Burbank the infidel

Burbank the infidel

Joseph Lewis

On April 11, Luther Burbank died.

His death was not only a bereavement to his family and friends, but the entire country, aye, the whole civilized world mourned his passing.

The world mourned because a man had died who had brought happiness to the human race; had added to the sum total of knowledge, and had made the world better for his having lived.

Luther Burbank was a rare spirit, a tender soul. He was a noble son of the earth and his death was an irreparable loss to mankind.

We honor Luther Burbank today not only for his independence of thought, although that alone would entitle him to our homage, but also because of his achievements as a scientist and his accomplishments in the realm of Nature.

Stone and marble do not seem to be fit attributes for this lover of Nature and so we plant a tree to his memory. It symbolizes more appropriately his life and work.

Flowers and plants and trees were his intimates and formed part of his family.

He loved them as we love human beings and they became as much a part of his life and existence as if he were born one of them. This close intimacy gave him a familiarity possessed by no other man. He learned the secrets of the plants and spoke the language of the flowers. So remarkably intimate was he with life in the flower kingdom that he became known as “The Wizard of Piant Life.”

He moved in a mysterious way among them his wonders to perform. He nurtured a flower as we do a child and it seemed to love him for it. A broken branch of a tree touched him to pity, and the wanton destruction of flowers was a grievous hurt to him. He cured sick flowers, brought beauty to ugly ones and sweet odors to all.

From early life he manifested a kinship with them and often when provoked by pain to tears his mother would place a flower in his hands and a smile would appear on his tearstained cheeks. He took the rough and uncouth of plant life and brought beauty and charm to them by the magic of his touch. Flowers seemed to obey him like good children a kind parent. No man had greater love for them. And no man was more tenderly revered by them.

Burbank also loved children, his country and mankind. His life was one continuous romance. He lived like a man forever falling in love with his wife and child and family. What a glorious feeling to be in love and happy and live!

He gave as freely of his work as flowers their perfume. He made the earth a better, brighter, and more beautiful place than he found it, and the world is healthier and happier for his having lived. More cannot be said of any man. Even a god would be proud of such a record.

It is even impossible to calculate the value in health and the amount of enjoyment his creations of fruits, flowers and vegetables have been even to this generation.

Millions are enjoying the fruits of his labors without the slightest knowledge of their benefactor.

Laws of selection, variation and heredity which he discovered and applied are in themselves invaluable instruments of knowledge with which to accomplish among human beings what he so marvelously achieved with plants.

Burbank’s work is not done, it has really just begun. His death ended his own labors but placed a tremendous responsibility upon the living. Thousands are now required to do the work that he alone performed.

On March 7, 1849, Luther Burbank was born.

Twenty-six years later he entered Santa Rosa, California, the little town which he made his home and which he has since immortalized.

He lies buried there beneath a tree he planted.

It is said that he came to this little town with but ten dollars, ten potatoes and few choice books.

Three authors of these books inspired him in his life’s work. They were, Henry Thomas [sic] Thoreau, Charles Robert Darwin, whom he loved to call “Master,” and Alexander Von Humboldt, who imbued him with the spirit of the importance and worth of his work.

These three men inspired him with a burning desire to accomplish, a confidence that only one genius can impart to another, and with an idealism known only to the few heroic men and women who have been mankind’s benefactors.

And it is most fitting for us to plant this tree as a memorial to Burbank that it may grow and spread its verdant leaves as a shade over the magnificent head of this “Columbus of Science.”

His material equipment was indeed poor, his body was not overstrong, and his heart was broken. He had been unsuccessful in love. He tried to mend his broken heart by lavishing his love upon his beautiful garden and upon the flowers he loved as his children. And what an abundance of love he had, and with what abandonment he lavished it!


He added strength to his body by living close to Nature, and following the advice of Mother Earth.

Enraptured in his work he began his labors of more than a half of a century.

Although Burbank came to Santa Rosa unknown and in poverty, the world made a beaten path to his door. The celebrated and the famous the world over came to pay homage to this “Gardener touched with genius.”

By the fruits of his labor he gave incalculable wealth to others.

Do not let it be said, however, that Burbank’s accomplishments were the result of a magic wand. He labored assiduously and found competition most keen.

There may be room always at the top, but there is always a crowd that must be pushed aside in the middle of the road so as to clear the passage for the ascent.

Burbank found many botanists, and horticulturists, and plain gardeners who were doing things a bit above the ordinary, and he realized early in life that if he was to distinguish himself he must do something that had not been done before.

The obstacles that he found in his path did not prove to be millstones around his neck, but rather milestones on his road to fame.

Each difficulty proved a new experience, and a new experience to Burbank meant more knowledge with which to work. He built his knowledge upon experience and experiments.

He had a keenness of perception not surpassed by any man. He watched for the slightest variation to wrest a secret from Nature. Experience is the only knowledge we possess and is the basis for the development of our mind. In Burbank’s experiment with the cactus he discovered how intelligence is gradually formed through experience and manifests itself through what we call instinct.

