Thomas Paine - Letters Concerning the Age of Reason
I. AN ANSWER TO A FRIEND PARIS, May 12, 1797
IN your letter of the 20th of March, you give me several quotations from the Bible, which you call the 'word of God,' to shew me that my opinions on religion are wrong, and I could give you as many, from the same book to shew that yours are not right; consequently, then, the Bible decides nothing, because it decides any way, and every way, one chooses to make it.
But by what authority do you call the Bible the 'word of God?' for this is
the first point to be settled. It is not your calling it so that makes it so,
any more than the Mahometans calling the Koran the 'word of God' makes the Koran
to be so.
You may have an opinion that a man is inspired, but you cannot prove it, nor can you have any proof of it yourself, because you cannot see into his mind in order to know how he comes by his thoughts; and the same is the case with the word 'revelation.' There can be no evidence of such a thing, for you can no more prove revelation than you can prove what another man dreams of, neither can he prove it himself.
It is often said in the Bible that God spake unto Moses, but how do you know
that God spake unto Moses? Because, you will say, the Bible says so. The Koran
says, that God spake unto Mahomet, do you believe that too? No. Why not?
Because, you will say, you do not believe it; and so because you do, and because
you don't is all the reason you can give for believing or disbelieving except
that you will say that Mahomet was an impostor. And how do you know Moses was
not an imposter?
You form your opinion of God from the account given of him in the Bible; and I form my opinion of the Bible from the wisdom and goodness of God manifested in the structure of the universe, and in all works of Creation. The result in these two cases will be, that you, by taking the Bible for your standard, will have a bad opinion of God; and I, by taking God for my standard, shall have a bad opinion of the Bible.
The Bible represents God to be a changeable, passionate, vindictive Being;
making a world and then drowning it, afterwards repenting of what he had done,
and promising not to do so again. Setting one nation to cut the throats of
another, and stopping the course of the sun till the butchery should be done.
But the works of God in the Creation preach to us another doctrine.
It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man. That bloodthirsty man, called the prophet Samuel, makes God to say, (i Sam. xv. 3,) "Now go and smite Amaleck, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."
That Samuel or some other impostor might say this, is what, at this distance
of time, can neither be proved nor disproved, but in my opinion it is blasphemy
to say, or to believe, that God said it. All our ideas of the justice and
goodness of God revolt at the impious cruelty of the Bible.
What makes this pretended order to destroy the Amalekites appear the worse,
is the reason given for it.
In the first place, nobody knows who the author, or writer, of the book of Samuel was, and, therefore, the fact itself has no other proof than anonymous or hearsay evidence, which is no evidence at all. In the second place, this anonymous book says, that this slaughter was done by 'the express command of God:' but all our ideas of the justice and goodness of God give the lie to the book, and as I never will believe any book that ascribes cruelty and injustice to God, I therefore reject the Bible as unworthy of credit.
As I have now given you my reasons for believing that the Bible is not the
word of God, that it is a falsehood, I have a right to ask you your reasons for
believing the contrary; but I know you can give me none, except that you were
educated to believe the Bible; and as the Turks give the same reason for
believing the Koran, it is evident that education makes all the difference, and
that reason and truth have nothing to do in the case.
When you have examined the Bible with the attention that I have done, (for I
do not think you know much about it,) and permit yourself to have just ideas of
God, you will most probably believe as I do. But I wish you to know that this
answer to your letter is not written for the purpose of changing your opinion.
II. CORRESPONDENCE WITH THE HON. SAMUEL ADAMS(EDITOR'S NOTE: The Hon. Samuel Adams (1722-1803) was from the Stamp Act agitation of 1764 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 the preeminent revolutionary leader in Massachusetts, and General Gage was given orders to send him over to London, where a newspaper predicted that his head would appear on Temple Bar.
He was sent by Massachusetts, with his cousin, John Adams, afterwards President, to the first Continental Congress (1774), where be was suspected, with justice, of being favorable to separation from England. When Paine published his famous appeal for American Independence (January 10, 1776), Samuel Adams was the first member of the Congress at his side, and a cordial lifelong relation existed between the two.
It is to my mind certain that these two men were the real pioneers of American Independence, and they were both inspired therein by their widely different religious sentiments. Samuel Adams was the son of a deacon of the Old South Church, Boston, who sent his son to Harvard College with the hope that he would graduate into a minister.
The son had no taste for theology, but he made up for it by retaining through all his career as a lawyer and public man a rigid Puritanism, of which the first article was hatred of the British system of royalty and prelacy. While Adams's desire for American independence was largely an inheritance from New England Puritans, Paine beheld in it a means of establishing a Republic based on the principles of Quakerism, -- the divine Light in every man by virtue of which all were equal.
Samuel Adams died October 2, 1803. The correspondence here given was printed in the 'National Intelligencer,' Washington City, February 2, 1803, as one of a series of Ten Letters addressed to "The Citizens of the United States" on his return after his fifteen eventful years in Europe.
These Letters were printed in a pamphlet in London, 1804, by his friend Thomas Clio Rickman, whose task, however, was achieved under sad intimidation. Rickman's preface opens with the words: "The following little work would not have been published, had there been anything in it the least offending against the government or individuals."
Under this deadly fear the much prosecuted Rickman mutilated Paine's letter to Adams a good deal. I have been fortunate in being able to print the letter from Paine's own manuscript, which was recently discovered among the papers of George Bancroft, the historian, when they passed into the possession of the Lenox Library, New York, to whose excellent librarian I owe thanks for this and other favors. -- Editor. (Conway)]
[To the Editor of the "National Intelligencer," Federal City.]TOWARDS the latter end of last December 1 received a letter from a venerable patriot, Samuel Adams, dated Boston, Nov. 30. It came by a private hand, which I suppose was the cause of the delay.
I wrote Mr. Adams an answer, dated Jan. 1st, and that I might be certain of his receiving it, and also that I might know of that reception, I desired a friend of mine at Washington to put it under cover to some friend of his at Boston, and desire him to present it to Mr. Adams.
The letter was accordingly put under cover while I was present, and given to one of the clerks of the post office to seal and put in the mail. The clerk put it in his pocket book, and either forgot to put it into the mail, or supposed he had done so among other letters.
The postmaster general, on learning this mistake, informed me of it last Saturday, and as the cover was then out of date, the letter was put under a new cover, with the same request, and forwarded by the post. I felt concern at this accident, lest Mr. Adams should conclude I was unmindful of his attention to me; and therefore, lest any further accident should prevent or delay his receiving it, as well as to relieve myself from that concern, I give the letter an opportunity of reaching him by the newspapers.
I am the more induced to do this, because some manuscript copies have been taken of both letters, and therefore there is a possibility of imperfect copies getting into print; and besides this, if some of the Federal[ist] printers (for I hope they are not all base alike) could get hold of a copy, they would make no scruple of altering it, and publishing it as mine. I therefore send you the original letter of Mr. Adams, and my own copy of the answer.
Boston, Nov. 30, 1802
I have frequently with pleasure reflected on your services to my native and
your adopted country. Your 'Common Sense' and your 'Crisis' unquestionably
awakened the public mind, and led the people loudly to call for a Declaration of
our national Independence.
Our friend, the President of the United States, [Thomas Jefferson] has been
calumniated for his liberal sentiments, by men who have attributed that
liberality to a latent design to promote the cause of infidelity.
Felix qui cautus. Adieu.
SAMUEL ADAMS. [To] Mr. THOMAS PAINE.
My DEAR AND VENERABLE FRIEND SAMUEL ADAMS:
I received with great pleasure your friendly and affectionate letter of November 30, and I thank you also for the frankness of it. Between men in pursuit of truth, and whose object is the Happiness of Man both here and hereafter, there ought to be no reserve. Even Error has a claim to indulgence, if not to respect, when it is believed to be truth.
I am obliged to you for your affectionate remembrance of what you stile my
services in awakening the public mind to a declaration of Independence, and
supporting it after it was declared. I also, like you, have often looked back on
those times, and have thought that if independence had not been declared at the
time it was, the public mind could not have been brought up to it afterwards.
I come now to the second part of your letter, on which I shall be as frank with you as you are with me.
But, (say you) when I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of
infidelity I felt myself much astonished &c." -- What, my good friend,
do you call believing in God infidelity? For that is the great point maintained
in The 'Age of Reason' against all divided beliefs and allegorical divinities.
[NOTE: The ten concluding words of this sentence were omitted from Rickman's
edition, the close being "in the work alluded to." -- Editor.]
What then (my much esteemed friend for I do not respect you the less because
we differ, and that perhaps not much, in religious sentiments), what, I ask, is
this thing called infidelity?
The case my friend is, that the World has been over-run with fable and creeds
of human invention, with sectaries of whole Nations against all other Nations,
and sectaries of those sectaries in each of them against each other. Every
sectary, except the quakers, has been a persecutor. Those who fled from
persecution persecuted in their turn, and it is this confusion of creeds that
has filled the World with persecution and deluged it with blood.
There is however one point of Union wherein all religions meet, and that is in the first article of every Man's Creed, and of every Nation's Creed, that has any Creed at all: 'I believe in God.' Those who rest here, and there are millions who do, cannot be wrong as far as their Creed goes. Those who chouse to go further may be wrong, for it is impossible that all can be right, since there is so much contradiction among them. The first therefore are, in my opinion, on the safest side.
I presume you are so far acquainted with ecclesiastical history as to know, and the bishop who has answered me has been obliged to acknowledge the fact, that the books that compose the New Testament were voted by 'Yeas and Nays' to be the Word of God, as you now vote a law, by the popish Councils of Nice and Laodocia about 1450 years ago. With respect to the fact there is no dispute, neither do I mention it for the sake of controversy. This Vote may appear authority enough to some, and not authority enough to others. It is proper however that everybody should know the fact.
[EDITORS NOTE: This (the above) paragraph was omitted by Rickman with a
footnote saying A paragraph of eleven lines is here omitted, it being a
principle with the Editor to offend neither the government nor individuals. Its
insertion is also unnecessary, as the curious reader will find it answered in a
way well worth his notice by the bishop of Landaff. See his apology for the
Bible, from page 300 to 307."
With respect to 'The Age of Reason,' which you so much condemn, and that I believe without having read it, for you say only that you 'heard' of it, I will inform you of a Circumstance, because you cannot know it by other means.
I have said in the first page of the First Part of that work that it had long been my intention to publish my thoughts upon Religion, but that I had reserved it to a later time of life. I have now to inform you why I wrote it and published it at the time I did.
In the first place, I saw my life in continual danger. My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off, and as I every day expected the same fate, I resolved to begin my Work. I appeared to myself to be on my death-bed, for death was on every side of me, and I had no time to lose. This accounts for my writing it at the time I did; and so nicely did the time and the intention meet, that I had not finished the first part of that Work more than six hours before I was arrested and taken to prison. Joel Barlow was with me and knows the fact.
In the second place, the people of francs were running headlong into Atheism, and I had the work translated and published in their own language to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article (as I have before said) of every man's Creed who has any Creed at all, 'I believe in God.' I endangered my own life, in the first place by opposing in the Convention the execution of the king, and by laboring to shew they were trying the Monarchy and not the Man, and that the crimes imputed to him were the crimes of the monarchical [NOTE: This word (monarchical) is omitted by Rickman.-- Editor.] system; and I endangered it a second time by opposing Atheism; and yet some of your priests, for I do not believe that all are perverse, cry out, in the war-whoop of monarchical priestcraft, What an Infidel, what a wicked Man, is Thomas Paine! They might as well add, for he believes in God and is against shedding blood.
But all this 'war-whoo' of the pulpit [The words "of the pulpit"
omitted by Rickman. -- Editor.] has some concealed object. Religion is not the
Cause, but is the stalking horse. They put it forward to conceal themselves
I am not of a disposition inclined to suspicion. It is in its nature a mean
and cowardly passion, and upon the whole, even admitting error into the case, it
is better, I am sure it is more generous, to be wrong on the side of confidence
than on the side of suspicion. [The words "it is better" and "on
the side of Confidence than" are dropped out of the sentence in Rickman's
edition. -- Editor.]
As you have given me one scripture phrase I will give you another for those
ministers. It is said in Exodus xxii. 28, "Thou shalt not revile the Gods
nor curse the ruler of thy people." But those ministers, such I mean as Dr.
Emmons, [Nathaniel Emmons, D.D. (1745-1840), fifty-four years minister of the
Franklin, Mass., Congregational Church.
Since I began this letter, for I write it by piece-meals as I have leisure, I
have seen the four letters that passed between you and John Adams. In your first
letter you say, "Let divines and Philosophers, statesmen and patriots,
unite their endeavors to 'renovate the age' by inculcating in the minds of youth
'the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy." Why, my dear
friend, this is exactly my religion, and is the whole of it.
"Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom: We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the Earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful."
As I am fully with you in your first part, that respecting the Deity, so am I
in your second, that of 'universal Philanthropy which I do not mean merely the
sentimental benevolence of wishing well, but the practical benevolence of doing
good. We cannot serve the Deity in the manner we serve those who cannot do
without that service.
You, my dear and much respected friend, are now far in the vale of years; I
have yet, I believe, some years in store, for I have a good state of health and
a happy mind, and I take care of both, by nourishing the first with temperance
and the latter with abundance.
In every thing which you say in your second letter to John Adams, respecting our Rights as Men and Citizens in this World, I am perfectly with you. On other points we have to answer to our Creator and not to each other. The key of heaven is not in the keeping of any sect, nor ought the road to it be obstructed by any. Our relation to each other in this World is as Men, and the Man who is a friend to Man and to his rights, let his religious opinions be what they may, is a good citizen, to whom I can give, as I ought to do, and as every other ought, the right hand of fellow-ship, and to none with more hearty good will, my dear friend, than to you.
THOMAS PAINE FEDERAL CITY, January 1, 1803.
III. PROSECUTION OF THE AGE OF REASON[NOTE: "A letter to the Hon. Thomas Erskine, on the Prosecution of Thomas Williams for publishing the Age of Reason. By Thomas Paine, Author of Common Sense, Rights of Man, etc.
