In her editorial in this issue, Robyn E. Blumner recounts her discovery of “forgotten suffragist” Matilda Joslyn Gage. That discovery was facilitated by Blumner’s participation in the Silver Anniversary celebration of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum held in Syracuse, New York, this past August. A presentation there reviewed Gage’s life and work in preparation for a motorcoach tour in which Gage’s Fayetteville, New York, home—now a uniquely interactive museum—was among the stops.
The Council for Secular Humanism’s commitment to appreciating and preserving freethought history is well-known. Still, one piece of that preservation effort deserves greater awareness.
Have you heard of The Truth Seeker? Do you know it is still published? Do you know that it now belongs to the Council for Secular Humanism? One thing I learned at the Syracuse conference is that The Truth Seeker and its current status need to be better known. So here goes.
The Truth Seeker is the world’s oldest freethought publication and one of the oldest periodicals in America. Among general-readership titles, only Harper’s, The Atlantic, Scientific American, and The Nation are older.
In 1873, Paris, Illinois, freethinking entrepreneur DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818–1882) challenged local clergymen who had exhorted local residents to pray for rain. The local paper’s Christian editor refused to print Bennett’s “infidel” letters arguing that prayer was useless. So D. M. Bennett and his wife, Mary Wicks Bennett, launched a paper of their own. That eight-page monthly was open to all opinions in matters of religion (but especially to skeptical ones). Mary devised its name: The Truth Seeker. Twelve thousand copies reached like-minded readers across the country. Response was encouraging enough that early the next year, the Bennetts relocated to New York City and engaged a young printer, Eugene M. Macdonald, whose office at 335 Broadway became The Truth Seeker’s headquarters.
The Truth Seeker appeared at a propitious time and soon emerged as a leading periodical of the Golden Age of Freethought. In 1875, Eugene Macdonald brought aboard his younger brother, George, as an apprentice. The Truth Seeker became a sixteen-page semi-monthly.
The very next year, The Truth Seeker became a weekly. Bennett first clashed with decency crusader Anthony Comstock, who held special authority from the U.S. Congress to prosecute—as obscenity—an astonishing range of controversial works engaging subjects from sex to birth control to freethought. Bennett and Comstock would clash repeatedly.
Soon The Truth Seeker had 50,000 subscribers and served as the freethought movement’s journal of record.
In 1879, Bennett was tried for violating Comstock’s eponymous obscenity law. (This historic trial, U.S. v. D. M. Bennett, merits substantial treatment and received it in Roderick Bradford’s 2006 book D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker [Prometheus Books]). Freethinkers—and many others—signed what was then the largest petition in the nation’s history, calling for the prosecution to be dropped; Ingersoll himself lobbied (unsuccessfully) then-President Rutherford B. Hayes for the same goal. Bennett was found guilty and sentenced to thirteen months’ imprisonment. The sentence was purposely cruel; Bennett could have served a shorter sentence closer to home, but one of thirteen months or longer could only be served in the dismal Albany Penitentiary, where criminals convicted of federal crimes were imprisoned. The Truth Seeker published the transcript of his trial and a series of letters from the penitentiary, later republished in book form under the title From Behind the Bars.
Released in 1881, Bennett embarked on a year-long round-the-world tour funded by his supporters. His letters home from that trip became a four-volume work titled A Truth Seeker around the World. Not long after returning to New York, Bennett died on December 6, 1882. It was widely supposed that his imprisonment had compromised his health, leading to his early death.
Mary Bennett then sold the publication to Eugene Macdonald. Its record of accomplishment continued. In 1882, it was first to publish William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s former law partner, who revealed the Great Emancipator’s hidden freethinking and antireligious views. (Herndon went on to write an 1889 Lincoln biography that remains controversial today.) The Truth Seeker also spearheaded a successful international campaign to raise a monument to martyred heretic Giordano Bruno. The monument was unveiled in 1889 in Rome to the intense displeasure of the Vatican. In 1891, the paper played a key role in persuading New York–area museums to open on Sundays so that working people (most of whom worked Monday through Saturday) could attend them. In 1894, the publication led a successful fight against the Christian National Reform Association, frustrating its campaign for a Constitutional amendment declaring the United States a formally Christian nation.
The twentieth century dawned on a high point for American freethought, but storm clouds loomed. The death of Ingersoll in 1899 had left a huge hole at the movement’s heart. And a public hysteria about atheism, anarchism, and communism that would overwhelm the nation after World War I was gathering strength. In 1904 The Boston Investigator, long The Truth Seeker’s most significant competitor, ceased publication and merged with The Truth Seeker.
Eugene Macdonald died of tuberculosis in 1909, aged fifty-four. Younger brother George Macdonald took control and continued the Truth Seeker tradition. The paper decried the trial and execution of Spanish rationalist Francisco Ferrer, launched vigorous defenses of Paine and Darwin, criticized increasing efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to expand its political power, and exposed corruption in the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Salvation Army. In the increasingly intolerant atmosphere surrounding America’s entry into World War I, Truth Seeker issues were repeatedly banned from the mails. When the editor of The Nation condemned one such banning, a Nation issue was also banned from mailing. (After the war, it became known that most of these bans were instigated improperly by employees of the YMCA.)