As with Edison, perspiration was the predominant part of his inspiration. No task was too arduous for him and he permitted no obstacle to stand in his way. He knew the ends he wished to accomplish and determinedly set about his work.

He did not always work from appearances. Appearances, he found, were as deceiving in flowers as in human beings, and he often went back many generations to correct a fault.

A changed environment invariably changed the character of the flower, but to eradicate a deep-seated fault it was sometimes necessary to operate upon the roots.

Once he learned the secrets of Nature, once he learned to talk to Nature in her own language, Burbank became proficient in conversation. A more brilliant conversationalist the plants have never known. Once on speaking terms with Nature he established a friendship never to be broken. His loyalty never wavered.

He was also an apt pupil. He studied her alphabet, mastered her grammar, punctuation and rhetoric and wrote many pages in the book of Life which only a few are privileged to do.

“I took Nature’s mind and added it to my own,” said Burbank, “and by so doing bridged centuries of time in adding sweetness and charm and color to Nature’s products.”

He married beauty and strength and sweetness to produce the Ideal.

He took Nature by the hand so to speak, and led her into paths of beauty that she had not dreamed existed. With his help he made Nature excel herself and sit and marvel at her wonders.

Burbank did not claim occult powers. He did not pose with a halo around his head. He did not boast that he was “divinely inspired.” He performed no miracles, although he accomplished marvels.

He gladly, freely and generously gave his knowledge to others. He was an intellectual spendthrift. “What I have learned, you may learn,” are his words.

His soul was the heart of a true scientist.

Where did Burbank learn the great truths that he applied so effectively and so ardently wanted man to follow? Why was he so sure that they would be as successful in the human realm as they were in the plant kingdom?

Surely his own academic education was not sufficient to give him this grasp of Nature, nor was his technical training sufficient to enable him to perform his wonders.

His early schooling was the barest rudiments that the little Red School House had to offer.

The secret of his marvelous intellect and his ability to apply the knowledge he acquired are told in his own words.

He received a scholarship which anyone with a desire for knowledge may secure also. He said: “My school has been the University of Nature. I matriculated in the College of Horticulture, Department of Market Gardening, but I finished that course in short time and entered the laboratory where Nature teaches Plant Breeding. I cannot say that I graduated from that branch of the Institution even yet–there is so much to lean! But in the years that I have been a student I have spread out considerably and taken something pretty nearly of every course my Alma Mater offers except Football and Public Speaking. I was not taught everything, but was taught the fundamentals behind everything!”

In the University of Nature, Burbank not only learned about plants and flowers and trees and vegetables, but also about rocks and soil and mountains and rivers, about birds and fish and horses and cows and dogs and men.

He was told by the great Humboldt that “the Universe was governed by law, “and in the University of Nature, Burbank verified this great truth!

Burbank wanted others to enter the University from which he was graduated with such high honors and in these words differentiated it from any other college in existence.

“The great difference between my favorite University and the schools men build is that the ambitious and the interested student can enroll for life and take every course offered, and each fact he adds to his store, and semester work he does, fits him precisely and definitely for the next subject ahead without any loss of motion and without a line that is superfluous to him.”

The University of Nature might well be proud of the distinguished career of her pupil and above the portals of her entrance should be inscribed these words of his.

“Nature is not personal. She is the compound of all these processes which move through the universe to effect the results we know as Life and of all the ordinances which govern that universe and that make Life continuous. She is no more the Hebrew’s Jehovah than she is the Physicist’s Force; she is as much Providence as she is Electricity; she is not the Great Pattern any more than she is the Blind Chance.”

A great artist was once asked by a lady admirer what he mixed his paints with to get such marvelous results, and he answered: “With brains, madam.” Burbank’s brain bore the same relation to flowers as did the artist’s to his paints.

With an almost uncanny touch the artist can, with a daub of paint, change the perspective of his picture; and so sensitive was Burbank to the pulse of the flower, that he could, with the slightest touch, make it perform wonders for him.

In his own words he defines this unusual characteristic. “It was with this instinct for selection that I was gifted. It was born in me, and I educated and gave it experience, and have always kept myself attuned to it. I have particularly sensitive nerves–that accounts partly for my unusual success in selecting, as between two apparently identical plants and flowers or trees and fruits. I have always been sensitive to odors, so that I could detect them, pleasant or disagreeable, when they were so slight that no one about me was conscious of them.”

Burbank never grew old in mind or body. He was as ready to accept a new truth as to discard a wrong impression.

This attitude of mind is the first requisite of knowledge. It is the first principle of an alert intellect.

And these words of Burbank should become an axiom in our language:

“Intolerance is a closed mind. Bigotry is an exaltation of authorities. Narrowness is ignorance unwilling to be taught.”

That he did not consider the Bible a divine revelation can be attested by these words of advice:

“Let us read the Bible without the ill-fitting colored spectacles of theology, just as we read other books, using our own judgment and reason, listening to the voice within, not to the noisy babel without. Most of us possess discriminating reasoning powers. Can we use them or must we be fed by others like babes?”

No dogmatism hampered Burbank. No theology prevented him from peering into the unknown. He never permitted himself to become set in his opinions.

