Freethinkers in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Freethinkers in Wisconsin

Freethinkers in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Freethought is the philosophy that man rules his own destiny, rejecting the notion that there is any kind of divine intervention in life. Belief centers on the idea that nature and Natural Law guide mankind and that the use of reason, epistemology, and science are the means by which life is validated. Freethinkers usually espoused current liberal ideals of the day, including racial, social, and sexual equality, the abolition of slavery, and the end of political tyranny. Freethought came to Wisconsin with the massive influx of German immigrants in the 1850s, particularly those known as "Forty-eighters" who had fled autocratic German states after the failed revolts of 1848. The first free congregation formed at Painesville, south of Milwaukee, among of group of dissatisfied Lutherans around 1851. The Forty-eighters set about organizing their own free congregations, or freie gemeinde, soon after arriving in Milwaukee.

The most noted and long-lived congregation in Wisconsin was the Freie Gemeinde von Sauk County, founded in 1852. In 1852, congregations were reported in over a dozen cities, including Burlington, Fond du Lac, Jefferson, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Two Rivers, and Watertown. A group in La Crosse County attempted to disrupt Lutheran services across the street, a not uncommon activity among Freethought groups. By 1876, only four congregations submitted reports. The Milwaukee group eventually joined the American Rationalist Association while the Sauk County group affiliated with the Unitarian Church. The German Freethought movement was closely associated with the German Turnverein, social clubs that sponsored lectures and debates and hosted dances, concerts, and other social events.

Freethinkers also published a number of newspapers: Banner und Volkesfreund was the leading Freethought paper from 1855 until 1880. The second largest group of Freethinkers were Czech who were easily swayed to Freethought due to their feelings of alienation from the Catholic Church in Wisconsin. Many Czechs formed strong ties with fraternal halls and used them rather than separate "churches" to espouse Freethought philosophy. Freethought began to decline in the late 19th century for a number of reasons, one of which was the very nature of Freethought itself. Its anti-religious and anti-Christian views were too extreme for many people, alienating many would-be sympathizers. Another reason may have been the lack of cohesive ideals within the movement as freethinkers rarely agreed on any social or economic philosophy aside from anti-religion. By the early 20th century, most Freethought congregations had disbanded or joined other mainstream churches, though the Free Congregation of Sauk County continues to this day.

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