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Summertime

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The local tv station which we watch for the weather has been doing a countdown until summer.  Whoever decided summer starts with the solstice either lived in the north or was an astrologer who only went out at night.  That reckoning makes no sense in the southwestern desert.  School wound up in May and will begin again in August.  100 degree days are already appearing.

John Emerson Roberts took four months off, from early June to the first of October.   It was a point of honor for him that he returned to the farm each year.  In fact, he considered returning to the farm a cure for much of what was ailing society, including high prices.  In 1916 he said,

JERB. . . the farm is being made more unattractive to boys and girls by the reformers who would even prohibit billiard balls and bowling alleys.  We have to get down to the fundamental thing and have got to make the farm laborer’s life more attractive, as the experiment stations and agricultural universities are trying to do.

“Men and women must be persuaded to see that the only life in on the soil,” Roberts said.  But all he could promise was that “they will have the consciousness of living their own way.”

Roberts was able to live his own way by lecturing eight months of the year, and leaving town for four.  Kansas City must have been pretty uncomfortable in summer’s heat.  Who would relish getting dressed up for a lecture at 11:00 a.m. on a July Sunday morning?  It was good business to close for the season.

I write in comfort thanks to my swamp cooler.  Air conditioning has spoiled us. Yet even air-conditioned churches find that attendance, and therefore receipts, go down in the summer.

So much has, and so much has not, changed in 100 years.

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.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Ingersoll!

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Robert Green Ingersoll was born August 11, 1833, in New York State.  His father was a minister whose calling meant that the family moved frequently to different places.  Robert’s mother died when he was young, leaving two older sisters to “mother” him.

After service in the Civil War, which earned him the nickname “Colonel Bob,” Ingersoll became a successful lawyer, first in Peoria, Illinois, later in Washington, DC and then in New York City.  He first came to national attention as a speaker in 1876 when he made the nomination speech for James G. Blaine at the Republican National Convention.  Blaine lost out to Rutherford B. Hayes, but Ingersoll’s fame as a speaker was set.

Although he was involved with some headline trials, and gave many speeches in support of Republican candidates, Ingersoll’s real contribution to society was in his effort to bring reason to bear on the religious doctrines that flourished in his day.  Ingersoll’s father’s faith had been Calvinist, believing in the fallenness of humanity and God’s election of certain persons while condemning others to an eternal hell.  This strict orthodoxy was being challenged by the time Ingersoll began speaking out, as the churches struggled with developments in science, Biblical criticism, and other research.  In spite of the growing questions, an orthodoxy that focused on the hope of heaven and the fear of hell dominated popular thinking in the second half of the nineteenth century.

A lecture called “What Must We Do To Be Saved” was one of Ingersoll’s successful and repeated challenges to orthodox Christianity.  In this lecture, Ingersoll uses a review of the gospels in the New Testament to make his case.

He focuses first on the Gospel of Matthew.  He finds there the beatitudes (“Blessed are the merciful . . .”), the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.”), and several other passages which support the idea that it is right behavior, not belief, that God asks of us.  Given the current state of Biblical criticism, however, he felt free to mark as an interpolation anything that did not fit with this developing picture.

Ingersoll went on to review the Gospel of Mark, where he found one text he found offensive; current Biblical scholarship agrees that it is a late addition.  The King James Version of the Bible includes without question the ending to Mark now seen as a pastiche of later interpretation, which includes the statement: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

Dismissing this selection as interpolation, Ingersoll finds Mark and also Luke basically in agreement with Matthew.  He dismisses the whole Gospel of John as written not by those who knew Jesus, but “by the church” and therefore not relevant to his argument.   From this survey Ingersoll concludes that the God of Jesus is merciful to those who show mercy, forgives those who forgive, operates according to the Golden Rule, and would in no circumstances send anyone to everlasting suffering in hell.  He closes the lecture by saying:

The honest man, the good woman, the happy child, have nothing to fear, either in this world or the world to come.
Upon that rock I stand.

“What Must We Do To Be Saved” is one of Ingersoll’s more gentle attacks on orthodoxy.  Sometimes he enlivened it with an introduction on the horrible deeds ascribed to the deity in the Old Testament.  In other lectures he focused on the books of Moses or on the crimes of the church in medieval times.  As he became better known he could expect to fill the largest hall in every city he visited.  He did not always speak on these issues.  People were eager to hear him on topics like Shakespeare, Robert Burns or Lincoln as well.

Ingersoll quickly became a favorite of freethinkers around the country.  He was giving popular credence to their claims and ideas.  After he died in 1899, one follower called Ingersoll “a prophet of the future, the light-bringing herald of the dawn.”  Ingersoll was placed alongside Thomas Paine as a second American freethought hero.

He’s one of my heroes because he did wonderful things with language.  His lectures are fun to read, with their rolling phrases and sly jabs.

For a full description of Ingersoll’s life and lectures, I recommend Frank Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life (Prometheus, 1990).

Does Geography Really Shift?

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As I prepared for a lecture I will give in the Boston area today on John Emerson Roberts I realized that I need to make a case for why Unitarians in Milton, Massachusetts, should be interested in what happened in Kansas City, Missouri, a hundred years ago.  It’s not a difficult case to make for those who are historically minded, because the events I describe affected the Unitarian denomination as a whole.  The question has reminded me, however, of how different geography appears depending on where you stand.

As a child growing up in California I had in my head a very simple map of the United States.  there was a blue line down the middle: the Mississippi River.  East of this everything was green and lumpy, west of it, all was flat and yellow, until one reached the border of California, whose topography I knew well from the flour and water maps we made in fourth grade.  You don’t have to have seen much of the middle of the country to realize how far off my notions were.  At the very least, I had seriously misplaced the big blue line.

When I moved to the Boston area for college, New England expanded hugely in my mind.  And when we settled in Philadelphia the Mid-Atlantic states were added to my area of familiarity.  The rest of the country shrank in comparison.  I had to remind myself that the 600 miles between Philadelphia and Deer Isle, Maine, were a small part of the country, even though we covered six states.

We are fortunate now to live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and to travel to Maine by car.  Now I know something of many more states.  We’ve driven past the geographic midpoint of the contiguous forty-eight states in northern Kansas.  We’ve taken different routes across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indian, Ohio and sometimes Kentucky and Tennessee.

The knowledge one gets from being in a place is different from map study and geography tests.  I don’t have to stop and ponder to remember that Nebraska (home of Dorothy Lynch dressing) is north of Kansas, and Iowa, where I followed a piece of the Mormon trail, is north of Missouri. I’ve been there.  It is a big, beautiful and―especially when you avoid the interstates―diverse country.  Yet, what happens in one place can affect all the rest.

You can read about the “Western Controversy” and why it mattered to Unitarians, in my book, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to date” Freethought Preacher, available from me through Amazon or via the contact page.