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The Biography

The Biography

Today, February 8 completes three years on this blog.  It has had its busy and its slack times, but I’ve enjoyed it all.

I began this blog to publicize my biography of John Emerson Roberts. This was one piece of an effort which involved a variety of Linked In Groups and even Linked In Ads, as well as connecting with other bloggers.

I named this blog “Freethought and Metaphor” in part because I hoped that I would in

My new poetry collection

My new poetry collection

future have poetry books to advertise – and now I have one.  I realized as soon as I came up with the title that these are indeed two sides of my mind, as my subhead says.  My left brain thinks about ideas and my right brain creates poetic material.  Sometimes these two sides cooperate, sometimes they wander down different trails.  And there are times when my left brain pretends to cooperate but really wants to run the show.  Those times do no produce successful poems.

Humans are bilateral, but who really had only two sides?  A third place where I put my energy is work on hunger and justice issues.  There are disputes about what constitutes justice, but most people agree on what hunger is, even when it is hidden under fancy names like “food insecurity.”

I was delighted to discover Word Soup, an organization which uses poetry to support hungry people by asking for a small donation to their local food bank to accompany submissions.  I couldn’t pass up the chance to combine these two usually separate parts of my mind.  They accepted two of my poems, which can be found at: http://wordsoup.weebly.com/issue-five-february-2015.html

My father-in-law used to count his age not by years completed, but by the year he was in.  He was well into his 99th year when he died.  Today is not the end of three years for this blog.  It is the beginning of the fourth year.  And I plan to keep going, though I have no plan laid out for it.

Please check back to see what I come up with.  And check out my books on the Books page.

Atheists Together

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A friend brought my attention to an article from Time magazine earlier this month about atheist “churches.”  I was interested to learn that there is a new “freethought church” in Kansas City, MO.  I wonder if they know about the long tradition they belong to, about the “Church of This World” founded in 1897 by John Emerson Roberts.

From their website www.kcoasis.org

From their website http://www.kcoasis.org

So many of the  leaders among the atheist/agnostic communities have come out of the Christian denominations.  Leading a community is what they have been trained to do.  When their beliefs change, they take these skills to a new audience.

There are some who think these communities are a bad idea.  Bill Maher is quoted in the article as saying, “It undermines the whole point of atheism, because the reason why people need to get together in religion is precisely because it’s nonsensical.”

Would it parallel this statement to suggest that people attend football games in great numbers to support each other in the nonsensical belief that these games really matter?

If Maher can’t separate a belief system from the human desire for community, I wonder what he thinks the “whole point of atheism” is.  To reject the idea of god does not require one to be live in isolation.  To enjoy fellowship is not a crutch.  Nor is the idea of finding like-minded people to join in doing good in the world a statement of faith.

94933_CoverFrontI have a sneaking suspicion that when convinced atheists reject fellowship it is because they really would rather not put up with agnostics, who have not committed themselves to the understanding that there is no god.  This reflects another element which I think is characteristic of humanity: the desire to draw lines and strive for purity.

John Emerson Roberts, on the other hand, would be delighted to know there is a new community of freethinkers in Kansas City, MO.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

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People have given thanks for the harvest since long before any major religions were formulated.  This giving of thanks always has something of a religious quality.  The relation of religion to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday has long been tangential at best, however.  Those paper pilgrim hats and feather headdresses from grade school weren’t about religion; they were about making us citizens with a common heritage, a shared history, incomplete though it was.

94933_CoverFrontThe role of religion in the Thanksgiving holiday made it a subject that liberal preacher John Emerson Roberts spoke on almost every year; the hypocrisy of talking about religious services and preferring feasting and games was an obvious target.  Here, from the biography, is a summary of his thoughts on the subject in 1895:

At this time, the day still had to be set by the annual proclamation from the president (The proclamations are still made, even though Congress fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in the mid-twentieth century.) These proclamations have religious overtones that go back to the Puritans. Grover Cleveland’s 1895 proclamation called for giving thanks “in our accustomed places of worship,” and for prayer that God would continue to show mercy to and guide the nation. Roberts applauds the people of the country for being ahead of the platitudes of the proclamation: they use the day for feasting, fun, and football games. He notes that even the newspapers, supposedly holding up the pious conventions, give far more space to reporting sports than to church services. The people know what they need and they act accordingly.

