Atheism and Activism: The Life and Work of Eliza Mowry Bliven

By Gray, Carole | The Humanist, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

Atheism and Activism: The Life and Work of Eliza Mowry Bliven


Gray, Carole, The Humanist


"Women are the mothers of all the men; and the men will think wrong, choose wrong, and do wrong till the women gain common-sense enough to quit believing and teaching religious follies; and instead, teach from the cradle all through boyhood the real humanitarian principles that underlie all morality, justice, and good citizenship." -Eliza Mowry Bliven, "What Women Ought to Do Instead of Church Work," 1908

Brazen and defiant to the end of her days, Eliza Mowry Bliven spoke out before late nineteenth and early twentieth century audiences and advocated the use of reason over religion in daily life. She predicted that churches would someday be demolished by those who had outgrown the need for superstition and be replaced by "adult schools," where learning would continue after graduation from public schools. She also promoted the study of hygiene and physiology, so that the body and its functions would be better understood and disease more successfully avoided.

More than this, however, Eliza Mowry Bliven encouraged other atheists to become active in their opposition to the superstitions responsible for so much evil both in individual lives and in society. Disgusted by freethought groups whose members congregated only to "growl" about religion, she initiated a society in which action was required, attracting so many members that her Materialist Association became one of the largest freethought groups in the United States.

Bliven was born August 14, 1845, in Massachusetts. Her parents were both freethinkers: her mother, Eliza Angell Mowry, claimed Universalism as her creed but never attended any church; while her father, Daniel, had a considerable reputation throughout New England as a freethought biblical scholar. Ministers would come from miles away to debate him on religion. Little Eliza frequently witnessed the attempts of one minister after another, both orthodox and liberal--sometimes talking throughout the night--to convert her father, only to leave frustrated in the morning, thoroughly matched in their arguments. Watching her father, Eliza learned that all ideas--even those considered most sacrosanct by the public--were open to question and that one must not simply accept the words of authority figures, such as preachers and politicians, but think and research the truth for oneself

Her father was a very interesting man in other ways. Because of his radicalism, Daniel Mowry had been forced to leave his position as a newspaper editor in Providence, Rhode Island, before Eliza's birth. The crowning achievement of his reporting--and the death blow to his success as an editor in Providence--was his public denunciation of the local Methodist minister, who had seduced and then murdered a young woman. To report that a minister had acted so brutally was anathema to the public, even though it was the truth, and Daniel Mowry was forced to flee to Massachusetts.

He next tried farming but wasn't very successful. It was during this time that Eliza was born, rather late in life for her parents, who had both lost partners from previous marriages. Daniel's age and the distress he felt over his business failings contributed to his death while Eliza was yet a child.

Left a widow, Eliza's mother had few career choices as a woman. Taking what she could get, she moved in with relatives in Rhode Island, where she worked cleaning homes in the area. Determined to secure a good education for her daughter, she supplemented her income by taking in sewing, which she could do at night after her cleaning work was finished.

Thanks to her mother, Eliza attended good schools and progressed from student to teacher. The two women continued to live together after Eliza reached adulthood--her mother still cleaning and sewing and Eliza teaching to earn a living.

There is no mention that her mother ever entertained any thoughts of remarriage. Instead, she devoted herself entirely to Eliza, despite the monumental work required for a single woman to earn an income large enough to sustain even a small family. …

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