Thomas Paine: Scientist-Religionist
Ralph C. Roper
The Scientific Monthly,
Vol. 58, No. 2 (February, 1944), pp. 101-111]
WHEN the great German-English astronomer, Sir William Hersehel,
first opened his inquiring eyes on the immense starry heavens
(1738), Thomas Paine had already been creeping about, intent on more
mundane explorations. He was nine months Herschel's elder. The paths
of these newcomers were destined to cross frequently, although I
find no evidence that either was aware of the other.
At the age of nineteen, Herschel, with nothing more than a French
crownpiece in his pocket, reached London from Hanover. Paine, who
had been born in Thetford, had gone to London, where he was eking
out less than a fair living. Herschel was a musician; Paine, a
staymaker -- of ship stays. Later, when the one was conducting
concerts, the other was teaching school, and occasionally preaching
on the side, as a Methodist. Both Herschel and Paine became amateur
astronomers by studying the same book, Ferguson's Astronomy, and by
listening to the same scientific and philosophical lectures at the
Royal Society. To Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Society, both
men submitted reports of their scientific discoveries: Herschel's,
dealing with the stars of the Milky Way; and Paine's, showing the
use of the arch in the construction of iron bridges. When Herschel
was at Sunderland in 1761, dining "at Mr. Walker's, " he
was at the very same place where Paine's iron bridge -- the first
iron bridge traveled by commerce -- was built over the River Wear,
by the Messrs. Walker Foundry.
At about the same time that Herschel received a medal from the
Royal Society, in recognition of his brilliant achievements in the
field of astronomy, Paine was in Paris receiving the plaudits of the
King and Queen of France, who, according to the French historian,
Lamartine, "loaded Paine with favors. " He had gone there
with Colonel Laurens to secure aid for Washington's army.
Incidentally, it took sixteen ox-teams to haul from Boston to
Washington's headquarters the 2,500,000 livres of silver and a
convoy ship of clothing and military stores, given by France to the
colonies. The victory at Yorktown soon followed.
Herschel was given the honorary degree of LL.D. by Oxford
University at about the same time that the University of
Pennsylvania celebrated the 4th of July by granting to Paine the
degree of M.A.
In 1786, Herschel was elected a member of the American
Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, of which Paine had been a
member for a number of years. He had prepared the preamble to the
act incorporating the Society, February 14, 1780, and was Clerk of
the Pennsylvania Assembly at the time the act was adopted.
And so ran, in part, the lives of these two "inspired amateurs"
of astronomy who came to similar conclusions as to the immensity of
The scientific activities of Paine cannot be considered separately
from his religious opinions. Be always approached the study of
science from the viewpoint of religion, and the study of religion
front the viewpoint of science. To him, the study of science was the
study of God. One cannot rightly understand the scientific and
religious views of Paine, nor of Franklin, Jefferson, and other
Deists of their time, whether in America, France, or England, unless
one realizes that they were essentially nature worshippers -- God
worshippers through nature. Paine built all his political,
religious, and scientific principles upon the laws of nature -- the
laws of God. Whether occupied in the formation of a democratic
constitution, or the founding of a church, or the construction of a
bridge, he invariably turned to the laws and principles established
by "The Great Mechanic of the Universe," ''The God of
Order and Harmony."
With the intrepid Thetford staymaker, all science was divine
science, since God was "the Creator of Science" and all of
its principles. The triangle, gravitation, and the planetary motions
were all the creations of the "Almighty Power," "The
Creator of the Universe," "The Original Teacher," and
"The First Philosopher."
Our first secretary of foreign affairs and his successor of one
hundred and thirty-six years later, William J. Bryan, agreed upon
one point, however much they disagreed upon others: that our schools
and colleges tended produce atheists. The Great Commoner, in one of
his lectures, charged that the colleges were developing infidelity
and atheism. "Why should the children be taught," queried
Bryan, "that it is more important to know the age, of the rocks
than to trust in the 'Rock of Ages'? Why should the emphasis be
placed on the distance between the stars than upon him who binds
'the sweet influence of Pleiades,' 'looses the bands of Orion, ' and
'guides Areturas with His suns'?''
