Appreciating the Unknown Ingersoll

Tom Flynn

In my editorial in this issue, I contend that agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll was all but stricken from history thanks to conservative Christians who used their influence to “disappear” him, along with other Gilded Age reformers including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. (If you’re thinking, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton was disappeared? She’s famous!,” perhaps you skipped over my editorial. I’ll wait.)

One of the few American communities that bucked this trend has been the humanist/atheist/freethought movement, where Ingersoll’s memory has been enthusiastically preserved. Yet even among Free Inquiry readers, there are things about Ingersoll that hardly anyone knows. In this issue, as we celebrate that the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum has now greeted the public for twenty-five consecutive summers and falls, I’d like to spotlight little-known facts about Ingersoll. I’ll begin with some curiosities. Then I’ll review some aspects of Ingersoll’s legacy that we might justly find disturbing. After all, if we are realists who live up to our rhetoric about free inquiry, then we should not have idols. And if we insist on having idols all the same—and let’s face it, Ingersoll pulls many of us in that direction if anyone can—then we must never lose sight of their feet of clay. Indeed, we can take heart when we glimpse the pasty glint of kaolin on our idols’ boots. It reminds us that they were human beings like us, and that we are not as far removed from them as we might think when we stand in awe of their achievements.

So here are some little-known aspects of the Gilded Age phenomenon that was Robert Green Ingersoll: the quirky and the unsettling.

The Quirky

Another Fine Messala. In 1876, Ingersoll encountered a former Civil War general and future governor of the New Mexico Territory on a train. Asked whether there existed a god, a devil, and a heaven, Ingersoll replied each time, “I don’t know: do you?” He then improvised a two-hour recitation of the case against religion. After that fateful rail journey, the former general and future governor reflected on Ingersoll’s words. His faith briefly wavered. But ultimately he recommitted to Christianity—fiercely so. He resolved to write a popular novel that would encapsulate his restored convictions.

That former general and future governor was Lew Wallace, and that novel was Ben-Hur, the number-one bestseller of the entire nineteenth century. It inspired a 1925 silent-film spectacular, the still-beloved 1959 adaptation starring Charlton Heston, and the leaden 2016 remake that so deservedly fell stillborn from the screen.

Heston owed half his fame to his portrayal of Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956) and most of the other half to his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler’s towering if saccharine epic. If not for Ingersoll, the latter film might never have been. The mind reels.

Sartorial Stereotyping. Though he championed birth control, Ingersoll was otherwise no friend of sex radicals. In one of his most popular lectures, he declared: “I hold in utter contempt the opinions of those long-haired men and short-haired women who denounce the institution of marriage.” In the twentieth century, the famed evangelist Billy Sunday (1862–1935) revived “long-haired men and short-haired women” as a label for cultural radicals. From Sunday’s rhetoric, the phrase moved into cultural currency; during the 1960s, it was frequently hurled at hippies and so-called “women’s libbers.” Few who used it then knew they were borrowing from Billy Sunday. Fewer still knew that Sunday, perhaps the most prominent revival preacher of his era, had (unknowingly?) borrowed one of his trademark figures of speech from the Great Agnostic.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s … Asked by an earnest young businessman to lend his name to a new brand of cigars, Ingersoll not only agreed but supplied a motto: “Let us smoke in this world and not in the next.” (He endorsed an Ingersoll whiskey, too; you can see a label at the Birthplace Museum.)

The Unsettling

Ingersoll Had His Limits. Ingersoll was a popularizer, not a philosopher. Originally a frontier autodidact with little formal education, his thought was unsystematic and sometimes inconsistent. He was an intuitive radical, well-read but irregularly exposed to the most sophisticated scholarship of his time; at least this was true during his young adulthood, when he formed many of his key concepts. Later in life he would be prominent among patrons of the arts in Washington and New York, enjoying access to (and often influencing) the latest intellectual and cultural developments. Still, given Ingersoll’s background, it is remarkable how often and in how many areas his thinking was ahead of its time—so much so that his best-loved passages read as though composed decades later than they were. Others, however, are thumpingly obvious products of their day.

For example, to modern readers Ingersoll’s portrayals of the oppressiveness of church life often read as overblown.

