Story type: Essay
Love is the only bow on life’s dark cloud. It is the morning and the evening star. It shines upon the babe, and sheds its radiance on the quiet tomb. It is the Mother of Art, inspirer of poet, patriot and philosopher. It is the air and light to tired souls–builder of every home, kindler of every fire on every hearth. It was the first to dream of immortality. It fills the world with melody–for music is the voice of love. Love is the magician, the enchanter that changes worthless things to joy, and makes right-royal kings and queens of common clay. It is the perfume of that wondrous flower, the heart, and without that sacred passion, that divine swoon, we are less than beasts; but with it, earth is heaven and we are gods.
—Robert G. Ingersoll
He was three years old, was Robert Ingersoll. There was a baby boy one year old, Ebon by name; then there were John, five years, and two elder sisters.
Little Robert wore a red linsey-woolsey dress, and was a restless, active youngster with a big head, a round face and a pug-nose. No one ever asked. “What is it?”–there was “boy” written large in every baby action and every feature from chubby bare feet to the two crowns of his close-cropped tow-head.
It was a morning in January, and the snow lay smooth and white over all those York State hills. The winter sun sent long gleams of light through the frost-covered panes upon which the children were trying to draw pictures. Visitors began to arrive–visitors in stiff Sunday clothes, although it wasn’t Sunday. There were aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and then just neighbors. They filled the little house full. Some of the men went out and split wood and brought in big armfuls and piled it in the corner. They moved on tiptoe and talked in whispers. And now and then they would walk softly into the little parlor by twos and threes and close the door after them.
This parlor was always a forbidden place to the children; on Sunday afternoons only were they allowed to go in there, or on prayer-meeting night.
In this parlor were six haircloth chairs and a sofa to match. In the center was a little marble-top table, and on it were two red books and a blue one. On the mantel was a plaster-of-Paris cat at one end and a bunch of crystallized flowers at the other. There was a “what-not” in the corner covered with little shells and filled with strange and wonderful things. There was a “store” carpet, bright red. It was a very beautiful room, and to look into it was a great privilege.
Little Robert had tried several times to enter the parlor this cold winter morning, but each time he had been thrust back. Finally he clung to the leg of a tall man, and was safely inside. It was very cold–one of the windows was open! He looked about with wondering baby eyes to see what the people wanted to go in there for!
On two of the haircloth chairs rested a coffin. The baby hands clutched the side–he drew himself up on tiptoe and looked down at the still, white face–the face of his mother. Her hands were crossed just so, and in her fingers was a spray of flowers–he recognized them as the flowers she had always worn on her Sunday bonnet–a rusty black bonnet–not real flowers, just “made” flowers.
But why was she so quiet? He had never seen her hands that way before: those hands were always busy–knitting, sewing, cooking, weaving, scrubbing, washing!
“Mamma! Mamma!” called the boy.
“Hush, little boy, hush! Your Mamma is dead,” said the tall man, and he lifted the boy in his arms and carried him from the room.
Out in the kitchen, in a crib in the corner, lay the “Other Baby,” and thither little Robert made his way. He patted the sleeping baby brother, and called aloud in lisping words, “Wake up, Baby, your Mamma is dead!”
And the baby in the crib knew quite as much about it as the toddler in the linsey-woolsey dress, and the toddler knew as much about death as we do today. This wee youngster kept thinking how good it was that Mamma could have such a nice rest–the first rest she had ever known–and just lie there in the beautiful room and hold her flowers!
* * * * *
Fifty years pass. These children, grown to manhood, are again together. One, his work done, is at rest. Standing by his bier, the other voices these deathless words:
“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We call aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death, hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.
“He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death for the return of health, whispered with his latest breath, ‘I am better now.’ Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas, of fears and tears, that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.”
* * * * *
The mother of Ingersoll was a Livingston–a Livingston of right-royal lineage, tracing to that famous family of Revolutionary fame. To a great degree she gave up family and social position to become the wife of the Reverend John Ingersoll, of Vermont, a theolog from the Academy at Bennington.
He was young and full of zeal–he was called “a powerful preacher.” That he was a man of much strength of intellect, there is ample proof. He did his duty, said his say, called sinners to repentance, and told what would be their fate if they did not accept salvation. His desire was to do good, and therefore he warned men against the wrath to come. He was an educated man, and all of his beliefs and most of his ideas were gathered and gleaned from his college professors and Jonathan Edwards.
He loved his beautiful wife and she loved him. She loved him just as all good women love, with a complete abandon–with heart, mind and strength. He at first had periods of such abandon, too, but his conscience soon made him recoil from an affection of which God might be jealous. He believed that a man should forsake father, mother, wife and child in order to follow duty–and duty to him was the thing we didn’t want to do. That which was pleasant was not wholly good. And so he strove to thrust from him all earthly affections, and to love God alone. Not only this, but he strove to make others love God. He warned his family against the pride and pomp of the world, and the family income being something under four hundred dollars, they observed his edict.
Life was a warfare–the devil constantly lay in wait–we must resist. This man hated evil–he hated evil more than he loved the good. His wife loved the good more than she hated evil, and he chided her–in love. She sought to explain her position. He was amazed at her temerity. What right had a woman to think!–what right had any one to think!
He prayed for her.
And soon she grew to keep her thoughts to herself. Sometimes she would write them out, and then destroy them before any eyes but her own could read. Once she went to a neighbor’s and saw Paine’s “Age of Reason.” She peeped into its pages by stealth, and then put it quickly away. The next day she went back and read some more, and among other things she read was this, “To live a life of love and usefulness–to benefit others–must bring its due reward, regardless of belief.”
