Priestess of Beelzebub

[W]henever we establish our own pretensions upon the sacrificed rights of others, we do in fact impeach our own liberties, and lower ourselves in the scale of being.
— Frances Wright, Course of Popular Lectures, 1829Subsequent italicised quotes are from the same source. I’m reproducing them from Women Without Superstition, Annie Laurie Gaylor ed., pp 33-45. More quotes can be found here.

I am not going to question your opinions. I am not going to meddle with your belief. I am not going to dictate to you mine. All that I say is, examine, inquire. Look into the nature of things. Search out the grounds of your opinions, the for and against. Know why you believe, understand what you believe, and possess a reason for the faith that is in you.

On 4 July 1828 at Robert Owen’s New Harmony community in Indiana, Frances “Fanny” Wright (1795-1852) became the first woman in America to address a mixed audience at a public eventI’ve seen in a few places the claim that Wright was the first female public speaker in America. However, I’ve also seen a reference to a female itinerant Baptist preacher, Nancy Towle, who started out around 1810 and who soon had several female protégés. Perhaps religious speakers are not part of the calculation according Wright primacy? I don’t think Towle only addressed women’s groups as it says that she preached before the US Congress. My information on Towle comes from Awash in a Sea of Faith by Jon Butler, a study of the development of Christianity in America..

Inspired by her disgust at revival meetings of the time, her career as a lecturer on behalf of freethought and women’s equality began less than two months later in Cincinnati. In the introduction to the book collecting her early lectures which was published in 1829, she wrote:

The city of Cincinnati had stood for some time conspicuous for the enterprise and liberal spirit of her citizens, when, last summer, by the sudden combination of the clergy of three orthodox sects, a revival, as such scenes of distraction are wont to be styled, was opened in houses, churches, and even on the Ohio river. The victims of this odious experiment on human credulity and nervous weakness, were invariably women. Helpless age was made a public spectacle, innocent youth driven to raving insanity, mothers and daughters carried lifeless from the presence of the ghostly expounders of damnation ; all ranks shared the contagion, until the despair of Calvin’s hell itself seemed to have fallen upon every heart, and discord to have taken possession of every mansion.

A circumstantial account of the distress and disturbance on the public mind in the Ohio metropolis led me to visit the afflicted city ; and since all were dumb, to take up the cause of insulted reason and outraged humanity.

The consequences of the course of lectures I then first delivered, on three successive Sundays, in the Cincinnati courthouse, and re-delivered in the theatre, were similar to those which have been witnessed elsewhere ;—a kindling of wrath among the clergy, a reaction in favor of common sense on the part of their followers, an explosion of public sentiment in favor of liberty, liberality, and instructional reform, and a complete exposure of the nothingness of the press, which, at a time when the popular mind was engrossed by questions of the first magnitude, sullenly evaded their discussion, betraying alike ignorance the most gross, and servility the most shameless. All that I then observed, conspired to fix me in the determination of devoting my time and labour to the investigation and exposure of existing evils and abuses, and to the gradual developement of the first principles of all moral and physical truth, every where so perplexed and confounded by the sophistry of false learning, the craft of designing knavery, and the blunders of conceited ignorance.

She set out on a tour giving lectures as far west as St. Louis before returning to the East Coast for stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Among the epithets she received in the press were: “Priestess of Beelzebub”, “a female monster”, and “The Red Harlot of Infidelity”. She was said to be “a bold blasphemer, and a voluptuous preacher of licentiousness … impervious to the voice of virtue, and case-hardened against shame!”Press epithets for Wright are quoted in Women Without Superstition, p 33,35. The book does not supply specific references. In return, Wright cited as one of the “strong holds” of the “citadel of human error”: “the ineptness and corruption of the public press, ridden by ascendant influences, until it is abandoned alike by the honest and the wise, and left in the hands of individuals too ignorant to distinguish truth, or too timid to venture its utterance.”That sound you just heard was Bob Somerby swooning.

A necessary consequent of religious belief is the attaching ideas of merit to that belief, and of demerit to its absence. Now here is a departure from the first principle of true ethics. Here we find ideas of moral wrong and moral right associated with something else than beneficial action. The consequent is, we lose sight of the real basis of morals, and substitute a false one. Our religious belief usurps the place of our sensations, our imaginations of our judgment…. We no longer look to actions, trace their consequences, and then deduce the rule; we first make the rule, and then, right or wrong, force the action to square with it.