After the war—and after Russia’s October Revolution—public hysteria about all forms of radicalism peaked. A new generation of more militant atheists arose in response. Notable among them was Charles Lee Smith (1887–1964), who had contributed writing to The Truth Seeker and had been arrested repeatedly for selling the periodical on the sidewalks of New York.
Smith, whose connection to this story will soon become clear, helped to organize the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. The 4As, as it became known, garnered huge publicity by organizing college atheist chapters with names like “The Damned Souls” and “The Sons of Satan.” One student leader to emerge from this initiative was Queen Silver of Los Angeles, a former child evangelist turned atheist firebrand; Silver and the 4As furor inspired Cecil B. DeMille’s last silent picture, The Godless Girl (1928). After opening a pro-evolution atheist bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas, Smith became the last American jailed (though briefly) for blasphemy. A minor national figure, he even toured the country debating evolution against the prominent evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
By the late 1920s, subscription revenues were no longer enough to support The Truth Seeker. In 1930, after the Great Crash, the paper reduced its frequency from weekly to monthly. In 1937, George Macdonald gave control of The Truth Seeker to Charles Smith, despite some reservations about Smith’s brash style and intolerant ideas. Macdonald served as editor emeritus and wrote a personal column until his death in 1944.
Macdonald’s death heralded the beginning of a dark period for The Truth Seeker. Smith held harsh views once broadly popular among freethinkers and indeed among educated Americans generally, including a toxic “scientific” racism and the advocacy of eugenics. (It should be remembered that in 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that compulsory sterilization of the mentally infirmed was legal and socially desirable, prompting dozens of states to pass laws mandating sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Much like racism, pro-eugenics attitudes were widespread among white Americans prior to World War II.) The Truth Seeker served briefly as a mouthpiece for socially conservative atheism; by about 1950, it was solely the organ of its editors’ obsessions. Circulation plummeted.
Smith’s successor would take The Truth Seeker yet further in the same direction. James Hervey Johnson (1901–1988), an atheist since age sixteen, was briefly a tax assessor of San Diego County (California), a post he lost after he advocated taxing churches. Johnson held many strong opinions. He opposed alcohol and tobacco, writing about the dangers of secondhand smoke as early as the 1940s; he was a vegetarian and an early advocate of organic gardening and natural medicines. He also had idiosyncratic ideas about money and investing. And he shared Charles Smith’s racism and enthusiasm for white supremacy and eugenics.
Johnson bought The Truth Seeker from Smith and succeeded him as editor upon Smith’s death in 1964. If anything, racism and anti-Semitism became even more conspicuous. The Truth Seeker had adopted a scruffy newsletter format, some issues being produced on a typewriter. The subscriber list shrunk to an estimated few hundred.
James Hervey Johnson died at home on August 6, 1988, aged eighty-seven. Amazingly, though he had lived like a pauper, he left an estate of more than $16 million and an imprecise will directing that the money be used to “expose religion as against all reason.” A court ordered the creation of two trusts: the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust, a grant-making organization; and a private trust devoted to The Truth Seeker itself. Publication resumed, and the racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacism, and eugenics advocacy were conclusively abandoned. The Truth Seeker became a glossy magazine. Under new publisher Bonnie Lange, its contents downplayed critiques of religion and calls to separate church and state in favor of an inclusivism that sometimes embraced esoteric political concerns, mysticism, and the New Age movement. In 1998, a commemorative 125th anniversary issue, which focused on freethought history, was published under the guest editorship of Roderick Bradford. Following that issue, print publication became irregular, though Lange maintained a Truth Seeker website until her death in 2013.
The James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust assumed control of The Truth Seeker. It made a grant of the journal and its rights and interests to the Council for Secular Humanism. Publication of The Truth Seeker resumed in September 2014 under the editorship of Roderick Bradford. Since then, the periodical has been published three times yearly. It is professionally designed and printed in full-color throughout. Its editorial focus is solidly on freethought history, including but not limited to the title’s own glory days under D. M. Bennett and Eugene Macdonald, when it was the journal of record of a large and culturally resonant reform movement.
As it was during its first seven decades (and then some), The Truth Seeker is again a publication of which freethinkers, atheists, and secular humanists—truth seekers all—can be proud. I’m gratified to have played such a role as I did in making its continuation possible and that this historic publication now enjoys a home at the Council. To learn more or to subscribe, visit www.thetruthseeker.net.
I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the indefatigable Roderick Bradford, steward of The Truth Seeker’s complex history. This op-ed is adapted from a longer history of The Truth Seeker appearing on the Center for Inquiry website (centerforinquiry.org/blog/the-tale-of-the-truth-seeker/).
* As noted above, Bradford, a longtime historian of the freethought movement, had written the first biography of D. M. Bennett. In addition, he and I had collaborated on a 2009 video based on the Bennett biography, followed by a four-part documentary video miniseries titled American Freethought (2013).