Over the Teacups
IN my last report of our talks over the teacups I had something to say of the fondness of our people for titles. Where did the anti-republican, antidemocratic passion for swelling names come from, and how long has it been naturalized among us ?
A striking instance of it occurred at about the end of the last century. It was at that time there appeared among us one of the most original and singular personages to whom America has given birth. Many of our company — many of my readers — are well acquainted with his name, and not wholly ignorant of his history. They will not object to learning some particulars relating to him, which, if not new to them, will be new to others into whose hands these pages may fall.
Timothy Dexter, the first claimant of a title of nobility among the people of the United States of America, was born in the town of Malden, near Boston. He served an apprenticeship as a leatherdresser, saved some money, got some more with his wife, began trading and speculating, and became at last rich, for those days. His most famous business enterprise was that of sending an invoice of warming-pans to the West Indies. A few tons of ice would have seemed to promise a better return ; but in point of fact, he tells us, the warming-pans were found useful in the manufacture of sugar, and brought him in a handsome profit. His ambition rose with his fortune. He purchased a Large and stately house in Newburyport, built by an old family connection of my own, and proceeded to embellish and furnish it according to the dictates of his taste and fancy. In the grounds about his house, he caused to be erected between forty and fifty wooden statues of great men and allegorical figures, together with four lions and one lamb. Among these images were two statues of Dexter himself, one of which held a label with a characteristic inscription. His house was ornamented with minarets, adorned with golden balls, and surmounted by a large gilt eagle. He equipped it with costly furniture, with paintings, and a library. He went so far as to procure the services of a poet laureate, whose business it seems to have been to sing his praises. Surrounded with splendors like these, the plain title of “ Mr.” Dexter would have been infinitely too mean and common. He therefore boldly took the step of self-ennobling, and gave himself forth — as he said, obeying “the voice of the peopel at large” — as “ Lord Timothy Dexter,” by which appellation he has ever since been known to the American public.
If to be the pioneer in the introduction of Old World titles into republican America can confer a claim to be remembered by posterity, Lord Timothy Dexter has a right to historic immortality. If the true American spirit shows itself most clearly in boundless self-assertion, Timothy Dexter is the great original American egotist. If to throw off the shackles of Old World pedantry, and defy the paltry rules and examples of grammarians and rhetoricians, is the special province and the chartered privilege of the American writer, Timothy Dexter is the founder of a new school, which tramples underfoot the conventionalities that hampered and subjugated the faculties of the poets, the dramatists, the historians, essayists, story-tellers, orators, of the worn-out races which have preceded the great American people.
The material traces of the first American nobleman’s existence have nearly disappeared. The house is, I think, still standing, but the statues, the minarets, the arches, and the memory of the great Lord Timothy Dexter live only in tradition, and in the work which he bequeathed to posterity, and of which I shall say a few words. It is unquestionably a thoroughly original production, and I fear that some readers may think I am trifling with them when I am quoting it literally. I am going to make a strong claim for Lord Timothy as against other candidates for a certain elevated position.
Thomas Jefferson is commonly recognized as the first to proclaim before the world the political independence of America. It is not so generally agreed upon as to who was the first to announce the literary emancipation of our country. One of Mr. Emerson’s biographers has claimed that his Phi Beta Kappa Oration was our Declaration of Literary Independence. But Mr. Emerson did not cut himself loose from all the traditions of Old World scholarship. He spelt his words correctly, he constructed his sentences grammatically. He adhered to the slavish rules of propriety, and observed the reticences which a traditional delicacy has considered inviolable in decent society, European and Oriental alike. When he wrote poetry, he commonly selected subjects which seemed adapted to poetical treatment, — apparently thinking that all things were not equally calculated to inspire the true poet’s genius. Once, indeed, he ventured to refer to “ the meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan,” but he chiefly restricted himself to subjects such as a fastidious conventionalism would approve as having a certain fitness for poetical treatment. He was not always so careful as he might have been in the rhythm and rhyme of his verse, but in the main he recognized the old established laws which have been accepted as regulating both. In short, with all his originality, he worked in Old World harness, and cannot be considered as the creator of a truly American, self-governed, selfcentred, absolutely independent style of thinking and writing, knowing no law but its own sovereign will and pleasure. A stronger claim might be urged for Mr. Whitman. He takes into his hospitable vocabulary words which no English dictionary recognizes as belonging to the language, — words which will be looked for in vain outside of his own pages. He accepts as poetical subjects all things alike, common and unclean, without discrimination, miscellaneous as the contents of the great sheet which Peter saw let down from heaven. He carries the principle of republicanism through the whole world of created objects. He will “ thread a thread through [his] poems,” he tells us, “ that no one thing in the universe is inferior to another thing.” No man has ever asserted the surpassing dignity and importance of the American citizen so boldly and freely as Mr. Whitman. He calls himself “ teacher of the unquenchable creed, namely, egotism.” He begins one of his chants, “ I celebrate myself,” but he takes us all in as partners in his self-glorification. He believes in America as the new Eden.
