The Professor at the Breakfast-Table: What He Said, What He Heard, and What He Saw
The Professor finds a Fly in his Teacup.
I HAVE a long theological talk to relate, which must be dull reading to some of my young and vivacious friends. I don’t know, however, that any of them have entered into a contract to read all that I write, or that I have promised always to write to please them. What if I should sometimes write to please myself?
Now you must know that there are a great many things which interest me, to some of which this or that particular class of readers may be totally indifferent. I love Nature, and human nature, its thoughts, affections, dreams, aspirations, delusions, - Art in all its forms, -virtu in all its eccentricities,-old stories from black-letter volumes and yellow manuscripts, and new projects out of hot brains not yet imbedded in the snows of age. I love the generous impulses of the reformer; but not less does my imagination feed itself upon the old litanies, so often warmed by the human breath upon which they were wafted to heaven that they glow through our frames like our own heart’s blood. I hope I love good men and women ; I know that they never speak a word to me, even if it be of question or blame, that I do not take pleasantly, if it is expressed with a reasonable amount of human kindness.
I have before me at this time a beautiful and affecting letter, which I have hesitated to answer, though the postmark upon it gave its direction, and the name is one which is known to all, in some of its representatives. It contains no reproach, only a delicately-hinted fear. Speak gently, as this dear lady has spoken, and there is no heart so insensible that it does not answer to the appeal, no intellect so virile that it does not own a Certain allegiance to the claims of age, of childhood, of sensitive and timid natures, when they plead with it not to look at those sacred things by the broad daylight which they see in mystic shadow. How grateful would it be to make perpetual peace with these pleading saints and their confessors, by the simple act that silences all complainings ! Sleep, sleep, sleep ! says the Arch-Enchantress of them all,-and pours her dark and potent anodyne, distilled over the fires that consumed her foes,-its large, round drops changing, as we look, into the beads of her convert’s rosary ! Silence ! the pride of reason ! cries another, whose whole life is spent in reasoning down reason.
I hope I love good people, not for their sake, but for my own. And most assuredly, if any deed of wrong or word of bitterness led me into an act of disrespect towards that enlightened and excellent class of men who make it their calling to teach goodness and their duty to practise it, I should feel that I had done myself an injury rather than them. Go and talk with any professional man holding any of the mediaeval creeds, choosing one who wears upon his features the mark of inward and outward health, who looks cheerful, intelligent, and kindly, and see how all your prejudices melt away in his presence! It is impossible to come into intimate relations with a large, sweet nature, such as you may often find in this class, without longing to be at one with it in all its modes of being and believing. But does it not occur to you that one may love truth as he sees it, and his race as he views it, better than even the sympathy and approbation of many good men whom he honors,-better than sleeping to the sound of the Miserere or listening to the repetition of an effete Confession of Faith ?
The three learned professions have but recently emerged from a state of quasi barbarism. None of them like too well to be told of it, but it must be sounded in their ears whenever they put on airs. When a man has taken an overdose of laudanum, the doctors tell us to place him between two persons who shall make him walk up and down incessantly; and if he still cannot be kept from going to sleep, they say that a lash or two over his back is of great assistance.
So we must keep the doctors awake by telling them that they have not yet shaken off astrology and the doctrine of signatures, as is shown by their prescriptions, and their use of nitrate of silver, which turns epileptics into Ethiopians. If that is not enough, they must be given over to the scourgers, who like their task and get good fees for it. A few score years ago, sick people were made to swallow burnt toads and powdered earthworms and the expressed juice of woodlice. The physician of Charles I. and II. prescribed abominations not to be named. Barbarism, as bad as that of Congo or Ashantee. Traces of this barbarism linger even in the greatly improved medical science of our century. So while the solemn farce of over-drugging is going on, the world over, the harlequin pseudo-science jumps on to the stage, whip in hand, with half-a-dozen somersets, and begins laying about him.
In 1817, perhaps you remember, the law of wager by battle was unrepealed, and the rascally murderous, and worse than murderous, clown, Abraham Thornton, put on his gauntlet in open court and defied the appellant to lift the other which he threw down. It was not until the reign of George II. that the statutes against witchcraft were repealed. As for the English Court of Chancery, we know that its antiquated abuses form one of the staples of common proverbs and popular literature. So the laws and the lawyers have to be watched perpetually by public opinion as much as the doctors do.
I don’t think the other profession is an exception. When the Reverend Mr. Cauvin and his associates burned my distinguished scientific brother, - he was burned with green fagots, which made it rather slow and painful, - it appears to me they were in a state of religious barbarism. The dogmas of such people about the Father of Mankind and his creatures are of no more account in my opinion than those of a council of Aztecs. If a man picks your pocket, do you not consider him thereby disqualified to pronounce any authoritative Opinion on matters of ethics ? If a man hangs my ancient female relatives for sorcery, as they did in this neighborhood a little while ago, or burns my instructor for not believing as be does, I care no more for his religious edicts than I should for those of any other barbarian.
Of course, a barbarian may hold many true opinions; but when the ideas of the healing art, of the administration of justice, of Christian love, could not exclude systematic poisoning, judicial duelling, and murder for opinion’s sake, I do not see how we can trust the verdict of that time relating to any subject which involves the primal instincts violated in these abominations and absurdities. --What if we are even now in a state of semi-barbarism ?
Perhaps some think we ought not to talk at table about such things.- I am not so sure of that. Religion and government appear to me the two subjects which of all others should belong to the common talk of people who enjoy the blessings of freedom. Think, one moment. The earth is a great factorywheel, which, at every revolution on its axis, receives fifty thousand raw souls and turns off nearly the same number worked up more or less completely. There must be somewhere a population of two hundred thousand million, perhaps ten or a hundred times as many, earth-born intelligences. Life, as we call it, is nothing but the edge of the boundless ocean of existence where it comes on soundings. In this view, I do not see anything so fit to talk about, or half so interesting, as that which relates to the innumerable majority of our fellow-creatures, the dead-living, who are hundreds of thousands to one of the live-living, and with whom we all potentially belong, though we have got tangled for the present in some parcels of fibrine, albumen, and phosphates, that keep us on the minority side of the house. In point of fact, it is one of the many results of Spiritualism to make the permanent destiny of the race a matter of common reflection and discourse, and a vehicle for the prevailing disbelief of the Middle-Age doctrines on the subject. I cannot help thinking, when I remember how many conversations my friend and myself have reported, that it would be very extraordinary, if there were no mention of that class of subjects which involves all that we have and all that we hope, not merely for ourselves, but for the dear people whom we love best,-noble men, pure and lovely women, ingenuous children,-about the destiny of ninetenths of whom you know the opinions that would have been taught by those old man-roasting, woman-strangling dogmatists.-However, I fought this matter with one of our boarders the other day, and I am going to report the conversation.
The divinity-student came down, one morning, looking rather more serious than usual. He said little at breakfast-time, but lingered after the others, so that I, who am apt to be long at the table, found myself alone with him.
When the rest were all gone, he turned his chair round towards mine, and began.
I am afraid,-he said,-you express yourself a little too freely on a most important class of subjects. Is there not danger in introducing discussions or allusions relating to matters of religion into common discourse ?
Danger to what ?-I asked.
Danger to truth,-he replied, after a slight pause.
I didn’t know Truth was such an invalid,- I said.-How long is it since she could only take the air in a close carriage, with a gentleman in a black coat on the box ? Let me tell you a story, adapted to young persons, but which won’t hurt older ones.
----There was a very little boy who
had one of those balloons you may have seen, which are filled with light gas, and are held by a string to keep them from running off in aeronautic voyages on their own account. This little boy had a naughty brother, who said to him, one day,-Brother, pull down your balloon, so that I can look at it and take hold of it. Then the little boy pulled it down. Now the naughty brother had a sharp pin in his hand, and he thrust it into the balloon, and all the gas oozed out, so that there was nothing left but a shrivelled skin.
One evening, the little boy’s father called him to the window to see the moon, which pleased him very much ; but presently he said,-Father, do not pull the string and bring down the moon, for my naughty brother will prick it, and then it will all shrivel up and we shall not see it any more.
Then bis father laughed, and told him how the moon had been sinning a good while, and would shine a good while longer, and that all we could do was to keep our windows clean, never letting the dust get too thick on them, and especially to keep our eyes open, but that we could not pull the moon down with a string, nor prick it with a pin.-Mind you this, too, the moon is no man’s private property, but is seen from a good many parlor-windows.
-Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening. Does not Mr. Bryant say, that Truth gets well if she is run over by a locomotive, while Error dies of lockjaw if she scratches her finger? I never heard that a mathematician was alarmed for the safety of a demonstrated proposition. I think, generally, that fear of open discussion implies feebleness of inward conviction, and great sensitiveness to the expression of individual opinion is a mark of weakness.
----I am not so much afraid for truth, - said the divinity-student,- as for the conceptions of truth in the minds of persons not accustomed to judge wisely the opinions uttered before them.
Would you, then, banish all allusions to matters of this nature from the society of people who come together habitually ?
I would be very careful in introducing them,-said the divinity-student.
