IN THE BEGINNING
– The Founding of The Truth Seeker –
As America’s leading publisher of freethought literature, D.M Bennett, the founder and guiding light of The Truth Seeker from 1873 until his death in 1882, was the most revered and reviled editor of the Gilded Age. To his thousands of supporters he was a free-speech martyr; to his detractors D.M. Bennett was the “Devil’s Own Advocate.”
DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett was born on December 23, 1818, in Springfield, New York. At 15 he joined the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing more commonly known as Shakers. Bennett was a devout and prominent member of the celibate communitarian society for 13 years and worked as an herbalist, physician and ministry-appointed scribe, recording “divinely inspired” messages during the Era of Manifestations, the Shakers‘ decade-long period of intense spiritualistic revival.
When the revival subsided, some of the younger members lost their religious fervor, including Bennett and his future wife Mary Wicks, a schoolteacher with whom he eloped in 1846. While their apostasy and marriage were shocking events for everyone they knew, the couple maintained friendly relations with the Shakers for the rest of their lives. “Shakers are industrious, frugal and honest people,” Bennett wrote. “And so far as religion is concerned they probably have an article that is as practical, as useful and as sincere as any in the world.”
For the next 27 years the Bennetts moved around the country and invested in various business ventures, owned drugstores and successfully marketed “Dr. Bennett’s Family Medicines.” During this period Bennett read “infidel” publications such as the works of Voltaire, Charles Darwin and Thomas Paine, whose book The Age of Reason led him to become a fervent freethinker who believed that Christianity was “the greatest sham in the world.”
In 1870, D.M. Bennett was offered a contract to operate a drugstore in Paris, Illinois. Bennett and his wife Mary moved to Paris but he remained in the drugstore for only about fifteen months before getting back into the seed business. Bennett planted fifty acres for cultivation the first year and seventy-five the second year. But the combination of extremely dry weather and an “unharmonious” partnership spelled disaster. Although his goal was met, he lost $2,000 on the endeavor. “We feel that they have cruelly wronged us to the extent of a few thousand dollars and two years’ hard toil,” Bennett wrote. These “supporters of orthodoxy,” he concluded, were “staunch believers in the ‘Holy Book’ and have at least carried out one portion of it with us, we were a stranger and ‘they took us in.’”
Another unfortunate incident occurred in the summer of 1872 that nearly killed the fifty-three-year-old farmer. Bennett was returning home on horseback after checking his seed crop about fifteen miles outside of town. After stopping to close a gate, he proceeded to remount his horse but the animal suddenly bolted. Because he only had time to put one foot in the stirrup, the spooked horse ran a lengthy distance dragging him alongside until his foot finally disengaged. Bennett lay unconscious for several hours until a group of hunters found him. With a concussion and broken rib, he was lifted onto the hunters’ wagon and taken home to Paris.
In the summer of 1873 another drought caused seventy-five acres of seeds to be unprofitable, and the question of praying for rain became a topic of discussion. The struggling seed farmer was drawn into a debate with two Paris clergymen over the efficacy of prayer that was carried in the local newspapers. In addition to the subject of prayer, several Bible points were discussed including the divine leadership of Moses.
When one of the papers refused to print Bennett’s rejoinder because they felt it was too radical, he felt slighted. Bennett signed his articles “D.B. Mortimer” and “A Liberal Thinker,” until one of the ministers demanded to know his real name. “My name? Why do you wish to know?” he responded. “What difference does it make to you whether my mother ever gave me a name, unless you wish to hurl your anathemas at me from the pulpit? In case you should wish to condescend to this, call me Sunshine.”
Although D.M. Bennett considered himself a freethinker since 1850, starting his own publication never occurred to him prior to his inability to get his views published in the local press. It was at this juncture that Bennett decided to start his own paper with the intent of giving equal voice to advocates of all sides. He listed fifty possible names and showed them to Mary, who selected –The Truth Seeker.
In 1873, the alternative press thrived in America and there were several spiritualist, liberal, and freethought publications. And in his first issue of The Truth Seeker that September, Bennett recognized a few of his competitors: the Index, the Boston Investigator, Religio-Philosophical Journal, Our Age, Banner of Light, Brittain’s Quarterly, and the Golden Age.