To place Ingersoll’s thinking about religion in perspective, it is worthwhile to consider the religious landscape of his youth. While Ingersoll was growing up, popular religion was ubiquitous, demanding, and burdensome in ways twenty-first century Americans may find difficult to imagine. Theological and Biblical literalism were the norm. Many American Christians accepted harsh Calvinistic doctrines, including predestination (a small number of souls had been pre-selected by God to be saved; the rest would be damned, and nothing could be done about it) and human depravity (people were innately evil; each of us deserved damnation, and none could do better except by unmerited grace). Most churches, Calvinist or not, set great store by a literal and horrifying vision of hellfire. Sunday services usually consumed several hours; religious restrictions on dress, food, and behavior imposed harsh boundaries on everyday life. In two brief passages describing the time of Thomas Paine, Ingersoll vividly captured the religious atmosphere of his own early years: “Sabbaths used to be prisons. Every Sunday was a Bastille.” “[T]he world was religious, the pulpit was the real throne, and the churches were making every effort to crush out of the brain the idea that it had the right to think.”

For contemporary readers, then, Ingersoll’s religious critique has a tilting-at-windmills quality; some of it was judged naive by religion scholars of his own time. But for the audience to whom it was addressed—ordinary Americans, most of whom had grown up within literalistic and repressive traditions—Ingersoll’s critique was bold, revelatory, and often liberating.

Another reason Ingersoll may seem “dated” to modern readers is that so many of his once-radical ideas about religion became the norm in the decades immediately following his death.

The Conservative Radical. Ingersoll’s social ideas seemed decades ahead of their time, especially his bold visions of equality for women. Yet those coexisted with deeply conservative ideas about marriage and the family (see his “long-haired men and short-haired women” passage above). And yes, he actually said, “The marriage of the one man to the one woman is the citadel and fortress of civilization.” He also declared, “I regard marriage as the holiest institution among men. … Anything that tends to destroy the family is perfectly devilish and infamous.” (For all that, his own marriage and family life were by all accounts nearly idyllic.)

This dichotomy strained Ingersoll’s relations with the freethought organizations of his day. Among the movement’s other leaders was D. M. Bennett, founder and editor of the influential freethought newspaper The Truth Seeker. Bennett frequently reprinted Ingersoll lectures. He was also a ruthless critic of Anthony Comstock, the relentless decency crusader to whom in 1873 the U.S. Congress had granted extraordinary police powers. Comstock repeatedly contrived to arrest Bennett for distributing “obscene” materials, usually sex-radical tracts or, more amusingly, a sexually explicit text on animal husbandry. Ingersoll found all this unseemly. Still, after Bennett’s first such arrest, Ingersoll successfully advocated to get the charges dropped. After the second, Ingersoll’s personal entreaty to President Rutherford B. Hayes to pardon Bennett was rebuffed. The third, in 1879, led to a high-profile prosecution and to Bennett’s imprisonment. (The case would also furnish a murky standard for obscenity on which American law would rely until 1959.) Bennett’s defense attorney was one Thaddeus Burr Wakeman. Wakeman was also president of the National Liberal League, the nation’s principal freethought organization; Ingersoll was a vice president of the League.

Wakeman championed motions committing the League to defend anyone accused of violating the Comstock laws and demanding the laws’ unconditional repeal. This might have led the League to defend pornographers and to favor opening the mails to obscene materials. Ingersoll lobbied ardently for counter-proposals under which the League would defend only persons whose work had been judged non-obscene and germane to freethought; he wished to leave the obscenity statutes otherwise intact. At a tempestuous League meeting in Chicago in September 1880, Ingersoll actually spoke in favor of destroying obscene works: “There is not a man here who is not in favor, when these books and pictures come into the control of the United States, of burning them up when they are manifestly obscene.” For once Ingersoll’s eloquence came up short. Wakeman’s motions passed, and Ingersoll angrily resigned from the League.

Ingersoll and Scientism. Ingersoll shared with many liberals of his day a tendency toward scientism, the belief that science alone can render true judgments about the world or that science should be elevated above all other disciplines. In one oft-quoted passage, he called science “the only possible savior of mankind.” In his popular lecture “Superstition,” Ingersoll thundered:

We know that science has given us all we have of value. Science is the only civilizer. It has freed the slave, clothed the naked, fed the hungry, lengthened life, given us homes and hearths, pictures and books, ships and railways, telegraphs and cables, engines that tirelessly turn the countless wheels, and it has destroyed the monsters, the phantoms, the winged horrors that filled the savage brain.

