By Roderick Bradford | January-April 2017
The Truth Seeker
Soldier of Righteousness
On January 18, 1873, the young Christian morals crusader Anthony Comstock boasted, “There were four publishers on the 2nd of last March; to-day three of these are in their graves, and it is charged by their friends that I worried them to death. Be that as it may, I am sure that the world is better off without them.”
Anthony Comstock was described as massive, intimidating, and humorless. The uniform he wore at his censorship station in the “swamp at the mouth of a sewer” (as he called it) consisted of dark clothes and black utilitarian shoes popular with policemen. He routinely wore—even during New York City’s scorching summer heat waves—a starched white shirt, black bow tie, and a long black alpaca wool coat. The only time Comstock ever changed his drab outfit was when he annually donned his white bow tie in observance of Christ’s birthday. When speaking, he drew down his upper lip, giving an earnest and pious appearance. Comstock called his crusade a “fight for the young,” and was overly fond of the phrase “Man proposes but God disposes.”
As a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, Anthony Comstock was never timid about his authority and jurisdiction. One of his associates liked to tell a story that was illustrative of the vice-hunter’s braggadocio. While Comstock was swaggering across lower Broadway one rainy day, he was nearly run over by a horse-drawn wagon. Enraged, he pulled out his official U.S. Post Office badge and waved it beneath the horse’s nose: “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Anthony Comstock!” The horse happened to be hitched to a mail wagon and, theoretically, a subordinate. The animal was not the only postal “employee” to experience the vice-hunter’s wrath; numerous mail carriers and clerks had to accommodate and withstand admonishment from this huffy superior.
Anthony Comstock assisted or influenced the formation of Societies for the Suppression of Vice in Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, and Boston. Although he traveled extensively in America in the discharge of his “official” duties, the purity crusader was uninterested in other countries and culture. To him, Berlin, Paris, and Rome were the places where “dirty” postcards originated. He detested any nudity in art but avowed that nobody revered the female figure more than he did. “In my opinion there is nothing else in the world so beautiful as the form of a beautiful maiden woman—nothing,” he confessed in an interview. “But the place for a woman’s body to be—denuded—is in the privacy of her own apartment with the blinds down.” It is unknown, however, if he was referring to his wife, the dimwitted daughter of a Presbyterian elder, as the “maiden” whose female “form” he so adamantly adored. (The only thing friends of the couple could recall about the homebody was that she always wore black, never spoke, and weighed only eighty-two pounds.)
Regardless of his reverence for the female form, the Christian zealot railed against the public exposure of statues and paintings of nudes that were exhibited in the prestigious Paris Salon or the “Saloons of Paris,” as he reportedly referred to them. By 1895, the New York Times christened Comstock’s puritanical and ill-defined censorship campaign as “Comstockery.” In 1905, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the old world that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country town civilization after all.” Comstock was woefully ignorant of literature and when asked to respond to the world-renowned writer’s remarks, he asked: “Who is he?” He later denounced the dramatist as an “Irish smut-dealer.”
Anthony Comstock arrested D.M. Bennett twice for mailing alleged “obscenity.” He also tried to halt publication of the Truth Seeker by visiting the printing shop and the American News Agency, the weekly’s distributor. On several occasions he threatened the printers and promised prosecution if Bennett’s “vile sheet” was not discontinued. After Bennett’s death in 1882, Comstock never tried to suppress the Truth Seeker despite the fact that Eugene and George Macdonald continued Bennett’s anti-clerical cause and published the same progressive content which Comstock condemned in his 1877 arrest blotter as “the most horrible & obscene blasphemies.”
In 1913—near the end of his “career of cruelty and crime” as D.M. Bennett dubbed it—Comstock bragged that he had personally convicted enough people to fill a passenger train of sixty-one coaches (approximately thirty-seven hundred people) and destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature. Someone remarked that Comstock never read books; he weighed them.
