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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Mangasar Magurditch Mangasarian
It is not difficult, at times, to track down Atheists or freethinkers of the past: It is impossible.
We comb through the old journals, booklets, magazines, and serial brochures for their writings and through historical books for a peek into their lives. But the pieces remain enigmatic, refusing to fit into any kind of a coherent whole.
And so it is with Mangasar Magurditch Mangasarian — a proud, richly dark, Omar Sharif-sort of picture in a fading journal. The portrait shows lush, softly curled black hair, thick sideburns, and huge mustache; the eyes still fierce, undimmed by the passage of time, look at one squarely from the center of the page. He is everything that one would think an Armenian should be. And that he was: born in Mashger, Turkey, on December 29,1859.
His family was affluent enough to send him to Robert College in Constantinople where he was ordained into the Congregationalist ministry in 1878. He obtained his own church immediately and was the minister of the Congregational Church in Marsovan, Turkey, from 1878 to 1880. In 1879 he married Akabie Altunian of Amasia, Asia Minor, and from that union came four children, Zabelle (Mrs. Raymond Hitchcock), Armen Parker, Christine (Mrs. Earl Benham), and George Paul Mangasarian. His wife died in 1910.
It is not possible to determine when Mangasarian came to the United States where he studied for the Presbyterian ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary (Princeton University) but he became the minister of the Spring Garden Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1882 and remained there until 1885.
Notice of his resignation from that church found its way into the oldest \freethought\ weekly paper in the United States, The Truth Seeker, which dutifully reported in its November 7, 1885, issue as follows:
The Rev. Mangasar M. Mangasarian, who has been pastor of the Spring Garden Presbyterian church, in Philadelphia, for three years, has publicly renounced the doctrins of Presbyterianism, and tendered his resignation to his congregation, who had but a few hours intimation of his intention. In his sermon he said: \I hav ceased to be a Calvinist. I hav decided to renounce the doctrins of orthodox Presbyterianism. If Calvin, 1 Wesley 2 and Edwards 3 had the right to make articles of faith and differ with good and holy men who went before them, hav I not the same right to make articles of faith and differ with Calvin, Wesley, and Edwards? I hav outgrown the creed of Calvin. I love the Presbyterian people for what they are and what they believe — their character and not their creed. I shall hav no creed save the words of Christ. My sympathies are with all sects having liberal views. My future church shall be a church governed by the people, a people's church, a congregational church essentially, where no authority comes between the minister and his flock. By my act I subscribe myself to the Congregational doctrin. Your creed says that mankind is born and livs under the curse of God; that in Adam's sin all mankind fell, and for his transgression God sentenced his children to unending sorrow. Your creed shows me a heaven thinly settled, a hell peopled; few saints, many sinners. Your creed tell me that under the eternal law of predestination nothing can change the number of souls ransomed. This is fatalism. What need, then, of preaching the gospel?\
Little is known of what Mangasarian did between then and his next major known shift in theological tenets. It is generally recorded that during the period 1885-89 he was an \independent preacher in Philadelphia\ and the founder of and lecturer on \Independent Religion\ in New York City sometime during this period. He left the east coast of the United States within the next three years.
Meanwhile, Felix Adler 4 was forming the American Ethical Culture Society, which was given wide publicity in the media of that day. The idea behind this group was to teach its members to live an ethical life without recourse to Judeo-Christianity. The first such group was formed in New York on May 15, 1876. The second was formed in Chicago on October 5, 1882.
In 1892 Mr. M. M. Mangasarian surfaces again, this time being chosen as the leader of this Chicago group and continuing in that position until 1897 when Mr. William M. Salter returned as leader of the society. William Mackintire Salter has been given credit as being the founder of the Chicago Society for Ethical Culture. He was the first to join Adler to devote his life to the Ethical Movement. He had been educated to become a Unitarian minister, studied at the Yale Divinity school, went to Germany on a scholarship, returned and identified himself with Adler, and (another source reports) in 1885 (rather than 1882, as above) established the Chicago group. 5
Again, there is not much that can be found as to Mangasarian's intellectual development during this period. What is known is that he turned over the leadership of the group to Salter in 1897 and three years later he founded the Independent Religious Society in Chicago, a Rationalist group, of which he remained the pastor until his resignation in 1925.
It is known that he published several different journals. The Liberal View and The Rationalist, but we do not know where or when.
In 1904 the Rationalist Press Association in London, England, issued a book he had written titled The New Catechism. The introduction to it was written in 1902 by George Jacob Holyoake, the English founder of Secularism and the last man who had been sentenced to jail in England on the charge of Atheism.
The Author's Preface to the book was quite brief:
The old Catechisms which were imposed upon us in our youth — when our intelligence could not defend itself against them — no longer command our respect.
They have become mildewed with neglect. The times in which they were conceived and composed are dead — quite dead!
A New Catechism to express the thoughts of men and women and children living in these new times is needed.
This is a modest effort in that direction.
The New Catechism was composed of seventy-one pages. The sixteen short chapters consist of questions and answers on \Reason and Revelation\; \The Canon of the Bible\; \God\; \The Earth\; \Man\; \Jesus\; \The Teachings of Jesus\; \The Church\; \The Liberal Church\; \The Creeds\; \The Clerqy\; \Prayer and Salvation\; \Death\; \Immortality\; and \The Chief End of Man.\ The answers are totally devastating for all of the basic principles of Judeo-Christianity. In the most simple of terms, calculated to be understood by all, Mangasarian rips them to shreds. He does not evade any issue at all, being absolutely forthright.
Using this approach in his sermons, by the time of the printing of this Catechism, the weekly congregation of Mr. Mangasarian totaled about 2,000.
In terms of the religious beliefs of the times, his Catechism was daring. Evolution was much under attack in the United States in the beginning of the century, and yet, his Catechism titled \Man\ began in this manner:
Q. What is man? A. A rational animal.
Q. How old is man? A. Hundreds of thousands of years old.
Q. Who are his ancestors? A. The mammalia.
Q. How do you know? A. In the composition, structure, and function of his organs, man is exactly like an animal.
Q. Specify a few of the points of resemblance between man and the animals.
A. Man has not a muscle or a bone or an organ which is not parallel in the animals.
Q. What else?
A. They are both composed of the same materials, possess the same physical parts, and are subject to the same laws of life and death.
By 1905, the fifth season of M. M. Mangasarian's Independent Religious Society of Chicago, his congregations had outgrown the Grand Opera House and necessitated removal to the new Theodore Thomas Orchestra Hall with a capacity of 2,500 persons.
Mr. Mangasarian, progressively skeptical, soon surrendered the words of Christ as his creed. In fact he came finally to understand that the Christ of Christianity was nothing but a myth. Consequently, in 1909, his congregation printed his first hardback book in the United States, The Truth About Jesus — Is He a Myth? Again, the book was simplistic, but instructive. One can only think that the people in his church were not intellectual savants. He preached (if that word may be used) to the common people in language they could understand and the message was unmistakable: They had been deceived into a belief which was not acceptable to thinking people.
In 1911, once again his organization issued another of his books, The Bible Unveiled. He revealed his purpose in a short front note:
To make it possible for a man to be as honest in his religion as he would like to be in his business; to make him as unafraid in church as he aims to be anywhere else, and to help make him as impatient of a lie on Sunday as he is on any other day of the week, is the object of these studies on the Bible. I wish to be able to kindle in the breast of every free citizen of this free country the law of truth, irrespective of whether it helps or hurts; I wish to shame cowardice and cant out of every man and woman who speaks the English language.
He begins the book — as always — with a simple, direct frontal attack in a short preamble.
An Extraordinary Book A book which claims infallibility; which aspires to absolute authority over mind and body; which demands unconditional surrender to all its pretensions upon penalty of eternal damnation, is an extraordinary book and should, therefore, be subjected to extraordinary tests.
Neither Christian priests nor Jewish rabbis approve of applying to the bible the same tests by which other books are tried.
Because it will help the bible?
It can not be that.
Because it might hurt the bible?
We can think of no other reason.
He then goes to the attack. And, this is a different kind of Bible criticism, seemingly gentle. Yet, that method covers a ruthless exposure of the fallacies in the basic premises of the Bible. He is kindly as he begins, noting that the King James version of the Bible should have on its flyleaf:
A Collection of Writings
of Unknown Date and Authorship
Rendered into English
From Supposed Copies of Supposed
Even with this \out\ which he gives to Judeo-Christianity, he zeroes in on the most basic assumptions and reveals them — through common sense alone — to be absurd.
In 1912 he began to write with some regularity for The Truth Seeker magazine, his articles as often as not dealing with contemporary political events. In July 1914, he visited Geneva, Switzerland, and from this trip returned to write a lengthy article (for the October 17, 1914 issue of The Truth Seeker) on Calvin's encounter with Servetus 6 whom Calvin had burnt at the stake on the charge of heresy.
Somewhere along the way, a debate was undertaken between Mangasarian and one, Dr. A. S. Crapsey. The text of this was issued by E. Haldeman-Julius out of Kansas, as his Big Blue Book, #898. It is impossible to ascertain the date of the debate, but the book issued bore the title, The Mangasarian-Crapsey Debate on The Question: \Did Jesus Ever Live?\ with Mangasarian, of course, taking the proposition that Jesus Christ was mythological.
