Letters from an Atheist Nation: Godless Voices of America in 1903, edited by Thomas Lawson (Langley, B.C.: Thomas Lawson Books, 2011, ISBN13 9781466397354) 347 pp. Paper, $16.95; e-book for Amazon Kindle only, $7.99.
In 1903, the Blue Grass Blade—after The Truth Seeker and The Boston Investigator, perhaps America’s most successful national freethought newspaper during the Golden Age of Freethought—solicited letters from its readers on the topic of “Why I Am an Atheist.” The campaign was conceived by ex-rabbi Morris Sachs of Cincinnati and enthusiastically supported by the Blade’s indefatigable Kentucky-based editor, Charles C. Moore. Dozens of replies were received from more than half of the states of the union and published in the pages of the Blade.
Self-described “part time writer and full time dad” Thomas Lawson collected many of these letters, working from the Library of Congress Chronicling America website, a huge American-newspaper archive. The resulting e-book became a Kindle best seller; it is now in paperback for the rest of us.
In Letters from an Atheist Nation: Godless Voices of America in 1903, Lawson supplies an excellent, even scholarly introduction placing both Sachs and Moore firmly in their Golden Age contexts, then turns the book over to the atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and other doubters of nearly 110 years ago. It’s a bracing portrait of grassroots unbelief during a period we know better from the works of “elite” writers (Ingersoll, D.M. Bennett, Moore, and others). A few celebrated freethinkers contributed (notably suffragist and sex radical Josephine K. Henry, birth-control pioneer E.B. Foote, and movement activist Otto Wettstein), but the vast majority included here are “plain folks” who may never have published a word aside from their letter to the Blade.
Much of what they offer sounds surprisingly contemporary. Most writers rejected their childhood religions and faced the disapproval of family, friends, and employers, just as still occurs today. Whether closeted or open, many expressed a fierce pride in their unbelief that also sounds fresh. “Truth is better than Christianity,” quipped Mrs. M.A. Lee of Blue Earth, Minnesota (123).
Where there are differences, they speak to the period: several writers argue (based on the scientific orthodoxy of the day) that because the universe is eternal, the concept of a creator god is not only foolish but unnecessary. “I hold that the universe is eternal, boundless, self-existing, and everlasting, and was not created in six days about six thousand years ago by an orthodox God,” declared Henry Kaiser of Penryn, California (118). Ingersoll made the same case, so Kaiser is in good company. (See my entry on Ingersoll in S.T. Joshi, ed., Icons of Unbelief [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2008] for a discussion of Ingersoll’s scientific errors and their nineteenth-century foundations.)
Lawson’s remarkable work demonstrates both the power and the limits of online research. He was able to peruse most issues of the Blade from his home near Vancouver using the Chronicling America website. Yet where that site is missing issues, he was forced to omit some entries. Presumably some of the missing issues exist on microform at the physical Library of Congress, or in microform or even in the original print at the Center for Inquiry Libraries. Some old-fashioned travel could have made this collection more complete, but the gaps are minor. What Lawson completed without leaving home is truly impressive.