William Lloyd Garrison

December 12

William Lloyd Garrison (1805)

It was also on this date, December 12, 1805, that the great American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Apprenticed early on to a printer, he rose to become editor of several journals after becoming involved in the early fight against slavery, a socially destructive institution the churches had long ignored — when they did not outright support it. While co-editor of Benjamin Lundy's anti-slavery paper, Genius of Universal Emancipation, Garrison criticized a merchant involved in the slave trade and was imprisoned for libel.

He later founded and edited the Boston Liberator, whose motto was: "Our country is the world — our countrymen are mankind," based on a quotation by Thomas Paine. Garrison was influenced not only by the Deist Paine, but by skeptical feminists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone. He harshly criticized the churches, north and south, for neglecting to condemn slavery — some of the churches actually owned slaves — and in return the southern churches put a bounty on his head.

Garrison himself never went to church. In the biography written by his children, he is described as a Theist who had "quite freed himself from the trammels of orthodoxy."* Even the Unitarians disliked Garrison. He died on 24 May 1879. It was William Lloyd Garrison who said, "All Christendom professes to receive the Bible as the word of God, and what does it avail?"**

* William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children, 4 vols., 1885–89, IV, p. 336.
** Quoted in Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.

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Gustave Flaubert (1821)

It was on this date, December 12, 1821, that French novelist of the Realist school, Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen into a family of doctors. Naturally he began to train for a medical career, but rebelled against that, took up law, failed his exams, and turned to literature. He lived with his mother until he was 50.

Flaubert became a meticulous writer, so that his novels numbered only five. But he received world-wide recognition when Madame Bovary appeared as two volumes in 1857. Or perhaps it was notoriety that won him recognition: Flaubert was tried but acquitted on charges of immorality for the same novel. His anti-clerical feelings, not to say his Atheism, suffuses all of Flaubert's novels, but is especially apparent in his 1874 Temptation of St. Anthony, based on the life of the 4th century cleric but inspired by a Brueghel painting. Flaubert's letters also provide a window on his skepticism.

He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on 8 May 1880. It was Gustave Flaubert who said, "It is necessary to sleep upon the pillow of doubt."*

* Quoted in Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion', 1945, repr. 1972.

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Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin (1731)

Finally, it was on this date, December 12, 1731, that British physiologist, and grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin was born in Nottinghamshire. He was educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh. His medical practice became so respected that he was invited, though he declined, to be personal physician to King George III. Erasmus Darwin was also a well known poet, philosopher, botanist, and naturalist. He founded the Philosophical Society in Derby.

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

—Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature, 1802.

"In regard to religious matters," he wrote, "there is an intellectual cowardice instilled into the minds of the people from their infancy; to inquire or exert their reason is denounced as sinful."* Erasmus Darwin helped to revive interest in the old Greek idea of evolution with his Deistic Zoonomia (1794), which was written in verse. The Temple of Nature, published posthumously (1802), and also written in verse, further explored evolutionary ideas that were adopted and expanded by his grandson some 60 years later.

He died on 18 April 1802 at age 70, six years before Charles Darwin was born. It was Erasmus Darwin who said, "Many theatrical preachers ... successfully inculcate the fear of death and hell, and live luxuriously on the folly of their hearers. The latter have so much intellectual cowardice that they dare not reason about those things which they are directed by their priests to believe."**

* Quoted in Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.
** Quoted in James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 1996.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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