Yes, but friends of yours leave pamphlets in people’s entries, to be picked up by nervous misses and hysteric housemaids, full of doctrines these people do not approve. Some of your friends stop little children in the street, and give them books, which their parents, who have had them baptized into the Christian fold and give them what they consider proper religious instruction, do not think fit for them. One would say it was fair enough to talk about matters thus forced upon people’s attention.
The divinity-student could not deny that this was what might be called opening the subject to the discussion of intelligent people.
But,-he said,-the greatest objection is this, that persons who have not made a professional study of theology are not competent to speak on such subjects. Suppose a minister were to undertake to express opinions on medical subjects, for instance, would you not think he was going beyond his province ?
I laughed,- for I remembered John Wesley's “sulphur and supplication,” and so many other cases where ministers had meddled with medicine,-sometimes well and sometimes ill, but, as a general rule, with a tremendous lurch to quackery, owing to their very loose way of admitting evidence,-that I could not help being amused.
I beg your pardon,-I said,-I do not wish to be impolite, but I was thinking of their certificates to patent medicines. Let us look at this matter.
If a minister had attended lectures on the theory and practice of medicine, delivered by those who had studied it most deeply, for thirty or forty years, at the rate of from fifty to one hundred a year, -if he bad been constantly reading and hearing read the most approved textbooks on the subject,- if he had seen medicine actually practised according to different methods, daily, for the same length of time,-I should think, that, if a person of average understanding, he was entitled to express an opinion on the subject of medicine, or else that his instructors were a set of ignorant and incompetent charlatans.
If, before a medical practitioner would allow me to enjoy the full privileges of the healing art, he expected me to affirm my belief in a considerable number of medical doctrines, drugs, and formulæ I should think that he thereby implied my right to discuss the same, and my ability to do so, if I knew how to express myself in English.
Suppose, for instance, the Medical Society should refuse to give us an opiate, or to set a broken limb, until we had signed our belief in a certain number of propositions,-of which we will say this is the first:-
I. All men’s teeth are naturally in a state of total decay or caries, and, therefore, no man can bite until every one of them is extracted and a new set is inserted according to the principles of dentistry adopted by this Society.
I, for one, should want to discuss that before signing my name to it, and I should say this:-Why, no, that isn’t true. There are a good many bad teeth, we all know, but a great many more good ones. You mustn’t trust the dentists; they are all the time looking at the people who have bad teeth, and such as are suffering from toothache. The idea that you must pull out every one of every nice young man and young woman’s natural teeth! Poh, poh! Nobody believes that. This tooth must be straightened, that must be filled with gold, and this other perhaps extracted; but it must be a very rare case, if they are all so bad as to require extraction ; and if they are, don’t blame the poor soul for it! Don’t tell us, as some old dentists used to, that everybody not only always has every tooth in his head good for nothing, but that he ought to have his head cut off as a punishment for that misfortune! No, I can’t sign Number One. Give us Number Two.
II. We hold that no man can be well who does not agree with our views of the efficacy of calomel, and who does not take the doses of it prescribed in our tables, as there directed.
To which I demur, questioning why it should be so, and get for answer the two following :-
III. Every man who does not take our prepared calomel, as prescribed by us in our Constitution and By-Laws, is and must be a mass of disease from head to foot; it being self-evident that he is simultaneously affected with Apoplexy, Arthritis, Ascites, Asphyxia, and Atrophy ; with Borborygmus, Bronchitis, and Bulimia ; with Cachexia, Carcinoma, and Cretinismus ; and so on through the alphabet, to Xerophthalmia and Zona, with all possible and incompatible diseases which are necessary to make up a totally morbid state; and he will certainly die, if he does not take freely of our prepared calomel, to be obtained only of one of our authorized agents.
IV. No man shall be allowed to take our prepared calomel who does not give in his solemn adhesion to each and all of the above-named and the following propositions (from ten to a hundred) and show his mouth to certain of our apothecaries, who have not studied dentistry, to examine whether all his teeth have been extracted and a new set inserted according to our regulations.
Of course, the doctors have a right to say we shan’t have any rhubarb, if we don’t sign their articles, and that, if, after signing them, we express doubts (in public) about any of them, they will cut us off from our jalap and squills,-but then to ask a fellow not to discuss the propositions before he signs them is what I should call boiling it down a little too strong!
If we understand them, why can’t we discuss them ? If we can’t understand them, because we haven’t taken a medical degree, what the Father of Lies do they ask us to sign them for?
Just so with the graver profession. Every now and then some of its members seem to lose common sense and common humanity. The laymen have to keep setting the divines right constantly. Science, for instance,- in other words, knowledge,-is not the enemy of religion ; for, if so, then religion would mean ignorance. But it is often the antagonist of school-divinity.
