Home

Atheists Together

Leave a comment

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.

Advertisements

The Beginning, Middle and End of a Freethought Periodical

Leave a comment

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?”

Leave a comment

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

1 Comment

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.

A Forgotten Freethinking Woman Speaks

1 Comment

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

Up-to-date In Kansas City: From the Biography

Leave a comment

At the end of the nineteenth century, Kansas City was an exciting place to be.  Businessmen were optimistic, having survived a local real estate bust in the 1880s and the national economic crisis of 1893.  John Emerson Roberts’s “Church of This World” fit right in with the sense of progress.

People back in Michigan, where Roberts had grown up and where he returned each summer, took notice of his success.  In a long interview reported in the Grand Rapids Herald, Roberts was asked about his church.  He responded:

“We don’t deal with anything of which we have no knowledge. We have quit fooling with phantoms and ghosts and the future. We are satisfied to live in this world and to study life here rather than what we are to enjoy hereafter. We don’t lie about what we don’t know. As for prayer and that sort of thing, I can’t see any occasion for it. Christ never prayed in public.”

When the reporter suggested that the Gospel of John indicates otherwise, Roberts argued that that book was written long after the events, and that the writer had no personal experience of the case.  At the end of his article the interviewer referred to Roberts as “the Kansas City up-to-date minister.”

            In 1900, Kansas City was “up to date,” a phrase widely used at the time, in a number of ways. The “skyscraper” celebrated as “seven stories high” in Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for Oklahoma was actually ten stories tall. It was the New YorkLifeBuilding at 20 W.    Ninth Street. A few other buildings had reached eight stories by 1900. The city’s boosters were eager to make a national impression. They persuaded the Democratic Convention to meet there in July, in the Convention Hall they had built with private money the year before. They got more attention than they expected. Convention Hall burned down in April. A campaign began immediately to rebuild. City leaders assured the Democratic Party that the work would be done in time and it was—just barely. The convention itself brought in plenty of business but it was not an exciting event: The nomination of William Jennings Bryan was a foregone conclusion.

 

The excerpts above are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher (Xlibris, 2011).  For more information, see the Books page or contact me.

A New “Church”: From the Biography

Leave a comment

John Emerson Roberts’s contacts with Robert Ingersoll, described in my blog of October 6, bore fruit in the fall of 1897.  From my biography of Roberts, here is a description of Roberts’s independent “Church” and how it operated:

The Church of This World held its first service in the Coates Opera House on September 12, 1897. In addition to Roberts’s lecture, which he still called a sermon, music was provided by Carl Busch. The service apparently consisted only of this music and the sermon with no offering, no hymnody, and certainly no prayer. It is interesting that the organization was called a church, given the comments Roberts made in the spring about the negative connotations of that term. The phrase “this world” was evidently taken from Ingersoll’s letter praising Roberts’s sermon about the boy who died in jail: “You are preaching a religion for this world.”

Carl Busch was a major figure in the music world of Kansas City.  Born in Denmark in 1862, he studied in various institutions in Europe.  In 1887, Busch was working in Paris, playing in orchestras conducted by Camille Saint Saens and Charles Gounod. The Danish vice-consul in Kansas City invited Busch to organize a string quartet and bring it to America. Busch did so, and spent the rest of his life based in Kansas City. Times were not easy for the arts. Busch organized a series of orchestras and programs, but between the economic troubles of the late 1880s and the 1890s, and the lack of developed musical taste among the well-to-do business class who were the city’s elite, support was not always sufficient. The position as music director for the Church of This World was at least steady work, though very part time; Busch was still employed there when his biography was written for Whitney’s Kansas City, Missouri, in 1908.

The Church of This World was set up with a board of trustees just as the Unitarian Society had been. The names of the earliest set of trustees are not known. The trustees are listed in the newspapers only in later years when there were stories of development or decline to report. The funding for the church was provided by supporters who paid for their seats; the cost ranged from $5 to $25 per year. This practice is comparable to the idea of pew rentals, which many churches used to provide a base of income; the theater seats were no doubt more comfortable than typical pews. Seats for those who just came in were free.

The sermons Roberts gave in that first year are lost.  In the fall of his second year, however, Roberts published a series of sermons as a hardbound book.  A few copies have survived.

These sermons show how his preaching and views had evolved. The first sermon was titled “The Imperial Demands of Progress.” The word progress had become a highly resonant term for Roberts. He begins with the idea that one has an obligation to participate in progress:
“Deeper upon enlightened minds grows the conviction that progress is the world’s supreme law. To contribute to that progress, to obey that law, is the cosmic business of everyone and of everything that is.”
While he sees this as a human undertaking, however, he has not become a true Ingersollian; he has not given up talking of God, of spirit and of the divine. He concludes this first sermon by saying,
“Let us trust the old, the common, the misunderstood earth. Let us hail the dawn of the day coming fast and sure, when all men everywhere shall see that the earth is divine, man is divine and God is all in all.”
Though “thought” and “reason” are among his favorite themes, Roberts also holds on to the idea that religion, as opposed to specific religions, is an element of life that will endure.

There’s that dawn metaphor again in the second quotation, an image Roberts used often.  Read more about his most unusual institution in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, available through Amazon from ERYBooks (or use the contact page).

Older Entries