Title: D.M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker
Author: Roderick Bradford
Publisher: Prometheus Books
• Important information about an important freethinker
• Reveals many parallels with contemporary conflicts over freethought and free speech
A bit long for casual readers
• Biography of D.M. Bennett, early and important leader of America's freethought movement
• Explains how Bennett fought for the causes of freethought and free speech
• Reveals how difficult it was to speak out against religious and political powers in 19th century America
America during the late 19th century was consumed by Christian moralism and politics. Both sides of the Civil War employed heavy religious rhetoric to justify their positions and encourage the boys at the front that theirs was a righteous cause. This political use of Christianity didn't end when the fighting did: the South used religion to explain why God allowed them to lose while the North used religion to explain why they needed to keep pushing for reforms such as eliminating alcohol, cracking down on sexual material, and inserting more explicit references to Christianity in the government.
For people today, much of this will sound disturbingly familiar. Anyone who reads about the activities of the era's leading Christian moralist, U.S. Post Office special agent Anthony Comstock, will recognize extensive parallels with the agenda of Christian Nationalists today. People like Comstock did not work unopposed, however, and D.M. Bennett was one of Comstock's more annoying enemies. Bennett founded a "blasphemous" magazine called Truth Seeker in 1873 through which he promoted freethought and birth control, attacked Christianity and hypocritical religious leaders, and generally made a nuisance of himself to self-important, self-satisfied Christian communities.
Bennett was the first to regularly publish articles on the crimes and immorality of Christian ministers. He couldn't be prosecuted for this, but it certainly gave Christian leaders an incentive to go after him whenever possible. Something of Bennett's agenda can be gleaned from his publication's full title: "Truth Seeker: Devoted to Science, Morals, Freethought, Free Discussion, Liberalism, Sexual Equality, Labor Reform, Progression, Free Education, and whatever tends to elevate the human race. Opposed to Priestcraft, Ecclesiasticism, Dogmas, Creeds, False Theology, Superstition, Bigotry, Ignorance, Monopolies, Aristocracies, Privileged Classes, Tyranny, Oppression and Everything that Degrades or Burdens Mankind Mentally or Physically."
Unfortunately, Bennett's life story is not one of unmitigated success; on the contrary, his loss in the case of the United States v D.M. Bennett was a landmark decision that helped establish the authority of the government to regulate, restrict, and ban "obscenity" for nearly a century. At the age of 60, Bennett was sentenced to 13 months hard labor in a notorious New York prison and only lived for a year after his release. Bennett was never alone in his crusade against theocratic laws and heavy-handed Christian moralizing, but even the support of thousands of Americans who agreed with the importance of free speech wasn't enough to save him or stop Comstock.
As I said, D.M. Bennett is not widely known today, which is why Roderick Bradford's book D.M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker is such an important contribution to the history of freethought and free speech in America. This is a fairly detailed and lengthy book, so it's probably not well suited for those with just a casual interest in the subject. However, anyone who would like to learn more about the development freethought and free speech, or the moralizing Christian culture in America's late 19th century, would do well pick this up because at times it's as much a social history as it is a personal biography.