John E. Remsburg
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:
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 works are the terms God and Creator used more frequently, or in a more reverential manner, than in his. In his "Age of Reason," the work 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 says:
"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."
The "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 in God."
"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.).
"Each 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; there 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 creation" (Ibid.).
"What is it the Bible teaches us? -- rapine, cruelty, and murder. What is it the Testament teaches us? -- to believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married, and the belief of this debauchery is called faith" (Ibid.).
"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 Camille Jordan).
"No man ought to make a living by religion. It is dishonest so to do" (Ibid.).
"Who art 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 Maker?" (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 Reason).
"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 system 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 period to publish his opinions on the subject" (Life of Paine, Vol. ii, p. 203).
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 Catholic.
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 young 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, visit 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:
"It is a part of the business of a press sold to the cause 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 the 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 say 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 down 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 cant 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 sew, 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 Mr. Hicks that she had never seen Thomas Paine. Mr. Vale says:
"To our surprise, on seeing Mr. Hicks, as a duty which we owed 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) had 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, who 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, and 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 did not, whom he highly respected; but yet he thought it might be 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 truth." (Ibid.)
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, Col. Ingersoll, 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, whatever.
"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 defeated party.
"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 final as to us.
"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.
"As 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 far as we know has never been impeached." In a subsequent issue, it said: "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 take 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 from the 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 never saw Thomas Paine, we have, thanks to the unselfish labors of Cobbett, Vale, Ingersoll, and Conway, the testimony of a score of death-bed witnesses.
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 Bonneville:
"When he was near his end, two American clergymen came to see 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 York, was Paine's physician. He testified that Paine did not recant. 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 fiaid:
"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 Paine.
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 were 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. 414.)
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 Paine 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.
There 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. Hicks says:
"You 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 have 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 B. Barnes 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.'
"'Did 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 action.'
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.'"
Mr. 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 time, 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 manner. 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 were from 1820 to 1822."
The conversations related by Mr. Hankinson, it will be seen, occurred almost immediately after the publication of the Hinsdale story 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 next 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 which 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:
"He 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 recanted.
Thomas Nixon and Capt. Daniel Pelton, who attended Paine during his last sickness, wrote, signed and sent the following statement to William Cobbett:
"All 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, says:
"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- in-law 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 says:
"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 woman 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 would be impossible to give" (Conway's Life of Paine, Vol. ii., 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).
Here 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 confute it:
- 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 his 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.
- 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 did, and so nicely did the time and intention meet, that I had not finished the first part of the work more than six hours before 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 publisher.
- 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.