Jefferson on the Bible

Thomas Jefferson took his scissors to the Bible in search of truth

LIKE A CURMUDGEON who writes cranky letters to the editor, retired president Thomas Jefferson wanted to get the news without editorial bias or commentary—the Good News, that is, because he was reading the Bible. Whiling away his dotage at Monticello, he finally had time on his hands to finish a task begun decades earlier, namely to compile and edit a personalized version of the New Testament, which he titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.Read more »

Spirit World

A visit to two villages that still share the nineteenth century’s conviction that we can communicate with the dead

We walk down a street that seems lifted from a Victorian-era children’s book, and there, on the white clapboard cottage’s wall, is the small sign we have been told to look for: MRS. HANSON—MEDIUM . Reverend Hanson answers the door, and behind her sits Mr. Hanson, with his newspaper, in what can only be called a front parlor. We are invited in, but only my wife, Hayden, may enter the reading room, lest my “vibrations” disturb the clarity of Mrs. Hanson’s focus.

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They Spoke With The Dead

A century and a half ago two young girls started hearing noises they said came from beyond the grave—and embarked on a lifetime career that began a national obsession with spiritualism that has lasted to this day

“I looked down at my foot,” Joseph Merrill said, “and saw a white substance the size of a golf ball. As I watched, that golf ball expanded and took features: arms and a head. It was a woman. She passed through me and through my friend Harry. She turned and put her arm around Harry’s shoulder and kissed him on the forehead. Then she passed through the wall.” Read more »

Facing Death

Our ancestors look gravely and steadily upon things that we cannot

In the course of this lethal century, death has been rendered increasingly abstract—a choreographed plunge on the television screen, the punch of a red button in a bomber or a computer game, a statistic in a column of print. The constant flicker of electronic sounds and images that surround us constitutes a mental environment as insulating as the buzzing belief systems of animism, Islam, or medieval Christianity.Read more »

The New Deal And The Guru

How Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture sent an eccentric Russian mystic on a sensitive mission to Asia and thereby created diplomatic havoc, personal humiliation, and embarrassment for the administration

Early in 1934 Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace appointed Nicholas Roerich, a renowned painter and a self-proclaimed guardian of world peace and culture, to lead a scientific expedition to North China and Manchuria, to search for drought-resistant grasses that might revive the Dust Bowl. By the time the project ended, in 1935, the eccentric artist had compromised America’s diplomatic position in Asia, embarrassed the Roosevelt administration, humiliated Wallace, and damaged the careers of several botanists.Read more »

The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)

Forget your conventional picture of America in 1810. In the first half of the nineteenth century, we were not at all the placid, straitlaced, white-picket-fence nation we imagine ourselves to have been. By looing at the patterns of everyday life as recorded by contemporary foreign and native observers of the young republic and by asking the questions that historians don't think to ask of another time—what were people really like? how did they greet one another in the street? how did they occupy their leisure time? what did they eat?—Jakc Larking brings us a portrait of another Americna, an America that was so different from both our conception of its past life and its present-day reality as to seem a foreign country.

WE LOOKED DIFFERENT Read more »

Robert Ingersoll The Illustrious Infidel

He built a career and a fortune out of shocking his fellow Americans

Whatever town he was lecturing in—Chicago or Cheyenne, New York or Denver—Robert Green Ingersoll packed the house. When the seats were full, people would stand in the aisles, on the stage, in the wings. When the box office ran out of tickets, eager crowds would still find a way in, usually by paying scalpers three or four times the regular admission rate. Read more »

My Ancestor, The Wizard

Eight generations back, the author discovered a forebear hanging on the family tree

WHEN A PUBLICATION wants to illustrate the story of Salem witchcraft, it often runs the painting The Trial of George Jacobs for Witchcraft , which hangs in the Essex Institute, Salem’s historical archive. The central figure, an old man with long, white hair, is kneeling before the court, with arms outstretched, asking mercy. A few feet away a girl of sixteen is pointing an accusing finger at him; she is his grand-daughter, Margaret.Read more »

“the Wall Of Separation”

The Founding, Fathers never did agree about the proper relationship between church and state. No wonder the Supreme Court has been backing and filling on the principle ever since.

THE SUPREME COURT has been busy of late scrutinizing the “wall of separation,” a figure of speech attributed to Thomas Jefferson. It is not like the ugly Berlin Wall, built of concrete blocks and topped with broken glass and barbed wire. Rather it is more like a double-mirrored screen. Persons standing on either side discover whatever preconceptions about the First Amendment they may have brought with them. Read more »

God, Man, Woman, And The Wesleys

In early Georgia, the founders of Methodism got off to a terrible start

THE SUCCESS OF John and Charles Wesley in founding Methodism is well documented, but what is seldom mentioned is that they started their ecclesiastical careers with a period of unrelieved bungling. It all took place in colonial Georgia in the early eighteenth century when the Wesley brothers, as the colony’s founder, Gen. James Oglethorpe, said, attempted to “unroll their rolled-up rules for England” in this struggling young settlement. John and Charles’s adventure, Oglethorpe concluded disgustedly, should be made “a play or tale of.” Read more »