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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.

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More on Thomas Paine, with some resources

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An article on Thomas Paine by Dr. Roberts was printed in the Liberal Review in 1905.   Paine was in the news that year in two ways. One was a perceived insult. The other was an indication of a new level of acceptance.

            The insult had been made by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1888, Roosevelt had written a biography of Gouverneur Morris, who was the American minister to France when Paine was in prison there. Morris was no friend of Paine; taking Morris’s view, Roosevelt referred to Paine as a “dirty little atheist.” Roosevelt’s book was republished in 1899 with no change. Calls for an apology were still circulating in 1905.

In the same year, 1905, the town of New Rochelle, New York, decided to give greater honor to Paine as its one-time resident. A monument that had been in an obscure location on a side street was to be moved to a central location with a bit of a park around it. The city council proposed to take over care for the monument from the freethinkers who had maintained it as volunteers since it was erected in 1839. A large official ceremony was held on October 14, 1905. George Macdonald [editor of The Truthseeker] later called it the “climax of all Paine celebrations that had been held.”

The timing of the printing of the lecture by Dr. Roberts, “Thomas Paine’s Labor for the Liberties of Man,” in September 1905, was probably set by the anticipated celebration; Roberts offers a straightforward presentation of Paine’s life. Paine was born in England of an Episcopalian mother and a Quaker father. Roberts tells a few stories of Paine’s childhood and early work in England, then moves on to his immigration to America in 1774 and his writing of “Common Sense” and “The Crisis.” “The Crisis” was credited with raising the morale of the struggling Continental Army in the difficult days of 1779. Roberts continues with the story of Paine’s return to Europe, his writing of Rights of Man, which got him into trouble in England, his participation in the French Revolution, and his writing of The Age of Reason.

Roberts credits Paine both with making religion more humane and with making human liberties secure.

Paine returned to the United States in the last years of his life, but he was not popular, largely because of his writings against Christianity.  Years later Robert Ingersoll would be able to retain popularity while tearing down the Bible and Christian doctrines, and Roberts followed in Ingersoll’s path.  In the first decade of the 19th century, this was not possible.

It should be noted, however, that freethinkers attribute all the dislike of Paine to his ideas.  It is also possible that he was not as likeable as Ingersoll or Roberts.  Human beings are less rational than most freethinkers want to believe.

Learn more about Thomas Paine from the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, which can be found at http://tpnha.keybrick.net

Here’s another source of information on freethought heroes: Roderick Bradford, a historian of American freethought, has a series of video clips from his current movie project online at http://vimeo.com/channels/432917

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

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.

115 Years ago today . . .

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On this date, June 9, 1897, John Emerson Roberts left the Unitarians to go out to lecture on his own.  He had met Robert Ingersoll, that famous agnostic, and they found themselves kindred spirits.  Ingersoll wrote to Roberts, “You are preaching a religion for this world.”  Roberts told a news reporter about Ingersoll, “He is the greatest apostle of liberty and reason and fraternity.”

Both men called themselves agnostics.  What did it mean in their time?  A religious man wrote “We must stand for faith in God as against atheism, and for faith in immortality as against agnosticism.”

Atheism is clear enough as not believing in God.  Isn’t agnosticism simply a refusal to make a claim where one has no knowledge?

In fact, neither Ingersoll nor Roberts ever challenged belief in immortality.  The desire to believe in a future life, even among educated people, was so strong at that time it might have hurt their careers to argue the matter.  Speeches at funerals, even freethinkers’ funerals, left the option open.

Roberts himself had no wish to challenge the belief.  He said in one lecture, give in 1909:

If this life ends all, then nature is the infinite deceiver, the colossal liar,. . . . and though I do not know it to be a fact and cannot prove it, yet I will trust that when the world is old and the sun is cold and the infinite future is unrolled, man shall yet continue conscious, intelligent, aspiring, deathless, having life and having it more abundantly.

Roberts envisions no traditional heaven, but he wants to believe that life goes on, and until science can persuade him it is impossible, as it could not 100 years ago, he chooses to believe that it will.

The science which underlies arguments about belief has changed significantly since Roberts’s time.

My biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, is available from Amazon, or from the author.  See more on the Books page.

What do freethinkers celebrate?

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There seem to be a shortage of atheist/freethought holidays. A recent blog comment suggested that there is nothing between April Fool’s Day and Be a Pirate Day in September. 

While the word “holiday” has unfortunate origins, now largely ignored, I do think atheists, agnostics and freethinkers should find occasions to celebrate during the year.  One hundred years ago, gatherings were held on January 29, Thomas Paine’s birthday.  I don’t know how many still honor this occasion.

Robert Ingersoll, the most successful freethought lecturer of the nineteenth century, was immediately raised to “sainthood” beside Thomas Paine upon his death in 1899.  No miracles were needed.  January 29 was often celebrated as a “Paine-Ingersoll” event. 

Ingersoll declared himself to be agnostic, but he was in fact a humanist before the word came into popular usage.  The following quotation is typical:

“Reason, Observation, and Experience―the Holy Trinity of Science―have taught us that happiness is the only good, that the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”
(From “On the Gods”)

Why not honor Ingersoll on his own birthday, August 11?  Perhaps in those pre-airconditioning days of the early twentieth century August was an off time to hold a celebration.  Now, I think, an August “holiday” would be a good idea.

Another option would be to establish “Atheist Family Day” on July 17.  When Ingersoll died on that date in 1899 his wife and daughters took immediate action to preventthe  fraudulent claims of deathbed conversion which plagued every freethinking hero.  Ingersoll’s family was united in supporting the cause of freethought.

If these options don’t appeal to you, perhaps you have other ideas about what and when freethinkers should hold celebrations.