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“Can Anything Good Come Out of Kansas City?”

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At the turn of the last century Kansas City was looked down upon by those in the eastern part of the country, just as Nazareth was despised in first century Palestine.  New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and even Chicago and St. Louis considered Kansas City a latecomer to civilized society, recently part of the wild west.  Kansas Citians fought against this view.

            Economically, the year 1900 was a time of optimism. Midwestern cities were thriving. Kansas City, having weathered the local economic upheavals of the late 1880s and the national crisis of the mid-1890s, was doing well. Its population had tripled in the past two decades, partly through the redrawing of city boundaries. In 1897, Kansas City had absorbed the town of Westport to the south, which had been the more important center, back in the days of the Santa Fe Trail.

A special event in 1900 was the opening of Heim’s Electric Park This type of development was not unique to Kansas City. Entrepreneurs would build street car lines and then build attractions to entice more people to use the lines. In this case, the Heim brothers built a brewery first, then added a street car line to provide transportation for their employees. That did not provide enough business for the line, so they created an ElectricPark, which opened in June 1900. Features included a summer theater, rides, and beer piped in from the brewery. Year by year, they added carnival rides. Kansas Citians believed their park compared well with those at Coney Island or Chicago’s Midway.

In the same spirit of boosterism, Kansas City leaders were happy to support John Emerson Roberts when he wanted to expand his “Church of this World.”  It would, those leaders hoped, make Kansas City “a center of agnosticism for the nation.”  They wanted to see Kansas City appreciated for more than its service as an important rail hub.

Roberts made periodic lecture tours to spread his ideas.  Developing new centers for the Church of this World, however, would require finding a long term substitute to speak at his podium in Kansas City.  This would turn out to be a problem.  His audience in Kansas City wanted to hear him.

94933_CoverFrontExcerpts are from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

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115 Years ago today . . .

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On this date, June 9, 1897, John Emerson Roberts left the Unitarians to go out to lecture on his own.  He had met Robert Ingersoll, that famous agnostic, and they found themselves kindred spirits.  Ingersoll wrote to Roberts, “You are preaching a religion for this world.”  Roberts told a news reporter about Ingersoll, “He is the greatest apostle of liberty and reason and fraternity.”

Both men called themselves agnostics.  What did it mean in their time?  A religious man wrote “We must stand for faith in God as against atheism, and for faith in immortality as against agnosticism.”

Atheism is clear enough as not believing in God.  Isn’t agnosticism simply a refusal to make a claim where one has no knowledge?

In fact, neither Ingersoll nor Roberts ever challenged belief in immortality.  The desire to believe in a future life, even among educated people, was so strong at that time it might have hurt their careers to argue the matter.  Speeches at funerals, even freethinkers’ funerals, left the option open.

Roberts himself had no wish to challenge the belief.  He said in one lecture, give in 1909:

If this life ends all, then nature is the infinite deceiver, the colossal liar,. . . . and though I do not know it to be a fact and cannot prove it, yet I will trust that when the world is old and the sun is cold and the infinite future is unrolled, man shall yet continue conscious, intelligent, aspiring, deathless, having life and having it more abundantly.

Roberts envisions no traditional heaven, but he wants to believe that life goes on, and until science can persuade him it is impossible, as it could not 100 years ago, he chooses to believe that it will.

The science which underlies arguments about belief has changed significantly since Roberts’s time.

My biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, is available from Amazon, or from the author.  See more on the Books page.