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Etta Semple


For years, Martha “Etta” Donaldson Killmer Semple (1855-1914) story and the Freethought Movement’s story, have been excluded in the great narrative of American History. Etta Semple: Kansas Freethinker and “Ideal” Woman, reveals the Freethought movement erupting across America in an effort to uphold the separation of church and state principle in America. The stakes were high. Public officials blatantly ignored the Constitution, and battled to turn America’s secular government into a Christian Theocracy. Freethinkers understood the secular republic was endangered by the move to replace the Supreme Law of the land, (the Constitution) with the Bible.


By the 1890’s, freethinkers in Kansas were facing a serious backlash from politicians and religious groups opposed to liberalism and Freethought. To counter the backlash, freethinkers used their freedom of speech to launch newspapers to reach a wider audience and educate the public about Freethought principles.


From November 15th, 1898, to December 1901, Etta published a Freethought newspaper to prevent religious intrusion into government as well as the private lives of citizens. Thankfully, she had the good sense to donate her historically rich papers to the Kansas State Historical Society, or we most certainly would have never known of her herculean efforts to uphold the separation of church and state in Kansas, and her dedication to teaching people how to live full , productive lives without bowing to a supernatural God.


Her philosophy epitomized the principles of Freethought: to think freely by examining the world in a rationale, scientific manner, always aiming for an outcome that would benefit and uplift others. Nothing was sacrosanct, or immune from scrutiny.  All fields and subjects were to be questioned and investigated. And did she ever! No subject was taboo for examination in her newspaper, including religion. She hoped to purge humankind’s dependency on false gods, and open everyone to the great potential of their own minds. Religion’s time on earth would become just another epoch in the evolutionary ladder to a better world as people turned away from false, limiting dogmas to develop the power of their minds more fully. 








  • Born September 21, 1855 in Clayton, Illinois near Quincy & died on April 11th, 1914 in Ottawa, Kansas

  • First marriage: Charles Killmer (Two Sons from this union: William b.1876  Charles Edward b. 1878)

  • Second marriage: Matthew Semple, November 9th, 1887 (One son from this union, Wendell Phillips Semple d. 1950)

  • Etta co-founded the Kansas Freethought Association(KFA) in 1889

  • President of KFA beginning in 1894

  • Ran for  the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1898 on the Kansas Socialist Labor Party ticket

  • Became editor and publisher of The Freethought Ideal in 1898.  Renamed the IDEAL The Freethought Ideal and Vindicator, April 13th,1901 and in December, 1901, the paper became the New Thought Ideal & Health Vindicator

  • First female in Kansas to be elected to a Congressional Convention in Paola, Kansas for the Populist Party

  • In 1900, Etta was chosen to represent Kansas and three other states at the Twenty-Fourth Annual Congress of the American Secular Union in Cincinnati, Ohio

  • 1901, she was elected as one of two vice-presidents of the ASU

  • The Natural Cure Sanitarium owned and operated by Etta Semple was considered one of the finest facilities in the state of Kansas in the 1900’s.

Why Did Etta Attack Religion?

Freethinkers were the watchdogs of the 19th and early 20th century in upholding the separation of church and state. Etta began to critique and criticize religion in her newspaper because religious leaders asserted the notion that religion commanded superior moral teachings for all to follow, and therefore, its teachings should be incorporated into all aspects of the state. Freethinkers were forced to show how inferior, misogynistic, and destructive religious teachings often were within society and human relationships, in order to counter the claim that every American must submit to religious beliefs to be a moral and ethical citizen in America. The goal was to prevent worship and teachings from being extended into the public arena where nonbelievers occupied the same space. In contrast, the religious elements in society were actively supporting new laws before state legislatures and the federal government to mandate their religion upon everyone-regardless of their beliefs or nonbeliefs.

Author, Vickie Sandell Stangl, at Etta Semple's grave in Ottawa Kansas.

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