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13 January, 2012
Six Historic Americans|
Thomas Paine [Freethinker]
by Remsburg, John E.
|The religious opinions of no other man have been so greatly
misrepresented and so little understood as those of Thomas Paine.
Orthodox Christians have, almost with the same breath, declared
that he died an unrepentant Atheist and a convert to Christianity.
A presentation of his religious views, as expressed in his writings
and witnessed by his friends, will clearly establish the negative
of the following:|
- Was Paine an Atheist?
- Was he a Christian?
- Did he recant?
Was Paine An Atheist
The President of the United States, Mr. Roosevelt, has
characterized Thomas Paine as an Atheist. "Strong religious minds
are not likely to be affected by the Atheism of Paine," recently
wrote a Western journalist. Another writer, discussing the
authorship of the Declaration of Independence, contended that Paine
not have written that document because it acknowledged the
existence of a Creator. Ask almost any orthodox Christian if Paine
believed in a Supreme Being and he will tell you that he did not.
Now could these persons overcome their prejudice so far as to
read a single page of Paine's theological writings they would be
ashamed of their ignorance (I use the word not in reproach, but in
charity) and amazed at the dishonesty of their religious teachers
who are responsible for this ignorance. A more devout believer in
God and immortality never lived than Thomas Paine. In no other
are the terms God and Creator used more frequently, or in a
more reverential manner, than in his. In his
"Age of Reason,"
that brought down upon his devoted head the wrath of almost
the entire Christian priesthood, the recognition of a Supreme Being
is made, more than two hundred times.
On the first page of this book appears his creed, and his
creed begins with these words:
"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for
happiness beyond this life."
In summing up his arguments in the first part of this work, he
"The moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral
goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation
toward all his creatures. That seeing, as we daily do, the
goodness of God to all men, it is an example calling upon all
men to practice the same toward each other."
A concluding paragraph of the second part reads as follows:
"Were man impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought
to be with the belief of a God, his moral life would be
regulated by the force of that belief; he would stand in awe
of God and of himself, and would not do the thing that could
not be concealed from either. ... This is Deism."
When Paine commenced his "Age of Reason," he was fifty-
six. The first great product of his brain, "Common Sense," was
written when he was thirty-eight. In this work a recognition of God
is expressed on almost every page. He died at the age of seventy-
two. His will begins with these words: "Reposing confidence in my
Creator, God." It ends as follow: "I die in perfect composure and
resignation to the will of my Creator, God."
Respecting a future existence, he says:
"I trouble not myself about the manner of future
existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive
conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to
continue it in any form and manner he pleases, either with or
without this body" (Age of Reason).
"I consider myself In the hands of my Creator, and that he
will dispose of me after this life consistently with his justice
and goodness" (Private Thoughts on a Future State).
Paine was one of the founders and most active members of the
Society of Theophilanthropists (lovers of God and man,) which
existed in Paris during and after the French Revolution. Upon their
altars was this inscription:
"We believe in the existence of a God, and in the
immortality of the soul."
"Age of Reason," instead of being an Atheistic work, as
popularly supposed, was written to oppose Atheism. In a letter to
Samuel Adams, Paine says: "The people of France were running
headlong into Atheism, and I had the work translated into their own
language, to stop them in that career, and fix them in the first
article of every man's creed, who has any creed at all -- I believe
Was Paine A Christian
The evidences of Paine's disbelief in Christianity, as a
revealed religion, are irrefutable, as shown by the following
extracts from his writings:
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish
church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the
Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church
that I know of. My own mind is my own church" (Age of Reason).
"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish,
Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human
inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and
monopolize power and profit" (Ibid.).
of these churches shows 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 these
churches accuses the others of unbelief; and, for my own part,
I disbelieve them all" (Ibid.).
"But some perhaps will say, Are we to have no word of
God, no revelation? I answer, Yes; there is a word of God;
is a revelation.
"The word of God is the creation we behold ... It is only
in the creation that all our ideals and conceptions of a word
of God can unite. The creation speaketh an universal language,
independently of human speech, or human language, multiplied
and various as they 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.
"Do we want to contemplate his power? 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. In fine, do we want to
know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture,
which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the
Bible teaches us? -- rapine, cruelty, and
murder. What is it the Testament teaches us? -- to believe
the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to
be married, and the belief of this debauchery is called faith"
"It is the fable of Jesus Christ, as told in the New
Testament, and the wild and visionary doctrine raised thereon,
against which I contend. The story, taking it as it is told,
is blasphemously obscene" (Ibid.).
