Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? Freethought of the Day is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

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Ellery Schempp

Ellery Schempp

On this date in 1940, Ellery Schempp was born in Philadelphia. He started protesting morning devotions as a 16-year-old junior in Abington Senior High in Pennsylvania in 1956. State law then required 10 bible verses to be read in every classroom at the beginning of each school day, followed by students standing to recite the Lord's Prayer and flag salute. Twenty to 30 states had similar laws. He protested by bringing a copy of the Quran to school to show that the bible was not unique and read that silently instead of standing for the Lord's Prayer. He ended up in the principal's office.

Schempp then wrote a letter to the ACLU asking for help. The ACLU filed a lawsuit. After he graduated in 1958 he was no longer a plaintiff, but his family, including his father Ed Schempp, his mother Sydney, and younger siblings, carried on the celebrated case, which resulted in a landmark 8-1 decision in 1963 declaring devotional bible reading and prayer rituals in schools unconstitutional. "We received about 5,000 letters, roughly a third supporting us, a third opposing in reasonable terms, a third hateful and vituperative," Ellery Schempp said. The decision has stood as a bulwark against the coercive proselytization of  schoolchildren and has stood the test of time.

Schempp attended Tufts University, where he graduated cum laude in physics and geology. He earned a Ph.D. at Brown in physics. He worked on fiber optics research, joined the staff of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1980 and worked on the development of MRI systems. A member of the American Physical Society, he has traveled widely, including to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Sierras and New Zealand.  A Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he was named a Champion of the First Amendment in 2007.

Steven Solomon at New York University documented the landmark case in the book Ellery’s Protest, published by University of Michigan Press (2007). 

“Public prayer is not intended to promote religious values, but to enhance the authority of some churches and some political views over others. Similarly with the posting of the Ten Commandments. It is about power, not about religion. ... And the Constitution clearly intends that there should be freedom from religion.”

—Schempp, Champion of the First Amendment acceptance speech to FFRF (Oct. 13, 2007)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Brent Nicastro

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor

On this date in 1784, Robert Taylor (later dubbed "the Devil's Chaplain") was born in England and became a member of the College of Surgeons in 1807. Undergoing a religious conversion, he was ordained an Anglican priest in 1813. He lost his faith about five years later when a parishioner exposed him to rationalist writings. Resigning with a splash, he took out an advertisement seeking employment, which spelled out his loss of religion. Bowing to his mother's pleadings, he briefly returned to the ministry but was expelled for giving deistic sermons.

In 1826 Taylor opened a deistic chapel. He flouted church authority by wearing his episcopal garments when giving his deistic lectures. That year he was sentenced to a year in jail for one of his sermons. He and oft-jailed freethought publisher Richard Carlile paired up and distributed a handbill inviting Cambridge students to hear them "present their compliments as Infidel missionaries, to ... most respectfully and earnestly invite discussion on the merits of the Christian religion." This made a deep impression on student Charles Darwin, who, in later delaying the release of his theory of evolution, took into account their treatment at the hands of Cambridge authorities.

Taylor and Carlile were thrown out of town and authorities even revoked the license of the landlord who had rented to them. After writing a pamphlet called "The Devil's Pulpit" (1831), an energetic denunciation of New Testament dogma in which Taylor complained of "this tax-burthened and priest-ridden country," he was nicknamed "The Devil's Chaplain." In 1831, he was again convicted of blasphemy, was sentenced to two years in prison and was fined £200. D. 1844.

“[Christianity] is a system of the grossest hypocrisy, a fashionable villainy, a licensed swindle, cheat, and trick." 

"[G]o to church and chapel, you fools, — listen to the parson, and shut your eyes, and open your mouths, and see what God will send you."

