- Historic Sites
Robert Ingersoll The Illustrious Infidel
He built a career and a fortune out of shocking his fellow Americans
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
The more the clergy attacked Ingersoll, the more the laity clamored to hear him.
But even people who did not agree with Ingersoll came to his lectures and listened in wonder. Observers could not adequately describe an Ingersoll performance: to understand his full effect, they said, one had to see him in action. “His voice and gesture and laugh,” wrote an Iowa reporter, “are as inseparable from his address as warmth from the sunlight.”
While recapturing Ingersoll’s spell a century later is even more difficult, certain passages from his lectures still hint at the magic the man created. Defending himself against a charge of blasphemy, he gave his own definition of that word: “To live on the unpaid labor of other men—that is blasphemy. To enslave your fellow-man, to put chains upon his body—that is blasphemy. To enslave the minds of men, to put manacles upon the brain, padlocks upon the lips—that is blasphemy. …”
The great sums of money Ingersoll made expressing such ideas did not escape notice. The Milwaukee Sentinel suggested once that he include in his lecture titled “Why I Am an Agnostic” some reference to the rewards he reaped lecturing on the subject. He was also spectacularly successful as a lawyer, but the public did not seem to hold his wealth against him. For one thing, it was possible to point to—as the contemporary press frequently did—the money Ingersoll donated to charities and the eloquence with which he supported a variety of humanitarian causes. Just as important, his wealth added an air of respectability to his antireligion stance. This was no ragtag eccentric from society’s fringes but a man who was, according to the standards of the Gilded Age, an unqualified success. He was also eminent in the Republican party and a staunch defender of hearth and home, so that while listening to him might have meant chancing damnation, at least it did not mean risking communism, anarchy, or free love. Ingersoll made that abundantly clear over the years as he stumped for Republican politicians or used his wit to put down advocates of the new morality. “Let them spend their time in examining each other’s sexual organs,” he once said of free lovers, “and in letting ours alone.”
Ingersoll was born in 1833, the fifth child of a Congregational minister who also preached in Presbyterian pulpits. His mother died early, and the family moved often, largely because his father, who was bluntly outspoken in opposing slavery, was unable to hold any pastorate for more than a short time. The family moved across New York, through Ohio, on to Wisconsin, and then into Illinois. Robert’s schooling was erratic, and he never attended college, but he developed a passion for reading, and among the books he devoured were the religious commentaries in his father’s library. They did not have their intended effect, perhaps because of the uncharitable behavior Robert had observed in various Christian congregations toward his abolitionist father, or perhaps because of the frequent whippings his father, a man of otherwise tender and affectionate behavior, felt obliged to administer to Robert in the name of the Lord. Whatever the reason, young Robert read with skeptical eyes. He found, as he remembered later, “that God so loved the world that he made up his mind to damn a large majority of the human race.” He read John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and later called them “infinitely cruel,” adding, “I have kindness and candor enough to say that [they] were both insane.” He also discovered Shakespeare, and by comparison he found that Jehovah simply was not a very good writer. “The sacred books of all the world,” he said, “are worthless dross and common stones compared with Shakespeare’s glittering gold and gleaming gems.”
In 1852 Ingersoll began to make his living as a teacher. Although he was popular with his students, he found it a discouraging vocation, particularly since the small towns where he taught had little tolerance for his religious views. Residents of Metropolis, Illinois, later remembered that his school was closed after he had a particularly pointed exchange with a group of Baptists who were staying at the same boardinghouse. They asked him what he thought about baptism, and the young teacher responded, “Well, I’ll give you my opinion: With soap, baptism is a good thing.”
When teaching failed to work out, Robert and his brother Ebon decided to read for the law. Since becoming a lawyer was scarcely more difficult than becoming a teacher, they were admitted to the bar six months later, and in 1858 they set up a law practice in Peoria. Almost inevitably the brothers became involved in politics, for that summer and fall Abraham Lincoln was trying unsuccessfully to unseat the Illinois senator Stephen Douglas. In the presidential election year of 1860, Robert, who would later be one of the country’s most famous Republicans, was the Democratic nominee in Illinois in the fifth congressional district. He lost the race, just as Douglas, whom Ingersoll supported, lost his race for the White House against Lincoln.