Village Atheists: How Americas Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation
by Leigh Eric Schmidt
Princeton University Press, 2016
360 pp.; $35.00
What initially drew me to read Village Atheists was curiosity about life and challenges for secularists living in the United States more than a century ago. Without overwhelming the reader with countless players from that time, in four meaty chapters Leigh Eric Schmidt gives us "a pointillist group portrait, looking closely at a small handful of figures, all of whom exemplify critical aspects of American secularist experience."
Schmidt starts his examination with Samuel Porter Putnam's contributions to and participation in secularist society, which were far from consistent or linear. Indeed, Schmidt notes, "Constancy was not the mark of [Putnam's] secular pilgrimage--or of most secular pilgrimages of the era. Putnam zigzagged his way out of and into and out of and into any number of things--atheism included." By weaving Putnam's interactions with the work of other notables of the time--Horace Bushnell, Francis Ellingwood Abbot, and Robert Ingersoll, to name a few--Schmidt whittles Putnam's robust biography down to fifty dense pages. Schmidt leaves no stone unturned, covering everything from Putnam's book to the downfall of his marriage.
In the next chapter, we are treated to a visual break from text with the many illustrations of freethinking cartoonist Watson Heston, the "artist-champion of the secularist cause." Through some of his own hardscrabble perseverance, and with the help of an old friend, Heston's drawings made their debut in the Truth Seeker weekly newspaper starting in May 1885. Until that point, the Truth Seeker almost never featured any "visual embellishments" and had a largely "unadorned appearance." Hestons first caricature for the paper, entitled "The Modern Balaam," broke that mold and filled half the cover page. Including Hestons drawing proved to be a smart move for the Truth Seeker with immediate increased demand for the issue and reader requests for alternate versions of the image to display and share.
Heston continued to draw for the Truth Seeker through April 1900, creating more than 600 covers, plus hundreds more "comic Bible sketches" for the back page. Additionally, the publisher of the weekly produced four stand-alone collections of Heston's cartoons between 1890 and 1903, further solidifying his place at the top of "incomparable iconography of American secularism."