A Christmas Sermon
Robert Green Ingersoll
This is the famous Christmas Sermon written by Colonel Ingersoll and printed in the Evening Telegram, on December 19, 1891.
In answer to this "Christmas Sermon" the Rev. Dr. J.M. Buckley, editor of the Christian Advocate, the recognized organ of the Methodist Church, wrote an article, calling upon the public to boycott the Evening Telegram for publishing such a "sermon."
This attack was headed "Lies That Are Mountainous." The Telegram promptly accepted the issue raised by Dr. Buckley and dared him to do his utmost. On the very same day it published an answer from Colonel Ingersoll that echoed throughout America. (This version is condensed. For the complete version, go here.)
A Christmas Sermon
The good part of Christmas is not always Christian -- it is generally Pagan; that is to say, human, natural.
Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy, but with a message of eternal grief. It came with the threat of everlasting torture on its lips. It meant war on earth and perdition hereafter.
It taught some good things -- the beauty of love and kindness in man. But as a torch-bearer, as a bringer of joy, it has been a failure. It has given infinite consequences to the acts of finite beings, crushing the soul with a responsibility too great for mortals to bear. It has filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men. Not satisfied with that, it has deprived God of the pardoning power.
And yet it may have done some good by borrowing from the Pagan world the old festival called Christmas.
Long before Christ was born, the Sun-God triumphed over the powers of Darkness. About the time that we call Christmas the days begin perceptibly to lengthen. Our barbarian ancestors were worshipers of the sun, and they celebrated his victory over the hosts of night. Such a festival was natural and beautiful. The most natural of all religions is the worship of the sun. Christianity adopted this festival. It borrowed from the Pagans the best it has.
I believe in Christmas and in every day that has been set apart for joy. We in America have too much work and not enough play. We are too much like the English.
I think it was Heinrich Heine who said that he thought a blaspheming Frenchman was a more pleasing object to God than a praying Englishman. We take our joys too sadly. I am in favor of all the good free days -- the more the better.
Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget -- a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds -- a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine.
Robert G. Ingersoll.
COL. INGERSOLL'S REPLY TO DR. BUCKLEY.
Whenever an orthodox editor attacks an unbeliever, look out for kindness, charity and love. The gentle editor of the Christian Advocate charges me with having written three "gigantic falsehoods." and he points them out as follows:
First -- "Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy, but with a message of eternal grief."
Second -- "It [Christianity] has filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men."
Third -- "Not satisfied with that, it [Christianity] has deprived God of the pardoning power."
Now, let us take up these "gigantic falsehoods" in their order and see whether they are in accord with the New Testament or not -- whether they are supported by the creed of the Methodist Church.
I insist that Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy, but with a message of eternal grief.
According to the orthodox creeds, Christianity came with the tidings that the human race was totally depraved, and that all men were in a lost condition, and that all who rejected or failed to believe the new religion, would be tormented in eternal fire.
These were not "tidings of great joy."
If the passengers on some great ship were told that the ship was to be wrecked, that a few would be saved and that nearly all would go to the bottom, would they talk about "tidings of great joy"? It is to be presumed that Christ knew what his mission was, and what he came for. He says: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother." In my judgment, these are not "tidings of great joy."
Now, as to the message of eternal grief:
"Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
"And these shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous [meaning the Methodists] into life eternal."
"He that believeth not shall be damned."
"He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."
"Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."
"And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever."
Knowing, as we do, that but few people have been believers, that during the last eighteen hundred years not one in a hundred has died in the faith, and that consequently nearly all the dead are in hell, it can truthfully be said that Christianity came with a message of eternal grief.
Now, as to the second "gigantic falsehood," to the effect that Christianity filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men.
In the Old Testament there is nothing about punishment in some other world, nothing about the flames and torments of hell. When Jehovah killed one of his enemies he was satisfied. His revenge was glutted when the victim was dead. The Old Testament gave the future to sleep and oblivion. But in the New Testament we are told that the punishment in another world is everlasting, and that "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever."
This awful doctrine, these frightful texts, filled the future with fear and flame. Building on these passages, the orthodox churches have constructed a penitentiary, in which nearly all the sons of men are to be imprisoned and tormented forever, and of this prison God is the keeper. The doors are opened only to receive.
The doctrine of eternal punishment is the infamy of infamies. As I have often said, the man who believes in eternal torment, in the justice of endless pain, is suffering from at least two diseases -- petrifaction of the heart and putrefaction of the brain.
The next question is whether Christianity has deprived God of the pardoning power.
The Methodist Church and every orthodox church teaches that this life is a period of probation; that there is no chance given for reformation after death; that God gives no opportunity to repent in another world.
This is the doctrine of the Christian world. If this dogma be true, then God will never release a soul from hell -- the pardoning power will never be exercised.
How happy God will be and how happy all the saved will be, knowing that billions and billions of his children, of their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, and children are convicts in the eternal dungeons, and that the words of pardon will never be spoken!
Yet this is in accordance with the promise contained in the New Testament, of happiness here and eternal joy hereafter, to those who would desert brethren or sisters, or father or mother, or wife or children.
It seems to me clear that Christianity did not bring "tidings of great Joy," but that it came with a "message of eternal grief" -- that it did "fill the future with fear and flame," that it did make God "the keeper of an eternal penitentiary," that the penitentiary" was destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men," and that "it deprived God of the pardoning power.
Of course you can find passages full of peace, in the Bible, others of war -- some filled with mercy, and others cruel as the fangs of a wild beast. According to the Methodists, God has an eternal prison – an everlasting Siberia. There is to be an eternity of grief, of agony and shame.
What do I think of what the Doctor says about the Telegram for having published my Christmas sermon?
The editor of the Christian Advocate has no idea of what intellectual liberty means. He ought to know that a man should not be insulted because another man disagrees with him. What right has Dr. Buckley to disagree with Cardinal Gibbons, and what right has Cardinal Gibbons to disagree with Dr. Buckley? The same right that I have to disagree with them both.
I do not warn people against reading Catholic or Methodist papers or books. But I do tell them to investigate for themselves -- to stand by what they believe to be true, to deny the false, and, above all things, to preserve their mental manhood. The good Doctor wants the Telegram destroyed -- wants all religious people to unite for the purpose of punishing the Telegram -- because it published something with which the reverend Doctor does not agree, or rather that does not agree with the Doctor.
It is too late. That day has faded in the West of the past. The doctor of theology has lost his power. Theological thunder has lost its lightning -- it is nothing now but noise, pleasing those who make it and amusing those who hear.
The Telegram has nothing to fear. It is, in the highest sense, a newspaper -- wide-awake, alive, always on time, good to its friends, fair with its enemies, and true to the public.
What have I to say to the Doctor's personal abuse?
Nothing. A man may call me a devil, or the devil, or he may say that I am incapable of telling the truth, or that I tell lies, and yet all this proves nothing. My arguments remain unanswered.
I cannot afford to call Dr. Buckley names. I have good mental manners. The cause I represent (in part) is too great, too sacred, to be stained by an ignorant or a malicious personality.
I know that men do as they must with the light they have, and so I say -- More light!
REV. J.M. KING AND REV. THOMAS DIXON, JR.
The Rev. James M. King -- who seems to have taken this occasion to become known -- finds fault because "blasphemous utterances concerning Christmas" were published in the Telegram, and were allowed "to greet the eyes of innocent children and pure women."
How is it possible to blaspheme a day? One day is not, in and of itself, holier than another -- that is to say, two equal spaces of time are substantially alike. We call a day "good" or "bad" according to what happens in the day. A day filled with happiness, with kind words, with noble deeds, is a good day. A day filled with misfortunes and anger and misery we call a bad day. But how is it possible to blaspheme a day?
A man may or may not believe that Christ was born on the 25th of December, and yet he may fill that day, so far as he is concerned, with good thoughts and words and deeds. Another may really believe that Christ was born on that day, and yet do his worst to make all his friends unhappy. But how can the rights of what are called "clean families" be violated by reading the honest opinions of others as to whether Christmas is kept in honor of the birth of Christ, or in honor of the triumph of the sun over the hosts of darkness? Are Christian families so weak intellectually that they cannot bear to hear the other side? Or is their case so weak that the slightest evidence overthrows it? Why do all these ministers insist that it is ill-bred to even raise a question as to the truth of the improbable, or as to the improbability of the impossible?
A minister says to me that I am going to hell -- that I am bound to be punished forever and ever -- and thereupon I say to him: "There is no hell; you are mistaken; your Bible is not inspired; no human being is to suffer agony forever;" and thereupon, with an injured look, he asks me this question: "Why do you hurt my feelings?" It does not occur to him that I have the slightest right to object to his sentence of eternal grief.
Does the gentleman imagine that true men and pure women cannot differ with him? There are many thousands of people who love and honor the memory of Jesus Christ, who yet have not the slightest belief in his divine origin, and who do not for one moment imagine that he was other than a good and heroic man. And there are thousands of people who admire the character of Jesus Christ who do not believe that he ever existed -- who admire the character of Christ as they admire Imogen, or Perdita, not believing that any of the characters mentioned actually lived.
And it may be well enough here to state that no human being hates any really good man or good woman -- that is, no human being hates a man known to be good -- a woman known to be pure and good. No human being hates a lovable character.
It is perfectly easy for any one with the slightest imagination to understand how other people differ from him. I do not attribute a bad motive to a man simply because he disagrees with me. I do not say that a man is a Christian or a Mohammedan "for revenue only." I do not say that a man joins the Democratic party simply for office, or that he marches with the Republicans simply for position. I am willing to hear his reasons -- with his motives I have nothing to do.
Mr. King imagines that I have denounced Christianity "for revenue only." Is he willing to admit that we have drifted so far from orthodox religion that the way to make money is to denounce Christianity? I can hardly believe, for joy, that liberty of thought has advanced so far. I regret exceedingly that there is not an absolute foundation for his remark. I am indeed sorry that it is possible in this world of ours for any human being to make a living out of the ignorance and fear of his fellow-men. Still, it gives me great hope for the future to read, even in this ignorant present, that there is one man, and that man myself, who advocates human liberty -- the absolute enfranchisement of the soul -- and does it "for revenue" -- because this charge is such a splendid compliment to my fellow-men.
Possibly the remark of the Rev. Mr. King will be gratifying to the Telegram and will satisfy that brave and progressive sheet that it is in harmony with the intelligence of the age.
My opinion is that the Telegram will receive the praise of enlightened and generous people.
Personally I judge a man not so much by his theories as by his practice, and I would much rather meet on the desert -- were I about to perish for want of water -- a Mohammedan who would give me a drink than a Christian who would not; because, after all is said and done, we are compelled to judge people by their actions.
I do not know what takes place in the invisible world called the brain, inhabited by the invisible something we call the mind. All that takes place there is invisible and soundless. This mind, hidden in this brain, masked by flesh, remains forever unseen, and the only evidence we can possibly have as to what occurs in that world, we obtain from the actions of the man, of the woman. By these actions we judge of the character, of the soul. So I make up my mind as to whether a man is good or bad, not by his theories, but by his actions.
Under no circumstances can the expression of an honest opinion, couched in becoming language, amount to blasphemy. And right here it may be well enough to inquire: What is blasphemy?
A man who knowingly assaults the true, who knowingly endeavors to stain the pure, who knowingly maligns the good and noble, is a blasphemer. A man who deserts the truth because it is unpopular is a blasphemer. He who runs with the hounds knowing that the hare is in the right is a blasphemer.
In the soul of every man, or in the temple inhabited by the soul, there is one niche in which can be found the statue of the ideal. In the presence of this statue the good man worships – the bad man blasphemes -- that is to say, he is not true to the ideal.
A man who slanders a pure woman or an honest man is a blasphemer. So, too, a man who does not give the honest transcript of his mind is a blasphemer. If a man really thinks the character of Jehovah, as portrayed in the Old Testament, is good, and he denounces Jehovah as bad, he is a blasphemer. If he really believes that the character of Jehovah, as portrayed in the Old Testament, is bad, and he pronounces it good, he is a blasphemer and a coward.
All laws against "blasphemy" have been passed by the numerically strong and intellectually weak. These laws have been passed by those who, finding no help in logic, appealed to the legislature.
Back of all these superstitions you will find some self-interest. I do not say that this is true in every case, but I do say that if priests had not been fond of mutton, lambs never would have been sacrificed to God. Nothing was ever carried to the temple that the priest could not use, and it always so happened that God wanted what his agents liked.
I am much obliged to the Rev. Mr. King for admitting that an infidel has a right to publish his views at his own expense, and with the utmost cheerfulness I accord that right to a Christian. The only thing I have ever objected to is the publication of his views at the expense of others.
I cannot admit, however, that the ideas contained in what is known as the Christmas Sermon are "revolting to a vast majority of the people who give character to the community in which we live." I suppose that a very large majority of men and women who disagree with me are perfectly satisfied that I have the right to disagree with them, and that I do not disagree with them to any greater degree than they disagree with me. And I also imagine that a very large majority of intelligent people are perfectly willing to hear the other side.
I do not regard religious opinions or political opinions as exotics that have to be kept under glass, protected from the frosts of common sense or the tyrannous north wind of logic. Such plants are hardly worth preserving. They certainly ought to be hardy enough to stand the climate of free discussion, and if they cannot, the sooner they die the better.
I do not think there was anything blasphemous or impure in the words published by the Telegram. The most that can possibly be said against them, calculated to excite the prejudice of Christians, is that they were true -- that they cannot be answered except by abuse.
It is not possible, in this day and generation, to stay the rising flood of intellectual freedom by keeping the names of thinkers out of print. The church has had the field for eighteen hundred years. For most of this time it has held the sword and purse of the world. For many centuries it controlled colleges and universities and schools. It had within its gift wealth and honor. It held the keys, so far as this world is concerned, of heaven and hell -- that is to say, of prosperity and misfortune. It pursued its enemies even to the grave. It reddened the scaffold with the best blood, and kept the sword of persecution wet for many centuries. Thousands and thousands have died in its dungeons. Millions of reputations have been blasted by its slanders. It has made millions of widows and orphans, and it has not only ruled this world, but it has pretended to hold the keys of eternity, and under this pretence it has sentenced countless millions to eternal flames.
At last the spirit of independence rose against its monstrous assumptions. It has been growing somewhat weaker. It has been for many years gradually losing its power. The sword of the state belongs now to the people. The partnership between altar and throne has in many countries been dissolved. The adulterous marriage of church and state has ceased to exist. Men are beginning to express their honest thoughts. In the arena where speech is free, superstition is driven to the wall. Man relies more and more on the facts in nature, and the real priest is the interpreter of nature. The pulpit is losing its power. In a little while religion will take its place with astrology, with the black art, and its ministers will take rank with magicians and sleight-of-hand performers.
With regard to the letter of the Rev. Thomas Nixon. Jr., I have but little to say.
I am glad that he believes in a free platform and a free press -- that he, like Lucretia Mott, believes in "truth for authority, and not authority for truth." At the same time I do not see how the fact that I am not a scientist has the slightest bearing upon the question; but if there is any fact that I have avoided or misstated, then I wish that fact to be pointed out. I admit also, that I am a "sentimentalist" -- that is, that I am governed, to a certain extent, by sentiment -- that my mind is so that cruelty is revolting and that mercy excites my love and admiration. I admit that I am so much of "a sentimentalist" that I have no love for the Jehovah of the Old Testament, and that it is impossible for me to believe a creed that fills the prison house of hell with countless billions of men, women and children.
I am also glad that the reverend gentleman admits that I have "stabbed to the heart hundreds of superstitions and lies," and I hope to stab many, many more, and if I succeed in stabbing all lies to the heart there will be no foundation left for what I called "orthodox" Christianity -- but goodness will survive, justice will live, and the flower of mercy will shed its perfume forever.
When we take into consideration the fact that the Rev. Mr. Dixon is a minister and believes that he is called upon to deliver to the people a divine message, I do not wonder that he makes the following assertion: "If God could choose Baalim's ass to speak a divine message, I do not see why he could not utilize the Colonel." It is natural for a man to justify himself and to defend his own occupation. Mr. Dixon, however, will remember that the ass was much superior to the prophet of God, and that the argument was all on the side of the ass. And, furthermore, that the spiritual discernment of the ass far exceeded that of the prophet. It was the ass who saw the angel when the prophet's eye was dim. I suggest to the Rev. Mr. Dixon that he read the account once more, and he will find -- First. that the ass first saw the angel of the Lord; second, that the prophet Baalim was cruel, unreasonable, and brutal; third, that the prophet so lost his temper that he wanted to kill the innocent ass, and the ass. not losing her temper, reasoned with the prophet and demonstrated not only her intellectual but her moral superiority. In addition to all this the angel of the Lord had to open the eyes of the prophet -- in other words, had to work a miracle -- in order to make the prophet equal to the ass, and not only so, but rebuked him for his cruelty. And this same angel admitted that without any miracle whatever the ass saw him -- the angel -- showing that the spiritual discernment of the ass in those days was far superior to that of the prophet.
I regret that the Rev. Mr. King loses his temper and that the Rev. Mr. Dixon is not quite polite. All of us should remember that passion clouds the judgment, and that he who seeks for victory loses sight of the cause.
And there is another thing: He who has absolute confidence in the justice of his position can afford to be good-natured. Strength is the foundation of kindness; weakness is often malignant, and when argument fails passion comes to the rescue.
Let us be good-natured. Let us have respect for the rights of each other. The course pursued by the Telegram is worthy of all praise. It has not only been just to both sides, but it has been -- as is its custom -- true to the public.
Robert G. Ingersoll.