July 21, 1999 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Robert G. Ingersoll (b.1833). Called “The Great Agnostic” by newspapers of the day and, by all accounts, the nation’s most oft-heard orator, Ingersoll was an enlightened, humane freethinker, a visionary, an advocate for unpopular causes such as womens’, childrens’, and minority rights, and a combatant against superstition and hypocrisy.
Greatly admired by the likes of Mark Twain, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Luther Burbank, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Edison and Walt Whitman, his gift for oratory, his wit, common sense and compassion made him one of the most famous people of the 19th century. A Union colonel in the Civil War, an eloquent lawyer, and a politician who … but for his habit of giving speeches mercilessly revealing religion’s absurdities … might have been the Republican Party’s candidate for Governor of Illinois, Ingersoll’s wisdom is still relevant today.
Yet despite the impact he made, he remains a shadow, largely absent from current curricula, excised from history most likely because he denied the existence of gods and shone the light of rationality on religious hypocrisy. In speeches, debates, essays and interviews, he criticized the clergy and exposed their investment in preserving the status quo: “Every minister likes to consider himself as a shepherd leading the lambs through green pastures and defending them at night from Infidel wolves. All this he does for a certain share of the wool.” When he intoned, “I am not trying to destroy another world. I am trying to prevent the theologians from destroying this world,” the gauntlet was thrown down.
With an almost personal zeal, representatives of organized religion vowed that Ingersoll’s name would be unknown to future generations, expunged from an inevitable Christian state. Sadly, their threat has been realized. His opinions were too threatening and religion’s benefactors in both church and state were powerful, indeed. Yet many of his views were vindicated. He lived at a time when pleasurable activities like dancing, attending the opera and theatre, roller-skating, playing cards and playing billiards were condemned by theists, and he admonished the church to “keep step with the progress of the world or be trampled under foot.” Speaking about racism, he said, “I pity the man who has only to brag that he is white.” And he remained hopeful for the future: “Astrology was displaced by astronomy. Alchemy and black art gave way to chemistry. Science is destined to take the place of religion. In my judgement, the religion of the future will be Reason.”
Ingersoll’s response to his possible nomination as the Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois in 1868 reflects an honesty unfortunately all too rare in politics: “Gentlemen, I am not asking to be Governor. I have in my composition that which I have declared to the world as my views upon religion. My position I would not, under any circumstances, not even my life, seem to renounce. I would rather refuse to be President of the United States than to do so. My religious belief is my own. It belongs to me, not to the state of Illinois. I would not smother one sentiment of my heart to be the emperor of the round globe.” Not surprisingly, the Republican Party looked elsewhere.
Having learned that higher political office was unobtainable for anyone not willing to compromise his principles, he became even more outspoken, and in demand, as a lecturer. He exhorted his audiences to think for themselves: “No religionist seems capable of comprehending this plain truth. There is this difference between thought and action: for our actions we are responsible to ourselves and to those injuriously affected; for thoughts, there can, in the nature of things, be no responsibility to gods or men, here or hereafter … A believer is a bird in a cage, a Freethinker is an eagle parting the clouds with tireless wing.”
In an 1881 interview, he was asked if the world would be a better place because of disbelief in the bible. With customary bluntness he answered, “Yes. If any man really believes that god once upheld slavery; that he commanded soldiers to kill women and babes; that he believed in polygamy; that he persecuted for opinion’s sake; that he will punish forever and that he hates an unbeliever, the effect will be bad … This belief built the dungeons of the Inquisition. This belief made the Puritan manacle the Quaker …”
In a landmark 1886 blasphemy trial, Ingersoll defended his client by criticizing a New Jersey state statute which proscribed cursing or reproaching the Scriptures. He asked, “Does it make any difference whether or not you believe that a man was going through town, and his hair was a little short, like mine, and some little children laughed at him, and thereupon two bears came down and tore to pieces about forty of these children?” … And he dared to say what should be obvious to all but the most indoctrinated: “Anything that can be laughed out of this world ought not to stay in it.”
Always the champion of freedom of the mind, Ingersoll defined blasphemy for judge and jury, as spectators listened raptly:
To live on the unpaid labor of others … that is blasphemy. To enslave your fellow-man, to put chains upon his body … that is blasphemy. To enslave the minds of men, to put manacles upon the brain, padlocks upon the lips … that is blasphemy. To deny what you believe to be true, to admit to be true what you believe to be a lie … that is blasphemy. To strike the weak and unprotected, in order that you may gain the applause of the ignorant and superstitious mob … that is blasphemy. To persecute the intelligent few, at the command of the ignorant many … that is blasphemy. To pollute the souls of children with the dogma of eternal pain … That is blasphemy!
Like most of Ingersoll’s audiences, those in the courtroom cheered and shouted approval as the judge banged his gavel for order. Mark Twain described a similar reaction upon hearing Ingersoll speak on a different occasion: ” … it was just the supreme combination of words that was ever put together since the world began … Bob Ingersoll’s music will sing through my memory always …”
Referring to womens’ position in pre-suffrage America, Ingersoll’s opinions about birth control and voluntary parenthood would find more agreement today: “Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible saviour of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother. This is the whole question. This frees woman. The babes that are born will be welcome. They will be clasped with glad hands to happy breasts. They will fill homes with light and joy.”
