Home

Popular Preacher, Part II: Rhetoric and Religion

Leave a comment

When John Emerson Roberts did his five part series on The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy, he set up a series of parallels, a good rhetorical device.  The second sermon was on “Two Gods” the God of vengeance and the God of mercy.  The third sermon, on “Two Bibles,” contrasted the Bible, valuable as a record of human development, with the natural universe, “the only book God ever wrote.”  The fourth sermon, “Two Plans” he used mostly as an excuse to discuss and dismiss old ideas of the atonement.  “The necessity of an atonement disappears with the old idea of a capricious and changeable God,” he concluded, ignoring his own earlier comments on a God of judgment vs. a God of mercy.  A rhetorical flourish.

Only in the final sermon of this five-sermon set did Roberts turn to more positive thoughts.  It’s another parallel, this time between Jesus and Voltaire.  This idea was not new with Roberts; he borrowed it from Victor Hugo, who had spoken on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Voltaire’s death in 1878.  In fact, a good third of the sermon is straight from Hugo, though Roberts does not admit it.  This is normal for preachers; they are not required to identify their sources.

Voltaire was a popular freethought hero in the United States in the second half of the 19th century.  Born Francois Marie Aroeut in 1694, he was a poet, playwright and philosopher who challenged authority at every turn.  He wrote satires about church and society.  Of his works, one that survives today is Candide – in large part because Leonard Bernstein made an opera out of it.

One hundred years ago Voltaire was much better known:
●  In 1866, Voltairine de Cleyre was named after him.  After enduring education in a convent (her parents thought it was the best education available to a young woman) she became an atheist and an anarchist.
●  In 1879, the Music Hall was built in Chicago partly to provide a platform for David Swing, a liberal preacher who had left the Presbyterian denomination.  Voltaire’s bust was included along with those of Moses, Mozart and other heroes of faith and music.
●  Clarence Darrow, who had admired Voltaire since his youth, found him a profitable lecture topic in the early 20th century.

Roberts begins his discussion of Voltaire with a strong metaphor:  “The plain is habitable because the mountain is beyond,” he says, and continues:

Voltaire was the mountain.  Rugged, defiant, implacable, lightning-scarred, storm-enveloped, immovable, august, sublime, he towered above Europe and the eighteenth century with unspeakable scorn for superstition, secular or sacred, and with unquenchable devotion to reason and light.  Kings exiled him.  Police officers arrested him.  Bastilles and prisons confined him.  Ignorance hated him.  Superstition execrated him.  The priesthood denounced him. . . .

What has this to do with Jesus?

There are of necessity two kinds of prophets.  One shows the way to heaven, that is to moral health, to sanity, to a consisten and reasonable faith and to kindness toward men and reverence toward God
Such was Jesus, and such are all great souls who, from the spirt and genius of the world of matter and of man, imbibe the thought of God.

Voltaire is another kind of prophet, one of those “whose visions disclose the abyss towards which the unreasoning haste.”  Roberts’s argument requires the assumption that religion in Voltaire’s time had reached a very low point.  Voltaire, Roberts says, “rescued it from ecclesiastical asphyxiation and gave it light and air.”

After going at length into the contrast of Jesus and Voltaire as two types of prophet, Roberts brings them back together:

The church in all ages has put dogma first, charity and tolerance last.  Christianity today is dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.  Jesus reversed that method.  Voltair reversed that method.  Jesus was called in his own day a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  Voltaire was called a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  But God sends such heretics among men to sweeten life, to establish justice, to illuminate the true, the beautiful and the good, to plead for humanity and for God and prevent religion from perishing from the earth.

Roberts was carried away by his own rhetoric, and so was his congregation.  He filled a 500 seat sanctuary with his sermons.  It is quite a stretch to call Jesus a heretic, since the Judaism of his time was both varied and non-dogmatic; the charge of heresy requires a single controlling authority.  Roberts is reading back from his own experience and his own era.  There is, however, some truth in his claims.  Christianity has always been at risk of becoming a prop for the status quo: “dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.”  Roberts seems to be putting his hope in a new Voltaire, rather than a prophet like Jesus.

This post is an expansion of material in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s ‘Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

Advertisements

Rationalist And Revivalist: More on Robert Ingersoll

Leave a comment

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:

http://www.churchhistory.org/blogs/blog/revivals-and-reason-rationalist-protests-1875-to-1920/

Happy Birthday, Mr. Ingersoll!

3 Comments

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).