A new race dominating previous ones and grander far,
New polities — new literature and religions — new inventions and arts.”
Of the new literature he himself has furnished specimens which certainly have all the originality he can claim for them. So far as egotism is concerned, he was clearly anticipated by the titled personage to whom I have referred, who says of himself, “ I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world.” But while Mr. Whitman divests himself of the common title of the adult male American citizen, the distinguished New Englander thus announces his proud position : “ Ime the first Lord in the younited States of A mercary Now of Newburyport it is the voice of the peopel and I cant Help it.” This extract is from his famous little book called “ A Pickle for the Knowing Ones.” As an inventor of a new American style he goes far beyond Mr. Whitman, who, to be sure, cares little for the dictionary, and makes his own rules of rhythm, so far as there is any rhythm in his sentences. But Lord Timothy spells to suit himself, and, in place of employing punctuation as it is commonly used, prints a separate page of periods, colons, semicolons, commas, notes of interrogation and of admiration, with which the reader is requested to “ peper and soolt ” the book as he pleases.
I am afraid that Mr. Emerson and Mr. Whitman must yield the claim of declaring American literary independence to Lord Timothy Dexter, who not only taught his countrymen that they need not go to the Herald’s College to authenticate their titles of nobility, but also that they were at perfect liberty to spell just as they liked, and to write without troubling themselves about stops of any kind. In writing what I suppose he intended for poetry, he did not even take the pains to break up his lines into lengths to make them look like verse, as may be seen by the following specimen : —
WONDER OF WONDERS!
How great the soul is! Do not you all womler and admire to see and behold and hear ? Can yon all believe half the truth, and admire to hear the wonders how great the soul is — only behold — past finding out! Only see how large the soul is! that if a man is drowned in the sea what a great bubble comes up out of the top of the water. . . . The bubble is the soul.
I confess that I am not in sympathy with some of the movements that accompany the manifestations of American social and literary independence. I do not like the assumption of titles of Lords and Knights by plain citizens of a country which prides itself on recognizing simple manhood and womanhood as sufficiently entitled to respect without these unnecessary additions. I do not like any better the familiar, and as it seems to me rude, way of speaking of our fellow-citizens who are entitled to the common courtesies of civilized society. I never thought it dignified eleven proper for a President of the United States to call himself, or to be called by others, “ Frank ” Pierce. In the first place, I had to look in a biographical dictionary to find out whether his baptismal name was Franklin, or Francis, or simply Frank, for I think children are sometimes christened with this abbreviated name. But it is too much in the style of Cowper’s unpleasant acquaintance: —
And proves by thumping on your back
How be esteems your merit.”
I should not like to hear our past chief magistrates spoken of as Jack Adams or Jim Madison, and it would have been only as a political partisan that I should have reconciled myself to “ Tom ” Jefferson. So, in spite of “ Ben ” Jonson, “Tom” Moore, and “Jack ” Sheppard, I prefer to speak of a fellow-citizen already venerable by his years, entitled to respect by useful services to his country, and recognized by many as the prophet of a new poetical dispensation, with the customary title of adults rather than by the free and easy school-boy abbreviation with which he introduced himself many years ago to the public. As for his rhapsodies. Number Seven, our “ cracked Teacup.” says they sound to him like “ fugues played upon a big organ which has been struck by lightning. So far as concerns literary independence, if we understand by that term the getting rid of our subjection to British criticism, such as it was in the days when the question was asked, “Who reads an American book ? ” we may consider it pretty well established. If it means dispensing with punctuation, coining words at will, self-revelation unrestrained by a sense of what is decorous, declamations in which everything is glorified without being idealized, “ poetry ” in which the reader must make the rhythms which the poet has not made for him, then I think we had better continue literary colonists. I shrink from a lawless independence to which all the virile energy and trampling audacity of Mr. Whitman fail to reconcile me. But there is room for everybody and everything in our huge hemisphere. Young America is like a three-year-old colt with his saddle and bridle just taken off. The first thing he wants to do is to roll. He is a droll object, sprawling in the grass with his four hoofs in the air; but he likes it, and it won’t harm us. So let him roll, — let him roll!
