When John Emerson Roberts did his five part series on The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy, he set up a series of parallels, a good rhetorical device.  The second sermon was on “Two Gods” the God of vengeance and the God of mercy.  The third sermon, on “Two Bibles,” contrasted the Bible, valuable as a record of human development, with the natural universe, “the only book God ever wrote.”  The fourth sermon, “Two Plans” he used mostly as an excuse to discuss and dismiss old ideas of the atonement.  “The necessity of an atonement disappears with the old idea of a capricious and changeable God,” he concluded, ignoring his own earlier comments on a God of judgment vs. a God of mercy.  A rhetorical flourish.

Only in the final sermon of this five-sermon set did Roberts turn to more positive thoughts.  It’s another parallel, this time between Jesus and Voltaire.  This idea was not new with Roberts; he borrowed it from Victor Hugo, who had spoken on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Voltaire’s death in 1878.  In fact, a good third of the sermon is straight from Hugo, though Roberts does not admit it.  This is normal for preachers; they are not required to identify their sources.

Voltaire was a popular freethought hero in the United States in the second half of the 19th century.  Born Francois Marie Aroeut in 1694, he was a poet, playwright and philosopher who challenged authority at every turn.  He wrote satires about church and society.  Of his works, one that survives today is Candide – in large part because Leonard Bernstein made an opera out of it.

One hundred years ago Voltaire was much better known:
●  In 1866, Voltairine de Cleyre was named after him.  After enduring education in a convent (her parents thought it was the best education available to a young woman) she became an atheist and an anarchist.
●  In 1879, the Music Hall was built in Chicago partly to provide a platform for David Swing, a liberal preacher who had left the Presbyterian denomination.  Voltaire’s bust was included along with those of Moses, Mozart and other heroes of faith and music.
●  Clarence Darrow, who had admired Voltaire since his youth, found him a profitable lecture topic in the early 20th century.

Roberts begins his discussion of Voltaire with a strong metaphor:  “The plain is habitable because the mountain is beyond,” he says, and continues:

Voltaire was the mountain.  Rugged, defiant, implacable, lightning-scarred, storm-enveloped, immovable, august, sublime, he towered above Europe and the eighteenth century with unspeakable scorn for superstition, secular or sacred, and with unquenchable devotion to reason and light.  Kings exiled him.  Police officers arrested him.  Bastilles and prisons confined him.  Ignorance hated him.  Superstition execrated him.  The priesthood denounced him. . . .

What has this to do with Jesus?

There are of necessity two kinds of prophets.  One shows the way to heaven, that is to moral health, to sanity, to a consisten and reasonable faith and to kindness toward men and reverence toward God
Such was Jesus, and such are all great souls who, from the spirt and genius of the world of matter and of man, imbibe the thought of God.

Voltaire is another kind of prophet, one of those “whose visions disclose the abyss towards which the unreasoning haste.”  Roberts’s argument requires the assumption that religion in Voltaire’s time had reached a very low point.  Voltaire, Roberts says, “rescued it from ecclesiastical asphyxiation and gave it light and air.”

After going at length into the contrast of Jesus and Voltaire as two types of prophet, Roberts brings them back together:

The church in all ages has put dogma first, charity and tolerance last.  Christianity today is dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.  Jesus reversed that method.  Voltair reversed that method.  Jesus was called in his own day a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  Voltaire was called a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  But God sends such heretics among men to sweeten life, to establish justice, to illuminate the true, the beautiful and the good, to plead for humanity and for God and prevent religion from perishing from the earth.

Roberts was carried away by his own rhetoric, and so was his congregation.  He filled a 500 seat sanctuary with his sermons.  It is quite a stretch to call Jesus a heretic, since the Judaism of his time was both varied and non-dogmatic; the charge of heresy requires a single controlling authority.  Roberts is reading back from his own experience and his own era.  There is, however, some truth in his claims.  Christianity has always been at risk of becoming a prop for the status quo: “dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.”  Roberts seems to be putting his hope in a new Voltaire, rather than a prophet like Jesus.

This post is an expansion of material in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s ‘Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

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