Now, More Than Ever, Americans Should Read Thomas Paine

Alongside Locke and Jefferson stood Thomas Paine in the advocacy of the natural rights of humanity in political and religious liberty. Robert Ingersoll wrote that Paine’s The Rights of Man “was the greatest contribution that literature had given to liberty.”[1] The sole thesis of Paine’s argument for humanity’s rights was an argument from nature—his natural philosophy having been influenced by Isaac Newton. Epistemologically, Paine believed that “He who takes nature for his guide is not easily beaten out of his argument.”[2] Therefore, the greater breadth of his writings utilized the argument from nature to support his conclusions.

Paine wrote that he had obtained a general knowledge of natural philosophy as a child at which time he began to “confront” the evidence of Christianity.[3] He defined his natural philosophy as “the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in his works.”[4] Therefore, Paine would retort, “Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man?”[5] Though Paine would later deconstruct the Bible as a whole, he borrowed from the Mosaic creation account for its “historical authority.”[6] Ingersoll wrote that despite Paine thinking that the Bible was “absurd and cruel,” he found that there were some good and useful things therein.[7]

On the surface, Paine seemed to only use the Bible in order to support his own suppositions and thereby reject the rest, but the same claim could be made of the apostle Paul quoting Greek poets in the Scriptures as well as Jude quoting 1 Enoch. Nevertheless, those particular passages that Paine found suiting to his views were those of a natural philosophic “nature” (i.e. Psalm 19). Considering Paine’s apparent study of comparative religions, he may have noted the natural elements throughout the various religions and thought of them as “historical” evidences of creation in order to employ the Mosaic creation account, but this is conjecture.

He pointed to the distinction of sexes as the only recorded distinction, and the Mosaic creation account of “the equality of man” was, to Paine, “the oldest upon record.”[8] Man’s natural rights were the foundation for his civil rights. The two were distinguished by Paine as thus:

Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society.[9]

What must be understood of Paine is that when he refers to man’s natural rights he refers to “the natural dignity of man.” This dignity is “the honour and happiness of its character.”[10]

How these views, and the doctrine of natural rights, shaped the views of Paine is evident throughout his pamphlets. Governments “un-made” men by their activities which denied the natural rights of man. Hereditary succession was one of the most disputed notions by Paine in his writings, because hereditary succession was unnatural. While the monarchs claimed that their authority came from God, the truth was that kings and kingdoms were actually not God’s will according to the biblical account that Paine referenced in Common Sense. Therein, Paine argued that God reluctantly granted Israel a king. Prior to their history as a monarchical state, Israel was governed by judges and the elders of the tribes—a form of government that Paine identified as a “kind of republic.” Ergo, since the monarchs of Paine’s time argued for heavenly sanction, Paine went further into Heaven’s decrees in order to refute hereditary succession. He would also state that virtue is not hereditary, so to claim that one man’s rule would be in tandem with another’s who was virtuous was to ignore the “natural” truth about human nature.

One of the strongest NATURAL proofs of the folly of hereditary rights in kings, is, that nature disproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.[11]

Another view for which Paine argued on nature’s basis was the freedom of a person’s mind. This argument was especially useful in dissolving the notion of an established church, because one should practice their religion “according to the dictates of conscience.”[12] The natural rights of man’s intellect belonged to one’s religious choice as long as it did not impede the natural rights of another.[13]

With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of its own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other’s religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong. But with respect to religion itself, without regard to names, and as directing itself from the universal family of mankind to the Divine object of all adoration, it is man bringing to his Maker the fruits of his heart; and though those fruits may differ from each other like the fruits of the earth, the grateful tribute of every one is accepted.[14]

At the time that Paine argued for religious liberty, the country supported a state church. The result of dissenting groups such as Puritans, and from them Quakers, and later Baptists, was persecution. Paine believed that in man’s natural state to make up his own mind, he should choose that sort of devotion that he believed was his “conscientious” devotion to the Almighty as long as it did not obstruct or violate another’s choice.

Paine would argue that persecution was not an original feature of religion, but that it was always the feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law. If the lawfulness of a religion was taken away, then every religion would assume its own “benignity.” As a testimony to the detriments of the union of the state and religion, Paine cited the effects that such union had on Spain.[15]

Eventually, as history records, liberty would be won both politically and religiously. The poet Joel Barlow reflected on Paine’s contribution to the Revolution. He wrote that “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”[16] While the actual fight took place on the battlefield with Washington, Paine’s battlefield was in the mind. Barlow aptly noted this sentiment by realizing that minds had to change more than battles could win.

