Robert G. Ingersoll: Apostle of Infidelity, Robber of Hope
Robert Ingersoll (1833-99) was a mediocre Illinois lawyer whose flair for oratory thrust him into fame in the latter portion of the nineteenth century. He crisscrossed the nation lecturing to large crowds with vitriolic tirades against the Bible.
He charged that the Scriptures contain “a great deal of error, considerable barbarism and a most plentiful lack of good sense” (Ferrell 1900, 8:1). When Ingersoll turned against the Bible (he had been raised in a religious home), he abandoned any hope of eternal bliss. Strangely, though, the “hope” jargon occasionally wormed its way into his vocabulary.
Once when asked to deliver an address at a little boy’s grave, the infidel said: “We, too, have our religion, and it is this: Help for the living, hope for the dead.”
What was the basis for such hope? In a eulogy delivered at the funeral of his beloved brother, Ingersoll poured out his soul in anguish.
Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud—and the only murmur is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word. But in the night of Death, Hope sees a star, and listening Love can hear the rustle of a wing (Farrell, 12:391).
When adversaries confronted him with the implications of this expression of hope, he rationalized by suggesting that his words were simply spontaneous eruptions of affection. Literally speaking, he said, he was agnostic regarding the immortality of the soul.
I have long had in my library a copy of Ingersoll’s pathetic little volume, Some Mistakes of Moses (1879). Each time I see it I cannot but be reminded of the quip by William Jennings Bryan, five-time Democratic nominee for the U.S. Presidency: “I would much prefer to hear Moses on ‘The mistakes of Ingersoll.’” Ingersoll opened his noxious tirade as follows:
I want to do what little I can to make my country truly free [and little it was], to broaden the intellectual horizon of our people, to destroy the prejudices born of ignorance and fear, to do away with blind worship of the ignoble past, with the idea that all the great and good are dead, that the living are totally depraved, that all pleasures are sins, that sighs and groans are alone pleasing to God, that thought is dangerous, that intellectual courage is a crime, that cowardice is a virtue, that a certain belief is necessary to secure salvation (13).
If a contest were proposed to see who might pack the most arrogant array of misrepresentations of the Bible into a single paragraph, surely that disillusioned and ambitious attorney would have ranked near the top.
Recently I ran across a eulogy (of sorts) issued shortly after Ingersoll’s death. I sensed its importance from two vantage points.
First, it illustrates the beauty and grace of the diction common to a bygone era, in remarkable contrast to the trite, crude, and downright dumb modes of expression so voguish in today’s vocabulary—“You know, duh, like okay, you know.”
Second, it drove a final “nail” of eloquence into the coffin of the rotting rebel who will have the opportunity to argue his skeptical case before the bar of the Great Judge of the universe on the final day of earth’s history (Acts 17:30-31).
Governor Taylor on Ingersoll
Robert L. Taylor served as governor of Tennessee for three terms. He was known for his eloquence as a speaker and writer. When Ingersoll died in 1899, Taylor, reflecting on a previous personal experience, issued the following statement.
I sat in the great theater in the national capital. It was thronged with youth and beauty, old age and wisdom. I saw a man, the image of his God, stand upon the stage, and I heard him speak.
His gestures were the perfection of grace, his voice was music, and his language more beautiful than any I had ever heard from mortal lips.
He painted picture after picture of the pleasures and joys and sympathies of home. He enthroned love and preached the gospel of humanity like an angel. Then I saw him dip his brush in the ink of mortal blackness and blot out the beautiful picture he had painted. I saw him stab love dead at his feet. I saw him blot out the stars and the sun and leave humanity and the earth in eternal darkness and eternal death.
I saw him, like the serpent of old, worm himself into the paradise of human hearts, and by his seductive eloquence and subtle devices of sophistry inject his fatal venom, under whose blight its flowers faded, its music was hushed, its sunshine was darkened, and its soul was left a desert waste with the new-made graves of faith and hope.
I saw him, like a lawless and erratic meteor without orbit, sweep across the intellectual sky, brilliant only in its self-consuming fire, generated by friction with the indestructible and eternal truths of God.
That man was the archangel of modern infidelity, and I said: “How true is holy writ, which declares that the fool has said in his heart: ‘There is no God!’”
Tell me not, O infidel, there is no God, no heaven, no hell! Tell me not O infidel, there is no risen Christ!
What intelligence less than God’s could fashion the human body? What motive power is it, if not God, that drives those throbbing engines of the human heart, sending the crimson stream of life bounding through every vein and artery?
Whence and what, if not God, is this mystery we call “mind”? What is it that thinks, and feels, and plans, and acts? O, who can deny the divinity that stirs within us?
God is everywhere and is in everything. His mystery is in every bud, and blossom, and leaf, and tree; in every rock, and hill, and mountain; in every spring, and rivulet, and river.
The rustle of his wings is in every zephyr; his might is in every tempest. He dwells in the dark pavilion of every storm cloud. The lightning is his messenger, and the thunder is his voice. His awful tread is in every earthquake and on every angry ocean. The heavens above us teem with his myriads of shining witnesses—the universe of solar systems whose wheeling orbs course the crystal dread halls of eternity, the glory and power and dominion of the all-wise, omnipotent, and eternal God (Srygley 1949).
- Farrell, Clinton, ed. 1900. The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll. New York, NY: C. P. Farrell.
- Ingersoll, Robert. 1879. Some Mistakes of Moses. New York, NY: Freethought Press Association.
- Srygley, F. D., ed. 1949. Letters and Sermons of T. B. Larimore. Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.