Science is the real redeemer. … It will destroy bigotry in all its forms. It will put thoughtful doubt above thoughtless faith. It will give us philosophers, thinkers and savants, instead of priests, theologians and saints. It will abolish poverty and crime, and greater, grander, nobler than all else, it will make the whole world free.

It’s a grand dream, but we’re still waiting.

Ingersoll’s Odd, Odd Ideas about Eternity. Among Ingersoll’s major contentions, the one that rings strangest today is his fervent belief in eternity—for the universe. He saw the cosmos as governed by rigid Newtonian mechanism: “Nature is but an endless series of efficient causes.” From this he somehow concluded that matter is necessarily indestructible and time necessarily without end: “There was no beginning, and there can be no end.” In terms of twenty-first century science, Ingersoll was just wildly wrong. Yet he drew from this a puzzling argument that God’s existence is impossible, reasoning that if matter and force “can neither be increased nor diminished … it follows that nothing has been or can be created; that there never has been or can be a creator.”

Ingersoll’s lecture “What Is Religion?” contains a typical statement of his determinism:

That which has not happened, could not. The present is the necessary product of all the past, the necessary cause of all the future.

In the infinite chain there is, and there can be, no broken, no missing link. The form and motion of every star, the climate of every world, all forms of vegetable and animal life, all instinct, intelligence and conscience, all assertions and denials, all vices and virtues, all thoughts and dreams, all hopes and fears, are necessities. Not one of the countless things and relations in the universe could have been different.

In this Ingersoll was roughly in agreement with many scientists of the day, though scientists were more likely to posit an eternal cosmos based on incomplete empirical data or theoretical grounds.

Critics of orthodox religion since the Enlightenment had drawn support from the idea of an eternal and mechanistic universe. An eternal cosmos flatly contradicted the Genesis narrative of God creating the universe at a specific point in time. And a mechanistic universe made it easier to imagine an order of the heavens that did not involve a designer. But Ingersoll’s determinism sprang from a very specific philosophy of science rooted in European radical materialism.

“It is the crowning glory of our century,” Ingersoll proclaimed, “to have demonstrated the indestructibility and the eternal persistence of force. Neither matter nor force can be increased nor diminished. Force cannot exist apart from matter. Matter exists only in connection with force, and consequently, a force apart from matter, and superior to nature, is a demonstrated impossibility.” Ingersoll openly credited the source of his thinking: “This has been shown by several scientists, but most clearly, most forcibly by Büchner.”

Friedrich Karl Christian Ludwig Büchner was a physician, philosopher, and a founder of the German freethought movement. With Carl Vogt and Jacob Moleschott, Büchner carried forward the radical materialism of eighteenth-century French thinker Julien Offray de La Mettrie. While a lecturer in medicine at the University of Tübingen, Büchner published a sensational philosophical work, Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter, 1855), in which he presented the dubious argument for the indestructibility of matter and force on which Ingersoll drew. Büchner’s physicalist materialism represented an extrapolation of scientific findings to the realm of philosophy; it was as much a protest against Hegelian idealism as against Christian views of the cosmos. The work created a scandal that drove Büchner from Tübingen, but it was enthusiastically received by freethinkers. A major figure in his day, Büchner now stands as a curiosity of science and philosophy.

Following Büchner led Ingersoll into some curious presumptions:

It has been demonstrated that the earth would fall to the sun, only for the fact, that it is attracted by other worlds, and those worlds must be attracted by other worlds still beyond them, and so on, without end. This proves the material universe to be infinite. If an infinite universe has been made out of an infinite god, how much of the god is left?

Summing Up

Though much of Ingersoll’s thinking was startlingly advanced, in other ways he was, indelibly, a thinker of his time. How could it be otherwise with someone who spent more than four decades in the public eye, opining on almost every issue that crossed his path? (Don’t get me started on his ideas about monetary policy.) Nonetheless, he deserves to be treated far better by history than he has been.

Warts and all, Robert Green Ingersoll remains “the most remarkable American that most people never heard of.”



Adapted from Tom Flynn, “Robert Green Ingersoll, 1833–1899″ in Tom Flynn and Julia Lavarnway, eds., Religions Are for a Day: Robert Green Ingersoll Appreciated (Am
herst, N.Y.: Inquiry Press, 2014), portions of which earlier appeared in S. T. Joshi, ed., Icons of Unbelief (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 2008).

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Ingersoll was a brilliant man and a rousing orator, but he wasn’t always ahead of his time.

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