St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The American Anti-Bible Society

Cover of 'The Forgery of the Old Testament' by Joseph McCabe, showing a stamp from the American Anti-Bible Society.

The Little Blue Books were a series of pamphlets published between 1919 and 1978 by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. They numbered in the thousands and covered topics from literature to philosophy and from sex to religion (Gibbs, 2019). Because they were printed on cheap paper they’re now very brittle and falling apart, but you can find bulk lots of them for a good price on eBay. It was no mistake that the series included a number of volumes on rather edgy topics for the 1920s like science, sex education, and atheism. The Little Blue Books had a distinct humanist and rationalist outlook thanks to their publisher Haldeman-Julius, who crusaded against irrationalism and illiberalism — what he described as “bunk” (Scott, 1978). When I picked up a bulk lot of these on eBay I found that two of them were stamped with the name and address of the American Anti-Bible Society. At least some of this set must have come from their library, as they included fewer volumes of literature and more titles like The Forgery of the Old Testament, Why I Believe in Fair Taxation of Church Property, and The Jesuits: Religious Rogues (all three by Joseph McCabe, former Catholic priest and later prominent atheist). I couldn’t resist an organisation with a name like the American Anti-Bible Society so I got to digging.

The American Anti-Bible Society (AABS) was founded in 1927 as an offshoot of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (A. A. A. A., 1928). Haldeman-Julius was on the AAAA’s board of directors, which may explain why the AABS had so many of his publications. The AAAA apparently put out regular reports but unfortunately I’ve been unable to find any original literature published by either the AAAA or the AABS. There are, however, some interesting nuggets we can put together from various articles in the news.

On the 3rd of August 1927 the AABS submitted papers of incorporation which were denied on the 5th by Supreme Court Justice Thomas C. T. Crain, who wrote: “I refuse to approve of the evil purpose of this proposed incorporation” (Anti-Bible Society is rebuffed by court, 1927). What a guy. The AABS was reportedly contesting the decision, but I haven’t found out what became of that. As their stamp on my books indicates, the AABS’s legal problems didn’t stop them taking up residence at 119 East 14th Street, New York. This location was pointedly only a few blocks from the American Bible Association’s Bible House on Astor Place between 3rd and 4th Avenues (Dunlap, 2015).

According to the Times, “The object for which [the AABS] is to be formed is to discredit the Bible. In pursuance of said object, such membership corporation shall publish and distribute anti-biblical literature, hold meetings and debates on the Bible and agitate for the repeal of laws enforcing its religious tenets.” (Anti-Bible Society is rebuffed by court, 1927). The same article also names James I. Elliott as the President, O. H. Bailey as the Vice President, and William S. Bryan as the National Secretary. Only a few months later Bryan reportedly came to New York to become the “active head” of the AABS (Anti-Bible head here, 1927) and was quoted as saying:

I am not an atheist, neither am I a Christian. Call it rather a freethinker. I believe in letting every one think his own thoughts without either being influenced by others or influencing others. Just at present there is a return toward the muscular Christianity of Jonathan Edwards and we are trying to change this into tolerance.

In Tennessee, for example, if you happen to run out of gas or oil on a Sunday, you just stay there until Monday when the stores open. In one county of Alabama there have been 147 men, women or boys whipped for the sin of not having attended church. I wish to be able to order my own life without being told what I may do or what I may not do.

By and large the other coverage in the media was from Christian outlets which took the AAAA and the AABS as degenerate communists and responded with snark and hyperbole: “The 4A founded the American Anti-Bible Society, with the stated aim of making ‘a laughing stock of the Christian fetish book, causing people to smile whenever it is named’ … The results of this activity may be seen every day. For example, what is the appeal to American youth of Beatlemania? … ‘There are enough immoral influences on the American youth without importing more from Liverpool. Our suggestion for the Beatles is that they go home, take a bath, get a haircut and go to work’” (Some methods and goals of atheism, 1964).

Cover of 'The Making of the Old Testament' by Clement Wood, showing a stamp from the American Anti-Bible Society.

One unexpectedly detailed bit of scandal comes to us from the People v. Charles Smith (1928) in which Charles Smith, president of the AAAA, sent harassing letters to Reverend John Roach Stratton. One included a copy of a magazine called Sex and a letter telling the reverend to “overlook the nude figures (which, however, are not obscene, but instead are works of art—especially the one on page nine, ‘Adoration’)” and then wishing, “May you yet escape from Bible bondage.” The letter that’s especially relevant to our interests concerns the AABS:

Fifty Thousand Dollars in cash will be paid you or your church by Mr. James I. Elliot, chairman of our Board of Directors and president of the American Anti-Bible Society, upon proof of a single cure at your healing centre of an organic disease by prayer, faith and annointing.

And on he goes. It’s quite a body of letters and, if Stratton really was involved in faith healing, I can’t blame Smith for laying into him as he does.

I wish I knew what happened to the Anti-Bible Society, but I can’t find any mention of them doing anything after the 1920s. It may just be that they were never quite able to get the thing off the ground, legally or otherwise. The AAAA, apparently unsuccessful in its many legal appeals, largely shut down during the Great Depression. Charles Smith, president and harasser of priests, went a bit crazy in the 1950s publishing racist and antisemitic pieces in his magazine Truth Seeker (Stein, 1985). I don’t imagine Emanuel Haldeman-Julius would have approved as for years he’d been a stern voice against bigotry such as the Klan’s barbarism and violence (Scott, 1978). I like to imagine the authors of those Little Blue Books in defence of homosexuality and against predation by organised religion could see into 2023 and take some pleasure from the way things wound up. Then again, with all the absurd book banning and whatnot, it’s likely there’s just as much “bunk” today as there was in the 1920s.