18 June 2010

Bohemian Congregation of Freethinkers

I am a religious scholar by vocation, so I was excited to learn something new from a copy of a marriage license for my step-mom's grandparents.  It is from Chicago (Cook County, Illinois), dated 26 Oct 1907, and states that Vaclav Derfler (age 25) and Caroline Vykoukova (age 19) were united in marriage by minister Frank B. Zrubek of the "Bohemian Congregation of Freethinkers."  That was new!

From the Encyclopedia of Chicago History article of "Free Thought" --
Free thought embraced reason and anticlericalism, and freethinkers formed their ideas about religion independently of tradition, authority, and established belief. A product of the Enlightenment, free thought was deist, not atheist. In nineteenth-century Chicago, freethinkers, many of them immigrants from Europe, institutionalized irreligion.

Within Bohemian (Czech) Pilsen, on the city's Southwest Side, the irreligious might have outnumbered the religious six to one, and they built an elaborate social network. The Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers of Chicago, Svobodna obec Chicagu, founded in 1870, became a central community institution. That congregation published the largest Czech-language newspaper in the city. These freethinkers set up building and benevolent societies, maintained a school and a library, organized children's programs and adult lectures, and sponsored musical and dramatic programs. Their congregation offered secular baptisms for their children and secular funerals, in the Bohemian National Cemetery, for their dead. . . .
From Encyclopedia of Chicago History article on "Czechs and Bohemians" --
Religious or philosophical differences divided Chicago Czechs and their institutions. Although most Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were content to subscribe to the state religion on official documents, with the result that the overwhelming majority identified themselves as Catholics, many emigrants espoused free thought (rationalist) and socialist views in the United States. The immigrant institutions founded as the Czechs became established, including mutual benefit societies, fraternal organizations, savings and loan associations, and gymnastic societies (Sokols), were frequently identified with one group or another within the community. Schools were attached either to Catholic parishes or to freethinkers' societies. Burial was equally segregated: the Bohemian National Cemetery, a cemetery for freethinkers, was founded in 1877 and remains in existence today. The immigrant press was also divided. By the 1920s there were four main Czech-language newspapers in Chicago: the Narod (Nation, founded 1894) served the Catholic community, Svornost (Concord, founded 1875) served the freethinkers, Spravedlnost ( Justice, founded 1900) served the socialists, and the DennĂ­ Hlasatel (Daily Herald, founded 1891) was a “neutral” paper for the larger Midwestern Czech community.
Again from the article on "Free Thought" --
Free thought became disreputable in the minds of native-born elites, as it increasingly attracted a working-class audience after 1875. By the end of the century, free thinkers were becoming socialists, and institutionalized free thought barely survived into the twentieth century.
A cursory read of other sources indicate there is a lot more to the story!  There are accounts of free thought in the old country; There are accounts of free thought religious meetings ("revivals"), and there are interesting interactions between the freethinkers and the Christian evangelicals of the era, remember these are the days of D.L. Moody.

But my job is to find out how this movement influenced Vaclav and Caroline.

Copyright © 2010 by Kevin W. Walker

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