Village Atheists—How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly NationBy Leigh Eric Schmidt. Princeton Univ., 2016 $35 (360p) ISBN 978-0-691-16864-7

Reviewed by T. Joe Willey

In late July 1886 C.B. Reynolds, a former Adventist evangelist, after erecting his “cotton cathedral” in Boonton, New Jersey, and while confronting an angry mob as a free-thinking evangelist, was arrested and charged with blasphemy.

Besides holding public tent meetings Reynolds was also distributing a pamphlet in the community denying the infallibility and divine authorship of the Bible.[1] Rocks were hurled and an unruly crowd of several hundred roughs collected around the tent, cutting ropes and slashing the canvas.[2] The mob howled so loudly that the free-thinking evangelist had to break away and seek refuge with a prominent local family. The mob flattened and almost destroyed his tent.

After filing a legal complaint against the ruffians and seeking protective aid of a local judge and the town’s mayor, Reynolds was surprised the next night to be arrested and hauled him off to face the local justice of the peace. The judge released him on a $300 bail. Reynolds was charged with blasphemy and his name was splashed in newspaper headlines across the country. The story of this former minister of the Three Angels Message is found in Village Atheists, and will be of interest to Adventist readers who have not heard of this former evangelist who developed a repertoire of speeches on a range of infidel themes to become a national public figure. The incident was not reported in the Review and Herald.

Reynolds’s pathway and career as an unbeliever in a Godly nation is discussed in chapter three in this well-written historical volume. By 1884 Reynolds had apparently undergone Pavlovian inversion[3] and began to apply his previous Adventist evangelistic skills to evangelism on liberal secularism. His public lectures centered around the argument that “salvation from error, bigotry, fanaticism and ignorance, insuring a more useful, better, nobler, and consequently happier life,” could be more assured through living without established religion. Reynolds proclaimed his new enthusiasm in defense of atheism by replacing “Christian salvation which was mythical, visionary, absurd.” During public lectures Reynolds said this new liberating salvation would take place by secular education, science, and progress. Often, Reynolds was introduced to an audience as a minister who had “outgrown the narrow grooves of his church.” He eventually finished his embattled career after his trial for blasphemy in New Jersey by migrating westward to the Pacific Northwest including Walla Walla, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and elsewhere. Reynolds focused criticism against Sunday closing laws and religious exercises in public schools and as a former Adventist preacher endorsed temperance.

Religious liberty is an existential part of this book. The statute for blasphemy in New Jersey, under which Reynolds was charged in 1888, dated from colonial times with a year of imprisonment or a fine of two hundred dollars.[4] Reynolds was lucky to have escaped the mob unharmed—without being tarred and feathered or dunked in the nearby canal. After he was found guilty of blasphemy he was also lucky to escape severe legal punishment without spending time in the penitentiary.

At first, during trial, Reynolds served as his own attorney. Witnesses brought against him reported that Reynolds made fun of the Bible. This is where his scriptural savvy became an integral part of his freethinking critique of Christianity and defense—as it had been during his Adventist evangelism preaching end-of time events. As the trial progressed, Robert Ingersoll announced that he was prepared to serve as Reynolds’s defense lawyer and his oratory fame instantly raised the case’s profile and greater exposure to the media.

Some may not recall who Robert Ingersoll was. During America’s Gilded Age Ingersoll was a champion of reason and secularism—known as “the Great Agnostic.” Ingersoll’s general arguments sustained the impression that humans were only a part of nature, not the religious idea that human beings were divinely ordained. In public, he told his audiences to get over the short-lived trauma of the loss of human exceptionalism and to live with excellent powers of reasoning in distinction to other mammals. Ingersoll was an outspoken and influential voice in a movement that forged a secular intellectual bridge into the twentieth century.[5]

With Ingersoll’s entrance into the trial, suddenly, the blasphemy trial of Elder Reynolds took on the makings of cause célèbre. The trial enlarged into a argument where freedom and free speech were at stake. Ingersoll’s oration was exciting to spectators and journalists alike. One of Ingersoll’s most important points during the trial was that the blasphemy law violated the 1844 New Jersey state constitution which guaranteed freedom of speech and religion along the lines of the federal constitution’s First Amendment.

Elder Reynold could relate to this 1844 date, but for a different reason. The trial set off ten months of legal tasseling and was reported “all over the United States affording Mr. Reynolds a congregation of fifty millions (sic) of people.”[6]

Village Atheists points out that the late 19th-century brought out a variety of fascinating, free-thinking characters challenging the moral order of organized church and religion In America. Many of the characters in the book were branded infidels or blasphemers. In this scholarly work by, Leigh Eric Schmidt, the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at the Washington Univ., St. Louis, discusses how a minority of Americans publicly refused belief in God to pioneer a new movement.

It was unlike anything seen before. There was intense hatred against these village atheists. One reviewer on the back of the fly-leaf (Kathryn Lofton) summarized; “This is a book that finally argues that atheists belong at the center of the study of American religion, showing how religious infidelity is always and ever the other side of religious fidelity. Both are practiced and articulated with equal contradiction, anguish, and social struggle.”

