RELIGION: "VERILY THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION IS A CLOAK TO COVER A MULTITUDE OF SIN AND HYPOCRACY."
Man gathered all his ignorance
And all his ends and fads
Then made of them a Scare-Crow
And called the thing his Gods.
The Thunder and the lightning
The rising of the tides
The earth quake and volcano
On all, his Scare Crow rides.
The comet and the eclipse
The changes of the moon
All helped to build mans Scare Crow
And point the day of doom.
Young science with his hammer
His telescope and square
Has tacked this old Scare Crow
To shew no God is there.
[James Fergus to Boston Investigator, 1895, Box 21, Scrapbook, p. 83, FP, UM. James Fergus poem, 1892, Box 14 F. 2, FP, UM.]
James Fergus grew up in a strict Presbyterian environment, which, had he not left as a youth, may have molded him in similar pattern. But he left this dogmatic situation at twenty years of age, believing his father to be discriminating against him. This separation from home and homeland wrought tremendous change in young Fergus, for he was exposed to diverse beliefs in a youthful and liberal nation. The result: an upheaval in doctrine, a radical change from Christian to agnostic. James put it this way: "I was brought up a Presbyterian; that hard sense, reason and study soon made me an unbeliever, not only in the Christian religion—which I believe to be the biggest humbug of the lot—but in all others." [James Fergus to Luella Fergus Gilpatrick, n.d. (about 1890), MC, MHSL.]
Fergus embraced infidelity, as he called it, by the mid-1840's, while managing his foundry in Moline, Illinois. This change worked a tremendous strain on the relationship between James and his Scottish brothers. After James told them of his non-belief, it seemed they alternated in delivering him sermons over a three thousand mile distance. In an 1834 letter before James had announced his altered religious position, Robert advised, "be careful of the little necessaries and money you have there as you have no person to give you advice but God. We cast you all our cares hoping you are serving Him with all your might, not caring what others do, as for me i will serve the Lord." [Robert Fergus to James Fergus, March 18, 1834, Box 3 F. 30, FP, UM. Porter Sargent to James Fergus, March 9, 1867, Box 9 F. 50, FP, UM.]
With this the frequency of their sermons increased, especially from Robert and William. In 1865, as James scoured Montana's creeks for gold, William warned him of the pitfalls inherent in earthly treasure:
Dear Brother admidist the roughs and wilds of a newly civilized Territory when you have plenty to do to fervent from the cultured way. I hope you are not forgetting that immortal part which the gold of this world cannot purchase. Think it not amiss when I speak about the Soul we can speak about our temporal affairs why not about our spiritual for what is all this world when compared to Eternity if we should never meet in this world may we have the sweet consolation to know that we shall meet in Heaven. [William Fergus to James Fergus, November 1865, Box 3 F. 31, FP, UM. Sermonizing letters from Robert to James include: January 7, 1846, January 12, 1875, December 7, 1875, September 1878, Box 3 F. 30. Andrew wrote less: Spring, 1844, July 3, 1857, Box 3 F. 24. William, younger and more passionate, wrote often and persistently, preaching to James: February 1840, July 4, 1859, January 29, 1862, May 24, 1875, February 2, 1876, January 1, 1877, Box 3 F. 31, FP, UM.]
By 1877 Robert combined anxiety with a warning for James. "Brother i have great anxiety for you and your family, by your deluded precept and example you are darkening the way to eternal death." Eight years later Andrew informed James, "Brother Robert says he will never own you so long as you disown his Saviour." [Robert Fergus to James Fergus, 1877, Box 20 F. 31, FP, UM. Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, December 18, 1885, Box 3 F. 24, FP, UM.]
The issue became so inflammatory between James and William that in 1877 they reached an understanding to avoid the topic. William pledged, "I will drop writing about heavenly things to you till you revive them again"; however, in that last parting shot he gave James "a bit of my mind" in three pages of sermonett. After William emigrated to Montana the two maintained much harmonious relations only by leaving religion out of their conversation. [William Fergus to James Fergus, January 1, 1877, Box 3 F. 31, January 13, 1886, Box 3 F. 32, FP, UM.]
