"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."

Thomas Paine and the Freemasons[1]

Shai Afsai

[Reprinted from the Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends, Summer 2011]

What was Thomas Paine's connection with the Masonic Order? In Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom, Jack Fruchtman writes that there is insufficient evidence to answer this with certainty: "It has long been questioned whether Paine was a member of the Masons. There is no definitive proof either way. There is no specific date known on which he joined nor a specific lodge to which he was attached."[2]

Nonetheless, Masonic membership has frequently been ascribed to Paine. This is seen, for example, in the tendency of some American Grand Lodges, during the 1990's, to publish informational brochures that placed Paine on the roster of famous Masons. "The Real Secret of Freemasonry," one such brochure put out by the Grand Lodge of Oregon, states: "The pantheon of Masons holds George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, among others."[3] Various Masonic websites continue to make similar claims about Paine and Masonry.

Paine biographer Bernard Vincent devotes a chapter of The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions to "Thomas Paine, the Masonic Order, and the American Revolution,"[4] and offers several reasons for the inclination to consider him a Mason:

While working on my Tom Paine biography, I was intrigued from the outset by the fact that all of a sudden, within just a few weeks or months, and as if by magic, Paine leaped from his obscure humdrum existence in England - where he had worked as a corset-maker and Excise officer - onto the American literary and political stage, there to become, at the age of almost forty, one of the leading lights of the Revolutionary movement.

How was it that a man who was little short of a failure in his native country became acquainted so rapidly with the most prominent figures in the Colonies, even becoming a friend of theirs in many cases? How can one account for the quickness of his ascent and the suddenness of his glory?

One way of accounting for this, one hypothesis (which has several times been made), is to consider that Paine became a Freemason and that, as such, he enjoyed, first in America, then in England and France, the kindly assistance of certain lodges or of certain individual Masons.[5]

Vincent himself rejects this hypothesis, however, due to a lack of corroborative evidence. While it is certain that Washington and Franklin, for example, were Masons, there is no equivalent support for such a claim about Paine. (Franklin, who provided Paine with a letter of introduction before the latter departed England for the American colonies, will be discussed in greater detail below.)

Assertions of Paine's Masonic membership also rest on the fact that between 1803 and 1805, after returning to America from England and France, he penned the essay "Origin of Free-Masonry."[6] For some, Paine's curiosity about Freemasonry and his decision to write about it have been, in and of themselves, sufficient proof that he was a Mason. However, Vincent rejects this line of reasoning as well:

Paine's interest in Freemasonry was such that toward the end his life, in 1805, he wrote a lengthy piece entitled An Essay on the Origin of Freemasonry… But this does not prove, any more than any other detail or fact that we know of, that Paine was a Mason. There is indeed no formal trace of his initiation or membership in England, none in America, and none in France. Questioned about Paine's membership…the United Grand Lodge of England had only this to answer: "In the absence of any record of his initiation, it must, therefore, be assumed he was not a member of the order."[7]

Apart from the question of his own membership in the fraternity, Paine certainly had several close friends who were members of the Order, such as Nicolas de Bonneville. Paine biographer Samuel Edwards depicts Bonneville as an active Freemason who "was convinced that the principles and aims of Masonry, if applied to the world's ailments, would bring peace and prosperity to all nations."[8] While living in France, Paine resided at the home of Bonneville and his family, and Fruchtman suggests that during this time Bonneville introduced Paine to the philosophies of Freemasonry and Theophilanthropism.[9] The bond between the two men was quite strong, and Bonneville's wife - Marguerite - and three sons eventually followed Paine to America.[10]

William M. Van der Weyde, in The Life and Works of Thomas Paine, also mentions Paine's Masonic associates, while at the same time emphasizing that they are not evidence he belonged to the fraternity: "Paine was the author of an interesting and highly instructive treatise on the Origin of Freemasonry…but, although many of his circle of friends were undoubtedly members of that order, no conclusive proof has ever been adduced that Paine was a Mason."[11] Likewise, Moncure Daniel Conway proposes that "Paine's intimacy in Paris with Nicolas de Bonneville and Charles Francoise Dupuis, whose writings are replete with masonic speculations, sufficiently explains his interest in the subject" of Freemasonry, even though he himself was not a Mason.[12]

