December 23

    Elmina D. Slenker

    Elmina D. Slenker

    On this date in 1827, Elmina Drake, the daughter of a Shaker preacher expelled for becoming a “Liberal,” was born in La Grange, New York. She wrote for nearly all of the freethinking journals of her era and knew many of the reformers. She advertised successfully for an egalitarian husband in the Water-Cure Journal and married Isaac Slenker, Quaker-style.

    She preached alcoholic and sexual temperance, adopting a philosophy called “Dianaism,” which taught sexual sublimation and practices to avoid unwanted pregnancies in a manner too plain-spoken for the guardians of the Comstock Act. At the age of 60 in April 1887, Slenker was arrested for mailing sealed letters of advice on sex and marriage to private correspondents.

    With bail set at $2,000, she was shown into a cold cell with a blanket on the floor. The New York Times critically reported in its coverage of her newsworthy arrest that she refused to swear on a bible and testified at a preliminary hearing that she did not believe in god, ghosts, heaven, hell, the bible or Christianity.

    The pleasant, ordinary-looking woman was vilified as “homely” for sporting a short haircut. Unable to raise bail she spent six months in jail and was indicted on July 12, 1887. Freethinking attorney Edward W. Chamberlain represented her during her October trial, where a jury found her guilty. She was set free on a technicality by the judge on Nov. 4, 1887. Truth Seeker readers paid her legal expenses.

    She wrote Studying the Bible in 1870, edited Little Freethinker and wrote several novels, including The Clergyman’s Victims, The Infidel School-Teacher and The Darwins. She died in Virginia in her early 80s in 1908.

    “I became a sceptic, doubter, and unbeliever, long ere the ‘Good Book’ was ended.”

    —Slenker, "Studying the Bible" (1870)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    D.M. Bennett

    D.M. Bennett

    On this date in 1818, freethought publisher DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett was born two months prematurely in Springfield, New York. He had a lifelong limp. Bennett worked in a printing office and joined the New London Shaker community at 15. By the age of 27 he was working as the community’s physician. He shook off the celibate Shakerism in 1846 when he and Mary Wicks, also a Shaker, fell in love and eloped.

    In 1873 Bennett started The Truth Seeker in Paris, Illinois. The paper began as a way to reply to a clergyman whose letters were published by local papers which had suppressed Bennett’s responses. He took his paper to New York City the next year, where it was published at 335 Broadway.

    He deliberately published and mailed “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ” (a 36-page pamphlet) and a scientific work on marsupial propagation to challenge the Comstock Act, which allowed postal authorities to intercept “blasphemous” or indecent mail. He was arrested in November 1877, was defended by Robert Ingersoll and charges were dismissed. In August 1878 he was arrested for selling a copy of E.H. Heywood’s anti-marriage pamphlet “Cupid’s Yokes: The Binding Forces of Conjugal Life,” for which he served a year in prison, the case becoming an international cause celebre. Some 200,000 people signed a petition for his release.

    His productivity can be gauged by his schedule between 1873 and 1882. During those years he spent a year in prison, went for a year-long world voyage, spent a season in Europe and wrote The World’s Sages, Thinkers and Reformers (1,100 pages). He followed that book up with The Champions of the Church (even longer), The Gods and Religions of Ancient and Modern Times (two volumes of 1,000 pages each), An Infidel Abroad (800 pages), A Truth Seeker Around the World (four volumes of 750 pages each) and “unnumbered columns of editorial matter and articles for The Truth Seeker,” according to his profile in Four Hundred Years of Freethought (ed. S.P. Putnam, 1894).

    Bennett built The Truth Seeker into a major publishing house of freethought and scientific titles. He died at 64. Freethinkers of America erected a monument over his grave. D. 1882.

    “Was the star which was said to point out to the wise men who sought you in the stable in which you was born, a real star like others, millions of miles away, and which are immense bodies of matter, or was it a little star gotten up especially for the occasion and which moved near the surface of the earth?”

    —Bennett, "An Open Letter to Jesus Christ," The Truth Seeker (November 1875)

    Francisco Manoel de Nascimento

    Francisco Manoel de Nascimento

    On this date in 1734, Portuguese poet and heretical priest Francisco Manoel de Nascimento was born. Becoming deistic, he translated Moliere‘s anti-clerical “Tartuffe” (1778), which provoked the Portuguese Inquisition under the repressive reign of Dona Maria I to order his arrest. Nascimento fled Portugal. In exile he wrote satires and poems under the pen name Filinto Elísio. D. 1819.

    Nascimento was denounced to the Inquisition on the charge of having given vent to heterodox opinions and having read “the works of modern philosophers who follow natural reason.”

    —Biographer Edgar Prestage, Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 19 (1911)

    Eddie Vedder

    Eddie Vedder

    On this date in 1964, singer and lyricist Eddie Vedder (né Edward Louis Severson III) was born in Evanston, Ill. With a rocky home life, which included living with seven foster siblings, Vedder changed his name to his mother’s maiden name when he learned that his father was actually his stepfather. His family in the mid-1970s moved to San Diego but he returned to Chicago to briefly attend community college in the early 1980s.

    Musically he was influenced by rock and punk bands such as The Who, The Doors, U2, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and Black Flag. Vedder in his 20s sang in the bands Bad Radio and Indian Style, with future Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave drummer Brad Wilk. He founded the band Pearl Jam with Mother Love Bone guitarist Stone Gossard and three others in 1990.  The band was named for Vedder’s great-grandmother Pearl’s homemade jam. The band released its first album, Ten, in 1991 and it eventually sold 12 million copies.

    With its dark lyrics about depression, suicide and angst, Seattle-based Pearl Jam became the band of choice for so-called “Generation X” teens. Anti-mainstream, Pearl Jam refused to produce any videos for its second album, Vs (1993), and canceled its summer 1994 tour when Vedder entered a heated battle with Ticketmaster for charging what he felt were unreasonable fees. The Justice Department sided with Ticketmaster in 1995. Pearl Jam’s third album, Vitalogy (1994), went multi-platinum. The band went on a 1995 European tour with Neil Young and collaborated with him for his 1995 album Mirror Ball.

    Vedder made a name for himself unaffiliated with Pearl Jam. He wrote the songs and performed for the popular soundtracks of “Dead Man Walking” (1995), “I Am Sam” (2001) and “Into the Wild” (2007). He is an outspoken environmentalist, vegetarian and pro-choice advocate. Vedder has made his nonbelief widely known. At a July 22, 1998, Pearl Jam concert in Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, Vedder said of the good weather, “I would thank God, but I don’t believe in it.”

    In a UK interview with John Robinson, Vedder noted, “[T]he word ‘religion’ has such bad connotations for me, that it’s been responsible for wars, and it shouldn’t be that way at all, it’s just the way the meaning of the word has evolved to me. I have to wonder what we did on this planet before religion.” (New Musical Express, Jan. 17, 1998.)

    In 2017 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Pearl Jam. Vedder was ranked at number 7 in 2011 on a list of “Best Lead Singers of All Time” compiled by Rolling Stone. In 1994 he married Hovercraft bass player Beth Liebling. They divorced in 2000. He married his longtime girlfriend, model Jill McCormick, in 2010. They have two daughters, Olivia and Harper.

    “People on death row, the treatment of animals, women’s right to choose. So much in America is based on religious fundamentalist Christianity. Grow up! This is the modern world!”

    —Vedder interview with The Guardian (Aug. 13, 2009)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch; photo by Matteo Chinellato,

Freedom From Religion Foundation