Ingersoll, infidels, and Indianapolis: freethought and religion in the Central Midwest
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During the “Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s, Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) acted as one of its most popular and influential figures within the movement, whose supporters advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. However, his role as a “public intellectual” has been challenged by scholars of the period, who argue that he was merely a popularizer of ideas. This conclusion does not adequately describe Ingersoll’s role within the period. Rather, Ingersoll was a synthesizer of ideas, making complex concepts of philosophy, theology, science, and history into palatable lectures and books for an eager and understanding public. As a complementary counterpoint to his role as synthesizer, he also spurred a multiplicity of responses from believers and nonbelievers alike who imbibed his ideas. As such, his role in the central Midwest, Illinois and Indiana in particular, supports his place as a public intellectual. From his public discourses with the evangelist Dwight Moody and other believers, his influence on the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis, to his answers to Indianapolis clergy, Ingersoll’s experiences in the Midwest solidified his place within American history as a compelling and thoughtful public intellectual.