The Golden Age of Freethought

How freethinkers broadened the appeal of their secularist message in the late 19th century.

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American secularists were dedicated to the improvement of free cultural and educational institutions for pragmatic as well as philosophical reasons. The unprecedented postwar expansion of public schools, libraries, and museums-the latter two supported by private philanthropists as well as public funds-contributed greatly to the willingness of Americans to entertain, if not necessarily to adopt, unfamiliar ideas. Free public education for the many rather than the few was essential to the secularist vision of a society in which every individual, unhampered by gatekeepers who sought to control the spread of dangerous knowledge, could go as far as his or her intellect would permit. In the view of freethinkers, the most pernicious gatekeepers were religious authorities; thus, education must be both secular and publicly financed. Indeed, by the 1870s the word secularist was used not only as a general philosophical term but as a specific definition, in either the affirmative or the pejorative sense, of those who advocated public schooling free of religious content.

Freethought periodicals, which proliferated after the Civil War, were important sources of communication within the freethinking community. They included the venerable Boston Investigator, dating from 1831; the Truth Seeker, founded in 1873 in Peoria, Illinois, but soon relocated to New York City; the Blue Grass Blade in Lexington, Kentucky; the Free-Thought Ideal and Free-Thought Vindicator in Ottawa, Kansas; the irresistibly titled Lucifer, the Light-Bearer in Topeka, Kansas; and the Iconoclast in Austin, Texas, whose editor, William Cowper Brann, was shot in the back and killed by an enraged Baptist in 1898. Brann is an unusual figure in the annals of American freethought, because he was a militant racist-a stance that made him a pariah within the national freethought movement (though many northern freethinkers, like others in the North, saw racism as a strictly southern phenomenon).

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."

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