The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

by Susan Jacoby
The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

by Susan Jacoby


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A biography that restores /robert Ingersoll—America’s foremost nineteenth-century champion of reason and secularism—to our still-contested twenty-first-century public square

"Jacoby makes the case that Americans are dearly indebted to Ingersoll, and would be well-served to revisit his life and writings at a time when religious thought continues to be a divisive force in American civic life."—Mythili Rao, The Daily Beast

"A must-read book."—Bill Moyers, from "Moyers & Co" interview

During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America’s enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as “the Great Agnostic.” The nation’s most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of  Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigor unmatched since America’s revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the U.S. presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today—was the United States founded as a Christian nation?—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.

In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of  “new atheists.” Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America’s often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women’s rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll’s time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as one of the indispensable public figures who keep an alternative version of history alive. He devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all—liberty of conscience belonging  to the religious and nonreligious alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300205787
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 748,595
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susan Jacoby is the author of numerous books, including Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,The Age of American Unreason, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, and The Last Men on Top, a recently published eBook. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

The Great Agnostic

Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought
By Susan Jacoby


Copyright © 2013 Susan Jacoby
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13725-5

Chapter One

The Making of an Iconoclast

Disobedience is one of the conditions of progress. —RGI, "Individuality"

In the tiny town of Dresden, near the shore of Lake Seneca in upstate New York, stands the modest frame house in which Robert Ingersoll was born. The Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, operated by the Council for Secular Humanism, houses the memorabilia of a lifetime dedicated to the cause of freethought. The collection contains mementos ranging from a scratchy recording Ingersoll made in his friend Thomas Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to a Yiddish translation of his lecture "Some Mistakes of Moses," indicating that freethinking Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side were as attuned to the Great Agnostic's message as American-born expatriates from Christianity. Supported by a small number of donors, the facility attracts only the most devout freethought enthusiasts, partly because it lacks the digital paraphernalia considered essential for the expansion of museum audiences and partly because of its off-the-beaten-track location. Although the area is spectacularly beautiful, with crystalline lakes (known as the Finger Lakes because of their shape) formed more than two million years ago by glaciers during the Ice Age, it is at least a five-hour drive from any major population center in the Northeast. But the Ingersoll museum's obscurity in the tourist landscape has less to do with its location or its antiquated paper-and-ink aura (which can be an advantage for small historic houses) than with the general lack of public knowledge about America's secular freethought traditions. Only an hour's drive away in Seneca Falls, the National Women's Hall of Fame, founded in 1969, offers visitors a technologically up-to-date experience in the town where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott launched the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement with a declaration that "all men and women are created equal." The feminist movement has done a much more effective job of reclaiming its own history, and of garnering donations, than the growing number of American secularists have of preserving and publicizing their heritage. The proportion of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion and who consider their outlook on public affairs wholly or predominantly secular has doubled during the past two decades, but this decline in religious faith does not necessarily translate into a commitment to the promotion of secular values or knowledge of secular American history and its heroes.

The future scourge of orthodox clerics was born on August 11, 1833, to the Reverend John Ingersoll, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Mary Livingston Ingersoll. Although the Finger Lakes area was predominantly agricultural, it also participated in the late 1820s and 1830s in the new commercial prosperity generated by the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and therefore to New York City and Europe. The canal was the greatest engineering feat of the first half of the American nineteenth century and served as the vital connection between the western frontier and the eastern seaboard for most of the 1800s. Without the Erie Canal, it would have taken much longer for the young American republic to exploit the politically imaginative leap of the Louisiana Purchase. This first great achievement of American technology fueled the ambition of and created liberating possibilities for a generation that came of age when the manmade waterway was crucial to the economic development of a westward-expanding nation—just as the automobile, a century later, would encourage personal mobility on a previously unimagined scale.

