With attention focused anew on the Wright brothers by a New York Times bestseller chronicling their pioneering work in aviation, the religious beliefs of these sons of a conservative clergyman remain elusive.
David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers topped the bestseller list for nonfiction for the third week in a row in the June 7 rankings, and Tom Hanks and HBO have agreed to partner in making the book into a miniseries. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. recommended the latest work by McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, on his 2015 Summer Reading List.
Yet for all the attention on Wilbur and Orville Wright, little is known about their religious beliefs.
“I’ve never heard anyone mention their faith,” said Rick Lawrenson, pastor of Nags Head Church near the site where the Wright brothers conducted the first successful manned airplane flight in 1903 on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Among the members of Nags Head Church is a woman whose grandfather witnessed the first flight.
Two other pastors on the Outer Banks told Baptist Press similar stories. They have learned much about Wilbur and Orville by serving churches near the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, but local lore doesn’t include stories of their faith.
McCullough, author of John Adams and narrator of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, mentions what may be the reason for this dearth of information: Among hundreds of pages of surviving family correspondence, “religion was scarcely ever mentioned” by Wilbur and Orville or their father, a bishop with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, a U.S. denomination related to Methodism. The smattering of facts historians have about the Wright brothers’ religion has led to mixed conclusions.
Library of Congress photo from Wikimedia Commons
The Wright brothers' 1903 flight marked the first time a manned airplane took off under its own power and landed at a point as high as its starting position.
On one hand, Wilbur and Orville never worked on Sundays, didn’t drink alcohol or use tobacco and were described by a friend in Kitty Hawk, as “Christian gentlemen and moral to the core.”
As their friend put it, “During all the years of my acquaintance and close association with them, I never heard one of them utter an oath, never saw one of them get angry, never heard one of them tell a story that bordered on obscene.”
Moreover, the Wright brothers sided with their theologically and socially conservative father Milton Wright during controversies within the United Brethren Church. Wilbur’s first piece of published writing was an 1888 tract opposing liberals within the denomination who sought to open church membership to participants in secret societies like the Freemasons.
Yet Wilbur’s tract never mentioned biblical doctrine or theology, focusing on denominational procedure instead. The brothers typically did not attend church, and at least one psychologist has implied they took little interest in contemplating their own spiritual conditions. A 1982 study by Adrian Kinnane concluded that they “regarded introspection as irrelevant at best and possibly even destructive of the efficient pursuit of useful goals.”
McCullough believes the Wright brothers may have stopped attending church under the influence of books by Robert Ingersoll, a 19th-century agnostic who mocked religious belief. Their father “seems to have accepted” their lack of church attendance “without protest,” McCullough writes.
At a lecture and book signing May 24 in Kill Devil Hills, McCullough said Milton Wright encouraged his sons “to read everything, including the works of the great agnostic of the time Robert Ingersoll, which was [among] the books he had in his own collection [of] theological subjects. And they read Ingersoll, and they went for it.”
Tom Crouch, author of The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, told BP that McCullough’s theory “might, in fact,” be accurate. “It’s really hard to tell,” Crouch said, whether the brothers’ personal beliefs were atheist, agnostic or Christian.
“The only thing you know for sure is that they weren’t churchgoers,” said Crouch, a curator in the aeronautics department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Wilbur’s defense of the conservative cause in United Brethren disputes was “personal and political,” Crouch said. Whether he also held to conservative theology is difficult to determine, and the meticulous Wright family records make little mention of religious matters.
It is “strange that there isn’t more talk of that kind of thing in memories [and] papers,” Crouch said. “It’s not something they ever talked about.”
At times, Wilbur’s anti-liberal rhetoric seemed to suggest belief in traditional Christian doctrines. In 1898, for instance, he wrote, “There is no law in America requiring churches to leave the essentials of their faith and practice to be legislated upon from time to time as majorities may dictate. … It is the privilege of churches to protect the rights of their legitimate spiritual children in future times.”
Orville, who disliked writing and at times avoided it, also took their father’s side in denominational conflicts. Such conflicts were part of the larger fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries pitting those who wanted to preserve traditional Christian orthodoxy against those who sought to adjust Christian doctrine to make it more palatable to the modern world.
Though Wilbur died in 1912 at age 45, Orville lived to see their invention used in both World War I and World War II.
In the end, opinions vary on what the Wright brothers believed concerning God, the Bible or eternity, from a 1991 Answers in Genesis article asserting, “Wilbur and Orville both received Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour during their youth,” to McCullough’s impression that Wilbur occasionally attended worship at cathedrals “mainly for the architectural uplifting.”
Crouch called the Wright brothers “ultra-rational” – “two guys who invented the airplane but had their feet on the ground the whole time” – and not prone to supernatural musings.
Wilbur’s 1908 acceptance speech upon receiving the Aéro-Club de France’s Gold Metal in Paris typified the Wright brothers’ attitude toward their achievement. He was gracious and eloquent but also entirely humanistic.
“In the enthusiasm being shown around me,” Wilbur said, “I see not merely an outburst intended to glorify a person, but a tribute to an idea that has always impassioned mankind. I sometimes think that the desire to fly after the fashion of birds is an ideal handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.
“Scarcely 10 years ago, all hope of flying had almost been abandoned; even the most convinced had become doubtful,” Wilber continued, “and I confess that, in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that men would not fly for 50 years. Two years later, we ourselves were making flights. … It is not really necessary to look too far into the future; we see enough already to be certain that it will be magnificent. Only let us hurry and open the roads.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)