Dec 8, 2012

What happened to Robert Ingersoll?

Susan Jacoby wonders why the 19th century's "Great Agnostic" Robert G. Ingersoll was more or less forgotten to history. One theory she suggests: it was liberals' smug confidence in their victory over fundamentalism after the Scopes trial. 

Jacoby writes:
Ingersoll's collected works were published within a few years of his death [in 1899] by his brother-in-law C. P. Farrell, who owned the Dresden Publishing Company (named for Ingersoll’s birthplace in upstate New York). The Great Agnostic remained a well-known, frequently cited figure into the 1920s, not only because many of his friends and enemies remained alive but also because his writings were still thought to be capable of corrupting American youth. 
The memory of Ingersoll faded swiftly, however, after the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted the leading spokesman for religious fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most famous criminal lawyer and an equally famous agnostic, who had been strongly influenced by hearing Ingersoll’s speeches in the 1870s and 1880s.
Jacoby has a biography of Ingersoll coming out in 2013.

I'm slightly suspicious of the question, here. There's an assumption that it's odd or abnormal for Ingersoll's presence to have faded or have been forgotten, an assumption that goes to support Jacoby's thesis about Ingersoll's significance without making an argument for his importance.

There is an interesting question here, though. To what extent did the "victory" in the Tennessee court house, as understood by those who were critical of religion, as represented by them to themselves, change the shape of skeptical arguments and the development of the atheistic cause?


  1. The Scopes trial may have opened the door for figures like Charles Smith and his American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, which had none of the charm that characterized Ingersoll. The cultural victory in the Scopes trial signalled a weakness to be exploited, and Smith jumped at it. Unlike Ingersoll, he argued for the ultimate eradication of theism, to "wage war on religion itself." I think that the shift in attention to the direct action of the AAAA went along with a drift away from criticism of Ingersoll on the religious side.

    That is, it was hard to argue with Ingersoll, because he was a professional arguer in the classical sense, in which evidence is meted out and positions based on reason. Smith's main rhetorical tactic was being loud and obnoxious, which is easy to dismiss as valueless. He became the perfect strawman for Christian America to identify as the true face of atheism.

  2. Smith got started in '37 though? So not an immediate reaction to Scopes. But maybe a response to the cultural shift, nonetheless.

    Are you saying, though, Charles, that Ingersoll couldn't have drawn a crowd in the '30s, had he been alive? Or that there was only a "market" (so to speak) for atheists such as Smith?

    What about Debs, then? And what about the aggressive and unreasonably discourse that's clearly already going on at the time of Scopes?

  3. Correction: Smith started before '37. The newspaper he ran started then, but he was active before.

    Tim Magazine mentions him in '28, for example: "Charles Smith, a demure and smiling infidel, with the gracious manners of a country clergyman."

  4. Arg, I had a nice, long, footnoted response all typed out, but I hit 'publish' not realizing that my connection had gone out, and I lost it all. Not wanting to try to recreate the whole thing, I'll try to hit a few of the points. Sigh.

    AAAA was founded in 1925, and Smith was jailed in 1928 for his atheist agitation in Little Rock. He was personable to the press, but his antics were combative. The Scopes trial was the most prominent element of a broader change in the tenor of the debate. It didn't create Mencken, of course, but provided him with more material.

    I think there was an overall shift from around the turn of the century through the twenties in the style of public rhetoric, largely influenced by socialist speakers like Debs who found that a more fiery and aggressive style was effective in motivating more radical change. I guess that's one of the major characteristics separating Ingersoll and Smith--Ingersoll politely explained why he was an agnostic, but Smith took the radical (almost nihilistic) route, calling for the AAAA to operate "as a wrecking company, leaving to others the designing and establishing of the new order."* Debs didn't like organized religion, but that position was a component of a complex Marxist ideology, not as an end in itself. Plus, he had good things to say about Social Justice Jesus.

    Whether or not Ingersoll could have drawn the crowds in the thirties is an excellent question. Would people have chosen his eloquent explanation of why he is an agnostic over Charles Smith facing off against Aimee Semple McPherson in a debate about ridding the nation of its churches? In Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis has the titular character crib from Ingersoll for a sermon, assuming that no one there (in 1927) would have read him.

    From the perspective of the religious (which is what I focus on in my research), Ingersoll had been, for all his errors, at least reliably gentlemanly. Smith, on the other hand, was venomous, unreasonable, and on the offensive. Regardless of the nuances of the rhetorical shift, the narrative became one of a "new atheism" that was easy to dismiss.

    These are very thought-provoking questions that you raise. Thanks for getting me thinking on a lazy Saturday afternoon!

    * New York Times, Nov 26, 1925

  5. All of this is really helpful and really interesting. I'm glad I brought this up.