Joseph L. Lewis

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Joseph Lewis

Joseph Lewis (June 11, 1889 – 1968) was an American freethinker and atheist activist, publisher, and litigator. During the mid-twentieth century, he was one of America’s most conspicuous public atheists, the other being Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. Born in Montgomery, Alabama to a Jewish family, he was forced by poverty to leave school at the age of nine to find employment. He read avidly, becoming self-educated. Lewis developed his ideas from reading, among others, Robert G. Ingersoll, whose published works made him aware of Thomas Paine. He later credited Paine’s Age of Reason with helping him leave theism.


In 1920, Lewis moved to New York where he made contact with The Freethinkers Society, an organization founded in 1915. In 1928 Lewis incorporated the organization and renamed it "The Freethinkers of America" and became its president (a title he would keep for the rest of his life). He later started his own publishing company, the Freethought Press Association, through which he published literature about freethought written by himself and others. In the 1930s, Lewis expanded his business with a subsidiary, Eugenics Publishing Company, that published literature for common people written by medical experts about subjects such as contraception. Like Haldeman-Julius, Lewis published low-cost books on controversial topics and enjoyed commercial success. Profits from the Eugenics Publishing Company enabled Lewis to live comfortably, with an estate in Westchester County, New York, an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City, and a house in Miami Beach. He was also able to fund the Freethinkers of America’s annual deficit; as a result, said freethought historian Robert W. Morrell, “it became in effect his private fiefdom.”[1]

A bulletin, The Freethinkers of America, was started by Lewis in 1928. In the 1940s it was renamed Freethinker and in the 1950s to its final name Age of Reason (named after Thomas Paine's book The Age of Reason). Contributors to the bulletin were, among others, William J. Fielding, Corliss Lamont and Franklin Steiner.[2]

Over the years, Lewis brought a series of lawsuits, generally unsuccessful, to challenge what he saw as violations of the separation of church and state. He publicized these suits in the pages of the Freethinkers of America’s successive bulletins. He also challenged notable faith healers.[3] Some of his other initiatives proved successful. He raised funds to erect statues of Thomas Paine in Morristown, New Jersey; Paine’s birthplace at Thetford, England; and Paris, France. He placed a bust of Paine in New York University’s Hall of Fame, though he was unable to place a bust of Ingersoll there. His agitation was at least partly responsible for the issuing (in 1968) of a U.S. postage stamp honoring Paine. (He walked out of its unveiling ceremony in Philadelphia after a prayer was said.) In 1954, he orchestrated the second restoration of the birthplace of nineteenth-century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll; a freethought museum operated at the Dresden, New York, site for several years thereafter.

Lewis believed that Thomas Paine was the true author of the Declaration of Independence, so arguing in his 1947 book Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence. His other noteworthy publications included The Ten Commandments (1946), a massive justification for atheism, and An Atheist Manifesto (1954), published at the height of the Cold War to dispute popular ideas that atheism was un-American.

Lewis maintained rigid control over the Freethinkers of America, leading several honorary vice presidents to resign in frustration. After his death on November 4, 1968, the organization foundered. “It had become too much an extension of Lewis himself,” wrote Robert Morrell.[1]

The mid twentieth century – specifically, the period from George MacDonald’s retirement as editor of The Truth Seeker in 1937 until the rise of Madalyn Murray O'Hair in 1963 – was a fallow period in American freethought. Lewis and Haldeman-Julius were essentially the only nationally visible public atheists of this period, and of those two, only Lewis was prominent not only as a publisher but as an activist. As for O’Hair, her rise to prominence was occasioned by her unexpected victory in a U. S. Supreme Court church-state case, one much like the lawsuits Lewis had repeatedly brought to far more modest success. Lewis played an important role as a bridging figure between the Golden Age of Freethought and the reappearance of atheism on the public stage in the 1960s.

Modern scholarship[edit]

  • In Betrayal of the Innocents, Timothy Mitchell compares some of Joseph Lewis' work to Spanish anti-religious publishers and writers, who were "conducting a crude defamation campaign" against Christianity and religion as a whole, to show that, during that time period, American freethinkers were not any "more balanced" than the Spanish ones. As examples, Mitchell cites Lewis' Spain, a Land Blighted by Religion, where each and every problem faced by the cities mentioned in the books is blamed on the Catholic Church, and, as an example of Lewis' credibility, quotes him as giving the estimate of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition as totaling to more than 1 million.[4]
This undated photo from the early 1950s shows the Robert Green Ingersoll birthplace prior to its 1954 restoration by Lewis's organization. The man and woman are Arthur and Ruth Cromwell, husband-and-wife freethinkers from Rochester, New York, who served as Lewis's primary agents for much of the restoration work. Their daughter, Vashti McCollum, had been the plaintiff in McCollum v. Board of Education


  • The Tyranny of God (1921)
  • Lincoln, the Freethinker (1925)
  • Jefferson, the Freethinker (1925)
  • The Bible Unmasked (1926)
  • Franklin, the Freethinker (1926)
  • Burbank, the Infidel (1929)
  • Voltaire, the Incomparable Infidel (1929)
  • Atheism, a collection of his public addresses (1930)
  • The Bible and the Public Schools (1931)
  • Should Children Receive Religious Instruction? (1933)
  • The Ten Commandments (1946)
  • Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence (1947)
  • In the Name of Humanity (1949)
  • An Atheist Manifesto (1954)
  • Ingersoll, The Magnificent (1957)


  1. ^ a b Morrell, Robert (2007). "Joseph Lewis". In Tom Flynn. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Prometheus Books. p. 490. 
  2. ^ "Freethought of the Day". Freedom From Religion Foundation. Archived from the original on December 3, 2012. Retrieved January 23, 2006. 
  3. ^ Roberts, Jack (January 19, 1958). "$10,000 dares Oral Roberts to prove faith healing". The Miami News (Miami, FL). Retrieved 2014-01-23. 
  4. ^ Mitchell, Timothy. Betrayal of the Innocents: Desire, Power, and the Catholic Church in Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1998. 78. Print.

External links[edit]