Atheist History in the United States

Before turning to the history of free thought, agnosticism and atheism in the United States, the Preface will glance at the early religious practices of colonial America.  The ordinary Anglican American parish was between 60 and 100 miles of sparsely populated territory.  Clergymen were scarce, and women made up less than one fourth of the population.  Religious life was haphazard and irregular for most citizens.  Even in Boston, which was more highly populated and dominated by the Congregational Church, one inhabitant complained, in 1632, that “fellows which keepe hogges all weeke preach on the Sabbath.”[1]

By the 1730’s and 1740’s, the English Evangelical, George Whitefield, and the American preacher, Jonathan Edwards, began the American “Great Awakening,” or born again religion, focusing on emotion rather than reason. The Great Awakening and its impact have been overemphasized, however.  American historians have found that by the end of the Colonial Period, Protestant Rationalism remained the dominant religious force among the leaders of most Colonies.  “The similarity of belief among the educated gentry in all colonies is notable… {There} seems to be evidence that some form of Rationalism- Unitarian, deist or otherwise- was often present in the religion of gentlemen leaders by the late Colonial period.”[2]  This Protestant Rationalism emphasized ethics and discarded superstition. At the same time, many Americans came to believe that no human institution, religious or civil, could claim divine authority.  There was an interesting political turn to such thinking.  By 1760, many American rationalists began attacking English domination on several issues. One of their grievances was that England intervened in the Colonies’ religious life.  They denied England’s claim that the King of England ruled over them by divine inspiration or right.

Freethought has been a robust and resilient strand existing in America from colonial times to the present.  Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both favored religious or ethical thought found in nature rather than in “revealed religion,” i.e. the Bible.  Many of the Founding Fathers of our nation were Deists.  Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin were all Deists. James Madison was somewhat further along- he may have been an Atheist. Jefferson and Madison were extremely instrumental in writing the principle of separation of Church and State into the Constitution. (See Atheism and the Law.) The American Founders were influenced by the European Enlightenment, and many of the thinkers of that Continental movement were Deists, with some embracing Atheism.   The question of the Founders’ belief, or lack thereof, has created a “vexing problem for twentieth century religious and social conservatives intent on simultaneously enshrining the Founding Fathers and denying their intention to establish a secular government.”[3]

In 1787, Ethan Allen, a Revolutionary War hero, wrote the first Deist and anti-Christian book published in North America.  Deist literature had previously been imported from England.  Allen’s volume was entitled Reason: The Only Oracle of Man. It did not receive a great deal of attention, as it was not particularly well written.  Thomas Paine’s great book, Age of Reason (1795), well written, stirring and convincing, was very influential in the dissemination of Freethought in the United States. Although Deist in philosophy, the volume attacked the core of Christian beliefs and encouraged many people to abandon Christianity.  After Paine’s death, Deism waned.

Deist activity resumed about 1825, with a large party to celebrate Paine’s birthday.  The emphasis going forward for Deism in America was in reaching out to the working classes.  Fanny Wright and Richard Owen, who had established the Utopian colony of New Harmony, Indiana, moved to New York to begin the publication of the Free Inquirer in 1829.  In 1848, the German democratic revolution failed, and thousands of politically and religiously liberal Germans fled to the United States. The “Forty Eighters” settled from Minnesota all the way to Texas.  They published the Friend of Light, an anti -clerical and abolitionist tract, as well as many more anti-religious publications. They also established halls and health clubs, with freethought emphasized, in the areas where they settled.  The Freethought movement extended into the East at this period.[4]

From roughly 1860 to 1900, America entered what is known as The Golden Age of Freethought, a high point of the secular movement in the United States.  The most prominent name in a group of eminent secular thinkers was Robert Ingersoll, the eloquent orator and attorney, called “The Great Agnostic.” Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published in 1859, and science was beginning to be accepted as an explanation for phenomena that had once been explainable only in religious terms.[5]  People found entertainment and education in attending large public lectures at that period in American history.  Many freethinkers were on the lecture circuit, but none were as popular as Ingersoll, who had been influenced by Epicurus, the Greek Hellenistic Philosopher. (See Atheist History.)  Ingersoll considered god’s existence unknowable, Christian doctrine ridiculous and the concept of eternal punishment morally reprehensible.[6]  He was ahead of his time, advocating equality for blacks and women, better prison conditions and many other progressive concepts.  Ingersoll also went to law for Freethought causes.

