Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 30 June, 1997

The Silver-Tongued Infidel

By Jack Nichols


I first heard Robert Ingersoll's name on the lips of my grandfather. He explained how a singular poem about his own favorite poet, Robert Burns, hung, in Scotland, on the wall in Burns' birthplace, and that this poem had been written by an American.

Yes, the poem had been penned by the legendary orator, Robert G. Ingersoll. Ingersoll had been on target about good ol' Bobby Burns. Burns had opened doors in his young mind for him, just as I was later to find, Ingersoll would open them for me. He said the first time he'd ever heard of Burns was when he went to the cobbler to have his shoes repaired. The old Scottish cobbler put down the book he was reading and Ingersoll picked it up, while the cobbler worked, to pass the time. It was Burns' poems. Ingersoll recalled:

"The first man that let up the curtain in my mind, that ever opened a blind, that ever allowed a little sunshine to struggle in, that man was Robert Burns."

The first man who, for me, turned supernatural dross into meaningful dreams, making healthy skepticism not only noble but necessary, was Robert G. Ingersoll. When, as a teen, I mentioned his name to the clergy, I began to notice they'd try to discredit him as a lightweight. This annoyed me. Between the two, the clergy and Ingersoll, it didn't take me long to figure which had the more explaining to do.

Clarence Darrow, no mean oratorical talent himself, had written that the Burns-loving-Ingersoll had undoubtedly been the nation's greatest elocutionist. "All the young lawyers went to hear him speak," he said of Ingersoll. "But no one could speak as he did," reported Darrow in his autobiography.

Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), known as "The Silver Tongued Infidel" had, like my grandfather, deliberately absorbed Scotland's muse. To the orator, a large-bodied, passionate stage presence, Burns' poems were nothing less than his humanist hymnbook. Shakespeare, he claimed proudly, had always been his bible. I began quickly to see, as a budding writer myself, that I could learn, from the great orator, how to position words for effect. I would--in part--incarnate a man whose spirit from another time and place moved within me.

The connections between Robert Ingersoll and Walt Whitman, the great Poet of Democracy, and the "poet of comrades and of love," surfaced along the way in my curious student's investigations. I was later to give Whitman the highest perch in my pantheon. But Ingersoll had beat me to it. The Silver-Tongued Infidel had actually delivered Whitman's funeral oration. And, among other things, the happily-married heterosexual spellbinder had said of Whitman:

"Today we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss, one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay....And I today thank him not only for you but for myself for all the brave words he has uttered...Millions will walk down into 'the dark valley of the shadow' holding Walt Whitman by the hand...I loved him living, and I love him still."

"I loved him living, and I love him still." With these words Ingersoll, then at the peak of his worldwide fame, was able a half-hundred years later to completely arrest my 20th century man's attention. While such a tribute could be provocative by today's standards, especially if the poet were suspected to be homosexual, passionate male camaraderie was, we now know, not uncommon in 19th Century America. And Ingersoll, impeccably heterosexual, had shown his appreciation for Whitman by raising $800 for the aging, ailing poet, reciting a tribute to him-- hours in length-- while Whitman sat passively on the stage, speaking only a few words to the audience.

I needed to know as much as possible about this passionate orator who was thought, though he delivered unmatched broadsides against organized religion, to be kindly, a better "Christian" than the Christians who hated him for his provocations.

Yesteryear, in a second-hand bookstore, I discovered all twelve volumes of Ingersoll's wit and wisdom, published in 1900. Today his in-print works are scattered into separate lecture-collections.* Between age 20 and 22 I nearly buried myself in those twelve volumes without cease, reading them--to the accompaniment of my own uproarious laughter, to my first patient love, Tom, the son of an Assembly of God preacher. Tom did not laugh uproariously. He was horrified, and feared God's lightening strikes as I cheerfully, like an actor, reincarnated Ingersoll's exquisitely worded tirades.

Ingersoll's critiques of organized religion, I was later to write in The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists, "comprise the funniest, most compelling and damaging tirades against religious fanaticism ever composed.

In debates Ingersoll was pitted against Roman Catholic Cardinal Edward Manning; William E. Blackstone, the Prime Minister of Great Britain; and a distinguished American divine, Henry M. Field, D.D. In my opinion, it is the Ingersoll-Field debate, Faith or Agnosticism? that is among Ingersoll's most compelling exercises in passion and in wit.

