What does Thomas Paine have to do with the Book of Moses? A Footnote to Sunday School Lesson 1 (Moses 1)

By January 2, 2010

[While I sit in the Pisa Airport finishing my Sunday School Lesson for tomorrow, I couldn’t help but share a point of convergence between the lesson and my recent scholarly research (I am currently working on the Christian response to Thomas Paine in the 1790s). What follows is not a fully drawn-out, or perhaps even thought-out, post, but rather a half-baked idea worthy of nothing more than a footnote for tomorrow’s SS class.]

The 1790s represented drastic change for western civilization. On one side of the Atlantic, the early American republic was beginning to forge into a stable nation; on the other side, an early-embraced revolution was evolving into dangerous anarchy in France. Indeed, the last decade of the 1700s was not only the dawn of the nineteenth century, but also the dawn of a major intellectual shift. Much of the skepticism common with Enlightenment thought was giving way to a religious revivalism of the Romantic age.[1] At least in the English-speaking world, common tools previously used to attack religion—empiricism, rationalism, and common sensism—were soon to be employed in defense of Christianity.[2] The threat of Deism—however prevalent or pervasive the movement was—was giving way to the religious reawakening of the 1800s. Defending Christianity soon gave way to differentiating Christianity, as the religious playing field was drastically changed.

Yet during this eventful decade, one deistic thinker came to such prominence that he became a skeptical bogeyman and caricature for the following centuries: Thomas Paine. Once celebrated as a “Founding Father” of sort for early America, the publication of his Age of Reason—a scathing critique of [editing for clarity: organized] religion—made him an enemy of Christian churches. (Literally: search “Pain Age of Reason” in Google Books for the years 1794-1810 and see how many anti-Paine pamphlets you can find.) While he primarily focused his critique on revelation and the scriptures, he primarily popularized deistic attacks that had been popular throughout the eighteenth century (especially John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious). Speaking specifically of the Bible, Paine dismissed it as Christian adaptations of ancient Greek myths and far from an accurate historical record. This attack on the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was not new, and would only increase with the growth of German higher criticism, yet Paine’s accusations set the tone for many battles over the legitimacy of scriptures. Here is his critique of the opening lines of Genesis:

As to the account of the creation, with which the book of Genesis opens, it has all the appearance of being a tradition which the Israelites had among them before they came into Egypt; and after their departure from that country, they put it at the head of their history, without telling, as it is most probable that they did not know, how they came by it. The manner in which the account opens, shews it to be traditionary. It begins abruptly. It is nobody that speaks. It is nobody that hears. It is addressed to nobody. It has neither first, second, nor third person. It has every criterion of being a tradition. It has no voucher. Moses does not take it upon himself by introducing it with the formality that he uses on other occasions, such as that of saying, “The Lord spake unto Moses, saying.”[3]

Now, what does this have to do with Joseph Smith’s revealed text of Moses? Well, consider how Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible revised the opening of Genesis: “The word of God, which he spake unto Moses at a time when Moses was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain” (Moses 1:1).

Though Smith was, like most antebellum Americans, aware of Paine’s Age of Reason—his mother’s narrative notes how Joseph Smith Sr.’s was instructed to read it by his family when they found out he was attending a Presbyterian church—it would obviously be simplistic to think the Book of Moses is directly responding to Paine’s literary critique of the Bible. However, Paine represented a skeptical age that questioned the authority of the Bible—an age that Smith and his contemporary religionists were still, to a degree, responding to. It is revealing to remember that after all the attacks the eighteenth century hurled at the Bible, nineteenth century Christians, especially in America, clung to the sacred text stronger than ever. To do so, they were required to often reinvent it, so to speak, in order to not only authenticate their own sect but (re)authenticate the sacred text itself. While some religious thinkers (like those adapting Scottish Common Sense methods) used rational methods to reaffirm the text, others (like Smith and the Mormons) used revelatory means to not replace but support the biblical record.

While we often look at the many meanings of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, we should not forget its purpose of reaffirming the the validity of the original text. Similar to the Book of Mormon, which Smith finished only a year before starting on the Bible, the translation of Moses worked to re-authenticate the Biblical text even as it sought to adapt it.


