This Week in Texas Methodist History May 15
G. W. Briggs, Galveston Pastor, Draws Editorial Ire for Radical Position, May 15, 1880
Perhaps you have been disturbed by radical positions of recent political/religious statements. Although many of them are outside the limits of civil discussion, none can compare with the radical position of Rev. G. W. Briggs in 1880. He called for the execution of persons who did not believe in the Bible. Briggs was not some insignificant small town preacher; he was the editor of the Texas Christian Advocate and pastor of the MECS church in Galveston.
His call for making disbelief a capital crime came about in a public lecture prompted by the growing popularity of Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899). Ingersoll, the son of a Congregational preacher, was a lawyer, minor politician, Civil War veteran who was one of the finest orators of the era. He spoke on many subjects including the importance of family life, patriotism, and so on, speaking without any notes for as long as three hours. He is best remembered today, however, as the most able spokesman of the time for agnosticism and humanism. His enemies began to call him “the Great Infidel,” but he continued to fill auditoriums with listeners who paid $1.00 each for tickets.
Briggs felt it necessary to give a public lecture in the Tremont Opera House against Ingersoll in Galveston. The Galveston Daily News (May 16) reprinted the lecture. As you can probably guess, the call for capital punishment set off a firestorm of opposition.
From the Waco Telephone
Rev. G. W. Briggs, the southern Methodist minister in Galveston, in his recent lecture against Ingersoll, said a law ought to be passed making it high treason against the government for anyone who expresses open disbelief in the Bible. . .. We presume this man Briggs is a kind of bigoted fanatic, whose sayings are more to be pitied than condemned.. .Why such a man is even allowed to fill the pulpit of the leading church in Galveston must be set down as one of those mysterious “dispensations of Providence” that cannot be explained. Mr. Briggs has done the cause of true religion a great harm. . .
From the Austin Statesman
. . .In our opinion the pulpit is responsible for such men as Ingersoll. The average preacher is a prolific cause of infidelity, and the utterances of clerical stupidity and intolerance have raised up men like Bob Ingersoll, who echo the prayer of Voltaire, ‘The time may come when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
From the Mexia Ledger
If these ministers (Briggs) are in any manner imitating their meek and lowly Master, such commendable acts have failed to come to the knowledge of the general public.
Newspapers continued to carry articles about Briggs and his denunciation of Ingersoll through the summer of 1880. One enterprising reporter interviewed Ingersoll in Washington, D. C. One of the lines from the “Great Agnostic” shows his devastating wit.
Mr. Briggs is not so bad as the god he worships. Mr. Briggs wishes to torture infidels for a few hours here, while his god will torture them forever.
Eventually the furor died down. Regular readers of this blog will recall how Briggs ended up as a drunken Bowery Bum in a New York court room accused of shoplifting. (see post for April 20, 2008)