The Pine Barrens is home to perhaps this state’s most famous legends, and this a creature known as the Jersey Devil. In some respect, this legendary phantom is very similar to some of the demons and hybrid animals which folklorists everywhere have discovered, including those in the texts of the canonical Bible. These fantastic beasts are part of the elaborate mythic tapestry of religious story telling and prophesy.
|Philadephia Public Ledger ad for “The Leeds Devil” exhibit.|
Captured Friday After A Terrific Struggle ... Swims! Flys! Gallops!
I think that folklore is the intersection between religious belief and the more genuine human condition. Religious beliefs are often “out there,” whereas folklore is more immediate, and reflects what’s really going on with the lives of everyday people. In the case of the Jersey Devil, he incorporates a lot of the symbolism we find in classical religious sources. And the source of the legend is probably rooted in the unique culture which persists in many ways to this day, in the Pine Barrens.
The Jersey Devil is described, by those who purport to have seen him, as a terrifying monster, an animal hybrid, with hooves, the bony structure of a horse’s head, maybe the body of a goat, with claws and bat-like wings that allow it to fly. According to one account, the Jersey Devil was really the deformed son of a woman known as Mother Leeds. Minutes after the birth, the body of the child transmutated into this enormous hideous beast, flew out the window, and began terrorizing the denizens of the Pine Barrens.
We find tales about hybrid beasts in numerous religious texts, including the accounts of Ezeikiel and Revelation. The Jersey Devil also purportedly claimed children as its first meal, which is interesting. Reports of the menacing creature proliferated, and in the 1740s a clergyman reportedly exorcised the Jersey Devil in a ritual using a bell, bible and candle.
In a lot of ways, too, the legend of the Jersey Devil is reminiscent of reports of flying saucers, miracles, or visitations by other supernatural beings like Mary or Jesus; they have an elusive, diaphanous, hard-to-pin-down quality about them, and the “evidence” is often tenuous and circumstantial. Hoaxes abound, so do colorful claims and anecdotal accounts. And the legend of the Jersey Devil also has its relics, in a manner of speaking. Like the Holy Coat of Thiers, or slivers of metal that some insist are alien implants, there are reports of the Jersey Devil leaving footprints in the snow, mutilated carcasses -- something we find in the hysteria of cattle mutilations and Satanic cults in the 1970s and early 1980s-- and even claims that the devil was captured! In one case, reminiscent of the crop circle hoaxes, a man admitted in the 1960s that he had faked giant foot prints attributed to the Jersey Devil decades before.
The greatest hoax, though, was perpetrated by a couple of showmen, Jacob F. Hope who was an animal trainer, and publicist Norman Jeffries. They concocted an elaborate story about the creature and even offered a reward for its capture. Part of this urban legend involved claims that a dozen high skilled animal trainers and hunters managed to corner the Jersey Devil in Philadelphia.
In fact, a beast claimed to be the notorious Jersey Devil was exhibited in the old Dime Museum in Philadelphia, where under subdued lighting the public caught a brief glimpse of what really was a kangaroo. The hoax was finally revealed in all of its splendid glory by the Philadelphia Record newspaper in its December 8, 2020 issue.
That hasn’t stopped the Jersey Devil sightings, even into our modern era. In 1951, headlines in papers around the region declared that a group of youngsters had seen the creature; so many people allegedly visit the area to rubberneck for the menacing being, there’s even a picture of local police putting up signs declaring, “The Jersey Devil is a Hoax.” A year later, state police actually investigated reports of tracks in the Pine Barrens; they concluded this was the work of a hoaxer armed with a bear’s foot mounted on a poll.
All sorts of theories have proposed to explain the origin of the jersey Devil, and the persistence of the legend. It is the personification of evil, a manifestation of mass hysteria, an urban legend that grew out of the birth of a deformed child. Another possibility it is the near-extinct Sand Hill Crane, an enormous bird that inhabited the region at one time with a wingspan of over 4 feet. Known to be reclusive yet aggressive when confronted, there is even the account that a Sand Hill Crane actually chased naturalist Jean Audubon into a river.
And talk about hoaxes!
