In an age before television and radio, public oration served to captivate American audiences. People flocked to theaters to hear about the hottest topics, and the orators were the rocks stars of the day. Arguably the most eloquent and controversial of these speakers, Robert Green Ingersoll (1833—1899), now lies in history's dust, forgotten by all but the most devoted.
Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, seeks to dust off the story of Ingersoll in a presentation entitled "Robert Green Ingersoll - The Most Remarkable American Most People Never Heard Of." Flynn will be delivering his presentation at Hamilton 16 Theatre in Noblesville on Oct. 25 at 4 p.m.
Flynn is the Director of The Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. He also edited The New Encyclopedia of Non-Belief, an 800-page reference book filled with biographical references on famous agnostics and atheists, scientific theories on the origins of life and philosophies for and against the existence of God.
Flynn began walking the path towards secular humanism at an early age.
"I started out as a fairly conservative Catholic. Over several years, starting when I was about 13, I started to question my faith and ask more and more questions and reading more and more broadly. It was sort of like peeling an onion," said Flynn in a phone conversation with NUVO.
After life as a conservative Catholic, Flynn turned to a "generic" form of Christianity, and then became what he called "generically religious." Flynn began to consider himself an atheist at the age of 22 while living in Milwaukee.
"My next day off, I trekked to the downtown Milwaukee Public Library, looked up atheism in the cart catalogue, and lo and behold there was Ingersoll."
Flynn was "blown away" by Ingersoll's wit, mastery of the English language and his courage to express ideas that his audiences probably found horrifying.
Crystal clear arguments
Ingersoll was one of America's most popular orators and early proponent of secular thought. He championed the ideas of equality for woman and African Americans before suffrage and abolition were twinkles in Americans' eyes. Ingersoll was one of the first Americans to argue against the idea of eternal punishment in hell.
Ingersoll, known as the great agnostic, traversed the country, speaking to capacity crowds, for over 30 years. One of his most famous speeches, "A Vision of War," was delivered at Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.
According to Flynn, Ingersoll had the ability to make philosophical and religious arguments "crystal clear." Flynn says this quality made the orator quite popular. In fact, "Ingersoll was seen and heard by more Americans than any other single human being until the rise of mass media."
In addition to religious theories, Ingersoll wrote and delivered some of the most successful political speeches for the Republican Party, and was a very successful lawyer.
"The party of Lincoln could not put a man in the White House for whom Ingersoll refused to campaign," Flynn adds.
Knowing Ingersoll's impact on religious and political life in America, it is difficult to imagine why history would forget such a man. Part of this Ingersoll amnesia correlates to the canniness of his views. Many of his ideas were no longer considered controversial 50 years after his death. Flynn begs to differ.
"We are still looking for an America in which an non-religious person can walk onto the public stage or into politics and be treated the same as a religious believer. That is something that Ingersoll had advocated," he says.
The Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum is in Dresden N.Y. According to the Web Site, the museum displays "Ingersoll's walking stick, his Masonic sword, a complete manuscript of his most famous speech, "Ghosts," and a great variety of period artifacts." A specially produced video attempts to bring Ingersoll to life, and the room where Ingersoll was born is decorated with furniture from the period. The Museum is open May 23 through Oct. 31.