While D.M. Bennett was sensitive about his lack of formal education, the former druggist and seed farmer was never timid when it came to promoting his publication. A letter written to Francis Abbot, the erudite editor of the Index, showed his determination. Still using his “Seedsmen and Florists, Prairie Gardens” business letterhead adorned with a fruity and flowery graphic, Bennett expressed his hopes for his new enterprise. In his initial letter to Abbot, Bennett conveyed his ambitious desire for his new “sheet” but he was careful not to overdo the expectations. Bennett informed the New England editor that his small monthly would be “considerably more radical & infidelic than the Index,” but he assured Abbot that The Truth Seeker would not compete with the venerable Index. In fact, “Many maybe feel inclined to need both,” he predicted. Bennett concluded his cordial letter with a bold request to purchase names from Abbot’s subscription list. Abbot replied that the price for the Index mailing list was $3,000. An extravagant sum that Bennett could not spare.
By the end of September, D.M. Bennett was often corresponding with Abbot, using his new letterhead: “Devoted to Science, Morals, Freethought, Free Enquiry and the Diffusion of Liberal Sentiments.” Bennett created his statement of principles partly from Bible verses which produced the amalgam, “Come now and let us reason together; Let us hear all sides; Let us divest ourselves of prejudice and the effects of early education; Let us prove all things and hold fast to that which is good.”
Bennett boasted that the fifty-cent yearly subscription was inexpensive and declared his eight-page journal big enough to “embrace, as in one brotherhood, Liberals, Free Religionists, Rationalists, Spiritualists, Universalists, Unitarians, Friends, Infidels, Free Thinkers, and in short all who dare to think and judge for themselves.”
The first issue consisted of a reprint of D.M. Bennett’s “Discussion Upon the Efficacy of Prayer” and the articles, “Virtue and Morality,” “Priestcraft and Science Contrasted,” “What Christians are Required to Believe,” and “Infidels versus Christians.” The premier issue also featured an article titled “Increase in Skepticism,” a piece about the modern skepticism article which appeared in Scribner’s Monthly magazine. Bennett wrote the entire issue — about 14,500 words! He also included a reprint of the “Nine Demands of Liberalism” that first appeared in the April 1872 publication of Francis Abbot’s Index.
Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836-1903) was a former Unitarian pastor, who, together with Octavius B. Frothingham, founded the Index in 1870. The Index was the official organ of the Free Religious Association, an organization founded by Unitarian ministers. Their mission was to promote the interests of pure religion, encourage the scientific study of theology, and increase fellowship in spirit. Abbot and his fellow Free Religionists rejected the autocratic claims of organized religion and struggled for the complete separation of church and state. “The Spirit of Free Religion,” asserted Abbot, “is the Spirit of Science which knows nothing of dogmatic preconception or prejudgment.”
In the early 1870s the National Reform Association, a Presbyterian sponsored organization founded during the Civil War, was making progress in its crusade to amend the Constitution. The association’s mission was to declare America a Christian nation and officially acknowledge “God as the source of all authority and power in civil government” and “the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among the nations and his revealed will as of supreme authority.” The association also successfully lobbied for stricter Sabbath laws and mandatory Bible instruction in public schools. Some of the country’s leading citizens were members of the NRA, including public officials, prominent clergymen, and Justice William Strong of the United States Supreme Court.
Some vigilant Americans, however, were alarmed at the NRA’s unrestrained power and enforced Christian morality. In 1872 Francis Abbot, who felt that Free Religionists were spending too much time and energy discussing metaphysics, began a campaign to form liberal leagues in opposition to the NRA and for full secularism. Leagues soon flourished throughout America attracting prominent citizens. Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Elizur Wright, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were members.
The National Liberal League’s mission was articulated in the “Nine Demands of Liberalism.” The nine demands called for the elimination of army and congressional Chaplains, the termination of religious instruction in public schools, the abolition of judicial oaths in courts, elimination of Sunday laws, taxation of church property, and an end to the enforcement of Christian morality. One of the first and most important victories for the NLL was to defeat the National Reform Association’s proposed Christian Amendment.
