Im Licht der Vernunft: Der deutsch-amerikanische Freidenker-Almanach von 1878-1901

By Peterson, Brent | German Quarterly, April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Im Licht der Vernunft: Der deutsch-amerikanische Freidenker-Almanach von 1878-1901


Peterson, Brent, German Quarterly


Rampelmann, Katja. Im Licht der Vernunft: Der deutsch-amerikanische FreidenkerAlmanach van 1878-1901. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2003.313pp. euro38.00 hardcover.

One of the best arguments for history is that accounts of the past force us to acknowledge how different things used to be. For example, while very few of us really want to return to the days before indoor plumbing and central heating, it is refreshing to learn that Christian fundamentalism was not always a dominant force in American religion. For much of the 19th century, intellectual excitement and fervor was on religion's left wing; both the separation of church and state and the testing of religious dogma against new discoveries in science were topics of reasoned debate. Not that the belligerently pious kept quiet. As Kat ja Rampelmann informs us in her extremely useful survey of German free-thinkers in America, some early opponents of rationalism and materialism reacted with invective that could have been written yesterday rather than in an outraged reader's letter to the editor of Der Humanist in 1852: "Herr Satan! Ich habe Ihren Schmutzlappen empfangen und beeile mich sehr, Ihnen denselben wieder zuruckzuschicken. Aus der Holle selbst kann nichts Abscheulicheres, Schlechteres, Gotteslasterlicheres und Verworfeneres kommen, als aus Ihrer Feder-welcher Unsinn!" (99).

Fortunately, Rampelmann is not much interested in the controversy; instead she concentrates of the history of the free-thinker movement and its development in the US. While she is quick to point out that no single doctrine united all free thinkers, the movement essentially united the political liberals and radicals of Vormärz with their counterparts among theologians, pastors, and the laity. Of course, the fact of established religion in Germany meant that it was difficult to draw a line between the church and the state, but we tend to think of religious dissidents in the mold of New England Puritans rather than the German Lichtfreunde. Rationalist Protestants and Catholics wanted to reform or replace existing churches not by returning to biblical values but rather by applying human reason to questions of theology and morality. Their heroes were men like Ludwig Feuerbach, David Friedrich Strauft, and Charles Darwin, and since they had no more success changing German churches than they had changing politics in the years after 1848, a not inconsiderable number of leaders and followers ended up in the US, initially on the East Coast but later in the Midwest. …

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