Another Step Forward for Freethought Literature

Tom Flynn

Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2017, ISBN 9780691168647). 337 pp. Hardcov er. $35.00.

One index of the freethought tradition’s marginalization is that most of the literature about it arises from within the movement. For example, there are five major biographies of nineteenth-century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. All were written by admirers; by any objective standard, their tone is cloyingly sycophantic. The best general reference works in the field were edited or authored by insiders: Gordon Stein (The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, 1985); Bill Cooke (Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism, and Humanism, 2006); and, casting modesty to the wind, yours truly (The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, 2007). I could go further, but the idea should be clear: for decades, American freethought seemed a backwater, a field about which few not already involved in it would take the trouble to write.

With the turn of the twenty-first century, that was starting to change; both major biographies of atheist firebrand Madalyn Murray O’Hair—Jon Rappoport’s Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1998) and Anne Rowe Seaman’s America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair (2005)—were written not by atheist insiders but by independent journalists. Social scientists in growing numbers have chronicled unbelief from the outside since their field belatedly recognized irreligion as a subject worthy of research in its own right. (The first general work on unbelief written by a social scientist and published by a mainstream publisher, Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism (2015), had deep flaws; see my review in FI, April/May 2016.)

Still, the slightly arcane domain of movement history remained an insider’s preserve. Two of the best recent works were by Susan Jacoby, her gold-standard Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004) and 2014’s engaging The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, an appreciation of Ingersoll whose scope was purposely too narrow to include it among the biographies mentioned above—a good thing, because I don’t think Jacoby knows how to be sycophantic.

With Village Atheists, Leigh Eric Schmidt (a scholar without movement ties) and his publisher Princeton University Press have put forward a vivid history of unbelief, and I deem it an unqualified success. Schmidt is a professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University, St. Louis. His previous books include a history of American spiritualism, which in the nineteenth century leaned closer to organized freethought than many would expect today, and a biography of Ida C. Craddock, one of the cultural radicals driven to suicide by decency crusader Anthony Comstock. So Schmidt already knew his way around the broad historical-cultural landscape upon which the Golden Age of Freethought unfolded.

Schmidt tells us that he focuses on the late nineteenth century as “the epoch in which the village atheist as a recognizable American personage took definite shape. It offers a pointillist group portrait, looking closely at a small handful of figures, all of whom exemplify critical aspects of American secularist experience.” The more you know about the relevant history, the better you can appreciate just how aptly Schmidt selected his subjects:

  • ex-minister-turned-atheist lecturer Samuel Porter Putnam (1838–1896);
  • Watson Heston (1846–1905), the self-taught cartoonist for The Truth Seeker and other publications who shaped the movement’s Golden-Age iconography;
  • Charles B. Reynolds (1832–1896), a former Adventist minister who conducted freethought “revival meetings,” sometimes in an actual tent; he was tried for blasphemy in New Jersey and defended by Ingersoll himself; and
  • Elmina Drake Slenker (1827–1908), a Quaker-turned-atheist arrested for obscenity when she broadened her focus to birth control and marriage reform.

Schmidt provides a masterful extended profile of each of his “village atheists,” displaying bold command of both historical detail and the larger social context in which freethought activism unfolded. Each richly detailed account yields a vignette that helps build a vibrant and, so far as I can tell, deeply accurate portrait of our movement’s development. Schmidt closes the book with an epilogue that traces prominent activists for strict church-state separation in the early to mid–twentieth century, “from Charles Lee Smith to Vashti McCollum, from Joseph Lewis to Roy Torcaso.” It’s the best capsule history of twentieth-century U.S. church-state activism I have ever read, a big reason why a condensed version of that epilogue appeared as “Going Their Own Way: Village Atheists in a Changing America” (FI, February/March 2017).

With the scrutiny of outsiders comes the risk of unflattering judgments. To my mind, Schmidt makes a bit too much of the “incivility” of Watson Heston’s admittedly rough-edged cartoons and of Ingersoll’s limitations as an attorney, but that is a small quibble.

With Village Atheists, the field of freethought history has stimulated a major assessment by an independent scholar. It is another sign of our movement’s penetration of the mainstream and a dynamic work of history in the bargain. Highly recommended.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Review of: Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation

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