After D. M. Bennett died in 1882, Eugene M. Macdonald became the editor of The Truth Seeker.
The following year The Truth Seeker faced a series of crises that nearly caused it to be discontinued.
Among freethinkers there existed a broad divergence of opinions as to economic, political, and social questions. Even
a letter printed in The Truth Seeker by Robert Ingersoll explaining his Republican opinion on political
matters caused readers to cancel subscriptions. Macdonald learned early in his career as editor that he had to tread
lightly around politics.
During Eugene Macdonald's tenure, The Truth Seeker remained moderate on economic
and political issues, avoiding populism and socialism. It remained steadfast and radical in maintaining separation of
church and state. As editor of New York's most outspoken freethought and reform journal, Macdonald learned firsthand
the effects of the alliance between church and state. In 1888 the editor was denied the right to vote because of his
refusal to swear on the Bible.
Eugene Macdonald's tenure as editor coincided with the birth of the militant labor movement
in the United States. The Truth Seeker never hesitated in its attack on monopoly capitalists and supported
labor reform and workers' rights. As early as 1877, D. M. Bennett saw a conflict on the horizon between capital
and labor and castigated the "designing monopolists" and the "monied aristocracy" who, like Vanderbilt, were "rolling in affluence
while the masses are stung with poverty and hunger."
Like his mentor D. M. Bennett, Macdonald recognized the inequities of American society
and continued to promote labor reform, and recognized and spoke out against the glaring disparity that he witnessed daily
in the city of "magnificence and squalor," as he characterized New York.
In 1886 the Haymarket tragedy attracted widespread newspaper coverage and became a cause
celebre for the nation's freethinkers. During a peaceful gathering of striking workers at Haymarket Square in Chicago,
a bomb was thrown, killing several civilians and eight police officers. Although the bomb thrower was never apprehended,
the social revolutionaries or "anarchists" who organized the protest were arrested and later hanged.
When it was learned that one of the anarchists was a member of the Chicago Liberal League, the
religious press began associating anarchism with atheism. The tragedy cause antagonism toward anarchists and freethinkers
– dividing the country and creating America's first "Red Scare."
It took courage to defend the convicted anarchists whose trial was one of the most unfair in
the annals of American jurisprudence. Macdonald, who wrote passionately in defense of Bennett years earlier, maintained
that the Haymarket defendants were convicted for their "opinions" and asserted: "The police by perjury connected the defendants
with some wretch who threw a bomb, the lower court by partiality secured their conviction, and the higher court by sophistry
sustains the verdict."
Macdonald's philosophy of life was formulated from the teachings of Stephen Pearl Andrews, one
of America's most prominent individualist anarchists and a close friend of Bennett and the Macdonald family. Although
Eugene was a lifelong disciple of Andrews's doctrine of individual sovereignty, he had no sympathy for violent extremists.
His initial response to the Haymarket tragedy exposed his naivete when he wrote, "Even in war, no nation would use such horribly
murderous weapons as dynamite bombs."
During Macdonald's watch The Truth Seeker aggressively campaigned against church-sponsored
laws that restricted citizens from enjoying social activities on Sunday, their only day off from work. Macdonald believed
that Sunday laws were some of the most restrictive and menacing laws ever enacted.
In 1891 The Truth Seeker played a pivotal role in securing the opening of New York
museums on Sunday (a major triumph for freethinkers during the late nineteenth century, when religionists had a stranglehold
on American society). "We have too much liberty," a clergyman with whom Macdonald debated the archaic Sunday laws declared
in a newspaper. But when Macdonald asked the clergyman what "liberty" he would be willing to give hp, he had no reply.
It was due to Macdonald's level-headed methods that The Truth Seeker kept afloat during
the latter part of the nineteenth century. Assessing Macdonald's important contributions to The Truth Seeker,
his brother George wrote: "Institutions have their founders, and generally their saviors. Bennett and E. M. Macdonald
played those parts. He always kept his balance, never leaning either way to get the favor of radical or conservative,
nor committing The Truth Seeker to any advocacy but Free Thought, Free Speech, and Free Press."