Fergus' irritation about the matter broke out in an 1883 letter to a Scottish friend:
During my fifty years in America but one letter reached me from Scotland but what has had more or less to say on the subject of Religion. Sometimes I think my friends in Scotland forget that I am 70 years old, have been a thinker and reader all my life and with average common sense ought to be able by this time to form Religious opinions for myself. I suppose their zeal for my welfare is at the bottom of it but I cannot help thinking if they were Mohamadons, Jews or Catholics, they would be equally as zealous in my behalf. Sometimes it seems to be that when once we have dared to take a certain course we are anxious for company and want our friends to go with us. [James Fergus to Robert Hamilton, Shawton, Scotland, 1883, Box 11 F. 64, FP, UM.]
While William muted his religious zeal to improve family relations, Robert became fiercely militant from his Scottish base. However, even William could not excuse the spite emanating from Robert's pen, for by 1886 Robert and James fumed at each other: "I don't want to vindicate Robert for he writes in a strain I don't like he is to vindictive not according to the teaching of the Bible." [William Fergus to James Fergus, January 13, 1886, Box 3 F. 32, FP, UM.] But Robert either sulked in Scotland or wrote with malice. By 1888 neither Scottish brother would write. James believed Robert had turned Andrew against him for "last summer I wrote a letter to Andrew. Robert replied to it signing Andrew's name in which he made Andrew say he disowned me and Robert did too." [James Fergus to Janet Simpson, February 6, 1888, Box 11 F. 60, FP, UM.] James soon believed, though it pained him deeply, that he had no friends in Scotland. "Those that ought to be the nearest and dearest are now without cause or provocation my bitterest enemies. Of all living in this wide world they and they alone refuse to write." [Ibid., August 10, 1890, Box 11 F. 61, FP, UM.]
In 1879, Charles, James' other Scottish brother, died after a long mental illness. In a portent of future events, the children of James and William each received about $400; their fathers received nothing. [Robert Fergus to James Fergus, March 1879, also an 1880 letter, Box 3 F. 30, FP, UM. "He [Charles] had to be treated like a child. He was a long time a child with us and our affections were very much entwined around him."] From 1888 until 1894 the brothers in America and Scotland maintained an icy silence; James' only communication home went to cousin Janet Simpson and Anne Mair, his brothers' friend. But in 1894, with his health failing, Robert pleased James by writing, for James had pledged not to break the impasse until receiving a letter from Scotland. [James Fergus to Robert Fergus, December 4, 1894, Box 11 F. 62, FP, UM. James Fergus to Janet Simpson, n.d., Box 10 F. 2, FP, UM.]
In his illness and old age, Andrew also grew tender-hearted toward James, despite his infidelity. In July 1895 he mentioned both he and Robert worked little in their weakened condition; it grieved him to think they would not see James before death. Two years later, just a few months before his death, Andrew wrote with kindness, something he had not done for years, complimenting James on his accomplishments.
You certainly have done well as your stock is very large and I trust you will be able to clear up all by this coming fall as it is much nicer to be clear of debt. You appear to be looked to as a man of fame and honor which is much better than wealth to an honest – true bread Scotchman and I trust you will be long spared to enjoy your calling and position. [Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, July 9, 1895, and August 12, 1897, Box 3 F. 24, FP, UM.]
Friend Anne Mair informed James of the deplorable conditions in which Robert and Andrew lived. The brothers drank most of the time, lived in a filthy house, ate poor food and were too stingy to hire a housekeeper, which they could well afford. Still, Anne insisted they respected what James had done because "whatever Robert may have said he was at heart prowd of you; so is Andrew. . . . And your father when he came to Carlston had always something wonderful to tell about ‘James in America,' so you see in your case ‘absence made the heart grow fonder.'" [Anne Mair to James Fergus, June 25, 1897, Box 7 F. 32, FP.]
