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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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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.

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.

The Warp of History

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Perhaps a better title for this reflection would be “How One’s Sense of History Gets Warped.”

The Victorian Era has always had special interest for me, long before I discovered the work of John Emerson Roberts.  As a child, I don’t think I understood the difference between “gilded” and “golden.”  When I heard people discussing the Gilded Age, I thought they spoke of a past universally esteemed better than the present.  As an era of long skirts and fine manners, I thought this must have been a splendid time, when people lived in a special golden light.  Like some ancient writers, I thought the present was flat compared to the past, an age of iron descended from an age of gold.

Currently, I cannot hear the term “Gilded Age” without thinking, if it isn’t said, “and Progressive Era.”  The period from roughly 1877 to 1920 has been labeled and marked off with this double title.  And a golden age it certainly was not.  It was an era of new ideas and inventions, but also one of urban and labor unrest and, in the United States particularly, of fear of immigrant populations.

My sense of the early 1950s was also skewed.  As I looked back on it from the sixties it seemed to have been an era of “returning to normal” after World War II.  I know now that it was not.  It was a new age of consumer goods and suburbs.  Cars and gas were now available and roads were rapidly being expanded.  Factories that had been geared up for war materials were converted to producing consumer goods.  It was also a time of great conformity.  People knew more about people who lived in other places, but that did not lead to appreciation of diversity.  Radio and soon television produced images of the right way to live, the “typical” family, and all the things that family should acquire.

As for a “return to normal” it slowly dawned on me that there had never been a “normal.”  Before World War II had been the Great Depression, before that the “Roaring 20’s” and Prohibition, and before that another war, the first and most disturbing, because unexpected, of the grim and ugly wars that characterized the twentieth century.  In another post I will expand on what I have learned about the cultural shock of World War I, which shattered the widely held belief in an ongoing progress of humanity and its projects, the cultural attitude which John Emerson Roberts held to as long as he was preaching.

As my confusion about “golden” and “gilded” lingered, I thought “normal” might have been back around 1899 or so.  Now I understand that every era in United States history has been one of transition from a past with difficulties toward an unknown future.  Change has been a constant feature and a great many mistakes have been made along the way.

Was it a case of inadequate education that I had these erroneous notions?  I don’t think so.  I think all children are subject to misconceptions, which the text books can’t erase easily, because the adults who write them have forgotten such possibilities.  Was I a child with too much imagination?  I don’t think there is such a thing as too much imagination.  It’s how you learn to use it that counts.  Sorting out these puzzles was an important part of my learning.

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.

Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine

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Long before Martin Luther King, Jr., we might have had a January holiday by honoring Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, an important document in building support for the American Revolution.  Thomas Paine, who went on to write The Rights of Man,  was the first of a growing number of American freethought heroes.  Robert Ingersoll and Clarence Darrow have been added to the list.  Both of them honored Thomas Paine.  So did John Emerson Roberts.  One hundred years ago, celebrations were often held on January 29, Thomas Paine’s birthday.  Here is the report on one such event in Chicago in 1909, which was a special year because it was the centenary of Paine’s death.

The freethinkers of Chicago planned a large Paine celebration for January 29. This event would also honor Charles B. Waite, a Chicago judge and freethinker who had the same birthday as Paine and who turned eighty-five that year.  Nearly a dozen speakers were engaged to speak. Dr. John E. Roberts headed the list. Clarence Darrow was listed second. Darrow, like most of the others on the program, was a Chicago resident. Among those scheduled, only Darrow and Roberts had a national reputation in the freethought network.

The celebration was held at Hull House, Jane Addams’s famous settlement house. The weather was bad; a snowstorm led people to quote Paine’s famous line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Attendance was reported as good, but the weather caused a delay getting started, so a number of the speeches had to be shortened or eliminated. This restriction apparently did not apply to Dr. Roberts, who gave the keynote address on the life of Paine. The Truth Seeker promised to print the lecture in full at a later time, but never did.

Following Roberts, Mr. C. Stuart Beattie was to speak on “Paine and Waite.” He began by saying, “After the magnificent address that we have just listened to upon Paine, I should not attempt any remarks on that great character, but will proceed directly as to the other character who is known to us all.” Beattie proceeded to give a brief biography of Judge Waite. He was a personal acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln and was appointed by him to the SupremeCourtofUtahTerritory in 1862. In this position, he played a significant role in maintaining contacts for the Union, both in Utah and on to California. When the need there was past, Waite moved to Chicago and became a real estate lawyer and a scholar. Apparently, his experience with the Mormon leader Brigham Young helped him to reach the conclusion that all gods are man-made. His writing on the early Church was popular among freethinkers because, as Beattie expressed it, “his great idea was to take off from the character of Christ the crust of absurdity that his supposed historians and disciples had placed upon it.”

Among the other presentations was a “Vindication of Thomas Paine” in verse by John Maddock. This had to be abbreviated at the meeting, but it filled a page of The Truth Seeker in the issue published the week of the event. The poem begins:

We honor Thomas Paine to-night
Because he figures in the fight
Which has been waged by saint and sage
In every Christian land and age.

It ends, four columns later:

The work of Paine was done so well
The church is now the infidel –
Not true to truth, as reason shows.
Paine’s justified and so I close.

The page in The Truth Seeker is filled with pictures: of Maddock, the author of the poem, Thomas Paine, and Roberts and Darrow, the expected speakers. Darrow is not mentioned in the report of the event published two weeks later. At least four others of the intended speakers took no part in the actual proceedings. Evidently, the snowstorm caused more trouble than just a late start. The honors given to Judge Waite proved very timely. He died two months later.

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

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