The Age of Reason  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, a deistic treatise written by eighteenth-century British radical and American revolutionary Thomas Paine, critiques institutionalized religion and challenges the inerrancy of the Bible. Published in three parts in 1794, 1795, and 1807, it was a bestseller in America, where it caused a short-lived deistic revival. British audiences, however, fearing increased political radicalism as a result of the French revolution, received it with more hostility. The Age of Reason presents common deistic arguments; for example, it highlights the corruption of the Christian Church and criticizes its efforts to acquire political power. Paine advocates reason in the place of revelation, leading him to reject miracles and to view the Bible as an ordinary piece of literature rather than as a divinely-inspired text. Yet, The Age of Reason is not atheistic: it promotes natural religion and argues for a creator-God.

Most of Paine's arguments had long been available to the educated elite, but by presenting them in an engaging and irreverent style, he made deism appealing and accessible to a mass audience. The book was also inexpensive, putting it within the reach of a large number of buyers. Fearing the spread of what they viewed as potentially revolutionary ideas, the British government prosecuted printers and booksellers who tried to publish and distribute it. The Age of Reason resulted in only a brief upsurge in deistic thought in America. However, Paine's ideas inspired and guided many British freethinkers of the nineteenth century and his rhetorical style has endured even into the twenty-first century, in the works of modern writers such as Christopher Hitchens and the films and persona of Michael Moore.

Following Thomas Williams's sentence of one year's hard labor for publishing The Age of Reason in 1797, no editions were sold openly in Britain until 1818 when Richard Carlile included it in an edition of Paine's complete works. Carlile charged one shilling and sixpence for the work, and the first run of 1,000 copies sold out in a month. He immediately published a second edition of 3,000 copies. Like Williams, he was prosecuted for seditious libel and blasphemous libel. The prosecutions surrounding the printing of The Age of Reason in Britain continued for thirty years after its initial release and encompassed numerous publishers as well as over a hundred booksellers.

Publishing history

In December 1792, Paine's Rights of Man, part II was declared seditious in Britain and he was forced to flee to France in order to avoid arrest. Dismayed by the French revolution's turn toward secularism and atheism, he composed Part I of The Age of Reason in 1792 and 1793:

It has been my intention, for several years past, to publish my thoughts upon religion. . . . The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity and of the theology that is true.

Although Paine wrote The Age of Reason for the French, he dedicated it to his "Fellow Citizens of the United States of America", alluding to his bond with the American revolutionaries.

It is unclear when exactly Paine drafted Part I. According to Paine scholars Edward Davidson and William Scheick, he probably wrote the first draft of Part I in late 1793, but Paine biographer David Hawke argues for a date of early 1793. It is also unclear whether or not a French edition of Part I was published in 1793. François Lanthenas, who translated The Age of Reason into French in 1794, wrote that it was first published in France in 1793, but no book fitting his description has been positively identified. Joel Barlow published the first English edition of The Age of Reason, Part I in 1794 in London, selling it for a mere three pence.

Meanwhile, Paine, considered too moderate by the powerful Jacobin wing of the French revolutionaries, was imprisoned for ten months in France. He only escaped the guillotine by accident: the sign marking him out for execution was improperly placed on his cell door. When James Monroe, at that time the new American Minister to France, secured his release in 1794, Paine immediately began work on Part II of The Age of Reason, despite his poor health. Part II was first published in a pirated edition by H.D. Symonds in London in October 1795. In 1796 Daniel Isaac Eaton published Parts I and II, and sold them at a cost of one shilling and six pence. (Eaton was later forced to flee to America after being convicted of seditious libel for publishing other radical works.) Paine himself financed the shipping of 15,000 copies of his work to America. Later, Francis Place and Thomas Williams collaborated on an edition which sold about 2,000 copies. Williams also produced his own edition, but the British government indicted him and confiscated the pamphlets.

In the late 1790s, Paine fled from France to the United States, where he wrote Part III of The Age of Reason: An Examination of the Passages in the New Testament, Quoted from the Old and Called Prophecies Concerning Jesus Christ. Fearing unpleasant and even violent reprisals, Thomas Jefferson convinced him not to publish it in 1802; five years later Paine decided to publish despite the backlash he knew would ensue.

Following Thomas Williams's sentence of one year's hard labor for publishing The Age of Reason in 1797, no editions were sold openly in Britain until 1818 when Richard Carlile included it in an edition of Paine's complete works. Carlile charged one shilling and sixpence for the work, and the first run of 1,000 copies sold out in a month. He immediately published a second edition of 3,000 copies. Like Williams, he was prosecuted for seditious libel and blasphemous libel. The prosecutions surrounding the printing of The Age of Reason in Britain continued for thirty years after its initial release and encompassed numerous publishers as well as over a hundred booksellers.



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