Lecture-Room Talks: A Series of Familiar Discourses on Themes of General Christian Experience

By HENRY WARD BEECHER. New York: J. B. Ford & Co.
THE purpose of Mr. Beecher’s Friday-evening talks is to illustrate religious truth out of the depths of men’s personal experience, mainly his own ; and the result is a very curious book, showing how great is the debt which religion—in one of its most conspicuous modern forms at least — is apt to owe to good animal spirits. No one’s religious repute, we are persuaded, would attract the favorable verdict of a larger number of people than Mr. Beecher’s own. He is an ardent, unaffected believer in the credentials of all the distinctively Protestant churches, while he maintains a tolerant and friendly attitude towards the Romish communion as well. His devotional animus is perfectly reverential, although a highly emotional nature may now and then slightly demoralize its utterances, lie is never scornful towards unbelief, but patient, gentle; and persuasive in expostulation and argument. lie betrays no Pharisaic symptoms, and evidently takes much more pleasure in the things that make for peace among men than in those that make for division. In short, Mr. Beecher is an altogether favorable exponent of our modern religious life. And yet, being what he is, we are persuaded that his fine qualities are mainly due to his exceptional temperament, and imply nothing whatever of that subterranean or supernatural leaven which the earlier faith of Christendom used to call regeneration. Rather let us say that the regeneration which Mr. Beecher’s religious character and activity attest is a regeneration of human nature itself, and not of any special subject of the nature.
This fact makes it difficult to do exact and ample justice to Mr. Beecher as a representative of the actual religious movement of the time. For men feel an instinctive distrust of any religion which claims merely natural sanctions. The reverence of the Divine name is so deep-seated in the heart of mankind, that men will believe anything sooner, in the long run, than that we can love God naturally, or as we love ourselves,The best culture of the world, From the days of Paul down to those of Goethe, affirms an infinite distance between the Divine and human natures; and if the distance be in reality infinite, it of course excludes the pretension of any moral or personal relations between Creator and creature. If the difference between God and man be one of kind altogether, and not at all one of degree, a difference of quality and not of quantity, then manifestly my natural love and appreciation of myself will, in proportion to its strength, only disqualify me to appreciate and love God, and I shall require, consequently, to be gifted with some supernatural force in order to overcome this limitation. This explains the distrust which Mr. Beecher’s corpulent, not to say carnal, religiosity provokes in the mind of the ultra-devout. Nothing can be more unaffected or helpless than the disgust which his performances excite in the rival school of ecclesiastical thought, which sinks religion into a mere ritual parade, or makes it consist in propitiating the Divine obduracy by all those appliances of dramatic or ostentatious humility which men use to placate earthly sovereigns. The pallid traditional observances of this school contrast with his robust unscrupulous piety, much as last year’s withered leaves contrast with the fresh green of the spring; and there is no end, accordingly, to the misunderstanding between them, until the gorgeous spring itself, with all its vivid garniture of green, descends into the sere and crisp October, or consents in its turn to be a thing no longer of life but of memory. Such is the fate that overtakes all bright things, —to bud and blossom for a while with a promise of immortal fruit, and then expire in wintry nakedness. Such has been the history of ritualism, such will be the history of our modern evangelicism, — out of hay to become stubble, out of living wood to become dead bark; and to fancy itself still ministering to the heaven of men’s faith, when in fact it is only coloring and enriching the earth of their imagination.
And yet Mr. Beecher is, in his way, both perfectly explicable and legitimately admirable, inasmuch as he representatively constitutes a veritable link between the old faith and the new life of Christendom. He is neither the base grub of men’s servile ritual devotion, nor yet the soaring butterfly of their emancipated scientific hopes ; he is simply the golden chrysalis under whose frail transparent envelope you see the actual struggle going on, by which the moral conscience of mankind is becoming converted into aesthetic science, or living perception. He is thus and at once the grave of prophecy and the cradle of realization. He is, indeed, a real changeling, now inviting, now repelling, sympathy ; here simulating a pious humility, there a truculent conceit or self-confidence, just as the alternate needs of his representative character compel him to do. The very great public worth of Mr. Beecher, as it seems to us, lies in this representative office of his,—consists in his so faithfully combining these divergent tendencies as to make him a true symbol for the time, or real providential man, full of instruction and encouragement to those who, like the men of old “time, still look for ‘ ‘ new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. ” If he were a more satisfactory or less contradictory person than he is alleged to be, — that is, if he were capable of taking sides with either the death or the resurrection that is going on in his own unconscious entrails, — his providential significance would at once vanish or subside into the measure of his intelligence, which is by no means a large measure.
But our space is limited. We can assure our readers, then, that it will be difficult to find a juicier repast in the way of religious reading than is here furnished them by Mr, Beecher. Mr. Beecher talks religion down to the level of the most carnal capacity; and why, forsooth, should he not, if the carnal mind demands a religious consecration ? That it does so, that it feels the need, even in a vehement manner, of reconciliation with God, has long been evident to thoughtful observers, and Mr. Beecher is the inspired apostle exactly fitted to its exigency. He exacts nothing from his hearer but a good digestion and a clean skin, with a sane average morality, in order to educate him upon a strict common-sense regimen into full communion with the skies. His disciple need intermit no business avocation, nor take to his bed for an hour, nor waste any time in puerile ascetic practices ; but, on the contrary, keep every sail bent that now carries him onward to fortune or to fame, and yet find himself in the end just as complete as needs be in all the armor of righteousness, and infinitely more jolly than any of our toilsome and tiresome ritualist nurslings has ever pretended to be. Mr. Beecher shuns all the heights and depths of religion, as religion is regarded by those who make it the insatiable thirst of the soul after true divine knowledge, and treats it as a strictly private or personal interest of man, anxious to make the best possible bargain for this present world and the world to come, with Oue who is every way his superior, and who yet has somehow a controlling voice in his destiny. His formulas of the Divine being and character are, to be sure, very much shorn of their original orthodox lustre and force, from the necessity of his representative position, and present accordingly a very odd mixture of reason and superstition, or scepticism and dogmatism. But, on the whole, Mr, Beecher theoretically holds that the world has already got all the knowledge of God that it needs, so that no actual revelation of his name to sense will ever come to fulfil — and by fulfilling supplant — the one previously made to faith. And this he holds even while he is himself all the while practically doing nothing else than interpreting faith by sense, or bringing spirit down to flesh. Let all of our readers, then, go without misgiving to Mr. Beecher’s book. It will amply atone for all the intellectual shortcomings of its author. Its sense, its wit, its pathos, its human friendliness, its frank abounding egotism, its boisterous animal spirits, or sensuous pride of existence, - -all these things belong to the author himself, and will endear him to multitudes. But the book reveals something much beyond the author himself, in clearly foreshadowing that scientific consciousness of the race whose rising tides will soon submerge the highest landmarks of men’s ancient faith, and turn the whole earth into a broad highway of the Lord. Mr. Beecher is at most the friendly duck that incubates the egg of destiny ; he is not for a moment to be mistaken for the royal bird that lays it.