Rethinking Freethought in the Early United States
From its beginnings, the United States witnessed a flourishing religious diversity along with the anxious impulse to contain it. Americans in the 1790s and beyond accused one another of harboring religious beliefs incompatible with patriotism. One religious freethinker, an intrepid young man who lost his eyesight to yellow fever in 1793, traveled up and down the coast to give lectures on his unusual belief about the universe. Inspired by eastern religions and also by the new science coming out of Europe, Elihu Palmer believed that everything is made of the same, sensate matter. We all share the same fate, he said: what one does to one creature, one does to the eternal substance that makes up all things. Palmer believed his insights would lead to radical generosity, but his contemporaries thought otherwise—they denounced him as a dangerous heretic. Kirsten Fischer, Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, will speak about this remarkable freethinker, once notorious and then largely forgotten, whose life story shows how religious freethought developed in tandem with the efforts to suppress its public expression.
Kirsten Fischer is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota where she is an award-winning teacher and the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships. Her work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has shared her research in a variety of publications, including the William and Mary Quarterly and the Revue Française D'Études Américaines. Prof. Fischer has presented her work in France, Italy, Germany, and Canada, and she was hosted for two years at the University of Heidelberg’s Center for American Studies, once as a Fulbright scholar. Next spring, she will be a visiting professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. Over the course of her career, different questions have emerged as most compelling, leading her to pursue research projects very distinct from one another. Underlying all her work is a fascination with the experiences of ordinary (non-elite) people who participated in struggles of historic importance. Her first book, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina, showed the development of racial thinking in a slave society. Intimate relationships among ordinary people—white, free black, and enslaved—and the laws that either outlawed or overlooked these, codified the caste system and made race seem real. Her most recent book, American Freethinker, is the biography of a once-notorious public speaker whose attacks on Christianity pushed for freedom of speech.
Kirsten Fischer, American Freethinker: Elihu Palmer and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the New Nation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)
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