"As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as
a species of Atheism -- a sort of religious denial of God. It
professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a
compound made up Chiefly of Manism with but little Deism, and
is an near Atheism as twilight is to darkness. It introduces
between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a
Redeemer, as the moon introduces her opaque self between the
earth and the sun, and it produces by this means a religious,
or an irreligious eclipse of light. It has put the whole orbit
of reason into shade" (Ibid.).
The intellectual part of religion is a private affair
between every man and his Maker, and in which no third party
has any right to interfere. The practical part consists in our
doing good to each other. But since religion has been made
into a trade, the practical part has been made to consist of
ceremonies performed by men called priests ... By devices of
this kind true religion has been banished, and such means have
been found out to extract money, even from the pockets of the
poor, instead of contributing to their relief" (Letter to
"No man ought to make a living by religion. It is
dishonest so to do" (Ibid.).
thou, vain dust and ashes, by whatever name thou art
called -- whether a king, a bishop, a church, or a state -- that
obtrudest thine insignificance between the soul of man and his
(Rights of Man).
"Any system of religion that has anything in it that
shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system" (Age of
"To do good is my religion."
"I believe that religious duties consist in doing
justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-
creatures happy" (Age of Reason).
Paine's unbelief was life-long. In his "Age of Reason" he
says: "From the time I was capable of conceiving an idea and acting
upon it by reflection, I either doubted the truth of the Christian
or thought it to be a strange affair."
It has been claimed that Paine, when he wrote his "Common
Sense," and advocated American Independence, was a Christian.
Concerning this Moncure D. Conway says: "In his 'Common Sense,'
(published January 10, 1776), Paine used the reproof of Israel (1
Samuel) for desiring a king. John Adams, a Unitarian and
monarchist, asked him-if he really believed in the inspiration of
the Old Testament. Paine said he did not, and intended at a later
to publish his opinions on the subject" (Life of Paine, Vol.
ii, p. 203).
Did Thomas Paine recant? Did Martin Luther recant? Protestants
assert that Pane recanted; Catholics assert that Luther recanted.
Neither recanted. Knaves invented these stories; fools believe
The church endeavors to convince the world that her opponents
are not sincere. She attempts to impeach the intellectual honesty
of those who reject her dogmas. She affects to believe that all
must at some time acknowledge the truth of her claims. The supreme
test is supposed to come just before dissolution. In the presence
of death all bow to her authority.
When on his death-bed Paine was beset by emissaries of the
church, -- pious nurses, bigoted priests, and illiterate laymen --
who by entreaties and threats tried to compel him to renounce his
Deistic and Anti-Christian opinions. What a farcical scene! What a
commentary on Christianity! Poor, ignorant, ill-mannered creatures,
expecting with silly gibberish and impudence to change the life-
long convictions of a dying philosopher!
After his death, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians,
Baptists, Episcopalians, and orthodox Quakers all vied with each
other in inventing calumnies concerning him. The last named sect
was especially active in this work, because Paine was the son of a
Quaker, and apostasy was as hateful to the Quaker as it was to the
About ten years after Paine died, this recantation calumny
appeared. Willet Hicks, a Quaker merchant and preacher, a cousin of
the celebrated Ellas Hicks, and a broad and liberal man, lived near
Paine, and daring his last illness did all he could to alleviate
the sufferings of the sick man and make his last hours pleasant.
Mary Roscoe, afterwards Mary Hinsdale, was a servant in the Hicks
family, and, it is alleged, was sometimes sent to Paine's room on
errands. On one of these visits Paine, it is claimed, engaged her
in conversation, and recanted to her his Infidel opinions.
According to this story, "Paine asked her if she had ever read any
of his writings, and on being told she had read very little of
them, he inquired what she thought of them, adding, 'From such a
one as you I expect a correct answer.' She told him that when very
his 'Age of Reason' was put into her hands, but that the more
she read in it the more dark and distressed she felt, and she threw
the book into the fire. 'I wish all hid done as you he replied,
'for if the devil ever had any agency in any work, he has had it in
my writing that book.' When going to carry, him some refreshments,
she repeatedly heard him uttering the language, 'Oh! Lord!' 'Lord
God!, or 'Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me!" (Life of Stephen
Grellet, Vol. i., p. 125).
What a plausible tale! Paine's "Age of Reason" was published
in 1794. After a lapse of fifteen years he desires an opinion of
it. Persons of intellectual attainments and mature judgment,
believers and unbelievers, many of them familiar with its contents,
him dally. He ignores all of these and solicits the opinion
of an illiterate servant girl! He "expects a correct answer" from
her, the more especially as she has read very little of it and is
ignorant of its contents.