Rising, as it were, from the grave, and speaking again his own
words, Paine could have joined the great orator in common protest
against the teachers of science: "What has man to do with the
Pleiades, with Orion?" asked Paine, picking up almost the very
words of Bryan. And then he answered his own question: "The
Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the
structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to
imitation. It is as if He had said to this globe we call ours, 'I
have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the
starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can
now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO
ALL, TO BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER .
Continuing in his reasoning, Paine declared that "it has been
the error of the schools to teach astronomy and all other sciences
and subjects of natural philosophy" as accomplishments of man;
whereas, he insisted, these subjects should be taught religiously, "with
reference to the Being who is the author of them; for all the
principles of science are of divine origin. Man cannot make, invent,
or contrive principles; he can only discover them, and he ought to
look through the discovery to the Author." To teach science as
an accomplishment of scientists (Paine was living in an age far
different from ours) is to "generate in the pupils a species of
atheism. Instead of looking through the works of creation to the
Creator himself, they stop short and employ the knowledge they
acquire to ascribe every. thing they behold to innate properties of
matter, and jump over all the rest by saying that matter is
Secular schools were not alone to blame. Religious instruction,
Paine insisted, had also gone wrong. Just as science should be
taught religiously, so religion should be taught scientifically.
According to Paine's views, religion should not be taught solely
from "opinions in written or printed books," but "in
the works of the books of creation." The study of religion "in
the books of opinions has often produced fanaticism, rancor, and
cruelty of temper; and from hence have proceeded the numerous
persecutions, the fanatical quarrels, the religious burnings and
massacres, that have desolated Europe." 'Whereas, the teaching
of religion "in the works of the Creation produces a direct
contrary effect. The mind becomes at once enlightened and serene, a
copy of the scene it beholds: information and adoration go hand in
hand; and all the social faculties become enlarged." And so,
this preacher of science and apostle of "the religion of
humanity" -- a phrase which he himself coined -- believed that
every clergyman should be a philosopher, and every church a school
"The Bible of Creation is inexhaustible in texts. Every part
of science, whether connected with the geometry of the universe,
with the systems of animal and vegetable life, or with the
properties of inanimate matter, is a text as well for devotion as
for philosophy -- for gratitude as for human improvement. It will
perhaps be said, that if such a revolution in the system of religion
takes place, every preacher ought to be a philosopher. Most
certainly; and every house of devotion a school of science. Under
such a plan, they could render religion "the most delightful
and entertaining of all studies," wherein "scientific
instruction" could be given freely "to those who could not
otherwise obtain it." "The mechanic of every profession
will there be taught the mathematical principles necessary to render
him proficient in his art; the cultivator will there see developed
the principles of vegetation; while, at the same time, they will be
led to see the hand of God in all things."
Is the day approaching when the teachings will be recognized as
indispensable to the larger spiritual and material abundance, when
God and men may join forces to make a better world in which God and
men may live more happily together?
But what about God's revelation to man? 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, and it is
this word, which no human invention can counterfeit, that God
speaketh universally to men.
It is only in this Creation that all our ideas and conceptions of
a Word of God can unite. The Creation speaks a 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 mankind all that is necessary for man to know of
Do we want to know His power? We see it in the immensity of the
Creation. Do we want to contemplate His wisdom? 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 what God is? Search not the book called
the Scripture, which any man might make, but the Scripture called
Twenty-one years before Herschel wrote his final conclusions (1818)
on the Nebulae, "Island Universes," ''Nebullar System,'' "Planetary
Clouds, ''1500 universes," "how the heavens move,"
Thomas Paine discussed in The Age of Reason essentially the
same subjects. The first part of this book was mainly a treatise on
astronomy. Astronomer Paine enjoyed nothing more than to study the
plurality of worlds, and universes of worlds, in the finitude of
space; in which our little earth "is suspended, like a bubble
or balloon the air," like "the smallest grain of sand to
the size of the world," or "the finest particle of dew to
the whole ocean." And so on and on he penetrated into space,
trying to find the end, "till the fatigued imagination returns
and says, There is no end."
