In the book Interrupted, Claire Benedict asked Louis Ansted if he was a Christian. When he said he was not (in a round-about way), Claire asked if he believed Christ “once lived in person on this earth, and died on a cross, and went back to heaven, and is to come again at some future time?”
“Oh, yes; I have no particular reason for doubting prophecy or history on those points. I’m rather inclined to think the whole story is true.”
“Do you think his character worthy of admiration?”
“Oh, yes, of course; it is a remarkable character. Even infidels concede that, you know; and I am no infidel. Bob Ingersoll and his follies have no charm for me. I have had that disease, Miss Benedict. Like the measles and whooping-cough, it belongs to a certain period of life, you know, and I am past that. I had it in a very mild form, however, and it left no trace. The fellow’s logic has nothing to stand on.”
She ignored the entire sentence, save the first two words. She had not the slightest desire to talk about Bob Ingersoll, or to let this gay young man explain some of Bob’s weak mistakes, and laugh with her over his want of historic knowledge. She went straight to the center of the subject.
“Then, Mr. Ansted, won’t you join His army, and come over and help us?”
Bob Ingersoll wasn’t just a character in Isabella’s book. He was a living, breathing person and a very well-known figure of the time. Born in 1833 in New York, he had a reputation for being extremely intelligent. He educated himself and was admitted to the bar at the age of 21; his gift of oratory earned him a reputation as a brilliant lawyer.
But it was his talent for speech-making that gained him fame. He lectured across the country on free speech, women’s rights and, most notably, Christian doctrine. At a time when there were laws in some States that made it a crime to deny Christianity, Bob Ingersoll openly argued for a separation of church and state. He expounded on what he considered to be inaccuracies and fallacies of the Bible, and published several books that outlined his agnostic position. He had political aspirations, but his stance on religion made both the Republican and Democratic parties leery of nominating him for any elected office; however, at the age of 33 he was appointed Attorney General of Illinois.
When Interrupted was published in 1885, Ingersoll’s book The Mistakes of Moses was very popular. In the book, he collected passages from the Pentateuch that contradicted scientific thinking of the time, and even contradicted each other. He used those passages to build a case against the Pentateuch, which Ingersoll called “a record of a barbarous people, in which are found a great number of the ceremonies of savagery, many absurd and unjust laws, and thousands of ideas inconsistent with known and demonstrated facts.”
So when Louis Ansted mentioned Bob Ingersoll, Claire knew exactly who he was talking about. He was known as The Great Agnostic and one newspaper characterized his growing school of followers as “light minded [people] whom brilliant oratory can persuade to most anything while the voice lasts and who are as easily dissuaded by the next fluent speaker.”
When Robert Ingersoll died in 1899, an obituary in The Courier (Lincoln, Nebraska) described him as:
neither better nor worse than the ordinary man. In his youth he became convinced that the Bible was a lie and he hated … the God whose existence he denied.
He was not a saint, neither was he an incorrigible sinner, but just an ordinary man who had lost his bearings in the relations of God to man and overestimated the significance of his own opinion of God and man.
Robert Ingersoll’s writings have found new life on the Internet; several sites make electronic versions of his lectures and books available for free. You can follow this link to The Huffington Post to read more about Robert Ingersoll’s life.
This YouTube link provides an audio recording of Ingersoll’s book, Why I am an Agnostic: