[Our founder was a pioneer in publishing blasphemy and challenging fanatical Christian conservatives and their puritanical censorship laws. D.M. Bennett — who founded the Truth Seeker in Paris, Illinois in 1873 — was arrested three times and unjustly imprisoned for alleged obscenity and publishing the Truth Seeker. His courageous fight against religious fundamentalism is reminiscent of the struggle today for freedom of expression by the fearless and terrorist targeted Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, France.]
In 1877 a party of Ku Klux Klan members lured a freethinking physician from his home in Bell County, Texas. After they stripped him naked and tied him to a tree, the Christian terrorists proceeded to give him one hundred lashes. The doctor had been found guilty of giving infidel lectures. After righteously administering their punishment, the whipping party left a placard warning that they would return and burn out or hang any other lecturers who dared to utter blasphemies in the neighborhood. In the nineteenth century, the public expression of anti-religious views could result in ostracism, financial ruin, and occasionally imprisonment. Speaking or publishing ungodly sentiments in urban areas was not for the timid and could be perilous.
D.M. Bennett was not only speaking and printing anti-religious material, he was openly attacking Christian institutions, its influential leaders, and the Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. “Comstock is virtually a Ku Klux,” Bennett fearlessly declared, “and his Christian clique is a Ku Klux Klan.”
Bennett routinely reported and ridiculed the activities of Anthony Comstock — the self-described “weeder in God’s garden” — who was becoming a serious threat to free speech. The editor was not alone in printing accounts of the vice hunter’s insidious method of operation, but his attacks were by far the most forceful and relentless. And while personal attacks could cause Comstock to be revengeful, it was a “letter” that Bennett wrote that enraged the Christian crusader. Comstock’s private diaries were rife with praises and supplications addressed to his personal savior Jesus Christ. Bennett’s An Open Letter to Jesus Christ was thus a personal affront to Comstock, and in his eyes, the most blasphemous, egregious, and unforgivable act that D.M. Bennett had ever performed.
D.M. Bennett’s An Open Letter to Jesus Christ was first published in the November 1875 issue of the Truth Seeker and subsequently printed in booklet form. It is doubtful the editor had any fear of being arrested for blasphemy in New York in 1875. There were, however, blasphemy laws still on the books in some states, New Jersey among them, and the “crime” remained punishable in several states well into the twentieth century. (A decade later in 1886, Charles B. Reynolds, a former preacher turned liberal lecturer, was convicted for blasphemy in Morristown, New Jersey.) Nevertheless, Bennett was likely aware that his letter would be considered one of the most heretical documents ever published in America.
Bennett’s Open Letter to Jesus Christ was a theological tract with a series of over two hundred questions that he provocatively posed “To His Excellency, Immanuel J. Christ, otherwise called ‘Prince of Peace,’ ‘Sun of Righteousness,’ ‘Lion of the Tribe of Judah,’ ‘Wonderful,’ ‘Counsellor,’ ‘The Messiah,’ ‘The Redeemer,’ ‘The Saviour,’ ‘The Bridegroom,’ ‘The Lamb of God,’ ‘Captain of Our Salvation,’ ‘Son of God,’ ‘Son of Man,’ etc. etc.”
Bennett begins his letter by confessing that he used to pray four or five times a day, but because his appeals were never answered he discontinued the practice more than twenty-five years earlier. He did not wish to be “impertinent,” but since two of America’s most popular evangelical duo (preacher Dwight Moody and singer Ira Sankey) were currently appearing at the skating rink in Brooklyn and scheduled soon at the Hippodrome, Gilmore’s Concert Garden, and a local beer saloon, he felt it was an appropriate time.
The letter begins chronologically; Bennett asks questions regarding Christ’s infancy and childhood: “How is it that the ‘Evangelists,’ who are said to have been divinely delegated to write your life and teachings, should have been so silent in reference to this interesting portion of your existence? Were these items purposely suppressed, or was it simply accidental?” As to how Jesus was “begotten,” Bennett asks: “Was your mother psychologized or mesmerized, or otherwise rendered insensible, or did she retain her consciousness?” Did love have anything to do in the “transaction” and “was it an example of free-love?” Christ’s school days were of special interest and the editor was curious to know if Jesus Christ liked studying or if he ever skipped school. He asks Christ about the “carpenter business” and if he used his supernatural powers to stretch boards, etc., for his “stepfather when he made them too short?” He wonders if it was a good trade and why he quit. “Did you like preaching and performing miracles better? Have you ever doubted whether your first miracle changing water into wine was well advised,” since the wedding guests “were already drunk?” The editor inquires about Christ’s and his father’s (God) relationship with the devil, asking:
Did it please your loving Father better that you should die, than his old enemy and
creature, the Devil? What was the Devil ever made for? Was it not the greatest mistake,
the greatest folly that was ever committed? Why is it you still suffer him to live? Could
your sixty thousand clergymen in this country get along without a devil? Is there not
really a tacit, secret, understanding–a partnership in fact–between the Devil, your Father
and yourself? Were those Devils that you sent into the swine the same kind as the seven
Devils which you extracted from Mary Magdalene? What was the size of those seven
Devils? Where did they enter, and where did they make their exit?
