Fanny Wright was a firebrand reformer and amazing public speaker of the 19th Century. Born in Scotland in 1796, she died in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1852. Walt Whitman once said she was “one of the best women in history though also one of the least understood.” Philosopher John Stuart Mill said she was “one of the most important women of her day.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony both esteemed Frances Wright calling her,
“A person of extraordinary powers of mind. . .the first woman who gave lectures on political subjects in America. . . . Her ideas on theology, slavery, and the social degradation of woman. . .were denounced by both press and pulpit, and maintained by her at the risk of her life.” (all quotes from Susan S. Adams, Reason, Religion and Morals)
Wright edited the Free Enquirer, “the first periodical established in the United States for the purpose of fearless and unbiased inquiry on all subjects.” She lectured before thousands in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and beyond. She spoke personally with Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and others about the injustice of slavery. She helped form a community near Memphis to educate and free slaves. Her influence is incalculable.
How many remember Frances (Fanny) Wright? No doubt, few have even heard of her.
It’s hard to choose highlights from her wisdom but here are a few selections to honor this remarkable secular chaplain:
“The true bible is the book of nature, the wisest teacher the one who most plainly expounds it, the best priest our own conscience, and the most orthodox church a hall of science. . . . Let us call ourselves by what names we will, are we not creatures occupying the same earth, and sharing the same nature? And can we not consider these as members of one family?”
“My friends, I am no Christian. . .I am neither Jew nor Gentile, Muslim nor Theist; I am but a member of the human family.”
“It seems to me. . .that Jesus, were he alive at this day, would recommend you to come out of your churches of faith, and to gather into schools of knowledge.”
“Time is it to perceive this truth, to proclaim it on the housetop, in the market place, in city and forest. . . . Time is it, I say, to turn our churches into halls of science, our schools of faith into schools of knowledge. . . . Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition.”
In the Preface to her collected speeches, she wrote that the only way the principles of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence could be practiced would be with “the spread and increase of knowledge” and “when the law of force shall give place to the law of reason.”
I recommend we refresh our memories and our appreciation for the great, independent mind of Frances Wright.