> Act 2: The Great Agnostic: Correspondence

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The Great Agnostic: Introduction
Act 1. Robert G. Ingersoll, Speaker: Unitarian Club Dinner, New York City, 1882
Act II. Correspondence
Act III. Concluding Statement
The Great Agnostic Act II Correspondance

A staged reading of the ideas of Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833–1899

Arranged by LeRoy Owens, 1997.

Robert G. Ingersoll

BAKER (Turns up light on his desk and speaks/reads):


robert ingersoll

The Colonel, as we called him, in deference to his rank in the Civil War, received much mail. All sorts of people wrote to him on all conceivable subjects. This correspondence was sifted; only a tithe reached his eye — those letters absolutely requiring his attention. Requests to lecture and appeals for pecuniary help were of course multitudinous. Many were granted, though of necessity more were denied. Aside from his large business and professional correspondence, letters on religious questions poured in upon him. Advice, argument, and appeal, more or less sincere, and sad to say, abuse, slander and defamation of the most scurrilous kind, were not uncommon, while now and then anonymous threats of his life were received. Whenever possible, and wherever sincerity and intelligence were manifest and abuse and malice absent, these letters received reply. They were copied, and the letter-books containing these replies would make a rich mine of material for extended biography.

The Colonel wrote this letter to his wife, February 25, 1878 (Baker reads letter):

My Sweet Wife:

I date this the 25th because it is a few minutes after twelve o'clock.

Had a fine meeting to-night. I spoke two hours and a half. — The world is getting free. I thank God every day that he does not exist.

Mrs. Van Cott the woman preacher in an interview published in the papers this morning said she regarded me as a "poor barking dog." I wrote her a letter to-day as follows.

INGERSOLL (Reads letter):

February 24th, 1878

Mrs. Van Cott,

My dear Madam:

Were you constrained by the love of Christ to say of a man who never injured you that he was "a poor barking dog"? Did you make this remark as a Christian or as a lady?

Did you say these bitter words to show in some slight degree the refining influence upon woman of the religion you preach? What would you think of me if I should retort, using your language, changing only the sex of the last word.

I have the honor to remain

Yours truly.

R. G. Ingersoll.

A reporter happened to come in and in the interview I gave him a copy of the letter. I think Mrs. Van Cott will wish she had let me alone.

Kisses and love.


BAKER (Speaks):

As far as is known, the lady in question was never heard from again. This letter dated April 10, 1878, spells out Mr. Ingersoll's views on religion at that time. (Baker reads letter.)

Washington, D.C.

April 10th, 1878.

Mr. Matt H. Carpenter,

My dear Sir:

The lecture delivered by me upon "Hell" has never been correctly published. Portions were taken by reporters and published in papers and pamphlets. They were filled with mistakes. In a little while I am going to publish what I did say upon that subject and will be pleased to send you a copy.

If, however, you wish to substantiate the pleasing dogma of eternal torment, in order that no argument may be lacking to prove the mercy of God I will give you an outline of my lecture. I did say among other things:

1. All religions have been made by man.

2. All books have been written by man.

3. Man gets all his ideas from his surroundings — from all that has been experienced by his ancestors and by himself.

4. Man knows nothing of origin and destiny. Nothing of a future state of torment.

5. The idea of hell was born of ignorance, hatred, barbarism and malice and is still maintained by ignorance, hatred, barbarism and malice.

6. Finite man cannot commit an infinite sin.

7. Finite beings cannot commit any sin against an infinite being. We can sin only against those we can injure. We cannot injure the infinite.

8. Hell is simply the consummation of revenge.

9. No good man can be perfectly happy while he knows that even one being is in torment. No good god can be perfectly happy while misery inflicted by him exists.

10. Apart from revenge, there can be no explanation of eternal torment.

11. The doctrine of "Hell" is an infamous lie. It has been an unmixed curse, filling the heart with hatred, and covering the world with blood. Whoever says he believes this doctrine ought to feel his cheeks redden with shame. It is a dogma unworthy of men — it would taint the reputation of a hyena, and smirch the fair name of an anaconda.

Yours truly,

R.G. Ingersoll.

(Baker continues.)

Mrs. Annie Besant, a celebrated Freethinker and Agnostic, who later became a leading Theosophist, was arrested in 1877 with Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, English Atheist, for publishing "Fruits of Philosophy." Although the indictment was withdrawn the next year and was never renewed, "a petition in chancery was presented to deprive Mrs. Besant of her child on the ground of Atheistic and Malthusian views. The petition was granted."

INGERSOLL (Reads letter):

Washington, D.C.

June 10th, 1878.

Mrs. Annie Besant,

My dear Madam:

I read a few moments ago an account of the proceedings in court when your child was torn from your arms by a robed brute acting as an English judge.

Such decisions bring a nation into contempt. There is no language strong enough to express my hatred for Sir George Jessel and my sympathy for you. A country in which such a decision can be allowed to stand is not civilized. Sir George Jessel will stand in the pillory of History as a cruel, cringing and subservient tool of Christian hypocrisy.

Every good man — every virtuous woman, every loving mother should point the finger of scorn at such a beast. He is as contemptible and heartless as the god he pretends to worship. Is it possible that Christianity must be defended and preserved in this way? Must its infamous doctrines be sustained by the agonies and tears of mothers? Nearly all the cruelties have been inflicted in the name of god. All religions have been selfish and heartless and there never will be real liberty upon earth until the heavens are reaved of the Infinite Monster who threatens to inflict eternal torments upon mankind.