Wrote Herschel in 1817: "Our sun, all the stars we can see
with the eye, deeply immersed in the Milky Way, and form a component
part of it."
'Wrote Paine in 1797: The sun and system of planets, "immense
as it is, only one system of worlds. Beyond this, a vast distance
into space, far beyond power of calculation, are the stars called
fixed stars. They are called fixed because they have no
revolutionary motion, as six worlds or planets have that I have been
describing. Those fixed stars continue always the same distance from
each other, and ways in the same place, as the sun does in center of
Then, here again Paine anticipated Herschel: "The probability,
therefore, is each of those fixed stars is also a sun, round which
another system of worlds, or planets, though too remote for us to
discover, forms its revolutions, as our system of worlds does around
our sun." Paine theorized these worlds, like our own, are
populated with human beings, or beings of some kind. His reasoning
was not based alone on peering into the infinity of spaces. He
looked about him and saw the earth and the waters and the air filled
with life, from the largest animals to those "totally invisible
without every plant, every leaf serves not only as a habitation but
as a world to some numerous race, till animal existence becomes so
exceedingly refined that the effluvia of a blade of grass would be
food for thousands."
And then Paine queries: Since no part of the earth is unoccupied by
life, "why is it to be supposed that the immensity of space is
a naked void, lying in eternal waste? There is room for millions of
worlds as large or larger than ours, and each of them millions of
miles apart from each other."
Discussing further his theory of the plurality of worlds:
But it is not to us, the inhabitants of this globe,
only, that the benefits arising from a plurality of worlds are
limited. The inhabitants of each of the worlds of which our system
is composed enjoy the same opportunities of knowledge as we do.
They behold the revolutionary motions of the earth, as we behold
theirs. All the planets revolve in sight of each other, and,
therefore, the same universal school of science presents itself to
all. Neither does the knowledge stop here. The system of worlds
next to us exhibits, in its revolutions, the same principles and
school of science to the inhabitants of their system as our system
does to us, and in like manner throughout the immensity of space.
Our ideas not only of the Almightiness of the Creator, but of His
wisdom and beneficence, become large in proportion as we
contemplate the extent and the structure of the universe. The
solitary idea of a solitary world rolling or at rest in the
immense ocean of space gives place to the cheerful idea of a
society of worlds so happily contrived as to administer, even by
their motion, instruction to man. We see our earth filled with
abundance, but we forget to consider how much of that abundance is
owning to the scientific knowledge the vast machinery of the
universe has unfolded.
And then, in his characteristic way, which made for him many and
bitter enemies among the orthodox theologians of his day, Paine
criticised what he believed to be the exclusiveness of the Christian
But, in the midst of these reflections, what are we to
think of the Christian system of faith that forms itself upon the
idea of one world only, and that of no greater extent, as is
before shown, than twenty- five thousand miles? An extent of which
a man walking at the rate of three miles an hour, for twelve hours
in a day, could he keep on in a circular direction, would walk
entirely around in less than two years. Alas! What is this to the
mighty ocean of space, and the almighty power of the Creator?
From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit
that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on
His protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to
die in our world, because, they say, one man and woman had eaten
Could a man be placed in a position, and endowed with the power
of vision, to behold at one view, to contemplate deliberately, the
structure of the verse; to mark the movements of the several
planets, the cause of their varying appearances, the unerring
order in which they revolve, even to the remotest comet; their
connection and dependance on other, and to know the system of laws
established the Creator, that governs and regulates the whole,
would then conceive, far beyond what any church theology can teach
him, the power, the wisdom, vastness, the magnificence of the
Creator; he would then see, that all the knowledge man has of
science, and that all the mechanical arts by which he renders his
situation comfortable here, are derived from source; his mind,
exalted by the scene, and convinced by the fact, would increase in
gratitude as it increased in knowledge; his religion and his
worship would become united with his improvement as a man; any
employment he followed, that had any connection with the
principles of creation, as everything of agriculture, of science
and of the mechanical arts have, would teach him more of God, and
of the gratitude he owes to Him, than any theological Christian
sermon he now hears.
