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Joseph McCabe and the Little Blue Books

Conway Hall is a purpose built building designed by F. Herbert Mansford, a member of the South Place Ethical Society (now called Conway Hall Ethical Society), and built in 1928-29. It contains capacious basements that provide a large amount of space for storage. Over the 80 plus years that the Society has been resident in this space the basements have been used as intended for storage and thus, it is not uncommon, even after several years of organising the basements, to find yet another box with interesting content of unknown provenance.

Recently we found a few boxes of pamphlets in the basements, within which we found 35 Little Blue Books on a variety of topics by Joseph McCabe (1867-1955). McCabe is one of the leading lights in the Humanist Library and Archives and he was an Appointed Lecturer for our Society from 1907 to 1955. An engaging and prolific writer, he wrote a great deal on freethought matters with a particularly critical eye towards the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

A black and white image of a young Joseph Martin McCabe.Joseph Martin McCabe was born into an Irish Catholic family in Macclesfield in the North of England. He grew up and entered religious training at the Monastery of St. Francis to eventually be ordained as “Very Reverend” Father Antony. McCabe was eventually, after twelve years, to become disillusioned with not just the Church but the Catholic faith itself. His doubts had been present for several years but:

“…On Christmas morning I definitely concluded that I was doctrinally bankrupt, and from that day, thirty-one years ago, to this, no doubt about the soundness of my conclusion has ever clouded my mind…I allowed a few weeks for possible change of sentiment, taking only one lady, who perceived by grave trouble, into my confidence. She betrayed me, of course, and they sent my old tutor to deal with me. On Ash Wednesday, 1896, I went out from the shade of the cloister, to find “the world,” which for twelve years had rung in my ears in association with “the flesh and the devil,” more honest, sweeter, and more honourable than the folk who affected to despise it.” (Little Blue Book No. 439, My Twelve Years in a Monastery, p. 64)

Following his departure from the Church, McCabe would go on to be a prolific public speaker and writer. He debated against George McCready Price, a creationist, and Arthur Conan Doyle, writer and spiritualist. McCabe was also a founding member of the Rationalist Press Association which was devoted to publishing secular and freethought material which mainstream publishers would not touch. Abandoning his monastic vows completely, he married Beatrice Alice Ann Lee in August 1899 and they were to have four children; Frank (a physicist), Athene, Ernest (an engineer) and Dorothy.

In 1925-26 McCabe was undertaking a speaking tour around the United States and received an invitation to visit Emanuel Haldeman-Julius ( Emanuel Julius) in Girard, Kansas. Haldeman-Julius was publishing pamphlets which he produced and sold relatively cheaply with the idea of providing a ‘University in Print’ available to the masses. During the visit he convinced McCabe to write around 50 books for his series (approximately 64 pages each to be set in very small type, around 15,000 words each) over the course of a year. McCabe, then about 60 years old, proceeded to fulfil his contract, writing controversial works about the Churches, Christianity and other religions in general in a writing style that is appealing and easy to read.

In the heart of the Evangelical Southern United States, this Jewish-American publisher, Haldeman-Julius, was producing and distributing ‘heretical’ material far and wide as well as works about socialism, sex and methods of birth control. These he published alongside the literary classics with which he initially started the Little Blue Books series.

“Though Haldeman-Julius had always cultivated enemies with his antireligious, anticorporate tracts, his series of articles linking the Vatican with the Axis powers during World War II provoked the Catholic Legion of Decency to mount a letter-writing campaign against him. Parochial-school classes around the country wrote angry postcards to magazines and newspapers, many of which stopped accepting Little Blue Book advertisements, or ran them only on the condition that atheist and socialist titles not be included on the list. Papers in Detroit and Philadelphia printed an ad for Little Blue Books that ran a day or two later with an editorial urging readers not to buy them. Undaunted, Haldeman-Julius commissioned an iconoclastic ex-priest named Joseph McCabe to write nearly fifty Little Blue Books between 1943 and 1947 [sic], including How an Ape Became a Man and How Christianity Grew Out of Paganism.” (The Henry Ford of LiteratureRolf Pott)

In an autobiography, The First Hundred Million, Haldeman-Julius talks about how his publishing process worked and says,

“If I ever did a courageous thing in making a publishing venture, I would rather the McCabe series should be cited than any other. Some people consider it a mark of editorial courage. It is daring, they say, to offer so much “propaganda” (their word) against established theology and dogma and ritual. Perhaps it is. But it is the only honest thing to do. If it is courage, it is the courage of conviction.”

The Little Blue Book pamphlets have all now been catalogued and are available to view in the library.

A colour photograph of a selection of Little Blue Books By Joseph McCabe

One example is My Twelve Years in a Monastery (Little Blue Book No. 439) an edited version of McCabe’s larger autobiography of the same name and provides background for how McCabe came to question his Catholic faith and then abandon it entirely.

In Lies and Bunk about Racial Superiority: the Aryan and Other Races (Little Blue Book No. 1783) he discusses the beliefs, founded on Old Testament stories, of the creation of the different races and how some came to be held superior to others as well as evidence that proves otherwise. The idea of racial purity espoused by the Nazi regime is also examined followed by a final chapter in which McCabe asserts that, “purity of race neither exists nor is desirable.”

In the other pamphlets he covers such diverse topics as witchcraft, slavery, religion and morals in ancient civilisations, other popular religious sects, science and religion and many others.

The Little Blue Book titles by McCabe that we found are:

  • The Moorish Civilization in Spain
  • How Christianity “Triumphed”
  • The Future of Religion
  • The Futility of Belief in God
  • The Revolt Against Religion
  • The Conflict Between Science and Religion
  • The Fraud if Spiritualism
  • New Light on Witchcraft
  • Religion and the French Revolution
  • Lies and Bunk about Racial Superiority: The Aryan and Other Races
  • Christianity and Slavery
  • The Jesuits: Religious Rogues
  • Legends of Saints and Martyrs
  • The Churches and Modern Progress
  • The Absurdities of Christian Science
  • The World’s Great Religions
  • The Psychology of Religion
  • Robert G. Ingersoll: Benevolent Agnostic
  • My Twelve Years in a Monastery
  • Thomas Paine’s Revolt Against the Bible
  • Life and Morals in Greece and Rome
  • Christianity and Philanthropy
  • Morals in Ancient Babylon
  • Do We Need Religion?
  • Religion and Morals in Ancient Egypt
  • The Nonsense Called Theosophy
  • Myths of Religions Statistics
  • Religion’s Failure to Combat Crime
  • The Church and the School
  • Medieval Art and the Church
  • The Lies of Religious Literature
  • Religion in the Great Poets
  • The Forgery of the Old Testament
  • The Sources of Christian Morality
  • The Failure of Christian Missions

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