Despite this professed admiration, when Robert died in May 1897 he left James none of his estate (though William apparently received none either) but did leave an inheritance to his nephews and nieces. Fergus questioned the settlement, even considered a trip to Scotland, though his health prevented this. W. F. Sanders examined the will, describing it typical of "Auld Scotia." [J. & J. Barris, Strathaven, Scotland, to James Fergus, May 29, 1897, Box 1 F. 28, FP, UM. S. C. Gilpatrick to James Fergus, June 29, 1897, Box 5 F. 10. W. F. Sanders to James Fergus, August 23, 1897, Box 9 F. 48, FP, UM.] However, James did not yield easily, for between July 1897 and June 1899 he sent over two dozen letters to the estate's lawyers. He did not alter the will, however, for only his children received an inheritance. [James Fergus to J. & J. Barris, letters found in Box 1 F. 28, FP, UM. Andrew received 350 pounds, and each of the daughters 100 pounds. One pound equaled about $5.00.]
In bitterness, James exploded that Robert "left $126,000 to foreign missions; not as much as a dime to me, because I could not believe his religion." Because James renounced the beliefs of youth and refused to reverse his decision even temporarily, he lost his share of the family estate. James wrote a friend:
I had a rich bachelor brother die in Scotland last may, he wrote to me some ten years ago if I would only say I believed Christ was the son of God, he would leave me all his property, if not, he would not leave me a penny, or write me another letter. He kept his word and left the bulk of his property to missions in India, London, Glasgow and the rest to preachers and friends, leaving me nothing. Such is Scotch-Presbyterianism. [James Fergus to Judge Richardson, September 3, 1897, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 97, FP, UM. Helena Herald, n.d., Scrapbook, p. 104, FP, UM.]
Andrew Fergus, James' only remaining close relative in Scotland, died about six months later. Though he lacked the wealth of Robert, he too left money only to nephews and nieces—two hundred pounds to Andrew and fifty pounds each to the girls. Luella remained convinced that James received no money from either brother because of his militant non-belief. "Robert and Andrew did not think you as good as they were simply because you did not believe in their religious rigamarole." [Luella Fergus Gilpatrick to James Fergus, February 23, and April 23, 1898, Box 5 F. 1, FP, UM. Andrew's will can be found in Box 13 F. 23; Robert's will is in Box 13 F. 20. James believed, with some justification, that he had been disinherited because of his disbelief. However, this does not explain why Christian William received nothing. Possibly they disapproved of his leaving Old Scotland for Montana.]
In 1873 a Fergus ranching associate chided James that he was "sixty years old and not prepared to meet your God. It is useless to try to change you now. I think God would have a tough job of it and that probably is why he let you alone so long." Three years later, an old Moline friend refused to believe the rumor that Fergus had accepted Christianity; he thought "James Fergus knew too much to do such a thing." He wanted James to "write me to let me know if it is so or not, for I can't believe it until you tell me so yourself." [Charles P. Rice to James Fergus, October 1, 1873, Box 9 F. 9, FP, UM. Daniel P. Berry to James Fergus, September 6, 1876, Box 1 F. 36, FP, UM.]
The Moline friend need not have written, for James held fast in his disbelief. In fact, three years later Fergus made a pact with fellow infidel Granville Stuart: "Should you outlive me (which I hope and confidently expect you may) that you will make such appropriate remarks on the occasion as you may deem fit." Of course, those were to be non-religious utterances, because James did not want "the services of any minister or the performance of any religious rite whatever over my remains." Granville readily agreed, "And in turn I would request the same kind offices from you if I should be the first to sink into eternal rest." [James Fergus to Granville Stuart, July 21, 1879, Box 11 F. 58, FP, UM.] A decade later Stuart's oldest daughter died at age twenty-five. Fergus made the following remarks at her funeral:
We do not mourn because of any supposed danger that awaits her. We entertain no gloomy forebodings that she has entered into a state of misery. In the eden of our hope there crawls no serpent of eternal pain. We only mourn because she is not. To nature, the source of all, we now surrender her. May we be made better by her example, and may all sweet influences surround her memory. Friend, farewell! [Unidentified clipping, May 27, 1889, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 71, FP, UM.]
Of course, the territory housed other infidels, but James proudly described himself as "better known for my unbelief than any other man in the territory, except Granville Stuart." James called Stuart "a fine writer and a most radical out-spoken infidel. Ingersols Bennetts & Paines pictures hange in his parlor." Fergus considered W. F. Sanders "very liberal [who] would be an outspoken infidel but for his wife who is Presbyterian, and whom he respects very much. So he calls himself a ‘brother-in-law of the church.'" [James Fergus to person unknown, January 1, 1883, Box 9 F. 47, FP, UM.]
Fergus also claimed that "all of our family including two son-in-laws are outspoken Liberals." Luella and husband S. C. Gilpatrick certainly became militant and open about it. She constantly referred to the "church members who are hypocrits seven days of the week and take the one day out of the seven." She preferred to live and be judged by the golden rule, doing "the best I can for my fellow beings and live to be a comfort and help to my family and friends." [Ibid. Luella Fergus Gilpatrick to James Fergus, August 4, 1895, Box 4 F. 26, FP, UM.]
Helena church members knew of the Gilpatrick's position, and Luella conceded, "in one thing they show good sense, in not arguing with us on the subject and in traducing their opinions. They go their way and we ours, and it is well it is so as Collins would not brook any interference in this matter either with us or the children." [Luella Fergus Gilpatrick to James Fergus, March 13, 1888, Box 4 F. 21, FP, UM.] Their anti-religious position became well-known to the point that when Mary Agnes Hamilton's daughter [not Luella as cited as she had no daughters] joined a church James noted, "little Mary [Agnes] has joined the Congregational Church and there is a good deal of crowing in Helena over it." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, November 15, 1886, Box 14 F. 45, FP, UM. Additional comments on Luella's criticism of the church can be found in these letters to James: January 13, 1889, Box 1 F. 10, FC, MHSL; April 5, 1889, Box 4 F. 21; December, March 12, 1894, Box 4 F. 25; April 18 and April 23, 1898, Box 5 F. 1, FP, UM.] Luella expressed only sorrow as her niece [not daughter] joined the church. But a few years later, when James discovered that his son was contributing to a local church he considered it an affront. "I am sorry that I have a son that allowed himself to be humbuged into subscribing for a church. It is an insult to me, although not intended that way. Better put it in the fire than help build a house in which to teach such lies yes lies." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, December 27, 1892, Box 20 F. 31, FP, UM.]
In 1883 Granville Stuart wrote Fergus a long letter containing scathing criticism of the many spineless infidels in Montana and denouncing the Catholic Church for demanding non-thinking adherents. He considered 90 per cent of Montana's population to be followers and in need of leadership. [Granville Stuart to James Fergus, May 8, 1883, SP, YUL.] Of course, Stuart did not complain of Fergus but to him; if Granville ever worried about James' willingness to openly advocate free thought and chastise the church, he need not have.
Two years later James provided his friend with a classic example of an outspoken agnostic. In September 1884 the Society of Montana Pioneers organized, with membership open to all who resided in the territory or were on their way to the territory by May 26, 1864. The organizational group honored James Fergus by electing him their first president, whereupon he insisted, "I would rather occupy this position than be President of the United States." [Helena Herald, September 10, 1884. Other officers included: George W. Irvin, recording secretary, W. F. Sanders, corresponding secretary, and S. T. Hauser, treasurer. James U. Sanders, Society of Montana Pioneers, to James Fergus, November 27, 1898, Box 10 F. 13, FP, UM.] A year later Granville Stuart sat with Montana's old timers listening in shocked silence as James delivered his farewell address. He issued a blistering attack on organized religion, emphasizing the bigotry and hypocracy of church members. He insisted that religion, like everything in existence, "has its periods of infancy, maturity and decay, [a] law from which our Solar System and the universe itself is not exempt." Religion is declining, with no better proof "than that I am here today. Two hundred years ago I would have been burned at the stake. What was considered heresy by our fathers is tolerated now. . . . The hell that frightened us in our childhood has vanished into space. Heaven is not in our geographies. Therefore, we see the old faiths loosening their hold on the human mind." James hinted at population control, asserting mankind owed posterity two things: "to restrict the increase of population [and] to improve what is left." Society must quit educating and pampering every "human cayuse [who] is at liberty to fill the world with human cayuses." Fergus maintained:
Mankind have a right to protect themselves by the enacting of necessary laws, if that will accomplish the end; by other well known means if it will not. Mankind may also find it necessary to prevent the increase of persons tainted with constitutional infirmities, such as drunkenness, consumption, scrofula. Of course if the surface of the earth is not sufficient to sustain the increased population that we naturally expect, it is better to follow the same rule with the human family that we do with our domestic animals. [Unidentified clipping, August 30, 1885 (probably Helena Herald or Helena Independent), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, pp. 50-51, FP, UM. While Fergus did not specifically detail the methods of developing a quality population or of restricting its growth, one thinks of selective breeding, sterilization, population control. These are explosive issues even in the "enlightened" 1970's.]
