The Unbelievers How the godless endured a godly 19th-century America.

Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made their Way in a Godly Nation

By Leigh Eric Schmidt (2016, Princeton University Press) 337 pages with epilogue, notes, index, and 60 illustrations

For the past two decades, the intellectual and public conversations on religiosity in the United States have often been dominated by the rise of the amorphous group known as the “nones.” Comprising atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and others, this category has kicked up a long-dormant area of study—the research on the nonreligious in particular—into becoming a viable and worthwhile research interest. This transition, moreover, was speedy and significant. Departments of secular studies popped up across the nation, for instance, and major dollars were made by the publishers of the “New Atheists” and other books on nonreligiosity. The University of Miami established an endowed chair for the study of atheism, humanism, and secular ethics.[1] Even the term “none” was revived from an obscure 1968 academic article[2] and has been used to such an extent that it has become a part of the vernacular.

But in Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made their Way in a Godly Nation, Leigh Eric Schmidt slices through this noise of today and turns to the 19th century. While much of the intellectual work today focuses on how nonbelievers traverse the religious landscape in the United States now, Schmidt instead turns to the past to show how a similar cast of characters fared in the “godly nation” of the past. The focus is on the “village atheist”: the recognizable emblem of dissent, antagonism, and (dare I say it?) quirkiness in 19th-century America. They were labeled, ridiculed, and not infrequently assaulted for their bold positions, yet they were—as Schmidt elucidates—as much a part of religion in America as the pastors, priests, and faithful of the nation.

In this masterful work, Schmidt draws a “pointillist group portrait” of four village atheists at the time—Samuel Porter Putnam, Watson Heston, Charles B. Reynolds, and Elmina Drake Slenker—in an effort to identify the ways in which their public nonbelief was shaped by (and contributed to) the shaping of the American religious landscape. While students of nonreligiosity in the United States are much more likely to know of the Robert Ingersolls and Abner Kneelands of the past, they will most likely not know of these four figures. These are the personal stories of village dwellers who dared to maintain their opposition to faith and became public atheists with large ministries: accidental leaders who found themselves as representatives for many others because of their steadfast convictions. These are also the personal stories of interactions at the ground level in small-town America. Instead of the New Yorks and Chicagos of the country, the stories in this book take place in cities and towns like Boonton, New Jersey, Carthage, Missouri, North Parma, NY, and Kalamazoo, MI. Instead of the sensational and the famous, this book is about “the quotidian qualities of American unbelief.”

The focus is on the “village atheist”: the recognizable emblem of dissent, antagonism, and (dare I say it?) quirkiness in 19th-century America. They were labeled, ridiculed, and not infrequently assaulted for their bold positions, yet they were—as Schmidt elucidates—as much a part of religion in America as the pastors, priests, and faithful of the nation.

Late-19th century America was a particularly difficult time for an atheist to live and thrive. To be religious, for instance, was part of the wider culture of propriety and civility: a necessity for good manners and good presentation in society. “Irreligion was not good form,” Schmidt details. “It was disrespectable and indecorous.” A person’s credibility in society was based on their placement in the pews on Sunday and their reputation was maintained by their willingness to follow the religious norms of society.

Indeed, not only was the wider American mindset rooted in a fear of God and the hope provided by religious institutions, the legal infrastructure was, as well, constructed so as to preserve the sanctity of the godly nation. “Offenders who cursed in God’s name, scoffed at the scriptures, or otherwise mocked sacred things,” for instance, “often landed in court, and the punishments meted out for such blasphemies could be severe, including public whipping, tongue-boring, and imprisonment.” The Comstock Law was in full force by the 1870s, thus criminalizing the spread of items deemed “immoral” or “obscene.” And with Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice at the ready to conduct sting operations and read through people’s mail, there were plenty of opportunities to nab offenders. Local police forces, moreover, were also more likely to support their religious brethren as they tore down tents, destroyed property, and roughed up the traveling atheists for violating blasphemy laws. And courts at all levels were quick to dismiss witness testimonies or other pronouncements without a firm oath rooted in God.

It is in this larger context that we find the four protagonists of Schmidt’s piece: three men and one woman who pushed and shoved their genuine and authentic nonbelief as they walked the religiously-imbued world 19th-century America. Each story presents its own twists and turns, scandals and drama, that give life to this historical world of unbelief as taboo. There is Samuel Porter Putnam, the classic “PK” (“Preacher’s Kid”) who spent years in church listening to his father before attending Chicago Theological Seminary so that he could continue in his father’s Congregationalist footsteps. From Congregationalism, however, Putnam turned to the Unitarian ministry before finally arriving at the Free Religious Association and his attempt at making a career out of the freethought lecture circuit. Using Ingersoll as a role model, Putnam traveled the country speaking in towns and cities about the follies of religiosity and the virtues of liberal freethinking.

