A New Birth of Reason

Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, inspired late-19th-century Americans to uphold the founders’ belief in separation of church and state

Robert Ingersoll (Library of Congress/Brady-Handy Photograph Collection)
Robert Ingersoll (Library of Congress/Brady-Handy Photograph Collection)


Why do some public figures who were famous in their own time become part of a nation’s historical memory, while others fade away or are confined to what is called “niche fame” on the Internet? Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), known in the last quarter of the 19th century as the Great Agnostic, once possessed real fame as one of the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history—the other being Thomas Paine. Indeed, one of Ingersoll’s lasting accomplishments as the preeminent American orator of his era was the revival of Paine, the preeminent publicist of the American Revolution, in the historical memory and imagination of the nation.

Ingersoll emerged as the leading figure in what historians of American secularism consider the golden age of freethought—an era when immigration, industrialization, and science, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, were challenging both religious orthodoxy and the supposedly simpler values of the nation’s rural Anglo-Saxon past. That things were never really so simple was the message Ingersoll repeatedly conveyed as he spoke before more of his countrymen than even elected public leaders, including presidents, did at a time when lectures were both a form of mass entertainment and a vital source of information.

Traveling across the continent when most Americans did not, he spread his message not only to urban audiences but also to those who had ridden miles on horseback to hear him speak in towns set down on the prairies of the Midwest and the rangelands of the Southwest. Between 1875 and his death in 1899, Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Known as Robert Injuresoul to his clerical enemies, he raised the issue of what role religion ought to play in the public life of the American nation for the first time since the writing of the Constitution, when the Founders deliberately left out any acknowledgment of a deity as the source of governmental power. In one of his most popular lectures, titled “Individuality,” Ingersoll said of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin:

They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality and liberty of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.

To the question that retains its politically divisive power to this day—whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no. The marvel of the Framers, he argued in an oration delivered on July 4, 1876, in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, was that they established “the first secular government that was ever founded in this world” at a time when every government in Europe was still based on union between church and state. “Recollect that,” Ingersoll admonished his audience. “The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword.” A government that had “retired the gods from politics,” Ingersoll declared with decidedly premature optimism on America’s 100th birthday, was a necessary condition of progress.

To 19th-century freethinkers, as to their 18th-century predecessors, intellectual and material progress went hand in hand with abandonment of superstition, and strong ties between government and religion amounted to state-endorsed superstition. Born decades before cities were illuminated by electricity, before the role of bacteria in the transmission of disease was understood, before Darwin’s revolutionary insight that humans were descended from lower animals was fully accepted even within the scientific community, Ingersoll was the most outspoken and influential voice in a movement that was to forge a secular intellectual bridge into the 20th century for many of his countrymen.

The golden age of freethought, which stretched roughly from 1875 until the beginning of the First World War, divided Americans in much the same fashion, and over many of the same issues, as have the culture wars of the past three decades. The argument over the proper role of religion in civil government was (and is) only a subsidiary of the larger question of whether the claims of supposedly revealed religion deserve any particular respect or deference in a pluralistic society. The other cultural issues that divided Americans in Ingersoll’s time are equally familiar and include evolution, race, immigration, women’s rights, sexual behavior, freedom of artistic expression, and vast disparities in wealth. In the 19th century, however, the issues were newer, as was the science bolstering the secular side of the arguments, and the forces of religious orthodoxy were stronger.

The overarching question in Ingersoll’s time was whether any of these issues could or should be resolved by appeals to divine authority. To this Ingersoll also said no, spreading the gospel (though he would never have called it that) of reason, science, and humanism to audiences across the country. It is not an overstatement to say that Ingersoll devoted his life to freethought, the lovely term that first appeared in England in the late 17th century and was meant to convey devotion to a way of looking at the world based on observation, rather than on ancient “sacred” writings by men who believed that the sun revolved around the earth.

