A Flare-up of Atheism in 1849

“No preachers at my funeral, please”

Not long after the dawn of this new century, a New Atheism was born—at least it’s been called that. The best selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett stunned the Christian world: so much eloquent, outspoken criticism of theism. Perhaps the adjective “new” was meant to suggest that it was a fad, but these famous books spurred many other authors. By my count, well over four hundred books have now appeared since 2000, explaining in detail the falsification of theism, Christianity especially. These include, by the way, the five anthologies published by John Loftus—with two more in the works. In 2011, The Clergy Project was established, which is a support group for clergy who have become atheists. If there is no such thing as “new” atheism, there is a new level of energy and determination.


We know that modern atheism has deep roots indeed, as the Wikipedia article on atheism illustrates. And it is delightful to find examples of thinkers who have vigorously resisted Christian’s ubiquitous influence, say, in Boston of all places, in the middle of the 19th century. My daughter is a professional genealogist, and in her researches she came across a stunning obituary, written by Romanus Emerson about three years before his death in 1852; she forwarded it to me. 

The obituary was posted by Heather Wilkinson Rojo on her blog, Nutfield Genealogy. This is her introduction:

“…my 4th great grandfather, Romanus Emerson (1782 - 1852) wrote his own funeral eulogy, with instructions that he NOT be given a Christian funeral or burial. This was ignored by his family, who had Rev. Capen of the Hawes Place Church give a sermon and he was laid to rest in the Hawes Burying Ground in South Boston. Later he was reinterred at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Mattapan where he lays beside his wife, Jemima (Burnham) Emerson (1783 - 1868).  The newspapers across Boston, and Massachusetts, and even across the country, all carried his obituary and the scandalous nature of his funeral where his final wishes were not carried out by friends and family. 

“His final wish was to have a simple burial, and for the editor, Horace Seaver, of the Boston Investigator (a progressive newspaper) to read this self written eulogy or statement.  Romanus was an avowed atheist, or as they were known at the time, an ‘infidel’. This was considered quite improper in Boston.  Horace Seaver was his friend, and Romanus Emerson had written several articles for the Boston Investigator.  Horace Seaver carried this funeral address in the 20 October 1852 issue of the newspaper.” 

Mr. Emerson wanted his funeral to be a learning experience for his friends and relatives. He was emphatic about a few key points, as he explained in the document dated 17 June 1849. I have added bolding:

“To all my nearest relatives who may be my survivors, and to ALL who are relatives or friends who may be my survivors:  

“Being in good health and sound mind, calm and composed, I do hereby, in pursuance of a long and well settled intention, request, order, and direct, that, at the time of my decease, funeral, or burial, or at any time thereafter, there shall be no funeral sermon or other religious discourse delivered at any place on the account of my decease, either by the consent or request of any of the forenamed relatives or friends.  Also, that no priest or minister of the Gospel or pious religionist of any kind be allowed to speak, address, or exhort at the time or during any part of the funeral ceremonies.”

“I am decidedly opposed to the services of a clergyman of any denomination at my own funeral…”

His recommendation: “…honest, liberal, free-thinking men be selected to take charge of the order of the proceedings, in pursuance of the advice and request of my nearest relatives, my survivors.  All which I soberly and seriously enjoin.”

During the years I was working on my graduate degrees in theology and biblical studies—and serving as minister myself in two parishes—I was surrounded by clergy, i.e., enthusiast devotees of the ancient Jesus mystery cult. Truly I had my fill of the nonsense: how does Christ-speak differ from the mumbo-jumbo of so many other cults that thrived at the time Christianity was created? “We’ve got eternal life for you.” Sure.


Mr. Emerson decided to write his own version of enough already! 

“Whereas it is a fact, that daily experience and observation corroborate, that all who are born must die, I have thought it most fit and proper that I should write my own funeral address…that I may leave to my survivors my own sentiments in regard to the order of Nature and what is commonly called Theology.”

Several of his points deserve attention.

·      “I consider that death and decomposition leave us just where we were before we were born; that there is no identity to any of mankind after death and decomposition; that mankind were formed from the elements, or composed of the elements, and as certainly return to the elements; that there is no part or parcel of the creature man that survives his decomposition.” 

Denial of this stark reality fuels religions that promise rescue from death. It’s a pretty hard thing to face, that when you’re dead you’re dead; that no “part or parcel of the creature man” in exempt. And no matter the rituals and ceremonies that priests forever have suggested provide escape, we can suspect that even the many pious folks—in weaker, vulnerable moments—know that it’s all bunk.

Emerson knew that offers of “future bliss” were no match for what could be discovered through rational analysis; that it was wrong to sugar-coat death: 

·      “This, I consider to be the inflexible, unalterable, and universal order of Nature.  To this, mankind must all arrive, without single exception, whether their imaginations are wrought up to a high pitch, in anticipation of future bliss beyond the grave, or whether their reason and philosophy confine their speculations to this world and the system to which it belongs.”

