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This article is an online-only bonus that did not appear in the print edition of Free Inquiry.
The career of John Emerson Roberts (1853–1942) demonstrates how fluid the boundary was between religion and freethought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States. Based primarily in Kansas City, Missouri, Roberts began his career as an educated Baptist minister in 1878. As his thinking changed, he moved to the Unitarian denomination and then went on to form his own organization so that he could lecture on reason and progress.
Many others in this era abandoned a restricted, orthodox background to become liberal thinkers. Robert Green Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic,” was the most famous. John E. Roberts was a little slower than some to make the transition; it was for him a gradual process. Raised in a strict Baptist household with a minister father, Roberts attended a Baptist college and seminary where traditional beliefs were taught. Roberts held to these beliefs at the time, but his educational experience also taught him to think for himself, and he would rethink his beliefs repeatedly.
After six years as a minister, first in Illinois and then in Kansas City, Roberts found himself unable to maintain a belief in hell. When members of his congregation became upset over this, he gave a sermon in which he argued that the idea of eternal punishment was an inaccurate reading of Scripture, contrary to reason and offensive to moral sentiment. While he would soon stop using the Bible as a source of positive arguments, the appeals to reason and to moral sentiment would be touchstones of his thinking for the rest of his career.
When the First Baptist Church of Kansas City fired him, Roberts had three choices: he could leave the ministry entirely, go out on his own, or join a liberal denomination. There were precedents for each path. His older brother Charles, also a minister, had joined the Unitarians for a time but decided he would rather be a physician. In 1874, in Chicago, David Swing had been reprimanded by the Presbyterian Church and became an independent preacher in an auditorium built especially for him. There is also the closely parallel career of Mangasar M. Mangasarian, who moved from Congregational and Presbyterian training to work with Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society for a decade before starting his own organization, the Independent Religious Society, in 1900 in Chicago.
Roberts first tried going out on his own; many members of his Baptist congregation followed him. Six months later, he joined the Unitarians, among whom he was comfortable and highly successful for a dozen years (1885–1897). He built up the congregation of All Souls Unitarian Church in Kansas City and participated in local and national meetings of the denomination. Unitarians at this time were going through debates over the importance of belief in God versus a focus on ethics; Roberts was on the side of the former when he joined the denomination. His God, however, was not uniquely revealed in Scripture. In 1893 Roberts described God as a “fact”: “To eyes that see, no fact should be plainer than this—that nature is everywhere a manifestation of the Infinite; that all things that are, all things everywhere, show forth behind all appearances real, in all mutations, immutable, in all and over all, that the supreme fact of the universe is God.”
By 1895, Roberts had become acquainted with Ingersoll, whose lectures describing the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, drew full houses every time he passed through Kansas City. Roberts admired the man and his style; for his part, Ingersoll liked Roberts. In the fall of 1895 Roberts gave a series of sermons on “The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy” that show similarities to Ingersoll’s approach, though the title of his series was taken from an essay by a Unitarian, Minot Savage. In particular, Roberts raged against an orthodox reading of the Bible and the portrayal of God in the Old Testament. He spent most of one sermon protesting the conventional doctrine of atonement, which held that Jesus’s death was a sacrifice to pay for human sin. Roberts still spoke of a powerful but not a personal god. “The universe is the only book God ever wrote,” he said. “It needs no revision.”
As Roberts became better acquainted with Ingersoll, he began to chafe at the limitations of being a Unitarian minister. A comment he made to an interviewer shortly before his break with the Unitarians shows the continuum between religion and freethought in 1897: “While the Unitarian church is free—very free in fact—and every man enjoys perfect freedom, there are multitudes who think it another sect or another ism.” As attendance at All Souls Church reached the capacity of the building, it appeared for a time that the church as a body might shift to meeting in a theater and drop the trappings of church. But conservative members balked at losing their Sunday school and other church activities. In June 1897, Roberts went out on his own once more, as he had done when the Baptists dismissed him. Once again, he took a large part of the congregation with him.
Roberts called his organization “The Church of This World,” recalling that Ingersoll had praised him in a letter for preaching “a religion for this world.” Roberts spoke in a theater on Sunday mornings. The “order of worship” consisted of a musical opening and Roberts’s lecture, which he still sometimes referred to as a “sermon.” The costs of the organization were paid by supporters who bought reserved seats; other seats were available for free. No collection was taken to support the “Church.” Roberts’s audience consisted largely of people like himself who had abandoned orthodox upbringings. They loved his tirades against Christian excesses and shared his admiration for scientific heroes. Others drawn to his lectures, including recent German immigrants, had a heritage of freethinking.