Another characteristic of the Finger Lakes region was its wide variety of dissident religious and social movements, and that cultural history makes it seem almost providential that Ingersoll was born there. Although his family moved away from Dresden when Robert was less than a year old, the social ferment for which the region was widely known—especially an ongoing conflict between abolitionism and those who favored continuing toleration of slavery in order to preserve the Union—certainly helped shape the outlook of his parents. The entire area was known as the "burned-over district," because it was said that various religious revival movements, as well as secular dissident impulses, swept through the region like wildfires. A partial list of religious and political iconoclasts who either were born in the Finger Lakes region or were intimately linked to the area's varied dissident impulses includes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the founding mother of the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement; Amelia Jencks Bloomer, the inventor and popularizer of the eponymous pantaloons and editor of the first American newspaper aimed specifically at women; Harriet Tubman, the heroic slave-rescuer known as the "Moses of her people"; and, at a distinctly different place on the religio-political spectrum, the Mormon founding father Joseph Smith, who walked into a forest one day and walked out with golden tablets, presented by the angel Moroni, upon which the Book of Mormon was supposedly inscribed.

The original English-speaking settlers of the area came from New England and included both orthodox Presbyterians and Congregationalists and nonconformist Protestants, among them Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists. Quakers were, of course, the most staunch religious opponents of slavery. One myth of American religious history maintains that most northern churches took a strong abolitionist stance on moral grounds long before the Civil War. In fact, the more religiously orthodox and socially conservative Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, were much more concerned in the 1830s and 1840s with maintaining the unity of churches in the North and the South than with limiting or abolishing slavery. John Ingersoll, however, was first and foremost a fiery abolitionist preacher. His message did not always sit well in an area that, like much of New York State, was highly ambivalent about slavery. One of Lake Seneca's tourist attractions today, just a fifteen-minute drive from Ingersoll's native hamlet and the site of his father's church, is the Greek revival Rose Hill Mansion, built by Robert Selden Rose, a Virginia planter who arrived in 1802 with twenty-six slaves. Rose's slaves were freed only in 1827, when the "peculiar institution" was finally abolished in New York State.

The elder Ingersoll (also known, strangely for a Protestant, as Priest Ingersoll) was in the habit of describing the South as an "earthly Gehenna"—and that may not have pleased Dresden parishioners in the 1830s, given that they had tolerated an imported piece of that Gehenna just down the road throughout the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Ingersoll's mother also took a public abolitionist stand, not long after New York finally abolished slavery, by circulating a state petition to Congress that the practice be outlawed in the District of Columbia. At the time, women—especially not preacher's wives expected to serve as models of Christian propriety—rarely took such public action. According to one of Ingersoll's early biographers, Mary Ingersoll's behavior "aroused comment in New York that had been not always kind, for that state ... admiring good women, none the less preferred them not overly intelligent and inaudible." Although Robert was too young when his mother died for him to remember her when he grew up, he was aware not only that she had been an abolitionist but that she had acted on her convictions at a time when it was considered scandalous for women to openly involve themselves in public affairs. This awareness may well have contributed to Ingersoll's lifelong advocacy of equal rights for women—a cause that received considerable lip service from but was rarely a priority for male freethinkers.

Throughout Robert's childhood, his father's outspoken abolitionist views were a major factor in the peripatetic nature of his clerical career. Frequent moves suggest that Priest Ingersoll must have encountered trouble with the vestrymen in one congregation after another, because this was an era when successful clergymen often remained in one parish for life. He left Dresden in 1834 to take up the post of assistant pastor at a new Presbyterian church on Broadway in New York City, but that job lasted less than a year. The problem in New York was definitely Ingersoll's unrestrained abolitionism. When the Broadway church had been under construction, an angry crowd set fire to the partly built structure because "they had heard that miscegenation was about to be championed." When one considers that slavery had been outlawed for less than a decade, it is not surprising that New Yorkers would fail to take kindly to a preacher who told them that they had only recently been engaged in committing a grievous sin. So the die-hard abolitionist moved back the town of Cazenovia in upstate New York, where his wife died in 1835, leaving five children behind. Mary's death, at age thirty-six, was not at all unusual for a mother of her generation, in which the physical complications attendant upon repeated childbearing prevented many women from living long enough to raise their families.

