Heretics in the Heartland: The Freethinker Society of Indianapolis

Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis at the Society for German American Studies Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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Music: “Newsroom” by Riot

Full Text of Lecture

During the late nineteenth century, the Midwest’s religious landscape changed dramatically. Specifically, ideas concerning freethought (open evaluation of religion and its claims) also found an audience within both the general public and formal organizations. This period is often referred to by scholars as the “Golden Age of Freethought,” an era where organized criticism of religion and advocacy of the separation of church and state entered the American mainstream. Lawyer and politician Robert Green Ingersoll, known as the “Great Agnostic,” routinely gave lectures criticizing religion, spirituality, and the influence of the church on American society.

Locally, the most influential element of freethought in Indianapolis was the Freethinker Society, founded by the German-Americans in 1870. As one of the city’s first non-religious organizations, the society facilitated an outgrowth of freethought ideas and practices through educational lectures and social gatherings. As philosophical radicals, the society’s members saw their activism as a corollary of the revolutionary spirit of the Turnvereins, social clubs founded by German immigrants that advocated physical fitness, education, and democratic ideals. Today I’m going to present the society as a case study for understanding the successes and failures of freethought in the central Midwest, with an emphasis on Indiana, during the period.

To begin, we must look at the foundations of German-American freethought, which largely came from one of its most influential spokespersons: Karl Heinzen. Born February 22, 1809, in Grevenbroich, Dusseldorf, Germany and raised Catholic, Heinzen’s education in anatomy at the University of Bonn, informed his growing radicalism. He actively participated in the 1848 revolutions encircling Europe, publishing calls for reforms of the Prussian monarchy. When the movement ultimately failed to enact such reforms, Heinzen left for the United States in 1850. Like many politically radical Germans, attempted to instill his reforms in his new home country. His early attempts at publishing were met with little interest, but with the founding of the Pioneer in 1854, Heinzen found an outlet for his views that would last over 25 years. A radical newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts, the Pioneer regularly published articles that advocated for the end of slavery, African-American emancipation, and a strict separation of church and state.

During his years in the United States, Heinzen cultivated relationships with other religious and political radicals. One such radical was the celebrated Illinois freethinker Robert Ingersoll. They met in 1878 at Ingersoll’s home in Washington, D.C., Heinzen recalled his time with the “Great Agnostic” with both respect and disappointment. While Heinzen  saw Ingersoll’s politics as too conservative, they nevertheless bonded through an appreciation of science, most notably the work German naturalist and philosopher Alexander Friedrich Heinrich von Humboldt.

In fact, Karl Heinzen and Robert Ingersoll both wrote lectures on the ideas of Humboldt for the centennial of his birth on September 14, 1869. Ingersoll delivered his in Peoria, Illinois, and Heinzen delivered his in Boston, Massachusetts. In his speech, Ingersoll focused on Humboldt’s contribution to the expansion of scientific knowledge and his commitment to naturalism and empiricism. Like Ingersoll, Heinzen’s lecture emphasized Humboldt’s stern commitment to science, writing that “all that which does not harmonize with it [science] he declares, indirectly, to be nothing but chimera.” Humboldt defined his world, in Heinzen’s perspective, through understanding nature and its “laws” while rejecting all that is in contrast with materialism. These concepts motivated both lectures and their author’s devotion to the scientific method.

Even though Heinzen resided in Boston, Massachusetts, his ideas spread throughout the Midwest. In particular, Heinzen’s lecture on Humboldt was published by the Association for the Propagation of Radical Principles, an organization in Indianapolis run by Hermann Lieber. This organization, run out of Lieber’s own business, published many lectures by Heinzen and advertised their sale in a local freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast. One that would have a profound, but controversial impact was his 1882 lecture, Separation of State and Church. Heinzen took the Jeffersonian maxim of “separation of church and state” to a different level.

Instead of a mere political interest in separating the state from the church, Heinzen believed that the state should be separate from religious doctrines. In this regard, Heinzen was actually closer to the enlightenment tradition of “freedom of conscience,” a philosophy predicated on the protection of individual beliefs from encroachments by the state. “Religion should be free,” Heinzen exclaimed, “but not a license for infringing the common rights and for breaking the laws of the state.” This prescient distinction between the rights of the individual and privileges bestowed by society would guide the founding documents of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis and their own political advocacy. In all, Heinzen’s revolutionary writings on religion, politics, and society influenced freethinkers throughout the Midwest.