Ingersoll’s influence derived in part from his fulfillment of an American archetype—the self-made, self-educated man who, by his own diligence and pursuit of knowledge, rises to fame and fortune. The son of an unsuccessful Presbyterian minister who never managed to remain attached to one congregation for very long, Ingersoll grew up poor. Like his hero Abraham Lincoln, he had little formal education. Also like Lincoln, he was admitted to the bar not after studying at one of the nation’s few law schools but by reading the law—learning his trade, and the history and philosophy of the law, in an attorney’s office. By the time of Ingersoll’s death, his kind of self-made American achiever—whether in law, scholarship, government, the arts, or business—was already on the way to extinction. Ingersoll spoke out of a past in which self-education was the only route to learning for those not born to money, on behalf of an American future in which education, certainly if freethinkers had their way, would be available to all.

Despite a schedule so demanding that he occasionally lost his voice, Ingersoll filled his audiences with energy and enthusiasm as he walked around the stage, usually speaking from memory. Described by one 20th-century biographer as the Babe Ruth of the podium, Ingersoll weighed more than 200 pounds—a disproportionate share of them concentrated in his abdomen—by his 40s. His portliness impelled the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune to note that, in another century, the amount of fat in the Great Agnostic’s body would have produced a “spectacular auto da fé.”

In his lecture “The Gods,” Ingersoll proclaimed,

We are not endeavoring to chain the future, but to free the present. We are not forging fetters for our children, but we are breaking those our fathers made for us. We are the advocates of inquiry, of investigation and thought. This of itself, is an admission that we are not perfectly satisfied with all our conclusions. Philosophy has not the egotism of faith.

Asked by a newspaper reporter in Kansas City whether he enjoyed lecturing, the ebullient Ingersoll replied, “Of course I enjoy lecturing. It is a great pleasure to drive the fiend of fear out of the hearts of men women and children. It is a positive joy to put out the fires of hell.”

The lasting absence of public consensus on the proper balance between religion and secularism in American life could easily be used to support the argument that Ingersoll’s current obscurity is richly deserved. He certainly did not put to rest the issue of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, with all of the attendant controversies about the proper role of religion in public institutions and rituals. Yet the persistent tension and inflamed emotion surrounding these issues ought to enhance rather than diminish the Great Agnostic’s stature. Intellectual history is a relay race, not a 100-yard dash. Ingersoll was one of those indispensable people who keep an alternative version of history alive. Such men and women are vital to the real story and identity of a nation, because, in their absence, public consensus about the past would be totally controlled by those who wish to recreate the country’s mythic origins in their own image. This includes both Founder worshippers who see the passionate, risk-taking leaders of the Revolution as figures on a marble frieze and anti-intellectual ideologues who think that too much education is a dangerous thing.

To understand Ingersoll’s importance, only look at a partial list of distinguished Americans of his own generation who were influenced by his arguments and, even more important, the younger admirers who lived into the 20th century, making critical contributions to American politics, science, business, and law and becoming leaders on behalf of civil liberties and international human rights.

The list of these luminaries includes Clara Barton, Clarence Darrow, Luther Burbank, Eugene V. Debs, Frederick Douglass, W. C. Fields, H. L. Mencken, Robert M. La Follette, Andrew Carnegie, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, and my favorite Ingersoll fan of all, “Wahoo Sam” Crawford, baseball’s outstanding power hitter throughout the first two decades of the 20th century. (For Crawford’s memories of Ingersoll, see The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter’s classic oral history of the early days of baseball.)

Ingersoll’s appeal as a freethinker cut across political and class boundaries. He was a Republican who upheld the gold standard and traveled in social circles that included business titans like Carnegie. Yet his closest friends and fervent admirers also included champions of labor such as Debs, who would garner more than a million votes as the Socialist candidate for president in 1920, and La Follette of Wisconsin, the leader of the Progressive movement until his death in 1925. “Ingersoll had a tremendous influence on me,” La Follette recalled years after his friend’s death. “He liberated my mind. Freedom was what he preached; he wanted the shackles off everywhere. He wanted me to think boldly about all things. … He was a rare, bold, heroic figure.”

Ingersoll gave up a promising career in politics to pursue his campaign against religious orthodoxy and for the separation of church and state. As part of his mission, he elucidated Darwin’s theory of evolution for millions of Americans who might otherwise have heard about the great scientific insight of their age only through the attacks of biblical literalists.

