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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.

Dr. Roberts Reaches a Wider Audience: From the Biography

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94933_CoverFrontIn November 1900, Roberts was one of several featured speakers at the Twenty-fourth Annual Congress of the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation held in Cincinnati, Ohio. This group, supported by The Truth Seeker, and by Ingersoll, who regularly spoke at its meetings during his life, was a coalition of local societies and interested persons. It supported secular interests such as keeping World’s Fairs open on Sundays. . . .

Roberts chose for his topic “This Natural World of Ours.”  As reported the following month in The Truth Seeker, this speech shows that Roberts is still as reverent as any minister. He has transferred his reverence to nature, the “sublime” discoveries of astronomy, and the gradual revelation of the universe as an “ordered whole.” As he has done before, Roberts faults Christianity for condemning the world as evil. If God lost the world to the devil, he argues, this makes God the creator a failure. He speaks harshly of medieval piety:

Within the cloister, the sanctuary and the cell, with bleeding knees on floors of stone, crouched and cowed the saints in terror. With aching bones, exhausted bodies, tortured nerves and disordered brains, they were visited by visions of horror. Those hideous dreams were called revelations from God, and have come down to us as theology.

The true secularists among the audience would have enjoyed this immensely. It is not clear whether all would have agreed with where Roberts goes next. He makes a general argument that the world is divine. He sees only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world “is eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient. Can God be more than that?” Either way, he asserts, the world is divine. The Christian theologians, he claims, “turned into a cell” and refused to see the light in which this divinity should be obvious.

After offering the lessons of astronomy as evidence that the world is wonderful and not evil, Roberts goes on to personify the natural world as mother:

The faithful world pays the strictest and most minute attention to the least and humblest thing, and treats it with the same dignity that she does the largest and greatest things, the worm, the bird, is as much provided for in the intelligent plan of nature as is any rational being . . . Moreover the laws of nature are moral. They exist in the interest of the health and well-being of man.

He affirms that the origin of life is unknown, adding, “It may be that the vital forces were somehow in the earth; we can only guess, but we do know that being here the great mother-world nourishes, cherishes and sustains all.”

Having praised the world that is, Roberts turns to the question of the world to come. We can have no knowledge of this, he says. Why, then, have Christians assumed it would be perfect? “Can it be that the dream of the beautiful world beyond was the gambler’s dream of something for nothing, or the visionary’s dream of sudden wealth?” A world that was not earned would be immoral. Rather, this is the world we have, and moral action will make it right:

There is an eternal law of exactness and compensation whereby the great world gives back to every one in equal measure and undiminished what each one gives to the world. If we knew this world and kept its laws we should find that sickness and disease, deformity, weakness of will, and poverty were unnecessary, and we should look upon them as disgraceful just as we look upon crime. If we knew this world and kept faith with it we should make our heaven here and ask for none here or anywhere that we did not make.

Roberts was paid $25 for giving this speech. Another speaker at the Cincinnati gathering was Clarence Darrow, who also received payment of $25.

More on Clarence Darrow to come.  All of the above is from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher. For more information and a link, go to the Books page.

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.

What is Nature? (From the Biography)

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In November 1900, John Emerson Roberts had begun his fourth year as an independent freethought preacher, speaking on Sunday mornings in theaters.  He was beginning to be noticed beyond Kansas City.  A nationwide network, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, invited him to speak at their conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This was a great opportunity to make his views widely known.

            Roberts chose for his topic “This Natural World of Ours.” As reported the following month in The Truth Seeker, this speech shows that Roberts is still as reverent as any minister. He has transferred his reverence to nature, the “sublime” discoveries of astronomy, and the gradual revelation of the universe as an “ordered whole.” As he has done before, Roberts faults Christianity for condemning the world as evil. If God lost the world to the devil, he argues, this makes God the creator a failure. He speaks harshly of medieval piety:

“Within the cloister, the sanctuary and the cell, with bleeding knees on floors of stone, crouched and cowed the saints in terror. With aching bones, exhausted bodies, tortured nerves and disordered brains, they were visited by visions of horror. Those hideous dreams were called revelations from God, and have come down to us as theology.”

The true secularists among the audience would have enjoyed this immensely. It is not clear whether all would have agreed with where Roberts goes next. He makes a general argument that the world is divine. He sees only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world “is eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient. Can God be more than that?” Either way, he asserts, the world is divine.

After some additional arguments against old Christian views, Roberts personifies the natural world as mother:

“The faithful world pays the strictest and most minute attention to the least and humblest thing, and treats it with the same dignity that she does the largest and greatest things, the worm, the bird, is as much provided for in the intelligent plan of nature as is any rational being . . . Moreover the laws of nature are moral. They exist in the interest of the health and well-being of man.”

Having lifted up nature, Roberts goes on to challenge the Christian view of heaven.   He asks, “Can it be that the dream of the beautiful world beyond was the gambler’s dream of something for nothing, or the visionary’s dream of sudden wealth?” A world that was not earned would be immoral. He concludes:

“There is an eternal law of exactness and compensation whereby the great world gives back to every one in equal measure and undiminished what each one gives to the world. If we knew this world and kept its laws we should find that sickness and disease, deformity, weakness of will, and poverty were unnecessary, and we should look upon them as disgraceful just as we look upon crime. If we knew this world and kept faith with it we should make our heaven here and ask for none here or anywhere that we did not make.”

Another speaker at this conference was Clarence Darrow.  Both men were paid $25 for their efforts.  Roberts and Darrow began an acquaintance that lasted for decades.  That is another part of the story told in the biography.

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 from the author.