‘The public’ is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.” P. T. Barnum
Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, the son of a liberal Congregational (Presbyterian) father who had a knack of offending his godfearing parishioners with his unparishionable views.
Ingersoll’s father, when his son was nine years old, had succeeded in calling himself to the attention of the presbytery and landing himself and his family in Ohio, then in Wisconsin, and then in Illinois where he died with a cloudy charge of “unministerial conduct” hanging over his head. Such charges were not uncommon in the hypersensitive religious climate of the nineteenth century and the polity of the Congregational protestant system encouraged them.
It’s hard to determine whether Ingersoll’s dismal view of Calvinist Christianity was spun off his empathy for his father’s treatment by the church, but the fact that the elder Ingersoll found himself in dutch with the denomination so often may have had a disposing influence.
“Bob,” as he grew older, seemed to channel his father’s view of hell (“all the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable”) and the church (“[it] has always been willing to swap off treasures in heaven for cash down on earth”). His creed was floridly this-worldly: ”Happiness is the only good; reason the only torch; justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.” He was not an atheist, quite, and did not entirely hate religion–only the existing forms of it and its narrow-minded bosses, the clergy. The term “agnostic” was gaining currency even in nineteenth century America, and he adopted it, with the following modification:
The Agnostic … occupies himself with this world, with things that can be ascertained and understood. He turns his attention to the sciences, to the solutions of questions that touch the well-being of man. He wishes to prevent and cure disease; to lengthen life; to provide homes and raiment and food for man; to supply the wants of the body. He also cultivates the arts. He believes in painting and sculpture, in music and the drama — the needs of the soul. The Agnostic believes in developing the brain, in cultivating the affections, the tastes, the conscience, the judgment, to the end that man may be happy in this world. … The Agnostic does not simply say, “I do not know.” He goes another step and says with great emphasis that you do not know.
A man of his era, Ingersoll was also a man adrift in a country weirdly poised between superstition and progress, electric lights and religious gloom and where the native gods of puritan New England had migrated westward to combine with the strange gods of the prairie leaving religious isobars that to this day have not been adequately interpreted.
Forced once to distinguish between the Catholic and the protestant faiths, Ingersoll, who was not prone to making unimportant distinctions, acknowledged, “the Pope is capable of intellectual advancement… the Pope is mortal, and the church cannot be afflicted with the same idiot forever. The Protestants have a book for their Pope. The book cannot advance. Year after year, and century after century, the book remains as ignorant as ever.”
It was an interesting statement coming from an agnostic, and oddly similar to an argument being made at precisely the same time, but for very different ends, by his English contemporary, John Henry Newman, on the development of Christian doctrine.
The further details of his life show that he liked reading, though he scorned formal education (“Colleges are places where pebbles are polished and diamonds are dimmed”), an attitude that sat well with the commonsense public who often formed his audiences and has remained an ingredient in American anti-intellectualism to this day.
Ingersoll read law in the apprenticeship-style typical of his day (in Illinois, where Lincoln, for whom he had unfettered admiration, also studied for the bar), fought in the Civil war, achieving the rank of regimental colonel, and like many Republicans of his era, championed progressive political causes such as abolition and women’s suffrage.
He was admired for his language by Walt Whitman (“a fiery blast for new virtues, which are only old virtues done over for honest use again”) and for his “incipient poetry” by an overwrought Edgar Lee Masters (“He stripped off the armor of institutional friendships/To dedicate his soul/To the terrible deities of Truth and Beauty”). Mark Twain, with whom he competed for crowds on the lecturing circuit, called him a “master of human speech.” He died in 1899.
On the hustings, Ingersoll drew crowds at a-buck-a-pop county fair and local theatrical events and normally packed the house with his scandalous aspersions toward the mother religion (then, protestantism) of the great Midwest where his oratory had the biggest appeal. He was a draw comparable only to General Tom Thumb and “The Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng on the P.T. Barnum circuit. It was an age of flim flam and credulity–imposters and their exposers–hence a great era for both the snake-oil salesmen and the commonsense multitudes who, eyes opened by a sensible man, might run them out of town on a rail. All of this would become Zenith, Winnemac, by 1922 and mawkishly sentimentalized by Meredith Willson in 1952.
But Ingersoll was as successful on Broadway and in Boston as he was on the circuit: An 1892 appearance in New York not only packed the theatre, said a New York Times review of his “lecture” (on Voltaire), but required three hundred seats to be added to the stage!
Ingersoll added to the standard fare for these appearances a series of lectures on religion, which he had come to believe was the root of all evil in its Calvinist form and hocus pocus in its Catholic form.
With his limited resources and access to book collections and libraries, he made do with the anti-Christian propaganda of his day, supplemented, mainly, by a few classic American texts (Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason being the cornerstone) and a little Voltaire–the two personalities being favorite topics for speechifying. Like many of the freethinkers of his day, Ingersoll had taught himself religion–which is both the source of his originality and the reason for his limitations as a thinker and a writer.
Before I go a crucial step farther, let me say I have always enjoyed reading Robert Ingersoll, mainly for the honesty he brought to America’s first ‘real century”–the period between the Revolution with its unassailably golden Enlightenment origins and the Civil War with its dark and brutal acknowledgement that the country was not, after all, a Jeffersonian democracy on Greek model but a fractious compromise between inherently hateful factions. Ita sit semper.
Ingersoll understood that at the heart of the earliest stirrings of American disintegration was the unresolved question of religion, which the founders thought they had laid to rest, or at least contained, in the First Amendment to the Constitution. When he is moved by the phantom of despair, as he was on the death of Lincoln in 1865, there is no finer craftsman on either side of the Atlantic, largely because he possessed what was then the famous American control of language–the spare style–that had been sacrificed in Victorian England for aureate mannerism.
…People separated only by distance are much nearer together, than those divided by the walls of caste. It is no advantage to live in a great city, where poverty degrades and failure brings despair. The fields are lovelier than paved streets, and the great forests than walls of brick. Oaks and elms are more poetic than steeples and chimneys. In the country is the idea of home. There you see the rising and setting sun; you become acquainted with the stars and clouds. The constellations are your friends. You hear the rain on the roof and listen to the rhythmic sighing of the winds. You are thrilled by the resurrection called Spring, touched and saddened by Autumn — the grace and poetry of death. Every field is a picture, a landscape; every landscape a poem; every flower a tender thought, and every forest a fairy-land. In the country you preserve your identity — your personality. There you are an aggregation of atoms, but in the city you are only an atom of an aggregation. In the country you keep your cheek close to the breast of Nature. You are calmed and ennobled by the space, the amplitude and scope of earth and sky — by the constancy of the stars. Lincoln never finished his education. To the night of his death he was a pupil, a learner, an inquirer, a seeker after knowledge. You have no idea how many men are spoiled by what is called education. For the most part, colleges are places where pebbles are polished and diamonds are dimmed. If Shakespeare had graduated at Oxford, he might have been a quibbling attorney, or a hypocritical parson.
Many of his quotes–the precursors of soundbites–are immortal: “An honest god is the noblest work of man”; and some of his intuitions about religions in general and the separation of church and state in particular are priceless.
An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment.
I once presided over a same-sex marriage in Rochester, New York, using only Ingersoll’s words, which were beautiful and profound. He would have made a great preacher, a monumental one, and, in most respects, was. There is no new atheist who has his rhetorical power and probably, therefore, no challenger equal to him who will reach and persuade as many people.
Love is the only bow on Life’s dark cloud. It is the morning and the evening star. It shines upon the babe, and sheds its radiance on the quiet tomb. It is the mother of art, inspirer of poet, patriot and philosopher. It is the air and light of every heart — builder of every home, kindler of every fire on every hearth. It was the first to dream of immortality. It fills the world with melody — for music is the voice of love. Love is the magician, the enchanter, that changes worthless things to Joy, and makes royal kings and queens of common clay. It is the perfume of that wondrous flower, the heart, and without that sacred passion, that divine swoon, we are less than beasts; but with it, earth is heaven, and we are gods.
His mission, as he announced it in lectures resulting (in 1879) in a transcript called Some Mistakes of Moses, was to free the clergy, the schools and the politicians from a dishonesty that they are duty-bound to propagate:
Even the publicans and sinners believe reasonable things. To believe without evidence, or in spite of it, is accounted as righteousness to the sincere and humble Christian. The ministers are in duty bound to denounce all intellectual pride, and show that we are never quite so dear to God as when we admit that we are poor, corrupt and idiotic worms; that we never should have been born; that we ought to be damned without the least delay; that we are so infamous that we like to enjoy ourselves; that we love our wives and children better than our God; that we are generous only because we are vile; that we are honest from the meanest motives.
And who would deny the prescience of these words:
It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this government will be destroyed.
And yet, Robert Green Ingersoll, like any pope not half so gifted with eloquence and rhetoric, was a mortal, and even free thought cannot be “afflicted with the same [man] forever.”
It is precisely the voltage of Ingersoll’s rhetorical gifts that makes him a poor prophet, someone whose clear and lucid contempt for religion, in its biblical form especially, is overpowered by a passionate disregard for the rapidly developing scholarship of his day. The combination of spite for the Calvinism and Methodism of the circuit and the conviction (held in common with self-made poets like Masters and Whitman) that education sullies creativity was a fatal flaw in Ingersoll’s ability to see to the core of America’s religiosity. If facts mattered however, the men of his circle–Edison, Carnegie, Ford, even Alexander Graham Bell–were men of ingenuity rather than science. Only Bell had been near a university, and then only for a month.
As a self-professed “honest man” Ingersoll could only parse the literature and customs of ancient people as contradictions, as “preserved abominations” that he assessed from his own vantage point in the slightly schizophrenic show-me and sideshow era. He wasn’t the first freethinker who held the biblical writers accountable to standards of performance and consistency totally alien to their time and culture, but he was the most passionate:
For many years I have regarded the Pentateuch simply as 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. To me it seemed almost a crime to teach that this record was written by inspired men; that slavery, polygamy, wars of conquest and extermination were right, and that there was a time when men could win the approbation of infinite Intelligence, Justice, and Mercy, by violating maidens and by butchering babes.
It’s been guessed that Ingersoll approached the Bible as a prosecutor: If so, he could not have had an easier fish to fry. The texts, because of their complex history are full of contradictions, errors of fact and chronology, and instances of practices that later readers of the vernacular translations would be horrified to discover. Ingersoll was bolstered by an active tractarian movement in the atheist cause, especially a popular booklet called Self Contradictions of the Bible (1860) by William Henry Burr–a working class pamphlet designed for use in actual debates with religious folk. The assumption of the debaters was that the Bible was a “cure” for itself: simply focus the attention of believers on the actual verses and they will retreat in terror from the implications of the doctrines they held to be true. As a prosecutor who stood, as he saw himself, “unwaveringly on the side of truth and justice,” Ingersoll felt honor bound to show the guilt of the text and its promoters, “to point out the errors, contradictions and impossibilities contained in the Pentateuch.”
Unlike some of the deist critics of the century before, Paine especially, Ingersoll is unable to locate any redeeming qualities in the Bible: it is a consistent picture of human savagery. He does not bother to separate Jesus out from the pack of unworthies, though the greater part of his contempt is reserved for “Christianity” as an institutionalisation of superstition. He finds a stark contrast between the pagan myths, which he extolls as beautiful and enriching fables that “reflect the face and form of Nature’s very self,” and the pure barbarism of the Bible, a history of violence, banality and human wickedness, fueled by power-grubbing priests, ineffectual prophets, and duped country bumpkins similar to those he encountered at Midwestern sideshows. For Ingersoll, Jesus may as well have been a travelling magician and the apostles his pitch-men.
When it came to scripture, Ingersoll was single-minded and usually wrong. Here he was on the origin of the Bible:
A few wandering families — poor, wretched, without education, art or power, descendants of those who had been enslaved for four hundred years, ignorant as the inhabitants of Central Africa, had just escaped from the desert of Sinai…
At that time these wanderers had no commerce with other nations, they had no written language, they could neither read nor write. They had no means by which they could make this revelation known to other nations, and so it remained buried in the jargon of a few ignorant, impoverished and unknown tribes for more than two thousand years.
The men who did the selecting [of the Bible] were ignorant and superstitious. They were firm believers in the miraculous. They thought that diseases had been cured by aprons and handkerchiefs of the apostles, by the bones of the dead. They believed in the fable of the Phoenix, and that the hyenas changed their sex every year.