She thought about it more and more and wondered really if God could and would damn a person who just went ahead and did the best he could. She wanted to ask her husband about it–to talk it over with him in the evening–but she dare not. She knew too well what his answer would be–for her even to think such thoughts was a sin. And so she just decided she would keep her thoughts to herself, and be a dutiful wife, and help her husband in his pastoral work as a minister’s wife should.
But her proud spirit began to droop, she ceased to sing at her work, her face grew wan, yellow and sad. Yet still she worked–there were no servants to distress her–and when her own work was done she went out among the neighbors and helped them–she cared for the sick, the infirm, she dressed the new-born babe, and closed the eyes of the dying.
That this woman had a thirst for liberty, and the larger life, is shown in that she herself prepared and presented a memorial to the President of the United States praying that slavery be abolished. So far as I know, this was the first petition ever prepared in America on the subject by a woman.
This minister’s family rarely remained over two years in a place. At first they were received with loving arms, and there were donation parties where cider was spilled on the floors, doughnuts ground into the carpets, and several haircloth chairs hopelessly wrecked. But the larder was filled and there was much good-cheer.
I believe I said that the Reverend John Ingersoll was a powerful preacher: he was so powerful he quickly made enemies. He told men of their weaknesses in phrase so pointed that necks would be craned to see how certain delinquents took their medicine. Then some would get up and tramp out during the sermon in high dudgeon. These disaffected ones would influence others: contributions grew less, donations ceased, and just as a matter of bread and butter a new “call” would be angled for, and the parson’s family would pack up–helped by the faction that loved them, and the one that didn’t. Good-bys were said, blessings given–or the reverse–and the jokers would say, “A change of pastors makes fat calves.”
At one time the Reverend John Ingersoll tried to start an independent church in New York City. For a year he preached every Sunday at the old Lyceum Theater, and here it was, on the stage of the theater, in Eighteen Hundred Thirty-four, that Robert G. Ingersoll was baptized.
But the New York venture failed–starved out was the verdict, and a country parish extending a call, it was gladly accepted.
Such a life, to such a woman, was particularly wearing. But Mrs. Ingersoll kept right at her work, always doing for others, until there came a day when kind neighbors came in and cared for her, looked after her household, attending this stricken mother–tired out and old at thirty-one, unaware that she had blessed the world by giving to it a man-child who was to make an epoch.
The watchers one night straightened the stiffening limbs, clothed the body in the gown that had been her wedding-dress, and folded the calloused fingers over the spray of flowers.
“Hush, little boy–your Mamma is dead!” said the tall man, as he lifted the child and carried him from the room.
* * * * *
From the sleepy little village of Dresden, Yates County, New York, seven miles from Penn Yan, where Robert Ingersoll was born, to his niche in the Temple of Fame, was a zigzag journey. But that is Nature’s plan–we make head by tacking. And as the years go by, more and more we see the line of Ingersoll’s life stretching itself straight. Every change to him meant progress. Success is a question of temperament–it is all a matter of the red corpuscle. Ingersoll was a success; happy, exuberant, joying in life, reveling in existence, he marched to the front in every fray.
As a boy he was so full of life that he very often did the wrong thing. And I have no doubt that wherever he went he helped hold good the precedent that preachers’ boys are not especially angelic. For instance, we have it on good authority that Bob, aged fourteen, once climbed into the belfry of a church and removed the clapper, so that the sexton thought the bell was bewitched. At another time he placed a washtub over the top of a chimney where a prayer-meeting was in progress, and the smoke broke up the meeting and gave the good people a foretaste of the place they believed in. In these stories, told to prove his depravity, Bob was always climbing somewhere–belfries, steeples, house-tops, trees, verandas, barn-roofs, bridges. But I have noticed that youngsters given to the climbing habit usually do something when they grow up.
For these climbing pranks Robert and Ebon were duly reproved with a stout strap that hung behind the kitchen-door. Whether the parsonage was in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Illinois–and it dodged all over these States–the strap always traveled, too. It never got lost. It need not be said that the Reverend John Ingersoll was cruel or abusive–not at all: he just believed with Solomon that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. He loved his children, and if a boy could be saved by so simple a means as “strap-oil,” he was not the man to shirk his duty. He was neither better nor worse than the average preacher of his day. No doubt, too, the poverty and constant misunderstandings with congregations led to much irritability–it is hard to be amiable on half-rations.
When a stepmother finally appeared upon the scene, there was more trouble for the children. She was a worthy woman and meant to be kind, but her heart wasn’t big enough to love boys who carried live mice in their pockets and turned turtles loose in the pantry.
So we find Bob and his brother bundled off to his Grandfather Livingston’s in Saint Lawrence County, New York. Here Bob got his first real educational advantages. The old man seems to have been a sort of “Foxy Grandpa”: he played, romped, read and studied with the boys and possibly neutralized some of the discipline they had received.
Of his childhood days Robert Ingersoll very rarely spoke. There was too much bitterness and disappointment in it all, but it is curious to note that when he did speak of his boyhood, it was always something that happened at “Grandfather Livingston’s,” Finally, the old Grandpa got to thinking so much of the boys that he wanted to legally adopt them, and then we find their father taking alarm and bringing them back to the parsonage, which was then at Elyria, Ohio.
The boys worked at odd jobs, on farms in Summer, clerking in country stores, driving stage–and be it said to the credit of their father, he allowed them to keep the money they made. Education comes through doing things, making things, going without things, taking care of yourself, talking about things, and when Robert was seventeen he had education enough to teach a “Deestrick School” in Illinois.
To teach is a good way to get an education. If you want to know all about a subject, write a book on it, a wise man has said. If you wish to know all about things, start in and teach them to others.
Bob was eighteen–big and strong, with a good nature and an enthusiasm that had no limit. There were spelling-bees in his school, and a debating-society, that had impromptu rehearsals every night at the grocery. Country people are prone to “argufying”–the greater and more weighty the question, the more ready are the bucolic Solons to engage with it. And it is all education to the youth who listens and takes part–who has the receptive mind.
This love of argument and contention among country people finds vent in lawsuits. Pigs break into a man’s garden and root up the potatoes, and straightway the owner of the potatoes “has the law” on the owner of the pigs. This strife is urged on by kind neighbors who take sides, and by the “setters” at the store, who fire the litigants on to unseemliness. Local attorneys are engaged and the trial takes place at the railroad-station, or in the schoolhouse on Saturday. Everybody has opinions, and overrules the “jedge” next day, or not, as the case may be.
This petty strife may seem absurd to us, but it is all a part of the Spirit of the Hive, as Maeterlinck would say. It is better than dead-level dumbness–better than the subjection of the peasantry of Europe. These pioneers settle their own disputes. It makes them think, and a few at least are getting an education. This is the cradle in which statesmen are rocked.
And so it happened that no one was surprised when, in the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-three, there was a sign tacked up over a grocery in Shawneetown, Illinois, and the sign read thus: “R. G. & E. C. Ingersoll, Attorneys and Counselors at Law.”
* * * * *
Shawneetown, Illinois, was once the pride and pet of Egypt. It was larger than Chicago, and doubtless it would have become the capital of the State had it been called Shawnee City. But the name was against it, and dry rot set in. And so today Shawneetown has the same number of inhabitants that it had in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five, and in Shawneetown are various citizens who boast that the place has held its own.
Robert Ingersoll had won a case for a certain steamboat captain, and in gratitude the counsel had been invited by his client to go on an excursion to Peoria, the head of navigation on the Illinois River. The lawyer took the trip, and duly reached Peoria after many hairbreadth ‘scapes on the imminently deadly sandbar. But a week must be spent at Peoria while the boat was reloading for her return trip.
There was a railroad war on in Peoria. The town had one railroad, which some citizens said was enough for any place; others wanted the new railroad.
Whether the new company should be granted certain terminal facilities–that was the question. The route had been surveyed, but the company was forbidden to lay its tracks until the people said “Aye.”
So there the matter rested when Robert Ingersoll was waiting for the stern-wheeler to reload. The captain of the craft had meanwhile circulated reports about the eloquence and legal ability of his star passenger. These reports coming to the ears of the manager of the new railroad, he sought out the visiting lawyer and advised with him.
Railroad Law is a new thing, not quite so new as the Law of the Bicycle, or the Statutes concerning Automobiling, but older than the Legal Precedents of the Aeromotor. Railroad Law is an evolution, and the Railroad Lawyer is a by-product: what Mr. Mantinelli would call a demnition product.
It was a railroad that gave Robert Ingersoll his first fee in Peoria. The man was only twenty-three, but semi-pioneer life makes men early, and Robert Ingersoll stood first in war and first in peace among the legal lights of Shawneetown. His size made amends for his cherubic face, and the insignificant nose was more than balanced by the forceful jaw. The young man was a veritable Greek in form, and his bubbling wit and ready speech on any theme made him a drawing card at the political barbecue.
“Bob” at this time didn’t know much about railroads–there was no railroad in Shawneetown–but he was an expert on barbecues. A barbecue is a gathering where a whole ox is roasted and where there is much hard cider and effervescent eloquence. Bob would speak to the people about the advantages of the new railroad; and the opposition could answer if they wished. Pioneers are always ready for a picnic–they delight in speeches–they dote on argument and wordy warfare. The barbecue was to be across the river on Saturday afternoon.
The whole city quit business to go to the barbecue and hear the speeches.
Bob made the first address. He spoke for two hours about everything and anything–he told stories, and dealt in love, life, death, politics and farming–all but railroading. The crowd was delighted–cheers filled the air.
When the opposition got up to speak and brought forward its profound reasons and heavy logic, ‘most everybody adjourned to the tables to eat and drink.
Finally there came rumors that something was going on across the river. The opposition grew nervous and started to go home, but in some mysterious way the two ferryboats were tied up on the farther bank, and were deaf and blind to signals.
It was well after dark before the people reached home, and when they got up the next morning they found the new railroad had a full mile of track down and engines were puffing at their doors.
Bob made another speech in the public square, and cautioned everybody to be law-abiding. The second railroad had arrived–it was a good thing–it meant wealth, prosperity and happiness for everybody. And even if it didn’t, it was here and could not be removed except by legal means. And we must all be law-abiding citizens–let the matter be determined by the courts. Then there were a few funny stories, and cheers were given for the speaker.
On the next trip of the little stern-wheeler the young lawyer and his brother arrived. They hadn’t much baggage, but they carried a tin sign that they proceeded to tack up over a store on Adams Street. It read thus: “R. G. & E. C. Ingersoll, Attorneys and Counselors at Law.” And there the sign was to remain for twenty-five years.
