Robert Ingersoll (pictured) was a lantern of reason in a nation of fools
by H.L. Mencken
WHAT the country lacks is obviously an Ingersoll. It is, indeed, a wonder that the chautauquas have never spewed one forth. Certainly there must be many a jitney Demosthenes on those lonely circuits who tires mightily of the standard balderdash, and longs with a great longing to throw off the white chemise of Service and give the rustics a genuinely hot show. The old game, I suspect, is beginning to play out, even in the Bible Belt. What made the rural Methodists breathe hard and fast at the dawn of the century now only makes them shuffle their feet and cough behind their hands. I have spies in such lugubrious regions, and their reports all agree. The yokelry no longer turn out to the last valetudinarian to gape at colored pictures of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives, or to hear a sweating rhetorician on “The Future of America.” They sicken of Service, Idealism and Vision. What ails them is that the village movie, the radio and the Ku Klux Klan have spoiled their old taste for simple, wholesome fare. They must have it hot now, or they don’t want it at all. The master-minds of Chautauqua try to meet the new demand, but cannot go all the way. They experiment gingerly with lectures on eugenics, the divorce evil, women in politics, and other such pornographic subjects, but that is not enough. The horticulturists and their wives and issue pant for something more dreadful and shocking—something comparable, on the plane of ideas, to the tarring and feathering of the village fancy woman on the plane of manly sports. Their cars lie back and they hearken expectantly, and even somewhat impatiently. What they long for is a bomb.
My guess is that the one that would blow them highest, and that would shake the most money out of them going up and coming down, is the big black bomb of Atheism. It has not been set off in the Federal Union, formally and with dramatic effect, since July 21, 1899, when Bob Ingersoll was snatched to bliss eternal. Now it is loaded again, and ready to be fired, and the chautauquan who discovers it and fires it will be the luckiest mountebank heard of in these latitudes since George Harvey thrust the halo on Woodrow’s brow. For this favorite of fortune, unlike his fellows of the rustic big tops, will not have to drudge out all his days on the lonesome steppes, racking his stomach with fried beefsteak and saleratus biscuit and his limbs with travel on slow and bumpy trains. He will be able almost at once, like Ingersoll before him and the Rev. Billy Sunday in the lost Golden Age, to horn into the big towns, or, at all events, into the towns, and there he will snore at ease of nights upon clean sheets, with his roll in his pantaloons pocket and a Schluck of genuine Scotch under his belt. The yokels, if they want to hear him, will have’ to come to Babylon in their Fords; he will be too busy and too prosperous to waste himself upon the cow-stable miasmas of the open spaces. Ingersoll, in one month, sometimes took in $50,000. It can be done again; it can be bettered. I believe that Dr. Jennings Bryan, if he sold out God tomorrow and went over to Darwin and Pongo pygmaus, could fill the largest hall in Nashville or Little Rock a month on end: he would make the most profound sensation the country has known since the Breckenridge-Pollard case, nay, since Hannah and her amazing glands. And what Bryan could do, any other chautauquan could do, if not exactly in the same grand manner, then at least in a grand manner.
But this is a Christian country! Is it, indeed? Then it was doubly a Christian country in the days of Bob the Hell-Cat. Bob faced a Babbittry that still went to church on Sunday as automatically as a Prohibition enforcement agent holds out his hand. No machinery for distracting it from that ancient practice had yet been invented. There were no Sunday movies and vaudeville shows. There were no automobiles to take the whole family to green fields and Wet road-houses: the roads were too bad even for buggy-riding. There was no radio. There was no jazz. There were no Sunday comic supplements. There was no home-brewing. Moreover, a high tide of evangelistic passion was running: it was the day of Dwight L. Moody, of the Salvation Army, of prayer-meetings in the White House, of eager chapel-building on every suburban dump. Nevertheless, Bob hurled his challenge at the whole hierarchy of heaven, and within a few short years he had the Babbitts all agog, and after them the city proletariat, and then finally the yokels on the farms. He drew immense crowds; he became eminent; he planted seeds of infidelity that still sprout in Harvard and Yale. Thousands abandoned their accustomed places of worship to listen to his appalling heresies, and great numbers of them never went back. The evangelical churches, fifty years ago, were all prosperous and full of pious enterprise; the soul-snatching business was booming. Since then it has been declining steadily, in prosperity and repute. The typical American ecclesiastic of 1870 was Henry Ward Beecher, a pet of Presidents and merchant princes. The typical American ecclesiastic of 1924 is the Rev. Dr. John Roach Straton, a pet of yellow journals.