Nicolas de Bonneville's widow, Marguerite, published Paine's "Origin of Free-Masonry" in 1810, after his death, although she chose to omit certain passages in it that were critical of Christianity. (Despite his use of the Bible to support his arguments in such works as Common Sense and The Crisis, Paine was strongly opposed to Christianity, and indeed to organized religion in general, and sought to debunk the Bible in his later writings, including The Age of Reason.) Most of these were restored in a later printing, in 1818.[13]

Paine's central premise in "Origin of Free-Masonry" is that the Order "is derived and is the remains of the religion of the ancient Druids; who, like the Magi of Persia and the Priests of Heliopolis in Egypt, were Priests of the Sun."[14] The idea that Masonry derived from the Druids did not begin with Paine and has been advanced by others after him. According to Paine, however, this Druid origin is the true and deepest secret of Masonry, from which extend all the ceremonies and concealments Masons engage in:

The natural source of secrecy is fear. When any new religion over-runs a former religion, the professors of the new become the persecutors of the old… [W]hen the Christian religion over-ran the religion of the Druids…the Druids became the subject of persecution. This would naturally and necessarily oblige such of them as remained attached to their original religion to meet in secret, and under the strongest injunctions of secrecy. Their safety depended upon it. A false brother might expose the lives of many of them to destruction; and from the remains of the religion of the Druids, thus preserved, arose the institution which, to avoid the name of Druid, took that of Mason, and practiced under this new name the rites and ceremonies of Druids. [15]

Masonic author Albert G. Mackey quips in his History of Freemasonry that Paine "knew, by the way, as little of Masonry as he did of the religion of the Druids."[16] He calls the essay "frivolous" and Paine "a mere sciolist in the subject of what he presumptuously sought to treat."[17] He is only slightly more charitable toward Paine in An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences, allowing that "For one so little acquainted with his subject, he has treated it with considerable ingenuity."[18] Echoing this verdict, Masonic historian Joseph Fort Newton writes: "The notion that [Paine] was a Mason is probably due to the fact that he wrote an essay on Freemasonry, but the essay, while ingenious in its argument, betrays a vast incomprehension of the Order."[19]

Indeed, it is evident from "Origin of Free-Masonry" that Paine was not very knowledgeable of the Craft - although this fact alone does not, of course, prove he was not a Mason when he wrote it. Paine's general tone, however, shows him to be an outsider trying to assess what is in the Order, rather than a member of it, and that, more than anything else, indicates that he was not a Mason at the time he composed "Origin of Free-Masonry." For example, after referring to certain statements about Masonry made by the Provincial Grand Master of Kent, Captain George Smith, in the latter's The Use and Abuse of Free-Masonry (1783), Paine declares:

It sometimes happens, as well in writing as in conversation, that a person lets slip an expression that serves to unravel what he intends to conceal, and this is the case with Smith, for in the same chapter he says, "The Druids, when they committed any thing to writing, used the Greek alphabet, and I am bold to assert that the most perfect remains of the Druids' rites and ceremonies are preserved in the customs and ceremonies of the Masons that are to be found existing among mankind." "My brethren" says he, "may be able to trace them with greater exactness than I am at liberty to explain to the public." This is a confession from a Master Mason, without intending it to be so understood by the public, that Masonry is the remains of the religion of the Druids…[20]

These are not the words of a man who is himself a Master Mason, but rather of one who is guessing at what secrets a Master Mason knows and may be inadvertently revealing. Paine, an outsider, mistakes Smith's personal conjectures for an unintended confession.

If he was not a Master Mason at the time he wrote the essay, could Paine have been an Entered Apprentice or a Fellow-Craft? It is difficult to argue that Paine was curious enough about Freemasonry's origin and philosophy to write seriously about the fraternity, and also to begin the Craft degrees, but that he did not wait until he had concluded them before finishing his essay. This is an especially difficult argument to make since in "Origin of Free-Masonry" Paine contends that Master Masons are privy to information about the fraternity's origins of which other Masons are ignorant. His essay opens with this explanation:

The Society of Masons are distinguished into three classes or degrees. 1st. The Entered Apprentice. 2d. The Fellow Craft. 3d. The Master Mason.

