In 1869, John Emerson Roberts ran away from home. He was sixteen. His father had just died in the Michigan Asylum for the Insane inKalamazoo. His two elder brothers had left home, leaving him to be the man of the family for his mother and four younger siblings. Perhaps this was more responsibility than he was ready to bear. Many years later, Dr. Roberts told a newspaper interviewer that his plan was to go toNew Orleansand become a sailor.

This action is the first indication of John Roberts’s individuality and courage.  He was born in 1853 in Ohio, where his father was a Baptist minister.  His mother had strong religious roots going back to her grandfather who was a Congregational minister in Connecticut.  John’s family moved every few years, following his father’s calls to different churches, until they settled  in Michigan in 1857.  John grew up as a farm boy outside Battle Creek.

Mental illness was not well understood in the 1860s.  John’s father was diagnosed with melancholia (severe depression) in 1864, but was only admitted to the hospital in 1869, when the facility expanded.  Two primary theories about melancholia were that it was hereditary, in which case it could not be entirely prevented, and that it was caused by too much “brain work,” for which the remedy was physical labor.  John was a thinking person, as his later career would demonstrate, so he may have feared that he was susceptible to his father’s illness.

            The life of a sailor would both free John from the constraints of religion and reduce the risk of developing a disease that was believed to be caused by too much thinking and not enough physical activity. To his sixteen-year-old mind in 1869, it appeared to be a good solution to the frustrations of his situation as he headed south toward the Mississippi River. The action also shows his curiosity and readiness to try something new.

Excerpts from the first chapter of John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See more on the Books page.  Or go to for a giveaway which ends on August 8.