The Orator

11:04 AM


I am going to devote this story to a fellow born in Dresden, New York. After 65 years, he died in Dobbs Ferry, New York. During the expanse of his years, he only spent a few days in Omaha. They were, however, hugely entertaining days, as you will see.

His name was Robert G. Ingersoll, and he was one of America’s great orators. The son of a preacher, he was lawyer, Civil War veteran, close friend of Walt Whitman, and professional speaker of great popularity and erudition. He could speak extemporaneously for three hours before a rapt audience, and he spoke knowledgeably about a variety of topics – including religion. He had his own ideas about this subject, which we shall get to shortly.

Ingersoll spoke at Boyd’s Opera House for the first time on May of 1891, lecturing on the subject of Shakespeare. The text of his speech was published posthumously, and so we can see approximately what he had to say on the subject. Mostly, he passionately defended the Bard’s genius and offered a summary of the man’s biography and works. This was an entirely unsurprising approach to the topic, as the American west was starting to have its share of nouveau riche bankers and ranchers and landowners. (The theater itself was built by a stockyard owner). Omaha was then a dusty frontier town of violent men, muddy streets, gambling dens, and brothels, and its no surprise that the newly moneyed wanted to bring some culture to the Gate City.

But there are a few lines in Ingersoll’s speech that hint that the man was wrestling with some questions of faith. “Famine and faith go together,” he declared. “In disaster and want the gaze of man is fixed upon another world. He that eats a crust has a creed. Hunger falls upon its knees, and heaven, looked for through tears, is the mirage of misery. But prosperity brings joy and wealth and leisure -- and the beautiful is born.”

Heaven is the mirage of misery? Apparently, a few people caught that Ingersoll’s speech was peppered with phrases like this, as populist politician Ignatius Donnelly came to town town the following month offering his own oration at Boyd’s, titled “Mistake of Ingersoll in Literature and Religion.” Italics mine.

Let me take just a moment to detail Ignatius Donnelly’s viewpoints, because he was a crank. More than that, he was a sort of crank extraordinaire. He challenged Ingersoll’s entire biography of Shakespeare, claiming the playwrights works were actually written by Francis Bacon. He also published a popular book on Atlantis, a book theorizing that the earth was about to be destroyed by an enormous meteor. (The book was called “Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel,” which sounds less like a doomsday book that a Swedish death metal album.) He once founded a failed utopian community in Minnesota. So whatever Ingersoll thought, Donnelly was probably going to take issue with it, because seemingly everything Donnelly believed was mad.

But what did Ingersoll believe? He expounded on this in October of 1893 on a return engagement with Boyd’s, a speech titled “Myth and Miracle.” Boyd’s was filled for this event.

This was, I should note, Boyd’s second music hall, located at 17th and Harney. I mentioned his first in another article, and that seated 1,700. This new opera house was larger than the first, so Ingersoll’s lecture drew 2,000 people.

And what did Ingersoll wish to tell the assembled masses of Omaha? The World-Herald selected some of his plum quotes and reprinted them, such as “There is only one good in this world, and that is happiness” and “Spiritual people look upon this world as containing little that is good” and “More beautiful truths fell like diamonds from the mouths of Shakespeare’s clowns than can be found in all the books of Moses.”

So we have a portrait of a man who seems deeply ambivalent about religion. In fact, The World-Herald was a bit circumspect about Ingersoll’s viewpoints.

Robert Ingersoll was an atheist.

He didn’t use that word for himself – his nickname, instead, was “The Great Agnostic,” which suggests ambiguity. But Ingersoll’s viewpoints were hardly ambiguous. He viewed most religious writing as hogwash and most religious leaders as charlatans, and said so. Here are some quotes from a transcribed version of Ingersoll’s “Myth and Miracle” that the World-Herald didn’t print:

-- These spiritual people have been known as prophets, apostles, augurs, hermits, monks, priests, popes, bishops and parsons. They are devout and useless. They do not cultivate the soil. They produce nothing. They live on the labor of others. They are pious and parasitic.
-- The spiritual have endeavored to civilize the world through fear and faith -- by the promise of reward and the threat of pain in other worlds. They taught men to hate and persecute their fellow-men. In all ages they have appealed to force. During all the years they have practiced fraud.
-- The "spiritual" have been, are, and always will be the enemies of the human race.

