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WHEATON COLLEGE GRADUATE SCHOOL
Evangelist of Unbelief
Robert G. Ingersoll, the Bible,
and Freethought in Gilded Age America
A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School in Partial
Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
Department of Biblical and Theological Studies
by
Eric T. Brandt
Wheaton, Illinois
July 2011
Evangelist of Unbelief
Robert G. Ingersoll, the Bible,
and Freethought in Gilded Age America
by
Eric T. Brandt
Approved:
___________________________________
Dr. Edith L. Blumhofer, First reader
__________________
Date
___________________________________
Dr. Kathryn T. Long, Second reader
__________________
Date
ii
Disclaimer
The views expressed in this thesis are those of the student and do not
necessarily express those of the Wheaton College Graduate School.
iii
WHEATON COLLEGE
Wheaton, Illinois
Date _______________ 20___
Evangelist of Unbelief
Robert G. Ingersoll, the Bible,
and Freethought in Gilded Age America
Wheaton College
Department of Biblical and Theological Studies
Master of Arts Degree
Permission is herewith granted to Wheaton College to make copies of the above title, at
its discretion, upon the request of individuals or institutions and at their expense.
___________________________________
Eric T. Brandt
Extensive quotation of further reproduction of this material by persons or agencies other
than Wheaton College may not be made without the expressed permission of the writer.
iv
ABSTRACT
Brandt, Eric T. “Evangelist of Unbelief: Robert G. Ingersoll, the Bible, and Freethought
in Gilded Age America.” MA thesis, Wheaton College Graduate School, 2011.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was the most public opponent of Christianity
in nineteenth-century America. A notably successful trial lawyer, sometime politician,
and eloquent orator, he occupied a strategic place of influence in American public life in
the final decades of the century. By the 1860s, Ingersoll had distanced himself from the
heritage of devout evangelicalism fostered by his revivalist-abolitionist father. For the
last quarter of the nineteenth century, he committed the greater part of his career to the
lecture circuit, advancing a skeptical assault on Christianity and contending for religious
unbelief.
Ingersoll’s break with Christianity and the Bible was anything but clean. His
attack bore the indelible marks of the evangelical culture that shaped him just as his
promotion of unbelief drew heavily on the rhetoric and religious framework of belief.
Rather than dismissing evangelical categories outright, he suffused them with his own
brand of agnosticism. Central to Ingersoll’s contest with Christianity was the castigation
and displacement of the Bible, which for him contained—and perpetuated—everything
wrong with religion. Given his evangelical background and its corresponding biblicism,
not to mention the cultural saturation of the same, it is not surprising that the Christian
scripture bore the brunt of his criticisms. What is remarkable is the manner and extent to
which he engrossed himself in the task of reading, interpreting, and indeed educating
audiences about the Bible. Once quipping, “Somebody ought to tell the truth about the
Bible,” Ingersoll obsessed over it in a near-religious fashion, recurrently quoting texts
v
and suggesting interpretations that showed it to be the source of superstition, oppression,
and immorality.
Often accused of bald iconoclasm, the reality is that Ingersoll did endeavor to
provide the rudiments of an alternative to the Bible and Christian belief. In his words, he
preached a “gospel of humanity,” applauded scientific progress as the “only savior of this
world,” and championed individual creativity as “the Sacred Scriptures of the human
race.” His effort to supplant the Bible, as well as his substitute ideology, both of which he
proffered from a secular pulpit, the lecture podium, carried a distinctly evangelical tinge.
In additional to being lauded as the leading infidel in America by fellow freethinkers,
Ingersoll’s use of religious and even biblical parlance won him a wide audience among
believers and skeptics alike.
vi
CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
INTRODUCTION
viii
1
CHAPTER
ONE
TWO
THREE
“I have thrown myself into the great tide of the times”:
A Religious Biography of an Infidel
14
“Woe is me if I preach not my gospel”:
The Evangelist of Unbelief
50
“I fight ideas, I fight principles”:
Reactions and Controversies
88
CONCLUSION
124
BIBLIOGRAPHY
127
vii
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I am the beneficiary of much good counsel and training from exemplary
historians. For this, I am sincerely grateful to Dr. Edith Blumhofer and Dr. Kathryn Long,
who kindly served as readers for this thesis. Their guidance and encouragement, on this
project and in class, have been inspiring. I am also warmly appreciative to Dr. Timothy
Larsen, McManis Chair of Christian Thought, who has most profoundly shaped my
understanding of what it means to be a Christian historian.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the expert assistance I received from
the interlibrary loan staff of the Buswell Memorial Library here at Wheaton College.
Justin Long and Noelle Brison happily fulfilled my numerous requests for obscure
nineteenth-century books, pamphlets, and newspapers. My sincere thanks also go out to a
small army of archivists across the country, most notably those at the Manuscript
Division of the Library of Congress; the Manuscript Collection at the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois; the Special Collections Research Center of
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; the Yale Divinity School Library in New
Haven, Connecticut; and the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College in
Massachusetts. I do not exaggerate when I say that the scope of this project could not
have been achieved without their able assistance.
Finally, I am deeply grateful to my wife, Megan. For the past year she has
endured with tremendous patience and charity me talking about all things Ingersoll. Last
summer she even cheerfully got lost with me in Arlington National Cemetery as we
dashed about in search of the Great Agnostic’s grave. (Of course, she found the headstone
first.) I pray this energy and sense of adventure will always characterize our marriage.
viii
INTRODUCTION
In early 1865, three months before Civil War hostilities ceased, the radical
Unitarian Octavius Brooks Frothingham surveyed America’s shifting cultural and
religious landscape in an essay that appeared in the Christian Examiner. He observed,
somewhat prematurely, and even with a hint of despondency, “Organizations are splitting
asunder, institutions are falling into decay, customs are becoming uncustomary, usages
are perishing from neglect, sacraments are decried by the multitude, creeds are
decomposing under the action of liberal studies and independent thought.”1 For better or
worse, Frothingham argued that the hegemonic “Protestant Christendom” of yesteryear
was disintegrating in America in the face of the new spirit of the age—individualism.
Combined with increasingly ponderous church bureaucracies and better-educated, more
discerning congregants—realities he did not address—weariness over religious
establishments was growing.2 Frothingham maintained that Catholicism, heavily on the
American conscience because of high immigration and influential leaders, was hardly in
a position to repulse the sentiment to which its more dominant ecclesiastical rival was
succumbing. Either the major Christianities of the world needed to adjust dramatically to
the changing times or something other needed to rise up. Both happened.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Protestant Christianity was the most prevalent
religious force in America. Virtually unrivaled until Catholic immigration spiked in the
1. [Octavius Brooks Frothingham], “The Order of Saint Paul the Apostle; and the New Catholic
Church,” Christian Examiner 78 (January 1865): 10. Frothingham made these remarks in a review of
several of Paulist Father Isaac Hecker’s latest publications.
2. On the disenchantment with church officialdom among Protestants in the second half of the
nineteenth century, see Anne C. Rose, Victorian America and the Civil War (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1992), 17–67.
1
second half of the century, religious pluralism typically meant having the option to
choose between major Protestant denominations—namely Presbyterian, Methodist, or
Baptist. In such a climate, it is unsurprising that religious disestablishment was not
achieved across the United States until 1833.3 While the separation of church and state
allowed for transference—sometimes substantial—between denominations, the shifting
more or less remained among churches descendent from the Protestant Reformation (with
a few notable exceptions). Despite schisms and sectional disunity, which grew in
frequency as the nineteenth century wore on, enough of the Protestant ideal remained
intact that their aggregate churchly efforts amounted to a veritable “righteous empire,”
however dysfunctional and momentary.4
The decay Frothingham underscored was emblematic of Protestantism’s
fracturing dominion in what Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Charles Dudley Warner
dubbed the “Gilded Age” in their cynical novel of the same name.5 The irony of
3. For a very useful, recent study of church and state relations in the nineteenth century from the
perspective of constitutional and legal history, see Steven K. Green, The Second Disestablishment: Church
and State in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). The legal separation
of church and state notwithstanding, Protestant Christianity so permeated America as to compel David
Sehat to write, not entirely convincingly, on the liberty-stifling nature of the Protestant moral establishment
in The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). On the influx of
Catholics in America, see Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners
and Losers in Our Religious Economy, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005),
117–55.
4. The phrase “righteous empire” is taken from Martin Marty, who writes in the preface to his
classic work on the subject, “Protestantism was the dominating spiritual force in the American past.” See
his Protestantism in the United States: Righteous Empire, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
1986), v. On the splintering of the churches in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century, see C.
C. Goen’s important work, Broken Church, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the
Civil War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985). For a recent, nuanced take on the “elusive
Protestant unity,” see Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2008), 41–73.
5. Rebecca Edwards, among others, has recently challenged the moniker “Gilded Age” on the
grounds that its connotations of superficiality and arrogance eclipse the real social and cultural advances
that were being achieved at the time. Her point is noted and appreciated. However, this study maintains the
2
Protestantism’s hegemony was that the more its priorities became ingrained in the
tapestry of American culture, the more its adherents took them for granted or even came
to resent them. At the same time, disestablishment and the autonomy of thought it
encouraged opened the floodgates of new, predominantly homegrown, religious options.
Most of these alternatives, however, still traced their origins to principles derived
from Protestant Christianity.6 The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century
achieved the hard won rights of personal Bible reading and a new confidence in the
priesthood of all believers. The potential for individual interpretations of the Christian
scriptures and practices was enormous. The confessional statements assembled by the
major Protestant denominations attempted to draw the lines between religion that was
orthodox and that which was not. Such efforts met with some success in America during
the colonial era. However, as political, social, and individual liberties were gradually
realized, culminating at points such as the Revolution and, decades later, nationwide
religious disestablishment, the opportunity and impetus were present for the creation of
alternative religions.7
Since the 1820s and ’30s, in the heat of widespread revivals, America’s cultural
use of the term for the sake of convention and on the assumption that progress and conceit are seldom
found one without the other, be it in history or the human heart. For Edwards’s argument, see her New
Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865–1905, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011),
5–7.
6. For a summary history of “when Protestants ran the show” to the rise of religious pluralism in
America, see Martin E. Marty, The Protestant Voice in American Pluralism (Athens: University of Georgia
Press, 2004).
7. On the phenomena of new American religions, see the classic study by R. Laurence Moore,
Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). On the
growth of religious movements in the early republic, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of
American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), especially 179–83 on the principle of
individual biblical interpretation. The births and lives of many of the alternative religious groups in
America are well traced in Stephen J. Stein, Communities of Dissent: A History of Alternative Religions in
America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
3
landscape was white for the harvest of such homegrown religious movements,
denominations, sects, and cults. Joseph Smith, whose family had long been disaffected
with organized religion, published the Book of Mormon in 1830, formally organizing the
Church of Christ the same year. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, both endeavoring
to realize a more apostolic Christianity, merged their previously independent movements
in 1832 to create a Restorationist united front. The Baptist reconvert from deism William
Miller predicted Christ’s millennial return in 1843, inaugurating the Adventist movement.
Many other spinoffs and factions similarly emerged from the “spiritual hothouse” that
was the decades leading up to the middle of the century.8
Some of the new religious parties were non-ecclesiastical and potently opposed to
orthodox forms. The Scottish-American reformer Frances Wright founded her utopian
Nashoba Commune in Tennessee in 1825. Although the community’s goals centered
more on the education and emancipation of slaves than religion, Wright’s lectures
established her reputation as a freethinking opponent of organized religion. Nashoba was
modeled in part after Welsh immigrant Robert Owen’s own perfect society, New
Harmony, in Indiana (founded the same year). Owen eventually converted from a
particularly hostile form of deism to spiritualism. John Humphrey Noyes found a home
for his Perfectionism “heresy” among a community of followers in Oneida, New York.
It was also at this time of fresh religious ferment that Transcendentalism made
remarkable strides, especially in the Unitarian churches, elevating intuition over scripture
and the “Divine Soul” over notions of a personal God. Increasingly, religious liberty
8. Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1990), 225–56. For more on Joseph Smith, Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone,
and their followers, as well as a number of other prominent new religious groups, see Hatch,
Democratization of American Christianity, 67–122.
4
provided the spiritually restless with the option not only to exchange creeds in a free
marketplace of ideas but also to overturn traditional conceptions about what constituted
religion.
By the late nineteenth century, new and derivative religious movements were
emerging in full force. Throughout the first decades of the century, extreme heterodoxy
typically took the forms of radical Unitarianism and deism, as well as the new religions
mentioned previously. After the Civil War, however, religiously “open” groups that had
struggled for attention and even existence were gaining traction. In 1867, for instance,
Frothingham and others disenchanted with organized religion, including Francis
Ellingwood Abbot and Ralph Waldo Emerson, helped establish a new expression of
religious freedom when they founded the national Free Religious Association.9
Composed of a diverse assortment of radical Unitarians, Universalists, spiritualists, and
scientific theists, among other disaffected religious minorities, this society advanced the
cause of thoroughgoing intellectual liberty while maintaining the prominence of a
broadly defined “religion of humanity.”10
For some, Free Religion did not go far enough. Atheism, once mainly a term of
9. On Free Religion and the Association as distinctly American phenomena, see Stow Persons,
Free Religion: An American Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947). On Francis Ellingwood
Abbot and his relationship with Free Religion, see Sydney Ahlstrom and Robert Bruce Mullin, The
Scientific Theist: A Life of Francis Ellingwood Abbot (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987), 73–80.
A useful summary of “spirituality” broadly construed, attending primarily to the nineteenth century, is
Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (New York: HarperCollins,
2005).
10. The phrase “religion of humanity” was ubiquitous in the late nineteenth-century world. Likely
coined by the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, it was Frothingham, Francis Ellingwood
Abbot, and their Free Religion associates who defined it for the American scene. On Frothingham’s own
definition, consciously dissenting from Comte, see his Religion of Humanity (New York: David G. Francis,
1873), 34–39. On the influence of Comte and his positivism in America, see Gillis J. Harp, Positivist
Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1920 (University Park:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).
5
disparagement for deists and other freethinkers, was becoming a more legitimate option.
Nevertheless, many considered it a drastic and rationally indefensible position. To claim
positively that God did not exist was to indicate that one could, and indeed did, know
something about the supernatural. Thomas Huxley, the British natural scientist and close
associate of Charles Darwin, proposed an alternative in 1869—agnosticism. He defined it
as a methodological commitment to following the principles of reason as far as possible
and going no further. The question of God’s existence was outside the domain of reason.
British social philosopher Herbert Spencer popularized a version of Huxley’s method—in
America as well as Britain—that forthrightly claimed that the existence of God was
unknowable.11 For the first time, unbelief was a legitimate and permanent option in the
diverse landscape of American religion.12
This talk of freethought’s ascension in the late nineteenth century is not intended
to overshadow the reality of Protestantism’s ongoing dominance, however muted or
unstable it was. Between 1860 and 1900, the major Protestant denominations tripled the
number of their church members from five million to sixteen million. By comparison, the
number of Catholics quadrupled, largely due to immigration, from three million to twelve
million.13 However, as shown by the social and legal conflicts in the last third of the
century between Protestants and Catholics and between religious and irreligious parties,
11. T. H. Huxley, “Agnosticism,” Nineteenth Century 25, no. 144 (February 1889): 186–87;
Herbert Spencer, First Principles (1862; repr. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1864), 41, 74–82.
12. James Turner convincingly argues this point in Without God, without Creed: The Origins of
Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 171–73. He observes, “Within
twenty years after the Civil War, agnosticism emerged as a self-sustaining phenomenon. Disbelief in God
was, for the first time, plausible enough to grow beyond a rare eccentricity and to stake out a permanent
niche in American culture.”
13. George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1991), 14.
6
the nation’s Protestant moral establishment was a force not easily displaced. Catholics
had challenged the Protestant domination of the nation’s common schools since the
1830s. They contended for the rights to take their daily school Bible readings from the
Douay-Rheims translation and, eventually, for public funding for their own schools, just
as Protestants received funding for theirs. After midcentury, many Protestants were
advocating a nonsectarian approach to education in the nation’s schools, including the
total cessation of Bible reading, in order to protect against Catholic influence.14 Charges
for blasphemy, a catchall for almost any public offense against the predominant religious
sentiment, were being disputed in the courts well into the late 1880s.15 State and local
laws dictating Sabbath observance were enforced, and in some cases strengthened, into
the 1890s, especially in the South. But intense struggles continued in the North as well: a
fierce debate broke out over whether the stalls and events would be open on Sundays at
the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. The federal government conditioned
its funding on the assumption that the fair would be closed on the Sabbath. However, the
Exposition only closed on Sundays for the first two weeks of its six-month run. Since all
federal funding was expended after that period, there proved to be little motivation for the
directors to uphold the law.16 This latter event was a sign of the times. Protestants with
their moral establishment were still holding sway, but maintaining their lead in the face
of nonsectarian and secular forces was getting more difficult.
14. Green, Second Disestablishment, 275–87. On the shifting demographic between Protestants
and Catholics at the time and its implications for faith practices, see John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and
American Freedom: A History (New York: Norton, 2003), esp. 19–42, 91–126; and Mark A. Noll, The Old
Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
2002), 113–35.
15. Sehat, Myth of American Religious Freedom, 173–78.
16. Green, Second Disestablishment, 380–83.
7
Among conservative Protestants, which generally equated to traditional
evangelicals, fears abounded over the implications of these perceived cultural retreats.
But the expansion of Catholicism and smaller, nonconventional religious and even
antireligious groups in the United States were not the only factors causing them concern
in the late nineteenth century. New scientific discoveries and theorizing, embraced with
enthusiasm by many liberal religionists, were challenging fundamental assumptions.
Furthermore, and more directly related to the evangelical cause, the flourishing of critical
approaches to the interpretation of the Bible disturbed traditional notions of scriptural
meaning and authority.17 The more the liberal or progressive Christians (including some
evangelicals) and nonorthodox sects appropriated the new science and new theology, the
more the traditional evangelicals feared that the nation was headed down the path of
secularization, which they predominantly labeled religious infidelity.18
The responses from the conservative Protestant individuals and churches to the
apparent crisis ranged from despondent to triumphant. Thoughtful theologians and
biblical scholars of this persuasion generally challenged the new thought with varying
degrees of sophistication and nuance. With some important exceptions, most conservative
pastors and evangelists either ignored the problem or launched vitriolic campaigns
condemning anything that could possibly be construed as challenging the Christian
17. On the exchanges between evangelicals and biblical criticism of all varieties in America, see
Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker, 1991). On those who responded to the new thought more favorably, see William R. Hutchison,
The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).
Arthur Schlesinger traced the major changes arising from these factors in his important essay, “A Critical
Period in American Religion, 1875–1900,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 64 (Oct.
1930–Jun. 1932): 522–48.
18. The largely baseless “paranoia” about American secularization is well traced out in Charles
Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols, eds., Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s
Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
8
scriptures. In the Protestant religious world of Gilded Age America, where one stood on
science and the interpretation of the Bible made all the difference.
It was into these tumultuous times that Robert Ingersoll (1833–99) came to
maturity. A notably successful trial lawyer, sometime politician, and eloquent orator, he
occupied a strategic place of influence in American public life in the final decades of the
century. Raised in an atmosphere of devout evangelicalism fostered by his revivalistabolitionist father, Ingersoll had distanced himself from this heritage by the 1860s. For
the last quarter of the nineteenth century, he committed the greater part of his career to
the lecture circuit, advancing a skeptical assault on Christianity and the Bible while
contending for unbelief. By the early 1880s, Ingersoll was nationally recognized as the
most public opponent of religious belief.19
Ingersoll’s break with Christianity and the Bible was anything but clean. His
attack bore the indelible marks of the evangelical culture that shaped him. This study
argues that his promotion of unbelief drew heavily on the rhetoric and religious
framework of belief. Rather than dismissing evangelical categories outright, he suffused
them with his own brand of agnosticism. Central to Ingersoll’s contest with Christianity
was the castigation and rejection of the Bible, which for him contained—and
perpetuated—everything wrong with religion. Given his evangelical background and its
corresponding biblicism, not to mention the cultural saturation of the same, it is not
surprising that the Christian scripture bore the brunt of his criticisms. What is remarkable
19. Sydney Ahlstrom noted, “By 1880 there were very few Americans who did not recognize him
[Ingersoll] as the nation’s most outspoken infidel and a scourge of the churches.” See his A Religious
History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 766. Ingersoll’s popularity is
discussed in depth in the proceeding chapters, but it is useful to observe here that nineteenth-century
Americans found public theological controversy and debate an enjoyable pastime. See E. Brooks Holifield,
“Theology as Entertainment: Oral Debate in American Religion,” Church History 67, no. 3 (September
1998): 499–520.
9
is the manner and extent to which he engrossed himself in the task of reading,
interpreting, and indeed educating audiences about the Bible. Ingersoll obsessed over the
Christian scriptures in a near-religious fashion, recurrently quoting texts and suggesting
interpretations that showed it to be the source of superstition, oppression, and immorality.
Ingersoll was not only committed to the deconstruction of Christianity and its
Bible. Often accused of bald iconoclasm, the reality is that he did endeavor to provide the
rudiments of an alternative to the Bible and Christian belief. In his words, he preached a
“gospel of humanity,” applauded scientific progress as the “only savior of this world,”
and championed individual creativity as “the Sacred Scriptures of the human race.”20
This study endeavors to show that his arguments to supplant the Bible and his efforts to
promote a substitute ideology, both of which he proffered from a secular pulpit, the
lecture podium, carried a distinctly evangelical tinge. In additional to being lauded as the
leading infidel in America by fellow freethinkers, Ingersoll’s use of religious and even
biblical parlance won him a wide audience among believers and skeptics alike.
Popular freethought21 in the nineteenth century is an understudied subject. Just as
the recovery of the voices of religious “outsiders” began in the last several decades, what
is now needed is the salvaging of the stories of irreligious outsiders. The significance of
these marginalized voices is similar to that of the religious outsiders—it fills out the
history and meaning of American religion.22 Many of the same circumstances and
20. Ingersoll’s substitute religion is treated in the latter part of chapter two.
21. This study generally uses the terms freethought, skepticism, unbelief, and infidelity
interchangeably. Any nuance of meaning between them in particular instances is clarified by the context.
22. It is striking how relevant Laurence Moore’s important discussion of religious outsiders and
the bases for determining historical significance applies equally to irreligious outsiders. See Moore,
Religious Outsiders, 3–21.
10
convictions that motivated individuals to break with creeds and churches impelled others
to abandon religious belief altogether. Why some split in the one direction and some in
another is one of the leading questions that need to be addressed. The story of doubt is the
story of faith.
Some trailblazing work has been done in spite of general negligence. A few
scholars have examined nineteenth-century unbelief as an intellectual phenomenon.23
Several others have helpfully traced the history of American freethought, an assortment
of inherently popular expressions of skepticism, but each of the most substantial works is
now quite dated.24 Finally, there have been a small number of studies (or parts thereof)
that have explored the Gilded Age “crisis of faith” broadly, incorporating both
intellectual and popular contributions.25 A comprehensive engagement with the sweep of
23. The first and foremost work to this end is unquestionably Turner’s Without God, without
Creed. Before this, D. H. Meyer contributed an important essay on the late nineteenth-century situation:
“American Intellectuals and the Victorian Crisis of Faith,” in Victorian America, ed. Daniel Walker Howe
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976), 59–77. Even earlier, Paul Carter treated some
intellectual aspects of religious doubt in The Spiritual Crisis in the Gilded Age (DeKalb: Northern Illinois
University Press, 1971). However, his work is primarily useful for its coverage of the popular social and
cultural implications of the “spiritual crisis.”
24. The two foundational works on popular American freethought, covering most of the nineteenth
century are Albert Post, Popular Freethought in America, 1825–1850 (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1943); and Sidney Warren, American Freethought, 1860–1914 (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1943). For an excellent, brief thematic survey of the image of the infidel in American freethought,
see Martin E. Marty, The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1961).
More recently, Christopher Grasso has begun work on skepticism (including deism) in the early national
period. See his “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution,”
Journal of American History 95, no. 1 (June 2008): 43–68 and “The Boundaries of Toleration and
Tolerance: Religious Infidelity in the Early American Republic,” in The First Prejudice: Religious
Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America, ed. Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 286–302. Specific to the relationship between evangelical faith
and doubt, David Hempton has recently explored the phenomenon of individual “disenchantment” in
Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt (New Haven: Yale University Press,
2008).
25. This is the most appropriate category of Carter’s Spiritual Crisis in the Gilded Age. Anne
Rose, in her Victorian America and the Civil War, has treated the subject somewhat more recently in her
chapter on religion. Predating both of these was an important study of the crisis, regrettably neglected
itself: Francis P. Weisenburger, Ordeal of Faith: The Crisis of Church-Going America, 1865–1900 (New
11
American freethought in the nineteenth century, however, remains to be made.
In view of this, it is not surprising that serious, scholarly consideration of Robert
Ingersoll’s place in American religious history has been all the more neglected.26 He
appears with regularity in broader discussions of faith and doubt but typically only in a
brief aside on the representative village atheist of the latter half of the century.27 There
are, of course, a few notable exceptions, especially one historian who acknowledges
Ingersoll’s prominence by designating him the “John the Baptist of American
agnosticism.”28 Some of the standard disregard to which Ingersoll has been subjected is
due to general unawareness of his personal religious heritage and of his influential
associations with many of the major shapers of Gilded Age America, religious and
secular. Another factor contributing to this inattention is the unfortunate, lingering
notions about the relative insignificance of freethought in American history. The result
York: Philosophical Library, 1959). Finally, the freethought contribution is briefly traced in Arthur
Schlesinger’s “Critical Period in American Religion, 1875–1900.”
26. He has received better attention, though rarely critical, from his several biographers. The major
works, in chronological order, are: Herman E. Kittredge, Ingersoll: A Biographical Appreciation (New
York: Dresden Publishing Co., 1911), Isaac Newton Baker, An Intimate View of Robert G. Ingersoll (New
York: C. P. Farrell, 1920), Cameron Rogers, Colonel Bob Ingersoll (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, Page &
Co., 1927), C. H. Cramer, Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952),
Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Citadel Press, 1962), and Frank Smith,
Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990). Only the latter three make any effort
to avoid hagiography and only Cramer’s volume achieves any degree of success in the endeavor.
27. Note, for instance, Ingersoll’s brief, but nevertheless pivotal, appearances in Schlesinger, “A
Critical Period in American Religion,” 530; and Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People, 765–
66.
28. Turner, Without God, without Creed, 174. Ingersoll appears frequently in Turner’s work and in
Carter’s Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age. He was one of the hundred figures Rose examines in her
Victorian America. One bonus for Ingersoll has been the voluminous writings of Martin Marty since the
Infidel, which commits nearly two chapters to him. Seldom has Marty published a book on American
religion that does not recurrently mention the man whom he first described as “infidelity incarnate.”
12
has been little serious consideration of his infidelity or his method of promotion.29
This study endeavors to correct these misconceptions and offer a critical analysis
of the content and context of Ingersoll’s own brand of unbelief. To this end, chapter one
traces certain religious themes in his life as they relate to the development of his skeptical
views and his rise to prominence in Gilded Age society. Ingersoll’s biography reveals an
individual profoundly shaped by a pious evangelical heritage as well as the experiences
of war and the shifting intellectual landscape of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Chapter two turns to examine the substance of Ingersoll’s criticisms of the Bible,
Christianity, and religion in general. Both his deconstruction of the faith of his youth and
the substitute ideology he propounded remained noticeably evangelical in tone and
appearance. Ingersoll’s distinction as “the nation’s most outspoken infidel” drew
reactions from friends and foes alike.30 These responses, of which a few amounted to fullblown controversies, are the focus of chapter three.
As the most public opponent of Christianity in later nineteenth-century America,
Ingersoll became for many the face of radical anti-orthodoxy and an extreme example of
the fruit of religious pluralism. However, as much as he contended that liberty of thought
entailed the freedom to be irreligious, his arguments for the same were distinctly and
consistently religious. He was the evangelist of unbelief.
29. A very recent effort in this direction is Eric T. Brandt and Timothy Larsen, “The Old Atheism
Revisited: Robert G. Ingersoll and the Bible,” Journal of the Historical Society 11, no. 2 (June 2011): 211–
38.
30. Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People, 766.
