Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine

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Long before Martin Luther King, Jr., we might have had a January holiday by honoring Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, an important document in building support for the American Revolution.  Thomas Paine, who went on to write The Rights of Man,  was the first of a growing number of American freethought heroes.  Robert Ingersoll and Clarence Darrow have been added to the list.  Both of them honored Thomas Paine.  So did John Emerson Roberts.  One hundred years ago, celebrations were often held on January 29, Thomas Paine’s birthday.  Here is the report on one such event in Chicago in 1909, which was a special year because it was the centenary of Paine’s death.

The freethinkers of Chicago planned a large Paine celebration for January 29. This event would also honor Charles B. Waite, a Chicago judge and freethinker who had the same birthday as Paine and who turned eighty-five that year.  Nearly a dozen speakers were engaged to speak. Dr. John E. Roberts headed the list. Clarence Darrow was listed second. Darrow, like most of the others on the program, was a Chicago resident. Among those scheduled, only Darrow and Roberts had a national reputation in the freethought network.

The celebration was held at Hull House, Jane Addams’s famous settlement house. The weather was bad; a snowstorm led people to quote Paine’s famous line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Attendance was reported as good, but the weather caused a delay getting started, so a number of the speeches had to be shortened or eliminated. This restriction apparently did not apply to Dr. Roberts, who gave the keynote address on the life of Paine. The Truth Seeker promised to print the lecture in full at a later time, but never did.

Following Roberts, Mr. C. Stuart Beattie was to speak on “Paine and Waite.” He began by saying, “After the magnificent address that we have just listened to upon Paine, I should not attempt any remarks on that great character, but will proceed directly as to the other character who is known to us all.” Beattie proceeded to give a brief biography of Judge Waite. He was a personal acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln and was appointed by him to the SupremeCourtofUtahTerritory in 1862. In this position, he played a significant role in maintaining contacts for the Union, both in Utah and on to California. When the need there was past, Waite moved to Chicago and became a real estate lawyer and a scholar. Apparently, his experience with the Mormon leader Brigham Young helped him to reach the conclusion that all gods are man-made. His writing on the early Church was popular among freethinkers because, as Beattie expressed it, “his great idea was to take off from the character of Christ the crust of absurdity that his supposed historians and disciples had placed upon it.”

Among the other presentations was a “Vindication of Thomas Paine” in verse by John Maddock. This had to be abbreviated at the meeting, but it filled a page of The Truth Seeker in the issue published the week of the event. The poem begins:

We honor Thomas Paine to-night
Because he figures in the fight
Which has been waged by saint and sage
In every Christian land and age.

It ends, four columns later:

The work of Paine was done so well
The church is now the infidel –
Not true to truth, as reason shows.
Paine’s justified and so I close.

The page in The Truth Seeker is filled with pictures: of Maddock, the author of the poem, Thomas Paine, and Roberts and Darrow, the expected speakers. Darrow is not mentioned in the report of the event published two weeks later. At least four others of the intended speakers took no part in the actual proceedings. Evidently, the snowstorm caused more trouble than just a late start. The honors given to Judge Waite proved very timely. He died two months later.

From the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.


Illusions, or It’s All In How You Look at It


I had a professor in a religious studies class on Zen Buddhism who was fond of saying, “It’s all in how you look at it.”  Here are two examples of looking.

In the back yard

In the back yard

The early sun shining through the bushes makes splotches on the wall which look, from the window by my writing desk, like a bouquet.  A pleasant illusion.  It reminds me how much of art, including poetry, is a matter of illusions.  Illusions which convey truth, we want to be believe.  This is what we artists strive for.

Bar Canyon View

Bar Canyon View

One of the hikes in my area leads to the ruin of an abandoned house.  Here I’m looking out from the house, and thinking about frames.  Did the people who lived in this house see what I see?  The way we frame a subject affects what we see.

Two pictures from southern New Mexico and a few thoughts for your enjoyment.

Inspiring Blogger Award


I’ve been nominated for the “Very Inspiring Blogger Award.”  This is a real honor because it comes from one whose blog is truly inspiring.  Pat Garcia tells the stories of courageous and neglected heroes of history at http://garciaandwalkon.me/  I would nominate her first if she hadn’t already nominated me.


In accepting this award I am supposed to say seven things about myself and nominate fifteen other blogs.

Seven things:
1.  I’m a poet who has not taken a class in poetry since seventh grade.  I have, however, attended lots of workshops.
2.  I’ve only lived in New Mexico for eight years; I’m still in love with desert and mountains.
3. I’m a member and past President of the Sacred Dance Guild.
4.  My favorite color is green.
5.  It took me seventeen years to write my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.
6.  To get that project started I earned a Ph. D. in American Religious Studies from Temple University.
7.  My current project is a response in poems to William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), the publication that made famous the metaphor of God as watchmaker.  My response focuses on how much has changed.

It’s a stretch to find fifteen blogs to nominate when my predecessors have recently nominated many fine blogs that I also follow.  Here are twelve.

The Needy Helper (Lee Davy)  www.needyhelper.com/ Anyone who sets out to read 52 books in 52 weeks inspires me.