Eugene Macdonald died at the age of fifty-four on February 26, 1909. It is fitting that
the man who devoted his life to promoting individual sovereignty and fighting for civil liberties for his fellow Americans
died in a small village in upstate New York called Liberty.
George E. Macdonald succeeded his brother as editor of The Truth Seeker, the only significant
freethought publication left in America (the Boston Investigator, the oldest and most influential freethought journal
in the nation, had suspended publication in 1904 and merged with The Truth Seeker).
Freethought was still an unpopular cause and the twentieth century posed a new series of complicated
challenges for the movement. In 1909, the year George Macdonald became editor, the centenary of Thomas Paine's death
was celebrated. Serving as the primary organ to keep enthusiasm for the author-hero alive, The Truth Seeker
proudly reported Paine's influence was "steadily growing."
That year also marked the one hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. The evolutionist's
influence, however, was still being debated and would not come into prominence in America for another decade and a half.
One of the most shocking event to confront the world's freethinkers and reminiscent of the Spanish
Inquisition was the execution in 1909 of Francisco Ferrer, the freethinking Spanish educator. Ferrer's rationalistic
approach to teaching that excluded religious dogma infuriated Spain's powerful and pious government officials.
The Truth Seeker was in the vanguard in recognizing Ferrer's "modern" philosophy of
education and in exposing the injustice suffered by the educator, that Macdonald reported was "instigated by the church."
The periodical began publicizing Ferrer's persecution during his trial in 1906; the case became a cause celebre for intellectuals,
scholars, and humanitarians.
While the world's leading newspapers and magazines remained mute or indifferent during Ferrer's
trial and execution by firing squad, Macdonald aggressively defended the educator and was relentless in his condemnation of
the persecutors. The Truth Seeker gave voice to the world's freethinkers who were outraged at Ferrer's
execution by church and state.
During World War I, free speech was suppressed in America. Despite difficulties,
The Truth Seeker refused to let truth become a casualty during the war years. As they did during the
Haymarket tragedy and in response to the McKinley assassination, some religious leaders denounced freethought. Outrageous
statements by prominent priests and pastors such as "Darwin caused the war" and "atheists will be the first to be shot in
the back when forced to go to war by conscription" were reported in The Truth Seeker. (Editor George Macdonald's
sons volunteered and served honorably.)
The Truth Seeker remained patriotic, fiercely loyal, and above reproach; nevertheless,
it was repeatedly suppressed for advocating secularism. The Truth Seeker consistently reported the
religious rhetoric of political leaders who claimed to have God on their side. George Macdonald's hard-hitting editorials
exposing church graft and his unwavering attacks on the unethical actions of the YMCA and the Salvation Army earned the publication
intense scrutiny. After an associate editor took issue with an Illinois governor over a religious argument, the solicitor
of the post office in Washington pronounced The Truth Seeker "unmailable under the Espionage Act." When the
editor of the magazine the Nation came to The Truth Seeker's defense, it was also excluded from the United
The birth of "fundamentalism" in 1922 was initially thought by many freethinkers to be just
another innocuous denomintational religious movement within the church. But when the "curious phenomenon," as Macdonald
described it, declared war on science and began aggressively campaigning against evolution, the editor fought back.
Charles Darwin's scientifically established facts of evolution were promoted in The Truth Seeker since its
inception. "The Truth Seeker," Macdonald wrote, "has been in the thick of the fight, and had dealt many effective
blows against the champions of obscurantism."
Not since D. M. Bennett's 1879 trial had the periodical gone to such an extent as it did while
covering the Scopes Trial in Tennessee. Clarence Darrow (a second-generation subscriber) staged a brilliant cross-examination
of William Jennings Bryan and filled six columns in The Truth Seeker. Some of the nation's newspapers called
the trial a "tragedy"; others a "comedy." One dubbed it a "comical tragedy." George Macdonald characterized it
as "an inquisition" and predicted from the outset that the teacher would be convicted.