When the Kansas City Star published an editorial objecting to what Roberts had said. he used the papers themselves as evidence to support his argument. In the four daily papers published in Kansas City on the day after thanksgiving, he counted 568 lines covering religious events for the day and 6,480 on football alone. “These figures prove nothing,” Roberts admitted, but they showed what the editors judged to be “what the public was interested in on Thanksgiving day.”

What would Dr. Roberts say today about Black Friday and the way it has recently leaked into Thanksgiving Day?  Would he assert that “the people know what they need and they act accordingly?”  Or would he perceive a pressure of corporate capitalism throwing society out of balance, as I do?  My perspective is affected by the fact that I have what I need, and when I make a big purchase it is usually because something has broken and I want to replace it.  When something does break, I’m not likely to wait for sales or the crowds that go with them. I give thanks that I can avoid Black Friday.

An additional note on Thanksgiving:

I recently heard an ad for some worthy cause in which the speaker said, “People remember the thanks but they don’t always remember the giving.”  Another blow to language: giving thanks is not a two-part action.

Comments Roberts made on other Thanksgivings, and his comments on many other subjects are reported in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See more on the Books page.

John Emerson Roberts: His Significance in Freethought History

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The Council for Secular Humanism has published on their website an article I wrote describing John Emerson Roberts’s pivotal position in the development of freethought from liberalism to radicalism.  You can find it at:

https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/356994933_CoverFront

If the article makes you interested in more background, consider ordering my biography, which gives much attention to the context in which Roberts worked and what made him successful.  You can get a new, signed copy from me via Amazon, through ERYBooks, at:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aag/main/ref=olp_merch_name_9?ie=UTF8&asin=1462876919&isAmazonFulfilled=0&seller=AW0M3U1KS6UKI

J. E. Roberts in later life with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

J. E. Roberts with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

In the Sign of Libra

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John Emerson Roberts

John Emerson Roberts, subject of my biography

September 28, 2013 is the 160th anniversary of John Emerson Roberts’s birth.  This makes ‘Kansas City’s Up-to-date Freethought Preacher” a Libra according to astrology.  My father and my son, Dr. Roberts’s grandson and great-great-grandson, were also born in this sign.  Libra is the Latin word for balance.  I am not sure in what sense all Libras should exhibit balance, but equilibrium has not been characteristic of any of these three men.

It would make more sense if “Libra” were connected “liber,” the Latin work that means free, as in liberation, and book, as in library.  All of these men have been freethinkers according to their times.  None of them has believed in a conventional god, and they have embraced the new, each in his own way.  John Emerson Roberts explored new ideas of all kinds: science, theology and humanism.  My father was an exponent of new ways of looking at language (as developed by Noam Chomsky).  My son has made his career in computer software development.

Paul McHenry Roberts

My father, Paul McHenry Roberts

One tradition in astrology focuses on the elements (earth, air, fire, water) associated with each astrological sign.  Libra is an “air” sign.  This connects it with the mind, with ideas.  The sign is associated with intellectual creativity and intensity.  This fits my three men well.

But I, a deep water Scorpio, also focus on intellect.  Where does my freethinking, intellectual approach to “life, the universe and everything” come from?  How does inheritance relate to astrology?

I like to explore astrological theories, because it seems reasonable to me that there are resonances at multiple levels throughout the cosmos.  However, no interpretation I’ve come across yet has been able to capture the subtleties of such possible influences.

Another Anniversary

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Today is the 116th anniversary of John Emerson Roberts’s departure from the Unitarian Church.  This move to leave the denomination and create his own “Church of this World” is what makes his an interesting story.  Without that move he would have been one of many successful liberal preachers in the denomination, hardly noticed in the world beyond.