The same period of the Golden Age saw a large array of Freethought periodicals, such as The Truth Seeker, and titles from J. P. Mendum Company and other publishers. Many organizations began to spring up, such as the National Liberal League and the New York Freethinkers Association.  Prominent Americans, such as Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank and Andrew Carnegie, identified themselves as Freethinkers during the era. Many distinguished women were active in Freethought, such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, who influenced her son-in-law, Frank L. Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame. (See Atheist Films.)

Biblical Criticism had begun to be taken seriously, and scientific works began to be well known.  Charles Lyell was a geologist who refuted Genesis in his Principles of Geology (1830.)  His work was an influence on Darwin, who published Origin of Species in 1859. Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s proponent, published Man’s Place in Nature in 1863.  There were many other works by scientists and freethinkers which helped with the spread of secularism in the United States during The Golden Age. (See The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, cited below.)

Ingersoll died in 1899, and he had unfortunately not established an organization to carry on his successful work. The Golden Age was waning, as well, around the time of his demise.  Ingersoll’s thirteen volume Collected Works remained in print until 1929, but the Golden Age had ended. As Tom Flynn points out, Freethought had entered the American mainstream and no longer had the radical cache’ it was once imbued with.[7] Flynn maintains that many educated Americans in the new century were irreligious by default, “knowing the Earth was old, the Bible written over time, and that species had evolved.”

By the second decade of the 20th Century, freethinking ignited once again.  Conservative Christians had employed the word, Atheist, to disparage non believers, but around 1920, American freethinkers began to take over the designation of Atheist to proudly characterize themselves.  For some notable citizens, such as Clarence Darrow, it was an honorable description.  Darrow was the famous attorney who defended teaching Evolution in United States public schools at the Scopes “monkey” trial in 1925.  He was an outspoken Atheist, who wrote an extended disproof of god’s existence for his autobiography in 1932. The agnostic socialist, Emanuel Haldemane-Julius, became the most successful publisher of the Freethought movement at that period. His company turned out the famous Little Blue Books, small paperback printings of the Bible, Greek Classics, Voltaire, Zola and Ingersoll, among other controversial works, for 25 cents, then 10 cents, and finally a nickel.  300 million Blue Books were printed between 1919 and 1949, at the time commercial publishers began to enter the marketplace.[8]  Blue Books reached people who could not afford hardcover volumes and helped educate the general population of the United States.

Charles Lee Smith, a lawyer, founded the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism in 1925.  His organization’s plan to found Atheist groups in high schools foundered, however.  He debated against Creationists, was very active in the cause of irreligion, and in 1937 purchased the Truth Seeker, an important Freethought publication.  Joseph Lewis was another famous atheist, who became the head of the Freethinkers of America.  Lewis donated several statues of Thomas Paine to countries, and these statues can still be seen in the United States, France and England.  He was also behind the movement that brought about the third restoration of Robert Ingersoll’s home in Dresden, New York.  Lewis successfully led the drive to put Thomas Paine on a postage stamp.  He wrote books on irreligion as well, and was active in Freethought his entire life. James Hervey Johnson took over the famous Truth Seeker in 1964.  The publication was not very successful, but Johnson was quite frugal and invested well.  He left an estate of some 16 million dollars, part of which went into forming a charitable trust which has been, since the 1990’s, the largest single source of charitable support for American unbelief.[9]

