascribed the permanence of some sentences as abbreviated in the haste he has described. A notable instance is the dropping out of his estimate of Jesus the words rendered by Lanthenas “trop peu imite, trop oublie, trop meconnu.” The addition of these words to Paine’s tribute makes it the more notable that almost the only recognition of the human character and life of Jesus by any theological writer of that generation came from one long branded as an infidel.
To the inability of the prisoner to give his work any revision must be attributed the preservation in it of the singular error already alluded to, as one that Lanthenas, but for his extreme fidelity, would have corrected. This is Paine’s repeated mention of six planets, and enumeration of them, twelve years after the discovery of Uranus. Paine was a devoted student of astronomy, and it cannot for a moment be supposed that he had not participated in the universal welcome of Herschel’s discovery. The omission of any allusion to it convinces me that the astronomical episode was printed from a manuscript written before 1781, when Uranus was discovered. Unfamiliar with French in 1793, Paine might not have discovered the erratum in Lanthenas’ translation, and, having no time for copying, he would naturally use as much as possible of the same manuscript in preparing his work for English readers. But he had no opportunity of revision, and there remains an erratum which, if my conjecture be correct, casts a significant light on the paragraphs in which he alludes to the preparation of the work. He states that soon after his publication of “Common Sense” (1776), he “saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion,” and that “man would return to the pure, unmixed, and unadulterated belief of one God and no more.” He tells Samuel Adams that it had long been his intention to publish his thoughts upon religion, and he had made a similar remark to John Adams in 1776. Like the Quakers among whom he was reared Paine could then readily use the phrase “word of God” for anything in the Bible which approved itself to his “inner light,” and as he had drawn from the first Book of Samuel a divine condemnation of monarchy, John Adams, a Unitarian, asked him if he believed in the inspiration of the Old Testament. Paine replied that he did not, and at a later period meant to publish his views on the subject. There is little doubt that he wrote from time to time on religious points, during the American war, without publishing his thoughts, just as he worked on the problem of steam navigation, in which he had invented a practicable method (ten years before John Fitch made his discovery) without publishing it. At any rate it appears to me certain that the part of “The Age of Reason” connected with Paine’s favorite science, astronomy, was written before 1781, when Uranus was discovered.
Paine’s theism, however invested with biblical and Christian phraseology, was a birthright. It appears clear from several allusions in “The Age of Reason” to the Quakers that in his early life, or before the middle of the eighteenth century, the people so called were substantially Deists. An interesting confirmation of Paine’s statements concerning them appears as I write in an account sent by Count Leo Tolstoi to the London ‘Times’ of the Russian sect called Dukhobortsy (The Times, October 23, 1895). This sect sprang up in the last century, and the narrative says:
“The first seeds of the teaching called afterwards ‘Dukhoborcheskaya’ were sown by a foreigner, a Quaker, who came to Russia. The fundamental idea of his Quaker teaching was that in the soul of man dwells God himself, and that He himself guides man by His inner word. God lives in nature physically and in man’s soul spiritually. To Christ, as to an historical personage, the Dukhobortsy do not ascribe great importance. . . Christ was God’s son, but only in the sense in which we call, ourselves ‘sons of God.’ The purpose of Christ’s sufferings was no other than to show us an example of suffering for truth. The Quakers who, in 1818, visited the Dukhobortsy, could not agree with them upon these religious subjects; and when they heard from them their opinion about Jesus Christ (that he was a man), exclaimed ‘Darkness!’ From the Old and New Testaments,’ they say, ‘we take only what is useful,’ mostly the moral teaching. . . . The moral ideas of the Dukhobortsy are the following: — All men are, by nature, equal; external distinctions, whatsoever they may be, are worth nothing. This idea of men’s equality the Dukhoborts have directed further, against the State authority. . . . Amongst themselves they hold subordination, and much more, a monarchical Government, to be contrary to their ideas.”
Here is an early Hicksite Quakerism carried to Russia long before the birth of Elias Hicks, who recovered it from Paine, to whom the American Quakers refused burial among them. Although Paine arraigned the union of Church and State, his ideal Republic was religious; it was based on a conception of equality based on the divine son-ship of every man. This faith underlay equally his burden against claims to divine partiality by a “Chosen People,” a Priesthood, a Monarch “by the grace of God,” or an Aristocracy. Paine’s “Reason” is only an expansion of the Quaker’s “inner light”; and the greater impression, as compared with previous republican and deistic writings made by his “Rights of Man” and “Age of Reason” (really volumes of one work), is partly explained by the apostolic fervor which made him a spiritual, successor of George Fox.