The resulting controversy boiled over into the press and Fergus received personal letters denying the accusations. Like others who experienced the tirade, Cornelius Hedges, a long-time Fergus friend, expected James to speak of early territorial experiences. He considered it a personal attack by Fergus, for Hedges denied being a bigot or forcing his views of religion or politics on anybody, especially Fergus. [Cornelius Hedges to James Fergus, September 28, 1885, Box 6 F. 18, FP, UM.]
The Helena Independent thought Fergus displayed more impropriety than courage in his choice of remarks. Interestingly enough, this paper and all who criticized or challenged Fergus' statements, ignored his suggestion of population control—perhaps it did not register in their shocked disbelief. The Independent maintained that Christianity, rather than decaying, waxed vital and boasted more strength than in any previous epoch. For that reason, "tolerance has taken the place of persecution; and loving Christians tolerate Mr. Fergus' hostility to what they hold most sacred, and honor him for his integrity and the good he has done. That is why Christianity has more power to-day than ever before." [Helena Independent, August 30, 1885. A private citizen, W. B. Reed, also issued a strong rebuttal to Fergus in the same issue.]
The Avant Courier seemed to be the only paper defending Fergus' right to speak as he believed, though it suggested he might have preached at another time before another group. Still, the paper noted, both the Constitution and the church guaranteed his right to speak. Fergus thanked the paper but the crusty old fellow took issue with its contention that he might have chosen another theme for his speech as outgoing president. [Avant Courier, n.d. 1885, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 56, FP, UM.]
Fergus considered religion a fraud and Jesus an ordinary man who simply lived in an earlier and more ignorant age. Thus he asked:
. . . if Jesus was God and knew everything and could do everything—why in place of running around with a lot of ignorant loafers, tramps and public women, preaching communistic doctrines, stealing out of the fields and nursing a tree because it did not bear fruit in the winter, when in want, and eating and drinking in excess when he could get it untill his Brother Jews called him a ‘wine bibber and a glutten' didn't he tell the human family about steam and electricity, about the steam ship and the railway, about the mowing and sewing machines, the art of printing and thousands of other inventions useful to his brother man; or give the little planet a more equable climate with fewer dry and wet spots: I think he could not do it that he was simply a man like ourselves, could do no more and living in an earlier and more ignorant age and amongst an ignorant people knew less. [James Fergus to "Friend Parrott," n.d., MC, MHSL.]
James called himself a "pure materialist" who looked upon all religions as the product of man "and to me they are all alike. There may be one God or a million of Gods, one heaven or a million, one hell or a million. I know nothing about these and care less." [James Fergus to George Stephens, August 4, 1886, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM.] Fergus labeled himself an infidel but held agnostic tendencies; still evidence indicates his strong similarity to Calvinism. While in the 1885 Territorial Council James opposed a bill to enforce Sunday idleness, insisting, "Now with me labor is a duty as sacred and probably as acceptable to the diety himself, if there is a personal God, as attending church." In addition, he confessed to being a "pure materialist" who obviously held a rigid sense of duty and a high personal morality. For years Fergus had been trying to achieve his fortune; when he did succeed materially at Armells James occupied the last decade of his life worrying about dispersing the property.
