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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.

John Emerson Roberts Begins to Think for Himself: Excerpts from the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts had a good Baptist education and became a successful Baptist preacher.  He was called to the First Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1881.  He was about 28 years old and three years out of school.  However, Roberts continued to read and to think.  By the summer of 1883 he was not preaching the same gospel his father had preached.  Here is a description of one sermon from that year, entitled “Co-laborers with God.”

He begins by saying, “What God has designed for humanity and how He will accomplish it, have been questions that have ever been discussed and never fully settled.” He blames the lack of an answer largely on a focus on secondary doctrines. He singles out Catholics for claiming none can be saved outside their communion. He then points out that Christ’s call was to action, not theories. He concludes this section by saying, “My faith is simple enough to believe that this round world will yet be won by the gospel of the Son of Man, but it will never be done by dogma and controversy, and the bitter strife of words.” Instead, it will be won by those who “have imbibed the spirit of the Nazarene, and who, like him, go down among men to teach them charity and forgiveness, and purity, and faith, and love.”

It’s no surprise that a Baptist would find fault with Catholics in Roberts’s time.  And to dismiss theories of the fall of man as a case of people “reasoning about things that are beyond them” was also common in churches that focused on individual commitment to Christ.  But Roberts went further:

Any doctrine of hell or of election (that only some will be saved) he puts in this category of doctrines which have gone astray. They contradict the biblical record: “Jesus Christ said he died for the world.” He calls attention then to an opposite error: the idea that it is entirely a man’s choice to accept or refuse salvation. Roberts interprets Paul’s claim “for we are laborers together with God” to mean that the work of redemption involves both God and man.

In August, 1883, when Roberts gave this sermon, the members of First Baptist Church seemed to be very pleased with their pastor.  Fourteen months later, in October, 1884, the attitude had changed.

            Roberts was asked to preach two sermons stating his beliefs, in particular concerning the existence of hell. He did this on the evenings of October 25 and November 2. In one sermon, he argued that the idea of “endless punishment” is an inaccurate reading of scripture, contrary to reason and the sense of justice, and offensive to moral sentiment. In the other, he offered a contemporary understanding of hell: “Hell begins where sin begins, and is where sin is. Hell is no postponed catastrophe: it is here now.”
Following his November 2 sermon, the congregation voted to dismiss Roberts.

Robert Ingersoll was in Kansas City shortly after this event.  It was his custom to notice local religious events, which might provide local color for his lectures.  In this case it was not in a lecture but in conversation with a reporter for the Kansas City Journal that Ingersoll commented on what the First Baptist congregation had done:

I see that the Rev. Mr. Roberts of your city has the courage to say that the reason of each man is his highest standard of truth.  Of course, this is absolutely true, but the members of his church, holding their own reason in contempt, justly it may be, proceeded to vote (in order to be consistent) against their reason and turned him out.

Roberts and Ingersoll were not yet acquainted when Ingersoll made this statement.  Roberts had more thinking to do before he came to agree fully with Ingersoll’s point of view.

Excerpts are from Chapters 3 and 4 of John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See the Books page for more information.

Robert Ingersoll asks “Which Way”

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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?

 

Where Is Hell?

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Holy Week seems like an appropriate time to ponder the existence of hell, something I stopped believing in decades ago.

It was harder to let go of the idea of hell a century ago.  Some seemed to think that there had to be a hell if there was to be a heaven.  Others thought the threat of hell was needed to maintain social order.  Such people didn’t like John Emerson Roberts when he started preaching against dogma.

Roberts was a successful Baptist preacher until some questioned his orthodoxy.  He may have believed his congregation agreed with him when he made statements like these in 1884:

Why do you punish your child?  To save him from greater wrongs and greater punishments.  Is not God our Father?  . . .”Whom he loveth, he chasteneth”

Against the theory of endless punishment, the universal moral sentiment stands unitedly arrayed.

But this did not satisfy his congregation.  In the end he said, “hell begins where sin begins, and is where sin is.  hell is no postponed catastrophe; it is here now.”  And the congregation cancelled his contract.  For more on John Emerson Roberts see the Books page.