Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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Thomas Paine

selections from

The Age of Reason


Instructor’s notes: The Age of Reason is the most famous and enduring American expression of Deism, a religious or intellectual movement among western intellectuals during the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution of the 1600s, 1700s, and beyond.

Principles of Deism:

Questions “revealed religion”—religion where a supernatural divinity communicates directly with humanity through “revelation” which, recorded, becomes scripture;

Challenges religious miracles and other supernatural elements, subjecting them to rational or scientific analysis;

Validates religion’s teaching of helpful social and personal morality; Jesus, for instance, is admired as a wise teacher and an exemplary model to be imitated, but less so as an immortal savior;

The most influential period of Deism in America coincided with the American Revolution and its formation of the U. S. Constitution without an established state religion. Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin might all be characterized as Deists. Deism is also associated with the disestablishment of Catholicism in France by the French Revolution in the late 1700s, which Paine observed.


Discussion questions for LITR 5431 American Literature: Romanticism:

1. How does Deism anticipate Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and Romanticism?

(Attention to the first three terms would all be suspect in Evangelical Texas but can be justified because, for a nation like the USA with no established state religion, they provide inclusive or non-sectarian terms and devices for referring to God or the Divine.)

2. How does Paine's status as both a "Founding Father" of the USA and a peripatetic Trans-Atlantic rebel who never held high office anticipate the character of a Romantic hero?

from The Age of Reason (three editions: 1794, 1795, 1807)

Introduction by Thomas Paine


[1] I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

[2] The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Your affectionate friend and fellow-citizen,


Luxembourg, 8th Pluviose, Second Year of the French Republic, one and indivisible.

January 27, O. S. 1794.


Age of Reason, Part First, Section 1

[3] It has been my intention, for several years past, to publish my thoughts upon religion. I am well aware of the difficulties that attend the subject, and from that consideration, had reserved it to a more advanced period of life. I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow-citizens of all nations, and that at a time when the purity of the motive that induced me to it, could not admit of a question, even by those who might disapprove the work.

[4] The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood [during French Revolution], and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.

[5] As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.

[6] I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

[7] I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

[8] But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

[9] I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman [Catholic] church, by the Greek [Orthodox] church, by the Turkish church [<Muslim or Islamic], by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

[10] All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish [Muslim], appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

[11] I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity [lack of faith] does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

[12] It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury [lie]. Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than this?

[13] Soon after I had published the pamphlet Common Sense, in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion. The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it had taken place, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, had so effectually prohibited by pains and penalties, every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow. Human inventions and priestcraft would be detected; and man would return to the pure, unmixed and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more.

[14] Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks [Muslims] their Mahomet [Muhammad], as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.

[15] Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration: and the Turks say, that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

[16] As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some other observations on the word revelation. Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

[17] No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

[18] It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

[19] When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hands of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so. The commandments carry no internal evidence of divinity with them; they contain some good moral precepts, such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver, or a legislator, could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.


Age of Reason, Part First, Section 7

[20]  . . . But some, perhaps, will say: Are we to have no word of God — no revelation? I answer, Yes; there is a word of God; there is a revelation.

[21] THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man. . . . 

[22] It is only in the CREATION [nature] that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation [nature] speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they may be. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.


Age of Reason, Part First, Section 8

[23]  . . . That which is now called natural philosophy*, embracing the whole circle of science, of which astronomy occupies the chief place, is the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in his works, and is the true theology. ["natural philosophy" = 18c term for "science," i.e. the philosophy or understanding of nature]

[24] As to the theology that is now studied in its place, it is the study of human opinions and of human fancies concerning God. It is not the study of God himself in the works that he has made, but in the works or writings that man has made . . . .

[25] It is a fraud of the Christian system to call the sciences human invention; it is only the application of them that is human. Every science has for its basis a system of principles as fixed and unalterable as those by which the universe is regulated and governed. Man cannot make principles, he can only discover them. . . .

[26] The scientific principles that man employs to obtain the foreknowledge of an eclipse, or of anything else relating to the motion of the heavenly bodies, are contained chiefly in that part of science which is called trigonometry, or the properties of a triangle, which, when applied to the study of the heavenly bodies, is called astronomy; when applied to direct the course of a ship on the ocean, it is called navigation; when applied to the construction of figures drawn by rule and compass, it is called geometry; when applied to the construction of plans or edifices, it is called architecture; when applied to the measurement of any portion of the surface of the earth, it is called land surveying. In fine, it is the soul of science; it is an eternal truth; it contains the mathematical demonstration of which man speaks, and the extent of its uses is unknown. . . .

[27] It may be said that man can make or draw a triangle, and therefore a triangle is a human invention.


Age of Reason, Part First, Section 15

[28] In every point of view in which those things called miracles can be placed and considered, the reality of them is improbable and their existence unnecessary. They would not, as before observed, answer any useful purpose, even if they were true; for it is more difficult to obtain belief to a miracle, than to a principle evidently moral without any miracle. Moral principle speaks universally for itself. Miracle could be but a thing of the moment, and seen but by a few; after this it requires a transfer of faith from God to man to believe a miracle upon man's report. Instead, therefore, of admitting the recitals of miracles as evidence of any system of religion being true, they ought to be considered as symptoms of its being fabulous [legendary, not historical]. It is necessary to the full and upright character of truth that it rejects the crutch, and it is consistent with the character of fable to seek the aid that truth rejects. Thus much for mystery and miracle.

[29] As mystery and miracle took charge of the past and the present, prophecy took charge of the future and rounded the tenses of faith. It was not sufficient to know what had been done, but what would be done. The supposed prophet was the supposed historian of times to come; and if he [a prophet] happened, in shooting with a long bow of a thousand years, to strike within a thousand miles of a mark, the ingenuity of posterity could make it point-blank; and if he happened to be directly wrong, it was only to suppose, as in the case of Jonah and Nineveh, that God had repented himself and changed his mind. What a fool do fabulous systems make of man! . . . . ["fabulous" is used throughout in the sense of being like a "fable" or story rather than actual historical truth]

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