Saturday, May 28, 2011

atheism and liberalism in the 1800's

My great-great-great-great-grandfather Reuben Thurston was born in 1806 in Vermont.  As a child, he moved with his family to Ohio, where he later married and began raising his family.  In 1856, he moved to Minnesota, where he remained until his death in 1880.  Throughout his adulthood, he was a successful farmer.

Reuben's parents were devout Methodists (his father, Peter, was a deacon in the church).  The religious upbringing of Reuben and his siblings apparently did not bide well for all of them.  Several of them remained with the Methodist church, but others rebelled against the teachings.  Reuben's brother Thomas Thurston became a Mormon in the 1840's and later a polygamist and a pioneer of Utah.

Reuben's religious beliefs went the opposite way, and he became what could today be called an atheist, agnostic or spiritualist.  He was referred to by his contemporaries as a "free thinker" and "independent."  Specifically, he "discredited the Bible as a revelation but held to the great first cause, God, as revealed in nature only."  He and his family attended no church and identified with no particular Christian denomination, a position that might be unremarkable today but in the mid-1800's would have been controversial and peculiar.  Instead of religion, Reuben advocated morality.

While living in Ohio, Reuben was a member (or at least a supporter) of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, which was intent on not only abolishing slavery in the United States but also establishing laws to protect African-Americans after they were free.  This particular stance required courage and conviction, since most Ohioans were against them.  On one occasion in 1836, the group was having its annual meeting in Granville, Ohio (near where Reuben lived) but they were refused to have the meeting in the town, so instead held it in a barn outside the town limits, which was subsequently mobbed and attacked.  Members of the group were over time killed by mob violence.

Reuben was acknowledged as peculiar and liberal by his contemporaries, but in spite of disagreements on issues, he was well-respected.  He apparently excelled at debating and upholding his moral positions.  It was later said that "in the days of his full mental power, there were few indeed who cared to encounter his keen logic."

My descent from Reuben:

Reuben H. Thurston
-Irvin H. Thurston
--Julia M. Thurston
---Neil F. Bixby
----Patricia J. Bixby
-----Barbara A. Plymale
------Ryan J. Wadleigh

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