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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer

Chicago Bible Class (1879)

Robert Green Ingersoll

Chicago Times, 1879 To the Editor:

Nothing is more gratifying than to see ideas that were received with scorn, flourishing in the sunshine of approval. Only a few weeks ago, I stated that the Bible was not inspired; that Moses was mistaken; that the "flood" was a foolish myth; that the Tower of Babel existed only in credulity; that God did not create the universe from nothing, that he did not start the first woman with a rib; that he never upheld slavery; that he was not a polygamist; that he did not kill people for making hair-oil; that he did not order his generals to kill the dimpled babes; that he did not allow the roses of love and the violets of modesty to be trodden under the brutal feet of lust; that the Hebrew language was written without vowels; that the Bible was composed of many books, written by unknown men; that all translations differed from each other; and that this book had filled the world with agony and crime.

At that time I had not the remotest idea that the most learned clergymen in Chicago would substantially agree with me -- in public. I have read the replies of the Rev. Robert Collyer, Dr. Thomas, Rabbi Kohler, Rev. Brooke Herford, Prof. Swing and Dr. Ryder, and will now ask them a few questions, answering them in their own words.

First. Rev. Robert Collyer.

Question. What is your opinion of the Bible?

Answer. "It is a splendid book. It makes the noblest type of Catholics and the meanest bigots. Through this book men give their hearts for good to God, or for evil to the devil. The best argument for the intrinsic greatness of the book is that it can touch such wide extremes, and seem to maintain us in the most unparalleled cruelty, as well as the most tender mercy; that it can inspire purity like that of the great saints, and afford arguments in favor of polygamy. The Bible is the text book of ironclad Calvinism and sunny Universalism. It makes the Quaker quiet, and the Millerite crazy. It inspired the Union soldier to live and grandly die for the right, and Stonewall Jackson to live nobly, and die grandly for the wrong."

Question. But, Mr. Collyer, do you really think that a book with as many passages in favor of wrong as right, is inspired?

Answer. "I look upon the Old Testament as a rotting tree. When it falls it will fertilize a bank of violets."

Question. Do you believe that God upheld slavery and polygamy? Do you believe that he ordered the killing of babes and the violation of maidens?

Answer. "There is threefold inspiration in the Bible, the first, peerless and perfect, the word of God to man; the second, simply and purely human, and then below this again, there is an inspiration born of an evil heart, ruthless and savage there and then as anything well can be. A threefold inspiration, of heaven first, then of the earth. and then of hell, all in the same book. all sometimes in the same chapter. and then, besides, a great many things that need no inspiration."

Question. Then after all you do not pretend that the Scriptures are really inspired?

Answer. "The Scriptures make no such claim for themselves as the church makes for them. They leave me free to say this is false, or this is true. The truth even within the Bible, dies and lives, makes on this side and loses on that."

Question. What do you say to the last verse in the Bible, where a curse is threatened to any man who takes from or adds to the book?

Answer. "I have but one answer to this question, and it is: Let who will have written this, I cannot for an instant believe that it was written by a divine inspiration. Such dogmas and threats as these are not of God, but of man, and not of any man of a free spirit and heart eager for the truth, but a narrow man who would cripple and confine the human soul in its quest after the whole truth of God, and back those who have done the shameful things in the name of the most high."

Question. Do you not regard such talk as "slang"?

(Supposed) Answer. If an infidel had said that the writer of Revelation was narrow and bigoted, I might have denounced his discourse as "slang," but I think that Unitarian ministers can do so with the greatest propriety.

Question. Do you believe in the stories of the Bible, about Jael, and the sun standing still, and the walls falling at the blowing of horns?

Answer. "They may be legends, myths, poems, or what they will, but they are not the word of God. So I say again, it was not the God and Father of us all, who inspired the woman to drive that nail crashing through the king's temple after she had given him that bowl of milk and bid him sleep in safety, but a very mean devil of hatred and revenge, that I should hardly expect to find in a squaw on the plains. It was not the ram's horns and the shouting before which the walls fell flat. If they went down at all, it was through good solid pounding. And not for an instant did the steady sun stand still or let his planet stand still while barbarian fought barbarian. He kept just the time then he keeps now. They might believe it who made the record. I do not. And since the whole Christian world might believe it, still we do not who gather in this church. A free and reasonable mind stands right in our way. Newton might believe it as a Christian, and disbelieve it as a philosopher. We stand then with the philosopher against the Christian, for we must believe what is true to us in the last test, and these things are not true."

Second. Rev. Dr. Thomas.

Question. What is your opinion of the Old Testament?

Answer. "My opinion is that it is not one book, but many -- thirty-nine books bound up in one. the date and authorship of most of these books are wholly unknown. The Hebrews wrote without vowels, and without dividing the letters into syllables, words, or sentences. The books were gathered up by Ezra. At that time only two of the Jewish tribes remained. All progress has ceased. In gathering up the sacred book, copyists exercised great liberty in making changes and additions."

Question. Yes, we know all that, but is the Old Testament inspired?

Answer. "There may be the inspiration of art, of poetry, or oratory; of patriotism -- and there are such inspirations. There are moments when great truths and principles come to men. They seek the man, and not the man them."

Question. Yes, we all admit that, but is the Bible inspired?