13
CHAPTER ONE
“I have thrown myself into the great tide of the times”:
A Religious Biography of an Infidel
Robert Ingersoll’s life spanned the period of tremendous changes in American life
that occurred during the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century. He experienced
firsthand the fervor of religious awakening, the devastation of national war, the
questioning of traditional beliefs, and the optimism of progress. This chapter traces
Ingersoll’s sixty-six years, from his obscurity as an itinerant minister’s son to his death as
the nation’s most infamous religious skeptic.
“I had no wish to be ‘born again’”: The Unbeliever’s Evangelical Heritage1
Ingersoll began life in both a family and an era of revivalistic and activistic
fervor. His father, Rev. John Ingersoll, was an energetic minister known for his forceful
oratory and fiery abolitionist tendencies. Robert’s mother, Mary (Livingston) Ingersoll,
was a loving mother and wife. She was also endowed with tremendous independence of
mind, reportedly having read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason with an unsettling measure
of delight. An antislavery advocate in her own right, she single-handedly sent a petition
to Congress to demand the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.2 Mary’s
influence over Robert was short-lived, for she died when he was just over two years of
age. In adulthood he wrote of his mother to a friend who had recently lost his own: “I
1. Robert G. Ingersoll (hereafter RGI), Why I Am an Agnostic (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1897), 16.
2. C. H. Cramer, Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952),
19; Introduction to RGI, The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, ed. Eva Ingersoll Wakefield (New York:
Philosophical Library, 1951), 5.
14
remember her as she looked in death. That sweet, cold face has kept my heart warm
through all the changing years.”3 After Mary’s death, Robert, the youngest of the
Ingersolls’ five children, became the charge of his older siblings. Their father, who
apparently caused regular disturbances in the congregations he served either over his
austere pietism or fierce abolitionism, was kept busy by what effectively became a
lifelong itinerant ministry as he moved the family from one call to another.
Despite the scantiness of the details, John Ingersoll’s career and connection to
evangelicalism deserve some attention. A native of Vermont, John graduated from
Middlebury College in 1821 and married Mary Livingston either the same year or the
following. He subsequently studied theology under Josiah Hopkins, then minister of the
Congregational Church of Christ in New Haven, Vermont, achieving notably high
proficiency in the biblical languages. Ingersoll was ordained in 1823 and assigned the
pastorate of the Congregational Church in Pittsford.4 Extremely devout and obsessively
self-disciplined, he was a strict Sabbatarian, advocated total abstinence from alcohol, and
strongly condemned any use of tobacco.5 Ingersoll’s first of many exoduses came after
three years, although his ministry at Pittsford appears to have been generally pleasant for
pastor and congregation alike. In 1829, the American Home Missionary Society
3. RGI, “Death of the Aged,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Dresden Publishing
Co., 1902), 12:328.
4. Thomas Scott Pearson, Catalogue of the Graduates of Middleburg College (Windsor: n.p.,
1853), 59; “Ordinations and Installations,” Christian Spectator 6, no. 2 (February 1, 1824): 111.
5. One of Robert Ingersoll’s earliest, most insightful, and most sympathetic biographers, Herman
E. Kittredge, noted that for many years John Ingersoll was a Grahamite, following the New England
Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham’s dietary habits, which included temperance. For this, see his
Ingersoll: A Biographical Appreciation (New York: Dresden Publishing Co., 1911), 21. Ingersoll’s strict
positions on Sabbath observance and temperance are affirmed, respectively, in A. C., letter to the editor,
Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator 7, no. 12 (June 13, 1829): 188–90; and J. Edward Close, Our
Church and Her Interests: … the First Presbyterian Church, Jordan, Onondaga Co., N.Y. (Syracuse:
Standard Publishing Company, 1877), 21.
15
commissioned him as an evangelist to serve Presbyterian congregations in western New
York.6 Two years later he accepted a call to pastor the Congregational Church in
Hanover, New York. Nearly three years of service with this church established his
reputation as “an eloquent and masterful preacher, with great personal magnetism,—
stirring his audience to the depths.” One of his converts remarked: “When I went to hear
‘Priest Ingersoll’ [a title he had earned previously] I could scarcely take time to eat my
dinner. I knew my soul was in jeopardy, and, fearing lest I lose one moment, I ran all the
way back. He made salvation seem so plain, so easy, I wanted to take it to my heart
without delay.” The records of a different New York congregation noted similarly, with
an addition: “He was an able and attractive preacher, his audience never tiring on account
of long sermons, to which he was not a little liable. His forte was doubtless as an
evangelist. Few men can read character with the accuracy that he did…. During the time
Mr. Ingersoll was with the church, the subject of slavery was seriously agitated, resulting
in its condemnation, without any per se proviso.”7 John Ingersoll proved an effective
minister of the gospel and abolition.
After a six-month stop in Dresden, New York in the spring of 1833, where Robert
was born on August 11, the family was in New York City. Answering a call from the
promising young evangelist Charles Grandison Finney to serve as co-pastor of the
Second Free Presbyterian Church at Chatham Street Chapel, John Ingersoll entered this
6. James M. Hotchkin, A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York, and of the
Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Presbyterian Church in that Section (New York: M. W. Dodd,
1848), 338, 590. See also Chase, Our Church, 21.
7. Quoted in Kittredge, Ingersoll, 22–23.
16
new ministry in late autumn.8 In a move that would seem particularly ironic in the years
to come, it was here that he baptized his son Robert.9 John’s tenure at Chatham Chapel
was neither easy nor uneventful. In January 1834, Finney left the church to Ingersoll’s
care and headed for the Mediterranean, hoping to finally recover from a lingering illness
and, conveniently, to escape a fresh outbreak of heated debates over slavery, a social
issue Finney found distracting to the work of evangelism. John Ingersoll’s own sentiment
was stoked by the events, for when noted abolitionists Arthur and Lewis Tappan,
members of Finney’s church, planned an antislavery rally at the Chapel for the Fourth of
July, they received no objections from him. The event spiraled out of control and resulted
in rioting and physical damage to the Chapel. Attendance declined and congregants
began sending letters of complaint to Finney and his wife regarding Ingersoll’s
“abrasive” style and, for some, the antagonism of his antislavery preaching.10 To the
congregation’s relief, Finney returned in November. One eyewitness recounted a
“fearful” scene in which Finney “turned a withering look” upon Ingersoll and asked,
“Where is the church I left to your charge?” before burying his face in his hands and
weeping.11 The next two decades proved even more turbulent for the Ingersoll household.
John resigned from Chatham Street in early 1835 to accept another call and Mary died
8. Both Wakefield and Cramer mistakenly report that John Ingersoll ministered at the Broadway
Tabernacle in 1834, which is impossible as it was not completed until 1836. On this, see RGI, Letters, 11;
Cramer, Royal Bob, 20.
9. Kittredge, Ingersoll, 18.
10. On Finney’s view of the slavery issue, John Ingersoll’s leadership at Chatham Chapel, and the
surrounding events, see Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American
Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 131–64.
11. Edmund Watts to [unknown], June 17, 1876, in Reminiscences of Rev. Charles G. Finney:
Speeches and Sketches at the Gathering of His Friends and Pupils in Oberlin, July 28th, 1876, ed. James
Harris Fairchild (Oberlin, OH: E. J. Goodrich, 1876), 37–38.
17
later the same year.
For the next two decades John’s ministerial placements continued to change
frequently. He accepted positions in the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. From 1836 to
1838 he served in Hampton, New York; in 1840 the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio; in
1844 they transferred to Aurora, Illinois at the request of the Presbyterian Church there;
in 1850 they were in Ashtabula, Ohio, likely for the second time. Finally, John was
commissioned as an itinerant evangelist by several Presbyterian Churches in Illinois in
1851, a position he held until 1855. During this comparably settled period the minister
remarried in 1853. Fittingly, his middle-aged bride was Frances Langdon Willard, a
religiously zealous educator and one-time principal of the Adams Female Seminary in
New York. Tragically, she died the following year.12 John moved to Peoria, Illinois a few
years later to reside with one of Robert’s elder brothers, Ebenezer (Ebon) Clark. Until his
death in 1859, John Ingersoll traveled extensively throughout Michigan, Indiana, and
Kentucky, while maintaining regular bases in Illinois, New York, and Ohio.13
The instability of the Ingersoll family, prompted by John’s itinerancy and
compounded by the untimely death of Mary, severely limited the five children’s
educational opportunities. Robert attended subscription schools only sporadically. At one
of these, in Greenville, Illinois, he briefly studied under the retired Presbyterian minister
12. Willard also taught in schools in Chicago, Carrollton, Alton, and Peoria before marrying John
Ingersoll. For more on her teaching career, see Jack Nortrup, “The Troubles of an Itinerant Teacher in the
Early Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 71, no. 4 (1978): 279–87.
13. Edgar J. Wiley, Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Middlebury College, 1800–1915
(Middlebury, VT: Middlebury College, 1917), 60; A. T. Norton, History of the Presbyterian Church in the
State of Illinois (St. Louis: W. S. Bryan, 1879), 1:416–17; Kittredge, Ingersoll, 18–20. The residents of
Amboy Township in Lee, Illinois, recalled John Ingersoll as a “stern Presbyterian of the old school.” For
this, see Seraphina Gardner Smith, ed., Recollections of the Pioneers of Lee County (Dixon, IL: Inez A.
Kennedy, 1893), 119.
18
Socrates Smith.14 During these formative years Robert spent more time attending church
services than school. Years later he described—in his own comic fashion—how Sundays
were anticipated:
When I was a boy Sunday was considered too holy to be happy in…. Nobody said
a pleasant word; nobody laughed; nobody smiled; the child that looked the sickest
was regarded as the most pious. That night you could not even crack hickory nuts.
If you were caught chewing gum it was only another evidence of the total
depravity of the human heart. It was an exceedingly solemn night. Dyspepsia was
in the very air you breathed. Everybody looked sad and mournful. I have noticed
all my life that many people think they have religion when they are troubled with
dyspepsia. If there could be found an absolute specific for that disease, it would
be the hardest blow the church has ever received.
After recounting the tortures of lengthy sermons and the catechetical interrogations of the
Sunday schools, he noted that the services often closed with “that beautiful hymn in
which occurs those cheerful lines: ‘Where congregations ne’er break up, and Sabbath
never ends.’” Robert concluded, “These lines, I think, prejudiced me a little against even
heaven.”15
While Ingersoll never spoke much of his youth, the few reminiscences he did
make identified an early revulsion to Christian orthodoxy. He told a newspaper, “I cannot
remember when I believed the Bible doctrine of eternal punishment. I have a dim
recollection of hating Jehovah when I was exceedingly small.”16 In a lecture three years
before his death, Ingersoll recounted a revival sermon he heard as a young adolescent that
“left its mark, like a scar, on my brain.” The preacher, a Free Will Baptist, used Jesus’s
parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus to warn of the torments of eternal pain.
14. Mark A. Plummer, Robert G. Ingersoll, Peoria’s Pagan Politician (Macomb: Western Illinois
University, 1984), 10.
15. RGI, “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child,” in The Ghosts and Other Lectures
(Washington DC: C. P. Farrell, 1878), 121–24.
16. Chicago Times, November 14, 1879.
19
Ingersoll claimed this was the first time he grasped the scriptural teaching on hell. Fired
with indignation, he rejected it all, thinking to himself, “It is a lie, and I hate your
religion. If it is true, I hate your God.” Then Ingersoll assessed the impact: “From that
day I have passionately hated every orthodox creed.”17
In later life Ingersoll tried to convince his opponents that this hostility was not
directed toward his father. Responding negatively to the charge that John Ingersoll’s
religiously strict parenting caused him to leave the fold, Robert said that his father “had
one misfortune and that was his religion. He believed the Bible, and in the shadow of that
frightful book he passed his life…. My father was infinitely better than the God he
worshiped, infinitely better than the religion he preached.”18 At the same time, there was
an incident that hardened Ingersoll to his father. On this occasion Robert was repeatedly
whipped for a transgression he had not committed. At intervals his father would stop and
demand an admission of guilt. After several refusals Robert finally replied, with growing
anger, “Yes, I’ll admit anything you please, but it isn’t so.” Eventually, to the horror of
Robert’s father, another boy confessed to the misdemeanor. Robert remarked, “My father
felt very badly about it, and tried to speak of the matter with me. But I would not hear
anything about it—I never could bear to—and never did. And though I loved my father
dearly, and never consciously did a thing in the world to hurt his feelings … I do not
think I ever fully forgave him for that whipping or that I ever loved him quite as well as I
17. RGI, Why I Am an Agnostic, 16, 19. This is Ingersoll’s most biographical piece, albeit from a
perspective severely critical of his religious upbringing.
18. RGI to [unknown], n.d., E. M. Macdonald, Col. Robert Ingersoll as He Is: A Complete
Refutation of His Clerical Enemies’ Malicious Slanders (New York: Truth Seeker Company, n.d.), 58–59.
20
might have loved him.”19 In spite of his father’s strictness, and the occasional harshness
represented in this traumatic affair, Robert greatly respected his father, not least for
encouraging Robert to think for himself: “He was grand enough to say to me, that I had
the same right to my opinion that he had to his. He was great enough to tell me to read
the Bible for myself, to be honest with myself, and if after reading it I concluded it was
not the word of God, that it was my duty to say so.” Robert’s admiration for his father
existed despite his belief: “That my father was mistaken upon the subject of religion, I
have no doubt. He was a good, a brave and honest man. I loved him living, and I love
him dead.”20
After leaving home in 1852, Robert tried two brief stints as a schoolmaster in
Illinois and Tennessee before settling on the legal profession with his brother Ebon.
Despite his sparse formal education, Robert was a voracious reader. While still under his
father’s roof he had consumed the minister’s entire library, including not only his
theological texts, but his histories and literature as well. It was during this time away
from home that he first discovered what would quickly become his favorite reading: the
works of Shakespeare and Robert Burns. Beside his love of reading, Ingersoll acquired
another skill that proved useful to his short teaching career. Either from his brief time in
common schools, his father’s or another minister’s tutelage, or by his own initiative, he
evidently gained some knowledge of Latin, at least enough to teach it.21 In 1854, Robert
19. Utica Herald, October [?], 1877, quoted in Cramer, Royal Bob, 24.
20. RGI, Six Interviews with Robert G. Ingersoll on Six Sermons by the Rev. T. De Witt Talmage
(Washington DC: C. P. Farrell, 1882), 148.
21. Frank Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), 22–23;
History of Gallatin, Saline, Hamilton, Franklin and Williamson Counties, Illinois, from the Earliest Time to
the Present (Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1887), 557. Vernon Jensen mistakenly claims that
21
quit his efforts as a teacher and began studying the law with Ebon in Shawneetown,
Illinois. By early the following year both brothers had passed the bar examination and
opened a small practice together. A few years later, with more experience and a growing
reputation, they moved their offices to Peoria, a bustling center of southern Illinois. The
brothers maintained a joint office until the outbreak of the Civil War.
Clear signs of Robert Ingersoll’s growing skepticism became apparent at the same
time that he was making a name for himself as a successful trial lawyer. Writing to his
eldest brother John, a medical doctor, in 1858, Robert confessed his distaste for their
father’s preaching tours. Mentioning the “religious excitement” that had been sweeping
the country—the Revival of 1857–58—and the prayer meetings occurring locally, Robert
wrote, “From all accounts all over the country I suppose God has heard more nonsense in
the last six months than he ever heard before in the whole course of his life, and by this
time likely again repents that he ever made man—at least with the power of speech. As
for myself I have attended church Three times in two years. I have heard the story so
often that there is at least nothing like novelty in it.”22 More than a month later he wrote
to John again, still complaining that “[t]here is little going on but religion[.] Nothing
heard of but prayer meetings…. They have them here in nearly all the churches every day
but I have not been to a single one yet and do not think I shall.” He informed John that
Ingersoll was only competent in English. On this, see J. Vernon Jensen, “The Rhetoric of Thomas H.
Huxley and Robert G. Ingersoll in Relation to the Conflict between Science and Theology” (PhD diss.,
University of Minnesota, 1959), 440.
22. RGI to Brother [John Ingersoll], March 23, 1858, box 5, Robert Green Ingersoll Family
Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (hereafter ALPL), Springfield, Illinois. For more on the
religious awakening of the late 1850s, see Kathryn Teresa Long, The Revival of 1857–58: Interpreting an
American Religious Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); and John Corrigan, Business
of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2002).
22
his and Ebon’s legal profession remained successful and mused that they might be even
more profitable if the religious meetings in Peoria subsided: “As soon as the times are
good people will stop praying and go to preying.” Additionally, Robert remarked that he
had just learned that their sister Mary had become a spiritualist. He was disgusted but
thought it could be worse: “Of all the humbugs I think spiritualism is the softest and as
you say I do not think Mary will be one long.”23 While many of the inhabitants of the
nation’s urban centers were experiencing religious awakening, Robert was moving in the
opposite direction. His personal letters of the late 1850s betray the reality that he was
becoming more disenchanted with the evangelicalism of his youth and more confident in
his own religious indifference.
“I have seen enough of death and horror”: Ingersoll the Soldier
The decade of the 1860s initiated the major shift in Ingersoll’s status from a
respected but little-known southern Illinois lawyer to a figure of national import. Already
admired in some circles as an eloquent public speaker, he achieved greater distinction
when he accepted an invitation to deliver Peoria’s Fourth of July oration in 1860. In
August of the same year, while Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were vying for
the presidency, Ingersoll was nominated as a Democratic candidate for Congress. He ran
an energetic campaign, supporting Douglas and defaming Lincoln, but also ventured
beyond the party’s conventional bounds. In a debate with the Republican candidate,
Ingersoll decried the Fugitive Slave Acts as “the most infamous enactment that ever
disgraced a statue book.” While ultimately losing to the incumbent, his visibility earned
23. RGI to Brother [John Ingersoll], May 6, 1858, box 5, Robert Green Ingersoll Family Papers,
ALPL.
23
him a reputation as an ornate and quick-witted stump speaker. Making the most of his
popularity, Ingersoll began to lecture. The first post-election address was given in Peoria
on the subject of “History” in February 1861.24 The local newspaper called it an
“eloquent and scholarly … Social History” of the world, and one with which “every one
was charmed.”25
When hostilities commenced between the North and South in April, Ingersoll
immediately joined the fray. He requested permission to raise a regiment and, by
December, he was mustered into service as colonel of his own cavalry unit, the Eleventh
Illinois. The young Peoria lawyer, fired with fervid patriotism, was preparing for battle.
Before heading off to St. Louis with the regiment, Ingersoll married Eva A.
Parker in February 1862. Parker was the daughter of a prominent Illinois judge and a
committed Paineite Deist in her own right. In later years, Ingersoll affectionately and
publicly called her “a woman without superstition.”26 Her influence on Robert’s religious
views is not easy to discern, but it is significant that Eva’s rejection of organized religion
predated that of her husband, the man who would come to be considered the consummate
American skeptic of religious belief.27
24. According to Cameron Rogers and a footnote in the Works, Robert Ingersoll gave an “antitheological” lecture entitled “Progress” in 1860 at Pekin, Illinois. However, as Plummer observes, there is
no evidence to support the assertion. What is evident is that the lecture on “Progress” was delivered in 1866
and 1869. If the unsubstantiated claim that it was given in 1860 is incorrect, the “History” address is likely
Ingersoll’s first. On this, see Cameron Rogers, Colonel Bob Ingersoll (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page
& Co., 1927), 114; RGI, “Progress,” in Works, 4:423; and Plummer, Peoria’s Pagan Politician, 85 n. 11.
25. Plummer, Peoria’s Pagan Politician, 12–13; Peoria Daily Democratic Union, February 22,
1861; February 27, 1861.
26. The phrase comes from the dedication of his first volume of lectures, The Gods and Other
Lectures (Peoria, IL: n.p., 1874).
27. The story of Eva Parker Ingersoll remains to be told. She preferred to play a quiet and
supportive role to her public infidel husband. However, it is telling that she served on the revising
24
Ingersoll’s earlier flippancy about things spiritual was briefly supplanted in his
thoughts as he considered the realities of war. Less than a month before departing with
his regiment and in the throes of preparation, the newly commissioned officer sent a letter
to his more pious brother John in which he petitioned God’s protection: “I have thrown
myself into the great tide of the times, willing to let it bear me wherever it will—willing
to accept the decree of my fate, and may the same God who watches over you watch over
me, if not for my sake, for yours.”28 Several weeks later Robert wrote to John again, this
time reflecting on the forthcoming devastation. He recalled that as he watched the body
of soldiers cross a river, he wondered, “How many will return to their own firesides, how
many be maimed, killed, how long left on the field of battle to suffer & to die? And then
raising my eyes to … where the great clouds floated over us I asked for the blessing &
protection of my Father’s God.”29 Ingersoll reverently appealed to the divine in the early
and uncertain days of his involvement in the war, though with the undertones of an
outsider.30
Death was a recurring theme in Robert Ingersoll’s private letters. Before the war
he had written to a family member that the only thing he feared more than getting old was
committee of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible (1895, 1898). On this, see George E. Macdonald,
Fifty Years of Freethought, Being the Story of the Truth Seeker (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1931),
2:107. For more on the Parkers’ religious views, see Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll
(New York: Citadel Press, 1962), 51–53.
28. RGI to Brother [John], January 29, 1862, box 1, folder 1, Robert Green Ingersoll Family
Papers, ALPL.
29. RGI to Brother [John], March 9, 1862, Letters, 114.
30. By no means was the heightened language of belief or of encroaching skepticism unique to
Ingersoll. Drew Faust notes that the carnage compelled soldiers and noncombatants alike to either redefine
or reject (and sometimes to do both) their belief in a personal, benevolent God. On this, see Drew Gilpin
Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008),
171–210; and Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799–1883 (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 130–35.
25
dying. Family deaths, including both his parents’ and, after the war, the young son of his
brother John, profoundly affected him. The imminence was unnerving and yet he held on
to the hope of reunion: “Death is becoming familiar to our family. Only a few days and
we will have to join the dear ones on the other side.”31 During the war the closeness of
death was stifling. The impression Robert relayed to Ebon, only a month since first
engaging in the fighting, bordered on the eloquent: “War is horrid beyond the conception
of man…. To see death around you, everywhere nothing but death—to think of the ones
far away expecting the dead to return—hoping for one more embrace—listening for
footsteps that never will be heard on earth—for voices that have grown still and
forever—it makes one tired—tired—of war.” Writing a few days later, he expressed the
hope that “there will be no more battles. I am not anxious to be in another.” Knowing the
desire to be futile, the reality of death gripped him afresh and he told his brother John that
he feared he would never see him again.32 In the letters home, Robert also expressed
anger over the failures of the war effort, on the battlefield and by the government—he
was losing sight of the meaning of the terrible conflict. Ingersoll’s mood deteriorated
further in December 1862 when Confederate forces captured his entire regiment in
Tennessee.33 Paroled within a few months, by the following summer he had had enough.
In June 1863, Colonel Ingersoll tendered his resignation. In the official letter he
cited as reasons the poor condition of his regiment and the near two years of its service,
31. RGI to Brother [John], March 23, 1858, Letters, 510–11; RGI to Bro. [John], August 30, 1865,
Letters, 511.
32. RGI to Bro. [Ebon], May 5, 1862, box 1, folder 1, Robert Green Ingersoll Family Papers,
ALPL; RGI to Bro. [Ebon], May 9, 1862, Letters, 122; and RGI to Bro. [John], September 10, 1862,
Letters, 123.
33. Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 44–47.
26
and he pointed ambiguously to the “pressures” of his affairs at home.34 Robert offered a
different explanation to Ebon:
Not that I think the rebellion ought not to be squelched. Not that I believe in the
craven cowardly peace advocated by the Democracy of the North. Not that I think
that Slavery ought for a moment to be preserved or protected. Not that I have
come to the conclusion that two nations can exist in peace. Not that I think the
North has not the ability to conquer, but because I have seen enough of death and
horror. Because I have seen enough of bloodshed and mutilation….35
A close friend sympathetically recalled that Ingersoll’s “great dislike for war” arose, at
least in part, from the reality that “he could never fire at the enemy without thinking of
those who were being made widows and orphans.”36 In a note to John, Robert suggested
he had to get away because time was running out to make something of himself.37
Robert’s resignation was accepted and by the end of the month he was headed back to
Peoria.
“I have thrown away all the fables and follies”: Ingersoll’s Early Infidel Career
Ingersoll’s local reputation continued to flourish in the decade following the end
of the war through a successful law practice and occasional lectures. However, few knew
34. RGI to Col. Henry Binmore, June 18, 1863, M539, roll 44, Old Military and Civil Records
Branch, National Archives, Washington DC.
35. RGI to [Ebon] Clark, June 26, 1863, Larson, American Infidel, 67.
36. Quoted in John E. Kleber, “The Magic of His Power: Robert G. Ingersoll and His Day” (PhD
diss., University of Kentucky, 1969), 12; from J. T. Sunderland, “Robert G. Ingersoll after Nine Years,”
Arena 41 (1909): 299. Kleber’s work is notable as the only dissertation from a history department to deal
exclusively with Ingersoll. While it is helpful as a factual record, its historical interpretation of Ingersoll
leaves much to be desired. It should be noted as well that Kleber’s work plagiarizes Larson’s biography in
at least one instance. Compare Kleber, “Magic of His Power,” 200–1, with Larson, American Infidel, 168–
69.
37. RGI to John [Ingersoll], June 3, 1863, Larson, American Infidel, 67. Ingersoll’s long-time
secretary agreed that the reason for his resignation was that he “could not bear the sight of suffering.” For
this, see I. Newton Baker, An Intimate View of Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1920), 67.
27
his name outside Illinois. Having changed parties in the early 1860s along with the many
war Democrats who suddenly found they had more in common with Republicans, he set
his sights on attaining a political office once again.38 To his advantage, Ingersoll enjoyed
a close relationship with his home state’s governor, Richard J. Oglesby.39 So intimate was
their friendship that Ingersoll felt safe to take a mocking jab at the Bible and Old
Testament history in a private letter in 1866. He had just read a newspaper editorial
extolling the governor’s recent lectures on his Holy Land expedition as confirmation of
the veracity of the biblical record of history. Ingersoll wrote to Oglesby, expressing his
appreciation for the great service he had rendered to believers: “My Dear Governor you
do not know how delighted I am to learn, that you actually stood, on the identical spot
where the manna fell. How touching it is—to have the words of Moses verified by the
Governor of Illinois.” Ingersoll also took the chance to gently assail the reliability of the
Bible by offering his friend the following assurance: “[T]o show to you that I am
perfectly orthodox I will add that the only reason that I have for believing the Bible is its
improbability. Faith my dear Sir consists in believing the impossible. There certainly can
be no merit in believing the reasonable.”40 Oglesby took the light-hearted letter in stride
and responded jovially that for many years he had been plagued by the question of what
38. The particulars of Ingersoll’s “long” political conversion from Democrat to Republican are
well traced out in Donald E. Angel, “Ingersoll’s Political Transition—Patriotism or Partisanship?” Journal
of the Illinois State Historical Society 59, no. 4 (1966): 354–83. See also C. H. Cramer, “The Political
Metamorphosis of Robert Green Ingersoll,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 36, no. 3 (1943):
271–283.
39. On the friendship between Ingersoll and Oglesby, see Mark A. Plummer, “‘Goodbye dear
Governor. You are my best friend’: The Private Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll to Richard J. Oglesby, 1867–
1877,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 73 (1980): 78–116.
40. RGI to Dear Governor [Oglesby], January 22, 1866, Plummer, Peoria’s Pagan Politician, 28–
29. Interestingly, in these remarks Ingersoll anticipated the satirical tone Mark Twain took in his travel
book, The Innocents Abroad (1869).
28
he should do to be saved: “I feel better now … since I have brought conviction and
consolation to the inquiet mind of yourself…. All is settled now. The account is squared.
I see my way clear to the promised land.”41
Later that same year Ingersoll gave his first extended lecture, entitled “Progress.”
It was not overtly antireligious nor did it attack the Bible. However, Ingersoll did fault
the nameless clergy and churches for hampering humanity’s advancement toward
religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He briefly sketched a history of civilization
from medieval Europe to the present. Ingersoll moved from ignorance to enlightenment,
claiming that in the Middle Ages “there was no freedom of either mind or body….