As contemporary newspaper accounts make clear, Ingersoll was a master at reaching people who were either indifferent or downright hostile to his antireligious views. When he appeared for the first time in medium-sized cities where orthodox religious influence was strong, Ingersoll’s reputation as a heretic often held down the size of the audience. That was never true the second time the Great Agnostic spoke; the eloquent contrarian won an audience by word of mouth and through the local newspapers. Once the press conveyed the entertainment value of Ingersoll’s talks, tickets became a prize for scalpers. In Iowa, the Mason City Republican reported that most of those attending an 1885 Ingersoll lecture were orthodox religious believers who nevertheless appreciated Ingersoll’s wit at the expense of their own faith. “Foreordination laughs jostled freewill smiles,” the reporter recalled. “Baptist cachinnations floated out to join apostolic roars, and there was a grand unison of orthodox cheers for the most unorthodox jokes.”

When Ingersoll was at the height of his career, most newspapers still followed the hoary yet informative journalistic custom of reporting applause and laughter in summaries of speeches. Sometimes papers with orthodoxly religious owners ran headlines reflecting the publisher’s disapproval over articles detailing the audience’s enjoyment of the speech. So, for example, The New York Times placed a headline above an account of Ingersoll’s lectures at Booth’s Theater in 1880 announcing, “The Great Infidel Preacher Roundly Hissed”—but the article revealed that the hisses inside the hall were less frequent than those of the representatives of the American Bible Society, who were handing out copies of the King James Version outside the theater. Newspaper quotations from Ingersoll’s speeches would be punctuated by “Great Laughter” and “Laughter,” which followed Ingersoll’s description of the haphazard founding of the Church of England after Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. “For a while the new religion was regulated by law,” Ingersoll remarked, “and afterward God was compelled to study acts of Parliament to find out whether a man might be saved or not. [Laughter.]”

Most satire involving contemporary events travels poorly over time, but it is not difficult to understand, after reading the basic texts of Ingersoll’s lectures, why his audiences would have been charmed by his good-natured jabs. In “Some Mistakes of Moses,” also translated into Yiddish for the edification of skeptical, nonobservant Jewish immigrants who were arriving in America in unprecedented numbers along with their more devout coreligionists from Russia and Eastern Europe, Ingersoll took on the Old Testament as the source of all Western monotheism. He mocked the theories of a well-known Protestant theologian who, having half-digested Darwin, suggested that the serpent that deceived Eve into eating the forbidden fruit was probably a humanoid ape with the gift of speech. To the innocent Eve, the ape looked like an ordinary man (albeit a very hairy one); ergo, she was receptive to his suggestions. Subsequently, the talking ape was punished for his role in instigating original sin by being deprived of speech and condemned henceforth to the “chattering of monkeys.”

Ingersoll had his own take on this tortuous theological speculation:

Here then is the “connecting link” between man and the lower creation. The serpent was simply an orang-outang that spoke Hebrew with the greatest ease, and had the outward appearance of a perfect gentleman, seductive in manner, plausible, polite, and most admirably calculated to deceive. It never did seem reasonable to me that a long, cold and disgusting snake with an apple in its mouth could deceive anybody; and I am glad, even at this late date to know that the something that persuaded Eve to taste the forbidden fruit was, at least, in the shape of a man.

A man who combined reason with humor, who drew audiences looking for entertainment along with enlightenment, was much more dangerous than someone disposed to harangue audiences with the conviction that they were simply wrong about what they had been taught since birth. Everyone who paid to hear Ingersoll speak knew that he or she would go away with the memory of good laughs to accompany unsettling new thoughts.

He told his audiences that when he first read On the Origin of Species (1859) and became acquainted with Darwin’s theory of evolution, his initial reaction was to think about “how terrible this will be upon the nobility of the Old World. Think of their being forced to trace their ancestry back to the duke Orang Outang, or the princess Chimpanzee.” This sentence demonstrates what a brilliant orator he was, here taking advantage of American hostility to Old World and especially British aristocracy—hostility that was still very much alive in the 19th century. He used the American disdain for unearned hereditary privilege (which, then as now, did not necessarily extend to inherited wealth) to make the idea of descent from lower animals more accessible and less threatening. “I read about rudimentary bones and muscles,” he confided. “I was told that everybody had rudimentary muscles extending from the ear into the cheek. I asked, ‘What are they?’ I was told … ‘They are the muscles with which your ancestors used to flap their ears.’ I do not now so much wonder that we once had them as that we have outgrown them.”

