John Emerson Roberts was “Kansas City’s up-to-date freethought preacher” partly because he was an avid reader.  He readily absorbed new ideas and included them in his lectures.  One example of this is a lecture he gave in 1900 was called “Woman and Modern Religion.”

            The lecture claims that the Bible and Christianity have been the cause of the debasement of women.  Like many of Roberts’s lectures, this is arranged as a historical progression.  He begins with recent theories about the power of women in ancient societies, citing stories about Egypt, Rome, China and Zuni tribes as fact.  In each he finds a queen or a priestess with significant power.  He summarizes his view of the ancient past:

“The pagan philosophy that recognized the natural superiority of woman must have proceeded in the most rational way.  It looked upon her as the mother, the creator, and the preserver of man and of his world.  Man knew then as we know now that civilization began with the mother. All progress in this world is led forward by the divine guide, love.  Woman was the lover first; man was the fighter.”

Acknowledging that no one can explain how the matriarchal era was replaced by patriarchy, Roberts goes on to describe the patriarchal attitudes found in the Bible.  He declares it “the charter of masculine tyranny” and “the instrument that has forged chains for the enslavement of woman.”  Because of the Eve story, theology has made woman the cause of all sin.  He mentions the Levitical rules of cleansing after childbirth: 40 days for a son, 80 for a daughter.  He asserts, “The New Testament makes no advance toward the elevation of woman.  Jesus seems to have no regard for woman.”

Roberts continues his history with a tirade against the middle ages, one of his recurring themes:  He calls them “a period of a thousand years that has never been paralleled in the history of mankind for its debauchery, its superstition, its intellectual vagaries, its frightful and nameless criminal practices.”

            The concluding section of this lecture is a paean in praise of motherhood.  Roberts speaks of “the mother” but he is surely drawing from his own recollection, either of his own mother, who died in 1885, or perhaps from the example of other mothers, such as Josephine Parks, his second wife’s mother, who had lived with them:

.” . . .when I remember how all we are we owe to her, how in the glad and happy time she sang as she rocked our cradle, knitting or mending or sewing while under the inspiration of a chaste and holy love; when I remember how in the wayward and unthinking years of childhood and youth it was the mother whose love was never overtaxed, it was the mother whose arms were ever open with forgiveness in her heart; when I remember how she toiled and toiled that we might have a little better chance in this world than had come to her; when I remember how she grew old and white haired and wrinkled and wan and feeble with the patient and uncomplaining toil of many years and how we folded at last her cold hands in peace across the loving breast; how the smile, even after death’s cold touch illuminated her face like a halo from the home of God; when I remember the mother, I can worship the best by paying the homage of my honor, my respect, and my love to the motherhood of this world.”

Motherhood, as described here, was a nineteenth century concept.  It developed alongside the new idea that childhood is a special stage of life..  This idealization had little to do with equality or real power.  Roberts apparently did not see the difference between this admiration of motherhood and the matriarchies which he believed characterized the ancient world.

When Roberts spoke the idea that ancient societies were matriarchal was widely accepted.  Later scholarship has concluded that this idea was a figment of nineteenth century imagination.  The idea appealed to Roberts because it made an excellent contrast to Christian, and especially medieval, patriarchy.  The seriousness of the offense, in his view, would not be called into question by the error in his starting point.

 

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly.

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