The orator's razor-slicing of the Old Testament is called Some Mistakes of Moses, a book and also a shorter lecture. His humor is sly, akin to Twain's when he tells the story of a man at Heaven's gate trying to get past the recording-angel, or whoever does greetings up there.

"Do you believe the rib story?" asks the angel.

In the tone of a man who hopes to enter, the man replies, "You mean the Adam and Eve business? Why bless your soul, of course I do. My only regret is that there are no harder stories in the Bible so that I could show my wealth of faith."

Ingersoll is still effective when read aloud today because of his good cheer and kindness. These qualities he makes infectious, no matter how devastating is his critique of religion. Gay actors with oratorical skills might re-create Ingersoll. It mustn't remain true, as Darrow had said, that no one can speak as he once did. Someone should, at least, try. In fact, Ingersoll needs to be hauled off the shelf, dusted, enjoyed to the max, and resurrected on stages and in videos. I think he'd have appreciated the weird humor behind using a term like "resurrection" to describe bringing him back. He lives on and returns, though, because Ingersoll is not just dust, but a spirit.

He was known widely in his day as a fearsome agnostic and a naturalist, though happily married with children. This fact didn't keep him from setting aside platonic time in company with poetry-minded male friends. My grandfather told how Ingersoll and the Scottish industrialist-philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, had sat through long joyous nights together, reciting Burns aloud. To the mind of a young teen, it sounded like something fun, for starters at least, to do with a bright man, provided, of course, that he did the reciting.

Another of Ingersoll's male friends, among the last century's best-known authors, passionately declared his love for Ingersoll. When the orator died, Mark Twain announced that he'd wept only one other time at a human being's passing, that of his own daughter's.

Ingersoll wasn't gay. Though a large presence with a booming voice, he was, however, a sensitive man, a man who loved other men openly and passionately and without stint. His wife and daughters were his pride and joy. While he favored womens' rights, he was somewhat shy of Whitman's fuller understandings, putting, perhaps, an unreasonable faith in the institution of marriage and in the nuclear family, a result, no doubt, of his happy personal experiences. Even so he was able to see that in centuries past women have been treated, in his words as " the slaves of slaves."

He chided stingy husbands: "Do you know that I have known men who would trust their wives with their hearts and their honor but not with their pocketbook; not with a dollar. When I see a man of this kind, I always think he knows which of these articles is most valuable. Think of making your wife a beggar! Think of her having to ask you every day for a dollar or for two dollars and fifty cents! 'What did you do with that dollar I gave you last week?' Think of having a wife that is afraid of you! What kind of children do you expect to have with a beggar and a coward for their mother? Oh, I tell you if you have but a dollar in the world, and you have got to spend it, spend it like a king."

Its fun today to reflect that a feared infidel of the last century, a spokesperson for non-believers, delivered such right-on advice about "family values," doesn't it? It was problematic for fundamentalist ministers in Ingersoll's day that the media knew the cheerful but effective iconoclast to be a happy fireside family man.

Ingersoll is a must-study for strategists. He knew better than to be too serious, for example, though, in fact, he was dead serious. "I don't believe in calling a man a liar simply because he's a bishop," he said, "It's bad enough to call a man a bishop."

He was wise enough to embrace, digest, and re-distribute the great wisdom of the ages, refuting his critics' contentions that he only tore down (organized religion) and didn't build. He said:

"I belong to that great church that holds the world within its starlit isles; that claims the great and good of every race and clime; that finds with joy the grain of gold in every creed, and floods with light and love the germs of good in every soul...Neither in the interest of truth, nor for the benefit of man is it necessary to assert what we do not know. No cause is great enough to demand a sacrifice of candor...I combat those only who, knowing nothing of the future, prophecy an eternity of pain--those only who sows the seeds of fear in the hearts of men--those only who poison all the springs of life, and seat a skeleton at every feast."

Ingersoll was both poetic and colloquial in his spoken prose. But he occasionally wrote simple poems to illustrate his approaches to life. Such is the magnificent agnostic's Declaration of the Free currently featured in GayToday's Viewpoints.


* Extensive excepts from Ingersoll's works, including Some Mistakes of Moses, and The Best of Robert Ingersoll, as well as his biography, Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life, by Frank Smith, are available through Prometheus Books (1-800-421-0351)


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