The extensive historical accounts show how the usual skeptical inquiries into God and revelation spilled over into familiar forms of secularist activism and public debate. The intriguing historical details in this book will keep you reading to see the outcome of the next turn of events. Persisting questions concerning the nation’s public institutions and the standards for the federal constitution’s First Amendment are presented in considerable detail. For this alone, Adventist readers will find this book a significant historical account of secularism.

Village Atheists follows a pattern in the separate chapters by discussing four popular irreligious characters in detail who rejected Christian orthodoxy and biblical authority. Schmidt characterized village atheists as individuals who believe: (1) In a strict separation of church-state construction, (2) a commitment to advancing scientific inquiry as the pathway to verifiable knowledge, (3) in anticlerical scorn for both Protestant and Catholic authorities, (4) a universalistic imagining of equal rights, (5) civil liberties and a focus on humanitarian goodwill and search for human happiness.

The author thoughtfully outlines the fact that despite the founding of the nation on principals of religious tolerance, America was still (and is) a Christian nation where unbelievers are ostracized or persecuted. The book is divided into four unusual characters, each one devoted to an interesting example of an uncommon village atheist. In between these four main characters in the book, the author demonstrates considerable knowledge of a growing number of liberal progressive ideas which you began to suspect that they had more in common with the secularists than their conservative kin.

To summarize, beyond the introduction, the first chapter presents the secular pilgrim Samuel Porter Putnam, born into New England’s old Congregationalist order. Putnam was re-created as an “antihero” to the Puritan saint of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Besides public lecturing, Putnam wrote several seminal volumes, including My Religious Experience (1891) and 400 Years of Freethought (1894).

The next chapter deals with Watson Heston, a self-taught artist and rough-edged freethinker, an influential cartoonist living in Missouri. Heston produced cartoons for the journal Truth Seeker. Schmidt included several examples of Heston’s wonderfully barbed illustrations championing civil liberties, tolerance, and free expression.

Chapter three, as mentioned was devoted to Charles B. Reynolds, a fallen Seventh-day Adventist minister. During the course of thirteen-years after leaving the ministry, Reynolds lectured over a thousand times in many different locations. The one place where it got ugly was in New Jersey.

In chapter four, Schmidt presents the most outrageous of all in the “obscenity” case of Elmina Drake Slenker, the freethinking activist from Virginia who was nabbed by New York vice czar Anthony Comstock’s sting operation for sending advice on marital sex through the mail. She “had been carrying on a vast correspondence about marriage and sexuality with various editors, physicians, amateur investigators, and advice seekers.”

By way of review in the book, during the nineteenth-century non-believers were maligned, marginalized and barred from holding public office, even in a so-called religious tolerant society. Yet life for these village atheists wasn’t always venomous. After an 1886 lecture in Salt Lake City by the secular pilgrim Putnam on “The Glory of Infidelity” the audience composed of Mormons, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Methodists, together with liberals, broke into an animated and cordial discussion. When an orthodox clergyman could not restrain himself from publicly interrupting Putman’s lectures, “the minister leaped on the stage afterwards to apologize for his rudeness and even moved for a vote of thanks for Putnam’s discourse.”

The author shows, that in many instances, “freethinkers were given ample allowance to speak their mind (more often than not), the sharp differences of religious opinion subsisting between infidels and Christians led not to a violent stand-off but to civil debate.” Still, the social costs associated with unbelief and doubt—the pressure to keep quiet about it or to blunt it—remained high during the nineteenth-century and beyond to our own times.

As historian Schmidt points out over time a “growing number of liberal Protestants began to suspect that they had more in common with secularists than with their conservative kin.” As one Fundamentalist in the book admitted, “If my church forced me to believe in the infallibility of the Bible, the second coming of Jesus in person, the bodily resurrection, the damnation of those who refuse to believe in a certain creed, the hell-fire theory, and the virgin birth. I would choose to be numbered among the Atheists, Infidels, and Agnostics.” Such doubts can be placed in the garden-variety of blasphemers and humanists as presented in Village Atheists by Schmidt—as an account of resourceful popular free thought—despite vehement efforts by religious majority to suppress them.

Throughout this book a reader is likely to think about their own experiences with doubt and skepticism and the wholly false optimism shared by others. You may even wonder if your own experiences guided by die-hard conservatives were not in the least sympathetic to the view that such ideas should be allowed to float about in the same atmosphere as that of the old dogmas.

T Joe Willey © June 2017

Endnotes

  1. As Thomas Paine also produced a pamphlet denying the infallibility of the Bible more than century earlier.
  2. The tent was provided by the American Secular Union, the best-known national freethought organization of the times. Tents were used because freethinking lecturers could not rent space in public halls.
  3. Psychological term introduced by Russian Physiologist Ivan Pavlov to describe complete reversal of one position or belief for another.
  4. Many states had blasphemy laws dating from the early 1800s, but were rarely enforced.
  5. Susan Jacoby. The Great Agnostic. Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Yale University Press. 2013.
  6. In the Reynolds case, Ingersoll paid the $100 fine administered by the court and the $75 for court costs. Ingersoll donated his legal fees.

T Joe Willey, graduated from Walla Walla University, received a PhD in Neuroscience from University of California, Berkeley, and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, as well as University of California, Riverside, La Sierra University, and Walla Walla University. He was a fellow with Sir John Eccles, a Nobel Prize winner at New York University Buffalo. T Joe is retired, enjoying reading and traveling and exploring and writing on Adventist historical interests.

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