The Blasphemer Robert G. Ingersoll
the AMBROSE BIERCE site
Drawing of Ambrose Bierce © Matthew & Eve Levine 2012.
Limited edition prints and licensing opportunities available through D. Levine Ink.
by Don Swaim
sign on Ingersoll's office door
An evangelist in Buffalo lashed out at Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll as “a poor barking dog.” In Pittsburgh, indignant defenders of the faith urged the mayor to arbitrarily forbid Ingersoll from speaking publicly on a Sunday. The chief judge of the Delaware Supreme Court called on a grand jury to indict Ingersoll for blasphemy. Similarly, the head of the Pennsylvania Bible Society warned that if Ingersoll spoke profanely of the Lord in Philadelphia, he would be arrested under the commonwealth’s blasphemy law. A pastor in New York declared as “irreverent and infidel” Ingersoll’s lecture on “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.” In Connecticut, a clergyman demanded an opera house breach its contract and bar its doors to a scheduled lecture by the heretic. In Kansas City, a minister voiced fear that Ingersoll’s sacrilegious rhetoric would harm the minds of precious little children. A pastor in Utica denounced Ingersoll as a sensualist, a gourmand [note: it is true Ingersoll was a prodigious eater], and a violator of common decency. A letter to the editor of the Buffalo Times accused Ingersoll of depriving the fearful of any hope of meeting their late family members in Heaven, and that a belief in Hell was necessary to keep society together. Fire-breathing Brooklyn cleric T. De Witt Talmage characterized Ingersoll as “the champion blasphemer of America,” a man who favored sending obscene material through the mails [an untruth]. Further, Talmage insisted the blasphemy laws be strictly enforced against Ingersoll, and that while the fervid pastor personally believed in free speech, it did not apply when it came to insulting his God. “Good speech is legal,” Talmage claimed, “bad speech is not.”
Ingersoll, a nineteenth century phenomenon, gave as well as he got, yet for the most part good naturedlyunlike those who angrily accused him of blasphemy. “In a world of superstition, reason is blasphemy,” he said. “In a world of cruelty, sympathy is a crime, and in a world of lies, truth is blasphemy.” Several states and localities had passed blasphemy statutes, which were illegal under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, so Ingersoll was not intimidated. To the threat of indictment in Delaware, he said that “the Lord had originally equipped oysters with legs but had to take the legs off when it became evident the people of Delaware would not run for anything.” To Talmage, Ingersoll was cheerfully defiant. “...all the churches in the United States can’t ever crush us. That day has gone never to return. Superstition has caused too many tears; it has broken too many hearts; it has filled too many insane asylums; it has kept the world in darkness long enough. If they think they can crush freethought in this country, let them try it.”
Conversely, Ingersoll was on amiable terms with the nineteenth century’s most prominentand controversialpreacher, Henry Ward Beecher [brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin], who characterized Ingersoll as “the most brilliant speaker of the English tongue of all men on the globe. ...under the lambent flow of his wit and magnificent antitheses we find the glorious flame of genius and honest thought.” Ingersoll returned Beecher’s accolade: “He [Beecher] battled for the rights of men. His heart was with the slave. He stood against the selfish greed of millions banded to protect the pirate’s trade. His voice was for the right when freedom’s friends were few. He taught the church to think and doubt.” While Beecher was an outspoken supporter of abolition and supposed exemplar of the nation’s morals, his personal failings led to a sensational scandal in which he was brought to trial [Tilden v. Beecher 1875] for an adulterous relationship with the wife of the man said to be his best friend. Although the trial ended in a hung jury, it was a prime illustration of religious hypocrisy.
