Prayer Fails & Subsequent Lies

22 Aug

I learned recently that The Salvation Army was once involved in a grand plan to convert Robert G. Ingersoll, America’s Great Infidel, to Christianity. For some reason, that story never made it into the Junior Soldier curriculum. I doubt that it will make it into future editions either, since the scheme failed miserably.


Here’s’s brief account of the scheme:

The most massive attempt to convert Ingersoll came on Thanksgiving Day, 1895. Every soldier in Cleveland’s Salvation Army, several hundred members of the Epworth League, and three thousand Christian Endeavorers all offered mass prayers for Ingersoll’s conversion. He took their efforts in stride. “I feel pretty much as the pretty girl did towards the young man who squeezed her hand,” he observed; ” ‘It pleased him,’ she said, ‘and it didn’t hurt me!’”

The author of that article noted that the Thanksgiving Day prayer vigil was just one of numerous attempts to convert Ingersoll, the son of a Presbyterian minister, to Christianity. Ingersoll’s response to the enterprise was recorded in the New York Journal (google “Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, volume VIII” or “Christian Endeavorers Ingersoll”) :

Question. How were you affected by the announcement that the united prayers of the Salvationists and Christian Endeavorers were to be offered for your conversion?

Answer. The announcement did not affect me to any great extent. I take it for granted that the people praying for me are sincere and that they have a real interest in my welfare. Of course, I thank them one and all. At the same time I can hardly account for what they did. Certainly they would not ask God to convert me unless they thought the prayer could be answered. And if their God can convert me of course he can convert everybody. Then the question arises why he does not do it. Why does he let millions go to hell when he can convert them all? Why did he not convert them all before the flood and take them all to heaven instead of drowning them and sending them all to hell? Of course these questions can be answered by saying that God’s ways are not our ways. I am greatly obliged to these people. Still, I feel about the same, so that it would be impossible to get up a striking picture of “before and after.” It was good-natured on their part to pray for me, and that act alone leads me to believe that there is still hope for them. The trouble with the Christian Endeavorers is that they don’t give my arguments consideration. If they did they would agree with me. It seemed curious that they would advise divine wisdom what to do, or that they would ask infinite mercy to treat me with kindness. If there be a God, of course he knows what ought to be done, and will do it without any hints from ignorant human beings. Still, the Endeavorers and the Salvation people may know more about God than I do. For all I know, this God may need a little urging. He may be powerful but a little slow; intelligent but sometimes a little drowsy, and it may do good now and then to call his attention to the facts. The prayers did not, so far as I know, do me the least injury or the least good. I was glad to see that the Christians are getting civilized. A few years ago they would have burned me. Now they pray for me.

Suppose God should answer the prayers and convert me, how would he bring the conversion about? In the first place, he would have to change my brain and give me more credulity–that is, he would be obliged to lessen my reasoning power. Then I would believe not only without evidence, but in spite of evidence. All the miracles would appear perfectly natural. It would then seem as easy to raise the dead as to waken the sleeping. In addition to this, God would so change my mind that I would hold all reason in contempt and put entire confidence in faith. I would then regard science as the enemy of human happiness, and ignorance as the soil in which virtues grow. Then I would throw away Darwin and Humboldt, and rely on the sermons of orthodox preachers. In other words, I would become a little child and amuse myself with a religious rattle and a Gabriel horn. Then I would rely on a man who has been dead for nearly two thousand years to secure me a seat in Paradise.

After conversion, it is not pretended that I will be any better so far as my actions are concerned; no more charitable, no more honest, no more generous. The great difference will be that I will believe more and think less.

After all, the converted people do not seem to be better than the sinners. I never heard of a poor wretch clad in rags, limping into a town and asking for the house of a Christian.

I think that I had better remain as I am. I had better follow the light of my reason, be true to myself, express my honest thoughts, and do the little I can for the destruction of superstition, the little I can for the development of the brain, for the increase of intellectual hospitality and the happiness of my fellow-beings. One world at a time.

–New York Journal, December 15, 1895.

Ingersoll’s statement was impressive for both its clarity and profundity. I won’t detract from it by attempting to comment on it.


You will not be the least bit shocked to learn that Ingersoll’s death was followed by rumors similar to those that circulated shortly after Darwin’s demise:

His death came in July 1899, when he was not quite sixtysix. He had been lecturing on religion just the month before, and he was working on new lectures at Walston, his son-inlaw’s elegant estate at Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson. There, surrounded by a family constantly concerned with his comfort and happiness, he died suddenly of what the doctors called angina pectoris. Quickly, rumors began circulating. Ingersoll had recanted on his deathbed, went one. Another held that he had been thrown into such despair by his beliefs that he committed suicide. Although it was strenuously denied by those who were with him when he died, for some the notion was irresistible that Royal Bob, the Illustrious Infidel, dreading the hellfire, had seen the light at the end.