From the bottom of my heart in sympathize with you in your great and overwhelming grief. You have been true to yourself and your country has been false to you.

Your rights were submitted to that meanest and most despicable of beings — an unjust judge — and they have been trampled into the bloody dust of superstition. Every civilized American will despise this judge and give to you the tribute of respect and admiration.

I have the honor

to remain your friend,

Robert G. Ingersoll


In a letter to the editor of The Chicago Times, March 27, 1880, Bob Ingersoll responded to a report of the select Committee on the Causes of the Present Depression of Labor" as follows:


Washington, D.C.

March 27, 1880

To the Editor of The Chicago Times:

To-day Messrs. Wright, Dickey, O'Connor, and Murch, of the select Committee on the Causes of the Present Depression of Labor, presented the majority a special report upon Chinese immigration.

These gentlemen are in great fear for the future of our most holy and perfectly authenticated religion, and have, like faithful watchmen, from the walls and towers of Zion, hastened to give the alarm. They have informed Congress that "Joss has his temple of worship in the Chinese quarters, in San Francisco." Within the walls of a dilapidated structure is exposed to the view of the faithful the god of the Chinaman, and here are his altars of worship. Here he tears up his pieces of paper; here he offers up his prayers; here he receives his religious consolations; and here is his road to the celestial land; that "Joss is located in a long, narrow room in a building in a back alley, upon a kind of altar;" that "he is a wooden image, looking as much like an alligator as a human being;" that "the Chinese think there is such a place as heaven;" that "all classes of Chinamen worship idols;" that "the temple is open every day at all hours;" that "the Chinese have no Sunday;" that this heathen god his "huge jaws, a big red tongue, large white teeth, a half-dozen arms, and big, fiery eyeballs. About him are placed offerings of meat, and other eatables — a sacrificial offering."

The world is also informed by these gentlemen that "idolatry of the Chinese produces a demoralizing effect upon our American youth by bringing sacred things into disrespect, and making religion a theme of disgust and contempt."

In San Francisco there are some three hundred thousand people. Is it possible that a few Chinese can bring our "holy religion" into disgust and contempt? In that city there are fifty times as many churches as joss-houses. Scores of sermons are uttered every week; religious books and papers are plentiful as leaves in autumn, and somewhat drier; thousands of bibles are within the reach of all. And there, too, is the example of a Christian city.

Why should we send missionaries to China, if we cannot convert the heathen when they come here? When missionaries go to a foreign land, the poor, benighted people have to take their word for the blessings showered upon a Christian people; but when the heathen come here they can see for themselves. What was simply a story becomes a demonstrated fact. They come in contact with people who love their enemies. They see that in a Christian land men tell the truth; that they will not take advantage of strangers; that they are just and patient, kind and tender; that they never resort to force; that they have no prejudice on account of color, race, or religion; that they look upon mankind as brethren; that they speak of god as a universal father and are willing to work, and even to suffer, for the good not only of their own countrymen, but of the heathen as well. All this the Chinese see and know, and why they still cling to the religion of their country, is to me a matter of amazement.

We all know that the disciples of Jesus do unto others as they would that others should do unto them, and that those of Confucius do not unto others anything that they would not that others should do unto them. Surely such people ought to live together in perfect peace.

Rising with the subject, growing heated with a kind of holy indignation, these Christian representatives of a Christian people most solemnly declare that: "Any one who is really endowed with a correct knowledge of our religious system, which acknowledges the existence of a living god and an accountability to him, and a future state of reward and punishment, who feels that he has an apology for this abominable pagan worship, is not a fit person to be ranked as a good citizen of the American union. It is absurd to make an apology for its toleration. It must be abolished, and the sooner the decree goes forth by the power of this government, the better it will be for the interests of this land."

I take this, the earliest opportunity, to inform these gentlemen composing a majority of the committee that we have in the United States no "religious system"; that this is a secular government; that it has no religious creed; that it does not believe nor disbelieve in a future state of reward and punishment; that it neither affirms nor denies the existence of a "living God"; and that the only god, so far as this government is concerned is the legally expressed will of the majority of the people. Under our flag the Chinese have the same right to worship a wooden god that you have to worship any other. The constitution protects equally the church of Jehovah and the house of Joss. Whatever their relative positions may be in heaven, they stand upon a perfect equality in the United States. This government is an infidel government. We have a constitution with man put in and God left out; and it is the glory of this country that we have such a constitution.

Our religion can only be brought into contempt by the actions of those who profess to be governed by its teachings. This report will do more in that direction than millions of Chinese could do by burning pieces of paper before a wooden image. If you wish to impress the Chinese with the value of our religion, of what you are pleased to call the "American system," show them that Christians are better than heathens. Prove to them what you are pleased to call the "living God," teaches higher and nobler things, a grander and purer code of morals than can be found upon pagan pages. Expel these wretches in industry, in honesty, in reverence for parents, in cleanliness, in frugality; and above all by advocating the absolute liberty of human thought.

Do not trample upon these people because they have a different conception of things about which even this committee knows nothing.

Congress has nothing to do with the religion of the people. Its members are not responsible to God for the opinions of their constituents, and it may tend to the happiness of the constituents for me to state that they are in no way responsible for the religion of the members. Religion is an individual, not a national, matter. And where the nation interferes with the right of conscience, the liberties of the people are devoured by the monster superstition.

