Thomas Paine, by Watson Heston. First published in The Truth Seeker. Image credit: Bob Forder

The Truth Seeker was a radical American magazine founded in 1873 by the ex-Shaker and freethinker, DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818-1882). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, sometimes known as the ‘Golden Age of Freethought’, it was the most influential publication of its kind in the country. Mark Twain was among its subscribers.

The covers of the Truth Seeker were regularly adorned with cartoons, most drawn by Watson Heston (1846-1905). A collection of these, from the years 1886-9, was later published in 1896 by the Truth Seeker Company in a single volume, The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text Book: showing the absurdity and untruthfulness of the Church’s claim to be a divine and beneficent institution and revealing the abuses of a union of church and state. Themes ranged from ‘Uncle Sam and the Priests’ to ‘The Church and Slavery’.

The above cartoon is found, undated, on page 111 of the collection, opposite four excerpts praising Paine’s role in the struggle for American independence, by Guizot, Bennett, Ingersoll and President James Monroe. Bennett emphasised that the American revolution was led by ‘Infidels, or men who did not believe that the Bible was written by the finger of God, or by his immediate dictation.’

The symbolism of the cartoon and the accompanying quotations demonstrate Thomas Paine’s importance as a leading figure of the freethought tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, and the association of freethought with political liberty.

Heston also published other collections of freethought drawings, including the Old and New Testaments ‘Comically Illustrated’. A recurrent theme was the need for church-state separation and for the clergy to remain outside politics. It is an interesting question whether the inclusion of cartoons in the Truth Seeker influenced G.W. Foote’s decision to use them in the Freethinker

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