D.M. Bennett began his publishing career while the country was going through the worst depression it ever experienced, a time when railroads went bankrupt, unemployment was raging, and nearly a thousand papers went out of business. In 1873 the stock exchange crashed for the first time, sparking a recession that would last five long years and cause the seventh decade of the nineteenth century to be called the black seventies.
The first issue of The Truth Seeker was printed in Terre Haute, Indiana. Twelve thousand sample copies were sent across the country. D.M. Bennett was never above making personal appeals for financial support. “We have learned to think half a dollar is really a good deal of money, in view of the reluctance with which many of our liberal friends seem to part with it,” the publishing neophyte wrote in the third issue. “Yes, fifty cents will buy five or six pretty good cigars, or a few ounces of snuff or tobacco, or a dozen or two of oysters, or a ticket to the Negro minstrels and possibly, it is not right we should ask any one to forego either of these pleasures merely to sustain the cause of truth, and have the reading of our paper for a year.”
Although subscriptions were slow to come in, The Truth Seeker received some complimentary notices. Letters from across the country arrived, including correspondence from B.F. Underwood, the popular freethought lecturer and one of the first subscribers. A letter from Morris Altman, a wealthy New York merchant, was indicative of the tenor of letters. Altman, one of the founding brothers of the Altman Department stores in New York City, was an early subscriber and became D.M. Bennett’s loyal friend and a generous benefactor.
207 E. 45th Street, New York, Sept 9, 1873
Just received your first number. Think highly of it. Call it a first rate paper. Enclosed is my subscription. Send it regularly. I take all liberal papers, as they are needed–the more the better. The tone of The Truth Seeker is high and sound.
Keep it so. Yours, & co., M. Altman
The venerable Boston Investigator printed a notice of the new publication:
The Truth Seeker – this is a good name for a new Liberal paper just commended by the Liberal Association [The Bennetts] of Paris, Illinois. It makes a handsome appearance typographically and contains throughout the right kind of doctrine, as a paper is devoted to science, morals, freethought, free enquiry and the diffusion of liberal sentiments. . . . This is an excellent platform and The Truth Seeker deserves success and we hope it may receive it.
Bennett, however, also received hate mail and “Come to Jesus” letters. He was cognizant of The Truth Seeker’s unpopularity among Christians which were the overwhelming majority of the reading public. But these “thousands of pious, self-righteous souls” did not deter the novice publisher who vowed to continue to “fearlessly pursue the even tenor of our way, regardless of snarling dogs and growling wolves.” One of these “souls” was a clergyman from Illinois, who, after receiving two copies of The Truth Seeker, wrote:
Sir–You will please keep your infamous, blasphemous, low slang, and slanderous sheet at home; thou enemy of all righteousness; thou child of the Devil. Wilt thou not cease to pervert the right way of the Lord. –J. W. Riley
With a growing subscription list and encouraging reviews, the Bennetts decided to relocate. The couple lived in Illinois for three years, but after his partnership in the seed business turned sour, there was no reason to stay. “We trust we part on friendly terms with all save our late partners in the business,” Bennett wrote. “We care not for their friendship and part with them without a pang of regret.” He was done with partnerships: “If anyone presents us a petition to Congress, to pass an act making it a penitentiary offense for two or more men to form a partnership, we think we shall sign it.”
Initially, the couple considered moving to Terre Haute, where the paper was first printed. They also contemplated returning to Cincinnati and Louisville, where they lived previously. And they discussed Toledo, St. Louis, and Chicago. But after he and Mary gave considerable thought to each location, they decided that New York City was the place. After all, in Bennett’s reasoned judgment: “It is the metropolis of our country. The great center and headquarters for trade, commerce, interchange for the industries of nations, and why should it not be also for progressive and advanced ideas?”
There were five hundred newspapers published in New York in 1874. However, Woodhull’s and Claflin’s was the only other freethought periodical in Manhattan and was not a strict liberal periodical. “The harvest is truly great,” Bennett’s business sense told him, “but the laborers are few.” And since both he and Mary were natives of the Empire State, it seemed to them a little like “returning home.”