If you wish to drive out the Chinese do not make a pretext of religion. Do not pretend that you are trying to do God a favor. Injustice in his name is doubly detestable. The assassin cannot sanctify his dagger by falling on his knees, and it does not help a falsehood if it be uttered as a prayer. Religion used to intensify the hatred of men toward men under the pretense of pleasing God, has cursed the world.

A portion of this most remarkable report is intensely religious. There is in it almost the odor of sanctity; and when reading it, one is impressed with the living piety of its authors. But on the 25th page there are a few passages that must pain the hearts of true believers. Leaving their religious views, the members immediately betake themselves to philosophy and prediction. Listen:

"The Chinese race and the American citizen, whether native born or who is eligible to our naturalization laws and becomes a citizen, are in a state of antagonism. They cannot nor will not ever meet upon common ground and occupy together the same social level. This is impossible. The pagan and the Christian travel different paths. This one believes in a living god; that one, in the type of monsters and worship of wood and stone. Thus, in the religion of the two races of men they are as wide apart ass the poles of the two hemispheres. They cannot now and never will approach the same religious altar. The Christian will not recede to barbarism, nor will the Chinese advance to the enlightened belt (whatever it is) of civilization. . . . He cannot be converted to those modern ideas of religious worship which have been accepted by Europe and which crowns the American system."

Christians used to believe that through their religion all the nations of the earth were finally to be blest. In accordance with that belief missionaries have been sent to every land, and untold wealth has been expended for what has been called the spread of the gospel.

I am almost sure that I have read somewhere that "Christ died for all men," and that "God is no respecter of persons." It was once taught that it was the duty of Christians to tell to all people the "tidings of great joy." I have never believed these things myself, but have always contended that an honest merchant was the best missionary. Commerce makes friends, religion makes enemies; the one enriches, and the other impoverishes; the one thrives best where the truth is told, but other, where falsehoods are believed. For myself, I have but little confidence in any business, or enterprise, or investment that promises dividends only after the death of the stockholders.

But I am astonished that four Christian statesmen, four members of Congress in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, who seriously _________ of their religious convictions, should still assert that the very religion in which they believe — and the only religion established by the living God, head of the American law — is not adapted to the spiritual needs of one-third of the human race. It is amazing that these four gentlemen have, in the defense of the Christian religion, announced the discovery that it is wholly inadequate for the civilization of mankind; that the light of the cross can never penetrate the darkness of China; "that all the labors of the missionary, the example of the good, the exalted character of our civilization, makes no impression upon the pagan life of the Chinese"; and that even the report of this committee will not tend to elevate, refine, and Christianize the yellow heathen of the Pacific coast. In the name of religion these gentlemen have denied its power and mocked at the enthusiasm of its founder. Worse than this, they have predicted for the Chinese a future of ignorance and idolatry in this world, and, if the "American system" of religion is true, hell-fire in the next.

For the benefit of these four philosophers and prophets, I will give a few extracts from the writings of Confucius, that will, in my judgment, compare favorably with the best passages of their report:

"My doctrine is that man must be true to the principles of his nature, and the benevolent exercise of them toward others."

"With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and with my bended arm for a pillow, I still have joy."

"Riches and honor acquired by injustice are to me but floating clouds."

"The man who, in view of gain, thinks of righteousness; who, in view of danger, forgets life, and who remembers an old agreement, however far back it extends, such a man may be reckoned a complete man."

"Recompense injury with justice, and kindness with kindness."

"There is one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life: Reciprocity is that word."

When the ancestors of the four Christian Congressmen were barbarians, when they lived in caves, gnawed bones, and worshiped dried snakes, the infamous Chinese were reading these sublime sentences of Confucius. When the forefathers of these Christian statesmen were hunting toads to get the jewels out of their heads, to be used as charms, the wretched Chinese were calculating eclipses, and measuring the circumference of the earth. When the progenitors of these representatives of the "American system of religion" were burning women charged with nursing devils, the people "incapable of being influenced by the exalted character of our civilization," were building asylums for the insane.

Neither should it be forgotten that, for thousands of years, the Chinese honestly practiced the great principle known as civil-service reform — a something that even the administration of Mr. Hayes has reached only through the proxy of promise.

If we wish to prevent the immigration of the Chinese, let us reform our treaties with the vast empire from whence they came. For thousands of years the Chinese secluded themselves from the rest of the world. They did not deem the Christian nations fit to associate with. We forced ourselves upon them. We called not with cards, but with cannon. The English battered down the doors in the names of opium and Christ. The infamy was regarded as another triumph for the gospel. At last, in self-defense the Chinese allowed Christians to touch their shores. Their wise men, their philosophers protested, and prophesied that time would show that the Christians could not be trusted. This report proves that the wise men were not only philosophers but prophets.

Treat China as you would England. Keep a treaty while it is in force. Change it if you will, according to the laws of nations, but, on no account excuse a breach of national faith by pretending that we are dishonest for God's sake.

Robert G. Ingersoll


Mr. Ingersoll had me send the following letter to a Mr. Isaac T. Dyer on December 29, 1994 (Baker reads letter):

Washington, D.C.

December 29th, 1884.

Isaac T. Dyer, Esq.

No. 12 North 4th Street,

Quincy, Illinois.

My dear Sir:

I have just received your letter of the 26th inst., in which you say that you have published in the Quincy Herald a challenge to a debate with me, and that you hope I may accept, as you have "every reason to believe it will be a financial success, if nothing more."

