Robert Green Ingersoll was born August 11, 1833, in New York State.  His father was a minister whose calling meant that the family moved frequently to different places.  Robert’s mother died when he was young, leaving two older sisters to “mother” him.

After service in the Civil War, which earned him the nickname “Colonel Bob,” Ingersoll became a successful lawyer, first in Peoria, Illinois, later in Washington, DC and then in New York City.  He first came to national attention as a speaker in 1876 when he made the nomination speech for James G. Blaine at the Republican National Convention.  Blaine lost out to Rutherford B. Hayes, but Ingersoll’s fame as a speaker was set.

Although he was involved with some headline trials, and gave many speeches in support of Republican candidates, Ingersoll’s real contribution to society was in his effort to bring reason to bear on the religious doctrines that flourished in his day.  Ingersoll’s father’s faith had been Calvinist, believing in the fallenness of humanity and God’s election of certain persons while condemning others to an eternal hell.  This strict orthodoxy was being challenged by the time Ingersoll began speaking out, as the churches struggled with developments in science, Biblical criticism, and other research.  In spite of the growing questions, an orthodoxy that focused on the hope of heaven and the fear of hell dominated popular thinking in the second half of the nineteenth century.

A lecture called “What Must We Do To Be Saved” was one of Ingersoll’s successful and repeated challenges to orthodox Christianity.  In this lecture, Ingersoll uses a review of the gospels in the New Testament to make his case.

He focuses first on the Gospel of Matthew.  He finds there the beatitudes (“Blessed are the merciful . . .”), the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.”), and several other passages which support the idea that it is right behavior, not belief, that God asks of us.  Given the current state of Biblical criticism, however, he felt free to mark as an interpolation anything that did not fit with this developing picture.

Ingersoll went on to review the Gospel of Mark, where he found one text he found offensive; current Biblical scholarship agrees that it is a late addition.  The King James Version of the Bible includes without question the ending to Mark now seen as a pastiche of later interpretation, which includes the statement: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

Dismissing this selection as interpolation, Ingersoll finds Mark and also Luke basically in agreement with Matthew.  He dismisses the whole Gospel of John as written not by those who knew Jesus, but “by the church” and therefore not relevant to his argument.   From this survey Ingersoll concludes that the God of Jesus is merciful to those who show mercy, forgives those who forgive, operates according to the Golden Rule, and would in no circumstances send anyone to everlasting suffering in hell.  He closes the lecture by saying:

The honest man, the good woman, the happy child, have nothing to fear, either in this world or the world to come.
Upon that rock I stand.

“What Must We Do To Be Saved” is one of Ingersoll’s more gentle attacks on orthodoxy.  Sometimes he enlivened it with an introduction on the horrible deeds ascribed to the deity in the Old Testament.  In other lectures he focused on the books of Moses or on the crimes of the church in medieval times.  As he became better known he could expect to fill the largest hall in every city he visited.  He did not always speak on these issues.  People were eager to hear him on topics like Shakespeare, Robert Burns or Lincoln as well.

Ingersoll quickly became a favorite of freethinkers around the country.  He was giving popular credence to their claims and ideas.  After he died in 1899, one follower called Ingersoll “a prophet of the future, the light-bringing herald of the dawn.”  Ingersoll was placed alongside Thomas Paine as a second American freethought hero.

He’s one of my heroes because he did wonderful things with language.  His lectures are fun to read, with their rolling phrases and sly jabs.

For a full description of Ingersoll’s life and lectures, I recommend Frank Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life (Prometheus, 1990).

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