The Tale of The Truth Seeker

September 13, 2018

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Of the periodicals published at the Center for Inquiry, none has a longer – or more winding – history than The Truth Seeker.

I’ll pause a moment while some of you say to yourselves, “Huh? CFI has something to do with The Truth Seeker?” – and while others of you say “What’s The Truth Seeker?”

The Truth Seeker is the world’s oldest freethought publication, and one of the oldest periodicals in America. Among general-readership titles, only Harper’s, The Atlantic, Scientific American, and The Nation are older.

If you’re hearing about The Truth Seeker for the first time, it’s time you made its acquaintance.

In 1873, Paris, Illinois, entrepreneur DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818 – 1882) challenged local clergymen who had taken to the local newspaper, exhorting residents to pray for rain. Bennett and his wife Mary were former Shakers, members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. An 1850 reading of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason had made freethinkers of them. When the local paper’s Christian editor refused to print Bennett’s “infidel” letters arguing that prayer was useless, the couple resolved to found a paper of their own. The result was an eight-page monthly open to all opinions in matters of religion (but especially to skeptical ones), written entirely by Bennett. Mary Wicks Bennett devised its name: The Truth Seeker. 12,000 copies were printed; somehow Bennett managed to distribute them to like-minded readers across the country. Response was encouraging enough that in early 1874 the Bennetts relocated to New York City and engaged a young printer, Eugene M. Macdonald, whose office at 335 Broadway became The Truth Seeker’s headquarters.

DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett
DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett

The Bennetts had launched the new publication at a propitious time. The Truth Seeker soon emerged as one of three leading periodicals of the Golden Age of Freethought, the others being The Boston Investigator and The Index. By 1875 Bennett had branched into book and pamphlet publishing, reprinting Robert Green Ingersoll’s Oration of the Gods, publishing a pioneering freethought novel, and selling a variety of freethought and reform titles. In the same year Eugene Macdonald brought on his younger brother, George, as an apprentice printer. The Truth Seeker became a sixteen-page semi-monthly.

Only a year later, in 1876, The Truth Seeker became a weekly – and Bennett entered into his first of many clashes with decency crusader Anthony Comstock, writing in defense of birth-control pioneer E. B. Foote.

Soon The Truth Seeker had 50,000 subscribers and had been named the official journal of the National Liberal League, then the country’s largest freethought organization. The Truth Seeker was essentially the freethought movement’s journal of record, a role it would fulfill well into the early twentieth century. Leading freethinkers wrote for the paper – as did leading divines, whom Bennett often debated in print. Articles championed Darwinian evolution, defended women’s rights, and reprinted the latest new lecture by Ingersoll.

Bennett continued to attack conservative Christian decency crusaders, publishing a sharply critical biography of Comstock and a famous “Open Letter to Samuel Colgate” revealing that the famously devout soap magnate’s company had promoted its product Vaseline as a method of birth control.

In 1879, Bennett went on trial for violating the Comstock obscenity law, the culmination of lengthy efforts by Comstock to haul him before the bar. Freethinkers – and many others – signed what was then the largest petition in the nation’s history, calling for the prosecution to be dropped; Ingersoll himself lobbied then-President Rutherford B. Hayes (unsuccessfully) for the same goal. Bennett was found guilty and sentenced to thirteen months’ imprisonment. The sentence was purposefully cruel; Bennett could have served a shorter sentence closer to home, but a sentence of thirteen months or longer could only be served in the dismal Albany Penitentiary, where criminals convicted of federal crimes were imprisoned. The Truth Seeker published the transcript of his trial and a series of letters from the penitentiary, later republished in book form under the title From Behind the Bars.

Released from prison in 1881, Bennett traveled to Brussels, Belgium, to represent American freethinkers at an international convention. He then embarked on a year-long round-the-world tour funded by his supporters. His letters home from that trip became a four-volume work titled A Truth Seeker around the World.

Not long after returning to New York, Bennett died on December 6, 1882. It was widely supposed that his imprisonment had compromised his health, leading to his early death.

