The Warfare’s Toll on Historical Interpretation

Putnam - 400 YearsI was reminded today of a remarkable chapter in James R. Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controveries (1979). Moore argues that the “military metaphor perverts historical understanding with violence and inhumanity, by teaching one to think of polarity where there was confusing plurality, to see monolithic solidarity where there was division and uncertainty, to expect hostility where there was conciliation and concord.”

I was searching “freethought” on the Internet Archive when the first hit that came up was Samuel P. Putnam’s 400 Years of Freethought, published by the “The Truth Seeker Company” in 1894. The book begins with a proem on “Freethought—Past, Present, and Future.” For the “past,” the proem begins with Bruno, “looking forth with eyes of fire,” who was “martyred” for revealing “Science’ fearless path.” The proem transitions to the “present” with Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), the “great agnostic” of the United States, before finally concluding with the “child” of the “future,” the “tiny prophet of untraveled years.”

The first chapter remarks that “through darkness and struggle; through bloody war; through torture and terror, through superstition, ignorance, and tyranny, Freethought has steadily pushed onward, with true Promethean fire, with the torch of reason, with undaunted face, with unreceding step, until now it leads the world with victorious colors.” Riveting stuff.

After delineating what, exactly, Freethought is, Putnam in the following chapter highlights the “three voyages” of Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Magellan. It is not long before Putnam claims that Columbus “gave almost undeniable proof that the earth was not flat, as it was declared to be by the standard theology of the church.” Although himself not a freethinker, Columbus, according to Putnam, “was certainly a heretic in action.”

All this is familiar territory. Indeed, Putnam references John William Draper several times, and likely borrowed themes and ideas from some of Andrew Dickson White’s periodical publications. What is interesting about Putnam is that he was a seminary student in Chicago in the 1860s, preached as a Congregational minister, converted to Unitarianism 1870s, and then renounced Christianity shortly thereafter. In 1887 he established the Journal of Freethought and became the author of numerous books attacking Christianity and religion in general. He was not simply anti-Catholic. In chapter five of 400 Years of Freethought he proclaimed that the Reformation marked “an epoch in human progress.” But quickly qualifies: “it soon reached its culmination and ceased to be of any benefit.”

What happened to Samuel Putnam? I do not know enough about him to make any definitive claims, but surely he was part of the “warfare’s toll on historical interpretation.”

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