Editor’s note: FFRF columnist James Haught died on July 23. We still have a bunch of pieces that Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out in the coming weeks.
Perhaps no other American had a career like that of the amazing Robert Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” born 190 years ago this month. This was despite his bold assertions about religion and God. “Strange, but true, that those who have loved God most have loved men least,” he said.
Ingersoll was the premier lecturer in an era when public speeches were a major form of mass entertainment and education. Called “the American Demosthenes” and “the Shakespeare of oratory,” he drew audiences as great as 50,000 in a quarter-century of touring the nation. Ingersoll was a self-educated dynamo who might have become a national political figure had he not felt compelled to declare, over and over, in city after city, that religion is childish superstition that impedes human progress.
“The idea of hell was born of ignorance, brutality, fear, cowardice and revenge,” he remarked. “This idea testifies that our remote ancestors were the lowest beasts.”
Ingersoll was born in Dresden, N.Y., the son of an abolitionist Congregationalist minister who moved from state to state. Although he had little formal education, Ingersoll read voraciously and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1854. He and his brother, Ebon Clark, opened a lucrative law practice in Peoria, where Ingersoll met and married an avowed atheist’s strong-spirited daughter, who influenced him greatly. In the 1850s, Ingersoll opposed slavery and became a champion of women’s rights. He addressed a suffrage meeting led by Susan B. Anthony. He also quit the Democratic Party because it embraced slavery, and joined the Republicans, largely because of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, Ingersoll rose to the rank of colonel and headed the 11th Illinois Cavalry, but he was captured with his troop and sent home as a parolee. After the war, he was selected as attorney general of Illinois and became a vivid speaker for Republican candidates in elections around America. He moved his law practice to Washington and then to New York City.
Meanwhile, Ingersoll had been giving public lectures in the cause that stirred him most: the struggle against supernaturalism. He began denouncing religion in lecture halls; soon he was crisscrossing the nation as a controversial but popular speaker. As a supporter of evolution, he was called a “bulldog for Darwin.”
Ingersoll perfected more than 30 skeptical lectures with titles such as “Why I Am an Agnostic” and “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child.” “A believer is a bird in a cage; a freethinker is an eagle parting the clouds with tireless wing,” he said. Paid as much as $3,500 for a single talk, he earned the equivalent of $1 million a year in today’s dollars. He became friends with many scientists, writers and human rights leaders of his day. He might even have been elected governor of Illinois or gained a cabinet appointment in Washington had he not claimed his agnosticism. Such a public declaration of disbelief was tantamount to political suicide — then as now. “There can be but little liberty on Earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven,” he boldly stated.
Although fundamentalist clergymen deemed Ingersoll a devil, none could point to any blemish in his personal morals. Since his untimely death in 1899, he has been somewhat of a saint of rationalist humanism in America.
“Supernatural religion will fade from this world, and in its place we shall have reason,” he said. “In the place of the worship of something we know not of, will be the religion of mutual love and assistance — the great religion of reciprocity. Superstition must go. Science will remain.”
And his advice to those who wish to make this country into a religious state rings truer than ever today.
“If any man wishes to have God recognized in the Constitution of our country, let him read the history of the Inquisition, and let him remember that hundreds of millions of men, women and children have been sacrificed to placate the wrath, or win the approbation, of this God,” he declared.
Robert Ingersoll deserves to be as well known in our time as he was in his.