John Emerson Roberts did not always preach on “orthodoxy” and theology.  One sermon he gave in November, 1895, was very topical: it concerned the death of an African American boy in the county jail.

Titling his sermon “Dead in Cell No. 5, Fourth Tier East” Roberts first relays the story in considerable detail.  Three boys had been caught stealing from a house they’d broken into.  Known to the police as troublemakers, they were sentenced to ten months to a year in the county jail.  Three months into the sentence, Willie MacManamy, age 11, died of pneumonia.  The arguments among those in charge following this event, which had taken place the Monday before Roberts spoke on the issue, were over who had to pay how much to whom to care for the body and release it for burial.

Roberts asserts, in spite of the volume of newspaper coverage, that “Society did not feel even a momentary acceleration in its modulated pulse-beats.”  Calling a child of the streets the “abridged edition of the people,” Roberts suggests that the child has great potential if only good seed can be sown on “the waiting soil of his virgin heart.”  But the time for such intervention is very short, and society fails to sow the seed because society itself is immature.  The philanthropic activity that exists is mostly selfish, an effort to keep the needs of others at a distance.  Roberts concludes by using the motif “if Christ came to Kansas City.”  He contrasts the number of well-appointed churches with the problems of street children and overcrowded jails.  The churches are no better than society as a whole.

The progressives who were beginning to seek to reform cities across the nation would agree with the way Roberts laid out the social problem.  Roberts, however, was not a reformer.  He was content to watch and wait, confident that society would in time grow up.

Roberts’s sermon was published in a local magazine called “Humanity.”  Robert Ingersoll was in Kansas City in May, 1896; while there he picked up a copy of the magazine.  After he got home he wrote to Roberts:

Rev. J. E. Roberts,

My dear Friend:

On my way home I read in “Humanity” – a sermon of yours in which you tell of the death of the child in jail.

The climate of that sermon is like a perfect day in June, and I write simply to thank you for delivering it.  No one can read it without having his heart touched and softened. —

You are preaching a religion for this world – for the living while they are alive and by all odds you are the best, the most enlightened, the most liberal, the most intelligent, the most eloquent minister, so far as I know, in the whole world.

With the greatest admiration, I remain

Yours always, R. G. Ingersoll.

“The climate of that sermon is like a perfect day in June.”  Roberts remembered this praise, long afterward referring to it as “that sermon has the breath of a day in June.”  It was a metaphor that stuck with him. “You are preaching a religion for this world” pleased Roberts too.  He knew now that Ingersoll understood that he, John Emerson Roberts, was on the same wave length – I shouldn’t put it that way, because “wave length” is an anachronistic term neither man would have understood, but it suggests a resonance between the two men.  They understood each other and admired each other to the end of Ingersoll’s life, which unfortunately was only a few years later.

Quotations are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  For more information see the Books page.  Ingersoll’s letter is one of four to Roberts included by Eva Ingersoll Wakefield in The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll (Philosophical Library, 1951).

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