As you did not sign your name "Rev. Isaac T. Dyer," nor Isaac T. Dyer, D.D." I was at a loss to know why you should wish to have a discussion with me; but after reading the printed heading of your letter, which is as follows: "Office of I.T. Dyer, Patentee of the Eagle & National Refrigerator," I came to the conclusion that being in the refrigerator business, you did not wish hell abolished, but hoped to carry on business in the next world!

Biased as you must be by your business; prejudiced by your own interest; I think it hardly worth while to discuss the question of eternal fire with you. What you say as to its being "a financial success" is hardly to my taste. I do not need your assistance to make a financial success, and certainly I am not under any obligation to give you mine.

Yours very truly,

R. G. Ingersoll

INGERSOLL (Reads letter):

. . . To the Committee, Baptist Church of De Leon. . . .


P.S. Banner

J.A. Davis Committee.

R.B. Kee

De Leon, Comanche Co., Texas.


I hardly know why you saw fit to send "An Appeal" to me, to help rebuild the Baptist Church at De Leon. It seems, from your appeal, that you had a church — that it had been dedicated to "the Lord God of Israel," as you call him, but that afterwards this same Lord God of Israel "tossed your church to the ground," leaving you without any place of worship.

I feel like acquiescing in what the Lord has done. He knows, better than I, whether he wants a Baptist Church; and, in my judgment he has given what might at least be called "an intimation" that a Baptist Church, in that particular locality, was not pleasing in his sight. Why should the "Lord God of Israel" destroy his own property? He is said to "hold the winds in his fists." Why did he open his hand at De Leon? Is it possible that the "Lord God of Israel" destroys that which he wished to see rebuilt? Maybe he is simply trying your faith. If so, you should not apply to others. You should furnish the evidence yourselves.

My position is this: If the "Lord God of Israel" wants a Baptist Church at De Leon, let him change the wind, and blow the old one back.

Yours truly,

R.G. Ingersoll

(Ingersoll remains quietly at his desk.)

BAKER (Reads beginning of letter):

New York City

November 23rd, 1886.

Mrs. J.C. Euwer,

New Castle, Penn.

My dear Madam:

If there be an infinite God, who created and governs and controls all, then this infinite god is accountable for all that has happened, for all that is, and for all that will be. I have had some trouble in regarding evil as having been intended by infinite Goodness. When I remember all the slavery that has been in this world — all the people who have been devoured by other people — when I remember that for thousands of ages my ancestors were cannibals — when one mother would steal and eat the babe of another — and when I remember that for thousands and thousands of years, they enslaved each other — and not only so, but sacrificed each other to this infinite God, so that hundreds and thousands of altars were red with the blood of men, women, and children — when I remember all of the famines that have covered the earth with skeletons —all the wars that have reddened it with blood, and all of the death that has made it hollow with graves — I admit that my brain is not big enough to know all this, and yet say that it was all done and planned and executed by infinite Intelligence and Goodness.

A great many people say that they cannot believe the bible, because in that book God is made to order wars of extermination — because he upheld slavery and polygamy. If you will think a moment, that is exactly what your God has been doing in the world, whether he ever wrote it down in the bible, or not; and to my mind, the God of Nature is even worse than the God of the bible.

INGERSOLL (Reads rest of same letter):

Now, of course, I know nothing about how this is. I can only guess. You may have some way of knowing that I have not, but situated as I am, I may say:

First. There may be an infinite God, who made everything, who does everything, and everything may be exactly right, and all the fault may be in my lack of wisdom.

Second. There may be a God, who has done the best he could, and is still doing the best he can, but who is not infinite; and if such a being exists, all good people ought to help him, and if I ever find that there is such a God, and he wants help, I shall go to work to help him. And,

Third. This is the thing I guess is right — nobody knows how it is. The human mind is not big enough to answer the questions of origin and destiny; and when we are all honest — when that day comes — popes and peasants, presidents of colleges and naked barbarians, will all admit, that one knows exactly as much as the other on this subject, and that all together know exactly nothing!

But of one thing I feel certain: that whether there be any God, or not, I ought to give to others the rights that I claim for myself; speech and thought should be free; and no matter whether we guess alike about Gods, or other worlds — here, we should be friends.

Very respectfully,

R.G. Ingersoll

INGERSOLL (Continues to read another short letter):

F. Van Dresar Esq.

Westerville, Oneida Co.


My dear Sir:

I have received yours of February 16th, in which you say that you want to meet me in Heaven. You certainly will if you are there.

Yours truly,

R.G. Ingersoll


I liked this letter Ingersoll wrote to Theodore F. Wolf, M.D., March 18, 1887.

New York, N.Y.

March 18, 1887

Theo. F. Wolf, M.D.,

College of Physicians and Surgeons,

New York City

My dear Doctor:

Somebody had the kindness to publish a statement that I had purchased a large number of gods — all kinds.

The fact is, I have never had but a few genuine gods, and I think all of them have been given away, with one exception. A few days ago I was presented with a Hindoo god — a little fellow — but I was assured, small as he is, he had answered prayers as well as any God that ever lived.

If you will call sometime, at the house, I will lend you this god, for a few moments, and I have no doubt but he will help you to the extent of his power, and what more could you expect from any God?

