Robert Ingersoll stepped to the podium and stared out at a gathering crowd of men in three-piece suits and bowler hats. The year was 1877, a time when women stayed home and churchgoing was nearly a civic duty. Yet the people always came to hear this fiery agnostic orator rant about white-bread dogmas.
“After sleep fell upon [Adam], the Supreme Being took a rib, or as the French would call it, a cutlet…and from that he made a woman,” Ingersoll said in a lecture he called “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.” “Well, after he got the woman done, she was brought to the man; not to see how she liked him, but to see how he liked her.”
It was just like Ingersoll to rip the face off convention and reveal raw inequity. He championed rights for women and African-Americans; he railed against religion’s hijacking of politics in a secular democracy. But despite his success, and despite high praise from luminaries such as Thomas Edison and Oscar Wilde, Ingersoll fell into virtual obscurity after his death in 1899.
Washington Post music critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Page hopes to resurrect interest in the intellectual rebel with his latest book, What’s God Got to Do With It? Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk & the Separation of Church & State.
Page distilled 12 volumes of Ingersoll’s lectures and speeches into 26 bite-size essays on topics such as love, Lent, superstition, suicide, and keeping God out of government.
“Ingersoll is warm and witty and commonsensical without being a fanatic,” the 50-year-old Baltimore resident says. “He saw America as the first great secular state. With things like the Terri Schiavo mess and televangelists routing out gay attributes in cartoon characters, it seems he is a voice that needs to be heard right now.”
The short paperback, which will hit shelves in early August, is not Page’s first foray into the works of great forgotten figures. He’s edited a number of books by the American novelist Dawn Powell—and also written her biography—and, in 2001, he assembled The Unknown Sigrid Undset, a collection of the early writings of the Nobel Prize– winning Norwegian Catholic novelist.
A remark made by a bartender in Powell’s novel Dance Night set off Page’s quest for Ingersoll. The bartender quoted Ingersoll and called him the greatest man alive, prompting Page to consider the lay philosopher.
“I thought, Why hasn’t this guy been talked about much? He was enormously successful, gave lectures all over the country, influenced Mencken and Mark Twain. It struck me as very odd that he disappeared from our sensibilities,” Page says.
Page then went to Strand Book Store in New York, paid $50 for a 12-volume set of Ingersoll’s work, and got reading. He soon had an idea why Ingersoll had vanished from popular discourse: He was exasperatingly long-winded and almost comically redundant.
But there were nuggets of precious reason, Page found, as relevant and resonant today as then. In What’s God Got to Do With It?, Page offers these as an alternative discourse in a climate of faith-based initiatives and White House prayer breakfasts.
“What I was trying to do in the book is not change anyone’s mind about an afterlife or spiritual purpose,” Page says, “but just make it clear that the fanaticism around us—that strikes me as dangerous—was also being addressed in the 19th century.”