The technical errors he propagates are the standard stuff he gleaned from the atheist tracts, an agglomeration of free thought views that bolstered his literal reading of the text as being “true” or “false,” and if false, as he saw it, then a hoax comparable to those foisted on people by carnival owners. He takes his cue from his inability to resolve what was leading many scholars to conclude that the Bible was not the work of pastoralists–who could not have written it anyway–but city boys, many centuries later. What scholarship was already using as significant clues to dating, Ingersoll treated as a pack of lies:
How, in the desert of Sinai, did the Jews obtain curtains of fine linen? How did these absconding slaves make cherubs of gold? Where did they get the skins of badgers, and how did they dye them red? How did they make wreathed chains and spoons, basins and tongs? Where did they get the blue cloth and their purple? Where did they get the sockets of brass? How did they coin the shekel of the sanctuary? How did they overlay boards with gold? Where did they get the numberless instruments and tools necessary to accomplish all these things? Where did they get the fine flour and the oil? Were all these found in the desert of Sinai? Is it a sin to ask these questions?
But even by the meager intellectual standards of nineteenth century America Ingersoll’s credulity towards the tracts is painfully obvious, an ignorance that extends not just to the biblical scholarship of his time which was bursting with new discoveries and theories but even the “Harvard scholarship” that had emerged before the turn of the century through the energetic promotion of president Charles Eliot who sent packs of timid young lecturers off to Germany starting in 1869 to soak in the New Criticism at Tuebingen and Heidelberg..
The fundamental error which remains a fixture of free-thought and atheist belief well into the twentieth century is that the Bible was produced by “savages”–wandering nomads and agriculturalists whose laws and ideas were vastly inferior to their cultural “opposites”–the Greeks. In European scholarship, the complex relationship between these two strands of thought was being charted by literary men like S T Coleridge, Matthew Arnold (who dubbed the two traditions somewhat over-generously sweetness and light), writer-translators like George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and biblical scholars like Benjamin Jowett, drawing on a robust boom in archaeology and text-studies in Germany.
Jerusalem was not an “agrarian society” in the first century CE or in the sixth century BC; it was a thriving Hellenistic trading center at a crossroads with Persia, Babylon, Syria, and Rome. Its violent history and pattern of foreign exploitation made it both unruly and cosmopolitan, but fundamentally it was a city of merchants, scholars, priests and foreigners. It has a relatively uncontested history between the seventh century BCE and the period of the bar Kochba rebellion in the second century CE, the period during which most of the classic texts of the Hebrew Bible as well as the books of the New Testament came together. Nomads and agriculturalists don’t write books, compose poems like the psalms, or produce even worthless histories like the ones Ingersoll mocks in the Old Testament. While he accepted the emerging “modern” view that Moses was not the actual author of the books assigned to him (and generally buys wholesale the then radical view that the authorship of every biblical book is concocted), he finds it convenient to use him as a literary conceit to drive home his point that the books were written by nomads on the run from a higher civilization, Moses being the biggest flim-flammer of them all:
For the purpose of controlling his followers (Moses) pretended that he was instructed and assisted by Jehovah, the god of these wanderers….
We know that Solomon did not write the Proverbs or the Song, that Isaiah was not the author of the book that bears his name, that no one knows the author Job, Ecclesiastes, or Esther or of any book in the Old Testament, with the exception of Ezra.
These notions, all of them available in the tracts, are actually quite important: not many laymen of his generation would have known them, or if they had would not have given them any credit. Ingersoll however did not see them as historically interesting–puzzles to be solved in pursuit of a complete picture of the biblical era. He saw them as part of a Great Deception, in the way a mind trained in the generation of carnival barkers and fakery would have seen them.
He would impart this way of doing history to a whole century of atheists and secularists after him: the Bible is the rude product of barbarian peoples. A deliberate work of deception formulated by priest-craft and supported by the superstition of the masses. It has propagated only misery and violence and discouraged education, ethics, and scientific progress. The only release from its clutches is to denounce it as the greatest hoax on earth using the commonsense that no god gave us:
Let us admit what we know to be true; that Moses was mistaken about a thousand things; that the story of creation is not true; that the Garden of Eden is a myth; that the serpent and the tree of knowledge, and the fall of man are but fragments of old mythologies lost and dead; that woman was not made out of a rib; that serpents never had the power of speech; that the sons of God did not marry the daughters of men; that the story of the flood and ark is not exactly true; that the tower of Babel is a mistake; that the confusion of tongues is a childish thing; that the origin of the rainbow is a foolish fancy; that Methuselah did not live nine hundred and sixty-nine years; that Enoch did not leave this world, taking with him his flesh and bones; that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is somewhat improbable; that burning brimstone never fell like rain; that Lot’s wife was not changed into chloride of sodium; that Jacob did not, in fact, put his hip out of joint wrestling with God; that the history of Tamar might just as well have been left out; that a belief in Pharaoh’s dreams is not essential to salvation; that it makes but little difference whether the rod of Aaron was changed to a serpent or not; that of all the wonders said to have been performed in Egypt, the greatest is, that anybody ever believed the absurd account; that God did not torment the innocent cattle on account of the sins of their owners; that he did not kill the first born of the poor maid behind the mill because of Pharaoh’s crimes; that flies and frogs were not ministers of God’s wrath; that lice and locusts were not the executors of his will; that seventy people did not, in two hundred and fifteen years, increase to three million; that three priests could not eat six hundred pigeons in a day; that gazing at a brass serpent could not extract poison from the blood; that God did not go in partnership with hornets; that he did not murder people simply because they asked for something to eat; that he did not declare the making of hair oil and ointment an offence to be punished with death; that he did not miraculously preserve cloth and leather; that he was not afraid of wild beasts; that he did not punish heresy with sword and fire; that he was not jealous, revengeful, and unjust; that he knew all about the sun, moon, and stars; that he did not threaten to kill people for eating the fat of an ox.
Ingersoll’s god is no god for his time. But his intolerance of myth and his energy for itemizing contradiction betrays an even more alarming blandness and indifference to patterns of civilization, story-telling, government, learning, ideas of justice, and even ideas of progress. Commonsense, practical, “honest” men are often not history- of- ideas men, and perhaps that is why my enjoyment of Ingersoll does not translate into admiration. He is a second rate mind in a century of towering intellectuals, and is at his worst when he implies that he is an agnostic messiah, as he does in the first chapter of Mistakes of Moses, addressed to the clergy.
Perhaps it is the fate of all autodidacts to know only about 75% of a picture, when the 25% that might have been taught by teachers could provide an understanding of the whole truth. That was Ingersoll’s fate–to be partial, and in being partial to be loudly unfair. He loves Shakespeare, but Shakespeare loved the Bible. He believes in truth and justice, and yet never imagines that ideas of both–even more malleable than those in ancient Greek philosophers–are described in the prophets and proverbs. He is a great contradiction–someone who takes delight in the beauty of language but insists on a bloody literalism in the pages of the Bible, whose authors loved poetry, ideas, story and language as much as the Greeks. He detests supernaturalism among the Hebrews but does not seem to detect, or doesn’t care, that it suffuses Greek and Latin thought as well. Even the exhortations that form a part of his greatest speeches cannot be accepted as “true” or “false,” but only with the spirit of judgement and wisdom that the author of Ecclesiastes (perhaps his favourite book, if he had one) asks his reader to apply.
Ingersoll is never “wrong” at an emotional level; his light in the darkness was the only light many people saw, even if they paid money to see it because it was the only show in town–legitimate verbal scandal in the calico and gingham emporiums of smalltown America. It is hard to imagine anyone surviving an engagement like that in the current American political and religious climate without causing a riot, a thing that would sadden almost any of the great progressives of the nineteenth century, and Republicans at that.
Among later freethinkers and humanists in America–I have no doubt at all–Ingersoll has been read more often than Hume or Voltaire. Partly this is a matter of style: even in transcribed form, Ingersoll is a good read. He was the apostle who transmitted the plain but often plainly wrong message of the tracts to thousands of unbelievers using a showman’s method that would inspire later shapers of the secular movement. Of his influence there can be no doubt. But giving him the same stomping room he gave the great god of the savages, Jehovah, Robert Ingersoll was a man of his time.
There are two full-length studies of Ingersoll, both with extensive bibliographies: Clarence H. Cramer, Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll (1952), is the best of the earlier studies, although not as good as Orvin Prentiss Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (1962). A good account of the intellectual movement to which Ingersoll belonged is in Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought (1943; 3d ed. 1964). Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers (Metropolitan, 2004) is a valuable resource for the history of American secular thought and contains valuable information on Ingersoll and his time. Many of the works of the Dresden collection are available online at http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/ingermm1.htm, from which quotations used here are taken.