LECTURES AND ESSAYS (Vols. IX-XII) by Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

WHAT do I think of the lynchings in Georgia? I suppose these outrages—these frightful crimes—make the same impression on my mind that they do on the minds of all civilized people. I know of no words strong enough, bitter enough, to express my indignation and horror. Men who belong to the “superior” race take a negro—a criminal, a supposed murderer, one alleged to have assaulted a white woman—chain him to a tree, saturate his clothing with kerosene, pile fagots about his feet. This is the preparation for the festival. The people flock in from the neighborhood—come in special trains from the towns. They are going to enjoy themselves.

“Laughing and cursing they gather about the victim. A man steps from the crowd—a man who hates crime and loves virtue. He draws his knife, and in a spirit of merry sport cuts off one of the victim’s ears. This he keeps for a trophy—a souvenir. Another gentlemen fond of a jest cuts off the other ear. Another cuts off the nose of the chained and helpless wretch. The victim suffered in silence. He uttered no groan, no word—the one man of the two thousand who had courage.

“Other white heroes cut and slashed his flesh. The crowd cheered. The people were intoxicated with joy. Then the fagots were lighted and the bleeding and mutilated man was clothed in flame.

“The people were wild with hideous delight. With greedy eyes they watched him burn; with hungry ears they listened for his shrieks—for the music of his moans and cries. He did not shriek. The festival was not quite perfect.

“But they had their revenge. They trampled on the charred and burning corpse. They divided among themselves the broken bones. They wanted mementos—keepsakes that they could give to their loving wives and gentle babes.

“These horrors were perpetrated in the name of justice. The savages who did these things belong to the superior race. They are citizens of the great Republic. And yet, it does not seem possible that such fiends are human beings. They are a disgrace to our country, our century and the human race.

“Ex-Governor Atkinson protested against this savagery. He was threatened with death. The good people were helpless. While these lynchers murder the blacks they will destroy their own country. No civilized man wishes to live where the mob is supreme. He does not wish to be governed by murderers.

“Let me say that what I have said is flattery compared with what I feel. When I think of the other lynching—of the poor man mutilated and hanged without the slightest evidence, of the negro who said that these murders would be avenged, and who was brutally murdered for the utterance of a natural feeling—I am utterly at a loss for words.

“Are the white people insane? Has mercy fled to beasts? Has the United States no power to protect a citizen? A nation that cannot or will not protect its citizens in time of peace has no right to ask its citizens to protect it in time of War….”

From the third and final collection of the Lectures and Essays (Vols. IX-XII) of Robert “Bob” Green Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899), nicknamed “The Great Agnostic” — one of outstanding orators, humanists, agnostics and freethinkers of his time — whose radical views on white supremacy, religion, superstition, slavery, woman’s suffrage, Shakespeare, Voltaire and other issues of the day continues to exert a powerful influence across the generations and continents.

“… It is beyond question that in its severer forms theology has an extremely noxious influence—an influence from which, so great is the vitality of error, it is a hard task for humanity to deliver itself. Ingersoll’s work has a positive aspect of undeniable value. In his belief that human activity is limited to the present life he was a Secularist. In his rejection of the problematical he was an Agnostic. Beyond the known he declined to go. One life at a time was enough for him. If there should prove to be a future state, no man, he held, would be punished for being unable to believe in it. The ideas of God and immortality are speculative conceptions, on which negative opinions are not merely defensible, but legitimate. Ingersoll believed in being true to himself, and in recognising the eternal limitations of human thought. His vehement criticism of the Bible was prompted by the conviction that the Bible has been a serious stumbling-block to the progress of civilisation; and if he was at times too uncompromising, it must be said that the extravagances of the popular theology furnished him with ample excuse. His constructive work consisted in emphasising the claims of the secular life, with its basis of certain knowledge, as against the claims of the religious life, with its basis of dubiety. The schoolhouse was his cathedral, and the universe his Bible. He believed that happiness is the only good, reason man’s only light, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest. He believed in moral causation, in liberty, labour, intelligence, education, good health and good fellowship all round. Such a gospel may omit some of the finest elements of a well-rounded life, but a man who believes in this gospel as fervently as Ingersoll did cannot go far wrong in forcibly proclaiming it. Ingersoll was reproached with hammering away too persistently at the falsities and barbarisms of the Old Testament. Here he found a splendid opportunity, and he made relentless use of it. The believer naturally objects to the salt being so unmercifully rubbed into the sore place, but it is questionable whether a milder treatment would have served the purpose Ingersoll desired to attain. Nor would he have taken so decided a line if the falsities and barbarities in question had not been alleged to form an essential part of a divine revelation. Had the Bible always been recognised as what it is—a collection of purely human writings—Ingersoll would have let it alone. Extravagant claims provoke bitter rejections. Excessive emphasis mars a good deal of his work ; but while “overdoing it” is always inartistic, it is frequently efficacious. The proof of Ingersoll’s success is the impression he made on the orthodox world. Mr. Smith assures us that he revolutionised theology in America ; and it is certain that, as a result of these and similar attacks, doctrines which were once held firmly are now held doubtingly, or altogether abandoned. Within my own recollection leaders of Christian thought have defended such atrocities as the massacres of the Canaanites simply and solely because a book believed to be divinely inspired attributed them to the direct command of God. Against this warping of the moral sense by doubtful authority no protest could be too strong. And when we remember that this idea of inspiration assumed to guarantee wrong was never a certainty, but always, in reality, gravely doubtful, we perceive that a rough-and-ready scepticism may get nearer the truth than learned piety …”