Of all The Teacups around our table, Number Five is the one who is the object of the greatest interest. Everybody wants to be her friend, and she has room enough in her hospitable nature to find a place for every one who is worthy of the privilege. The difficulty is that it is so hard to be her friend without becoming her lover. I have said before that she turns the subjects of her Circe-like enchantment, not into swine, but into lambs. The Professor and I move round among her lambs, the docile and amiable flock that come and go at her bidding, that follow her footsteps, and are content to live in the sunshine of her smile and within. reach of the music of her voice. I like to get her away from their amiable bleatings ; I love to talk with her about life, of which she has seen a great deal, for she knows what it is to be an idol in society and the centre of her social circle. It might be a question whether women or men most admire and love her. With her own sex she is always helpful, sympathizing, tender, charitable, sharing their griefs as well as taking part in their pleasures. With men it has seemed to make little difference whether they were young or old: all have found her the same sweet, generous, unaffected companion ; fresh enough in feeling for the youngest, deep enough in the wisdom of the heart for the oldest. She does not pretend to be youthful, nor does she trouble herself that she has seen the roses of more Junes than many of the younger women who gather round her. She has not had to say,
Comme je regrette Mon bras si dodu,
for her arm has never lost its roundness, and her face is one of those that cannot be cheated of their charm even if they live long enough to look upon the grown up grandchildren of their coevals.
It is a wonder how Number Five can find the time to be so much to so many friends of both sexes, in spite of the fact that she is one of the most insatiable of readers. She not only reads, but she remembers; she not only remembers, but she records, for her own use and pleasure, and for the delight and profit of those who are privileged to look over her note-books. Number Five, as I think I have said before, has not the ambition to figure as an authoress. That she could write most agreeably is certain. I have seen letters of hers to friends which prove that clearly enough. Whether she would find prose or verse the most natural mode of expression I cannot say, but I know she is passionately fond of poetry, and I should not be surprised if, laid away among the pressed pansies and roses of past summers, there were poems, — songs, perhaps, of her own, which she sings to herself with her fingers touching the piano ; for to that she tells her secrets in tones sweet as the ring-dove’s call to her mate.
I am afraid it may be suggested that I am drawing Number Five’s portrait too nearly after some model who is unconsciously sitting for it; but have n’t I told you that you must not look for flesh and blood personalities behind or beneath my Teacups ? I am not going to make these so lifelike that you will be saying, This is Mr., or Miss, or Mrs. So-and-So. My readers must remember that there are very many pretty, sweet, amiable girls and women sitting at their pianos, and finding chords to the music of their heart-strings. If I have pictured Number Five as one of her lambs might do it, I have succeeded in what I wanted to accomplish. Why don’t I describe her person ? If I do, some gossip or other will be sure to say, “ Oh, he means her, of course,” and find a name to match the pronoun.
It is strange to see how we are all coming to depend upon the friendly aid of Number Five in our various perplexities. The Counsellor asked her opinion in one of those cases where a divorce was too probable, but a reconciliation was possible. It takes a woman to sound a woman’s heart, and she found there was still love enough under the ruffled waters to warrant the hope of peace and tranquillity. The young Doctor went to her for counsel in the case of a hysteric girl possessed with the idea that she was a born poetess, and covering whole pages of foolscap with senseless outbursts, which she wrote in paroxysms of wild excitement, and read with a rapture of self-admiration which there was nothing in her verses to justify or account for. How sweetly Number Five dealt with that poor deluded sister in her talk with the Doctor! “Yes,” she said to him, “nothing can be fuller of vanity, self-worship, and self-deception. But we must be very gentle with her. I knew a young girl tormented with aspirations, and possessed by a belief that she was meant for a higher place than that which fate had assigned her, who needed wholesome advice, just as this poor young thing does. She did not ask for it, and it was not offered. Alas, alas ! ‘ no man cared for her soul,’— no man nor woman either. She was in her early teens, and the thought of her earthly future, as it stretched out before her, was more than she could bear, and she sought the presence of her Maker to ask the meaning of her abortive existence. — We will talk it over. I will help you take care of this child.”
The Doctor was thankful to have her assistance in a case with which he would have found it difficult to deal if he had been left to his unaided judgment, and between them the young girl was safely piloted through the perilous straits in which she came near shipwreck.
I know that it is commonly said of her that every male friend of hers must become her lover unless he is already lassoed by another. Il faut passer par là. The young Doctor is, I think, safe, for I am convinced that he is bewitched with Delilah. Since she has left us he has seemed rather dejected; I feel sure that he misses her. We all do, but he move seriously than the rest of us. I have said that I cannot tell whether the Counsellor is to be counted as one of Number Five’s lambs or not, but he evidently admires her, and if he is not fascinated looks as if he were very near that condition.