With his discourse at the Society of the Theophilanthropists. Paris: Printed for the Author." This pamphlet was carried through Barrois' English press in Paris, September 1797, and is here reprinted from an original copy.
The Prosecution (Howells' State Trials, vol. 26,) was not technically instituted by the Crown, though in collusion with it, a Special Jury being secured. The accusers were the new "Society for carrying into effect His Majesty's Proclamation against Vice and Immorality." Erskine, who had defended Paine, on his trial for the "Rights of Man," and had gained popularity by his successful defence of others accused of sedition, was sagaciously retained by the Society, whose means were unlimited, while poor Williams sent out the following appeal:
"T. Williams, Bookseller, No. 8 Little Turnstile, Holborn, Being at this time under a prosecution at 'common law,' for selling THE AGE OF REASON, and not possessing the means of legal defence, hopes he will not be deemed obtrusive in making his situation known to the Friends of Liberty, both civil and religious.So humble were they who collected their coppers to begin the long war for religious liberty against the powerful league whose gold had taken away their leader. The defence was undertaken by Stephen Kyd (once prosecuted for sedition), the solicitor being John Martin, who served notice on the prosecution that it would be "required to produce a certain book described in the said indictment to be the Holy Bible." Erskine declared: "No man deserves to be on the Rolls of the Court, who dares, as an Attorney, to put his name to such a notice."
This did not deter Kyd from referring to many of the obscene passages in the book which the protectors of morality were shielding from criticism. It was not charged by the prosecution that there was anything of that kind in Paine's work. Erskine won a victory over Williams with some results already described in my introduction to "The Age of Reason." -- Editor. (Conway)]
IV. PROSECUTION OF THE AGE OF REASONNTRODUCTION: IT is a matter of surprise to some people to see Mr. Erskine act as counsel for a crown prosecution commenced against the rights of opinion. I confess it is none to me, notwithstanding all that Mr. Erskine has said before; for it is difficult to know when a lawyer is to be believed: I have always observed that Mr. Erskine, when contending as counsel for the right of political opinion, frequently took occasions, and those often dragged in head and shoulders, to lard, what he called the British Constitution, with a great deal of praise.
Yet the same Mr. Erskine said to me in conversation, "Were government to begin 'de novo' in England, they never would establish such a damned absurdity, [it was exactly his expression) as this is." Ought I then to be surprised at Mr. Erskine for inconsistency?
In this prosecution, Mr. Erskine admits the right of controversy; but says
that the Christian religion is not to be abused. This is somewhat sophistical,
because while he admits the right of controversy, he reserves the right of
calling the controversy abuse: and thus, lawyer-like, undoes by one word what he
says in the other.
A LETTER TO MR. ERSKINEOF all the tyrannies that afflict mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst: Every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in, but this attempts a stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity. It is there and not here, it is to God and not to man, it is to a heavenly and not to an earthly tribunal, that we are to account for our belief; if then we believe falsely and dishonorably of the Creator, and that belief is forced upon us, as far as force can by human laws and human tribunals, on whom is the criminality of that belief to fall; on those who impose it, or on those on whom it is imposed?
A bookseller of the name of Williams has been prosecuted in London on a charge of blasphemy for publishing a book entitled the Age of Reason. Blasphemy is a word of vast sound but of equivocal and almost of indefinite signification, unless we confine it to the simple idea of hurting or injuring the reputation of any one, which was its original meaning, As a word, it existed before Christianity existed, being a Greek word, or Greek anglofied, as all the etymological dictionaries will show.
But behold how various and contradictory has been the signification and
application of this equivocal word: Socrates, who lived more than four hundred
years before the Christian era, was convicted of blasphemy for preaching against
the belief of a plurality of gods, and for preaching the belief of one god, and
was condemned to suffer death by poison; Jesus Christ was convicted of blasphemy
under the Jewish law, and was crucified. Calling Mahomet an imposter would be
blasphemy in Turkey; and denying the infallibility of the Pope and the Church
would be blasphemy at Rome.
A book called the Bible has been voted by men, and decreed by human laws, to
be the word of God, and the disbelief of this is called blasphemy. But if the
Bible be not the word of God, it is the laws and the execution of them that is
blasphemy, and not the disbelief. Strange stories are told of the Creator in
My own opinion is, decidedly, that the evidence does not warrant the belief,
and that we sin in forcing that belief upon ourselves and upon others. In saying
this I have no other object in view than truth.
[In the original pamphlet the first two chapters of Genesis are here quoted in full.]
These two chapters are called the Mosaic account of the creation; and we are told, nobody knows by whom, that Moses was instructed by God to write that account.