* * * * *
At Peoria, the Ingersoll Brothers did not have to wait long for clients. Ebon was the counselor, Robert the pleader, and some still have it that Ebon was the stronger, just as we hear that Ezekiel Webster was a more capable man than Daniel–which was probably the truth.
The Ingersolls had not been long at Peoria before Robert had a case at Groveland, a town only a few miles away, and a place which, like Shawneetown, has held its own.
The issue was the same old classic–hogs had rooted up the man’s garden, and then the hogs had been impounded. This time there was a tragedy, for before the hogs were released the owner had been killed.
The people for miles had come to town to hear the eloquent young lawyer from Peoria. The taverns were crowded, and not having engaged a room, the attorney for the defense was put to straits to find a place in which to sleep. In this extremity ‘Squire Parker, the first citizen of the town, invited young Ingersoll to his house.
Parker was a character in that neck of the woods–he was an “infidel,” and a terror to all the clergy ’round about. And strangely enough–or not–his wife believed exactly as he did, and so did their daughter Eva, a beautiful girl of nineteen. But ‘Squire Parker got into no argument with his guest–their belief was the same. Probably we would now call the Parkers simply radical Unitarians. Their kinsman, Theodore Parker, expressed their faith, and they had no more use for a “personal devil” that he had. The courage of the young woman in stating her religious views had almost made her an outcast in the village, and here she was saying the same things in Groveland that Robert was saying in Peoria. She was the first woman he ever knew who had ideas.
It was one o’clock before he went to bed that night–his head was in a whirl. It was a wonder he didn’t lose his case the next day, but he didn’t.
He cleared his client and won a bride.
In a few months Robert Ingersoll and Eva Parker were married.
Never were man and woman more perfectly mated than this couple. And how much the world owes to her sustaining love and unfaltering faith, we can not compute; but my opinion is that if it had not been for Eva Parker–twice a daughter of the Revolution, whose ancestors fought side by side with the Livingstons–we should never have heard of Robert Ingersoll as the maker of an epoch. It is love that makes the world go ’round–and it is love that makes the orator and fearless thinker, no less than poet, painter and musician.
No man liveth unto himself alone: we demand the approval and approbation of another: we write and speak for some One; and our thought coming back from this One approved, gives courage and that bold determination which carries conviction home. Before the world believes in us we must believe in ourselves, and before we fully believe in ourselves this some One must believe in us. Eva Parker believed in Robert Ingersoll, and it was her love and faith that made him believe in himself and caused him to fling reasons into the face of hypocrisy and shower with sarcasm and ridicule the savage and senseless superstitions that paraded themselves as divine.
Wendell Phillips believed in himself because Ann never doubted him. Without Ann he would not have had the courage to face that twenty years’ course of mobs. If it had ever occurred to him that the mob was right he would have gone down in darkness and defeat; but with Ann such a suspicion was not possible. He pitted Ann’s faith against the prejudice of centuries–two with God are a majority.
It was Eva’s faith that sustained Robert. In those first years of lecturing she always accompanied him, and at his lectures sat on the stage in the wings and gloried in his success. He did not need her to protect him from the mob, but he needed her to protect him from himself. It is only perfect love that casteth out fear.
* * * * *
There is a little book called, “Ingersoll as He Is,” which is being circulated by some earnest advocates of truth.
The volume is a vindication, a refutation and an apology. It takes up a goodly list of zealous calumniators and cheerful prevaricators and tacks their pelts on the barn-door of obliquity.
That Ingersoll won the distinction of being more grossly misrepresented than any other man of his time, there is no doubt. This was to his advantage–he was advertised by his rabid enemies no less than by his loving friends. But his good friends who are putting out this vindication should cultivate faith, and know that there is a God, or Something, who looks after the lies and the liars–we needn’t.
A big man should never be cheapened by a defense. Life is its own excuse for being, and every life is its own apology. Silence is better than wordy refutation. People who want to believe the falsehoods told of this man, or any other, will continue to believe them until the crack o’ doom.
Most accusations contain a certain basis of truth, but they may be no less libels on that account. One zealous advocate, intent on loving his supposed enemy, printed a thrilling story about Ingersoll being taken prisoner during the war, while taking refuge in a pig-pen. To this some of Bob’s friends interposed a fierce rejoinder declaring that Bob stood like Falstaff at Gadshill and fought the rogues in buckram to a standstill.
Heaven forfend me from my friends–I can withstand mine enemies alone!
I am quite ready to believe that Bob, being attacked by an overwhelming force, suddenly bethought him of an engagement, and made a swift run for safety. The impeccable man who has never done a cowardly thing, nor a mean thing, is no kinsman of mine! The saintly hero who has not had his heels run away with his head, and sought safety in a friendly pig-pen–aye! and filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat–has dropped something out of his life that he will have to go back for and pick up in another incarnation. We love men for their limitations and weaknesses, no less than for their virtues. A fault may bring a man very close to us. Have we, too, not sought safety in pig-pens! The people who taunt other people with having taken temporary refuge in a pig-pen are usually those who live in pig-pens the whole year ’round.
The one time in the life of Savonarola when he comes nearest to us is when his tortured flesh wrenched from his spirit a recantation. And who can forget that cry of Calvary, “My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me!” That call for help, coming to us across twenty centuries, makes the man, indeed, our Elder Brother.
And let it here be stated that even Bob’s bitterest foe never declared that the man was a coward by nature, nor that the business of his life was hiding in pig-pens. The incident named was exceptional and therefore noteworthy; let us admit it, at least not worry ourselves into a passion denying it. Let us also stipulate the truth that Bob could never quite overcome the temptation to take an unfair advantage of his opponent in an argument. He laid the fools by the heels and suddenly, ‘gainst all the rules of either Roberts or Queensbury.