He had no use for speculations about gods:

·      “I consider Theology, so called, a system of deception and fraud, whereby one class of citizens obtain a rich living by exciting the hopes and fears of their fellow beings in regard to a place of happiness and a place of misery somewhere away from this globe or world which we inhabit…”

I suspect that, even in Emerson’s time, the clergy didn’t get rich. But they certainly did obtain their livings by pushing the choice between heaven and hell (“a place of happiness and a place of misery”). In our own time we have seen “rich living” televangelists who have become millionaires, a phenomenon that Emerson could not have imagined.   

Theologians have worked so hard to reinvent God, knocking off the very rough edges of Biblical Yahweh. Paul Tillich came up with “the Ground of All Being,” and others have indulged in similar obfuscation: “God resides outside time and space”—whatever that means (and please show us the data). This came to mind when I saw Emerson’s description of gods:

·      “…beings or existences not material, nondescripts, residing nowhere and yet everywhere present.”

Emerson also had no patience with the Bible; he noted the damage and divisions it has caused, and its poor quality:

·      “Also, said Theology maintains that one of these wonderful beings has written a book called the Bible, and that mankind are bound to believe what that Bible says, upon the penalty of eternal damnation.” 


·      “Out of this Theology, whether Christian, Mahomedan, or Hindoo, have arisen all those belligerent and contending sects, who have in turn destroyed each other and even desolated the fair face of Nature.” 


·      “The morality of said book, the Bible, I believe will not compare, as a whole, with the writings of the ancient philosophers.  Let everyone impartially examine both, and render his own verdict.”

Emerson advises resistance to theology:    

·      “My relatives and friends are hereby exhorted to reject every system of Theology which may be offered for their acceptance, as tending only to distract the mind and lead it away from the cause of humanity.”

…and he recommends the Golden Rule:

“To do as you would wish to be done unto, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is better than all the religious systems of the world put together.  As one who speaks to you from the grave, I exhort you to live peaceably with all mankind; view the whole human family as a universal brotherhood; maintain inflexibly, on every occasion, the truth; and set it down as an invariable consequent, that deception and fraud work their own ruin and give no peace and comfort to the mind.”

Emerson was on target that the failure of education accounts for the ongoing success of religion. 

·      “The individual interest of each is advanced in proportion as each advances the good of the whole.  Seek, therefore, to establish and perpetuate a rational, practical, and useful education for the masses, so that no child shall be without a competent education for the transaction of any business in the ordinary concerns of life.”      


·      “And as children are not responsible for their birth, or the time or place of their birth, or the circumstances which may surround them, the generation who conduct the affairs of the world for the time being are responsible and should give to every child, however poor it may be, a good, rational, and practical education.”   


·      “Nothing will elevate the masses, and raise them to their proper position in the world, but an equal education for one and for all.  Nothing, to my mind, is of so vast importance as this, for the well-being of society and the good of the world.”   


·      “Nothing but this will preserve the free institutions of these United States from decay and corruption.  This being done, free institutions will grow and flourish and improve with their age, and root out the evils which through ignorance they my labor under.”

This last observation struck me especially hard this week. My morale had taken a big hit when I came across this headline:

In Idaho, parents and children burn masks at the Capitol steps

The article reported this:

“Parents cheered and celebrated as their children tossed face masks into a fire outside the Idaho Capitol in Boise over the weekend…

  • The incident happened at a rally where people spoke out against COVID-19 restrictions for the state.
  • Idaho has never adopted a face mask mandate for the entire state. But local counties have implemented restrictions in their own areas.

“Idaho has been something of a hot spot for COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. The state ranked nationally among states with a high amount of cases in July and also in October. In fact, Idaho’s positive test rate led the entire United States at one point, as I wrote about for the Deseret News. Concerns were so high that Oregon worried about people from Idaho crossing over into Oregon.”

Our “free institutions have not grown, flourished and improved with age” as Emerson had hoped. For four years we have watched so many Americans willingly inducted into the Trump cult, with evangelical Christians cheering them on. How can that be if Americans have studied our history—and how our government is supposed to work? And how other demagogues have caused so much damage? 

The arrival of the pandemic has exposed the failure of scientific education especially. More than half a million Americans have died of Covid; only arrogant and aggressive ignorance can explain resistance to vaccines and the enthusiastic burning of masks, with parents “celebrating” as their children did so. 

We are not in a good place in America right now; denialism is rampant. Denial of pervasive racism and sexism especially. But also denial that there is anything wrong with religion, and of the dangers of theocracy. If I may borrow a biblical image: in 1849 Romanus Emerson was a voice crying in the wilderness, which his relatives wanted to silence. His friend Horace Seaver did publish his funeral oration after his death, and it appeared in other newspapers as well. Robert Ingersoll comes to mind as one who carried on the secular tradition later in the 19thcentury. And as I pointed out at the outset, in our new century many voices are now raised to expose the incoherence of Christian theology.

Romanus Emerson can be added to our roster of brave precursors and heroes. 


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.