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 (atheist) was arrested and charged with blasphemy.
Besides holding public tent meetings, as was his former custom as an evangelist, Reynolds was also distributing a pamphlet in the community denying the infallibility and divine authorship of the Bible. (As Thomas Paine also produced a pamphlet denying the infallibility of the Bible more than century earlier.) Rocks were hurled, and an unruly crowd of several hundred ruffians gathered around the tent, cutting ropes and slashing the canvas. (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.) The mob howled so loudly that Reynolds had to break away and seek refuge with a prominent local family. The mob flattened and almost destroyed the 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 $300 in 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 readers who have not heard of this former evangelist who developed a repertoire of speeches on a range of infidel themes. (In passing, Reynolds arrest was not reported in the Review and Herald as a threat to constitutional freedoms.)
Reynolds’s pathway and career as an unbeliever in a Godly nation is discussed in chapter three in this well-written historical volume. The scholarship in Village Atheists is immaculate and compelling. Apparently, by 1884 Reynolds had undergone Pavlovian Inversion (Psychological term introduced by Russian Physiologist Ivan Pavlov to describe complete reversal of one position or belief for another.) 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 by living without established religion. Reynolds proclaimed his new enthusiasm in defense of atheism by replacing “Christian salvation which was mythical, visionary, absurd.” Reynolds thought, this new liberating salvation could take place by secular education, science, and progress. When he got up to lecture, Reynolds was introduced 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. Also, Reynolds focused publicly criticism against Sunday closing laws and religious exercises in public schools. His public presentations were influenced by his previous Adventist roots.
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. (Many states had blasphemy laws dating from the early 1800s, but were rarely enforced.) In the first place, 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 Reynolds served as his own attorney. Witnesses brought against him reported that Reynolds made fun of the Bible. 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, the well-known attorney Robert Ingersoll announced that he was prepared to serve as Reynolds’s defense lawyer and his oratory fame instantly raised the case’s profile.
Many 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 message sustained the impression that humans were only a part of nature, not the religious idea that human beings were divinely ordained. He told his audience 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. (Susan Jacoby. The Great Agnostic. Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Yale University Press. 2013.)
With Ingersoll’s entrance into the trial, suddenly, the blasphemy trial of Elder Reynolds took on the makings of cause célèbre. The trial expanded into a world where freedom and free speech were at stake. Ingersoll’s oration was exciting to spectators and journalists alike.
One of Ingersoll’s most important arguments 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.” (The Reynolds case Ingersoll paid the $100 fine administered by the court and the $75 for court costs. Ingersoll donated his legal fees.)
The author of 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. Consequently, this study will be of interest to Adventists concerning religious liberty—if for no other reason. Many of the characters in the book were branded infidels or blasphemers.
In this scholarly work, 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 refuse belief in God. Professor Schmidt’s undergraduate work was at the University of California, Riverside.
This reaction to secularism was unlike anything seen before. Americans in general were not favorable to the movement. There was intense hatred against these “Village Atheists.” One reviewer on the back of the fly-leaf (Kathryn Lofton) says, “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 historical accounts show how the usual skeptical inquiries into God and revelation spilled over into familiar forms of secularist activism and public debate. Persisting questions are at the forefront concerning the nation’s public institutions and the standards for the federal constitution’s First Amendment.
Village Atheists follows a pattern in each chapter by discussing four popular irreligious characters in detail who rejected Christian orthodoxy and biblical authority. Schmidt characterizes a 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) an 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.
Beyond the introduction, the first chapter presents the secular pilgrim Samuel Porter Putnam, born into New England’s old Congregationalist order. Putnam is 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 is devoted to 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 used to champion civil liberties, tolerance, and free expression.
As outlined above, chapter three, is 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.”
Schmidt reminds readers that in the nineteenth-century non-believers were maligned, marginalized and barred from holding public office, even in a so-called religious tolerant society. 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. The sharp differences of religious opinion subsisting between infidels and Christians led not 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.
Schmidt thoughtfully outlines the fact that despite the founding of the nation on principals of religious tolerance America is still a Christian nation where unbelievers are ostracized or persecuted.
In between these four main characters in the book, the author demonstrates considerable knowledge of a growing number of liberal progressives who began to suspect that they had more in common with the secularists than their conservative kin.
Schmidt makes the point that a “growing number of liberal Protestants began to suspect that they had more in common with secularists,” than they thought. As one Fundamentalist in Village Atheists 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—an account of resourceful popular freethought—despite vehement efforts by religious majority to suppress them. Some here might say, to a certain extent progressives in the Adventist church are undergoing quiet resistance to their own former ridge doctrinal beliefs without arousing public opinion.