The Wright Brothers have been often criticized for their uncompromising approach to many disagreements and business dealings after their first flight in 1903. Their approach, the close bond between the brothers, their secrecy with regard to their experiments and their mistrust of outsiders were extensions of their father’s philosophy that a tightly unified family was the best defense against the pressures of an essentially wicked world which was not to be trusted.
Milton Wright, the father of Wilbur and Orville, was a bishop in the United Brethren Church. He was a man of strong fundamental Christian values and an iron will to follow them. Born in a log cabin in Rush County, Indiana in 1828 in a religious home, he knew from a young age that the church would be his career.
At the age of eighteen an itinerant preacher introduced him to the United Brethren Church. He experienced a religious conversion and felt salvation. The church doctrine emphasized the importance of a moral life, temperance and abolition of slavery.
The grand vision of the church was to enable the reign of God in the New World and for that to occur, Christian reformers must first sweep away the works of Satan. God was on one side and evil was on the other. The salvation of one’s self and of his fellows demands a struggle. The church was a protestant sect that was popular in the rural areas of the Midwest in the 1890s with a peak membership of some 200,000 members.
Milton preached his first sermon on his twenty-second birthday in 1850. He was earning his living on the family farm and supplementing his income by teaching in local schools. IN 1850 he entered Hartsville College, a small Indiana school run by the United Brethren Church, and was ordained a minister in 1856. He previously also became certified in 1852 to teach penmanship, grammar, reading, writing, arithmetic and geography.
He never graduated from college but later in life he was awarded a honorary degree of divinity by Western College another Brethren college.
He met his wife, Susan Koener, while at Hartsville and they were married in 1859. She believed in his religious calling and devoted her life to supporting him and the family.
He inculcated in his children strength of character, firmness of purpose and self-confidence in their pursuits. He taught them that with hard work they could accomplish anything.
Church business required Milton to be a frequent traveler. Although often not physically at home, he was a strong influence on his children. His admonition to the children was that the world beyond Hawthorn St. was fraught with dangers and temptations. Only family was safe, reliable and sustaining.
Within the family he was broadminded. He didn’t seem to be concerned that neither Wilbur nor Orville seldom attended church. He encouraged curiosity. Orville later in life said Wilbur and he had been “lucky enough to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests and to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.”
In general outlook Milton was a reformer. As a youth he was antislavery and later on a supporter of women’s rights and suffrage. He was a principled person.
He was no stranger to controversy. The first major controversy Milton became embroiled in resulted in the permanent splitting of the church into two factions, the New Constitution (Liberals) and the Old Constitution (Radicals). Milton was the leader of the latter.
Milton had a way with words. He gave this benediction at the award ceremony during The Wright Brothers Celebration in 1909. “We have met this day to celebrate an invention — the dream of all ages — hitherto deemed impractical. It suddenly breaks on all human vision that man, cleaving the air like a bird, can rise to immense heights and reach immeasurable distances. We ask thy peace to rest on this occasion and thy benediction on every heart.”
Here is another example; this time, the occasion is the death of Wilbur. “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.”
The church split over the issue of admitting freemasons to church membership. Milton strongly supported the church policy that prohibited their admission because he believed the freemasonry constituted a secret society that was unchristian and anti democratic. They were “ominous rivals of Christianity.”
At the church conference in 1869 many younger members of the church, referred to as “Liberals,” wanted to increase church membership and freemasons were a growing untapped potential for recruitment.
That same year the conservative majority, known as “Radicals” of which Milton was a member, installed him as editor of the church newspaper, The Religious Telescope. Milton was picked because the Radicals wanted to exercise better control of the content of church publications. The printing plant was in Dayton, so that necessitated the move of the Wright family to Dayton.
As editor of church publications, Milton became one of the most influential members of the church and a leading spokesman of the Radicals.
After eight years as editor, he was elected a bishop in 1877. Four years later he lost his bid for reelection as bishop and editor because of the vote of the growing number of the Liberal members and some alienated Radicals that were tired of Milton’s uncompromising ways.
Milton moved the family to Richmond, Indiana and continued his crusade against secret societies by publishing a series of articles known as Reform Leaflets. Wilbur wrote and published his first article in support of his father during this period. He followed-up his first article with many more articles and editorials.
Milton returned to Dayton in 1884 with the family.
In 1885, the Liberals established a commission for the purpose of rewriting the old constitution and creed as an attempt to settle the 20-year schism in the church. As a peace offering to Milton, he was reelected bishop with the help of the liberal vote. They then assigned him to the West Coast to get him out of their hair.
When the commission voted on the changes in the constitution, Milton was the only bishop to vote against the change. Outvoted, he walked out and took 10,000 to 15,000 members with him.
Milton reorganized his followers as the United Brethren Church in Christ (Old Constitution).
Six weeks later there was bad news; Susan Wright died after a long illness.
The two factions of the church soon began to fight over millions of dollars of church assets. The largest asset was the printing establishment in Dayton. The Liberal faction didn’t agree that the printing establishment should belong with the Radicals and the dispute continued in courts in seven states that lasted until 1900.
Wilbur, only 22, became the chief strategist in helping his father fight the court battles that ensued, including preparing legal briefs.
Bishop Wright served as the publishing head of the Old Constitution church until 1893. He then tried to get Wilbur appointed to the post, but was unsuccessful. Millard Fillmore Keiter, a Brethren minister, was elected to assume his duties.
