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Apr 12, 2018

Neither Gods Nor Masters: 19th Century American Women of Freethought, Part 1

For many women, resisting oppression meant turning a critical eye toward religious authorities.

No man can fathom the depths of rebellion in woman’s soul when insult is heaped upon her sex, and is this intensified when done under the hypocritical assumptions of divine authority.

—Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Even if they are not familiar with any of the women besides Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, most Americans have heard of the abolitionist movement (which included women white and black alike). However, the average person doesn’t even know what freethought is, let alone who the women freethinkers were. Only a handful of feminists and a few scholars know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony counted themselves among this group of American dissidents and rebels. Indeed, the only radical 19th century Americans more obscure and misrepresented are the anarchists.

Those who have heard the word “freethought” often misunderstand it. Susan Jacoby, author of a history of American freethought, comments that although freethought is “[o]ften defined as a total absence of faith in God, freethought can be better understood as a phenomenon running the gamut from the truly antireligious—those who regarded all religion as a form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence in every aspect of society—to those who adhered to a private, unconventional faith revering some form of God or Providence but at odds with orthodox religious authority” 1 Reflecting this diversity, 19th century women advocates of freethought ranged from deists like Lucretia Mott or spiritualists like Margaret Fuller to agnostics like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and outright atheists like Ernestine Rose and Frances Wright.

Freethought is characterized by a critical-thinking attitude toward religion. In an excerpt from his book The Secular Outlook republished at Church and State, a major freethought website, Paul Cliteur writes:

[F]reethought is intimately connected with critique of religion ([Paul] Blanshard) and with free speech ([Chapman] Cohen). How do these two ideas come together? Cohen provided the answer to this question: “Freethought is that form of thinking that proceeds along lines of its own determining, rather than along lines that are laid down by authority.”

And because that authority was often claimed by religious institutions, freethought was also directed at precisely this pretension: “merely as a matter of history, the first active manifestation of Freethought should have occurred in connection with a revolt against religious teaching and authority.”2

The Influence of the Enlightenment

Frances Wright, Thomas Paine and other early advocates of freethought had been influenced by the heady writings of the 18th century writers such as Voltaire, Condillac, and Condorcet. But in the early 19th century, a resurgence of religious fundamentalism decimated much of the liberal tendencies fostered by the Enlightenment. What little was left of its heritage became centered in the Northeast. By the early 1830s, writes Jacoby, “most of the heritage of revolutionary secularism—and intellectual successors of the 18th c American freethinkers—had moved north.”4 As “orthodox southern religion became a pillar of slavery (and vice versa), the rich array of freethinkers so prominent in the revolutionary South—virtually all of whom, regardless of the degree of their personal belief in or skepticism about the existence of God, had subscribed to Paine’s creed that ‘my own mind is my own church’—simply lost their place in their own society.” 5 The religiously correct version of American history, Jacoby asserts, has not given proper credit to the central important of the Enlightenment doctrine of natural rights—or to the anticlerical abolitionist movement. Freethought would be nourished in the Northeast and in the new states in the West. These dissenters would shape, and be shaped by, two movements—abolitionism and women’s rights.

Abolitionism, Feminism and Freethought

The activists of the1820s and 30s, concludes Jacoby, were the first generation of social reformers to make the connection between standard religion and reactionary domestic and social institutions. “Neither the abolitionists nor the early feminists set out to take on organized religion; they did so only when they concluded that the conservative religious institutions of their day were a positive obstacle to social reform.” 6 Thus the moral authority of the Church was challenged by both abolitionism and the women’s movement. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters were among those who attacked the South’s religious justification for slavery. Though they were all deeply religious themselves, these abolitionists believed that slavery could not be sanctioned by biblical teachings and so were forced to be anticlerical. The feminist ideas of Mott and the Grimkes also led to their opposition to the churches of that day which insisted that women should stay at home and be quiet and subservient.

The women’s rights movement in 19th century America was a threat to religious orthodoxy because of its insistence on the idea that women have a right and duty to be public citizens.7 The challenges to orthodoxy came in many forms. Mild but firm rebukes by the Grimke sisters called the Church to task not only for hypocrisy about slavery but for the mistreatment of women. Fiery feminist and atheist Frances Wright denounced all religion, not just its views about women. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her Woman’s Bible and Matilda Joslyn Gage in her Women, Church and State delivered scathing indictments of the Church’s views of woman, along with many other freethinking women who denounced its treatment of women.

Women and Freethought Before 1850

The early women freethinkers were “movers and shakers” in the movement, according to Annie Laurie Gaylor in Women Without Superstition.8 Women played a crucial role in freethought because organized religion was the principle enemy of women’s rights. Out of sheer defense, she writes, women have been among the most impassioned critics of the church. Even though they were attacked not just for their views but for daring to speak in public, women were active in freethought from the very start of the 19th century movement. Before the 1830s women almost never delivered speeches in public. In these early days, it was a radical step for any woman to speak before any mixed audience of both men and women, or blacks and whites. On rare occasions they may have spoken about religion and then only in unorthodox settings opposed by orthodox ministers. Thus, the first female public speakers, whether atheist Frances Wright or Quakers Lucretia Mott and Angelina and Sarah Grimke, had to be anticlerical. Both Grimke sisters, as well as Mott, were Hicksite Quakers, a sect that adhered to a more strongly anticlerical, antiritualistic, and antislavery philosophy than that of the larger and more traditional Society of Friends. Though the Grimkes did not attack religion per se, they did criticize the attitudes of the churches that upheld slavery and put down women. Mott did the same.