In late 1873, Bennett traveled to New York City and spent two weeks investigating the metropolis as a possible home for his new enterprise. The first person he visited was Victoria Woodhull’s speechwriter and philosophical guru, Stephen Pearl Andrews. (Woodhull was the first female to run for President of the United States.) Bennett used the Andrews’s home for his headquarters and did his writing there. When Andrews was asked years later why the editor of The Truth Seeker came to see him, he responded:
Well, the only reason was that for thirty-five or forty years past in New York, I have been in a certain sense a sort of rallying point for radicals and enthusiasts and cranky people of all sorts; my house has always been a sort of cross between a hotel and a university and, somehow or other, I have been known not only in this country, but abroad, so that pretty much everybody of the so-called cranky type that arrived in New York found out where Stephen Pearl Andrews lived, and generally reported pretty early.
Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886) was an individualist, anarchist, dynamic reformer, and abolitionist who was in the vanguard of the emancipation of slaves in America. As early as 1843 Andrews traveled to England to enlist the aid of the British Anti-slavery Society. He hoped to raise money to pay for the slaves in Texas, making the Republic of Texas a free state. Andrews was a brilliant philosopher, pioneer sociologist, lawyer, doctor, and a master in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. Three decades earlier he was recognized as the best Chinese scholar outside of China. A philosophical anarchist, Andrews published the first translation in America of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. Andrews brought shorthand to America. “Other men were known as factors in reforms,” The Truth Seeker reported; “Andrews was the reform itself.”
During D.M. Bennett’s stay in New York, Andrews tried to explain the downside of a move to the big city with two and a half million people and 470 churches:
My spiritual sight wasn’t sufficiently open to see in that plain countryman the qualities that made D.M. Bennett what he proved to be subsequently; and while he consulted me, while he told me what he came here for, and what he intended to do, I think I said quite as much to discourage him as to encourage him. I painted the difficulties. I had known hundreds of instances of similar earnest and honest efforts to start this and that and the other enterprise in behalf of reform, almost all of which had sunk into nonentity; and I didn’t sense in Mr. Bennett any special power that was going to make him the exception. I had to learn subsequently, by experience, what, if I had had more intuition, I might have known then.
The December 1873 issue of The Truth Seeker was the last to be issued from Paris, Illinois. On the front page, Bennett announced the move to New York and his plans to increase the number of pages from eight to sixteen. He also explained that when he started the periodical in September, he was still busily engaged in other occupations; The Truth Seeker was only an experiment, a “side issue.” But plans for the future meant expansion and headquarters in New York, the world’s greatest city. At the end of 1873, the couple moved to New York where their first disappointment occurred when they were unable to secure an office in the Sun newspaper building. Bennett contacted Morris Altman who introduced him to Eugene Macdonald, a young printer.
Eugene Montague Macdonald was born in Chelsea, Maine, on February 5, 1855. Eugene and his younger brother George spent their childhood in New Hampshire. Unlike Bennett — who had a strict religious background — the Macdonald boys were second-generation freethinkers. Their mother, Asenath Chase Macdonald, was a remarkable woman for the nineteenth century or any century for that matter. An enlightened Civil War widow, Mrs. Macdonald was one of America’s first “trained nurses” and “had a philosophical mind” that her son believed “might have produced a critique on Kant as abstruse as Kant’s critique on reason.”
After her husband’s death in 1862 (at the second battle of Bull Run), Asenath Macdonald’s main concern was choosing a vocation for her two boys. She knew Horace Greeley, the brilliant editor of the New York Tribune, and admired his career that began only modestly but concluded as the country’s most famous newspaper editor. Hoping the same for Eugene, Mrs. Macdonald decided to place him (at the age of thirteen) in a printing office “almost against his will,” she later recalled.
Eugene served his apprenticeship in New York, and returned home to Keene, New Hampshire, where he worked on local newspapers. At the age of eighteen, Eugene moved permanently to New York where, with the help of his mother, he leased a printing office in lower Manhattan. Bennett hired Macdonald to print the January 1874 issue of The Truth Seeker. Macdonald’s office at 335 Broadway (corner of West Broadway and Worth Street) became the publication’s first home in New York. Bennett was pleased with the location and declared Broadway “the greatest street in the world.”