There is one good thing about this little fellow: He does not frighten anybody. I have never heard him mention hell, and he does not seem to care whether we stand up, or kneel; and I must say, that I have never had a better behaved god in the house.

Very truly yours,

R.G. Ingersoll.

INGERSOLL (Reads another letter):

April 28th, 1887

B.W. Lewis, Esq.,

Dayton, Ohio,

My dear Sir:

It is very gratifying to me to know that my books are being read in India — glad to know that they are in the way of the hypocritical and idiotic missionaries who are endeavoring to get these people to exchange one superstition for another.

You may rest assured, that while I live, I shall do what little I can to destroy what is known as "orthodox religion." In my judgment, it has covered the face of the world with tears, and the greatest possible good would be its utter destruction.

You say in your letter that you hope some time I will "do something for God." I never shall — but I do intend to do something for humanity. If god is infinite, he does not need my help. I believe in living in this world for this world, and doing what little we can for ourselves and our fellow men. If there is another world, when we get there we can do the same.

Very truly yours,

R.G. Ingersoll

BAKER (Reads letter):

New York, October 15th, 1888

Mrs. Ellen B. Dietrick, President,

Women's Ed'l. & Industrial Union,

328 Scott St., Covington, Ky.

My dear Madam:

I return your M.S. I do not know whether it could be published or not. I really have no time to attend to it.

I think it makes but very little difference what the Methodist Conference does. As long as the women are foolish enough to believe in the creed of that Church, and to fry chickens for wandering preachers, and then humble enough to take their pay in kicks, it is hardly worth while to say anything on the subject.

If it were not for the women the Methodist Church could not live a day. They collect the money — they induce their husbands to pay — they take care of the preachers — they get up the Fairs, and are the only attraction at the Camp Meetings — as no one would think of going on a picnic without the girls.

Yours respectfully,

R. G. Ingersoll

INGERSOLL (Reads letter):

New York, October 15th, 1888

Mrs. Nancy E. Kennedy,

Riverdale, Tenn.

Dear Madam:

I received your card to-day. You have been misinformed. I am not "on the side of the Lord." I am still on the side of the human race. I am still doing what little I can to destroy a belief in the eternity of pain.

Nothing could be more terrible than for us to know that the Christian religion is true. If it is true, we know that there are hundreds and thousands, and thousands of millions, who are to suffer forever. It would have been a thousand times better for God to have remained "in eternal idleness" if a majority of the human beings that he called into existence are to be eternally lost.

You do not understand me. I attack only the bad, the cruel, the infamous. I defend the good. I believe in justice, mercy, kindness, and above all, in liberty.

I judge people, not by what they believe, but by what they do — not by their creed, but by their conduct. I do not wish to be saved by any God who will damn anybody else.

Yours respectfully,

R.G. Ingersoll

INGERSOLL (Reads letter):

December 12th, 1888.

Miss Alice Eskel,

c/o "The Universal Republic,"

Portland, Oregon.

My dear Miss:

I received your letter this morning and have read the article enclosed.

I hardly think it possible to come to a definite conclusion upon the subject touched, without far greater experience than we now have and without the ascertainment of a vast number of facts.

It may be true that every atom has intelligence; but as we have never seen an atom, it is hardly possible to say. It may be true that there is a certain intelligence in all vegetation, and that the form of the leaf and fruit is determined by desire.

It may be that all chemistry depends on the loves and hatreds of atoms. I do not know. It is impossible for me to say why three atoms of one kind will harmonize with five atoms of another kind, and refuse to have anything to do with the sixth.

It may be that the planets — that is to say, all the stars — are the atoms that compose one being.

I believe that it has been said by some scientist that, taking into consideration the size of the planets, they are as near together as the atoms are in a ball of glass taking into consideration their size; but it gives me pleasure to admit that I know nothing on this subject.

It seems to me that sun worship is a very natural religion, and my own idea is that the nomenclature, ceremonies, ideas and worship connected with that religion were afterwards transferred to others.

Years ago I took the ground that shutting the eyes in prayer is a souvenir of sun worship. People who addressed the sun had to close their eyes and afterwards, when they worshiped images adorned with jewels, they pretended that their faces were so bright that they could not look upon them. So it was a kind of flattery to close the eyes, and this habit was persisted in, although no one now pretends to see the God, or object worshiped.

I also agree with you that the images of men and women have represented gods and goddesses — that is to say, gods and goddesses have been represented as men and women. But back of that, gods and goddesses were represented as animals, because there was a time when man regarded the animals as his superiors. The eagle could fly, the lion and tiger and many other animals excelled him in strength. The serpent excited his admiration; it traveled without feet, it climbed without claws, and it could live an indefinite time without food. Besides all this, it was the simplest form of life.

As man advanced, he became superior to some animals. He then made his gods be a combination — that is to say, he gave to his gods the body of a lion. On this body he placed the wings of an eagle for the purpose of representing the two things, swiftness and strength; and sometimes he gave to this strange mixture the head of a serpent, representing wisdom.

Man advanced. He became superior to all animals. He then represented his gods and goddesses as men and women, for the reason that intellectual strength became the highest, and the human form was associated with mind. Consequently, it became impossible for him to represent his god except in that form which to him represented the highest phase of thought.

No one now could represent god with four legs, or with a mane and tail, or any animal whatever because no animal form is associated with the highest intelligence.

I cannot say as to whether there is any planetary god or not. You have no idea how little I know on that subject.

