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.
The Popish Councils of Nice and Laodicea, about 350 years after the time the person called Jesus Christ is said to have lived, voted the books that now compose what is called the New Testament to be the 'word of God.' This was done by yeas and nays, as we now vote a law.
The pharisees of the second Temple, after the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, did the same by the books that now compose the Old Testament, and this is all the authority there is, which to me is no authority at all. I am as capable of judging for myself as they were, and I think more so, because, as they made a living by their religion, they had a self-interest in the vote they gave.
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?
For my own part, I believe that all are impostors who pretend to hold verbal communication with the Deity. It is the way by which the world has been imposed upon; but if you think otherwise you have the same right to your opinion that I have to mine, and must answer for it in the same manner. But all this does not settle the point, whether the Bible be the 'word of God,' or not. It is therefore necessary to go a step further. The case then is: --
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.
In that vast volume we see nothing to give us the idea of a changeable, passionate, vindictive God; everything we there behold impresses us with a contrary idea, -- that of unchangeableness and of eternal order, harmony, and goodness. The sun and the seasons return at their appointed time, and everything in the Creation proclaims that God is unchangeable.
Now, which am I to believe, a book that any impostor might make and call the 'word of God,' or the Creation itself which none but an Almighty Power could make? For the Bible says one thing, and the Creation says the contrary.
The Bible represents God with all the passions of a mortal, and the Creation proclaims him with all the attributes of a God.
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.
It is not a God, just and good, but a devil, under the name of God, that the Bible describes.
What makes this pretended order to destroy the Amalekites appear the worse,
is the reason given for it.
The Amalekites, four hundred years before, according to the account in Exodus xvii. (but which has the appearance of fable from the magical account it gives of Moses holding up his hands,) had opposed the Israelites coming into their country, and this the Amalckites had a right to do, because the Israelites were the invaders, as the Spaniards were the invaders of Mexico; and this opposition by the Amalekites, at that time, is given as a reason, that the men, women, infants and sucklings, sheep and oxen, camels and asses, that were born four hundred years afterwards, should be put to death; and to complete the horror, Samuel hewed Agag, the chief of the Amalekites, in pieces, as you would hew a stick of wood. I will bestow a few observations on this case.
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.
You believe in the Bible from the accident of birth, and the Turks believe in the Koran from the same accident, and each calls the other 'infidel.' But leaving the prejudice of education out of the case, the unprejudiced truth is, that all are infidels who believe falsely of God, whether they draw their creed from the Bible, or from the Koran, from the Old Testament, or from the New.
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.
It is written to satisfy you, and some other friends whom I esteem, that my disbelief of the Bible is founded on a pure and religious belief in God; for in my opinion the Bible is a gross libel against the justice and goodness of God, in almost every part of it.
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.
I therefore esteemed you as a warm friend to the liberty and lasting welfare of the human race. But when I heard that you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States. The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love.
Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy, at a time when they are hastening to unity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of 'your Age of Reason.' Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?
We ought to think ourselves happy in the enjoyment of opinion without the danger of persecution by civil or ecclesiastical law.
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.
This and all other slanders have been made without a shadow of proof. Neither religion nor liberty can long subsist in the tumult of altercation, and amidst the noise and violence of faction.
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.
It will immediately occur to you, who were so intimately acquainted with the situation of things at that time, that I allude to the black times of seventy-six; for though I know, and you my friend also know, they were no other than the natural consequence of the military blunders of that campaign, the country might have viewed them as proceeding from a natural inability to support its Cause against the enemy, and have sunk under the despondency of that misconceived Idea. This was the impression against which it was necessary the Country should be strongly animated.
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.]
The bishop of Landaff (Doctor Watson) not only acknowledges this, but pays me some compliments upon it (in his answer to the second part of that work). "There is (says he) a philosophical sublimity in some of your Ideas when speaking of the Creator of the Universe."
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?
If we go back to your ancestors and mine three or four hundred years ago, for we must have had fathers and grandfathers or we should not be here, we shall find them praying to Saints and Virgins, and believing in purgatory and transubstantiation; and therefore all of us are infidels according to our forefathers' belief. If we go back to times more ancient we shall again be infidels according to the belief of some other forefathers.
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.
Even the depredation on your commerce by the barbary powers sprang from the Crusades of the church against those powers. It was a war of creed against creed, each boasting of God for its author, and reviling each other with the name of Infidel. If I do not believe as you believe, it proves that you do not believe as I believe, and this is all that it proves.
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."
The title "Age of Reason" is also suppressed in the next paragraph, and elsewhere. -- Editor. (Conway)]
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
It is not a secret that there has been a party composed of the leaders of the federalists, for I do not include all federalists with their leaders, who have been working by various means for several years past to overturn the federal Constitution established on the representative system, and place Government in the new World on the corrupt system of the old.
[The preceding fourteen words omitted by Rickman. -- Editor.] To accomplish this, a large standing army was necessary, and as a pretence for such an army the danger of a foreign invasion must be bellowed forth from the pulpit, from the press, and by their public orators.
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.]
But I know as a fact that the english Government distributes annually fifteen hundred pounds sterling among the presbyterian ministers in England and one thousand among those of Ireland; [See vol. iii. p. 85, of my edition of 'Paine's Writings'; where the amounts are stated as 1,700 pounds to the dissenting Ministers in England, and 800 pounds to those of Ireland. --
The preceding 29 words, and the remainder of this paragraph, are omitted by Rickman. -- Editor] and when I hear of the strange discourses of some of your ministers and professors of Colleges, I cannot, as the quakers say, find freedom in my mind to acquit them. Their anti-revolutionary doctrines invite suspicion even against one's will, and in spite of one's charity to believe well of them.
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.
He was a vehement Federalist, and assailant of President Jefferson. -- Editor.] curse ruler and people both, for the majority are, politically, the people, and it is those who have chosen the ruler whom they curse. As to the first part of the verse, that of not reviling the Gods, it makes no part of my scripture. I have but one God. [This and the preceding sentence are omitted by Rickman. -- Editor.]
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.
That you may have an Idea that 'The Age of Reason' (for I believe you have not read it) inculcates this reverential fear and love of the Deity I will give you a paragraph from 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.
He needs no service from us. We can add nothing to eternity. But it is in our power to render a service 'acceptable' to him, and that is not by praying, but by endeavoring to make his creatures happy. A man does not serve God when be prays, for it is himself he is trying to serve; and as to hiring or paying men to pray, as if the Deity needed instruction, it is, in my opinion, an abomination. One good schoolmaster is of more use and of more value than a load of such persons as Dr. Emmons and some others. [This and the preceding sentence omitted by Rickman. -- Editor.]
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.
This, I believe, you will allow to be the true philosophy of life. You will see by my third letter to the Citizens of the United States that I have been exposed to, and preserved through, many dangers; but instead of buffeting the Deity with prayers as if I distrusted him, or must dictate to him, [This and the seventeen preceding words omitted by Rickman. -- Editor.] I reposed myself on his protection; and you, my friend, will find, even in your last moments, more consolation in the silence of resignation than in the murmuring wish of a prayer.
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."
His case, he presumes, requires not a long explanation. It is not whether the doctrines of the book above named are proper or improper; nor whether the selling a book in the ordinary course of business can be considered as an evidence of his own belief; but whether a system of prosecution, 'on pretence of religion,' in direct opposition to that liberality of sentiment which, to the honor of modem times, has been so widely diffused, shall receive encouragement, by being weakly opposed.
SUBSCRIPTIONS will be received by J. Ashley, shoemaker, No. 6 High Holborn; C. Cooper, grocer, New Compton-st., Soho; G. Wilkinson, printer, No. 115 Shoreditch; J. Rhynd, printer, Raye-st., Clerkenwell; R. Hodgson. hatter, No. 29 Brook-st., Holbom."
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.
I will however in this letter keep within the limits he prescribes; he will find here nothing about the Christian religion; he will find only a statement of a few cases which shew the necessity of examining the books handed to us from the Jews, in order to discover if we have not been imposed upon; together with some observations on the manner in which the trial of Williams has been conducted.
If Mr. Erskine denies the right of examining those books, he had better profess himself at once an advocate for the establishment of an Inquisition, and the re-establishment of the Star-chamber.
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.
What then is to be understood by this word blasphemy? We see that in the case of Socrates truth was condemned as blasphemy. Are we sure that truth is not blasphemy in the present day? Woe however be to those who make it so, whoever they may be.
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
He is represented as acting under the influence of every human passion, even of the most malignant kind. If these stories are false, we err in believing them to be true, and ought not to believe them. It is therefore a duty which every man owes to himself, and reverentially to his Maker, to ascertain by every possible enquiry whether there be a sufficient evidence to believe them or not.
