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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.

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.

Inspiring Blogger Award

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I’ve been nominated for the “Very Inspiring Blogger Award.”  This is a real honor because it comes from one whose blog is truly inspiring.  Pat Garcia tells the stories of courageous and neglected heroes of history at http://garciaandwalkon.me/  I would nominate her first if she hadn’t already nominated me.

very-inspiring-blogger-award1

In accepting this award I am supposed to say seven things about myself and nominate fifteen other blogs.

Seven things:
1.  I’m a poet who has not taken a class in poetry since seventh grade.  I have, however, attended lots of workshops.
2.  I’ve only lived in New Mexico for eight years; I’m still in love with desert and mountains.
3. I’m a member and past President of the Sacred Dance Guild.
4.  My favorite color is green.
5.  It took me seventeen years to write my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.
6.  To get that project started I earned a Ph. D. in American Religious Studies from Temple University.
7.  My current project is a response in poems to William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), the publication that made famous the metaphor of God as watchmaker.  My response focuses on how much has changed.

It’s a stretch to find fifteen blogs to nominate when my predecessors have recently nominated many fine blogs that I also follow.  Here are twelve.

The Needy Helper (Lee Davy)  www.needyhelper.com/ Anyone who sets out to read 52 books in 52 weeks inspires me.

Twigs & Stones (http://twigsandstones-poems.blogspot.com/)  Tanka and other short poems.

The One Earth Project (http://leevanham.com/blog/)  Can we live with the reality that we have only one earth’s worth of resources, not five?

Dialogues on exploring the gap (http://explorethegap.wordpress.com/) “Where people of science, religion, faith and spirituality come to talk.”

Digest This (http://www.digest-this.com/)  Addressed to the human constituency.

http://200newmexicopoems.wordpress.com/ A compendium of poems about New Mexico.

Things I Want To Tell My Mother (http://warnerwriting.wordpress.com/)  On memories and dealing with dementia.

http://craighill.net/ Perspectives on news and history from Australia and China.

Ellis Nelson (http://ellisnelson.com/)  Author of Into the Land of Snows.

http://houseboathouse.blogspot.com/#!/ Rose Mary Boehm, a woman of many talents, and a unique way with a website.

Carlos Navarro (http://breadnm.blogspot.com/) A blog supporting Bread for the World in New Mexico.

Lisa Michaels (http://lisa-michaels.com/blog/) Learn how to align your energy with the natural rhythms of the universe.

More From Freethinking Edith Roberts

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Edith Wilson Roberts filled in at her husband’s podium for a total of three weeks.  With her first radical lecture on “marriage and divorce” she caught the attention of the papers, including the local correspondent for the St. Louis Republic.  She is described as petite, pretty, and “not after the order of the ‘strong-minded’ woman.”  The reporter’s idea of a “strong-minded woman” is not clear, for he goes on to say, “She is practical, as witness the fact that for three years she managed a farm for her husband, and did it well.”

The Kansas City Star described her style of presentation, which differed quite a bit from her husband’s flamboyant rhetoric:

Mrs. Roberts’s voice is not strong, but like her husband she has the faculty of enunciating clearly.  She did not attempt gestures or rhetoric, but spoke in a calm, dispassionate manner, which, if nothing more, convinced her hearers that she was thoroughly in earnest.

Mrs. Roberts’s second and third lectures did not draw so much attention.  The second was on education.  In this she began by pointing out that college is only the beginning:

After a young man has finished his course he has had a surfeit of books, but he knows little of life, he has had no experience.  .  .  . No man is thoroughly equipped mentally until he has lived much; no man is educated who has not loved; it teaches us what nothing else can teach.  We learn most of all through parenthood.  The childless have missed the sweetest lessons of life.

She calls education “a sacred obligation” and declares, “The first requirement of education is absolute honesty with self.”  This leads into a discussion of religion and science, and the hypocrisy of the former in maintaining old doctrines.

