James Fergus

On this date in 1813, James Fergus was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland. He became a U.S. citizen in 1839, and in 1862 he settled in the area that would become Montana. He became an influential Montana politician, cattle rancher, miner and judge, as well as a prominent freethinker. His numerous political positions include Morrison County judge beginning in 1856, chairman of the Lewis and Clark County Commission from 1873 to 1877 and Territorial Council member beginning in 1885. He also represented Lewis and Clark County for the Territorial House of Representatives in 1879 and founded Fergus County, Mont. Fergus wrote for the Montana Post and the Helena Herald about many topics, including freethought. His wife, Pamelia Dillin, who Fergus married in 1845, was also a freethinker. They had four children: Mary Agnes, Francis Luella, Andrew and Lillie.

Fergus began questioning his family’s Presbyterian religion as a child, and his “freethinking agnosticism” grew stronger after he left Scotland at age 20. “I am better known for my unbelief than any man in the territory, except [fellow Montana pioneer] Granville Stuart,” Fergus said in an 1883 letter. Fergus’ freethought views were so strong that when a Christian relative offered Fergus a huge sum of money on the condition that Fergus tell him that there could be a god, Fergus refused. Although he needed the money, he replied to his relative: “I have come to the conclusion that there is not enough money in Scotland to make me tell a lie.”

Fergus actively supported the separation of state and church. During his time as a Territorial Council member, he opposed using taxes to fund a chaplain for Territorial Council meetings, and in 1884 he opposed including god in the Montana Constitution. He wrote an editorial in 1888 for the Fort Benton Record vigorously opposing converting Native Americans to Christianity. Fergus is quoted as saying in 1883: “The Christian religion brought about a long period of ignorance still known to us as the dark ages, during which thought was curbed, common education banished, and conscience given over to a rude, vulgar and ignorant priesthood. And whatever good Christianity may have done since, much of the degeneracy of mankind during this period must be laid at its door.” (All quotations cited from the December 1994 issue of The Lewistown News-Argus, on the Fergus County, Mont. History and Genealogy website). D. 1902

“Religion is declining, with no better proof than I am here today. Two hundred years ago, I would have been burned at the stake. What was considered heresay [sic] by our fathers is tolerated now. The hell that frightened us in childhood has vanished into space. Heaven is not in our geographies. Therefore, we see the old faiths loosing their hold on the human mind.”

—James Fergus, speech for the Society of Montana Pioneers, 1885 (quoted in The Lewistown News-Argus, 1994).

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor; Photo in the Public Domain

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