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.
But that I may not be accused of resting upon bare assertion, with respect to the equivocal state of the Bible, I will produce an example, and I will not pick and cull the Bible for the purpose. I will go fairly to the case., I will take the first two chapters of Genesis as they stand, and show from thence the truth of what I say, that is, that the evidence does not warrant the belief that the Bible is the word of God.
[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.
The evidence that shows this is so clear, when attended to without prejudice, that did we meet with the same evidence in any Arabic or Chinese account of a creation, we should not hesitate in pronouncing it a forgery.
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.
The first story contains thirty-four verses, and repeats the single word GOD thirty-five times. The second story contains twenty-two verses, and repeats the compound word 'Lord God' eleven times; this difference of stile, so often repeated, and so uniformly continued, shows, that those two chapters, containing two different stories, are written by different persons; it is the same in all the different editions of the Bible, in all the languages I have seen.
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" --
It is, I say, impossible that the same person who said this, could afterwards say, as is said in ii. 5, and there was not a man to till the ground; and then proceed in verse 7 to give another account of the making a man for the first time, and afterwards of the making a woman out of his rib. [The original does not signify rib, but the "side" (Feminine). -- Editor (Collins)]
Again, one and the same person could not write as is written in i. 29: "Behold I (God) have given you every herb bearing seed, which is on the face of all the earth; and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree bearing seed, to you it shall be for meat;" and afterwards say, as is said in the second chapter, that the Lord God planted a tree in the midst of a garden, and forbade man to eat thereof.
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.
According to the first story, they were to have dominion over all the earth. According to the second, their dominion was limited to a garden. How large a garden it could be that one man and one woman could dress and keep in order, I leave to the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and Mr. Erskine to determine.
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
If this then is the strange condition the beginning of the Bible is in, it leads to a just suspicion that the other parts are no better, and consequently it becomes every man's duty to examine the case. I have done it for myself, and am satisfied that the Bible is 'fabulous'.
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?
The writings of Thomas Paine, even of Thomas Paine, need no commentator to explain, compound, derange, and re-arrange their several parts, to render them intelligible; he can relate a fact, or write an essay, without forgetting in one page what he has written in another: certainly then, did the God of all perfection condescend to write or dictate a book, that book would be as perfect as himself is perfect: The Bible is not so, and it is confessedly not so, by the attempts to amend it.
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.
If the story be not true, we blasphemously dishonor God by believing it, and still more so, in forcing, by laws and penalties, that belief upon others. I go now to show from the face of the story that it carries the evidence of not being true.
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.
It is according to the Bible, more than six hundred years from the time the flood is said to have happened, to the time of Moses, and consequently the time the flood is said to have happened was more than six hundred years prior to the Law, called the Law of Moses, even admitting Moses to have been the giver of that Law, of which there is great cause to doubt.
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
But the maker of the story of the flood, whoever he was, has betrayed himself by blundering, for he has reversed the order of the times. He has told the story, as if the Law of Moses was prior to the flood for he has made God to say to Noah, Gen. vii. 2, "Of every clean beast, thou shalt take unto thee by sevens, male and his female, and of beasts that are 'not clean' by two, the male and his female." This is the Mosaic Law, and could only be said after that Law was given, not before. There was no such thing as beasts clean and unclean in the time of Noah.
It is no where said they were created so. They were only 'declared' to be so, 'as meats,' by the Mosaic Law, and that to the Jews only, and there were no such people as Jews in the time of Noah. This is the blundering condition in which this strange story stands.
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.
Had these books been written by Moses, they would undoubtedly have been the oldest books in the Bible, and entitled to be placed first, and the law and the history they contain would be frequently referred to in the books that follow; but this is not the case. From the time of Othniel, the first of the judges, (judges iii. 9,) to the end of the book of judges, which contains a period of four hundred and ten years, this law, and those books, were not in practice, nor known among the Jews; nor are they so much as alluded to throughout the whole of that period.
And if the reader will examine 2 Kings xx., xxi. and 2 Chron. xxxiv., he will find that no such law, nor any such books, were known in the time of the Jewish monarchy, and that the Jews were Pagans during the whole of that time, and of their judges.
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.
And thus established in blood the law that is there called the law of Moses, and instituted a Passover in commemoration thereof. The 22d verse, speaking of this passover, says, "surely there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the Kings of Israel, nor the Kings of Judah;" and ver. 25, in speaking of this priest-killing Josiah, says, "Like unto him, there was no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him."
