The Golden Age of Freethought
How freethinkers broadened the appeal of their secularist message in the late 19th century.
BY: Susan Jacoby
The most influential freethought publication--the only one with a truly national circulation--was the Truth Seeker. On the masthead of the first issue, published on September i, 1873, editor D. M. Bennett and his wife, Mary, proclaimed that the publication would devote itself to "science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform, progression, free education, and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race." Its lively letters to the editor column provided a forum not only for readers in large cities with established freethought organizations but for "village atheists" in small towns, particularly in the South, where religious unorthodoxy could lead to social ostracism or worse (as Brann's shooting demonstrated). The writers and editors of the nineteenth-century Truth Seeker were an eclectic bunch. They included proponents of sexual abstinence and free love, urban sophisticates and devotees of pure country air, spiritualists and uncompromising rationalists, temperance campaigners and promoters of a European appreciation of wine (the latter was perhaps an inheritance from the old association between freethought and revolutionary France), and health nuts of every ilk. In 1929, George Macdonald recalled that there "has always been a considerable fringe of ascetics in the Freethought ranks--foes of rum, tobacco, corsets, sex, meat, and white bread.... Their slogan is: 'The whiter the bread the sooner you're dead.'" This quirkiness and diversity of interests was reflected in the freethought press, with opposition to organized religion and devotion to separation of church and state as the two unifying themes.
But the freethought lecture circuit--not the press--was the chief mode of communication between committed agnostics and a larger public that was interested in but did not define itself by religious skepticism. Americans flocked to lectures in every area of the country--whether in great cities where well-off inhabitants could afford to pay the munificent sum of one dollar for a ticket to a lecture by the famous [Robert Green] Ingersoll (scalpers in New York City, the newspapers reported disapprovingly, got up to two dollars) or in towns like Dowagiac, where a citizen might spend a nickel to hear a traveling lecturer at the Universalist Church, the established venue for heretical talks. General circulation newspapers treated the talks--especially the more controversial ones--as legitimate news events. Ingersoll, Stanton, and Anthony made headlines and sold newspapers wherever they went. When Anthony spoke at the Dowagiac Universalists' invitation in 1874 (two decades before she was enshrined in the Beckwith Theater's dissident pantheon), the church was packed even though the one local newspaper described her arguments as "lengthy but not particularly convincing... and [eliciting] but little enthusiasm." Not little enough, the writer was forced to admit, because when Anthony asked her local audience for a show of hands on the woman suffrage issue, "the ladies" surprised the men by responding with an uppity and overwhelming "aye."
It is difficult, in an era in which most Americans acquire their information from packaged sound bites that require almost no effort from audiences, to convey the excitement of a time when people were willing to expend a good deal of energy looking at evidence, and listening to opinions, that challenged the received wisdom of previous ages. Autodidacts considered it fun to sit or stand for hours and hear lecturers discuss Shakespeare's sonnets, the poetry of Byron, the philosophy of Voltaire, the new biblical criticism based on the premise that the Scriptures were written by humans, evolution, electrification, the germ theory of disease, or woman suffrage. Their faith-inspired counterparts were equally eager to listen to evangelists deliver lengthy sermons on salvation and damnation. Freethought lecturers, unable to hold out the prospect of salvation or threaten damnation in the next world, could appeal to their audiences only by holding out a different vision of how to think and live on this earth.