Is not all this business devilish strange anyway? Really, after all, considering how
much the Devil has done towards carrying out the divine plan concocted by your father
and yourself; how much he has done for the human race by introducing education,
science, inventions, innovations, and Freethought, while your clergymen and your
church have been doing all they could to keep them out, is he not after all, a pretty
As the letter progresses, Bennett’s questions become more pointed. He refers to Christianity as the “youngest mythology” and asks if Christ considers it “wholly a plagiarism.” Regarding all mythologies, man-made gods, senseless creeds, and superstitions: “Are not Truth, Science, Reason, Fraternal Love and Human Brotherhood vastly superior to all these?” He wonders if Christ participated in the Crusades or approved of the “Holy Inquisition” and asks, “Has not the religion called after your name caused more bloodshed, more persecution, and more suffering than all the other religions of the world?” He asks Christ,
Have you been mindful of the villainous popes . . . [and] clergymen who have been
guilty of dark and damning crimes and debaucheries? How did you like John XXIII
in the fifteenth century, who was proved to have been guilty of seventy different kinds
of crimes, among which were sodomy, simony, rape, incest and murder, and having
illicit intercourse with over three hundred nuns? Do you not remember Alexander the
Sixth . . . guilty of incest . . . who seduced his own daughter . . . who was the father of
many illegitimate children, and reeked in the most abominable crimes, and among the
rest murder? Was John XII, in the tenth century a favorite of yours, who was an
unscrupulous libertine, gambler, debauchee and murderer, and who turned the
Vatican into a brothel?
Bennett concludes his interrogatories with the summation:
Finally, as you now view the field, the past, the present and the future, would
it not, in your opinion, be better to wipe out from the face of the earth all the
priestcraft, superstition, sectarianism, falsehood, all the absurdities and monstrosities
which have so preyed upon mankind, and to inaugurate an era of truth, reason,
common sense, science, education, simplicity, fraternity and humanity; discarding
false gods, base devils, useless saviors and degrading creeds, and to devote our time
and attention to the improvement of this world and to the happiness of the human race?
A little after the noon hour on Monday, November 12, 1877, while preparing matter for the Truth Seeker, Anthony Comstock, accompanied by a deputy US marshal, entered the Truth Seeker office at 141 Eighth Street in lower Manhattan with a warrant for the arrest of the fifty-eight-year-old publisher. The two “obscene” tracts that caused Bennett’s arrest were his An Open Letter to Jesus Christ and Arthur B. Bradford’s How Do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind? a scientific article originally intended for Popular Science Monthly. Bradford, a former Presbyterian minister, was a direct descendant of Governor Bradford of the Plymouth colony and one of the first clergymen to leave the church over slavery. His farm in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, served as an Underground Railroad station for runaway slaves. President Lincoln appointed Bradford consul to China during the Civil War. Arthur Bradford’s “innocent little possum tract,” as he called it, was published the previous year in the Truth Seeker.
After showing Bennett the two objectionable articles, Comstock demanded all copies on the premises. The editor submitted the tracts to Comstock, who displayed a package mailed to a person by the name of S. Bender, Squan Village, New Jersey. Bennett was also shown a registered letter receipt for the money that accompanied the order filled and signed in the Truth Seeker office. Bennett asked “whether the party to whom the tracts were addressed was a real party and he had opened his package, or a bogus party, and the letter ordering the tracts a mere decoy letter, such as he [Comstock] had used on other occasions.” Comstock confessed that it was a decoy letter that he wrote using an assumed name. On the way to the post office for his arraignment, Bennett asked, “Why it was, if he was so anxious to prohibit the circulation of obscene literature, that he did not indict the Bible Society?” The editor told him the Bible contained more “obscenity than any other publication” he knew of. He went on to give the purity crusader a half dozen or more obscene scenarios from the good book, such as Abraham and his concubine, David and Bathsheba and his other wives, the adultery of Absalom and his father’s concubine, Solomon with his seven hundred wives, and so on. Comstock evaded the inquiries and said “some ladies near us might hear our remarks, thus virtually confessing that the persons and subjects named were indecent,” Bennett reported in the Truth Seeker.
Anthony Comstock also recorded the details of the arrest in the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice blotter. The vice-hunter’s contempt for the elderly publisher is obvious in the document:
ALIASES: The Truth Seeker, RELIGION: Infidel, EDUCATION: Common, OCCUPATION: Publisher of Blasphemous & Infidel works, OFFENSE: Obscene matter through the Mail, INVENTORY OF STOCK SEIZED: Vile tracts, REMARKS: Publishes most horrible & obscene blasphemies. Also indecent tracts that purport to be Scientific. Also quack medical works . . . He is everything vile in Blasphemy & Infidelism. His idea of liberty is to do and say as he pleases without regard to the rights, morals or liberties of others.
Excerpt from D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker by Roderick Bradford
Prometheus Books ©2006