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Area once rolled out welcome mat for ‘The Great Agnostic’

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Robert Ingersoll

This Ingersoll portrait appears in Adlai E. Stevenson I’s collection of biographical sketches and miscellany titled "Something of Men I Have Known," published in 1909 by A.C. McClurg & Co. of Chicago. (Courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History)

The inspiration of the Bible depends upon the ignorance of the gentleman who reads it.

No one ever accused Robert Green Ingersoll, author of the inflammatory declaration above, of pulling punches.

It might come as a surprise today that this fiery agnostic was also an admired public figure, a tireless defender of Republican Party candidates and policies, and one of the greatest orators of the post-Civil War era.

And because he made Peoria home for 20 years, he was not an infrequent visitor to Bloomington.

Today Ingersoll is best known for his particularly aggressive strain of agnosticism, having once defined religious faith as “that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance.” He found — to cite a representative example of his uncompromising views — the concepts of heaven and hell particularly grotesque.

“If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant,” he said. “A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the conscience of a hyena.”

He also scoffed at those who believed the U.S. was a Christian nation.

“Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity,” he wrote. It should be obvious to all that Ingersoll represented a public figure unimaginable today: A national Republican hostile to Christianity.

Born in 1833 in the Finger Lakes region of New York (his father was a Congregationalist preacher), Ingersoll settled in Peoria in 1857 and established a successful law practice. His brother, Ebon Clarke Ingersoll, would make a name for himself representing Peoria as a U.S. congressman.

A leading Republican partisan of the Gilded Age, Robert Ingersoll started his political career as a Democrat, running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1860.

During the Civil War he helped organize the 11th Illinois Cavalry, and was that regiment’s colonel when captured in late 1862 at the Battle of Lexington, Tenn.

“Paroled” and returned north with the promise not to take up arms (a common practice in the war’s early years), the now-Republican Ingersoll campaigned for Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. He appeared in Bloomington on Oct. 18 of that year, speaking before one of the largest public gatherings in the city’s history (up to that time) on the courthouse square.

Although Ingersoll was one of the most popular and eloquent Republican voices of the era, his reluctance to soften — let alone disavow — his agnosticism all but guaranteed he could never hold elected office.

“I would not smother one sentiment of my heart to be the emperor of the round world,” he once said.

In 1877 Ingersoll left Peoria for Washington, D.C., and some eight years later moved to New York City. An accomplished trial lawyer with a national reputation, Ingersoll spent much of his time crisscrossing the nation delivering lectures on topics ranging from Voltaire to the sanctity of the family.

In early February 1894, he was in Bloomington for a nearly two-hour lecture on Shakespeare.

“There was no atheism, agnosticism or other-ism,” noted a somewhat relieved Pantagraph.

Ingersoll returned to Bloomington in mid-October 1896 to campaign for Republican presidential candidate William McKinley, and last paid the city a visit in March 1899 (a little more than four months before his death) to deliver the lecture “Superstition” at the Grand Opera House.

“Mr. Ingersoll handled various forms of superstition such as witchcraft, devils, saints and gods,” reported The Pantagraph. “He declared

that every church was an obstruction in the road of progress and closed his remarks with a series of word paintings that held the audience spellbound.”

To his credit, Ingersoll often earned the respect of those who could not countenance his open agnosticism.

“Even if it were not possible to agree with him on all statements,” reflected The Pantagraph, “the clever and cultured brain, supplemented by the unusual command of language, must win admiration from all but the narrow-minded and bigoted.”

“The Great Agnostic” (as Ingersoll was known) passed away on July 21, 1899. Twenty years earlier, back in 1879, he delivered the oration at his brother Ebon’s funeral. Pallbearers included Adlai E. Stevenson and David Davis, both of Bloomington, as well as Ohio congressman (and future U.S. president) James Garfield.

“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities,”

Ingersoll said the day of the funeral. “We strive in vain to look beyond the heights.

We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.”


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