Everybody knows the story of early astronomy and the school-divines. Come down a little later. Archbishop Usher, a very learned Protestant prelate, tells us that the world was created on Sunday, the twenty-third of October, four thousand and four years before the birth of Christ. Deluge, December 7th, two thousand three hundred and forty-eight years B. C.-Yes, and the earth stands on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise. One statement is as near the truth as the other.
Again, there is nothing so brutalizing to some natures as moral surgery. I have often wondered that Hogarth did not add one more picture to his four stages of Cruelty. Those wretched fools, reverend divines and others, who were strangling men and women for imaginary crimes a little more than a century ago among us, were set right by a layman, and very angry it made them to have him meddle.
The good people of Northampton had a very remarkable man for their clergyman,-a man with a brain as nicely adjusted for certain mechanical processes as Babbage’s calculating machine. The commentary of the laymen on the preaching and practising of Jonathan Edwards was, that, after twenty-three years of endurance, they turned him out by a vote of twenty to one, and passed a resolve that he should never preach for them again. A man’s logical and analytical adjustments are of little consequence, compared to his primary relations with Nature and truth ; and people have sense enough to find it out in the long run ; they know what “ logic ” is worth.
In that miserable delusion referred to above, the reverend Aztecs and Fijians argued rightly enough from their premises, no doubt, for many men can do this. But common sense and common humanity were unfortunately left out from their premises, and a layman had to supply them. A hundred more years and many of the barbarisms slid lingering among us will, of course, have disappeared like witch-hanging. But people are sensitive now, as they were then. You will see by this extract that the Rev. Cotton Mather did not like intermeddling with his business very well. “ Let the Levites of the Lord keep close to their Instructions,” he says, “ and God will smite thro' the loins of those that rise up against them. I will report unto you a Thing which many Hundreds among us know to be true. The Godly Minister of a certain Town in Connecticut, when he had occasion to be absent on a Lord's Day from his Flock, employ’d an honest Neighbour of some small Talents for a Mechanick, to read a Sermon out of some good Book unto ’em. This Honest, whom they ever counted also a Pious Man, had so much conceit of his Talents, that instead of Reading a Sermon appointed, he to the Surprize of the People, fell to preaching one of his own. For his Text he took these Words, 'Despise not Prophecyings '; and in his Preachment he betook himself to bewail the Envy of the Clergy in the Land, in that they did not wish all the Lord's People to be Prophets, and call forth Private Brethren publickly to prophesie. While he was thus in the midst of his Exercise, God smote him with horrible Madness : he was taken ravingly distracted ; the People were forc’d with violent Hands to carry him home. . . . I will not mention his Name: He was reputed a Pious Man.” -This is one of Cotton’s “ Remarkable Judgments of God, on Several Sorts of Offenders,”-and the next cases referred to are the Judgments on the “ Abominable Sacrilege ” of not paying the Ministers’ Salaries.
This sort of thing doesn’t do here and now, you see, my young friend ! We talk about our free institutions;-they are nothing but a coarse outside machinery to secure the freedom of individual thought. The President of the United States is only the engine-driver of our broad-gauge mail-train ; and every honest, independent thinker has a seat in the first-class cars behind him.
—There is something in what you say,-replied the divinity-student;-and yet it seems to me there are places and times where disputed doctrines of religion should not be introduced. You would not attack a church dogma-say, Total Depravity—in a lyceum-lecture, for instance ?
Certainly not; I should choose another place,- I answered.- But, mind you, at this table I think it is very different. I shall express my ideas on any subject I like. The laws of the lectureroom, to which my friends and myself are always amenable, do not hold here. I shall not often give arguments, but frequently opinions, - I trust with courtesy and propriety, but, at any rate, with such natural forms of expression as it has pleased the Almighty to bestow upon me.
A man’s opinions, look you, are generally of much more value than his arguments. These last are made by his brain, and perhaps he does not believe the proposition they tend to prove,-as is often the case with paid lawyers; but opinions are formed by our whole nature, - brain, heart, instinct, brute life, everything all our experience has shaped for us by contact with the whole circle of our being.
—There is one thing more, - said the divinity-student, -that I wished to speak of; I mean that idea of yours, expressed some time since, of depolarizing the text of sacred books in order to judge them fairly. May I ask why you do not try the experiment yourself ?
Certainly,-I replied,-if it gives you any pleasure to ask foolish questions. I think the ocean telegraph-wire ought to be laid and will be laid, but I don’t know that you have any right to ask me to go and lay it. But, for that matter, I have heard a good deal of Scripture depolarized in and out of the pulpit. I heard the Rev. Mr. F. once depolarize the story of the Prodigal Son in ParkStreet Church. Many years afterwards,
I heard him repeat the same or a similar depolarized version in Rome, New York. I heard an admirable depolarization of the story of the young man who “had great possessions” trom the Rev. Mr. H. in another pulpit, and felt that I had never half understood it before. All paraphrases are more or less perfect depolarizations. But I tell you this : the faith of our Christian community is not robust enough to bear the turning of our most sacred language into its depolarized equivalents. You have only to look back to Dr. Channing's famous Baltimore discourse and remember the shrieks of blasphemy with which it was greeted, to satisfy yourself on this point. Time, time only, can gradually wean us from our Epeolatry, or wordworship, by spiritualizing our ideas of the thing signified. Man is an idolater or symbol-worshipper by nature, which, of course, is no fault of his; but sooner or later all his local and temporary symbols must be ground to powder, like the golden calf, - word-images as well as metal and wooden ones. Rough work, iconoelasm,-but the only way to get at truth. It is, indeed, as that quaint and rare old discourse, “ A Summons for Sleepers,” hath it, “ no doubt a thankless office, and a verie unthriftie occupation ; veritas odium parit, truth never goeth without a scratcht face ; he that will be busie with vœ vobis, let him looke shortly for coram nobis.'’
The very aim arid end of our institutions is just this: that we may think what we like and say what we think.
—Think what we like! - said the divinity-student; - think what we like! What! against all human and divine authority ?
Against all human versions of its own or any other authority. At our own peril always, if we do not like the right,-but not at the risk of being hanged and quartered for political heresy, or broiled on green fagots for ecclesiastical treason ! Nay, we have got so far, that the very word heresy has fallen into comparative disuse among us.
And now, my young friend, let us shake hands and stop our discussion, which we will not make a quarrel. I trust you know, or will learn, a great many things in your profession which we common scholars do not know; but mark this: when the common people of New England stop talking politics and theology, it will be because they have got an Emperor to teach them the one, and a Pope to teach them the other !
That was the end of my long conference with the divinity-student. The next morning we got talking a little on the same subject, very good-naturedly, as people return to a matter they have talked out.
You must look to yourself,-said the divinity-student,-if your democratic notions get into print. You will be fired into from all quarters.
If it were only a bullet, with the marksman’s name on it!-I said.-I can’t stop to pick out the peep-shot of the anonymous scribblers.
Right, Sir ! right!-said Little Boston. — The scamps! I know the fellows. They can’t give fifty cents to one of the Antipodes, but they must have it jingled along through everybody’s palms all the way, till it reaches him,-and forty cents of it get spilt, like the water out of the fire-buckets passed along a “ lane ” at a fire ;-but when it comes to anonymous defamation, putting lies into people’s mouths, and then advertising those people through the country as the authors of them,-oh, then it is that they let not their left hand know what their right hand doeth !
I don’t like Ehud’s style of doing business, Sir. He comes along with a very sanctimonious look, Sir, with his “ secret errand unto thee,” and his “ message from God unto thee,” and then pulls out his hidden knife with that unsuspected left hand of his, - (the little gentleman lifted his clenched left hand with the blood-red jewel on the ring-finger,) - and runs it, blade and haft, into a man’s stomach ! Don't meddle with these fellows, Sir. They are read mostly by persons whom you would not reach, if you were to write ever so much. Let ’em alone. A man whose opinions are not attacked is beneath contempt.
I hope so,-I said.-I got three pamphlets and innumerable squibs flung at my head for attacking one of the pseudo-sciences, in former years. When, by the permission of Providence, I held up to the professional public the damnable facts connected with the conveyance of poison from one young mother’s chamber to another’s,-for doing which humble office I desire to be thankful that I have lived, though nothing else good should ever come of my life,-I had to bear the sneers of those whose position I had assailed, and, as I believe, have at last demolished, so that nothing but the ghosts of dead women stir among the ruins.-What would you do, if the folks without names kept at you, trying to get a San Benito on to your shoulders that would lit you? - Would you stand still in fly-time, or would you give a kick now and then ?
Let ’em bite !-said Little Boston ;- let ’em bite ! It makes ’em hungry to shake ’em off, and they settle down again as thick as ever and twice as savage. Do you know what meddling with the folks without names, as you call ’em, is like ?- It is like riding at the quintain. You run full tilt at the board, but the board is on a pivot, with a bag of sand on an arm that balances it. The board gives way as soon as you touch it; and before you have got by, the bag of sand comes round whack on the back of your neck. “Ananias," for instance, pitches into your lecture, we will say, in some paper taken by the people in your kitchen. Your servants get saucy and negligent. If their newspaper calls you names, they need not be so particular about shutting doors softly or boiling potatoes. So you lose your temper, and come out in an article which you think is going to finish “Ananias,” proving him a booby who doesn’t know enough to understand even a lyceum-lecture, or else a person that tells lies. Now you think you’ve got him! Not so fast. “Ananias” keeps still and winks to “ Shimei,” and “ Shimei ” comes out in the paper which they take in your neighbor’s kitchen, ten times worse than t’other fellow. If you meddle with “ Shimei,” he steps out, and next week appears “ Rab-shakeh,” an unsavory wretch ; and now, at any rate, you find out what good sense there was in Hezekiah’s “Answer him not.”-No, no,-keep your temper. -So saying, the little gentleman doubled his left fist and looked at it, as if be should like to hit something or somebody a most pernicious punch with it.
Good !-said I.-Now let me give you some axioms I have arrived at, after seeing something of a great many kinds of good folks.
—Of a hundred people of each of the different leading religious sects, about the same proportion will be safe and pleasant persons to deal and to live with.
—There are, at least, three real saints among the women to one among the men, in every denomination.
—The spiritual standard of different classes I would reckon thus :-
1. The comfortably rich.
2. The decently comfortable.
3. The very rich, who are apt to be irreligious.
4. The very poor, who are apt to be immoral.
—The cut nails of machine-divinity may be driven in, but they won’t clinch.
—The arguments which the greatest of our schoolmen could not refute were two : the blood in men’s veins, and the milk in women’s breasts.
-Humility is the first of the virtues -for other people.
-Faith always implies the disbelief of a lesser fact in favor of a greater. A little mind often sees the unbelief, without seeing the belief, of a large one.
The Poor Relation had been fidgeting about and working her mouth while all this was going on. She broke out in speech at this point.
I hate to hear folks talk so. I don't see that you are any better than a heathen.
I wish I were half as good as many heathens have been,— I said. - Dying for a principle seems to me a higher degree of virtue than scolding for it ; and the history of heathen races is full of instances where men have laid down their lives for the love of their kind, of their country, of truth, nay, even for simple manhood’s sake, or to show their obedience or fidelity. What would not such beings have done for the souls of men, for the Christian commonwealth, for the King of Kings, if they had lived in days of larger light? Which seems to you nearest heaven, Socrates drinking his hemlock, Regulus going back to the enemy’s camp, or that old New England divine sitting comfortably in his study and chuckling over his conceit of certain poor women, who had been burned to death in his own town, going “ roaring out of one fire into another”?
I don't believe he said any such thing, -replied the Poor Relation.
It is hard to believe,—said I,-but it is true for all that. In another hundred years it will be as incredible that men talked as we sometimes hear them now.
Cor facit theologum. The heart makes the theologian. Every race, every civilization, either has a new revelation of its own or a new interpretation of an old one. Democratic America has a different humanity from feudal Europe, and so must have a new divinity. See, for one moment, how intelligence reacts on our faiths. The Bible was a diviningbook to our ancestors, and is so still in the hands of some of the vulgar. The Puritans went to the Old Testament for their laws; the Mormons go to it for their patriarchal institution. Every generation dissolves something new and precipitates something once held in solution from that great storehouse of temporary and permanent truths.
You may observe this: that the conversation of intelligent men of the stricter sects is strangely in advance of the formulæ that belong to their organizations. So true is this, that I have doubts whether a large proportion of them would not have been rather pleased than offended, if they could have overheard our talk. For, look you, I think there is hardly a professional teacher who will not in private conversation allow a large part of what we have said, though it may frighten him in print; and I know well what an under-current of secret sympathy gives vitality to those poor words of mine which sometimes get a hearing.
I don’t mind the exclamation of any old stager who drinks Madeira worth from two to six Bibles a bottle, and burns, according to his own premises, a dozen souls a year in the cigars with which he muddles his brains. But for the good and true and intelligent men whom we see all around us, laborious, self-denying, hopeful, helpful, - men who know that the active mind of the century is tending more and more to the two poles, Rome and Reason, the sovereign church or the free soul, authority or personality, God in us or God in our masters, and that, though a man may by accident stand half-way between these two points, he must look one way or the other,-I don’t believe they would take offence at anything I have reported of our late conversation.
