This self-contained story about the short, but typical, life of a freethought publication, the Torch of Reason, introduces a few of the many freethinkers you can meet in the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

            The Torch of Reason began publication in the fall of 1896, at the time Roberts was deepening his relationship with Ingersoll and moving toward separation from the Unitarians. J. E. Hosmer was editor of the paper and Mr. Pearl W. Geer was business manager. These men, with support from a small community of secularists, were trying to develop a liberal college, because they found places like Stanford in California too steeped in religion. They called their institution the Liberal University of Oregon. Its initials, LUO, conveniently spell the Greek verb “to free.” The newspaper was in large part an advertising organ for the university. The publishers also hoped to use their press as a source of funds through doing printing jobs for others.

In 1901, T. B. Wakeman, an active member of the freethought community in the East, came to Oregon and became editor of the paper. Very soon, Hosmer was pushed out and Wakeman became head of both the newspaper and the university, which was actually a school serving students of all ages. It was at this time that lectures by Dr. Roberts were included in the material published in the paper. The paper was also publishing lectures of Ingersoll and work by other well-known figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Wakeman and Geer soon began to look for a better location. Wakeman referred to Oregon as a nursery, which “was well for the young plant, but the time to transplant to a larger and open field must come.” They started negotiations with several places, including Omaha, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Mr. Geer, as business manager, did the negotiating. On April 17, 1902, the Torch of Reason reported that Geer had just completed an agreement with the Church of This World to bring the university, and the paper, to Kansas City.

The principal supporter within the Church of This World in this matter was J. E. Wilson, a member of the Board, and no known relation to Edith Wilson Roberts. Wilson was involved in real estate. The paper offered “stock” in the Liberal University Company to raise money for purchase of a building. By August, $32,000 had been raised, most of it from supporters east of the Mississippi. Wilson found property in Kansas    City, a former YMCA building constructed in 1887, for $85,000. The down payment was $30,000. The purchase was made and plans were set to move the press early in 1903 and open the school the following fall.

Dr. Roberts was not excited about the arrival of the university,because Kansas City already had some fine educational institutions, but the local press considered it a coup to be chosen over other cities.

            The Torch of Reason moved to Kansas City in February 1903. A hiatus of several weeks was caused by delay in delivering the printing equipment on the railroads. The railroads blamed the delay partly on weather and partly on the volume of traffic. The paper resumed publication on March 19, declaring in its header that it was: “Published weekly in the interests of Pure Science, applied to Education, Religion and Practical Life.” In his editorial, T. B. Wakeman asserted that the cause of the delay was the failure of the government to properly oversee the railroads.

Once in Kansas City both Wakeman and Geer attended the Church of This World. Wakeman’s wife became the president of the Church of This World’s Women’s Auxiliary, a support organization, typical of Protestant churches that had been created just two years earlier. Wakeman included a signed item in the paper in May, supporting Roberts’s use of the term “church.” In another issue, Geer wrote a filler piece about a service in which a cat chasing a mouse did its best to upstage “the distinguished speaker.” The paper continued to print material from Roberts’s lectures, but apparently they depended on the city papers for texts, rather than using a stenographer of their own. The city papers were printing fewer of Roberts’s sermons than previously, perhaps because they sensed changing tastes in their readers.

As for the LiberalUniversity, the oversight body changed its name from Liberal University Company to Liberal University Organization, in order to keep the LUO acronym which had formerly referred to Oregon. J. E. Wilson joined the management team as treasurer. In a letter to The Truth Seeker, T. J. Tanner of Kansas City wrote of hopes to schedule a few lectures in the spring or summer as well as classes in art and music, to be taught by Wakeman’s daughter Clara. He declared that Wakeman and Geer were bringing “a strong reinforcement to the local army that is fighting for liberty and justice.”

During the summer of 1903, the Torch of Reason began advertising books by M. M. Mangasarian, another member of the freethought community who was based in Chicago. In the fall, as Wakeman and Geer worked on getting the Liberal University going, they decided to reduce their responsibility for the paper. They entered into an arrangement with Mangasarian, combining their assets with those of others. Mangasarian became editor of a new publication, The Liberal Review. Instead of a weekly newspaper, this was to be a monthly journal. Mangasarian would be the editor-in-chief and publication would be in Chicago. Wakeman and Geer would continue as assistant editor and business manager, respectively, with their office in Kansas City. The Torch of Reason ceased publication in December 1903. The Liberal Review put out its first issue in February 1904. After about six months, Wakeman and Geer separated from the Review to focus on the LiberalUniversity. This enabled the school to survive for about another year. Its first appearance in the Kansas City Directory was in 1903; its last was in 1905, when Pearl Geer listed himself as the school’s librarian.

 

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