Ignorance like a mantle covered the world, and superstition ran riot with the human
imagination. The air was filled with angels, demons and monsters. Everything assumed
the air of the miraculous. Credulity occupied the throne of reason and faith put out the
eyes of the soul.”42 Ingersoll castigated the governments and churches of the day for
Europe’s bloody history of religious persecution. Surprisingly, he lauded the initial
efforts of Luther, Knox, and Calvin to overturn the religious establishment. In spite of
themselves, they “conferred a great and lasting benefit upon mankind” in taking the first
step toward “universal toleration.” Ingersoll praised the United States as “the first of any
great nation in which religious toleration was made one of the fundamental laws of the
land…. Without liberty there is no religion…. Without liberty, the brain is a dungeon,
where the chained thoughts die with their pinions pressed against the hingeless doors.”43
41. Richard J. Oglesby to RGI, January 22, 1866, Plummer, Peoria’s Pagan Politician, 30.
42. RGI, “Progress,” in Works, 4:426.
43. RGI, “Progress,” in Works, 4:430–31, 432.
29
For him, the freedom to think for oneself allowed humanity to develop and flourish in
terms of industry and intelligence: “The inventors, the workers, the thinkers, the
mechanics, the surgeons, the philosophers—these are the Atlases upon whose shoulders
rests the great fabric of modern civilization.”44 Additionally, the abolition of slavery in
the United States, for which the whole nation paid dearly, was the most recent victory for
all the people. While Ingersoll praised America’s achievements, he also warned that they
were fragile. For him, the nation’s advancement depended on its support of liberty:
“[T]he direction of progress must be in the direction of freedom.”45
Ingersoll’s grand lecture on the progress of civilization raises the question of the
sources of his thought. In his youth, according to his own admission, he read the Bible
and his father’s theological books, including such hefty tomes as John Calvin’s Institutes
of the Christian Religion; Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will; William Paley’s View
of the Evidences of Christianity; John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; the biblical commentaries
of Matthew Henry, James MacKnight, and Alexander Cruden; and the religious literature
of Milton and John Bunyan.46 Of course, he later discovered, to his great delight, the likes
of Shakespeare, Burns, and Byron. While the historians, philosophers, and scientists he
often mentioned are perhaps more helpful in reconstructing the development of
Ingersoll’s skeptical thought, it was to the poets that he continually returned. Few critical
writers are referenced in his letters and lectures before the late 1870s. Perhaps the earliest
was Henry Buckle and his History of Civilization in England, which in 1865 Ingersoll
44. RGI, “Progress,” in Works, 4:452.
45. RGI, “Progress,” in Works, 4:474.
46. RGI, Why I Am an Agnostic, 24–26.
30
called the greatest work he ever read. Ingersoll remarked about Buckle himself, “He was
a man of vast learning, and had the clearest and most logical head in the world.”47 Two
years later he was consuming an array of important and diverse authors, including
Auguste Comte, François Rabelais, Eusebius, Polybius, Sallust, Petrarch, and Herodotus,
and considering them against his earlier religious reading. He confided to his brother
Ebon (who was himself less than orthodox) that he “compared Zeno, Epicurus, and
Socrates, three heathen wretches who had never heard of the Old Testament or the Ten
Commandments, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, three favorites of Jehovah, and I was
depraved enough to think that the Pagans were superior to the Patriarchs—and to Jehovah
himself.”48 In later years he rattled off a longer list of influences—a virtual Mount
Rushmore of skeptics and freethinkers—that included, besides Buckle and Comte,
Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Edward
Gibbon, and John William Draper.49 It is clear that in the years immediately following his
military service Ingersoll was fueling his growing religious skepticism with a wide
reading of unorthodox science, history, and philosophy.
By the late 1860s, Ingersoll was beginning to see the fruit of his labors in the
direction he had expressed several years previous—he was making something noteworthy
of himself. In 1867, Ingersoll’s political ambitions were rewarded, albeit in a small way.
Governor Oglesby appointed him state attorney general, a two-year position that put him
47. RGI to Bro. [John], March 17, 1865, Letters, 137–38.
48. RGI to Ebon [Clark Ingersoll], January 23, 1867, container 25, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers,
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter LOC).
49. This frequent name-dropping does not mean that Ingersoll was thoroughly versed in the
thought of the authors he mentioned. In fact, nearly all of the quotations in his essays and lectures (rarely
with the authors identified) were taken from popular commentaries and encyclopedias. This claim is
substantiated in chapter two.
31
in even closer contact with his good friend. At the end of his term in 1869, Ingersoll
wrote a new lecture for the centennial celebration for the birth of the German naturalist
Alexander von Humboldt. Where his previous lecture on progress had focused on the
history of modern civilization, this address attended to the same issue of humanity’s
improvement but from the predictable angle of scientific advancement. He called
Humboldt “one of the few, great enough to rise above the superstition and prejudice of
his time, and to know that experience, observation, and reason are the only basis of
knowledge.” In this lecture he established what would become a pattern in his speeches
on individuals: the person in focus was only a means of segueing into a larger discussion
that extolled the virtues of freely exercised reason and castigated the intellectual bondage
of religion. For Ingersoll, the “grand truth” discovered by science alone is that “the
universe is governed by law.”50 Without using so many words, he indicated that there was
no need for a God who sustained the world through divine sovereignty. With immutable
natural laws at the helm, no other cause was necessary.
By the early part of the following decade Ingersoll was taking definite strides in
the direction of achieving wider recognition for his growing skepticism. In December
1873, Ingersoll delivered a lecture for the Chicago Free Religious Society, entitled
“Arraignment of the Church and a Plea for Individuality,” in which he charged
Christianity with “mental slavery and barbarism.”51 From Peoria the following year,
Ingersoll published his first book of antireligious lectures. It contained the addresses on
Humboldt and “Individuality,” another on Thomas Paine, and two more—entitled “The
50. RGI, “Humboldt,” in The Gods, 93, 106–7.
51. RGI, Arraignment of the Church and a Plea for Individuality (Boston: J. P. Mendum, 1874),
11.
32
Gods” and “Heretics and Heresies”—that overtly challenged Christian orthodoxy while
touting the same message of religious and intellectual liberty. Writing to his aunt, he
promised to send her a copy, remarking that she would see in it “that I have thrown away
all the fables and follies.” He went on to describe his family, which now included two
daughters. He confessed, knowing his aunt to be unorthodox herself, “We are all good
Infidels, and believe in no nonsense.”52
Ingersoll’s reputation soared two years later. His success as a respected lawyer, an
outspoken advocate of Republican politics, and a gifted orator earned him the honor of
giving the presidential nomination speech for then Maine representative James G. Blaine
at the 1876 Republican National Convention in Cincinnati. Ingersoll delivered an
eloquent and rousing address, famously depicting Blaine as a “plumed knight,” poised to
ride upon the corrupt federal government and rescue the nation.53 The Chicago Times
gushed, “Words can do but meagre justice to the wizard power of this extraordinary man.
He swayed and impelled and restrained and worked in all ways with the mass before him
as if he possessed some key to the innermost mechanism that moves the human heart.”54
Despite Ingersoll’s valiant effort, Blaine suffered from accusations of his own corruption
sufficient to ensure the loss of his previous lead. By the time of the vote he narrowly fell
behind Rutherford B. Hayes, who received the nomination and went on to win the
52. RGI to Aunt Candice [Sykes], January 18, 1874, box 1, folder 5, Robert Green Ingersoll
Family Papers, ALPL.
53. Michael F. Holt, By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Lawrence:
University Press of Kansas, 2008), 88–91; “Speech of Mr. Ingersoll,” in Proceedings of the National
Republican Convention Held at Cincinnati, Ohio (Concord, NH: Republican Press Association, 1876),
295–96.
54. Chicago Times, June 16, 1876.
33
controversial presidential election.55
The convention proved better for Ingersoll than for Blaine. From that moment the
Peoria lawyer was a national figure. Even a quarter of a century later his address was still
considered “the most celebrated speech ever made in an American convention.”56 Not
surprisingly, his legal profession also improved and he was asked with growing
frequency to participate in high profile cases. Ingersoll had become a national fixture and
his new position meant not only a more successful career but also greater exposure for his
public assaults on Christianity.
The “champion blasphemer of America”: Ingersoll’s Later Infidel Career
After his brief service as Illinois’s attorney general and the unsuccessful efforts to
be elected to Congress and the governorship (as well as a fleeting attempt to be appointed
the United States ambassador to Germany), Ingersoll abandoned any serious ambitions to
achieve public office. Early sympathetic biographers contended—and even Ingersoll
himself hinted once—that his religious infidelity was the only cause that forestalled his
political advancement. It is more likely, however, that his failure to garner sufficient
political support embittered him to the whole enterprise.57 Nonetheless, this personal lack
of success did not stop Ingersoll from lending support to the Grand Old Party and
55. Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 106–8.
56. David J. Brewer, ed., The World’s Best Orations: From the Earliest Period to the Present
Time (1899; repr., St. Louis: Ferd. P. Kaiser, 1901), 7:2577.
57. The view that Ingersoll’s religious opinions barred him from office is espoused most
prominently in Kittredge, Ingersoll, 63–66. Kleber also weakly supports this idea; see “The Magic of His
Power,” 15. Cramer makes a compelling case against this interpretation and in favor of the explanation that
legitimate ill success led to Ingersoll’s disenchantment with politics. For this, see Cramer, Royal Bob, 72–
76.
34
offering political opinions to any interviewer who inquired. Indeed, while not active in
every election, he publicly backed every Republican presidential candidate from Grant to
McKinley, minus one: Blaine and he had an ambiguous falling out in the 1880s, resulting
in Ingersoll’s refusal to support the “plumed knight” in his 1884 bid for the presidency.58
Political ambitions essentially thrown away, Ingersoll busied himself with a
growing legal practice and nationalizing his lecture circuit, both of which became more
desirable and lucrative after the publicity of 1876. He threw himself especially into the
latter. During his most prolific period (1877–80), Ingersoll wrote twenty-three lectures
and speeches, delivering them at over three hundred fifty separate engagements in twenty
states from Massachusetts to California.59 The large majority of these addresses were
acutely antireligious. The new lectures, written to supplement his popular ones from the
early 1870s—most notably “Thomas Paine,” “The Gods,” and “Heretics and Heresies”—
followed in a similar, albeit more pronounced, vein of berating theological criticism.
Ingersoll’s first lecture tour was a remarkable success from the start. Aiming to
respond to some early criticism, Ingersoll debuted his lecture “My Reviewers Reviewed”
in San Francisco in 1877. He wrote home triumphantly the next day, “We had a
magnificent meeting last night. I delivered a lecture replying to the preachers. I made it
hot for the dear old stupid theologians. I never made a better speech in my life.”60 The
58. While Blaine recorded nothing about the break and Ingersoll avoided discussing it, Cramer
notes that there is evidence to suggest that Ingersoll was severely offended by Blaine’s neglect to
personally request his assistance in his presidential campaign. For this, see Cramer, Royal Bob, 212–19.
59. Cramer, Royal Bob, 98; Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 120–31. The number and locations of
speaking engagements are taken from an accurate but incomplete list of newspaper notices compiled by
Doug Schiffer, “Ingersoll Chronology Project,” last modified April 13, 2004, http://www.funygroup.org/
Ingersoll.
60. RGI to Dear All, June 28, 1877, container 7, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers, Manuscript
35
following year he published The Ghosts and Other Lectures, a small volume of other
recent additions to his infidel repertoire. It included “The Ghosts” (1877), an indictment
of superstitious religion; “The Declaration of Independence” (1876), an interpretation of
the founders’ views on religion and society; “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child”
(1877), a plea for intellectual liberty; and three political speeches—the Blaine
nomination, an address on labor in Illinois, and an extract from a memorial address given
in honor of veterans of the war.61 The first three lectures were critical of Christianity in
general terms and the latter three ignored religion almost entirely.
The gradual retreat from religious controversy that is evident in the order of the
book’s lectures is indicative of Ingersoll’s own efforts to broaden his public engagement.
Perhaps concerned about the exclusively antireligious nature of his previous compilation,
The Gods, Ingersoll sought in this later work to represent himself as an influential
individual with broad interests and concerns.62 No longer the obscure lawyer who had
abandoned a dead-end political run, Ingersoll had achieved a national reputation literally
overnight and thus he began to play the part.
In January 1878, shortly before the publication of The Ghosts, Ingersoll relocated
with his family to Washington DC, a strategic move for his dual career as a prominent
lawyer and burgeoning infidel lecturer. Robert joined with his brother Ebon, who had
returned to practicing law in Washington after a successful term of congressional service
(1864–71). However, Ebon died suddenly the following year. As observed previously,
Division, LOC.
61. RGI, The Ghosts and Other Lectures (Peoria, IL: C. P. Farrell, 1878).
62. Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 131.
36
Robert found unusual difficulty in coping with death. The passing of his closest relation
was devastating. As he wrote to his wife Eva’s family, “The curtain has fallen on the
deepest tragedy of my life.”63 The much-publicized funeral featured a distinguished host
of senators and representatives, including Blaine, as well as future president James A.
Garfield and future vice president Adlai Stevenson. In lieu of clergy and a sermon,
Robert read a moving eulogy. He praised his deceased brother’s contribution to his
country and to humanity, spoke briefly of life, that “a narrow vale between the cold and
barren peaks of two eternities,” and committed his “sacred dust” to the grave.64 For the
next six years Robert maintained the Washington law firm alone.
While Ingersoll had given up hope of attaining elected office, he remained active
in national politics. In 1877, he supported the National Liberal League (of which he was a
vice president) in its effort to establish a new political party that would advocate greater
freedom of religion through the “Total Separation of Church and State” and the
censorship of the Bible according to the nation’s anti-obscenity laws. The following year,
plans were made to form a presidential ticket for the 1880 election that would offer
Ingersoll for president—he was the only member with a substantial national reputation—
and Francis Ellingwood Abbot, the noted Free Religionist and president of the Liberal
League, for vice president.65 Ingersoll, however, opposed the party nominating its own
63. RGI to the Farrells, June 3, 1879, container 1, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers, Manuscript
Division, LOC.
64. “Ebon C. Ingersoll’s Funeral,” New York Times, June 3, 1879. The eulogy was subsequently
reprinted as an appendix to RGI, “A Tribute to Ebon C. Ingersoll,” Some Mistakes of Moses (Washington
DC: C. P. Farrell, 1879), 277–78.
65. Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2002), 327–28. Ingersoll was a member of the National Liberal League’s executive committee at its
formation in 1876. On this, see Equal Rights in Religion: Report of the Centennial Congress of Liberals
37
candidates and instead suggested that the new “National Liberal Party” should throw its
support behind candidates of the existing parties that most fully embodied their ideals.
But at the League’s 1880 convention in Cincinnati delegates passed the resolution
proposed by Thaddeus Burr Wakeman, the lawyer and later president of the League,
calling for the formation of a fully independent political party.66 As soon as the decision
was announced Ingersoll resigned and walked out, joined by several of the other
delegates. Wakeman conceded two years later that the subsequent failure of the party to
accomplish any political action was due in large measure to the loss of the Great
Agnostic from its ranks: “Ingersoll went right out and was rebaptized into the Republican
party, and has been the hewer of wood and the drawer of water for it ever since.”67
Ingersoll had nothing to do with the League until after it reorganized as the nonpolitical
entity in 1884 as the American Secular Union. At that time he was elected to serve as its
first president, a position he held until 1886.68
For the first half of the decade of the 1880s Ingersoll juggled his busy legal
practice, campaign speeches, and lecture engagements. The energy and eloquence with
and Organization of the National Liberal League (Boston: National Liberal League, 1876), 6. For more on
Abbot and the formation of the National Liberal Party, see Sydney E. Ahlstrom and Robert Bruce Mullin,
The Scientific Theist: A Life of Francis Ellingwood Abbot (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987),
109–11. This work is a revision of Ahlstrom’s 1951 Harvard dissertation. On the leaders and social agenda
of the League, see Russell L. Hanson, “Social Reformers in the National Liberal League, 1876–1883”
(paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, April 2,
2009).
66. Larson, American Infidel, 151–53. For a useful discussion on Wakeman’s place in the National
Liberal League and his own political liberalism, see Gillis J. Harp, Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and
the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University
Press, 1995), 71–108.
67. “The National Liberal League,” Truth Seeker 9 (1882): 646–47; Larson, American Infidel,
153.
68. Hamburger, Separation of Church and State, 343; Samuel P. Putnam, 400 Years of
Freethought (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1894), 533–34.
38
which he threw himself into James Garfield’s presidential campaign of 1880, not to
mention the success he helped secure, captivated the Disciples of Christ elder-turnedpresident. Affectionately dubbing him “Royal Bob,” Garfield remarked—taking a
biblical phrase—that Ingersoll’s work on behalf of the campaign “had been like a pillar
of cloud by day and a fire by night.”69 Six months after Garfield took office, he was
assassinated by the disgruntled lawyer and fanatical religious lecturer Charles J. Guiteau.
Ironically, two years earlier Guiteau had published a wandering defense of preterism and
the Bible entitled The Truth: A Companion to the Bible. Substantially plagiarized from
the writings of Oneida Community founder John Humphrey Noyes, Guiteau’s book
mentioned Ingersoll and condemned his rejection of Christ as “conclusive evidence that
he belongs to the devil’s seed, and must go down to eternal perdition…. Not even God
can save the devil’s seed.”70 Ingersoll did not miss the opportunity to advertise Guiteau as
stereotypically of the sort of raving individuals who opposed his irreligion.71
The legal profession and lecture circuit kept Ingersoll occupied for much of the
decade that followed Garfield’s death. As the chief defense attorney for the Star Route
fraud trials (1882–83), one of the most significant government scandals of the nineteenth
century, he successfully won the exoneration of the accused postal officials. Engaging in
less than admirable courtroom maneuvers, he achieved victory more by confounding the
69. Washington Post, November 24, 1880; Cramer, Royal Bob, 198.
70. Charles J. Guiteau, The Truth: A Companion to the Bible (Boston: D. Lothrop and Company,
1879), 97–98. On Guiteau the assassin, see Allan Peskin, Garfield (Kent, OH: Kent State University,
1999), 582–614. On his plagiarism of Noyes’s work, see Charles E. Rosenberg, The Trial of the Assassin
Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 34–35.
71. Sunday Gazette, Washington DC, July 24, 1881.
39
court than by championing justice.72 Between 1884 and 1885 Ingersoll set out on another
series of major antireligious speaking engagements. His collection of lectures primarily
consisted of those he had written since the late 1870s, including “Mistakes of Moses”
(1879), a challenge to the reliability of the Pentateuch; “What Must We Do to Be
Saved?” (1880), a critique of the New Testament Gospels and the evangelical view of
salvation; “Talmagian Theology” (1882), a four-part response to the criticisms leveled
against him by the prominent Brooklyn minister Thomas De Witt Talmage; and two
sweeping critiques of Christian doctrine and pleas to do away with religion altogether,
“Orthodoxy” and “Which Way?” (both 1884). Unlike the balance Ingersoll sought to
maintain between social, political, and religious issues in the addresses contained in The
Ghosts, the lectures he gave during this two-year tour were almost exclusively
antireligious.
By the mid-1880s Ingersoll was enjoying both the prestige and infamy that came
with being the nation’s most popular skeptic. Wherever he spoke—he never strayed far
from major urban centers—critics and sympathizers alike crowded the auditoriums and
listened for two or three hours at a time. Major newspapers were replete with accounts of
the Great Agnostic’s lectures breaking attendance records at the most renowned halls and
theaters throughout the country. For Ingersoll, lecturing was not only a means of earning
a reputation; it was often extremely lucrative: a single month’s income during the first
1884 tour, minus expenses, exceeded $50,000.73 The accolades of other American
fixtures only added to his recognition. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) admired Ingersoll
72. Peskin, Garfield, 611; Cramer, Royal Bob, 200–211.
73. Kleber, “The Magic of His Power,” 28; Cramer, Royal Bob, 117–18.
40
exceedingly—apparently without commensurate reciprocation—and tracked his career
with interest. After a Chicago banquet at which both men had spoken, commemorating
the Army of the Tennessee and General Grant in particular, Clemens exclaimed—with
characteristic flamboyance—that Ingersoll’s speech “was just the supremest combination
of English words that were ever put together since the world began.”74 This respect
burgeoned into affection. Following Ingersoll’s death, Clemens wrote, “Except for my
daughter’s, I have not grieved for any death as I have grieved for his. His was a great and
beautiful spirit…. My reverence for him was deep and genuine.”75 Despite having serious
disagreements with Ingersoll over the value of religion, Walt Whitman opined, “Ingersoll
is a man whose importance to the time could not be overfigured.” To him, Ingersoll’s
iconoclasm, however dismissive of religion, was nevertheless leading to the recovery of
“old virtues.”76 It is evidence of Ingersoll’s antagonistic persona that one of his most
controversial relationships was also one of his favorites. The celebrated Congregational
minister Henry Ward Beecher introduced Ingersoll at a political rally at the Brooklyn
Academy of Music, and, while confessing that he disagreed with much of Ingersoll’s
anti-Christian thought, shocked the respectable religious community by shaking hands
with the noted infidel and announcing to the crowded hall, “I regard him as one of the
74. Samuel Clemens to Mrs. Clemens, November 14, 1879, Mark Twain’s Letters, ed. Albert
Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917), 1:371. For more on Clemens’s estimation of the
Bible, see Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullouch, eds., The Bible According to Mark Twain:
Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
75. Samuel Clemens to Miss Eva Farrell, July 1899, Mark Twain’s Letters, 2:682. On the
relationship between Clemens and Ingersoll, see Thomas D. Schwartz, “Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll:
The Freethought Connection,” American Literature 48, no. 2 (May 1976): 183–93.
76. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1906),
1:81–82. Gary Schmidgall notes that “[w]ith the exception of Abraham Lincoln and William O’Connor, no
man of Whitman’s day received more exuberant and elaborate praise from the poet.” See Schmidgall, ed.,
Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman’s Conversations with Horace Traubel, 1888–1892 (Iowa
City: University of Iowa Press, 2001), 144.
41
greatest men of the age.”77
Several of Ingersoll’s most contentious revilers were also among the icons of
Gilded Age America. The lesser known of these, though he bears the honor of being the
first to challenge the Great Agnostic in print, was the lawyer, Democratic statesman, and
member of the Disciples of Christ Jeremiah S. Black. By arrangement of Allen Thorndike
Rice, the editor of the distinguished North American Review, Ingersoll and Black debated
over the Bible and Christian belief in three essays that appeared in 1881.78 The lawyers,
Christian and infidel, disputed each other’s understanding of biblical inspiration, the
exclusivity of the Christian religion, and the requirements of faith. As much as Ingersoll
clearly enjoyed the opportunity to rail against an orthodox believer, he preferred to
contend with a professional churchman.79 When the famous Presbyterian minister and
reformer Thomas De Witt Talmage made the “champion blasphemer of America” the
subject of an inflammatory six-part sermon series at the Brooklyn Tabernacle the
following year, Ingersoll got his chance.80 He responded in kind with a series of lectures
in which he tried to reply to each of Talmage’s criticisms.
Ingersoll also received challenges from quarters of the conservative Protestant
establishment intent on using him for their own evangelistic ends. A notable
representative of his more perturbed detractors in this vein was the southern Methodist
77. New York Herald, October 29, 1880.
78. The essays, under the titles “The Christian Religion” and “The Christian Religion, Part II,”
appeared in the North American Review in the August and November 1881 issues. This debate is discussed
in more detail in chapter three.
79. RGI, “The Christian Religion, Part II,” 477.
80. New York Times, January 9, 1882. According to this notice, Talmage preceded his sermon
series on Ingersoll with another on the major social ills of the era, entitled “The Ten Plagues of New-York
and Brooklyn.”
42
preacher Sam P. Jones. Frequently taking the opportunity to ridicule Ingersoll and his ilk
in rambling denunciations, Jones once remarked at an evangelistic meeting in Chicago
that if his dog ever wandered off to hear Ingersoll lecture he would shoot it. Accusing the
city’s inhabitants of keeping bad company, he chastised them especially for “going and
sitting in the presence of a scoffer to hear the God that made him scorned and scoffed, …
to see Bob Ingersoll chip the words off his mother’s tombstone, ‘I am the Resurrection
and the Life.’” More than a decade later Jones was still challenging the notorious
unbeliever to open debate, though never to any avail.81 The publicity from friends and
foes alike aggrandized Ingersoll’s reputation as the nation’s chief skeptic.82
At the same time Ingersoll was attracting the most heated attention of the clergy,
he was extending the reach of his influence beyond his lectures. In addition to permitting
the republication of addresses and interviews in such vessels of the freethought
movement as the Truth Seeker, described as the “latitudinarian gazette of village
infidels,” the Boston Investigator, and the Iconoclast, Ingersoll made a concerted effort to
take his message past the confines of the skeptical press.83 Essays on Lincoln and
Shakespeare—as representatives of consummate humanity—appeared in the North
American Review only a few years after the exchange with Jeremiah Black in the same
81. Chicago Daily Tribune, March 3, 1886. For accounts of several instances of Jones’s
challenges to Ingersoll and those who attended his lectures, see Kathleen Minnix, Laughter in the Amen
Corner: The Life of Evangelist Sam Jones (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 120–22, 228–29.
Jones issued Ingersoll a challenge to public debate as late as 1897. For this, see “Would Meet Ingersoll:
Rev. Sam P. Jones Anxious to Engage Him in Debate,” Boston Sunday Globe, January 24, 1897.
82. Chapter three examines the variety of reactions Ingersoll attracted from the religious world in
greater depth.
83. Cramer, Royal Bob, 173.
43
periodical.84 For the rest of the decade and the following Ingersoll authored nearly two
dozen pieces for the North American Review, the Arena, and the Twentieth Century, in
addition to every one of the major American freethought publications.85 Ingersoll’s
essays included two more debates with prominent ministers and his characteristic assaults
on the religion of the Bible, as well as defenses of agnosticism, political and social
discourses, biographical sketches and eulogies, and at least one attempt at literary
criticism. These publications, in addition to the printed lectures, transported Ingersoll’s
thought and increased his reputation across the country and abroad.
Ingersoll even periodically used his influence as a lawyer to advance religious
skepticism. Early in his infidel career he tried to use his newly acquired reputation in the
Republican Party to defend a fellow freethinker. In 1879, De Robigné Mortimer Bennett,
editor of the Truth Seeker, was tried and imprisoned for circulating a supposedly explicit
pamphlet on sex and marriage reform, Cupid’s Yoke: Or the Binding Forces of Conjugal
Life.86 Anthony Comstock, the zealous United States Postal Inspector and founder of the
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, had been hounding Bennett for two years,
a chase that began in 1877 after the freethinking editor mailed his own skeptical Open
Letter to Jesus Christ and a scientific paper on marsupial reproduction. Until this point,
however, Comstock had been unable to find an offense significant enough to charge
84. On Lincoln, see RGI, “Motley and Monarchy,” North American Review 141, no. 349
(December 1885): 528–32; on Shakespeare, see RGI, “The Imagination,” North American Review 142, no.
350 (January 1886): 50–51.
85. The best lists of Ingersoll’s contributions to periodicals, albeit still incomplete and
occasionally inaccurate, are Gordon Stein, Robert G. Ingersoll: A Checklist (Kent, OH: Kent State
University Press, 1969), 45–60; and his Additions and Corrections to Robert G. Ingersoll: A Checklist
(Chicago: n.p., 1983).
86. Ezra Hervey Heywood, the radical social reformer and free love advocate, was the author of
Cupid’s Yoke (1875). On this, see Ahlstrom and Mullin, Scientific Theist, 117.
44
Bennett with violation of the recently passed “Comstock Law” that prohibited the
distribution of “obscene, lewd, and lascivious publications and writings” through the
mail.87 Ingersoll, whose own stance on marriage was strikingly traditional and who
generally supported the anti-obscenity statutes, petitioned President Hayes to pardon
Bennett on the grounds that the circulated material was not actually obscene. After
several personal interviews, Hayes admitted he agreed with Ingersoll’s judgment but
declined to exercise his executive authority to reverse the conviction.88
Another, more remarkable, instance of Ingersoll’s support for an accused
“blasphemer” was the 1887 trial of Charles B. Reynolds. This minister-turned-skeptic
was indicted on two counts of blasphemy for holding freethought tent meetings and
circulating a satirical cartoon in Morristown, New Jersey. Ingersoll flew to his rescue,
delivering an eloquent defense of the freedom of speech and conscience. His long and
broad argument traversed the history of the relationship between Christian churches and
the state, gave a detailed exposition of Reynolds’s claims about the Bible, and pleaded for
“the great cause of Liberty” by rehearsing America’s sacrifice on its behalf. Ingersoll
may have swayed the jury, but he lost all he might have gained when he asked them to
overturn the anti-blasphemy law that was inherited from their “ignorant ancestors,” who
had in turn received it from their “savage ancestors.”89 In the end, the defense proved
87. Wayne E. Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America (Champaign:
University of Illinois Press, 2003), 116.
