John Emerson Roberts had a good Baptist education and became a successful Baptist preacher.  He was called to the First Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1881.  He was about 28 years old and three years out of school.  However, Roberts continued to read and to think.  By the summer of 1883 he was not preaching the same gospel his father had preached.  Here is a description of one sermon from that year, entitled “Co-laborers with God.”

He begins by saying, “What God has designed for humanity and how He will accomplish it, have been questions that have ever been discussed and never fully settled.” He blames the lack of an answer largely on a focus on secondary doctrines. He singles out Catholics for claiming none can be saved outside their communion. He then points out that Christ’s call was to action, not theories. He concludes this section by saying, “My faith is simple enough to believe that this round world will yet be won by the gospel of the Son of Man, but it will never be done by dogma and controversy, and the bitter strife of words.” Instead, it will be won by those who “have imbibed the spirit of the Nazarene, and who, like him, go down among men to teach them charity and forgiveness, and purity, and faith, and love.”

It’s no surprise that a Baptist would find fault with Catholics in Roberts’s time.  And to dismiss theories of the fall of man as a case of people “reasoning about things that are beyond them” was also common in churches that focused on individual commitment to Christ.  But Roberts went further:

Any doctrine of hell or of election (that only some will be saved) he puts in this category of doctrines which have gone astray. They contradict the biblical record: “Jesus Christ said he died for the world.” He calls attention then to an opposite error: the idea that it is entirely a man’s choice to accept or refuse salvation. Roberts interprets Paul’s claim “for we are laborers together with God” to mean that the work of redemption involves both God and man.

In August, 1883, when Roberts gave this sermon, the members of First Baptist Church seemed to be very pleased with their pastor.  Fourteen months later, in October, 1884, the attitude had changed.

            Roberts was asked to preach two sermons stating his beliefs, in particular concerning the existence of hell. He did this on the evenings of October 25 and November 2. In one sermon, he argued that the idea of “endless punishment” is an inaccurate reading of scripture, contrary to reason and the sense of justice, and offensive to moral sentiment. In the other, he offered a contemporary understanding of hell: “Hell begins where sin begins, and is where sin is. Hell is no postponed catastrophe: it is here now.”
Following his November 2 sermon, the congregation voted to dismiss Roberts.

Robert Ingersoll was in Kansas City shortly after this event.  It was his custom to notice local religious events, which might provide local color for his lectures.  In this case it was not in a lecture but in conversation with a reporter for the Kansas City Journal that Ingersoll commented on what the First Baptist congregation had done:

I see that the Rev. Mr. Roberts of your city has the courage to say that the reason of each man is his highest standard of truth.  Of course, this is absolutely true, but the members of his church, holding their own reason in contempt, justly it may be, proceeded to vote (in order to be consistent) against their reason and turned him out.

Roberts and Ingersoll were not yet acquainted when Ingersoll made this statement.  Roberts had more thinking to do before he came to agree fully with Ingersoll’s point of view.

Excerpts are from Chapters 3 and 4 of John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See the Books page for more information.

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