The Great Agnostic – Robert G. Ingersoll

In the mid-1870s, Lew Wallace was drafting a short story about the three wise men and their journey guided by the Star of Bethlehem. The story was intended for publication in Harper’s—one of the most important magazines of the 19th century. Serialized stories that carried from one issue to the next were a much used marketing ploy at that time. Lew intended to stretch his story over several issues with companion illustrations. When he finished the story, he set it aside on his desk.

In September of 1876, Wallace boarded a train in Crawfordsville headed for a reunion of Union soldiers in Indianapolis. Robert G. Ingersoll, a man known to Wallace, had previously boarded the train in Chicago. Ingersoll was a man with almost as many careers as Lew Wallace. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Ingersoll became an attorney, but during his life he also served in the Civil War, was the Illinois Attorney General, was active in the Republican Party, was an abolitionist, supported women’s suffrage, was a noted orator, and a famed agnostic. By 1890, he was widely known the “most noted of American infidels” and the “daring blasphemer.”

During the Civil War, Ingersoll served with the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment. He fought and was captured at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Fourteen years later on the train heading to the war reunion, Ingersoll recognized Wallace and invited him to share the ride. During the trip, the men began a conversation on the divinity of Christ and other religious issues. In his efforts to sway Wallace with his agnostic views, Ingersoll’s arguments instead had an opposite effect which proved to be life changing for Wallace.

By 1876, Ingersoll was well known around the country for his orations—not just about religion, but on topics as diverse as Shakespeare and American history. At the veterans’ reunion in Indianapolis, Ingersoll was introduced by Ohio Governor (and Civil War Brevet Brigadier General) Edward A. Noyes and gave a speech on Abraham Lincoln. This speech turned out to be one of the most important of Ingersoll’s life. His speech was called the “Visions of War” and it elevated his national stature. Wallace, almost certainly would have been in attendance for this speech.

Throughout his speech, Ingersoll used the memory of Lincoln to hit home his partisan (Republican) political message. One such example: “Every man that cursed Abraham Lincoln because he issued the Proclamation of Emancipation—the grandest paper since the Declaration of Independence—every one of them was a Democrat.”  Ingersoll’s rhetorical flourish used Lincoln’s political prescience to elevate the Republican Party, which Ingersoll saw as the party of freedom and progress.

In the middle of his speech, Ingersoll’s tone shifted from partisan (and somewhat rancorous) to poetic and solemn as he reflected on the horrors of war, its fallen soldiers, and the society left behind by those who fought. “These heroes are dead,” he began: They died for liberty — they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Palace of Rest. The Earth may run red with other wars — they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death! I have one sentiment for all soldiers living and dead: cheers for the living; tears for the dead.

As did most of the men in the audience, he intimately understood the sacrifices his generation made in the service of saving the Union, and he wanted every person hearing his words that day to recognize those sacrifices. The later section of his ‘Vision of War’ speech became famous and was later reprinted as a pamphlet with illustrations that reiterated many of its core themes. It was one of the orations that made Ingersoll a nationally-renowned public speaker.

In 1880, by then a more accomplished orator, Ingersoll began to tackle Lincoln as a subject more directly, publishing a laudatory sketch of the president that again was published in pamphlets. This 1880 version focused less on biographical details and more on character impressions of the president. Right from the outset, Ingersoll was keenly aware of how Lincoln’s memory was shaped by the public, often to the negation of the real person. As he wrote, “Hundreds of people are now engaged in smoothing out the lines of Lincoln’s face—forcing all features to the common mold—so that he may be known, not as he really was, but, according to their poor standard, as he should have been.”

In 1884, Ingersoll was called to speak on behalf of James G. Blaine’s nomination for the presidency at the Republican National convention in Chicago. (Blaine won the nomination this time, but lost the election to Grover Cleveland.) On his trip home from the convention, Ingersoll passed through Crawfordsville. It’s not known whether Ingersoll and Wallace crossed paths on this particular trip but while in Crawfordsville, Ingersoll was encouraged to give an oration. Mrs. Henry Lane, Lew Wallace’s sister-in-law, graciously offered the front porch of her home, Lane Place, for the event. Mrs. Lane was a committed Republican who did all she could to support the party. However, she was also a devout Methodist and sharing her lawn with the agnostic Ingersoll must have been a trial for her. The crowd was enormous and according to news accounts of the day, Mrs. Lane listened attentively. Mary Hannah Krout attended the oration and acknowledged Mrs. Lane’s grace—respecting the eloquence of one of the Republican Party’s brightest lights, but significantly annoyed at his religious views.

Robert Ingersoll delivered his speech on Lincoln during a nationwide tour in 1893, with one of the stops again being Indianapolis, this time at the illustrious English Opera House on Monument Circle. We do not know if Wallace attended the program in the English Opera House, but by then thanks to the initial meeting on the train in 1876, that led Wallace to write his masterwork Ben-Hur, Wallace was easily as famous as the Great Agnostic.


Robert G. Ingersoll

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