[1] Stewart J. Brown, “Movements of Christian Awakening in Revolutionary Europe, 1790-1815,” in Stewart J. Brown and Timothy Tackett, ed., The Cambridge History of Christianity: Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660-1815 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), esp. 581-587.

[2] For example, see Christopher Grasso, “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History (June 2008); E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 175; William H. Goetzmann, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 53.

[3] Thomas Paine, Age of Reason (1st edition), 23-24.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


  1. Ben, this is fascinating. What a true scholar – turning thoughts on a Sunday School lesson into an analysis on 18th and 19th century religious thought – all while sitting at an Italian airport. Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Ardis S — January 2, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  2. Nice. The insight of the immersed.

    First a first-person voice for God: later a body and a personal history.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — January 2, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

  3. Interesting Ben. I’m not so sure that Smith can be counted out of the “rationalist” approach to scripture, especially because we are dealing with the period before higher crit. In other words, rationality and revelation were not mutually exclusive categories in the way that they tend to be today. The Book of Mormon, for example, contains arguments that look a lot like common sense rationality

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 2, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  4. ” the publication of his Age of Reason—a scathing critique of religion—made him an enemy of Christian churches.”

    I think the Age of Reason is more of a critique of the institutional church and less of a critique of religion in general. It is in many ways a call for a more humanistic approach to religion. While this is surely an approach to deism, I think it is important to differentiate this approach from the new atheism of today (the post does not say this, just my thought).

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — January 2, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

  5. I’m with Taysom on this. As I write the Mormon Buck paper the relationships to common sense become more and more complex. Of course common is a complicated notion all its own.

    Comment by smb — January 2, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  6. SC & SMB: Of course I agree with your guys–my last MHA presentation was on Mormon (and JS) uses of common sense and rationalistic approaches. I should have emphasized that to JS and other religionists of his day, there was “good” common sense and rationalism, and “bad” common sense and rationalism. I agree wholeheartedly that there was a mixture of both approaches in early Mormon thought at discourse. As always, my rhetoric got the better of me.

    Chris: agreed, I am just using the term “religion” as it was used with contemporary protestants. Of course Tommy was fighting for a form of natural, or deistic, religion.

    Ardis and Edge: thanks.

    Comment by Ben — January 2, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

  7. Interesting premises, Ben. I wonder what Paine was getting at, exactly, in the section you cited. He seems to be grappling with a crude definition of religious “tradition,” which seems (like Hume) to anticipate later religious theorists such as Tylor, Frazer, and Durkheim. Was Paine’s critique of the Biblical creation account as lacking context widespread?

    Comment by Ryan T — January 3, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  8. Was Paine’s critique of the Biblical creation account as lacking context widespread?

    From what I’ve been able to gather, it certainly wasn’t unique. Numerous deistic and natural religion authors of the 18th century are leveling similar accusations at the Bible, especially equating the Old Testament with ancient myths as a way to reinterpret religious tradition. It is definitely picked up by German authors in the same decade as Paine. I really think Paine is primarily popularizing theories that had been tossed around among the radical enlightenment circles.

    Comment by Ben — January 3, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

  9. Wow your post is really interesting to read because I was doing the exact same thing this weekend. I was also surprised at how many pamphlets were published in response to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. He really became a target, even Theodore Roosevelt referred to him as a “filthy little atheist.”

    Anybody who has read the Age of Reason of course knows that is not true, he stated his belief in God, what he argued against was organized religion and particularly state religion – one of which he believed was Christianity.

    Asael Smith read the Age of Reason probably because of his views of established religions of the day. His interest in Universalism showed he rejected the beliefs of most churches of the day at least in terms of salvation.

    Comment by Aaron W — January 4, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  10. Thanks for your comment, Aaron. Yours and Chris’s have made me realize that I needed to go back and clarify how I worded Paine’s approach. I agree with you two that his critiques was only focused on organized religion, not religion in and of it self.

    Comment by Ben — January 4, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  11. @8 Thanks, Ben. Interesting dynamic there, and one wonders how such a discourse might have informed the way that the Book of Moses was produced.

    Comment by Ryan T — January 4, 2010 @ 4:21 pm


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