Jersey is also the locus of one of the biggest media stunts of all time, Orson Welles’ broadcast of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. On October 30, 2020, millions of Americans listened-in to the Mercury Theater broadcast of an adapted version of H.G. Well’s popular novel. Skillfully blending a mixture of bogus “news reports” and “eyewitness” accounts, the 23-year director convinced a shocking number of people that earth really was being invaded. It began with the alleged sighting of explosions on Mars from a professor in Princeton, the first Martians touched down in the sleepy town of Grover Mills where they promptly incinerated an army unit; they made their way across the Great Swamp, and into New York. Obviously, they did all of this at night; were they to land today, they’d be arrested on the turnpike or likely stuck in traffic.
One of the points I made at the April, 1993 convention we held in Sacramento, California when I spoke on THE WAR OF THE WORLD’S HOAX, concerned the findings of the Princeton Radio Project. This was headed by Dr. Hadley Cantril, and it turned out to be the most comprehensive study of the panic broadcast. Cantril found -- and this is rarely mentioned today in accounts of the WAR OF THE WORLDS hoax -- that one of the major contributing factors for those who uncritically believed the events of the broadcast to be true, was religious belief. If you go back and look at the case studies which Cantril and his team did, you find that those who panicked and didn’t check to see if the broadcast was real, were those who often display strong religious convictions.
Another thing about the WAR OF THE WORLDS hoax was that it occurred in a time when there was a pervasive malaise over the disintegrating religious spirit of the era; Peter Lowentrout described this as the “Angst of secularization.” The hoax led writer Dorothy Thompson to conclude that the event was a benchmark for national stupidity and gullibility. And when calls were raised for legislation to prevent such dramatizations in the future -- sound familiar?-- Thompson warned: “When the truth became known, the reaction was also significant. The deceived were furious and of course demanded that the state protect them, demonstrating that they were incapable of relying on their own judgment...”
By the way, if you visit Grover’s Mill today, you’ll find a plaque commemorating the WAR OF THE WORLD’S broadcast in a park, but you won’t find any crashed Martian flying saucers.
And while we’re on the topic of secularization, I want you to head east and south from Grover’s Mills, head for the Jersey shore and Atlantic City. The town that many of you might know for the Miss America Pageant, or Salt Water Taffy, or the horse jumping off the diving board at Steel Pier (which is no longer there) was the center of one of our nation’s biggest fights over the issue of Sunday closings, or Sabbatarianism. It was also one of the many places where a related issue was played out, and this involved the whole idea of men and women bathing together, and how much flesh could be displayed in public so as not to offend or arouse Victorian and religious sensibilities.
The popularity of Atlantic City and adjacent coastal resorts was fueled by a number of factors. In the 1880s, railways were bringing down not just the wealthy to vacation, but carloads of everyday working folks in search of entertainment and a break from the tedium of industrialized urban centers. Rising productive and wages meant disposable income; and since people usually had the weekend off, that meant that at least part of Saturday -- and Sunday -- were up for grabs in what became a competition between the churches and the burgeoning entertainment industry. The latter included hotels, restaurants, amusement piers, even the diversions offered by going to the beach. By 1889, long standing legislation that required most enterprises to close on the Sunday Sabbath -- were under attack, or being ignored all together, not just in Atlantic City but throughout the region. In Philadelphia, in July of 1895 six Hebrew butchers were arrested for opening their shops on Sunday; and in Atlantic City, there was an uproar when all of the Boardwalk amusements open in defiance of local regulations.
Religious groups fought the tidal wave against Sabbatarianism under the aegis of the Lord’s Day Alliance, a group that by today’s standards had shocking political clout and frightening police powers. They described Atlantic city, and even the amusements as a “Saturnalia of Vice.” And there hundreds, even thousands, of individual stories in this war to have the constitution of the United States apply seven days a week; but interestingly, some of the most important weren’t explicitly fought so much on behalf of state-church separation, but because of a vital and thriving American institution -- greed, the desire to get rich and make money.
Along the Jersey Coast in the nineteenth century, religious groups attempted to establish camp meetings and vacation resorts for their congregations, and build communities which would, to varying degrees, operate on religious principles. This including Sunday closing. I have to tell you that in terms of their business acumen, these early groups which settled and developed the barrier islands were as shrewd as any real estate speculator of the time. Along with revival tents and churches, the religious leaders peddled vacant lots of sand and bayberry bush which were soon clustered with houses. As the populations of these islands grew, so did the businesses and the other trappings of industrial-era modernity. And all of this was bound to collide with the Sabbatarian sensibility.