To go after the prevaricators, and track them to their holes, is to make much of little, and lift the liars into the realm of equals. This story of the pig-pen I never heard of until Ingersoll’s friends denied it in a book.
Just one instance to show how trifles light as air are to the zealous confirmation strong as holy writ. In April, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-four, Ingersoll lectured at Utica, New York. The following Sunday a local clergyman denounced the lecturer as a sensualist, a gourmand–one totally indifferent to decency and the feelings and rights of others. Then the preacher said, “At breakfast in this city last Thursday, Ingersoll ordered everything on the bill of fare, and then insulted and roundly abused the waiter-girl because she did not bring things that were not in the hotel.”
I happened to be present at that meal. It was an “early-train breakfast,” and the bill of fare for the day had not been printed. The girl came in, and standing at the Colonel’s elbow, in genuine waiter-girl style, mumbled this: “Ham and eggs, mutton-chops, beefsteak, breakfast bacon, codfish balls and buckwheat cakes.”
And Bob solemnly said: “Ham and eggs, mutton-chops, beefsteak, breakfast bacon, codfish balls and buckwheat cakes.”
In amazement the girl gasped, “What?” And then Bob went over it backward: “Buckwheat cakes, codfish balls, breakfast bacon, beefsteak, mutton-chops, and ham and eggs.”
This memory test raised a laugh that sent a shout of mirth all through the room, in which even the girl joined.
“Haven’t you anything else, my dear?” asked the great man in a sort of disappointed way.
“I think we have tripe and pig’s feet,” said the girl.
“Bring a bushel,” said Bob; “and say, tell the cook I’d like a dish of peacock-tongues on the side.” The infinite good nature of it all caused another laugh from everybody.
The girl brought everything Bob ordered except the peacock-tongues, and this order supplied the lecturer and his party of four. The waitress found a dollar-bill under Bob’s plate, and the cook who stood in the kitchen-door and waved a big spoon, and called, “Good-by, Bob!” got another dollar for himself.
Ingersoll carried mirth, and joy, and good-cheer, and radiated a feeling of plenitude wherever he went. He was a royal liver and a royal spender. “If I had but a dollar,” he used to say, “I’d spend it as though it were a dry leaf, and I were the owner of an unbounded forest.” He maintained a pension-list of thirty persons or more for a decade, spent upwards of forty thousand dollars a year, and while the fortune he left for his wife and children was not large, as men count things on ‘Change, yet it is ample for their ease and comfort. His family always called him “Robert” with an almost idolatrous flavor of tender love in the word. But to the world who hated him and the world who loved him, he was just plain “Bob.” To trainmen, hackdrivers, and the great singers, poets and players, he was “Bob.” “Dignity is the mask behind which we hide our ignorance.” When half a world calls a man by a nickname, it is a patent to nobility–small men are never so honored.
“Good-by, Bob,” called the white-aproned cook as he stood in the kitchen-door and waved his big spoon.
“Good-by, Brother, and mind you get those peacock-tongues by the time I get back,” answered Bob.
As to Ingersoll’s mental evolution we can not do better than to let him tell the story himself:
Like the most of us, I was raised among people who knew–who were certain. They did not reason or investigate. They had no doubts. They knew they had the truth. In their creed there was no guess–no perhaps. They had a revelation from God. They knew the beginning of things. They knew that God commenced to create one Monday morning and worked until Saturday night, four thousand and four years before Christ. They knew that in the eternity–back of that morning, He had done nothing. They knew that it took Him six days to make the earth–all plants, all animals, all life, and all the globes that wheel in space. They knew exactly what He did each day and when He rested. They knew the origin, the cause, of evil, of all crime, of all disease and death.
They not only knew the beginning, but they knew the end. They knew that life had one path and one road. They knew that the path, grass-grown and narrow, filled with thorns and nettles, infested with vipers, wet with tears, stained by bleeding feet, led to heaven, and that the road, broad and smooth, bordered with fruits and flowers, filled with laughter and song, and all the happiness of human love, led straight to hell. They knew that God was doing His best to make you take the path and that the Devil used every art to keep you in the road.
They knew that there was a perpetual battle waged between the great Powers of good and evil for the possession of human souls. They knew that many centuries ago God had left His throne and had been born a babe into this poor world–that He had suffered death for the sake of man–for the sake of saving a few. They also knew that the human heart was utterly depraved, so that man by nature was in love with wrong and hated God with all his might.
At the same time they knew that God created man in His own image and was perfectly satisfied with His work. They also knew that He had been thwarted by the Devil–who with wiles and lies had deceived the first of human kind. They knew that in consequence of that, God cursed the man and woman; the man with toil, the woman with slavery and pain, and both with death; and that He cursed the earth itself with briars and thorns, brambles and thistles. All these blessed things they knew. They knew too all that God had done to purify and elevate the race. They knew all about the Flood–knew that God, with the exception of eight, drowned all His children–the old and young–the bowed patriarch and the dimpled babe–the young man and the merry maiden–the loving mother and the laughing child–because His mercy endureth forever. They knew, too, that He drowned the beasts and birds–everything that walked or crawled or flew–because His loving-kindness is over all His works. They knew that God, for the purpose of civilizing His children, had devoured some with earthquakes, destroyed some with storms of fire, killed some with his lightnings, millions with famine, with pestilence, and sacrificed countless thousands upon the fields of war. They knew that it was necessary to believe these things and to love God. They knew that there could be no salvation except by faith, and through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
All who doubted or denied would be lost. To live a moral and honest life–to keep your contracts, to take care of wife and child–to make a happy home–to be a good citizen, a patriot, a just and thoughtful man, was simply a respectable way of going to hell.
