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The "Truth Seeker"

D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, by Roderick Bradford (Prometheus Books, 2006)

By Marjorie Heins

With Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion now on the best-seller list in a nation (ours) usually noted for religious piety, perhaps it is the right moment for publication of the first biography of DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett. This failed farmer and patent medicine salesman who took up journalism late in life improbably became one of 19th century America's leading freethinkers, or "infidels" from Biblical inerrancy and other Christian beliefs. Bennett's place in history and his heroic status in the then-burgeoning freethought movement was assured after America's most voracious censor, Anthony Comstock, had him criminally prosecuted in 1879 for distributing obscenity (an anti-marriage pamphlet called "Cupid's Yokes"). Bennett's subsequent eleven-month incarceration made him a martyr, and the appellate decision in United States v. Bennett affirming his conviction set the precedent for American censorship law for the next three-quarters of a century.

Roderick Bradford's biography is not a deep work of scholarship or historical analysis, but it's an invaluable resource nonetheless. Quoting extensively from Bennett's writings, and particularly his popular magazine The Truth Seeker, Bradford takes us through his subject's early life as a member of the Shaker community in New Lebanon, New York; his apostasy from the Shakers and wanderings through the American South and Midwest in search of a livelihood; and his founding in late middle-age, largely because the local papers would not print his letters, of The Truth Seeker journal in the unpromising venue of Paris, Illinois. (He soon moved its offices to New York City.) The magazine, almost wholly written by Bennett at the start, was not erudite; it was plain and simple, if verbose, and it struck a responsive chord in the tumultuous society of the 1870s, when transcendentalists, free love advocates, feminists, and other varieties of dissenters from Christian dogma and evangelical enthusiasm held forth in small journals, literary societies, meetings, and convention halls.

The United States has a short historical memory. Civic platitudes and celebrations of the ideology of the victors tend to dominate both historically oriented entertainment and public education. Our buried history of radicalism and dissent has many chambers, but among them, D.M. Bennett occupies one of the most obscure. His adversary, Anthony Comstock, for a time at least was a household name, in part because he became easy to caricature by the 1910s and 20s. (George Bernard Shaw gave the language the noun Comstockery.) Bennett's prose, judging from the quotations in the biography, lacked nuance and irony, but he and his journal responded to a genuine ferment in nineteenth century American life: a searching for alternatives to received dogma, a spirit of philosophical inquiry. We don't often think of the Victorian era as a time of such questioning; this biography of Bennett helps right the balance in historical memory.

There are many fascinating tidbits in the book. The bigotry of The New York Times in reporting on freethought, and in dimissing Bennett as a mere "ex-convict," should disabuse any reader of illusions that the paper was liberal. The turf wars and factionalism that weakened the once-substantial National Liberal League remind us that the obstacles to maintaining and expanding rebel movements in the U.S. are not a recent phenomenon. And the wider acceptance of dissent from conventional religion in late 19th century America makes a sharp contrast to the pariah status of atheism today. Contemporary polls show that a candidate who professes no religious belief would have no chance of being elected president; but in 1870 probably the most popular orator in the country, and a major political power broker, was Robert Ingersoll, "the Great Agnostic."

It was in fact thanks to Ingersoll's connections that Bennett's first indictment - also for selling "Cupid's Yokes" - was quashed. The author of the pamphlet, the Massachusetts iconoclast Ezra Heywood, had himself served a jail sentence until pardoned by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Ingersoll could not persuade Hayes similarly to pardon Bennett after he had been convicted for a second, mail-order sale (to a decoy address invented by Comstock), because by that time the pressures of Christian conservatism, abetted by Mrs. Hayes, had eaten into the president's resolve.

"Cupid's Yokes" had no sexually explicit content, but it challenged established sexual morality and that was enough, under the undefined obscenity standard of the time, for Comstock to arrest Bennett and for a cooperative judge and jury to convict. It was on appeal of the conviction that a U.S. court first adopted the "Regina v. Hicklin" definition of obscenity, created by an English judge eleven years before. Under Hicklin, anything that might "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences" could be suppressed and punished. It wasn't until 1957 that the U.S. Supreme Court did away with the Hicklin test and began trying to define constitutionally unprotected "obscenity" in a manner that didn't censor art, literature, theater - or political arguments against marriage.1

Censorship pressures did not abate by the time of Bennett's death in 1882. Prodded by (among others) The New York Times, the managers of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn threatened to forbid any heretical messages on the memorial planned for Bennett 's grave. Eventually, Bradford tells us, Green-Wood backed off, and among the words inscribed on the monument are: "Those who claim to speak for the Gods simply speak their own thought. The Gods do not speak; they are as dumb as the rocks With Nature it is not so. To know her is to know the truth, and to study her is to be wise."2

If there is one overarching insight that a reader takes from this biography, it is the close and continuing connection between organized religion and censorship. Comstock, like many of his modern counterparts, was driven by religious passion. Sexual information or entertainment wasn't just immoral, it was "Satanic." Denials of God's existence weren't just wrong, they were obscene. Indeed, obscenity law had its origins in blasphemy law, and it was only when the powerful organs of church, state, and the medical profession institutionalized sexual repression in the 19th century that the two parted ways. Bennett may have been convicted and jailed under federal obscenity law, but his real crime was successfully propagating unChristian views.

March 13, 2007

1. The 1957 cases were Butler v. Michigan, 352 U.S. 380 (1957) and Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957). For more on Hicklin, Butler, Roth, and history of U.S. obscenity law, see Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (Hill & Wang, 2001).

2. Bradford, D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, p. 376.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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