Ingersoll’s every utterance became newspaper fodder, and his name and reputation far overshadowed that of Ambrose Bierce, younger by nine years, who was, after all, a mere writer, not a world-class orator. Although a prominent and hugely successful lawyer in Illinois, Washington, and New York [his most famous case was as counsel for the defendants in the two postal Star Route trials of the 1880sthe Teapot Dome/Watergate scandal of its day], Ingersoll’s notoriety resulted from the lecture circuit, which he pursued tirelessly until two months before his death. There is no evidence Ingersoll was familiar with the lesser known Bierce, despite Bierce’s regular fulminations in the Hearst newspapers and Cosmopolitan Magazine between 1887 and 1908. But Bierce was keenly aware of Ingersoll and cited him positively in his columns for Hearst.
Robert Green Ingersoll was born to a Presbyterian pastor and ardent abolitionist in upstate Dresden, New York, on August 11, 1833, but his Midwestern legacy was firmly established when the family moved, first, to Ohio, then to central Illinois. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born to a Congregationalist farm family in southeastern Ohio on June 24, 1842, but his family soon emigrated to northern Indiana. “Bob” Ingersoll, who even in his youth had developed a reputation as an orator, was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1854, three years before the teenaged Bierce became a printer’s devil for The Northern Indianan, an abolitionist newspaper. When the Civil War broke out, Ingersoll was commissioned a colonel and formed a regiment, the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry Volunteers. About the same time, the much younger Bierce enlisted as a private in Company C of the Ninth Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers.
Both men distinguished themselves in combat, and both fought at the bloody battle of Shiloh in April 1962 during which some 24,000 soldiers on both sides were killed, wounded, or captured, the deadliest battle in America up to that time. Each man wrote eloquently of the bloodshed at Shiloh, Ingersoll to his brother Clark, “...the Rebels rushed us with the fury of Hell and our soldiers disputed every bloody inch with more courage and more dauntless desperate heroism than I before imagined possessed by men.” Surrounded by thousands of dead and dying, Ingersoll said, “The rain fell all night, slowly and sadly, as though the heavens were weeping for the dead. All night long I stood with my blanket around me, drearily by the side of a dead tree watching the shells of the gunboats. Every fifteen minutes would come a flash like heat lightningthen the boomthen the bluish line bending over the distant woodthen the roar of the bursting, and then last of all the double echo dying over the far hills.”
In one of Bierce’s most famous autobiographical essays, “What I Saw at Shiloh,” he wrote, “The night was now blackdark; as is usual after a battle, it had begun to rain. Still we moved; we were being put into position by somebody. Inch by inch we crept along, treading on one another’s heels by way of keeping together.... Very often we struck our feet against the dead; more frequently against those who still had spirit enough to resent it with a moan. They were lifted carefully to one side and abandoned.”
Illustration of Battle of Shiloh in Frank Leslie’s
Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War, 1896
Both men were captured by the enemy, Ingersoll by the Confederate General Nathan Forrest at the battle of Lexington, Tennessee, and Bierce, if his personal account is to be believed, by Confederate irregulars in Alabama. After three days of captivity, Ingersoll was “paroled’ upon his oath not to fight again, while Bierce claims to have escaped by swimming to safety across the Coosa River.
Neither man romanticized the war, and Ingersoll was repulsed by it as much as he was of slavery: “War is horrid beyond the comprehension of man. It is enough to break the heart to go through the hospitals and see gray-haired veterans with lips whitening under the kiss of deathhundreds of mere boys with thoughts of homeof sister and brothermeeting the dark angel alone, nothing but pain, misery, neglect, and death. ...to see death around you, everywhere nothing but deathto think of the ones far away expecting the dead to return and hoping for one more embracelistening for footsteps that never will be heard on earthit makes one tiredtired of war.”
While Bierce made no moral judgment on either slavery or war [he had hoped to make a career in the military], his description of the scorched earth after the first battle of Shiloh shows his understanding of it. “Death had put his sickle into this thicket and fire had gleaned the field. Along a line which was not that of extreme depression, but was at every point significantly equidistant from the heights on either hand, lay the bodies, half buried in ashes; some in the unlovely attitude denoting sudden death by the bullet, but by far the greater number in postures of agony that told of tormenting flame. Their clothing was half burnt awaytheir hair and beard entirely; the rain had come too late to save their nails. Some were swollen to double girth; others shriveled to manikins.”
