(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) At last month’s Mormon History Association in Layton, Utah, there was a discourse delivered by Leigh Eric Schmidt, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Schmidt, who is not a member of the Mormon Church, delivered a fascinating address titled, “Mormons, freethinkers and the limits of toleration.” It primarily dealt with how Mormonism, as well as atheism and proponents of secularism, were received by a late-19th century America that was dominated by Protestantism.
In that era, Schmidt explained, freethinkers and Mormons were, of course, miles apart in ideas. The coalition of freethinkers included atheists, agnostics, critics of organized religion, and critics of the era’s rigid sexual mores. Mormons, on the other hand, followed a rigid ecclesiastical authority and professed to follow strong morals. But there was that polygamy thing, which in an era of Protestantism and Republicanism, was considered as libertine and immoral. An example — in 1887, Schmidt said, Mormonism, secularism and atheism were proclaimed as “sin within (the) land” by Presbyterian leaders.
To sum up, 113-plus years ago, atheists and Mormons were both outcasts, oddities to be gawked at by most, and pursued and prosecuted by the more zealous advocates of a approved religious-state. As Schmidt noted, two separate pieces of legislation, the Edmunds-Tucker Act and the Comstock Act, were in essence “religious tests” for both public comportment as well as “fitness” tests to run for public office. The former was directed at Mormons, the latter politically active freethinkers. Both fell outside of boundaries of American Christianity drawn by Protestants.
In his discourse, Schmidt included an overview of two prominent secularists of that era — Robert Ingersoll and D.M. Bennett — and recapped their visits to Utah as well as their viewpoints on Mormonism. For Ingersoll, who regarded secularism as the best religion — Ingersoll idealized the moral, secular family spending time together in the home on Sundays — Mormonism was an abomination. As Schmidt noted, the conservative freethinker regarded the Utah religion as “horrible” and founded on ignorant superstition. Ingersoll, Schmidt added, was a monogamist and was not sympathetic to the LDS Church’s persecution by the government.
Schmidt related an interesting 1877 account in which Ingersoll, a frequent traveling lecturer, spoke at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. During the lecture, Ingersoll praised the virtues of families and the proper raising of children. In an interesting contrast, notes Schmidt, the anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune proclaimed the lecture as an attack on polygamy. However, the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News “loved the speech,” said Schmidt, and wondered in its coverage why Schmidt often referred to domestic life in Utah as prostitution. The remarks were probably ironic, since the editors were certainly aware of Ingersoll’s harsh views on polygamy.
As for D.M. Bennett, the founder of the periodical “The Truth Seeker,” he was a far more radical secularist than Ingersoll. Bennett was also an advocate of free love. His efforts led to his arrest and conviction under the Comstock law. He served 13 months in prison. As the masthead of “The Truth Seeker” noted, it was “Devoted to: science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform, progression, free education and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race.” Conversely, the masthead also noted that religion tended to produce the opposite.
Schmidt noted that Bennett, also a traveling lecturer, visited Salt Lake City often. He also spoke in Ogden. Utah charmed him, and he wrote about his visits in a travel guide he published. He spoke warmly of its Mormon inhabitants, even publicly expressing his opinion that Protestants had no right to criticize Mormons, adding that the residents of Utah were more moral than their critics. However, Bennett was careful to remind his readers that his comments should not be interpreted as approval for Mormon theology. In my opinion, Bennett may have felt empathy for Mormon men jailed for polygamy, as he had experienced the same for his advocacy of morals that were criminally prosecuted.
Schmidt also talked more about the secular publication, “The Truth Seeker,” and its off and on empathy with the Utah Mormons. The famous secular cartoonist, Watson Heston, drew cartoons that included Mormons as being persecuted by mainstream Christianity of that era. In fact, one of his “Truth Seeker” cartoons, “An Example of Christian Consistency,” was reprinted in an 1896 Mormon missionary magazine in Tennessee, Schmidt told the audience. (Although I can’t find a copy of the cartoon “An Example of Christian Consistency,” below is another cartoon from Heston, “The Amusement of the Saints in Heaven,” that offers readers a look at his style.)
However, Heston was no fan of the Utah Mormons, Schmidt said. He was a particularly harsh opponent of polygamy, seeing it as a threat to American womanhood. In fact, Heston’s conservative secularism eventually moved him away from “The Truth Seeker.”
It was an interesting lecture from Schmidt. In fact, I just bought one of his books via Amazon (1). As the secularist movement radicalized and began advocating moral issues at odds with most of America in the late 19th century, its influence waned and adherents moved away, to liberal churches or to the secular Sunday afternoons in the family hearth so treasured by Ingersoll.
Still, as Schmidt noted in his lecture, there were secular activists of that era who saw the potential for a “probable but meaningful alliance” between freethinkers and Mormons. The time frame for this was the latter half of the 19th century, when both were despised by chief opinion-makers.
Ironically, as the 20th century began, Mormonism began a slow but consistent march toward conformity, conservatism and traditionalism while organized freethinker movements became more radical and its organized number declined.
One wonders if events will ever transpire to bring the twain — Mormons and freethinkers — together as allies.
1) The Schmidt book I purchased is “Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr and Madwoman,” Basic Books, 2010. Buy it here.