Hal Gordon informs me of something I did not know, that Robert Ingersoll once defended a man in a blasphemy case. He lost that case but he ended up being largely responsible for the end of blasphemy prosecutions anyway through his gift for good humor and subtle ridicule.
In 1886, a former Adventist minister turned freethinker named Charles B. Reynolds was arrested for violating a New Jersey blasphemy law. At his trial, he was represented by Robert Ingersoll, another freethinker known as “the Great Agnostic.”
Ingersoll was not only a brilliant lawyer, he was by common consent the greatest orator of his day. His closing speech to the jury was typically dazzling: “I deny the right of any man, of any number of men, of any church, of any State, to put a padlock on the lips – to make the tongue a convict. I passionately deny the right of the Herod of authority to kill the children of the brain.”
Despite his eloquence, Ingersoll lost the case, but he had the last laugh on the New Jersey law. First, he paid Reynolds’ fine out his own pocket. Some time later, he arranged—over the vigorous protests of local clergy—to book a lecture in Hoboken. At first, the ministers tried to close down the theatre. But when that failed, they showed up with police detectives in tow, ready to demand Ingersoll’s arrest the minute a single sacrilegious word passed his lips.Undismayed, Ingersoll began his lecture by pointing out how certain passages of the Bible, if taken literally, contradicted each other. Did that mean the Bible was not in fact the word of God? “I don’t know,” he answered with a bland smile. “I don’t know. If it were not for the Jersey blasphemy statute I might know. As it is, I don’t. The Hoboken parsons know. Ask them.”
By the time he finished, even the police were reduced to helpless laughter. There would never be another prosecution for blasphemy in the United States. Ingersoll had shamed such laws from the books.
That’s pretty damn cool.