God did not reward men for being honest, generous and brave, but for the act of faith–without faith, all the so-called virtues were sins, and the men who practised these virtues, without faith, deserved to suffer eternal pain.
All of these comforting and reasonable things were taught by the ministers in their pulpits–by teachers in Sunday schools and by parents at home. The children were victims. They were assaulted in the cradle–in their mother’s arms. Then, the schoolmaster carried on the war against their natural sense, and all the books they read were filled with the same impossible truths. The poor children were helpless. The atmosphere they breathed was filled with lies–lies that mingled with their blood.
In those days ministers depended on revivals to save souls and reform the world.
In the Winter, navigation having closed, business was mostly suspended. There were no railways, and the only means of communication were wagons and boats. Generally the roads were so bad that the wagons were laid up with the boats. There were no operas, no theaters, no amusements except parties and balls. The parties were regarded as worldly and the balls as wicked. For real and virtuous enjoyment the good people depended on revivals.
The sermons were mostly about the pains and agonies of hell, the joys and ecstasies of heaven, salvation by faith, and the efficacy of the atonement. The little churches, in which the services were held, were generally small, badly ventilated, and exceedingly warm. The emotional sermons, the sad singing, the hysterical amens, the hope of heaven, the fear of hell, caused many to lose the little sense they had. They became substantially insane. In this condition they flocked to the “mourners’ bench”–asked for the prayers of the faithful–had strange feelings, prayed and wept and thought they had been “born again.” Then they would tell their experience–how wicked they had been–how evil had been their thoughts, their desires, and how good they had suddenly become.
They used to tell the story of an old woman who, in telling her experience, said, “Before I was converted, before I gave my heart to God, I used to lie and steal; but now, thanks to the grace and blood of Jesus Christ, I have quit ’em both, in a great measure.”
Of course, all the people were not exactly of one mind. There were some scoffers, and now and then, some man had sense enough to laugh at the threats of priests and make a jest of hell. Some would tell of unbelievers who had lived and died in peace.
When I was a boy I heard them tell of an old farmer in Vermont. He was dying. The minister was at his bedside–asked him if he was a Christian–if he was prepared to die. The old man answered that he had made no preparations, that he was not a Christian–that he had never done anything but work. The preacher said that he could give him no hope unless he had faith in Christ, and that if he had no faith his soul would certainly be lost.
The old man was not frightened. He was perfectly calm. In a weak and broken voice he said: “Mr. Preacher, I suppose you noticed my farm. My wife and I came here more than fifty years ago. We were just married. It was a forest then and the land was covered with stones. I cut down the trees, burned the logs, picked up the stones and laid the walls. My wife spun and wove and worked every moment. We raised and educated our children–denied ourselves. During all those years my wife never had a good dress, or a decent bonnet. I never had a good suit of clothes. We lived on the plainest food. Our hands, our bodies, are deformed by toil. We never had a vacation. We loved each other and the children. That is the only luxury we ever had. Now, I am about to die and you ask me if I am prepared. Mr. Preacher, I have no fear of the future, no terror of any other world. There may be such a place as hell–but if there is, you never can make me believe that it’s any worse than old Vermont.”
So they told of a man who compared himself with his dog. “My dog,” he said, “just barks and plays–has all he wants to eat. He never works–has no trouble about business. In a little while he dies, and that is all. I work with all my strength. I have no time to play. I have trouble every day. In a little while I will die, and then I go to hell. I wish that I had been a dog.”
Well, while the cold weather lasted, while the snows fell, the revival went on, but when the Winter was over, when the steamboat’s whistle was heard, when business started again, most of the converts “back-slid” and fell again into their old ways. But the next Winter they were on hand, ready to be “born again.” They formed a kind of stock company, playing the same parts every Winter and backsliding every Spring.
The ministers who preached at these revivals were in earnest. They were zealous and sincere. They were not philosophers. To them science was the name of a vague dread–a dangerous enemy. They did not know much, but they believed a great deal. To them hell was a burning reality–they could see the smoke and flames. The Devil was no myth. He was an actual person, a rival of God, an enemy of mankind. They thought that the important business of this life was to save your soul–that all should resist and scorn the pleasures of sense, and keep their eyes steadily fixed on the golden gate of the New Jerusalem. They were unbalanced, emotional, hysterical, bigoted, hateful, loving, and insane. They really believed the Bible to be the actual word of God–a book without mistake or contradiction. They called its cruelties, justice–its absurdities, mysteries–its miracles, facts, and the idiotic passages were regarded as profoundly spiritual. They dwelt on the pangs, the regrets, the infinite agonies of the lost, and showed how easily they could be avoided, and how cheaply heaven could be obtained. They told their hearers to believe, to have faith, to give their hearts to God, their sins to Christ, who would bear their burdens and make their souls as white as snow.
All this the ministers really believed. They were absolutely certain. In their minds the Devil had tried in vain to sow the seeds of doubt.
I heard hundreds of these evangelical sermons–heard hundreds of the most fearful and vivid descriptions of the tortures inflicted in hell, of the horrible state of the lost. I supposed that what I heard was true and yet I did not believe it. I said, “It is,” and then I thought, “It can not be.”