Merchants wanted to make money seven days a week, especially in economies that depended heavily on seasonal tourism. And one entrepreneur who knew this quite well was a transportation mogul named Henry D. Moore who by the early 1900s controlled 18 utility companies. In 1902, he acquired an electrical company from one of the numerous island religious corporations; and he soon noticed that the trolley line, which he also purchased, didn’t operate on Sunday. He told the mayor that he was going to start Sunday services -- not the religious kind -- because the people wanted it and he could make money. The Mayor had the trolley crew arrested when they threw the trolley switch on Sunday morning. Moore then swore out a complaint against the detective in the case and had him arrested because he was working on Sunday. And then he informed the city fathers that in keeping with the Sunday Sabbath laws, he would promptly shut down all electrical utilities Saturday at the midnight hours, and keep the power off until Monday morning.
Needless to say, the city solons backed down.
The trolleys rolled...people rode the clattering cars, and Henry Moore, admittedly motivated by greed, nevertheless became one of the pallbearers who laid to rest this ancient practice of Sunday closing.
Sabbatarianism also dovetailed with other culture war battles that were going on at the time concerning those old canards of sex and gambling. Under pressure from churches, police prowled shops and amusements confiscating risqué photographs offered for sale, and they shut down exhibits involving scantily-clad women. Men could drink in saloons, but when women tried the same, those establishments were promptly closed. The churches put pressure on the city council to even pass a so-called “Theater Act” which prohibited children under the age of 16 from playing billiards. How much of this sounds eerily familiar with our modern-day Puritanism? Reminds you of Robert Preston’s song in THE MUSIC MAN, “Pool, it begins with P- it rhymes with T-- that’s Trouble!”
Church groups and Victorians even became outraged over canoe rentals. In places like Asbury Park, signs were put up warning that “No boats will be allowed to land here after nightfall. Fathers and mothers of daughters who go boating should seek the know the significance of these signs.” That’s because local bluenoses found that unmarried couples were using canoes to get to secluded assignation points; and this certainly presages the uproar of teenagers in the fifties heading for the local drive-in theater or “passion pit.” And these, incidentally, were enormously popular throughout New Jersey.
Several months ago, we did an AANEWS story about Cardinal John O’Connor denouncing Sunday baseball games. In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, the state councils of churches have been demanding new Sabbatarian laws to protect Sunday worship, but this same battle was being fought 90 years ago.
In May of 1909, officials with the Atlantic City Athletic Association announced that the local baseball team, the Atlantics, would play the Philadelphia Athletics up in the old Connie Mack stadium on the first Sunday in June. A local Baptist minister promptly formed a chapter of the Lord’s Day Alliance, and what became known as the “Baseball War of 1909” was underway. The Alliance, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, churches and the usual assortment of political lackeys, and vote-beggars joined in the fray. The minister, Rev. Birney Hudson declared: “This means war,” and said that if an ordinance to permit Sunday baseball and other activities became law, the Lord’s Day Alliance would “shut up the town.”
One of the harshest critics of the Alliance was Atlantic City Councilman William Riddle; he had long defended the democratization of leisure and opposed the Sunday closing laws. He told the local papers,
“If the ministers would stop the golf playing at the golf links on Sunday, that would show their sincerity. If the Christian endeavor would also do this, it would show sincerity. But because the people who attend the ball games are clad in old clothes, and love the great American game better than the Scotch game of golf, it is considered a sin...”
Needless to say, the games went on, the Boardwalk stayed open, and at least one symbol of religious political power in America was totally demolish in the rush of industrialization and the creation of a leisure economy. Much of the battle was fought in Atlantic City.
It needs to be said that a lot of the battle to preserve the Sunday Sabbath laws employed racist and class rhetoric. Laws were also selectively enforced. For instance, Atlantic City had its small but growing class of black entrepreneurs who catered to the many black working people who staffed the hotels they could not afford to stay in, or were prohibited from staying in... Police often focused their wrath on black-owned stores, gambling houses, juke joints and casinos. A newspaper called The True American vividly described a raid on a so-called “Negro Monte Carlo,” and spoke glowingly of “eight imported detectives, armed with axes and crowbars, who patrolled the Negro district all night following the raid...” Another source of concern was the presence of white women in the company of black males. That was nearly as incendiary as the prospect of trainloads of working class people -- many of them immigrants from Slavic or Mediterranean nations, or even Irish, heading into the city with their wallets full in search of a good time.
