On January 31, 1901, the landmark Coates Opera House in Kansas City, where John Emerson Roberts’s Church of This World had been meeting, burned down. On the same day, Roberts was honored at a dinner. The newspaper reported that seventy-five friends and admirers attended. The date was chosen for its proximity to January 29, the birthday of Thomas Paine, America’s first hero of freethought because of his radical views during and after the Revolution.
Within twenty-four hours of the fire, the Church of This World announced a new arrangement. It would meet henceforth at the Standard Theater, located two blocks south. It was considered an inferior place, for one article describes it, in relation to the new agreement, as “a playhouse which by a stroke of the pen has doffed the scarlet robes for the regenerated garb of a first-class establishment.”
What happened next is strange and cries out for explanation, but none has been given. After this dinner and the quick resolution of where his church would meet in the aftermath of the fire, Dr. Roberts was unable to lecture on the following Sunday. One source says he was ill, another that he was out of the city. Both statements are probably true, as this fits a later pattern. His wife, Edith, spoke in his place.
Edith Wilson, whose family were members of All Souls’ Unitarian Church, had married Dr. Roberts in 1893. She was 21; he was 40. She became stepmother to his three children, and they produced two more children together. What she had to say in her husband’s absence shows that her ideas had developed alongside his and that she considered herself his partner and equal. Her topic for her first lecture was “Marriage and Divorce.”
The lecture was a response to a current political debate in which one party wished to restrict the comparatively liberal divorce laws that had been put in place in Missouri some ten years earlier. Mrs. Roberts begins with historical background; she praises the Romans for an era in which the matron reached a level of equality which Christianity squelched. She blames the “heavy hand of superstition,” the “arrogant” St. Paul, and Pope Gregory VII, who put marriage firmly under church control as a sacrament. She describes marriage as having two purposes:
. . . first and directly, the happiness of the contracting parties; second and indirectly, the welfare of children resulting from the union. The purposes of divorce are identical with those of marriage, the second and indirect reason of the one becoming the paramount reason for the other. To perpetuate in the home an atmosphere of misery that rapidly turns to hate is a crime against both children and parents; it incapacitates the family for usefulness, and brings to light the darkest relics of our human past, the fang, the claw, the suffocating coil. To rear children under such conditions is an outrage to every responsibility of parenthood.
The courts, she argues, should do no more than recognize a decision to divorce. The current practice, in which one judge had complained of “collusion and fraud” when two parties agreed to a divorce, should be abolished. She points out that judges are not trained in psychology and therefore lack the “requisites for a correct estimate of human nature.”
In closing she suggests that two groups of people oppose liberal divorce laws. The first are those who are unhappy in their own marriages and think others should be compelled to endure what they endure. For these she sees no remedy. The second group are those who are happy in their marriage, yet insensitive to those less fortunate. To them she says:
. . . the men and women who have known what perfect marriage is, who have tried a happiness and pronounced it blessed, who have learned the meaning of love in its every sense and found that its other name is adoration, who have entered together the secret courts of parenthood and known the joy of rearing superb children that bear the sweet image of their mutual love—it seems to me that such men and women should most gladly give a chance of freedom to every disappointed lover.
These are the words of a woman happily married. Her primary focus, however, is on the raising of “superb” children. Edith Roberts declares that women are equal, responsible, able to make their own choices before the law, then adds that the use of the woman’s equality is to bear children, by choice. The purpose of the home is to produce healthy, happy, intelligent children. This is the purpose which this freethinking woman has chosen for herself.
For more on Edith Wilson Roberts and her husband, read my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought