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Freethought Giveaway on Goodreads

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The Biography

On June 9, 1897. John Emerson Roberts left the Unitarians to join the freethought movement, founding his own Sunday lecture program called “The Church of this World.”  In honor of the 120th anniversary of that event, I am offering two copies of John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher in a Goodreads Giveaway, now until June 9.

Here’s the link:

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/238082-john-emerson-roberts-kansas-city-s-up-to-date-freethought-preacher

If you don’t win, you can buy a copy via the Books page here at http://www.freethoughtandmetaphor.com

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John Emerson Roberts: His Significance in Freethought History

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The Council for Secular Humanism has published on their website an article I wrote describing John Emerson Roberts’s pivotal position in the development of freethought from liberalism to radicalism.  You can find it at:

https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/356994933_CoverFront

If the article makes you interested in more background, consider ordering my biography, which gives much attention to the context in which Roberts worked and what made him successful.  You can get a new, signed copy from me via Amazon, through ERYBooks, at:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aag/main/ref=olp_merch_name_9?ie=UTF8&asin=1462876919&isAmazonFulfilled=0&seller=AW0M3U1KS6UKI

J. E. Roberts in later life with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

J. E. Roberts with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

Clarence Darrow, Friend and Colleague of J. E. Roberts

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Darrow0001 Clarence Darrow was a few years younger than Roberts, and like him was gradually making a name for himself in the nationwide freethought community represented at the American Secular Union conference in Cincinnati in 1900.  Darrow was not yet the widely known figure that the Leopold and Loeb case and the Scopes Trial would later make him.  This event in 1900 was apparently the first time these two men came into personal contact.

Born in Kinsman, Ohio, in 1857, Darrow had a different background from the majority of freethinkers: he was born into it.  His father had trained to be a Unitarian minister, but lost his faith. Darrow looked up to his father as “the village infidel” and sought to emulate his moral commitment and intellectual courage. Darrow studied at AlleghenyCollege in Pennsylvania and at the University of Michigan, but earned no degrees. He became a lawyer through apprenticeship in a law office in Youngstown,   Ohio, passing the examination in 1878, the same year Roberts completed his education for the ministry.

Darrow married in 1880. After a few years in smaller towns, the couple moved to Chicago in 1887. There Darrow soon got involved in local and then wider politics. He worked closely with John P. Altgeld, helping to elect him governor of Illinois in 1892. In addition to giving political speeches as a member of the Democratic Party, Darrow also gave popular lectures.

Darrow’s fame spread beyond Illinois with his defense of Eugene Debs following the Pullman Strike of 1894. In 1896, he hoped to be elected representative from Illinois’s 3rd District. He spent more time campaigning for the top of the ticket William Jennings Bryan and for Governor Altgeld’s reelection than for himself; all three lost. In the process, Darrow developed a long-lasting dislike of Bryan.

Clarence Darrow was a restless man, not at all a homebody. His work and political activity took him away from home a lot, and his wife Jessie’s disappointment pushed him further away. After several years of this, he asked her to divorce him. No fault divorce was unheard of in this era. Jessie could have found plenty of faults with Clarence. Instead, she graciously allowed him to divorce her, though charges had to be invented, for the sake of his career. The divorce was filed in 1897.

Darrow would marry again in a few years, but when he and Roberts shared the podium in Cincinnati in 1900, he was living as a bachelor. According to several reports, he tended to look rather scruffy and ill-dressed. If Roberts’s appearance lived up to the photographs available, they would have made a striking contrast. In addition to questions of dress, Darrow’s square face contrasted with Roberts’s narrow one. Both men would have their ups and downs in the years to come. Although Darrow was only four years younger than Roberts, his fame beyond Illinois would not peak until the 1920s, with the Leopold-Loeb Trial and the Scopes Trial. Roberts, in contrast, though he did not know it, was close to his peak of popularity, which would come in 1902. This may have been partly because Roberts’s style of speaking retained more of the nineteenth century than that of Darrow. Location and contacts were also factors in the difference.

The two men shared an admiration for Ingersoll, but they developed quite different philosophies. While Roberts followed Ingersoll in style and substance, often quoting him, Darrow admired Ingersoll for his success in broadening awareness of freethinking, but he took his own views from other sources. In spite of this difference, Roberts and Darrow maintained a long friendship. Darrow was frequently available to speak at Roberts’s podium, and Roberts usually made use of Darrow’s presence to raise a little extra money. They shared a love of civil argument, and the pleasure of speaking before an audience.

This post is taken from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date”Freethought Preacher.  There’s more information and a link on the Books page.

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

Up-to-date In Kansas City: From the Biography

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At the end of the nineteenth century, Kansas City was an exciting place to be.  Businessmen were optimistic, having survived a local real estate bust in the 1880s and the national economic crisis of 1893.  John Emerson Roberts’s “Church of This World” fit right in with the sense of progress.

People back in Michigan, where Roberts had grown up and where he returned each summer, took notice of his success.  In a long interview reported in the Grand Rapids Herald, Roberts was asked about his church.  He responded:

“We don’t deal with anything of which we have no knowledge. We have quit fooling with phantoms and ghosts and the future. We are satisfied to live in this world and to study life here rather than what we are to enjoy hereafter. We don’t lie about what we don’t know. As for prayer and that sort of thing, I can’t see any occasion for it. Christ never prayed in public.”

When the reporter suggested that the Gospel of John indicates otherwise, Roberts argued that that book was written long after the events, and that the writer had no personal experience of the case.  At the end of his article the interviewer referred to Roberts as “the Kansas City up-to-date minister.”

            In 1900, Kansas City was “up to date,” a phrase widely used at the time, in a number of ways. The “skyscraper” celebrated as “seven stories high” in Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for Oklahoma was actually ten stories tall. It was the New YorkLifeBuilding at 20 W.    Ninth Street. A few other buildings had reached eight stories by 1900. The city’s boosters were eager to make a national impression. They persuaded the Democratic Convention to meet there in July, in the Convention Hall they had built with private money the year before. They got more attention than they expected. Convention Hall burned down in April. A campaign began immediately to rebuild. City leaders assured the Democratic Party that the work would be done in time and it was—just barely. The convention itself brought in plenty of business but it was not an exciting event: The nomination of William Jennings Bryan was a foregone conclusion.

 

The excerpts above are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher (Xlibris, 2011).  For more information, see the Books page or contact me.

A New “Church”: From the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts’s contacts with Robert Ingersoll, described in my blog of October 6, bore fruit in the fall of 1897.  From my biography of Roberts, here is a description of Roberts’s independent “Church” and how it operated:

The Church of This World held its first service in the Coates Opera House on September 12, 1897. In addition to Roberts’s lecture, which he still called a sermon, music was provided by Carl Busch. The service apparently consisted only of this music and the sermon with no offering, no hymnody, and certainly no prayer. It is interesting that the organization was called a church, given the comments Roberts made in the spring about the negative connotations of that term. The phrase “this world” was evidently taken from Ingersoll’s letter praising Roberts’s sermon about the boy who died in jail: “You are preaching a religion for this world.”

Carl Busch was a major figure in the music world of Kansas City.  Born in Denmark in 1862, he studied in various institutions in Europe.  In 1887, Busch was working in Paris, playing in orchestras conducted by Camille Saint Saens and Charles Gounod. The Danish vice-consul in Kansas City invited Busch to organize a string quartet and bring it to America. Busch did so, and spent the rest of his life based in Kansas City. Times were not easy for the arts. Busch organized a series of orchestras and programs, but between the economic troubles of the late 1880s and the 1890s, and the lack of developed musical taste among the well-to-do business class who were the city’s elite, support was not always sufficient. The position as music director for the Church of This World was at least steady work, though very part time; Busch was still employed there when his biography was written for Whitney’s Kansas City, Missouri, in 1908.

The Church of This World was set up with a board of trustees just as the Unitarian Society had been. The names of the earliest set of trustees are not known. The trustees are listed in the newspapers only in later years when there were stories of development or decline to report. The funding for the church was provided by supporters who paid for their seats; the cost ranged from $5 to $25 per year. This practice is comparable to the idea of pew rentals, which many churches used to provide a base of income; the theater seats were no doubt more comfortable than typical pews. Seats for those who just came in were free.

The sermons Roberts gave in that first year are lost.  In the fall of his second year, however, Roberts published a series of sermons as a hardbound book.  A few copies have survived.

These sermons show how his preaching and views had evolved. The first sermon was titled “The Imperial Demands of Progress.” The word progress had become a highly resonant term for Roberts. He begins with the idea that one has an obligation to participate in progress:
“Deeper upon enlightened minds grows the conviction that progress is the world’s supreme law. To contribute to that progress, to obey that law, is the cosmic business of everyone and of everything that is.”
While he sees this as a human undertaking, however, he has not become a true Ingersollian; he has not given up talking of God, of spirit and of the divine. He concludes this first sermon by saying,
“Let us trust the old, the common, the misunderstood earth. Let us hail the dawn of the day coming fast and sure, when all men everywhere shall see that the earth is divine, man is divine and God is all in all.”
Though “thought” and “reason” are among his favorite themes, Roberts also holds on to the idea that religion, as opposed to specific religions, is an element of life that will endure.

There’s that dawn metaphor again in the second quotation, an image Roberts used often.  Read more about his most unusual institution in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, available through Amazon from ERYBooks (or use the contact page).

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