Robert Ingersoll’s agnosticism didn’t interfere with aspirations

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

This brief and readable book is a fascinating biography of a once-famous but now largely forgotten historical figure from the late 19th century. Robert Ingersoll was a very prominent American public and political intellectual of the post-Civil War period and one whom many thought might eventually run for president but for one politically inconvenient fact: he was an outspoken atheist. 

My first knowledge of him goes back to my childhood when I remember my grandfather speaking of his father, whom I never met, as being a “follower of Robert Ingersoll.” I never knew who that was but always retained a latent curiosity.

Thus, when I heard about the publication of Susan Jacobi’s book earlier this year, I decided to read it.

Ingersoll was born in the small upstate New York town of Dresden in 1833, in the Finger Lakes region, which also gave rise in the same period to women’s suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, slave-rescuer and Harriet Tubman and Mormon founding father Joseph Smith.

Ingersoll’s father was a Presbyterian minister, whose strong abolitionist views necessitated frequent changes of churches requiring numerous moves by the family. 

Although later disagreeing with his father’s religious views, Ingersoll remembers his father as a loving parent.

Some of his later views were in fact informed by his father’s faith, for example, his writing against corporal punishment.

Although it was widely practiced at the time, Ingersoll found it cruel and suggested parents have a photo taken of them beating their children, whereupon looking at that would convince them what a cruel act that really was. Although a nonbeliever himself, he did not shrink from using faith-based arguments to win over his theist audience, as when he reminded them that Jesus overrode his disciples and asked the children to come to him and said one must be as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Ingersoll came of age in rural Illinois and was admitted to the bar there in 1854. Beginning his political life as a democrat, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1860 and later found the Republican Party more to his antislavery, and increasingly abolitionist, tastes.

Even in the late 1860s, Ingersoll began to argue against slavery and particularly its justification in theological terms.

His last attempt to run for office ended in a failure to receive the Illinois republican gubernatorial nomination.

Although Ingersoll’s anti-religion views were well known in political circles, they did not, interestingly, completely shut him out of high-level political activity. As an extremely accomplished orator in an era that highly valued such skills, he became a national figure after his spellbinding nomination of House Speaker James G. Blaine at the Republican Convention in 1876. 

Although Blaine lost that nomination to Rutherford B. Hayes, he went on to be the unsuccessful republican nominee against Grover Cleveland in 1884.

Ingersoll’s support of republican political initiatives preventing any government funds to come under the control of any religious organization was actually right in line with mainstream republican policy motivated by fear of rising immigrant Catholic influence. 

In this period the Democratic Party was much more the home of conservative Christians, including its fundamentalist standard-bearer William Jennings Bryan and a large majority of the many Catholic immigrants.

Ingersoll also was a strong supporter of science, including the views of Charles Darwin, whom he had read carefully. Although he greatly respected many liberal theologians and even spoke at the Rev.

Henry Ward Beecher’s funeral in 1884, he did not think there was any more room for liberal Christianity or theistic evolution than for Christian fundamentalism. Nor did he have time for politicians’ invoking God in public discourse.

For example, when President William McKinley thanked God for the American victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, Ingersoll wondered why he did not also thank God for sending the yellow fever that killed so many Spaniards.

He spoke out strongly against an 1883 Supreme Court decision that basically declared the outlawing of racial discrimination in public accommodations and transportation enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional, a decision that allowed Jim Crow laws to stands for 80 years.

He was also an early champion of women’s rights and although he supported women’s suffrage, he was one of the few who recognized that access to birth control, education and economic empowerment would be necessary for women to achieve full equality with men.

You do not have to be an atheist to enjoy this highly readable slice of a forgotten American life.

Jacobi believes Ingersoll’s arguments deserve much wider attention today than they receive.

Even the so-called “new atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins rarely acknowledge him. Yet some of the same stigma against atheists still exists.

Jacobi reports that even today only one U.S. congressman, Pete Stark of Calif., is openly atheist, though many others follow a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in regard to religion.

Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at K-State and a Manhattan resident.

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