The calumny quickly found its way to England. The famous
English writer, William Cobbett, afterwards a member of Parliament,
wrote a refutation of it. Mr. Cobbett's refutation, with a few
abridgements, is as follows:
of the business of a press sold to the
of corruption to calumniate those, dead or alive, who
have most effectually labored against that cause; and, as
Paine was the most powerful and effectual of those laborers,
so to calumniate him has been an object of their peculiar
attention and care. Among other things said against this
famous man is, that he recanted before he died; and that in his
last illness he discovered horrible fears of death."
"I happen to know the origin of this story, and I possess
real original document whence have proceeded these divers
editions of the falsehood, of the very invention of which I
was perhaps myself the innocent cause!
"About two years ago I, being then on Long Island,
published my intention of writing an account of the life,
labors, and death of Paine. Soon after this a Quaker of New
York, named Charles Collins, made many applications for an
interview with me, which at last he obtained. I found that his
object was to persuade me that Paine had recanted. I laughed
at him and sent him away. But he returned again and again to
the charge. He wanted me to promise that I would say that 'it
was said' that Paine had recanted. 'No,' said I, 'but I will
that you say it, and that you tell a lie, unless you prove
the truth of what you say; and, if you do that, I shall gladly
insert the fact.' This posed 'Friend Charley,' whom I
suspected to be a most consummate hypocrite. He had a sodden
face, a simper, and maneuvered his features precisely like the
most perfidious wretch that I have known ... Thus put to his
trump, Friend Charley resorted to the aid of a person of his
own stamp; and at last he brought me a paper ... This paper,
very cautiously and craftily drawn up, contained only the
initials of names. This would not do. I made him, at last, put
the full name and address of the informer -- 'Mary
Hinsdale, No. 10 Anthony street, New York.'"
"The informer was a Quaker woman, who, at the time of Mr.
Paine's last illness, was a servant in the family of Mr.
Willet Hicks, an eminent merchant, a man of excellent
character, a Quaker, and even, I believe, a Quaker preacher.
Mr. Hicks, a kind and liberal and rich man, visited Mr., Paine
in his illness; and from his house, which was near that of Mr.
Paine, little nice things (as is the, practice in America)
were sometimes sent to him, of which this servant, Friend
Mary, was the bearer; and this was the way in which the lying
got into the room of Mr. Paine.
"To friend Mary, therefore, I went on the twenty-sixth of
October last, with Friend Charley's paper in my pocket. I
found her in a lodging in a back room up one pair of stairs.
... I was compelled to come quickly to business. She asked,
'What's thy name, Friend?' and the moment I said, 'William
Cobbett,' up went her mouth as tight as a purse! Sack-making
appeared to be her occupation; and, that I might not extract
through her eyes that which she was resolved I should not get
out of her mouth, she went and took up a sack and began to
and not another look or glance could I get from her.
"However, I took out my paper, read it, and, stopping at
several points, asked her if it was true. Talk of the Jesuits,
indeed! The whole tribe of Loyola, who had shaken so many
kingdoms to their base, never possessed the millionth part of
the cunning of this drab-colored little woman, whose face,
simplicity and innocence seemed to have chosen as the place of
their triumph! She shuffled; she evaded; she equivocated; she
warded off; she affected not to understand me, not to
understand the paper, not to remember."
"The result was that it was so long ago that she could
not speak positively on any part of the matter; that she would
not say that any part of the paper was true; that she had
never seen the paper; and that she had never given Friend
Charley (for so she called him) authority to say anything
about the matter in her name.
"I had now nothing to do but to bring Friend Charley's
nose to the grindstone. But Charley, though so pious a man and
doubtless in great haste to get to everlasting bliss, had
moved out of the city for fear of the fever."
Mr. Cobbett supposed that Mary Hinsdale had really visited
Paine, and this supposition was shared by Paine's friends
generally. When Gilbert Vale, about twenty years later, was
collecting materials for his life of Paine, Paine, he learned from
Hicks that she had never seen Thomas Paine. Mr. Vale says:
"To our surprise, on seeing Mr. Hicks, as a duty which we
the public, we learned that Mary Hinsdale never saw Paine
to Mr. Hicks' knowledge; that the fact of his sending some
delicacy from his table as a compliment occurred but a very
few times, and that he always commissioned his daughters on
this errand of kindness, and he designated Mrs. Cheeseman,
then a little girl, but now the wife of one of our celebrated
physicians, as the daughter especially engaged, and that she,
stated that Mary Hinsdale once wished to go with her, but was
refused" (Life of Paine, p. 178).
