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Book Review: Village Atheists

Neither the village idiot nor the village atheist escaped being socially marginalized in nineteenth-century America. Both distinct minorities, both pariahs, each faced discrimination, but where the village idiot was a gormless figure, the village atheist was often an intelligent threat to the religious status quo. The village idiot was gullible and harmless, the village atheist a sword in the side of Christian dogma. The idiot originated from bad genes, a simpleton often cruelly treated; the atheist hatched from choice and fiercely unwelcomed in American society. One viewed as a pathetic mistake of nature, the other ostracized and jerked around for believing unorthodoxy. Open range freethinking gave the Christian church fits, still does.

At this time in American history, being an atheist was akin to wearing a "Make America Great Again" cap to a Black Lives Matter protest or being a person of color at a KKK rally. You were not welcomed. You risked scorn, ostracism, denial of basic civil rights, and the real possibility of being run out of town; life could get ugly. Through the lives of four prominent infidels, who courageously fought from a godless platform for equality and justice, Leigh Eric Schmidt, in his book Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, traces the historical recognition of the village atheist as an American personage.

The term "village atheist" was created in 1808 by a review of George Crabbe’s poem, 'The Parish Register." Crabbe refers to the "ruffian atheist," but the Monthly Review changed it to "village atheist," hence, the moniker Schmidt chose for the title of his book and the early label for freethinkers (14).

Most consequential-nineteenth century infidel trailblazers (materialists, philanthropists, positivists, humanists, humanitarians, atheists, freethinkers) buttressed their views on influential predecessors like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and others, as well as the oratory superstar, "the champion blasphemer of America," Robert Ingersoll (48). Atheists needed all the help they could get as they struggled for equal standing under the law. Unbelievers believed the Christian narrative a lie and committed to campaign against it. Schmidt offers the reader an eye-opening account of this despised and demonized group of citizens striving for their place in "the American Dream."

Of the four stalwarts Schmidt highlights in his book, Samuel Porter Putnam, (1838-1896), who referred to himself as the "Secular Pilgrim," (27) was the first. A son of a preacher, a Harvard graduate, and a minister of a Congregational church, Putnam painted a bumpy and colorful personal history. He left his wife and church, referred to traditional marriage as a "relic of barbarism, the child of Orthodoxy" (45), and became an advocate of "free love." Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride had nothing on the roller-coaster odyssey of Putnam’s conga with faith and unbelief having had "two switchbacks into faith and three separate stints in Congregational and Unitarian ministries" (27), simultaneously dangling from strings of freethinking. He became a bookkeeper, a civil servant, a free-thought lecturer crisscrossing America, a novelist, a poet, an editor, an historian, becoming president of the American Secular Union, 1887.

He died a suspicious death in a hotel room from a gas leak in December 1896, with a young free-thought associate named May L. Collins (60-65). He was 58 and she 20. After a night of socializing, he escorted her to her apartment. Found dead the next morning, fully clothed, the bed undisturbed, with two empty whisky bottles, rumors exploded. Free lovers, double suicide, did he drug her then commit suicide, what really happened? A dedicated and widely known freethinker, Putnam died in a flurry of inquiries about his death, not unlike the slew of questions about the moral compass by which he lived.

The second luminary, Watson Heston, (1846-1905), was a gifted self-taught cartoonist who, having no Christian up bringing, honed a razor sharp antagonism to the Church. His "take-no-prisoners" approach in his prolific cartoons made him a favorite with fellow infidels as his vicious anti-Christianity sketches went viral. Heston’s work appeared in a variety of godless publications of the time and later influenced Cecil B. DeMille’s 1929 film, The Godless Girl (167). To the end Heston maintained his staunch antithesis to Christianity, but unfortunately on a par with his artistic skills was his inability to manage money—he died broke.

The third atheist highlighted by Schmidt was C. B. Reynolds, (1832-1896), an ex-Seventh-Day Adventist evangelist, who became “a Free- thought evangelist’ (171). Schmidt could not find an exact reason why Reynolds left Adventism other than "loss of faith," (circa December 1882), where it was stated he had "outgrown the narrow grooves of his church" (182). There are no reports of moral collapse or character issues to explain his jump from Adventism. Reynolds attributes Mr. and Mrs. Elias Gault as a great influence on his decision, along with the newspaper Truth Seeker.

Though a widely esteemed lecturer, he is eminently remembered for his Boonton-Morristown grand jury trial in New Jersey, May 19, 1887 (195), for the high crime of holding freethinking meetings in Boonton, where an angry Christian mob trashed his famous cotton tent and drove him out of town. Reynolds’ transgression according to prosecuting Christians: his pernicious habit of distributing gobs of tracts promoting "blasphemous libel" and his intent "to wound the feelings of the Christian community" (196-197). The prominent silver-tongued agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, defended him gratis. A jury stacked with Christians found him guilty. The judge was lenient and sentenced Reynolds to a $25 fine plus court costs, which Ingersoll paid, returning Reynolds his freedom (198).

Schmidt’s fourth and final example of a nineteenth century freethinking infidel was the brave ex-Quaker Elmira Drake Slenker (1827-1908). Avant-garde feminist, a prolific writer, Slenker challenged society’s glass ceiling and the Church’s grip on women, and she paid a price. She advanced sexual politics, women’s civil rights, marriage reform, giving reproductive control to women, and teaching young children to be freethinkers.

Being a village atheist invited cold shoulders; being a female village atheist doubly so…embracing the marker screamed transgression—of divine order and woman’s pious nature (225-226).

Slenker wore the claim with pride and bold determination making her the "first woman Atheist," the "Mother of Liberalism" (226-227), from the mid-1800 until her death. Encouraging the scanty number of fellow female atheists became her passion and vocation. She referred to herself as a "Materialist and didn't believe in the Bible, Christianity, heaven, hell, devils, angels, or ghosts" (212). She advocated sexual freedom and an interest in a variety of sexual experiments. This got her in trouble.

