Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world.
Last Sunday, January 13, but in 1810, American social reformer Ernestine Rose was born. In her time she was nearly the only woman who spoke in public on any subject, let alone social reform, feminism, the evil of organized religion, and the “superstition” inherent in Christianity. At an early age she rejected the Jewish religion and left home at age 17, traveling eventually to England. There she not only adopted the socialist reformist views of Welshman Robert Owen, an Atheist, but met her future husband, William Rose. Ernestine and William left England to make their home in America in 1836. In spite of her Polish accent, Rose had the twin advantages of an attractive face and figure and a riveting platform persona and speaking style. She was, said one historian, “one of the best lecturers of her time,” and “no orthodox man could meet her in debate.”
At the Seventh National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York (1856), she said, “Sisters, … when your minister … asks you to give to the churches (which means to himself) then ask him what he has done for the salvation of woman. When he speaks to you of leading a virtuous life, ask him whether he understands the causes that have prevented so many of your sisters from being virtuous, and have driven them to degradation, sin, and wretchedness. When he speaks to you of a hereafter, tell him to help to educate woman, to enable her to live a life of intelligence, independence, virtue, and happiness here, as the best preparatory step for any other life. And if he has not told you from the pulpit of all these things; if he does not know them; it is high time you inform him, and teach him his duty here in this life.”
Last Monday, January 14, but in 1997, Massachusetts held a reenacted day of fasting and penance for wrongly persecuting witches on this date in 1697. The original (1697) reason was “…so all of God’s people may offer up fervent supplications unto him, that all iniquity may be put away, which hath stirred God’s holy jealousy against this land; that he would show us what we know not, and help us, wherein we have done amiss, to do so no more…” We can only consider it judicial murder that 19 Salem residents, mostly women, were hanged for the “crime” of witchcraft – something that three hundred years ago was a real evil – yet today we think Harry Potter is cute!
It is said that Judge (Rev.) Samuel Sewall, who had presided at many witch trials in Salem, stood up in his place in church on that fast day in 1697 and implored the prayers of the people that the errors which he had committed “might not be visited by the judgments of an avenging God on his country, his family, or himself.” Judge Sewall expressed a real fear of divine retribution for taking literally God’s own words in Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”). But he might simply have exercised his office with greater empathy and greater care for reason than for superstition. The victims of the Salem Witch Trials would have been better off with less Jesus and more justice.
Last Tuesday, January 15, but in 1678 the French priest who is remembered as a lifelong atheist, Jean Meslier, was born. Meslier has been described as the first person in the West to write an entire text in support of atheism – discovered, redacted (to make him a Deist) and promoted by Voltaire. That he was recognized as an atheist only after his death, and that he lived his life by all accounts as an unremarkable Catholic priest, prompted Wayne Jackson of the “Christian Courier” to dub Meslier a life-long hypocrite. Jackson complains that Meslier’s life was obscure and his “vicious” (posthumous) attacks on the Bible inconsequential. After an anti-Catholic swipe at Meslier, who obviously wasn’t a “real” Christian, Jackson asks rhetorically, “what does it say about the character of atheism when the skeptics virtually ‘canonize’ a man whom they concede to be a life-long hypocrite, and who was able to express his true convictions only posthumously?”
This criticism is at best insincere and at worst uninformed. Meslier was born under the reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” and became a priest, as was often the case in his time, as a young teenager. But Meslier was only seven when Louis revoked the tolerance for French Protestants (Huguenots) enjoyed for the past 87 years under the Edict of Nantes. Although a priest of the majority religion, under the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio (the religion of the ruler should be the religion of the realm), the persecution and forced conversion of Protestants that followed could not have escaped Meslier’s notice. The religious rift did not end until the 1787 Edict of Versailles, 54 years after Meslier’s death (and two years before the French Revolution). Under such an intolerant regime, what would have been the fate of a man of conscience who was not only non-Catholic but atheist? It is never dangerous to profess agreement with the prevailing superstition. One might ask Jackson, rhetorically of course, how he might have behaved under Louis’s Edict of Fontainebleau. To most reasonable minds, under such conditions Meslier’s hypocrisy would be a survival skill!