Following the war, Bierce [promoted to lieutenant], who had suffered a head wound, retired from the military as a brevet major after aspiring unsuccessfully to win a commission in the peacetime army, and found himself in San Francisco as a writer and editor, and later as the star columnist for the fledgling newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Ingersoll resigned his commission and returned to Illinois to resume his law practice, dabbling in Republican politics and winning appointment as the state’s first attorney general, his only public office. Ingersoll’s agnosticism effectively precluded him from elective office, although he agitated actively behind the scenes. In 1877 he moved his law practice from Peoria to Washington, D.C., his home base for the next eight years, after which he spent his remaining years as a New Yorker [living in a townhouse on the site of the current Gramercy Park Hotel]. Bierce also became a Washingtonian where he continued writing for the Hearst newspapers, but not until 1899 [the year of Ingersoll’s death], so his path and Ingersoll’s did not cross.
While religious superstition was deeply ingrained in the belief system of nineteenth century Western civilization, an intellectual backlash developed following publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859. No longer was it de rigueur to ascribe, without substantiation, man’s existence to a presumed, amorphous god, although those who defied religious dogma continued to risk the wrath of the Church. Still lingering were the powers of the papacy, which once declared it a sacrilege to translate “sacred” Greek and Hebrew Christian texts into English. One who had was John Wycliffe (ca 13281384), whose body, in reprisal, was disinterred, hanged, burned, and his ashes thrust into the River Swift.
Ingersoll maintained that Darwin “...shows that man has for thousands of ages steadily advanced, that the Garden of Eden is an ignorant myth, that the doctrine of original sin has no foundation in fact, that the atonement is an absurdity, that the serpent did not tempt, and that man did not ‘fall.’” Bierce too weighed in on evolution, caustically defining it as, “The process by which the higher organisms are gradually developed from the lower, as Man from the Assisted Immigrant, the Office-Holder from the Ward Boss, the Thief from the Office-Holder, etc.”
Biologist Thomas H. Huxley, a defender of Darwin’s heretical theory of evolution, who characterized himself as “Darwin’s bulldog,” coined the term “agnostic,” which holds that in matters of science, conclusions must be demonstrated or demonstrable. In his lifetime, Ingersoll proudly wore as a badge of honor the label “The Great Agnostic.” Bierce, infamously quotable for his cheeky definitions, never defined “agnostic,” but in his The Devil’s Dictionary he wittily described faith as, “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel.”
Bierce and Ingersoll, in their separate ways, saw eye-to-eye on most, but not all, of the freethought issues of their day, particularly when it came to what they might have considered ecclesiastical delusion. Bierce cited Ingersoll in The Devil’s Dictionary in which “Decalogue” was facetiously defined as, “A series of commandmentsten in numberjust enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian”:
The “Decalogue" was signed by “G.J.”, playfully identified by Bierce as “...that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials.”
If Bierce showed little respect for organized religion, Ingersoll had none, and described as “stupidly false” assertions that the Ten Commandments were the foundation of civilized justice and law. “Thousands of years before Moses was born, the Egyptians had a code of laws,” Ingersoll maintained. “They had laws against blasphemy, murder, adultery, larceny, perjury, laws for the collection of debts, the enforcement of contracts, the ascertainment of damages, the redemption of property pawned, and upon nearly every subject of human interest.... Laws were made against murder because a very large majority of the people have always objected to being murdered.” Ingersoll asserted that there was no difference between the agnostic and the atheist. “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. He simply believes. He cannot know.” While Bierce also pronounced on the definition of atheism, it is not clear that he fully accepted Ingersoll’s interpretation. “It is the peculiar distinction of atheism to be nothing at all,” Bierce wrote in the Examiner on January 19, 1890. “The atheist, as such, has no belief. To say he believes there is no God is inaccurate; he merely does not believe there is a God. Atheism is a non-belief, a word without a corresponding thing; to object to its recognition and pre-eminence is the same thing as to be jealous of a vacuum.”