Several years later, Mangasarian's second marriage was dutifully reported in the July 3, 1915 issue of The Truth Seeker:
The marriage avowals by which, at Chicago, June 6, 1915, M. M. Mangasarian, the eminent Rationalist lecturer, became the husband of Miss Mary E. Glendon.
Mangasarian continued to attract a large audience to his lectures until he retired in 1917. In 1922 the Western Unitarian Association requested that the Independent Religious Society, still extant, become affiliated with that organization, which it did, despite the fact that the Unitarian churches then welcomed theists as well as Atheists in its rank — even as it does today. In the July 1, 1922, issue of The Truth Seeker, W. L. Maclaskey, chairman of a freethought organization, sadly reported:
There is one Rationalist lecturer (Percy Ward) in the city, since Mr. Mangasarian joined the church, and he is nearly starving to death for lack of support. Those who supported Mangasarian for over twenty years are now left without a leader and see the fruits of their labor turning to ashes before their eyes. It is high time that the Rationalists of not only Chicago, but the entire United States, instead of being at the beck and call of everyone who assumes to intellectual leadership among them and being cast aside at the slightest whim, should organize into strong bodies,...
Mr. Mangasarian is not to blame but those who have supported him faithfully for so many years have now their \gains for their pains\; . . .
Three years later, in November 1925 Mangasarian retired from the Independent Religious Society of Chicago and took up residence in Piedmont, California. He remained in California for the rest of his life. It was after his retirement, in 1926, that the Truth Seeker Company issued his old book The Bible Unveiled under the new title of The Neglected Book.
Mangasarian, however, continued to write for The Truth Seeker, with articles appearing now and then through February 1943. Then, notice of his death appeared in the August 1943 issue of that journal. He had died at his home at 117 North Gardner Street in Los Angeles on June 26, in his eighty-fifth year. His widow wrote:
Dear Mr. Macdonald [then editor of The Truth Seeker]:
This is to inform you that your letter of June 22 reached us the day Mr. Mangasarian passed away. There will be no funeral; the body will be cremated today. Mr. Mangasarian regarded you very highly, and I know you merit that esteem. Very best wishes.
Edna G. Mangasarian
The editor noted in his article:
With Mr. Mangasarian's death we lose the man older in continuous service to Freethought as lecturer and writer than any other in America — a distinction he could hardly have had in mind when at the age of 26 he said good-bye to John Calvin. In what he said and wrote for fifty years he was loyal to the cause that The Truth Seeker has lived its long life to advocate, and in his last words he took nothing back.
Six books by Mangasarian are extant. The rest of his works appear in freethought and other journals of the times. The books are:
A New Catechism, introduction by George Jacob Holyoake (U.S. printing, 1902; London: Watts & Co., 1904).
The Bible Unveiled (Chicago: Independent Religious Society [Rationalist], 1911).
The Mangasarian-Crapsey Debate on The Question: \Did Jesus Ever Live?\ (Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius Publications).
The Neglected Book or The Bible Unveiled (New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1926).
The Truth About Jesus, Is He a Myth? (Chicago: Independent Religious Society, 1909).
What is Christian Science? (London: Watts & Co., 1922).
He also wrote hundreds of essays and lectures on questions of the times. His books and essays were translated into French, German, Spanish, and other foreign languages. The general subject of his writing was religious criticism and the philosophy of religion.
Adams, Oscar Fay. A Dictionary of American Authors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1904.
American Ethical Union. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ethical Movement. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1926.
Macdonald, George E. Fifty Years of Freethought, Being the Story of The Truth Seeker with the Natural History of its Third Editor. 2 vols. New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1931.
McCabe, Joseph. A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, A Book of Reference on Religion, Philosophy, Ethics, and Science. London: Watts & Co., 1948.
Warren, Sidney. American Freethought, 1860-1914. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.
Who Was Who Among North American Authors, 1921-29. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1986.
Who Was Who in America, with World Notables. Vol. 4. 1961-68. Chicago: Marquis-Who's Who, Inc., 1968.
References 1 John Calvin, originally Jean Chauvin or Caulvin (1509-1564), French theologian and reformer.
2 Charles Wesley (1707-1788), English Methodist preacher and hymn writer.
3 Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), American theologian.
4 Felix Adler (1851-1933), American educator and professor of political and social ethics at Columbia University.
5 ln 1911 the name of the society was changed to the Chicago Ethical Society.
6 \Michael Servetus (1511-1553), Spanish theologian and martyr.