Although Ingersoll opposed organized religion in general, his specific targets were believers and clerics who wanted to impose their convictions on their fellow citizens and stifle inquiry that challenged faith. If he could not quite convince his audiences that all religion was superstitious myth, he did convince many to seek out a form of religion that admitted the insights of contemporary science or non-mythological history. Ingersoll himself was not much interested in debating abstract theological or philosophical questions, although he did so occasionally with reform-minded believers like his good friend Henry Ward Beecher, the best-known clerical orator of the late 19th century and a leader of liberalizing forces within American Protestantism. Ingersoll was, however, interested in creating a bridge between the world of secular freethought, for which he spoke so eloquently, and religions, including Reform Judaism and liberal Protestant denominations, that were willing to make room for secular knowledge. (Unitarians had done this in the 18th century in response to Enlightenment political thought and geological discoveries that posed the first solid scientific challenge to the biblical precept that the Earth was only 4,000 years old.) Ingersoll considered “moderate” religious believers if not allies, then a vanguard that, by rejecting biblical literalism, would unintentionally cast doubt on all religion.

Though dubbed the Great Agnostic, Ingersoll himself made no distinction between atheists and agnostics. In 1885, he was asked by an interviewer for a Philadelphia newspaper, “Don’t you think the belief of the Agnostic is more satisfactory to the believer that that of the Atheist?” He replied succinctly,

The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says: “I do not know, but I do not believe there is any god.” The Atheist says the same. The orthodox Christian says he knows there is a God, but we know that he does not know. The Atheist [too] cannot know that God does not exist.

This critical point has always been a source of confusion and willful distortion in American religious discourse, in large measure because the word atheist has a much harsher sound than the word agnostic.

Ingersoll also pointed out that the labels “atheist” and “infidel” had generally been applied as epithets to anyone, religious or not, who refused to accept biblical stories that were scientifically impossible. Among those included were the devout Quaker, suffragist, and abolitionist Lucretia Mott and Thomas Paine, who was also called a Judas, reptile, hog, mad dog, souse, louse, and arch-beast by his religiously orthodox contemporaries.

Had he done nothing else, Ingersoll’s lifelong effort to restore Thomas Paine’s reputation should have earned him a permanent place in American intellectual history. In Theodore Roosevelt’s 1898 biography of the Federalist politician Gouverneur Morris, Paine was dismissed as a “filthy little atheist … that apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with which to assail Christianity.” (Morris, as it happens, was President George Washington’s minister to France in 1793, when Paine was arrested for his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI. A fierce critic of Paine’s religious and economic views, Morris misled the French with the assertion that the new United States government did not recognize the British-born Paine’s American citizenship. At the same time, Morris told Washington—who, though he too disliked Paine’s economic radicalism, recognized his debt to the author of the “Crisis” papers—that everything was being done to obtain Paine’s release. Only when James Monroe, a freethinker, succeeded Morris in Paris did the American government apply pressure to obtain Paine’s freedom. He had spent nine months in solitary confinement and nearly died of an ulcer.)

In this cultural climate, Ingersoll subtitled his standard lecture about Paine, “With His Name Left Out, the History of Liberty Cannot Be Written.” He made it one of his missions not only to remind citizens in America’s second century of Paine’s indispensable rhetorical contributions to the revolutionary cause, but also to link those ideals to Paine’s fierce defense of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state.

Ingersoll achieved only partial success in his attempt to return Paine to the American historical canon. Paine’s name is much better known than Ingersoll’s in the United States mainly because his role as the chief polemicist for the Revolution can be described for the consumption of schoolchildren without mentioning his later accomplishments as a scourge of organized religion and a radical economic thinker. The Paine who wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls” in the darkest hour for General Washington’s army is a recognizable name to a considerable number of Americans in the 21st century. But the Paine who wrote The Age of Reason (1794)—which put forth the heretical idea that the sacred books of all religions were written by human beings, not by any deity—is nearly as obscure as Ingersoll to Americans with little knowledge about the secular side of their history.

