October 1991

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"Bob" Ingersoll

A Sketch of the Life of
America's Most Noted Agnostic


Rufus R. Wilson

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The Elmira Telegram, Sunday, March 16, 1890

His Family and Home Life and Views Upon Religion.
— A Remarkable Man.

Colonel Ingersoll is devoted to his family. He married young, and has been one of the most devoted of husbands and considerate and affectionate of fathers. The Ingersoll household—Eva, the elder of the colonel's two daughters, though married to W. H. Brown, a Wall street banker, still resides with her parents—is a model for any Christian family in the land. The home life of the Ingersolls is truly delightful. One of her friends says that Mrs. Ingersoll "looks like a much loved woman and radiates happiness and contentment." The colonel's daughters, though they have never attended religious services, have never heard a sermon preached and never attended school, have, under their parents' wise and thoughful direction, grown into noble and accomplished specimens of womanhood. When he goes to his home at night, Colonel Ingersoll flings business and business cares to the wind and thinks no more of them until morning. An amusing incident is told of him in illustration of this characteristic. Not long ago a railroad president had an appointment to meet the great lawyer in the evening at a leading New York hotel. The colonel had taken the papers in a pending suit to his house in the afternoon, promising to examine them before dinner and report upon them at his meeting with his client in the evening. The railroad president was at the hotel at the appointed hour, and waited for some time for the colonel, but the latter did not come. At last he called a cab and anxiously drove to the Ingersoll residence. The servant who answered his ring showed him at once to the library, where he found the jovial colonel and his family. Was the colonel all right? Yes, Had he looked over those papers yet. No, he hadn't. To tell the truth, he had not as yet had time, for he had been playing cards with his wife and daughters all the evening. The colonel's friends, when they heard of the incident and the railroad magnate's discomfiture, laughed and said, "it was just like Ingersoll." The Ingersolls usually spend their summers at Marblehead, Mass. Their New York home is on lower Fifth avenue, and is the favorite resort of many of the brightest and choicest spirits in the metropolis. Colonel Ingersoll is not given to talking shop at his own hearthstone, one might visit him at his home many times and never hear the subject of religion mentioned. He leaves its discussion for other times and places.

For this reason, it is as a brilliant and hopeless agnostic that Colonel Ingersoll is best known to the great majority of people. His views upon religion have not, I think changed materially since he first began to give them public utterance a quarter of a century ago, but he has of late grown more moderate and dispassionate in the statement of them. What is his creed? Such as he has best finds expression, I think, in the tender and touching letter which he wrote not so very long ago to a San Francisco lady, who had lost by death a young and only son. "I have heard," he wrote, "the sad story of your almost infinite sorrow, I am not foolish enough to suppose that I can say or do anything to lessen your great grief, your anguish for his loss; but may be I can say something to drive from your poor heart the fiend of fear—fear for him. If there is a God let us believe that he is good; and if he is good, the good have nothing to fear. I have been told that your son was kind and generous; that he was filled with charity and sympathy. Now, we know in this world like begets like, kindness produces kindness, and all good bears the fruit of joy. Belief is nothing, deeds are everything; and if your son was kind, he will naturally find kindness wherever he may be. No human being knows anything of what is beyond the grave. If nothing is known then we can hope only for the good. If there be a God, your boy is no more in his power now than he was before his death—no more than you are at this moment. I beg of you to throw away all fear. Take counsel of your own heart. If God exists your heart is the best revelation of him and your heart could never send your boy to endless pain. After all, no one knows. The ministers know nothing. All the churches in the world know no more on this subject than the ants upon the anthills. Creeds are good for nothing except to break the hearts of the loving. Let us have courage. Under the seven-hued arch of hope let the dead sleep. I do not pretend to know, but I do know that others do not know. I wish I could say something that would put a star in your night of grief—a little flower in your lonely path—and if an unbeliever has such a wish, surely an infinite good being has never made a soul to be the food of pain through countless years."

Of a certainty, the man who could write such words as these has a heart that beats warm and true. Granted that Robert Ingersoll's influence on his generation has been on the whole harmful, the fact remains that he has done a Titan's work in broadening narrow creeds, softening cruel dogmas and dulling the edge of the bigot's sword.

For this, and for his manhood, his morality, his benevolence, his broad and unfailing humanity, let none refuse to do him honor.

Rufus R. Wilson
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
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