Monday, March 22, 2021

Was your ancestor a Freethinker?

The Boston Investigator
Truth, Perseverance, Union, Justice - The Means.  Happiness - The End.  Hear All Sides - then decide.
Devoted to the development and promotion of universal mental liberty

Did you see “Freethinker” describing one of your ancestors in a biographical sketch? Newspaper article? In a flowery Victorian era obituary?
   Did you think it was just an interesting personality trait? A poetic description of your eccentric ancestor? It is time to learn more about the Freethinker Movement, and the entire history of this interesting society!

I had seen my ancestor Romanus Emerson (1782 – 1852) described as a freethinker (or sometimes capitalized as Freethinker) in a compiled genealogy.  I knew he was an atheist and an abolitionist, so I thought that perhaps the author was trying to cover up his controversial, progressive beliefs with a bit of affectation.  But it turns out that this was EXACTLY the proper identification of his beliefs. 

The Freethinkers emerged as a movement in the United States in the early nineteenth century. They took up the cause of Thomas Paine and other earlier deists and atheists at a time when it was still considered blasphemous and sometimes illegal.

In Boston, The Boston Investigator emerged as a Freethinking newspaper, which was founded in 1831 by Abner Kneeland.  Several famous New Englanders such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison and Bronson Alcott all defended Kneeand when he spent 60 days in jail for blasphemy.  My ancestor Romanus Emerson was a friend of Kneeland, and he often wrote for The Investigator. While Kneeland was jailed, the compositor for the newspaper, Horace Seaver, took over as editor, and Seaver eventually ran the newspaper when Kneeland left Boston to establish a utopian community in the mid-West. 

Horace Seaver ran The Investigator for over fifty-one years, and was a best friend to my 4th great grandfather, Romanus Emerson.  It seems that Freethinking ran in families.  My ancestor Romanus Emerson began his career in theology school to prepare for the ministry, just like his famous cousin Ralph Waldo Emerson, but both set aside these plans for more progressive beliefs like Freethinking and philosophy.  Horace Holley Seaver was named for a famous Unitarian minister, and began his career as a minister, too, but turned to journalism to spread his new views through his Freethought newspaper. 

When Horace Seaver’s wife, Celinda Griffin, died in 1858, he held a “social funeral” that was published in The Investigator. It was the pre-cursor to today’s secular memorial services held in funeral homes.  Romanus Emerson had previously died in 1852, and his final wish was to have his friend Seaver read his self-written eulogy instead of having a Christian service and funeral sermon.  These wishes were not kept by Emerson’s family and friends, and so Seaver instead published the eulogy in The Investigator.  Perhaps this cemented his belief in a secular funeral for his freethinking wife.  Today, this is not considered unusual at all. 

In 1836 the Free Thinkers were founded at a national convention in Saratoga Springs, New York.  At the convention of 1845 Seaver brought up the word Infidel to be adopted as a title for all atheists. Seaver and Emerson founded The Infidel Relief Society of Boston.  Seaver even built the Paine Memorial Hall in Boston for the infidels, with offices for his newspaper upstairs, because infidel meetings were not welcome at other theaters.  The Paine Hall became popular with progressive orators of the time, especially with abolitionists like Garrison, and for meetings for woman suffrage. The Infidel Relief Society even hosted dances and social events such as picnics, and met regularly until the Civil War.  From atheist to infidel to Freethinkers, their beliefs were the same, and they continue today. 

Freethinkers definition:  Freethinkers are often defined by their rejection of religion, or at least of any organized form of religion.  The Freedom from Religion Foundation describes a freethinker as someone “who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief”.  Today, freethinking is intricately linked with secularism, atheism, agnosticism, and humanism.

The Cambridge English dictionary: “Someone who forms their own opinions and beliefs, especially about religion or politics, rather than just accepting what is officially or commonly believed or taught”.

The Oxford English dictionary: “…the free exercise of reason in matters of religious belief, unrestrained by deference to authority; the adoption of the principles of a free-thinker”. 

Trivia:  Freethinkers Day is commemorated every year on the birthday of Thomas Paine, January 19th as a day to challenge arbitrary authority and question the status quo.

Famous Freethinkers:

Thomas Paine

Robert Frost

Frederick Douglass

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Benjamin Franklin

Robert Green Ingersoll (famous orator)

Thomas Jefferson

Emma Lazarus

Abraham Lincoln

Albert Einstein


For the Truly Curious:

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby, 2005

Black Freethinkers: A History African American Secularism, by Christopher Cameron, 2019

Annie Laurie Gaylor, “Horace Seaver”, Freedom From Religion Foundation website, (  accessed 13 March, 2021)

A webpage from Boston's West End Museum about Abner Kneeland:   

My blog post about Romanus Emerson’s self written eulogy (that was no read at his funeral) all about his Freethinking beliefs: 



To Cite/Link to this post:  Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Was your ancestor a Freethinker?", Nutfield Genealogy, posted March 23, 2021, ( accessed [access date]). 

1 comment:

  1. I have abolitionist ancestors, so I wonder if they were Freethinkers too. Before helping KS become a free state, they were in Illinois, before that in Michigan, and before that NY. I'm trying to pin down where in NY so I'll look around Seneca and Saratoga Springs. There were several families (Rummery & Richards) who moved in groups and were involved in the Underground Railroad.