Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


Talmage is the Spurgeon of America. He has all the English preacher's vogue as well as his orthodoxy. But he resembles Spurgeon with a difference. He is distinctly American. No one equals the Yankee at "tall talk," and what Yankee equals Talmage in this species of composition? The oracle of the Brooklyn Tabernacle licks creation in that line. Here is a specimen of his spread-eagle eloquence, taken from the sermon we are about to criticise:—"The black and deep-toned bell of doom hangs over their heads, and I take the hammer of that bell, and I strike it three times with all my might, and it sounds Woe! Woe! Woe!" Perhaps it does, but Talmage is wrong in his spelling. What the bell of doom, so impudently struck by this mannikin, really sounds is doubtless "Woh! Woh! Woh!" It wants the presumptuous spouter to leave off playing the part of God Almighty.

Over in America, as well as here in England, the Bible is meeting with misfortune. Christian ministers are showing up its blunders and inconsistencies. Its foes are now of its own household. Talmage is not frightened, however; he keeps a stiff upper-lip; and it must be admitted, he has a good deal of upper-lip to keep stiff. Since he visited the Holy Land his faith is strong enough to swallow whales. Now he knows that what the Bible says is true.. He has seen the place where it happened.

But faith is a tender plant. Talmage says it is easily destroyed. "I can give you a recipe for its obliteration," he cries; and it is this—"Read infidel books; have long and frequent conversations with sceptics; attend the lectures of those antagonistic to religion." Yes, faith is a tender plant. The believer is a hot-house production. He dies in the open-air. The Bible can be read by Freethinkers, and it confirms them in their scepticism; but if a Christian reads infidel books he is lost. Hearing the other side is fatal to his faith. It is Talmage who states so, and, as old Omar Khayyam says, he knows, he knows.

Somewhat paradoxically—but who expects logic from the pulpit?—the great Talmage declares, "I do not believe there is an infidel now alive who has read the Bible through." He offers a hundred dollars reward to any infidel "who has read the Bible through twice"—which discounts his certainty that no infidel had read it through once. A good many infidels might apply for that hundred dollars, but Talmage will never hand it over. An infidel's word is not good enough—not for Talmage. "I must have the testimony," he exclaims, "of someone who has seen him read it all through twice." A very safe condition! for who has ever seen any man read the Bible through? And if the witness happened to be an infidel—as is likely—Talmage would want the testimony of someone else who had seen him see the other man reading it; Talmage is not very wise, but he is not exactly a fool, and he and his money are not soon parted.

There is an "infidel" in America who has read the Bible through. His name is Robert G. Ingersoll. Talmage should discuss the Bible with him. But he won't. He knows what his fate would be in such an encounter. "And they gathered up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full."

There is also an "infidel" in England who has read the Bible through. More than one, of course, but we know this one so intimately. He was shut up in Holloway Gaol for knowing too much about the Bible. During the first eight weeks of his sojourn there the "blessed book" was his only companion. It was the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible. That prisoner read it through from the first mistake in Genesis to the last curse in Revelation; read it through as Talmage never did, for there were no distractions, no letters to answer, no morning and evening newspapers, no visitors dropping in. It was a continuous, undisturbed reading, and the man who did it would be happy to let the public decide whether he does not know the Bible as well as Talmage.

Talmage has a very poor opinion of infidels. He thinks that "bad habits" have much to do with scepticism. His narrow little mind cannot understand how anyone can differ from him without being wicked. Still, for decency sake, he makes exceptions. "Mind you," he cries, "I do not say that all infidels are immoral." How kind! How generous! No doubt the infidels will shed tears of gratitude. They are not all immoral. Some of them may be nearly as good as Talmage. Certainly some of them are not so avaricious. Infidels speakers don't insist on having fifty pounds paid in the ante-room before they mount the platform to deliver a lecture.

It appears that Talmage once knew a "pronounced infidel." He was the father of one of the Presidents of the United States. Talmage accepted an invitation to spend a night in his house. "Just before retiring at night, he said, in a jocose way: 'I suppose you are accustomed to read the Bible before going to bed, and here is my Bible from which to read. He then told me what portions he would like to have me read, and he only asked for those portions on which he could easily be facetious."

Talmage gives himself away in this observation. He contends that God wrote the Bible. Why, then, did God write it so that you could easily be facetious about it? It is not so easy to be facetious about Homer, or Plato, or Aristotle, or Dante, or Spinoza, or Shakespeare, or Bacon. There is no humor in the Bible, no wit, and only a little sarcasm. We do not laugh with it, but at it, which is the most fatal form of laughter. It is awfully solemn, but dreadfully absurd. There are things in it to tickle an elephant. Surely it is strange that God should write a book that lends itself so easily to ridicule.

The Spurgeon of Yankeeland goes on to speak about the "internal evidence" of the Bible. This he says is "paramount," though he takes care to skip off as quickly as possible to outside testimony. He cites a number of persons trained up as Christians in favor of the "supernatural" character of the Bible. The first is Chief Justice Chase, of the Supreme Court of the United States—against whom we put a great jurisprudist like Bentham, and a great judge like Sir James Stephen. The second is President Adams—against whom we put President Lincoln. The third is Sir Isaac Newton—against whom we put Charles Darwin. The fourth is Sir Walter Scott—against whom we put Byron and Shelley. The fifth is Hugh Miller—against whom we put Sir Charles Lyell. The sixth is Edmund Burke—against whom we put Thomas Paine, or, if that will not do, Lord Bolingbroke. The seventh is Mr. Gladstone—against whom we put John Morley. "Enough! Enough!" says Talmage. We say so too. Our names quite balance his names collectively. The game of "authorities" can be played on both sides. But is it worth playing at all? Is a great name a substitute for argument? Is authority as good as evidence? Should the jury decide according to the eminence of the pleader's friends, or according to his facts and the force of his reasoning?

Taking advantage of his congregation's ignorance, or exposing his own, Talmage declares that "The discovered monuments of Egypt have chiselled on them the story of the sufferings of the Israelites in Egyptian bondage, as we find it in the Bible." Now, to put it mildly, this is not true. We are also told that "the sulphurous graves of Sodom and Gomorrah have been identified." To put it mildly again, this is not true. We are told next that "the remains of the Tower of Babel have been found." This is not true. Assyrian documents are also said to "echo and re-echo the truth of Bible history," This is not true, according to Professor Sayce, who knows more about Assyrian history than Talmage knows about all things whatsoever. The witness of Assyria repeatedly contradicts the Bible story, not merely in small matters, but in important features. The fact is, Talmage does not know what he is talking about; or, he does know what he is talking about, in which case he is playing a very dirty trick on his hearers' credulity.

With respect to the Pentateuch, it does not trouble Talmage whether it was written by "Moses or Hilkiah or Ezra or Samuel or Jeremiah, or another group of ancients." He declares that "none of them wrote it," for "God wrote the Pentateuch"—that is to say, they "put down only what God dictated; he signed it afterward." But where is the signature? And what a paltry way is this of evading the question at issue! It is all very well to say that the writers of the Pentateuch were "Jehovah's stenographers or typewriters." What we want to know first of all is, who they were, and when they lived.

It is useless to follow Talmage any farther. Suffice it to say that he winds up by warning young Christians against a "Voltaire cyclone" on the one side, and a "Tom Paine cyclone" on the other side. There is something worse than either—a Talmage puddle. The young man who sports in that is only fit for—well, Exeter Hall, or Colney Hatch.

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