This verse, like the former one, is a general declaration against all the preceding kings without exception. It is also a declaration against all that reigned after him, of which there were four, the whole time of whose reigning make but twenty-two years and six months, before the Jews were entirely broken up as a nation and their monarchy destroyed.
It is therefore evident that the law called the law of Moses, of which the Jews talk so much, was promulgated and established only in the latter time of the Jewish monarchy; and it is very remarkable, that no sooner had they established it than they were a destroyed people, as if they were punished of acting an imposition and affixing the name of the Lord to it, and massacring their former priests under the pretence of religion.
The sum of the history of the Jews is this -- they continued to be a nation about a thousand years, they then established a law, which they called the 'law of the Lord given by Moses,' and were destroyed. This is not opinion, but historical evidence.
Levi the Jew, who has written an answer to the 'Age of Reason,' gives a
strange account of the Law of Moses.
[A Defence of the Old Testament, in a series of Letters addressed to Thomas Paine, etc. By David Levi, author of Lingm Sacra, Letters to Dr. Priestley, etc. London: 1797. -- Editor.]
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?
Hence," continues Levi, "it is manifest that the book commonly called the book of Jasher existed and was well known at the time the book of Joshua was written; and pray, Sir," continues Levi, "what book do you think this was? Why no other than the law of Moses." Levi like the Bishop of Llandaff, and many other guess-work commentators, either forgets, or does not know, what there is in one part of the Bible, when he is giving his opinion upon another part.
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."
If the book of Jasher were what Levi calls it, the law of Moses, written by Moses, it is not possible that any thing that David said or did could be written in that law, since Moses died more than five hundred years before David was born; and, on the other hand, admitting the book of Jasher to be the law called the law of Moses, that law must have been written more than five hundred years after Moses was dead, or it could not relate anything said or done by David. Levi may take which of these cases he pleaseth, for both are against him.
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.
It is a book that has been read more, and examined less, than any book that ever existed; Had it come to us as an Arabic or Chinese book, and said to have been a sacred book by the people from whom it came, no apology would have been made for the confused and disorderly state it is in.
The tales it relates of the Creator would have been censured, and our pity excited for those who believed them. We should have vindicated the goodness of God against such a book, and preached up the disbelief of it out of reverence to him. Why then do we not act as honorably by the Creator in the one case as we would, do in the other?
As a Chinese book we would have examined it; ought we not then to examine it as a Jewish book? The Chinese are a people who have all the appearance of far greater antiquity than the Jews, and in point of permanency there is no comparison. They are also a people of mild manners and of good morals, except where they have been corrupted by European commerce.
Yet we take the word of a restless bloody-minded people, as the Jews of Palestine were, when we would reject the same authority from a better people. We ought to see it is habit and prejudice that have prevented people from examining the Bible.
Those of the Church of England call it holy, because the Jews called it so, and because custom and certain Acts of Parliament call it so, and they read it from custom. Dissenters read it for the purpose of doctrinal controversy, and are very fertile in discoveries and inventions.
But none of them read it for the pure purpose of information, and of rendering justice to the Creator, by examining if the evidence it contains warrants the belief of its being what it is called. Instead of doing this, they take it blindfolded, and will have it to be the word of God whether it be so or not.
For my own part, my belief in the perfection of the Deity will not permit me to believe that a book so manifestly obscure, disorderly, and contradictory can be his work. I can write a better book myself. This disbelief in me proceeds from my belief in the Creator.
I cannot pin my faith upon the say so of Hilkiah the priest, who said he found it, or any part of it, nor upon Sha han the scribe, nor upon any priest nor any scribe, or man of the law of the present day.
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.
But acts of parliament decide nothing with respect to God; and as these acts of parliament makers were wrong with respect to witches and wizards, they may also be wrong with respect to the book in question. It is, therefore, necessary that the book be examined; it is our duty to examine it; and to suppress the right of examination is sinful in any government, or in any judge or jury.
The Bible makes God to say to Moses, Deut. vii. 2, "And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee, thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them, thou shalt make no covenant with them, ner shew mercy unto them." Not all the priests, nor scribes, nor tribunals in the world, nor all the authority of man, shall make me believe that God ever gave such a 'Robesperian precept' as that of showing 'no mercy;' and consequently it is impossible that I, or any person who believes as reverentially of the Creator as I do, can believe such a book to be the 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.