City newspapers in the latter part of the nineteenth century commonly printed sermons in their Monday editions. In some places, this was by arrangement with a particularly gifted preacher. In Kansas City, the papers had a wide choice; they would send their own reporters to capture the statements of various clergy. The Kansas City Journal in particular had been publishing sermons by Roberts at irregular intervals since he was a Baptist preacher. They paid increasing attention when he became a Unitarian. One reason for this was the leadership of the church, which included many prominent citizens and businessmen—the Journal’s prime audience. This arrangement continued when Roberts moved to The Church of This World; while there were fewer established men on the board of Roberts’s organization than at All Souls’ Unitarian Church, there were many who were making names for themselves in the local community.
Roberts became widely known in freethought circles when The Truth Seeker began publishing his sermons. This well-established New York City-based freethought weekly had first taken notice of Roberts when a copy of the sermons in the “Orthodoxy” series came its way. The Truth Seeker began publishing his lectures regularly by 1899. In 1900, Roberts was well known enough to be invited to speak at the Twenty-fourth Annual Congress of the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation held in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another up-and-coming freethought speaker invited to address the Congress was Clarence Darrow.
The invitation gave Roberts a chance to prepare a lecture for a new audience, a change from his usual task of preparing a new lecture each week for the same hearers. He chose to speak on “This Natural World of Ours.” Roberts would have delighted his secular listeners with his comments on the harshness of medieval Christian practices and his suggestion that the idea of heaven may be “the gambler’s dream of something for nothing.” They may have been less pleased with his claim that there is something divine in nature. He saw only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world itself must be “eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient.” He asked, “Can God be more than that?”
Even as a Unitarian, Roberts had been both popular and notorious. He had won a prize in 1894 in a contest run by the Kansas City World for the most popular preacher in the city. He roused opposition from a number of other preachers, some on the liberal side, with his sermon on “The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy.” (The other preachers had all been able to read the sermon in the Kansas City Journal the Monday after it was given.)
His mixed reputation shows up even more clearly in two developments in 1902. On the positive side, Roberts was included in a volume of pictures with brief biographical sketches titled Men Who Are Making Kansas City. A number of those included were members of Roberts’s audience. They believed that his lectures were a force for good in the community. Rumors at the time suggested that Roberts might make Kansas City “a center for agnosticism for the nation.” City boosters were as happy to look toward this possible form of recognition as any other.
On the negative side, in the same year, the editor of the Lexington News, based in a small town near Kansas City, wrote an article chastising the Kansas City papers for printing Roberts’s lectures. Calling Roberts “a dangerous man,” the article asserted that Christianity was the source of the progress of civilization and that “the belief in a just and merciful God is a stay in time of temptation, a solace in trouble and a prop to virtue” for those who could expect nothing but toil in this life; therefore, the Kansas City papers ought not to be printing speeches designed to deprive people of the comfort of religion. The writer presented the hope of heaven, but no doubt also had in mind the fear of hell as a belief that preserves proper moral conduct and good order in society. He charged that Roberts wanted to “destroy the only settled hope of mankind for the future” and “offers nothing in place thereof,” and he concluded that those who appreciated Roberts’s message were very few.
Roberts did not respond to these charges directly, but he allowed his wife, Edith Wilson Roberts, who had spoken from his lectern before, to respond with a summary of what freethinkers believed. Most of her lecture concerned moral issues: moral flaws in the Bible and moral issues espoused by her freethinking community. She did make a few references to beliefs, demonstrating that she and her husband were decidedly agnostic: “We believe that if God is, he is moral, sane, just, wise and kind, and that if there be any service that we can render him, it is by keeping our bodies pure, our minds enlightened, and by serving our fellowman.” This agnostic position enabled Roberts to speak to people with a range of beliefs from theism to atheism. It was also the position in which he himself was most comfortable.
As liberal churches such as the Unitarians moved toward a wider acceptance of views, sometimes even renaming themselves “liberal centers,” the new generation of freethinkers moved toward a less religious stance. Roberts did not move with them. His popularity waned with the rise of more strident speakers for freethought. Even The Truth Seeker was less interested in his sermons after 1909. In 1915, when Roberts was speaking in Chicago, D. F. Sweetland compared him to another Sunday morning lecturer, Percy Ward. “Roberts is all right for the babes in rationalism,” Sweetland wrote, “but for grown-ups, Ward delivers the goods.” Roberts continued to share his religious agnosticism with his followers in Kansas City until he retired, aged seventy-six, in 1930.
Ellen Roberts Young is an independent scholar with a PhD in American religious history. She is also a poet whose chapbooks Accidents (2004) andThe Map of Longing (2009) were published by Finishing Line Press. This article is drawn from her biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher (Xlibris, 2011).