"Freethought" (one word) is the label most often embraced by atheists, agnostics, and secularists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "Free thinking" (two words) could lead one to uncommon conclusions regarding any number of topics; "freethinking" (one word) came to mean the process by which one came to unorthodox conclusions about religion.
Freethinkers held that (either probably or certainly):
- that God does not exist;
- that gods, scriptures, and religions are best understood as products of human action;
- that religion and government should be stringently separated; and
- that moral values should be sought in human experience, not in holy books.
Of course, this is essentially identical to the worldview held by twentieth and twenty-first–century secular humanists.
Writing in 1943, the prominent historian Allan Nevins described "the vigorous contest between freethinkers and religionists which was so important a part of the cultural history of the nineteenth century," and judged that "the battle which the freethinkers waged was in great part a wholesome and beneficial effort."
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when west-central New York State played a social role much like the one southern California played later in the twentieth century, freethinkers tended to be involved in a wide variety of radical social reform efforts. Most of the prominent American anarchists were atheists, for example. Critics of religion were prominent in the abolition movement; they were especially visible in opposing the idea that slavery was ordained by God. Freethinkers were over-represented among so-called sex radicals, who championed everything from the abolition of marriage to birth control, then a controversial notion. They were also prominent among proponents of woman’s rights and woman suffrage; indeed, two of the three leaders of the nineteenth-century suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, were explicit freethinkers. (Nineteenth-century practice was to use the singular, woman or woman's, when referring to women as a class; later practice was to use the plural, women or women's.)
Freethinkers of this period had other associations that many today would find surprising. There was considerable overlap between the freethought and Spiritualist movements. That seems strange today, when atheists and secular humanists are often associated with groups skeptical of paranormal claims. But it should be recalled that in its earliest years, Spiritualism was imagined by some to be a "scientific" exploration of the afterlife. Moreover, what Spiritualism asserted about the afterlife contradicted the doctrines taught by traditional churches, and was welcomed by some freethinkers for that reason alone. In addition, during the late nineteenth century the conclusive evidence of misdirection and fraud among spirit mediums now available had not yet come to light.
Of course, there was no shortage of freethinkers whose activism was principally concerned with challenging religious dogmas. An earlier generation brought forth Frances "Fanny" Wright, a freethinker, anti-slavery activist, and sex radical who was also the first woman to lecture before mixed-sex U. S. audiences during the 1820s. Important later in the nineteenth century were orator Robert Green Ingersoll, journalist Obadiah Dogberry, organizer C. D. B. Mills, and educator Andrew Dickson White. Also noteworthy was the New York Freethinkers Association, an organization of national significance that held its initial convention in Huron in 1877. This was followed by two important conventions in Watkins, now Watkins Glen. The first of the Watkins conventions, held in 1878, was the site of events that would lead indirectly to the standard for obscenity upheld by U.S. courts until 1959. A quirky early twentieth-century group, the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, attracted press attention wildly out of proportion to its negligible size and influence; an under-resourced attempt to organize atheist groups at schools and colleges across the country led to a brief scandal at the University of Rochester that won national media attention, and, strangely, to Hollywood pioneer Cecil B. DeMille's final silent film.
As for Ingersoll, he was seen and heard by more Americans than any other person prior to the advent of motion pictures and radio. This was because he traveled the country on frequent speaking tours throughout an almost thirty-year career. Ingersoll delivered some thirty-three lectures at seventeen theaters, opera-houses, and fairgrounds between Rochester and Utica, all of which are now sites on the Freethought Trail. Of those seventeen venues, only one, the Breese Opera House in Norwich, still stands.
The story of American freethought is rich in the unexpected, and it's all on the Freethought Trail.