Robert Ingersoll, a Hero of Free Thought

He was a famous speaker, drawing crowds as large as 50,000 people. He challenged conventional ideas on many fronts. People such as Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton praised him. Yet today, few people would recognize the name of Robert Ingersoll.

“Man must learn to rely on himself. Reading Bibles will not protect him from the blasts of winter, but houses, fires, and clothing will. To prevent famine, one plow is worth a million sermons, and even patent medicines will cure more diseases than all the prayers uttered since the beginning of the world.”

D7VhcsSIngersoll was a courageous man. It wasn’t easy in nineteenth-century America to speak against the absurdities of religion. He was a man of exceptional eloquence, who could say those things and yet hold wide respect.

His father was a Congregationalist minister with liberal inclinations. A church trial in Madison, Ohio banned John Ingersoll from further preaching until higher church authorities lifted the prohibition. According to an 1890 article in the Elmira Telegram, “it was the unjust and bigoted treatment his father received which made him the enemy, first of Calvinism, and later of Christianity in its other forms.”

He despised slavery, and he despised the Bible for sanctioning it. in Some Mistakes of Moses, he wrote: “For my part, I never will, I never can, worship a God who upholds the institution of slavery. Such a God I hate and defy. I neither want his heaven, nor fear his hell.” The Telegram article says that in a debate, an opponent “asked Ingersoll what he would do if a poor black man, escaping from slavery, should come to his home and ask for food and shelter. Would he give them, or would he, as the fugitive slave law then in force demanded, arrest the poor runaway and have him sent back into slavery? Quick as a flash Ingersoll blurted out that he would do as he had done within a week when a black man came to his door — give him the last dollar he had and bid him God speed on his way to Canada.”

He supported the rights of women: “We demand, next, that women be put upon an equality with man. Why not? Why shouldn’t men be decent enough in the management of politics of the country for women to mingle with them? It is an outrage that any one should live in this country for sixty or seventy years and be forced to obey the laws without having any voice in making them.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader in the women’s movement, called his speech on “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child” “the greatest triumph of oratory I had ever witnessed.”

He spoke out for the rights of the irreligious: “The Supreme Court of Illinois decided, in the year of grace 1856, that an unbeliever in the existence of an intelligent First Cause could not be allowed to testify in any court. His wife and children might have been murdered before his very face, and yet in the absence of other witnesses, the murderer could not have even been indicted. The atheist was a legal outcast. To him, Justice was not only blind, but deaf.”

DSC_0618_1He mocked bad ideas furiously, but not people. While his views killed his chance for any major public office, he was highly popular. One of the most requested speakers of the nineteenth century, he delivered about 1,500 speeches to crowds as large as fifty thousand.

The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, NY, on the shore of Lake Seneca, helps keep his memory alive. His works are well represented in free e-books from Project Gutenberg. I’d suggest “The Gods” as a starting point.

Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis is the head writer and editor for SecularVoices, co-founder of Young Skeptics, and author of Understanding an Atheist. He is known for local and national secular activism and has spoken at conferences and events such as Reason Rally 2016 and the Ark Encounter Protest and Rally.

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