D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker

D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker

By Roderick Bradford
Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006. Hardcover, 410 pages

If secular sainthood were possible, then surely DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818-1882) deserves to be canonized. Bennett was arguably the most active, productive, and effective promoter of free thought in the last quarter of the nineteenth century-the quarter that also saw the formation of the Theosophical Society.

Free thought is the principle that all of us have the right to have views, especially about religion, that vary from the conventional opinions of the society in which we live. Free thought rejects the right of authority to limit our conscience, whether that authority is of the state or the church, or some miscegenation of the two. Free thought holds that dogma must give way to rational inquiry. D. M. Bennett is the saint of free thought, though he himself would doubtless have been nonplussed at the idea.

At the age of 14, DeRobigne, then fatherless and on his own, fell in with some friendly Shakers and joined their community in New Lebanon, New York. The Shakers (officially, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) were an eighteenth-century offshoot of the Quakers who lived spartanly in self-sufficient communities. Because they were celibate, the communities grew by converts, and welcomed orphans and homeless youths. Their worship included group dancing, shaking (hence their popular name), whirling, and singing in tongues. For a time they practiced a sort of proto-spiritualism, by which they received spiritual messages as guidance.

DeRobigne Bennett spent thirteen years in the New Lebanon Shaker community, but in his mid-twenties, he eloped with a Shaker girl, Mary Wicks, whom he married. Although officially apostates, DeRobigne and Mary never lost their fondness for their Shaker friends and in later years often visited the community, which in turn supported Bennett during some of his most difficult trials. In the outside world, Bennett discovered the writings of Thomas Payne and by them was converted to a life of reason and free thought. He eventually founded a periodical whose name, The Truth Seeker, was suggested by his wife.

Through the pages of The Truth Seeker, Bennett launched campaign after campaign to challenge orthodoxy and promote an open examination of life. His antithesis and nemesis was a dry-goods salesman of little talent or intelligence but of great ambition named Anthony Comstock. Comstock formed an alliance with the Young Men's Christian Association in New York and founded a Society for the Suppression of Vice. His aim was to rid the nation of obscenity and blasphemy, and to that end, he lobbied Congress to pass censorship laws and got himself appointed as a legal authority for the Post Office. He was so effective in that role that his name has entered the English language in the form "Comstockery" as a term for censorious opposition to alleged immorality in literature or life.

Comstock's real argument with Bennett was that Bennett promoted the free expression of opinion, whereas Comstock wanted to censor all views incompatible with his own. Bennett was, in Comstock's view, a literally damned blasphemer against Christianity and the social order. The First Amendment, however, made it difficult to prosecute Bennett for such "crimes." So Comstock took another tack. Bennett's periodical was selling mail-order copies of a book titled Cupid’s Yokes, which argued that the institution of marriage should be abandoned. Its thesis was not one with which Bennett agreed, but he sold the book in accordance with the Voltairean motto “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The same book was being sold in many bookshops, but because Bennett distributed copies by mail, Comstock was able to have him arrested, tried, and convicted on a charge of disseminating obscene matter.

Bennett spent thirteen months in the Albany Penitentiary under conditions that seriously affected his health. Although President Rutherford B. Hayes pardoned the author of Cupid's Yokes, earlier convicted of writing obscenities in that book, he refused to pardon Bennett. Yet Bennett had only distributed the book, and Hayes was presented with a petition for pardon containing 230,000 names, including those of Shakers, who stood loyally by their former fellow. Bennett's imprisonment quite reasonably earned him the reputation of being a martyr for the free thought cause. And when he had completed his sentence and was released, Bennett was greeted by the free-thought community as a hero.

Throughout his imprisonment, Bennett had produced a steady stream of writings. After his release, he began a tour around the world, sending home letters that were compiled into four volumes of travelogue, critique of censorship, and promotion of free thought. The highlight of that trip was his visit to the Founders of the Theosophical Society in Bombay, where Bennett joined the Society. The longest chapter in this book is one describing the background to the events that led to Bennett's trial and imprisonment. The second longest chapter is that describing his contact with the Theosophists (and it is based on material the author earlier published in The Quest).

Bennett was a heartfelt friend of both Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. But even more noteworthy is the fact that the Masters also valued and respected him. One of the latter said that Bennett was "one of our agents (unknown to himself) to carry out the scheme for the enfranchisement of Western thoughts from superstitious creeds" (Mahatma Letters, no. 37). And another wrote of him: "Few men have suffered--and unjustly suffered--as he has; and as few have a more kind, unselfish and truthful a heart. ... [He] is an honest man and of a sincere heart, besides being one of tremendous moral courage and a martyr to boot" (Mahatma Letters, no. 43).

Bennett was not the sort of free thinker who rejects conventional religion only to be converted to an equally blind devotion to materialism. Bennett was a true free thinker, that is, one who was open to possibilities beyond those recognized by the establishments of either church or science. He was true to the creed of Thomas Paine, who said, "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good," and to the motto of the Theosophical Society: "There is no religion higher than truth." He was a man whom Theosophists everywhere can be proud to hail as a brother and Fellow.

Rod Bradford's highly readable and engaging book reveals a man who is strikingly relevant to our times-politically, socially, and intellectually--for today we face the same sort of intolerance that Bennett did in his day. Comstockery, McCarthyism, and demagoguery are not dead; they still stalk our society and government at all levels. More than ever, we need the spirit of D. M. Bennett to defend the liberty on which this country was founded and is based.