Elihu Palmer

When I have no idea what to write about, or am coming up with too many ideas and can’t narrow them down, I ask other people what or who they would want me to look up and write about.  That’s how I did the Eastern State Penitentiary piece (hi mom!) and that’s how we have today’s post, courtesy of my husband.  Today’s is tricky (I think that’s part of why he picked it).  I fully admit that I usually start by Googling the topic or looking at Wikipedia.  I always try and find that information elsewhere, but Wikipedia is actually a pretty good place to start for basic information; some of their articles are even starred or locked, showing their accuracy.  Today’s topic, Elihu Palmer, had a stub on Wikipedia.  Oooookay…  Everywhere I looked had similar information, but with some extra tidbits here and there, so we’re going to see how well I pulled something together from little information.

Elihu Palmer was born in 1764 in Canterbury, Connecticut.  That’s about all we known about him until he was in his twenties.  Already having issues learning about him…  When he was growing up, though, we know what was going on in the country.  We weren’t the United States yet, but we were getting there.  The country would be founded without explicit religion, and with the idea that all religions could be practiced free of persecution.  Many of the Founding Fathers were deists, believing that the natural world and reason and observation were all one needed to determine if there was a god or not.

Unitarianism was also gaining in popularity at this time.  Unitarianism is a branch of Protestantism that believes in one god, not the Trinity like Catholics believe in.  They also believe that Jesus is not God himself, but human, though could possibly still be considered a savior.  In 1782 the first recognized Unitarian church opened in the United States in Boston, Massachusetts.  Unitarians were a very liberal branch of Christianity and the Enlightenment helped their beliefs gain popularity.  All of this is to say that even among ministers, some very radical ideas were emerging, and some of them broke with religion altogether.

Elihu Palmer studied to be a Presbyterian minister at Dartmouth, and graduated in 1787, taking a position in what is now Queens in New York.  Within a year, though, Palmer was dismissed from his position.  In 1789, he moved to Philadelphia and joined a Baptist Church.  Ultimately, though, the Baptists too kicked him out.  In both of these cases, it seems that Palmer had begun speaking in more deist terms, and against the divinity of Jesus.  Palmer then “became somewhat of a physical, spiritual, and intellectual wanderer” (1).

Palmer wound up in New York City where he became a Universalist, but also publicly rejected Jesus’s divinity, which wasn’t part of Universalist beliefs.  Palmer and his wife worked for deism and his ideas began to gain traction.  He even planned speeches challenging Jesus’s divinity, and published ads for them in the local papers (2).  With all of his outspokenness though, Palmer and his followers were banned from Philadelphia.

Palmer decided to become a lawyer, and passed the Pennsylvania bar in 1793.  Despite having been banned, he returned to Philadelphia.  This was a fateful decision.  In 1793, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia.  Over five thousand people died, Palmer’s wife being one of those who died.  Palmer survived, but was blinded.  “His enemies naturally saw his blindness as God’s punishment for heresy” (3), even though there were many religious people who died in the epidemic as well.

After his blinding, Palmer couldn’t practice law anymore, and so became a travelling lecturer for deism.  His first stop was in Augusta, Georgia and he was received favorably, or at least cordially.  Georgia had based their separation of church and state rules on Virginia’s religious freedom act (4).  While in Augusta, Palmer also helped to collect “materials for Dr. Jedidiah Morse’s ‘Geography’” (5); Morse wrote geography textbooks, and his son would create Morse Code.

After lecturing in Georgia, Palmer moved back to Philadelphia, and then on to New York, still lecturing throughout the East Coast.  Palmer’s first speech in New York took place on Christmas Day.  Palmer believed this was a day “well suited to the denunciation of both Christianity and Christ” (6).  In New York in 1796, Palmer formed the Deistical Society of New York.

Palmer was an extreme deist, though, holding positions that many did not.  He believed that “the flawed teachings of Jesus were responsible for Christianity’s sordid history” (7) and that belief in supernatural experiences “undermines nature’s principles and furthers human misery by setting up unreasonable expectations” (8).  He believed in natural philosophy and criticized institutional Christianity.  Palmer was a close friend of Thomas Paine, but his beliefs were much more extreme than Paine’s.  Paine believed there were still ethical things in the New Testament and that there was virtue in the teachings of Jesus (9).  The two wrote similarly though, being incredibly honest about their beliefs and pulling no punches.   Palmer, though, didn’t care about what others believed if they were against his beliefs.

Despite his abrasiveness, Palmer was popular and was important for secularism in the young country.  Deism was largely seen as only for educated and/or upper-class people.  Palmer brought deism down to a level that was accessible for everyone.  The Deistical Society he formed in New York, as well as in Philadelphia and Baltimore, had members that were shopkeepers and artisans.  “With the exception of doctors, almost no members of learned professions were recorded as members” (J).  Palmer founded two newspapers in 1800 and 1803; the only reason the papers had to stop publication was because the subscribers couldn’t pay their bills on time, not because there was a lack of subscribers.

Principles of NatureIn addition to his speeches, Palmer wrote.  He wrote the speeches he gave, he wrote pieces for his and others’ newspapers, and he wrote a book, Principles of Nature, published first in 1801.  In Principles of Nature, Palmer reiterated his belief that “‘the world in infinitely worse’ for following Jesus” (10).  Palmer believed it was the “nonreligious advances in human thought” (11) which led to the creation of the printing press and eventually to the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions.  He believed the Enlightenment had allowed for the enfranchisement of men “who had never before been considered fit to govern themselves” (12).

Principles of Nature had sold out three editions by the time of Palmer’s death in 1806 at 42 while on a speaking tour.  Upon his death, his widow (he remarried shortly after the death of his first wife) was left without property or money and only made due with the help of Thomas Paine.  Principles of Nature was still being published after Palmer’s death.  In 1819, the London publisher Richard Carlile published it with help from his wife while he was in prison for having published other scandalous or heretical books.  In 1824, two booksellers went to prison for three years each for selling Principles of Nature and The Age of Reason.

That’s Elihu Palmer.  Still not a whole lot of information about him, but I’ve tried to do the best I could.  Even though we don’t know a lot about him personally, and his seeming abrasiveness led to some unpopularity, I think he’s important to know and know about.  Like mentioned earlier, he helped bring deism and Enlightenment ideas to those who maybe hadn’t heard of it.  He laid foundations for freethinking and secularism in the United States, even if we don’t know his name.  I’m glad my husband suggested him.

1, 5 – Elihu Palmer

2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12 – Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holtand Company, 2004).

7, 10 – Elihu Palmer

8 – Palmer, Elihu

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