As such an outgrowth, German-Americans Karl Beyschlag, Clemens Vonnegut, and Hermann Lieber, among others, founded the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis on April 3, 1870. The city’s first public non-religious organization, the society used the Socialer Turnverein, a German-American social club at 230 East Maryland Street, as the venue for the majority of their initial meetings. These three men, alongside future society President Philip Rappaport, served as the intellectual bedrock of the society and the Turnverein provided the institutional infrastructure needed for the society’s future growth. To understand their lives is to understand the Freethinker Society.

A professor, postal delivery clerk, and Heinzen devotee, Karl Beyschlag was born in Bavaria and came to the United States as a political refugee. After time in St. Louis and Detroit as a newspaper editor, Beyschlag spent the last 14 years of his life in Indianapolis, using his skills as a writer for local German newspaper publications. Beyschlag, a key figure within the German American freethought community, largely inspired the society’s inception. He believed that the founding of the society could organize all the disparate elements of German freethought within their community, as well as provide education and fellowship for future freethinkers. Further illustrating his commitment to this cause, he wrote the organization’s original constitution and elected as its first permanent lecturer. His death in 1883 cut short his influence within the society, but his impact on the society’s formation was never lost on its members.

Another principal founder, Hermann Lieber, was born in Dusseldorf, Germany. He came to the United States in 1853, later moved to Indianapolis, and built his small framing store into the one of the most respected art dealerships of its era. Like Beyschlag, Lieber read Karl Heinzen’s works and even published some of his lectures, selling them out of the local freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast. In an effort to instill the values of skepticism, athleticism, and education of Heinzen and other German thinkers, Lieber co-founded the more politically radical Socialer Turnverein during the late 1860s. This organization proved essential to the formation and success of the Freethinker Society. Most importantly, he served as one of the Freethinker Society’s earliest organizers. He actively participated in executive committee meetings from its foundation in 1870 and later served as society president from 1875-1879.

Philip Rappaport, while not a principle founder, became one of its most influential members. Born in Fuerth, Bavaria in March 1845, Rappaport moved to Indianapolis in 1870. After a small stint practicing law, Rappaport bought the Indiana Tribüne in 1873, which became the flagship German newspaper in Indianapolis. He served as its editor-in-chief until 1900. He became the President of the Society in 1879 and served for four years. As the most outspoken socialist among the society’s leadership, Rappaport’s own political views were closest to their intellectual fountainhead, Karl Heinzen.

However, the most influential member of the society was Clemens Vonnegut. Born November 20, 1824 in Munster, Westphalia, Vonnegut was educated in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. He came to the United States in the early 1830s, and after a year in New York convinced him that America would be his permanent home, he  traveled to Indianapolis to start a new life. He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered “one of the city’s most respected citizens…” Like Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education, founding the German-English Independent School and serving on its board for over 30 years. He served as the first President of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated Robert Ingersoll’s Open Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolis into German for publication.

The Freethinker Society of Indianapolis had two primary goals: education and advocacy. Education came in the form of lectures, often given by society members, on topics such as socialism, women’s suffrage, science, theology, and American government. The society also devoted resources to schools and extra-curricular youth services. The leadership of the society deeply believed that the success of their organization, and the freethought movement in general, hinged on educating the young in freethought and secularist ideas, so it purchased schoolbooks and established a series of secular schools, including an industrial trade school. and a secular Sunday school. Advocacy came in the form of alliances with national freethought groups and a dedication to the separation of church and state.

As for official membership, Historian George Probst, in The Germans in Indianapolis: 1840-1918, placed the society’s membership at 150. His source was William Holloway’s 1870 history of Indianapolis, who does not cite a source for this numbers. The society’s official minutes never place the membership rolls this high, even as dues decreased. In 1877 and 1878, the minutes recorded their membership at 36 and 47, respectively. 1882 saw its highest numbers at 80. While many non-members attended lectures and volunteered their time, dues paying membership never reached the 150 member mark indicated by Probst and Holloway.

Moving on, educational lectures became one of the most important aspects of the Freethinker Society, providing fellowship and the facilitation of vibrant conversations. The first lecture by a member recorded in the minutes came from Philip Rappaport in 1875. Entitled “What Do We Need?”, Rappaport’s lecture argued for economic protectionism, civil service reform, and the adoption of the Gold Standard as a “remedy for the prevailing evil in the social and political life…” Vonnegut, Lieber, and other members of the society also gave lectures on religion, politics, philosophy, and science. Additionally, if outside lecturers addressed the society, it published an advertisement for them in the local paper.

