Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Faith Works 5-28-05
Jeff Gill

A Memorial Day Observation

Robert Ingersoll was possibly the best known public speaker in America between the end of the Civil War and to his death in 1899. He was particularly in demand for his Memorial Day addresses, which he gave at civic gatherings and national cemeteries all over the country.
What made this somewhat unusual is that Ingersoll was to America what Thomas Huxley was to Great Britain, where “Darwin’s Bulldog” created the word “agnostic” to describe his beliefs. Not atheists, either of them, but those who literally “did not know,” the meaning of the Greek root words that make up agnostic.
Ingersoll actually reveled in his contrarian stance against the tides of family values and patriotism which he sailed in quite comfortably, while not flying the flag of any organized or dogmatic religion. He was called “The Great Infidel,” and Ingersoll delighted to call that label his own. He made the nominating speech for many a national candidate of the Republican Party, and might have been the one nominated if he would modify or mute his views on the place of church.
To each such request he calmly answered that he could not be other than who he was, and never held elective office. But as a colonel at Shiloh, and a decorated veteran of the Civil War, his speeches on the valor of the common soldier and of loyalty that extended beyond the battlefield left him in great demand, if not to offer the invocation.
Once, having given a well-received speech in Chicago, he was on his way to Indianapolis to offer much the same message at the dedication of a Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the heart of that city, still to be seen today on the circle near the state capital.
About halfway, at Crawfordsville, a man boarded the train and entered the compartment where Ingersoll sat. He turned out to be a fellow veteran of the Union army, a fellow officer at Shiloh, and they had much to discuss. But the matter quickly turned to personal faith, and the place of such belief.
As he had on public platforms so often, each argument for Christianity and faith was met with a coldly logical counter from “The Great Infidel,” and fairly quickly the old comrades agreed that they would not let this difference of opinion come between them as fellow soldiers.
But as the train entered Union Station, Ingersoll said to his friend something like this: “You hold your faith with great passion, and I respect that. What you must do, then, is make me feel it as well. Our logic can carry us only so far, which is why I am simply an agnostic. Make me feel the source of your faith, and you will have my ear.”
With those words in his head, Lew Wallace stepped off the train. Nearly ten years later, he finished the book “Ben-Hur.” The first great Biblical epic was not only a best seller by the standards of the 1880’s or even today, but it was made into a movie at the dawn of motion pictures, for the fourth time with Charlton Heston, while the book has never gone out of print.
You’ve surely heard of Ben-Hur, and his book subtitled “A Tale of The Christ,” if not his creator Lew Wallace. Robert Ingersoll has largely been forgotten. Let’s remember them both this Memorial Day weekend.

Jeff Gill is a storyteller and supply preacher around central Ohio, and he’s telling some stories next Saturday at Infirmary Mound Park around 7 pm, with s’mores to follow. Tell him your story of faith at work at

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