To me, the most wonderful thing is the world is thought, the impalpable, the invisible, the noiseless — the something that can neither be seen, nor touched, nor heard — and yet it is the great force so far as we know.

All these questions are beyond my mind, so I am willing to wait. I feel like a passenger on a ship, unacquainted with the captain or any of the officers — without knowing the port the ship left, and without having the slightest idea as to the harbor to which it is going. If it goes down, I shall not be surprised. If it lands on fairer shores, beneath blue skies, I shall be rejoiced. But whatever it does, I intend to do my level best to have a pleasant voyage, and get along as well as I can with the other passengers.

I am, Yours very truly,

R.G. Ingersoll

BAKER (Speaks/reads):

Thomas Henry Huxley was one of the greatest scientists and biologists — and probably the greatest exponent and popularizer of science and the scientific method that England has produced.

After the publication of Darwin's immortal work, The Origin of Species, Huxley sprang into spectacular fame as the most fearless and powerful champion of Darwinism. It might justly be said of Huxley that he forced the theories and facts of Darwinism upon England and the rest of the civilized world at the point of his pen. "In 1863, his 'Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature' made the first serious application of evolution to man."

Huxley repudiated both Materialism and Theism; and he coined the term "Agnostic." Mr. Harrison states in his "Autobiographical Memoirs," that he finally rejected Christianity in 1857; and accepted Positivism about 1862. Frederic Harrison was the author of many distinguished and scholarly works; and his views on religion are best revealed in his "The Creed of a Layman," and "The Positive Evolution of Religion." Says Joseph McCabe, the veteran Rationalist, and biographer of Rationalists: "Both in character and in culture Mr. Harrison is one of the most eminent of British men of letters."

This letter by Colonel Ingersoll was in answer to this interesting and characteristically witty letter that Mr. Huxley wrote to the Colonel, congratulating the latter on his controversial triumph over Honorable William E. Gladstone and Cardinal Manning.

BAKER (Continues):

4 Marlborough Place, Abbey Road

London, May (?), 1889

Dear Colonel Ingersoll:

Some unknown benefactor has sent me a series of numbers of the North American review containing your battles with various "Bulls of Bashan," in 1888 — and the very kindly and appreciative article of last April about my picador work over here (Professor Huxley and Agnosticism, April, 1889].

I write mainly to thank you for it and to say that I feel the force of your admonition to Harrison and myself — to leave off quarreling with one another and to join forces against the common enemy. The excuse of, "Please, sir, it was the other boy began," is somewhat ignoble; but really if you will look at Harrison's article again, I think you will see there was no help for it.

However, he is far too good a man to quarrel with for long, and I have hope we shall arrive at a treaty of peace and even cooperation before long. In the meanwhile, I am glad to say that we are, personally, excellent friends.

You are to be congratulated on your opponents. The Rabbi is the only one with any stuff in him — though, by the way, I have not read Manning, and do not mean to. I have had many opportunities of taking his measure — and he is a parlous windbag — and nothing else, absolutely. Gladstone's attack on you is one of the best things he has written. I do not think there is more than 50 per cent more verbiage than necessary, nor any sentence with more than two meanings. If he goes on improving at this rate, he will be an English classic by the time he is ninety. . . .

Do not answer this letter, I beg, unless the spirit should move you. My life has been made a burden to me by letter writing, and now I do as little as possible. But if the spirit should move you, then Monte Generoso, Mendrisio [Switzerland], will be my address for the next month; and after that, Maloja, Haute Engadine {Switzerland], up to September.

I am

Yours very faithfully,

T.H. Huxley

INGERSOLL (Replies/reads letter):

400 Fifth Avenue.

New York

July 25-'89.

My dear Mr. Huxley,

For many years I have read your books, lectures, and essays with the keenest pleasure. You are one of my mental creditors and will always remain so. It is hardly necessary to say that your letter was gladly received.— In the first place I apologize for what I said about you and Mr. Frederic Harrison. I know nothing of the controversy — having never read Harrison's article. Since receiving your letter I have read what Mr. Harrison had to say and I agree with you that "the other boy began it" and that the other boy's tone was somewhat overbearing.— Most of the followers of Comte claim too much and while the objects they seek to attain are good the means seem inadequate. They think that they hold the "eel of science by the tail"— so much for that.

Mr. Rice asked me to write a few words about your splendid article in reply to Dr. Wace. You answered the absurd theologian to the last echo. And I wrote simply to call attention to what you had done. Your reply was in every respect admirable and overwhelming.

Your estimate of Mr. Gladstone is generous. It does not seem to me that he can live long enough to become a classic.

Your description of the Cardinal is perfect. I was greatly disappointed in both of these men. It is hard to have any respect for an intellect that in this age accepts the orthodox creed.— I feel that the brand of intellectual inferiority is over the theological brain.

You need care nothing for what you saw in the Washington paper. The intelligent people of America know that you are the friend of liberty and progress, and they regard you as one who bravely tells what he knows and modestly says what he thinks.

A friend of mine published a volume of collections from my speeches and essays which I take the liberty to send you. It may be well enough to say that the flattering title was given by the publisher. Do not trouble yourself to even acknowledge its receipt. I know that the little scraps and shreds of time you save from labor are of great value to you.

Thanking you again and again for your kind letter and hoping that you may live for many years to shed light.

I remain

Your friend and admirer

R.G. Ingersoll

INGERSOLL (Reads/speaks letter):

New York, N.Y., Dec. 11, (?) '92.