What little we know about Ingersoll's childhood comes from his own recollections in speeches and later family correspondence. Because of Priest Ingersoll's frequent moves in search of new congregations, the family was always economically insecure. Robert's older sisters, Ruth and Mary, were expected, as was customary in such families, to fill in for their dead mother by looking after the younger children. Robert was closest to his brother, Ebon Clark, who was just two years older. After their mother's death, Robert and Ebon—who was always called Clark by his brothers and sisters—became inseparable; they shared a special, intimate language (a phenomenon more common in twins) that no one else could understand. Ebon, who grew up to become a congressman from Illinois, was the only one of the Ingersoll children who would share his brother's antireligious views in adulthood. His other brother, John, and his sisters—with whom he remained on good terms throughout his life—were, as the family correspondence indicates, orthodox in their religious beliefs.

The theological cast of the Ingersoll home, coupled with a catch-as-catch-can exposure to formal education necessitated by his father's wandering ministry, had the opposite effect on the two younger boys. Robert and Ebon were rarely enrolled in school for any length of time—a background they shared with many other American autodidacts, including Abraham Lincoln, who lived in small towns or rural frontier areas in the first half of the nineteenth century. They were, however, exposed to a surfeit of religious reading. Their father, who had prepared for the ministry at Middlebury College in Vermont, kept mainly religious books in the house—the King James Bible, naturally; Foxe's famous, gory Book of Martyrs; Richard Baxter's The Saint's Everlasting Rest, William Paley's Moral and Political Philosophy and Evidences; the eighteenth-century Methodist theologian Richard Sibbes's interestingly titled Believers' Bowels Opened; John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; and the works of John Milton. As an adult, Ingersoll underestimated Milton, who was far too great a poet not to make Satan the most unforgettable character he ever met. The Great Agnostic could not see beyond the Puritan to the genius of the poetry, which he described as the sum of "all the sublime absurdities that religion wrought with the blind man's brain."

Like many an atheist or agnostic before and after him, Ingersoll developed an early skepticism about religion precisely because he was exposed to so many religious books at a young age. Listen to him eviscerate Paley's "watchmaker" argument in Evidences, which Ingersoll must have read at some point in his father's library in the 1840s and is still used by the proponents of "intelligent design" as an argument that the universe could not have evolved randomly but must have been planned by a creator.

A man finds a watch and it is so wonderful that he concludes that it must have had a maker. He finds the maker and he is so much more wonderful than the watch that he says he must have had a maker. Then he finds God, the maker of the man, and he is so much more wonderful than the man that he could not have had a maker. This is what the lawyers call a departure in pleading.

According to Paley there can be no design without a designer—but there can be a designer without design. The wonder of the watch suggested the watchmaker, and the wonder of the watchmaker suggested the creator, and the wonder of the creator demonstrated that he was not created—but was uncaused and eternal.

For an inquisitive child steeped in religious reading, there would have been nothing but questions as a result of his early, narrow, but intense self-education. Ingersoll would also recall the scholarship of Adam Clarke, another Methodist biblical commentator, as the work of one who "thought that the serpent seduced our mother Eve, and was in fact the father of Cain. He also believed that the animals, while in the ark, had their natures changed to that degree that they devoured straw together and enjoyed each other's society—thus prefiguring the blessed millennium."

It would often be suggested by Ingersoll's critics that his antireligious stance was the result of a particularly harsh upbringing by his severe preacher-father. He denied this strongly and repeatedly described his father as a victim of cruel religious teachings that corrupted normal family relations. "My father was a man of great natural tenderness," Ingersoll wrote, "and loved his children almost to insanity. The little severity he had was produced by his religion. Like most men of his time, he thought Solomon knew something about raising children. For my part, I think he should have known better than to place the least confidence in the advice of a man so utterly idiotic as to imagine he could be happy with seven hundred wives." It would have been surprising if "Priest Ingersoll," however tender his feelings toward his children, had not used the rod and the belt to punish them from time to time. Corporal punishment, at home and school, was widely accepted by Americans of all social classes and most religions. The morality of beating one's children was never questioned by those who adhered to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

