Proselytizers at Thomas Paine’s Deathbed

At the end of his life, Thomas Paine seems to have had visits from at least five people trying to convert him from deism to Christianity.  This post contains an excerpt of a book by G. W. Foote, first published by 1888, called Infidel Death-Beds.

Foote’s book mostly acts as a rebuttal to claims of deathbed conversion and recantation by famous heretics.  Certainly Paine was a victim of this disgraceful posthumous treatment, with Christians claiming he had died “howling and terrified”, recanting his assaults on organised religion and the reliability of the Bible.  But rather than focus on the rebuttals of all that here, I’ve chosen an excerpt that just gives an idea of Paine’s actual experiences with the proselytizers.

[Text copied straight from here and here, except that I’ve changed the layout & formatting slightly, added my own emphasis to a few bits, and made one correction.]

His last years were full of pain, caused by an abscess in the side, which was brought on by his imprisonment in Paris. He expired, after intense suffering, on June 8, 1809, placidly and without a struggle. [Life of Thomas Paine. By Clio Hickman. 1819. p. 187]

Paine’s last hours were disturbed by pious visitors who wished to save his immortal soul from the wrath of God: —

One afternoon a very old lady, dressed in a large
scarlet-hooded cloak, knocked at the door and inquired for
Thomas Paine. Mr. Jarvis, with whom Mr, Paine resided, told
her he was asleep. “I am very sorry,” she said, “for that, for
I want to see him particularly.” Thinking it a pity to make an
old woman call twice, Mr. Jarvis took her into Mr. Paine’s
bedroom and awoke him. He rose upon one elbow; then, with an
expression of eye that made the old woman stagger back a step
or two, he asked, “What do you want?” “Is your name Paine?”
“Yes.” “Well, then, I come from Almighty God to tell you, that
if you do not repent of your sins, and believe in our blessed
Savior Jesus Christ, you will be damned and –” “Poh, poh, it
is not true; you were not sent with any such impertinent
message: Jarvis make her go away — pshaw! he would not send
such a foolish old woman about his messages; go away, go back,
shut the door.” — [Hickman, pp. 182-183.]

Two weeks before his death, his conversion was attempted by two Christian ministers, the Rev. Mr. Milledollar and the Rev. Mr. Cunningham: —

The latter gentleman said, “Mr. Paine, we visit you as
friends and neighbors; you have now a full view of death, you
cannot live long, and whoever does not believe in Jesus Christ
will assuredly be damned.” “Let me,” said Mr. Paine, “have
none of your popish stuff; get away with you, good morning,
good morning.” The Rev. Mr. Milledollar attempted to address
him, but he was interrupted in the same language. When they
were gone he said to Mrs. Heddon, his housekeeper, “do not let
them come here again; they intrude upon me.” They soon renewed
their visit, but Mrs. Hedden told them they could not be
admitted, and that she thought the attempt useless, for if God
did not change his mind, she was sure no human power could.
[Rickman, p. 184]

Another of these busybodies was the Rev. Mr. Hargrove, a Swedenborgian or New Jerusalemite minister. This gentleman told Paine that his sect had found the key for interpreting the Scriptures, which had been lost for four thousand years. “Then,” said Paine, “it must have been very rusty.”

Even his medical attendant did not scruple to assist in this pious enterprise. Dr. Manley’s letter to Cheetham, one of Paine’s biographers, says that he visited the dying skeptic at midnight, June 5-6, two days before he expired. After tormenting him with many questions, to which he made no answer, Dr. Manley proceeded as follows: —

Mr. Paine, you have not answered my questions; will you
answer them? Allow me to ask again, do you believe, or — let
me qualify the question — do you wish to believe that Jesus
Christ is the Son of God? After a pause of some minutes he
answered, “I have no wish to believe on that subject.” I then
left him, and know not whether he afterwards spoke to any
person on the subject.

Sherwin confirms this statement. He prints a letter from Mr. Clark, who spoke to Dr. Manley on the subject. “I asked him plainly,” said Mr. Clark, “Did Mr. Paine recant his religious sentiments? I would thank you for an explicit answer, sir. He said, “No, he did not.” [Sherwin’s Life of Paine, p. 225.]

It sounds to me like Paine handled these Christian interlopers very well, considering the circumstances.



Some boring extra details …

If you follow the links to the two webpages that I got the plain text of the above excerpt from, you’ll see that they are actually copies of a more recent version of Infidel Death-Beds, with edits and substantial additions by someone called A.D. McLaren.  But the section on Paine is visible in this 1910 edition by Foote alone.

If you’re interested, something claiming to be the 1888 edition was made available in 2010 as a facsimile reprint, yet claims to have A D McLaren as the editor.  I don’t have access to this book in any format, so I don’t know how to reconcile these claims with my suspicion that A D McLaren wasn’t involved with the book until after Foote’s death in 1915.

I mentioned that Foote’s book mostly acts as a rebuttal to claims of deathbed conversion and recantation by famous heretics.  If you’re interested in that area, Robert Ingersoll seems to have written a whole book just to defend Paine against these Christian claims, called The Vindication of Thomas Paine (available here and here) (1877).  For more recent coverage of the subject, there’s a 2005 article about Paine, Voltaire, Darwin, and others, and a 2016 article on the claims made about Christopher Hitchens (which also mentions Paine).

A portrait of Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine. (NPG 897) © National Portrait Gallery, London

The above portrait of Thomas Paine is from this NPG page, and is reproduced under the “CC BY-NC-ND 3.0” licence.