He’s probably most influential in today’s popular culture for being the inspiration for Lew Wallace writing “Ben Hur”, a massive bestseller that spawned two hit film adaptations.
Per Wikipedia, “Citing one inspiration for Ben-Hur, Wallace recounted his life-changing journey and talk with Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, a well-known agnostic and public speaker, whom he met on a train when the two were bound for Indianapolis on September 19, 1876. Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in his railroad compartment during the trip. The two men debated religious ideology, and Wallace left the discussion realizing how little he knew about Christianity. He became determined to do his own research to write about the history of Christ. Wallace explained: “I was ashamed of myself, and make haste now to declare that the mortification of pride I then endured… ended in a resolution to study the whole matter, if only for the gratification there might be in having convictions of one kind or another.” It is not known for certain when Wallace decided to write a novel based on the life of Christ, but he had already written the manuscript for a magazine serial about the three Magi at least two years before his discussions with Ingersoll. Researching and writing about Christianity helped Wallace become clear about his own ideas and beliefs. He developed the novel from his own exploration of the subject.”
Ingersoll was popular as sort of a Richard Dawkins / Christopher Hitchens prototype. As with those two authors, whose popularity sparked a resurgence of Christian apologetics authors, the popular attention paid to Ingersoll’s attacks on religion acted in an ironic fashion to create a renaissance in Christian apologetics, as Christian writers researched their own canons to have answers to the arguments.
William Jennings Bryan, the failed political candidate who was best known for his involvement in the “Scopes Monkey Trial”, was among those whose popularity rose in addressing Ingersoll’s arguments as a Christian apologist.
(Ironically, Bryan would be considered a progressive today. He was a pacifist regarding the United States entering WWI (L. Frank Baum’s Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz books was intended as a scathing satire of Bryan and his pacifist stance), and supported women’s suffrage and the rights of African Americans when those were considered unpopular positions. Bryan’s opposition to the teaching of evolution in the public schools was based less on a literalist reading of Genesis (his views were much less literalist and more nuanced than the popular adaptation “Inherit the Wind” portrays) but on the use of “Social Darwinism” to promote policies that were inimical to blacks and poor whites, such as eugenics and forced sterilization. That the actual text that Scopes was using contained explicitly racist language regarding black people’s supposed place in the evolutionary ladder vis a vis white people contributed to his decision to participate in the Scopes trial.)
Like a lot of professional orators, Ingersoll was known for playing pretty fast and loose with quotations when it was useful for him to buttress an opinion. You may have seen a common meme on the Internet which asserts that Magellan said that the Church said the world is flat.
You’ll note that there is no citation as to the source of this quote, and there’s a good reason for that. Magellan never said anything like it.
The actual source for the quote is from an essay by Ingersoll (1883 - 1899 AD), titled “Individualism”, who used the classic misattribution trope: “I believe that it was ----, who said ----.”
*It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions — some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said,“The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.” On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.
As the writings by Magellan are few and there is no such reference to anything like that, we can presume that Ingersoll pulled this quote out of his ass.
He wasn’t the last politician to do so - Barack Obama, who was probably dozing in whatever history classes he bothered to attend, said this in a speech:
*Here’s the sad thing. Lately we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians—a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office, who shall go unnamed—they’ve been talking down new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. They were against raising fuel standards. I guess they like gas guzzlers. They think that’s good for our future.
We’ve heard this kind of thinking before. Some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail—they must have been founding members of the Flat-Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round.*
To be fair to both sides of the political spectrum, Glenn Beck said something similarly foolish and even managed to claim that Galileo proved the world was round…