—Taylor, "The Devil's Pulpit" (1831)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

On this date* in 1809, Alfred Tennyson was born in England. By the time his volume of Poems was published in 1833 (including "The Lady of Shalott"), Tennyson had established his literary acumen. By 1850 he had earned the title of poet laureate. Tennyson, a deistic pantheist, was not entirely unorthodox but he routinely trumpeted freedom. He alienated freethinkers of his day when he wrote an agnostic hero in Promise of May (1882) was an "unworthy character."

Tennyson made up for such an undiplomatic lapse in other writings. In In Memoriam A.H.H." (1849), he famously wrote, "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." In Maud (1855) he wrote, "The churches have killed their Christ." In "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," Tennyson wrote, "Christian love among the churches look'd the twin of heathen hate."

Tennyson married the poet Emily Sellwood, a friend since childhood, in 1850. They had two sons, Hallam, born in 1852, and Lionel, born in 1854. Queen Victoria named Alfred the Baron Tennyson in 1884 and he took his seat in the House of Lords.

Tennyson recorded in his Diary (p. 127): "I believe in Pantheism of a sort." His son's biography confirms that Tennyson was not Christian, noting that Tennyson praised Giordano Bruno and Spinoza on his deathbed, saying of Bruno: "His view of God is in some ways mine." D. 1892.

* Tennyson's birthdate is given as Aug. 5 by some sources. According to one, his baptismal records said Aug. 5 but his mother preferred to celebrate his birthday on the 6th, her wedding anniversary.

“In our windy world, what's up is faith, what's down is heresy.”

—Alfred Tennyson, "Harold" (1876)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant

On this date in 1850, Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born near Dieppe, France. After fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, he started writing short stories. Considered a master of that literary form, Maupassant wrote more than 300 short stories, as well as novels and travel books. One of his most famous, "Ball of Fat" (1880), was said to have inspired the plot line in John Ford's 1939 movie "Stagecoach" about the hypocritical treatment of a prostitute by travelers.

Pierre and Jean (1889), a psychological study of adultery between a wife and two brothers, was turned into a film in 1951 by Luis Bunuel. Many of his stories have been adapted as movies in France. Among his 39 horror stories is "The Inn," a predecessor to Stephen King's "The Shining," involving a plot about madness afflicting an isolated mountain caretaker. Freethought biographer Joseph McCabe noted, "His works sufficiently reflect his disdain of religion." (A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists.D. 1893.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Clara Bewick Colby

Clara Bewick Colby

On this date in 1846, Clara Dorothy Bewick (later Colby) was born in Cheltenham, England. She moved with her parents when she was 8 to a farm near Windsor, Wis. As an early reader, she liked to memorize and recite and churned butter by keeping time to fearful hymns threatening "the hells of fire," she recalled in a lecture. At 19, she moved to Madison and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. Graduating in 1869 as valedictorian, she was instrumental in opening admission of the UW to women.

She taught history and Latin at the UW, then married Leonard Wright Colby in 1871 and moved to Beatrice, Nebraska. She served for 16 years as president of Nebraska's Woman's Suffrage Association. She founded The Woman's Tribune in 1883 and published that organ of the National Woman Suffrage Association for 25 years, including daily editions through the suffrage conventions. As editor she also set type, was compositor and sometimes ran the press. Legendary for energy and her work ethic, Colby and her husband adopted two children, including a Lakota Sioux infant, "Lost Bird," found by Leonard in the arms of the girl's slaughtered mother after Wounded Knee. Her husband later abandoned the family with the child's nursemaid and they divorced in 1906. Colby raised the child by herself.

Colby was the first woman designated as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War. She lectured in nearly every state for suffrage, as well as England, Ireland and Scotland. Colby belonged to the Congregational Church but introduced and defended resolutions denouncing patriarchal religious dogma, notably at the 1885 woman suffrage convention. She routinely featured her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton's critiques of religion on the front pages of The Woman's Tribune. She died In Palo Alto, Calif., in 1916 and is buried in the Congregationalist cemetery near her childhood home in Windsor, Wis.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

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