Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was one of the most famous orators and agnostics of the latter nineteenth century in America, and his writings and speeches still are quoted today. Who was this self-proclaimed agnostic? What were the fundamentals of his beliefs?
Robert Ingersoll was the son of a circuit preacher. He was reared with his two brothers in a very strict home under stern parental discipline. While many blamed his agnosticism on this strict upbringing, Ingersoll himself denied it. He said that he did not remember when he believed the Bible and the doctrine of eternal punishment, but “I have a dim recollection of hating Jehovah when I was exceedingly small” (Farrell, 1900, 8:17).
Being the son of a minister, young Robert heard hundreds of sermons as he was growing up. At the age of seven, he heard the first sermon that would leave its mark on him. After preaching from the text of the rich man and Lazarus, the preacher concluded with the scene of the rich man in torment crying out to Father Abraham. Ingersoll said he “understood for the first time the dogma of eternal pain,” and concluded, “For me, on that day, the flames of hell were quenched” (Farrell, 4:16-17). The doctrine of eternal punishment was the catalyst that caused him to change his religious views, and it was the idea against which he fought so ardently the rest of his life.
Before Ingersoll achieved national prominence, he was known only in his state of Illinois as a politician, lawyer, and orator. Following two political defeats, and after serving briefly in the Civil War as a volunteer colonel in the Union Army, he left the political arena for several years. It was his dramatic “Plumed Knight” nominating speech for James Blaine as the Republican candidate for President in 1876 that thrust him into the national spotlight as a politician and orator.
Ingersoll did not believe the Bible to be of divine origin. He regarded the Bible in the same way he did all other ancient volumes—that is, he believed “there is some truth, a great deal of error, considerable barbarism and a most plentiful lack of good sense” (Farrell, 8:1). When asked if he kept a Bible at home, Ingersoll declared he did, and produced a leather-bound volume inscribed “The Inspired Book.” Upon opening, it was discovered to be Shakespeare. He then retrieved another volume and presented it as his family’s prayer book. It was a bound copy of works by the poet Robert Burns (Cramer, 1952, p. 28). This was all the religion Ingersoll wanted. Ingersoll had given up on the Old Testament because of its “mistakes, its absurdities, its ignorance and its cruelty,” and he gave up the New because “it vouched for the truth of the Old” (Farrell, 4:36) and introduced the “frightful doctrine of eternal pain” (Farrell, 6:5,15).
To Ingersoll, any religion based on the Bible was fear (Farrell, 4:479-483). Real religion and real worship, he maintained, were manifested by doing useful things, increasing knowledge, and developing the brain. Science was the real redeemer and savior of the world, and the trinity he worshiped was reason, observation, and experience. When asked about the kind of God he espoused, he responded that the idea of an infinite Being outside nature was inconceivable. To Ingersoll, pantheism was the closest explanation for his doctrine (Farrell, 8:56-57). Matter, intelligence, and force were eternal, he said, and he knew of nothing outside nature.
Probably the most famous speech Ingersoll ever made was the oration at the funeral of his brother Ebon. Some have even thought that his deep sorrow revealed a change in his religious views, especially in the phrase, “In the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing” (Farrell, 12:391). Responding to this, he said that he never willingly destroyed hope, not knowing whether man is immortal or not. Hope was not born of any religion or creed, he contended, but of human affection (Ingersoll, 1926, pp. 34-48). The necessity of death always was regrettable to Ingersoll, but it was not the cause for fear. At worst, he believed it was no more than a pleasant sleep, and at best it meant a future life with family and friends. He was certain there was no hell.
Robert Green Ingersoll, arguably one of the greatest orators this country ever produced—with his golden tongue and proficiency at persuasion—was also one of the greatest adversaries of God and Christianity in his time.
Cramer, C.H. (1952), Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Bobbs-Merrill)
Farrell, Clinton P., ed. (1900), The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: C.P. Farrell).
Ingersoll, R.G. (1926), Complete Lectures of Col. Robert G. Ingersoll (Chicag, IL: Regan Publishing).
Lewis, Joseph (1983), Ingersoll the Magnificent (Austin, TX: American Atheist Press).