That same year, Truth Seeker editor George Macdonald was on a New York harbor ferryboat when he overheard a cantankerous old man elbowing his way through the crowd and causing a commotion at the gate. As Macdonald looked closer, he recognized the man—Anthony Comstock! The editor decided to merge with the throng of passengers to see what might happen. But as he got nearer, he was startled at the sight of a pale, gray-haired, flabby, short-winded, bewildered old man tottering on his legs. Comstock hardly resembled the menacing vice-hunter who persecuted D.M. Bennett and terrorized freethinkers a few decades earlier. The pathetic old bluenose was “no game for anybody but the undertaker,” Macdonald concluded.
On July 21, 1915, soon after returning home from the International Purity Congress at the San Francisco Exposition, where he served as a delegate appointed by President Woodrow Wilson, Anthony Comstock—the self-described “weeder in God’s garden”—died. At his funeral, Comstock was proclaimed “a soldier of righteousness.” In the Truth Seeker, George Macdonald used Comstock’s own words for his epitaph—“The world is better off without him.”
The world, however, was not done with Comstockery. Another war and a new threat to the First Amendment were on the horizon. Nearly four decades after D.M. Bennett was unjustly imprisoned for violating the Comstock Act, the Truth Seeker and its editor faced a new fight for freedom of the press. Had Anthony Comstock lived only two years longer, he would have been euphoric to learn Bennett’s “vile sheet” was accused of violating the Espionage Act.
The War to End All Wars
The First World War—or the Great War as it was known—began in Europe on July 28, 1914 and ended more than four years later on November 11, 1918. World War One involved millions of military combatants from 32 countries. For the first time in history, warriors fought with poison gasses, barbed wire, machine guns, flamethrowers, automatic rifles, shrapnel, submarines, tanks, and airplanes. These early 20th century combatants had innovative weapons at their disposal, but it was also a conflict during an age of trench warfare when soldiers slept, fought, and died in flooded rat- and lice-infected ditches alongside rotting corpses.
At the end of the First World War, 17 million people—military personnel and civilians—were dead and another 20 million wounded. The first global war—“the war to end all wars”—was one of the most barbaric, largest, and deadliest wars in history.
In 1914, after the outbreak of war among the Christian countries in Europe, American pastors prayed for peace in their pulpits. President Woodrow Wilson appointed a day of prayer for peace and Truth Seeker editor George Macdonald declared, “the religious circus began.”
In the years leading up to America’s entry into the First World War, debates and editorials filled American newspapers, including the Truth Seeker. While the weekly’s editorial policy remained neutral on the question of the U.S. entering the war, its columns provided an open forum for partisans on each side.
United States Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon (1836–1926), expressed his opinion on the futile exhibition of piety. The Illinois Republican—a critic of Wilson and against America’s entry into the war—declared: “During the Civil war the ministers of the Southern churches prayed for the preservation of slavery. In the North the preachers all prayed for the freeing of the slaves. …I have yet to hear of a case where the deity has intervened in human affairs in response to prayers.”
The Truth Seeker consistently reported and denounced the religious rhetoric of political leaders who claimed to have God on their side—an editorial policy which some perceived as un-patriotic. In 1915, a Roman Catholic organization introduced a bill in Congress aimed at the Truth Seeker. The law—which nearly passed—was a sweeping censorship bill disguised as a periodical mail regulation to exclude from the mails any paper that “tended to expose any race, creed or religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule or abuse.”
In 1916, the Truth Seeker “observed an attitude of neutrality” as to the question of whether to go to war. The weekly’s columns, however, continued to provide a forum for readers to express their views. Leading up to—and throughout the war—the Truth Seeker relied on Thomas Paine’s wisdom and often featured his writing. The Truth Seeker was not alone in printing patriotic quotes by Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Paine in 1917. Even the mainstream press relied on the wisdom of Paine and Ingersoll. One of the most popular patriotic sentiments was by Robert Ingersoll:
Let us proudly remember that in our time the greatest, the grandest, the noblest army of the world fought—not to enslave, but to free; not to destroy, but to save; not simply for themselves, but for others; not for conquest, but for conscience; not only for us, but for every land and every race.
—Robert G. Ingersoll, Decoration Day Oration, 1882
The most popular quotes were by Thomas Paine:
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which their affections are interested. The laying of a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure, is The AUTHOR.