Mary Bennett and Eugene Macdonald had kept The Truth Seeker going during Bennett’s imprisonment and his travel year. After Bennett’s death, Mary sold the publication to Macdonald. It was a very much going concern. During this period The Truth Seeker continued its record of accomplishment. In 1881 it sponsored a successful fund-raising campaign to restore a vandalized Thomas Paine monument. In 1882, it was first to publish William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s former law partner, who revealed the Great Emancipator’s hidden freethinking and antireligious views. (Herndon went on to write an 1889 Lincoln biography that remains controversial today.) The Truth Seeker also spearheaded an international campaign to raise a monument to martyred heretic Giordano Bruno. The monument was unveiled in 1889 in Rome, not far from the Vatican.

During the late nineteenth century, organized freethought was riven by conflicts between advocates of radical social reform and those holding more moderate views. Macdonald tried to steer clear of some of these controversies, while embracing others: as Bennett had, he decried the abuses of great wealth and business monopolies. He wrote in defense of those falsely accused of the Haymarket bombings.

On the church-state front, Macdonald was an open – and often very successful – radical. In 1891 The Truth Seeker played a key role in persuading New York-area museums to open on Sundays so that working people (most of whom worked six days a week) could attend them. In 1894 the publication led a successful fight against the Christian National Reform Association, which nearly obtained a Constitutional amendment declaring the United States a formally Christian nation.

The twentieth century dawned on a high point for American freethought. The Truth Seeker had its 50,000 readers (among them, Mark Twain); its editor, Eugene Macdonald, was also president of the American Secular Union, then the dominant freethought organization, for which The Truth Seeker served as its official journal. It was estimated that one American in twelve was either a freethinker or sympathetic to secularism. But storm clouds were on the horizon. The death of agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll in 1899 had left a huge hole at the movement’s heart. And a public hysteria about atheism, anarchism, and communism that would overwhelm the nation after World War I was already gathering strength. The 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz contributed greatly to that hysteria. McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was contemptuous of non-believers, famously dismissing Thomas Paine as a “filthy little atheist.”

American freethought had begun a forced march toward extinction. In 1904 The Boston Investigator, long The Truth Seeker’s most significant competitor, ceased publication and merged with The Truth Seeker. In 1908, Eugene Macdonald was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the most feared disease of the time. He put his brother George in charge of the publication and retired to rural Sullivan County, New York, where he hoped to recover. Instead the disease took his life on February 26, 1909. Eugene Macdonald was 54.

Reviewing his elder brother’s quarter-century contribution to The Truth Seeker, George Macdonald wrote: “Institutions have their founders, and generally their saviors. Bennett and E.M. Macdonald played those parts. He always kept his balance, never leaning either way to get the favor of radical or conservative, nor committing The Truth Seeker to any advocacy but that of Free Thought, Free Speech, and Free Press.”

George – and The Truth Seeker – soldiered on in the face of growing public hostility. The journal decried the trial and execution of Spanish rationalist Francisco Ferrer, launched vigorous defenses of Paine and Darwin, criticized increasing efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to expand its political power, and exposed corruption in the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Salvation Army. In the increasingly intolerant atmosphere surrounding America’s entry into World War I, some of these stances attracted official scrutiny. On repeated occasions Truth Seeker issues were banned from the mails. When the editor of The Nation condemned one of these bans, a Nation issue was also banned from mailing. (After the war it became known that most of these bans were instigated improperly by employees of the YMCA.)

Following the war – and especially following a surge of bitter post-war industrial strikes – public hysteria against radical social ideas generally, and anarchism and communism in particular, went into high gear. Of course it engendered an equal and opposite reaction from the freethought community. Newly militant freethought activists emerged in the 1920s. One such radical was Charles Lee Smith (1887 – 1964), who had contributed writing to The Truth Seeker and been arrested repeatedly for selling the periodical on the sidewalks of New York.