The case is exceedingly different with respect to the 'Age of Reason.' That book is written to shew, from the bible itself, that there is abundant matter to suspect it is not the word of God, and that we have been imposed upon, first by Jews, and after. wards by priests and commentators.
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?
If it can be proved to be so, it ought to be believed as such; if not, it ought not to be believed as such. This is the true state of the case. The 'Age of Reason' produces evidence to shew, and I have in this letter produced additional evidence, that it is not the word of God. Those who take the contrary side, should prove that it is. But this they have not done, nor attempted to do, and consequently they have done nothing to the purpose.
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
The charge however is sophistical; for the charge, as growing out of the pamphlet should have stated, not as it now states, to ridicule and bring into contempt the holy scriptures, but to shew, that the book called the holy scriptures are not the holy scriptures.
It is one thing if I ridicule a work as being written by a certain person; but it is quite a different thing if I write to prove that such work was not written by such person. In the first case, I attack the person through the work; in the other case, I defend the honor of the person against the work. This is what the 'Age of Reason' does, and consequently the charge in the indictment is sophistically stated.
Every one will admit, that if the Bible be 'not the word of God,' we err in believing it to be his word, and ought not to believe it. Certainly then, the ground the prosecution should take would be to prove that the Bible is in fact what it is called. But this the prosecution has not done, and cannot do.
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.
Under the ancient Mythology they might have proved that a certain writing was bought of a certain person, and that the said writing was against the belief of a plurality of gods, and in the support of the belief of one God: Socrates was condemned for a work of this kind.
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?
If the present prosecution prove no more than could be proved in any or all of these cases, it proves only as they do, or as an Inquisition would prove; and in this view of the case, the prosecutors ought at least to leave off reviling that infernal institution, the Inquisition.
The prosecution however, though it may injure the individual, may promote the cause of truth; because the manner in which it has been conducted appears a confession to the world that there is no evidence to prove that the 'Bible' is the word of God. On what authority then do we believe the many strange stories that the Bible tells 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.
But if in crown prosecutions the master of the Crown-office is to continue to appoint the whole special jury, which he does by nominating the forty-eight persons from which the solicitor of each party is to strike out twelve, Mr. Erskine's bill is only vapor and smoke.
The root of the grievance lies in the manner of forming the jury, and to this Mr. Erskine's bill applies no remedy.
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.'
Why was not this done in this case? Reason will suggest, that they did not choose to depend on a man accidentally taken. When the trial recommenced, the whole of the special jury appeared, and Williams was convicted: it is folly to contend a cause where the whole jury is nominated by one of the parties. I will relate a recent case that explains a great deal with respect to special juries in crown prosecutions.
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.
Only eight of them appeared, on which the Attorney-General said, "As I cannot, on a second trial, have a special jury, I will pray a Tales." Four persons were then taken from the persons present in court, and added to the eight special jurymen.
The jury went out at two o'clock to consult on their verdict, and the judge (Kenyon) [The judge before whom Paine, in his absence, was tried Dec. 18, 1792, for writing Part II. of Rights of Man." -- Editor.] understanding they were divided, and likely to be some time in making up their minds, retired from the bench and went home. At seven, the jury went, attended by an officer of the court, to the judge's house, and delivered a verdict, "Guilty of publishing, but with no malicious intention."
The judge said, "I cannot record this verdict: it is no verdict at all." The jury withdrew, and after sitting in consultation till five in the morning, brought in a verdict, Not Guilty. Would this have been the case, had they been all special jurymen nominated by the Master of the Crown-office? This is one of the cases that ought to open the eyes of people with respect to the manner of forming special juries.
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.
The judge said, he did not know how to act; meaning thereby whether to let the counsel proceed in the defence or not; and asked the jury if they wished to hear the passages read which the defending counsel had selected. The jury said No, and the defending counsel was in consequence silenced. Mr. Erskine then, (Falstaff-like,) having all the field to himself, and no enemy at hand, laid about him most heroically, and the jury found the defendant guilty. I know not if Mr. Erskine ran out of court and hallooed, Huzza for the Bible and the trial by jury!
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
The judge, in his address to the jury in summing up the evidence, expatiated upon, and explained the parts which the law assigned to the counsel on each side, to the witnesses, and to the judge, and said, "When all this was done, AND NOT UNTIL THEN, it was the business of the jury to declare what the justice of the case was; and that it was extremely rash and impudent in any man to draw a conclusion before all the premises were laid before them upon which that conclusion was to be grounded." According then to Kenyon's own doctrine, the trial of Williams is an irregular trial, the verdict an irregular verdict, and as such is not recordable.