Edith Roberts’s third lecture was on Ingersoll.  The Truth Seeker printed the lecture in full, noting that Mrs. Roberts spoke “acceptably to the large congregation.”  She uses many quotations from Ingersoll himself, calling them “the language he himself has made immortal.”  Following a survey of his attacks on Christian dogma and the Bible, she praises him for upholding justice, particularly for women:

            There was no modern question of importance upon which the great positivist did not speak, and always with unfailing justice.  Slavery, poverty, great wealth, prisons, punishments, labor, taxation, all called forth his intellectual fire, while from the heart he wrote of woman and the home, maternity and childhood, and of divorce—which he would give every woman for the asking.  What Ingersoll has done for the women of America is a theme worthy the dignity of an entire discourse.

More generally, she says of Ingersoll’s career:

            He gave us reason for dogma, truth for creeds, and in seductive speech he taught the busy throng what scholars learned from Huxley, Haeckel, Tyndall, Darwin.  He left behind no monument, no institution.  But he civilized the church as he had longed to do.  He spread the light, he lifted up his age.

Cleary, Mrs. Roberts admired Ingersoll as much as her husband did, but she told his story in her own way, perhaps with a copy of Ingersoll’s lectures, which were newly published as a set, in hand.

Edith Roberts was not my ancestor, but I could wish she were; I admire her greatly.  She was her husband’s equal and felt she should be treated as such.  This would cause trouble later on.  That story is told in my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

A Forgotten Freethinking Woman Speaks

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On January 31, 1901, the landmark Coates Opera House in Kansas City, where John Emerson Roberts’s Church of This World had been meeting, burned down.   On the same day, Roberts was honored at a dinner. The newspaper reported that seventy-five friends and admirers attended.  The date was chosen for its proximity to January 29, the birthday of Thomas Paine, America’s first hero of freethought because of his radical views during and after the Revolution.

Within twenty-four hours of the fire, the Church of This World announced a new arrangement. It would meet henceforth at the Standard Theater, located two blocks south. It was considered an inferior place, for one article describes it, in relation to the new agreement, as “a playhouse which by a stroke of the pen has doffed the scarlet robes for the regenerated garb of a first-class establishment.”

What happened next is strange and cries out for explanation, but none has been given. After this dinner and the quick resolution of where his church would meet in the aftermath of the fire, Dr. Roberts was unable to lecture on the following Sunday. One source says he was ill, another that he was out of the city. Both statements are probably true, as this fits a later pattern. His wife, Edith, spoke in his place.

Newspaper drawing of Edith Wilson Roberts

Newspaper drawing of Edith Wilson Roberts

Edith Wilson, whose family were members of All Souls’ Unitarian Church, had married Dr. Roberts in 1893.  She was 21; he was 40.  She became stepmother to his three children, and they produced two more children together.  What she had to say in her husband’s absence shows that her ideas had developed alongside his and that she considered herself his partner and equal.  Her topic for her first lecture was “Marriage and Divorce.”

The lecture was a response to a current political debate in which one party wished to restrict the comparatively liberal divorce laws that had been put in place in Missouri some ten years earlier.  Mrs. Roberts begins with historical background; she praises the Romans for an era in which the matron reached a level of equality which Christianity squelched.  She blames the “heavy hand of superstition,” the “arrogant” St. Paul, and Pope Gregory VII, who put marriage firmly under church control as a sacrament. She describes marriage as having two purposes:

.  .  .  first and directly, the happiness of the contracting parties; second and indirectly, the welfare of children resulting from the union.  The purposes of divorce are identical with those of marriage, the second and indirect reason of the one becoming the paramount reason for the other.  To perpetuate in the home an atmosphere of misery that rapidly turns to hate is a crime against both children and parents; it incapacitates the family for usefulness, and brings to light the darkest relics of our human past, the fang, the claw, the suffocating coil.  To rear children under such conditions is an outrage to every responsibility of parenthood.

The courts, she argues, should do no more than recognize a decision to divorce.  The current practice, in which one judge had complained of “collusion and fraud” when two parties agreed to a divorce, should be abolished.  She points out that judges are not trained in psychology and therefore lack the “requisites for a correct estimate of human nature.”

