A much-maligned minority throughout American history, atheists have been cast as a threat to the nation's moral fabric, barred from holding public office, and branded as irreligious misfits in a nation chosen by God. Yet, village atheists—as these godless freethinkers came to be known by the close of the nineteenth century—were also hailed for their gutsy dissent from stultifying pieties and for posing a necessary secularist challenge to majoritarian entanglements of church and state. Village Atheists explores the complex cultural terrain that unbelievers have long had to navigate in their fight to secure equal rights and liberties in American public life.
Leigh Eric Schmidt rebuilds the history of American secularism from the ground up, giving flesh and blood to these outspoken infidels, including itinerant lecturer Samuel Porter Putnam; rough-edged cartoonist Watson Heston; convicted blasphemer Charles B. Reynolds; and atheist sex reformer Elmina D. Slenker. He describes their everyday confrontations with devout neighbors and evangelical ministers, their strained efforts at civility alongside their urge to ridicule and offend their Christian compatriots. Schmidt examines the multilayered world of social exclusion, legal jeopardy, yet also civic acceptance in which American atheists and secularists lived. He shows how it was only in the middle decades of the twentieth century that nonbelievers attained a measure of legal vindication, yet even then they often found themselves marginalized on the edges of a God-trusting, Bible-believing nation.
Village Atheists reveals how the secularist vision for the United States proved to be anything but triumphant and age-defining for a country where faith and citizenship were—and still are—routinely interwoven.
Despite widespread invocations of the separation of church and state in the United States, "the upper hand very much belongs to the God-affirming, not the God-denying, in American civic life," according to historian Schmidt (Heaven's Bride), who persuasively argues that the citizenship of atheists in America has been suspect from the colonial period and remains unresolved to the present day. The book offers biographical sketches of four exemplary "village atheist" types whose uneven fortunes are chronicled in a nuanced exploration of the lived reality of nonbelief in a nation of the faithful. Readers are introduced to Samuel Porter Putnam (1838 1896), a minister who wrestled with faith on his journey to secularism; Watson Heston (1846 1905), a political cartoonist whose anti-religious art enjoyed far more success than its creator; Charles B. Reynolds (1832 1896), whose experience as a revivalist preacher led to fiery notoriety on the secular lecture circuit; and finally Elmina Drake Slenker (1827 1908), whose atheist beliefs combined with her sexual radicalism brought her to the attention of moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Schmidt, a historian of religion, approaches his subject with the confidence of an expert well-grounded in his sources. He's sensitive to the intersection of secular identity with the politics of race, class, and gender. Framed by a robust introduction and conclusion that provide a pre- and post-history of 19th-century atheism, this well-written and lively text will be of interest to both scholars and more general readers with an interest in American irreligion.