Frances Wright, “The Red Harlot of Infidelity” (1795-1852)

Unlike Mott, Garrison, and the Grimkes (none of whom were atheists), antireligious freethinkers such as Frances Wright identified religion itself as one of society’s most important problems. Unlike the genteel Grimke sisters, Wright was an atheist firebrand. A transplanted Scot, she became the senior editor of the first freethought periodical in the 19th century. Created in 1825 by social reformer Robert Owen, the New-Harmony Gazette started out mild and careful in its advocacy of freethought. However when Wright took over in 1828, it became more aggressively anti-Christianity. Changing the name to the New-Harmony and Nashoba Gazette, or the Free Enquirer, Wright, with her fellow editor Robert Dale Owen, son of Robert, widened the content to include advocacy of “liberal divorce, economics and social co-operation, abolitionism of slavery, and other reforms,” writes historian Albert Post but “their bete noir [sic] was religion.” 9 Because of its “daring and stimulating direction,” the paper soon became the leading freethought periodical in the country till its demise in 1835.

After Wright left New Harmony and moved to New York City, the first edition of the newly renamed Free Enquirer came out in 1829. Wright and fellow editor Robert L. Jennings quickly became notorious as atheists. She soon launched her steady stream of attack on the clergy, both through the journal and in her lectures. “The rivers of earth run blood!” she wrote in her lecture “Religion.”10 “Nation against nation!…Man against his bosom companion; and that soft companion, maddened in the frenzy of insane remorse for imaginary crimes…subdued to diseased helplessness and mental fatuity…pines away a useless or mischievous existence in sighing and tremblings…Such are thy doings, oh religion.” To say that Wright was controversial is an understatement. Newspapers denounced her as “a bold blasphemer and a voluptuous preacher of licentiousness,” a “female monster,” and an infidel “in an Angel’s garb.” 11 “The red harlot of infidelity” was another frequent epithet hurled at Wright by clerics and papers alike.

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)

An independent but influential branch of freethought flourished in Boston under the auspices of the transcendentalists. Transcendentalism was a literary and philosophical movement, associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, asserting the existence of an ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable through intuition. It emphasized spiritual rather than religious concerns. It was also an idea that found fertile ground in Boston. Boston of the 1830s and 40s was in the midst of what historian Charles Madison calls a “seething cultural upsurge.”12 “Discarding old Puritan mores and rejecting ineffectual Unitarianism, young people were ready for a change, he suggests. “Not religion but philosophy, not salvation but reform, became the goals of young men and women who tasted of European Romanticism and found it good.” It was into this milieu that Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson stepped with their new ideas.

Fuller, a brilliant writer with a keen intellect and larger-than-life personality, was much admired by the intelligentsia. Though not a fan of hers, Edgar Allen Poe, her contemporary, once remarked that “humanity can be divided into three categories: men, women, and Margaret Fuller.”13 She became the editor of Emerson’s transcendentalist journal The Dial in 1839. Though neither an agnostic nor atheist—her views were more of a spiritualist nature—she was a critical thinker who questioned the traditional religious views of the day.

In1844, she left The Dial because of ill health and disappointment in the publication’s dwindling subscriptions. She then moved to New York City where she joined Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune as a literary critic, becoming the first full-time book reviewer in journalismand, by 1846, was the publication’s first female editor. Her essays ranged from philanthropy to feminism, from literature to human rights. She wrote the most widely-read commentary on feminism in the first half of the century, Women in the 19th Century. Though Sarah Grimke’s exposition was the first book-length feminist treatment, Fuller’s was wider-ranging and more systematic.

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)

Lydia Maria Child was perhaps best known as an abolitionist but this brilliant intellectual woman had a deep commitment to rational and critical thinking that extended to her beliefs about religion, as well as human rights. She wrote The Progress of Religious Ideas to present objective representations of the wider world’s religions. In the book, Child explained she was offended that

records of all other religions were unscrupulously analyzed, or contemptuously described as “childish fables” or “filthy superstitions”…and I was still more displeased with the scoffing tone of skeptical writers, who regarded all religions as founded on imposture. Either way the one-sidedness of the representation troubled my strong sense of justice.14

Child believed in something she referred to as “Providence,” advising “sincere reverence of that inward voice” of conscience. As one of the 19th century’s most impassioned defenders of human rights, Child hated theology, dogmas, and doctrines that were inconsistent with rights. “As a general thing,” Child wrote, “Christians have manifested very little kindness, or candour in their estimate of other religions, but the darkest blot on their history is the treatment of the Jews.”15 Elsewhere in The Progress of Religious Ideas, she wrote, “It is impossible to exaggerate the evil work theology has done in the world. What destruction of the beautiful monuments of the past, what waste of life, what disturbance of domestic and social happiness, what perverted feelings, what blighted hearts, have always marked its baneful progress!”16 Near the end of her life, Child defined religion simply as working for the welfare of the human race, writes Gaylor. “What a blooming paradise would be the whole earth, if the same amount of intellect, labour, and zeal, had been expended on science, agriculture, and the arts!” 17

Ernestine Rose (1810 – 1892)

Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are nothing but dead letters.

