Christianity Today’s Condescending Review of Ingersoll
Anyone who has written a book critical of Christianity sees exactly what Timothy Larsen is doing in reviewing Susan Jacoby’s new book, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. It’s what most Christians do when reviewing such a book. They claim the infidel is ignorant or a second class intellectual. As many of you know, Julian Haydon has been sending me essays by Ingersoll over the last few months in order to keep his memory alive. Julian responds to Larsen as follows:
Dear Professor Larsen:
Regarding your half-way nice review of Susan Jacoby’s book on Ingersoll in Christianity Today.
I would never undertake the futile task of disputing your view of Ingersoll’s views.
But, having just read 10 of the 12 volumes of his Complete Works, I was really taken aback to learn that he had a “second rate mind”.
Would that I had such.
Thomas Edison, Eugene V. Debs, Mark Twain, Luther Burbank, Henry Ward Beecher and many, many other luminaries who knew him certainly didn’t think that. George Bernard Shaw, who did not know him, told Joseph Lewis: “Ingersoll exercised an influence on me probably greater than any other man.”
Let me cite some passages from I. Newton Baker, who was Ingersoll’s private secretary for fourteen years. I grant his testimony has to be taken with full awareness of his obvious love for the man. By all means discount it reasonably for that; but unless he was an outrageous liar some of this surely must be credited.
1) Did he have a second rate mind?
When, or where, or how this full man acquired the treasures of knowledge at his command has been the puzzle of his friends. As I knew him and observed him he did not seem to be a great reader, or student of books, and yet he was acquainted with most worth-while books. He was not a classical scholar, so-called, yet he knew the classics. He was not a historian, yet he knew history. He was not a scientist or philosopher, according to the schools, and held no college diploma, yet he knew much of nearly all the sciences and philosophies.
Nor was he a theologian, yet he knew theologies, and could and did successfully contend with the greatest in that field. He claimed that they never answered his arguments. He had such a power of ready assimilation, that everything he saw or read or heard was instantly appropriated and became his own. He seemed to forget nothing that he ever knew. He was always acquiring from countless sources of knowledge. He read with the greatest eagerness and rapidity. I have known him to glance over the pages of even metaphysical treatises, and without apparent hesitation possess himself of their contents.
2) Was he a superficial student and thinker?
While, he did not in his later years seem to be a great reader of books, yet in early life he had laid the foundations well. As a boy and in his young manhood he was an inquirer and observer. Even as a child he was a lover of books, and later on it became with him a fascination and passion. He read everything of value he could lay his hands on, — knew every book in his father’s library. He read thoughtfully, voraciously, constantly. Night after night, and all the night through, he has told me, he has read until mentally and physically exhausted. Nor did he wish merely to go through a book. He wanted to understand it. He read with a purpose. He was eager to search, to find, to know. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable. . . . He was hungry for facts, for truths, for reasons. He absorbed and assimilated, combined, separated and classified, criticized and compared until he could reach a decision. He never left a subject until he thought he understood it.
His memory, as we have noted it in his career as a lawyer, was truly a marvelous gift. Whatever once left its impress on the tablets of his sensitive brain seemed fixed there for all the future, to be retained until recalled. Shakespeare and Burns were so familiar to him that he had them by heart, as we say, and he could and did quote whole scenes and acts almost without an error, as one would read it from the printed page. I have heard him say if most of the plays of the one and poems of the other should be lost of record, he could substantially restore them. And it was the same with countless selections he had acquired from the world’s greatest thinkers and writers.
3) “The Great Agnostic knew he was out of his depth in a learned exchange of ideas and therefore steadfastly refused to debate anyone.”
I guess that depends on what you mean by debate. Person to Person on a stage, I have no information. But, in print, where histrionics has no play and every statement is subject to careful analysis by thousands, possibly including some first rate minds, your claim is simply an error.
He took on: Jeremiah H. Black, former Chief Justice of the United States, in a famous many-pages debate. Ingersoll says of that “debate”:
“Several months ago, The North American Review asked me to write an article, saying that it would be published if some one would furnish a reply. I wrote the article that appeared in the August number. . . Not until the article was written did I know who was expected to answer.”
He also took on William Ewart Gladstone, double first at Oxford, four-time Prime Minister of England; Cardinal Manning; and dozens of Protestant Doctors of Divinity — all to seen in his compete works.
One thing you surely will not doubt: he spoke with the mind “God” gave him — what else could he, you or any us of ever do? It is His doing.
Julian W. Haydon