To the Editor of The Liberal Christian,

Dear Sir:—

I have for a long time wondered why somebody didn't start a church on a sensible basis. My idea is this: There are, of course, in every community lawyers, doctors, merchants, and people of all trades and professions, who have not the time during the week to pay any particular attention to history, poetry, art, or song. Now, it seems to be that it would be a good thing to have a church, and for these men to employ a man of ability, of talent, to preach to them Sundays, and let this man say to this congregation: "Now I am going to preach to you for the first few Sundays — eight or ten or twenty, we will say — on the art, poetry, and intellectual achievements of the Greeks." Let this man study all the week and tell this congregation Sunday what he has ascertained. Let him give to his people the history of such men as Plato, as Socrates, what they did; of Aristotle, of his philosophy; of the great Greeks, their statesmen, their dramatists, their poets, actors and sculptors, and let him show the debt that modern civilization owes to these people. Let him, too, give their religions, their mythology — a mythology that has sown the seeds of beauty in every land. Then let him take up Rome. Let him show what a wonderful and practical people they were; let him give an idea of their statesmen, orators, poets, lawyers — because probably the Romans were the greatest lawyers. And so let him go through with nation after nation, biography after biography, and at the same time let there be a Sunday school connected with this church where the children shall be taught something of importance. For instance, teach them botany, and when a Sunday is fair, clear and beautiful, let them go to the fields and woods with their teachers, and in a little while they will become acquainted with all kinds of trees and shrubs, and flowering plants. They could also be taught entomology, so that every bug would be interesting, for they would see the facts in science — something of use to them.

I believe that such a church and such a Sunday school would at the end of a few years be the most intelligent collection of people in the United States.

To teach the children of all these things and to teach their parents too, the outlines of every science so that every listener would know something of geology, something of astronomy, so that every member could tell the manner in which they find the distance of a star — how much better that would be than the old talk about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and quotations from Haggai and Zephaniah, and all this eternal talk about the fall of man and the garden of Eden, and the flood, and the atonement, and the wonders of Revelation!

R.G. Ingersoll.

BAKER (Speaks/reads):

Andrew Carnegie and Colonel Ingersoll were warm friends. They had many interests in common — notably, religious freedom and intellectual liberalism. But the one mutual bond which transcended all the rest, was their love for Robert Burns.

Each knew an amazing number of the poems, and was able to quote from memory stanza after stanza. Ingersoll declared that if all the works of Burns were destroyed, he could reproduce more than half of them, word for word, and not to be outdone, Mr. Carnegie made a similar claim.

INGERSOLL (Reads/speaks reply):

400 Fifth Avenue.

May 6, '91

My dear Mr. Carnegie,

I have not touched it. Both bottles are as they were. You must be present when they are opened. We four must have an evening. — I mean Burns, Carnegie, the whisky and myself.—

I feel that I have two bottles of real poetry — of good fellowship — of royal ceremonies of the King of Song — I am not selfish enough to open these treasures alone. We did pass one evening long ago at the St. Nicholas talking about Burns — We must have one more, and then the bottled bliss will be released.

Thanking you again and again for each bottle — and swearing to keep dry until you come.

I remain as ever,

Yours always

R.G. Ingersoll

BAKER (Speaks/reads):

It is not known just when and where Ingersoll and Whitman first met one another in person; however, the warm and profound friendship between the two kindred spirits was of many years' duration. They met very infrequently, but were often in each other's minds and hearts. Ingersoll was always chanting paeans of praise of the poet because "Whitman's charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth. . . . He was the poet of that divine democracy which gives equal rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great American voice; uttered a song worthy of the great Republic."

INGERSOLL (Reading or speech):

My dear Whitman: — [no date given]

A thousand thanks for your good letter and for the beautiful Second Annex of Leaves of Grass, filled with the splendor of sunset, the far west of a superb life. There is something more than beauty in the last rays and in the last thoughts. As I read, I saw the picture of an old man sitting in the after glow — rich in memory, the dross all out of his heart, filled with hope, not so much for himself as for the race, and with content, not so much with the race as with himself, clinging to life, but with no fear of departure. Longing to get the last sheaf of harvest, even that which had been dropped in the gleaming; he who sits in the deepening twilight as the sun disappears and countless stars emerge, has at least the memory of the morning. In him, there is the divine mingling of dawn and dusk, the loving nymphs of day have gone, but the veiled and silent sisters of the night have noiselessly approached. On the frontier from the wave-tossed shore, his last words, his last messages, all contain a hope, and these come to us like strains of music. He who is old has lived the poem of the four seasons. The snows are upon him but in his heart, spring, summer and autumn have left their buds, their blossoms and their bounties, and so he sits by the fireside on the last days near the glowing embers of winter and drinks the wine of life. In youth the heart is but a scorner of the brain, and in manhood's prime, the brain usurps control, but in old age the brain and heart become comrades, and so remain to the journey's end.

Yours always,

R.G. Ingersoll


In the following letter the Colonel lists some of his favorite authors. (Reads):

September 1st, 1887.

William H. Leff, Esq.

Burlington, Montana.

My dear Sir: —

It is exceedingly difficult to give a list of books — minds and temperaments are so different.

Among the poets: Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, Shelley and Hood.

Among the historians: Gibbon, Lecky and Buckle.

