Edward Bellamy did not attend church as an adult, but religion played a big role in his upbringing. Who were the people who influenced him morally and spiritually?
Reflecting on his father’s relationship with organized religion, Paul Bellamy remarked that Edward “thought the church failed to put emphasis on religion where it belonged, namely on the translation of the Golden Rule into human relations; that it sang constantly about the glories of Heaven and did not denounce or attempt to correct evil and wickedness here below.” Yet this did not mean that religion was not a part of his life or incorporated into his work; Paul also recalled his father reading to him and his sister from the Bible on Sundays, and Edward’s writings from his newspaper days through his final novel clearly reflect on religious themes.1 While it appears that he broke with convention by leaving the church, it is perhaps more accurate to say that Edward was carrying on the family tradition of holding onto his own beliefs.
Growing up, religion was an integral part of his family life, as his father and maternal grandfather were both Baptist ministers, and his mother was known for her piety. His grandfather, Benjamin Putnam, held non-traditional beliefs for his time that directly impacted Edward’s upbringing. Putnam was a firm believer in educating women, and so his daughter, Maria, was better educated than many of her female contemporaries. Maria, in turn, valued education and was a lifelong learner, instilling in her son, Edward, a love of reading and a sense of duty to others. In particular, she was known for helping those who were sick or in need.2
Rufus Bellamy, Edward’s father, was also a preacher who held more liberal beliefs. In contrast to his wife’s traditional religious views, Rufus did not believe in the idea of eternal damnation, even doubting the existence of hell. Like his wife, however, Rufus firmly believed in being kind to his neighbors. According to Edward’s wife, Emma, Rufus was well-loved in his community by people of all backgrounds. He had a reputation for being friendly and considerate, and was even known to give a bride his fee from the groom for performing a wedding ceremony.3
Looking further back into his family tree, there is another minister who may have influenced Edward’s thought. His great-great grandfather, Joseph Bellamy,4 had been a student and friend of Jonathan Edwards, the well-known preacher of the First Great Awakening. Unlike his descendent, Rufus, Joseph did believe in eternal damnation, speaking about it in his sermons. However, he also preached about utopian themes of universal love in sermons that Edward would have been able to read in books from his father’s library.5
While he was baptized at age 14, Edward began questioning his faith when he realized that he could not understand why God would allow people to suffer. Once his father resigned from his ministry in 1882, he officially withdrew his membership from the Baptist church. However, throughout his life he continued to believe in the Christian ideal of a brotherhood of man. This principle is a common theme throughout his writings, and it is the foundation of his utopian society in Looking Backward and Equality. Indeed, although he no longer considered himself a member of any church, he still understood the value that religion had for others and did not abolish it from his society of the future. The problem, he suggested, was not so much the concept of religion as the hypocrisy of his contemporaries. As Mr. Barton says in his sermon in Looking Backward, “Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the nineteenth century was in name Christian, and the fact that the entire commercial and industrial frame of society was the embodiment of the anti-Christian spirit must have had some weight, though I admit it was strangely little, with the nominal followers of Jesus Christ.” However, Barton later explains, “It is very easy to believe in the fatherhood of God in the twentieth century.”6
- Arthur E. Morgan, The Philosophy of Edward Bellamy (New York: 1945) 85.
- Sylvia Bowman, The Year 2000 (New York: Bookman Associates, 1958) 16-7; Arthur E. Morgan, Edward Bellamy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944) 24.
- Morgan, Edward Bellamy, 22, 25.
- Joseph Bellamy’s house in Bethlehem, Connecticut, is also a museum: https://ctlandmarks.org/properties/bellamy-ferriday-house-garden/.
- Morgan, Edward Bellamy, 14, 38, 215-6.
- Bowman, 23-4; Morgan, Edward Bellamy, 63; Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888; repr., New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996) 132, 137-8.