The Impact of Paine
Criticism of the Christian religion and its institutions was not new in the 1790s. Respectable voices had been raised against the corruption of the Church and its personnel for centuries; dissenters from its teachings had existed for almost as long as there had been teachings to be questioned. Even on a popular level this had to some extent been true, though the level of such criticism had usually been insignificant. The conjunction of political and religious radicalism was also an accepted occurrence, and the two had been associated most recently in those events which had disrupted English life in the middle of the seventeenth century. The work of Paine, though, was very much an expression of the thought of his own century — the age of reason. He said little that was new, but he spoke out to the common man — he was an infidel. Polite deism had already supplied the reasoning, but few men before Paine had dared to communicate anti-Christian ideas to the world outside that of scholarship and letters. Those who had done so had been punished (Doc. 66), chief among whom was Peter Annet (1693–1769).1 His works were re-printed by the London Corresponding Society (Doc. 4) and by Richard Carlile, and thereafter were quoted or referred to on many occasions by later freethinkers. In 1839, for example, a periodical published in Manchester by Abel Heywood, entitled The Natural Mirror, or Free Thoughts on Theology, edited by ‘an Owenian’, contained extracts from, among others, Annet, Voltaire, Paine, and the French classic, Bon Sens.2
KeywordsChristian Religion Weekly Number Habeas Corpus Popular Level Free Thought
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