Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine Age of Reason

Early History American Deism

The extract below is well stated for a Christian publication. Perhaps they can explain this from Christianity in America, a Handbook, 1983 William B. Eardmans Publishing company.

To quote page 164: (in regards to the Revolutionary War)

If the war seemed particularly unfriendly to the church, it also accelerated Enlightenment values, natural theology, and secularized thought. Revolutionary heroes like Ethan Allen (Reason the Only Oracle of Man, 1784) and Thomas Paine (Age of Reason, 1794-1796) launched savage attacks upon orthodox Christianity and advocated Deism, a system of thought that dispensed with revelation, ridiculed the Incarnation-a Creator meddling with the laws of the universe-and exalted human reason and ethical endeavors.

The first three elected Presidents of the United States-Washington, Adams, and Jefferson-all advocated a form of reasonable religion that drained the supernatural from religion and valued piety primarily for its civic utility.

Although this form of enlightened religion never came to command the allegiance of most common people, it did enjoy great popularity among educated Americans and was quite the intellectual rage among college students in the last two decades of the eighteenth century.

At Princeton in 1782 only two students professed Christianity, and Bishop Meade wrote that the College of William and Mary had become a hotbed of French skepticism. In assessing what it meant that only five Yale students belonged to the college church in New Haven in 1800, Lyman Beecher lamented: "That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school. Boys that dressed flax in the barn, as I used to, read him and believed him."

Deism, as theology, abstracts divinity as the perfectly reasonable and orderly originator of the universe. Unlike traditional Christianity and other ancient concepts of divinity, Deism does not assume a human-like god busily interfering with natural law to achieve his ends and prove his existence to doubtful followers.

Instead, the divinely perfect reason created the perfect universe and has no need to interfere with it. Evidence of its perfection is in Nature itself and in natural laws discoverable through the new empiricism of the Age of Reason. An obvious extrapolation is that science is a way of worshipping divinity (see Jefferson's "Letter to Peter Carr").

Notice that Franklin and Paine state their beliefs in almost identical words. In his Autobiography and his letter to Ezra Stiles Franklin says he believes in one God and that the best way of worshipping him is to do good to one's fellow beings. In The Age of Reason Paine limits his belief to one god and divides doing good into three categories.

For deists the one god is not the mythic god or gods of ancient religions; these Jewish, Moslem, or Christian divinities are, Paine implies, creations themselves, not creators. Franklin and Jefferson speak of Jesus as a moral philosopher and a "personage." Paine opines that Jesus never claimed divinity; rather he became caught up in the enthusiasm of those who would develop a cult around him. Franklin doubts his divinity; Jefferson advises his nephew to apply to reason to stories of miracles and mysteries; and Paine denounces stories of Jesus' divine origin.

By bluntly attacking organized religions and denying their claims of authority, Paine became a pariah. Franklin and Jefferson, more politic in their statements about belief, became fathers of this nation.

One should beware, therefore, of Christians proclaiming that this country was founded on principles identical to their own beliefs. Paine, the darling of the revolutionaries in the colonies and in France, finds Christianity, like all other religion, a fraudulent means to gain power and wealth.

Jefferson, advocate of freedom of religious belief, trusted in human reason to eliminate wrongheaded ideas. Franklin admired Jesus, even equating him with Socrates, as the origin of the best moral principles ever devised. They did not, however, advocate the doctrines of Christianity or any of its sects.

That is what freedom is about, Christians can present their faith, others can present theirs. That is why fundamentalists religious and secular want to silence others because they don't think they can win otherwise. If they don't believe it, who can they convince?

"The clergy converted the simple teachings of Jesus into an engine for enslaving mankind and adulterated by artificial constructions into a contrivance to filch wealth and power themselves...these clergy, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ."

Thomas Jefferson

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