Atlantic City and the rest of the east coast also became a battleground over bathing, the human body and the status of women. The idea of women gambling or having the audacity to walk into a saloon offended the faithful deeply; but the industrial revolution, for all of its faults, was giving women something that they rarely had in past economic periods -- their own money. The upheaval in gender roles and the empowerment of women didn’t start in the 1960s, or even the World War II years when women moved into industry when men were off fighting in large numbers. It started much earlier, when for good or bad, agricultural began to give way to industrialization as a way of life for more and more people. A lot of groups resented the existence of a growing class of working women, or the fact that women increasingly had an option to not depend on a male for a means of surviving. This all added fuel to the debate over Sabbatarianism and other activities like gambling, or smoking, or even driving an automobile. These activities were tolerated more when they were engaged in by Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, wealthy males. If black entrepreneurs opened up shop, or, “god forbid,” a woman did the same, or started asserting her rights, or even kept the company of blacks, then “all hell broke loose.”
The beaches of Atlantic City and the rest of the Jersey coast also became caught up in these culture wars of earlier times. It’s important to note that this was the result of profound changes taking place in the economic and social landscape of the country. Urbanization and industrialization was not only creating more surplus wealth, it was giving more and more people -- derisively referred to as “the masses” or the “hoi poloi” -- the means to travel, vacation away from home, and spend surplus income on amusement. Entrepreneurs found a golden opportunity in satisfying this new market, as railroads and excursion boats brought people to the coastline resorts like Atlantic City or Cape May. Hotels, boardwalks, restaurants, amusement piers all thrived to meet the demand.
One nagging question for the religious involved the beach and bathing. There is a whole history about this subject, about how different cultures have viewed bathing and the human body -- and suffice it to say, in Protestant America at the turn of the 18-19th century, there was considerable debate and angst over questions such as mixed-sex bathing, and how much clothing men and women should wear while swimming. These debates also focused on what portions of the female anatomy were considered erotic. America wasn’t even prepared for the bikini or the thong-bathing suit; even the glance of a woman’s shoulder or her ankles was considered by many to erotically stimulating.
From its earliest days, Christianity displayed at least a suspicion, and more frequently open hostility and fear, to that zone of human experience where the elemental forces of water, earth and air all met -- the beach -- and to the activity of bathing for recreation. Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker have done a superb exploration of this subject in their 1998 book aptly title, THE BEACH, THE HISTORY OF PARADISE ON EARTH, and I’d like to read just a paragraph from their chapter on the beach in antiquity, because it’s relevant to our concerns today. They discuss the cultural shift that swept Europe with the hegemonic rise of Christianity, and they describe how the Roman and other non-Christian people of the time looked at the water and this beach world as a realm of pleasure, contemplation and relaxation. They write:
The Edenic pleasures of the Roman beach were not to last. In AD 476,the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the beach, as a site of sybaritic indulgence, went down with it. For the next milleiu, the body, the beach, and even pleasure would be shrouded with a mantle of dread and prohibition. Greco-Roman culture disintegrated, as did its rich storehouse of legends that depicted the beach as a valuable source of psychological and physical restoration. The Judeo-Christian tradition, filled with equivocal representations of the phenomenal universe, emerged as civilization’s powerful new matrix...”
The Enlightenment period which nurtured deism, rationalism and the roots of modern Atheism, began overturning that Judeo-Christian view of the world, and that includes the beach. In the Age of Exploration, for instance, the beach was vividly portrayed in written accounts and even painting as an exotic realm of carnal pleasures totally at odds with the depiction of the Bible.
Along the Jersey Coast, and other parts of the eastern seaboard, a strange thing occurred, though, in the early to mid-1900s; some clergyman actually began to extol the virtues of the beach and a form of Christian leisure that led to the creation of seaside camp meetings and revivals. In some places, Christian towns or outright theocracies were formed with a church or tabernacle as the center, and houses or tracts of land developed around it and sold to members of the congregation. As for the revival, enormous tents erected near the beach, but all of this came with a peculiarly Christian twist.