Twigs & Stones (http://twigsandstones-poems.blogspot.com/)  Tanka and other short poems.

The One Earth Project (http://leevanham.com/blog/)  Can we live with the reality that we have only one earth’s worth of resources, not five?

Dialogues on exploring the gap (http://explorethegap.wordpress.com/) “Where people of science, religion, faith and spirituality come to talk.”

Digest This (http://www.digest-this.com/)  Addressed to the human constituency.

http://200newmexicopoems.wordpress.com/ A compendium of poems about New Mexico.

Things I Want To Tell My Mother (http://warnerwriting.wordpress.com/)  On memories and dealing with dementia.

http://craighill.net/ Perspectives on news and history from Australia and China.

Ellis Nelson (http://ellisnelson.com/)  Author of Into the Land of Snows.

http://houseboathouse.blogspot.com/#!/ Rose Mary Boehm, a woman of many talents, and a unique way with a website.

Carlos Navarro (http://breadnm.blogspot.com/) A blog supporting Bread for the World in New Mexico.

Lisa Michaels (http://lisa-michaels.com/blog/) Learn how to align your energy with the natural rhythms of the universe.

Coping with the Critic


I have read many books on writing and creativity.  I’ve probably reached the point of diminishing returns, but I keep picking them up, especially when I can get them second hand, because I’ve learned a lot from some of them.  Almost all of these books talk about “the critic.”  This critic may be the internalized voice of others who’ve told you you’re not competent to do what you set out to do.  Or it may be a voice all your own, telling you that nothing you do is measuring up to your own standard.  In either case, one of the early lessons in creativity books is the importance of shutting this voice out when you sit down to write.  There are various methods suggested: breathing meditation, write a letter, . . . .

I have found a different solution.  I promoted my critic to editor.  An editor must have something to criticize, so my critic now happily goes away until I have a draft to share: usually my first typed draft.  Then he comes running in.

At first he didn’t do very well at describing what he saw.  “Humph!” he might say, or “Boring!!”  Bit by bit, he’s picked up useful terms.

“Cliché!”  he says.  I underline the phrase he’s pointed to.

“Action verbs!” he cries.  I circle the “is.”

After such obvious points, he slows down, ponders.  “Why is this in such regular stanzas?” he asks after a bit.  “That’s your default form.  Does that really enact the feeling of the poem?”  My critic has been very pleased with himself since he learned the word “enact.”

“I was resisting it,” I say, noncommittally. “Form can pull against content.”  But I know he won’t accept my argument.

“It’s not strong enough,” he says.

“I’ll try it another way.  Just to see what happens,” I say.  I settle down to revision, and my critic goes off to look for another new term he can use at the next editorial session.  I can work alone now ―at least until he hears the printer start up.

Online Publications


I’ve had the good fortune to be included in two online journals recently.  The most recent was in Rose Red Review, a quarterly with a charming, but sideways, picture of a woman wearing a rose.  I like to think that the name comes from the Rose Red who was the sister of Snow White (not she of the seven dwarfs, the other one).  My poem published there is titled “Reflection on a Line by James Wright.”


In late fall, Untitled Country published my poem “Atomic Power”.  Unfortunately this ezine is going out of business, just as I’ve discovered it.


I find myself in good company in both places.  I recommend both as worthy of your time to explore.

“Atomic Power” is a poem which is not about what the title first suggests, on purpose.  It is a part of my collection of poems, Made and Remade, based on William Paley’s Natural Theology, a text from two centuries ago which had a long influence on thought and education in England and America.

More From Freethinking Edith Roberts

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Edith Wilson Roberts filled in at her husband’s podium for a total of three weeks.  With her first radical lecture on “marriage and divorce” she caught the attention of the papers, including the local correspondent for the St. Louis Republic.  She is described as petite, pretty, and “not after the order of the ‘strong-minded’ woman.”  The reporter’s idea of a “strong-minded woman” is not clear, for he goes on to say, “She is practical, as witness the fact that for three years she managed a farm for her husband, and did it well.”

The Kansas City Star described her style of presentation, which differed quite a bit from her husband’s flamboyant rhetoric:

Mrs. Roberts’s voice is not strong, but like her husband she has the faculty of enunciating clearly.  She did not attempt gestures or rhetoric, but spoke in a calm, dispassionate manner, which, if nothing more, convinced her hearers that she was thoroughly in earnest.

Mrs. Roberts’s second and third lectures did not draw so much attention.  The second was on education.  In this she began by pointing out that college is only the beginning:

After a young man has finished his course he has had a surfeit of books, but he knows little of life, he has had no experience.  .  .  . No man is thoroughly equipped mentally until he has lived much; no man is educated who has not loved; it teaches us what nothing else can teach.  We learn most of all through parenthood.  The childless have missed the sweetest lessons of life.

She calls education “a sacred obligation” and declares, “The first requirement of education is absolute honesty with self.”  This leads into a discussion of religion and science, and the hypocrisy of the former in maintaining old doctrines.

