09 March 2017

What if your ancestors were atheists or agnostics or worshipped at home? Are there any records?

What if your ancestors were atheists or agnostics or worshipped at home? Are there any records?

We so often discuss looking for extant church records when searching for family data.

What if the ancestors were atheists or agnostics or ?!?! and did not worship in a church? Maybe they were Devout Atheists, a discussion about a recently published book, Village Atheists: How America’s unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godley Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

My Great-Great-Aunt Kit might have been, in the parlance of her times, an infidel. In the 1890s, she loaded her scrapbook with the blasphemous speeches of the era’s most famous agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, marking them up with apparent appreciation.

A student of American religious history, I was surprised to find such interest in unbelief among these ancestors because that side of my family is a long line of Ohio farmers. The instincts of my discipline recommend for them a quiet but dogged Methodism, maybe a flash of revivalism here and there.

There is an interview the author published on The Atlantic website which starts out by saying …

In general, Americans do not like atheists. In studies, they say they feel coldly toward nonbelievers; it’s estimated that more than half of the population say they’d be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who didn’t believe in God.

This kind of deep-seated suspicion is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. In his new book, Village Atheists, the Washington University in St. Louis professor Leigh Eric Schmidt writes about the country’s early “infidels”—one of many fraught terms nonbelievers have used to describe themselves in history—and the conflicts they went through. While the history of atheists is often told as a grand tale of battling ideas, Schmidt set out to tell stories of “mundane materiality,” chronicling the lived experiences of atheists and freethinkers in 19th- and 20th-century America.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into many historical facets of those who were actively unaffiliated with religious life.

Or, what if there were no church, or synogue, or other place of worship in a community and so a family worshipped in isolation at home? 

No “religious” records will be found for such individuals and families … are there alternative records?

This proved to be challenging and I was not exhaustive in my searching!

I found a couple of resources, though, rarely records where family historians might find ancestors listed:

·        Ethical society of St. Louis Records, 1880-1986 (The State Historical Society of Missouri), http://shsmo.org/manuscripts/stlouis/s0444.pdf
·        The Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archive (Cranford NJ), https://www.atheists.org/community/library-and-archive -- currently houses nearly 25,000 books, and over 500,000 pamphlets, booklets, periodicals, letters, photographs and other material relevant to our mission. We have an extensive collection of newsletters and other documents representing the history and activities of hundreds of AtheistFreethought organizations at the local, regional and national level. We also maintain and house the Oral History Project of American Atheists, a unique audio-video collection of personal testimonies from individual nonbelievers.
·        Freethought Archives, http://www.ftarchives.net/

In the course of my search, I stumbled across Free-Thinkers Demands as published in the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 19,1884, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1884/12/19/page/7/article/free-thinkers-demands.

I struggled to identify resources for those researching their agnostic, free-thinking, atheistic, humanist or other non-religiously associated ancestors.  Can you help?




What records comparable to church records have you found to document your seemingly non-church going ancestors?











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