Now, more than ever, Americans should read the works of Paine, especially The Rights of Man. With so many elected officials acting as kings dictating to people how to live in the era of COVID-19, were the American populace aware of the founders’ belief about human rights, none of this would be acceptable. In my own Commonwealth of Kentucky, the governor has unilaterally ruled the state since March and came out with new restrictions as recent as yesterday. Rumors abound that he will make “suggestions” to churches today. Nevertheless, from my recollection, he was silent while protests and demonstrations abounded around the state—a right acknowledged and protected by the very same amendment that addresses religious liberty.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 1, United States Constitution

He has earlier advised churches to not meet, and the first amendment clearly states that the free exercise of religion shall not be prohibited. The mantra in response is usually, “Your rights end where my life begins,” and as a premise, this is factual. However, the way it’s employed is manipulative. No one forces those concerned for their lives to go out into the public. If they are so concerned, they should do the responsible thing and assume whatever risk exists if they decide to go into public. Otherwise, their fear is violating the rights of others who simply want to live their life in pursuit of happiness. That’s what’s liberty is all about: assuming your own risk.

[1] Robert G. Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine,” The North American Review 155, no. 429 (Aug., 1892): 181–95.

[2] Common Sense  (Appendix). 

[3] The Age of Reason 1.11.

[4] Ibid., 1.8. Cf. Thomas Paine, “A Discourse Delivered to the Society of Theophilanthropists, at Paris”; and “The Existence of God: A Discourse at the Society of Theophilanthropists, Paris.”

[5]Thomas Paine,  The Rights of Man, in Thomas Paine Collection (Forgotten Books, 2007), 88.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ingersoll, 189-90.

[8] Paine, Ibid. 

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Ibid., 92. Paine’s theories on happiness and being a member of society are reminiscent of Aristotle (cf. Ethics 1.13).

[11] Common Sense (Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession).

[12] Ibid. (Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs).

[13] The Rights of Man, 90.

[14] Ibid., 107. 

[15] Ibid., 108. 

[16] Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 5.

Women Serving At the Door of the Tabernacle of Meeting?

I’m currently studying 1 & 2 Samuel (1 & 2 Kingdoms; LXX) for my own personal benefit, and I have two resources upon which I’m relying. The first is Robert Alter, The David Story and Robert Bergen’s commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel in The New American Commentary series. Now, 1 & 2 Samuel isn’t anything new to me, but the last time I gave them a good study was several years ago. Since I’ve grown and learned more in the years since, it’s always nice to revisit an old friend to see what more one can learn.

Thus far I’m through the second chapter, but something has caught my attention that I’d not noticed before.

Now Eli was very old; and he heard everything his sons did to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.

1 Samuel 2:22

Alter translates the term “assembled” as “flocked,” but Bergen translates it as “served.” While Alter’s translation more resembles the idea of what the NKJV has, Bergen’s piqued my interest. I set out to investigate this term that can be rendered as “assemble” or “serve,” because the two notions are significantly different ideas. How did these two come to different translations and renderings that are miles apart?

Our Hebrew term rendered as “assembled” here in 1 Samuel 2:22 appears in Exodus 38:8 as “serving” in the NKJV, so in one instance they give it as “assemble” while in another as “serve.” In Robert Alter’s work, The Five Books of Moses, his note on Exodus 38:8 reads,

Although most modern interpreters opt for the sense of service, there are two difficulties with that construction. The cult was administered by males, and there is scant evidence of a quasi-sacerdotal function performed outside the sanctuary by women.

Bergen also suggests that these women may have been Nazarite women involved in volunteer service at the Tent (cf. Num. 6:2). Upon further investigation, the term under question is often employed regarding military service and troops, though as an idiom it’s applied to the Levites. When we survey the Septuagint, the translators substituted the term “fasting” for this one whereas the Vulgate has them “keeping watch.” A comparative study undertaken has yielded the possibility that the women in question from Exod and 1 Sam were cultic prostitutes who may have aged out of prostitution and, therefore, offered their mirrors as votive offerings, though it isn’t necessary that we view them as retiring prostitutes.1

One thing is for sure, there have been numerous comments made on the matter and a variety of opinions as to who these women were and whether they “served” or “assembled” at the Tabernacle. Scholars disagree as a whole what to make of this. In Exod the women appear with mirrors while in 1 Sam they appear without mirrors, but the majority of articles that I’ve perused connects the women of 1 Sam 2:22 with those of Exod 38:8, given the similarities. What are we to make of it?


1 Laura Elizabeth Quick, “Through a Glass, Darkly: Reflections on the Translations and Interpretation of Exodus 38:8,” CBQ 81, no. 4 (Oct. 2019): 595–612. Consider also Janet S. Everhart, “Serving Women and Their Mirrors: A Feminist Reading of Exodus 38:8b,” CBQ 66, no. 1 (Jan. 2004): 44–54.

Why Does God Demand Worship?

Watching a debate between a theologian and an atheist (Christopher Hitchens), once years ago, the latter claimed that God was an egotistical maniac because of how the former talked about God deserving to be worshipped and humanity having been made for His glory. The theologian stated something along the lines of a man having to worship God, praise Him, and adore Him, and the atheist said that God sounded like an attention-starved teenager—a divine narcissist; that He’s vain. 

I’d never thought of it in these terms. I believe humanity is naturally wired to worship and adore. However, what we cherish and value can be God Himself or an idol. No one bats an eye when sports fans, concert-goers, or political rally attendees hoot and holler praise and adore the one on the stage. They aren’t worthy of such, yet we give it to them anyway. We admire them in a way meant to be reserved to God alone. Even when the national anthem is played, we assume a specific posture, remove our hats, salute, or either put our hand on our heart in a manner of veneration. Humanity is made to worship. 

Our English term “worship” isn’t likely the best because it’s pretty much a catch-all word. Augustine depicts this reality in his work, The City of God.

For this is the worship which is due to the Divinity … and to express this worship in a single word as there does not occur to me any Latin term sufficiently exact, I shall avail myself, whenever necessary, of a Greek word. Latreia, whenever it occurs in Scripture, is rendered by the word service. But that service which is due to men, and in reference to which the apostle writes that servants must be subject to their own masters … is usually designated by another word in Greek, whereas service which is paid to God alone by worship, is always, or almost always, called latreia [cf. Matt. 4:10] in the usage of those who wrote from divine oracles. (10.1.2; c. 413–426 CE)   

Latreia is but one term used to denote worship of God and is often translated as “serve.” The word from John 4:23–24 is proskuneo—which usually indicates knee-bending or prostrating worship (Matt. 2:11; cf. Rev. 19:10). We might use the term “grovel” to best understand this word, and it would be out of adoration or even fear, but not with the negative connotation it often carries today. When we turn to Romans 12:1, the NKJV renders “reasonable service” for logiken latreian. Other translations might have “spiritual [rational] worship.” 

First, let’s establish one truth: God doesn’t need our worship (Acts 17:24–25). Unlike other deities in other ancient religions, God does not need our worship. If we worship Him, nothing is added to Him. If we fail to worship Him, nothing is taken away from Him. If either of those propositions were true, then He couldn’t be God. Second, the common objection is that the tyrants [e.g. Kim Jong Un] of the world demand adoration and praise, so God can be no different from them by His demand for such, right? Wrong! God is morally perfect, uniquely pure, and stands alone. Unlike tyrants and dictators, He did not come into being and will not cease to be as they do. Unlike them, he wishes nothing but the best for His creation rather than, like them, having their self-serving desires. Unlike them, he doesn’t do what He does to maintain power or conquer because the world is already His. He will not be demoted. He shall never be defeated. 

God created this world, and He made you and me. As a loving Father—which is how we often view Him—He considers the relationship between Him and us as akin to a marriage. He regarded Israel as His bride, and there’s no more explicit description of this reality than in the book of Hosea. He is the bridegroom of His bride, the church. Imagine if we are to be as a bride to Him love, adore, and stand in reverent awe of something created rather than Him. Put it another way, imagine if your spouse lavished praise and adoration, gave loving glances to another person than you. You and I are naturally moved to jealousy, and God is no different. He is a jealous God (Exod. 20:5). We’ve seen how we humans are natural beings that admire, praise, and worship, but God alone is worthy of it. God alone is deserving of it, and it’s to Him alone; we should give it.

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