Paine’s mind was by no means skeptical, it was eminently instructive. That he should have waited until his fifty-seventh year before publishing his religious convictions was due to a desire to work out some positive and practicable system to take the place of that which he believed was crumbling. The English engineer Hall, who assisted Paine in making the model of his iron bridge, wrote to his friends in England, in 1786: “My employer has Common Sense enough to disbelieve most of the common systematic theories of Divinity, but does not seem to establish any for himself.” But five years later Paine was able to lay the corner-stone of his temple: “With respect to religion itself, without regard to names, and as directing itself from the universal family of mankind to the ‘Divine object of all adoration, it is man bringing to his Maker the fruits of his heart; and though those fruits may differ from each other like the fruits of the earth, the grateful tribute of every one, is accepted.” (“Rights of Man.” See my edition of Paine’s Writings, ii., p. 326.) Here we have a reappearance of George Fox confuting the doctor in America who “denied the light and Spirit of God to be in every one; and affirmed that it was not in the Indians. Whereupon I called an Indian to us, and asked him ‘whether or not, when he lied, or did wrong to anyone, there was not something in him that reproved him for it?’ He said, ‘There was such a thing in him that did so reprove him; and he was ashamed when he had done wrong, or spoken wrong.’ So we shamed the doctor before the governor and the people.” (Journal of George Fox, September 1672.)
Paine, who coined the phrase “Religion of Humanity” (The Crisis, vii., 1778), did but logically defend it in “The Age of Reason,” by denying a special revelation to any particular tribe, or divine authority in any particular creed of church; and the centenary of this much-abused publication has been celebrated by a great conservative champion of Church and State, Mr. Balfour, who, in his “Foundations of Belief,” affirms that “inspiration” cannot be denied to the great Oriental teachers, unless grapes may be gathered from thorns.
The centenary of the complete publication of “The Age of Reason,” (October 25, 1795), was also celebrated at the Church Congress, Norwich, on October 10, 1895, when Professor Bonney, F.R.S., Canon of Manchester, read a paper in which he said: “I cannot deny that the increase of scientific knowledge has deprived parts of the earlier books of the Bible of the historical value which was generally attributed to them by our forefathers. The story of Creation in the Book of Genesis, unless we play fast and loose either with words or with science, cannot be brought into harmony with what we have learnt from geology. Its ethnological statements are imperfect, if not sometimes inaccurate. The stories of the Fall, of the Flood, and of the Tower of Babel, are incredible in their present form. Some historical element may underlie many of the traditions in the first eleven chapters in that book, but this we cannot hope to recover.” Canon Bonney proceeded to say of the New Testament also, that “the Gospels are not so far as we know, strictly contemporaneous records, so we must admit the possibility of variations and even inaccuracies in details being introduced by oral tradition.” The Canon thinks the interval too short for these importations to be serious, but that any question of this kind is left open proves the Age of Reason fully upon us. Reason alone can determine how many texts are as spurious as the three heavenly witnesses (i John v. 7), and like it “serious” enough to have cost good men their lives, and persecutors their charities. When men interpolate, it is because they believe their interpolation seriously needed. It will be seen by a note in Part II. of the work, that Paine calls attention to an interpolation introduced into the first American edition without indication of its being an editorial footnote. This footnote was: “The book of Luke was carried by a majority of one only. Vide Moshelm’s Ecc. History.” Dr. Priestley, then in America, answered Paine’s work, and in quoting less than a page from the “Age of Reason” he made three alterations, — one of which changed “church mythologists” into “Christian mythologists,” — and also raised the editorial footnote into the text, omitting the reference to Mosheim. Having done this, Priestley writes: “As to the gospel of Luke being carried by a majority of one only, it is a legend, if not of Mr. Paine’s own invention, of no better authority whatever.” And so on with further castigation of the author for what he never wrote, and which he himself (Priestley) was the unconscious means of introducing into the text within the year of Paine’s publication.
If this could be done, unintentionally by a conscientious and exact man, and one not unfriendly to Paine, if such a writer as Priestley could make four mistakes in citing half a page, it will appear not very wonderful when I state that in a modern popular edition of “The Age of Reason,” including both parts, I have noted about five hundred deviations from the original. These were mainly the accumulated efforts of friendly editors to improve Paine’s grammar or spelling; some were misprints, or developed out of such; and some resulted from the sale in London of a copy of Part Second surreptitiously made from the manuscript. These facts add significance to Paine’s footnote (itself altered in some editions!), in which he says: “If this has happened within such a short space of time, notwithstanding the aid of printing, which prevents the alteration of copies individually; what may not have happened in a much greater length of time, when there was no printing, and when any man who could write, could make a written copy, and call it an original, by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.”