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
A special jury in London is generally composed of merchants; and in the country, of men called country squires, that is, fox-hunters, or men qualified to hunt foxes. The one may decide very well upon a case of pounds, shillings, and pence, or of the counting-house: and the other of the jockey-club or the chase. But who would not laugh, that because such men can decide such cases, they can also be jurors upon theology? Talk with some London merchants about scripture, and they will understand you mean scrip, and tell you how much it is worth at the Stock Exchange.
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.
Ask them also about Theology, and they will say, they know of no such a one on the turf. An appeal to such juries serves to bring the Bible into more ridicule than anything the author of the Age of Reason has written; and the manner in which the trial has been conducted shows that the prosecutor dares not come to the point, nor meet the defence of the defendant.
But all other cases apart, on what grounds of right, otherwise than on the right assumed by an Inquisition, do such prosecutions stand? Religion is a private affair between every man and his Maker, and no tribunal or third party has a right to interfere between them.
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.
If one man chose to believe the book called the Bible to be the word of God, and another, from the convinced idea of the purity and perfection of God compared with the contradictions the book contains -- from the lasciviousness of some of its stories, like that of Lot getting drunk and debauching his two daughters, which is not spoken of as a crime, and for which the most absurd apologies are made -- from the immorality of some of its precepts, like that of showing no mercy -- and from the total want of evidence on the case, -- thinks he ought not to believe it to be the word of God, each of them has an equal right; and if the one has a right to give his reasons for believing it to be so, the other has an equal right to give his reasons for believing the contrary, Any thing that goes beyond this rule is an Inquisition.
Mr. Erskine talks of his moral education: Mr. Erskine is very little acquainted with theological subjects, if he does not know there is such a thing as a 'sincere' and 'religious' belief that the Bible is not the word of God. This is my belief; it is the belief of thousands far more learned than Mr. Erskine; and it is a belief that is every day increasing.
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.
Is the Bible like the sun, or the work of God? We see that God takes good care of the creation he has made. He suffers no part of it to be extinguished: and he will take the same care of his word, if he ever gave one. But men ought to be reverentially careful and suspicious how they ascribe books to him as his word, which from this confused condition would dishonor a common scribbler, and against which there is abundant evidence, and every cause to suspect imposition.
Leave the Bible to itself. God will take care of it if he has any thing to do with it, as he takes care of the sun and the moon, which need not your laws for their better protection.
As the two instances I have produced in the beginning of this letter, from the book of Genesis, -- the one respecting the account called the Mosaic account of the Creation, the other of the Flood, -- sufficiently shew the necessity of examining the Bible, in order to ascertain what degree of evidence there is for receiving or rejecting it as a sacred book, I shall not add more upon that subject; but in order to shew Mr. Erskine that there are religious establishments for public worship which make no profession of faith of the books called holy scriptures, nor admit of priests, I will conclude with an account of a society lately begun in Paris, and which is very rapidly extending itself.
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;
ADORERS OF GOD AND FRIENDS OF MAN
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.
Upon the physical proofs of his existence.
Gave us light.
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.
These considerations determined the families of the Theophilanthropists to unite publicly for the exercise of their worship.
"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.
It was also resolved that the committee should meet one hour each week for the purpose of preparing or examining the discourses and lectures proposed for the next general assembly; that the general assemblies should be called Fetes (festivals) religious and moral; that those festivals should be conducted in principle and form, in a manner, as not to be considered as the festivals of an exclusive worship; and that in recalling those who might not be attached to any particular worship, those festivals might also be attended as moral exercises by disciples of every sect, and consequently avoid, by scrupulous care, everything that might make the Society appear under the name of a sect.
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 Theophilanthropists, as a Society, are silent upon all the things they do not profess to believe, as the sacredness of the books called the Bible, etc. They profess the immortality of the soul, but they are silent on the immortality of the body, or that which the church of England calls the resurrection.
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.
If the bishop is one of them, and the object be to prevent an exposure of the numerous and gross errors he has committed in his work, (and which he wrote when report said that Thomas Paine was dead,) it is a confession that be feels the weakness of his cause, and finds himself unable to maintain it. In this case he has given me a triumph I did not seek, and Mr. Erskind, the herald of the prosecution, has proclaimed it.
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