MARCH 19, 2017
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED in studying the history of religion in the United States, there’s a vast array of scholarship out there. Countless books have been written about every nook and cranny of religious life in the United States’s past — every aspect, manifestation, movement, schism, conflict, prophet, sect, innovation, scandal, seminary, denomination, charismatic leader, engaged laity, charitable endeavor. And this makes sense, for religion has been an ever-present, inextricable ingredient of the United States’s development; the majority of Americans have always taken their faith in God quite seriously ever since the fundamentalist Puritans first set their pious feet on North American soil.
But what about the history of atheism and secularism in the United States? There have always been skeptics and doubters in the United States’s midst — men and women who distrusted pastors and preachers, had little interest in congregating, saw the Bible as man-made, and didn’t believe in God. Their story has hardly been recognized, scarcely been told; it has been almost completely ignored by scholars of American history. It looks, however, like this is starting to change. Most likely in response to the dramatic demographic rise of the so-called “Nones” — approximately 25 percent of Americans now say “none” when surveyed about their religious identification — or perhaps in the publishing wake of a slew of best sellers by the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, more and more scholars are beginning to assess and explore the history of unbelief in the United States. Susan Jacoby’s pioneering work stands out — most notably her Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004).
Such nascent research is sorely needed, for the story of irreligion in the United States is not only fascinating in its own right, but it also provides a fuller, richer, and, above all, more accurate account of the Americans’ relationship with God and religion. And it is precisely that lesser-known, overtly antagonistic relationship that a minority of Americans have had with faith and piety that Leigh Eric Schmidt illuminates in his extremely well-researched and engagingly conveyed new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. As he convincingly argues, a “strong partiality for religious profession runs deep in the nation’s history, but so do the secularist challenges to these preferential conventions.” Schmidt offers an on-the-ground, nitty-gritty portrait of grassroots atheists and secularists from the United States’s past. He explains their life circumstances, ideological and philosophical motivations, and the resistance and animosity they experienced as outspoken infidels in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The first atheist featured is Samuel Porter Putnam. The son of a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist preacher, Putnam devoted his life to Jesus after seeing a vision of the Christian Savior while on a lengthy forced march as a soldier in the Civil War. He subsequently went to seminary and began a minister’s life. But over the years, his Christian faith eroded. Abandoning the pulpit — as well as his wife and children — Putnam became an itinerant preacher of atheism and secularism, the “Secular Pilgrim par excellence.” He spent years on the freethought lecture circuit roaming North America and eventually achieved the position of Secretary of the National Liberal League (later renamed the American Secular Union). His negative take on religion was unequivocal: assertions such as “[r]eligion is a fungus growth upon humanity” and “[r]eligion is a big burning boil, preachers are pimples, churches are cancers, and piety is pus” give you a sense of his outlook. In 1894, he published 400 Years of Freethought, a crowning achievement, warmly welcomed by the tens of thousands of nonbelievers dotting the United States at the time.
The second figure featured by Schmidt is Watson Heston. An individual who struggled to make ends meet — barely able to support himself and his wife — Heston was a talented cartoonist, and his searing, sardonic illustrations mocking and debunking religion graced the pages of the Truth Seeker (the most influential freethought publication of the latter 19th century) for many years. “I am poor physically and financially,” he wrote in 1884, “but rich in mental freedom from gods and devils.” His cartoons took on biblical absurdities, religious hypocrisy, clerical malfeasance, and church-state battles of the day. They were controversial but, more than that, beloved. As one Truth Seeker subscriber wrote to Heston, “There is more force in one of your illustrations than in pages of printed matter or in thousands of speeches.” Fortunately, Schmidt includes over 30 full-page reprints of Heston’s wonderful work, pointing out how the cartoons were “[b]arbed, uncivil, filled with animosity and spleen, glinting with hope and indignation, [and] they made secularism visible.”
The third atheist is Charles Reynolds. Like Putnam, he began his foray into religion as a believer; he was a good-standing preacher within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Once he lost his faith, he continued to roam the country leading tent revival meetings, only now he was preaching atheism. His repertoire of speeches boasted titles such as “The Bible the Enemy of Women,” “Secularization through Organization,” and “Why I Left the Pulpit.” In 1886, he pitched his tent in Morristown, New Jersey. An angry, violent mob tried to run him out of town. He sought protection from the authorities, but instead of protecting him, they arrested him for blasphemy. At the high-profile trial that followed, the famous Robert Ingersoll served as Reynolds’s attorney. The affair, observes Schmidt,
revealed the varied legal strata that could be applied to godless utterances — blasphemy, libel, profane swearing, obscenity, indecency, and public disturbance; it made manifest the social ostracism that unbelievers frequently experienced; and it demonstrated the double standard to which freethinkers so often attested — that Christians were free to ridicule infidels all they wanted, but the “same liberty” did not work in reverse.
