The More Religions Change | Newberry

The More Religions Change

So the big Fall exhibition, Religious Change and Print: 1450-1700, is open, displaying ways the printing press was involved in religious movements in that crucial period. You may find some of the books on display at the next Book Fair but not exactly in the same editions. Most of the material for sale in our Religion section came from later eras of religious thought, influenced though they certainly were by the books on display in our easternmost galleries.

Two authors often found in quantity in the Religion section were near contemporaries, one born in 1833 and one in 1834. Both were mighty orators and their lectures swung multitudes. And both are in print today, though we generally get the battered nineteenth century reprints.

Charles H. Spurgeon was a teenager when he was moved to convert from the Church of England to less mainstream congregations. When he was nineteen, he was called to preside over the largest Baptist congregation in London. His style, described as neither high-flown nor homely, spoke to his audience. His message was conservative but simple. The whole business of Protestant, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist was less relevant to his message than one’s way of life and attention to basic principles. He preached thousands of sermons in his day, published in dozens of separate volumes, dying in 1892 at the age of 58.

Robert G. Ingersoll was born in New York, but moved to Illinois as a young man, becoming a lawyer and then getting involved in politics. (Illinois politics had a certain air even then: Ingersoll caught the falling body of his employer when the man was assassinated). He commanded a Union regiment during the Civil War, and was afterward known as Colonel Ingersoll. He made most of his income through public lectures, which ran the gamut of subjects. But his most famous presentations were those on the absurdity of organized religion and the value of free thought. He died in 1899, at the age of 66, and books of his speeches—including his classic eulogy for Walt Whitman—were bestsellers after his death.

The copies of books by these men received by the Book Fair may not really qualify for THIS exhibit, but many of them would have fit right into the exhibit of a few years ago on marginal notes. As noted, the works of each man can be purchased in nice, new shiny sets of the current century, but we get the faded, slightly brittle volumes read with devotion by friends and foes. The marginal remarks are, of course, a good deal more heated in the books marked up by enemies. We get rather more of Ingersoll—he was a local boy. We have spoken before of the problems of people like one previous owner of an Ingersoll collection, who wrote “Do not read the following lectures”, and listed the page numbers. It’s like folding down the pages of the naughty passages in a novel and expecting people to ignore them. We frequently get copies which are underlined throughout: it’s a matter of personal opinion whether the owner writes “Points to Consider” or ”Lies! All Lies!” (It would be fascinating, if one had all the time in the world, to compare them and see if the same phrases were underlined by each type of commentator.)

A charming copy of Spurgeon’s sermons came in a few years ago with the inscription “Does Not Believe in God.” It isn’t so much the blatant rejection that makes the epigram notable, as the fact that it was written in ballpoint pen, meaning that at least sixty years after the death of the author, somebody still felt strongly enough about him to complain.

Both men regarded their points of view as the result of simple common sense, and on one or two subjects, they were in agreement with each other. Spurgeon alienated a huge number of supporters in the United States by preaching against slavery. Ingersoll spoke repeatedly about the importance of family life and the value of marriage. Ingersoll was perfectly willing to grant the possibility of the existence of Heaven; he just felt people like Spurgeon made it too hard to get there. Spurgeon had somewhat liberal views about whether Jews and Lutherans had a good chance at Heaven. But he wasn’t so sure Ingersoll would make it.

Each man had predecessors, as you can see from the Fall Exhibit, and each had successors, as you will find in the Religion section next July. And each man has dedicated readers—whether dedicated for or against—as I hope I will see at checkout next year.

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