88. RGI to D. M. Bennett, July 17, 18, and 21, 1879, container 14, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers,
Manuscript Division, LOC. See also Cramer, Royal Bob, 171–74. For more on the life of Bennett, see the
sympathetic (and only) biography, Roderick Bradford, D. M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker: Nineteenth
Century America’s Most Controversial Publisher and Free-Speech Martyr (Amherst, NY: Prometheus
Books, 2006).
89. RGI, Trial of C. B. Reynolds for Blasphemy, … Defence by Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: C.
45
unconvincing and Reynolds was convicted. Not willing to allow the affair to be an entire
failure, Ingersoll paid Reynolds’s twenty-five dollar fine and costs himself.90
In the final decade of the nineteenth century Ingersoll increasingly turned his
attention to antireligious lecturing. Owing to a throat ailment that came on him shortly
after moving his family from Washington to New York City, the second half of the
eighties found Ingersoll concentrating on his legal practice and writing. During this time
Ingersoll turned down hundreds of invitations to speaking engagements, indicating that
he did not know if he would ever lecture again.91 Replying to an eager admirer in 1889,
he confessed, “[T]he longer I live, the less I think of religion in general, and of
Christianity in particular.”92 While Ingersoll renewed his speaking schedule in 1891, it
was not until the financial panic two years later, which severely reduced his law practice,
that he focused his energies almost exclusively on lecturing. With renewed vigor he
spoke on more than one hundred occasions in 1894, collecting as much as six thousand
dollars per lecture and earning an annual income of $200,000.93 That same year Ingersoll
wrote a powerful new lecture, “About the Holy Bible,” that covered the whole terrain of
P. Farrell, 1888), 72. See also Cramer, Royal Bob, 168.
90. For more on this incident and the enforcement of late nineteenth-century blasphemy laws in
general, see Leonard W. Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman
Rushdie (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 509–11; Steven K. Green, The Second
Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press,
2010), 352–53; and David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2011), 1–4, 175–78.
91. Dozens of Ingersoll’s letters declining these invitations are preserved in containers 17 and 18,
Robert Green Ingersoll Papers, Manuscript Division, LOC.
92. RGI to Mrs. Addie Habold, May 6, 1889, container 17, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers,
Manuscript Division, LOC.
93. Cramer, Royal Bob, 97; Kleber, “The Magic of His Power,” 59. On Ingersoll’s wealth, see
Michael R. Steele, “Robert Ingersoll: The Aeolian Harp of Agnosticism,” Journal of American Culture 1,
no. 2 (1978): 238.
46
his earlier attacks on biblical religion but with a more scornful tone than before. It was
also one of his most popular in these later years: the lecture was delivered on at least
eighty-eight occasions in just over four years.94 He also gave new eulogistic addresses on
Lincoln and Voltaire; castigated Christian doctrines in “The Foundations of Faith”
(1895), “Superstition” (1898), and “The Devil” (1899); defended his own version of
unbelief in “Why I Am an Agnostic” (1895); set a new course for humanity at John
Rusk’s Church Militant in Chicago with a “sermon” titled “How to Reform Mankind”
(1896); and dismissed the notion of the necessity of religious belief in “What is
Religion?” (1899). These last five years of Ingersoll’s life rivaled the late seventies and
early eighties as his most productive.
Ingersoll’s health began to decline in late 1896 and so did the energy of both his
political engagement and infidel career. Earlier that year he entered the political fray for
the first time with any serious intent since 1880. The aging Republican statesman
challenged the young Democrat William Jennings Bryan on the currency question in a
single address written in favor of William McKinley. Ingersoll delivered his “Gold
Speech” on eight occasions in October, seven times in Illinois and once at Carnegie Hall
in New York.95 The following month, and nearly two weeks after McKinley secured
victory, Ingersoll suffered a mild stroke while giving his “About the Holy Bible” lecture
in Wisconsin.96 Recovering somewhat, he took to the lecture circuit once again the
following year with tremendous vigor. Ingersoll spoke with force on the new topics he
94. This is the number of recorded instances Schiffer found and included in the “Ingersoll
Chronology Project.”
95. Schiffer, “Ingersoll Chronology Project.”
96. Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 371.
47
was writing about as well as old favorites such as “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and
Child” and the orations on Shakespeare and Lincoln. His new lecture of 1897, “The
Truth,” attracted the largest audience to any Chicago theater since the World’s
Columbian Exposition of 1893.97 While the frequency of Ingersoll’s speaking
engagements diminished considerably after 1896, his fame was the widest he had ever
experienced. According to one estimate, in the twenty-two years between his entrance
onto the national lecture circuit and the end of his career, the Great Agnostic attracted
more than two million attendees.98
In the summer of 1899, after a busy speaking schedule in the spring, Ingersoll
died at the family estate in Dobbs Ferry, New York. A month prior he had delivered his
last address, entitled “What is Religion?” at the annual meeting of the Free Religious
Association in Boston. In it he publicly ridiculed Christianity and the Bible for the last
time. But he also outlined his progressive stances on a number of issues, especially his
being in favor of a woman’s right to take measures to prevent conception and the birth of
children.99 On the morning of July 21, only hours before he died, Ingersoll began
preparing a new lecture on Jesus Christ in which, according to his daughter, he planned to
dismiss the supposed founder of Christianity as a mythical figure.100 Conforming to his
stated wishes, though he never drew up an official will, Ingersoll was cremated and
97. Chicago Chronicle, March 8, 1897. See also Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 374.
98. Kleber, “The Magic of His Power,” 108.
99. RGI, What is Religion? (Boston: Boston Investigator Company, 1899).
100. Larson, American Infidel, 275. The extant fragment of this lecture was published in RGI,
Works, 12:507–8. Ingersoll expressed doubt over Jesus’s literal existence as early as 1882. By 1892, he
privately indicated his belief that “such a man never existed.” For these, see RGI to Lucien I. Chapman,
June 3, 1887, Letters, 288; and RGI to F. McCarthy, April 29, 1892, Letters, 329.
48
buried in the same fashion as his brother, without the presence of a minister. Also similar
to his brother’s funeral, Ingersoll’s own words served as the only sermon: his newly
published poem on life and death, “The Declaration of the Free,” was read at the close of
the service.101
101. New York Times, July 25, 1899.
49
CHAPTER TWO
“Woe is me if I preach not my gospel”:
The Evangelist of Unbelief
Although Robert Ingersoll first attracted national attention as a politician, he
maintained his appeal primarily as an ardent critic of the Christian religion. He had
earned the appellation the “Great Agnostic” within a few years of the 1876 Cincinnati
convention. At the same time, numerous periodicals began publishing editorials on
impressions, favorable and critical, made by “Pagan Bob,” the “Apostle of Unbelief,” or,
in a rare display of creativity by his religious opponents, “Robert Godless Injuresoul.”1
By 1880 the aging but nonetheless energetic New York editor and politician Thurlow
Weed even contrasted Ingersoll with the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Remarking
on their respective influences, Weed contended that Moody’s labors were accomplishing
immeasurable good for American society while Ingersoll, whom he dubbed the “infidel
missionary,” was contributing no admirable reforms, physical or spiritual.2 Weed’s essay
inaugurated a tradition of comparing these two fixtures of American society, one that
continued at least until their mutual deaths in 1899.
Contrary to his intentions, Weed’s editorial highlighted an ironic similarity
between the esteemed gospeller and the Great Agnostic. Both were popularizing systems
of belief that promised to redeem souls and reform society. Ironically, Ingersoll’s career
as the most public opponent of Christianity in nineteenth-century America was not
1. New York Times, June 23, 1888; New York Times, November 2, 1880; and Mark A. Plummer,
Robert G. Ingersoll: Peoria’s Pagan Politician (Macomb: Western Illinois University, 1984), 9.
2. Thurlow Weed, “Thurlow Weed on Ingersoll,” New York Herald, August 4, 1880.
50
terribly disparate in manner from Moody’s career as evangelical Christianity’s most
prominent advocate. Ingersoll’s promotion of unbelief drew heavily on the rhetoric and
theological framework of belief derived from the evangelicalism of his youth. Both his
iconoclastic assault on religion, which manifested itself most frequently as a scurrilous
condemnation of the Bible, and the ideology he proffered as its replacement carried a
distinctly evangelical tinge.
“Somebody ought to tell the truth about the Bible”: Popular Biblical Criticism
Ingersoll was the most famous public speaker in America during the last quarter
of the nineteenth century. He attracted attention first and foremost for his oratorical skill.
In his critical world history of public speeches, David Josiah Brewer, an Associate Justice
of the United States Supreme Court and the son of Congregational missionaries to
Turkey, noted that Ingersoll captivated his hearers through the plain and compelling
expression of his own emotions: “In the ability to do this, he has not been equaled by any
other American orator.”3 In his moments of grandest eloquence, women’s rights advocate
and admitted freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton agreed: “I have heard the greatest
orators of this century in England and America … but none of them ever equalled Robert
Ingersoll in his highest flights.”4 In addition to the facility to turn a lofty phrase, he also
mastered the use of iconoclastic humor, a technique that absorbed the shock of many of
his blasphemous claims. For instance, in an early lecture, Ingersoll criticized both the
3. David J. Brewer, ed., The World’s Best Orations: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time
(1899; repr., St. Louis: Ferd. P. Kaiser, 1901), 7:2577.
4. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll,” Free Thought Magazine 17, no. 9
(September 1899): 489.
51
unscientific claims and the miracle accounts in the Bible, quipping, “It seems to me that it
is quite as important to know something of the solar system, something of the physical
history of the globe, as it is to know the adventures of Jonah or the diet of Ezekiel.”5 In
another address, he recalled an incident in which he was “in the company of six or seven
Baptist elders—how I ever got into such bad company, I don’t know,—and one of them
asked what I thought about baptism…. I said, ‘Well, I’ll give you my opinion—with
soap, baptism is a good thing.’”6 In this manner, Ingersoll could dismiss the authority of
the Bible and stare perdition in the face with nonchalance: “Whether I am right or wrong,
I became convinced that the Bible is not an inspired book…. I may be damned for it in
the next world, but it is a great source of pleasure to me in this.”7 Similarly, Ingersoll
disarmed many would-be objectors by couching his discussions as an honest search for
truth. In his lecture on the “Mistakes of Moses,” he called himself the clergy’s friend
because he was helping to free them from the constraints of ignorance.8 In one version of
his last major anti-Bible lecture, he opened by exclaiming, “Somebody ought to tell the
truth about the Bible. The preachers dare not…. And so I thought I would do it myself.”9
The Great Agnostic appealed to the emotions and common sense of his audience and,
armed with witty and winsome rhetoric, pushed the envelope of religious indifference.
Despite the many venues in which Ingersoll attacked Christianity throughout his
5. Robert G. Ingersoll (hereafter RGI), Some Mistakes of Moses (Washington DC: C. P. Farrell,
1879), 85–86.
6. RGI, “My Reviewers Reviewed,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Dresden
Publishing Co., 1902), 7:26.
7. Chicago Times, November 14, 1879.
8. RGI, “Mistakes of Moses,” in Popular Edition of Col. Ingersoll’s Lectures, ed. Annie Besant
and Charles Bradlaugh, 2nd series (London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1884), 129–30.
9. RGI, “About the Holy Bible,” in Works, 3:453.
52
lecturing career, there is little difference in the method or essential content of his major
critiques. He structured his arguments around a rhetorical technique he perfected in the
courtroom—the cross-examination.10 Depicting scripture as the defendant, Ingersoll
presented his case against it to the jury of intelligent, modern minds in a battery of
challenges to biblical trustworthiness, morality, and, ultimately, authority. Confident that
the Bible could not withstand his withering assault, Ingersoll demanded the guilty verdict
from every hearer in the lecture hall and every reader in the parlor.
This interrogative approach to prosecuting Christianity and the Bible did not
always have its desired effect. In a chance meeting between Ingersoll and veteran Civil
War general and attorney Lew Wallace in 1876, only months before the former famously
nominated James Blaine, Wallace—admittedly indifferent to all things religious—
barraged his fellow lawyer with questions about the existence of God, immortality, and
the divinity of Christ. Ingersoll answered each with his own query, “I don’t know: do
you?” and proceeded to argue his case in favor of unbelief for two hours. Wallace
remarked, “I sat spellbound, listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire,
audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antithesis, and pungent excoriation of believers of
God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard. He surpassed himself, and
that is saying a great deal.”11 Rattled by the unflinching skepticism and ashamed of his
own ignorance on such fundamental themes of religion, Wallace resolved “to study the
whole matter” and—in a moment of entrepreneurial genius—to expand a short story he
10. Jensen acknowledges Ingersoll’s use of this rhetorical technique but glosses over its
importance. On this, see J. Vernon Jensen, “The Rhetoric of Thomas H. Huxley and Robert G. Ingersoll in
Relation to the Conflict between Science and Theology” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1959), 246–
54.
11. Lew Wallace, preface to The First Christmas (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1899), vii.
53
had just recently composed on the birth of Christ.12 Daunted by the thought of ponderous
theological texts and commentaries, he adopted the same posture with which Ingersoll
approached the Bible: “I would read the Bible and the four Gospels, and rely on myself.
A lawyer of fifteen or twenty years of practice attains a confidence peculiar in its mental
muscularity, so to speak.” In 1880, during his tenure as the territorial governor of New
Mexico, Wallace published his religious expedition as the immensely popular Ben-Hur:
A Tale of the Christ. The result of this independent investigation was quite the opposite of
Ingersoll’s, as Wallace admitted, “Long before I was through with the book, I became a
believer in God and Christ.”13 In this prominent instance, Ingersoll’s brand of crossexamining skepticism led to a Christian conversion and the most popular religious novel
of the nineteenth century.14
Ingersoll’s inclination to appeal to his own ignorance and doubt in response to
Wallace’s queries highlights the issue of his agnosticism. Despite the designation of the
“Great Agnostic,” the unbelief he advanced was unmistakably atheistic. Tellingly, and in
direct contrast to contemporaries such as Thomas Huxley (the originator of the term
agnostic), Ingersoll made little distinction between agnosticism and atheism and on
several occasions outrightly obliterated it. Nonetheless, he appropriated a version of
12. Smylie acknowledges the apologetic intent of Wallace’s novel. On this, see James A. Smylie,
“The Hidden Agenda in Ben Hur,” Theology Today 29, no. 3 (1972): 295.
13. Lew Wallace, “How I Came to Write ‘Ben Hur,’” Youth’s Companion, February 2, 1893, 57.
Ten years earlier Wallace similarly confessed, “The result of my long study was the absolute conviction
that Jesus of Nazareth was not only a Christ and the Christ, but that he was also my Christ, my Saviour, and
my Redeemer.” For this quotation, see “Personal,” Harper’s Weekly, September 29, 1883, 611.
14. Willard Thorp, “The Religious Novel as Best Seller in America,” in Religious Perspectives in
American Culture, ed. James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1961), 203–6. Carter wittily remarks about Wallace’s religious conversion: “Ingersoll may have consoled
himself with the thought that you can’t win them all.” For this, see Paul A. Carter, The Spiritual Crisis of
the Gilded Age (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University, 1971), 66.
54
Huxley’s view by the early 1880s. He argued that agnosticism was the only rational
option for an intelligent individual: “It seems to me that the man who knows the
limitations of the mind, who gives the proper value to human testimony, is necessarily an
Agnostic.” He closed the essay with an appeal to honesty: “In the presence of countless
mysteries … let us have the courage and candor to say: We do not know.”15 Responding
to an interviewer a few years earlier, Ingersoll discounted any distinction between an
agnostic and an atheist. To him, both could not know if God existed and yet both agreed
that they did not believe in the existence of any deity.16 However, it appears that as often
as Ingersoll pleaded ignorance, he was not always convinced he did not know. Less than
two months before his sudden death, he gave his final public address, “What is
Religion?” at the annual convention of the Free Religious Association in Boston. After
presenting the four “corner-stones” of his own theory of the composition of the universe,
riddled with talk of “facts,” “necessity,” and “proof,” Ingersoll concluded with these
words: “[I]t follows as a necessity that no God exists; that no God created or governs the
universe…. In other words it proves that man has never received any help from heaven;
that all sacrifices have been in vain, and that all prayers have died unanswered in the
heedless air.” Perhaps startled by his own confident tone, he drew back: “I do not pretend
to know. I say what I think.”17 Despite this public equivocation, he wrote unreservedly to
Henry Field, the New England minister with whom he was cordially debating in the
pages of the North American Review: “I am exceedingly gratified that you and I have
15. RGI, “Why Am I an Agnostic? Part I,” North American Review 149, no. 397 (December
1889): 742, 749.
16. Philadelphia Times, September 25, 1885.
17. RGI, What is Religion? (Boston: Boston Investigator Company, 1899), 13.
55
demonstrated that it is possible for a Presbyterian and an Atheist to discuss theological
questions without exhibiting a theological temper.”18 His close associates agreed that this
was the most accurate descriptor.19 While Ingersoll preferred to identify himself in public
as an agnostic or infidel, and occasionally as a freethinker, nevertheless, he may be
properly classified as an atheist—albeit of an intellectually nuanced sort—according to
his own admission and that of his contemporaries.
In a drafted response to a challenge from the noted minister Lyman Abbot,
successor to Henry Ward Beecher at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, Ingersoll suggested
that an agnostic “does not simply say, ‘I do not know.’ He goes another step, and he says,
with great emphasis, that you do not know.”20 It was this latter assertion that fueled his
entire iconoclastic assault on revealed religion. Given Ingersoll’s evangelical background
and its corresponding biblicism, not to mention the cultural saturation of the same, it is
really not surprising that the Christian scriptures bore the brunt of his criticisms. What is
remarkable is the manner and extent to which he engrossed himself in the task of reading,
interpreting, and indeed educating audiences about the Bible. In one of his early
antireligious lectures Ingersoll bemoaned the fact that no one was reading the Bible any
longer: “I am probably the only man in the United States who has read the Bible through
18. RGI to Rev. Henry M. Field, D.D., November 11, 1887, George E. Macdonald, Fifty Years of
Freethought, Being the Story of the Truth Seeker (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1931), 2:537–38.
19. E. M. Macdonald, editor of the Truth Seeker and a defender of Ingersoll, agreed that he was an
atheist. On this, see his Col. Robert G. Ingersoll as He Is: A Complete Refutation of His Clerical Enemies’
Malicious Slanders (New York: Truth Seeker Company, n.d.), 79. A decade after Ingersoll’s death,
biographer Herman Kittredge concurred. On this, see his Ingersoll: A Biographical Appreciation (New
York: Dresden Publishing Company, 1911), 225.
20. RGI, “Reply to Dr. Lyman Abbott,” in Works, 6:463; emphasis added. Abbott’s two-part
challenge to Ingersoll appeared as “Flaws in Ingersollism,” North American Review 150, no. 401 (April
1890): 446–457; and “Not ‘Ingersollism,’” North American Review 150, no. 402 (May 1890): 654–55.
56
this year.”21 This conviction—that people were ignorant of the presumed sacred book and
thus inclined to believe it—compelled him to quote large passages of scriptural text in his
addresses that frequently filled more than one manuscript page. The Bible needed to be
known before it could be judged and rejected.
Ingersoll’s anti-biblical addresses took the form of sermonic expositions,
castigating the Bible on the grounds that it supported ignorance, immorality, and
injustice. Nowhere is this more clearly portrayed than in Some Mistakes of Moses (1879),
the book-length edition of his lecture on the same topic. In this polemical work he took
aim at the Pentateuch, as representative of the entire Old Testament, and sought to
demonstrate that it was not the word of God. Instead, as he wrote in the preface, it was “a
record of a barbarous people, in which are found a great number of the ceremonies of
savagery, many absurd and unjust laws, and thousands of ideas inconsistent with known
and demonstrated facts.”22 To regard such an account as divinely inspired was a crime of
the highest order. Perhaps anticipating accusations of bald iconoclasm, Ingersoll opened
with an appeal to intellectual and religious liberty. He did not want merely to displace the
authority of the Bible, that “oppressor, enslaver and corrupter of the people,” but he
hoped to see the establishment of a free and rational society in its place.23
For Ingersoll, the achievement of this goal first required the deconstruction of
biblical authority. There was nowhere better to start than at the beginning of the Christian
scripture, the Pentateuch. Acknowledging the critical assumption that Moses did not
21. RGI, “Mistakes of Moses,” 133.
22. RGI, Some Mistakes, v.
23. RGI, Some Mistakes, 43.
57
write the first five books of the Bible, Ingersoll nevertheless accepted Mosaic authorship
for rhetorical effect: “[L]et us speak of him as though these books were in fact written by
him.”24 Therefore, fascinatingly, he was not concerned to consistently embrace the
historical-critical views of contemporary liberal theologians and biblical scholars in his
attack. This move created an easy target for Ingersoll’s ridicule. Early in the text he
argued, “Nothing can be clearer than that Moses received from the Egyptians the
principle parts of his narrative, making such changes and additions as were necessary to
satisfy the peculiar superstitions of his own people.” Elsewhere, he criticized Moses for
his ignorance of the “science of language” and for the unforgiveable error of having
“guessed a great deal more than he investigated.”25 Throughout the book, Ingersoll held
Moses personally culpable for everything he considered primitive or morally
reprehensible in the Pentateuch, apparently simply forgetting that he did not actually
accept Mosaic authorship. The inconsistency of his argument in this instance was
characteristic of his regular efforts to take biblical criticism to popular audiences.
Ingersoll was able to succeed with this style of argumentation because his critical
technique mainly depended on challenging the sensibleness of the biblical record and,
indeed, the very sanity of its claims. In Some Mistakes of Moses, as with his other
lectures and essays, he tried to portray biblical events and ideas in their most
preposterous light. For instance, he concluded his retelling of the ten Egyptian plagues
with a question he asked of many a miraculous account: “Is it possible to conceive of
24. RGI, Some Mistakes, 46.
25. RGI, Some Mistakes, 51, 175.
58
anything more utterly absurd, stupid, revolting, cruel and senseless?”26 Dismissive
judgments like this exempted him from the necessity of providing any sort of careful
analytical assessment.
The use of the work of contemporary biblical scholars in Ingersoll’s attacks on
traditional religion was of the most rudimentary sort and there is little evidence to suggest
he had much firsthand engagement with them. He rarely quoted and even less frequently
identified other writers. Likewise, he constantly prefaced critical statements about the
Bible with remarks, such as “we know” and “it has been demonstrated,” without stating
the actual intellectual sources of his claims. In his discussion of the similarities between
Hebrew and Egyptian cosmologies in Some Mistakes of Moses, Ingersoll took
unidentified quotations from an entry on astronomy in the American Cyclopaedia and an
essay on the decomposition of corpses in the Popular Science Monthly.27 The few authors
whose quotations were acknowledged in Some Mistakes of Moses, most often as foils,
included only the popular—and dated—biblical commentators Adam Clarke, Thomas
Scott, Matthew Henry, and Alexander Cruden. One of many similar incidents appearing
elsewhere was Ingersoll’s essay on the relationship between agnosticism and positivism
of 1889. He quoted significantly from an unidentified source on Auguste Comte’s law of
three stages, but the quotations were not from his General View of Positivism (translated
in the mid-1860s). Rather, they were taken from George Henry Lewes’s concise
26. RGI, Some Mistakes, 207. Throughout his lectures and essays, Ingersoll rejected the religion of
the Bible as an insane practice. On this, see especially RGI, “Instead of the Bible,” Freethinker 18, no. 29
(July 17, 1898): 459–60.
27. RGI, Some Mistakes, 69–70, 77–78. For the source of Ingersoll’s discussions on astronomy
and cosmology, see “Astronomy,” The American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary of General
Knowledge, ed. George Ripley and Charles A. Dana (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873), 44;
and Sir Henry Thompson, “Disposal of the Dead,” Popular Science Monthly 4, no. 33 (March 1874): 593–
94.
59
introduction, Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences. A few other instances, such as his
description of Ernst Haeckel’s view of organic history and awareness of Ernest Renan’s
critical work on the life of Jesus, do point to some familiarity with contemporary
scholarship through secondary sources.28 Overall, however, it is likely that Ingersoll, who
once recommended to a young law student that he not read too much by saying, “I don’t
read more than three lines on a page of any damn book,” simply lived by his own
advice.29
Ingersoll rested his case for the absurdity of the Bible on a rigidly literal
hermeneutic. The Genesis days of creation drew special attention. In fact, Ingersoll
committed a brief and amusing chapter of Some Mistakes of Moses to each day.
(Regarding the fourth day of the creative week, he remarked, “After the world was
covered with vegetation, it occurred to Moses that it was about time to make a sun and
moon.”30) Ingersoll acknowledged that many modern theologians understood the days to
be figurative, but insisted that Moses believed they were literal twenty-four-hour periods
and thus orthodox Christians were compelled to follow suit.31 Similarly, he rejected the
assertion made by theological liberals and most moderates that the authors did not intend
28. RGI, “Professor Huxley and Agnosticism,” North American Review 148, no. 389 (April 1889):
403-16. The quotations are from George Henry Lewes, Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences (London:
Henry G. Bohn, 1853). Ingersoll used Haeckel’s “epochs” in Some Mistakes, 69; he discussed Ernest
Renan’s thought in his tribute to the French scholar: “Ernest Renan,” North American Review 155, no. 432
(November 1892): 608–22. In this essay he quoted, without citation, from the preface of Ernest Renan,
Recollections and Letters of Ernest Renan, trans. Isabel F. Hapgood (New York: Cassell Publishing
Company, 1892). He also gave several unacknowledged quotations from the introduction to Ernest Renan,
The Life of Jesus, trans. Charles Edwin Wilbur (Yew York: Carleton, 1864).
29. From the Topeka Journal, December 4, 1933. Quoted in Frank Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll: A
Life (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), 95.
30. RGI, Some Mistakes, 72.
31. RGI, Some Mistakes, 68–69.
60
the Bible to be understood as a scientific textbook. If so, Ingersoll asked, “Then why did
[God] say anything upon these subjects? and if he did say anything, why did he not give
the facts?”32 Ingersoll also demanded a maximal reading of the flood story. His argument
ran thus: “It is impossible to conceive of language that can more clearly convey the idea
of a universal flood than that found in the inspired account.”33 Setting up the orthodox
interpretation of the Bible in this fashion allowed Ingersoll to knock it back down
himself. His reaction to the account of the sun standing still for a day is representative of
his response to each of the aforementioned events: “[T]he whole story is simply a
barbaric myth and fable…. It certainly cannot be very gratifying to God for us to believe
such childish things.”34
Ingersoll’s conclusion about biblical interpretation was closely tied to his view of
the question of scripture’s divine inspiration. For him, inspiration and interpretation were
the chief means by which orthodox Christians obstructed the truth with scripture. If the
biblical text was true, there was no need to cling to the concept of an inspired book:
“Nothing needs inspiration except a falsehood or a mistake. Where truth ends, where
probability stops, inspiration begins.”35 In a related observation, Ingersoll noted, with not
a little disgust, that the tendency among modern theologians and biblical scholars—
though he did not name a single one—was to limit the concept of divine inspiration to the
32. RGI, Some Mistakes, 82.
33. RGI, Some Mistakes, 144.
34. RGI, Some Mistakes, 76.
35. RGI, Some Mistakes, 59. He made the same point in his “The Divided Household of Faith,”
North American Review 147, no. 381 (August 1888), 164.
61
moral character of the Bible.36 This touched a sensitive nerve with the Great Agnostic.