An example of the kind of clerical opinion which Wright was fighting can be found in the following excerpt from an 1837 pastoral letter from the General Association for Congregationalist churches in Massachusetts (I have no reference as to whether or not the author might have Wright specifically in mind). As far as I am aware, Congregationalism tends to be a fairly liberal denomination. The letter was reprinted in A History of Woman Suffrage, the massive documentary history of the suffrage movement edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage; the exclamation points were added by those editorsI’m reproducing the letter as found in Women Without Superstition, p 643-4..

We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with wide-spread and permanent injury.

The appropriate duties and influence of women are clearly stated in the New Testament. Those duties and that influence are unobtrusive and private, but the sources of mighty power. When the mild, dependent, softening influence of woman upon the sternness of man’s opinions is fully exercised, society feels the effects of it in a thousand forms. The power of woman is in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection, (!) and which keeps her in those departments of life that form the character of individuals, and of the nation. There are social influences which females use in promoting piety and the great objects of Christian benevolence, which we cannot too highly commend.

We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of woman in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad; in Sabbath-schools; in leading religious inquirers to the pastors (!) for instruction; and in all such associated effort as becomes the modesty of her sex; and earnestly hope that she may abound more and more in these labours of piety and love. But when she assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary; we put ourselves in self-defence (!) against her; she yields the power which God has given her for her protection, and her character becomes unnatural. If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis work, and half conceal its clusters, thinks to assume the independence and the overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor into the dust. We can not, therefore, but regret the mistaken conduct of those who encourage females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers. We especially deplore the intimate acquaintance and promiscuous conversation of females with regard to things which ought not to be named; by which that modesty and delicacy which is the charm of domestic life, and which constitutes the true influence of women in society, is consumed, and the way opened, as we apprehend, for degeneracy and ruin.

We say these things not to discourage proper influences against sin, but to secure such reformation (!) as we believe is scriptural and will be permanent.

I purpose to develope with you that just rule of life, which no system of religion ever taught, or can ever teach; which exists apart from all faith, all creeds, and all written laws, and which can alone be found by following, with an open eye, a ready ear, and a willing heart, the steps of knowledge; by exercising the senses, faculties, and feelings, which appertain to our own nature; and, instead of submitting our reason to the authority of fallible teachers, by bringing always the words of all books and all teachers to the test of our reason.

7 Responses to “Priestess of Beelzebub”


  • and a complete exposure of the nothingness of the press, which, at a time when the popular mind was engrossed by questions of the first magnitude, sullenly evaded their discussion, betraying alike ignorance the most gross, and servility the most shameless.

    Amazing how, ignorant of history, we are doomed to repeat it.

  • and a complete exposure of the nothingness of the press, which, at a time when the popular mind was engrossed by questions of the first magnitude, sullenly evaded their discussion, betraying alike ignorance the most gross, and servility the most shameless.

    Amazing how, ignorant of history, we are doomed to repeat it.

  • and a complete exposure of the nothingness of the press, which, at a time when the popular mind was engrossed by questions of the first magnitude, sullenly evaded their discussion, betraying alike ignorance the most gross, and servility the most shameless.

    Amazing how, ignorant of history, we are doomed to repeat it.

  • and a complete exposure of the nothingness of the press, which, at a time when the popular mind was engrossed by questions of the first magnitude, sullenly evaded their discussion, betraying alike ignorance the most gross, and servility the most shameless.

    Amazing how, ignorant of history, we are doomed to repeat it.

  • and a complete exposure of the nothingness of the press, which, at a time when the popular mind was engrossed by questions of the first magnitude, sullenly evaded their discussion, betraying alike ignorance the most gross, and servility the most shameless.

    Amazing how, ignorant of history, we are doomed to repeat it.

  • She really lets the chunderwaffles have it. What a supastar. I would love to see her debate Hitchens, even if they agreed on something, he’d still be mincemeat.

  • #

    most gross, and servility the most shameless.

    Amazing how, ignorant of history, we are doomed to repeat it.
    # 6 Pinko Punko May 31st, 2007 at 10:00 am

    She really lets the chunderwaffles have it. What a supastar. I would love to see her

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