Theodore Schroeder

On this date in 1864, Theodore Schroeder was born on a farm near Horicon, Wisconsin. Because his parents "intermarried" (one was Lutheran, the other Roman Catholic), they were disowned by their families. His father became an agnostic, and Schroeder was also influenced by the legacy of the freethinking German immigrants who came to Wisconsin after the failed 1848 revolution. He took the injunction to "go west, young man" to heart and traveled for about a decade, taking odd jobs to support himself. In 1882, Schroeder entered the University of Wisconsin, studying engineering, then earning a law degree in 1889. He practiced law for ten years in Salt Lake City, Utah, making a study of Mormonism. Schroeder worked for statehood for Utah, but grew alarmed at the Mormon theocratic hold, as well as the practice of polygamy, which he termed "sanctified lust." In 1900, Schroeder moved to New York. He formed the Free Speech League (a precursor to the American Civil Liberties Union) with Lincoln Steffens and other progressives in 1902. Schroeder worked as League secretary, also offering legal aid. By 1908, when he moved to Connecticut, Schroeder was focusing his activism against religionist Anthony Comstock and the Comstock laws, which suppressed free speech relating to sexual matters, especially discussion of birth control. An ardent foe of these antiquated obscenity laws, Schroeder helped defend his friend and anarchist Emma Goldman at her Denver trial, as well as many others prosecuted in blasphemy or obscenity cases, including progressive ministers. Schroeder wrote Constitutional Free Speech Defined and Defended in an Unfinished Argument in a Case of Blasphemy (1919). He turned his attention to what he called the erotogenetic theory of religion, which he developed after observing Mormonism. William James and others discredited the concept, but he found allies in Havelock Ellis and Chapman Cohen. He also worked with the National Liberal League, which became the American Secular Union. Schroeder became the victim of the censorship he had worked against his entire life, when his will, instructing that his works be published as a collection, was found invalid by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The Court called his freethought writing "obscene," offensive to religion and of no social value. Judge O'Sullivan wrote, "The law will not declare a trust valid when the object of the trust, as the finding discloses, is to distribute articles which reek of the sewer." D. 1953.

“The freethinker has the same right to discredit the beliefs of Christians that the Orthodox Christians enjoy in destroying reverence, respect, and confidence in Mohammedanism, Mormonism, Christian Science, or Atheism.”

—Theodore Schroeder, Constitutional Free Speech Defined and Defended in an Unfinished Argument in a Case of Blasphemy (1919). Main source: The Encyclopedia of Unbelief

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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