Robert Green Ingersoll (1833)
It was on this date, August 11, 1833, that the most eloquent advocate of Freethought, Robert Green Ingersoll, was born in Dresden, New York, the son of a Congregationalist minister. In Peoria, Illinois, he trained in the law before enlisting in the Union Army during the Civil War, where he was a Colonel in the cavalry and fought in the Battle of Shiloh. He was captured and paroled and later served as the first Attorney General of Illinois, becoming a member of the party of Lincoln, in those days a forward-looking Republican Party.
Ingersoll was much in demand as a public speaker, where his topics ran from Shakespeare and Burns to the Bible, religion and science. He also argued for the rights of women, workers and blacks, as well as for the theory of evolution. From 1865 to 1899, in an age when public lectures were the equivalent of pop concerts today, he was the 19th century equivalent of a pop star. His anti-religious orations drew the biggest crowds – and he purposely gave them on Sunday and charged rock-concert prices.
His most famous speech was for the nomination of James G. Blaine for the presidency in 1876. Though Rutherford B. Hayes won the nomination and the election, Ingersoll's "Plumed Knight" speech was considered a classic of political oratory for decades.
Ingersoll was known for his caustic criticisms of Christianity, which he leavened with wit and common-sense observation. Audiences in nearly every town in America would hear such things as
It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. ... Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. ... And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.*
When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins – they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day. Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. ... These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. ... They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience – and for them all, man is indebted to man.†
Ingersoll preferred to call himself an Agnostic, though he admitted there was little difference between that and Atheism. He also warned,
Orthodox Christians have the habit of claiming all great men, all men who have held important positions, men of reputation, men of wealth. As soon as the funeral is over clergymen begin to relate imaginary conversations with the deceased, and in a very little while the great man is changed to a Christian – possibly to a saint.‡
Doubtless to annoy his clerical critics, who were hoping for a deathbed conversion, Ingersoll died suddenly of heart failure on 21 July 1899 at his son-in-law's home in Dobbs Ferry-on-Hudson, New York. Shortly afterward, his brother-in-law Clinton P. Farrell published his complete works in a 12-volume set known as the "Dresden Edition," named for the town of Ingersoll's birth.
* Speech, " Individuality " (1873).
† Speech, " God In The Constitution " (1890).
‡ Speech, " The Religious Belief of Abraham Lincoln " (1894).
Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
"The greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even East vs. West," wrote Durant, "it is whether men can bear to live without God."