Had Thomas Paine never "purchased a pair of globes," or
or used a telescope, he might never have incurred the enmity of the
fundamentalists of his day, and might have been listed among the
world's sainted men.
It is exceedingly difficult in this day to comprehend how it could
have been possible, even in his day, that his belief in the
plurality of worlds could have been a major contributing cause of
his downfall in popularity. As the inspirer of the English romantic
poets and recognized leader of the 18th century revolutionary
movement, perhaps no man had, a greater following in England,
France, and America than Paine. Yet, the publication of The Age
of Reason (1794-95) was disastrous to his reputation.
Announcement of his belief in a plurality of worlds and in the Bible
of Creation brought upon him a plurality of attackers. Even as late
as 1817, eight years after Paine's death, the battle was still
Among the many who arose to attack his religious and scientific
theories, was the Rev. Thomas Chalmers, D.D. If there are other
worlds, said he, "how can we reconcile the fact with the
silence of the Scriptures? "What about revelation?"
Quoting from "Mr. Andrew Fuller, in answer to Paine,"
Chalmers continued: "If our world be only a small province, so
to speak, of God's vast empire, there is reason to hope that it is
the only part of it where sin entered, except among the fallen
angels; and that the endless myriads of intelligent beings in other
worlds are all the hearty friends of virtue, of order, and of God."
In which case, Mr. Fuller concluded, there would have been no need
for the Creator to send his Son to the other worlds, as He had found
it necessary to do as to the earth.
Defending the inerrancy of the science of the Bible's story of
creation, and other stories, Dr. Chalmers in his answer to Paine
declared: "Thus the Bible is made to speak all opinions,
whether philosophical or religious. Philosophy must submit to the
authority of divine revelation; until the mind is willing to make
this book the standard of truth, and the foundation of knowledge, it
will find no rest amidst the wanderings of the imagination, the
ebullitions of vanity, and the fluctuations of sentiment."
It was a sad day for Paine to look back to -- the day when he
became a "master of the globes and of the orrery." How his
expert operation of a miniature planetarium could have thus brought
upon him an everlasting curse, is as interesting as it is
incomprehensible in our time.
The Hayden Planetarium in New York City and similar places in other
cities are visited by millions of people, without the least thought
that they might thereby be guilty of heresy. They see the
possibility of a plurality of worlds exhibited before their very
eyes. There is the orrery that wrecked Paine's fane! Yet, orthodox
and liberal, Catholic, Jew, and Protestant, members of all faiths
and of none, flock to see the orrery in its demonstrations of our
planetary system, and come away rejoicing at the marvelous
scientific and spiritual lessons they have received. Each and all go
away blessed and confirmed in their own religious convictions.
In order to understand the connection of the orrery in Paine's
life, and the possible cause for the curse it brought upon him, let
him tell his own story:
"After I had made myself master of the globes and
of the orrery, and conceived an idea of the infinity of space, and
the eternal divisibility of matter, and had obtained at least a
general knowledge of what is called natural philosophy, I began to
compare, or, as I have before said, to confront the eternal
evidence these things afford with the Christian system of faith."
And so, more than a century and a half ago, astronomer Paine was
busy with his little planetarium, reaching the conclusion that "THE
HAND THAT MADE US IS DIVINE."
In describing the orrery, Paine added this interesting footnote:
"As this book may fall into the hands of persons
who do not know what an orrery is, it is for their information I
add this note, as the name gives no idea of the uses of the thing.
The orrery has its name from the person who invented it. It is a
machinery of clockwork, representing the universe in miniature,
and in which the revolution of the earth round itself and round
the sun, the revolution of the moon round the earth, the
revolution of the planets round the sun, their relative distances
from each other and their different magnitudes, are represented as
they really exist in what we call the heavens."
