Freethought’s History Mustn’t Be Forgotten

Tom Flynn

“Explore forgotten history.” That’s been the motto of the Freethought Trail—the Council for Secular Humanism’s celebration of radical reform history in west-central New York State—since its 2005 debut. At first, the Trail focused on west-central New York State because that’s where the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum is located (to this day, all of the Trail’s 115 sites are within a two-hour drive of the museum in the Village of Dresden). As research continued, it became apparent that the choice had been more apt than we knew. The region (roughly, the Erie Canal corridor between the cities of Rochester and Utica) was an enormous engine of social, cultural, and intellectual innovation, much of it under-appreciated today. What drove all that ferment was the flow of people and ideas surging westward along the Erie Canal. In the nineteenth century, west-central New York State served America much as southern California did during the twentieth: as laboratory, social cauldron, and bellwether.

Over the years, Trail-related research widened its scope. Originally, our primary focus was on what one might call “The Big Three”: freethought, woman’s rights,1 and abolitionism. Over time, coverage expanded to deepen the exploration of additional reform movements: sex radicalism, dress reform, anarchism, utopianism, and even scientific discovery of a religiously subversive sort. Repeatedly I was struck by just how much about freethought and other radical-reform movements had been forgotten. (Ready for a surprise? Today we hear that the movement for the abolition of slavery was a broadly church-based phenomenon. In fact, early abolitionists in the North were mostly freethinkers or members of fringe denominations, particularly Quakers and radicals among the then-barely-mainstream Methodists.)

But to say that freethinkers, early abolitionists, and other reformers were forgotten suggests a passive process. What actually took place required greater agency: they were actively disappeared.

To be sure, not every Freethought Trail figure got airbrushed from history. Few have trouble remembering that Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) had deep ties to Elmira or that Frederick Douglass spent his most productive quarter-century in Rochester. But much that could help Americans appreciate the nation’s development has been purged from the history we commonly learn because of a powerful, corrosive force—the sustained antipathy of conservative Christians.

Think of Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899), in his day the nation’s best-known and most controversial orator. Some admired him; some loathed him. But in Gilded-Age America, everyone knew his name. His cross-country lecture tours reliably filled the largest theater in whichever community he visited. So admired was his oratory that Mark Twain—you know, that guy people remember—wrote of it, “What an organ is human speech when it is played by a master.” But once the generation that heard Ingersoll speak was gone, Christian disapproval persuaded libraries to dispose of his books and discouraged historians (with a handful of exceptions) from spotlighting him. This effort succeeded so well that today few not involved in organized secularism have a clue who Ingersoll was. (That’s why since 2009, the slogan of the Ingersoll Museum has been “Meet the Most Remarkable American Most People Never Heard Of.”)

Similar pressure eventually caused early abolitionists to be remembered as far more religious—and far more numerous in “mainstream” churches—than they really were.

Want two more examples? Consider Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898). Okay, I hear the objections now: “Everyone knows about Stanton!” There follows a brief pause. “Wait, Matilda Joslyn who?”

The story of Stanton and Gage is hugely instructive.

During the 1880s, the woman’s suffrage movement had three principal leaders: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Their collaboration was so intense that they were referred to as “the triumvirate.” In addition to their leadership work, they coedited the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage (1881, 1882, and 1886).

The three had dissimilar stances on religion. Though most likely agnostic, Anthony (of Rochester, New York) largely kept her religious views to herself. Her activism was focused single-mindedly on getting the vote for women, and her approach was so pragmatic that she once engineered a coalition with what we would now call a religious-Right organization, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Stanton (of Seneca Falls, New York, when she entered the public eye) was a freethinker, having rejected hellfire Christianity in her student days. She kept quiet about her heterodoxy until her old age, when she made it extremely public. As lead author of The Woman’s Bible (2 vols., 1895 and 1898), Stanton fashioned a devastating indictment of traditional Christianity for its oppression of women. Gage (of Fayetteville, New York) grew up in a freethinking family and had always been open about her irreligious views. Her 1893 masterwork Woman, Church, and State traced its development to an incendiary speech she had given at a nationally significant freethinkers’ convention held in 1878 at Watkins (today Watkins Glen), New York.2

We can place Anthony, Stanton, and Gage on a continuum regarding their relationship to traditional Christianity:

First there is Anthony, who criticized religion at most implicitly; then Stanton, who built a towering reputation as a suffrage leader before issuing her controversial freethought manifesto at the age of eighty; finally Gage, always an open critic of religion.

We could draw another continuum, plotting how successfully the three women were purged from history, but there is no need—the one we just drew will do fine.

Anthony, the reticent pragmatist: Her reputation was unsullied. History never forgot her name.

Stanton, who outed herself at age eighty: From 1898 (when the second volume of The Woman’s Bible was published) until her death in 1902, suffrage activists and organizations shunned her. So few suffragist journals would accept her writings that instead she penned a regular column for a freethought periodical. By the early twentieth century, notwithstanding her role in convening the 1848 convention that launched the suffrage movement, Stanton’s memory had been brushed pretty thoroughly under the rug.