Answer. "But still I know of no way to convince anyone of spirit, and inspiration, and God, only as his reason may take hold of these things."

Question. Do you think the Old Testament true?

Answer. "The story of Eden may be an allegory. The history of the children of Israel may have mistakes."

Question. Must inspiration claim infallibility?

Answer. "It is a mistake to say that if you believe one part of the Bible you must believe all. Some of the thirty-nine books may be inspired, others not; or there may be degrees of inspiration."

Question. Do you believe that God commanded the soldiers to kill the children and the married women, and save for themselves, the maidens, as recorded in Numbers xxxi, 2?

Do you believe that God upheld slavery?

Answer. "The Bible may be wrong in some statements. God and right cannot be wrong. We must not exalt the Bible above God. It may be that we have claimed too much for the Bible, and thereby given not a little occasion for such men as Mr. Ingersoll to appear at the other extreme, denying too much."

Question. What then shall be done?

Answer. "We must take a middle ground. It is not necessary to believe that the bears devoured the forty-two children, nor that Jonah was swallowed by the whale."

Third. Rev. Dr. Kohler.

Question. What is your opinion about the Old Testament?

Answer. "I will not make futile attempts of artificially interpreting the letter of the Bible so as to make it reflect the philosophical, moral and scientific views of our time. The Bible is a sacred record of humanity's childhood."

Question. Are you an orthodox Christian?

Answer. " No. Orthodoxy, with its face turned backward to a ruined temple or a dead Messiah, is fast becoming like Lot's wife, a pillar of salt."

Question. Do you really believe the Old Testament was inspired?

Answer. "I greatly acknowledge our indebtedness to men like Voltaire and Thomas Paine, whose bold denial and cutting wit were so instrumental in bringing about this glorious era of freedom, so congenial and blissful, particularly to the long-abused Jewish race."

Question. Do you believe in the inspiration of the Bible?

Answer. "Of course there is a destructive axe needed to strike down the old building in order to make room for the grander new. The divine origin claimed by the Hebrews for their national literature, was claimed by all nations for their old records and laws as preserved by the priesthood. As Moses, the Hebrew law-giver, is represented as having received the law from God on the holy mountain, so is Zoroaster the Persian, Manu the Hindoo, Minos the Cretan, Lycutgus the Spartan, and Numa the Roman."

Question. Do you believe all the stories in the Bible?

Answer. "All that can and must be said against them is that they have been too long retained around the arms and limbs of grown-up manhood, to check the spiritual progress of religion; that by Jewish ritualism and Christian dogmatism they became fetters unto the soul, turning the light of heaven into a misty haze to blind the eye, and even into a hell-fire of fanaticism to consume souls."

Question. Is the Bible inspired?

Answer. "True, the Bible is not free from errors, nor is any work of man and time. It abounds in childish views and offensive matter. I trust that it will in a time not far off be presented for common use in families, schools, synagogues and churches, in a refined shape, cleansed from all dross and chaff, and stumbling blocks in which the scoffer delights to dwell."

Fourth. Rev. Mr. Herford.

Question. Is the Bible true?

Answer. "Ingersoll is very fond of saying 'The question is not, is the Bible inspired, but is it true?' That sounds very plausible, but you know as applied to any ancient book it is simply nonsense."

Question. Do you think the stories in the Bible exaggerated?

Answer. "I dare say the numbers are immensely exaggerated."

Question. Do you think that God upheld polygamy?

Answer. "The truth of which simply is, that four thousand years ago polygamy existed among the Jews. as everywhere else on earth then, and even their prophets did not come to the idea of its being wrong. But what is there to be indignant about in that?"

Question. And so you really wonder why any man should be indignant at the idea that God up held and sanctioned that beastliness called polygamy?

Answer. "What is there to be indignant about in that?"

Fifth. Prof. Swing.

Question. What is your idea of the Bible?

Answer. "I think it is a poem."

Sixth. Rev. Dr. Ryder.

Question. And what is your idea of the sacred Scriptures?

Answer. "Like other nations, the Hebrews had their patriotic, descriptive, didactic and lyrical poems in the same varieties as other nations; but with them, unlike other nations, whatever may be the form of their poetry, it always possesses the characteristic of religion."

Question. I suppose you fully appreciate the religious characteristics of the Song of Solomon.

No answer.

Question. Does the Bible uphold polygamy?

Answer. "The law of Moses did not forbid it, but contained many provisions against its worst abuses, and such as were intended to restrict it within narrow limits."

Question. So you think God corrected some of the worst abuses of polygamy, but preserved the institution itself?

I might question many others. but have concluded not to consider those as members of my Bible Class who deal in calumnies and epithets. From the so-called "replies" of such ministers, it appears that while Christianity changes the heart, it does not improve the manners, and that one can get into heaven in the next world without having been a gentleman in this.

It is difficult for me to express the deep and thrilling satisfaction I have experienced in reading the admissions of the clergy of Chicago. Surely, the battle of intellectual liberty is almost won, when ministers admit that the Bible is filled with ignorant and cruel mistakes; that each man has the right to think for himself, and that it is not necessary to believe the Scriptures in order to be saved. From the bottom of my heart I congratulate my pupils on the advance they have made, and hope soon to meet them on the serene heights of perfect freedom.

Robert G. Ingersoll.
Washington, D.C., May 7, 1879.


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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer
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