First of all, it was promoted as a tonic to the alleged evils of urbanism and industrialization. It wasn’t per se touted as relaxation, or play, or amusement for its own sake -- it was a retreat from the evils of an increasingly secular and mechanized world, a world which was, by this account, being “denaturalized” by science, technology and consumerism. Second, even this activity was undermined by the changing cultural shifts taking place throughout society. Here’s what Lencek and Bosker write: they note:
“Apparently, the sybaritic spell of the shore was simply too compelling and eventually began to erode the religious orientation of those who had been coming to Wesleyan Grove. One the worshippers had become house-owners, their expectations and attitudes toward the revival meetings changed...”
Some of the revivals and camp meetings actually erected fences to stop people from leaving.
Christian virtue fused with the lust of real estate fortunes in places like Ocean Grove, where a Methodist minister by the name of Stokes sold tracts of a three-hundred acre parcel; in the 1880, the Ocean Grove Association was chartered by the State of New Jersey, and the sale of alcohol was prohibited, and up until just a few years ago, the roads leading into Ocean Grove were actually gated off on Sunday and non-essential driving was banned.
By the 1880s the 120 or so miles of the Jersey coast were punctuated by fifty-four seaside resorts, miles of boardwalk, and a pulsating seasonal business. A whole drama was played out here, on the beaches, over clothing, what was proper and modest for men and women to wear, indeed, whether the sexes should even be permitted to commingle in the water. At Cape May, at the very southern portion of the state, hotels displayed different flags throughout the day signaling bathers of the respective sexes when it was permissible for them to venture into the surf. Suffice it to say, the evolution in the bathing suit -- in the sheer amount of flesh that it covered or revealed, or the sheer amount of material that it was made from -- reflected the changing mores of the country regarding sexuality, the human body, and the rights of women. At one point, the commotion over the exposed female body and the tempting reaction it might have on men resulted in women being swathed in cumbersome, bulky swimming fear. In fact, there were even cases where women would be transported from hotels or changing rooms on the beach into a special cart which was called a “modesty wagon,”, which went out into the surf and allowed females to disembark, presumably free of the leering eyes of the male sex.
One thing that you find in this history of this debate over bathing and beach clothing, is that so much of it focuses on woman, and what they wear. In the 1950s the beach was transformed into a venue for intergenerational defiance and teenage rebellion; the sexually charged symbols of this confrontation turned out to be the bikini (for women), and the surfboard, for men. A controversial music form called rock ‘n roll was also part of this, and of course some of the inspirational roots of rock came from the black jazz and blues tradition, which hearkens back to my earlier remarks on the role which race and gender played in the Sabbatarian and Victorian revolts against modernity.
The beach continued to remain a sexually charged and tempting wonderland. In film, there’s the very symbolic kiss between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in that famous beach scene in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. The movie was banned in some communities and even on certain military bases for its provocative subject matter. Just a few years later, the proliferation of teenage bikini-beach movies mixed themes such as sexuality, risqué fun, daredevil tempting of fate, rock and roll, acres of tanned, naked flesh and carnal delights. It’s a fascinating story, and I recommend Lencek and Bosker’s book to anyone who wants to explore this subject.
I want to close by talking about Atheism in New Jersey. We are privileged to have William Boyd Francis with us at this convention, who will portray Robert Ingersoll, giving his ORATION TO THE JURY IN THE TRIAL OF C.B. REYNOLDS. If you pick up most of the standard history books about New Jersey, you find little or no mention of this event which was actually the last prosecution for blasphemy in the United States.
In the 1880s, there was an organization known as the American Secular Union, and one of its activities to was to sponsor speakers who would travel throughout the country. It was very difficult to rent a hall or auditorium if you blasphemed the Christian deity and religion, so these speakers, who were ironically also known as “missionaries,” would pitch tents and promote their talks or debates. One such speaker was Charles B. Reynolds, and on July 26, 2020, Reynolds erected his tent in the hamlet of Boonton, N.J. and began the first of what he hoped, anyway, would be a series of lectures. There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened and when it occurred... but we do know that a mob of Roman Catholics and Methodists showed up, and here’s what a reporter wrote:
“They pelted Reynolds with ancient eggs and vegetables. they chopped away the guy ropes of the tent and slashed the canvas with their knives. When the ten collapsed the crowd rushed for the speaker to inflict further punishment by plunging him into the duck pond...”
