To Samuel Adams January 1, 1803
From the original letter at the New York Public Library.
My dear and venerable friend Samuel Adams
I received with great pleasure your friendly and affectionate letter of November 30 and I thank you also for the frankness of it. Between men in pursuit of truth, and whose object is the happiness of man both here and hereafter, there ought to be no reserve. Even Error has a claim to indulgence, if not respect, when it is believed to be truth.
I am obliged to you for your affectionate remembrance of what you stile my services in awakening the public mind to a declaration of Independence, and supporting it after it was declared. I also, like you, have often looked back on those times, and have thought that if independence had not been declared at the time it was the public mind could not have been brought up to it afterwards. It will immediately occur to you, who were so intimately acquainted with the situation of things at that time, that I allude to the black times of Seventy-six; for though I know, and you my friend also know, they were no other than the natural consequence of the military blunders of that campaign, the country might have viewed them as proceeding from a natural inability to support its Cause against the enemy, and have sunk under the despondency of that misconceived Idea. This was the impression against which it was necessary the Country should be strongly animated.
I come now to the second part of your letter, on which I shall be as frank with you as you are with me.
“But (say you), when I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of Infidelity I felt myself much astonished &c” - What, my good friend, do you call believing in God infidelity? for that is the great point maintained in the Age of Reason against all divided beliefs and allegorical divinities. The Bishop of Llandaff (Docr Watson) not only acknowledges this, but pays me some compliments upon it (in his answer to the second part of that work). “There is (says he) a philosophical sublimity in some of your ideas when speaking of the Creator of the Universe.”
What then (my much esteemed friend for I do not respect you the less because we differ, and that perhaps not much in religious sentiment) what I ask is this thing called infidelity? If we go back to your ancestors and mine three or four hundred years ago, for we must have had fathers and grandfathers or we should not be here, we shall find them praying to Saints and Virgins, and believing in purgatory and transubstantiation, and therefore all of us are infidels according to our forefathers belief. If we go back to times more ancient we shall again be infidels according to the belief of some other fore fathers.
The case, my friend, is that the World has been over run with fable and creeds of human invention; with Sectaries of whole nations against other nations, and sectaries of those sectaries in each of them against each other. Every sectary, except the quakers, has been a persecutor. Those who fled from persecution, persecuted in their turn, and it is this confusion of creeds that has filled the World with persecution and deluged it with blood. Even the depredation on your commerce by the barbary powers sprang from the Cruisades of the Church against those powers. It was a war of Creed against Creed, each boasting of God for its author, and reviling each other with the name of Infidel. If I do not believe as you believe, it proves that you do not believe as I believe, and this is all that it proves.
There is however one point of Union wherein all religions meet, and that is, in the first article of every Man’s Creed, and of every Nation’s Creed, that has any creed at all. I believe in God. Those who rest here, and there are millions who do, cannot be wrong as far as their Creed goes. Those who chuse to go further may be wrong for it is impossible that all can be right since there is so much contradiction among them. The first therefore are, in my opinion, on the safest side.
I presume you are so far acquainted with ecclesiastical history as to know, and the bishop who has answered me has been obliged to acknowledge the fact, that the books that compose the New Testament were voted by Yeas and Nays to be the Word of God as you now vote a law, by the popish Councils of Nice and Laodicea about 1450 years ago. With respect to the fact there is no dispute, neither do I mention it for the sake of controversy. This Vote may appear authority enough to some, and not authority enough to others. It is proper however that everybody should know the fact.
With respect to The Age of Reason which you so much condemn, and that I believe without having read it, for you say only that you heard of it, I will inform you of a Circumstance because you cannot know it by other means. I have said in the first page of the first part of that work that it had long been my intention to publish my thoughts upon religion, but that I had reserved it to a later time of life. I have now to inform you why I wrote it and published it at the time I did.
In the first place, I saw my life in continual danger. My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off, and as I every day expected 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 it at the time I did; and so nicely did the time and the intention meet that I had not finished the first part of that Work more than six hours before I was arrested and taken to prison. Joel Barlow was with me and knows the fact.
