12. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” – A bestseller “Methodist” pamphlet?
Thomas Paine published Common Sense on January 10, 1776. The previous fall, the Second Continental Congress had been divided on the question of whether to declare independence or not. Paine’s Common Sense played a role in changing the hearts and minds of a people. It was a runaway best-seller with fifty-three reprints in the first year alone. Philadelphians were all reading it as were people throughout the colonies.
But what made it so successful? One reason may be that its rhetoric sounded familiar. Paine’s Common Sense sounded Methodist even if Paine himself was not one. But in his twenties he was drawn to Methodist preachers he heard preach throughout England. Their powerful appeal to common people in plain language was something he never forgot. Now almost forty years old and writing his Common Sense, Paine knew that “fence-sitting” colonists who did not want to commit to American independence could be swayed by making a political appeal in a religious and even Methodist way. And so he did.
Paine’s use of religious rhetoric was not lost on early American preachers who came after him either. If Paine could use Methodist language to make a political argument it seemed that preachers like Lorenzo Dow could – and did – make Paine’s political language make a religious argument as well! Lorenzo Dow was one of the most famous and wild-eyed evangelists in early American Methodism. He sometimes started his sermons with a quote from Thomas Paine.