In 1906, when Dr. Roberts decided to take a break from “the Church of this World” after nine years, a reporter for the Kansas City Journal declared that Roberts had fallen away from religion “because his name was Emerson.”  The writer (perhaps it was the paper’s editor) claimed that Roberts was imbued with “Emersonian mysticism.”  He didn’t address the fact that it was Dr. Roberts’s good Baptist parents who gave him this middle name.  Mysticism was not what led Dr. Roberts away from the denominations.  On the contrary, even the Unitarians had too much mysticism for his rational mind.

94933_CoverFrontThis June is also the second anniversary of the publication of my biography of Roberts.  A year ago I was giving talks about the book, which I enjoyed doing very much.  I had to admit, however, that the return on the cost of traveling was not worth it.  Through internet connections I did sell a few books, so this past winter I used LinkedIn ads to draw attention to this site when I posted selections from the book.  I got a nice increase in “views” but no sales.

I was ready to say, “Okay, I’ve done what I could.”  I’d sold some books.  I’d placed them in a few appropriate bookstores.  I’d sent review copies here, there and everywhere.  It seemed like time to put the project behind me.  Then two things happened this spring: the book was given a very favorable review in the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society Journal, and I was invited to write a short summary of Dr. Roberts’s success for Free Inquiry Magazine.  I wait to see what the 117th year since John Emerson Roberts left the Unitarian Church to create his “Church of this World” will bring.

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.

The Beginning, Middle and End of a Freethought Periodical

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This self-contained story about the short, but typical, life of a freethought publication, the Torch of Reason, introduces a few of the many freethinkers you can meet in the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

            The Torch of Reason began publication in the fall of 1896, at the time Roberts was deepening his relationship with Ingersoll and moving toward separation from the Unitarians. J. E. Hosmer was editor of the paper and Mr. Pearl W. Geer was business manager. These men, with support from a small community of secularists, were trying to develop a liberal college, because they found places like Stanford in California too steeped in religion. They called their institution the Liberal University of Oregon. Its initials, LUO, conveniently spell the Greek verb “to free.” The newspaper was in large part an advertising organ for the university. The publishers also hoped to use their press as a source of funds through doing printing jobs for others.

In 1901, T. B. Wakeman, an active member of the freethought community in the East, came to Oregon and became editor of the paper. Very soon, Hosmer was pushed out and Wakeman became head of both the newspaper and the university, which was actually a school serving students of all ages. It was at this time that lectures by Dr. Roberts were included in the material published in the paper. The paper was also publishing lectures of Ingersoll and work by other well-known figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Wakeman and Geer soon began to look for a better location. Wakeman referred to Oregon as a nursery, which “was well for the young plant, but the time to transplant to a larger and open field must come.” They started negotiations with several places, including Omaha, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Mr. Geer, as business manager, did the negotiating. On April 17, 1902, the Torch of Reason reported that Geer had just completed an agreement with the Church of This World to bring the university, and the paper, to Kansas City.

The principal supporter within the Church of This World in this matter was J. E. Wilson, a member of the Board, and no known relation to Edith Wilson Roberts. Wilson was involved in real estate. The paper offered “stock” in the Liberal University Company to raise money for purchase of a building. By August, $32,000 had been raised, most of it from supporters east of the Mississippi. Wilson found property in Kansas    City, a former YMCA building constructed in 1887, for $85,000. The down payment was $30,000. The purchase was made and plans were set to move the press early in 1903 and open the school the following fall.

Dr. Roberts was not excited about the arrival of the university,because Kansas City already had some fine educational institutions, but the local press considered it a coup to be chosen over other cities.

            The Torch of Reason moved to Kansas City in February 1903. A hiatus of several weeks was caused by delay in delivering the printing equipment on the railroads. The railroads blamed the delay partly on weather and partly on the volume of traffic. The paper resumed publication on March 19, declaring in its header that it was: “Published weekly in the interests of Pure Science, applied to Education, Religion and Practical Life.” In his editorial, T. B. Wakeman asserted that the cause of the delay was the failure of the government to properly oversee the railroads.

