On August 11, 1833, John Ingersoll, a Christian pastor, and his wife Mary became the proud parents of a baby boy, whom they named Robert Green.
In spite of being born into a pious home in a small upstate New York town, Robert G. Ingersoll for many years proudly bore the label “the Great Agnostic.” And by the time of his death in 1899, he had been one of the best known public speakers in America for decades.
I was probably still a teenager when I first heard reference made to Ingersoll at the Baptist church, or maybe at the Baptist college, I attended. However, I don’t remember hearing him called what many conservative Christians dubbed him: Injuresoul.
When he was twenty years old, the Ingersoll family moved to the town of Marion in southern Illinois. The following year both he and his older brother were admitted to the bar.
According to Marion’s historical website, “A county historian writing 22 years later noted that local residents considered the Ingersolls as a ‘very intellectual family; but, being Abolitionists, and the boys being deists, rendered obnoxious to our people in that respect.’”
The young lawyer went on to become a colonel in the Civil War, and then in 1867 he was appointed the first Attorney General of Illinois. He was quite active as a conservative Republican (which then meant something quite different from what it means now). He gave a highly regarded speech in the 1876 Republican National Convention.
That same year he engaged in an extensive conversation with Lew Wallace, a Civil War general who had commanded the battle of Shiloh in which Ingersoll had been captured by the Confederates. As a result of listening to Ingersoll’s negative ideas about Christianity, Wallace decided to write a book about the life of Christ.
Wallace’s work was published in 1880, while he was governor of New Mexico Territory. We know it as both a book and a movie: “Ben Hur.”
For the last 30+ years of his life, Ingersoll was best known as an exciting public speaker – and as an agnostic, rather than a deist. He is said to have spoken in person to more people in the United States than anyone else in the nineteenth century.
And he probably did more than anyone else in America during that century to spread agnosticism, which has often been called free thinking. But until recently Ingersoll has been largely unknown by most younger people.
The Robert Ingersoll website has posted an eight-minute YouTube video under the title “Meet the Most Remarkable American Most People Never Heard of.”
American journalist, author, and noted atheist Susan Jacoby has sought to resurrect acquaintance with Ingersoll’s life and influence with a book titled “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.” I read Jacoby’s work soon after it came out early this year and found it most interesting, although misleading in places.
Still, in May, Washington Post and several other newspapers and websites published Kimberly Winston’s article called “Meet Robert Ingersoll, America’s Most Famous Forgotten Atheist.”
With the growth of atheists/agnostics – and “nones” – in the U.S., there will likely be increasing interest in Ingersoll. And many of us who are “progressive” Christians will find a number of places where we can agree with him, as well as many places where we can’t.
At any rate, the books and other information about Robert Ingersoll, “the great agnostic,” does make for interesting reading. And even though he was born 180 years ago, his ideas, and how to respond to them, are well worth considering now, a time when agnosticism is increasing.