For Ingersoll’s argument, the literal understanding of the biblical text meant that every
event ordained by God was intended for imitation and every character in divine employ
for admiration. According to this reading, was the Pentateuch moral? Ingersoll answered
in the negative. Polygamy, slavery, wars of extermination, and religious intolerance were
all condoned, if not commanded by God. Ingersoll found biblical morality the most
objectionable: “[F]ew books have been published containing more moral filth than this
inspired word of God…. Until these passages are expunged from the Old Testament, it is
not a fit book to be read by either old or young.”37 Reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s
notable remark about religions that shock children’s minds, Ingersoll concluded, “A book
that is equally abhorrent to my head and heart, cannot be accepted as a revelation from
God.”38
Ingersoll ended his work on the Pentateuch with a laundry list of serious and
amusing denials respecting the accuracy of the biblical record. Read another way, they
are affirmations of many of the ideals of intellectual and religious liberty he held dear:
Let us admit what we know to be true: … that the story of creation is a myth; …
that a belief in Pharaoh’s dreams is not essential to salvation; … that we cannot
please God by believing the improbable; … that the enlightened present ought not
to fall upon its knees and blindly worship the barbaric past; and that every free,
brave and enlightened man should publicly declare that all ignorant, infamous,
heartless, hideous things recorded in this ‘inspired’ Pentateuch are not the words
of God.
After this manifesto, Ingersoll seemed relived to conclude, “Moses was mistaken about a
36. RGI, Some Mistakes, 243.
37. RGI, Some Mistakes, 177.
38. RGI, Some Mistakes, 238. He criticized biblical morality in the same manner, stressing its
stances on slavery and polygamy, in “Divided Household of Faith,” 156–57.
62
thousand things.”39
The lecture “What Must We Do to Be Saved?” (1880), while considerably shorter
in length, provided Ingersoll’s only significant critique of the New Testament Gospels.
The real aim was to expose inconsistencies between the Gospel accounts, but the
discussion was couched as a search for the biblical doctrine of salvation. Ingersoll
explained in his droll manner, “A while ago I made up my mind to find out what was
necessary for me to do in order to be saved. If I have got a soul, I want it saved.”40 As in
Some Mistakes of Moses, Ingersoll warned about the bondage of ignorance. He suggested
that the orthodox view of salvation by faith was founded on a lack of knowledge of the
Gospels and an assumption of uniformity. Having begun to sow the seeds of doubt,
Ingersoll appealed to the absence of original manuscripts and the possibility (or
likelihood) of interpolations. Furthermore, he used the fact that a new translation was
underway (the Revised Version, the New Testament portion of which was eventually
published in 1881) as evidence that the issue would not soon be settled: “I suppose that I
can not tell whether I really believe the New Testament or not until I see the new
translation.”41 No doubt Ingersoll took personal delight in the idea that even the faithful
were not certain they had the right reading of God’s word.
As with the treatment of the Pentateuch’s authorship, Ingersoll denied that Jesus’s
39. RGI, Some Mistakes, 265–70, 265.
40. RGI, What Must We Do to Be Saved? rev. ed. (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1892), 22.
41. RGI, What Must We Do? 18. The Old Testament portion of the Revised Version (RV) was
completed and published in 1885. On the history of the Bible in the United States before the arrival of the
RV, see Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999). For a longer bibliographic history, see Margaret T. Hill,
ed., The English Bible in America: A Bibliography of Editions of the Bible and the New Testament
Published in America, 1777–1957, rev. ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1962).
63
disciple Matthew had anything to do with the Gospel named for him while, for the sake
of effect, assuming he was the author. Ingersoll affirmed the religion taught in the
Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. However, respecting the command to
abandon possessions and family for the sake of righteousness, Ingersoll cried that he had
discovered an interpolation: “Christ never said it. Never.”42 Minus this objectionable
point, he accepted Matthew’s view of salvation: “It is the gospel of deed, the gospel of
charity, the gospel of self-denial…. Not even a hint that it was necessary to believe that
Christ was the son of God.”43 The Gospel of Mark, according to Ingersoll’s assessment,
was in substantial agreement with Matthew. The only discrepancy was the requirement of
faith in Christ.44 The “frightful declaration,” Ingersoll asserted, was an interpolation: “It
is the most infamous passage in the bible. Christ never said it. No sensible man ever said
it.”45 In a classic accusation of priestcraft, he argued that divisive religious leaders had
inserted the line to validate their own mediatorial offices. The necessity of faith was
absent in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Ingersoll argued, and this was proof of the
statement’s illegitimacy. On the latter of these other accounts Ingersoll had little to add,
except that the story of Zaccheus taught a gospel of good works and that Christ’s promise
to the thief on the cross was not dependent on belief.
The Gospel of John was a different story altogether. Without any mention of
scholars or sources, Ingersoll placed the date of this narrative much later than
traditionally assumed and claimed that, supposedly unlike the others, it was a fabrication
42. RGI, What Must We Do? 31.
43. RGI, What Must We Do? 34–36.
44. Ingersoll found the disparate passage to be Mark 16:16.
45. RGI, What Must We Do? 43, 39.
64
of the early Christian community.46 The errant message of John, he summarized, was
salvation by faith and—adding a peculiar twist through his literalistic hermeneutic—
linked it with a barbaric version of “Real Presence” communion: “I find in the book of
John, that is order to be saved we must not only believe in Jesus Christ, but we must eat
the flesh and we must drink the blood of Jesus Christ.” Appealing to the cultured
sensibilities of his audience, Ingersoll rejected this primitive conception of salvation as
offensive to the modern mind.47 He went so far as to claim that if such a doctrine proved
to be true and he was faced with divine judgment for his disbelief, “I would say to [God],
‘Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you.’ Why not? … [W]ill it do
for this God who tells me to love my enemies to damn his? No, it will not do. It will not
do.”48 Minus textual corruption, which for Ingersoll was a catchall category for any
biblical concept that ran contrary to his purposes, he concluded that Matthew, Mark, and
Luke taught a gospel of the Golden Rule. This ethic, he reminded, was what he himself
had long been preaching. The Gospel of John, however, set additional prerequisites and
inserted barbarous “afterthoughts” that were “unworthy of the lips of Christ.”49
Ingersoll’s last significant Bible lecture, “About the Holy Bible” (1894), sounded
a note of hostility even more severe than the moral indictments in Some Mistakes of
Moses. It was a virtual register of grievances. Ingersoll picked up his recurring theme of
ignorance and condemned the savagery of Old Testament peoples. The Ten
Commandments were immoral, he argued, more on account of what they left out than
46. RGI, What Must We Do? 48.
47. RGI, What Must We Do? 52.
48. RGI, What Must We Do? 53.
49. RGI, What Must We Do? 54.
65
what they contained. Ingersoll was more favorably disposed toward Ecclesiastes and the
Song of Solomon, but only because he was convinced that an ancient agnostic wrote the
former and because the latter was a “poem without Jehovah.”50 Furthermore, in this
lecture he claimed to reject the biblical portrayal of the divine because he could not
distinguish between the actions of the deity and those of the devil. The only Old
Testament accounts Ingersoll accepted as accurate were those that showed Jehovah’s
“administration” of the Jewish people to be a cruel and abject failure.51
Ingersoll’s opinion of Jesus in “About the Holy Bible” was a departure from his
previous conviction. A decade and a half earlier he confessed his “infinite respect” for
Jesus as a man. Curiously, Ingersoll invariably referred to the Nazarene as “Christ,” a
term laden with theological connotations, rather than the more humanizing name,
“Jesus.” Nevertheless, he persistently distinguished between what he called the
“theological creation” and the “real Christ.”52 Ingersoll praised the latter as a persecuted
reformer and even the “infidel” of his day, effusing, “And let me say, once for all, that to
that great and serene man I gladly pay, I gladly pay, the tribute of my admiration and my
tears…. Had I lived at that time I would have been his friend, and should he come again
he will not find a better friend than I will be.”53
By his 1894 lecture, however, Ingersoll accompanied his longstanding denial of
Christ’s divinity with a dismissal of his previously held view that Christ was a moral
50. RGI, About the Holy Bible (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1894), 32–33.
51. RGI, About the Holy Bible, 41.
52. RGI, What Must We Do? 21–22.
53. RGI, What Must We Do? 20–21.
66
exemplar.54 In this strange reversal, Ingersoll castigated many of the ideals set out in the
Sermon on the Mount, the portion of the Gospels for which he had previously reserved
the highest praise.55 He called Jesus’s prohibition to resist evil and the command to love
one’s enemy “absurdities” and asked of Jesus’s whole moral system, “Can we now say
that Christ was the greatest of philosophers?”56 In the lecture on “What Must We Do to
Be Saved?” in 1880 Ingersoll said, “For the man who in the darkness said: ‘My God, why
hast thou forsaken me?’—for that man I have nothing but respect, admiration, and love.”
In this later lecture, however, Ingersoll expressed his disgust for Jesus, claiming that the
ignorant and unsophisticated outcast had cried out to God “in the dusk of death, [upon]
finding that he was mistaken.”57 His denial of Christ’s divinity became equally harsh. If
Jesus were God, Ingersoll asked why he did not prevent the future misunderstandings and
atrocities of the church by advocating religious freedom and explaining the afterlife. The
Great Agnostic concluded, “Why did he go dumbly to his death, leaving the world to
misery and to doubt? I will tell you why. He was a man, and did not know.”58 In the last
five years of his life Ingersoll was portraying the man of Nazareth in a new way. Once an
admirable and misunderstood representative of selflessness and good morals, he became
an obscure radical who established a despicable following of religious fanatics and
54. Dave Burns suggests that Ingersoll’s turn against Jesus was compelled by a growing sentiment
that the philosophy of the Nazarene was “an obstacle to American progress.” For this, see his “The Radical
Rights of Christ: Jesus and the Social Revolutions of Progressive Era America” (PhD diss., Northern
Illinois University, 2009), 104–5. I am grateful to Professor Rosemary Feurer for pointing me to Burns’s
dissertation.
55. Whereas earlier Ingersoll rejected certain of Jesus’s commands as interpolations, here he
considered them authentic. For this, see RGI, What Must We Do? 31.
56. RGI, About the Holy Bible, 59.
57. RGI, What Must We Do? 21; RGI, About the Holy Bible, 61.
58. RGI, About the Holy Bible, 65.
67
ultimately died in ignorance. It was also at this time that Ingersoll began to privately
express doubt that such a person as Jesus ever existed at all.59
Before concluding his defamatory lecture, Ingersoll turned to his traditional
indictment of the notion of scripture’s divine inspiration. He called the selection of sacred
texts arbitrary and said the early Christian leaders’ only qualifications to judge between
inspired documents were that they were “ignorant, credulous, stupid and malicious.”
Turning to the Protestant Reformation, Ingersoll attempted to show that even among its
most esteemed divines, Luther and Calvin, there was remarkable disagreement over the
value of certain biblical books. Identifying an inspired text became even more difficult in
light of the unanswered question of God’s existence. Ingersoll dismissed the whole
enterprise thus: “There is no way to prove the fact of inspiration. The only evidence is the
word of some [men] who could by no possibility know anything on the subject.”60
Finally, Ingersoll made an effort to preempt the complaints from ministers that he
was sure to receive for this latest offensive against the Bible, challenging church leaders:
“How can you be wicked enough to defend this book?” He accused the Christian
scriptures of being the fountainhead of religious persecution and all varieties of physical
and intellectual bondage. Whereas previously Ingersoll had attempted to strike a generous
pose by confessing that the Bible contained some sage and useful advice, in this lecture
he rejected it entirely. “I attack this book because it is the enemy of human liberty,” he
confessed, “the greatest obstruction across the highway of human progress.”61 Against
59. For more on this, see the concluding paragraph of chapter one.
60. RGI, About the Holy Bible, 67, 68.
61. RGI, About the Holy Bible, 71.
68
the accusations of the clergy, Ingersoll wanted to demonstrate that the Bible stood in the
way of the very good that it was supposed to propagate.
Ingersoll’s infidel career was marked by deep and increasing hostility to the Bible
and the fundamental tenets of evangelical religion. He endeavored to topple the Bible’s
influence—and thus undermine any belief dependent on it—by questioning its origin, its
morality, and thus its usefulness to a modern society. Ingersoll’s charges and complaints
amounted to a full-blown assault on the authority of the Christian scriptures. Even the
man Jesus, often spared from aspersion by the most virulent critics of religion, came
under Ingersoll’s attack in his final years. By the end, America’s Great Agnostic would
accept nothing less than the total eradication of the influence of Christianity in the world.
“I have a creed myself”: The Gospel of Infidelity
Evangelical leaders seeking to contend with his popular religious skepticism
frequently accused Ingersoll of touting a bald iconoclasm. He demolished major doctrines
of the Christian faith without providing the consolation of a suitable alternative. It is true
that from the beginning Ingersoll described his advocacy of skepticism as charitable and
liberating in its deconstructive honesty. It was with this conviction that he inscribed the
title page of Some Mistakes of Moses: “A destroyer of weeds, thistles and thorns is a
benefactor, whether he soweth grain or not.”62 However, Ingersoll also argued that honest
disbelief was inherently constructive: “I do not feel under any obligation to build
something in the place of a detected falsehood. All I think I am under obligation to put in
62. RGI, Some Mistakes, i.
69
the place of a detected lie is the detection.”63 In truth, Ingersoll offered much more than
detection in the course of his infidel career. He proposed numerous substitutes for the
“falsehoods” of Christianity, the conglomeration of which provided a heterodoxy that
mimicked the tenets of orthodox theology, most notably the particular themes and
priorities of late nineteenth-century evangelicalism.
Nothing demonstrates Ingersoll’s appropriation of these categories more fully
than his freethought variants of the “evangel” itself. It is no exaggeration that his chief
means of stamping his approval on any worthy idea or ambition was to label it a
“gospel.” One of Ingersoll’s earliest biographers identified no less than fourteen of these
gospels, each frequently reiterated in lectures and essays.64 A lesser number of these were
most readily associated with him, a version of which was originally proposed in the
lecture “What Must We Do to Be Saved?” They were subsequently published separately
as a pamphlet and collectively known as “Ingersoll’s Five Gospels”: cheerfulness, liberty,
good living, intelligence, and justice.65 In their original proclamation in the lecture, each
gospel was prefaced with the confessional phrase “I believe.” In another move to imitate
Christian practice, Ingersoll’s lecture included a creedal affirmation that ended with a
phrase reminiscent of Jesus’s response to Peter’s proclamation of faith: “I have made up
my mind that … [t]he honest man, the good woman, the happy child, have nothing to
63. Chicago Times, November 14, 1879.
64. The list of Ingersoll’s “gospels” is provided in the first substantial biography of Ingersoll by
the social critic and biographer Edward Garstin Smith. On this, see his The Life and Reminiscences of
Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: National Weekly Publishing Co., 1904), 202.
65. What Must We Do? 81–86. The pamphlet is Ingersoll’s Five Gospels, ed. W. M. Chandler
(Chicago: G. S. Baldwin, 1885). The “gospels” were posthumously published as such in the compilation
Ingersollia: Gems of Thought from Lectures, Speeches and Conversations of the Late Col. Robert G.
Ingersoll, ed. Thomas W. Handford (Chicago: M. A. Donohue, 1899), 226–29.
70
fear, either in this world or the world to come. Upon that rock I stand.”66
Ingersoll’s evangel was fully committed to a humanistic interpretation of
existence. His gospels of cheerfulness and good living centered on the enjoyment of
physical pleasures. Ingersoll prided himself as an epicure and, in his estimation, the
theologian ranked far below the cook.67 His gospel of liberty united the Golden Rule with
a commitment to generosity. In connection with his doctrine of intelligence, he offered
one of his fuller statements of belief, if a little disjointed: “I believe in the gospel of
intelligence; in the gospel of education. The school-house is my cathedral; the universe
my Bible. Intelligence must rule triumphant. Humanity is the grand religion. And no God
can put a man into hell in another world who has made a little heaven in this.”68 Ingersoll
left no room for forgiveness or the canceling of debts, material or spiritual, in his
commitment to justice: “[W]e must reap what we sow…. No forgiveness, eternal,
inexorable, everlasting justice—that is what I believe in.”69 In “What Must We Do to Be
Saved?” he summed up all of his “doctrines” under the banner of the “great gospel of
Humanity.” He replaced the evangelical Christian mandate to “believe and be saved”
with the good news of “health, wealth and happiness” in the present life.70
In the same way that evangelicalism prioritized the Bible, Ingersoll integrated the
66. RGI, What Must We Do? 89.
67. RGI, Ingersollia, 227.
68. RGI, Ingersollia, 227. Ingersoll found the Golden Rule as expressed by Jesus in the New
Testament to be useful but inadequate. His dislike of the idea of loving one’s enemies, because of the
implication of forgiveness rather than justice, compelled him to respond, “There is no philosophy in that.”
For this, see RGI, “How I Would Amend the Golden Rule,” Agnostic Journal and Eclectic Review 42, no. 6
(February 5, 1898): 81–82.
69. RGI, Ingersollia, 228.
70. RGI, What Must We Do? 86.
71
concept of a sacred book with his substitute orthodoxy. But as with his gospel, Ingersoll’s
bible was wholly the fruit of human creativity.71 Even before he composed his lecture on
the “Mistakes of Moses,” he was contending for what he called the “real bible” in
“Heretics and Heresies” (1874). This bible was “not the work of inspired men, nor
prophets, nor apostles, nor evangelists, nor of Christs,” but instead it was the product of
intelligent, rational individuals: “Every man who finds a fact adds, as it were, a word to
this great book.” The bible of humanity did not claim to be holy, Ingersoll admitted, but it
was true.72
As previously mentioned, Ingersoll’s harshest critique of the Christian scripture
came in the lecture “About the Holy Bible” (1894). In this, his final significant lecture on
the subject, Ingersoll committed the closing paragraphs to an elaboration of a sacred
substitute, again calling it the “real bible.” By this point he had expanded the notion to
include all the best and most admirable achievements of humanity, not only the scientific
discoveries and inventions to which he had previously alluded, but also literature, art, and
music—the “miracles that hands have wrought.” In lofty phrases he added the perfect
laws of nature and the virtues of love and self-denial, calling “these treasures of the heart
and brain … the Sacred Scriptures of the human race.”73 For Ingersoll, humanity was
writing the real bible as it progressed through the ages.
Occasionally in public, but more frequently in his private life, Ingersoll identified
71. On this biblical replacement, see RGI, “Instead of the Bible,” 459–60.
72. RGI, “Heretics and Heresies,” in The Gods and Other Lectures (Peoria, IL: n.p., 1874), 252–
53. Ingersoll used the same language to describe this “real bible” in “My Reviewers Reviewed.” For this,
see Notes of Lecture Entitled “My Reviewers Reviewed”: Delivered at Grand Opera House, San
Francisco, Cal., June 27th, 1877 (San Francisco: Francis & Valentine, 1877).
73. RGI, About the Holy Bible, 72–73.
72
a specific text he considered sacred. While he included the “great dramas of
Imagination’s world” among the chapters of humanity’s bible, for him the works of
Shakespeare were its holiest pages.74 Incidentally, a close second to the English Bard was
the poetry of Scotsman Robert Burns. There are numerous recorded instances of one of
his favorite admissions: “Shakespeare is my Bible and Burns my Hymn-book.”75
Ingersoll’s account of his first encounter with Shakespeare, whom he called “the greatest
genius of our world,” reads much like an evangelical conversion narrative.76 During his
youthful days in Peoria, he chanced upon a Shakespeare reading at a local hotel. He
confessed, “I was filled with wonder. I had never heard anything like it.” The following
day he purchased his own copy (for which he claimed to have paid “more than the
national debt”) and began to read for himself. Ingersoll’s description of his faithful study
of and commitment to Shakespeare paralleled that of the devout Christian to his or her
Bible:
That book opened to me a new world, a new nature…. [It] has been a source of
perpetual joy to me from that day to this; and whenever I read Shakespeare—if it
ever happens that I fail to find some new beauty, some new presentation of some
beautiful truth, or another word that bursts into blossom, I shall make up my mind
that my mental faculties are failing, that it is not the fault of the book.77
In his parlor Ingersoll even displayed a bust of Shakespeare—curiously, near a bust of
himself—and a commissioned volume of Shakespeare’s works. The special edition was
74. RGI, About the Holy Bible, 72.
75. Baker, An Intimate View, 57. Larson also attests to the frequency with which Ingersoll used
this phrase. On this, see Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Citadel Press,
1962), 26.
76. Quoted in RGI, The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, ed. Eva Ingersoll Wakefield (New York:
Philosophical Library, 1951), 360.
77. Quoted in Kittredge, Ingersoll, 151.
73
similar to a family Bible—enlarged, with gilded edges, pages inserted for recording births
and marriages, and inscriptions on the cover and spine that read, respectively, “The Book
of the Brain” and “The Inspired Book.”78 In an interview, Ingersoll suggested that
nothing would raise the moral and intellectual standing of humanity more than if the
Bible societies began translating and printing Shakespeare “in all the languages of the
world” instead of scripture.79 On one occasion Ingersoll even used a passage from King
Lear as the text from which he preached what he publicly advertised as a “sermon.”80
Ingersoll’s esteem for Shakespeare came close to deification for the man and
inspiration for his writings. His account of Shakespeare’s lowly birth strikingly
resembled the Nativity.81 Ingersoll considered Shakespeare’s plays so magnificent that
human effort alone seemed insufficient to explain their origin: “I am perfectly satisfied
that no man with whom the world is acquainted could have been the author of
Shakespeare’s plays. They must have been written by somebody whose acquaintance the
world has never made.”82 He spoke of Shakespeare as the “composer of divine melodies”
and referred to his genius as “the winged god within him.”83 He described the Bard’s
knowledge of the world in terms close to omniscience (“He lived the life of all”). In
much the same way that traditional Christians understood the Bible to be the inspired and
matchless word of God, so Ingersoll believed that Shakespeare’s works were, and would
78. Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 133.
79. Dramatic Mirror, April 21, 1888.
80. RGI, A Lay Sermon on the Labor Question (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1886).
81. RGI, Shakespeare: A Lecture (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1895), 4–5.
82. RGI to William Henry Burr, October 1, 1887, container 25, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers,
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter LOC).
83. RGI, Shakespeare, 8, 18.
74
remain, peerless in literature.84
Just as Ingersoll’s gospel preserved a place for sacred texts, so the heterodoxy he
proffered, which he frequently referred to as the “religion of reason,” did not dispense
with the need or notion of a savior. In his early lecture on the German naturalist
Alexander von Humboldt, Ingersoll confessed the need for liberation from the slavery of
ignorance and inability. His doctrine boasted reason and scientific progress as the vehicle
of redemption: “The glory of science is, that it is freeing the soul—breaking the mental
manacles—getting the brain out of bondage—giving courage to thought—filling the
world with mercy, justice, and joy.” When science broke in,
[i]t found the world at the mercy of disease and famine; men trying to read their
fates in the stars, and to tell their fortunes by signs and wonders; generals thinking
to conquer their enemies by making the sign of the cross, or by telling a rosary. It
found all history full of petty and ridiculous falsehood, and the Almighty was
supposed to spend most of his time turning sticks into snakes, drowning boys for
swimming on Sunday, and killing little children for the purpose of converting
their parents.
Altering a biblical expression, Ingersoll remarked in summary that when science finally
arrived in all its glory—through the ministrations of Humboldt and his fellow
naturalists—it found humanity “without hope, and without reason in the world.”85
In Ingersoll’s depiction of human history, it was Christianity that perpetuated
ignorance. For him, the Christian gospel, or the promise of salvation by faith in Jesus
Christ, was a bribe, an offense against the “brave, free and natural soul” that would not
unjustly take something for nothing. This doctrine of salvation corrupted souls, he
84. Ingersoll defended the view that Shakespeare had no equal in an interview for one of New
York’s popular theatrical magazines: Dramatic Mirror, December 26, 1891.
85. RGI, “Humboldt,” in The Gods, 112, 113. The language Ingersoll used here was an allusion to
Eph. 2:12.
75
argued, and the teaching of it would only “dull the moral sense and subvert the true
conception of virtue and duty.”86 Drawing on the biblical story of the Fall, Ingersoll
called the “superstition” of the Christian scripture—from the Genesis Creation account to
Jesus’s Resurrection—a “serpent” that traversed through the Eden of the present world
and deceived the “hearts of men.” The ministers of the church he called “bats” that loved
the darkness of old creeds, fearing the “Science [that] sheds light” and the “torch of
Reason.”87 Picking up on a major New Testament theme, Ingersoll structured his lecture
“Which Way?” on an assessment of the Christian gospel’s “narrow way” of salvation.
Ingersoll described the two ways as the natural and the supernatural: “One way is to
enthrone reason and rely on facts, the other to crown credulity and live on faith.”88 By the
end of the lecture he had tossed the narrow road aside for the broad one, the way that
permitted everyone “to think—to investigate, to observe, and follow the light of reason.”
Unshaken by the biblical warning that it “leadeth to destruction,” he demanded, “Give me
the wide and ample way, the way broad enough for us all to go together.”89 A decade
after the Humboldt lecture, Ingersoll offered an even more vivid depiction of the
redemptive capacity of science, addressing it in rapturous, biblical phrases laden with
messianic significance: “Thou art the great physician. Thy touch hath given sight. Thou
hast made the lame to leap [and] the dumb to speak…. Thou art the very Christ, the only
86. RGI, The Truth: A Lecture (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1897), 17–18.
87. RGI, The Truth, 38, 42.
88. RGI, Which Way? (Washington DC: C. P. Farrell, 1884), 3.
89. RGI, Which Way? 49. The biblical warning comes from Matt. 7:13.
76
savior of mankind!”90 The gospel of unbelief that Ingersoll preached retained the
Christian categories of corruption and redemption. Through ignorance and superstition
humanity was stumbling in darkness, lost and in need of a savior. In characteristically
evangelical form, he pleaded with sick and benighted souls to throw off their chains and
walk into the light of freedom. However, the particulars of Ingersoll’s salvation scheme
starkly contrasted with those of evangelical Christianity. It was not sinfulness but religion
from which humanity required redemption, and it was not Christ but rational, scientific
progress that was the only all-sufficient savior.
Ingersoll also drew on biblical resources in his consideration of death, a reality he
found difficult to handle in his own life.91 After the memorial address he gave at his
brother Ebon’s funeral in 1879—which Henry Ward Beecher called “one of the most sad
and mournful sermons that I ever read”—Ingersoll became a popular eulogist, offering
celebrated funeral orations and tributes to some of late nineteenth-century America’s
most significant deceased public figures.92 Ingersoll regularly remarked in his eulogies
that he thought of death as peaceful sleep and used this understanding as a basis for
encouraging the bereaved to hope.93 Precisely what they were to hope for he rarely
90. RGI, “Myth and Miracle,” Secular Review 17, no. 19 (November 7, 1885): 295. Ingersoll
echoed this sentiment in his final public lecture: “Science [is] the only possible saviour of mankind.” For
this, see RGI, What is Religion? 17.
91. Ingersoll’s personal struggle with family deaths and the horror of war are treated in chapter
two. See also Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll, 104.
92. Quoted in J. B. McClure, ed., Mistakes of Ingersoll (Chicago: Rhodes & McClure, 1879), 149.
Some of the other notable individuals for whom Ingersoll offered eulogies and tributes include Henry Ward
Beecher, Roscoe Conkling, Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Renan, Horace Seaver, Anton Siedl, Walt Whitman,
and Elizur Wright.
93. See, for instance, RGI, “A Tribute to Ebon C. Ingersoll,” in The Ghosts and Other Lectures,
rev. ed. (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1892), 249, 251; also, RGI, “The Christian Religion, Part II,” North
American Review 83, no. 300 (November 1881): 479.
77
named. At the graveside of a child in 1882, the son of family friends, Detective George
Miller and his wife, Ingersoll assured the grief-stricken parents that death “is only perfect
rest” and consoled them with a proclamation of faith: “We, too, have our religion, and it
is this: ‘Help for the living, hope for the dead.’”94 In associating death with sleep and
hope, Ingersoll followed, at least rhetorically, the dominant practice in the later
nineteenth century.95 However, he conveniently ignored the biblical precedent often
referenced in Christian burial services, namely that the image of death as sleep was
grounds for hope in view of the promise of resurrection.96
This was not the only metaphor relating to death that Ingersoll borrowed from the
Bible. In his eulogy for the young Miller boy, he took as his theme the “tree of life.” He
was quick to criticize this biblical concept when it was in the Garden of Eden, but here it
seemed an appropriate analogy for the source of human vitality.97 In his famous tribute to
Walt Whitman, delivered as the concluding remarks at the latter’s funeral, Ingersoll
declared in psalmic language that the poet’s work would remain a comfort to millions as
they walked through the dark valley of the shadow of death.98 Not unlike Christian
94. RGI, “Oration at a Child’s Grave,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 12, 1882.
95. On the popularity of the imagery of death as sleep in the Gilded Age, see Stephen Prothero,
“Lived Religion and the Dead: The Cremation Movement in Gilded Age America,” in Lived Religion in
America: Toward a History of Practice, ed. David D. Hall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997),
107; Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1995), 128–31l; and Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 257–75.
