New York, October 16th, 1850. From the Journalistic Reports of Cyril Bennet.
In the past years I have seen many variations in this country on the theme of Christianity, yet rarely have I observed faith to be accompanied by logical thinking. The Catholic riots on the west coast and the countless violent crimes against Mormons, a formally harmless and naïve (if slightly heretical) cult, and the continuing trade of slaves have led me to wonder about the state of America’s faith. How can we claim to all be Christians when we contain in our Christian church so many sects and twists, all of them battling against each other like savages and each profiting off the moral sin of slavery (6)? America’s religious hypocrisy is enough to send one’s faith shrinking to the corners of the heart. When the church supports the enslavement of fellow man and allows us to brawl in the street, it is the right of man to question the authority of that same church.
In 1831, I interviewed a young man named Jonathan Wendon, a recent convert to Mormonism. The pinnacle of youthful idealism, this boy of perhaps seventeen years of age spoke of chosen lands and peace, of “true faith” and of prophecy. Last year, passing through Kirtland Ohio on the way to Columbus, I called upon the temple, hoping to look in on Wendon, perhaps write a follow-up article on the lives of men effected at a young age by cult religions. I found that the church was closed down, and after nosing around for a day, met Wendon’s mother and father. They informed me that their son was long dead, killed in the disturbances that preceded the expulsion of the Mormon community from Kirtland.
Is this how God leads us to treat our fellow man? Any logical thinker can see that the search for “true” faith is fruitless and violent. Luckily, the search for enlightened, rational thought is not. The freethinkers, a new order of religious, or rather antireligious thought, are a growing movement constantly working to reach more and more Americans with the idea that one needn’t blindly follow the church (1). In earlier years, I would be hesitant to be truthful in this report; I would worry that my career would be ruined by suggesting that the church moves with fewer morals than one would hope; I may indeed be fired, sent threats, spat upon in the street. But I am an old man, and I find that I no longer care.
This week I met with members of this movement. My travel was blessedly short; the heart of the freethinking movement is on the east coast, where it has lived for many years, since before our founding fathers (2). Accompanied as always by my trusted assistant Barton, I arrived to my interview with Ernestine L. Rose early in the afternoon of October 12th. Mrs. Rose is a Jew of Polish descent (3), and thus already isolated from Christian society; this fact should not, however, be considered key to her views against religion. She received us cordially in the parlor of her modest Brooklyn apartment, which was sparsely decorated, more a space for study than for living in. It was, she explained, a temporary affair– her house in upstate New York is simply too isolated for her work in the women’s suffrage movement, and therefore she and her husband keep this spare apartment for times in which she is needed in the city.
“I am, I suppose, one of the most outspoken members of the freethinkers,” Rose told us, “I’ve been called ‘the female devil’ by clergymen, which only tells me that I am doing good work. The ignorance of many of the men who speak against me shows that religion is just horse blinders for humans. Our sciences give evidence that speaks directly against the bible, and these advances are ignored because we are, as a country, clinging to an outdated idea of the what the universe is (6). We find no evidence in all earth of any existence of God.”
What of the bible?
“Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are nothing but dead letters (5). One cannot use a book as proof of the existence of an immortal being, nor as justification for wrongdoing. It is a mistake to think of man as made in God’s image, when it is clear that God was made in Man’s (6). It is our second mistake that we associate morals so closely with the church. The temperance movement has done much good for this country (3), but it has its gaps. Teach a man to do right, to love justice, to revere truth, to be virtuous, not because a god would reward or punish in the hereafter, but because it is right (6). It is hard work, changing such an innate part of the American psyche, but the attempt must be made. And the past ten years or so, I have begun to find many more like minded people than were around before 1835 or so. Freethinking is inexorably tied with the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. In the case of the women’s rights, many leaders were deeply religious, but they remained anticlerical. Take William Lloyd Garrison. Though still a stalwart Christian, he shares my views women’s rights, and, of course, slavery (3).”
And these view are?
Her gaze turns steely for a moment. I recall thinking that I do not envy the clergy; I would hate to have to argue with this woman.
“That we must drop the various shackles placed upon women and negroes in this country.”
A radical thought, but a growing one. After tea, Mrs. L. Rose saw us out of her flat with a grim, determined little smile.
It is with a heavy heart that I turn away from the church. God’s love has been important in my life from early childhood, but the current state of political and religious immorality has truly convinced me, at least, that Christianity can no longer act as a guide of right and wrong (3). America’s habitual fanaticism has led us through dark times, but this is an age of reform, enlightened thought, and philosophy. We must continue in the key of freedom, and exercise our abilities to think for ourselves.
A post-script for Mr. Richard Weiss, editor of the Baltimore Sun:
I understand entirely should you choose not publish this piece, but I urge you to do so regardless of the consequences. Should we find the public lashback too strong, know that I take full responsibility. Should I lose my post at the Sun, I shall not be bitter; I have made my choice.