Last Wednesday, January 16, but in 1786, Thomas Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” became law in Virginia. It took a mighty push from both Jefferson and James Madison – who wrote a “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in its support – before the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” overcame the objections of Patrick Henry and his allies to become law. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps more than any of the Founders of the United States other than James Madison, believed in freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. Consequently, the “Virginia Statute” not only guaranteed that no citizen of Virginia would be compelled to attend church, to support the clergy or establishment of any church, or be penalized for failing to do any of those things, it guaranteed that there would be free and open debate about religion. And these rights were extended not just to Christians, but to religious minorities such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Jews, and even Freethinkers! It should come as no surprise that the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” was the model for the first clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Last Thursday, January 17, but in 1706, American statesman, scientist, writer, printer and philosopher Benjamin Franklin was born (baptized). The Thomas Edison of his day, Franklin had not only a keen interest in science, he invented the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses and the lightning rod. Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack – “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason,” he wrote in 1758 – represented the Colonies in London in 1775 and signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He deconverted when he was very young, writing, “Some books against Deism fell into my hands. … They wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I became a thorough Deist.” Franklin remained a Deist all his life, but confined his skepticism to his letters and his Autobiography. In one letter he wrote, “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
Yesterday, January 18, but in 1689, French jurist and nobleman Baron de Montesquieu was born. He was educated in science, history and law. His famous 1748 work, “Spirit of the Laws,” which did much to prepare the way for the legal reform of the French Revolution, earned a place of “honor” on the Index of Prohibited Books. A Deist, Montesquieu said, “Churchmen are interested in keeping the people ignorant. I call piety a malady of the heart. The false notion of miracles comes of our vanity, which makes us believe we are important enough for the Supreme Being to upset nature on our behalf.” As he lay dying, on 10 February 1755, Montesquieu reluctantly allowed a priest to administer the sacrament, so the Catholic Encyclopedia claims him – even while admitting he was publicly indifferent to religion his entire life!
Also born yesterday, but in 1908, was Polish-born British mathematician Jacob Bronowski. Bronowski’s career achievement was an 18-month project for BBC television called “The Ascent of Man,” broadcast in 13 parts in 1973. In it, “Bruno” said, “Man masters nature not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic failed: because it has looked for no spell to cast over nature.” Perhaps the clearest statement of Bruno’s religion was this: “Dissent is the mark of freedom. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of a science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. The safeguards which it must offer are apparent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance. These freedoms of tolerance have never been notable in a dogmatic society, even when the dogma was Christian. Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetimes.”
Today, January 19, but in 1809, American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe was born. The son of itinerant actors who died within two years, Edgar was reared in Richmond, Virginia, by merchant John Allan, from whom Poe took his middle name. Poe showed great poetic skill from a young age. His first collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque – which included “The Fall of the House of Usher” – appeared in 1840. By 1845 Poe became an established man of letters when his Raven and Other Poems was published. He did not dwell on his Agnosticism in his writings. Poe’s biographer, G.E. Woodbery, says that “the only mention of his religion in his entire life is that the Bible was read to him when he was dying.” Poe himself, in his prose-poem “Eureka,” published the year before he died, says “… ‘God,’ … stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception.” He did not believe in life after death. Poe was found one day in Baltimore, unconscious in a gutter, and died on 7 October 1849.
Other birthdays and events this week—
January 19: Scottish inventor James Watt was born (1736).
We can look back, but the Golden Age of Freethought is now. You can find full versions of these pages in Freethought history at the links in my blog, FreethoughtAlmanac.com.
"It vexes me when they [clerics] would constrain science by the authority of the Scriptures," wrote Galileo, "and yet do not consider themselves bound to answer reason and experiment."