Mrs. Macdonald became concerned after learning that her son used his credit to buy the type needed to print Bennett’s Truth Seeker journal. She thought Mr. Bennett “might be an honest man, or he might not,” since they had previous experience with both kinds. Her first impression of the “editor,” whom she found sitting with bag and baggage in their office beside the stove with an unshaven face, unkempt hair, and unpolished shoes, was that he looked more like an elderly farmer and “the farthest possible from a literary man.” Her anxiety vanished, however, as soon as Eugene introduced them to each other. “One glance at his kindly, genial face, which spoke so plainly the native goodness of the man,” she later recalled, “and a load was lifted from my heart.” Mrs. Macdonald was impressed with his “unimpeachable honesty” and “unwavering fidelity” to his own convictions. Her first thought was “My boy has found a father.” She later characterized her first impressions as “almost” prophetic because the two became more like “an elder and a younger brother.”
Mrs. Macdonald described Bennett as “a shining example” of Beecher’s “man of the future,” an individual “so well-born that they do not need to be born again.” And she found his generosity another of his foremost traits. “His heart and his pocket were always open. I know whereof I speak. He never refused to help another for the sake of keeping a dollar in his own pocket.”
George Everett Macdonald followed in his brother’s footsteps and less than two years later began his apprenticeship with The Truth Seeker. George started as a printer’s devil and worked his way up to proofreading, foreman, and eventually publisher. He would spend over a half-century associated with the publication. Like Mary Bennett, Mrs. Macdonald occasionally proofread for the journal, and The Truth Seeker became a family affair.
At fifty-six, Bennett was still an incredibly vigorous man and described as a “dynamo of nervous energy,” awaking routinely at four o’clock and working until 11 pm—eighteen to twenty hours a day—seven days a week. Mrs. Macdonald recalled a time when he fell out of his chair and onto the floor from exhaustion, as if dead. After being revived, the editor went home and rested a few hours only to return and start working again. “Not a full-blooded man was Bennett,” George Macdonald wrote, “nor of the sanguineous temperament, but pallid, with a translucent skin; his flesh not very solid nor his physique rugged.” Bennett had a deformed foot and walked with a limp. He dressed in a loose gray suit without a tie. Although Bennett was not a man of humor, his eyes twinkled and he was “one who liked to poke the boys in the ribs and crack a joke. No man I ever saw could smile so genially or better appreciate the witticisms of the press.” Regarding Bennett’s success, Macdonald wrote:
He owed the popularity he achieved partly to circumstance, and more to his simple and honest nature, his industrious hand, his capable head, and his courageous heart. His success was all earned and genuine, for he had none of the tricks, either of speech or pen, that deceive the unwary, nor resorted to the “skillful digressions” which appeal to the passions or stir the emotions of the unthinking. He was a likable man and it did not embarrass him to be praised.
Doctor Bennett, as he was known to his friends, “possessed such a facility as a penman” (a pencil, in his case), George Macdonald said, that he could have easily filled the entire journal every week with his own articles. He always used worn-out lead pencils that the Macdonald brothers suspected were thrown away by the clerks. The editor’s writing style was verbose and he was enamored with trios of words, e.g., “dogmas, superstitions, and errors,” “cruelties, wrongs, and outrages,” “persecuted, tortured, and burned,” and so on. Bennett’s love for phrases of triplets is apparent in the title of his first book, The World’s Sages, Infidels, and Thinkers, or the revised and enlarged second edition, The World’s Sages, Thinkers, and Reformers. Some of his contributors also used verbal triplets in an attempt to either follow his style or join the editor in paying homage to the author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Bennett’s endless supply of words is obvious from the colossal January 1874 Truth Seeker heading:
Devoted to Science, Morals, Freethought, Free Discussion, Liberalism, Sexual Equality, Labor Reform, Progression, Free Education, and whatever tends to emancipate and 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.
Excerpt from D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker by Roderick Bradford
Prometheus Books ©2006