Golden Age of Freethought
The golden age of freethought describes the socio-political movement promoting freethought that developed in the mid 19th-century United States. The period roughly from 1875 to 1914 is referred to as "the high-water mark of freethought as an influential movement in American society". It began around 1856 and lasted at least through the end of the century; author Susan Jacoby places the end of the Golden Age at the start of World War I.
Freethought is a philosophical position that holds that ideas and opinions should be based on science and reason, and not restricted by authority, tradition, or religion. The Golden Age was encouraged by the lectures of the extremely popular agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll, the popularization of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the push for women’s suffrage, and other political, scientific, and social trends that clashed with religious orthodoxy and caused people to question their traditional ideas about the world.
With this movement came a devoted group of “freethinkers”. A Freethinker is someone who does not believe in the driving force of religion or the strict word of the bible. They may be considered agnostic and do not believe in specific religious hierarchy. A freethinker of the late 19th century could have been someone from any of the varied religious and political backgrounds.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was one of the more prominent freethinkers of his time. He was known as the “Great Agnostic”. An agnostic person would be one who neither believes nor disbelieves in a religious deity. Ingersoll, a lawyer, an orator and a Civil War veteran, is famous for his skeptical approaches to popular religious beliefs. He would speak in public about orthodox views and would often poke fun. Guests would pay $1 to hear him speak. A dollar in his day was a hefty sum. Ingersoll was the leader of the American Secular Union, successor organization to the National Liberal League.
Charles Knowlton was born into a Puritan household in the year 1800. The science and medicine practiced around this time was known as “heroic”. Heroic Medicinal treatment was rather medieval and consisted of blood-letting, vomiting and profuse sweating. These “treatments” actually proved harmful to the patients. Knowlton had wet dreams in his adolescence, leading him to be the subject of all types of heroic treatments. He fantasized about proper humane treatment. He believed that in order for treatment to be effective and healthy, one must be proficient in the understanding of human anatomy. He began robbing graves and studying the patients within them. This would later get him wound up in jail. He was released and determined as ever to finish his quest. He later became a doctor, putting his scientific findings into his practice. He would later marry into a family of freethinkers. He wrote “Elements of Modern Materialism” and “Fruits of Philosophy” in 1832. The second would prove much more successful. The book included a spermicidal method which he invented.
Author Susan Jacoby backs up these claims in her published work “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” and “The Age of American Unreason”.
These writers and scholars left the American people with a wide, earthly view on spiritual and political matters. With such a bright, independent community, the American Government began to feel threatened. The Russian Revolution and the scare of Communism in the early 20th century would soon come about, and with that the force of religious and government backed opposition. Some members of the Freethought Movement were atheists, giving Christians plenty of leverage to convince the people that they were un-American. This put the Golden Age of Freethought to rest.
- Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books (ISBN 0-8050-7776-6), p. 151