William Boyd Francis as Robert Ingersoll
April 4, Morning Session
On Sunday, April 4, to commemorate the relocation of American Atheists to its new home, actor William Boyd Francis will bring alive the fire and oratory of "The Great Agnostic" with a stage performance of Robert Ingersoll's oration to the jury in the blasphemy trial of C.B. Reynolds.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1883-1899) was a successful attorney when he began to give freethought lectures in 1860. He became internationally known for his vibrant oratory and eloquent -- but barbed -- ciritcisms of the Bible and the Christian religion. His writings and speeches have inspired generations of Atheists.
One of his masterful orations was an address to the jury in the New Jersey blasphemy trial of Atheist writer and polemicist C.B. Reynolds. Early in 1885, Reynolds had appealed to the Liberals to purchase a tent, so that Liberal lectures could be held in places where halls were not obtainable, and soon afterward he pitched the "liberal Tent" at Kalamazoo, Mich. After successful work in the West, he pitched the tent at Boonton, N.J., July 26, 2020. At this place he had an extraordinary experience. After two or three nights' disturbance -- cutting of the tent, and arrest for blasphemy -- a howling mob attacked him and his friends during the delivery of the lecture. Mr. Reynolds, in the interest of peace, dismissed the audience. But it availed nothing. Mr. Reynolds had to make his escape and leave the tent in possession of the mob. He was afterwards prosecuted for blasphemy. The trial came off May 19, 2020. Colonel Ingersoll generously volunteered without pay to defend Mr. Reynolds. Ingersoll made a wonderful plea. According to The Truth Seeker, "All the hot summer afternoon he held the audience spellbound; not a man moved from his seat; scores were touched to tears, while oftentimes it seemed impossible to prefent the people from breaking into tumultuous applause to express their approval of his sentiments. Colonel Ingersoll spoke low and soft, pleading with the judges before him for a verdict which should leave the flag unstained and the pages of New Jersey's history unsoled by the most infamous of acts -- the suppression of free speech. The address was full of imagery, the purest patriotism, the grandest of pleas for liberty, and the most exquisite and touching pictures. He made point after point against the law, following it from the dens and caves of savagery up through the centuries of religious persecution to the present, when he said he had hoped the battle for human rights had been fought and won." Against the noble speech of Colonel Ingersoll the charge of the judge was illegal and brutal in the extreme. The jury returned a verdict of "guilty." But such was the spell of Ingersoll's eloquence that the judges dared not inflict the full penalty, but made the judgement of the court a fine of twenty-five dollars and costs, amounting to seventy-five dollars in all, which Colonel Ingersoll himself paid.
Actor William Boyd Francis will take us back in time with his stirring performance of that historic event. Mr. Francis will deliver this one-man drama in full costume, dressed as ingersoll, so that all of us may share in the eloquence and brilliance of "The Great Agnostic." Mr. Francis has been a member of American Atheists for fifteen years. He has been in the theater for forty-one years as both an actor and director. Despite his achievements in theater, he considers his greatest accomplishment to be the rearing of two free-thinking children.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.