It has happened that every nation of people has been world- makers; and each makes the world to begin his own way, as if they had all been brought up, as Hudibras says, to the trade. There are hundreds of different opinions and traditions how the world began. My business, however, in this place, is only with those two chapters.
I begin then by saying, that those two chapters, instead of containing, as
has been believed, one continued account of the creation, written by Moses,
contain two different and contradictory stories of a creation, made by two
different persons, and written in two different stiles of expression.
I proceed to distinguish the two stories from each other.
The first story begins at the first verse of the first chapter, and ends at the end of the third verse of the second chapter; for the adverbial conjunction, THUS, with which the second chapter begins, (as the reader will see,) connects itself to the last verses of the first chapter, and those three verses belong to, and make the conclusion of, the first story.
The second story begins at the fourth verse of the second chapter, and ends with that chapter. Those two stories have been confused into one, by cutting off the last three verses of the first story, and throwing them to the second chapter.
I go to shew that those stories have been written by two different persons.
From the first verse of the first chapter to the end of the third verse of the second chapter, which makes the whole of the first story, the word God is used without any epithet or additional word conjoined with it, as the reader will see: and this stile of expression is invariably used throughout the whole of this story, and is repeated no less than thirty-five times, viz. "In the beginning GOD created the heavens and the earth, and the spirit of GOD moved on the face of the waters, and GOD said, let there be light, and GOD saw the light," etc.
But immediately from the beginning of the fourth verse of the second chapter,
where the second story begins, the style of expression is always. the Lord God,
and this stile of expression is invariably used to the end of the chapter, and
is repeated eleven times; in the one it is always GOD, and never the 'Lord God,'
in the other it is always the 'Lord God' and never GOD.
Having thus shown, from the difference of style, that those two chapters, divided, as they properly divide themselves, at the end of the third verse of the second chapter, are the work of two different persons, I come to shew you, from the contradictory matters they contain, that they cannot be the work of one person, and are two different stories.
It is impossible, unless the writer was a lunatic, without memory, that one
and the same person could say, as is said in i. 27, 28, "So God created man
in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he
them: and God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply,
and replentish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion ever the fish of the
sea, and over the fowl of the air, and every living thing that moveth on the
face of the earth" --
Again, one and the same person could not say, "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them, and on the seventh day God ended all his work which he had made;" and immediately after set the Creator to work again, to plant a garden, to make a man and a woman, etc., as done in the second chapter.
Here are evidently two different stories contradicting each other. According
to the first, the two sexes, the male and the female, were made at the same
time. According to the second, they were made at different times; the man first,
and the woman afterwards.
The story of the talking serpent, and its tete-a-tete with Eve; the doleful adventure called the Fall of Man; and how he was turned out of this fine garden, and how the garden was afterwards locked up and guarded by a flaming sword, (If any one can tell what a flaming sword is;) belong altogether to the second story. They have no connection with the first story. According to the first there was no Eden; no forbidden tree: the scene was the Whole earth, and the fruit of all trees were allowed to be eaten.
In giving this example of the strange state of the Bible, it cannot be said I
have gone out of my way to seek it, for I have taken the beginning of the book;
nor can it be said I have made more of it than it makes of itself. That there
are two stories is as visible to the eye, when attended to, as that there are
two chapters, and that they have been written by different persons, nobody knows
Perhaps I shall be told in the cant-language of the day, as I have often been told by the Bishop of Llandaff and others, of the great and laudable pains that many pious and learned men have taken to explain the obscure, and reconcile the contradictory, or as they say the 'seemingly contradictory,' passages of the Bible. It is because the Bible needs such an undertaking, that is one of the first causes to suspect it is NOT the word of God: this single reflection, when carried home to the mind, is in itself a volume.
What! does not the Creator of the Universe, the Fountain of all Wisdom, the
Origin of all Science, the Author of all Knowledge, the God of Order and of
Harmony, know how to write? When we contemplate the vast economy of the
creation, when we behold the unerring regularity of the visible solar system,
the perfection with which all its several parts revolve, and by corresponding
assemblage form a whole; -- when we launch our eye into the boundless ocean of
space, and see ourselves surrounded by innumerable worlds, not one of which
varies from its appointed place -- when we trace the power of a Creator, from a
mite to an elephant, from an atom to an universe, -- can we suppose that the
mind that could conceive such a design, and the power that executed it with
incomparable perfection, cannot write without inconsistence, or that a book so
written can be the work of such a power?
Perhaps I shall be told, that though I have produced one instance, I cannot produce another of equal force. One is sufficient to call in question the genuineness or authenticity of any book that pretends to be the word of God; for such a book would, as before said, be as perfect as its author is perfect.
I will, however, advance only four chapters further into the book of Genesis, and produce another example that is sufficient to invalidate the story to which it belongs.