96. The most overt biblical references to death as sleep and hope are 1 Cor. 15:6, 20 and 1 Thess.
4:13–14, 27.
97. RGI, “Oration at a Child’s Grave.” He criticized this concept in Some Mistakes, 124–25, 136,
140–43.
98. RGI, “A Tribute to Walt Whitman,” in In Re Walt Whitman, ed. Horace L. Traubel, et al.
(Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893), 452. This was a reference to Psalm 23:4. On Ingersoll’s elegy at
Whitman’s funeral, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (New
78
ministers, Ingersoll found it beneficial to resort to certain biblical themes for consolation
in the face of human frailty.
The frequency with which Ingersoll spoke of death highlights another important
theme of his gospel of unbelief—the afterlife. Like the famous evangelists of the day, he
spent much of his time on the platform discussing evangelical beliefs about eternal
happiness and eternal punishment. He sought to stamp out the fires of hell entirely, rather
than exhort his audiences to flee them. It was this doctrine, he admitted, that originally
sparked his hatred for the Bible and its God.99 In Ingersoll’s estimation, the concept of
unending punishment was “eternal injustice” and too “infamous” a dogma for the “brave”
and “charitable” American people. Yet he was convinced it was a doctrine that sprung
solely from the Christian Bible. In his popular lecture on the subject, he quoted extended
portions of scripture to demonstrate that the idea of an eternal hell was only more
evidence, along with the Bible’s permissive attitude toward slavery and extermination,
that Christianity was a “barbarian religion.”100 In many respects, Ingersoll saw the
primary mission of his work as a freethinking lecturer to be the eradication of this
doctrine: “I am doing what I can to civilize the churches, humanize the preachers and get
the fear of hell out of the human heart. In this business I am meeting with great
success.”101 Though understood differently, this sentiment was not far adrift from the
ambitions of evangelicals concerned about the eternal destiny of the lost. Evangelists
York: HarperCollins, 2005), 105–6.
99. Chicago Times, November 14, 1879.
100. RGI, Hell. Lecture by Robert G. Ingersoll, Chickering Hall, New York, February 3d, 1878
(New York: E. McCormick, 1878), 3.
101. Philadelphia Times, September 25, 1885.
79
such as D. L. Moody and Sam P. Jones sought to release souls from the “fear of hell” by
telling them how to avoid it; Ingersoll tried to achieve the same by convincing them that
such a place did not exist.
Ingersoll’s refusal to believe in a place of everlasting suffering did not equate to a
forthright denial of immortality.102 It is evident from his letters and lectures that he
struggled with the possibility of existence beyond the grave throughout his life. While
dismissing the Christian view of eternity and the afterlife without question, he could not
entirely let go of the notion that death might not be the end. It was this inkling that
compelled Ingersoll to sustain—and encourage—a degree of hope in the face of death.
Indeed, it was the only cause for hope he clearly acknowledged. In the 1877 lecture, the
“Ghosts,” he spared immortality from the fate of the Bible by disassociating it from
Christianity, contending that it “was not born of any book, nor any creed.”103 Rather than
a religious concept, Ingersoll suggested that the idea of immortality had its origin in
human affection, in the desire to hold on to those who had departed. At a friend’s grave
he eloquently spoke of this longing: “All wish for happiness beyond this life. All hope to
meet again the loved and lost. In every heart there grows this sacred flower. Immortality
is a word that Hope through all the ages has been whispering to Love.”104 Alluding to the
102. On this curious tendency among the unorthodox to obsess over immortality, see Carter,
Spiritual Crisis, 85–107.
103. RGI, “The Ghosts,” in Ghosts and Other Lectures, 14. Ingersoll made the same point in
several of his letters, including RGI to Lucien I. Chapman, June 3, 1887, container 25; RGI to R. B.
Berkeley, February 2, 1892, container 20; and Ingersoll to E. R. Johnes, June 25, 1899, container 27;
Robert Green Ingersoll Papers, Manuscript Division, LOC. He reiterated the distinction between biblical
immortality and the legitimate notion of an afterlife on numerous occasions, including an interview in The
Post, Washington DC, April 30, 1883: “Throw away the Bible, and you throw away the fear of hell, but the
hope of another life remains, because the hope does not depend upon a book.” On this, see also RGI,
Orthodoxy: A Lecture (Washington DC: C. P. Farrell, 1884), 52–54.
104. RGI, “A Tribute to John G. Mills,” in Prose-Poems and Selections from the Writings and
80
biblical depiction of the rainbow as a divine promise of mercy, Ingersoll pointed to the
possibility of immortality as the real “rainbow—Hope shining upon the tears of grief.”105
That he allowed for the possibility of an actual afterlife—beyond mere rhetoric—came
out clearly at the funeral for young Mr. Miller: “We do not know whether the grave is the
end of this life or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a
dawn.”106 Such was Ingersoll’s commitment to the possibility of immortality that several
clergymen were convinced that the Great Agnostic fully embraced immortality, a claim
that concerned even some freethinkers.107
While Ingersoll equated the state of the dead with peaceful rest, his depiction of
the possibilities of immortality indicate that he hoped for much more. In much the same
way that he treated his agnosticism, simply claiming not to know was never enough for
Ingersoll. Even his confidence that “[t]he dead do not suffer” failed to satisfy his dream
of an afterlife.108 In the funeral oration for Ebon, he recounted that in his brother’s final
moments, Ebon mistook a brief respite from suffering for recovery and said, “I am better
now.” Regarding this sentiment, Robert exhorted, “Let us believe, in spite of doubts and
dogmas, of fears and tears, that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.”109
However, Ingersoll went even further than this ambiguous language for the
Sayings of Robert G. Ingersoll, 3rd ed. (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1888), 61.
105. RGI, “The Ghosts,” in The Ghosts, 14. The biblical allusion was to Gen. 9:13.
106. RGI, “Oration at a Child’s Grave.”
107. For instance, the Congregational minster Robert Nourse of Washington DC, confidently
reported to a journalist for the Cincinnati Enquirer that Ingersoll believed in immortality. On this, see
Macdonald, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll as He Is, 162. The concern among Ingersoll’s fellow freethinkers was
best articulated in A. H. Simpson, “Ingersoll on Immortality,” Radical Review 2 (April 5, 1884): 3.
108. Ingersoll, “Oration at a Child’s Grave.”
109. RGI, “A Tribute to Ebon C. Ingersoll,” 252.
81
restoration of health. In fact, at points his representations of immortality—or, at the very
least, the cessation of existence—looked distinctly like the biblical portrayal of eternal
life in the new heavens and the new earth. While the similarities certainly included the
sentiment of hopeful expectation, the most striking resemblance was to the consolation
found in the book of Revelation’s description of the heavenly state as a place where
“there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more
pain.”110 In his lecture on the “Truth,” Ingersoll admitted that “we dream of joy hereafter,
but we do not know.” Despite the absence of sure knowledge, he held on to hope: “We
can have our dream…. We can bend above our pallid dead and say, that beyond this life
there are no sighs—no tears—no breaking hearts.” Elsewhere he mused about an
“endless life” that might bring “rapture and love to every one.”111 Finally, in his lecture
critiquing the “Foundations of Faith,” Ingersoll refuted the charge that his gospel robbed
people of hope. One of the most remembered excerpts from the lecture, recorded by
Thomas Edison on one of his early phonographs, captured the anticipation he maintained
for a future existence: “The dying hopes that death is but another birth, and Love leans
above the pallid face and whispers, ‘We shall meet again.’ Hope is the consolation of the
world…. Let us hope that if there be another life that it will bring peace and joy to all the
children of men.”112 In every consideration of death and in the possibility of immortality,
Ingersoll carefully distinguished between knowledge and hope. While admitting that
immortality did not have facts on its side, he remained unconvinced that there was
110. This is a quotation from Rev. 21:4.
111. RGI, The Truth, 45; Ingersoll, Orthodoxy, 54.
112. RGI, The Foundations of Faith: A Lecture (New York: C. P. Farrell, 1896), 54.
82
sufficient evidence to rule out the possibility of a hereafter—even while arguing that the
evidence was abundant enough to exclude the supernatural. In a poem entitled “The
Declaration of the Free,” published only weeks before his death and subsequently read as
the “sermon” at his own funeral, Ingersoll concluded with a hopeful expectancy not
dampened by uncertainty. With the apostle Paul he scoffed at the futile sting of death:
We do not pray, or weep, or wail;
We have no dread,
No fear to pass beyond the veil
That hides the dead.
And yet we question, dream, and guess,
But knowledge we do not possess.
We ask, yet nothing seems to know;
We cry, in vain.
There is no “master of the show”
Who will explain,
Or from the future tear the mask;
And yet we dream and still we ask.
Is there beyond the silent night
An endless day?
Is death a door that leads to light?
We cannot say.
The tongueless secret locked in fate
We do not know. We hope and wait!113
Ingersoll’s gospel of infidelity is apparent both in his iconoclastic assaults on
evangelical religion and the Bible and in his heterodox creed. Caught up in the optimism
of the Gilded Age, he preached the good news of the progress of humanity—industrially,
intellectually, and religiously. American inventiveness and ingenuity were extending the
reaches of communication and travel and opening new worlds of possibilities for business
ventures. Scientific discoveries were enlarging humanity’s understanding of itself. In the
113. RGI, “Declaration of the Free,” Free Thought Magazine 17, no. 7 (July 1899): 365–68. The
apostle Paul’s challenge to death is found in 1 Cor. 15:55.
83
same way, Ingersoll suggested that religion was advancing toward maturity. Superstitious
dependence on the Bible was on the decline and with it such savage or preposterous
doctrines as the divine inspiration of scripture, the incarnation of Christ, the requirement
of faith for salvation, and the eternal punishment.114 Real religious enlightenment was
only to be found in honestly reading, interpreting, and, ultimately, rejecting the Bible.
Thus Ingersoll exerted most of his energy as a lecturer teaching audiences the real
contents of the Christian scripture. In doing this he was directly opposing the evangelical
establishment that was frantically trying to arrest the perceived spiritual decadence of
Gilded Age America. Through his exposition of the Bible, Ingersoll challenged the notion
that the evangelicals’ biblical moral vision for the nation truly embodied the ideals of
civilized humans. He showed scriptural religion to be the advocate of slavery, ignorance,
and violence, as well as the enemy of every sort of freedom, prosperity, and progress. In
short, he sought to prove that the modern world had “outgrown the greater part of the
Christian creed.”115
Ingersoll did not simply deconstruct orthodox evangelical Christianity. “I have a
creed myself,” he admitted, and it was this gospel of unbelief that he advanced from the
secular pulpit of the lecture podium.116 While his heterodoxy was a godless “religion of
reason” and “usefulness,” it was indelibly marked by evangelical belief and practice.
When the Christian Bible was not the text from which Ingersoll took his cues, the bible of
114. Ingersoll’s view of the progress of American thought is particularly drawn out in his
“Crumbling Creeds,” Twentieth Century, April 24, 1890, 5–7.
115. New York World, November 18, 1888.
116. This is taken from the version of Ingersoll’s “Creed” that he recorded on Edison’s
phonograph. It is quoted in Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York:
Metropolitan Books, 2004), 169.
84
humanity filled the gap. In its passages he found a wealth of wisdom that did not violate
his moral sensibilities or, more importantly, his commitment to rational truth: “Every
demonstrated fact is a verse in my Bible.”117 He called the laudable humanistic ideals he
promoted “gospels” and “doctrines.” Ingersoll’s creed maintained a scheme of salvation
inaugurated by the redeemer Science. In his own way he stormed the gates of hell by
attempting to eradicate the biblical notion of eternal punishment. Finally, in his
discussions on death and immortality—in which he functioned much like a minister
presiding over the grave—he offered a message of peace and hope not only for the living,
but for the deceased as well. Taken together, these tenets of Ingersoll’s creed constituted
a new, humanistic orthodoxy on the model of the old:
[The initiators of progress] are our Christs, our apostles, and our saints. The
triumphs of science are our miracles. The books filled with the facts of Nature are
our sacred scriptures, and the force that is in every atom and in every star—in
everything that lives and grows and thinks, that hopes and suffers, is the only
possible god.118
The association between Ingersoll’s evangelism and that of Christian preachers
did not go unnoticed in his day. The Great Agnostic’s appropriation of the rhetorical
posture of an evangelist was the most obvious aspect. It was also one he frequently
encouraged when he appropriated the apostle Paul’s exclamation, “Woe is me if I preach
not my gospel!”119 On account of his pontifications on behalf of free and rational thought,
publishers and editors described Ingersoll as “Pope Bob,” “Rev. Robert Ingersoll,” and
117. “Ingersoll’s Creed,” Shaker Manifesto 11, no. 2 (February 1881): 33.
118. RGI, The Truth, 52.
119. Baker remarks that Ingersoll frequently and facetiously used this biblical expression (taken
from 1 Corinthians 9:16) as an expression for his commitment to lecturing against biblical religion; see An
Intimate View, 67. For one printed example, see the interview in Plain Dealer, September 5, 1885. On
Ingersoll’s adoption of the stance of an evangelist, see J. Vernon Jensen, “Robert G. Ingersoll: ‘True
Believe’ Unbeliever,” Central States Speech Journal 35 (Summer 1984): 105–112.
85
“Minister of the Gospel of Freethought.”120 Some evangelicals also saw a connection
between the gospel the Great Agnostic ostracized and the one he embraced. One
Congregationalist, unsure of what to make of this infidel brand of religiosity, told a
newspaper shortly after Ingersoll’s death that he had “the heart of a Christian and the
head of an Atheist.”121
The deaths in the same year of Gilded Age America’s greatest unbeliever and
Moody, its greatest evangelist, provided yet another occasion for contrast. The opinions
of the pious had not changed substantially in the two decades since Thurlow Weed’s
denouncement of Ingersoll as the unquestionable inferior of the two.122 Now that both of
their platforms were silenced, however, their individual messages could be assessed more
comprehensively. The most insightful of these retrospections came from John Heyl
Vincent, the Methodist Episcopal bishop and cofounder of the Chautauqua Assembly in
New York. His contribution to a tribute volume for Moody dealt entirely with a
comparison of the two later nineteenth-century celebrities. Both men were endowed with
“high imaginative power” and oratorical abilities that enabled them to “attract and hold
the ‘crowd.’” Vincent pointed out that in spite of all of Ingersoll’s contributions to
American politics (and even, perhaps, to the increased popularity of Shakespeare), he was
known mainly for his opinions on religion. In this respect as well he was similar to the
120. For an example, see a Catholic criticism by Henry A. Brann, “A Sermon by Rev. Robert
Ingersoll, Abbot of Unreason,” Donahoe’s Magazine 6, no. 2 (August 1881): 99–104.
121. Quoted in Macdonald, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll as He Is, 162.
122. Contrasting portraits of Moody and Ingersoll were commonplace in the major newspapers in
the weeks following their deaths. The Great Agnostic was a favorite subject of the printed sermons. For
one example, see “Sermons on Ingersoll,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1899. Charles A. Blanchard,
president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, blasted, “As compared with Moody, [Ingersoll] was a
wretched failure.”
86
renowned preacher. “Both Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Moody,” Vincent observed, “were
distinctly religious teachers.”123 Ingersoll’s message may have championed popular
biblical criticism and humanistic freethought in place of the good news of salvation in
Christ, but it was a gospel he preached with as much religious conviction and ardor as
any evangelist.
123. John H. Vincent, “Ingersoll and Moody—A Contrast,” in Dwight L. Moody, the Man and His
Mission, ed. George T. B. Davis (Chicago: Monarch Book Co., 1900), 234; emphasis original.
87
CHAPTER THREE
“I fight ideas, I fight principles”:
Reactions and Controversies
In a letter to the editor of the New York Evening Telegram on the first Sunday of
January 1892, Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., called Robert Ingersoll an ass. The remark was
not intended entirely as a slur. In fact, Dixon, a North Carolinian lawyer turned New
York Baptist minister, had suggested that the nation’s leading critic of Christianity was
helping to purify the churches by exposing their inconsistencies. The dig, however, was
obvious: in concluding his “defense” of the religious challenger, Dixon observed, “If God
could choose Balaam’s ass to speak a divine message, I do not see why he could not
utilize the Colonel.”1 In his own letter to the Evening Telegram the following Sunday,
Ingersoll reversed the direction of insult in a brief exposition of the biblical text. The ass
in this passage, he observed, proved “not only her intellectual, but her moral superiority”
over God’s own servant. It was the ass and not the prophet, Ingersoll wrote, that had seen
and obeyed the angel of the Lord. In neglecting to acknowledge these finer points in the
biblical account he thought the esteemed Rev. Dixon “not quite polite.”2
As much as this facetious exchange reflected both men’s pettier tendencies, it
also highlights how believer and unbeliever alike used the other to validate their own
religious (at times even biblical) claims. How Ingersoll was used by a particular
1. New York Evening Telegram, January 3, 1892. For more on the life and influence of Thomas
Dixon, Jr., the younger brother of the later fundamentalist evangelist A. C. Dixon, see Michele K. Gillespie
and Randal L. Hall, eds., Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Making of Modern America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 2006), especially the essay by David Stricklin, “‘Ours Is a Century of Light’:
Dixon’s Strange Consistency,” 105–23, which includes some details on Dixon’s critique of Ingersoll.
2. New York Evening Telegram, January 10, 1892.
88
individual or group—either as support or a foil—was determined by the proximity of
their own religion beliefs to those of Ingersoll.3 The self-confessed freethinkers, those
hostile to all forms of organized religion, stood close to (if not wholeheartedly with) his
skeptical agenda. They lauded Ingersoll’s efforts and held him up as a figure for
emulation, the result being that few exerted any energy critiquing the content or manner
of his assaults on religion. The other extreme, religious conservatives, especially the
evangelical Protestants who made up Ingersoll’s own religious ancestry, launched fiery
and at times desperate counterarguments against their estranged son. Somewhere in the
middle, theological progressives at once soberly engaged Ingersoll’s assaults on the Bible
and minimized the relative severity of the threat he posed to the Christian religion. Of
these, it was the religious liberals who paid Ingersoll and his criticisms the most critical
attention.
“[T]he herald to the crowd”: Ingersoll among the Freethinkers4
Ingersoll’s career as a public freethinker effectively began and concluded at the
conventions of the national Free Religious Association. A gathering of progressive
Quakers, liberal Jews, radical Unitarians, Universalists, scientific theists, agnostics,
Transcendentalists, Theosophists, and Spiritualists, the Association created an
environment in which Ingersoll doubtless felt at home—it absolutely effused all things
3. Martin E. Marty suggests categories of respondents similar to these in his The Infidel:
Freethought and American Religion (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1961), 151–72.
4. [William J. Potter and Benjamin F. Underwood], “Ingersoll,” Index n.s., 4, no. 48 (May 29,
1884): 568.
89
unorthodox in its quest for free religion and free thought.5 In 1873, he delivered his first
address to an audience largely composed of fellow skeptics at the Chicago branch of the
Association on the subject “The Arraignment of the Church.” Then, in June 1899, little
more than a month prior to his death, Ingersoll spoke publicly for the last time—openly
disavowing the existence of God—at the annual Boston conference of the Association.6
Despite a lack of clarity on the precise nature of his relationship to the Free
Religious Association, Ingersoll and his iconoclasm maintained a remarkably positive
reputation among its constituents. At the momentous tenth anniversary gathering in 1877,
the year following the Peoria lawyer’s entrance onto the national political scene, the
radical Unitarian-turned Free Religionist Octavius Brooks Frothingham, then president of
the Association, begrudgingly accepted Ingersoll’s unexpected absence at the conference:
“Col. Ingersoll, whom we asked, and looked for, and hoped for, and who responded most
cordially to our invitation, seems to belong to the whole country…. At any rate, he is not
here.”7 In the final years of his life, Frothingham compared Ingersoll’s irreligion to
Thomas Paine’s. Considering him “a sort of transfigured Paine,” Frothingham regretted
that Ingersoll was not proving a more constructive thinker than his predecessor. He
admitted nonetheless that Ingersoll was grander than Paine in every respect: he had “all
Paine’s power over the masses” with the important advantage of being “perhaps the most
5. On the history and diverse composition of the Free Religious Association, see Leigh Eric
Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 52, 101–
42. For a more extensive analysis of the Association and the history of Free Religion generally, see Stow
Persons, Free Religion: An American Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947), esp. 42–54.
6. The address at the Chicago Free Religious Association was published as Robert G. Ingersoll
(hereafter RGI), Arraignment of the Church and a Plea for Individuality (Boston: J. P. Mendum, 1874). His
Boston speech was What is Religion? (Boston: Boston Investigator Company, 1899).
7. Proceedings at the Tenth Annual Meeting at the Free Religious Association Held in Boston
(Boston: Free Religious Association, 1877), 84.
90
eloquent man in America.” Respecting Ingersoll’s skepticism, Frothingham appreciated
all his efforts to oppose organized religion and to “lift off the burden of superstition and
priestcraft.” Disinclined to lose Ingersoll to rationalism entirely, he called the infidel’s
ambition “essentially religious,” whatever Ingersoll himself might say, and described him
as worshipper of the “substance of deity,” however formless or unrecognizable.8 Mild
disappointment with the form of his iconoclasm notwithstanding, Frothingham still
appropriated the Great Agnostic’s anti-religious mission for the cause of Free Religion.
Among the rank and file of the Association there was substantial confusion over
why Ingersoll was not considered a full-blooded member. Letters appeared with
regularity in one of the body’s primary mouthpieces, the Index, inquiring why the Great
Agnostic’s speeches against orthodoxy were not published in its pages. One notable
response to such requests from William J. Potter and Benjamin F. Underwood, the editors
of the periodical, well articulated Ingersoll’s rapport with the Association. Admitting he
was an eloquent orator, they critiqued his lectures as being “more witty than wise” and
lacking any “original contribution to liberal thought or criticism.” The editors called
Ingersoll’s grasp of scientific and philosophical matters “fragmentary,” many of his
views innocent of coherence, and his manner of theological criticism a relic of the
arguments of Paine and Voltaire. Potter and Underwood lamented that Ingersoll’s
engagement of modern thought was not more constructive, for if it were “the quality of
his service would be greatly improved.” Nevertheless, they conceded that his populism
was invaluable for their cause: “[H]e has brought to the aid of the liberal movement in
this country what is greatly needed,—sentiment, poetry, and eloquence,—and awakened
8. Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Recollections and Impressions, 1822–1890 (New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1891), 253–4.
91
more or less interest in free thought in the minds of large numbers who could never have
been reached by hard logical reasoning.” In the end, they partially succumbed to the
pressure, publishing a lengthy excerpt from Ingersoll on immortality that they considered
characteristic of “the poetical beauty of his style.”9 In spite of a hesitancy to embrace
Ingersoll as an archetypal representative on account of his dismissive attitude toward all
forms of religion and, perhaps more troubling, the archaic quality of his criticisms, Free
Religionists recognized his importance and gladly accepted his support of their chief
aims.
Even more than the Free Religious Association, the National Liberal League (later
the American Secular Union), which shared many of its members with the Association,
found itself in essential agreement with Ingersoll and his proselytizing efforts on behalf
of unbelief.10 Such was the cordiality between the two that one is hard pressed to find
contemporary criticisms against Ingersoll uttered by a League spokesperson.
Furthermore, it was with this organization that Ingersoll—consistently unfavorable to
long-standing associations with any in the freethought community—felt comfortable
enough to align himself in an official capacity, albeit only for a time. In fact, Ingersoll
rallied behind the cause of the League in 1877, having been just elected a vice-president,
in support of a secularized government and secularized schools, both institutions free
from any influence of the Bible.11 Even after the failure of the attempted establishment of
9. [Potter and Underwood], “Ingersoll,” 568.
10. On the overlapping ideological aims of the Free Religious Association and the National
Liberal League, with special attention to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, a leading member of the former and
president of the latter, see W. Creighton Peden, Empirical Tradition in American Liberal Religious
Thought, 1860–1960 (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 1–31.
11. On Ingersoll’s activity in the National Liberal League, see Sidney Warren, American
92
a freestanding secular political party in the late 1870s (largely due to Ingersoll’s refusal to
accept the presidential nomination), members of the League stood squarely behind the
Great Agnostic. Samuel P. Putnam, author of the massive tome 400 Years of Freethought
(1894) and president of the League under its reorganized name, the American Secular
Union, cited Ingersoll with more frequency than any other contemporary freethinker in
the United States or Britain. Acknowledging the criticisms regarding his intellectual
status, such as those offered by the editors of the Index, Putnam suggested that Ingersoll
was better ranked with Shakespeare, Goethe, and Shelley: “He is essentially literature,
and not politics, or philosophy, or education.” Putnam quickly added that he could have
surpassed any in the other fields had he put his mind to it. All the same, Ingersoll was
“the greatest living literary power in America” and as such he had become a household
name. Putnam concluded gushingly, “[N]o one is so well known to millions of people as
Ingersoll…. [He] is the most beloved and honored name in the American republic.”12
Shortly after Ingersoll’s death, the Free Thought Magazine, a monthly periodical
operated by proponents of the Secular Union, issued a memorial number committed
entirely to reminiscences of the fallen leader. The first contribution came from the pen of
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. One year having passed since the publication of the second
volume of her Woman’s Bible, she recalled the formative influence Ingersoll’s Some
Mistakes of Moses had effected on her estimation of the Pentateuch. The “undignified
Freethought, 1860–1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 165 and Sydney E. Ahlstrom and
Robert Bruce Mullin, The Scientific Theist: A Life of Francis Ellingwood Abbot (Macon, GA: Mercer
University Press, 1987), 109–11.
12. Samuel P. Putnam, 400 Years of Freethought (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1894), 511,
512–17. Years prior to composing this entry on Ingersoll, Putnam published a lengthy poem that sought to
articulate the common ground between Ingersoll’s gospel and the philosophy of Jesus. See his Ingersoll
and Jesus (New York: D. M. Bennett, 1882).
93
performances” in the Garden of Eden as recounted by Ingersoll, she wrote, “convinced
me that the great spirit of the universe was neither the author nor the inspirer of the
Book.” Stanton was confident that the “future historian will rank Robert G. Ingersoll
peerless among the great and good men of the nineteenth century” for his ridicule of
irrational faith and his eradication of superstition.13 Helen Gardener, the freethinking
suffragist, novelist, and member of the Woman’s Bible revising committee, also wrote for
the issue. In her essay she mourned the loss of Ingersoll while declaring his triumphs:
“He has civilized the church and won the battle for intellectual liberty…. One day the
world will know what it has lost.”14 In spite of his qualified praise of the Great Agnostic,
Benjamin Underwood was invited to contribute as well. He obliged, writing graciously
and respectfully about the deceased’s notable strengths: “As a wit, phrase-maker, wordpainter, prose-poet and popular orator, and as an aggressive assailant of superstition, a
representative of iconoclastic Free Thought, Ingersoll was never surpassed.”15 More than
a dozen other essays from a diverse array of freethinking leaders filled the pages of the
memorial issue. (The number even contained an advertisement from the newly formed
Ingersoll Monument Association, petitioning contributions for the erection of a statue of
Ingersoll in Peoria, Illinois.) According to these reflections, it would have been difficult
13. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll,” Free Thought Magazine 17, no. 9
(September 1899): 488, 487. More popular even than the Free Thought Magazine was another periodical in
the same vein, the Truth Seeker. On the history of this journal and its publishers, see George E. Macdonald,
Fifty Years of Freethought, Being the Story of the Truth Seeker, 2 vols. (New York: Truth Seeker
Company, 1931).
14. Helen H. Gardener, “Our Great Dead—Ingersoll,” Free Thought Magazine 17, no. 9
(September 1899): 507–6. For more on Gardener and her role in the freethought and suffrage movements,
see Evelyn A. Kirkley, Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen: Gender and American Atheism, 1865–
1915 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 80–106, 125–26. See also Warren, American
Freethought, 84, 128.
