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Popular Preacher, Part II: Rhetoric and Religion

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When John Emerson Roberts did his five part series on The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy, he set up a series of parallels, a good rhetorical device.  The second sermon was on “Two Gods” the God of vengeance and the God of mercy.  The third sermon, on “Two Bibles,” contrasted the Bible, valuable as a record of human development, with the natural universe, “the only book God ever wrote.”  The fourth sermon, “Two Plans” he used mostly as an excuse to discuss and dismiss old ideas of the atonement.  “The necessity of an atonement disappears with the old idea of a capricious and changeable God,” he concluded, ignoring his own earlier comments on a God of judgment vs. a God of mercy.  A rhetorical flourish.

Only in the final sermon of this five-sermon set did Roberts turn to more positive thoughts.  It’s another parallel, this time between Jesus and Voltaire.  This idea was not new with Roberts; he borrowed it from Victor Hugo, who had spoken on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Voltaire’s death in 1878.  In fact, a good third of the sermon is straight from Hugo, though Roberts does not admit it.  This is normal for preachers; they are not required to identify their sources.

Voltaire was a popular freethought hero in the United States in the second half of the 19th century.  Born Francois Marie Aroeut in 1694, he was a poet, playwright and philosopher who challenged authority at every turn.  He wrote satires about church and society.  Of his works, one that survives today is Candide – in large part because Leonard Bernstein made an opera out of it.

One hundred years ago Voltaire was much better known:
●  In 1866, Voltairine de Cleyre was named after him.  After enduring education in a convent (her parents thought it was the best education available to a young woman) she became an atheist and an anarchist.
●  In 1879, the Music Hall was built in Chicago partly to provide a platform for David Swing, a liberal preacher who had left the Presbyterian denomination.  Voltaire’s bust was included along with those of Moses, Mozart and other heroes of faith and music.
●  Clarence Darrow, who had admired Voltaire since his youth, found him a profitable lecture topic in the early 20th century.

Roberts begins his discussion of Voltaire with a strong metaphor:  “The plain is habitable because the mountain is beyond,” he says, and continues:

Voltaire was the mountain.  Rugged, defiant, implacable, lightning-scarred, storm-enveloped, immovable, august, sublime, he towered above Europe and the eighteenth century with unspeakable scorn for superstition, secular or sacred, and with unquenchable devotion to reason and light.  Kings exiled him.  Police officers arrested him.  Bastilles and prisons confined him.  Ignorance hated him.  Superstition execrated him.  The priesthood denounced him. . . .

What has this to do with Jesus?

There are of necessity two kinds of prophets.  One shows the way to heaven, that is to moral health, to sanity, to a consisten and reasonable faith and to kindness toward men and reverence toward God
Such was Jesus, and such are all great souls who, from the spirt and genius of the world of matter and of man, imbibe the thought of God.

Voltaire is another kind of prophet, one of those “whose visions disclose the abyss towards which the unreasoning haste.”  Roberts’s argument requires the assumption that religion in Voltaire’s time had reached a very low point.  Voltaire, Roberts says, “rescued it from ecclesiastical asphyxiation and gave it light and air.”

After going at length into the contrast of Jesus and Voltaire as two types of prophet, Roberts brings them back together:

The church in all ages has put dogma first, charity and tolerance last.  Christianity today is dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.  Jesus reversed that method.  Voltair reversed that method.  Jesus was called in his own day a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  Voltaire was called a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  But God sends such heretics among men to sweeten life, to establish justice, to illuminate the true, the beautiful and the good, to plead for humanity and for God and prevent religion from perishing from the earth.

Roberts was carried away by his own rhetoric, and so was his congregation.  He filled a 500 seat sanctuary with his sermons.  It is quite a stretch to call Jesus a heretic, since the Judaism of his time was both varied and non-dogmatic; the charge of heresy requires a single controlling authority.  Roberts is reading back from his own experience and his own era.  There is, however, some truth in his claims.  Christianity has always been at risk of becoming a prop for the status quo: “dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.”  Roberts seems to be putting his hope in a new Voltaire, rather than a prophet like Jesus.

This post is an expansion of material in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s ‘Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

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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.

Archimedes, Aristotle and Earthquakes

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I’ve been thinking about the Greeks and their science, as I try to pull together a chapbook of poems on themes related to Archimedes and his lever.  Archimedes is not the only Greek scientist who intrigues me.  Aristotle is one whom I like first for his ideas on rhetoric, still the basis of many classifications on that subject, but also for the ideas described in the middle stanza of the following poem.

The Search for Order

The ancient model,
in polished brass, expressed
proportions undisturbed
by motion.  Harmonic
spheres keep turning.
Had the world such music
there would be no static
on the FM radio.

Aristotle understood:
the world beneath
the moon is set apart
from celestial, perfectly
governed spheres.
We are the spoiled core
of an ideal cosmos,
its worm-eaten pit.

Aristotle stood at
the center.  My universe
runs away at light speed,
while beneath me tectonic
plates shift, collide.
I long for balance: spheres
encircling the stillness
of mere decay.

The idea that the ground beneath our feet is unstable is not new.  I grew up in California, where earthquakes are a fact of life.  I used that as an image in an earlier poem:

Fire At The Center

My mother came home
from a course on personality
with a slip of paper:
“Your dominant emotion
is rage.”  She went on being good
and dull as plowed dirt.
Where is sure footing
when ground shifts?
The San Andreas fault
did not run under the house,
but whether it lay east
or west I could not say.
Which way would the earth tilt?

When she muttered
“Death and transfiguration!”
I heard a danger
no “Damn!” could hold.
The fluid at her core
lay ready, like crayon
melting under an iron,
to stain us both.  Her fire
never broke the surface.

And I?  The astrologer
finds Mars at the nadir,
“fire in the depth of your being.”
Eighteen years we spent
adjacent, distanced
by unacknowledged fire.
It is safer not to ask
where the fault lies.

In this poem, the shifting ground is largely metaphoric.  Although I knew about earthquakes, it was more an idea than experience: I only recall one small quake from my childhood.  I missed the big ones that later toppled the Oakland freeway and broke the walls of my cousins’ home in the mountains.  My awareness of shifting ground was not in the body.

By the time I wrote “The Search for Order” I was in a more unsteady place psychologically, a more mature understanding of grounding and groundlessness.

I decided this was a theme worth exploring further.

“The Search for Order” was published in Bibliophilos, which has published several of my poems on Greek themes.
“Fire at the Center,” first appeared in Metis, August, 1995, and is included in my chapbook, Accidents, described on the Books page.

A Freethinker’s Metaphors

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John Emerson Roberts, freethought preacher (see Books) believed in clear thinking.  He believed that encouraging people to think for themselves was his mission, his contribution to society.  He lifted up free thinking against all doctrine, all dogma.  He could not lecture without metaphor.  Sometimes he even mixed his metaphors, as in the following example:

“The brain is the sun. Civilization is its light. Thought is the mother of progress. The mother must be free in order that the child may be well-born.”  (Roberts, Lecture on Ingersoll, 1902.)

Light is a popular metaphor among freethinkers.  Robert Ingersoll used it extensively.  Motherhood was a beloved concept of the latter half of the nineteenth century.  There is more to say on both of these.