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the most famous atheist of the latter part of the 20th Century.  She is best known for her part in the Supreme Court Case undertaken on behalf of her son, William Murray.  The Murrays’ case, Murray v Curlett, was consolidated with Abington Township School District v Schempp and decided in favor of the plaintiffs on June 17, 1963.  By 8-1, under Chief Justice Hugo Black, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that school-sponsored Bible readings in public schools in the United States were unconstitutional.   O’Hair won a significant victory in O’Hair v Hill (1984) which invalidated state laws that barred atheists from state employment, jury service and public office. She helped make sure that the statements of the astronauts for Apollo 11’s Moon Landing in 1969 were secular, unlike the Apollo 8 landing. Her case against the Apollo 8 reading of Genesis was still pending at the time of Apollo 11.  O’Hair founded American Atheists in 1963 and moved to Austin, Texas, where she established the organization’s headquarters and began to edit the American Atheist Magazine.  According to the New York Times, O’Hair’s television program, American Atheist Forum, was carried by 140 Cable TV Systems and her mailing list reached around 50,000 in the 1980’s.[10]  Ellen Johnson, a former President of American Atheists, told the New York Times in 1997 that the group’s membership at that time was about 2500.[11]  As of this writing, the group is based in New Jersey, has an impressive website, a cable access show in 50 markets and continues to publish the American Atheist Magazine.  The current President is Dave Silverman.

A very effective Atheist group is the nonprofit Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF.) It was founded by Anne Nicole Gaylor in 1967 in Madison, Wisconsin.  Her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and son-in-law, Dan Barker, have aided significantly in the success of the organization.  They publish a monthly newspaper, Freethought Today, along with variety of tracts and books.  The group has won consequential Church/State battles, particularly in the Midwest.  Another group of interest is Atheists United, based in Los Angeles, California and formed in 1982.  Atheists United has an annual convention. (See Atheist Organizations.)

In 1980, the first explicitly secular Humanist organization formed, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH), founded by a group including Gordon Stein and philosopher Paul Kurtz.[12]  With this event, secular Humanism broke away from both religious humanism and socialist intellectualism and set out on its own ideological path.[13] In 1980, the Council began a journal called Free Inquiry. According to Flynn, the Council soon became the largest and most vigorous organization of unbelief in the United States, and Free Inquiry’s circulation regularly exceeded the combined circulation of publications of all the other humanist, atheist, and freethought organizations.[14]  The Council and its Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) founded the Center for Inquiry in 1995.  The Council renamed itself the Council for Secular Humanism.  Ronald Lindsay is currently CEO of the Organization.

The Preface has briefly glanced at the History of Atheism and Freethought in the United States, and now turns to the future of Atheism in our country.  Atheism will remain embattled in a country so invested in religious belief as the United States, but the picture for irreligion is particularly bright today.  The publication of significant Atheist books by Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Failure of Reason (2004,) by Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2007,) and by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006,) have had impressive sales and influenced many people concerning the validity of Atheist claims. The activity of the various irreligious groups discussed above has furthered the cause. The proliferation of Meetup Groups in the United States around the label of Atheist now numbers around 524, a significant sign that Atheists are “coming out of the closet,” and seeking the company of similarly minded individuals. Many irreligious groups, including American Atheists and Freedom from Religion, have sponsored billboard campaigns and bus ads that promote Atheism.  Center for Inquiry offers online courses in various areas of unbelief and Pitzer College in Claremont, California will be offering a Major in Secular Studies beginning in the Fall of 2011. (See Atheist Organizations, Atheist Activism, and Atheist Courses.)

Scientific breakthroughs continue in the area of Biology, Physics, (See Atheist Science) and Neuroscience. (See Atheist Psychologies) Many biblical studies and archeological findings have cast significant doubt on the truth of most of the “sacred texts”of Christianity and on historicity of Jesus.  Some scholars in the field are calling for an end to biblical studies unless they are secular in nature. (See Biblical Criticism.)  Many sections of the Atheist Scholar reinforce the facts contributing to the retreat of mainstream religion in the face of reason and science.

Church attendance is declining at accelerated rates.  Dr. Loveth Weems, Director of the Lewes Center for Church Leadership at the Wesley Theological Center in Washington, D.C. has discussed the drop in attendance in an article titled “No Show,” in Christian Century in 2010.  He cited the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey of American Congregations of all types.  Dr. Weems states that the large churches have begun a decline since 2001.  The small churches have been on a steady decline for decades, and this pace has recently accelerated. Only churches with over 1000 members have grown slightly.  The General Social Survey of 2008 shows an aging constituency in United States church membership. About 15 to 16% of Americans, when polled, say they have no religious affiliation, while the World Religious Statistics Survey has found that about 14% of the World’s population is made up of nonbelievers. (See Atheist Demographics for the United States and around the World.)

