09 October 2012

Thomas Paine and Christianity

I frequently choose Thomas Paine's Common Sense as a reading assignment in my US to 1877 classes. Well, actually, I've used it both times I've taught US History to 1877, so that would make it an always proposition. Isn't this an American Church History blog? What does Thomas Paine have to do with American church history? Wasn't Thomas Paine a Deist. Yes, he was. He was a leading infidel in the day, but that does not take away from his importance in American history.

The text of Common Sense also tells some important information regarding the world Paine lived in. Paine was a recent immigrant to America when he wrote the pamphlet read in thousands of taverns across the land. His work contributed heavily to the sentiment for Revolution and independence from England.

Title Page from Paine's The Age of Reason, via Wikimedia Commons

In writing Common Sense, Paine understood that he had to connect with his readers. This is one of the first tips that English teachers give: know your audience. The people in eighteenth-century British North America were very much a biblically literate group. They understood allusions to the Bible that most Americans today would have to look up via a Google or Yahoo search.

Paine used the story of Saul (the king, not the one that is AKA Paul) to illustrate the evil of kings. If the Americans were to revolt against the constituted authority of the king, they had to have a good reason. Paine pointed out that the Israelites were not to have a king, at least in the beginning. He then pointed out the bad track record that kings, including biblical kings, had had up to that point. The reason a king was bad was because it was sinful and tied to the heathen nations. Many people read this section of Paine's pamphlet and come out with the idea that he was a devout Christian. His other writings, such as The Age of Reason, make it clear that he was not in any way orthodox in his beliefs. However, he understood the importance of speaking the language of the people in Common Sense. That language was overwhelmingly biblical.


  1. It is a shame that more school teacher don't emphasize the impact that Thomas Paine had on America, especially on our government.

  2. Thanks for visiting. I think most people's understanding of the revolutionary era, as most of American history, is very shallow. I try to go into depth, which is why I spend so much time on the colonial period.