Kirsten Fischer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. This interview is based on her new book, American Freethinker: Elihu Palmer and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the New Nation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write American Freethinker?
KF: Elihu Palmer was notorious in his own day, but after he died in 1806, he fell into relative obscurity. When I first encountered his book, Principles of Nature, I found it strange and confusing. Palmer kept talking about a unified material world infused with a divine life force, and he was sure these “principles of nature” mattered enormously for human happiness. Only when I read the works of the obscure authors he quoted at length, did I begin to understand that Palmer had been influenced by vitalist physiology coming out of medical circles in Europe, and also by Eastern religions as represented to him by a world-traveling Englishman. John “Walking” Stewart had traveled to India and Thailand, and he shared with Palmer the power of meditation to grasp the unified whole of the universe. Stewart persuaded Palmer that the smallest particles of matter are sensate, meaning they experience and retain sensations like pleasure and pain. These particles are constantly in motion, and as they jump from one thing to the next, they carry sensation with them. This idea changed everything, Palmer thought, because it meant that in the interconnected web of life, every individual action affects the whole. I found the idea fascinating, not least because it upends notions of who and what merits compassion and respect.
At first, I thought I could write only about Palmer’s ideas, not the man himself, because Palmer left very little in terms of a personal archive, really just a few letters. We did not even know the name of his hometown in Connecticut. Then it occurred to me to look in the archives of people who might have known him, ministers who opposed him, for example. Their letters led me to information about Palmer’s movements and his activities. I traveled to Connecticut and used lists of names engraved on headstones to search for Palmer families buried in small-town cemeteries. Once I found his family headstones in a tiny village, I could use local church and land records to fill in blanks about Palmer’s family and his upbringing. To my immense good fortune, I even found the manuscript diary kept by Palmer’s childhood minister. Putting together the many tiny pieces I found, I was able to write a new and accessible biography of this very colorful figure in the early Republic.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Freethinker?
KF: American Freethinker recovers Palmer’s long-forgotten notion that everything in the universe is connected in a special way—through sensitive atoms in constant exchange—which means that everything ultimately partakes of the same, shared fate. The book shows that in sharing his religiously unorthodox ideas in the face of social pressure to desist, Palmer expanded in practice the freedom of speech that was aspirational but not yet guaranteed in the early American Republic.
JF: Why do we need to read American Freethinker?
KF: In writing the book, I came to understand that the new United States was born with divergent impulses. Religious pluralism flourished, but so too did anxiety about the public expression of that diversity. We see some of these tensions still today. The ability to accept, never mind welcome, religious diversity remains a challenge for many, even as the country is irrepressibly diverse. Americans continue to accuse one another of harboring religious beliefs incompatible with patriotism. Palmer’s life story shows how religious freethought developed in tandem with the efforts to contain it. The struggle persists, it waxes and wanes, and it might be with us for a long time.
The reader also learns, as I did, that the early United States was full of freethinkers. Palmer was in conversation with all kinds of people, and the book reveals new characters and unfamiliar religious contests. Religious freethought did not necessarily mean rejecting Christianity. Many people—including Palmer himself, initially—pursued freethought from within Christian frameworks. Palmer preached in Universalist churches until he was refused access to the pulpit. He did eventually break with Christianity, after he was slandered in the press for advertising a lecture against the divinity of Jesus.
Palmer reached for creative new answers to pressing questions: How to achieve social justice and equality without incurring violence? How to have a shared morality without relying on a shared religious foundation? And how to recognize the interdependence of all life on the planet Earth? These questions remain relevant today. In a world riven by inequality, political disagreement, racialized violence, and climate change, we need to find common ground amidst our differences. Palmer banked on a transformative psychology, one based on the recognition of a shared fate in an interconnected web of life. His answers may not be ours, but he was asking questions that still await creative solutions, and he did it with a passion and an optimism I find inspiring.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KF: After living in Germany as a teenager, I returned to my native United States in the 1980s, only to be shocked by the racial segregation I experienced in Boston, Massachusetts. Watching the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series in 1987, I decided to attend graduate school to study the Civil Rights Movement along with the tenacious racism that made courageous action so necessary. Pursuing the roots of racism led me to the eighteenth century and the development of racial thinking in a slave society. My first book, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina, shows how intimate relationships among ordinary people—white, free black, and enslaved—and the laws that either outlawed or overlooked these relationships, codified the racial hierarchy and made race seem real. Over the course of my career, my research topics have changed, depending on which current social and political questions seem most compelling and in need of historicizing. Underlying all my work is a fascination with the experiences of otherwise unknown “ordinary” people who participated in struggles of historic importance—struggles that have remained unresolved into the present time.
JF: What is your next project?
KF: My next project is a hybrid of memoir and archivally researched family history. Titled “Unfamiliar Truths: A Bicultural Family Narrates its Twentieth-Century German Past,” the book explores the four generations of my father’s German family that experienced displacement through two world wars, the country’s political division, and voluntary migration. I want to know what they experienced, and how their stories have shaped my own understanding of home and belonging.
JF: Thanks, Kirsten!