August 15, 2012
American religion, debates, Dwight L. Moody, freethought, history, orthodoxy, reason, revivals, Robert Ingersoll
Excerpts from an essay I’ve posted on the American Society of Church History blog.
Robert G. Ingersoll and Dwight L. Moody were two of the best known speakers of their generation, from roughly 1875 to 1899, the year both died. They represented two poles on the religious spectrum, the rationalist debunker of orthodoxy, and the orthodox evangelist.
In my blog post of August 11, I described Ingersoll’s career and beliefs. Dwight L. Moody’s development took the opposite trajectory. Born into a Unitarian family, he converted to orthodox Christianity at age 18, after he had left home. He worked as a salesman until he felt the compulsion to teach and to preach the Gospel. He first was a teacher, moving into evangelism after 1871. A tour of Britain in 1875 began the period of his peak success, in his famous collaboration with the musician Ira Sankey. Moody’s focus was on immigrants in the cities. He was supported by coalitions of churches and by business leaders. He introduced many businesslike aspects in his revivals, including advance men and rooms where volunteers could meet with those who answered the altar call. Moody himself came to recognize that the revivals were not having the effects desired and turned his focus back to education, though he continued to preach extensively.
Moody’s message addressed behavior as well as conversion. This is evident in a sermon variously called “Sowing and Reaping” or “Reaping Whatsoever We Sow.” It is based on the text from Galatians 6:7-8: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” Moody begins by stressing that God cannot be deceived and giving examples, from individuals to nations, of consequences arising from sin. In the version I have seen of this sermon Moody intertwines consequences in this world, confession and making amends in this world, and confession to God, repentance and the promise of eternal life. The free grace of God is almost lost: “He will forgive you the sin, though He will make you reap what you sow.” God forgives, but society does not.
Robert Ingersoll responded to this sermon with a lecture in which he pointed out that Moody was contradicting himself. Most of the lecture laments the fact that Moody has not read some useful books, such as Darwin and Spencer. Ingersoll’s climax points out the inconsistency: that a man can convert just before death and be forgiven, but when a man appears before God moments after death, God sends his soul to hell. (Moody, of course, avoided the death-bed conversion scenario entirely, calling for conversion at the time he spoke.) Ingersoll concludes with the idea that Moody is behind the times. “Yes, the people are becoming civilized, and so they are putting out the fires of hell. They are ceasing to believe in a God who seeks eternal revenge.”
Was Moody behind the times? Would reason win out over revivals? For the complete essay, go to:
June 20, 2012
freethought, geography, holidays, humanism, IHEU, picnic, Robert Ingersoll, solstice, World Humanist Day
World Humanist Day is indeed an international holiday. Various groups celebrated a Humanist Day at different times until the International Humanist and Ethical Union (to which many established groups such as the American Humanist Association belong) settled it on June 21. Most years, this is the summer solstice; in 2012 the solstice arrives late on June 20,thanks to the leap year correction.
The IHEU notes the solstice connection, but doesn’t say why the date was chosen. Their website suggests a picnic on that day, which suggests that the organization has a northern hemisphere bias: people in Australia or South Africa might find that suggestion inappropriate due to weather and the early dark.
The idea “humanism” has been around at least since Auguste Comte (1798-1857) wrote about a “religion of humanity”, but in America, at least, the term was not in wide use until the 20th Century. Before that most people could not imagine ethics apart from a creed or commandments to support it. Arguments over doctrine were intense; hence the term “freethinker” was in wide use. Freethinkers, however, had a range of ethical stances.
The IHEU defines humanism in this way:
Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.
Until well into the 20th Century popular ideas of ethics were drawn largely from the Bible and were focused on the individual. Some things were agreed upon (e.g. killing is wrong, you should help your neighbor) while others (slavery and women’s rights) were matters of great debate.
Robert Ingersoll was one of many we would now call humanists. He gave a lecture entitled “Liberty of Man, Woman and Child,” which expresses his view on personhood. And his “creed,” as he said in slightly different language on several occasions, was:
Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here, the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.
With a view of the bay from my window, I think I’ll skip the picnic. I will enjoy the long day, relish the early morning return of the light, and get on with the business of seeking to make the world a happier place through writing.
[Robert Ingersoll plays an important role in the life of John Emerson Roberts. See Books page.]
May 12, 2012
civilization, education, freethought, God, hell, history, religion, Robert Ingersoll, theology
Robert Ingersoll, the most popular lecturer of the nineteenth century, presented a new freethought lecture called “Which Way” in the 1880s. It brings up some interesting points for our day.
His primary question is threefold “How shall we civilize the world? How shall we protect, life, liberty, property and reputations? How shall we do away with crime and poverty?” There was hope in the late nineteenth century that these questions might find answers. The events of the last one hundred and thirty years suggest otherwise.
Ingersoll points out the lack of success of “the churches” in answering these questions. He spends a lot of time on the God portrayed in Genesis. Did this God advise or instruct his new human beings? No, he just said “You shall not eat of this tree.” Did he forgive and comfort when they sinned? No, he punished them.
He asks, “Are we to be governed by a Supernatural Being, or are we to govern ourselves?” The answer is obvious to him. “I take the democratic side,” he says. That “Supernatural Being” is a figure called on by tyrants and despots, princes and popes, to support the status quo.
Ingersoll doesn’t go as far as we might today to show how the God those rulers called on to maintain their power was made after their own image. He doesn’t need to because not just some, but most of his audience had been raised to believe that Genesis is history; that the punishing God is the only option. In Ingersoll’s day good people still believed that the fear of hell helped to preserve social order. Ingersoll disagrees:
There is no reforming power in fear. You can scare a man, maybe, so bad that he won’t do a thing, but you can’t scare him so bad he won’t want to do it. There is no reforming power in punishment or brute force.
That’s one lesson we as a community have not learned to this day. We also have made no progress, perhaps have even gone backward, in this:
You may ask me what I want. Well, in the first place I want to get theology out of government. It has no business there. Man gets his authority from man, and is responsible only to man. I want to get theology out of politics. Our ancestors in 1776 retired God from politics, because of the jealousies among the churches, and the result has been splendid for mankind. I want to get theology out of education. Teach the children what somebody knows, not what somebody guesses.
Robert Ingersoll was intensely patriotic. I believe he would be quite discouraged to see how little progress our nation has made in these matters since his time. Which way should we turn to find a solution to our present situation?