Thetford's Paine

Thetford Grammar School in Norfolk is an old English institution. Though now fee-paying, it boasts various interesting characters among is alumni, the most influential of whom must be Thomas Paine. To the spirit of the late eighteenth century he provided expression; he helped with the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain and was elected a member of the French revolutionary parliament, despite speaking poor French. The British Government issued various writs for his arrest, fearing his radical views would topple the state at a time when an isolated Britain was already weakened by the American and French wars. His primary ideas were ahead of their time; he advocated state aid for the poor, something we now take for granted, but was then a fanciful notion.

In the religious world, he was equally prophetic. As a committed deist, he believed in God and hoped for an afterlife, but could go little further:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. 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 and profit.

Although many of today’s irreligious and atheistic ranks are less thoughtful and articulate than Paine, he is their spokesman in the religious world as he is for many others in the political and economic. Whereas once his views were radical, today they are mainstream. The time is coming, however, when they will also look quaintly old fashioned; this always happens with human ideas.

So whatever turned the quiet schoolboy of Thetford in the 1740s? What made him the political radical and the religious sceptic? What persuaded him to reject King Jesus along with King George? Thetford Grammar School still stands; I saw the odd teacher’s car parked there in August, perhaps sorting out a classroom or preparing a course. Paine is long gone- he’s awaiting the judgement of the One whom he disbelieved. Yet his ideas go on, for good or ill; he being dead yet speaketh. His is the spirit of the age, and the age is godless.