It was a more delicate matter about which the Tutor talked with her. Something which she had pleasantly said to him about the two Annexes led him to ask her, more or less seriously, it may be remembered, about the fitness of either of them to be the wife of a young man in his position. She talked so sensibly, as it seemed to him, about it that he continued the conversation, and, shy as he was, became quite easy and confidential in her company. The Tutor is not only a poet, but is a great reader of the poetry of many languages. It so happened that Number Five was puzzled, one day, in reading a sonnet of Petrarch, and had recourse to the Tutor to explain the difficult passage. She found him so thoroughly instructed, so clear, so much interested, so ready to impart knowledge, and so happy in his way of doing it that she asked him if he would not allow her the privilege of reading an Italian author under his guidance, now and then.
The Tutor found Number Five an apt scholar, and something more than that; for while, as a linguist, he was, of course, her master, her intelligent comments brought out the beauties of an author in a way to make the text seem like a different version. They did not always confine themselves to the book they were reading. Number Five showed some curiosity about the Tutor’s relations with the two Annexes. She suggested whether it would not be well to ask one or both of them in to take part in their readings. The Tutor blushed and hesitated. “ Perhaps you would like to ask one of them,” said Number Five. “ Which one shall it be?” “It makes no difference to me which,” he answered, “ but I do not see that we need either.” Number Five did not press the matter further. So the young Tutor and Number Five read together pretty regularly, and came to depend upon their meeting over a book as one of their stated seasons of enjoyment. He is so many years younger than she is that I do not suppose he will have to pass par là, as most of her male friends have done. I tell her sometimes that she reminds me of my Alma Mater, always young, always fresh in her attractions, with her scholars all round her, many of them graduates, or to graduate sooner or later.
What do I mean by graduates ? Why, that they have made love to her, and would be entitled to her diploma, if she gave a parchment to each one of them who had had the courage to face the inevitable. About the Counsellor I am, as I have said, in doubt. Who wrote that ” I Like You and I Love You,” which we found in the sugar-bowl the other day ? Was it a graduate who had felt the ” icy dagger,” or only a candidate for graduation who was afraid of it ? So completely does she subjugate those who come under her influence that I believe she looks upon it as a matter of course that the fateful question will certainly come, often after a brief acquaintance. She confessed as much to me, who am in her confidence, and not a candidate for graduation from her academy. Her graduates — her lambs I called them — are commonly faithful to her, and though now and then one may have gone off and sulked in solitude, most of them feel kindly to her, and to those who have shared the common fate of her suitors. I do really believe that some of them would be glad to see her captured by any one, if such there can be, who is worthy of her. She is the best of friends, they say, but can she love anybody, as so many other women do, or seem to ? Why should n’t our Musician, who is evidently fond of her company, and sings and plays duets with her, steal her heart as Piozzi stole that of the pretty and bright Mrs. Thrale, as so many music-teachers have run away with their pupils’ hearts? At present she seems to be getting along very placidly and contentedly with her young friend the Tutor. There is something quite charming in their relations with each other. He knows many things she does not, for he is reckoned one of the most learned in his literary specialty of all the young men of his time; and it can be a question of only a few years when some first-class professorship will be offered him. She, on the other hand, has so much more experience, so much more practical wisdom, than he has that he consults her on many everyday questions, as he did, or made believe do, about that of making love to one of the two Annexes. I had thought, when we first sat round the tea-table, that she was good for the bit of romance I wanted ; but since she has undertaken to be a kind of half-maternal friend to the young Tutor, I am afraid I shall have to give her up as the heroine of a romantic episode. It would be a pity if there were nothing to commend these papers to those who take up this periodical but essays, more or less significant, on subjects more or less interesting to the jaded and impatient readers of the numberless stories and entertaining articles which crowd the magazines of this prolific period. A whole year of a tea-table as large as ours without a single love passage in it would be discreditable to the company. We must find one, or make one, before the teathings are taken away and the table is no longer spread.
The Dictator turns preacher. We have so many light and playful talks over the teacups that some readers may be surprised to find us taking up the most serious and solemn subject which can occupy a human intelligence. The sudden appearance among our New England Protestants of the doctrine of purgatory as a possibility, or even probability, has startled the descendants of the Puritans. It has naturally led to a reconsideration of the doctrine of eternal punishment. It is on that subject that Number Five and I have talked together. I love to listen to her, for she talks from the promptings of a true woman’s heart. I love to talk to her, for I learn my own thoughts better in that way than in any other. “ L’appétit vient en mangeant,” the French saying has it. “ L’esprit vient en causant ;” that is, if one can find the right persons to talk with.
