Culbert Olson

On this date in 1876, Culbert Levy Olson, future California governor, was born in Fillmore, Utah. His parents were Mormon but Olson left the church as a teen “after deciding that Joseph Smith was an imposter and that his revelations didn’t make any rational sense,” according to his granddaughter Debra Deane Olson. He came to atheism after listening to lectures by Robert Green Ingersoll

He attended Brigham Young University in Provo, graduating at age 19, then became associate city editor of the Daily Ogden Standard before moving to Washington, D.C., where he did secretarial work for congressional members. After returning to school to get his law degree, he put out his shingle in 1901 in Salt Lake City, where he met and married Kate Jeremy. They had three children.

In 1916 he was elected to the Utah State Senate. After serving four years, he moved to Los Angeles to practice law. He campaigned in 1924 for Robert M. La Follette, the Progressive Party presidential candidate. California. He was elected to the California Senate in 1934 and in 1938 became the state’s first Democratic governor since 1896.

At his inauguration he put his left hand in his pocket instead of on a bible while swearing his oath of office. “I just told the member of the Supreme Court who came to swear me in as governor that there was no use to ask me to say ‘So help me God’ because God couldn’t help me at all, and that there isn’t any such person, and I will have to just say, ‘I will affirm.’ ”

After his term as governor (he lost a reelection bid), he campaigned against the proposal to make “In God We Trust” the official motto of California. “Such a motto is untrue,” he said. “We don’t trust in God. … The harm is that it is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.” An activist with the United Secularists of America, he became the president of the organization in 1957 and remained president until his death on April 13, 1962. In 1959 the Commonwealth Club of California cancelled a speech Olson was scheduled to give on the subject of separation of church and state. In that prepared speech Olson wrote, “No god has ever shown himself. The thousands of gods that man has worshipped are myths born of his fears and his imaginations.”

Debra Deane Olson and Dr. Craig Wilkinson spoke about Governor Olson at FFRF’s 2018 national convention in San Francisco while receiving a Courage to Tell the Truth Award in his honor. Their speech is here.

Freedom From Religion Foundation