But supposing any one do take offence at first sight, let him look over these notes again, and see whether he is quite sure he does not agree with most of these things that were said amongst us. It he agrees with most of them, let him be patient with an opinion he does not accept, or an expression or illustration a little too vivacious. I don't know that I shall report any more conversations on these topics ; but I do insist on the right to express a civil opinion on this class of subjects without giving offence, just when and where I please,-unless, as in the lecture-room, there is an implied contract to keep clear of doubtful matters. You didn’t think a man could sit at a breakfast-table doing nothing but making puns every morning for a year or two, and never give a thought to the two thousand of his fellow-creatures who are passing into another state during every hour that he sits talking and laughing ! Of course, the one matter that a real human being cares for is what is going to become of them and of him. And the plain truth is, that a good many people are saving one thing about it and believing another.
—How do I know that ? Why, I have known and loved to talk with good people, all the way from Rome to Geneva in doctrine, as long as I can remember. Besides, the real religion of the world comes from women much more than from men, - from mothers most of all, who carry the key of our souls in their bosoms. It is in their hearts that the “sentimental ” religion some people are so fond of sneering at has its source. The sentiment of love, the sentiment of maternity, the sentiment of the paramount obligation of the parent to the child as having called it into existence, enhanced just in proportion to the power and knowledge of the one and the weakness and ignorance of the other,-these are the “sentiments” that have kept our soulless systems from driving men off to die in holes like those that riddle the sides of the hill opposite the Monastery of St. Saba, where the miserable victims of a falsely-interpreted religion starved and withered in their delusion.
I have looked on the face of a saintly woman this very day, whose creed many dread and hate, but whose life is lovely and noble beyond all praise. When I remember the bitter words I have heard spoken against her faith, by men who have an Inquisition which excommunicates those who ask to leave their communion in peace, and an Index Expurgatorius on which this article may possibly have the honor of figuring, - and, far worse than these, the reluctant, pharisaieal confession, that it might perhaps be possible that one who so believed should be accepted of the Creator, - and then recall the sweet peace and love that show through all her looks, the price of untold sacrifices and labors,- and again recollect how thousands of women, filled with the same spirit, die, without a murmur, to earthly life, die to their own names even, that they may know nothing but their holy duties, - while men are torturing and denouncing their fellows, and while we can hear day and night the clinking of the hammers that are trying, like the brute forces in the “ Prometheus,” to rivet their adamantine wedges right through the breast of human nature,- I have been ready to believe that we have even now a new revelation, and the name of its Messiah is WOMAN !
—I should be sorry,—I remarked, a day or two afterwards, to the divinity-student,-if anything I said tended in any way to foster any jealousy between the professions, or to throw disrespect upon that one on whose counsel and sympathies almost all of us lean in our moments of trial. But we are false to our new conditions of life, if we do not resolutely maintain our religious as well as our political freedom, in the face of any and all supposed monopolies. Certain men will, of course, say two things, if we do not take their views : first, that we don’t know anything about these matters ; and, secondly, that we are not so good as they are. They have a polarized phraseology for saying these things, but it comes to precisely that. To which it may be answered, in the first place, that we have good authority for saying that even babes and sucklings know something; and, in the second, that, if there is a mote or so to be removed from our premises, the courts and councils of the last few years have found beams enough in some other quarters to build a church that would hold all the good people in Boston and have sticks enough left to make a bonfire for all the heretics.
As to that terrible depolarizing process of mine, of which we were talking the other day, I will give you a specimen of one way of managing it, it you like. I don’t believe it will hurt you or anybody. Besides, I had a great deal rather finish our talk with pleasant images and gentle words than with sharp sayings, which will only afford a text, if anybody repeats them, for endless relays of attacks from Messrs. Ananias, Shimei, and Rab-shakeh.
[ I must leave such gentry, if any of them show themselves, in the hands of my clerical friends, many of whom are ready to stand up for the rights ot the laity,-and to those blessed souls, the good women, to whom this version of the story of a mother’s hidden hopes and tender anxieties is dedicated by their peaceful and loving servant.]
A MOTHER’S SECRET.
How sweet the sacred legend—if unblamed
In my slight verse such holy things are named-
Of Mary’s secret hours of hidden joy,
Silent, but pondering on her wondrous boy!
Ave, Maria! Pardon, if I wrong
Those heavenly words that shame my earthly song!
The choral host had closed the angel’s strain
Sung to the midnight watch on Bethlehem’s plain ;
And now the shepherds, hastening on their way,
Sought the still hamlet where the Infant lay.
They passed the fields that gleaning Ruth toiled o'er,—
They saw afar the ruined threshing-floor
Where Moab’s daughter, homeless and forlorn,
Found Boaz slumbering by his heaps of corn;
And some remembered how the holy scribe,
Skilled in the lore of every jealous tribe,
Traced the warm blood of Jesse’s royal son
To that fair alien, bravely wooed and won.