And that’s just from his introduction! One cannot help but admire the temerity it must have taken to stand before 2,000 of Omaha’s best citizens and excoriate them as suckers for believing in the mystical mutterings of con artists.

Unexpectedly, nobody seemed that bothered. A local rabbi, Leo Franklin, offered a response (published in the Bee) that included “let us not be too hard on this poor infidel.” Franklin felt that Ingersoll was just making a living, which he didn’t seem to mind, but ultimately felt atheism was an expression of ignorance.

The World-Herald, in the meanwhile, took the tack of self-congratulation. “Ingersoll stands today as living evidence of both the tolerance and the Christian sentiment of the American people,” the World-Herald claimed. “Though his opinions are directly opposite of the people of this country, he is personally one of the most popular of its citizens.”

A little while later, in frigid December, a writer at the World-Herald used Ingersoll as the setup to a joke: “If Bob Ingersoll insists that there is no hell,” the writer asked in mock irritation, “will he please explain what becomes of the caller who leaves the office door open in winter?” Ingersoll remained a figure of fun in the World-Herald, although they followed his career with no small amount of fascination.

Ingersoll returned again in 1895, and his topic this time seemed designed to inflame passions: “The Bible.” He opened with these extraordinary words:

“Somebody ought to tell the truth about the Bible. The preachers dare not, because they would be driven from their pulpits. Professors in colleges dare not, because they would lose their salaries. Politicians dare not. They would be defeated. Editors dare not. They would lose subscribers. Merchants dare not, because they might lose customers. Men of fashion dare not, fearing that they would lose caste. Even clerks dare not, because they might be discharged. And so I thought I would do it myself.”

Gauntlet thrown down, he proceeded to call the bible ignorant and savage, its authors uneducated, its contents cruel, absurd and impossible, and its followers brutal.

He sold out Boyd’s, of course. The World-Herald identified local religious leaders in the audience, but they were in the minority. Most of the audience were appreciative, and Ingersoll had to frequently stop for applause or for laughter. These do not sound like Americans who disagreed with him but were filled with Christian tolerance. This sounds like an audience that was genuinely receptive to Ingersoll’s message.

Ingersoll brought a revised version of one of his older speeches, “Superstition,” to Boyd’s in January of 1899. The World-Herald wrote of him in unabashedly complimentary terms: “Erect, magnetic, urbane, and genial as ever, age sits well upon him,” and concluded their article with a hopeful note from Ingersoll, who said “The majority are advancing in spite of themselves.” It was to be the last time Ingersoll would appear at Boyd’s; he died in July of that year.

It’s hard to tell how many adherents Ingersoll had in Omaha, or in general. In the period after the Civil War, America experienced a crisis of faith. Some, like Ingersoll, rejected religion altogether, but many looked for alternatives to mainstream Christianity. In particular, this period saw the rise of Spiritualism, an indigenous American religion rooted in communicating with the dead. Spiritualism had followers in Omaha, some of whom might have shared Ingersoll’s skepticism regarding Christianity without concerning themselves with the wholesale rejection of the supernatural.

Additionally, at this time, atheism was increasingly becoming associated with radical political movements in Europe. Anarchism and communism were both explicitly atheistic, while nihilism rejected all authority, earthly and sacred. These movements began to take root in America, and many Americans started to define themselves in opposition to this new form of alien radicalism. The Russian Revolution seemed to cinch it, reinforced by decades of Cold War. America stood in opposition to Communism, and American churches stood in opposition to Communist atheism.

Just this past year, a Pew study determined that even now, in 2014, half of Americans objected to the idea of a family member marrying an atheist. Half! It’s hard to imagine Robert Ingersoll now, taking the stage before 2,000 Omahgans and telling them that their beliefs are bunk.

What a different world it was back in the 1890s, when a man like Ingersoll could find a mass audience in America, and sell out the premiere opera house in Omaha. Nowadays, we wouldn’t even let him marry our sister.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.