The final profile is that of Elmina Drake Slenker, an ex-Quaker who wrote novels as well as short, didactic stories for children about Darwinian naturalism, rationalism, and other secularist topics. Slenker came out publicly as an atheist in 1856 by publishing a letter in the Boston Investigator in defense of the infamous infidel Ernestine Rose. Such declarations of unbelief were scandalous for any individual at the time, but especially for women. As Schmidt documents, “Being a village atheist invited cold shoulders; being a female village atheist doubly so.” Condemnation of Slenker was swift, not only by friends and relatives, but also by public voices, newspapers editors, and writers such as the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who wrote that “the most repellent object on earth is a woman infidel. She is as unnatural as a flower which breathes poison instead of perfume.” What ultimately brought Slenker into national prominence was her prosecution by Anthony Comstock’s anti-vice crusade. Her crime? Writing leaflets and personal letters to various people about human sexuality, marital relations, birth control, and bestiality. She was put on trial, and it only took the jury 10 minutes to find her guilty.
While these four individuals’ stories comprise the heart of Schmidt’s book, it would be a mistake to characterize this work as a mere string of four biographies. It is much more than that. For one thing, the biographies are couched in sensitive, nuanced analysis — Schmidt is a more than capable tour guide of the past, explaining the context of this or that event, which makes it all quite accessible. Additionally, many other individuals, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Francis Ellingwood Abbot, Charles Lee Smith, and Abner Kneeland, and secular movements, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, are brought into focus, broadening the scope substantially beyond the primary four.
Furthermore, Schmidt does an outstanding job illustrating the many ways in which public secularism of the past is distinct from — as well as quite similar to — public secularism of the present. For me, as a sociologist who has been doing ethnographic fieldwork among secular culture in the United States for over a decade, these points of continuity are particularly interesting and noteworthy. For example, many gatherings of secularists today will typically turn to the fraught topic of labeling and identification: what should we call ourselves? Well, as Schmidt shows, this is nothing new. At an Infidel Convention in Philadelphia in 1857, much energy was spent debating over whether to use the term “atheist” or “agnostic” or “freethinker” or “liberal.” As one journalist observed, “They could never even agree on what to call themselves.”
Or take the matter of demographics: one of the most common laments — and criticisms — of contemporary American secularism is the predominance of white males and the relative paucity of women and people of color. Schmidt shows us that this racial and gender imbalance is also nothing new; women were not only less inclined than men to be involved in secular causes, but when they did, they were also often marginalized by the leaders of secular organizations, and their contributions were often ignored. In terms of racial dynamics, leading secularist organizations of the 19th century attracted few African Americans into their ranks and had none in any leadership positions. Finally, concerning continuity between past and present, I found it illuminating — and personally comforting — to see that the grassroots heart of American secularism has remained virtually unchanged. The core principles today remain what they were in the 1800s:
(1) a rejection of Christian orthodoxy and biblical authority […] (2) a very strict construction of church-state separation; (3) a commitment to advancing scientific inquiry […] (4) an anticlerical scorn […] (5) a universalistic imagining of equal rights, civil liberties, and humanitarian goodwill; and (6) a focus on this world alone as the domain of human happiness and fulfillment.
Above all, the book is a well-sustained, appreciative appraisal of this perhaps uniquely American phenomenon of the “village atheists”: individuals who were
rarely sophisticated metaphysicians worrying over the niceties of epistemology, but instead aggrieved contrarians stunned at the moral shabbiness of scriptural stories or the manipulative theatrics of popular revivalists. Their myriad alienations — from the God of the Bible, from the religious regulation of marriage and sexuality, from pious restraints on Sunday recreations, from equations of social respectability and moral trustworthiness with church membership — were hardly ethereal, but rather earthy in their lived concreteness.
For anyone interested in the birth, growth, and development of grassroots secularism in the United States — and the leading lights of American atheism long before Sam Harris or Madalyn Murray O’Hair — this book is an absolute must.