So fared they on to seek the promised sign
That marked the anointed heir of David’s line.
At last, by forms of earthly semblance led,
They found the crowded inn, the oxen’s shed.
No pomp was there, no glory shone around
On the coarse straw that strewed the reeking ground;
One dim retreat a flickering torch betrayed,—
In that poor cell the Lord of Life was laid!
The wondering shepherds told their breathless tale
Of the bright choir that woke the sleeping vale;
Told how the skies with sudden glory flamed;
Told how the shining multitude proclaimed,
“ Joy, joy to earth! Behold the hallowed morn !
In David's city Christ the Lord is born!
' Glory to God !' lot angels shout on high,-
‘Good-will to men!’ the listening Earth reply ! ”
They spoke with hurried words and accents wild;
Calm In his cradle slept the heavenly child.
No trembling word the mother's joy revealed,—
One sigh of rapture, and her lips were sealed;
Unmoved she saw the rustic train depart,
But kept their words to ponder in her heart.
Twelve years had passed; the boy was fair and tall,
Growing in wisdom, finding grace with all.
The maids of Nazareth, as they trooped to fill
Their balanced urns beside the mountain-rill,—
The gathered matrons, as they sat and spun,
Spoke in soft words of Joseph’s quiet son.
No voice had reached the Galilean vale
Of star-led kings or awe-struck shepherds' tale;
In the meek, studious child they only saw
The future Rabbi, learned in Israel's law.
So grew the boy; and now the feast was near,
When at the holy place the tribes appear.
Scarce had the home-bred child of Nazareth seen
Beyond the hills that girt the village-green,
Save when at midnight, o'er the star-lit sands,
Snatched from the steel of Herod’s murdering bands,
A babe, close-folded to his mother’s breast,
Through Edom's wilds he sought the sheltering West.
Then Joseph spake: “Thy boy hath largely grown ;
Weave him fine raiment, fitting to be shown;
Fair robes beseem the pilgrim, as the priest:
Goes he not with us to the holy feast ? ”
And Mary culled the flaxen fibres white;
Till eve she spun; she spun till morning light;
The thread was twined; its parting meshes through From hand to hand her restless shuttle flew,
Till the full web was wound upon the beam,—
Love’s curious toil,—a vest without a seam !
They reach the holy place, fulfil the days
To solemn feasting given, and grateful praise.
At last they turn, and far Moriah's height
Melts in the southern sky and fades from sight.
All day the dusky caravan has flowed
In devious trails along the winding road
(For many a step their homeward path attends,
And all the sons of Abraham are as friends).
Evening has come, — the hour of rest and joy;—
Hush! hush !—that whisper, — “Where is Mary’s boy ? ”
O weary hour! O aching days that passed
Filled with strange fears, each wilder than the last:
The soldier's lance, — the fierce centurion’s sword,—
The crushing wheels that whirl some Roman lord,—
The midnight crypt that sucks the captive’s breath,—
The blistering sun on Hinnom’s vale of death!
Thrice on his cheek had rained the morning light,
Thrice on his lips the mildewed kiss of night,
Crouched by some porphyry column’s shining plinth,
Or stretched beneath the odorous terebinth.
At last, in desperate mood, they sought once more
The Temple’s porches, searched in vain before ;
They found him seated with the ancient men,—
The grim old rufflers of the tongue and pen,—
Their bald heads glistening as they clustered near,
Their gray beards slanting as they turned to hear,
Lost in half-envious wonder and surprise
That lips so fresh should utter words so wise.
And Mary said,—as one who, tried too long,
Tells all her grief and half her sense of wrong,—
“What is this thoughtless thing which thou hast done ?
Lo, we have sought thee sorrowing, O my son! ”
Few words he spake, and scarce of filial tone,—
Strange words, their sense a mystery yet unknown;
Then turned with them and left the holy hill,
To all their mild commands obedient still.
The tale was told to Nazareth’s sober men,
And Nazareth’s matrons told it oft again;
The maids re-told it at the fountain’s side;
The youthful shepherds doubted or denied;
It passed around among the listening friends,
With all that fancy adds and fiction lends,
Till newer marvels dimmed the young renown
Of Joseph’s son, who talked the Rabbis down.
But Mary, faithful to its lightest word,
Kept in her heart the sayings she had heard,
Till the dread morning rent the Temple’s veil,
And shuddering Earth confirmed the wondrous tale.
Youth fades: love droops; the leaves of friendship fall:
A mother's secret hope outlives them all.