15. B. F. Underwood, “Recollections of Our Great Orator,” Free Thought Magazine 17, no. 9
(September 1899): 494.
94
in 1899 to exaggerate the extent of Ingersoll’s influence within the freethought
movement.
This popularity extended across the Atlantic. British freethinkers of all stripes
similarly praised Ingersoll’s prominence and a few were effectively dazzled by the
ascendency he had achieved in America.16 Charles Bradlaugh, the first member of
parliament to be an avowed atheist and founder of the National Secular Society, and
Annie Besant, a Theosophist and fellow leader of the Secular Society, happily published
nearly every lecture the great American freethinker gave.17 Ingersoll considered both
good friends and frequently corresponded with each.18 John M. Robertson, the noted
historian of freethought and also a member of parliament, directly attributed the lion’s
share of the success of the movement in the United States to Ingersoll, “the leading
American orator of the last generation, and the most widely influential platform
propagandist of the last century. No other single freethinker, it is believed, has reached so
large an audience by public speech.”19 Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, assistant editor of the
Freethinker, a leading periodical for English secularists, echoed Putnam’s and
Robertson’s sentiments when he wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers
(1889) that Ingersoll was “the most popular speaker in America.”20
16. For more on Ingersoll’s popularity in Britain, see John Edward Kleber, “The Magic of His
Power: Robert G. Ingersoll and His Day” (PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 1969), 170–76.
17. For instance, see RGI, Popular Edition of Col. Ingersoll’s Lectures (London: Freethought
Publishing Company, 1883).
18. See especially the letters between Ingersoll and Besant, container 25, Robert Green Ingersoll
Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter LOC), Washington DC.
19. J. M. Robertson, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Watts & Co.,
1929), 2:446.
20. J. M. Wheeler, A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations (London:
95
Perhaps the greatest praise Ingersoll received on either side of the Atlantic came
upon his death from the eminent English secularist George Jacob Holyoake (who devised
the term “secularism” in 1851). Contributing to the same memorial number in the Free
Thought Magazine, he called Ingersoll a figure of international repute and surmised that
even many British clergy had breathed sighs of relief at the news of the American’s
demise. The bulk of Holyoake’s essay was given over to refuting the criticisms of
believers and even some unbelievers (as previously seen) that Ingersoll’s assault on the
Bible and Christianity aimed to destroy but offered no constructive replacements:
“Ingersoll not constructive? Why every oration was an ethical edifice…. [O]ne of
Ingersoll’s orations did more for morality than any Ethicist discourse I ever read…. He
was for liberty, truth and right.” He concluded eloquently, a fitting tribute to his subject’s
own oratory: “Ingersoll is not to be mourned but to be imitated. We do not grieve but
rejoice in his career, which has made Free Thought a new force in the world. Honor of
him will be imperishable in our hearts as we walk in the sunshine he has diffused over all
the paths which lead to Truth.”21 In the midst of conducting their own freethought
crusade at home, British skeptics, particularly those of the secularist variety, kept careful
watch on their constituents in America. Among all the promising leaders, they were most
enamored with Ingersoll and his unprecedented influence as an apologist for their
Progressive Publishing Company, 1889), 183. On Wheeler, see Edward Royle, Radicals, Secularists, and
Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866–1915 (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
1980), 104–5; on Ingersoll’s interaction with British freethinkers, see 79–80.
21. George Jacob Holyoake, “Career of Ingersoll, from an Englishman’s Standpoint,” Free
Thought Magazine 17, no. 9 (September 1899): 491–93. Ingersoll and Holyoake also corresponded with
great regularity. For many of Holyoake’s letters from 1886–91, see container 25, Robert Green Ingersoll
Papers, Manuscript Division, LOC. Others may be found in the Gordon Stein Collection of Robert
Ingersoll, Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University (hereafter
SIUC), Carbondale, IL.
96
transatlantic cause.22
Proponents of the freethought movement in the last quarter of the nineteenth
century gave Ingersoll’s assaults on Christianity and the Bible the heartiest support. Few
among them lodged any serious complaints against him or his methods. However, certain
of the more broad-minded and constructive advocates of infidelity did express concerns
about the Great Agnostic’s inclination to reject wholesale every form of religious ideal
and sentiment that did not align precisely with his own narrow understanding of the
“religion of humanity.” Individuals such as the Free Religionist Frothingham held the
scriptures in greater esteem (admitting “their high moral bearing and their spiritual
glow”) and recognized the distinctly religious quality of Ingersoll’s own iconoclasm.23
The agnostic Benjamin Franklin Underwood, who likewise spent most of his energies
lecturing on the Christian religion and biblical themes, doubted the durability of
Ingersoll’s criticisms in the face of newly emerging philosophical thought and scientific
theories. Unlike the Great Agnostic, Underwood did not confine his lectures to the
subject of orthodoxy but supplemented his topics with speeches such as “The Positive
Side of Modern Liberal Thought” and “What Freethought Gives Us in Place of the
Creeds.”24 These reservations about the adequacy of Ingersoll’s gospel to meet the most
fundamental needs of the age aside, skeptics at home and abroad fully recognized and
22. Charles Watts, the British journalist and influential advocate of secularism, wrote a small
hagiographic account of the major American leaders of the movement: American Freethinkers: Sketches of
Colonel Ingersoll, T. B. Wakeman, B. F. Underwood, and George Chainey (London: Watts & Co., n.d.
[before 1899]). Ingersoll received the lengthiest (and most glowing) attention by far. As late as the mid1930s, British freethinkers still optimistically judged that Ingersoll might have been elected president of the
United States had he not been an outspoken infidel. See Mimnermus, “Ingersoll the Inimitable,”
Freethinker 60 (June 9, 1935): 354–55.
23. Frothingham, Recollections and Impressions, 252.
24. Warren, American Freethought, 40.
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gladly embraced his status as an unmatched force for popular freethought in America.
“He is a heap of dirt”: Evangelical Responses25
The publication of Some Mistakes of Moses in early 1879 evoked a rash of
responses from a wide range of church leaders, evangelists, biblical scholars, theologians,
and politicians. The caliber and extent of the attention was something entirely new to
Ingersoll, whose two previous publications, the Gods (1874) and the Ghosts (1878), had
received limited engagement outside Peoria. With an eye to capitalize on Ingersoll’s
growing reputation, Chicago publisher J. B. McClure, critical himself of the former’s
agnosticism, released several volumes of the early responses to Some Mistakes in 1879
under the title Mistakes of Ingersoll. As an added bonus, McClure included a few of
Ingersoll’s own lectures and, in a later edition, the freethinker’s complete answers to his
accusers.26 Few of these published reactions to Some Mistakes, however, came from
constituents of Ingersoll’s own evangelical parentage. In fact, only one conservative
Protestant respondent was included in the first edition of McClure’s volume, the Scottishborn Chicago Presbyterian minister J. Monro Gibson. Although progressive Protestants
offered the majority of the early responses, evangelicals joined the fray in increasing
numbers as Ingersoll’s public infidelity became more pronounced.
The dominant evangelical responses were marked by triumphalism. Many of them
25. A. C. Dixon on Ingersoll, quoted in C. H. Cramer, Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), 120.
26. The editions edited by J. B. McClure included Mistakes of Ingersoll, … Including Ingersoll’s
Lecture on the “Mistakes of Moses” (Chicago: Rhodes & McClure, 1879); Mistakes of Ingersoll, …
Including Ingersoll’s Lecture on “Skulls” and His Answers (Chicago: Rhodes & McClure, 1879);
Ingersoll’s New Departure: Replies to His Famous Lecture “What Shall We Do to Be Saved” (Chicago:
Rhodes & McClure, 1880); Mistakes of Ingersoll on Thomas Paine (Chicago: Rhodes & McClure, 1880);
and Mistakes of Ingersoll and His Answers Complete (Chicago: Rhodes & McClure, 1882).
98
sought to explode Ingersoll’s biblical skepticism and his propositions about morality and
happiness apart from faith. However, more than anything else, they simply reacted to his
infidelity with indignation and sheer confidence that nothing so godless could stand
against the gospel of Christ. For these evangelical controverters, Ingersoll was used as
both a justification of their position and a representation of darkest unbelief to scare the
rebellious back into the fold.27
The most significant early reaction from an evangelical to Ingersoll’s skepticism
came by arrangement in 1881. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor and publisher of the
esteemed North American Review, contrived to pit the infidel lawyer against a Christian
one. The aged Jeremiah S. Black, former United States attorney general and secretary of
state, as well as a committed Campbellite, accepted the challenge. In an exchange of
essays, the two attorneys prosecuted their cases at length on the topic Rice broadly
named, “The Christian Religion.” Ingersoll, who contributed the first essay, had
originally given his piece the title “Is All of the Bible Inspired?” Despite the alteration,
the entire debate surrounded issues dealing with biblical authority, history, morality, and
the subsequent influence of Christendom in the world. Ingersoll opened his portion with
triumphant claims about the coming eclipse of religious dogmatism in America: “The
pulpit is losing because the people are growing.”28 In his essay, he traipsed through the
scriptures, identifying inconsistencies and moral atrocities and suggesting means to
disinfect the ancient document. Black responded in the same issue, seeing it as his duty as
a Christian layman to play the part of “the policeman who would silence a rude disturber
27. Marty, The Infidel, 158.
28. RGI, “The Christian Religion,” North American Review 133, no. 297 (August 1881): 109.
99
of the congregation, by telling him that his clamor is false and his conduct an offense
against public decency.”29 He challenged Ingersoll’s depiction of Christianity as being on
the brink of collapse under the pressure of infidelity and countered each of his major
biblical and doctrinal “misrepresentations.” Juxtaposing Christian piety with the
“universal depravity” and godlessness of post-Revolution France, Black concluded that
the American people would undoubtedly choose the former.
Several months later Ingersoll responded with frustration and outrage. Unaware
that his essay would not be answered by a more significant representative of the Christian
religion, he chafed at the thought that his sparring with this mere “policeman” might give
“the impression that I was somewhat doubtful as to the correctness of my position.”30 In a
reply that was lengthier than both his and Black’s original essays combined, Ingersoll
reiterated his infidel views on Christianity and the Bible and countered his opponent’s
claims nearly point by point. Whereas he had first addressed his subject generally, in this
essay he ridiculed Black personally for entertaining primitive notions about divine
inspiration and the uniformity of the biblical canon. Not prepared to let even his
opponent’s closing remarks pass without a challenge, Ingersoll traced the atrocities of the
French Revolution back to the cruel hegemony of the Christian churches. The tools of
persecution and death were wielded by the clergy before they were taken up by the
revolutionaries. Ingersoll defended the good of the Revolution in the same breath: “[T]he
People placed upon a Nation’s brow these stars:—Liberty, Fraternity, Equality—grander
29. Jeremiah S. Black, “The Christian Religion,” North American Review 133, no. 297 (August
1881): 129.
30. RGI, “The Christian Religion, Part II,” North American Review 133, no. 300 (November
1881): 477.
100
words than every issued from Jehovah’s lips.”31 Black never responded to Ingersoll’s
scathing indictment.
The following year, Ingersoll found himself embroiled in another religious
conflict, this time with an orthodox evangelical of a stature more to his liking. In January
1882, after preaching a series of sermons on “The Ten Plagues of New-York and
Brooklyn,” the famed Rev. Thomas De Witt Talmage of the Brooklyn Tabernacle tackled
an eleventh—Ingersoll.32 In six sermons published in the New York Times and reprinted
in major newspapers across the country, Talmage sought to answer the infidelity of the
man he dubbed both the “champion blasphemer in America” and the “ignorant high priest
of American atheism.”33 Each of his sermons supplied answers to many of Ingersoll’s
specific criticisms of the Bible, but his primary aim was to challenge the adequacy of
unbelief. Ingersoll, in his mind, was posing no idle threat. Talmage admitted that many
people—he specifically identified the country’s young men—“through [Ingersoll’s]
teachings have given up their religion and soon after gave up their morals.”34
In his fourth sermon, “The Meanness of Infidelity,” the Brooklyn minister set
about contrasting Christianity and infidelity by their works, a theme to which many
critics of Ingersoll appealed. Talmage pointed to the philanthropy of Christian volunteer
societies, the Christian Sabbath schools and other institutions of learning, and the work of
31. RGI, “The Christian Religion, Part II,” 522.
32. New York Times, January 9, 1882.
33. New York Times, January 23, 1882. The sermons were subsequently reprinted in Britain as a
counter to English freethinkers’ own intense interest in Ingersoll: T. De Witt Talmage, The Great American
Atheist Answered: Being Six Addresses Delivered at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, New York (London: William
Nicholson & Sons, n.d. [1882]); and Bradlaughism Demolished, Or the Trial of Infidelity versus
Christianity, Being Replies to Ingersoll (London: Christian Age Offices, n.d.).
34. Talmage, Great American Atheist Answered, 8.
101
Christian missionaries around the world working for physical and spiritual betterment.
“That is Christianity,” he concluded. Then Talmage turned to Ingersoll’s brand of
iconoclastic unbelief: “Here is Infidelity; no prayer on her lips, no benediction on her
brow, both hands clenched—what for? To fight Christianity. That is the entire business,
the complete mission of Infidelity, to fight Christianity. Where are her schools, her
colleges, her asylums of mercy?” Unleashing his harshest language against the gospel of
Ingersoll, he argued that such a religion, compared to Christianity, had nothing to offer
this world or gain in the next:
Is infidelity so poor, so starveling, so mean, so useless? Get out, you miserable
pauper of the universe!… Infidelity [is] standing to-day amid the suffering,
groaning, dying nations, and yet doing absolutely nothing save trying to impede
those who are toiling until they fall exhausted into their graves in trying to make
the world better…. Infidelity scrapes no lint for the wounded, bakes no bread for
the hungry, shakes up no pillow for the sick, rouses no comfort for the bereft,
gilds no grave for the dead. While Christ, our Christ, our wounded Christ, our
risen Christ, the Christ of this old-fashioned Bible—blessed be His glorious name
for ever!—our Christ stands this morning pointing to the hospital, or to the
asylum, saying: “I was sick and ye gave me a couch, … I was blind and ye
physicianed my eyesight, I was orphaned and ye mothered my soul, …; inasmuch
as ye did it to one of the least of these, ye did it to me.” O! what a magnificent
array of men and women have been made by the religion of the Bible.35
After castigating the religion of unbelief on the grounds that it did no good,
Talmage turned to a broad vindication of the Bible in his final sermons. Neither it nor
Christianity in his estimation was in the least danger of heading for extinction, as
Ingersoll and his ilk predicted. Rather, they were on the advance. In attempting to prove
this, Talmage supplied statistics on the abundance of Bibles in the United States as well
as the growing numbers of Christians worldwide. Finally, he came to the point of his
sermon series, the reason for which he found Ingersoll useful: “Young man,” Talmage
35. Talmage, Great American Atheist Answered, 93–94, 95–97.
102
pleaded with his intended audience, “do not be ashamed to be a friend of the Bible. Do
not … swagger about, talking of the glorious light of the nineteenth century, and of there
being no need of a Bible…. Ah! my friends, you had better stop you[r] scepticism.”36
Just as Talmage found the image of the infidel beneficial for his evangelistic
cause, Ingersoll found the free publicity useful for the spread of his own gospel.37 He
responded to each of the Brooklyn minister’s sermons with his own on “Talmagian
Theology.” Although they contained nothing substantially different from his other
lectures, Ingersoll’s talks—like Talmage’s—received instant attention in leading national
newspapers. The Great Agnostic crossed swords with one of the great evangelists of
America in a playful manner, at once congratulating him on being “the only Presbyterian
minister in the United States who can draw an audience” and suggesting that his elaborate
description of the windows in the ark sounded more like Brooklyn than the invention of
Noah.38 After these flippant initial lectures, Ingersoll decided at some point to reread
Talmage’s sermons. Suddenly, he came to respect the force of his arguments and the
“bravery to defend his belief.” Concerned that the frivolity of his earlier lectures might be
construed as an inability to offer a substantial response, Ingersoll published an assortment
of his more sober conversations on the minister’s defense of biblical Christianity.39
Ingersoll was able to use Talmage in both his sarcastic and sober responses to advance
36. Talmage, Great American Atheist Answered, 140–41.
37. See Marty, The Infidel, 11–16, from which this comment is being drawn, on the infidel image
as used by religious advocates. For more on Ingersoll’s lectures against Talmage, see Frank Smith, Robert
G. Ingersoll: A Life (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), 192–95.
38. “Talmagian Theology (Second Lecture),” Lectures of Col. R. G. Ingersoll (Chicago: Rhodes &
McClure, 1898) 669, 675.
39. RGI, Six Interviews with Robert G. Ingersoll on Six Sermons By the Rev. T. De Witt Talmage
(Washington DC: C. P. Farrell, 1882), vii.
103
his own skeptical agenda.
As the last quarter of the nineteenth century wore on, Ingersoll’s challenges to
Christianity and the Bible drew increasing attention from leading evangelists and
ministers of evangelical America. In 1892, Thomas and A. C. Dixon launched nearsimultaneous campaigns against Ingersollian infidelity.40 Like Talmage, the Dixon
brothers responded to growing concerns over the religious lives of the young men of New
York. A. C., ministering at Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, gave “practical
lectures” on Sunday afternoons on “Ingersollism as It Is” and other topics relating to the
nation’s greatest unbeliever. In response to one of these lectures, in which A. C. had
hinted that the infidel willingly supported the violation of the Comstock laws, which
prohibited the mailing of obscene literature, an outraged Ingersoll announced his intent to
bring charges against A. C.41 The Brooklyn minister welcomed the suit as an opportunity
to expose the infidel once and for all: “I have tried to have Mr. Ingersoll push that case,
but he will not…. I have proof that R. G. Ingersoll was the acknowledged leader and
friend of some of the most notorious dealers in indecent literature in New-York.” After
more than two years of threatening, Ingersoll finally (and inexplicably) dropped the
charges.42
Following the exchange of letters in the New York Evening Telegram (referenced
at the beginning of this chapter), Thomas Dixon, pastor of Twenty-Third Street Baptist
Church in New York City, preached his own ten-part sermon series on the mistakes of
40. Stricklin, “‘Ours Is a Century of Light,’” 105–23.
41. New York Times, February 15, 1892; and New York Times, February 25, 1892.
42. New York Times, April 23, 1894.
104
Ingersoll to crowded audiences at the hall of the Young Men’s Christian Association.
Avowing that his addresses had “nothing to do with [the] legal skirmish across with
river” between his brother and the infidel leader, Thomas nonetheless approached the
subject with concerns very similar to those of his sibling.43 He was anxious about the
influence Ingersoll was wielding over the city’s young people. Each of his sermons
highlighted a particular “mistake” made by the Great Agnostic, either against Christianity
and the Bible or in support of unbelief, offered a countering passage of scripture, and
supplied Dixon’s own commentary on both. By the end of his series, Thomas stood by
his earlier view that Ingersoll was an ass in divine employ, though perhaps for him the
label had come to mean more that the great infidel exposed the fragility of unbelief than
the blind spots of the Christian churches. Ingersoll, who seemed to have even less time
for Thomas than for his brother, never offered a public response.
Interestingly, the approaches of two of the most prominent evangelists of Gilded
Age America to the infidel Ingersoll, Sam P. Jones and D. L. Moody, were striking in
their difference. Jones, the fiery southern Methodist preacher, took every opportunity to
hold up Ingersoll as the apogee of godlessness and intellectual immorality. He even
swore that if his dog ever went to hear Ingersoll lecture he would “fill him with
buckshot.”44 Particularly offended by Ingersoll’s Republican “bloody shirt” waving and
his characterization of the South after the Civil War, Jones demanded that “before he asks
43. Thomas Dixon, Jr., Dixon on Ingersoll: Ten Discourses (New York: J. S. Ogilvie, n.d. [1892]),
9–10.
44. Chicago Daily Tribune, March 3, 1886. This sermon was also reprinted in Sam Jones and Sam
Small, Good News: A Collection of Sermons by Sam Jones and Sam Small (New York: J. S. Ogilvie and
Company, 1886), 33. For more on Jones’s responses to Ingersoll, see Kathleen Minnix, Laughter in the
Amen Corner: The Life of Evangelist Sam Jones (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 120–22,
228–29.
105
our people to believe what he says about their Lord and Saviour, let him prove what he
has said against the best men and women of the South.” Throughout the 1890s, Jones
unsuccessfully challenged Ingersoll to public debate on the merits of the gospel.45
Alternatively, the even better known Moody rarely mentioned the Great Agnostic. The
few instances he did were only to point to the latter’s exemplary home life and to express
a desire to see him come to faith in Christ. Of the many cultural icons Moody utilized in
his program of mass evangelism, Ingersoll was not one.46 As much as Jones talked about
America’s leading skeptic, and as little as Moody did, neither of them saw much value in
challenging Ingersoll on his treatment of the Bible. For them, it was the infidel’s hostility
to the moral and physical benefits of the Christian life that, more than anything else, set
him against their evangelistic ambitions.
At least one concerted attempt was made from within the evangelical movement
to see Ingersoll converted (and therefore silenced). Only days after the infidel had
traveled through Cleveland in November 1895, giving his “Foundations of Faith” lecture,
the Christian Endeavor Union of the city determined to devote Thanksgiving Day to
prayers for the infidel’s conversion. The Epworth League of the Methodist Church and
the Salvation Army joined the effort, holding special prayer services at appointed hours
in churches throughout Cleveland. Captain Joseph Garabed (“Joe the Turk”) led the
prayer at one of the Army’s events: “We have an arch-enemy who is travelling over the
country. He is working against Thee. He is working against us, O Lord. He is
45. Samuel P. Jones, Quit Your Meanness: Sermons and Sayings of Rev. Sam P. Jones of Georgia
(Cincinnati: Cranston & Stowe, 1886), 45, cited in Cramer, Royal Bob, 120. For an instance of Jones’s
requests for a debate, see “Would Meet Ingersoll: Rev. Sam P. Jones Anxious to Engage Him in Debate,”
Boston Sunday Globe, January 24, 1897.
46. On Moody’s evangelistic program, see Bruce J. Evensen, God’s Man for the Gilded Age: D. L.
Moody and the Rise of Modern Mass Evangelism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
106
endeavoring to injure the cause, O Lord. We all have faith in Thee. We believe that Thou
canst do this thing. Make a friend—a co-worker of him.”47 Altogether more than four
thousand Endeavorers, Leaguers, and Salvationists offered prayers for the Great
Agnostic.48 Ingersoll reacted to the effort with charmed amusement: “I feel much as the
pretty girl did towards the young man who squeezed her hand, ‘It pleased him,’ she said,
‘and it didn’t hurt me.’”49 Though not remarking on this particular event, Moody even
broke his silence about the skeptic on the matter of his salvation, admitting that he too
was praying for Ingersoll’s conversion: “Why shouldn’t he be converted? He is a better
man than Saul of Tarsus. He would not have stood by and seen Stephen stoned.”50
After Ingersoll had secured a national (and even international) reputation by the
mid-1880s, numerous refutations of his unbelief poured forth from the evangelical pulpits
and presses. Sermons, essays, and reviews with titles such as “Ingersoll’s Attack on the
Bible,” “An Answer to Ingersoll,” and “Ingersoll versus Paul” filled the pages of the
Homiletic Review, Bibliotheca Sacra, Evangelical Repository, and Sunday School Times,
as well as major denominational papers. In a rare instance of attention from a southern
evangelical theologian, the Virginian Presbyterian Robert Louis Dabney—then chair of
Mental and Moral Philosophy at the University of Texas—contributed a “Reply to
Ingersoll’s Positions” in the Presbyterian Quarterly. He considered the present “phase of
47. Philadelphia Record, November 29, 1895. See also Kleber, “The Magic of His Power,” 212.
48. New York Times, November 28, 1895. An account of the particulars of the event is given in
Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Citadel Press, 1962), 254–258.
49. New York Evening Sun, January 21, 1895.
50. New York Journal, April 12, 1897. For more on Moody’s views on Ingersoll, see William R.
Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1900), 430 and an editorial on
“Moody’s View of Ingersoll” in the Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1899.
107
infidelity” worthy of a response because it was more “aggressive” and “extreme” than its
predecessors. In a calm and methodical style, Dabney deconstructed Ingersoll’s agnostic
arguments, rebuffed his “assaults” on the Bible, and raised doubt about the ability of his
substitute religion of unbelief to sufficiently meet humanity’s spiritual needs.51 At about
the same time, James M. Buckley, longtime editor of the Methodist Christian Advocate,
published a small pamphlet dissecting the infidel’s arguments, entitled Ingersoll under
the Microscope.52 Even before Dabney or Buckley issued their responses, Homer
Johnson, the Methodist principal of the Orwell Normal Institute in Ohio, gave a lecture
mimicking Ingersoll’s style called “What Must We Do to Be Saved?, or, Paul against
Ingersoll.” Contrasting the “new apostolic creed” of infidelity with the life and teachings
of the apostle Paul, Johnson endeavored to demonstrate the inferiority of the former in
good Ingersollian fashion—with “unanswerable arguments, sound logic, and a rich vein
of sarcastic humor.”53
Few orthodox evangelical responses were among the initial reactions to Ingersoll
in the 1870s. By the mid-1880s, however, his books and lectures were so widespread and
well-known that he had come to embody what Dabney called the “latest infidelity.” With
such a reputation, many evangelical leaders and scores of lesser-known figures in the
movement felt beholden to issue responses to the American apostle of unbelief.
51. R. L. Dabney, “The Latest Infidelity: A Reply to Ingersoll’s Positions,” Presbyterian
Quarterly 4, no. 11 (January 1890): 1.
52. J. M. Buckley, Ingersoll under the Microscope (New York: Hunt & Easton, 1892). Buckley
had earlier contributed pieces on Ingersoll in the Christian Advocate. For more on Methodist challenges to
Ingersoll, see Martin E. Marty, The Irony of It All, 1893–1919, vol. 1 of Modern American Religion
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 157.
53. H. U. Johnson, What Must We Do to Be Saved? Or, Paul against Ingersoll (Jamestown, NY:
Chautauqua Democrat Print, 1881), 1.
108
Moreover, Ingersoll’s considerable reputation gave those who opposed him a national
platform from which to voice their dissent. Respected ministers like Talmage, revivalistevangelists along the lines of Jones, and denominational leaders like Buckley, not to
mention those seeking to yet make names for themselves, found the great American
infidel a prime object at which to flex the sinews of their muscular Christianity.
“I wish … to free the orthodox clergy”: Progressive Responses54
Theological progressives and the outright unorthodox offered Ingersoll the most
serious challenges and critical attention, as well as worked the hardest to find common
ground on which to stand together. Whereas fellow freethinkers generally applauded his
iconoclasm and most conservatively orthodox evangelicals indiscriminately opposed him
for their own ends, those in the middle had enough invested in either camp to compel
them to actually consider the infidel’s arguments. On the one hand, these progressives
had begun to acknowledge the religious implications of evolutionary science and higher
criticism. On the other, however, they were not prepared to wholly toss away the
advantages of church traditions or a sustained belief in the value of the Bible. The
methods with which they engaged Ingersoll’s critiques and the battles they chose to fight
demonstrate their ambitions to embrace the modern world without letting go of all the
fruits of the older one.
One who probably most fully typified this middling stance was Rev. David
Swing, founder of Chicago’s independent Central Church. A Presbyterian scholar with
liberal theological leanings, Swing defected from the denomination in the 1870s before
54. RGI, Some Mistakes of Moses (Washington DC: C. P. Farrell, 1879), 16.
109
he could be ousted, the eventual fate of his colleague Charles Briggs two decades later.55
A strong advocate of higher criticism with overtly unorthodox ideas about Christ’s
divinity and the doctrine of justification, the Chicago minister attended to Ingersoll’s
biblical and theological attacks in two sermons published in J. B. McClure’s edited
volumes. Swing rationalized expending his energy in offering a response to the infidel by
stressing Ingersoll’s intelligence and humanity. As an outsider to the church, he offered a
uniquely important view of the “religious landscape” and, as a man of “intense emotional
power,” was able to sway public opinion.56 Ingersoll’s religious disenchantment and
subsequent mistakes, Swing suggested, were rooted in his misidentification of authentic
Christianity. In the first place, the Great Agnostic wrongly assumed the supremacy of an
infallible Bible in modern religion: “Christianity no more rests upon the accuracy of a
manuscript than the United States rests upon the accuracy of Bancroft.” Furthermore,
Ingersoll’s assaults on the idea of salvation by faith were not only preposterous, but
unfair: “[I]t is safe to say that the doctrine that man is saved by belief is so far abandoned
by the great denominations that the Church no longer merits rebuke, or abuse, or laughter
on account of that peculiar idea.”57 To Swing, Ingersoll was wasting his efforts attacking
a dead Calvinism. A bygone Christianity was not a legitimate foe; the only useful
criticisms were the ones that addressed contemporary problems.