Why did Paine 's belief in the plurality of worlds and in the Bible
of Creation destroy his popularity? His contemporary, William Pitt,
gave the answer when he said that science and philosophy are all
right, but they must be discussed among scientists and philosophers
only. The masses must have none of them. That was the prevailing
opinion of the time. Theology was not yet freed from the traditional
chains that bound it to dogma and bigotry. The earth and its people
played the most; important part, indeed, the exclusive part, in the
economy of the universe. That the Creator might possibly be equally
interested in other worlds and other peoples seemed to be a body
blow to Christianity itself. Paine wrote The Age of Reason
for the masses to read, and they read it. That was his unpardonable
But Paine did not write for the multitude alone. The intellectuals
of his time also read the book, some with avidity to satisfy their
craving for freedom of thought and expression in religion, and
others to prepare themselves to launch bitter attacks and to heap
vituperation upon Paine and his book.
In the United States, Paine's Age of Reason and his
theories of the universe stirred up a veritable hornet's nest among
the clergy and the colleges. "The effect of The Age Reason
on the community," declares Woodbridge Riley in his American
Thought, "may be easily imagined. The clergy attacked it,
the colleges criticized it, but the populace read it." The book
spread like wild fire, especially throughout the West and the South.
I recall that in the pioneer days the West, debating clubs and
cracker barrel forums discussed the many theological issues that the
book raised. Lincoln read it and wrote a similar book on the Bible.
Fortunately for him and the country, his friend Hall threw the
manuscript into the stove. Paine's book was published; Lincoln's was
not. Publicity has much to do with men's reputations.
Paine 's most prolific and distinguished opponent in the United
States was President Timothy Dwight of Yale University. As the
leader of the opposition, he did much to make Paine the recognized
leader of the Deistic movement that swept the country. At Harvard
University, the situation became complicated: students neglected
their studies to read Paine's book! And why not? Had not the
president of Harvard requested Paine to write a poem on The
invention of Letters, and had it not been delivered in Cambridge
on the day of the annual commencement, July 15th, 1795? Down at
Princeton University, "The Age of Reason was opposed by
the philosophy of common sense," declares Riley.
The Deistic movement waned and finally disappeared. An important
outgrowth was the New England Transcendentalism. "It denied the
need of miracle, revelation, dependence on an outward standard of
faith; it affirmed the need of intuition, mystic ecstacy, inward
dependence upon an immanent life. As the philosopher of Concord
exclaimed: 'Here is now a perfect religion, which can be set in an
intelligible and convincing manner before all men by their reason'."
Paine not only dabbled in the physical sciences, but also in the
metaphysical. The spiritual side of science was more attractive to
him. Much as Emerson was a mystic, so was Paine, and both got their
greatest inspiration from the teachings of the Orient. Paine and
Emerson both stressed the creative power of THOUGHT. To which Paine
added MOTION. Thought and Motion -- these were the creative forces
of both God and man. Paine characterized God as "Universal
Mind," the "First Cause" -- the Mind that had spoken
the Word and thereby had called forth the universe, and had
sustained it by motion. This was Paine's theory of creation quite in
line with the Genesis story.
In thus advancing the theory of the control of mind over matter,
that mind preceded matter, Paine seems to have anticipated some
present-day scientists, including Sir James Jeans, Sir Arthur
Stanley Eddington, Professor Robert A. Millikan, and others, who
seem to believe (quoting the words of Jeans) that "science
almost approaches unanimity" in its claim that "the stream
of knowledge is headed toward non-mechanical reality"; that the
universe now begins to look more like "a great thought than
like a machine"; and that scientists now suspect that mind
should be hailed as "the creator and governor of the realm of
That Paine delved into the realm of metaphysics, and discussed, in
his characteristic way, the creative powers of thought and motion,
are matters which have not heretofore been pointed out, I believe,
in any biographical or periodical writings on Paine. Let us, then,
take a look at Paine, the meta- physician.
Paine delighted to speculate in theories of thought creations,
thought vibrations, the power of motion, and how we get our
thoughts, as he did to experiment in concrete forms of government or
in the motive power of steam and gunpowder.
First of all: how do thoughts get about? Paraphrasing Paine's
words: Thoughts get about, man knows not how, and once released,
they cannot be recalled. They wind their progress from nation to
nation, and conquer by a silent operation. Man finds himself
changed, he scarcely perceives how.