This accounts for the embarrassment and reticence exhibited by
Mary Hinsdale when confronted by Cobbett. She had never seen Paine,
she had never visited the house in which he died; she could not
describe its surroundings or interior; She had never seen any of
his attendants. If she attempted to make any statements concerning
them she had reason to believe that Madame Bonneville and other
witnesses were near at hand to expose her.
In the neighborhood where Mrs. Hinsdale lived she was
universally regarded as a low, disreputable woman, addicted to the
use of opium, and notorious for her lying propensities. Nor was her
share in the Paine calumny her only offense of the kind. Mr. Vale,
writing in 1839, cites the following testimony of Mr. J.W.
Lockwood, a reputable gentleman, of New York:
"This gentleman had a sister, a member of the Friends who
died about two-and-twenty years ago. On her death, Mary
Hinsdale, who was known to the family, stated to them that she
should come to the funeral, for that she had met Mary Lockwood
a short time before her death; and that she (Mary Lockwood)
said to her: 'Mary, I do not expect to live long; my views
are changed; I wish thee to come to my funeral, and make this
declaration to my friends then assembled,' and that
consequently she should Come. The relatives of the deceased,
were Hicksite Quakers, or Friends, knew the falseness of
this statement. Those who had sat by her bedside, and heard
her continued and last declarations on religious subjects (for
she was emphatically a religious young woman), knew that no
change had taken place. Her brother, our informant, had heard
her express her opinions with great satisfaction. He and her
other relatives therefore said so to Mary Hinsdale, but
invited her to attend the funeral. Mary Hinsdale did not
attend" (Life of Paine, p. 185).
Collins himself afterwards tacitly admitted the falsity of the
Paine calumny. Mr. Vale, on whom he once called, says:
"Finding Mr. C. Colling in our house, and knowing the
importance of his testimony, we at once asked him what induced
him to publish the account of Mary Hinsdale. He assured us he
then thought it true. He believed that she had seen Mr. Paine,
that Mr. Paine might confess to her, a girl, when he would
not to Willet Hicks. He knew that many of their most respected
Friends did not believe the account. He knew that Mr. Hicks
whom he highly respected; but yet he thought it might
true. We asked Mr. Collins what he though of the character
of Mary Hinsdale now? He replied that some of our Friends
believe she indulges in opiates and do not give her credit for
The exposures of Cobbett, Vale, and others, while they
lessened the influence of the calumny, did not silence it. It
mattered little to the church whether Paine recanted or not, but it
was important that the masses should believe that he recanted. With
most theologians a falsehood is as good as a truth so long as it
serves its purpose. The orthodox clergy continued to thunder it
from the pulpit; tract distributors sowed it broadcast over the
land; no Sunday school library was considered complete without a
volume containing it; while the religious papers kept it
continually before their readers. The New York Observer, a
Presbyterian paper, repeatedly published it, together with other
calumnies on Paine. In an open letter to the Observer,
in 1877, issued the following challenge:
"I will deposit with the First National Bank of Peoria,
Illinois, one thousand dollars in gold, upon the following
conditions: -- This money shall be subject to your order when
you shall, in the manner hereafter provided, substantiate that
Thomas Paine admitted the Bible to be an inspired book, or
that he recanted his Infidel opinions -- or that he died
regretting that he had disbelieved the Bible -- or that he
died calling upon Jesus Christ in any religious sense,
"In order that a tribunal may be created to try this
question, you may select one man, I will select another, and
the two thus chosen shall select a third, and any two of the
three may decide the matter.
"As there will be certain costs and expenditures on both
sides, such costs and expenditures shall be paid by the
"In addition to the one thousand dollars in gold, I will
deposit a bond with good and sufficient security in the sum of
two thousand dollars, conditioned for the payment of all costs
in case I am defeated. I shall require of you a like bond.
"From the date of accepting this offer you may have
ninety days to collect and present your testimony, giving me
notice of time and place of taking depositions. I shall have
a like time to take evidence upon my side, giving you like
notice, and you shall then have thirty days to take further
testimony in reply to what I may offer. The case shall then be
argued before the persons chosen; and their decision shall be
"If the propositions do not suit you in any particular,
please state your objections, and I will modify them in any
way consistent with the object in view.
soon as you notify me of the acceptance of these
propositions I will send you the certificate of the bank that
the money his been deposited upon the foregoing conditions,
together with copies of bonds for costs."
The Observer made a pretence of accepting the challenge and
then backed out. It again repeated the Mary Hinsdale story with
this endorsement: "It has been published again and again, and so
we know has never been impeached." In a subsequent issue, it
"We have never stated in any form, nor have we ever supposed
that Paine actually renounced his Infidelity. The accounts agree in
stating that he died a blaspheming Infidel." Col. Ingersoll's reply
contained the following:
"From the bottom of my heart I thank myself for having
compelled you to admit that Thomas Paine did not recant. ***
"You have eaten your own words, and, for my part, I would
rather have dined with Ezekiel than with you.
