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Issue 12 – Assumption 2022

Arts and Letters

Bubble on the Ocean

On Thomas Paine.


The Church of Saint Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism
Leigh Eric Schmidt
Princeton, pp. 272, $27.95

What kind of relic could a freethinker adore? One might be the two-inch-long flake, resembling a scrap from an old boot sole, which went on display at the Manhattan Liberal Club in 1902. Its label explained its power: this was “a portion of the brain of Mr. Thomas Paine.” Moncure Daniel Conway, a minister to a secularist Ethical Society, had bought it in London, and in taking his piece of Paine in New York, reversed an early nineteenth-century mishap. That occurred in 1819 when the radical pamphleteer William Cobbett visited Paine’s home at New Rochelle and found that his hero had been hurriedly interred in a nondescript grave. He had his bones dug up and took them back to London, where he hoped to use them as a mascot in his efforts to effect “the reformation of England in Church and State.” Alas, the Protestant public, wary of sedition and popish frauds, mocked these relics of “putrid Paine.” Cobbett schlepped the remains from place to place and then, in the end, lost them.

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About the author

Michael Ledger-Lomas