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A. Bronson Alcott. At age fifty-three. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54729).

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Alcott, A. Bronson (29 November 1799–04 March 1888), Transcendentalist and reformer, was born Amos Bronson Alcox in Wolcott, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Chatfield Alcox and Anna Bronson, farmers. Farming the rocky Connecticut soil was not lucrative, and Alcott worked hard with his parents to help support seven younger siblings, thereby limiting his opportunities for a formal education. He attended the local district school until age ten, but thereafter his intellectual growth largely depended on his own reading and discussions with friends of a similar scholarly bent, the first being his cousin William Andrus Alcott. William later attended Yale College and established a career as a physician and popular author of health manuals, but continuing poverty prevented Bronson from obtaining a college education. At age fifteen he, like many of his young Connecticut contemporaries, began peddling small manufactured goods, first in Massachusetts and New York, then in Virginia and the Carolinas....

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Bennett, John Cook (03 August 1804–05 August 1867), physician, religious leader, and entrepreneur, was born in Fair Haven, Bristol County, Massachusetts, the son of John Bennett, a shipowner, and Abigail Cook. At his father’s death in 1817, he moved with his mother to Ohio to stay with relatives. In 1825, after a three-year apprenticeship with a physician and an oral examination by an Ohio medical society, Bennett received his M.D. and a license to practice. That year he married Mary Barker; they had three children. There is no evidence supporting his claim to have attended Ohio University or McGill College in Montreal; he did, however, become a Freemason in 1826....

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Bhaktivedanta, A. C. P. (01 September 1896–14 November 1977), founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, was born Abhay Charan De in Calcutta, India, the son of Gour Mohan De, a cloth merchant, and Rajani (maiden name unknown). Abhay was brought up in a strict Bengali Vaishnava family, devoted to the worship of the god Krishna. His father had decided from the beginning not to send his son to England to be educated, lest his piety and moral purity be compromised. Instead Abhay entered the Scottish Churches College in Calcutta in 1916. During his schooling, a marriage was arranged for him with an eleven-year-old girl named Radharani Datta, with whom he would not live for several years. They later had three children....

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Cheney, Ednah Dow Littlehale (27 June 1824–19 November 1904), social reformer and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Sargent Smith Littlehale, a partner in a successful grocery business, and Ednah Parker Dow. By Cheney’s own admission she was precocious and undisciplined as a young girl, attending several private schools without distinguishing herself at any of them. Her religious upbringing was unorthodox if not unusual for the times. She described her father as a Universalist, liberal in both politics and religion. An early supporter of woman suffrage, her father was, however, a firm “Unionist” who found the fiery, abolitionist sermons of ...

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Colman, Lucy Newhall (26 July 1817–18 January 1906), abolitionist, women's rights advocate, and freethinker, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and freethinker, was born in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, the daughter of Erastus Danforth, a blacksmith, and Hannah Newhall. Her mother died in 1824, and Lucy’s aunt, Lois Newhall, acted “in the place of a mother” and in 1833 married Erastus Danforth, officially becoming Lucy’s stepmother....

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Divine, Father (1877?–10 September 1965), religious cult leader, was born George Baker, apparently on Hutchinson Island, Georgia, in obscure and indeterminate circumstances. It is difficult to recover specifics about Divine, a black sharecropper’s son who spent his youth in the rural, post-Reconstruction South. This difficulty has been compounded by his own efforts to hide his prosaic origins because he eventually claimed to be God on earth. Most inquirers agree, however, that until the early 1900s the subsequently acclaimed deity was probably George Baker, who in his early life experienced racial prejudice, inadequate education, and poverty. By 1899 he resided in Baltimore, Maryland, where he taught Sunday school and preached occasionally at a Baptist church. Around 1906 he came under the influence of Samuel Morris, who took the biblical passage about the spirit of God dwelling within and arrogated it to himself alone. Baker served as “the Messenger” for Morris, but by 1912 he began claiming his own divinity. Such preaching in Valdosta, Georgia, two years later resulted in a lawsuit that listed Baker’s identity as “John Doe, alias God.” Jurors found the defendant (who was charged with disrupting congregations and general troublemaking) of unsound mind but recommended leniency if he left the state....

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Ralph Waldo Emerson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98114).

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo (25 May 1803–27 April 1882), lecturer and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of William Emerson, a Congregational minister, and Ruth Haskins. Ralph was one of eight children. His father was a liberal, Concord-born minister of the First Church in Boston and active in the city’s intellectual and social life, being an editor of the ...

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Etting, Solomon (28 July 1764–06 August 1847), Jewish merchant and Baltimore civic leader, was born in York, Pennsylvania; he was the second oldest of the eight children of Elijah Etting, a Frankfurt merchant who came to York in 1758, and Shinah Solomon of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a boy, Solomon acquired business skills, working in the family store. After Elijah Etting, who was an Indian trader, died in July of 1778, Solomon did not go to Baltimore with his mother and his sisters. Along with his brother Reuben, he stayed in York, evidently to protect and preserve the family's business interests. Solomon in 1782 also became an authorized slaughterer of kosher meats ( ...

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Fuller, Margaret (23 May 1810–19 July 1850), author and feminist, was born Sarah Margaret Fuller in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, the daughter of Timothy Fuller, a lawyer, and Margaret Crane. Her father taught his oldest child reading at age three and Latin at age six, but Fuller’s education grew eclectic in later childhood when she was left largely to her own resources. “To excel in all things should be your constant aim; mediocrity is obscurity,” her father wrote to Margaret when she was ten. Under such pressures, Fuller suffered periodically throughout her life from depression and headaches. Timothy Fuller was often away, serving four terms in Congress (1817–1825). Margaret’s mother, a devout Unitarian, was subdued by sickly health. In Fuller’s fictional ...

