Robert Ingersoll

The Contrary Minister

What is surprising is that Robert Ingersoll is so little known in our time. He lived from 1833 to 1899 and was internationally known as the “great Agnostic,” one of the most brilliant thinkers, lawyers, orators, debaters and authors of his day, or any day. Twelve volumes of his works are still available and are a collector’s treasure. He lectured all over the United States and abroad to standing-room-only audiences.

He spoke on many subjects, but thousands upon thousands turned out to hear him demolish the absurdities of orthodox religious dogmas. He found them repugnant due to the damage they did to the human mind and spirit. He and Thomas Jefferson shared similar views regarding organized religion. And yet, on a deep and profound level he had a sense of the mystery that was breathtaking.

I can tell you that without exception his funeral eulogies are the most beautiful that I have read in the English language. The poet laureate of the universe, Walt Whitman, said that only one man could speak at his funeral, and that man was Robert Ingersoll.

Carl Sandburg said of Ingersoll’s eulogy of Whitman, “It was a most precious treasure.”

Mark Twain literally idolized Ingersoll. Twain wrote: “I heard four speeches which I can never forget by that splendid soul Bob Ingersoll. It was just the most supreme combination of words ever put together since the world began. His words will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears. America will never again see his equal. Of all men, living and dead, I love Ingersoll the most. Except for my daughter, I have not grieved for any death as I have grieved for his.”

The greatest man in the Christian pulpit of that day was the Congregational minister Henry Ward Beecher, 200 years ahead of his time, and Ingersoll’s closest friend. He and Ingersoll were in complete agreement regarding their views of the Bible and Christian dogma and doctrines.

Of Ingersoll, Beecher wrote: “He is the most brilliant speaker in the English tongue. In him, we find the magnificent, glorious flame of genius and honest, free thought.”

Some samples of his writings to whet your appetite: “Religion is like a palm tree… it grows at the top. The dead leaves are all orthodox, while the new ones are all heretics.”

“True religion must be free. Without perfect liberty of mind, there can never be true religion. Without freedom of thought, the brain is a dungeon, the mind a convict.”

“Who can account for the fact, if we are to be saved by faith in Christ, that Matthew forgot it and Luke said nothing about it?”

Ingersoll put down in writing his creed for all of the thousands wanting such a statement from him: “To love justice, to love mercy, to assist the weak, to love the truth, to utter honest words, to love freedom, to love family and friend, to make a joyful home, to love the beautiful in art and nature, to cultivate the mind, to be familiar with the mighty thoughts that genius has expressed, to fill life with generous acts and the warmth of loving words, to destroy prejudice and superstition, to receive new truth with gladness, to cultivate hope and see the dawn beyond the night. This is the religion of reason. This satisfied the heart and the brain.”

One Comment

Excellent entry. Chapter 6 of Susan Jacoby’s masterpiece, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, is entitled, “The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought” and is a brief 36 page summary of the life of the great orator Robert Ingersoll. It begins with the story of a theater dedication in Dowagiac, MI in the year 1893. Philo D. Beckwith the town’s most prominent and civic minded resident had created from Lake Superior red sandstone on the facade of his new theater the visages of Ingersoll, Paine, Voltaire, Susan B. Anthony, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, George Sand, and Walt Whitman. Impressive company for Ingersoll to be keeping.

From page 155, “Freethought periodicals which proliferated after the Civil War were important sources of communication within the freethinking community. They included the venerable Boston Investigator…the Truth Seeker in Peoria, Illinois…the Blue Grass Blade in Lexington, KY…the Freethought Ideal and the Freethought Vindicator in Ottowa, Kansas…Lucifer, the Light Bearer in Topeka, Kansas…and the Iconoclast in Austin Texas whose editor was shot in the back and killed by an enraged Baptist in 1898.”

These publications and the orations of Ingersoll contributed mightily to a spirit of independent thinking that was rampant in the mid and south west in the 18 and early 1900’s. And yet like Paine, The Great Commoner, Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic is little known and less appreciated.