by Dan Allosso, find him on Facebook, Twitter, and on the web.
As I was preparing a list of the freethinking women I plan to profile over the next few months, it occurred to me that my subjects are mostly well-known women, who hold some special place in American History in addition to being freethinkers. While it’s clearly important to remember these women, and even more important to understand (and tell the rest of the world) how their freedom from religion influenced their lives and helped motivate them to do the things for which they’re famous – still, there’s another whole group of people who led more-or-less normal, unremarkable lives, who were freethinkers.
For example, 1848 is remembered in Europe as the year of revolutions. Throughout the continent and the British Isles, radicals and reformers fought the old ruling classes for rights, representation, wages, and bread. Most of these revolts were crushed, which led to a wave of emigration. Many of the revolutionaries came to America, at a time when the Midwest was just being opened to settlement.
Throughout the plains states, it’s common to find towns and small cities that trace their roots to European immigrants from this period – often specifically to radicals and freethinkers. New Ulm, for example, was settled when Minnesota was still a territory by a land society that specifically excluded clergymen and lawyers from membership. Sauk County, Wisconsin, similarly, was settled by German immigrants who were members of a Freie Gemeinde. This “free congregation” published its Fundamental Principles in the Milwaukee Banner in August, 1851:
We call our society the United Free German Congregation. Its purpose is to unite the foes of clericalism, official dishonesty, and hypocrisy, and to unite the friends of truth, uprightness, and honesty – all those holding the same views, but now found scattered among all religions, churches, and sects. By such a union of our strength we intend to erect a firm bulwark against the pernicious system of church, sect, and clerical domination. While making our first appeal to the Germans we do not wish to be understood as excluding other nationalities; rather we shall make it our business to enter into fraternal relations with others who are aiming at reforms similar to our own.
There were communities like these all over the United States, during a period when the growing nation was seen by many in the old world as a land of freedom and opportunity. Many of these towns (such as New Ulm) were later taken over by religious immigrants who followed the first wave of settlers. Others have simply forgotten their freethought heritage. But if you look closely, there are still traces.
In Sauk County, for example, there’s an old Freigemeinde Cemetery. It’s located in Honey Creek Township, Wisconsin, at Lat: 43° 19' 52"N, Lon: 89° 52' 48"W, for freethought tourists. About a hundred freethinkers have been buried there, between the cemetery’s opening in 1861 and the 1990s, including:
Andersen, Oca Annalee, b. 1909, d. 1984, wife of Lester S. Andersen, Row 5
Bezold, Louise, d. Aug 19, 1902, 82y 11m 4d, wife of Andreas, Row 7
Buelow, Emma, d. Aug 24, 1895, 35y 10m 2d, wife of Albert, Row 6
Campbell, Bertha (Ochsner), b. Jul 26, 1900, d. Sep 7, 1942, Row 9
Emond, Marguerite, b. 1908, d. 1993, wife of Oscar O. Emond, Row 4
Ferber, Frieda, b. Jul 5, 1888, d. Aug 16, 1962, wife of Henry Ferber, Row 9
Grotophorst, Gertrude, b. Apr 20, 1820, d. Aug 30, 1885, wife of J. H. Grotophorst, Row 6
Hill, Louisa, b. Sep 22, 1861, d. Mar 30, 1888, daughter of A. & L., Row 7
Keller, Rosina (Stucki), b. Sep 15, 1819, Zurich, d. Aug 5, 1888, Honey Creek Twp, wife of Carl Keller, Row 5
Lemm, Lena F., b. 1880, d. 1959, mother, wife of Fred J. Lemm, Row 5
Nattermann, Christina (Markert), b. 1865, d. 1911, wife of John Markert, Row 6
Ochsner, Marion (Mitchell), b. Jan 2, 1857, d. Jan 4, 1932, wife of Albert J. Ochsner, Row 6
Schara, Cora H., b. Sep 19, 1891, d. Jul 15, 1970, Row 5
Wolf, Caroline, b. Nov 29, 1848, d. Aug 8, 1885, mother of 11 children, was struck by lightning, wife of Gottlieb Wolf, Row 5
Although most of these women lived what historians would call unremarkable lives, they lived and died as freethinkers. The existence of secular women all over America, throughout our history, may come as a shock to those who insist the nation has always been firmly religious – especially outside of the big cities. Secularists might also be surprised, and should probably be reminded, that the movement has been broad and deep throughout American history.