Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

"The Creation We Behold": Thomas Paine's the Age of Reason and the Tradition of Physico-Theology

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

"The Creation We Behold": Thomas Paine's the Age of Reason and the Tradition of Physico-Theology

Article excerpt

THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOTD: And it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.

-Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason1

Far from being the atheist that some have portrayed, Thomas Paine was a "scientific deist" who believed that the omnipotence and benevolence of God are evident in the structure of the universe. The epigraph above is one of his most elegant expressions of this view. What is more surprising than Paine's reverence is that The Age of Reason (1794-95) appears to owe much to a tradition of Christian apologetics that originated in a type of writing called physico-theology. More than a hundred years before the appearance of The Age of Reason, physico-theological writ- ers discoursed about the apparently purposeful design of the universe, and rhapsodized on the glories of Creation. In The Age of Reason, Paine adapts themes and poetics that originated in physico-theological writing to argue for the superiority of deism to Christianity.

As a book that was among the last and most popular defenses of deism, The Age of Reason has been the subject of numerous studies, but few have examined the influence of antecedent literature. Studies of The Age of Rea- son by James Smylie, Franklyn K. Prochaska, Michael J. Williams, Richard FT Popkin, Jay E. Smith, and Gregory Claeys attest to the importance of the work.2 Prochaska says, "Few books have created a greater furor in the histo- ry of religion than Thomas Paine's Age of Reason."3 Smith says reaction to The Age of Reason was perhaps "unparalleled in American history."4 Fierbert Moráis, a historian of deism, calls it "the axis about which deistic thought in America rotated."5 The Age of Reason had gone through seventeen American editions by 1796.6 Nearly seventy replies to The Age of Reason had been published by 1800.7 Given the number of replies, it is no great wonder that most studies of The Age of Reason, including all those listed above, have concentrated on reaction to it. The most detailed analysis of the influences that worked on Paine is Edward FT Davidson and William J. Scheick's Paine, Scripture and Authority.8 But they look at The Age of Reason mostly in the light of antecedent biblical commentary, heading biographies of Paine also have sections devoted to The Age of Reason, but these concentrate on com- position and reception.9

Physico-theology has been absent from the long-standing debate among Paine scholars about whether Quakerism or "Newtonian Science" was a greater influence on Paine's religious outlook. Moncure Conway, one of Paine's earliest reasonably impartial biographers, played up the influence of Quakerism on Paine's religious outlook. Although he did allow for other influences, he stated flatly, "Had there been no Quakerism there had been no Thomas Paine."10 Harry Hayden Clark "reinterpreted" Paine's religion as more a product of Enlightenment science than of the Quaker "inner light."11 Subsequent scholars such as Robert Falk and Vikki J. Vickers have attempted to strike a balance between these two views.12 Jack Fruchtman Jr. suggests that Paine often employed a homiletic style to promote what he calls Paine's "religion of nature"13 and that his political philosophy was rooted in his religious outlook.14 Edward Farkin, who gives a very full account of Paine's encounter with science, observes in passing that "Paine replaces those kinds of experiences [of personal contact with the divinity] with observation of material phenomena such as the motion of the planets."15 But it was not just "Newtonian science" that influenced Paine; it was also what might be called "Newtonian religion." The tradition of apologetics that grew up from phys- ico-theology was rooted in Newtonian science, but often expressed itself in the exuberant language of the psalmist. It gave Paine and other champions of "rational religion" a mode of rhetoric that, although "scientific" in the broad sense, was also genuinely spiritual and could come close to matching the emotional intensity of the most enthusiastic Calvinist preachers. …

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