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John Emerson Roberts, Popular Preacher: Excerpts from the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts left the Baptist church in 1884 because he no longer believed in hell.  He still believed in God, and he was quickly accepted into the Unitarian fellowship.  Just three years after his rejection by his Baptist congregation, Roberts was back in Kansas City as a Unitarian preacher.  He was even more popular as a Unitarian than as a Baptist, which is interesting because the Unitarians, although much more conservative than in our time, were at the liberal fringe of Christianity.

Roberts still believed in God and could speak eloquently of that belief:

         We cannot get rid of God.  When the last analysis has been made, when we have dissected to the uttermost, when we have said the last wise word about matter, force and motion, then in matter, making it what it is; in force, its final energy, in motion, its unexplained residuum, is that subtle, awful omniscience―there is 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 behind all appearances real, in all mutations, immutable, in all and over all, that the supreme fact of the universe is God.

What sort of God is this?  It is not a personal God, who would be active in the affairs of individuals.  The “final energy” of force is certainly an abstract concept.  Roberts’s congregation loved this kind of language.  So did the news reporters; The Journal reporter wrote:  “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.”

In 1895, Roberts gave a series of five sermons under the title, “The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy”:

The title had been used by Roberts’s colleague, Minot Savage, in 1889 for an article in the North American Review.  For both Roberts and Savage “orthodoxy” meant Calvinism, the stern form of Protestantism which emphasized the fall of man and the freedom of God to choose who would be saved, the rest condemned to a hell made vivid in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” back in 1743.  Though most churches had loosened up a good deal (many Baptists, for instance, focused on the individual’s choice to accept salvation) these doctrines continued to be expressed and defended.  It was the incongruity of a God of love and an eternity of hellfire which brought many to liberal religion and drove others away from religion altogether.

While Roberts had tried gently to persuade his Baptist congregation of the seriousness of this incongruity in 1884, in 1895 he was speaking to people whose ideas had developed as his own had.  He could really tear into the issue.  Using inequalities of wealth as a parallel, he describes the doctrine of hell as one which “creates a monopoly of happiness, and joy and favor of God for endless ages in the interest of a few and dooms the uncounted millions to a place compared with which a poor-house were a paradise and a penitentiary a palace of delight.”   Is this a reasonable doctrine? He almost explodes in response:

            No!  No! By all the sanctions of reason, no! By all the unsyllabled persuasion of the moral consciousness, no! By all the sanctity of man who bears, though marred, the image of God.  By the pathos of human struggle and the pleading of human hope.  By the eternal justice of the Infinite God, no! no!

This exclamation is in a sermon called “Two Plans.”  Clearly, Roberts doesn’t think the threat of hell has any part in a good God’s plan.  He doesn’t line out a contrary plan, but he is sure of this:  “This world and all the worlds belong to God.”

Another sermon in this five part series gives us information on how Roberts is thinking about Jesus.  I’ll discuss that next.

For more on John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher and how to obtain a copy, see the Books page.

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John Emerson Roberts Begins to Think for Himself: Excerpts from the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts had a good Baptist education and became a successful Baptist preacher.  He was called to the First Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1881.  He was about 28 years old and three years out of school.  However, Roberts continued to read and to think.  By the summer of 1883 he was not preaching the same gospel his father had preached.  Here is a description of one sermon from that year, entitled “Co-laborers with God.”

He begins by saying, “What God has designed for humanity and how He will accomplish it, have been questions that have ever been discussed and never fully settled.” He blames the lack of an answer largely on a focus on secondary doctrines. He singles out Catholics for claiming none can be saved outside their communion. He then points out that Christ’s call was to action, not theories. He concludes this section by saying, “My faith is simple enough to believe that this round world will yet be won by the gospel of the Son of Man, but it will never be done by dogma and controversy, and the bitter strife of words.” Instead, it will be won by those who “have imbibed the spirit of the Nazarene, and who, like him, go down among men to teach them charity and forgiveness, and purity, and faith, and love.”

It’s no surprise that a Baptist would find fault with Catholics in Roberts’s time.  And to dismiss theories of the fall of man as a case of people “reasoning about things that are beyond them” was also common in churches that focused on individual commitment to Christ.  But Roberts went further:

Any doctrine of hell or of election (that only some will be saved) he puts in this category of doctrines which have gone astray. They contradict the biblical record: “Jesus Christ said he died for the world.” He calls attention then to an opposite error: the idea that it is entirely a man’s choice to accept or refuse salvation. Roberts interprets Paul’s claim “for we are laborers together with God” to mean that the work of redemption involves both God and man.

In August, 1883, when Roberts gave this sermon, the members of First Baptist Church seemed to be very pleased with their pastor.  Fourteen months later, in October, 1884, the attitude had changed.

            Roberts was asked to preach two sermons stating his beliefs, in particular concerning the existence of hell. He did this on the evenings of October 25 and November 2. In one sermon, he argued that the idea of “endless punishment” is an inaccurate reading of scripture, contrary to reason and the sense of justice, and offensive to moral sentiment. In the other, he offered a contemporary understanding of hell: “Hell begins where sin begins, and is where sin is. Hell is no postponed catastrophe: it is here now.”
Following his November 2 sermon, the congregation voted to dismiss Roberts.

Robert Ingersoll was in Kansas City shortly after this event.  It was his custom to notice local religious events, which might provide local color for his lectures.  In this case it was not in a lecture but in conversation with a reporter for the Kansas City Journal that Ingersoll commented on what the First Baptist congregation had done:

I see that the Rev. Mr. Roberts of your city has the courage to say that the reason of each man is his highest standard of truth.  Of course, this is absolutely true, but the members of his church, holding their own reason in contempt, justly it may be, proceeded to vote (in order to be consistent) against their reason and turned him out.

Roberts and Ingersoll were not yet acquainted when Ingersoll made this statement.  Roberts had more thinking to do before he came to agree fully with Ingersoll’s point of view.

Excerpts are from Chapters 3 and 4 of John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See the Books page for more information.