Chapter 1: Robert Ingersoll’s Religious Resistance

[Read up on Robert Ingersoll here]

The cops were ready to close in. The clergymen were ready to write it all down. The audience had no idea what was afoot.

A massive crowd had descended on the Hoboken Theatre in Hoboken, New Jersey. Theatergoers were eager to listen to the man widely considered the greatest orator in the world. Incidentally, he was also considered a heretic, an infidel, a blasphemer. For decades he had been delivering public lectures that ridiculed God, the Bible, and revealed religion. Given that blasphemy was then a crime in New Jersey, the cops and clergy were ready to catch him in the act of blaspheming and to put him behind bars. Two Hoboken detectives in the audience waited for the signal from two Protestant clergymen, H. T. Beatty and Herbert Campbell, who sat with notebooks and fountain pens in hand, ready to write down the heretic’s sacrilege.

What the cops and the clergy did not know was that the orator had been tipped off. Well before the date of the lecture, he had heard whispers about Hoboken’s mayor, police chief, and prominent clergy scheming to prevent him from speaking. But they had consulted the city attorney and concluded that they could not block the infamous infidel from speaking; the best they could do was wait until he blasphemed and arrest him on the spot. Abreast of the situation, the orator mounted the platform in the Hoboken Theatre and decided to have some fun with the crowd. He unleashed his characteristic ridicule, but attributed his statements to other infidels. “Mind you it’s contrary to the act of the Legislature for me to express any opinion about these things,” he announced after roasting the Holy Bible, “and I can only tell you what other people say, and you can decide for yourself. I don’t think that there’s any law against making up your mind. Oh, I’d tell you some things if it wasn’t for that act of the Legislature.” The crowd began to catch on, laughing every time the orator stopped his criticism just shy of violating the blasphemy law. “Mind you,” the speaker continued, “I don’t say that the Scriptures are not inspired. On the contrary, I admit that they are in New Jersey. That’s in accordance with the statutes, and I’m not foolish enough to fight any statute. You see, if the Legislature of New Jersey says a thing, that ends it with me.” The more the orator jested, the more the audience howled. He then turned his criticism directly to the clergy: “They’re a pretty mean lot of men, by the way. Now, they know I’m going to the penitentiary of God, and that I’m going to roast and blister and burn all through eternity. But these sanctified swine are not satisfied with that. They want to see me in the penitentiary here.” The audience doubled over in laughter and applause.

All the while, the clergymen wrote furious notes and the cops continued to wait for the signal to move in. But as the lecture continued, something surprising happened. Slowly but surely, the cops and clergy began to snicker, then chortle, then laugh as the eloquent infidel played with Bible stories and theological creeds. Even though the speaker ridiculed what they held sacred, they became part of the mass of laughing bodies. As the New York Sun reported, “They howled and creamed with delight. The ministers lost their dignity and joined in the jollification. The detectives just doubled up.” When the lecture concluded after 10:00 p.m., noted the Sun, “the detectives and the ministers went out ahead of the other people. What reports they are going to make is not known. But they laughed, and they probably won’t want to prosecute the Colonel.” The paper’s prediction was correct. Hoboken authorities never brought blasphemy charges against Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll, the greatest orator of the day and America’s most scorned critic of revealed religion.

Ingersoll’s performance in Hoboken took place on February 24, 1895, close to the end of his career. But what happened that day had been happening for decades. Since the early 1870s, he had proven able to draw massive crowds, to speak with wit and humor, to captivate listeners with his eloquence, and to stake a claim as perhaps the greatest intellectual performer of the day. Most remarkable was his ability to connect with those who opposed him, those who held sacred the very ideas he ridiculed. Across the nation, in bustling cities and sleepy towns alike, Ingersoll addressed people who believed wholeheartedly in that which he profaned. Yet they loved his challenges to their faith, and they routinely left the lecture hall feeling energized and alive. After an 1877 lecture in Pittsburgh, for example, Alexander Clark, editor of the weekly Christian publication Methodist Recorder, sent Ingersoll a letter of thanks for championing the “ideas of magnified manhood,” which “took hold of me.” Clark went on to note that he differed from Ingersoll “widely on some foundational principles,” but also that he stood “on the ground of ‘fair play,’” which “the New Testament allows me.” He concluded the letter by insisting that he and Ingersoll would likely meet someday in heaven: “I expect to see you in a better life and in an unending world of liberty and love.” Countless other lecture-goers sent the Great Agnostic similar notes. One attendee thanked Ingersoll for his views, even though they disagreed on important matters. But, the correspondent continued, “In these days every man should be allowed to think as he chooses.” He also insisted that he and Ingersoll could worship together, for “the religion of morality and the worship of the beautiful in nature . . . is a form of God worship.” Another correspondent reported to Ingersoll that everyone around him at a recent lecture, including a Quaker and a Methodist, was enthralled with Ingersoll’s oratory. The writer’s wife, in fact, remarked that she wished that religious believers were as Christlike as Ingersoll.

Ingersoll’s oratory prompted such responses in part because of his intellectual populism. His lectures were a model of how intellectual populists could criticize the status quo while strengthening the terrain on which the status quo was built. On the public stage, he ridiculed, rebuffed, and rebuked religious institutions and the experts who represented them—priests, ministers, theologians, and the like—while drawing ordinary Americans into conversations and deliberations that fortified and expanded religious culture. The critiques he offered, the audiences he rallied, the opposition he faced, and the eloquence he proffered produced a democratic coalition of intellectual agents dedicated to exploring the most important religious questions of the day. To borrow Ernesto Laclau’s terminology, Ingersoll’s lectures fostered an “equivalential chain” that linked the grievances of the religiously devout with the decidedly atheistic and those in between.

This is a much different role for Ingersoll than commentators have recognized. Reading Ingersoll’s work nowadays, it is easy to conclude that he led an antireligious, areligious, or secularist movement. Susan Jacoby, for instance, has called Ingersoll “a secular intellectual bridge into the twentieth century” and an “antireligious orator” with an “anti-religious stance.” But this characterization overlooks what Ingersoll’s lectures did on the ground in conjunction with popular audiences. As this chapter will show, Ingersoll was far from an antireligious orator; his intellectual populism actually enlivened, diversified, and democratized religious culture. His appeals criticized the religious status quo not to tear it down but to open it up and return it to ordinary Americans. Consequently, Ingersoll’s lectures illustrate the generative role of conflict in populist coalition building and ordinary democracy. For Ingersoll, as for other populists, coalitions emerge through conflict, disputation, and verbal battle. As this chapter will detail and as subsequent chapters will elaborate, these rhetorical clashes draw populist communities together and goad them to retake control of their intellectual lives. The more perspectives one can bring into the agon of debate and the more participants one can connect, the stronger will be the resulting intellectual culture.