We have all heard of Noah's Flood; and it is impossible to think of the whole
human race, -- men, women, children, and infants, except one family, --
deliberately drowning, without feeling a painful sensation. That heart must be a
heart of flint that can contemplate such a scene with tranquility. There is
nothing of the ancient Mythology, nor in the religion of any people we know of
upon the globe, that records a sentence of their God, or of their gods, so
tremendously severe and merciless.
I know not if the judge, the jury, and Mr. Erskine, who tried and convicted Williams, ever read the Bible or know anything of its contents, and therefore I will state the case precisely.
There was no such people as Jews or Israelites in the time that Noah is said
to have lived, and consequently there was no such law as that which is called
the Jewish or Mosaic Law.
We have here two different epochs, or points of time -- that of the flood,
and that of the Law of Moses -- the former more than six hundred years prior to
When we reflect on a sentence so tremendously severe, as that of consigning the whole human race, eight persons excepted, to deliberate drowning; a sentence, which represents the Creator in a more merciless character than any of those whom we call Pagans ever represented the Creator to be, under the figure of any of their deities, we ought at least to suspend our belief of it, on a comparison of the beneficent character of the Creator with the tremendous severity of the sentence; but when we see the story told with such an evident contradiction of circumstances, we ought to set it down for nothing better than a Jewish fable, told by nobody knows whom, and nobody knows when.
It is a relief to the genuine and sensible soul of man to find the story unfounded. It frees us from two painful sensations at once; that of having hard thoughts of the Creator, on account of the severity of the sentence; and that of sympathizing in the horrid tragedy of a drowning world. He who cannot feel the force of what I mean is not, in my estimation, of character worthy the name of a human being.
I have just said there is great cause to doubt, if the law, called the law of
Moses, was given by Moses; the books called the books of Moses, which contain
among other things what is called the Mosaic law, are put in front of the Bible,
in the manner of a constitution, with a history annexed to it.
The first time the law called the law of Moses made its appearance, was in the time of Josiah, about a thousand years after Moses was dead; it is then said to have been found by accident. The account of this finding, or pretended finding, is given 2 Chron. xxxiv. 14-18: "Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of the Lord, given by Moses, and Hilkiah answered and said to Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord, and Hilkiah delivered the book to Shaphan, and Shaphan carried the book to the king, and Shaphan told the king, (Josiah,) saying, Hilkiah the priest hath given me a book."
In consequence of this finding, -- which much resembles that of poor
Chatterton finding manuscript poems of Rowley the Monk in the Cathedral Church
at Bristol, or the late finding of manuscripts of Shakespeare in an old chest,
(two well known frauds,) -- Josiah abolished the Pagan religion of the Jews,
massacred all the Pagan priests, though he himself had been a Pagan, as the
reader will see in 2 Kings, xxiii.
Levi the Jew, who has written an answer to the 'Age of Reason,' gives a
strange account of the Law of Moses.
In speaking of the story of the sun and moon standing still, that the
Israelites might cut the throats of all their enemies, and hang all their kings,
as told in Joshua x., he says, "There is also another proof of the reality
of this miracle, which is, the appeal that the author of the book of Joshua
makes to the book of Jasher: 'Is not this written in the book of Jasher?
I did not, however, expect to find so much ignorance in a Jew, with respect
to the history of his nation, though I might not be surprised at it in a bishop.
If Levi will look into the account given in 2 Sam. i. 15-18, of the Amalekite
slaying Saul, and bringing the crown and bracelets to David, he will find the
following recital: "And David called one of the young men, and said, go
near and fall upon him (the Amalekite,) and he smote him that he died":
"and David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his
son; also he bade them teach the children the use of the bow; -- behold it is
written in the book of Jasher."
I am not going in the course of this letter to write a commentary on the
Bible. The two instances I have produced, and which are taken from the beginning
of the Bible, shew the necessity of examining it.
As to Acts of Parliament, there are some that say there are witches and
wizards; and the persons who made those acts, (it was in the time of James I.,)
made also some acts which call the Bible the holy Scriptures, or word of God.
There have been, and still are, those, who, whilst they 'profess' to believe
the Bible to be the word of God, affect to turn it into ridicule. Taking their
profession and conduct together, they act blasphemously; because they act as if
God himself was not to be believed.
Not one of those who have attempted to write answers to the 'Age of Reason,'
have taken the ground upon which only an answer could be written. The case in
question is not upon any, point of doctrine, but altogether upon a matter of
fact. Is the book called the Bible the word of God, or is it not?