With an anti-church attitude foremost in mind, James smoldered at hearing the Ft. Belknap Indian agent planned to Christianize his charges before civilizing them. Fergus considered this a poor goal, since most towns averaged three whiskey shops for each boarding house or church. He reacted publicly to this plan through the Ft. Benton Record:
Now major I am a friend to the Indian, have been on the frontiers nearly fifty years, have seen them cajoled and browbeaten out of their lands, have seen more than half the pittance allowed them stolen by agents and traders, and feel sorry for them, but whether right or wrong the white man is bound to occupy the land and the Indian—and that soon—must either work or die, and the more of this you beat into their heads and the less religion the better. Col. Ingersoll says that the plow will do more to keep off starvation than a million prayers. Get them cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry. Hire a good farmer that understands irrigation have plenty of land plowed, encourage them to work, whatever any family raises let it be their own, and see that they keep it. A starving Indian cares but little for Christianity or education, besides if he should learn to read he would find out that the Christian Guiteau killed President Garfield, and that the prayers of a nation could not save him, that murderers generally go from the gallows to Abrahams bosom, that large bank and corporation robbers are generally church officials, that Christian nations pay more for stimulant than for bread, and that nearly every week we read of one or more Christian shepherds making free with the ewe lambs of their flock. [James Fergus to Ft. Benton Record, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 16, FP, UM. Some years later, as the nation debated the disposition of the Philippines, James urged the government not to force our "civilization," with its corruption, whiskey shops and gambling halls, on the new possession. "Don't let us degrade the inhabitants . . . by introducing our habits of drunkenness and briberies among them." James Fergus to Fergus County Argus, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 107, FP, UM.]
In 1876, before James and William agreed to avoid writing of religion, William indicted James for being under the influence of Darwinism. James readily admitted as much; in fact, by the mid-1880's he began enunciating the belief that a new religion founded on science, nature's laws, reason, philosophy and individual effort to improve must replace a dying religion based on blind faith. Admitting this need, "it is none too soon to commence reforms, to do something for ourselves. The survival of the fittest is one of natures great laws and the human family tries to improve everything by selection but the human family itself." Unfortunately, humans still let nature control their reproduction unchecked. "Every murderer, thief, drunkard and gambler is at full liberty to transmit those bad qualities to their posterity. . . . We simply try to educate him and make him better, but he is a cayuse all the same." [William Fergus to James Fergus, February 2, 1876, Box 3 F. 31, FP, UM. James Fergus, rough draft of anti-gambling speech to 1885 Territorial Council, Box 14 F. 1, FP, UM.]
During these years James developed his liberal, anti-religious guidelines from various sources. By 1883 he had subscribed to the Boston Investigator for forty years—hundreds of issues and thousands of articles promoting free thought. He also received the Freethought magazine, edited by Samuel P. Putman, which complimented the Investigator. Fergus idolized the nationally known liberal atheist Robert Ingersoll, following his career and pronouncements. He had read "all the published writings, both political and religious," of Thomas Paine, who spoke for individual rights before Fergus was born. [James Fergus to Fergus County Argus, n.d. (late 1890's), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 106, FP, UM.]
These concepts nourished in fertile ground, for James had sought Christianity's faults since the 1840's. Since he considered himself an outcast from his own family he developed a sensitive feeling for individual rights—his own and those of others. This strong moral concern for the rights of the underdog and minorities, combined with his individualistic courage to stand against popular thinking, produced frequent outbursts through speech and public press. He seldom avoided confrontation if it would advance the liberal cause.
Thus in the mid-1880's the New Northwest published a Fergus pronouncement under the headline, "Another Shot from Castle Fergus: An Old Friend Still Persists in Preaching in Season and Out of Season." Under this lead James justified a previous position on an unknown issue, then explained his willingness to air views in print. "All discussions of this kind help out free thought. No reform was ever inaugurated without discussion. It is the discovery of scientific truths and common sense facts that have liberalized and are still liberalizing your beliefs." Though Fergus looked to the day when the "human family" threw off all the old myths, he expressed some satisfaction "at the steady everyday progress in theological beliefs."