As an adult champion of freethought, Ingersoll would express his detestation of corporal punishment repeatedly in speeches dealing with family relations and the rights of women and children. By then, he would strike a responsive chord not only among freethinkers but among liberal Christians, who disagreed with the harsh biblical philosophy of punishment advocated by fundamentalists. "Do you know," Ingersoll asked his audiences, "that I have seen some people who acted as though they thought when the Savior said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven,' he had a rawhide under his mantle and made that remark simply to get the children within striking distance?" Ingersoll suggested that parents have a picture taken of themselves while in the act of whipping their children. "I want you to have a photograph ... when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind." Ingersoll's argument against corporal punishment paralleled his opposition to both slavery and capital punishment: He insisted that all of these practices degraded those who imposed them even more than they did the victims. (Opposition to the death penalty was common, although not universal, among freethinkers. It should be recalled that Thomas Paine placed his own life in danger when, while living in Paris, he opposed the execution of King Louis XVI. Paine was arrested in December 1793 on the personal orders of Robespierre and then spent nine months in Luxembourg Prison before the American government pressured the French to release him. En route to jail, he had managed to deliver the just-completed manuscript of Part 1 of The Age of Reason to his friend Joel Barlow, who was also a close friend of Thomas Jefferson's.)

Even if Ingersoll's father was not a particularly harsh parent by mid-nineteenth-century standards, young Bob's status as a "preacher's kid" certainly exposed him to the most dreary, confining practices and tenets of the most orthodox form of contemporary American religion. In one of his most popular lectures, "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child," Ingersoll offered a detailed description of a typical Sabbath in a minister's household. He recalled that "no matter how cold the weather was, there was no fire in the church. It was thought to be a kind of sin to be comfortable while you were thanking God. The first church that ever had a stove in it in New England divided on that account."

After the opening sermon "came the catechism with the chief end of man. We went through with that. The minister asked us if we knew that we all deserved to go to hell if it was God's will, and every little liar shouted 'Yes.'" When the service, which lasted nearly all morning, was finally over, the Ingersoll children were allowed to go home, and "if we had been good boys, and the weather was warm, sometimes they would take us out to the graveyard to cheer us up a little. It did cheer me. When I looked at the sunken tombs and the leaning stones, and read the half-effaced inscriptions through the moss of silence and forgetfulness, it was a great comfort. The reflection came to my mind that the observance of the Sabbath could not last always." Ingersoll cited a well-known Protestant hymn that looks forward to an afterlife where congregations ne'er break up / And Sabbaths never end. He concluded, "These lines, I think, prejudiced me a little even against heaven." Ingersoll's audiences would laugh uproariously at his description of playing in the graveyard as a Sunday treat.


Excerpted from The Great Agnostic by Susan Jacoby Copyright © 2013 by Susan Jacoby. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

I The Making of an Iconoclast 28

II The Political Insider and the Religious Outsider 57

III Champion of Science 77

IV The Humanistic Freethinker 97

V Church and State 129

VI Reason and Passion 156

VII Death and Afterlife 171

Afterword: A Letter to the "New" Atheists 192

Appendix A Vivisection 203

Appendix B Robert Ingersoll's Eulogy for Walt Whitman, March 30, 1892 206

Notes 213

Selected Bibliography 221

Index 225

What People are Saying About This

Frederick Crews

Jacoby succeeds in capturing Ingersoll's remarkable appeal across sectarian and political boundaries. His warmth, humor, tolerance, and rhetorical skill are vividly conveyed, and they are validated by much contemporaneous testimony from figures who would ordinarily have been expected to shun an infamous blasphemer.—Frederick Crews, University of California, Berkeley

Adam Hochschild

As someone who did brave battle with narrow-minded fundamentalists in his own day, Robert Ingersoll would surely be appalled at the political influence of their heirs today. But their very rise makes Susan Jacoby’s fine, compact and judicious account of Ingersoll’s life and ideas all the more important. She has given us a splendid intellectual portrait of an American who deserves to be far better known.—Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains and To End All Wars

Alan Wolfe

Susan Jacoby has written a necessary, informative, and intelligent survey of the life, times, and writings of a most neglected figure in American history. A serious and thoughtful reflection on a topic of interest to historians, humanists, and social scientists, let alone general readers, The Great Agnostic will deepen one of the most important of contemporary debates.—Alan Wolfe, author of The Future of Liberalism

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Robert Ingersoll used his wit to blast the absurdities of religion, while his warmth kept him close to his audiences. He has found his perfect biographer in Susan Jacoby, who uses his story to provide deep insights not only into Ingersoll’s century but our own.—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

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