The prosecutors of Williams have shrunk from the point, as the answerers to the 'Age of Reason,' have done. They have availed themselves of prejudice instead of proof. If a writing was produced in a court of judicature, said to be the writing of a certain person, and upon the reality or non-reality of which some matter at issue depended, the point to be proved would be, that such writing was the writing of such person. Or if the issue depended upon certain words, which some certain person was said to have spoken, the point to be proved would be, that such words were spoken by such person; and Mr. Erskine would contend the case upon this ground. A certain book is said to be the word of God. What is the proof that it is so? for upon this the whole depends; and if it cannot be proved to be so, the prosecution fails for want of evidence.
The prosecution against Williams charges him with publishing a book, entitled
The 'Age of Reason,' which, it says, is an impious blasphemous pamphlet, tending
to ridicule and bring into contempt the Holy Scriptures. Nothing is more easy
than to find abusive words, and English prosecutions are famous for this species
In all cases the prior fact must be proved, before the subsequent facts can be admitted in evidence. In a prosecution for adultery, the fact of marriage, which is the prior fact, must be proved, before the facts to prove adultery can be received. If the fact of marriage cannot be proved, adultery cannot be proved; and if the prosecution cannot prove the Bible to be the word of God, the charge of blasphemy is visionary and groundless.
In Turkey they might prove, if the case happened, that a certain book was
bought of a certain bookseller, and that the said book was written against the
koran. In Spain and Portugal they might prove that a certain book was bought of
a certain bookseller, and that the said book was written against the
infallibility of the Pope.
All these are but subsequent facts, and amount to nothing, unless the prior
facts be proved. The prior fact, with respect to the first case is, Is the koran
the word of God? With respect to the second, Is the infallibility of the Pope a
truth? With respect to the third, Is the belief of a plurality of gods a true
belief? And in like manner with respect to the present prosecution, Is the book
called the 'Bible' the word of God?
This prosecution has been carried on through the medium of what is called a
special jury, and the whole of a special jury is nominated by the master of the
Crown office. Mr. Erskine vaunts himself upon the bill he brought into
parliament with respect to trials for what the government party calls libels.
When the trial of Williams came on, only eleven of the special jurymen
appeared, and the trial was adjourned. In cases where the whole number do not
appear, it is customary to make up the deficiency by taking jurymen from persons
present in court. This in the law term is called a 'Tales.'
On the trial of Lambert and others, printers and proprietors of the 'Horning,
Chronicle,' for a libel, a special jury was struck, on the prayer of the
Attorney-General, who used to be called 'Diabolus Regis,' or King's Devil. Only
seven or eight of the special jury appeared, and the Attorney-General not
praying a Tales, the trial stood over to a future day; when it was to be brought
on a second time, the Attorney-General prayed for a new special jury, but as
this was not admissible, the original special jury was summoned.
On the trial of Williams, the judge prevented the counsel for the defendant
proceeding in the defence. The prosecution hid selected a number of passages
from the 'Age of Reason' and inserted them in the indictment. The defending
counsel was selecting other passages to shew that the passage's in the
indictment were conclusions drawn from premises, and unfairly separated
therefrom in the indictment.
Robespierre caused a decree to be passed during the trial of Brissot and others, that after a trial had lasted three days, (the whole of which time, in the case of Brissot, was taken up by the prosecuting party,) the judge should ask the jury (who were then a packed jury) if they were satisfied? If the jury said YES, the trial ended, and the jury proceeded to give their verdict, without hearing the defence of the accused party. It needs no depth of wisdom to make an application of this case.
I will now state a case to shew that the trial of Williams is not a trial according to Kenyon's own explanation of law.
On a late trial in London (Selthens versus Hoossman) on a policy of
insurance, one of the jurymen, Mr. Dunnage, after hearing one side of the case,
and without hearing the other side, got up and said, 'it was as legal a policy
of insurance as ever was written.' The judge, who was the same as presided on
the trial of Williams, replied, 'that it was a great misfortune when any
gentleman of the jury makes up his mind on a cause before it was finished.' Mr.
Erskine, who in that cause was counsel for the defendant, (in this he was
against the defendant,) cried out,' it is worse than a misfortune, it is a
As to the special juries, they are but modern; and were instituted for the
purpose of determining cases at law between merchants; because, as the method of
keeping merchants' accounts differs from that of common tradesmen, and their
business, by lying much in foreign bills of exchange, insurance, etc., is of a
different description to that of common tradesmen, it might happen that a common
jury might not be competent to form a judgment. The law that instituted special
juries, makes it necessary that the jurors be merchants, or of the degree of
Ask them about Theology, and they will say
they know of no such gentleman upon 'Change. Tell some country squires of the
Sun and moon standing still, the one on the top of a hill, the other in a
valley, and they will swear it is a lie of one's own making, Tell them that God
Almighty ordered a man to make a cake, and bake it with a t--d and eat it, and
they will say it is one of Dean Swift's blackguard stories. Tell them it is in
the Bible, and they will lay a bowl of punch it is not, and leave it to the
parson of the parish to decide.