In closing she suggests that two groups of people oppose liberal divorce laws.  The first are those who are unhappy in their own marriages and think others should be compelled to endure what they endure.  For these she sees no remedy.  The second group are those who are happy in their marriage, yet insensitive to those less fortunate.  To them she says:

.  .  . the men and women who have known what perfect marriage is, who have tried a happiness and pronounced it blessed, who have learned the meaning of love in its every sense and found that its other name is adoration, who have entered together the secret courts of parenthood and known the joy of rearing superb children that bear the sweet image of their mutual love—it seems to me that such men and women should most gladly give a chance of freedom to every disappointed lover.

These are the words of a woman happily married.  Her primary focus, however, is on the raising of “superb” children.  Edith Roberts declares that women are equal, responsible, able to make their own choices before the law, then adds that the use of the woman’s equality is to bear children, by choice.  The purpose of the home is to produce healthy, happy, intelligent children.  This is the purpose which this freethinking woman has chosen for herself.

For more on Edith Wilson Roberts and her husband, read my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought

New Year’s Optimism – in 1893

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94933_CoverFront1893 was a bad year for the American economy.  The country would not recover from the financial disaster of that year for several years to come.  John Emerson Roberts, preacher of All Souls’ church in Kansas City, was personally affected.  The Board of Trustees of the church reduced his salary by twenty percent, “in hopes that it could be more promptly paid.”

New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1893, was a Sunday.  Perhaps it was a preacher’s instinct for what his congregation wanted to hear that led Dr. Roberts to avoid all mention of current ills and give a sermon which took great leaps into abstractions.  Though the lecture was titled “The days that are gone and the days that are to be” Roberts gave very little attention to the days that are gone.  He began:

This is the day and the hour when by common impulse we pay our homage to time, the warder at the gates of destiny.  Time!  Within that monosyllable what mystery is enshrined; what depth unfathomable, invisible, echoless, vast.

Like God, within it all things live and move and have their being.  But whence is it and what?  Is it an existence, an entity, a fact, a something: and if so what are its parts, its elements?

There are many things which we cannot comprehend, but we define them and with our definition we mask our ignorance and put on airs . . . Our age hastens to be wise.  Restless of mystery, impatient of knowledge, it has cruelly invaded the chaste and tender secrets of the olden time, and now has cold formulas and colorless explanations for everything.

He soon moved from this negative note to flights of positive oratory.

We cannot get rid of God. . . . . To eyes that see, no fact should be plainer than this – that nature is everywhere a manifestation of the Infinite; that all things that are, all things everywhere; show forth . . .  that the supreme fact of the universe is God.

Why have we not found this out?  Why do you sit there and wonder what the preacher means?  Because we have inherited the false notion that nature is exclusive of God, that He can be present only through supernatural means.

We must know God, if at all, in terms of the finite.

Let us ask, what is time?  It is the revelation of eternity in terms comprehensible by man. . . . Time is but the world’s manifestation of God’s eternity.

Roberts concluded:

Marvelous mighty, unspeakable gifts of days!  To make them constellations wheel in space, galaxies keep their silent watches, moons wax and wane, stars come out; suns rise and set, and then, as if to call unthinking men to marvel, the wonderful dawn hangs its crimson drapery, the triumphal gate through which the day is ushered in.

This ministry, this service, this joyous slavery of the universe, this striding of the constellations around the pole, this eternal and tender conspiracy of worlds and galaxies and systems; this birth from eternal mystery of morning and of night – this, oh, human soul is for thee!

Ah. coming days! The days that are to be!  Let me with thee conspire to make time and life divine.  Then shall we greet each morning with a smile and meet all the future with a cry of joy!

Did this idea that the universe goes through its cycle for the sake of humanity comfort the financiers, business owners and other civic leaders who attended Roberts’s church that Sunday, who may have been badly hurt by the financial crisis?  According to the report in Monday’s paper, it pleased them greatly: “This sermon was one of the most eloquent Dr. Roberts has delivered during his pastorate, and at the close he was warmly congratulated by many of the large congregation which listened with closest attention throughout.”

Further evidence that Roberts pleased his audience came a few months later.  In 1894 Roberts received an unusual honor from the larger community.  He won a contest sponsored by the Kansas CityWorld in which readers were asked to vote for the most popular minister in the city.  The prize was substantial: a horse and phaeton.  For Dr. Roberts, things were looking up.  He had many years of positive influence and appreciation ahead of him.