—Thomas Paine, Common Sense
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will at this crisis shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
—Thomas Paine, The American Crisis
The Divinely Appointed Messenger
In 1917, the Truth Seeker announced President Wilson’s proclamation of war: “The Lost Fight for Peace.” George Macdonald urged pacifists and conscientious objectors to accept the situation.
For the duration of the war, the world’s leaders all claimed to have God on their side. Perhaps the most pious of all the world leaders was the 28th President of the United States—Woodrow Wilson.
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was the son and grandson of Presbyterian preachers.
Before ascending to the presidency in 1913, Wilson was the president of Princeton University. He declared in a speech that the mission ahead of us was “to make the United States a mighty Christian nation, and to Christianize the world.” Wilson considered himself “the divinely appointed messenger.” At Princeton, Wilson opposed the admission of black students and praised the Ku Klux Klan. [In 2015, Princeton student demonstrators demanded that the university rename buildings which honor the bigoted former president.]
Like George W. Bush, Woodrow Wilson had a faithbased foreign policy and “believed the United States was divinely chosen to do God’s will on earth.” Wilson believed America was the “redeemer nation” and “city on the hill” intended by God to “instruct and lead the world.”
While serving his two-term presidency—1913 until 1921—the devout Presbyterian treated the oval office as a pulpit and the country like his parish. Wilson was a film buff who screened the racist moving picture The Birth of a Nation in the White House. While the Christian president claimed to be fighting a “righteous war,” he re-segregated the government and fired black supervisors.
After The American Library Association refused to forward “literature of a controversial nature” to enlisted men, a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Truth Seeker fund was initiated to send the periodical to American servicemen overseas.
As they had done in the aftermath of the Haymarket Tragedy and President McKinley’s assassination in 1901, religious leaders and pious politicians condemned freethought. Prominent priests and pastors publicly questioned the courage of atheists forced to serve their country. With his sons at war, George Macdonald took the malevolent accusations personally. After a Roman Catholic priest told an audience during an open-air mass that atheists would be the “first to be shot in the back when forced to go to war,” Macdonald rhetorically asked: “And those Irish slackers who have reached America from England by the boatloads since the war began—are they all Atheists?”
Some religious leaders—including oil industry magnate John D. Rockefeller’s Baptist minister—asserted that “Darwin caused the war.” The theory was propagated by Vernon Kellogg, a professor of entomology and influential author. Kellogg heard the German high command—in an effort to justify their own aggression—declare that life was a struggle and violence was the solution for survival of the fittest. The German military officers’ “Social Darwinist” propaganda—a misinterpretation of Darwinism—convinced the former pacifist to campaign for America to enter the war.
While the American Expeditionary Forces were seeing action abroad, books, magazines, and newspapers continued to be published. “There might have been some editorial moralizing on the conduct of the war,” Macdonald wrote, but he believed there would have been less “if the preachers, the Kaiser included, had only left God and religion where they belonged instead of elevating God to the high command and proclaiming the preservation of Christianity to be the thing at stake in this conflict.”
American freethinkers believed that the situation was far too serious for constant religious banter coming from both sides and taken at face value by the nation’s newspapers and magazines. The Truth Seeker consistently analyzed the relentless religious rhetoric of the warring nations’ leaders who all claimed to have God on their side. George Macdonald collected some of the “theological expressions by warring moguls”:
With God on our side we shall, with our good German sword, conquer our enemies.
The dear God who has fought with my armies so faithfully.
—The Emperor of Austria-Hungary
Remember, my soldiers, when you are in battle that God is always beside you.
—The Czar of Russia
If my efforts were crowned with success it is due to God’s gracious guidance.
—Field Marshal von Hindenburg
While the nation’s mainstream press routinely reported the self-serving blather by politicians and clergymen, the Truth Seeker never wavered in exposing and assailing the “religious circus.” With both of his sons serving honorably in Europe, however, George Macdonald refused to let truth become a casualty of war. The editor believed the situation far too serious to sit back and be silent while religious leaders took aim at freethinkers to explain “why Christian nations were fighting one another beneath the banner of Christ.”
During the war, the Truth Seeker remained patriotic, fiercely loyal and above reproach. It was, however, repeatedly suppressed for advocating secularism. The Truth Seeker wasn’t alone. The New York Secular Society’s street speakers were arrested so often that the Society discussed retaining “permanent counsel.” The post office suppressed publications on the slightest pretext of dissent.