Bierce was coy as to his personal religious beliefs, ducking behind cynicism and dark humor while unloading bon mots like buckshot that clearly showed where he stood, such as the rich satirical definitions in his Devil’s Dictionary [originally titled The Cynic’s Word Book, 1906]:
On the other hand, Ingersoll, witty in his own right without an ounce of Bierce’s cynicism, was sincere and forthright in establishing his personal philosophy:
Frank Smith, author of Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life, writes that Ingersoll “...was largely responsible for the growth of the organized freethought movement in the United States from 1880 to 1899. This was the ‘Golden Age’ of freethought. Robert Ingersoll’s influence and participation enabled the movement to grow rapidly to a size it has never again achieved.” In her book Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby writes that “Ingersoll’s position as the preeminent orator of his generation enabled him to reach millions of Americans who might otherwise have refused to give a personal hearing, unmediated by a hostile press, to the case against conventional religion.” Influencing the freethought movement were Thomas Paine [described by Theodore Roosevelt as a “dirty little atheist”] and Thomas Jefferson, and in the nineteenth century women’s suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, Clarence Darrow, Eugene V. Debs, and such literary figures as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and H.L. Mencken.
Bierce, who might today be described as a libertarianwhich he defined as, “One who is compelled by the evidence to believe in free-will, and whose will is therefore free to reject that doctrine.”was not officially part of the freethought movement, nor of any other [although he was a member of California’s Bohemian Club and the Army and Navy Club in Washingtonas well as an habitué of the club’s bar]. But he exploited the freethought climate in order to lash out at all the pious held dear and holy. He defined a freethinker as:
While some may overlook the poet Walt Whitman in the context of the freethought movement, he was very much a part of it, and in the final years of his life was celebrated by Ingersoll. Whitman did not share the agnostic views of his champion, but his bold and earthy free verse with its blatant sexuality was radical and shocking to Victorian attitudes, which prompted efforts to censor and still Whitman’s unique voice.
To his friend, Horace Traubel, Whitman said, “I consider Bob one of the constellations of our timeour countryAmericaa bright, magnificent constellation.” Ingersoll was the principal speaker at a birthday party for an infirm Whitman at Reissner’s Restaurant in Philadelphia on May 31, 1890. Unable to rise from his chair, Whitman thanked Ingersoll for his praise and support, but made clear that he believed in God and immortality. Ingersoll was not deterred, and a few days later wrote to the poet to say, “what pleasure it gave me to meet you, to look into your eyes, to hear your voice, to grasp your hand, and I thank you for the brave and splendid words you have uttered.” On October 21, 1890, Ingersoll delivered a testimonial to Whitman at Philadelphia’s Horticultural Hall before an audience of three thousand. The two exchanged cordialities over the following two years, and on March 29, 1892, Ingersoll delivered Whitman’s funeral eulogy in Camden, saying, “Long after we are dust the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets to the dying.”
It would be fair to conclude that Whitman was not in Bierce’s orbit [he once called Whitman’s poetry twaddle]. Bierce’s publisher, Walter Neale, claims that Bierce viewed Whitman as a man of “...low pecuniary standards and practices, who, nevertheless, might have been a poet of the first rank...” According to Neale, Bierce claimed that “the ‘good’ gray poet wrote prose that he falsely labeled verse: termed by latter-day ‘poets’ vers libre.” Enthusiastically, however, Bierce extolled the work of an acolyte, George Sterling, a minor poet, mostly forgotten. In the Cosmopolitan Magazine of September 1907, Bierce gushed that “Sterling is a very great poetincomparably the greatest that we have on this side of the Atlantic.” Comparing Sterling to Coleridge, Bierce said this of Sterling’s fevered “A Wine of Wizardry” (which first appeared under Bierce’s aegis in Cosmopolitan): “...I hold that not in a lifetime has our literature had anything new of equal length containing so much poetry and so little else.” Sterling was a suicide by cyanide, his body found in his room at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco in 1926. A Whitman he was not.