From my childhood I had heard read, and read the Bible. Morning and evening the sacred volume was opened and prayers were said. The Bible was my first history, the Jews were the first people, and the events narrated by Moses and the other inspired writers, and those predicted by prophets, were the all-important things. In other books were found the thoughts and dreams of men, but in the Bible were the sacred truths of God.
Yet, in spite of my surroundings, of my education, I had no love for God. He was so saving of mercy, so extravagant in murder, so anxious to kill, so ready to assassinate, that I hated Him with all my heart. At His command, babes were butchered, women violated, and the white hair of trembling age stained with blood. This God visited the people with pestilence–filled the houses and covered the streets with the dying and the dead–saw babes starving on the empty breasts of pallid mothers, heard the sobs, saw the tears, the sunken cheeks, the sightless eyes, the new-made graves, and remained as pitiless as the pestilence.
This God withheld the rain–caused the famine–saw the fierce eyes of hunger–the wasted forms, the white lips, saw mothers eating babes, and remained ferocious as famine.
It seems to me impossible for a civilized man to love or worship or respect the God of the Old Testament. A really civilized man, a really civilized woman, must hold such a God in abhorrence and contempt.
But in the old days the good people justified Jehovah in His treatment of the heathen. The wretches who were murdered were idolators and therefore unfit to live.
According to the Bible, God had never revealed Himself to these people and He knew that without a revelation they could not know that He was the true God. Whose fault was it, then, that they were heathen?
The Christians said that God had the right to destroy them because He created them. What did He create them for? He knew when He made them that they would be food for the sword. He knew that He would have the pleasure of seeing them murdered.
As a last answer, as a final excuse, the worshipers of Jehovah said that all these horrible things took place under the “old dispensation” of unyielding law, and absolute justice, but that now, under the “new dispensation,” all had been changed–the sword of justice had been sheathed and love enthroned. In the Old Testament, they said, God is the judge–but in the New, Christ is the merciful. As a matter of fact, the New Testament is infinitely worse than the Old. In the Old there is no threat of eternal pain. Jehovah had no eternal prison–no everlasting fire. His hatred ended at the grave. His revenge was satisfied when his enemy was dead.
In the New Testament, death is not the end, but the beginning of punishment that has no end. In the New Testament the malice of God is infinite and the hunger of His revenge eternal.
The orthodox God, when clothed in human flesh, told His disciples not to resist evil, to love their enemies, and when smitten on one cheek to turn the other; and yet we are told that this same God, with the same loving lips, uttered these heartless, these fiendish words: “Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels.”
These are the words of “eternal love.”
No human being has imagination enough to conceive of this infinite horror.
All that the human race has suffered in war and want, in pestilence and famine, in fire and flood–all the pangs and pains of every disease and every death–all this is as nothing compared with the agonies to be endured by one lost soul.
This is the consolation of the Christian religion. This is the justice of God–the mercy of Christ.
This frightful dogma, this infinite lie, made me the implacable enemy of Christianity. The truth is that this belief in eternal pain has been the real persecutor. It founded the Inquisition, forged the chains, and furnished the fagots. It has darkened the lives of many millions. It made the cradle as terrible as the coffin. It enslaved nations and shed the blood of countless thousands. It sacrificed the wisest, the bravest and the best. It subverted the idea of justice, drove mercy from the heart, changed men to fiends, and banished reason from the brain.
Like a venomous serpent it crawls and coils and hisses in every orthodox creed.
It makes man an eternal victim and God an eternal fiend. It is the one infinite horror. Every church in which it is taught is a public curse. Every preacher who teaches it is an enemy of mankind. Below this Christian dogma, savagery can not go. It is the infinite of malice, hatred and revenge.
Nothing could add to the horror of hell, except the presence of its creator, God.
While I have life, as long as I draw breath, I shall deny with all my strength, and hate with every drop of my blood, this infinite lie.
Nothing gives me greater joy than to know that this belief in eternal pain is growing weaker every day–that thousands of ministers are ashamed of it. It gives me joy to know that Christians are becoming merciful, so merciful that the fires of hell are burning low–flickering, choked with ashes, destined in a few years to die out forever.
For centuries Christendom was a madhouse. Popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks and heretics were all insane.
Only a few–four or five in a century–were sound in heart and brain. Only a few, in spite of the roar and din, in spite of the savage cries, heard Reason’s voice. Only a few, in the wild rage of ignorance, fear and zeal, preserved the perfect calm that wisdom gives.
We have advanced. In a few years the Christians will become humane and sensible enough to deny the dogma that fills the endless years with pain.
* * * * *
The world is getting better. We are gradually growing honest, and men everywhere, even in the pulpit, are acknowledging they do not know all about things. There was little hope for the race so long as an individual was disgraced if he did not pretend to believe a thing at which his reason revolted. We are simplifying life–simplifying truth. The man who serves his fellowmen best is he who simplifies. The learned man used to be the one who muddled things, who scrambled thought, who took reason away, and instead, thrust upon us faith, with a threat of punishment if we did not accept it, and an offer of reward if we did.
We have now discovered that the so-called learned man had no authority, either for his threat of punishment or his offer of reward. Hypocrisy will not now pass current, and sincerity, frozen stiff with fright, is no longer legal tender for truth. In the frank acknowledgment of ignorance there is much promise. The man who does not know, and is not afraid to say so, is in the line of evolution. But for the head that is packed with falsehood and the heart that is faint with fear, there is no hope. That head must be unloaded of its lumber, and the heart given courage before the march of progress can begin.