. . . it is too late in the day to muzzle human thought, the world moves. One man's rights are just as sacred as another's. I think the best way is for every man and woman to be allowed full liberty to exercise the right of free judgement and free speech, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. You do your own thinking and give free expression to your own thoughts when you see fit and allow me the same privilege. [James Fergus to New Northwest, n.d. (1886-87). Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 632, FP, UM.]
Fergus, like his contemporary John Dewey who later enunciated his own belief in a "religion" based on humanity, [Edward C. Moore, American Pragmatism: Peirce, James and Dewey (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), pp. 252-256.] came to adopt a similar philosophy of conduct. He conceded that at times he sounded like a preacher, but why not?
If I am not schooled in theology I am schooled in experience, if not ordained by the church I am ordained by humanity. In place of the hands of the clergy I have felt the heavier hand of adversity which has schooled me in its necessities. Your ministers preach salvation to man through the religion of Christ. Allow me to preach Salvation to man through the religion of humanity. [James Fergus, penciled rough draft of speech or article, n.d., Box 14 F. 4, FP, UM.]
James observed that the nation's cities had become centers of crime and misery, filling jails and providing food for the gallows. What is being done to offset these corrupting influences, he asked? The schools will do much but can not accomplish all. Schools delegate too much time to the intellect and not enough with the heart, neglecting moral training. Even then, the schools only initiate what should begin at home, with the family, with self. Besides, "we depend too much on legislatures to make us rich, and ministers and churches to make us good; goodness must begin at home." The body politic would be much improved if every member practiced the golden rule. "Hence the necessity of self improvement, of finding more fault in the mirror and less elsewhere, of cultivating peace, charity, forbearance and good will toward all, we must lay aside total depravity and cultivate self respect." [Ibid.]
James scorned those who contended religion did no harm. He cited the multitude of bloody wars fought in the name of various religions, including Christianity. He especially condemned Catholic Spain's destruction of Latin America's refined civilizations. He then cited his own case:
Religion—it has robbed the writer of the love and friendship of those born of the same mother and nourished at the same brest—what can he do but despise it? The poet called it ‘a course, a disease, a lie.' Puny man, you make a god, call him good, set him up as your idol—the world is filled with the same misery, the same wickedness. You supplicate him to make you good, you increase in wickedness; your idol don't help, can't help you; you and your preachers plead and preach in vain. We judge your religion by its results. Depend on yourselves, practice virtue and morality and be men. [James Fergus, "A Victim," to unidentified paper, n.d. (about 1803), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 83, FP, UM.
To Fergus, a combination of reason, common sense and science would lead man out of his deplorable condition of blind faith in idols. Scientific reading and study had been a hobby with him for much of his life. He understood machines, working comfortably with them, for ". . . I never came into contact with any mechanical management that was to be more than play. . . . I had a natural power to manage these things." James concluded that if his health had not crumbled in Moline he would very likely have occupied a different position in life because "I have read and studied so much that with this cast of brain and better memory with the addition of being a good speaker" his life style would have been different. [James Fergus notes, n.d. (probably 1890's), Box 14 F. 3, FP, UM.]
James also considered the division between intellect and labor to be much too large; both types could benefit from increased portions of the other. "It is a no less fatal eror to dispise labor when regulated by intellect, than to value it for its own sake." Society continually separates the two which it should not do; neither should despise the other because "it is only by labor that thought can be made healthy and only by thought that labor can be made useful, and the two cannot be separated with impunity. All professions should be liberal, and there should be less pride felt in pecularity of employment, and more in excellence of achievement." As an afterthought, James noted this applies more "to populations in large cities than Montana." [James Fergus essay, "Talking and Thinking," n.d. (probably between 1875-1885), Box 14 F. 3, FP, UM.]
