Ingersoll and American Blasphemy Laws

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.

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  • anubisprime

    The UN is under intense lobbying to introduce a resolution to enshrine a blasphemy law on the international stage.

    The sponsors are the usual crowd…Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia etc etc…

    It was very popular measure in 2010…but it seems support is dwindling…but still in 2014 it registers a vote for the nonsense overall.

    2014 and they are seriously considering such ridiculous backward and frankly revolting garbage.

  • Marcus Ranum

    I think it was wrong of him to oppress the ministers of Hoboken by showing them up for being stupid authoritarians, like that.

    No, wait. I don’t.

  • Leo Buzalsky

    By the time he finished, even the police were reduced to helpless laughter.

    That sounds like something you’d see out of one of those chain emails about Christians triumphing over the atheists, though. I’d be curious to see the sources of this information.

  • janiceintoronto

    “I’d be curious to see the sources of this information.”

    I’d sell you a copy of the DVD but my dog ate it.

  • pali1d

    Unfortunately for the story, Wikipedia disagrees with the end:

    “The last U.S. conviction for blasphemy—at least that of any significance—was of atheist activist Charles Lee Smith. In 1928 he rented a storefront in Little Rock, Arkansas, and gave out free atheist literature there. The sign in the window read: “Evolution Is True. The Bible’s a Lie. God’s a Ghost.” For this he was charged with violating the city ordinance against blasphemy. Because he was an atheist and therefore couldn’t swear the court’s religious oath to tell the truth, he wasn’t permitted to testify in his own defense. The judge then dismissed the original charge, replacing it with one of distributing obscene, slanderous, or scurrilous literature. Smith was convicted, fined $25, and served most of a twenty-six-day jail sentence. His high-profile fast while behind bars drew national media attention. Upon his release, he immediately resumed his atheist activities, was again charged with blasphemy, and this time the charge held. In his trial he was again denied the right to testify and was sentenced to ninety days in jail and a fine of $100. Released on $1,000 bail, Smith appealed the verdict. The case then dragged on for several years until it was finally dismissed.”

    Wiki’s source for this is the Encyclopedia of Unbelief.

    Also, blasphemy laws are STILL on the books in a number of states, though IIRC they’ve been found unconstitutional enough times that it’d be a waste of time/money to attempt to prosecute violations. However, according again to Wiki, they sometimes still cause trouble:

    “Pennsylvania enacted a law against blasphemy in 1977. In the fall of 2007, George Kalman sent the completed forms for incorporating a company to the Pennsylvania Department of State. Kalman wanted to incorporate a movie-production company which he called I Choose Hell Productions, LLC. A week later, Kalman received a notice from the Pennsylvania Department of State which informed him that his forms could not be accepted because a business name “may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.” In February 2009, Kalman filed suit to have the provision against blasphemy struck down as unconstitutional.[1] On June 30, 2010, U.S. District Judge Michael M. Bayslon of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in a 68-page Opinion, ruled in favor of Kalman, finding that the Pennsylvania’s blasphemy statute violated both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

  • D. C. Sessions

    Also, blasphemy laws are STILL on the books in a number of states, though IIRC they’ve been found unconstitutional enough times that it’d be a waste of time/money to attempt to prosecute violations.

    Not really. Charge someone and they have to either spend money on defense or — at a minimum — spend time in jail pending trial. Since judges and prosecutors have absolute immunity, there’s really no big cost to them in pursuing the charges and even locking up defendants.

  • danrobinson

    I highly recommend reading some of Ingersoll’s lectures. He could very well reduce police or anyone to laughter. He was brilliant and very funny. Courageous too. He would work crowds into enthusiastic applause and laughter. He was perhaps the Christopher Hitchens of his time. Perhaps a bit less acerbic, He seemed to be a very likable man who usually had nice things to say of his opponents while raking their ideas over the coals. A real pleasure to read.