John Algeo – USA
Bennett was one of the best known and most effective free-thinkers of the nineteenth century. He fought for freedom of belief and expression against such supporters of the narrow ecclesiastical establishment of that time as Anthony Comstock (1844-1915). Comstock, a virulent “reformer” who got control of what could be legally sent through the U.S. mail, prosecuted Bennett and sent him to prison, ostensibly for circulating immoral literature (shades of Annie Besant) but actually for violating Comstock’s intolerant views. Even during Comstock’s life, his name became a new word in English: “Comstockery,” which the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines as “strict censorship of materials considered obscene [or] censorious opposition to alleged immorality (as in literature).” He was America’s most infamous book-burner.
Bennett came out of a Shaker background. The Shakers were an open-minded religious community that required sexual abstinence of its members. Bennett and another community member, Mary Wicks, fell in love, so left the community to marry. However, the Shakers continued to regard them highly and supported Bennett through the many trials of his life. In 1873, Bennett started a journal called The Truth Seeker (a name suggested by his wife), which became the major free-thought periodical in America.
Bennett, true to his Shaker background, was no skeptic materialist, but was sympathetic with many ideas of the Spiritualists, who were prominent at the time. Because of his espousal of free-thought and his distribution of a book judged immoral by the ilk of Comstock, Bennett served thirteen months in a New York penitentiary (1879-80). On his release, he traveled abroad in the company of Professor Albert Leighton Rawson, a prominent free-thinker and Spiritualist who was a friend of Blavatsky’s and Olcott’s. In England, he was warmly received by Annie Besant, with whom he had shared persecution for defending freedom of expression. In early 1882, Bennett arrived in Bombay and met the two Founders, who became jointly his sponsors for membership in the Theosophical Society. The Society’s motto, “There is no religion higher than truth,” strongly appealed to Bennett. After his return to America, his wife, Mary, also joined the Society in New York City and remained a member until her death in 1898.
The Master Morya says of Bennett that “few have a more kind, unselfish and truthful a heart” and calls him “morally . . . far superior to the gentlemanly Hume.” And Djual Khul, a chela or student of Master Kuthumi’s, writes that Bennett “is one of our agents (unknown to himself) to carry out the scheme for the enfranchisement of Western thoughts from superstitious creeds.” Bennett was not a conventional Theosophist, but his devotion to truth and his struggle with outmoded creeds are clear signs of a Theosophical spirit.
References to Bennett in Theosophical sources include Boris de Zirkoff’s bio-bibliography in Collected Writings 4:625-33; Blavatsky’s many comments also in Collected Writings (see index volume 15); Olcott’s account in Old Diary Leaves 2:327 and following; and the Masters’ comments in Mahatma Letters 105-6, 114. The best overall biography of Bennett is Rod Bradford’s book listed above. But the easiest and most entertaining way to an appreciation of what Bennett stood for and of his continuing relevance to problems we face today is to watch Bradford’s video presentation, D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker (2009).
Roderick Bradford, the creator of this video is a writer/video producer in Allentown, PA. In addition to authoring D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker and contributing to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007), also published by Prometheus Books. Bradford has written articles in American History, American Atheist, Free Inquiry, The Truth Seeker, and The Quest.
A sample preview of the video can be watched at
The second clip on “Infidel Abroad” includes references to Besant, Blavatsky, Olcott, and Theosophy.