The combined effect of such irreligious activities-social, scientific, and intellectual- is creating a meaningful opportunity for Atheism and Secularism to advance and gain members. Some of our secular history has been skewed and it is difficult to tease out the influence of Rationalism on the people of the United States.  We know that our first four Presidents were either Unitarians or Deists. We know that the ruling classes of our country were often deist or rationalist. What do we know about the people’s belief? Harold Laski states: “ There was indeed, far more likelihood than the evidence permits us to affirm with certainty that, by the end of the eighteenth century, rationalism had made a good deal of progress among the urban masses; it is not easy, otherwise, to account for the popularity of Paine’s Age of Reason.[15] The influence of religion is still inordinately strong in the United States, but the steady encroachment of reason is having its effect, as it once did in earlier America.   Rational and skeptical thinking is helping obliterate the miasma created by ignorance, fear and superstition.  It is to be hoped that Atheism is on the verge of another Golden Age, and that the spirit of Ingersoll still lives on in our culture.

Video of Lecture: Atheist History in the United States

Lecture: Atheist History in the United States

Video of Discussion: Atheist History in the United States

Discussion: Atheist History in the United States

Recommended Books

The Following Books have been chosen for their merit by readers and critics:

Flynn, Tom.  “Unbelief in the United States.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

The History of Unbelief in the United States is long, complex, and interwoven with political and social movements, such as abolition and women’s rights.  It is not easy to condense it in a meaningful way, retaining its philosophical concepts as well as the facts of its history.  But in a well written, concise few pages, Tom Flynn has managed to successfully convey the ferment and fervor of the various Freethought movements, many of which extend through United States history to the present. 

Flynn opens with the Revolution and the place of Deism in the United States. The article then progresses to an interesting section on the beginning stirrings of early Freethought. There are short histories of people like Fanny Wright and Robert Owen, founders of the New Harmony Utopian Community and their New York publication, Free Enquirer, in the 1830’s. Flynn includes the fascinating story of the German “Forty-Eighters,” and the introduction of German Freethought into United States communities during the late 1840’s.  The German Democratic Revolution had failed and this country saw an influx of freethinking immigrants from that country.

Flynn turns to the Golden Age of Freethought, from around 1860 to 1900, with a concise, but informational and charming, section devoted to Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic.”  The article includes the important figures from the Golden Age, and discusses the publications of that era. Flynn writes of the Eckler Company, The Truth Seeker, and a large array of freethought publishers and volumes.  He provides readers with the history of important Freethought Organizations, such as The National Liberal League, as well.

Many of the women who were active in women’s rights and abolition were also prominent in Freethought. Flynn helps to restore them to their rightful place in secular history, as does Annie Laurie Gaylor in Women Without Superstition. (See the Book List below.)  The article includes the nearly forgotten Matilda Joslyn Gage, who co-wrote the 1881 Four Volume History of Woman Suffrage.

Flynn depicts Freethought’s gradual transformation from an upper class philosophy to one that was deeply involved with the working classes, sexual radicalism and free love philosophy.  The latter two ideas, Flynn maintains, were of American origin, as was the Birth Control movement. Flynn believes that Darwinism, as well as sciences such as geology, helped make many Americans aware of Evolution, old Earth and Biblical errancy.  He maintains that such an incorporation of the new ideas made the old irreligion obsolete.  Educated people began to take irreligion for granted. (See Preface for citations.)

Flynn segues into the 20th Century, writing about the great Atheists who were active at that time, such as Clarence Darrow, of Scopes “Monkey “ Trial Fame, and famous Agnostics, such as the Little Blue Books publisher, Haldeman Julius, and the Truth Seeker’s publishers.  He discusses the founding of American Atheists by Madalyn Murray O’Hair and some of her famous court cases. (See Preface.) He writes about the rise of the Center for Inquiry under its founder, Paul Kurtz, as well as the formation of various secular organizations in the United States.  The coverage of the founding of such organizations is needed and welcome.

Flynn’s article is an excellent short cut for the Atheist scholar who wants to enlarge her knowledge and awareness concerning Freethought’s significant place in United States history.  He is an interesting and concise writer, in control of a great deal of unwieldy material.  There is an excellent Bibliography included at the end of the article, with significant titles for further study.  Highly Recommended.  (The Preface gratefully acknowledges its dependence on Tom Flynn’s article in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.)

Brown, Marshall, and Gordon Stein. Freethought in the United States.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978. 

Brown and Stein’s slender volume is an excellent Bibliography of the Freethought publications, although it has yet to be updated to the present.  The book is also a short history of Freethought in the United States.  There are four excellent appendices.  The first is the history of ethnic Freethought in America. The reader will learn about such ethnic groups’ secular histories as the Italians, the Germans, the Polish, the Czechs, the Lithuanians and more.  The second appendix is a very helpful list of Freethought Collections in the United States. (See the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, page 495, for more library collections of unbelief in the U.S.) The third appendix lists the unpublished dissertations and theses on Freethought in the U.S., up to about 1977.  The last appendix is a very short history of Canadian Free Thought.  There is a useful glossary of terms at the end of the volume.  This excellent bibliography is very much in need of being brought up to the present by a good bibliographer.

Gaylor, Annie Laurie. Women Without Superstition: No Gods- No Masters. Madison, Wisconsin: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997.

This volume about Freethinking women by Annie Laurie Gaylor, one of the directors of Freedom From Religion Foundation in the United States, is a very welcome addition to both Freethought and Feminist History.  It is an anthology of the writings or speeches of 51 Feminists from the 19th and 20th Centuries. There are short biographies of all the women, as well as many of their pictures. Some of the entries are by such writers as Ruth Hurmence Green (The Born Again Skeptic’s Bible– 1978), Lois Waisbrooker (The Curse of Godism), and Ernestine Rose, America’s first woman’s rights canvasser and Atheist.  Women without superstition, religious nonconformists and rebels, are the women who sparked the feminist movement on both sides of the Continent.  No Gods- No Masters was Margaret Sanger’s motto for her publication of The Woman Rebel (1914) in which she details the patriarchal power of men over women and religion over all humans.

Annie Laurie Gaylor defines religion as “a belief in a supernatural being who must be worshipped and obeyed as the creator and ruler of the universe, whose dicta are found in so-called sacred writings.”  In this book, she includes the eloquent writings of women activists and writers critical of religion.  From Mary Wollstonecraft, in the 18th Century, to Katha Pollitt in the present, this book contains a splendid array of Freethinkers. The feminist struggle was intertwined with the abolitionist position against slavery. Some of these women founded movements, like Sanger, and others struggled alone.  They are all eloquent advocates for women’s rights and critics of organized religion.  The final woman in the collection is Taslima Nasrin, a Bengali Bangladesh ex-doctor and author.  She is well known for her feminist stance and her insider critique of Islam, as well as all religion. She currently lives in Sweden, in fear of her life since being denounced by Islamic Imams.  Nasrin’s story and writing point to the fact that women’s and Freethinkers’ struggles continue into the 21st Century.

Gaylor’s thick volume is an inspiring collection; many readers report being informed and inspired by it.  There are not many general histories of women in Freethought, so this volume is an excellent reference for both secular and feminist readers. The book contains an excellent index and bibliography.  Gaylor’s choices of writers and speakers demonstrate eloquence and intellect, as well as determination and courage.  Her own style is engrossing as well, and her short biographies will encourage atheist readers to learn more about women in the Freethought Movement of the United States and England.

Jacoby, Susan.  Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.

Susan Jacoby needs merely two paragraphs in Chapter 7 of Freethinkers to refute the canard propagated by the Religious Right that there were no successful secular movements in the United States before the “cultural anarchy…in the 60’s.” (187)  One wonders if the Christian Right’s leaders are uninformed or disingenuous, because Ms. Jacoby lays out an impressive case for the secular roots of our country’s origin and past history.  Ms. Jacoby opens her volume with an incisive look at the Christian fundamentalist effort to undermine the secular strands that are intertwined with America’s story and its attempt to relegate secularism to a “kook’s corner” of recent history.  Her closing chapter includes some of the statements made by Chief Justice Scalia on the advantages of a Christian nation.  Scalia uses Capital Punishment as an example. Christian nations favor the practice, according to the Justice.  Scalia also believes the fact that our country has “in god we trust “on our coins is a ‘proof’ that our country’s roots are founded on belief in god.  The Justice fails to mention that the phrase was placed on our currency as a “sop” to Ministers during the Civil War.  Christian divines were pressuring Congress and the President to put god into the Constitution.  The true history of the United States is very different.  Our Founders never meant America to be a Christian nation, and our country was not founded on Christian principles, but rather Enlightenment Concepts from Europe, which emphasized Reason.

The body of Freethinkers’ middle twelve Chapters is a well-researched, interesting history of American secularism. Jacoby finally puts the history of secular thinking in our nation into a long, memorable and honorable perspective. There are other histories of Freethought, but they have not been revised and are somewhat dated.  Jacoby’s volume is more current, and her more contemporary language creates an up-to-date ambiance.  She begins with Jefferson and Madison, talks about the irreligion of Abraham Lincoln, and demonstrates that the “culture wars” of our country reach far back into our past. She explains how Thomas Paine, the author of Age of Reason, was forgotten until a biography was written about him at the height of the Golden Age of Secularism.  Her discussion of Evolution and its adherents makes for instructive reading. (See Evolution versus Creationism.)  In its later chapters, Freethinkers makes the important point that the attack on teaching Evolution in United States public schools goes hand in hand with the political attack on the principle of Separation of Church and State.

Jacoby has done her research and has helped revive the history of the women in the Freethought movement.  She discusses such figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Ernestine Rose. Not all the women in Freethought were secular, but they were all consequential as opponents and attackers of fundamentalist religion.  They rejected organized religion’s support of women’s oppression and the institution of black slavery.  Freethinkers has also resurrected the Golden Age of Free Thought and the importance of Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic.” (See Preface.) Ingersoll lectured on Freethought all over to United States to packed lecture halls and was an important propagator of freethinking in our country.  Jacoby focuses attention on important publications of that era, such as the Truth Seeker, the most important Freethought Magazine during the Golden Age.

Freethinkers is a history of irreligion that is must reading.  Atheist readers will find that it enlarges their perspective on the importance of Freethought’s place in the story of the United States.  Ms. Jacoby writes well and clearly, with an elegant turn of the phrase.  The book has an excellent bibliography and notes.       Highly Recommended.

Macdonald, George E. Fifty Years of Free Thought. 2 Volumes.  New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1929.

George E. Macdonald was the editor of the world’s oldest Freethought magazine, the Truth Seeker, from 1909 to 1937.  He had taken over from his brother, Eugene M. Macdonald.  Fifty Years is a huge book, covering the early years of the journal and the life story of Macdonald.  The two thick volumes relate the history of Freethought in the United States, as well, because the Truth Seeker was involved in the major, and many minor, battles fought for irreligion and other social causes in the United States from its founding in 1873.

Macdonald relates his story in a folksy, homespun manner, using the rhetoric so popular in that era.  He was affectionately known as the “Grand Old Man of Free Thought.” The Atheist reader can find shorter histories concerning the progress of the Truth Seeker over the years, but Macdonald’s story is a tantalizing one for the reader who wants to capture the flavor of the early days of Freethought. He talks about the founders of the Truth Seeker, DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett, and his wife, Mary Wicks Bennett, and their establishment of the magazine in Paris, Illinois in 1873.  He relates the story of the execution in 1909 of Francisco Ferrer, who attempted to found a Spanish educational system based on reason.  Ferrer tried to exclude the dogmatic priests who controlled Spanish education. Macdonald’s magazine tried to help Ferrer’s cause at a time when most newspapers hardly covered Ferrer’s difficulties or his execution by firing squad.  Macdonald reports that Ferrer pronounced: “Long live the Modern School!” before he was shot.