In brief, the United States, despite its gallant resistance, has been swept along, to some extent at least, in the general current of human progress and increasing enlightenment. The proofs that it resists are only too often mistaken for proofs that it hasn’t moved at all. For example, there is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Superficially, it appears to indicate that whole areas of the Republic have gone over to Methodist voodooism with a bang, and that civilization is barred out of them as effectively as the Bill of Rights is barred out of a Federal court. But actually all it indicates is that the remoter and more forlorn yokels have risen against their betters—and that their uprising is as hopeless as it is idiotic. Whenever the Klan wins, the fact is smeared all over the front pages of the great organs of intelligence; when it loses, which is at least three times as often, the news gets only a few lines. The truth is that the strength of the Klan, like the strength of the Anti-Saloon League and that of the Methodist-Baptist bloc of moron churches, the pa of both of them, has always been greatly overestimated. Even in the most barbarous reaches of the South, where every village is bossed by a Baptist dervish, it met with vigorous challenge from the start, and there are not three Confederate States today in which, on .a fair plebiscite, it could hope to prevail. The fact that huge hordes of Southern politicians jumped into night-shirts when it began is no proof that it was actually mighty; it is only proof that politicians are cowards and idiots. Of late all of them have been seeking to rid themselves of the tell-tale tar and feathers: they try to ride the very genuine wave of aversion and disgust as they tried to ride the illusory wave of popularity. As the Klan falls everywhere, the Anti-Saloon League tends to fall with it—and the evangelical churches are strapped tightly to both corpses.
This connection, when it was first denounced, was violently denied by the Baptist and Methodist ecclesiastics, but now everyone knows that it was and is real. These ecclesiastics are responsible for the Anti-Saloon League and its swineries, and they are responsible no less for the Klan. In other words, they are responsible, directly and certainly, for all the turmoils and black hatreds that now rage in the bleak regions between the State roads—they are to blame for every witches’ pot that now brews in the backwoods of the Union. They have sowed enmities that will last for years. They have divided neighbors, debauched local governments, and enormously multiplied lawlessness. They are responsible for more crime than even the wildest foes of the saloon ever laid to its discredit, and it is crime, in the main, that is infinitely more anti-social and dangerous. They have opposed every honest effort to compose the natural differences between man and man, and they have opposed every attempt to meet ignorance and prejudice with enlightenment. Alike, in the name of God, they have advocated murder and they have murdered sense. Where they flourish no intelligent and well-disposed man is safe, and no sound and useful idea is safe. They have preached not only the bitter, savage morality of the Old Testament; they have also preached its childish contempt of obvious facts. Hordes of poor creatures have followed these appalling rogues and vagabonds of the cloth down their Gadarene hill: the result, in immense areas, is the conversion of Christianity into a machine for making civilized living impossible. It is wholly corrupt, rotten and abominable. It deserves no more respect than a pile of garbage.
What I contend is that hundreds of thousands of poor simpletons are beginning to be acutely aware of the fact—that they are not nearly so stupid as they sometimes appear to be—above all, that there is much more native decency in them than is to be found in their ecclesiastical masters. In other words, I believe that they tire of the obscenity. One glances at such a State as Arkansas or such a town as Atlanta and sees only a swarm of bawling Methodists; only too easily one overlooks the fact that the bawling is far from unanimous. Logic is possible, in its rudiments, even to the Simiidae. On the next step of the scale, in the suburbs, so to speak, of Homo sapiens, it flourishes intermittently and explosively. All that is needed to set it off is a suitable yell. The first chautauquan who looses such a yell against the True Faith will shake the Bible Belt like an earthquake, and, as they say, mop up. Half his work is already done for him. The True Faith, the only variety of the True Faith known to those hinds, is already under their rising distrust and suspicion. They look for the Ambassador of Christ, and they behold a Baptist elder in a mail-order suit, describing voluptuously the Harlot of Babylon. They yearn for consolation, and they are invited to a raid on bootleggers. Their souls reach out to the eternal mystery, and the evening’s entertainment is the clubbing of a fancy woman. All they need is a leader. Christianity is sick all over this pious land. The Christians have poisoned it. One blast upon a bugle horn, and the mob will be ready for the wake.
H. L. M.
From The American Mercury,Volume 3, Number 11; November 1924