But whatever philosophic thought Fergus pursued, he invariably returned to his scheme for improving mankind. "In short, that instead of God, we would live and labor for mankind. In place of Christianity, we would substitute the religion of humanity. In this we would include all the good in every religion under the sun. We would also judge men by their lives, not by their beliefs." James continually insisted, "my only ambition is if possible to leave the human family no worse than I found it." [James Fergus to Helena Independent, September 1885, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, pp. 54-56, FP, UM. Fergus to Avant Courier, September 1885, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 56. The famous Fergus liberality broke down in 1884 when a young Scottish girl became engaged to a strong Catholic neighbor. James could not talk them out of it but refused to attend the wedding, though he sent a present. His training to suspect Catholics proved stronger than the intellect. James Fergus to Robert Fergus, October 1884, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM.]
One of the events James was careful to attend while on his 1884 Pacific coast tour was a meeting of liberals in San Francisco. Through such meetings and corresponding with the editors of liberal publications, James acquired recognition outside of Montana. Thus, in 1896 Samuel Putman, editor of Freethought, saluted Fergus as that "grey chieftan of freedom who is one of the biggest, heartiest, and grandest liberals in this Western country, and has always been a pioneer" helping to build several states and territories. He identified Fergus as one who is in "every situation a bold and uncompromising advocate of Free Thought," who offered to serve as chaplain in the legislature for nothing and spoke against inserting God in the state's constitution. [Samuel Putman to unidentified paper, June 29, 1896, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 62, FP, UM.]
Several years later Putman agreed to insert Fergus' picture and sketch in a forthcoming book, Four Hundred Years of Truethought. Sten Hanson, a Maiden miner who admired James' liberal courage, vowed "I will never stop before your portrait is in the midst of all the gallant leading free thinkers of the world." Hanson's loyalty soon met its test, as he had to secure ten subscriptions to the book before Fergus would be included. [Samuel P. Putman, President of Freethought Federation of America, to James Fergus, February 23, 1894, Box 1 F. 6, FC, MHSL. Sten Hanson to James Fergus, September 6, 1893, Box 6 F. 3, FP, UM. It is not known if Fergus' picture went into the book or if the book was ever published.] Between 1889 and 1894 Fergus and Hanson also tried in vain to get Putman to come to Montana to present a series of lectures. Putman almost came several times but eventually considered the state too barren for liberal thought to root and grow; besides, such a tour would be unprofitable. [Sten Hanson to James Fergus, February 28 and June 24, 1894, FP, UM. Samuel P. Putman to Fergus, March 23 and May 10, 1889; April 27, February 23, and July 17, 1894, Box 2 F. 1 and Box 1 F. 6, FC, MHSL.] The same year that Putman declined to lecture in Montana Fergus received an invitation, upon the recommendation of Cornelius Hedges, to become a member of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. This non-partisan society used scientific agitation "to assist the progress of truth at all points" and involved itself in ballot reform, prison reform, civil service, educational and charity reforms. [Edmund J. Janies, President, American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, to James Fergus, June 7, 1894, Box 1 F. 16, FP, UM. It is assumed Fergus would join such an organization, thought this has not been confirmed.]
By the 1890's James had acquired a solid reputation in Montana for his outspoken liberalism. A Missoula friend insisted in 1894 that "I want to say right here I want to thank you and Putman and Ingersoll and all the grand old Patriates of Freethought and truth the only champions of humanity to man." Son-in-law S. C. Gilpatrick considered having a "Liberal meeting in this county without your presence would be something like an army which has lost its commander." [William Neill to James Fergus, July 24, 1894, Box 8 F. 44, FP, UM. S. C. Gilpatrick to James Fergus, January 27, 1895, Box 5 F. 10, FP, UM.] But as usual, W. F. Sanders expressed it most eloquently in presenting Fergus with Partous' two volume set of the Life of Voltaire:
To James Fergus, esquire, whose life illustrates that conscience and integrity may exist without superstition; that intelligence and courage are consistent with independence and Frankness, that Dogmatism and Bigotry may be securely defied and that friendship harmonizes with Deference and Differences, I present these volumes—the Story of a life supremely brave and continuously active, as a token of my unfailing affection and gratitude. [W. F. Sanders to James Fergus, n.d. (before 1894 book inventory), Box 9 F. 47, FP, UM.]