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What Freethinkers Believe, according to Edith Wilson Roberts

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John Emerson Roberts’s third wife, Edith, who, I am sad to admit, is not my great-grandmother, had a second opportunity to speak from her husband’s lectern in March of 1902. This appearance lacked some of the drama, excitement, and newspaper attention of her speech about divorce a year earlier, but the lecture was printed and a copy is preserved in the New York Public Library.  What follows is all from the book, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

Newspaper drawing of Edith Wilson Roberts

Newspaper drawing of Edith Wilson Roberts

In January,[1902] the Lexington News, the weekly paper of a small town not far from Kansas City, printed an editorial declaring that Roberts was “A Dangerous Man.” The News chastised the Kansas City papers for printing material from Roberts’s lectures, claiming that Christianity was the source of the progress of civilization and that “the belief in a just and merciful God is a stay in time of temptation, a solace in trouble and a prop to virtue” for those who could expect nothing but toil in this life. The editorial goes on to say that the Kansas City papers ought not to be printing speeches designed to deprive people of the comfort of religion. The writer presents the hope of heaven, but no doubt also has in mind the fear of hell, as belief that preserves proper moral conduct and good order in society. He charges that Roberts is a man who wants to “destroy the only settled hope of mankind for the future and who offers nothing in place thereof,” and concludes that those who appreciate his message are very few. . . . .

The opening of the lecture is a description of freethought: “They say our creed is unbelief, and dreamy speculation. This we have the honor to deny. It is not so. We are Free-Thinkers, if you please, but Free-Thinkers with profound convictions.” . . . .

 

After some comments on negative elements in the Bible Mrs. Roberts presents a list of twenty-four items, each beginning “We believe . . .” which she calls “the doctrines of the Church of This World.” She immediately adds, “Of course my statement is subject to the variation of your individual beliefs, without which variation no church or creed can be honest for all included within it.”

She begins with the importance of intellectual honesty, and then repeats the common quotation from Ingersoll:
We believe that “happiness is the only good, that the place to be happy is here, the time to be happy is now, the way to be happy is to try to make others so.”

Only a few of her twenty-four items touch on the issues Christian creeds focus on, and they are tentative:
We believe that if God is, he is moral, sane, just, wise and kind, and that if there be any service that we can render him, it is by keeping our bodies pure, our minds enlightened, and by serving our fellowman.
We believe that this life properly lived will best fit us for another life, if another life there be.

One set of statements covers her view of the natural order:
We believe that Law governs all things, that it is universal and eternal, and that it executes itself.
We believe in Sequence, the mighty theory of a sufficient cause for every effect.
We believe that there is no forgiveness, no punishment—only consequences; that virtue is its own reward, sin its own misery.
We believe in the law of Progress which Science calls Evolution; that the world was never perfect, but is tending towards perfection.

These crisp and specific statements bear little resemblance to the flowing style Dr. Roberts used. The ideas, however, are the same. He has been referring to laws of nature, cause and effect, the fact that sin has consequences, not punishment, and, especially, progress toward perfection, since his days as a Unitarian.

By far the bulk of Mrs. Roberts’s statements concern behavior, citing the importance of helping the weak, of education, equality, kindness; that no one has a right to be useless, nor has anyone a right to take another’s life. A number of her statements focus on home life and echo the sentiments of her talk on marriage and divorce given the year before:
We believe that [quoting Ingersoll]: “it is as great to be a woman as to be a man, and nothing is greater than the mother of men.”
We believe in the home; that there is no better thing on earth, no fairer paradise in all the skies, than the home where true love dwells.
We believe in the purity of childhood.
We believe the most sacred duty of our human lives is our duty to our children; that we are responsible for those we bring into being.

Following this list, Mrs. Roberts returns to the charges of the Lexington newspaper article, which claims that Roberts’s religion has nothing to offer “the lowly.” She argues the opposite:

But I say unto you—the home of the lowly is as sacred as the home of the rich. The love of the toiler, I ween, is as sweet. The laborer surely knows rapture in watching his children grow; and he may also have the profound satisfaction of working for them and their mother. And if he cannot provide for the wants of his family—if they are hungry, and illy-clothed, and illy-housed—will the heart of the “lowly” man—if he be indeed a man—be comforted by a future heaven? Can future bliss compensate for the anguish of that cry when children go hungry to bed?

It seems unlikely that Mrs. Roberts has been close to the home life of members of the laboring class. She is speaking instead from her own experience, as the mother of two boys, now seven and four, and the step-mother of three other children. She is also immersed in the ethos of the Victorian era with its idealization of children and motherhood, just as her husband and her audience are. In spite of this, her conclusion is valid. The poor man is smart enough to recognize that “future bliss” does not feed his children.

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