While lectures provided the majority of its society in-house education, it also held spirited debates and evenings of entertainment. Society members often debated the intricacies of scientific discovery, whether socialism was a viable political system, or, most interestingly, the validity of women’s suffrage. The most fascinating part of these debates involved Philip Rappaport, who changed his mind on whether or not women should have the right to vote. In an 1876 debate at a society meeting, Rappaport gave an “eloquent speech” against women’s suffrage, but by 1882, in another debate, he is in favor. True to the creed of freethought, Rappaport must have changed his mind when the evidence convinced him to. Also, entertainment became a mainstay for the society. Men and their wives who attended meetings often provided singing entertainment.

Alongside education, advocacy for secularism and a freethought worldview motived the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Co-Founder Hermann Lieber wrote a letter to Congress in 1877 protesting a proposed constitutional amendment that recognized Christianity as the official state religion. That same year, the society held a meeting concerning the creation of a possible statewide freethought organization. When these plans never materialized, the society decided to coordinate its activism with freethought organizations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To reach out to the community, they held a 150th anniversary party for the birth of noted freethinker and American Revolutionary Thomas Paine, encouraging all “freethinkers in the city” to attend. Lastly, the society even set aside funds for the printing and dissemination of Karl Heinzen’s freethought lecture “Six Letter to a Godly Man” as an educational tool for the group. In both their educational and advocacy roles, the Freethinker Society stayed very active throughout the 1870s and 1880s.

Paralleling the earlier success of the Freethinker Society, the larger freethought movement in the United States during the 1870s and 1880s also experienced growth and success. The New York Freethinkers Association was founded in 1877 and held its first major convention a year later in Watkins, New York; four years later, the organization grew into the Freethinkers of the United States. In 1885, the National Liberal League became the American Secular Union (ASU), and with Robert Ingersoll as their president, became the nation’s largest freethought organization, with an estimated total membership of 100,000 by 1887. While the national movement seemed poised to grow forever, the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis started to unravel.

In some respects, Philip Rappaport’s resignation as society President in 1883 signaled the beginning of the end. Their shift in the late 1880s into more educational initiatives through the Sunday School, the German English School, and the Industrial Trade School moved their energies away from community outreach, advocacy, and membership growth. As such, the society spread itself too thin and a lack of enthusiasm unfortunately set in. After meager attempts at reform and reorganization, the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis formally dissolved in April of 1890. The organization divided its assets among multiple educational initiatives and charitable organizations within the German American Community.

After the end of the society, Clemens Vonnegut continued his freethought activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction in Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought both in theory and practice. It also displayed a rhetorical flourish that a future member of Vonnegut family would cite as an influence. Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.” However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued that morality was the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.

Clemens Vonnegut died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. Literature icon Kurt Vonnegut, Clemens’s great grandson, recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.

Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city, in Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity, love for knowledge, and his activities within the Socialer Turnverein, the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. In it, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:

I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.

Until the very end, Vonnegut believed the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.

Nearly a century later, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his great grandfather. In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even ruined one of his marriages. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do.” In this statement may be the Clemens Vonnegut’s, and the Freethinker Society’s, greatest legacy.

The Freethinker Society of Indianapolis, and the larger freethought movement, never achieved the immediate notoriety and influence that desired, but it did leave a lasting impact. The Freethinkers Society paved the way for the Indiana Rationalist Association, which carried the torch of freethought into the early twentieth century. Equally important, Clemens Vonnegut’s writings and ideas deeply influenced his family and the literary achievements of his great-grandson, Kurt Vonnegut. The junior Vonnegut’s own Midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences.

Today, if you enter the offices of the Center for Inquiry Indiana, the Indianapolis-based freethought organization, you will see numerous portraits on the walls. Alongside tributes to historic freethinkers like astronomer Carl Sagan and businessman Bill Gates, two sets of portraits are prominent. One is of Robert Ingersoll, the historic infidel, and the other is a section devoted to the founding fathers of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. In a row are Hermann Lieber, Philip Rappaport, Karl Beyschlag, and Clemens Vonnegut. This is not just a kind gesture; it is a testament to the solid foundation the German Americans and Ingersoll built for future freethinkers and the enduring legacy of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. The future, like the past, belongs to the iconoclasts.

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Co-Founder | Reason Revolution
After years of involvement in other secular organizations and podcasting projects, he founded Reason Revolution in June of 2017. He loves studying the history of freethought and its relevance to our current issues. You can contact him at
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