“Folks wonder how I keep so young!” he said. “I am almost seventy-seven and still can go over a gate or run a foot race or kick the chandelier. That is because my body is no older than my mind, and my mind is adolescent. It has never grown up. It never will, I hope. I am as inquisitive as I was at eight.”

To those who ask us “what will you give us in exchange” when we free them from their superstitious religion, how pertinent and precious are these words of Burbank. I wish they could be impressed upon the mind of every living person. “I have seen myself,” he says, “lose intolerance, narrowness, bigotry, complacence, pride and a whole bushel-basket of other intellectual vices through my contact with Nature and with men. And when you take weeds out of a garden it gives you room to grow flowers. So, every time I lost a little self-satisfaction, or arrogance, I could plant some broadness or love of my own in its place, and after a while the garden of my mind began to bloom and be fragrant and I found myself better equipped for my work and more useful to others as a consequence.”

“I have learned from Nature that dependence on unnatural beliefs weakens us in the struggle and shortens our breath for the race,” said Burbank, and in the twilight of life, when he knew that the end was approaching, he said that “the time had come for honest men to denounce false teachers and attack false gods” and with a courage characteristic of this great and grand man he proclaimed to the world that he was an infidel!

When Burbank made this declaration, the theological hyenas were ready to tear the flesh from his body. They maligned and vilified him, and tried to inter the good that he did with his bones.

When he made that statement, however, he classed himself with Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Lincoln and Ingersoll.

Burbank refused to accept the dogma and religion of his time because he knew that they were poisoning the brain and mentality of man. They were paralyzing the intellect. He looked upon them as weeds that must of necessity be rooted out before man could think freely and act properly upon the problems of life.

Because of his fame, and despite his open declaration, the religious world is making an attempt to claim him as one of their members. What hypocrisy!

Luther Burbank was not religious!

His name cannot be mentioned in the same breath with that impulse, with that conviction which produces religious mania, religious strife, religious hatred and religious prejudice.

Religious love is clannish.

Christian loves Christian.

Jew loves Jew.

Luther Burbank loved everybody. He said: “I love everything. I love humanity. I love flowers. I love children. I love my dog.”

Luther Burbank was not religious–he was too human for that.

He was a humanitarian, a lover of mankind.

A religious person loves his God. He loves his God so vehemently that he has no love left for man.

Burbank hated the idea of an all-powerful God and said: “The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. The ravings of insanity! Superstition gone to seed! I don’t want to have anything to do with such a God.”

And in a letter from him shortly before he died, in response to my request for a statement indicative of his belief, he wrote, “This should be enough for one who lives for truth and service to his fellow passengers on the way. No avenging Jewish God, no satanic devil, no fiery hell is of any interest to me.”

A religious man attends church, observes feast days and fast days. He takes part in religious ceremonies and pays the priest to pray for him.

“Prayer,” says Burbank, “may be elevating if combined with work, and they who labor with head, hands or feet have faith and are generally quite sure of an immediate and favorable reply.”

To pray for that which you have not labored for is the most selfish impulse in life.

A religious man is one who has sold his brain, and who has mortgaged his intellect. He believes in a heaven and in a hell.

Burbank asked for no heaven because he knew that it did not exist, and he feared no hell because he knew that there was none.

No, Luther Burbank was not a religious man. He was a good man. He was a grand man–one of the grandest that ever lived on this earth.

Moses, and Jesus and Torquemada were religious. So were John Calvin and John Knox and John Wesley and Martin Luther and Cotton Mather. The pope is religious.

Hypatia and Bruno and Galileo were infidels. So were Ernest Haeckel and Herbert Spencer and Charles P. Steinmetz and Voltaire and Thomas Paine and John Burroughs and Mark Twain. Clarence Darrow was an infidel.

Luther Burbank is dead.

His lips were sealed in death with the same conviction that was his philosophy while he lived.

And now that he is gone we seek to honor his memory with the fullness of our love.


We have come not to honor a soldier or a statesman. No bugle is to sound taps for his military triumphs. We are honoring a simple, lovable man.

One who was a saver of life, a benefactor, a creator of joy, a dispenser of happiness.

One who was not revengeful or vindictive.

One would rather have made a mistake on the side of mercy than to have a single human being suffer because of his mistake.

Those who were privileged to know Luther Burbank have lost a friend. Our country has lost one of her chosen sons, one who helped to make her famous and added lustre to her name.

The world has lost one of its great benefactors.

In the heart of the flower and in the beauty and sweetness of the world he has perpetuated himself.

And in the starry firmament of immortality is seen a new star–and there appears this illustrious son of America–this great and good man–this Scientist, Naturalist, Humanitarian and Infidel–Luther Burbank.

(Excerpted from the book Atheism and other Addresses, The Freethought Press Association, New York, 1941, 1952, pages not numbered)

Address delivered on May 22, 1927, in Central Park, New York City, at the Tree-Planting Memorial Exercises, conducted by Freethinkers of America, in honor of Luther Burbank, who was a member and First Honorary Vice-President.

by Joseph Lewis (1927)

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Atheists Inc.

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