Both Ingersoll and Bierce used dollops of humor to keep their adversaries on the defensive. In the San Francisco News-Letter of February 12, 1870, Bierce wrote:
Tongue-in-cheek, Bierce told his readers of a Lutheran clergyman who poisoned himself because he could not make up his mind about a certain theological question. Whenever Bierce found a theological query too tough to answer he would take a deck of cards and decide it by turning a jack. A red jack was yes, a black one no.
Ingersoll saw the Bible as a sham, and in Some Mistakes of Moses, he devastatingly dissected a wide array of biblical absurdities, and included a day-by-day postmortem of the seven days of creation, concluding with the Sabbath:
Bierce, of course, conveyed to his readers his own view of the Sabbath: “A weekly festival having its origin in the fact that God made the world in six days and was arrested on the seventh. Among the Jews, observance of the day was enforced by a Commandment of which this is the Christian version: ‘Remember the seventh day to make thy neighbor keep it wholly.’”
Bierce and Ingersoll were of the same mind regarding the specter of Prohibition, although neither lived to see the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. Presciently, Ingersoll said, “I do not believe that the people can be made temperate by law....Prohibition fills the world with spies and tattlers, and, besides that, where a majority of the people are not in favor of it the law will not be enforced; and where a majority of the people are in favor of it there is not much need of the law.”
In a mocking column for the San Francisco News-Letter in 1871, Bierce rushed to the defense of the drunkard, claiming treatment of them was infamous, and he included himself among the abused: “At least one of them is compelled to write two columns a week for the News-Letter, and another one has to pay him for it.” Known to be an aficionado of Martell Three Star, a fine cognac, Bierce defined brandy as: “A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave, two parts clarified Satan and four parts holy Moses!... Brandy is said by Emerson, I think, to be the drink of heroes. I certainly should not advise others to tackle it. By the way, it is rather good.”
The more sober Ingersoll concluded, “Take wine and malt liquors out of the world and she shall lose a vast deal of good fellowship; the world would lose more than it would gain.... If Prohibition succeeds, and wines and malt liquors go, the next thing will be to take tobacco away, and the next thing all other pleasures, until prayer meetings will be the only places of enjoyment.”
Ingersoll on the cover of The Truth Seeker, 1888,
as the champion of science over religious superstitition
Both men spoke out against socialism, which Bierce saw as one of two extremes of political thought, the other being anarchism, and that between the two “lies the system that we have the happiness to endure.” Bierce asserted that, “The Socialist believes that most human affairs should be regulated and managed by the State,” and he grumbled, “Our own system has many Socialistic features and the trend of republican government is all that way.” Those who endorsed Socialism, such as public ownership of utilities on the ground of principle “are a pretty dangerous class,” he said. But he had an open mind relating to government ownership of railroads, saying, “...there is doubtless a good deal to be said on both sides.” He described the anarchist, whose role loomed much larger in Bierce’s day, as a “kind of lunatic,” and he once wrote to his niece saying he would put them all to death if he lawfully could.
Ingersoll [who opposed the death penalty: “Does not the Government feed the mob spiritthe lynch spirit?”], described himself as an individualist, and wanted as little law as possible, “only as much as will protect life, reputation and property by punishing criminals and by enforcing contracts,” and he said, “...in the United States there is no place for Anarchist, Socialist or Dynamiter.” Sounding much like a modern day conservative, he maintained:
But Ingersoll left the door open to a progressive federal income tax, which did go into effect in 1913 with ratification of the Sixteen Amendment. “So I believe in cumulative taxation with regard to any kind of wealth. Let a man with ten million pay a greater per cent than one worth one hundred thousand, because he is able to pay it.”
click to enlarge images
On a key freethought issue Bierce and Ingersoll parted: women’s suffrage. Ingersoll was a believer, saying, “Why shouldn’t men be decent enough in the management of the politics of the country for women to mingle with them? It is an outrage that anyone should live in this country for sixty or seventy years and be forced to obey the laws without having any voice in making them.”
