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.

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