“Justice and Jehovah” (1888)


The Address of Miss Voltairine De Cleyre Before the Cleveland Secular Union

Miss Voltairine De Cleyre of Grand Rapids addressed the Secular union in the Memorial hall last evening on the subject of “Justice and Jehovah.” The central idea in her address is expressed in the quotation from Tennyson’s Locksley Hall: “Cursed be the social lies that warp us from the living truth.”

The lecturer essayed to show by a series of word pictures—told metaphorically as visions—conditions of society which cannot be properly vindicated by the idea of a just or good God. Her first description was of a little child, homeless, hungry, poorly clad, barefooted and weary, orphaned and alone, whose father had lost the house he had built, his only property, by reason of the title to the land being in the name of a railway. Here she quoted, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and, also, “He doeth all things well.” The religious explanation was announced as justifying such a condition of affairs on the principle that God owns everything and therefore owes his creatures nothing.

Next the instance of a mother arraigned at a bar of justice for stealing meat from a butcher’s stall was given. The mother steals for her children. She is a seamstress where labor has been underbidden. The judge—more merciful than God—takes pity on her condition and considering her temptation suspends sentence. The little child asks the judge if he is God. The mother gets work again, earns a little money with which she buys poison and kills her three children, thus inflicting a criminal on society and saving it three. To what end are such laws made, especially such laws as make woman subject to man. Theologians say God relegates power to man. The child was not far wrong after all when he asked the judge if he were God.

The lecturer then turned her attention to the existing state of things in society when the incautious girl is an outcast and her seducer goes uncensured. Pity frowns, the mother says she will stand everything but disgrace, the father casts his daughter off, the street life or shame and the death of both mother and child follows. The churches are as pure and cold as the unforgiving sisters. Mothers should not make their daughters lives mock modest lies but should teach physical and historical facts to put the girls on their guard. Religion goes as far back as Adam and Eve to justify this. “The woman that thou gavest me”—the woman was the first to break the law. From the salons of the gilded brothels to the slums of the dirtiest streets the cry goes up from fallen woman for peace through death, and the many churches preach “peace on earth, good will to men,” but never to women.

Men go to battle carrying banners inscribed with the name of the most high. Poverty through alleged overproduction may be described in the quotation “To him that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not it shall be taken away even that which he seems the to have.” The iniquities of trusts and a surplus which should be in the people’s hands out at usurious interest are complemented with “well done thou good and faithful servant.”

Miss De Cleyre summed up by saying that when Napoleon went a step too far justice put all his cruelty and ambition and oppression on the one side, and himself on the other and that he was weighed in the balance and found wanting. The earth bears a burden too great for the God idea to bear. The day is at hand when all the evils dwelt upon by the speaker will be pitted against Jehovah by a thinking world and he will be weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Miss De Cleyre in girlhood received her education in a Catholic convent and was at one time quite religious. Fear of the Roman Catholic hell alone deterred her from entering the fold, and while looking about her for a more cheerful religion she became agnostic.

“‘Justice and Jehovah.’ The Address of Miss Voltairine De Cleyre Before the Cleveland Secular Union,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer (September 10, 1888): 4.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.