George Macdonald exposed church graft, misdeeds of chaplains, and the unethical actions of the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) and the Salvation Army. The editor’s hard-hitting editorials exposing church graft and his unwavering attacks on the ethically challenged Y.M.C.A. and Salvation Army caused the publication intense scrutiny.
In the Truth Seeker, Macdonald detailed the exemption provided to the clergy, theological students, and an army of fifteen thousand chaplains who received the same pay as commissioned officers. He criticized these “officers”—including members of the Salvation Army and “anything religious, priest or nun”—permitted to travel by rail at half the ticket price while uniformed soldiers and sailors were required to pay the full fare.
After an associate Truth Seeker editor took issue with an Illinois governor over a religious argument comparing the German Kaiser’s God with Joshua’s, the Solicitor of the Post Office Department in Washington pronounced the April 13, 1918 issue of the Truth Seeker “unmailable under the Espionage Act.” When the editor of the New York Nation magazine came to the Truth Seeker’s defense, it was also excluded from the U.S. Mail.
Subsequently, the Truth Seeker columns discontinued referring to the religious argument. The postal officials, however, demanded an advance issue of the paper every week for examination and censoring. On August 31st, the Truth Seeker was again pronounced unmailable. Entire editions of the Truth Seeker were destroyed and copies were banned from the mail.
Following an obscure Wisconsin court case, Congress amended the Espionage Act and declared members of the Y.M.C.A. as armed forces and chaplains who were appointed “commissioned officers not subject to criticism.” After Macdonald consulted with an attorney, the Solicitor of the Post Office assured the editor: “The Post Office Department has taken no action against The Truth Seeker because of its being an Agnostic paper or because of any views expressed in it on any religious questions, nor has any action been taken against this publication as such.” Nevertheless, similar to the suppression four decades earlier when Anthony Comstock targeted the Truth Seeker because of its “blasphemy”and the printers and distributor—George Macdonald believed “that somebody at Washington cherished an intent to ‘get’ The Truth Seeker on its religious views.”
In 1919, the editor’s suspicion about the persecution from Washington and his exposure of church sponsored corruption was eventually vindicated. “It became known today,” the New York Sun reported in January, “that three Y.M.C.A. workers—a minister among them—were under arrest in Paris and charged with defalcation of funds by the Association.” In September is was officially revealed that “seventy-two Y.M.C.A. workers had been tried on various charges. “It looked probable,” Macdonald opined, “that in proportion to the total personnel, the ‘Y’ contingent contained more crooks than the army they went over to uplift.”
The American Bible Society pressured citizens to purchase Bibles to be sent to soldiers abroad. Woodrow Wilson provided a pious sentiment for the flyleaf. Numerous stories were circulated about soldiers being miraculously saved by the books which deflected bullets and shell fragments. George Macdonald scoffed at the supernatural and Christian propaganda stories that “bullet and fragments of shells that penetrated their pocket Testaments as far as some passage applicable to the situation and there stopped.”
At the close of The Great War, a Truth Seeker subscriber and proud father—familiar with the far-fetched stories of Bibles saving soldiers—wrote to George Macdonald about their sons and the miraculous life-saving “pocket Testaments”:
I have a fondness for The Truth Seeker Editor. He [Macdonald] and I have a common bond that I cannot forget. He had two fine boys in the war fought for liberty and humanity, and now they are coming home to him alive and well. I too have a son “over there,” my only boy, who enlisted as a private the day after war was declared, and who has filled every place except corporal up to first lieutenant, and is now on the regimental staff of the 138th Infantry as intelligence officer. He has had two citations for bravery under fire, and was promoted from second to first lieutenant in acknowledgment of the first citation. He was wounded the third day of the battle of the Argonne, but the piece of shrapnel which might otherwise have killed him struck his pistol scabbard and did nothing more than temporarily paralyze his leg. Now if that pistol scabbard had been a Bible the incident might have been published as a miracle!
