Profile: Robert G Ingersoll – soldier, politician, orator and agnostic

Robert Green Ingersoll was a very popular orator of the late 19th Century in the US. He spoke regularly promoting free thought and agnosticism as well as criticising religious belief. Ingersoll used his speeches – often long and fully memorised – to advocate radical social views on religion, slavery and woman’s suffrage.

After serving in the American Civil War, Ingersoll became the State Attorney General in Illinois. Ultimately he was unable to pursue a federal political career while still holding his agnostic beliefs and speaking on the need for major social reforms.

Robert Ingersoll was born in 1833 to an abolitionist Presbyterian preacher. He established a law practice with his brother after being admitted to the bar. Ingersoll formed the Illinois Cavalry Regiment and served as a Colonel in the Civil war. After following a state political career and being a famous and popular orator, he died in 1899 of heart failure.

…”What is greatness ?”

A great man adds to the sum of knowledge, extends the horizon of thought, releases souls from the Bastile of fear, crosses unknown and mysterious seas, gives new islands and new continents to the domain of thought, new constellations to the firmament of mind. A great man does not seek applause or place; he seeks for truth ; he seeks the road to happiness, and what he ascertains he gives to others. A great man throws pearls before swine, and the swine are sometimes changed to men. If the great had always kept their pearls, vast multitudes would be barbarians now.

A great man is a torch in the darkness, a beacon in superstition’s night, an inspiration and a prophecy. Greatness is not the gift of majorities ; it cannot be thrust upon any man ; men cannot give it to another; they can give place and power, but not greatness.

The place does not make the man, nor the sceptre the king. Greatness is from within.

Voltaire! a name that excites the admiration of men, the malignity of priests. Pronounce that name in the presence of a clergyman, and you will find that you have made a declaration of war. Pronounce that name, and from the face of the priest the mask of meekness will fall, and from the mouth of forgiveness will pour a Niagara of vituperation and calumny. And yet Voltaire was the greatest man of his Century, and did more to free the human race than any other of the sons of men.

(Voltaire – A Lecture by Robert G Ingersoll 1895)

Nearly, every people have created a god and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic, and detested all nations but his own. All these gods demanded praise and flatter, and worship. Most of them were pleased with sacrifice, and the smell of innocent blood has ever been considered a divine perfume. All these gods have insisted upon having a vast number of priests, and the priests have always insisted upon being supported by the people, and the principal business of these priests has been to boast about their god and to insist that he could easily vanquish all the other gods put together.

(The God, Their Lectures by Robert G Ingersoll 1876 – Oration on the Gods)

© 2008 Alex McCullie


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