In addition to repeatedly failing to understand why their prayers go unanswered, some Christians have a propensity for lying about the dead people who were once the objects of their prayers. Be prepared to encounter similar stories about Christopher Hitchens, should he succumb to esophageal cancer within the next few years. We already know Christians are praying for him, and he has responded graciously: he accepts prayers for his well-being with gratitude, but doesn’t expect any divine intervention in his life. I’m betting that, should cancer be the death of him, at least a few Christians will succumb to the temptation to manufacture a deathbed conversion story about him. It’s the way they roll: when the prayers fail, the lies begin.

— the chaplain


Posted by on August 22, 2010 in atheism, history, religion


14 responses to “Prayer Fails & Subsequent Lies

  1. pete

    August 22, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    so much more pressure in those days.

    apostasy was dangerous.

    It still is for certain folks.


  2. Proud Kuffar

    August 22, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Herp de derp. Xtians don’t reason. They also lie a lot!

  3. Sarge

    August 23, 2010 at 7:29 am

    Sam Clemens was also said to have converted on his deathbed.

    People pray for me, probably for you, too, Chappie, and they don’t seem to get much out of it.

    They don’t get much better than Ingersoll and his thoughts, when I found out about him he became my model.

    It doesn’t hurt that he was a civil war soldier. ;-)

    About four times a year several of us from different units who are like-minded “fall in” together and have a good ol’ time. We use a different regiment and company every time, but among ourselves we style as “Ingersoll’s Own”.

    Odd, though. About a third are actually believers, two are ministers with congregations, but they say it’s one of those things where they can actually relax and as one of our group says, “simply be folks with folks”.

    And thanks for the references, I do like to read me some Twain, Ingersoll, and Kipling.

    Kipling was a believer, but boy,did HE have reservations. His mother was quite an infidel (both of Kipling’s grandfathers were prominent methodist ministers) and Kipling said that he and his sister once found an envelope containing hair.
    Their mother said that it was actually a lock of hair from John Wesley, she took it, and threw it in the fire, pronouncing that it was “hair of the dog that bit us”.

    I think Ingersoll’s pretty much reasoned responses and approach is what attracted me to his writings as a younger person. I think he would have accepted the rather silly-sounding statement, “it is what it is”, because deities “aren’t what they aren’t”.

  4. Moe

    August 23, 2010 at 11:43 am

    In a recent interview, HItchens acknowledged politely that indeed people were praying for his recovery, but not to forget just as many were praying for his demise. He was not being glib, just observing the actual world the way it actually is, as he does.

  5. the chaplain

    August 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Yes, apostasy is still dangerous for some, particularly Muslims.

    Proud Kuffar:
    I agree that some Christians don’t reason, but I wouldn’t say that about all of them. But, the ones who do reason often engage in faulty reasoning.

    Ingersoll’s Own – I love it!

    I think I would have liked Kipling’s mom. I’ll have to look into that family some more.

    Was that the Anderson Cooper interview on CNN? As I recall, Hitchens acknowledged that some people are praying cruelly, but he was not at all offended by those whose prayers are offered in good will.

  6. Ebonmuse

    August 23, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    I’ve always been an admirer of Robert Ingersoll, but I’d never heard this story before. Thanks for telling us about it! What a marvelous story – it clearly shows his humanism, his wit, and his amazing gift for rhetoric. Just reading it is like honey on the tongue. :)

  7. alex-a

    August 23, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    How remarkably relevant this sounds even for today. In fact, I didn’t realize this was written over a century ago until the very end. I definitely need to check out some of his books.

  8. the chaplain

    August 23, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Ingersoll was brilliant. He embodied all the best attributes of humanism, freethought, rationalism, etc. in his thinking, speaking and the way he lived his life.

    I’ve read quite a lot of Ingersoll’s work in the past year or so. His writings are a treasure trove, and as timely today as they were in the late 19th century.

  9. PhillyChief

    August 24, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Great story, and thanks for digging up his response. It is indeed timeless. I believe Hitchens did say something about how if he were to convert, it would not be him, but rather the effect of his deteriorated mind from the cancer, radiation, or both. I don’t have a link handy, sorry.

  10. desertscope

    August 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    My mother is sure I will have a deathbed conversion, but as Philly said of Hitchens, any such drivel from me would best be attributed to brain damage, dementia, drug effects, or any of scores of medical issues related to a terminal condition.

    I just found some Ingersoll writings available on kindle. I can’t wait to dig in to that.

  11. Lorena

    August 25, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    I have to wonder whether those deathbed conversion stories have to do with the moribund’s lack of energy or desire to argue back when they’re being preached at. Perhaps silence or a smile or a gesture of thankfulness for the concern is interpreted as a conversion.

  12. Josh

    August 28, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Deathbed conversions: popular because the victim can’t refute the lies. And many people just can’t imagine a non-theist facing death (and non-existence) with dignity and grace.


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