The misogynistic Bierce not only opposed suffrage, but also criticized a woman’s struggle to attain equality in what was then considered to be a man’s world, although it’s possible much of Bierce’s outrageous zeal was pure irony. He addressed women’s suffrage in two essays in the San Francisco Examiner that were later paired in The Shadow on the Dial, 1909. In “The Opposing Sex,” he depicted women as existing in the shadow of male accomplishment:
It probably would have been to no avail to convince Bierce that womeneven during his lifetimehad historically been denied the educational, professional and social opportunities, as well as the encouragement to achieve taken for granted by men. The right to vote aside, Bierce, in “Emancipated Woman,” questioned how a woman’s entrance in commercial, professional, and industrial life was an advantage to the sex. “It has not benefited the sex as a whole, and has distinctly damaged the race. The mind that can not discern a score of great and irreparable general evils distinctly traceable to ‘emancipation of woman’ is as impregnable to the light as a toad in a rock.”
With regard to a woman’s right to vote, Bierce wrote, “If not a single election were ever in any degree affected by it, the introduction of woman suffrage into our scheme of manners and morals would nevertheless be one of the most momentous and mischievous events of modern history. Compared with the action of this destructive solvent, that of all other disintegrating agencies concerned in our decivilization is as the languorous indiligence of rosewater to the mordant fury of nitric acid.”
Bierce’s ultimate disparagement came when he said of women, “What matters my opinion of your understandings so long as I am in bondage to your charms? Moreover, there is one service of incomparable utility and dignity for which I esteem you eminently fitto be mothers of men.”
Ingersoll made certain where he stoodand it wasn’t with Bierce. In an address to a suffrage meeting in Washington on January 24, 1880, he said, “I believe, and always have, that there is only one objection to a woman voting, and that us, the men, are not sufficiently civilized for her to associate with them, and for several years I have been doing what little I can to civilize them.” In one of a series of interviews published in Vol. VIII of his Collected Works, Ingersoll was questioned about suffrage:
Ingersoll believed the influence of women in political discourse was positive. “If women wish to vote, if they wished to take part in political matters, if they wish to run for office. I shall do nothing to interfere with those rights....There was a time when physical force or brute strength gave pre-eminence.... So I say equal rights, equal education, equal advantages.”
Women did not achieve the right to vote in America until 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified by a majority of the states, so neither Ingersoll nor Bierce was alive to see it. Today, Bierce would probably find some humor in the fact that in 1984 Mississippi became the last state to ratify the amendmentsixty-four years late.
Bierce came to Ingersoll’s support following the Great Agnostic’s defense of suicide, considered a “mortal sin” by the theology of the Catholic Church and its allies among the evangelical churches. Ingersoll’s argument supporting the right of suicidelater published in a controversial little book titled Is Suicide a Sin?held that:
Bierce, in his essay “Taking Oneself Off” in the San Francisco Examiner of April 23, 1893, agreed:
Ingersoll lashed out against laws, such as those in New York, that gave equal weight to divorce and suicide statutes. “Both [laws] are idiotic. Law cannot prevent suicide. Those who have lost all fear of death care nothing for law and its penalties. Death is liberty, absolute and eternal.” Concurring, Bierce said, “No principle is involved in this matter; suicide is justifiable or not, according to circumstances; each case is to be considered on its merits, and he having the act under advisement is sole judge.”
Ingersoll was happily married with two daughters and, much to the chagrin of his enemies, a freethinker with an impeccable reputation. Bierce, on the other hand, separated from his wife, and his two sons both met early and tragic deaths. “The Great Agnostic” was sixty-five when he died of a heart attack in Dobbs Ferry, New York, on July 21, 1899.
