William Maclure

On this date in 1763, William Maclure, now known as the “Father of American Geology,” was born to a wealthy family in Ayr, Scotland. He visited the United States as a teenager, made a fortune in the import-export business in London, and became a U.S. citizen in 1796, where he conducted studies that eventually became the U.S Geological Survey. Maclure began traveling the country in an effort to make the first geologic map of the entire U.S. Maclure’s map, the first widely available geologic map, was published in 1809 as part of the paper Observations on the geology of the United States. He was president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1817–1837) and published many papers on geology.

In 1824, along with social reformer and fellow freethinker Robert Owen, Maclure established a short-lived utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. Maclure founded the first free public library in Indiana, the New Harmony Workingmen’s Institute, in 1838, providing both funds and a building. Members told Maclure, “The religious people are not with us. We believe they take exceptions to some of your writings, to the 8th article of our Constitution [prohibiting any religious instruction by members in the meeting] and to our meeting on a Sunday.” Maclure lived in Mexico from 1827 until his death in 1840.

Maclure became critical of formal religion early in life due to his experience with the Calvinist Church of Scotland, which taught that everyone was inherently sinful. He called religion a “delusion” and said there was “nothing beyond the grave” (Maclure of New Harmony: Scientist, Progressive Educator, Radical Philanthropist by Leonard Warren). He was disdainful of the clergy: “The priests have retained their consideration and labor hard in their calling for the propagation of ignorance, superstition, and hypocracy,” Maclure wrote in his journal while visiting Aurillac, France on Nov. 24, 1807. Maclure was outspoken about the harm of religion. He wrote in 1811: “The Christian religion, even now on its death bed, forges chains for the human race and continues to the last that hatred all knowledge and progressive improvement of mankind which has for a long time been one of its principal characteristics.” D. 1840

“We shall be astonished at the long continuance of the delusion that has led the human intellect astray, through the mysterious wilderness of deception, by the cunning intrigues of church and State.” 

—William Maclure, quoted in Opinions on various subjects: dedicated to the industrious producers, Vol. 1, by William Maclure, 1831.

Compiled by Elsa Kramer and Sabrina Gaylor

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