A study of four unconventional crusaders against America’s obligatory godliness.
The late 19th-century brought out a variety of fascinating, vociferous characters challenging the official, mostly Protestant “moral order,” all of them branded as blasphemers. In his scholarly yet elegantly composed narrative, Schmidt (Religion and Politics/Washington Univ., St. Louis; Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman, 2010, etc.) calls this lonely seeker of truth the village atheist (or, variously, freethinker, infidel, rationalist, agnostic, liberal, secularist, humanist), who had usually broken with his or her early religious upbringing and separated from the perceived hypocritical strictures of the organized church. Despite the country’s founding on religious tolerance, writes the author, America was still very much a Christian nation, where unbelievers were ostracized as “wicked godless creatures” and frequently persecuted, as each of these infidels learned keenly. The itinerant secularist Samuel Porter Putnam, born into New England’s old Congregationalist order, re-created his spiritual journey as an “antihero” to the model Puritan saint of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. “Leaping off ‘the treadmill of conformity,’ ” (his adulterous philandering did not help matters), he wrote several seminal volumes, including My Religious Experience (1891) and 400 Years of Freethought (1894). Watson Heston was an influential cartoonist in Missouri, writing for the journal Truth Seeker; Schmidt smartly includes many of his wonderfully barbed illustrations championing civil liberties, tolerance, and free expression. Charles B. Reynolds, a disgruntled Seventh-day Adventist, was hounded for his irreverent lectures in New Jersey and convicted in a notorious 1887 trial for blasphemy. Most outrageous of all is the “obscenity” case of Elmina Drake Slenker, the freethinking activist from Virginia who was nabbed in New York vice czar Anthony Comstock’s sting operation for sending advice on marital sex through the mail. Schmidt emphasizes that it was not until the 1961 Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins that atheists were fully protected.
A felicitous, informative story from a highly knowledgeabe author.