Her curiosity about bestiality embarrassed even fellow liberals and landed her in jail, 1887. Evidence provided by the infamous Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (Comstock Laws) sent the United States marshal to her doorstep in Snowville, Virginia, and arrested her. A trial ensued, October 1887 (218-220), where she was found guilty, but with some legal wrangling and to avoid further spectacle, and to the chagrin of the prosecution, the judge cut her free.

The last chapter of Schmidt’s history traced the battles that wound their way through the courts in the twentieth century where infidels fought for their rights under the law. Bookended by cases like the famous Scopes Trial, 1925 (252-253), and Town of Greece vs. Galloway 2014 (282-283), freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, secularists, liberals, finally achieved the same equal rights as believers. This legal gauntlet ended in favor of unbelievers by deciding "the rights and liberties of non-believers were to be wholly equal to those of believers" (273) and "theistic qualifications for public office, court testimony, and jury service had been rendered unconstitutional" (276). 

The church did not go without a fight, and to this day, atheists enjoy equal rights and growing numbers, yet a preponderance of the Christian community is still uptight, some hostile (283).

What I missed seeing in Schmidt’s easy-to-read history was an exploration of why Christian theology fosters defensiveness and militancy toward unbelievers. Is this the nature of orthodoxy? Does Scripture endorse such disposition?

Being raised Adventist, reading about C. B. Reynolds’ flight from Adventism, I found curious. In 1880, at the Hornellsville, New York, camp meeting, he is in a group photograph with Ellen White,[1] and by December 1882, he is a declared Freethinker attending a memorial service for D. M. Bennett, an infidel hero for battling Anthony Comstock and founding editor of the freethinker newspaper, the Truth Seeker (182). In two years or less, he is no longer a Seventh-day Adventist tent evangelist but a freethinking tent evangelist. What created this cryptic sea change?

Did Reynolds quit for similar reasons as D.M. Canright, who wrote about the despotic heavy-handedness of James White and Mrs. White’s blind-eye support of her husband?[2] Did he share Canright’s experience?

In 1850, Ellen White’s "accompanying angel" informed her "time is almost finished." Ellen predicted only months until Jesus comes (Early Writings, pp. 64, 67), thirty years later still no Jesus. Reynolds might have grown suspicious all was not as it seemed. The Delay challenges "soon-coming" eschatology.

Perhaps it was more theological? Is it possible Reynolds began to question how a "God of love" could allow gratuitous suffering for thousands of years? Maybe his mind began to question the biblical stories of a "compassionate God" personally exercising genocide on whole communities? Cognitive dissonance of this sort can lead to disillusionment. For some this is an insurmountable contradiction. Could such thoughts have begun to erode Reynolds’ Adventist convictions? We will never know.

God’s relationship with suffering is peculiar; He seems more ready to participate in it than to eradicate it. Jesus is born amidst the slaughter of a whole generation of infants and toddlers and dies a blood-drenched death on a cross. Indeed a mystery. God exploits violence to achieve His goals but condemns murder.  Dissonance. A loving God employs the same execution methods—drowning, burning, and death by sword—as the god of Isis. Contradiction.

Schmidt’s book left me wondering why believers turn atheist and how insecure the Church’s reaction; it invoked my own doubts. Atheism is not created on a whim; it is not a frivolous response to the idea of God. On the contrary, it is serious struggle with and repudiation of an unsatisfactory Christian mega-narrative. The Christian story begins to unravel when confronted with jarring inconsistencies and contradictions.

As I speculated why Reynolds quit the Church, I saw my own reflection. How do I handle assaults on my belief in God? A benevolent God winks at torturous suffering for millennia and then delays our deliverance? "Yes, I am coming quickly."[3] Can I trust the promises of Jesus?

Finishing Schmidt’s book, I mused about my journey with a mysterious God who asserts His ways and thoughts are above our understanding (Isaiah 55: 8,9). I thought what does an inscrutable God do with those who, after careful analysis, honestly conclude He does not exist? Does Jesus’ death cover them too? If Jesus can forgive those who crucified Him for "they know not what they do," granting them a pass of which there is no evidence they requested, what about those who, with sincere heart, truly seeking truth, cannot accept the Christian view?  Do they too get a pass, too?

I have learned traditional answers and theodicies to these questions. I hail from Adventist heritage and seminary, but moth-eaten answers no longer sway, lost in a wilderness of liminality, how must I believe? How can anyone believe confronted with biting battles of doubt and worse?

Faced with debatable evidence, nagging inconsistencies, and ugly biblical stories of a murderous God contrasting a loving Savior, I have elected to believe. I realize it is a leap; such is faith (Hebrews 11:1). I want to believe in a tenderhearted God and an attentive Savior; I want to believe in the Second Coming.  In short, I choose to believe from hope. I hope my doubts are wrong, I hope a compassionate Creator will right this mess, and I hope there is a final destination of genuine love and peace. In that sense, hope is my Savior. A mind game perhaps, but I am not ready to say this is all there is. I choose to believe life is not a cruel joke. Hope offers me something beyond, where even the village idiot and atheist might discover a Garden and a God of love.



[1] C. B. Reynolds/ Ellen G. White Estate Sharing the Vision ellenwhite.org/content/person/c-b-reynolds

[2] www.bible.ca/7-Seventh-day Adventism-RENOUNCED-by-D-M-Canright.htm, Chapter 2, ‘An Experience of Twenty-eight years in Adventism,’ 1914.

[3] (Rev. 22:20) New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, 1972.

 

Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of three, and has been happily married for 34 years to Mary Ventresca.

 

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