"I ask you if it is honest to throw away the testimony of
his friends -- the evidence of fair and honorable men -- and
the putrid words of avowed and malignant enemies?
"When Thomas Paine was dying, he was infested by fanatics
-- by the snaky spies of bigotry. In the shadows of death were
the unclean birds of prey waiting to tear with beak and claw
the corpse of him who wrote the 'Rights of Man.' And there
lurking and crouching in the darkness were the jackals and
hyenas of superstition ready to violate his grave.
"These birds of prey -- these unclean beasts are the
witnesses produced and relied upon by you.
"One by one the instruments of torture have been wrenched
cruel clutch of the Church, until within the armory
of orthodoxy there remains but one weapon -- Slander."
In disproof of the lying statement of this depraved woman, who
saw Thomas Paine, we have, thanks to the unselfish labors of
Cobbett, Vale, Ingersoll, and Conway, the testimony of a score of
Two of Paine's most devoted friends in France were Nicholas
Bonneville and his wife. Bonneville like Paine was a prominent
actor in the French Revolution. After the Revolution Paine lived
with the Bonnevilles in Paris. For criticasing Napoleon in his
journal Bonneville was imprisoned and his family reduced to penury.
Paine gave them a home in America. When he was taken sick Madame
Bonneville tenderly cared for him until he died. 'After his death
Bonneville and his wife wrote a sketch of the life of their
benefactor. It was subsequently revised by Cobbett, and will be
found appended, to Dr. Conway's admirable biography of Paine. The
following, relative to Paine's death, is from the pen of Madame
he was near his end, two American clergymen came to
him, and to talk with him on religious matters. 'Let me
alone,' said he, 'good morning.' He desired they should be
admitted no more. Seeing his end fast approaching, I asked
him, in presence of a friend, if he felt satisfied with the
treatment he had received at our house, upon which he could
only exclaim, Oh, yes! He, added other words but they were
incoherent. It was impossible for me not to exert myself to
the utmost in taking care of a person to whom I and my
children owed so much. He now appeared to have lost all kinds
of feeling. He spent the night in tranquility, and expired in
the morning at eight o'clock."
Madame Bonneville was a lady of spotless character, educated
and refined, and, like most French women, a Catholic.
Dr. N. Romaine, at that time the most eminent physician of New
was Paine's physician. He testified that Paine did not
A Dr. Manley also visited him. But, it afterward transpired
that he was there as a Christian spy and emissary. His real mission
was to extort, if possible, a recantation from the lips of the
dying Infidel. In a letter to James Cheetham, the vilest of Paine's
calumniators, he says: "I took occasions during the nights of the
5th and 6th of June to test the strength of his opinions respecting
revelation. I purposely made him a very late visit; it was a time
which seemed to suit exactly with my errand; it was midnight, he
was in great distress." Addressing Paine, Dr. Manley said:
"Do you believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ? Come,
now, answer me honestly. I want an answer from the lips of a
dying man, for I verily believe that you will not live twenty-
four hours." Not receiving an immediate answer, he continued,
"Allow me to ask again, do you believe? or let me qualify the
question, do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son
of God? After a pause of some minutes, he answered, 'I have no
wish to believe on that subject.'"
Dr. Manley's "minutes" were probably seconds. Indignant at the
impertinence, not to say brutality, of his pious interrogator, the
dying patient paused to summon strength to utter a reply that
should not be misunderstood. With the exception of the brief words
mentioned by Madame Bonneville, those were the last words of Thomas
Dr. Manley says that Paine throughout his illness manifested
great fear. "He could not be left alone night or day; he not only
required to have some person with him but he must see that he or
she was there, and would not allow his curtain to be closed at any
time." This is true; and subsequent events showed that his fears
well founded. Dr. Conway says:
"His unwillingness to be left alone, ascribed to
superstitious terror, was due to efforts to get a recantation
from him, so determined that he dare not be without witnesses.
He had foreseen this. While living with Jarvis, two years
before, he desired him to bear witness that he maintained his
theistic convictions to the last. ... When he knew that his
illness was mortal he solemnly reaffirmed these opinions in
the presence of Madame Bonneville, Dr. Romaine, Mr. Haskin,
Captain Pelton, and Thomas Nixon." (Life of Paine, Vol. ii, p.
It was these witnesses -- some of whom were always present
when Dr. Manley visited him -- that prevented this charlatan from
doing what Mary Hinsdale did.
