Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
Heretics and Heresies by Robert Green Ingersoll
Well, you can’t go wrong with a title like that. It sounds like the best/weirdest Dungeons & Dragons spin-off ever.
Okay, so today’s book never gets that wild. But it’s interesting nonetheless, and its author is an especially interesting guy. Robert Green Ingersoll was an American writer and orator who was most prominent in the late 19th century, a period sometimes called “the Golden Age of Free Thought.” He was one of the most famous orators in the country at that time, and he also held the somewhat unusual nickname of “the Great Agnostic.”
Agnosticism, of course, means that you aren’t sure if God and the divine exist, or if you think it’s not possible to know such a thing. Ingersoll’s agnosticism originated in his childhood, specifically through witnessing the abuse his father endured at the hands of the church. His father was actually a Congregationalist preacher, but his radical political views — he was pro-abolition, for example — kept getting him in trouble and meant that the family had to keep moving around the country. Apparently it got to the point where he was put on trial and banned from preaching in Ohio. No wonder Robert ended up becoming so disillusioned.
As an adult, Ingersoll became a lawyer, fought for the Union in the Civil War, was made Attorney General of Illinois, hung out with Walt Whitman and much more. He gave public speeches on a variety of subjects, and he could commit said speeches to memory even though some of them were three hours long. People would pay $1, a lot of money at that time, just to hear him speak.
Heretics and Heresies, which is fairly short, seems to have been written in response to a heresy trial being conducted in Illinois at the time. I found 1874 as a possible date for this, but I can’t confirm that. Right off the bat, you realize that this guy does not hold back about anything. Like, this is what he opens up with:
WHOEVER has an opinion of his own, and honestly expresses it, will be guilty of heresy. Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrine of the weak. This word was born of the hatred, arrogance and cruelty of those who love their enemies, and who, when smitten on one cheek, turn the other. This word was born of intellectual slavery in the feudal ages of thought. It was an epithet used in the place of argument. From the commencement of the Christian era, every art has been exhausted and every conceivable punishment inflicted to force all people to hold the same religious opinions. This effort was born of the idea that a certain belief was necessary to the salvation of the soul. Christ taught, and the Church still teaches, that unbelief is the blackest of crimes. God is supposed to hate with an infinite and implacable hatred, every heretic upon the earth, and the heretics who have died are supposed at this moment to be suffering the agonies of the damned. The Church persecutes the living and her God burns the dead.
And that’s just the first paragraph. He hasn’t even gotten started yet.
Ingersoll’s problem, it should be noted, is not with the idea of religion itself. He doesn’t really care if you consider yourself a Christian or not: in fact, he makes a point of declaring that among Christians are “millions and millions of men and women true to the loftiest and most generous promptings of the human heart,” people whose goodness and fortitude are influenced by their faith. The real problem, he says, is the endemic corruption of organized religion. For as long as there’s been a Christian church, its authorities have been abusing and twisting the words of the Bible in order to suppress dissenting thought and consolidate power. No sect of Christianity is innocent here: they’ve all got blood on their hands.
The one guy Ingersoll really hates, however, is John Calvin. It’s the teachings of Calvin, and by extension the Presbyterian Church, that get the majority of Ingersoll’s rage. He rails against the doctrines of eternal damnation and predestination and the “total depravity” of the human soul. He makes the case that Psalm 109 is actually kinda screwed up when you think about what it’s saying, and that the Bible has God commanding His people to do some pretty despicable things in His name. And on and on and on. He’s airing out his grievances like there’s no tomorrow.
So what is Ingersoll’s point here? It’s that if heresy stands in opposition to the Church and its autocratic nature, then heresy must not be all that bad:
The heretics have not thought and suffered and died in vain. Every heretic has been, and is, a ray of light. Not in vain did Voltaire, that great man, point from the foot of the Alps the finger of scorn at every hypocrite in Europe. Not in vain were the splendid utterances of the infidels, while beyond all price are the discoveries of science.
The Church has impeded, but it has not and it cannot stop the onward march of the human race. Heresy cannot be burned, nor imprisoned, nor starved. It laughs at presbyteries and synods, at ecumenical councils and the impotent thunders of Sinai. Heresy is the eternal dawn, the morning star, the glittering herald of the day. Heresy is the last and best thought. It is the perpetual New World, the unknown sea, toward which the brave all sail. It is the eternal horizon of progress.
Heresy extends the hospitalities of the brain to a new thought.
Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin.
Hoo boy. Needless to say, this is…a lot. You would be the subject of massive controversy if you said this shit today, let alone back in the 1870s. While I get what Ingersoll is saying, I do think he comes off as way too harsh and aggressive. I can definitely see why so many people hated his guts when I read this.
And yet, I can also see why he was so popular. The way he writes/speaks may be antiquated to modern ears, but his incredible passion isn’t. It pulls you in and gets you invested in what this guy is saying. If just reading this speech was an experience, I can only imagine what actually hearing him speak must have been like. It has all the energy and drama of a classic Great Awakening hellfire-and-damnation sermon, just with the polar opposite intention.
If you don’t want to read this on account of being offended by the material, I don’t blame you one bit. But if you do want to hear what else Ingersoll has to say, I would highly recommend reading this piece in its entirety. With its lively and evocative writing style, the words come alive on the page. It’s like a miniature trip back to late 19th-century America, complete with all the firebrand energy that characterized the most radical figures of that time.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!