Thoughts are more powerful than armies. "An army of principles
will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot go; it will succeed
where diplomatic management would fail; it is neither the Rhine, the
Channel, nor the Ocean that can arrest its progress; it will march
on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer." Behold, the
power of thought!
Paine conceived God as a Being of mind and will, "a Being
whose power is equal to His will." His definition comprehends
the power to will into existence that which he wished to create. The
will of man, declared Paine, "is of infinite quality," the
limits of which "we cannot conceive." But how "exceedingly
limited is his power of acting compared with the nature of his will.
If man's powers were equal to his will, he would be God," for "he
would will himself eternal, and be so. He could will a creation, and
could make it."
"In this progressive reasoning, " continued Paine, "we
see in the nature of the will of man half of that which we conceive
in thinking of God; add the other half, and we have the whole idea
of a Being who could make the universe, and sustain it by perpetual
motion; because He could create that motion." "How
numerous are the degrees, and how immense is the difference of
power, from a mite to a man."
"Since, then, everything we see below us shows progression of
power, where is the difficulty in supposing that there is, at the
summit of all things, a Being in whom an infinity of power unites
with the infinity of the will? When this simple idea presents itself
to our mind, we have an idea of a perfect Being that man calls God."
"It is comfortable to live under the of the existence of an
infinite protecting power; and it is an addition to that comfort to
know that such a belief is not a mere conceit of the imagination,"
but "a belief deducible by the action of reason upon things
that compose the system of the universe; a belief arising out of
Emerson put forth the idea that thoughts are immortal once they are
vibrated into the ether; that the ether is an infinite reservoir of
our thoughts; that we may pick them up out of the ether if we are
mentally attuned to its vibrations; and that we may think the
thoughts of Plato and of the saints.
Paine divided thoughts into two kinds: "those that we produce
in ourselves by reflection and the act of thinking, and those that
bolt into the mind of their own accord." And then he made a
statement, which, if science should ever sustain it, might account
for Paine's uncanny capacity for knowledge: "I have always made
it a rule to treat these voluntary visitors with civility, taking
care to examine, as well as I was able, if they were worth
entertaining, and it is from them that I acquired almost all the
knowledge that I have."
What a challenging statement! Did Paine there disclose the secret
of his extraordinary powers? Did he write and act under "inspiration"?
Dr. Alexis Carrel, Nobel prize winner and Rockefeller Foundation
authority, has said that "great discoveries are not the product
of intelligence alone"; that "all great men are endowed
with intuition, " which "phenomenon in former times was
But motion, Paine believed, had to accompany thought to make it
creative. Here was his theory:
"The universe is composed of matter, and, as a
system, is sustained by motion. Motion is not a property of
matter, and without this motion the solar system could not exist."
The motion that upholds the solar system
"operates to perpetual preservation, and to
prevent any change in the state of the system."
"When, therefore, we discover a circumstance of such immense
importance that without it the universe could not exist, and for
which neither matter, nor any nor all the properties can account,
we are by necessity forced into the rational conformable belief in
the existence of a cause superior to matter, and that cause man
And then Paine hurled his famous challenge at the atheists:
"Who then breathed into the system the life of
motion? What power impelled the planets to move?"
"Where will infidelity, where will atheism, find cause for
this astounding velocity of motion, never ceasing, never varying,
and which is the preservation of the earth in its orbit?" "The
atheist who affects to reason, and the fanatic who rejects reason,
plunge themselves alike into inextricable difficulties."
Professor Harry Hayden Clark of the University of Wisconsin, long a
student and writer on Paine's ideas and activities, suggests that he
may have derived his explanation of planetary motion from Newton,
who, in his letters to Bentley, "postulates a divine power as
necessary to explain planetary motion." Professor Clark
observes that Paine saw "in the structure of the universe,"
"an unerring regularity of the visible solar system," "the
God of Order and Harmony," "the Supreme Architect of the
Universe." Declared Paine: "This harmony in the works of
God is so obvious that the farmer in the field, though he cannot
calculate eclipses, is as sensible of them as the philosophical
astronomer. He sees the God of Order in every part of the visible
But, how did motion begin? Here was Paine's answer: The "Power
that called us into being." To have sounded the call was enough
to have started all the machinery of the universe into action!