Just before Paine's death the Rev. Cunningham and the Rev.
Milledollar, prominent clergymen of New York, gained access to his
room. With that politeness so characteristic of clergymen, when
addressing those who do not subscribe to their opinions, Mr.
Cunningham said to him, "You have now a full view of death, you
cannot live long, and whosoever does not believe in Jesus Christ
shall be damned." To this Paine replied, "Let me have none of your
popish nonsense. Good morning." Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Milledollar
both affirmed that Paine died unrepentant.
A blind preacher, named Pigott, and his brother also visited
for the purpose of converting him. The brother says that
Paine received them cordially and treated them politely, but
exhibited great displeasure when they attempted to obtrude their
religious opinions upon him.
Mrs. Redden, Paine's pious nurse, was especially anxious to
secure his conversion. She admitted the clergymen who annoyed him
during his last hours and is charged with the responsibility of Dr.
Manley's visits. But Mrs. Redden desired a genuine conversion, not
a fabricated recantation. She frankly confessed that all efforts to
change his views were futile.
is usually an attempt to supply every demand. That there
was an urgent demand for this recantation story, particularly among
the Quakers, is attested by the Quaker preacher, Willet Hicks. Mr.
can have no idea of the anxiety of our people on
this subject; I was beset by them, both here and in England,
where I soon after went on a journey. As for money, I could
had any sums if I would have said anything against Thomas
Paine, or if even I would have consented to remain silent.
They informed me that the doctor (Manley) was willing to say
something that would satisfy them if I would engage to be
silent." (Vale's Life of Paine, p. 178.)
The following affidavit was subscribed and sworn to by William
of Wabash, Indiana, October 27, 1877:
"In the year 1833 Willet Hicks made a visit to Indiana
and stayed over night at my father's house, four miles east of
Richmond. In the morning at breakfast my mother asked Willet
Hicks the following questions:
"'Was thee with Thomas Paine during his last sickness?'
"Mr. Hicks said: 'I was with him every day during the
latter part of his last sickness.'
he express any regret in regard to writing the "Age
of Reason," as the published accounts say he did?'
"Mr. Hicks replied: 'He did not in any way by word or
Did he call on God or Jesus Christ, asking either of them
to forgive his sins, or did he curse them or either of them?'
"Mr. Hicks answered: 'He did not. He died as easy as any one
I ever saw die, and I have seen many die in my time.'"
A.C. hankinson of Peoria, Illinois, writes: "My parents
were Friends (Quakers). My father died when I was very young. The
elderly and middle-aged Friends visited at my mother's house. We
lived in the city of New York. Among the number I distinctly
remember Ellas Hicks, Willet Hicks, and a Mr. Day, who was a
bookseller in Pearl street. There were many others, whose names I
do not now remember. The subject of the recantation by Thomas Paine
of his views about the Bible in his last illness, or at any other
was discussed by them in my presence at different times. I
learned from them that some of them had attended upon Thomas Paine
in his last sickness and ministered to his wants up to the time of
his death. And upon the question of whether he did recant there was
but one expression. They all said that he did not recant in any
I often heard them say they wished he had recanted. In
fact, according to them, the nearer he approached death the more
positive he appeared to be in his convictions. These conversations
1820 to 1822."
The conversations related by Mr. Hankinson, it will be seen,
occurred almost immediately after the publication of the Hinsdale
and were doubtless prompted by it.
In 1839 Gilbert Vale published in the New York Beacon the
following testimony from Amasa Woodsworth, a gentleman who lived
door to Paine, and who was one of his most constant
attendants. Mr. Vale says:
"As an act of kindness Mr. Woodsworth visited Mr. Paine
every day for six weeks before his death. He frequently sat up
with him, and did so on the last two nights of his life. He
was always there with Dr. Manley, the physician, and assisted
in removing Mr. Paine while his bed was prepared. He was
present when Dr. Manley asked Paine 'if he wished to believe
that Jesus Christ was the Son of God,' and he describes Mr.
Paine's answer as animated. He says that lying on his back he
used some action and with much emphasis, replied, 'I have no
wish to believe on that subject., He lived some time after
this, but was not known to speak, for he died tranquilly. He
accounts for the insinuating style of Dr. Manley's letter by
stating that that gentleman just after its publication joined
a church. He informs us that he has openly reproved the doctor
for the falsity contained in the spirit of that letter, boldly
declaring before Dr. Manley, who is yet living, that nothing
he saw justified the insinuations. Mr. Woodsworth
assures us that he neither heard nor saw anything to justify
the belief of any mental change in the opinions of Mr. Paine
previous to his death."
The above is corroborated by Dr. Philip Graves who met Mr.