Soon after the end of the First World War, the fight for women’s right to vote which had been fought for decades—and championed by the Truth Seeker—was won. Unfortunately, many of the freethinking leaders of the women’s rights movement—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage—had already passed away before women finally won the right to vote in 1920. Other progressive initiatives that they had fought for, however, were still being rigidly opposed by Christian conservatives.
In the early 20th century, Roman Catholics and religious conservatives feared modernist ideas which had been popularized during the Golden Age of Freethought. Christian fundamentalists bent on reviving “old-time religion” mounted a counterattack on what many called “atheistic communism.”
During the second decade of the 20th century, an anti-secularist crusade began that would continue into the 1920s. The economy was in the doldrums and there was a high rate of unemployment. Americans were anxious and there was growing concern that the country might be subject to revolutionary overthrow. In 1919, President Wilson appointed former congressman A. Mitchell Palmer—who called himself the “Fighting Quaker”—as Attorney General.
After civil unrest, bomb threats and explosions—which terrified the public—Palmer launched a series of controversial raids on suspected radical anarchists. With the assistance of a young J. Edgar Hoover, Palmer organized a series of raids throughout the country and arrested more than 4,000 immigrants who were mostly Russian members of various organizations that had pledged themselves at one time or another to revolution.
The explosion of protest, strikes, and anarchist activity caused deep anxiety among Americans and the first Red Scare. Not all anarchists advocated violent revolution. But it was difficult for some to tell the difference between philosophical and violent anarchism. Frightened Christian conservatives blamed the “unholy alliance” of freethinkers, political anarchists, evolutionists, and socialists. Russian-born atheist and firebrand free-speech advocate Emma Goldman and her anarchist partner Alexander Berkman were sent to prison for their opposition to the draft.
After serving her prison term, Goldman was arrested again for advocating the overthrow of the government. In a statement read by her attorney, “Red Emma”—as Goldman was called by conservatives—assailed the government for the deportation of radicals. In “this alleged Democracy one is entirely free to think and feel as he pleases… The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society,” Goldman said. “In truth, it is such free expression and discussion alone that can point the most beneficial path for human progress and development.”
Within weeks of Goldman’s deportation hearing, her defense of freedom of speech and condemnation of government censorship was, ironically, echoed by an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. —one of the most esteemed jurists in our nation’s history—eloquently expressed his opinion on the “best test of truth” and reminded his fellow Americans of the absolute and essential importance of freedom of speech, even by radicals:
When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
Nevertheless, two months later, Emma Goldman was deported to Russia. Many viewed A. Mitchell Palmer’s paranoia, disregard for free speech, and unreasonable search and seizure as reminiscent of Anthony Comstock’s crusade which targeted Truth Seeker founder D.M. Bennett and other freethinking writers, physicians, and publishers.
Although George Macdonald—and associate editors and writers for the Truth Seeker—“did their bit” to fight for freedom of speech during the war—an organized fight for free speech did not begin until after World War I.
In the postwar period, American citizen’s lives had been shattered. Some never recovered from imprisonment under the Espionage and Sedition Acts which prompted the question: If Americans were not permitted to debate something as basic as war and peace, America could not claim to be a democracy. Freethinkers and free-speech advocates believed that something had to be done to protect and fortify the right to freedom of speech.
This American panic attack, or “Red Scare,” precipitated the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. The mission of the ACLU was and still is: “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a cofounder of the ACLU, spent the early 1920s campaigning for fairer treatment of anarchists and labor radicals.
The ACLU was similar to the National Defense Association (NDA)—founded in the Truth Seeker office in 1876. The mission of the NDA was to investigate questionable federal and state Comstock Law prosecutions and defend those who were “unjustly assailed by the enemies of free speech and free press.” The NDA motto was: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Roderick Bradford is a freelance writer and independent video producer, who has written articles for Free Inquiry, American History, The Quest, Truth Seeker, and American Atheist. He is the author of the book D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, a contributor to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007), and the producer of a film about D.M. Bennett, which won the Grand Prize for Best Feature-Length Film at the 2011 Portland Humanist Film Festival. He has also written, produced, and directed a four-part American Freethought film series about the history of unbelief in the United States from the late 1700s to the mid-1930s. Bradford became the editor of the Truth Seeker in 2014.
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