These are the times that try men’s souls.  –Thomas Paine, December 19, 1776

God knows I have a sense of humor, even as I raised the question (in my last post) as to whether God has a sense of humor. So, researching Thomas Paine quotes (as a follow-up to Paine comments on my Sept. 2 post TO DEist OR NOT TO DEist), I hoped to find a few witticisms among the sober words of his Common Sense and other writings. No such luck — these were indeed “the times [the American and French Revolutions] that try men’s souls.” There’s not much to laugh about when the fates of lives and countries hang in the balance.

Paine (1737-1809), born in England into a poor family, was still poor in 1774 when he gained the friendship of Benjamin Franklin, who was then in London and advised him to go to America. Armed with letters of recommendation from Franklin, he soon became contributing editor to PENNSYLVANIA MAGAZINE and began pressing for American independence.

In 1776 he served as a soldier and published his famous pamphlet Common Sense in support of the colonies, which Washington, Jefferson and other leaders read with approval. This was followed by a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis, the first of which began with this post’s opening quote.

Paine subsequently supported the French Revolution — at least, initially — and was made a French citizen by the National Assembly of France in August 1792 and then a member of the National Convention, until his outspoken opposition to the revolution’s excessive bloodshed and violence got him expelled, deprived of French citizenship, and imprisoned.

While in prison, Paine worked on The Age of Reason, which advocated freedom from oppressive and organized religions. Although it began “I believe in one God, and no more,” it was called “the atheist’s bible” by those who couldn’t abide deviance from religious orthodoxy. By proclaiming deism, Paine became “one of the most hated men of his time” (source: The World Book Encyclopedia).

After James Monroe, American Minister to France, claimed Paine as an American citizen and obtained his release, President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 arranged for Paine’s return to the U.S.  But Paine found that people remembered him more for his opinions on religion than for his Revolutionary War service, and he died poor, ill and a social outcast.

How far America and the world have come since those centuries-old days of religious intolerance (to use the kindest possible euphemism), I leave for you to consider. It’s time for me to get to a few of those understandably serious Paine quotes :

The World is my country, all mankind are my brethern, and to do good is my religion.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power…. I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself.

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.