But even with his publication of three novels and one 874-page historical compendium, 400 Years of Freethought, Putnam’s personal drama would prevent him from ever reaching the heights of some of his compatriots. Having left his wife and children in order to pursue a love affair with a woman in his congregation, Putnam would later go on to promulgate free love and the reformation of the institution of marriage. These actions and thoughts alienated Putnam not only from much of the American populace but also from other freethought leaders who wanted nothing to do with free-love. And even though he would continue to push through the gossip and whisperings, Putnam’s death would solidify his sketchy reputation. On December 11, 1896, a janitor found Putnam dead in the apartment of May L. Collins: an “up-and-comer in secularist ranks” from Lexington, Kentucky, who was almost four decades his junior. Even though there was no confirmation that they were lovers, it still remained the case that Putnam’s past left his legacy mired as a sexual radical first and a freethinker second.

It is with this kind of fascinating and intriguing detail that Schmidt is able to carve out the sinuous interrelations that came to define the life of the American village atheist. Watson Heston, the great cartoonist who served as the secular equivalent of Puck at the time, used his satire to ruffle feathers among both the religious and his fellow secularists. A prolific drawer, Heston’s pieces would come to adorn much of the secular publications of the time. And so much was the public pushback against his work, indeed, that by 1896 Heston drew “a cartoon criticizing the critics of his cartoons.”

Charles B. Reynolds, another preacher-turned-infidel, took on the challenge of blasphemy laws as his raison d’être in the secular world after one fateful visit to New Jersey. Using his previous skills as a revivalist preacher, Reynolds would set up a tent in the towns he visited to attract crowds for his lectures. His words, however, were not welcome in Boonton, NJ: the local marshal arrested Reynolds for blasphemy and locked him up for a night before local rabble-rousers stormed his tent the following day and destroyed it all. What followed was several days of court proceedings in which Reynolds was unable to offer testimony because of his status as an infidel. With this in mind, Reynolds instead offered humor. “To the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’ [Reynolds] had replied that he and ‘the old fellow were strangers, ‘not on intimate terms.’ To the question about eternal punishments, he had scoffed about it being hot enough for him already in New Jersey.”

And finally, there is Elmina Drake Slenker: a figure fascinating for her dedication to open conversations about sex, the secularist cause, and the supporting of young freethinkers. Nabbed through a sting operation conducted by Comstock’s agents, Slenker had to contend with laws against obscenity in particular. Stuck in a world that confused obscenity with blasphemy, a world in which religious dicta left her in a civil limbo, Slenker had the additional burden of being a woman who sought to promote the inclusion of women in secularist causes.

There are no simple stories of secular v. religious or naïve tales that overemphasize the role and influence of American freethinkers. In their place, there are fascinating descriptions and breakdowns of the “serpentine pathways” and “sinuous complexity” that are associated with each figure [that Schmidt profiles].

What ultimately makes Schmidt’s piece so excellent is the deeply personal nature of the entire project. The wealth of historical research and thoughtful consideration ensures that the tableaus of these four figures are embedded in the geographical, intellectual, spiritual, and political spheres that orbit their lives. There are no simple stories of secular v. religious or naïve tales that overemphasize the role and influence of American freethinkers. In their place, there are fascinating descriptions and breakdowns of the “serpentine pathways” and “sinuous complexity” that are associated with each figure. Through these personal stories, the reader is able to confront the realities of religious deviancy at the time: not just a difficult existence vis-à-vis the wider religious world, but also contentious within the confines of a secular world that was constantly defining itself as it went.

Yet this project is also deeply personal on another level. Few readers ever examine the acknowledgments of books, but an examination of these pages demonstrates that writing this book has been a long-held desire for Schmidt. I was at Harvard Divinity School when Schmidt began his earnest collection of archival data for this project; I took his seminar on American Unbelief alongside some of the names that are mentioned in the acknowledgments. And I remember those early conversations about the role of the unbeliever in the shaping of the American religious landscape, conversations that would jump between the historical figures and contemporary characters.

There were other projects that demanded his attention, but Schmidt decided to finish this one first. And we, as readers, are blessed with this enthusiasm for the project with every chapter. From the plethora of images that grace its pages (many of which come from his own collection) to the careful and precise analysis of the lives of the men and women in the text, Village Atheists is the necessary counterweight to an intellectual world that frantically publishes on secularism today. In the same way that their voices stood out in their time, this book will stand out in our own.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/21/us/university-of-miami-establishes-chair-for-study-of-atheism.html?_r=0

[2] Vernon, Glenn M. 1968. “The Religious ‘Nones’: A Neglected Category.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 7(2): 219-229. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1384629?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

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