Title

Forging a Secular Coalition: The National Liberal League's Battle to Separate Church and State in Late Nineteenth-Century America

Presentation Type

Presentation

Abstract

While writing a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Thomas Jefferson could never have guessed the future impact of the phrase, “a high wall of separation between Church and State.” A widely accepted description of the First Amendment today, this expression only became connected with the sanctity of the secular state towards the end of the nineteenth-century, and only because of efforts made by secular movements like the National Liberal League. This organization, despite the wide range of religious and political beliefs held by its members, became committed to a single cause––the complete separation of church and state—and created one of the most diversified national organizations in the nineteenth-century. Though the movement failed to achieve many of its immediate and material goals, and existed only for a short while, the Liberal League succeeded in increasing public debate on secular issues and shaping many Americans’ understandings of secularism, minority rights, and the meaning behind the First Amendment.

To investigate the history and essence of the National Liberal League’s work, I gathered primary evidence from journals, pamphlets, and newspapers like the League’s main organ The Truth Seeker. I also examined documents and speeches produced by prominent members such as Colonel Robert Ingersoll, D.M. Bennett, B.F. Underwood, and Elizur Wright. Secondary readings provided contextual support. By using the resources available through the University of Montana, I reconstructed the history of American secularism, and the unique position the National Liberal League occupied within it.

Though this exceptional movement operated around one of the most significant phrases in American history, almost no research has been undertaken to gain meaning from the organization’s efforts. My paper and presentation will explore how this organization helped to shape American secularism and why it is so significant to American history.

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Apr 12th, 4:00 PM Apr 12th, 4:20 PM

Forging a Secular Coalition: The National Liberal League's Battle to Separate Church and State in Late Nineteenth-Century America

UC 330

While writing a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Thomas Jefferson could never have guessed the future impact of the phrase, “a high wall of separation between Church and State.” A widely accepted description of the First Amendment today, this expression only became connected with the sanctity of the secular state towards the end of the nineteenth-century, and only because of efforts made by secular movements like the National Liberal League. This organization, despite the wide range of religious and political beliefs held by its members, became committed to a single cause––the complete separation of church and state—and created one of the most diversified national organizations in the nineteenth-century. Though the movement failed to achieve many of its immediate and material goals, and existed only for a short while, the Liberal League succeeded in increasing public debate on secular issues and shaping many Americans’ understandings of secularism, minority rights, and the meaning behind the First Amendment.

To investigate the history and essence of the National Liberal League’s work, I gathered primary evidence from journals, pamphlets, and newspapers like the League’s main organ The Truth Seeker. I also examined documents and speeches produced by prominent members such as Colonel Robert Ingersoll, D.M. Bennett, B.F. Underwood, and Elizur Wright. Secondary readings provided contextual support. By using the resources available through the University of Montana, I reconstructed the history of American secularism, and the unique position the National Liberal League occupied within it.

Though this exceptional movement operated around one of the most significant phrases in American history, almost no research has been undertaken to gain meaning from the organization’s efforts. My paper and presentation will explore how this organization helped to shape American secularism and why it is so significant to American history.