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The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  372 ratings  ·  77 reviews
During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America’s enduring culture wars,Robert Green Ingersoll was known as “the Great Agnostic.” The nation’s most famous orator,he raised his voice on behalf of Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigor unmatched since America’s revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899,even his religio ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published January 8th 2013 by Yale University Press (first published December 3rd 2012)
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Breaking away slightly from the usual serious tone of my non-fiction reviews and the reviews of most books on atheism...

Ahem. *puts on serious face*

Robert Ingersoll is relatively new to me, as I assume he is with many atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/secularists/whatever-you-want-to-call-yourselves. But as Jacoby has demonstrated in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and now this book, his obscurity is totally undeserved. This man is truly one of the Greats, who belongs in the history
THE GREAT AGNOSTIC: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. (2013). Susan Jacoby. ****.
Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), the subject of this thoughtful biography, was a well-known figure in his day, who has mostly disappeared from our current historical consciousness. His belief was in the complete separation of Church and State, and was outspoken in his belief that our Founding Fathers made sure that this was a touchstone of our Constitution. He was a follower of Voltaire and Thomas Paine, and
I think the author had at least three objectives when she wrote this book. First, she wanted the reader to gain a knowledge and appreciation for the unique and singular character of Mr. Ingersoll. We truly get a representative overview of Mr. Ingersoll that leaves the reader feeling like they are now informed. If the reader desires a more in depth treatment, they are well on their way by starting with this small volume. Second, she wants to educate the reader with an overview history of some of ...more
I was very excited when I first noticed that Susan Jacoby had set out to write a biography of The Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll, whose life and legacy I have had revered for quite some time. Jacoby has done an excellent job in lifting Ingersoll out of obscurity and restoring the image of this magnificent American orator. I can highly recommend this biography not only to all secularists and freethinkers, but everyone with an interest in American history, irrespective of their religious beli ...more
Ingersoll is a hero of mine so I was looking forward to this new biography. It was good, but I think I would have preferred a more comprehensive bio than this short (211 pages) one that seems focused on enhancing Ingersoll's position in history than telling his full story. Jacoby wrote about Ingersoll in her earlier book, Freethinkers, and this book just didn't have that much more info. Still, I love the guy, and it was nice to learn a little more about him and his times.
We need a Robert Ingersoll in the 21st century, a charismatic, thoughtful, joyful infidel who gets the ear of people on all sides of the issues to shed light on the dangers of religion and the beautiful possibilities of secular culture. Same damn issues 150+ yrs later, too, equality for women, unfair distribution of wealth, worker rights as human rights, etc.
This book made me wish I could have a few beers with Ingersoll and thank him for his efforts at restoring Thomas Paine to the American cons
A superb, quick read. Jacoby is owed a debt for her effort to bring back Ingersoll from the graveyard of American history.
"While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself; and my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. the time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so. The creed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life, strong enough for this world. If there is another, world, when we get there we can make another creed (97)." Robert G. Ingersoll

This book, ironically, was a God-send. I for years recognized the painfully obvious iss

“While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself; and my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so. The creed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life, strong enough for this world. If there is another world, when we get there we can make another creed.—RGI”—page 70

Little cleans the reading palette better than t
David Veazey
Like, I think, most Americans today, I knew very little about Robert Intersoll. But Ingersaoll was the 19th century thinker who was willing to pass on the national office career he was capable of and connected enough for because it was more important to him to be open as a freethinker and show the absurdity of religious teaching. Because of his ability to speak to the common individual, he drew large crowds of both believers and nonbelievers who had heard of his entertaining presentations. Accor ...more
Excellent portrait of a man who has become unjustly obscure in the current age. Besides being a leading critic of religion and popularizer of evolution, he was well ahead of his time in virtually every cause of consequence in the 19th century: abolition, equal rights for women, equal rights for people of color, equal rights for immigrants, the eight hour workday (he even used his influence to obtain pardons for some of those convicted in the Haymarket affair), free public education, and women's ...more

My reading experience of THE GREAT AGNOSTIC: ROBERT INGERSOLL AND AMERICAN FREE THOUGHT (Yale University Press: 2013) was decidedly mixed.

I liked Ingersoll's Eulogy for Walt Whitman (Appendix B ) and the author's opening question on page one: "How and why do some public figures who were famous in their own time become part of a nation's historical memory, while others fade away or are confined to... 'niche fame' " ? The once well-known but now somewhat obscure public figure who is the focus o
Peter Landau
Susan Jacoby wants to do for Robert Ingersoll what Robert Ingersoll did for Tom Paine, return this great American freethinker to a place of importance in the pantheon of American culture. I’m not sure her biography THE GREAT AGNOSTIC will accomplish what Ingersoll did for the at-the-time forgotten Paine, but it sure cleared my ignorance of this articulate rational secularist. Ingersoll is smart company, as is Jacoby, and was ahead of his time in championing women’s rights, immigration and Walt W ...more
Scott Lupo
A nice, succinct, easy-to-read biography on a great man whose name is relatively unknown to Americans, even secular atheists. Robert Ingersoll was a freethinking atheist in a time when Americans were actually interested and open-minded enough to attend freethinking events like the ones Ingersoll presented throughout America. More than anything, this book is like a teaser for the reader who may want to know/explore more about Ingersoll. His astute observations, witty humor, and tremendous orating ...more
A very good, short introduction to one of America's most important but sadly little-known public intellectuals. After reading this book, I became a friend of the Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and *almost* dropped $5500 on a signed first-edition of the 12 volume complete works...I wish.
Chris Hellstrom
Great short book on Ingersoll. He was the most popular public speaker when he died in 1899 and now has fell into near obscurity. He would be surprised to know that he would be more controversial 112 years later than in his own time.
Christopher Myrick
A great, uplifting, and timely work, and a worthy attempt to bring Ingersoll back to prominence in the pantheon of freethinkers. Brief in comparison to Jacoby's two other freethought books -- "The Age of American Unreason" and "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism -- but no less valuable.
A wonderful piece of history, illustrating how much has changed -- Democrats embracing the gospel for social justice, and to win ethnic votes, while Republicans court the country's most prominent athe
Who knew? And that's the whole point of this book about this mostly forgotten figure.

