Home

A New “Church”: From the Biography

Leave a comment

John Emerson Roberts’s contacts with Robert Ingersoll, described in my blog of October 6, bore fruit in the fall of 1897.  From my biography of Roberts, here is a description of Roberts’s independent “Church” and how it operated:

The Church of This World held its first service in the Coates Opera House on September 12, 1897. In addition to Roberts’s lecture, which he still called a sermon, music was provided by Carl Busch. The service apparently consisted only of this music and the sermon with no offering, no hymnody, and certainly no prayer. It is interesting that the organization was called a church, given the comments Roberts made in the spring about the negative connotations of that term. The phrase “this world” was evidently taken from Ingersoll’s letter praising Roberts’s sermon about the boy who died in jail: “You are preaching a religion for this world.”

Carl Busch was a major figure in the music world of Kansas City.  Born in Denmark in 1862, he studied in various institutions in Europe.  In 1887, Busch was working in Paris, playing in orchestras conducted by Camille Saint Saens and Charles Gounod. The Danish vice-consul in Kansas City invited Busch to organize a string quartet and bring it to America. Busch did so, and spent the rest of his life based in Kansas City. Times were not easy for the arts. Busch organized a series of orchestras and programs, but between the economic troubles of the late 1880s and the 1890s, and the lack of developed musical taste among the well-to-do business class who were the city’s elite, support was not always sufficient. The position as music director for the Church of This World was at least steady work, though very part time; Busch was still employed there when his biography was written for Whitney’s Kansas City, Missouri, in 1908.

The Church of This World was set up with a board of trustees just as the Unitarian Society had been. The names of the earliest set of trustees are not known. The trustees are listed in the newspapers only in later years when there were stories of development or decline to report. The funding for the church was provided by supporters who paid for their seats; the cost ranged from $5 to $25 per year. This practice is comparable to the idea of pew rentals, which many churches used to provide a base of income; the theater seats were no doubt more comfortable than typical pews. Seats for those who just came in were free.

The sermons Roberts gave in that first year are lost.  In the fall of his second year, however, Roberts published a series of sermons as a hardbound book.  A few copies have survived.

These sermons show how his preaching and views had evolved. The first sermon was titled “The Imperial Demands of Progress.” The word progress had become a highly resonant term for Roberts. He begins with the idea that one has an obligation to participate in progress:
“Deeper upon enlightened minds grows the conviction that progress is the world’s supreme law. To contribute to that progress, to obey that law, is the cosmic business of everyone and of everything that is.”
While he sees this as a human undertaking, however, he has not become a true Ingersollian; he has not given up talking of God, of spirit and of the divine. He concludes this first sermon by saying,
“Let us trust the old, the common, the misunderstood earth. Let us hail the dawn of the day coming fast and sure, when all men everywhere shall see that the earth is divine, man is divine and God is all in all.”
Though “thought” and “reason” are among his favorite themes, Roberts also holds on to the idea that religion, as opposed to specific religions, is an element of life that will endure.

There’s that dawn metaphor again in the second quotation, an image Roberts used often.  Read more about his most unusual institution in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, available through Amazon from ERYBooks (or use the contact page).

Advertisements

Mutual Admiration: From the Biography

Leave a comment

John Emerson Roberts did not always preach on “orthodoxy” and theology.  One sermon he gave in November, 1895, was very topical: it concerned the death of an African American boy in the county jail.

Titling his sermon “Dead in Cell No. 5, Fourth Tier East” Roberts first relays the story in considerable detail.  Three boys had been caught stealing from a house they’d broken into.  Known to the police as troublemakers, they were sentenced to ten months to a year in the county jail.  Three months into the sentence, Willie MacManamy, age 11, died of pneumonia.  The arguments among those in charge following this event, which had taken place the Monday before Roberts spoke on the issue, were over who had to pay how much to whom to care for the body and release it for burial.

Roberts asserts, in spite of the volume of newspaper coverage, that “Society did not feel even a momentary acceleration in its modulated pulse-beats.”  Calling a child of the streets the “abridged edition of the people,” Roberts suggests that the child has great potential if only good seed can be sown on “the waiting soil of his virgin heart.”  But the time for such intervention is very short, and society fails to sow the seed because society itself is immature.  The philanthropic activity that exists is mostly selfish, an effort to keep the needs of others at a distance.  Roberts concludes by using the motif “if Christ came to Kansas City.”  He contrasts the number of well-appointed churches with the problems of street children and overcrowded jails.  The churches are no better than society as a whole.

The progressives who were beginning to seek to reform cities across the nation would agree with the way Roberts laid out the social problem.  Roberts, however, was not a reformer.  He was content to watch and wait, confident that society would in time grow up.

Roberts’s sermon was published in a local magazine called “Humanity.”  Robert Ingersoll was in Kansas City in May, 1896; while there he picked up a copy of the magazine.  After he got home he wrote to Roberts:

Rev. J. E. Roberts,

My dear Friend:

On my way home I read in “Humanity” – a sermon of yours in which you tell of the death of the child in jail.

The climate of that sermon is like a perfect day in June, and I write simply to thank you for delivering it.  No one can read it without having his heart touched and softened. —

You are preaching a religion for this world – for the living while they are alive and by all odds you are the best, the most enlightened, the most liberal, the most intelligent, the most eloquent minister, so far as I know, in the whole world.

With the greatest admiration, I remain

Yours always, R. G. Ingersoll.

“The climate of that sermon is like a perfect day in June.”  Roberts remembered this praise, long afterward referring to it as “that sermon has the breath of a day in June.”  It was a metaphor that stuck with him. “You are preaching a religion for this world” pleased Roberts too.  He knew now that Ingersoll understood that he, John Emerson Roberts, was on the same wave length – I shouldn’t put it that way, because “wave length” is an anachronistic term neither man would have understood, but it suggests a resonance between the two men.  They understood each other and admired each other to the end of Ingersoll’s life, which unfortunately was only a few years later.

Quotations are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  For more information see the Books page.  Ingersoll’s letter is one of four to Roberts included by Eva Ingersoll Wakefield in The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll (Philosophical Library, 1951).

Political Conventions Then and Now

1 Comment

The purpose of a political convention, traditionally, is to select a party’s candidates.  This year that’s all been done, due to a long process and lots of media attention.  Instead of a meeting to make a decision, the conventions are carefully scripted presentations, meant to persuade those outside the hall, who, thanks to the television coverage, can usually see what’s happening on the stage more clearly than those inside.

Things were different in 1876, when Robert Ingersoll gave his famous speech nominating James G. Blaine for the Republican candidate for the presidency.  In those days the people outside the hall had to wait to read the speeches in the newspaper.  Ingersoll’s rhetoric was for the attendees alone.

In matters other than technology, however, there were similarities between 1876 and our present state of affairs.  The national debt was worrying everyone.  It had quadrupled during the Civil War; it stood at $2.18 billion and was showing no signs of dropping.  In addition, a panic in 1873, propelled in large part by shady dealings among Wall Street financiers, had induced a recession that was far from over.  Wars, deficit and recession: things we are familiar with today. Ingersoll’s speech suggests a different approach to these issues from that which current leaders offer.  What the Republicans want, he argues, is this:

They demand a man who will sacredly preserve the financial honor of the United States; one who knows enough to know that the national debt must be paid through the prosperity of this people; one who knows enough to know that all the financial theories in the world cannot redeem a single dollar; one who knows enough to know that all the money must be made, not by law, but by labor; one who knows enough to know that the people of the United States have the industry to make the money, and the honor to pay it over just as fast as they make it.

Later on he adds:

This money has to be dug out of the earth. You cannot make it by passing resolutions in a political convention.

The idea that money could be created without gold and silver to back it up was unthinkable in 1876.  Wealth, whether of the country or the individual, could only come through work.  Ingersoll becomes quite poetic as he expand on this.  His balanced phrases can be set into lines like a poem:

The Republicans of the United States demand a man
who knows that prosperity and resumption,
when they come, must come together;
that when they come,
they will come hand in hand
through the golden harvest fields;
hand in hand by the whirling spindles
and the turning wheels;
hand in hand past the open furnace doors;
hand in hand by the flaming forges;
hand in hand by the chimneys filled with eager fire,
greeted and grasped by the countless sons of toil.

Such fine language, though highly praised and long remembered, did not win Blaine the nomination, which went to Rutherford B. Hayes.  Hayes then won the election through promises to the South to remove from southern soil the Federal troops that were attempting to enforce northern standards, an issue Ingersoll had not addressed.   Government requires more than rhetoric.

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).

Celebrate World Humanist Day

4 Comments

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.]

Robert Ingersoll asks “Which Way”

2 Comments

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?