Early Americans Read the Bible in a Way That Nearly Destroyed America

Mark Noll surveys the effects of an “independence-first” approach to Scripture.

Thomas Paine threw gasoline-soaked ink on the fiery spirit of American independence by publishing his pamphlet Common Sense six months before the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Upon independence from King George III, Paine promised, “The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

This new world would be born free from a king. Citing the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of Judges, and 1 Samuel 8 (where Israel demands to be ruled royally like other nations), Paine argued that “the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government.” Common Sense was an enormous success; over 100,000 copies sold within months. You know the rest of the story about 1776: America echoed Paine’s call and claimed independence.

Eighteen years later, Paine authored more advice for his devoted readers. In 1794, he published the first of three parts of The Age of Reason, in which he trumpeted his deist beliefs about the Bible. It too was an immediate bestseller. As Paine declared on the opening page, “I believe in one God, and no more.” He added, “I do not believe in … any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. … [Churches are] human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Paine dissected the Bible, book by book, concluding, “Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the Creation.”

As Mark Noll explains in America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911, figures like Paine were instrumental in shaping America’s commitment to independence, which in turned shaped how its people engaged the Bible. In Paine’s …

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