Robert G. Ingersoll Oratory Contest Brings ‘The Great Agnostic to Life’

November 11, 2009

Washington, DC, October 2009 -- The words of Robert Green Ingersoll, the 19th century “Great Agnostic,” rang out in Washington’s Dupont Circle in October as 14 people competed for prizes by reading excerpts of his lectures, essays, and other writings. The participants in the first annual Robert G. Ingersoll Oratory Contest brought to life Ingersoll’s critiques of religion, defense of women’s rights and civil rights, and homage to Thomas Paine. The contest was sponsored by the Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH), the Center for Inquiry DC, and the American Humanist Association as a way to revive interest in Ingersoll--a great orator, Civil War veteran, successful lawyer and political speaker who has been neglected by history.

The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, a project of the Council for Secular Humanism, also offered support to the Oct. 4 contest, which was held outdoors so that Ingersoll’s message could be heard by the general public.

The top prize, awarded by a panel of three local judges, went to James B. Tinsley of Fort Smith, Ark., a writer, historian and historical character performer who runs a Robert Green Ingersoll Renewal and Restoration Project. (More information is available at www.rgingersollprojectblog.com.) He says when he discovered Ingersoll in college, he realized he had “found a truly honest and brilliant kindred spirit.” He adds: “I was also dumbfounded to discover that neither I, nor anyone I spoke with, had ever heard of Ingersoll.”

Tinsley read passages – completely from memory -- from Ingersoll’s lectures “The Gods” and “Thomas Paine.”

He won $150 and a rare original period poster including a color gravure photo of Ingersoll with his grandchildren, a quote from “Love,” and a facsimile signature.

The other winners were:

Second place: Jamila Bey of Washington, DC, who read Ingersoll’s essay “What I Want for Christmas.” She won $100 and two books by Ingersoll, On the Gods and Other Essays and Superstition and Other Essays.

Third Place: Stuart Jordan of Greenbelt, Md., a volunteer science adviser to the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy. He read an excerpt from Ingersoll’s lecture “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child.” He won $75 and an audio CD of selected Ingersoll works read by a Shakespearean actor.

Fourth Place: Tie between Saul Penn of Silver Spring, Md., a retired systems analyst, and Lynne Williamson of Arlington, Va., a program manager. Penn read excerpts of two lectures, “What Would You Substitute for the Bible as a Moral Guide?” and “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child” (focusing on a critique of Napoleon Bonaparte). Williamson read excerpts from Ingersoll’s preface to Helen Hamilton Gardener’s book Men, Women and Gods. The two contestants shared a $50 prize.

About 75 or 80 people attended the Ingersoll contest, including numerous passersby who stopped to watch or take fliers about the event. The organizers were heartened by the response to their initial effort and plan to make the competition an annual event. “We will work next year to spread the word about the contest even further so we can help educate Americans about an important part of their heritage,” said Steven Lowe, a WASH board member who led the contest’s planning efforts.

For more information about the contest, including videos of the presentations, see http://ingersollcontest.wordpress.com. Write to Ingersoll@wash.com with questions or comments.

--Suzanne Perry