Most of the details we have about the incident come from a publication known as The Truth Seeker. This is an old freethought publication that was founded by D.M. Bennett, and its first issue appeared in September, 1873. There is a whole interesting history here, for Bennett embraced a document known as the “Nine Demands of Liberalism,” which was being promoted by a separationist group known as the National Liberal League. That statement called for an end to the tax exemption of all ecclesiastical property, abolition of all Sabbath laws, a cessation to religious oaths in the courts and other institutions, and the creation of a totally secular society. One of those demands was won by the founder of our organization Madalyn O’Hair in the 1963 Supreme Court ruling MURRAY v. CURLETT ... as you know that ended prayer and bible verse recitation in the public schools. It was one of a cluster of related First Amendment cases that helped to preserve the secular character of our educational system. The Truth Seeker, of course, went on to have a checkered history. The original fifty year incorporation limit ended in 1924, but the name continued to be used; it passed through several owners, and that pattern continued on into the future. That is one reason why people speak of the “old” Truthseeker, rather than the publications that were known under that name in subsequent years. But so much of what we know about the C.B. Reynolds affairs comes from the “old” Truthseeker, and this information was assembled into a series of three articles which Madalyn O’Hair published starting with the October, 1986 edition of the American Atheist Magazine.
Reynolds attempted to file a complaint with local authorities on July 28, but the judge wouldn’t issue arrest warrants until Reynolds posted a $5 deposit. That evening, Reynolds attempted to hold another lecture, but was arrested by the authorities and charged with blasphemy. This stemmed from his distribution of a pamphlet called “Blasphemy and the Bible.” That relevant statute was based on an ancient colonial-era law making blasphemy against religion a crime, and the punishment carried a maximum penalty of $200 fine and up to a year in prison.
We know that the charges were recorded on July 31,2020. In September, the Truthseeker published an issue devoted to the events in Boonton; a cartoon depicts Reynolds literally casting pearly before a heard of swine.
There are a lot of twists and turns in this story. Robert Ingersoll, who was a trained attorney, took this case on, and it was the only case related to state-church separation really that Ingersoll ever fought. The trial began on May 19, 2020, the courtroom was packed. Ingersoll delivered a two hour oration which is considered by many to be one of his most masterful performance; he ranged over topics as diverse as history, constitutional law, theology and philosophy. This was years before the Scopes trial, but Ingersoll opined that the works of Charles Darwin had given more benefit to the world than “all the sermons ever uttered...”
He concluded his remarks saying,
“I sincerely hope that it will never be necessary again, under the flag of the United States -- the flag for which has been shed the bravest and best blood of the world -- under that flag maintained by Washington, by Jefferson, by Franklin and by Lincoln -- under that flag in defense of which New Jersey poured out her best and her bravest blood -- I hope it will never be necessary again for a man to stand before a jury and plead for the Liberty of Speech.”
The jury found CB Reynolds guilty; he was charged $25 plus $50 in costs which Ingersoll paid.
When you hear William Boyd Francis, when you go back in time to those days in 1886 and 1887, and those events that took place not to far from here, I’d like you to remember something which Ingersoll uttered to a reporter while he was leaving the courtroom. Answering a question bout the blasphemy statute, Ingersoll declared, “The law was made up the bigoted baboons of the past and enforced by the religious donkeys of the presents.”
There is one more destination in this imaginary trip that we take today. It’s a brief stop, because frankly, I don’t know very much about it. During the 1950s, there was an organization known as the United Secularists of America, USA, and it was based here in New Jersey. Its most notable member eventually became its President, and that was Culbert Levy Olson, who also served as Governor of California from 1938 to 1943. When he was sworn in, he refused to utter the words SO HELP ME GOD.
In 1957, Olson agreed to serve as President of United Secularists of America, and remained in that post until his death in 1962.
USA was incorporated in 1948, and was based not too far from here in Clifton, N.J. Those associated with it included William McCarthy, Russell Palmer, Daniel Berg, Russell , Donald Doremus, Sherman Wakefield and Henry Klein. The group published a monthly journal known as Progressive World, and the names of Atheist and heretical writers like Joseph McCabe, Archibald Robertson, J.A. MacDonald and even Paul Krassner, who you might recognize from THE REALIST, appeared on its masthead contributors.
In April, 1949 -- just after the incorporation of USA -- two members of the group filed suit in the Superior Court of New Jersey, law Division, seeking to end the practice of Bible verse recitation in the public schools of the states. The litigants were Donald R. Doremus and Anna E. Klein, shown here; USA was not officially a litigant, but it helped to finance the case.
