People packed shoulder to shoulder. A hot, claustrophobic tent on the outskirts of town. The crowd craning their necks, straining to catch a glimpse of the stage. The main attraction striding out and holding forth. Some are enthralled, others disgusted, none are neutral.
A concert? No. The only music here comes in the form of the rhetoric of one of the greatest orators of the nineteenth century. What’s more, his subject matter is somewhat surprising.
People paid top dollar to hear this speaker rail against religion.
Before there was Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens, there was Robert Green Ingersoll, and his story has deep roots in Illinois.
Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York in 1833. His father was a firebrand abolitionist preacher (of all things), and he brought his family to Illinois in the 1850s.
Ingersoll was a lawyer by training, and he practiced in towns across southern and central Illinois: Marion, Shawneetown, Raleigh, and finally Peoria in 1857. He served in the Civil War, raising the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and commanding it in the field. After the war, he served as Illinois’s Attorney General from 1867-1869.
The Republican Party in Illinois tried to convince Ingersoll to run for governor under one condition, that he conceal his agnostic beliefs from the voting public. Upon hearing this, Ingersoll turned them down because he believed that concealing information from the public was immoral.
It was through these beliefs that Ingersoll gained his greatest fame. He spoke on many subjects, but his orations often involved religion. He spoke out on the hypocrisy of many religious beliefs of the day, proclaimed that religion was as farcical as it was harmful, and encouraged listeners to question received wisdom on spiritual matters.
He was the only thinker of his kind to have a wide audience. At the height of his speaking career, he traveled the country, speaking to hundreds and thousands of people. These listeners would often pay $1.00 to hear Ingersoll speak (around $28 today).
Doubtless many were horrified by his opposition to religion. Doubtless, too, many others were given much to consider through his words. Doubtless all involved realized that they were in the presence of a master communicator.
Why were people drawn to Robert Ingersoll? Perhaps the words of his friend Walt Whitman say it best:
“It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is ‘Leaves of Grass’ … He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—- American-flavored—- pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light.”
Ingersoll died in 1899 at the age of sixty-five. Again, many likely rested assured that Ingersoll was paying retribution for his blasphemy in the afterlife. Others likely saw the passing of someone who set them on a new intellectual path.
Orators were the great popular entertainers of their day. For one of them to be an agnostic from Illinois is noteworthy indeed.
I close with a quote that neatly summarizes Ingersoll’s philosophy, a philosophy rooted in his life and experiences in Illinois and beyond: