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Elizur Wright

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Elizur Wright, American (1804-1885)

Elizur Wright was a life long social reformer. He was reared in an evangelical Congregationalist family in Connecticut and Ohio. As a young man he attended Yale with the intention of preparing for a career in the ministry. While at Yale he became interested in the anti-slavery cause. He graduated from Yale with growing doubts about entering the ministry but he did spend some time working for the American Tract Society and worked as a school teacher. Later he took a position as a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Western Reserve College. There he became further involved in the abolitionist movement moving from support for gradual emancipation and colonization of ex-slaves in Africa to support for the more radical position of immediatism. After he became a more committed Abolitionist he eventually resigned his position at Western Reserve to work as secretary for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

It was while working for the Abolitionist movement that Wright gradually became disillusioned with the Christian churches and their perceived tolerance for slavery and their general hypocrisy over this issue. His disillusionment with the churches on moral grounds gradually led down the road towards freethought and atheism while still retaining the moral fervor of his evangelical background. In 1847 he wrote "Christianity is itself a total failure... so far as it is a plan of saving souls for a future life without saving souls and bodies for this." In 1860 he wrote to his friend Beriah Green--"I don't believe in the God of books...I don't believe in anything but facts appreciated by some degree of evidence." Wright in his old age worked actively on behalf for freethought causes. He worked for the National Liberal League in association with such prominent freethinkers as Robert Ingersoll. Towards the end of his life Wright openly described himself as an "infidel," an "atheist," and a "pagan." He called himself a "materialist" in the tradition of Spinoza, Paine, Darwin, and Huxley. He was quite partial to the Positivism of August Comte.

Abolitionism and freethought were by no means the only causes that Wright devoted himself to. He used his mathematical training to establish himself as an insurance actuary and this led him to one of other favorite causes--that of life insurance reform. His efforts in that field eventually led to his being appointed commissioner of life insurance in Massachusetts. As commissioner he sought to place the industry on sound scientific actuarial principles. Another cause that he devoted himself to was that of conservation. He successfully fought for the establishment of the Middlesex Fells Reservation (the Fells are a wooded plateau in and around Medford, Massachusetts) to preserve the forested lands there from encroaching real estate pressures. Wright's Pond and Wright's Boulder are named for him. [Abolitionist, Actuary, Atheist: Elizur Wright and the Reform Impulse Lawrence Goodheart (The Kent State University Press, 1990).