In the second place, the people of france were running headlong into Atheism, and I had the work translated and published in their own language to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article (as I have before said) of every man’s creed who has any creed at all, I believe in God. I endangered my own life, in the first place, by opposing in the Convention the execution of the king, and by labouring to shew they were trying the Monarchy and not the Man, and that the crimes imputed to him were the crimes of the Monarchical System; and I endangered it a second time by opposing Atheism; and yet some of your priests, for I do not believe that all are perverse, cry out, in the War-whoop of Monarchical priestcraft, What an Infidel, what a wicked man, is Thomas Paine! They might as well add, for he believes in God and is against shedding blood.
But all this war-whoop of the pulpit has some concealed object. Religion is not the Cause, but is the stalking horse. They put it forward to conceal themselves behind it. It is not a secret that there has been a party composed of the leaders of the federalists, for I do not include all federalists with their leaders, who have been working by various means for several years past to overturn the federal Constitution established on the representative system, and place government in the new World on the corrupt system of the old. To accomplish this, a large standing Army was necessary, and as a pretense for such an Army the danger of a foreign invasion must be bellowed forth from the pulpit, from the press, and by their public Orators. I am not of a disposition inclined to suspicion. It is in its nature a mean and cowardly passion, and upon the whole, even admitting error into the case, it is better, I am sure, it is more generous, to be wrong on the side of confidence than on the side of suspicion. But I know as a fact that the english Government distributes annually fifteen hundred pounds sterling among the presbyterian ministers in England and one thousand among those of Ireland; and when I hear of the strange discourses of some of your ministers and professors of Colleges, I cannot, as the quakers say, find freedom in my mind to acquit them. Their anti-revolutionary doctrines invite suspicion even against one’s will, and in spite of one’s charity to believe well of them.
As you have given me one scripture phrase I will give you another for those ministers. It is said in Exodus Chap. 22 v28, “Thou shalt not revile the Gods nor curse the ruler of thy people.” But those ministers such I mean as Dr. Emmons curse ruler and people both, for the majority are, politically, the people, and it is those who have chosen the ruler whom they curse. As to the first part of the verse, that of not reviling the Gods, it makes no part of my scripture. I have but one God.
Since I began this letter, for I write it by piece meals, as I have leisure, I have seen the four letters that passed between you and John Adams. In your first letter you say, “let divines and Philosophers, Statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavours to renovate the age by inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy.” Why, my dear friend, this is exactly my religion, and is the whole of it. That you may have an Idea that the Age of Reason (for I believe you have not read it) inculcates this reverential fear and love of the Deity I will give you a paragraph from it.
“Do we want to contemplate 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 see it in his not with holding that abundance even from the unthankful.”
As I am fully with you in your first part, that respecting the Deity, so am I in your second, that of universal philanthropy; by which I do not mean merely the sentimental benevolence of wishing well, but the practical benevolence of doing good. We cannot serve the Deity, in the manner we serve those who cannot do without that service. He needs no service from us. We can add nothing to eternity. But it is in our power to render a service acceptable to him, and that is not by praying, but by endeavouring to make his creatures happy. A man does not serve God when he prays, for it is himself he is trying to serve; and as to hiring or paying men to pray, as if the Deity needed instruction, it is, in my opinion, an Abomination. One good school-master is of more use and of more value than a load of such persons as Dr. Emmons and some others.
You, my dear and much respected friend, are now far in the vale of years; I have yet, I believe, some years in store, for I have a good state of health and a happy mind, and I take care of both by nourishing the first with temperance and the latter with abundance. This, I believe, you will allow to be the true philosophy of life. You will see by my third letter to the Citizens of the United States that I have been exposed to, and preserved through, many dangers; but instead of buffeting the Deity with prayers as if I distrusted him, or must dictate to him, I reposed myself on his protection; and you, my friend, will find, even in your last moments, more consolation in the silence of resignation than in the murmuring wish of a prayer.
In every thing which you say in your second letter to John Adams, respecting our rights as men and Citizens in this World I am perfectly with you. On other points we have to answer to our Creator and not to each other. The key of heaven is not in the keeping of any Sect, nor ought the road to it be obstructed by any. Our relation to each other in this World is as men, and the man who is a friend to man and to his rights, let his religious opinions be what they may, is a good citizen, to whom I can give, as I ought to do, and as every other ought, the right hand of fellowship, and to none with more hearty good will, my dear friend, than to you.
Federal City Janry 1 1803