D M Bennett, The Truth Seeker
DEROBIGNE Mortimer Bennett (1818-1882) was an American freethinker of strength and integrity. He founded the oldest freethought magazine still in existence – The Truth Seeker – and wrote and lectured prolifically. He was imprisoned for sending “obscene” material through the post; in his later years he travelled the world and developed an interest in Theosophy.
During the first half of his life he was involved with a religious community called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, better known as the Shakers. These people were simple and sincere and Bennett certainly gained some of his plain directness and honesty from them.
He gained skills in printing and in medicine: he was a herbalist and later homoeopathy physician for some years. When the community went through an Era of Manifestations and created a much more severe regime, Bennett with a group of members eloped and he established a business as a physician.
Bennett was strongly of the anti-slavery party and slowly developed anti-religious views. He found it difficult to get such opinions represented in the press and decided to set up his own journal The Truth Seeker in 1873.
It gained a readership, in due course including well known figures such as the agnostic Ingersoll, the novelist Mark Twain and the lawyer Clarence Darrow.
It was at first largely written by Bennett and had something of the same characteristic as a personal record as did Bradlaugh’s National Reformer. Although it has endured, it had a very rocky patch in the 1970s. Its heading reads:
Devoted to Science, Morals, Freethought, Free Enquiry and the Diffusion of Liberal Sentiments.
Bennett debunked religion, wrote of the need for ethics, and criticised the hypocrisy of churches and priests.
Although dubbed the Golden Age of Freethought it was also the Scarlet Age of persecution. Anthony Comstock, (above right) head of the Post Office – described here as a “religio-monomaniac” used laws controlling the contents of mail to prosecute obscene or irreligious matter. It was the period of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice formed by Comstock, who claimed that the three great crime-breeders in America were:
Intemperance, gambling and evil reading, and the greatest of these is evil reading.
It was also the period of the National Liberal League, a political force leading the call for freedom of speech, a secular republic emancipated from church domination, and free mails.
Bennett’s freethought colleague Ezra Heywood was prosecuted for sending out Cupid’s Yokes, a polemic in favour of free love – meaning to freethinkers not so much promiscuity as relationships which were not yoked by law. This pamphlet was sold in The Truth Seeker. Heywood was found guilty and sentenced to prison, but pardoned by President Hayes after a huge petition.
Soon it was Bennett’s turn. Two tracts caught Comstock’s attention – Bennett’s An Open Letter to Jesus Christ and Bradford’s How Do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind?
Bennett was prosecuted for obscenity, though I would have thought in the case of the former pamphlet blasphemy would have been more appropriate. Judge Benedict was about as biased as it was possible to be. No defence of the merit of the works was allowed nor was the argument that other such material was freely permitted. Bennett was found guilty and sentenced to a fine and 13 months hard labour in prison.
Bennett was especially indignant that one of the judges at the appeal was the biased judge who had originally tried him. He was also saddened that efforts to secure his pardon by the President failed.
Prison was tough and he suffered some ill health, while not making shoes. But he did succeed in writing long letters to The Truth Seeker. When released he was given a resounding reception and returned for a while to The Truth Seeker. He was invited to the Congress of the Universal Federation of Freethinkers in Brussels and developed a taste for travel.
In the UK he met Bradlaugh and admired Mrs Besant. (The author, as often happens, mangles the account of Bradlaugh’s struggle to enter Parliament.)
In his last year he was persuaded to take a world tour. He spent some time in India – a continent which seems to appeal to freethinkers, including me.
Somewhat surprisingly Bennett was attracted to Theosophy and the dictum:
There is no religion higher than truth.
However, the belief in contact with higher beings, the Mahatmas, non-material beings able to express great truths, is surprising for freethinkers. Annie Besant went along that route and there was wide interest in spiritualism among freethinkers.
I strongly incline to the opinion that there are forms of matter and forces of which they [Materialists] know very little.
In his 63rd year he died and was lost to the cause. Even in death he was controversial – an argument ensuing about the nature of his monument.
The memorial included the words:
The Defender of Liberty and its Martyr.
This is a fitting epitaph, and the writer Roderick Bradford has a done us a great service in bringing Bennett back to life in this book.
• D M Bennett, The Truth Seeker is published by Prometheus Books. ISBN: 1591024307. Hardcover. Available from Amazon.co.uk for around £14.00.
This review first appeared in the May, 2008, issue of the Freethinker.