The book talks about Robert Ingersoll, the Thomas Paine revival, jurist, C.B. Waite who was a Freethinker, and of the Truth Seeker’s struggles with the post office.  During World War I, the Truth Seeker was temporarily suspended from the Washington post office’s mailing list.  It was listed as “unmailable under the Espionage Act.”  Macdonald’s sons enlisted and served honorably in that war, another ironic comment on the attacks often made on secular people’s loyalty to their country.

The Truth Seeker was very instrumental in the successful struggle to open New York’s museums on Sunday in 1891.  Working people couldn’t attend many social and intellectual activities on their only day off, Sunday, because the churches tried to keep such venues closed.  Those stories, and more, are in Macdonald’s large history.  This is a volume for the student of early United States Freethought, told in the fashion and language of an earlier era.

Whitehead, Fred and Muhrer, Verle, ed. Free-Thought on the American Frontier. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1992.

Whitehead and Muhrer have assembled a provocative and informative collection of writings from such important Americans as Vachael Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, and many more.  There is even an excerpt in the book from Red Jacket’s speech to a Christian missionary. Red Jacket was a chief of the Seneca Tribe of upstate New York, and eloquently rejected the missionary’s religion.  Whitehead and Muhrer provide short biographical sketches of each author or speaker.  The words of the men are stirring; the history of American Freethought is absorbing.  The reader learns of the communities of Freethought and of Utopian communities situated around the vast United States during the early years of the Republic.  There was an active group of Freethinkers in Eastern Kansas, and the state became known as “a laboratory of social experiment.”  The secular reader is led to reflect on the sad commentary of Christian Fundamentalism’s inordinate influence on the State of Kansas and its educational system in the present day.

The authors include a short introduction to the history of Freethought in the United States, but especially in the West, and in our country’s villages and less urban areas.  They briefly relate how the conflict between Freethought and Fundamentalism played out in America’s universities and colleges.  They remind readers of the United States’ political and cultural conflicts on the way to consensus.  Such conflicts include the principle of equality versus racism and class conflict, and of free speech and a free press and the repression, and sometimes jailing, of those who engage in these freedoms.  The authors comment on a vexing situation in the United States in the present day.  They contrast America’s early commitment to the Enlightenment principle of Freethought with the difficulty of masses of people who are “literally either afraid, or unable to think for themselves” in contemporary society.

The authors/editors of “Freethought on the Frontier” are eloquent in the cause of secularism, and their choices of writers and speakers are impeccable.  The book contains a stimulating array of literature from men in defense of Freethought.  The book is not indexed but includes an excellent bibliography.  Readers who are interested in a sampling of secular writing from distinguished secular thinkers and activists in America’s past will find this book a rewarding experience.

Further Reading

Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. (1920); Herbert M. Morais. Deism in Eighteenth Century America. (1934); Albert Post. Popular Freethought in America. (1943); Samuel Putnam Porter. Four Hundred Years of Freethought. (1894.)

Hecht reviews Jacoby’s new book on Ingersoll in NY Times                                                                                         
Hecht, author of Doubt, has given Susan Jacoby’s volume a very nice review. Jacoby is helping bring Ingersoll out from modern day obscurity.                                                            

Bradford, Roderick. American Freethought. A four-part miniseries probing our nation’s freethought, atheist, and humanist heritage from the American Revolution to the 1930s. Set of 4 dvds. 2013.


1 Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 16.

2 Bonomi, 4.

3 Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004. 6.

4 Flynn, Tom. “United States, Unbelief in.” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York:  Prometheus Books2007. 785.

5 Rinaldo, Peter M.  Atheists, Agnostics and Deists in America: A Brief History. Briarcliff Manor, New York: DorPete Press, 2000. 84.

6 Flynn, 785.

7 Flynn, 787.

8 Jacoby, 261.

9 Flynn, 788.

10 Rinaldo, 135.

11 Marshall, Sela. “Godless and Proud Of it.” The New York Times, Dec. 7, 1977, Section 6, 103.

12 Flynn, 790.

13 Flynn, 790.

14 Flynn, 789.

15 Laski, Harold J. The American Democracy.  New York: The Viking Press, 1948. 267.


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