Among the scientists: Humboldt, Darwin, Haeckel and Büchner. Of Haeckel's works — The history of Creation; of Darwin's works, The Descent of Man. Among the great writers and thinkers, Voltaire, especially his Philosophical Dictionary. Get Parton's Life of Voltaire — one of the best biographies ever written.

If you are still delighted with obscure questions read Spinoza and Kant.

The greatest of all is Shakespeare. The man who has read his works thoroughly, and who understands and appreciates them, need care but little for other books.

Yours truly,

R.G. Ingersoll.

BAKER (Reads/speaks):

Colonel Ingersoll was acquainted with Henry George, the famous author of Progress and Poverty, in which is set forth the theory of the Single Tax. Ingersoll was deeply interested in many of George's ideas, while entertaining doubts of the practicability of certain of his theories; but above all, he admired the humane and noble spirit of the man.

Ingersoll supported Henry George for Mayor of New York, in 1886, declaring that the Republicans, generally, should vote for him, and thereby demonstrate that "all their sympathies are not given to bankers, corporations and millionaires." They had been "on the side of the slave — they gave liberty to millions" — now "let them take another step and extend their hands to the sons of toil."

Regarding taxation in general, and the single tax in particular, Ingersoll had this to say: "The greatest desideratum is stability. If we tax only the land," if that were "the only tax, in a little while every other thing, and the value of every other thing, would adjust itself in relation to that tax, and perfect justice would be the result. That is to say, if it were stable long enough the burden would finally fall upon the right backs in every department. The trouble with taxation is that it is continually changing — not waiting for the adjustment that will naturally follow provided it is stable." Ingersoll thought that "the end, so far as land is concerned, could be reached by cumulative taxation — that a man with a small amount of land paying a very small percent, with more land, an increased percent; and let that percent increase rapidly enough so that no man could afford to hold land that he did not have a use for."

He believed in "cumulative taxation with regard to any kind of wealth"; that "a man worth ten million dollars should pay a greater percent than one worth a hundred thousand, because he is better able to pay it." The Colonel said that a man he knew advocated "having the dead pay the expenses of the Government; that whenever a man died worth say, five million dollars, one million should go to the Government; that if he died worth ten million dollars, three million should go to the Government, and so on." And Ingersoll, endorsing this idea, and thereby anticipating by many years our present-day estate and inheritance taxes, added: "I should be in favor of cumulative taxation upon legacies — the greater the legacy, the greater the percent of taxation."

While I may not entirely agree with your theories — probably because I am not well acquainted with them — still, I am satisfied that the children of Nature are entitled to the essentials of life — that is to say, to water, to air, and to land. I am satisfied that the time will come — and I have been long of this opinion — when no man will be allowed to own land that he does not use. It is not to the interest of any country to have a few landlords and millions of tenants. I am a believer in homes, and believe that patriotism is born by the fireside. We do not want a nation of tenants — that is to say, of serfs.

Some people say that the idle should not live on the labor of the industrious; that nothing can be more infamous than for those who do not produce, to make those divide who do. And yet, this is exactly what happens in every monarchy of the world. The idle do live on the labor of the industrious, and those who do not produce, make those who do, divide with them. The worst possible definition of Socialism is a perfect description of Germany, Austria, England, Spain, Italy, and in fact of almost every government in the world. Admit that the Nihilists are as bad as any human being has as ever described them, or charged them to be: put them in power, and would their government be worse than that which now exists in Russia?

For a great many years the world has been hearing about "the brotherhood of man." For centuries, poverty was declared to be a virtue. The world was taught to rely on the goodness of the gods, and the charity of the rich. At last, people are beginning to find that they must rely upon themselves; that charity is not what they want; that, as a rule, the giver becomes arrogant, and the taker, servile, cringing, and doubly helpless. The world should be governed on a scientific basis. We should turn our attention, not so much to the relief of the individual cases as to the prevention of want. The world should be so governed, that a healthy man should have no excuse for wanting bread. The rich should become intelligent enough to know, that nothing is as costly, nothing as extravagant, as to reduce wages below a liberal living point. The value of the property in the City of New York depends on the prosperity of the people. If the people are satisfied; if in the homes of the poor you find plenty of food, you find contentment. That contentment is the basis of values. Let that be destroyed; let the multitude be hungry; let them feel that they have been robbed — that the rich are their enemies, that wealth is a slave-driver, that capital is heartless — then what will the palaces be worth? A man to be truly prosperous, and to be secure in that prosperity, should live among prosperous people.

The time has come for the world, as I have said, to be controlled by science — that is to say, by wisdom, by intelligence, by justice. No man can be rich enough to be independent of his fellows, and no man can be so poor as to absolve his fellows from all responsibility towards him.

I have an idea that land to a certain amount and value should be set apart as a homestead, and that such homestead should be exempt not only from levy and sale, but from taxation, to the end that everybody in the state may have a home.

I do not believe that anything in the world would so add to the prosperity of a State as to have the humble homes of the working people exempt from taxation.

Much obliged to you for your letter, and I remain,

Yours very truly,

R.G. Ingersoll.

End Act II: Correspondance
The Great Agnostic, A staged reading of the ideas of Robert G. Ingersoll in three acts
Arranged by LeRoy D. Owens, 1987


Act 1. Robert G. Ingersoll, Speaker: Unitarian Club Dinner, New York City, 1882

Act II. Correspondence

Act III. Concluding Statement
Robert Ingersoll in 3 Acts | Paul Robeson: The Meaning of Freedom | Poems
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