The Truth Seeker devoted lavish coverage to the Scopes Trial (1925) in Dayton, Tennessee. Macdonald condemned the case as “an inquisition.” Also in 1925, Charles Smith – by then an assistant editor of The Truth Seeker – and two other Truth Seeker contributors, Freeman Hopwood and Woolsey Teller, organized the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. The 4As, as it became known, garnered extensive publicity by organizing atheist chapters on college campuses with names like “The Damned Souls” and “The Sons of Satan.” One of the student leaders to emerge from this initiative was Queen Silver of Los Angeles, a former child evangelist turned atheist firebrand; Silver and the 4As furor inspired Cecil B. DeMille’s last silent picture, The Godless Girl (1928).

In 1928 Smith opened an anti-religion, pro-evolution bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas, protesting a proposed anti-evolution law in that state. He was arrested on blasphemy charges. While he was never tried, his post-arrest incarceration represented the last time an American was jailed for blasphemy. Smith emerged as a minor national figure, later touring the country with prominent evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson to debate evolution.

By the late 1920s, subscription revenues were no longer enough to support The Truth Seeker. George Macdonald relied on donations to maintain the publication. Nonetheless in 1929 Macdonald published Fifty Years of Freethought, a detailed synopsis of the previous half-century as documented in the pages of The Truth Seeker. Considered the definitive history of the movement in that period, it brought The Truth Seeker’s status as its journal of record full circle.

Still, the forces wearing at The Truth Seeker could not much longer be resisted. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, in 1930 the title reduced its publishing schedule from weekly to monthly. In 1937, George Macdonald gave control of The Truth Seeker to Charles Smith, despite some reservations about Smith’s brash style and intolerant ideas. Macdonald served as editor emeritus and wrote a personal column until his death in 1944.

Macdonald’s death heralded the beginning of a dark period for The Truth Seeker. Smith and associate editor Teller held harsh views once broadly popular among freethinkers, and indeed among educated Americans generally, including a toxic “scientific” racism and the advocacy of eugenics. (It should be remembered that in 1927, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that compulsory sterilization of the mentally infirm was legal and socially desirable, prompting dozens of states to pass laws mandating sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Much like racism, pro-eugenics attitudes were widespread among white Americans prior to World War II.) Teller was also an uncompromising rationalist who, among other things, believed altruism impossible. Evolution mandated a selfish survival of the fittest, and any who thought otherwise were on his view deluded. Such positions were unremarkable in the 1930s; by remaining committed to them into mid-century, Smith and Teller moved The Truth Seeker sharply to the right. The publication served briefly as a mouthpiece for socially conservative atheism. By about 1950 it was solely the organ of its editors’ obsessions. Circulation plummeted.

Still, Smith was not without his impact. Paul Krassner, cofounder of the Yippies and later publisher of the important radical magazine The Realist, discovered atheism at a 1953 forum event sponsored by the 4As. Not long before his death, Smith made a financial contribution to Madalyn Murray (later Madalyn Murray O’Hair) that enabled her to press on with her school prayer lawsuit, one of two decided in the 1963 U. S. Supreme Court ruling that ended officially-sanctioned prayer and Bible reading in public schools.

Smith’s successor would take The Truth Seeker further in the same direction. James Hervey Johnson (1901 – 1988), an atheist since age 16, had subscribed to The Truth Seeker since the 1930s and contributed occasional articles. He was briefly Tax Assessor of San Diego County (Calif.), a post he lost after he advocated taxing churches as a way to reduce local taxes on business owners. Johnson was a man of strong opinions: he opposed alcohol and tobacco, writing about the dangers of second-hand smoke as early as the 1940s; he was a vegetarian and an early advocate of organic gardening and natural medicines. He also had idiosyncratic ideas about money and investing. He shared Charles Smith’s racism and enthusiasm for white supremacy and eugenics.

Toward the end of his life, Smith transferred control of The Truth Seeker and what remained of the 4As to Johnson in 1964. Smith moved to San Diego and edited The Truth Seeker until he died of a heart attack later that year. Johnson thereupon became editor. He also moved the Truth Seeker Company’s substantial archive of books and other materials to San Diego, where he opened a freethought bookstore.