Marking Ingersoll’s passing in an essay titled “The Dead Lion” for the San Francisco Examiner of July 30, 1899, Bierce took to task some of the editorial writers who gloated at Ingersoll’s death. One such unfortunateunnamedwas characterized in grand but typical Bierce style, witty and savage:
Bierce did not identify the hapless editorial writeran “ineffable dolt” whose primary sin was to claim that Ingersoll “was not a great atheist, nor a great agnostic,” although he aspired to be. Where is the evidence? Bierce demanded. “May not a man state his religious or irreligious views with the same presumption of modesty and mere sincerity that attaches to other intellectual action? Because one publicly affirms the inveracity of Moses must one be charged with ambition, that meanest of all motives?”
Bierce scorned a contention by the same writera “complacent simpleton”that Ingersoll’s biblical scholarship was inferior, insisting that, “Ingersoll’s limitations were the source of his power; at least they confined him to methods that are ‘understanded of the people’[sic]; and to be comprehended by the greatest number of men should be the wish of him who tries to destroy what he thinks [is] a popular delusion.”
Bierce also took issue with a distinguished academic, Professor Harry Thurston Peckalbeit more respectfully. Peck, editor of the prominent literary journal The Bookman and a member of the Columbia University faculty, found it difficult to understand why the late Ingersoll’s private virtues were so breathlessly brought forward and detailed with so much “strenuous insistence.” Bierce supplied the answer: “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion, then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may as well be without it as with it...”
Peck wondered what final judgment should be passed on Ingersoll, who strove to “make universal" his views “that Christianity is in truth a superstition and its history a fable; that it has no hold on reason; and that the book from which it draws in part its teaching and its inspiration is only an inconsistent chronicle of old world myths.” Bierce replied that “If he [Ingersoll] believed in these matters [that] he was right and a certain small minority of mankind, including a considerable majority of his living countrymen, wrong, it was merely his duty as a gentlemen to speak his views and to strive, as occasion offered or opportunity served, to ‘make them universal.’”
Bierce took particular exception to Peck’s contention that Ingersoll was a mere buffoon. Said Bierce, “Who that has an open mind would think that it [the charge of buffoonery] was written of Robert Ingersoll that he ‘burst into the sacred silence of their devotion with the raucous bellowing of an itinerant stumpspeaker and the clowning of a mountebank?’”
Peck claimed that Ingersoll crassly lectured on religion for money"in the character of a paid public entertainer, for his own personal profit.” Responded Bierce, “In what character does Prof. Peck conduct his valuable and entertaining magazine [The Bookman] for instruction and amusement of those willing to pay for it? ...Obviously the agnostic’s offense was not lecturing for pay. It was not lecturing on religion. It was not sarcasm. It was that lecturing for pay on religion, his sarcasm took a direction disagreeable to Prof. Peck, instead of disagreeable to Prof. Peck’s opponents.” Peck wistfully wondered that if, on the very threshold of death, Ingersoll might have looked back and speculated if he could have done something to “help make the life of a man on earth more noble, or more spiritual, or more truly worth living.” Bierce pounced.
Bierce believed there was an undertone of malice in Peck’s criticism of Ingersoll, insisting, “I can not help thinking that in suggesting his [Ingersoll’s] remorse as only a possibility, instead of relating it as a fact attested by piteous appeals for divine mercy, Prof. Peck has committed a sin of omission for which on his own deathbed he will himself suffer the keenest regret.” Bierce’s point was well made. Peck’s God did not serve him well. He was dismissed from Columbia University after a former secretary’s breach of promise suit. [Breach of promise and alienation of affection suits were once common.] Jobless, Peck was seen shabbily dressed walking the streets of Manhattan as if in a daze. He committed suicide in 1914, the same year Bierce vanished in Mexico.
There is nothing today quite like the National Liberal League [later the American Secular Union], of which Ingersoll was president in 1885. Nevertheless, the freethought movement achieved partial success, such as winning women’s suffrage and abortion rights, and strengthening the separation of theological notions from public school curriculums. Moreover, the religious establishment no longer holds quite the power, sway, and respect it did in the nineteenth century when the clergy and their Sunday sermons were routinely quoted in the daily newspapers. However, a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 78.4 percent of all Americans categorized themselves as Christian, 4.0 as atheist or agnostic, the remainder as minority affiliations or nothing. Despite the dominance of Christianity in America, evangelistic proselytizers are often held up for ridicule and Catholic priests, rightly or wrongly, sometimes viewed with skepticism, even fear, that they might prey on children. Susan Jacoby points out that once, “Not only did the Catholic hierarchy speak with one voice, but it did so at a time when lay Catholics treated their priests and bishops with a deference that would be unimaginable to most American Catholics today.”