Woodsworth in 1842. Dr. Graves says:
told me that he nursed Thomas Paine in his last
illness, and closed his eyes when dead. I asked him if he
recanted and called upon God to save him. He replied, 'No. He
died as he had taught. He had a sore upon his side and when we
turned him it was very painful and he would cry out, "O God!"
or something like that.' 'But' said the narrator, 'that was
nothing, for he believed in a God.' I told him that I had
often heard it asserted from the pulpit that Mr. Paine
recanted in his last moments. The gentleman said that It was
not true, and he appeared to be an intelligent truthful man."
John Randel, Jr., a civil engineer of New York, an orthodox
Christian, says that Mr. Woodsworth was a very worthy man and that
he told him that there was no truth in the report that Paine
Thomas Nixon and Capt. Daniel Pelton, who attended Paine
during his last sickness, wrote, signed and sent the following
statement to William Cobbett:
you have heard of his recanting is false. Being
aware that such reports would be raised after his death by
fanatics who infested his house at the time it was expected he
would die, we, the subscribers, intimate acquaintances of
Thomas Paine, since the year 1776, went to his house -- he was
sitting up in a chair, and apparently in the full vigor and
use of all his mental faculties. We interrogated him on his
religious opinions, and if he had changed his mind or repented
of anything be had said or written on that subject. He
answered, 'not at all,' and appeared rather offended at our
supposition that any change should take place in his mind. We
took down in writing the questions put to him, and his answers
thereto, before a number of persons then in his room."
Paine's executors were Walter Morton, a lawyer of New York,
and Thomas Addis Emmet, a brother of Robert Emmet, the Irish
patriot. Both attended Paine and both testified that no change took
place in his opinions. Mr. Morton, who was present when he expired,
"In his religious opinions, he continued to the last as
steadfast and tenacious as any sectarian to the definition of
his own creed."
Mrs. Kittie Few is declared by Conway to be "The woman for
whom he (Paine) had the deepest affection in America." Their
friendship dated back almost to the Revolution. She was the
daughter of Commodore Nicholson of New York, and the wife of Col.
Few, a senator from Georgia. Mrs. Few visited Paine before he died
and offered him religious consolation. Had his opinions undergone
any change he would certainly have communicated the fact to her.
But according to Gallatin's biographer, Henry Adams, "Paine only
turned his face to the wall, and kept silence."
The eminent orator and statesman, Albert Gallatin, a brother-
of Mrs. Few, was also one of Paine's most loyal friends. He
visited and conversed with Paine while on his death-bed, but
received from him no intimation of a mental change. The gifted
painter, John Wesley Jarvis, with whom Paine had formerly resided,
testified that Paine on his death-bed reaffirmed the principles
enunciated in his "Age of Reason." So too, did the worthy lawyers,
B.F. Haskin and Judge Hertel. And so, too, did Col. John Fellows,
one of New York's most honored and respected citizens. This calumny
Col. Fellows vehemently denounced. In a preface to Paine's works he
"I cannot relinquish this subject without taking notice
of one of the most vile and wicked stories that were ever
engendered in the fruitful imagination of depraved mortals. It
was fabricated by a woman, named Mary Hinsdale, and published
by one Charles Collins, at New York, or rather, it is probable
that this work was the joint production of Collins, and some
other fanatics, and that they induced this stupid ignorant
to stand sponsor for it. Mrs. Bonneville was absent in
France at the time of its first appearance in New York, and
when shown to her on her return to America, although her
feelings were highly agitated at the baseness of the
fabrication, she would not permit her name to appear in print
in competition with that of Mary Hinsdale. No notice,
therefore, has been taken of it, excepting by Mr. Cobbett.
Indeed, it was considered by the friends of Mr. Paine
generally to be too contemptible to controvert."
Of this witness, and another death-bed witness, Judge Hertell,
Judge Tabor writes:
"I was an associate editor of the New York Beacon with
Col. John Fellows, then (1836) advanced in years, but
retaining all the vigor and fire of his manhood. He was a ripe
scholar, a most agreeable companion, and had been the
correspondent and friend of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and
John Quincy Adams, under all of whom he held a responsible
office ... Col. Fellows and Judge Hertell visited Paine
throughout the whole course of his last illness. They
repeatedly conversed with him on religions topics and they
declared that he died serenely, philosophically and
resignedly. This information I had directly from their own
lips, and their characters were so spotless and their
integrity so unquestioned, that more reliable testimony it
be impossible to give" (Conway's Life of Paine, Vol.
pp. 398, 399).
