As far as most people are concerned, the 11th of August has no special significance. But atheists, freethinkers and skeptics everywhere should recognize it as a very special and significant date indeed. For on this day, we commemorate the birth of the most famous freethinker that most Americans have never heard of, the most fearless and possibly the most eloquent defender of nonbelief in our nation’s great and storied history – the illustrious Robert Green Ingersoll.
Ingersoll’s name is little recognized today, but in his day he was one of the most famous Americans alive. During the mid-1800s, prior to the invention of television and radio, oratory was considered public entertainment, and great crowds would eagerly pack theaters and lecture halls to hear famous orators give speeches. As Susan Jacoby wrote in her powerful book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, this was the era when people “considered it fun to sit or stand for hours and hear lecturers discuss Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poetry of Byron, the philosophy of Voltaire… evolution, electrification, the germ theory of disease, or woman suffrage.” And in this era of lively public debate, Ingersoll’s name stood out as one of the, if not the, best-respected and most sought-after. In January 1893, when Ingersoll was to speak in Dowagiac, Michigan at the dedication of a theater built by the philanthropist Philo D. Beckwith, the local Dowagiac Times declared that “we shall be able to sit in the finest equipped and decorated theater in America and listen to the greatest reasoner, advocate, poet and orator the world has ever known”.
Lest you think that descriptions such as this are wild exaggerations, consider that despite living in an era before television cameras, before microphones, and before mechanized transportation, Ingersoll still managed, on one occasion, to draw fifty thousand listeners (source). He repeatedly crisscrossed America on the lecture circuit, speaking not just in large cities but in small towns throughout the Midwest and the South; and everywhere he went, he filled lecture halls to capacity, attracted ticket scalpers, and drew people who were willing to travel for hundreds of miles and stand in line for hours and hours just to hear him speak. Many famous Americans were friends or admirers of Ingersoll’s, including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, and Thomas Edison. After hearing Ingersoll speak on one occasion, Twain wrote to his wife, “What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!” And, despite living in a time when Americans still could be (and still were) prosecuted for blasphemy, he was a dedicated humanist, a fearless freethinker, and an uncompromising foe of orthodox religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Ingersoll was born on this date in 1833 in Dresden, New York, an upstate region that had experienced so many waves of religious revival it was known as the “burned-over district”. His father, John Ingersoll, was a Presbyterian minister, and though young Robert by all accounts had a strong relationship with his family and called his father loving and generous, he also wrote that his gloomy theology “filled his sky with cloud and storm”. Later in life, Ingersoll spoke of how his congregation considered the Sabbath day “altogether too holy to be happy in”, describing the aura of gloom and misery that descended on the congregation every Sunday because “it was thought to be a kind of sin to be comfortable while you were thanking God”. He added that “when we got home, if we had been good boys, and the weather was warm, sometimes they would take us out to the graveyard to cheer us up a little. It did cheer me. When I looked at the sunken tombs and the leaning stones…. the reflection came to my mind that the observance of the Sabbath could not last always.”
His family moved around constantly, and as a result, young Robert was largely self-educated. But this was not necessarily a disadvantage in those days; at age twenty-one, he passed the bar exam in Illinois, where he was living at the time, and became an independent lawyer. Ingersoll was a staunch abolitionist, and joined the Union army as a colonel when the Civil War broke out. He participated in the Battle of Shiloh, where his regiment was captured by the Confederates but released on condition that they not return to battle, a common practice of the day. After the war, he served as Illinois’ Attorney General – the only political post he would ever hold, due to his outspoken freethought views. Then, as now, loud and frequent public declarations of piety were a prerequisite for holding public office, and Ingersoll was already making a name for himself in the other direction on the lecture circuit. In an editorial after his death, the New York Times observed that only his outspoken irreligious views prevented him from “[taking] that place in the… public life of his country to which by his talents he would otherwise have been eminently entitled.”
Despite this, Ingersoll’s oratorical skills were in great demand throughout his lifetime. He frequently gave speeches on behalf of Republican candidates (the Republicans being the progressive party in those days), and his advocacy helped elect a good many of them to office. In particular, his nomination speech on behalf of James G. Blaine for president at the Republican National Convention in 1876, dubbed the “Plumed Knight” speech, attracted national renown and set the gold standard for political oratory in the country for years to come, although Blaine did not win the nomination. In 1886, Ingersoll also defended Charles B. Reynolds, a New Jersey man charged with violating the state’s anti-blasphemy statute. Reynolds was ultimately convicted, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for the prosecutors; Ingersoll so effectively discredited the concept of a blasphemy law in the public’s eyes that few such prosecutions were ever attempted afterwards.
Both in his professional career and his personal life, Robert Ingersoll was a steadfast defender of the Bill of Rights and the true ideals of America, and a friend to those struggling for liberty everywhere. He spoke out tirelessly not just against religion, but against all evils that oppress the mind and chain the spirit. He was, for example, a fierce foe of slavery and of racism, which was still extremely common in his day; a tireless opponent of corporal punishment and child abuse; and an unapologetic advocate of female suffrage. In the 1800s, it need scarcely be noted, all of these were radical positions.
Ingersoll’s lectures blended profound wisdom and courage with a warm, friendly charm and knowing humor, and his positive vision of a human future undergirded by reason and suffused with happiness stands out like a beacon. Thankfully, his eloquence has not been lost to us. His complete works, most of which he had committed completely to memory for his public lectures, are freely available on the Internet. We even have a few rare recordings of his voice, among the first sounds ever recorded on the prototype phonograph built by a prolific young inventor named Thomas Alva Edison.
Though Robert Ingersoll has long since passed on, the flame of freethought kindled by his words has never gone out. From generation to generation, through the darkest depths of fundamentalist resurgence and the bright dawnings of reason’s victories, the torch has been passed from hand to hand. And everywhere it has passed through, it has kindled new lights in turn. There is more truth, beauty and wisdom in his works than in the Bible, the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon put together; and although we cannot and do not worship him or his writings, we can and do draw a powerful example from them. In times such as ours, we need a hundred more like him.
In case any of my readers are unacquainted with Ingersoll’s writings, I will close this post with a selection of some of my favorite quotes from his published essays:
This brave and tender man in every storm of life was oak and rock; but in the sunshine he was vine and flower. He was the friend of all heroic souls. He climbed the heights, and left all superstitions far below, while on his forehead fell the golden dawning of a grander day.
He loved the beautiful, and was with color, form, and music touched to tears. He sided with the weak, the poor, and wronged, and lovingly gave alms. With loyal heart and with the purest hands he faithfully discharged all public trusts.
He was a worshiper of liberty, a friend of the oppressed. A thousand times I have heard him quote these words: “For Justice all place a temple, and all season, summer.” He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest. He added to the sum of human joy; and were every one to whom he did some loving service to bring a blossom to his grave, he would sleep tonight beneath a wilderness of flowers.
—”A Tribute To Ebon C. Ingersoll” (1879)
I have a little short creed of my own, not very hard to understand, that has in it no contradictions, and it is this: Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.
I should rather live and love where death is king, than have eternal life where love is not.
—”At a Child’s Grave” (1882)
Somebody ought to tell the truth about the Bible. The preachers dare not, because they would be driven from their pulpits. Professors in colleges dare not, because they would lose their salaries. Politicians dare not. They would be defeated. Editors dare not. They would lose subscribers. Merchants dare not, because they might lose customers. Men of fashion dare not, fearing that they would lose caste. Even clerks dare not, because they might be discharged. And so I thought I would do it myself.
—”About the Holy Bible” (1894)
[The spiritual man] attacks what he believes to be wrong, though defended by the many, and he is willing to stand for the right against the world.
We have no master on the land —
No king in air —
Without a manacle we stand,
Without a prayer,
Without a fear of coming night,
We seek the truth, we love the light.
We waste no time in useless dread,
In trembling fear;
The present lives, the past is dead,
And we are here,
All welcome guests at life’s great feast —
We need no help from ghost or priest.
It is far better to give yourself sometimes to negligence, to drift with wave and tide, with the blind force of the world, to think and dream, to forget the chains and limitations of the breathing life, to forget purpose and object, to lounge in the picture gallery of the brain, to feel once more the clasps and kisses of the past, to bring life’s morning back, to see again the forms and faces of the dead, to paint fair pictures for the coming years, to forget all Gods, their promises and threats, to feel within your veins life’s joyous stream and hear the martial music, the rhythmic beating of your fearless heart.And then to rouse yourself to do all useful things, to reach with thought and deed the ideal in your brain, to give your fancies wing, that they, like chemist bees, may find art’s nectar in the weeds of common things, to look with trained and steady eyes for facts, to find the subtle threads that join the distant with the now, to increase knowledge, to take burdens from the weak, to develop the brain, to defend the right, to make a palace for the soul.
This is real religion. This is real worship.
—”What Is Religion?” (1899)