Ingersoll’s collected works amount to 12 volumes, consisting mainly of his speeches, supplemented by interviews and essays written for contemporary periodicals like the North American Review. Some 20th-century scholars argued that the ephemeral nature of oratory was the main reason for Ingersoll’s historical eclipse—a supposition comparable to the idea that there is no statue of Paine in the U.S. Capitol because Paine never held public office. It seems likelier, however, that both men have been underappreciated because of their staunch and outspoken opposition to organized religion and any entanglement of religion and government. Paine—who was not an atheist but a deist, with religious views closely resembling those of Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson (the last being the only one of the first three presidents to defend his old friend after publication of The Age of Reason)—never recovered from the damage to his American reputation inflicted by the book he had written in France.

He had been allowed to return home on an American ship by President Jefferson in 1802—an act for which Jefferson was sharply criticized by the Federalist press. But Paine was destitute when he died in Greenwich Village in 1809, and even the Quakers—whose religion was one of the few he admired—refused to allow him to be buried in one of their cemeteries. The anniversary of his death, marked at the time by a private burial ceremony with no family to mourn him, was observed only within the shrinking early-19th-century freethought community.

Unlike Paine, Ingersoll did not die alone and unmourned, but with his wife, Eva, at his side in their bedroom, after he had consumed a typically large breakfast. He probably died of a heart attack. He also did much better financially during his lifetime than Paine because he commanded high fees for both his legal services and his speeches—regardless of whether his audiences were scandalized or uplifted by the content. That Ingersoll made a good living out of questioning religion particularly enraged his opponents. This view is encapsulated in a cartoon, published in the satirical magazine Puck in 1880, showing Ingersoll beating the Bible with a stick labeled “atheism” as coins fall out of the holy book into the orator’s briefcase.

Ingersoll was better at making and spending money than he was at saving it, and although he did not die in debt, he left nothing like a fortune to his wife. He was fond of entertaining, and he and Eva gave legendary parties in the succession of Manhattan townhouses where they lived for the last 15 years of his life. He also gave away a good deal of money to freethought causes, the arts, and impecunious relatives and was, as he was the first to acknowledge, an inept investor. In a letter to his brother John, he wrote, “I have a positive genius for losing money.”

Ingersoll’s generosity elicited a disapproving tut-tut from the Times in its obituary. “He earned great sums of money, both as a lecturer and a lawyer, but he let them go like water,” the newspaper reported. “It was his habit to keep money in his house in an open drawer, to which any member of his family was free to go and take what was wanted.” Since all the members of Ingersoll’s immediate family were women, one suspects that what really shocked the obituary writer was the reckless dispersal of cash to females.

Perhaps because of his refusal to play the role of tightfisted Victorian paterfamilias, Ingersoll by all accounts (including his own and those of his wife and their two daughters) had had an extraordinarily happy marriage and family life. This abundance of creature comforts and domestic happiness did not sit well with orthodox believers, who thought that the evil of questioning the existence of God should be punished in both this life and the next.

Ingersoll’s collected works were published within a few years of his death by his brother-in-law C. P. Farrell, who owned the Dresden Publishing Company (named for Ingersoll’s birthplace in upstate New York). The Great Agnostic remained a well-known, frequently cited figure into the 1920s, not only because many of his friends and enemies remained alive but also because his writings were still thought to be capable of corrupting American youth.

The memory of Ingersoll faded swiftly, however, after the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted the leading spokesman for religious fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most famous criminal lawyer and an equally famous agnostic, who had been strongly influenced by hearing Ingersoll’s speeches in the 1870s and 1880s. Bryan succeeded in obtaining the conviction of high school biology teacher John T. Scopes on grounds of having violated a Tennessee law banning the teaching of evolution (although the verdict was reversed on appeal). But Darrow was thought to have been the real winner and fundamentalism the real loser after Bryan was forced to admit that even he did not take every word in the Bible literally.