Hoping to rid women of the superstitions that had for so long kept them subordinate, he said: “As long as woman regards the Bible as the charter of her rights, she will be the slave of man. The Bible was not written by a woman. Within its lids there is nothing but humiliation and shame. She is regarded as the property of man.” Ingersoll’s view that religion was the primary source of woman’s oppression was shared by the renowned suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, chief author of The Woman’s Bible. In a letter to Mrs. Stanton in 1894, speaking of his support for women’s voting rights, he admitted that he “had other fish to fry … I thought it of more importance to get superstition out of her (woman’s) head than to put a ballot in her hand …”
He often wrote sympathetically and affectionately of women: “Nearly every religion has accounted for all the devilment of this world by the crime of a woman. What a gallant thing that is. And if it be true, I had rather live with the woman I love in a world full of trouble, than to live in heaven with nobody but men.”
And, with characteristic wit, Ingersoll used irony and humor to underscore his point: “The men who declare that woman is the intellectual inferior of man, do not and cannot, by offering themselves in evidence, substantiate their declaration.”
When asked to contribute to rebuilding the Baptist church in DeLeon, Texas, blown down in a windstorm, Ingersoll wrote: “My position is this, if the ‘Lord God of Israel’ wants a Baptist church in DeLeon, let him change the wind and blow the old one back.” And when a religious weekly printed a rumor that his only son had been addicted to cheap novels, went mad, was hospitalized in an asylum and died there, Ingersoll wrote in reply:
1. My only son was not a great novel reader;
2. He did not go insane;
3. He was not sent to an asylum;
4. He did not die;
5. I never had a son.
The St. Charles Leader [Illinois], remarking on the difference between the man in person and the bogeyman of his religious critics, editorialized in 1876: “For the past five years we have been reading descriptions of him … They told us he was a poor, miserable, whiskey-soaked, tobacco-bedaubed, illiterate, vulgar, blasphemous, red-faced atheist. We had read the descriptions often, and from papers of such pretended respectability, that we supposed there must be some little foundation at least for their black picture. You may judge somewhat then our surprise when we tell you that we saw a gentleman about five feet ten inches in height, over two hundred pounds weight, a big smooth innocent looking, finely chiseled sweet face, and a great large magnificently formed head … in short, a perfect specimen of an elegant, brilliant gentleman …”
But Ingersoll himself had addressed the subject of his critics’ incessant mud-slinging: “And here, it may be proper for me to say, that arguments cannot be answered by personal abuse; that there is no logic in slander, and that falsehood in the long run defeats itself. People who love their enemies should, at least, tell the truth about their friends. Should it turn out that I am the worse man in the whole world, the story of the flood will remain just as improbable as before, and the contradictions of the Pentateuch will still demand an explanation … Remembering that only a few years ago men, women, and even children, were imprisoned, tortured and burned for having expressed in an exceedingly mild and gentle way the ideas entertained by me, I congratulate myself that calumny is now the pulpit’s last resort.”
To their deep dismay, even religionists had to admit that Ingersoll’s private life was above reproach. A deeply ethical man, he was a loving husband and the devoted father of two daughters. His own happy home inspired this advice to the religious: “It is of more importance to you that you love your wife than that you love god. It is of far more importance that you love your children than that you love Jesus. He who builds a home erects the holiest altar beneath the stars …” Clergyman Charles Francis Potter said of Ingersoll, “Robert Ingersoll was the apostle of the religion of the unchurched. Had it not been for Ingersoll’s anti-Christian views openly expressed, he could have been President of the United States.”
Some time ago I was watching Born Yesterday, a delightful movie made in 1951. A corrupt millionaire hires a journalist, Paul, to tutor his uneducated girlfriend, Billie, so she will be more acceptable to the social elite. Billie and Paul are in a museum, and to my surprise, Billie asks: “You know that little thing you gave me about Napoleon … by Robert G. Ingersoll?”
And Paul quotes Ingersoll to her:
I said I would rather have been a French peasant and worn wooden shoes. I would rather have lived in a hut with a vine growing over the door, and the grapes growing purple in the kisses of the autumn sun. I would rather have been that poor peasant with my loving wife by my side, knitting as the day dies out of the sky, with my children upon my knee and their arms about me. I would rather have been that man, and gone down to the tongueless silence of the dreamless dust, than to have been that imperial impersonation of force and murder known as Napoleon, the Great.
This was at the heart of Robert G. Ingersoll’s philosophy. He believed in “the democracy of the home,” in values like love and liberty and equality that emanated from his rational humanism. When he died on July 21, 1899, and tributes poured in from all over the world, few could deny that “The Great Agnostic” had lived according to his own creed: “Happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.”
Seeking to quell the inevitable rumors about a deathbed conversion that always seemed to follow the deaths of famous nonbelievers, his wife and family ultimately issued an affidavit recording his last few hours. With a smile for his beloved wife, but neither a word nor a sigh, he quietly slipped away. Of Ingersoll’s detractors in the religious establishment, some of whom had spoken against him when they learned of his death, the Trenton American commented: “It is to be said for the credit of the cult that in all this broad land there are very few jackasses engaged in kicking the dead lion.”
Of “The Great Agnostic” Thomas Edison said, “Some day, when the veil of superstition is lifted, Ingersoll will stand out as a great man … in my opinion, no finer personality ever existed.”
Inscribed upon the bronze vase in which Robert Ingersoll’s ashes were placed are the words, “The urn guards the dust… the heart, the memory.”
The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, New Dresden Edition, 1930
Robert G. Ingersoll, A Life, by Frank Smith
The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, edited by Eva Ingersoll Wakefield
The Best of Robert Ingersoll, edited by Roger E. Greeley
Born Yesterday, 1951, Columbia Pictures, directed by George Cukor; from the stage play by Garson Kanin
Click here to go to the Robert Green Ingersoll section of our Historical Library.