By the 1920s The Truth Seeker was no longer self-supporting and George Macdonald depended
on donations to continue publishing. The stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent economic collapse forced the
editor to curtail production; the weekly became a monthly in 1930.
Another dilemma faced by the elderly editor was whom to leave in charge of the publication,
a concern neither D. M. Bennett nor Eugene Macdonald had needed to confront. The fact that the periodical was no longer
a moneymaking endeavor limited the possibilities of finding a worthy candidate to sit in the editor's chair of what had become
the world's oldest freethought publication. "There is admonition against crossing a bridge until you come to it," Macdonald
wrote, "but there is a bridge not far ahead, and it may be down."
A militant group of freethinkers emerged in the 1920s. Stifled by Draconian laws restricting
free speech during the war, these unremitting atheists lashed out against Roman Catholicism, fundamentalism, and other religious
revivals that threatened progress. Their public street speaking and confrontational manner terrified religionists.
One of these radicals was Charles Lee Smith, who began contributing articles to The Truth
Seeker in 1923 and selling the journal on the streets of New York, where he was arrested three times in 1924. In
1925 Smith, along with two other contributors, Freeman Hopwood and Woolsey Teller, organized the American Association of the
Advancement of Atheism, or the 4As, as it was known.
In 1937 the eighty-year-old Grand Old Man of Freethought – as George Macdonald is fondly
remembered – reluctantly turned the monthly over to Charles Smith. Macdonald did not share Smith's militancy,
but he admired his fortitude and determination.
"He [Smith] has lectured and been hissed, debated and lost the decision, taken the aggressive
and been repulsed, agitated and landed in jail, talked Atheism and been convicted of blasphemy, attempted the enlightenment
of a prophet of God [Aimee Semple McPherson] and been fined for his pains. And he thinks the Four-A's will win the world,"
the veteran editor wrote.
Although George Macdonald did not describe himself as an atheist, he also never denied the accusation.
"That means without God," he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "Why should I say I am without a God
any more than I would say I am without a devil, a spook or without whatever you can think of?"
George Macdonald continued as editor emeritus and contributed his "Observations" column until
his death at the age of eighty-seven on July 13, 1944. "He was the central and abiding factor in American Freethought
of half a century," Smith declared.
"The world owes an enormous debt to the fighters for human freedom," Clarence Darrow wrote about
George Macdonald and his fellow freethinkers. "And we cannot suffer their names to be forgotten now that we are reaping
the fruits of their intelligence."
Charles Smith was publisher of The Truth Seeker from 1937 until 1964. Although
Smith was a courageous atheist, he was also a racist; the once venerable publication became a soapbox for Smith's narrow-minded
ideology. In 1964 James Hervey Johnson, a San Diego bookstore owner and former county tax assessor who shared Smith's
bigotry, bought The Truth Seeker and moved it to San Diego. During Johnson's stewardship, The Truth Seeker
deteriorated into a shoddy, semiliterate sheet filled with his racist rants. Johnson died in 1988, leaving a sizable
estate that was placed in trust to finance The Truth Seeker, to expose religion against reason, and to publicize
his views on religion and health. (Madalyn Murray O'Hair, America's most notorious atheist, challenged Johnson's will
in probate court without success.) Subsequently, Johnson's estate and The Truth Seeker have been controlled
by lawyers, trustees, and editors with various visions.
Soon after Johnson's death, The Truth Seeker was acquired by Bonnie Lange, who published
a slick periodical that recognized the historical importance of freethought and often paid tribute to Thomas Paine, Robert
Green Ingersoll, and D. M. Bennett.
In 1998, Bonnie Lange published a commemorative 125th Anniversary
Issue with the assistance of this writer who contributed several biographic profiles, provided a chronology, and
served as Historical Editor.