It is not properly a thing of this world; it is
only practiced in this world; but its object is in a future world; and it is not
otherwise an object of just laws than for the purpose of protecting the equal
rights of all, however various their belief may be.
It is not infidelity,
as Mr. Erskine profanely and abusively calls it; it is the direct reverse of
infidelity. It is a pure religious belief, founded on the idea of the perfection
of the Creator. If the Bible be the word of God, it needs not the wretched aid
of prosecutions to support it, and you might with as much propriety make a law
to protect the sunshine as to protect the Bible.
The society takes the name of Theophilantropes, which would be rendered in English by the word Theophilanthropists, a word compounded of three Greek words, signifying God, Love, and Man. The explanation given to this word is 'Lovers of God and Man,' or 'Adorers of God and Friends of Man,' adorateurs de dieu et amis des hommes. The society proposes to publish each year a volume, entitled 'Annee Religieuse des Thdophilantropes,' Year Religious of the Theophilanthropists. The first volume is just published, entitled:
RELIGIOUS YEAR OF THE THEOPHILANTHROPISTS;
Being a collection of the discourses, lectures, hymns, and canticles, for all the religious and moral festivals of the Theophilanthropists during the course of the year, whether in their public temples or in their private families, published by the author of the Manual of the Theophilanthropists.
The volume of this year, which is the first, contains 214 pages of duodecimo. The following is the table of contents: 1.
ENTITLED: PRECISE HISTORY OF THE THEOPHILANTHROPISTS
"Towards the month of Vendemiaire, of the year 5, (Sept. 1796,) there appeared at Paris, a small work entitled, Manual of the Thdoantropophiles, since called, for the sake of easier pronunciation, Theophilantropes, (Theophilanthropists,) published by C------. [Chemin-Dupontes. -- Editor.]
"The worship set forth in this Manual, of which the origin is from the beginning of the world, was then professed by some families in the silence of domestic life. But no sooner was the Manual published, than some persons, respectable for their knowledge and their manners, saw, in the formation of a Society open to the public, an easy method of spreading moral religion, and of leading by degrees great numbers to the knowledge thereof, who appear to have forgotten it.
This consideration ought of itself not to leave indifferent those
persons who know that morality and religion, which is the most solid support
thereof, are necessary to the maintenance of society, as well as to the
happiness of the individual.
"The first society of this kind opened in the month of Nivose, year 5, (Jan. 1797,) in the street Denis, No. 34, corner of Lombard-street. The care of conducting this society was undertaken by five fathers of families. They adopted the Manual of the Theophilanthropists.
They agreed to hold their days of public
worship on the days corresponding to Sundays, but without making this a
hindrance to other Societies to choose such other day as they thought more
convenient. Soon after this, more Societies were opened, of which some celebrate
on the decadi, (tenth day,) and others on the Sunday.
The Society adopts neither rites nor priesthood, and it will never lose sight of the resolution not to advance any thing, as a Society, inconvenient to any sect or sects, in any time or country, and under any government.
"It will be seen, that It is so much the more easy for the Society to keep within this circle, because that the dogmas of the Theophilanthropists are those upon which all the sects have agreed, that their moral is that upon which there has never been the least dissent; and that the name they have taken expresses the double end of all the sects, that of leading to the 'adoration of God and love of man.'
"The Theophilanthropists do not call themselves the disciples of such or such a man. They avail themselves of the wise precepts that have been transmitted by writers of all countries and in all ages. The reader will find in the discourses, lectures, hymns, and canticles, which the Theophilanthropists have adopted for their religious and moral festivals, and which they present under the title of Annee Religiouse, extracts from moralists, ancient and modern, divested of maxims too severe, or too loosely conceived, or contrary to piety, whether towards God or towards man."
Next follow the dogmas of the Theophilanthropists, or things they profess to believe. These are but two, and are thus expressed, 'les Theophilantropes croient 'a l'existence de Dieu, et a l'immortalite de l'ame.' The Theophilanthropists believe in the existence of God, and the immortality of the soul.
The Manual of the Theophilanthropists, a small volume of sixty pages,
duodecimo, is published separately, as is also their catechism, which is of the
same size. The principles of the Theophilanthropists are the same as those
published in the first part of the 'Age of Reason' in 1793, and in the second
part in 1795.
The author of the 'Age of Reason' gives reasons for every thing he disbelieves, as well as for those he believes; and where this cannot be done with safety, the government is a despotism, and the church an Inquisition.
It is more than three years since the first part of the Age of Reason was
published, and more than a year and a half since the publication of the second
part: the Bishop of Llandaff undertook to write an answer to the second part;
and it, was not until after it was known that the author of the Age of Reason
would reply to the bishop, that the prosecution against the book was set on
foot; and which is said to be carried on by some clergy of the English Church.
Religion and History
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