Johnson focused The Truth Seeker on his own distaste for religious and ethnic minorities and those he considered biologically inferior. Racism and anti-Semitism were conspicuous. Some issues of the publication were produced on a typewriter. During this time the subscriber list shrunk to an estimated few hundred.

In 1981 the bookstore and archive were lost to fire; arson was suspected. Johnson himself, then 80, barely escaped the flames.

James Hervey Johnson died at home on August 6, 1988, of a cancer he had apparently been treating himself with natural products. He was 87 years old. If his passion for natural medicine had ill-served him, his ideas about investing had served him unexpectedly well. He left an estate of more than $16 million and an imprecise will directing that the money be used to “expose religion as against all reason” and to publicize his views on religion and health.

Difficulties in interpreting Johnson’s will led to the court-ordered creation of two trusts. Funds were divided between a grantmaking body, the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust, and a private trust devoted to The Truth Seeker itself. Publication resumed. The Truth Seeker re-emerged as a magazine with color covers printed on heavy, glossy paper. The racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacism, eugenics advocacy, and other marginal interests of the Smith-Teller and Johnson years were conclusively abandoned. In their place was the diffuse freethinking of new publisher Bonnie Lange. Under Lange, The Truth Seeker restyled itself “a Journal of Independent Thought.” Its contents downplayed critiques of religion and calls to separate church and state in favor of an inclusivism that sometimes embraced esoteric political concerns and at others bordered on mysticism and the New Age movement. In 1998, a commemorative 125th anniversary issue was published under the guest editorship of historian and documentarian Roderick Bradford. It focused on The Truth Seeker’s proud past under D. M. Bennett, Eugene Macdonald, and George Macdonald. After that issue, print publication of The Truth Seeker became irregular, though Lange maintained a Truth Seeker website until her death in 2013.

The private Truth Seeker trust being largely exhausted, in July 2014, the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust made a grant of The Truth Seeker journal and its rights and interests to the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine. Publication of The Truth Seeker resumed in September 2014 under the editorship of Roderick Bradford. Bradford, a longtime historian of the freethought movement, had written the first biography of D. M. Bennett (D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, Prometheus, 2006). In addition, he and I had collaborated on a 2009 video based on the Bennett biography, followed by a 4-part documentary series titled American Freethought (2013).

Since 2014 The Truth Seeker has been published three times yearly under the auspices of the Council for Secular Humanism with the financial support of the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust. The magazine is professionally designed and printed in full-color throughout. Its editorial focus is solidly on freethought history, including but not limited to the title’s own glory days under D. M. Bennett and Eugene Macdonald when it was the journal of record of a large and culturally resonant reform movement.

Conclusion

Throughout its 145-year history, The Truth Seeker continuously championed freedom of inquiry, women’s rights, and Darwin, and promoted Paine and Ingersoll. Still, that history has been complex. From 1873 to about 1920, The Truth Seeker was the dominant journal of a reform movement initially “on the grow,” later under attack. From 1920 until 1950 it was a journal with a proud past undergoing a slow decline. 1950 to 1988 marked its most troubled period, when the periodical embraced racism, eugenics, and anti-Semitism, but precisely because of that achieved the smallest impact in its history. (Consider that The Truth Seeker’s circulation had been 50,000 at its peak, yet fewer than 400 during the dark years.) After 1988, the bigoted content never recurred. Production values increased. From 1989 to 1998 The Truth Seeker was a wholly respectable publication, if one whose editorial focus was sometimes uncritically inclusive. This policy continued until 2013, albeit with an irregular publishing schedule. Since 2014 The Truth Seeker has been reliable under a new editor, Roderick Bradford, and under the ownership of the Council for Secular Humanism. The Truth Seeker’s new editorial commitment looks back to the title’s greatest years of impact and significance.

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry magazine, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and Vice President for Media of the Center for Inquiry. He edited The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus, 2007) and served as executive producer of the documentary series American Freethought (2013). He thanks Roderick Bradford for invaluable research assistance.

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