Robert Green Ingersoll—The Most Remarkable American Most People Never Heard Of

October 1, 2009

Tom Flynn/Robert Green Ingersoll Museum

Robert Green Ingersoll

On October 25, Center for Inquiry Indiana will host Tom Flynn ,  Executive Director of The Council for Secular Humanism , Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, and Director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum .  Hearing Tom Flynn speak about Ingersoll is the next best thing to hearing Ingersoll himself.  The presentation will include a new DVD which was made for the Ingersoll museum.  

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), known as The Great Agnostic, traveled the country for more than thirty years lecturing to capacity crowds on more than twelve hundred occasions.  He usually talked for three or four hours straight with no notes.   His topics ranged from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, from science to religion.   His biggest crowds turned out to hear him denounce religion and the Bible.   He was no doubt one of the greatest orators in American history.

He was ahead of his time on social issues such as women's rights, birth control, and equality of the races.  Frederick Douglass is said to have stated that , of all the great men of his personal acquaintance, there were only two in whose presence he could be without feeling that he was regarded as an inferior--Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll.  Yet, his name has been all but forgotten.

I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in history and I had never heard of Robert Ingersoll until I became involved with the freethought/secular humanism movement ten to twelve years ago.  Why? No doubt because of his unpopular views on religion.  This is a testament to the power of religion to rewrite history.  He also had no chance at a political office because of his stand on religion.  So--this situation has not changed much over time, has it? 

Once I learned of Ingersoll, I read Frank Smith's Robert G. Ingersoll--A Life and became totally in awe of the man, his life, and works.   Thanks to Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism his memory is being preserved at the Robert Green Ingersoll museum (his birthplace) in Dresden, NY. 

It is very fitting that we host this event in Indianapolis as there are several Indiana/Indianapolis connections with Ingersoll. (Thanks to Tom Flynn for this information.)

Robert Green Ingersoll—the Indiana Connection

Ingersoll gave 91 speeches in Indiana. One of his most influential speeches which included, “A Vision of War” was delivered at the circle in Indianapolis.

Hoosier, Lew Wallace wrote Ben-Hur after a discussion with Ingersoll on religion.  While reflecting on Ingersoll's two-hour recitation of the case against believing in God, Christianity, and the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments, Wallace became convinced of the truth and importance of Christianity and wrote an epic story of a Jewish aristocrat who becomes a follower of Jesus.

Carl Graham Fisher , founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway , won a national prize from Ingersoll’s publisher for selling more Ingersoll booklets than any other “butcher” [railroad boy] on any railroad in America as a young man.   During his breaks, he would sit on the floor of a railroad car and read Ingersoll.  An Ingersoll quote,  "The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.”  was his guiding principle.   He had a 12-volume leather-bound set of the collected works of Robert Green Ingersoll in his library. 

Eugene V. Debs , from Terre Haute, Indiana,  was a great admirer of Ingersoll even though they were at opposite ends of the political/economic spectrum.   Debs admired Ingersoll’s great humanitarianism and his sympathy for the plight of the working class.  Debs said of Ingersoll ,  “He was the Shakespeare of oratory—the greatest the world has ever known.  Ingersoll lived and died far in advance of his time . . . I loved him truly . . .The name of Ingersoll is revered in our house, worshipped by us all, and the date of his birth is holy in our calendar. . . . I have never loved another mortal as I have loved Robert Green Ingersoll."

It has been said that Thomas Jefferson preserved the memory of Thomas Paine and others have preserved the memory of Jefferson. "And so it goes."-- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.   We must continue to honor and preserve the memory of one of the true "saints" of freethought-- Robert Green Ingersoll