In 1901 Keiter was up for reelection. This didn’t sit well with Milton because he suspected that Keiter was misappropriating church funds and he demanded an investigation. This began the second major dispute involving Milton that would divide the church.
Keiter was removed from his publishing position prior to a planned hearing. An audit found that he had left an unexplained deficiency of some $7,000.
Milton went to Huntington, Indiana, the site of the new church college, on February 10 to attend a hearing on the matter. Keiter claimed that the deficiency was just simple carelessness. The church board voted 4-3 in favor of Keiter because they didn’t want to continue the controversy and risk public disclosure after the disputes of the past. They did dismiss Keiter from office.
Milton was incensed at the decision because he was not permitted to question Keiter. “It was a farcical investigation.” He resolved that this wasn’t the end of the matter.
He sent Wilbur and Lorin, who was a trained accountant, to review the records. Wilbur reported back, “there is something rotten here.”
Milton responded with articles and petitions on the matter and ignoring church policy, reported the fraud to civil authorities. Keiter was arrested but charges were dismissed in April 1902 on the basis of technicalities.
The following month Keiter retaliated by filing disciplinary charges against Milton accusing him of libel and breaching the church code of settling disputes out of court. A special church commission was established to investigate Milton’s conduct. A hearing was scheduled for the annual church conference in August.
In May, Milton and Wilbur visited Huntington. The bishop made a peace proposal but it was voted down.
A war of words raged through the summer of 1902. Wilbur took over as his father’s chief counselor and prepared his father’s defense. Like his father, he enjoyed matching wits with the veteran lawyers. Orville did all the typing and printing.
Wilbur traveled again to Huntington to review the charges in detail. Upon his return he prepared a critical essay for publication in the church newspaper. He wrote, “When my father and myself came to examine the charges carefully, we at once saw that the whole thing was a mere sham. There never was any real intention of bringing the case to trail. The real purpose was to harass the accused.”
In the meantime, Wilbur and Orville were working on their 1902 glider. They were still trying to finish the critical calculations on their lift and drift tables resulting from their wind tunnel experiments. Fortunately Octave Chanute offered to help with some of the calculations. He visited the Wrights in Dayton in July and received instructions on performing the calculations. Even with his help there was doubt as to when Wilbur and Orville would be able to journey to Kitty Hawk.
On July 21, Milton wrote in his diary, “the boys resumed the preparation of my third pamphlet and completed it.” The whole family spent several days stuffing envelopes and stamping them.
Orville and Wilbur finally left for Kitty Hawk on August 25th.
While the brothers were at Kitty Hawk in August, the elders of the church in absentia found Milton guilty of “insubordination to constituted authority” and “going to the law” against a fellow Christian. The board did not want Keiter’s irregularities to be made public. They offered Milton sixty days to confess his errors or face expulsion from leadership in the church.
They should have known that Milton would ignore them. He countered that the bishops that made this decision had no constituted authority to make that judgment, thus their action was void.
Many clergy and layman supported Milton and he continued to perform his duties as usual.
After returning from Kitty Hawk at the end of October, Wilbur still hadn’t had time to review all of the lift and drag calculations performed by Chanute because he had to leave again to attend to affairs for his father.
Milton celebrated his 74th birthday at home on November 17.
At the end of November, Wilbur still hadn’t finished reviewing Chanute’s calculations and excused himself to Chanute writing, “Affairs at Huntington have required much of my time and thought recently.”
The showdown on expulsion came the following year in the first week of August 1903, one month before the brothers left Dayton for Kitty Hawk on September 25th with the Flyer for their attempt to be the first to fly. The meeting was held in Messick, Indiana. Wilbur arrived at the meeting just as his father and the presiding bishop were both gaveling the conference to order.
The local sheriff was summoned to restore order and served Milton a “cease and desist order.” Three days later, the bishops voted 22 to 2 to expel Milton. However, the vote didn’t settle the issue and the controversy dragged on.
In May 1905, a General Conference of the church (old constitution) was held in Caledonia, Michigan to decide Milton’s fate once and for all. This time a large majority of attendees voted in Milton’s favor to render the expulsion null and void.
Milton retired shortly thereafter at the age of 77. He lived another eleven years. At age 81 Orville took him up for a ride in a Wright Model B. The bishop thinking that Orville was flying too conservatively yelled over the noise of the engine, “Higher, Orville, Higher.”
As for Keiter, he and some of his supporters broke away from the United Brethren Church. But he got himself into trouble again. He embezzled $2,000 from a supporter and was arrested for land fraud.
The politics involved in these activities impacted Orville’s and Wilbur’s attitude about attending church. They continued to practice their father’s conservative Christian values but decided not to attend church.
One can now better understand the numerous battles the brothers were involved in with their airplane from the perspective of their father’s church struggles. Wilbur was intensely involved with the long time patent fight with Glenn Curtiss over illegal infringements of the Wright patent.
Orville was involved in the Smithsonian controversy over Langley’s Great Aerodrome. The Smithsonian claimed that the Aerodrome could have been the first airplane to fly if only their catapult had worked properly on launch.
Like his father would do, Wilbur defended their patent in a number of time consuming court battles at home and abroad. Orville, frustrated with the fraudulent claims of the Smithsonian, sent the Flyer to the London Science Museum in 1925. He didn’t authorize its return until 1948 after the Smithsonian had publicly retracted their claims.