Is John Emerson Roberts becoming more relevant?


There has been a rise in visits to my face book page for John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  I’d like to think that there is a new yearning for JERBreason and its positive effects in the current political climate.  This is not to say that Roberts has any real answers for us.

In l898, Roberts said: ““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.”

He doesn’t tell us what to do about the fact that so many people are shirking this responsibility.

Many, of course, have not been trained for it.  I heard today that New Mexico now ranks 50th in education among the United States.  There is much work to be done.


Coed College in 1870: Excerpts from my biography


Shurtleff College in Alton, Illinois was founded to develop an educated clergy, like many colleges, including Harvard and Yale.  Unlike Harvard and Yale, Shurtleff decided to admit women in 1869.  It happened because two women, Hasseltine Read, daughter of the College President, and Sarah Ellen Bulkley, daughter of an important professor, campaigned energetically for the opportunity to study.  The innovation was a success.  Two years later a total of twenty-six young women were enrolled in the preparatory school and the college.

The program at Shurtleff was divided into three terms of 13 1/2 weeks each.  Tuition was $8 per term.  College rooms could be rented for $4 per term, but separate arrangements had to be made for board, which was available in various clubs or boarding houses by the week.  Students also had the option of finding both board and lodging with a private family, for which the going rate was $4 or $5 per week.

What did they study?  Each course used one book per term.  Subjects included Latin, Greek, mathematics, and French or German.  There were other courses on Natural Theology and Moral Science.  The course on Moral Science used a text by Francis Wayland.

Wayland understood science . . . as a process of observation, deduction, and classification of elements of a fixed natural world.  He believed the human world of ethics could be similarly organized and he titled his text The Elements of Moral Science.  He began by comparing moral law to Newton’s laws of motion.  The consequences, he argued, were as certain, if not always as immediately obvious, as those of the force of gravity. . . .

Wayland further claimed that human beings were created to choose pleasure over pain, and were also intended to choose long-term over short-term pleasure.  He gave one example specifically aimed at students:

          Thus I am so formed that food is pleasant to me.  This, even if there were no necessity for eating, is a reason why I should eat it.  But I am also formed with a desire for knowledge.  This is a reason why I should study in order to obtain it.  That is, God intended me to derive happiness from both of these sources of gratification.  If, then, I eat in such a manner that I cannot study, or study in such a manner that I cannot eat, in either case I defeat his design concerning me by destroying those sources of happiness with which he has created me.

Wayland had definite ideas about how the material should be taught:

           Let the portion previously assigned for the exercise be so mastered by the pupil, both in plan and illustration, that he will be able to recite it in order and explain the connection of the different parts with each other without the necessity of assistance from his instructor. .
            Let the lesson which was recited on one day be invariably reviewed on the day succeeding.
            As soon as any considerable progress has been made in the work, let review from the beginning be commenced.  This should comprehend for one exercise as much as had been previously recited in two or three days; . . . .

The student who absorbed a whole text in this manner would in theory become able to develop his own ideas in a similar manner.  It is not clear where the student would get his own ideas if he, or his instructor, never challenged the book.

Life at Shurtleff was not all study.  There were two societies, called Alpha Zeta and Sigma Phi, which became coed as soon as the college did.

Each society had its own reading room and gathered its own library.  The two societies were mutually exclusive, since their weekly meetings were held at the same time, Friday evenings, but activities were similar: they held debates, invited guest speakers and arranged musical presentations.  Each held an annual Exhibition, scheduled so that members of the other society could attend.
Alpha Zeta’s Semi-Centennial History, published in 1898, noted the “advance” in the musical offerings brought about by the “advent of the young ladies.  As with most college organizations, not all activities were cultural.  Parties for holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween were popular events, and there were boat rides in spring and fall and coasting and skating parties in the winter.

It might be supposed that Justus Bulkley would have favored admitting women to Shurtleff because, of his nine children, only five, all girls, lived to adulthood.

He justified the inclusion of women in the program, however, by pointing out that educated young women would make better helpmeets for pastor husbands, thereby enhancing the men’s ministry.  Coeducation also gave women more opportunity to find those husbands.  In 1873, shortly after her graduation, Sarah Ellen Bulkley married Charles Brockway Roberts; . . . .  John Emerson Roberts would marry Frances Newell Bulkley in 1878.

These excerpts are from Chapter 2 of my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See Books page for more information.

Two copies of the book are being offered as a Goodreads giveaway ending August 8: http://www.goodreads.com


Robert Ingersoll asks “Which Way”


Robert Ingersoll, the most popular lecturer of the nineteenth century, presented a new freethought lecture called “Which Way” in the 1880s.  It brings up some interesting points for our day.

His primary question is threefold “How shall we civilize the world?  How shall we protect, life, liberty, property and reputations?  How shall we do away with crime and poverty?”  There was hope in the late nineteenth century that these questions might find answers.  The events of the last one hundred and thirty years suggest otherwise.

Ingersoll points out the lack of success of “the churches” in answering these questions.  He spends a lot of time on the God portrayed in Genesis.  Did this God advise or instruct his new human beings?  No, he just said “You shall not eat of this tree.”  Did he forgive and comfort when they sinned?  No, he punished them. 

He asks, “Are we to be governed by a Supernatural Being, or are we to govern ourselves?”  The answer is obvious to him. “I take the democratic side,” he says.  That “Supernatural Being” is a figure called on by tyrants and despots, princes and popes, to support the status quo.  

Ingersoll doesn’t go as far as we might today to show how the God those rulers called on to maintain their power was made after their own image.  He doesn’t need to because not just some, but most of his audience had been raised to believe that Genesis is history; that the punishing God is the only option.  In Ingersoll’s day good people still believed that the fear of hell helped to preserve social order.  Ingersoll disagrees: 

There is no reforming power in fear.  You can scare a man, maybe, so bad that he won’t do a thing, but you can’t scare him so bad he won’t want to do it.  There is no reforming power in punishment or brute force.

That’s one lesson we as a community have not learned to this day.  We also have made no progress, perhaps have even gone backward, in this:

You may ask me what I want.  Well, in the first place I want to get theology out of government.  It has no business there.  Man gets his authority from man, and is responsible only to man.  I want to get theology out of politics.  Our ancestors in 1776 retired God from politics, because of the jealousies among the churches, and the result has been splendid for mankind.  I want to get theology out of education.  Teach the children what somebody knows, not what somebody guesses. 

Robert Ingersoll was intensely patriotic.  I believe he would be quite discouraged to see how little progress our nation has made in these matters since his time.  Which way should we turn to find a solution to our present situation?