55. Proceedings were underway to oust Swing when he voluntarily left. William R. Hutchison,
The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 72–
74. For more on Swing’s heresy trials and biblical criticism, see Gary Dorrien, Imagining Progressive
Religion, 1805–1900, vol. 1, The Making of American Liberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John
Knox, 2001), 275–79.
56. David Swing, “Prof. Swing’s Reply,” in Mistakes of Ingersoll, … Including Ingersoll’s
Lecture on the “Mistakes of Moses,” 8.
57. David Swing, “Reply of Prof. Swing,” Ingersoll’s New Departure, 19, 21.
110
Dissenting from historic orthodoxy did not mean, for Swing, abandoning himself
to rationalism. With many conservative evangelicals, he challenged Ingersoll on the
supposed good that atheism (for he considered Ingersoll an atheist) was achieving that
true religion could not. The fruits of rationalism did not provide sustenance for every
human need: “Logic cannot make such short work of the religious sentiments.” Rather,
he argued that natural inclination had always favored the notion of a creator and found
deep satisfaction in worshipping the “Invisible,” in spite of doubts. Humanity, Swing
contended, was ever free to espouse atheism, but “has always repudiated it as being a
paralysis of the soul.”58 Civilization itself, he wrote in his second essay, was founded on a
belief in God and a fervent hope in everlasting life. Infidelity was at liberty to benefit
from the gifts of such society, but not to claim the foundation for itself: “Atheism can live
happily in a home which hands more divine have fabricated from the world’s rich dust.”59
As necessary as a critical view of Christianity was for believers, Ingersoll’s brand of
unbelief was ultimately of limited use because it was “the partisan of an atheism and a
hopeless grave.”60
In his own brief response, Ingersoll disagreed with Swing’s confidence in modern
Christianity. Once having affectionately called the Chicago minister a “dove amongst
vultures” in the Presbyterian church, now the infidel worried that he “has been out of the
orthodox church so long that he seems to have forgotten the reasons for which he left
58. Swing, “Prof. Swing’s Reply,” Mistakes of Ingersoll, … Including Ingersoll’s Lecture on the
“Mistakes of Moses,” 18.
59. Swing, “Reply of Prof. Swing,” Ingersoll’s New Departure, 29.
60. Swing, “Prof. Swing’s Reply,” Mistakes of Ingersoll, … Including Ingersoll’s Lecture on the
“Mistakes of Moses,” 20.
111
it.”61 The doctrine of salvation by faith was still believed throughout the churches, he
contended in opposition to Swing. These differences aside, it was his equivocation on the
Bible in his essays that Ingersoll found the most frustrating:
I want him to tell whether he believes the Bible was inspired in any other way
than Shakespeare was inspired…. Now, sometimes Mr. Swing talks as though he
believed the Bible, and then he talks as though he didn’t believe the Bible. The
day he made this sermon I think he did, just a little, believe it. He is like a man
that passed a ten dollar counterfeit bill…. [After being arrested, he confessed,] “I
got this bill and some days I thought it was bad and some days I thought it was
good, and one day when I thought it was good I passed it.”62
Although Swing dismissed the accuracy of the Bible as nonessential to the Christian
religion, he still held it in high regard. Ingersoll observed that his use of the scriptures
was inconsistent: he appealed to them when it was convenient and exchanged them for
the inherent longings of humanity when it was not. Drawing on his own evangelical
understanding of the Bible as being at the center of piety, Ingersoll could not reconcile
what Swing was doing with any semblance of true Christian religion.
Swing’s outspoken hostility to what he saw as the vacuity of Ingersollian atheism
set him at odds with the infidel in ways not so clearly determinable in other progressive
ministers. The disturbance Henry Ward Beecher caused over his relationship with
Ingersoll was not only on account of his having publicly shaken hands with the noted
infidel. The line between Beecher’s apparent commitment to Christianity and Ingersoll’s
infidelity seemed to blur steadily as their relationship developed. One newspaper cartoon,
captioned “Christian or Sceptic—The Tug of War,” even depicted Ingersoll, the devil,
61. Radical Review, November 24. 1883; RGI, “Ingersoll’s Answers to Prof. Swing, Dr. Thomas
and Others,” in Ingersoll’s New Departure, 31.
62. RGI, “Mr. Ingersoll’s Reply to Prof. Swing,” Mistakes of Ingersoll and His Answers
Complete, 134.
112
and Beecher pulling together at the Bible against the likes of Talmage and Cardinal
Manning (another of Ingersoll’s more notable controverters).63 The rumors that floated
about indicating a similar sentiment concerned Beecher. “I am an ordained clergyman,”
he insisted, “and believe in revealed religion. I am, therefore, bound to regard all persons
who do not believe in revealed religion as in error…. I do not wish to be understood as
indorsing skepticism in any form.”64 Despite its troublesomeness to Beecher, the two
remained close friends. Up and to the time of the venerable minister’s death, Ingersoll
used their controversial association to consternate pious churchgoers. He further tried to
distance Beecher from orthodoxy in a tribute that praised him as the man who tried to
“civilize the church, to humanize the creeds.”65
Presbyterian minister and editor of the New York Evangelist Henry Martyn Field
worked harder on his own end to maintain a cordial relationship—public as well as
private—with the great skeptic. The two even sustained a simulated “controversy” in the
pages of the North American Review in 1887. Taking issue with little more than
Ingersoll’s antagonistic tone, Field chided him for dealing so lightly with the religion that
resonates with the “instincts of humanity.”66 The closest the New York minister came to
seriously challenging the Great Agnostic was in his concluding promise that the efforts of
infidelity were doomed to failure. Reflecting on Ingersoll in the months following his
63. Marty, The Infidel, 170. The relationship between the two was publicized all the more through
books such as R. S. Dement, Ingersoll, Beecher and Dogma (Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Company, 1878).
64. New York Herald, November 7, 1880.
65. RGI, Prose-Poems and Selections from the Writings and Sayings of Robert G. Ingersoll (New
York: C. P. Farrell, 1888), 298.
66. Henry M. Field, “An Open Letter to Robert G. Ingersoll,” North American Review 145, no.
369 (August 1887): 145.
113
death, Field admitted about the (bogus) tilt, “I do believe that there never was such a
‘give away’ as in the controversy that we began in the North American Review. I had no
hot desire to get the better of him, nor he to get the better of me…. This might seem like
throwing away the case, but I had no wish for stratagems, but preferred to stand on open
and solid ground.”67 Ingersoll’s replies in the Review were equally cordial and halfhearted. In uncharacteristic fashion, he pleaded with Field to temper his gospel with
compassion and love of intellectual liberty while assuring the minister that he harbored
no ill will against the man for whom he had “the highest regard and sincerest respect.”68
The letters between the two in the midst of the exchange of articles showed an even
greater camaraderie. In one, Field reduced the religious chasm that presumably existed
between them to a minor fissure: “For myself, I could not hate you if I tried, and I
certainly shall not try. If there be nothing but a difference of opinion to divide us, I am
‘until death us do part,’ your friend….”69
It was characteristic of the theological progressives with whom Ingersoll
consorted to avoid much particular discussion of the Bible. Each knew the infidel’s
position on the inconvenient book as well as how precarious it was to linger too long on
the subject in any response. Unlike Beecher and Field, Swing maintained no love for
Ingersoll or his skepticism, yet still avoided biblical arguments of any specific nature in
his own published replies. A singular instance of the opposite response was a scholarly
67. Henry M. Field, “The Influence of Ingersoll,” North American Review 169, no. 514
(September 1899): 324–25.
68. RGI, “A Reply to the Rev. Henry M. Field, D.D.,” North American Review 145, no. 372
(November 1887): 505.
69. Henry M. Field to RGI, September 8, 1887, container 25, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers,
Manuscript Division, LOC.
114
work, published in 1880 and boldly titled Ingersoll and Moses: A Reply.70 Its author, Rev.
Samuel Ives Curtiss, professor of Old Testament literature at the Congregational
Theological Seminary in Chicago, offered the book as a humble refutation of the then
well-known “Mistakes of Moses” lectures and book. A cautious yet early proponent of
the higher critical movement in America, Curtiss was better suited than most to respond
to Ingersoll’s treatment of the Pentateuch.71 As one strongly committed to the central
tenets of evangelical Christianity, he also possessed the inclination to do battle with the
skeptic. His careful argument addressed each of Ingersoll’s major criticisms, answering
them with the nuance of a biblical critic and the zeal of a Christian adherent. Making
allowances for non-Mosaic authorship, describing the creative days as indefinite periods,
arguing for a regional flood, and the like, Curtiss proved himself willing and able to
seriously engage the infidel’s skepticism. Despite these refutations, in the preface to his
work, the Old Testament scholar observed with evangelical fervor that the “most potent
argument against infidelity, is a life which is hid with Christ in God, which would rather
suffer reproach, poverty, and even death itself, than bring disgrace upon Him who gave
Himself a ransom for many.”72
Although some progressive theologians and ministers were satisfied to concede
Ingersoll’s critical points about the atrocities of the Jews and Christians of the past, not
all were convinced that the infidel had even gotten this quite right. When Ingersoll’s first
published controversy—his exchange with Jeremiah Black in the North American
70. Samuel Ives Curtiss, Ingersoll and Moses: A Reply (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Company,
1880).
71. Mark A. Noll, Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in
America, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 16–17; Dorrien, Imagining Progressive Religion, 348.
72. Curtiss, Ingersoll and Moses, 6.
115
Review—was cut short by the latter’s failure to respond, Yale professor of ecclesiastical
history George P. Fisher took up the gauntlet. Weary of controversy but even wearier of
what he considered Ingersoll’s disgraceful retelling of biblical and church history, he
agreed to write in defense of the Christian religion. His article simultaneously condemned
Ingersoll’s use of “last-century weapons” since “cast aside by adversaries of the Gospel
who are abreast of the times” and painted a more optimistic picture of historic
Christianity.73 Fisher provided important contextual support for the biblical record,
refuting Ingersoll’s contentions that the Israelites were barbaric savages and explaining
Christianity’s rise to become the dominant world religion. The force of his argument lay
in his initial proposition, to which he returned throughout: “Christianity is not a new
thing. It is not contending for a foot-hold on the earth. Its roots are deep in the soil. It is a
great, long-established, wide-spread, and still advancing religion.”74 Fisher considered it
unthinkable that such an ingrained and massive movement could be dislodged by any
new ideology, let alone a simple commitment to rational unbelief. Despite impassioned
requests from editor Allen Thorndike Rice and a promise to do so, Ingersoll never issued
a response to the Yale professor.75
Rev. Lyman Abbott, Henry Ward Beecher’s successor at Plymouth Church in
Brooklyn, was even more forthright than Beecher or Field in his effort to evaporate the
73. George P. Fisher, “The Christian Religion, Part III,” North American Review 134, no. 303
(February 1882): 171.
74. Fisher, “The Christian Religion,” 171.
75. At least one of Ingersoll’s early biographers claimed that it was determined by the editor that
Fisher’s reply would be the final installment in the exchange. According to a letter from Rice, however,
Ingersoll had promised to respond to Fisher. Rice was still imploring Ingersoll to make good on that
promise seven years later. See A. T. Rice to RGI, March 2, 1889, container 25, Robert Green Ingersoll
Papers, Manuscripts Division, LOC. On the biographer’s claim, see Herman E. Kittredge, Ingersoll: A
Biographical Appreciation (New York: Dresden Publishing Company, 1911), 113.
116
differences between Ingersoll’s religion and his own. Writing an open letter in reply to
Ingersoll’s essays on Thomas Huxley and agnosticism in 1890, Abbott acknowledged
that the infidel had made “serious errors” in some of his statements, but quickly brushed
them aside as the unfortunate result of an excusable ignorance, confessing “they were
probably not more serious than those into which I should fall” were Abbott himself to
write on a subject about which he was uninformed.76 Dismissing all such mistakes as
“misapprehensions of the Bible” on Ingersoll’s part, Abbott sought out even more
common ground: he agreed that truth should be sought, whatever the cost; that in a real
sense all people are agnostics in search of an unknowable truth; and that personal and
spiritual emancipation were the aims of faith as well as of doubt. In short, Abbott
conceded that “our difference of opinion upon this subject is due … only partly—
possibly only in a minor degree—to a difference of religious faith.” Abbott was only
concerned to challenge the humanitarianism of Ingersoll’s iconoclasm: “I should like to
ask you … whether you are quite sure that this object [the criticism of theology] is
worthy of one who desires to be and to be known as a lover of his fellow-men.” As
another way of getting at the same complimentary question, he even asked if such a
manner of critique was worth the eloquent orator’s valuable time. Abbott concluded that
it was not, for as much as it may have troubled him, he could not shake the belief that
there were “conceptions of God so injurious to man, because so degrading to his ideals,
as to arouse in the lover of his kind intensest indignation.” Ingersoll’s aggressive
infidelity was a sort of atheistic idolatry that was setting humanity against that which it
76. Lyman Abbott, “Flaws in Ingersollism,” North American Review 150, no. 401 (April 1890):
446. Abbott opposed this title for his essay, denying that there was such a thing as a philosophy of
Ingersoll. See his letter to the editor, “Not ‘Ingersollism,’” North American Review 150, no. 402 (May
1890): 654–55.
117
should adore.77 Nonetheless, a few years later Abbott still thought the agnostic’s
skepticism was good for the churches: “We should be more devout because of Robert
Ingersoll; not that I think he is an educator in devotion, but because the shaken faith
should be stronger than the unshaken.”78
Ingersoll’s response, which was never completed or published during his life,
clearly showed his confusion and disgust with Abbott’s feeble effort to maintain a
noncontroversial stance: “Do you attack only those with whom you wish to live in
peace?” In an awkward and wandering reply, the infidel struggled to find a place to stand,
either with or against the Brooklyn minister. Finally, he returned to a familiar pose,
rehearsing his objections to the Bible, orthodox doctrines, and the proposition that
Christianity and civilization were inseparable. The last aside, Abbott himself would have
cringed at the associations Ingersoll was drawing, but his own indecisiveness left the
infidel few options. Exasperated, Ingersoll asked, “May I be permitted to ask why you
addressed the letter to me, and why do you now pretend that, although you did address a
letter to me, I was not in your mind, and that you had no intention of pointing out any
flaws in my doctrines or theories?” Turning Abbott’s own original question against him,
Ingersoll charged, “Can you afford to occupy this position?”79
Outside the domain of orthodox Protestantism broadly construed, the Great
Agnostic received considerable attention from American Unitarians. Jabez Sunderland,
the Baptist-turned-Unitarian minister of Michigan, observed with a degree of wonder the
77. Abbott, “Flaws in Ingersollism,” 450.
78. See the notice about Abbott under “Contemporary Opinion” in Christian Work, July 9, 1896.
79. The fragment was published in C. P. Farrell’s twelve-volume edition of Ingersoll’s works. For
these quotations, see RGI, “Reply to Dr. Lyman Abbott,” Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, vol. 6 (New York:
Dresden Publishing Co., 1902), 455.
118
extent of Ingersoll’s reach: “[H]e is undeniably a man whose influence for good or evil is
affecting religion in this country to-day not a little…. [N]ot even Mr. Beecher, makes
anything like the impression upon his audiences that Mr. Ingersoll makes.” Minot Judson
Savage of Boston concurred that “he stands before the modern world as one of the
marked religious signs of the times.”80
The Unitarians who responded to Ingersoll were not in agreement about the
quality of his religious authority. Savage defended him in large measure, only quibbling
with the infidel’s occasionally “extreme reaction.” Sunderland agreed with Ingersoll on
his denial of biblical inspiration but utterly opposed his charge that it was a useless book.
Robert Collyer and Brooke Herford, both well-known ministers of leading Unitarian
congregations in Chicago, were even less favorable. Herford admitted his sympathy with
those “alienated from Christianity by the irrational and unworthy things often taught in its
name,” but thought Ingersoll “overpasses all just limits” of reasonable doubt. Collyer,
probably the best-known Unitarian in Chicago, took out all the stops: he accused
Ingersoll of being a force of evil and, even worse, a proponent of hypocritical intolerance.
His “radical objection” to the noted infidel’s skepticism was that it “is conceived and
done in a narrow and most bigoted spirit, by one who claims, above all things in the
world, to be free from bigotry. The men of whom he speaks so unworthily are, take them
by and large, worthy men.”81 Savage differed from Collyer, making the assessment that
80. Jabez T. Sunderland, “Robert Ingersoll,” in A Ministry of Twenty Years in Ann Arbor,
Michigan: Sermons and Pamphlets, vol. 2 (Ann Arbor, MI: Register Publishing Co., 1893), 1; Minot J.
Savage, “Mr. Savage on Ingersoll,” Free Thought Magazine 14 (January 1896): 21 (originally published in
the Boston Post).
81. Brooke Herford, “Dr. Herford’s Reply,” in Mistakes of Ingersoll, … Including Ingersoll’s
Lecture on the “Mistakes of Moses,” 41; Robert Collyer, “Dr. Collyer’s Reply,” in Mistakes of Ingersoll, …
Including Ingersoll’s Lecture on “Skulls” and His Answers, 65, 68.
119
Ingersoll was earnest, sincere, and in large measure correct. Sunderland, reflecting on the
Great Agnostic nearly a decade after his death, maintained the view that he did
unnecessary harm to the Bible but took an important lesson from his quest for truth: “If
our churches had half as much faith in truth as Mr. Ingersoll had, we should hear less talk
about heresy, and see less opposition to the progress of religion.”82 This lack of cohesion
in Unitarian responses was a microcosm of the variety of reactions to Ingersoll that were
emanating from mainline Protestantism.
Freethinkers were not the only ones across the Atlantic who gave their attention to
the great American infidel. Upon reading the interaction between Ingersoll and Henry
Field in the North American Review, a yet more prominent figure was admitted entry into
the fray. William E. Gladstone, the four-time prime minister of Britain, classical scholar,
and devout Christian apologist, addressed a letter to the Review on the subject of
“Colonel Ingersoll on Christianity.” In a sweeping defense of the latter, written while
vacationing in Florence, Gladstone’s most unique contribution was his painstaking
analysis of Ingersoll’s “tumultuous” methodology, characterized as it was by “crude,
hasty, and careless overstatement.”83 Behind the brilliancy of Ingersoll’s prose was an
unstable concoction of sophistry and haphazard assertions. Whereas the subject matter
demanded careful argumentation, Gladstone contended vividly, “this writer chooses to
ride an unbroken horse, and to throw the reigns upon his neck. I have endeavored to give
82. J. T. Sunderland, “Robert Ingersoll after Nine Years: A Study,” Arena 41 (1909): 299.
83. W. E. Gladstone, “Colonel Ingersoll on Christianity,” North American Review 146, no. 378
(May 1888): 484, 495; David Bebbington, The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer, and Politics (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 245–46.
120
a sample of the results.”84
Gladstone’s contribution to the Ingersoll-Field discussion in the North American
Review attracted the participation of another notable Englishman, this time from outside
the fold of Protestantism. Roman Catholic convert Henry Edward Manning, then the
elderly cardinal archbishop of Westminster, weighed in with another evidence for the
credibility of Christianity: “The Church is its own witness.”85 His argument amounted to
a reiteration of the 1868 Vatican Council’s affirmations on the nature and purpose of the
visible church. Ingersoll responded with a two-part discussion on “Rome or Reason?”86
Transitioning from respectful dissention to outright hostility, he challenged the cardinal
on the intolerances of the historic Roman church and what he considered inconsistencies
in the concept of papal infallibility. Throughout the response, Ingersoll paid little heed to
the content of Manning’s argument, resorting instead on his own classic harangue on
Christianity’s bloody past and the Bible’s disputed origins.
Ingersoll’s religious skepticism drew the attention of persons of diverse religious
convictions in the nineteenth century and elicited both favorable and condemnatory
responses. Freethinkers in the United States and Britain applauded his public infidelity.
American evangelicals, predominantly conservative in their theological orientations,
excoriated the adamant unbeliever who had come from among their number. Progressive
84. Gladstone, “Colonel Ingersoll on Christianity,” 508.
85. Henry Edward [Manning], “The Gladstone-Ingersoll Controversy: The Church Its Own
Witness,” North American Review 147, no. 382 (September 1888): 241. Several American Catholics also
responded to Ingersoll early in his skeptical career, such as Henry Brann and Louis A. Lambert, but none
attracted the infidel’s attention long enough to garner a response.
86. RGI, “Rome or Reason? A Reply to Cardinal Manning, Part I,” North American Review 147,
no. 383 (October 1888): 394–414; “Rome or Reason? A Reply to Cardinal Manning, Part II,” North
American Review 147, no. 384 (November 1888): 503–24.
121
religionists, particularly mainline Protestants, displayed tremendous variety in their
reactions as they tried to discern the boundaries of faith and criticism.87 Though not
addressed in this survey, smaller offshoots of Protestant Christianity, such as Charles
Taze Russell’s Bible Students (later Jehovah’s Witnesses) and John Alexander Dowie’s
Christian Catholic Church, also issued responses.88 The same populist tendencies that
doubtlessly caused most high church adherents to ignore the infidel also happened to
capture the attention of the Anglican Gladstone and the Catholic Manning. A few
American Jews even replied, also not examined here, most notably Rabbis Herman
Milton Bien of Chicago and Isaac M. Wise of Cincinnati.89 Although Ingersoll’s chiefly
intended audience was conservative evangelical Protestants—the only sort of Christian he
could legitimately claim to understand—at least some representatives of most religious
identities in the late nineteenth century felt under attack by his brand of infidelity.
Even under the pressure of the threat posed by Ingersoll’s popularized infidelity,
each of the groups and personalities considered here chose to use Ingersoll as a means to
not only repulse infidel schemes but also to reaffirm the validity and strength of their own
ideological stance. Incidentally, the strategy was sustained even after the Great
Agnostic’s death, particularly among evangelical Christians. In the early twentieth
century, preachers and evangelists such as R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, and Paul Rader
87. On this struggle, see the book from which this phrase has been adapted, Noll, Between Faith
and Criticism.
88. See Thy Word is Truth: An Answer to Robert Ingersoll’s Charges against Christianity, Bible
Student Tracts (Allegheny, PA: Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, 1892); and John Alex Dowie,
Ingersoll Exposed (Chicago: Zion Publishing House, 1899).
89. See H. M. Bien, Lying Made Easy: A Lecture (Chicago: A. B. Case & Son, n.d. [1879]); and I.
M. Wise, “The Jewish Rabbi’s Reply,” in Mistakes of Ingersoll, … Including Ingersoll’s Lecture on the
“Mistakes of Moses,” 53–59.
122
could still make use of the shock value of the image of Ingersoll the infidel. In one
especially memorable line, Sunday shouted during a revival sermon on unbelief, “If Bob
Ingersoll isn’t in hell, God is a liar and the Bible isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.”90
During Ingersoll’s life, however, the image was all the more potent. As previously cited,
Sam Jones found an effective contrast to be the infidel and his mother: every time
Ingersoll opened his mouth to offend God in a blasphemous lecture he would “chip the
words off his mother’s tombstone, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’”91 The Great
Agnostic’s religious controverters of every sort had abundant material to draw on from
his skeptical canon.
90. Jacksonville Courier, October 27, 1908, quoted in Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock,
American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968),
148.
91. Chicago Daily Tribune, March 3, 1886.
123
CONCLUSION
Two decades before his death, Robert Ingersoll was already regarded throughout
the United States as the most outspoken critic of the Christian religion and the Bible. His
lectures attracted the attention of millions of Americans and his popularity led to the
building of informal followings at home and abroad. From the late 1870s on, Ingersoll’s
speaking engagements were announced and their contents reproduced in the nation’s
leading newspapers. Assessments of the “Great Agnostic,” “Pope Bob,” and the “Apostle
of Unbelief” were likewise circulated across the country. During the high tide of the
Gilded Age, Ingersoll could hardly be ignored.
Much of his fame and infamy can be attributed to his own religious background
and the audiences to whom he addressed his criticisms. The disaffected heir of a pious
evangelical heritage, Ingersoll was most conversant with the same religious tradition that
was most familiar to the hearers and readers of his lectures. He spoke in the parlance and
categories of evangelical faith, able at once to mockingly critique the doctrine of
substitutionary atonement and to claim to have his own gospel, a new system of
salvation, and universal—if not eternal—state of hope that transcended the bliss of the
Christian heaven. Even more than having an insider perspective on evangelicalism,
Ingersoll exhibited many of the personal attributes of the best gospellers of the second
half of the nineteenth century—verve, passion, a sense of urgency, and an unfaltering
conviction that he was advancing the cause of truth.
Steeped in evangelical culture in his youth and ferociously opposed to it in
adulthood, Ingersoll knew his subject through and through. He had, as it were, read the
book. Evangelicalism’s prioritization of the Bible in religious practice meant that
124
Ingersoll paid a commensurate degree of attention to the Christian scriptures in his
iconoclastic skepticism. Judging the Bible and Christian orthodoxy against his own
idealized form of the “religion of humanity,” the Great Agnostic found it guilty of
condoning and encouraging superstition, immortality, and injustice. Furthermore, the
residue of the conservative evangelicalism in which Ingersoll was raised prevented him
from being able to comprehend, much less appreciate, any form of biblical interpretation
other than that which was rigidly literal. Thus, he refused to acknowledge as truly
Christian any of the nuanced readings of scripture he encountered. To him, an evangelical
Christian with progressive theological views was an oxymoron. The Bible had a single,
very literal meaning and it was this meaning at which he took aim in the biblical
skepticism he preached from his secular pulpit.
As much as Ingersoll was an iconoclastic infidel, he found the trappings of
traditional religion tremendously useful for the promotion of unbelief. He packaged
himself as a minister of a substitute orthodoxy, the evangelist of a superior gospel.
Conditioned by his religious upbringing to make the Bible the center of religious life, and
certainly aware that most of his “congregation” was likewise accustomed, Ingersoll
turned to nature and the wisdom of humanity to find alternative “sacred scriptures.”
Neither did he entirely dismiss the theme of salvation in his own religious scheme:
science took the place of the miracle-working Christ. In Ingersoll’s plan of redemption,
ignorance was death, the fate to which all were condemned who did not turn to the lifegiving discoveries and accomplishments of scientific progress. Running the risk of
appearing more blasphemous, the infidel appropriated the framework of belief as the best
medium to convey his gospel of unbelief.
125
For his scandalous critiques of religion and his homemade biblical criticism,
Ingersoll attracted the attention of the anti-orthodox, traditional evangelicals, and
progressive Christians alike. Fellow freethinkers praised him for the publicity he brought
to a set of movements constantly struggling for recognition, even while harboring some
doubts about his ability to produce long term results for the cause. Conservative pastors
and evangelists castigated Ingersoll for his flippancy and the audacity with which he
rejected God, hell, and the divine inspiration of the Bible. Many theological liberals and
progressives posed significant challenges to his infidelity, critiquing his dismissive
approach to biblical interpretation, his misrepresentations of the history of Christianity,
and his views on the uselessness of religion. Although challenges to Ingersoll’s
skepticism permitted his opponents to voice their objections and attempt to refute many
of his claims, the publicity that attended these rebuttals gave him even greater visibility.
In the same motion, Ingersoll’s controverters confronted his infidel arguments and made
him more accessible to the American public.
From one perspective Robert Ingersoll had strayed far from his childhood faith,
from another he had not. He approached the criticism of the Bible with much the same
captivation as evangelicals experienced in their devout reading. For the Great Agnostic as
much as for the faithful, evangelical Christianity had everything to do with the Bible.
Likewise, in preaching an alternative gospel he still found the framework of belief,
biblical language, and the themes of truth, redemption, and hope the most resonant.
While he kicked against the Bible with tremendous vehemence, Ingersoll could not really
break free from its gravitational pull, nor could the most public critic of evangelical belief
shrug off the categories of the ideology he opposed.
126
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127
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