Paine's theory that God called forth the universe, and called
motion into action to sustain His creation, was more in harmony with
the Genesis story of creation than his attackers realized. We are
told that "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
Four times in the first chapter of Genesis, we find the expression:
"And God called." The phrase "And God said"
appears nine times in the same chapter. It thus seems, according to
the Bible, that God spoke, and His handiwork came forth into being.
Let us now turn to the field of applied science and invention. In
this field also, Paine demonstrated considerable genius. His friend,
Joel Barlow, once wrote: "Biographers of Paine should not
forget his mathematical acquirements and his mechanical genius."
Among his numerous inventions were a planing machine, a new crane, a
smokeless candle, a wheel of concentric rim, a scheme for using
gunpowder as a propellent, and other items. Dr. John Wakefield
Francis, who, as a young man, had known Paine, in his recollections
of Old New York, praises Paine's "timely" article, written
in 1806, entitled, "The Cause of Yellow Fever."
Paine's real contribution to the invention of the steamboat has
been established. Paine, Fitch, Rumsey, and Fulton conducted their
experiments independently. They were all close friends. Sir Richard
Phillips, who assisted Fulton in his steamboat experiments on the
Thames, gives credit to Paine in a controversy between Fitch and
Rumsey, both of whom admitted Paine's priority in the application of
steam to navigation. Fulton, to whom Paine gave all of his papers
and experiments, received all the credit for the steamboat.
Newton saw an apple fall, and announced the law of gravitation.
Paine watched a spider spin its web, and designed the first
cast-iron bridge. Patent No. 1667 for his bridge was issued to Paine
by "His Most Excellent Majesty King George the Third, "
whom Paine had characterized as the "Royal Brute" in the
fight for American Independence. James Parton has reminded us that
it was the principle of Paine's arch that "now sustains the
marvelous railroad depots that half abolish the distinction between
indoors and out." And Dr. Robert Collyer, at the opening of the
Brooklyn bridge, observed that to Paine belonged the credit of the
great invention, and deplored the fact that ignorance and bigotry
had meanly denied it to him.
I have in my possession a picture of the cast-iron bridge built
over the River Wear at Sunderland. Paine 's patent was issued in
1788. I also have a letter, dated November 7th, 1936, signed by J.
A. Charlton Deas, Director of the County Borough of Sunderland,
Public Libraries, Museum and Art Gallery, of Sunderland, certifying
as to the bridge built under Paine's patent. The writer states: "The
Wearmouth Bridge Foundation Stone was laid with Masonic honours,
24th September, 1793; the bridge was opened 9th August, 1796.
...Built of cast iron and with a span of 236 feet, it was one of the
most daring structures ever built in this material." The writer
further states: "In 1859 the roadway was leveled and the
structure widened and strengthened by Robert Stephenson. When the
bridge was demolished in 1929 (having become too narrow for modern
traffic), the original east iron ribs were found to be in perfect
The famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris housed, for a time, the
religious services of The Society of Theophilanthropists, which was
founded by Paine and five families, in 1797. The name, a combination
of three Greek words, signify God, Love, and Man. Pane delivered the
inauguration sermon entitled "The Existence of God."
Throughout his writings, we find an intense belief in a common
unity, a common brotherhood, and a common faith -- faith in the
ultimate freedom of all mankind. Freedom of body, freedom of mind,
and freedom of soul. To these freedoms he dedicated his life. Great
men and women of science, in all countries, may well consecrate
their lives to the achievement of these freedoms, in the spirit of
'76, as expressed by Paine in these words:
These are the times that try men 's souls. The summer
soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from
the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves
the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not
easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the
harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain
too cheaply, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives
everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon
its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an
article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
Thomas Paine, Citizen of' the World, well said: "The world is
my country, and to do good is my religion."