An easy-to-read, historical look at an amazing secular leader and man. I learned a lot and I highly recommend it.
This was a very short introduction to Robert Ingersoll and his effect on American freethought. But I enjoyed what he had to say and I enjoyed seeing how those of other political parties and religious beliefs continued to get along despite very different world views. People were grown ups. It's sad to see how far we've fallen in that area.

The only complaint I have with Jacoby is she constantly praised the man as if he never did anything wrong or misguided. She's a fangirl, obviously, and rightly
Ingersoll was a lawyer and lecturer who was the preeminent American freethinker at the end of the nineteenth century. He was attacked from the pulpit and on the editorial pages, but even the devout flocked to hear him speak. His oratorical skills made him an important figure in the Republican party.However, his avowed atheism prevented his being elected to or appointed to public office. Besides defending the separation of church and state, Ingersoll was a leading defender of Charles Darwin and t ...more
Chris Branch
I have to admit I'd never heard of Ingersoll before, and I'm glad to have remedied that by reading this short, well-written bio of him. I was impressed and surprised to learn that he was making many of the same strong arguments against religion that are being made today. Although I should know better, somehow I'd fallen into the assumption that it's only recently that religion has been seriously and publicly challenged, and that before that pretty much everyone accepted it. So it's great to be r ...more
I had never even heard of Robert Ingersoll before, which is a little strange seeing as I consider myself to be at least slightly above average in my knowledge of "alternative" American history. "Alternative" here being people who weren't of the official structure or were radicals, dissidents, etc. Ingersoll's work to spread the voice of reason and be a prominent atheist at the turn of the century and his efforts to provide a public voice of dissent against the religious establishment were fascin ...more
I wanted to give it 5 stars, but I could not. I do love Susan Jacoby as an author and her way of explaining the masses about reason, freethinkers and the privilege of the separation of church and state. However, this book was short, too short to do any real justice to a man that help spread scientific ideas and the ideas we are still fighting to bring to fruition. I knew about Robert Green Ingersoll before reading this book and I was hoping this book would would include transcripts of is lecture ...more
Ron Davidson
I had a hard time deciding on a star rating for this book; I initially thought I was going to give it three stars, because, although it was interesting and informative, it just felt like some thing was missing. I guess I feel that someone as complex and important (and unknown) as Robert Ingersoll needs deeper reporting and analysis.

But I decided to give the book four stars, because despite its flaws, this story of a great man was enlightening and inspiring. Before the book I had some vague know
David Roberts
This American is billed as "the most interesting person you've never heard of," and I have to admit two things:
1) he's pretty darn interesting
2) I had never heard of him before reading this book

That being said, I thought that the author was WAY more concerned about the fact that Bob Ingersoll was not occupying a high enough place in the pantheon of history than about sharing with the reader more about his life. Perhaps she felt that other biographers (from approximately 80-120 years ago) had al
David James
Not so much a biography as an intellectual appreciation. Susan Jacoby wants us to remember the life and wisdom of the 19th century's greatest voice for reason over prejudice and secularism over blind belief. Like Thomas Paine, who he greatly admired, Robert Ingersoll was widely renowned in his day, and considered a great American. And again like Paine, his refusal to bow to religion has caused him to be largely erased from history books by a country that wants to believe it was founded as a Chri ...more
Here's Ingersoll:

"The popes and priests and kings are gone– the altar and the thrones have mingled with the dust– the aristocracy of land and cloud have perished from the earth and air, and all the gods are dead. A new religions sheds its glory on mankind. It is the gospel of this world, the religion of the body, of the heart and brain, the evangel of health and joy. I see a world at peace, where labor reaps its true reward, a world without prisons, without workhouses, without asylums for the in
Interesting biography of a man that played an important role in our nation's history, but has been forgotten. The parallels between his time and ours is very interesting. It also reminds us of why the separation of church and state is so important to our country. It protects religion from government and government from religion. So often this is forgotten.
I also learned that the US was the first nation in the world to have a secular government, with no mention or reference to God or religion.
Chris Casey
I first learned about the American politician, orator and 'great agnostic' Robert Ingersoll after reading a couple of books about American Freethinkers back in 2005 and 2006. I similarly enjoyed this biography about him, a book which now has many dog eared pages for particularly noteworthy quotes or passages. Among my favorites from Ingersoll is his creed,
Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.
It's oppor
A friend of mine introduced me to Ingersoll about a year ago. I started reading bits and pieces of his work and was fascinating by his depth of intellect and his remarkable speaking ability.

This book helped me to see quite a bit more of who he was. His courage was something to behold. His thoughts on religion, secularism, free thought, and the law were well ahead of their time and he faced quite a bit of scrutiny and invective from his colleagues. However, his incredible eloquence and intellige
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Susan Jacoby (born 1945) is an American author, most recently of the New York Times best seller The Age of American Unreason about American anti-intellectualism. She is director of the New York branch of the Center for Inquiry.

More about Susan Jacoby...
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