The supernatural remains a powerful force in the United States, as evidenced in part by the fervor of those who believe in recurring pronouncements that the earth will abruptly end and that only Christian believers will be saved and delivered to an unknown paradise, such as the future envisioned in the failed predictions of the Reverend Harold Egbert Campingor adherents who eagerly await the apocalypse based on a Mayan calendar dating to 900 AD. The 1978 mass suicide and murder of more than 900 people in Guyana by the Peoples Temple led by the pastor Jim Jones is an extreme variation of what might be considered a group psychosis. Clarence Darrow, a leading figure of the freethought movement [and celebrated defense lawyer in the famous Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee in 1925], said this in his 1932 autobiography: “The number of people on the borderline of insanity in a big country is simply appalling, and these seem especially addicted to believing themselves saviors and prophets. It takes only a slight stimulus to throw them completely off balance.”
Somehow, Ingersoll seems mired in the nineteenth century and largely forgotten. Nevertheless, in 1921 his birthplace on the western shore of Seneca Lake, New York, was restored as a memorial and museum [Thomas Edison was on the restoration committee], as well as a statue in Glen Oak Park, Illinois. The Council for Secular Humanism launched an extensive Ingersoll website, in addition to an online walking tour of Ingersoll’s Washington, D.C. Literarily, Bierce was spared Ingersoll’s neglect due to a select, but brilliant, body of work that holds up today, the material for opera, film, art. However, unlike the rehabilitation of Ingersoll’s birthplace, Bierce can boast only of a lonely highway marker in Ohio and an alley named for him in San Francisco.
It is a certainty that Ingersoll would no longer be a member of what now calls itself the Republican Partyalthough not so clear in the case of the more unpredictable Bierce, despite his amusing doggerel that some might consider more apt today than in the time of Ingersoll: “Here lies the body of the Republican Party; / Corrupt, and generally speaking, hearty.”
On April 25, 1901, two years after Ingersoll’s passing, Bierce published an article in the New York Journal citing the Christian concept of human immortalitylife after deathas an absolute truth. Bierce magnanimously [for him] threw an olive branch to countries with a predominately Christian population:
Bierce, who survived Ingersoll by some fifteen years, mysteriously vanished in Mexico in 1914, and his remains have never been discovered.
Statue of Ingersoll, his widow and daughters in attendance,
dedicated in 1911 in Glen Oak Park, Illinois.
Among the Sources
Bierce, Ambrose. A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography. Edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Knoxville, 1998
______________. Collected Works, Vol. VII. New York and Washington 1909-1912
______________. Collected Works, Vol. X. New York and Washington 1909-1912
______________. The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader. Compiled and Edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins. New York, 1968
______________. The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary. Compiled and edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins. New York, 1967
______________. The Shadow on the Dial. Edited by S.O. Howes. San Francisco, 1909
______________. Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism from 1898-1901. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove. Ann Arbor, 1980
Council for Secular Humanism: http://www.secularhumanism.org/
Fatout, Paul. The Devil’s Lexicographer. Norman, 1951
Ingersoll, Robert. Collected Works, Vol. VIII. New York, 1902
______________. Lectures of Col. R.G. Ingersoll Latest. Chicago, 1897
______________. Some Mistakes of Moses. Washington, 1870
______________. Is Suicide a Sin? New York, 1894
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, The. http://religions.pewforum.org/reports
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers. New York, 2004
Neale, Walter. Life of Ambrose Bierce. New York, 1929
Smith, Frank. Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life. Buffalo, 1990
© 2012 by Don Swaim
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