Before his death "the good gray poet," Walt Whitman, in early
manhood the friend and companion of Col. Fellows, adverting to the
Paine calumnies, said:
"It was a time when, in religion, there was as yet no
philosophical middle-ground; people were very strong on one
side or the other; there was a good deal of lying, and the
liars were often well paid for their work. Paine and his
principles made the great issue. Paine was double-damnably
lied about" (Ibid. p. 423).
are twenty death-bed witnesses, Madame Bonneville, Dr.
Romaine, Dr. Manley, Rev. Cunningham, Rev. Milledollar, Mr. Pigott,
Mrs. Redden, Willet Hicks, Mrs. Cheeseman, Amasa Woodsworth, Thomas
Nixon, Captain Pelton, Walter Morton, Thomas Addis Emmet, Mrs. Few,
Albert Gallatin, Mr. Jarvis, B.F. Haskin, Colonel Fellows, and
Judge Hertell, many of them Christians, all affirming or admitting
that Thomas Paine did not recant.
The orthodox clergy have, for the most part, rejected the
testimony of these witnesses and accepted the unsupported statement
of a notorious liar and opium fiend who was not a death-bed
witness. Can men who do this be honest? Can a religion requiring
such support be divine?
It should not have required the testimony of a single witness
to disprove this story. It is selfevidently false. Three facts
It needed not the dying testimony of Thomas Paine to prove his
intellectual honesty in writing the "Age of Reason." This had been
put to a supreme test when it was given to the world. His sincerity
and his intense earnestness, which are evidenced on every page,
were fully established by these facts:
- Its late appearance. Had Thomas Paine recanted every
inhabitant of New York would have heard of it within twenty-four
hours. The news of it would have spread to the remotest confines of
America and to Europe as rapidly as the human agencies of that time
could have transmitted it. It took ten years for this startling
revelation to reach the ears of his sick-bed attendants.
- He was denied burial in a Christian cemetery. Dr. Manley
states that he was greatly distressed concerning his interment.
Madame Bonneville says: "He wished to be buried in the Quaker
burying ground. ... The committee of the Quakers refused to receive
body, at which he seemed deeply moved." A renunciation of his
Infidel opinions -- a simple acknowledgment of Jesus Christ --
would have secured him a burial place in any Christian cemetery. He
was buried on his farm.
The continued assaults of the Church upon his character.
The Church does not assail the characters of her converts. "Joy
shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over
ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance." Had Paine
recanted and accepted Christ, Christians would have placed him on
a pedestal higher than that of Washington. A breath of adverse
criticism would have been frozen with a frown. But instead of the
apotheosis which the conversion of this great Infidel would have
brought him, we witness only the calumniation of his character, and
the consignment of his soul to endless misery in hell.
"To do good is my religion." "Religious duties consist in
doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow
creatures happy." This is the religion which Thomas Paine professed
and practiced; this is the religion which the Church wished him to
renounce, and accept in its stead, "I believe in Jesus Christ." The
dogma of the Church is passing away; but the religion of Thomas
Paine will endure. The seeds of goodness sowed by him are
germinating and growing and flowering and fruiting everywhere. Dr.
Conway says: "His principles rest not. His thoughts, untraceable
like his dust, are blown about the world which he held in his
heart. For a hundred years no human being has been born in the
civilized world without some spiritual tincture from that heart
whose every pulse was for humanity, whose last beat broke a fetter
of fear, and fell on the throne of thrones."
- The prosecution of the work, which had been projected in
early manhood, was hastened by what he believed to be the near
approach of death. In the first part of the book he writes:
"My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could
cut their heads off, and as I expected, every day, 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 at the time I
and so nicely did the time and intention meet, that I had
not finished the first part of the work more than six hours
I was arrested and taken to prison."
- On his way to prison -- and believing that the prison was
but a brief halting place on the road to the guillotine -- he
entrusted the work which he had dedicated to his "fellow citizens
of the United States," to his friend Joel Barlow to convey to the
- The second and concluding portion of the work was written
while a prisoner in the Luxembourg, awaiting the summons of Death.
- Dr. Bond, a fellow prisoner, bears this testimony to his
sincerity: "Mr. Paine, while hourly expecting to die, read to me
parts of the 'Age of Reason;' and every night when I left him, to
be separately locked up, and expected not to see him alive in the
morning, he always expressed his firm belief in the principles of
that book, and begged I would tell the world such were his dying
opinions. He was the most conscientious man I ever knew."
Thomas Paine did not recant. But the Church is recanting. On
her death-bed tenet after tenet of the absurd and cruel creed which
Paine opposed is being renounced by her. Time will witness the
renunciation of her last dogma, and her death. Then will the
vindication of Thomas Paine and the "Age of Reason" be complete.