—Ernestine Rose

One of the most overlooked freethinker and feminist activists was Ernestine Rose, one of the few 19th century freethinkers to actually call herself an atheist. If Jacoby’s thesis about the neglect of the unconventional is true, this may not have been accidental. Until the biography, The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose, by Carol Kolmerten in 1998, virtually the only attention paid to this remarkable woman was from the Jewish community, and that possibly because she was the first Jewish immigrant to campaign aggressively for social reform.18

Brought up as the only child of a Polish orthodox rabbi, Rose defied convention by studying the Bible and the Torah in Hebrew as a teenager. She rejected both by the time she was fourteen. When her father tried to marry her off to an older man, Ernestine emigrated to England, where she met and married fellow freethinker William Ella Rose. They moved to America in 1836. The “Emma Goldman of the 1840s and 1850s,” as she was called by Jacoby, Rose was the first canvasser for women’s rights in the United States.19 Her many brilliant and logical speeches on behalf of abolitionism, women’s rights, and atheism stunned Americans; even those who disagree with her often gave her begrudging admiration. Americans, says Jacoby, were totally unaccustomed to hearing anyone with a foreign accent lay claim to a stake in the American future—so she was viewed as an oddity and, as a Jew, often looked at suspiciously.


  1. Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2005), 4.
  2. Paul Cliteur, “Criticism of religion as the first pillar of freethought,” http://churchandstate.org.uk/2017/02/freethought-criticism-of-religion/, accessed April 5, 2018.
  3. Sidney Warren, American Freethought, 1860-1914 (New York: Gordian Press, 1943), 19.
  4. Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism , op. cit., 66-67.
  5. Susan Jacoby, ibid., 69.
  6. Susan Jacoby, ibid., 94.
  7. Susan Jacoby, ibid., 69.
  8. Annie Laurie Gaylor. Women Without Superstition: No Gods No Masters(Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997).
    Not until the publication of Women Without Superstition did the women of freethought finally get the attention they deserved. Gaylor lays the blame for the blank out on the women’s movement as well as male freethinkers. “The women’s movement has not acknowledged its debt to the women of freethought.” In her view, women of freethought has also been ignored by historians of freethought and “their views suppressed, often shamefully.” See p. xxiii.
  9. Albert Post, Popular Freethought in America, 1825-1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 38.
    Contrary to their negative reputations, writes Post, “[m]ost freethinkers were dominated by an intense desire to assist in the progress of humanity.”

    Robert Ingersoll, the leading freethinker of the 19th century, wrote: “Secularism teaches us to be good here and now. I know nothing better than goodness. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now….its end and aim is to make this world better …” https://thegreatagnostic.wordpress.com/category/secularism/, accessed March 16, 2018.

    Re sic: the correct French spelling is “bete noire” not “bete noir.”
  10. Mike Sanders (ed.), Women and Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century: Frances Wright (Abingdon-on-Thames ,UK (Routledge, 2004) 87.
  11. Kimberly Nichols, “The Red Harlot of Liberty: The Rise and Fall of Frances Wright,” https://newtopiamagazine.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/the-red-harlot-of-liberty-the-rise-and-fall-of-frances-wright/, accessed March 4, 2018.
     Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith, American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (New York: NYU Press, 2015), 135.
  12. Charles Madison, Critics and Crusaders (New York: Henry Holt, 1948), 99.
  13. Joseph Jay Deiss, “Humanity, Said Edgar Allan Poe, Is Divided Into Men, Women, And Margaret Fuller,” American Heritage, Volume 23, No. 5, August, 1972, http://www.americanheritage.com/content/humanity-said-edgar-allan-poe-divided-men-women-and-margaret-fuller, accessed April 7, 2018.
  14. Lydia Maria Child, The Progress of Religious Ideas , in Annie Laurie Gaylor, Women without Superstition, op cit.
    Also see https://www.forgottenbooks.com/en/books/TheProgressofReligiousIdeas_10485480, accessed March 16, 2018.
  15. Lydia Maria Child, The Progress of Religious Ideas, ibid.
  16. Lydia Maria Child, The Progress of Religious Ideas, ibid., Gaylor, 59.
  17. Annie Laurie Gaylor, op. cit. Near the end of her life, Child defined religion simply as working for the welfare of the human race, writes Gaylor.
  18. Carol A. Kolmerten, The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose (Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press) 1998.
  19. Ibid.