Now, let us be frank, and let us be honest, just for a few moments. Let us acknowledge that this revolution in thought that has occurred during the last twenty-five years was brought about mainly by one individual. The world was ripe for this man’s utterance, otherwise he would not have gotten the speaker’s eye. A hundred years before we would have snuffed him out in contumely and disgrace. But men listened to him and paid high for the privilege. And those who hated this man and feared him most, went, too, to listen, so as to answer him and thereby keep the planet from swinging out of its orbit and sweeping on to destruction.
Wherever this man spoke, in towns and cities or country, for weeks the air was heavy with the smoke of rhetoric, and reasons, soggy and solid, and fuzzy logic and muddy proof were dragged like siege-guns to the defense.
They dared the man to come back and fight it out. The clouds were charged with challenges, and the prophecy was made and made again that never in the same place could this man go back and get a second hearing. Yet he did go back year after year, and crowds hung upon his utterances and laughed with him at the scarecrow that had once filled their day-dreams, made the nights hideous, and the future black with terror. Through his influence the tears of pity put out the fires of hell; and he literally laughed the devil out of court. This man, more than any other man of his century, made the clergy free. He raised the standard of intelligence in both pew and pulpit, and the preachers who denounced him most, often were, and are, the most benefited by his work.
This man was Robert G. Ingersoll.
On the urn that encloses his ashes should be these words: Liberator of Men. When he gave his lecture on “The Gods” at Cooper Union, New York City, in Eighteen Hundred Seventy-two, he fired a shot heard ’round the world.
It was the boldest, strongest, and most vivid utterance of the century.
At once it was recognized that the thinking world had to deal with a man of power. Efforts were made in dozens of places to bring statute law to bear upon him, and the State of Delaware held her whipping-post in readiness for his benefit; but blasphemy enactments and laws for the protection of the Unknown were inoperative in his gracious presence. Ingersoll was a hard hitter, but the splendid good nature of the man, his freedom from all personal malice, and his unsullied character, saved him, in those early days, from the violence that would surely have overtaken a smaller person.
The people who now seek to disparage the name and fame of Ingersoll dwell on the things he was not, and give small credit for that which he was.
They demand infinity and perfection, not quite willing yet to acknowledge that perfection has never been incorporated in a single soul.
Let us acknowledge freely that Ingersoll was not a pioneer in science. Let us admit, for argument’s sake, that Rousseau, Voltaire, Paine and Renan voiced every argument that he put forth. Let us grant that he was often the pleader, and that the lawyer habit of painting his own side large, never quite forsook him, and that he was swayed more by his feelings than by his intellect. Let us further admit that in his own individual case there was small evolution, and that for thirty years he threshed the same straw. And these things being said and admitted, nothing more in truth can be said against the man.
But these points are neither to his discredit nor his disgrace. On them you can not construct an indictment–they mark his limitations, that is all.
Ingersoll gave superstition such a jolt that the consensus of intelligence has counted it out. Ingersoll did not destroy the good–all that is vital and excellent and worthy in religion we have yet, and in such measure as it never existed before.
In every so-called “Orthodox” pulpit you can now hear sermons calling upon men to manifest their religion in their work; to show their love for God in their attitude toward men; to gain the kingdom of heaven by having the kingdom of heaven in their own hearts.
Ingersoll pleaded for the criminal, the weak, the defenseless and the depraved. Our treatment toward all these has changed marvelously within a decade. When we ceased to believe that God was going to damn folks, we left off damning them ourselves. We think better now of God and we think better of men and women. Who dares now talk about the “hopelessly lost”?
You can not afford to indict a man who practised every so-called Christian virtue, simply because there was a flaw or two in his “belief”–the world has gotten beyond that. Everybody now admits that Ingersoll was quite as good a man as those who denounced him most. His life was full of kind deeds and generous acts, and his daily walk was quite as blameless as the life of the average priest and preacher.
Those who seek to cry Ingersoll down reveal either density or malice. He did a great and necessary work, and did it so thoroughly and well that it will never have to be done again. His mission was to liberalize and to Christianize every church in Christendom; and no denomination, be its creed never so ossified, stands now where it stood before Ingersoll began his crusade. He shamed men into sanity.
Ingersoll uttered in clarion tones what thousands of men and women believed, but dared not voice. He was the spokesman for many of the best thinkers of his time. He abolished fear, gave courage in place of cringing doubt, and lived what he believed was truth. His was a brave, cheerful and kindly life. He was loved most by those who knew him best, for in his nature there was neither duplicity nor concealment. He had nothing to hide. We know and acknowledge the man’s limitations, yet we realize his worth: his influence in the cause of simplicity and honesty has been priceless.
The dust of conflict has not yet settled; prejudice still is in the air; but time, the great adjuster, will give Ingersoll his due. The history of America’s thought evolution can never be written and the name of Ingersoll left out. In his own splendid personality he had no rivals, no competitors. He stands alone; and no name in liberal thought can ever eclipse his. He prepared the way for the thinkers and the doers who shall come after, and in insight surpass him, reaching spiritual heights which he, perhaps, could never attain.
This earth is a better place, and life and liberty are safer, because Robert G. Ingersoll lived.
The last words of Ingersoll were, by a strange coincidence, the dying words of his brother Ebon: “I am better!”–words of hope, words of assurance to the woman he loved.
Sane to the last! And let us, too, hope that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.