DOREMUS v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF BOROUGH OF HAWTHORNE (1952) was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices held that Bible verse reading “did not present justicable controversy,” that parents had not attempt to have their children excused from classes when the Bible recitation was taking place, and that no state funds were expended in the recitation. The court also noted that the children involved had graduated from the school before the case found its way to the high court.
It would be another decade before the Supreme Court began to dismantle the practice of prayer and Bible verse recitation in the public schools. The Supreme had ruled in McCOLLUM v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1948) that school sponsored and financed religious instruction in public schools was unconstitutional. In 1962, the court struck down the so-called “Regents Prayer,” which claimed to be a nondenominational exercise crafted by the New York State education department (this prayer was supposedly sufficiently nondenominational so as to offend no one except, perhaps, Atheists, yet sufficiently powerful to attract the attention of the deity.) In 1963, two more cases were decided. In ABINGTON TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT v. SCHEMPP, the court struck down. The first of these was based on the suit known as MURRAY v. CURLETT, which was put on the Supreme Court docket as No 119. It challenged prayer and all Bible verse recitation in public schools. It was the first case of its kind -- and even the DOREMUS suit did not do this -- it was the first case of its kind to declare openly “your petitioners are Atheists...” Another suit from Pennsylvania was filed as ABINGTON SCHOOL DISCTRICT v. SCHEMPP, it raised similar issues, and it was put on the Supreme court docket as No 142. The two cases were combined by the court. The court ruled in favor of the petitioners on June 17, 2020. It had taken 115 years from the Doremus case to the successful conclusion of SCHEMPP and MURRAY v. CURLETT.
In 1976 when the first American Atheist Center was opened in Austin, Texas, USA, Inc. was turned over to Madalyn O’Hair by Walter F. Kennon, then the aging President of United Secularists. USA had fallen on hard times, Progressive World had ceased publication and passed into history.
Fortunately, the records of groups like the United Secularists of America have been saved in the of the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives. One of our goals in relocating the American Atheist Center to New Jersey is that we can again establish this library of Atheist and related materials, and give these books, manuscripts, records and publications a home that they deserve. It’s very important that we preserve our history as Atheists...
What a trip this has been, at least for me.
James Burke, who wrote the delightful series for PBS, CONNECTIONS, confirms for us that history is filled with ironies, twists and cycles we can rarely anticipate, and can only apprehend if we take the time to look.
It’s 113 years after C.B.Reynolds set up his tent in Boonton, New Jersey. Today, it so happens that the President of American Atheists lives in Boonton; and someday, perhaps, we’ll be able to find that pond where those Catholic and Methodist hooligans threatened to duck Charles Reynolds. The United Secularists of America lives on thanks to the efforts of Madalyn O’Hair, and those -- some of whom are here today -- who sit on its board. And so much other Atheist history lives on because we have taken the time to preserve it and on Sunday, in the state that tried C.B. Reynolds for blasphemy, we will dedicate the new American Atheist Center. Again, part of that facility will house the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives, and this includes those old copies of the Truth Seeker, or the journal that the USA once published.
That effort to preserve our history and establish a center for American Atheists began nearly decades ago when the Murray family established something called the MARYLAND COMMITTEE FOR THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. Eventually, the organization that became American Atheists got started in a four-room store front in north Baltimore, and moved to another facility located at 2502 North Calvert St. in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the first American Atheist Center, and I found a reproduction of a small sketch which Madalyn O’Hair made of that building-- it appeared first in the April, 1964 issue of AMERICAN ATHEIST MAGAZINE, and again in the April 1989 issue. Since then, there have been at least four other buildings which served as the American Atheist Center, all of them located in Austin, Texas.
I think that on Sunday, when we dedicate the new American Atheist Center, you can look back over this history and be proud. There have been some enormous obstacles to us over these past 35 to 40 years. It has been a long, long road with many bumps along the way. There were plenty of mistakes, plenty of victories, and plenty of changes along the way.
But the fact that we are here today holding this convention, speaking our minds, planning for future -- I think that confirms the ironic in history, too, that Burke referred to. C.B. Reynolds and Ingersoll may have lost the blasphemy trial -- but over a century later, thanks in part to everyone in this room, and the many, many people who came before us, who were there in the early days of this organization -- those ideas and principles about the separation of church and state, the primacy of reason, the importance of human freedom -- live on and resonate stronger than ever.
Thank you for your attention...
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.