Once in Kansas City both Wakeman and Geer attended the Church of This World. Wakeman’s wife became the president of the Church of This World’s Women’s Auxiliary, a support organization, typical of Protestant churches that had been created just two years earlier. Wakeman included a signed item in the paper in May, supporting Roberts’s use of the term “church.” In another issue, Geer wrote a filler piece about a service in which a cat chasing a mouse did its best to upstage “the distinguished speaker.” The paper continued to print material from Roberts’s lectures, but apparently they depended on the city papers for texts, rather than using a stenographer of their own. The city papers were printing fewer of Roberts’s sermons than previously, perhaps because they sensed changing tastes in their readers.

As for the LiberalUniversity, the oversight body changed its name from Liberal University Company to Liberal University Organization, in order to keep the LUO acronym which had formerly referred to Oregon. J. E. Wilson joined the management team as treasurer. In a letter to The Truth Seeker, T. J. Tanner of Kansas City wrote of hopes to schedule a few lectures in the spring or summer as well as classes in art and music, to be taught by Wakeman’s daughter Clara. He declared that Wakeman and Geer were bringing “a strong reinforcement to the local army that is fighting for liberty and justice.”

During the summer of 1903, the Torch of Reason began advertising books by M. M. Mangasarian, another member of the freethought community who was based in Chicago. In the fall, as Wakeman and Geer worked on getting the Liberal University going, they decided to reduce their responsibility for the paper. They entered into an arrangement with Mangasarian, combining their assets with those of others. Mangasarian became editor of a new publication, The Liberal Review. Instead of a weekly newspaper, this was to be a monthly journal. Mangasarian would be the editor-in-chief and publication would be in Chicago. Wakeman and Geer would continue as assistant editor and business manager, respectively, with their office in Kansas City. The Torch of Reason ceased publication in December 1903. The Liberal Review put out its first issue in February 1904. After about six months, Wakeman and Geer separated from the Review to focus on the LiberalUniversity. This enabled the school to survive for about another year. Its first appearance in the Kansas City Directory was in 1903; its last was in 1905, when Pearl Geer listed himself as the school’s librarian.

 

“Can Anything Good Come Out of Kansas City?”

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At the turn of the last century Kansas City was looked down upon by those in the eastern part of the country, just as Nazareth was despised in first century Palestine.  New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and even Chicago and St. Louis considered Kansas City a latecomer to civilized society, recently part of the wild west.  Kansas Citians fought against this view.

            Economically, the year 1900 was a time of optimism. Midwestern cities were thriving. Kansas City, having weathered the local economic upheavals of the late 1880s and the national crisis of the mid-1890s, was doing well. Its population had tripled in the past two decades, partly through the redrawing of city boundaries. In 1897, Kansas City had absorbed the town of Westport to the south, which had been the more important center, back in the days of the Santa Fe Trail.

A special event in 1900 was the opening of Heim’s Electric Park This type of development was not unique to Kansas City. Entrepreneurs would build street car lines and then build attractions to entice more people to use the lines. In this case, the Heim brothers built a brewery first, then added a street car line to provide transportation for their employees. That did not provide enough business for the line, so they created an ElectricPark, which opened in June 1900. Features included a summer theater, rides, and beer piped in from the brewery. Year by year, they added carnival rides. Kansas Citians believed their park compared well with those at Coney Island or Chicago’s Midway.

In the same spirit of boosterism, Kansas City leaders were happy to support John Emerson Roberts when he wanted to expand his “Church of this World.”  It would, those leaders hoped, make Kansas City “a center of agnosticism for the nation.”  They wanted to see Kansas City appreciated for more than its service as an important rail hub.

Roberts made periodic lecture tours to spread his ideas.  Developing new centers for the Church of this World, however, would require finding a long term substitute to speak at his podium in Kansas City.  This would turn out to be a problem.  His audience in Kansas City wanted to hear him.

94933_CoverFrontExcerpts are from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

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