The Entered Apprentice knows but little more of Masonry than the use of signs and tokens, and certain steps and words by which Masons can recognize each other without being discovered by a person who is not a Mason. The Fellow Craft is not much better instructed in Masonry, than the Entered Apprentice. It is only in the Master Mason's Lodge, that whatever knowledge remains of the origin of Masonry is preserved and concealed.[21]

Presumably, had he begun the degrees, Paine would have wanted all the knowledge they had to offer, and would have waited until he had gained access to it before completing his essay. It is far more likely that he was not at all a member of the fraternity at the time of the essay's composition and was writing as an outsider, although one with close associates within the Order.

Although it is unlikely he was a member of the Order, facets of Paine's thought can still be seen to correspond to Masonic principles. In The Age of Reason (of which "Origin of Free-Masonry" may have originally been intended to be a part),[22] for example, Paine explains his religious beliefs:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.[23]

Such statements, which can be said to have a Masonic ring to them, prompted Joseph Fort Newton to write of Paine:

Thomas Paine…though not a Mason, has left us an essay on The Origin of Freemasonry. Few men have ever been more unjustly and cruelly maligned than this great patriot, who was the first to utter the name "United States," and who, instead of being a sceptic, believed in "the religion in which all men agree" - that is, in God, Duty, and the immortality of the Soul.[24]

Similarly, Vincent concludes in The Transatlantic Republican that while Paine "probably never belonged to any specific fraternity, he nevertheless actively sympathized with the Masonic movement and the philosophy it espoused. Masonic thought had much in common with his own deistic outlook and his own cult of reason…"[25]

Paine's Deistic-sounding creed in The Age of Reason (and this creed as Masonically paraphrased by Joseph Fort Newton) is quite similar to one articulated by Benjamin Franklin - a self-described Deist as well as a prominent Mason - in his Autobiography: "That there is one God who made all things. That he governs the World by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped by Adoration, Prayer & Thanksgiving. But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man. That the Soul is immortal."[26] Although, as Robert P. Falk notes in "Thomas Paine: Deist or Quaker?," Paine "nowhere states outright, as Franklin does, that he was a 'thorough Deist,' Paine speaks of the religion always in terms of intimate sympathy,"[27] and "it seems safe to conclude that 'the creed of Paine' was…'the purest deism.'"[28]

Unlike Franklin, however, who was careful not to disparage other religions, focusing instead on what he held to be the beliefs common to them all,[29] Paine was not aiming for a generic religious creed. He lacked what Vincent terms "the discreet Deism of leaders like Franklin or Jefferson," and was vocal in his opposition to organized religion.[30] Paine followed his above-quoted creed with an attack:

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.

All national institutions of churches…appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.[31]

This confrontational religious approach is evident in "Origin of Free-Masonry," as well, where Paine writes that "the christian religion is a parody on the worship of the Sun, in which they put a man whom they call Christ, in the place of the Sun, and pay him the same adoration which was originally paid to the Sun…"[32] Further on, he depicts Druidism as a "wise, elegant, philosophical religion…the faith opposite to the faith of the gloomy Christian church."[33] Such sentiments, which had aroused so much anger while Paine lived, were what Madame Bonneville sought to remove from "Origin of Free-Masonry" when she published it after his death.

Although Voltaire, for example, became a Mason shortly before passing away, there is nothing to suggest that Paine became a Mason in the interval between composing "Origin of Free-Masonry" and his death a few years later, in 1809. As he was certainly not a Master Mason when he wrote the essay - and as there is no evidence he joined the fraternity after then - one can conclude, as have Mackey, Newton, and others, that Paine was not a Freemason. Still, though the "pantheon of Masons" may not hold Thomas Paine, this influential and controversial man remains connected to Freemasonry, if only due to the close friendships he had with some in the fraternity, and to his having written an intriguing essay on its origins.

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