That admission and the trial itself attested powerfully to the accomplishments of the freethought movement in the late 19th century. The Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution would not have been deemed necessary by fundamentalist legislatures had evolution not made its way into high school biology textbooks by the early 20th century. Without an orator of Ingersoll’s persuasive powers to make fun of human pretensions about distinguished lineage and to humanize an idea that originally seemed so alien—the descent of man from the very creatures over whom God has supposedly given him dominion—who knows how long it would have taken for Darwin’s scientific ideas to have made it into high school biology texts. In Ingersoll’s time, educated Americans knew there were other pro-evolution and pro-science speakers—most notably Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s friend and the most important international popularizer of the theory of evolution, and Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (often mistakenly attributed to Darwin). Spencer, who was even more influential in the United States than in England—though he is rarely read today—made the error of arguing that “survival of the fittest” could and should be applied to man in a state of civilization, thereby justifying the vast Gilded Age gap between the rich and the poor.

Although Spencer and Ingersoll were friends, Ingersoll did not make the social Darwinist mistake of believing that “tooth and claw” should be the rule in civilized societies. His rejection of social Darwinism—at a time when many freethinkers, to their discredit, shared the views of conservative religious believers about the natural inferiority of the poor, immigrants, and blacks—raises Ingersoll above most of his contemporaries in American secular thought. Two distinct threads run through the history of American secularism, the first descending from the humanism and egalitarianism of Paine and the second from 19th-century social Darwinism through the 20th-century every-man-for-himself “objectivism” of Ayn Rand. A true intellectual descendant of Paine, Ingersoll linked reason and science to the success and survival of democracy, as the Enlightenment deists among the Founders did, and contended that the capacity for rational thought existed among all races and social classes.

Ingersoll’s belief in the intellectual potential of those at every level of society, coupled with his own modest origins, added considerable weight to the message he delivered in small towns, where farmers and baseball players were likelier to show up than university professors. Herbert Spencer’s presentations certainly would not have gone over as well in small frontier towns as they did in New York and Boston, given that audiences in less culturally sophisticated areas might have suspected that they would not have survived the British philosopher’s social fitness test.

Looking back on the extraordinary decline in religious literalism that took place among educated Americans in the decades bracketing the turn of the century, it is easy to see why fundamentalism was prematurely declared dead by many prominent American intellectuals in the 1920s, just as the death of God would be prematurely reported in the 1960s. In 1931, the distinguished editor of Harper’s magazine, Frederick Lewis Allen, summed up the Scopes trial in his classic work of popular history, Only Yesterday, which has never been out of print. “Legislators might go on passing anti-evolution laws,” Allen wrote, “and in the hinterlands the pious might still keep their religion locked in a science-proof compartment of their minds; but civilized opinion everywhere had regarded the Dayton trial with amazement and amusement, and the slow drift away from Fundamentalist certainty continued.”

That is how things looked at the beginning of the Great Depression in the offices of prestigious magazines in New York and Boston, and that is how they would continue to look to secular intellectuals well into the 1980s. The mistaken conclusion that “science-proof” thinking would simply disappear in the enlightened 20th century was the main factor in Ingersoll’s disappearance from the consciousness of American intellectuals in the generation after his death. Ingersoll’s arguments would come to seem not provocative or dangerous but irrelevant to most (the gigantic exception being Richard Hofstadter) in the generation of historians who came of age during the Depression and the Second World War and who, like Allen, considered fundamentalism no more than an interesting relic of ages past.

In an editorial published on July 22, 1899—the day after the Great Agnostic’s death—The New York Times took care to denounce Ingersoll’s views about religion but acknowledged that his principled refusal to mute his antireligious views meant that he “never took that place in the social, the professional, or the public life of his country to which by his talents he would otherwise have been eminently entitled.” Every major newspaper in the country shared this view.

Edgar W. Howe, publisher of The Atchison Daily Globe in Kansas, assessed Ingersoll’s legacy more positively in a memorial editorial that spoke for freethinkers in the American heartland:

The death of Robert G. Ingersoll removed one of America’s greatest citizens. It is not popular to admire Ingersoll but his brilliancy, his integrity and patriotism cannot be doubted. Had not Ingersoll been frank enough to express his opinion on religion he would have been President of the United States. Hypocrisy in religion pays. There will come a time when public men may speak their honest convictions in religion without being maligned by the ignorant and superstitious, but not yet.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Susan Jacoby is the author of the forthcoming book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, from which this essay is adapted. She is the author of 11 other books.


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