Gage, never closeted: She became so controversial that she retired from the suffrage fight in her sixties; historical opinion is divided as to whether she was ejected from the movement or left voluntarily. In 1890, Gage launched a new organization, the Woman’s National Liberal Union, with a mission far broader than merely securing the vote for women. It, like her, largely vanished from history.

By the time of the Great Depression, Anthony was the only pioneer suffrage leader whose name most Americans recognized. As far as mid-twentieth–century students were concerned, Anthony had worked alone; the triumvirate was forgotten. Stanton lay neglected until second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s rediscovered her and rehabilitated her memory. Almost sixty years later, Anthony and Stanton are now understood as collaborators of equal stature.

Gage, however, remains in history’s woodshed. That is no accident; she was the most outspoken freethinker of the trio. Thanks in large part to an epic, almost single-handed campaign by feminist historian Sally Roesch Wagner, Gage has been rediscovered, at least partially: her name is well-known among specialists. This year a regional theater in Syracuse, New York, offered a staged reading of a new opera dramatizing Gage’s expulsion from the suffrage movement. Among t
he general public, though, Gage remains historically obscure, much as Ingersoll is. (I sometimes kid Wagner, with whom I co-imagined the Freethought Trail, that Gage, not Ingersoll, may be the “Most Remarkable American Most People Never Heard Of.”)

If space allowed, I could introduce many more freethought activists who’ve been disappeared from the history books. Put up your hand if you’ve heard of Lucy Colman … Obadiah Dogberry … Elias H. Gault … Ernestine L. Rose … Michael Higgins … C. D. B. Mills … D. M. Bennett … or James Madison Cosad. (Actually, Free Inquiry’s readers constitute one of the few audiences whose members might recognize some of these names. In the larger culture, though, it is as though these people never existed.)

This would be less disturbing if the nineteenth-century freethought movement were unimportant. Today, when it is so little-known, one might be forgiven for supposing the movement trivial, for imagining that in losing our memory of it we forsake little of value. But Allan Nevins begs to differ. Nevins (1890–1971), a journalist-turned–Columbia University historian, published over fifty books, won two Pulitzer Prizes for historical titles, and at various times served as president of the American Historical Association, the Society of American Historians, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Writing in 1943, when there yet remained living witnesses to freethought’s Golden Age—when an event like Ingersoll’s death in 1899 was no more historically distant than the releases of the motion pictures Blazing Saddles and The Godfather, Part II are from us today—Nevin wrote of “the vigorous contest between freethinkers and religionists which was so important a part of the cultural history of the nineteenth century” (emphasis added). In his judgment, “the battle which the freethinkers waged was in great part a wholesome and beneficial effort. … [T]he freethought movement,” this authoritative historian concluded, is “worthy of respectful study.”

Freethought’s historical suppression has real consequences. Some years ago, a University at Buffalo student who considered herself knowledgeable about Stanton’s writings visited the Center for Inquiry Libraries, the world’s largest repository of English-language freethought literature. She was astonished to discover Stanton’s post-1898 columns in Freethought Magazine, a body of work encompassing more than four years not included in the standard Stanton bibliographies. If Stanton’s many students and admirers could know more about the freethinking side of her life, their understanding might be far more complete.

It stands to reason that public understanding of other important aspects of our history is impoverished because radical-reform movements, including freethought—and the relations between them and higher-profile historical events—remain concealed.

The Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism are committed to rediscovering this forgotten history, bringing it before wider audiences, and ensuring that it will not remain forgotten. We do so with the Freethought Trail, by encouraging the development of additional Freethought Trails (see my “A Trail for the Heartland,” FI, April/May 2018), and by operating the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, now open to the public for its twenty-fifth anniversary season.

The Museum’s silver anniversary will be celebrated at an event in Syracuse, New York, featuring one day of historical lectures and a second day of visits to the Ingersoll Museum, the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center, and two important abolition sites in Peterboro, New York. To attend, see the announcement on this issue’s back cover and the registration form on page 44.

I hope you enjoy this issue’s cover section, which focuses further on the freethought history phenomenon.



  • Nevins, Allen. Untitled introduction to Sidney Warren, American Freethought, 1860–1914x (New York: Columbia University Press).



  1. Yes, woman’s rights, not women’s rights. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth−century reformers spoke of woman’s rights; for example, the suffrage movement began with the famous 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, co-organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Women’s arose in the early twentieth century; one early index of the change came in 1920 when the National American Woman Suffrage Association reorganized and became the League of Women Voters, still active today. By the mid-twentieth century, usage overwhelmingly favored women’s, and today woman’s rights looks archaic. As it should; this is history, after all.
  2. All historical figures and places mentioned in this editorial are celebrated and interpreted on west-central New York State’s Freethought Trail.

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).