Edith Roberts’s third lecture was on Ingersoll.  The Truth Seeker printed the lecture in full, noting that Mrs. Roberts spoke “acceptably to the large congregation.”  She uses many quotations from Ingersoll himself, calling them “the language he himself has made immortal.”  Following a survey of his attacks on Christian dogma and the Bible, she praises him for upholding justice, particularly for women:

            There was no modern question of importance upon which the great positivist did not speak, and always with unfailing justice.  Slavery, poverty, great wealth, prisons, punishments, labor, taxation, all called forth his intellectual fire, while from the heart he wrote of woman and the home, maternity and childhood, and of divorce—which he would give every woman for the asking.  What Ingersoll has done for the women of America is a theme worthy the dignity of an entire discourse.

More generally, she says of Ingersoll’s career:

            He gave us reason for dogma, truth for creeds, and in seductive speech he taught the busy throng what scholars learned from Huxley, Haeckel, Tyndall, Darwin.  He left behind no monument, no institution.  But he civilized the church as he had longed to do.  He spread the light, he lifted up his age.

Cleary, Mrs. Roberts admired Ingersoll as much as her husband did, but she told his story in her own way, perhaps with a copy of Ingersoll’s lectures, which were newly published as a set, in hand.

Edith Roberts was not my ancestor, but I could wish she were; I admire her greatly.  She was her husband’s equal and felt she should be treated as such.  This would cause trouble later on.  That story is told in my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

A Forgotten Freethinking Woman Speaks

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On January 31, 1901, the landmark Coates Opera House in Kansas City, where John Emerson Roberts’s Church of This World had been meeting, burned down.   On the same day, Roberts was honored at a dinner. The newspaper reported that seventy-five friends and admirers attended.  The date was chosen for its proximity to January 29, the birthday of Thomas Paine, America’s first hero of freethought because of his radical views during and after the Revolution.

Within twenty-four hours of the fire, the Church of This World announced a new arrangement. It would meet henceforth at the Standard Theater, located two blocks south. It was considered an inferior place, for one article describes it, in relation to the new agreement, as “a playhouse which by a stroke of the pen has doffed the scarlet robes for the regenerated garb of a first-class establishment.”

What happened next is strange and cries out for explanation, but none has been given. After this dinner and the quick resolution of where his church would meet in the aftermath of the fire, Dr. Roberts was unable to lecture on the following Sunday. One source says he was ill, another that he was out of the city. Both statements are probably true, as this fits a later pattern. His wife, Edith, spoke in his place.

Newspaper drawing of Edith Wilson Roberts

Newspaper drawing of Edith Wilson Roberts

Edith Wilson, whose family were members of All Souls’ Unitarian Church, had married Dr. Roberts in 1893.  She was 21; he was 40.  She became stepmother to his three children, and they produced two more children together.  What she had to say in her husband’s absence shows that her ideas had developed alongside his and that she considered herself his partner and equal.  Her topic for her first lecture was “Marriage and Divorce.”

The lecture was a response to a current political debate in which one party wished to restrict the comparatively liberal divorce laws that had been put in place in Missouri some ten years earlier.  Mrs. Roberts begins with historical background; she praises the Romans for an era in which the matron reached a level of equality which Christianity squelched.  She blames the “heavy hand of superstition,” the “arrogant” St. Paul, and Pope Gregory VII, who put marriage firmly under church control as a sacrament. She describes marriage as having two purposes:

.  .  .  first and directly, the happiness of the contracting parties; second and indirectly, the welfare of children resulting from the union.  The purposes of divorce are identical with those of marriage, the second and indirect reason of the one becoming the paramount reason for the other.  To perpetuate in the home an atmosphere of misery that rapidly turns to hate is a crime against both children and parents; it incapacitates the family for usefulness, and brings to light the darkest relics of our human past, the fang, the claw, the suffocating coil.  To rear children under such conditions is an outrage to every responsibility of parenthood.

The courts, she argues, should do no more than recognize a decision to divorce.  The current practice, in which one judge had complained of “collusion and fraud” when two parties agreed to a divorce, should be abolished.  She points out that judges are not trained in psychology and therefore lack the “requisites for a correct estimate of human nature.”

In closing she suggests that two groups of people oppose liberal divorce laws.  The first are those who are unhappy in their own marriages and think others should be compelled to endure what they endure.  For these she sees no remedy.  The second group are those who are happy in their marriage, yet insensitive to those less fortunate.  To them she says:

.  .  . the men and women who have known what perfect marriage is, who have tried a happiness and pronounced it blessed, who have learned the meaning of love in its every sense and found that its other name is adoration, who have entered together the secret courts of parenthood and known the joy of rearing superb children that bear the sweet image of their mutual love—it seems to me that such men and women should most gladly give a chance of freedom to every disappointed lover.

These are the words of a woman happily married.  Her primary focus, however, is on the raising of “superb” children.  Edith Roberts declares that women are equal, responsible, able to make their own choices before the law, then adds that the use of the woman’s equality is to bear children, by choice.  The purpose of the home is to produce healthy, happy, intelligent children.  This is the purpose which this freethinking woman has chosen for herself.

For more on Edith Wilson Roberts and her husband, read my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought

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