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Hall, Prince (1735–04 December 1807), Masonic organizer and abolitionist, was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, the son of a “white English leather worker” and a “free woman of African and French descent”; his birth date is variously given as 12 Sept. 1748 (Horton). He was the slave of William Hall, a leather dresser. At age seventeen, Hall found passage to Boston, Massachusetts, by working on a ship and became employed there as a leather worker. In 1762 he joined the Congregational Church on School Street. He received his manumission in 1770. Official records indicate that Hall was married three times. In 1763 he married Sarah Ritchie, a slave. In 1770, after her death, he married Flora Gibbs of Gloucester, Massachusetts; they had one son, Prince Africanus. In 1798 Hall married Sylvia Ward. The reason for the dissolution of the second marriage is unclear....

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Hays, Moses Michael (09 March 1739–09 May 1805), Jewish merchant and Masonic leader, was born in New York City, the oldest of the eight children of Judah Hays, a Dutch merchant who had come to that city in 1733, and Rebecca Michaels Hays, the daughter of New York merchant Moses Michaels. Judah Hays, who became a freeman in 1735 and was naturalized in 1740, took his son Moses Michael into his prospering export and import business during the late 1750s. The young Moses acquired business skills from his father, for Judah purchased and sold food supplies and guns to the British during the French and Indian War and accrued profits from transporting such goods on his ship, the ...

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Hedge, Frederic Henry (12 December 1805–21 August 1890), Unitarian minister and Harvard professor, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Levi Hedge, a Harvard professor, and Mary Kneeland. His early education came from his father, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, and ...

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Hutchinson, Anne (1591?–1643), religious leader, was born in Alford, Lincolnshire, England, the daughter of Francis Marbury, minister of the Church of England, and Bridget Dryden. She learned scripture and theology from her father, who had been silenced and imprisoned for long periods of time by his bishop for complaining about the poor training of English clergymen....

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Jones, Jim (13 May 1931–18 November 1978), religious cult leader, was born James Warren Jones in Crete, Indiana, the son of James Thurman Jones, a road construction worker, and Lynetta Putnam. While still a teenager Jones developed a vaguely focused social conscience and a wish to help the needy through volunteer work. By 1947 he was serving as a hospital orderly in Richmond, Indiana, where he met Marceline Baldwin, a student nurse. They married in 1949, and for the next three years Jones studied at Indiana University in Bloomington. By 1952 the couple had moved to Indianapolis, where Jones pursued his humanitarian goals as a student pastor of the Somerset Methodist Church. Though earlier he had been highly critical of organized religion, the Methodist social creed of 1952 changed his mind. His ministry in a poor section of town helped bring his views on racism and poverty to maturity. As an advocate of racial integration and community sharing, he organized an independent congregation, which he named “Community Unity” in 1954, “Wings of Deliverance” in 1956, and sometime thereafter “Peoples Temple.” Jones had been something of an outsider while growing up, and he entreated those on the margins of society to seek psychological acceptance, physical welfare, and spiritual improvement on common ground in the Peoples Temple. He also began displaying eclectic religious tastes by adding Pentecostal emphases to his social gospel....

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Kneeland, Abner (06 April 1774–27 August 1844), freethinker and Universalist clergyman, was born in Gardner, Massachusetts, the son of Timothy Kneeland, a soldier in the revolutionary war, and Moriah Stone. After attending common schools, Kneeland studied for a short time at the Chesterfield Academy in New Hampshire and worked as a carpenter. In 1797 he married Waitstill Ormsbee; three of their four children reached adulthood. Although Kneeland joined the Baptist church, which licensed him to preach in 1801, he became a Universalist two years later and in 1804 was licensed to preach by that denomination. In addition to preaching, Kneeland taught school and published several popular spelling books....

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Koresh, David (17 August 1959–19 April 1993), religious leader, was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas, the son of Bobby Howell, a student, and Bonnie Clark. His mother, fourteen years old at the time of his birth, dropped out of school and married Joe Golden, a nightclub owner, after ending her relationship with Howell. She soon divorced the allegedly abusive Golden, left her two-year-old son with her mother, Earline Clark, and moved to Dallas....

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Krishnamurti, Jiddu (11 May 1895–17 February 1986), celebrated spiritual teacher, was born in the southern Indian town of Madanapalle in what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh, the son of a brahmin, Jiddu Naraniah, and Sanjeevamma Jiddu. His father was a civil servant and dedicated Theosophist, who after his retirement moved his family to the headquarters estate of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, near Madras. The Theosophical Society, established by ...

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Laveau, Marie (1794?–16 June 1881), voodoo queen, was born in New Orleans about 1794, the illegitimate daughter, part black, part Native American, part white, of Charles Laveau and Marguerite Carcantel Laveau. This Roman Catholic “free woman of color” developed into a statuesque beauty with fine facial features and curly black hair. In 1819 she married Jacques Paris, a free quadroon Catholic carpenter from Santo Domingo (now Haiti). They lived in New Orleans in a house given her by her father. Paris soon disappeared and was reported dead. Calling herself “Veuve [Widow] Paris,” she became a hairdresser for white and Creole women in New Orleans....