John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, by Ellen Roberts Young (Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4628-7292-1) 244 pp. Cloth, $29.99.
On rare occasions, vanity presses bring forth a noteworthy title. For students of the history of freethought, religious humanism, and Midwestern intellectual culture, this is one of those occasions. Independent scholar Ellen Roberts Young delivers a well-hewn biography of her great-grandfather, John Emerson Roberts (1853–1942), whose name should be better remembered in our community.
Roberts started out as a Baptist preacher, rejected Christian literalism, became a Unitarian minister, and ultimately rejected even the Unitarian tradition. He launched the freethought Church of This World, which met for decades in large rented Kansas City, Missouri, theaters, driven by the dynamism of his preaching. A friend of Robert Green Ingersoll who occasionally shared the stage with Clarence Darrow, Roberts preached humanistic sermons that were regularly reprinted in both the national freethought paper The Truth Seeker and in principal Kansas City newspapers. After Ingersoll’s death in 1899, it was widely speculated that Roberts would don Ingersoll’s mantle as the nation’s premier freethought orator, but he never captured the momentum on the national stage that he had attained in Kansas City.
Kansas City is the center of a vibrant Midwestern freethought tradition (see Fred Whitehead and Verle Muhrer’s seminal Freethought on the American Frontier [Prometheus Books, 1992], which author Young cites as a major influence on her work). John Roberts was a pioneering voice of religious humanism in the Midwest. That tradition endured: All Souls Unitarian, where Roberts pastored for a decade before “going independent,” would later call pastors including Leon Birkhead and Lester Mondale, signers of the original Humanist Manifesto in 1933, and Raymond Bragg (1902–1979), who coordinated that document’s drafting and pastored All Souls from 1952 to 1973.
Today, the term religious humanism has multiple meanings, encompassing both philosophically naturalistic humanists who choose to incorporate trappings of congregational life in their humanist practice and also those whose worldviews incorporate aspects of the mystical (or at least the nonprovable), an embrace that demands the exercise of faith. It is fascinating to read excerpts from Roberts’s sermons, both as demonstrations of how completely Gilded Age Unitarian radicalism had rejected Christian orthodoxy and as exemplars of that second variety of religious humanism. “Man is on the way,” Roberts preached in 1906. “He will worship no imagined and unthinkable God…. If worship he must, he will worship this humanity of which he himself is a part … pathetic and patient in its long struggle, perfect in its possibilities, and in its destiny, divine” (pp. 153–54). Passages like this one prompted early critics of religious humanism to dismiss it, not without justification, as the worship of humans in God’s place. Surely its confidence that humanity is “perfect in its possibilities” and “in its destiny, divine” cannot be accepted within a strict naturalism and can be accepted outside of it only with more faith than most rationalists will feel comfortable indulging in.
Secular humanists stand apart from the tradition John Emerson Roberts embodies, but not so much so that we should not appreciate his story and recognize his frequent brilliance. Ellen Roberts Young’s new book brings this influential regional humanist figure vibrantly to life for us again.