For more on John Emerson Roberts, read John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  You can find it on Amazon or order directly from the author.

What is Nature? (From the Biography)

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In November 1900, John Emerson Roberts had begun his fourth year as an independent freethought preacher, speaking on Sunday mornings in theaters.  He was beginning to be noticed beyond Kansas City.  A nationwide network, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, invited him to speak at their conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This was a great opportunity to make his views widely known.

            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.

After some additional arguments against old Christian views, Roberts personifies 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.”

Having lifted up nature, Roberts goes on to challenge the Christian view of heaven.   He asks, “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. He concludes:

“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.”

Another speaker at this conference was Clarence Darrow.  Both men were paid $25 for their efforts.  Roberts and Darrow began an acquaintance that lasted for decades.  That is another part of the story told in the biography.

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly from the author.

A Freethinker’s View of Women: From the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts was “Kansas City’s up-to-date freethought preacher” partly because he was an avid reader.  He readily absorbed new ideas and included them in his lectures.  One example of this is a lecture he gave in 1900 was called “Woman and Modern Religion.”

            The lecture claims that the Bible and Christianity have been the cause of the debasement of women.  Like many of Roberts’s lectures, this is arranged as a historical progression.  He begins with recent theories about the power of women in ancient societies, citing stories about Egypt, Rome, China and Zuni tribes as fact.  In each he finds a queen or a priestess with significant power.  He summarizes his view of the ancient past:

“The pagan philosophy that recognized the natural superiority of woman must have proceeded in the most rational way.  It looked upon her as the mother, the creator, and the preserver of man and of his world.  Man knew then as we know now that civilization began with the mother. All progress in this world is led forward by the divine guide, love.  Woman was the lover first; man was the fighter.”

Acknowledging that no one can explain how the matriarchal era was replaced by patriarchy, Roberts goes on to describe the patriarchal attitudes found in the Bible.  He declares it “the charter of masculine tyranny” and “the instrument that has forged chains for the enslavement of woman.”  Because of the Eve story, theology has made woman the cause of all sin.  He mentions the Levitical rules of cleansing after childbirth: 40 days for a son, 80 for a daughter.  He asserts, “The New Testament makes no advance toward the elevation of woman.  Jesus seems to have no regard for woman.”

Roberts continues his history with a tirade against the middle ages, one of his recurring themes:  He calls them “a period of a thousand years that has never been paralleled in the history of mankind for its debauchery, its superstition, its intellectual vagaries, its frightful and nameless criminal practices.”

            The concluding section of this lecture is a paean in praise of motherhood.  Roberts speaks of “the mother” but he is surely drawing from his own recollection, either of his own mother, who died in 1885, or perhaps from the example of other mothers, such as Josephine Parks, his second wife’s mother, who had lived with them:

.” . . .when I remember how all we are we owe to her, how in the glad and happy time she sang as she rocked our cradle, knitting or mending or sewing while under the inspiration of a chaste and holy love; when I remember how in the wayward and unthinking years of childhood and youth it was the mother whose love was never overtaxed, it was the mother whose arms were ever open with forgiveness in her heart; when I remember how she toiled and toiled that we might have a little better chance in this world than had come to her; when I remember how she grew old and white haired and wrinkled and wan and feeble with the patient and uncomplaining toil of many years and how we folded at last her cold hands in peace across the loving breast; how the smile, even after death’s cold touch illuminated her face like a halo from the home of God; when I remember the mother, I can worship the best by paying the homage of my honor, my respect, and my love to the motherhood of this world.”

Motherhood, as described here, was a nineteenth century concept.  It developed alongside the new idea that childhood is a special stage of life..  This idealization had little to do with equality or real power.  Roberts apparently did not see the difference between this admiration of motherhood and the matriarchies which he believed characterized the ancient world.

When Roberts spoke the idea that ancient societies were matriarchal was widely accepted.  Later scholarship has concluded that this idea was a figment of nineteenth century imagination.  The idea appealed to Roberts because it made an excellent contrast to Christian, and especially medieval, patriarchy.  The seriousness of the offense, in his view, would not be called into question by the error in his starting point.

 

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly.

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