The subject which has specially interested Number Five and myself, of late, was suggested to me in the following way.
Some two years ago I received a letter from a clergyman who bears by inheritance one of the most distinguished names which has done honor to the American " Orthodox ” pulpit. This letter requested of me " a contribution to a proposed work which was to present in their own language the views of ‘many men of many minds ’ on the subject of future punishment. It was in my mind to let the public hear not only from professional theologians, but from other professions, as from jurists on the alleged but disputed value of the hangman’s whip overhanging the witness-box, and from physicians on the working of beliefs about the future life in the minds of the dangerously sick. And I could not help thinking what a good thing it would be to draw out [the present writer] upon his favorite borderland between the spiritual and the material.” The communication came to me, as the writer reminds me in a recent letter, at a “painfully inopportune time,” and though it was courteously answered, was not made the subject of a special reply.
This request confers upon me a certain right to express my opinion on this weighty subject without fear and without reproach even from those who might be ready to take offence at one of the laity for meddling with pulpit questions. It shows also that this is not a dead issue in our community, as some of the younger generation seem to think. There are some, there may be many, who would like to hear what impressions one has received on the subject referred to, after a long life in which he has heard and read a great deal about the matter. There is a certain gravity in the position of one who is, in the order of nature, very near the undiscovered country. A man who has passed his eighth decade feels as if he were already in the antechamber of the apartments which he may be called to occupy in the house of many mansions. His convictions regarding the future of our race are likely to be serious, and his expressions not lightly uttered. The question my correspondent suggests is a tremendous one. No other interest compares for one moment with that belonging to it. It is not only ourselves that it concerns, but all whom we love or ever have loved, all our human brotherhood, as well as our whole idea of the Being who made us and the relation in which He stands to his creatures. In attempting to answer my correspondent’s question, I shall no doubt repeat many things I have said before in different forms, on different occasions. This is no more than every clergyman does habitually, and it would be hard if I could not have the same license which the professional preacher enjoys so fully.
Number Five and I have occasionally talked on religious questions, and discovered many points of agreement in our views. Both of us grew up under the old “Orthodox” or Calvinistic system of belief. Both of us accepted it in our early years as a part of our education. Our experience is a common one. William Cullen Bryant says of himself, “ The Calvinistic system of divinity I adopted of course, as I heard nothing else taught from the pulpit, and supposed it to be the accepted belief of the religious world.” But it was not the “ five points ” which remained in the young poet’s memory and shaped his higher life. It was the influence of his mother that left its permanent impression after the questions and answers of the Assembly’s Catechism had faded out, or remained in memory only as fossil survivors of an extinct or fast-disappearing theological formation. The important point for him, as for so many other children of Puritan descent, was not his father’s creed, but his mother’s character, precepts, and example. “ She was a person,” he says, “ of excellent practical sense, of a quick and sensitive moral judgment, and had no patience with any form of deceit or duplicity. Her prompt condemnation of injustice, even in those instances in which it is tolerated by the world, made a strong impression upon me in early life; and if, in the discussion of public questions, I have in my riper age endeavored to keep in view the great rule of right without much regard to persons, it has been owing in a great degree to the force of her example, which taught me never to countenance a wrong because others did.”
I have quoted this passage because it was an experience not wholly unlike my own, and in certain respects like that of Number Five. To grow up in a narrow creed and to grow out of it is a tremendous trial of one’s nature. There is always a bond of fellowship between those who have been through such an ordeal.
The experiences we have had in common naturally lead us to talk over the theological questions which at this time are constantly presenting themselves to the public, not only in the books and papers expressly devoted to that class of subjects, but in many of the newspapers and popular periodicals, from the weeklies to the quarterlies. The pulpit used to lay down the law to the pews ; at the present time, it is of more consequence what the pews think than what the minister does, for the obvious reason that the pews call change their minister, and often do, whereas the minister cannot change the pews, or can do so only to a very limited extent. The preacher’s garment is cut according to the pattern of that of the hearers, for the most part. Thirty years ago, when I was writing in this magazine, I came in for a very pretty share of abuse, such as it was the fashion of that day, at least in certain quarters, to bestow upon those who were outside of the high-walled enclosures in which many persons, not naturally unamiable or exclusive, found themselves imprisoned. Since that time what changes have taken place! Who will believe that a well-behaved and reputable citizen could have been denounced as a “ moral parricide,” because he attacked some of the doctrines in which he was supposed to have been brought up ? A single thought should have prevented the masked theologian who abused his incognito from using such libellous language.
Much, and in many families most, of the religious teaching of children is committed to the mother. The experience of William Cullen Bryant, which I have related in his own words, is that of many New England children. Now, the sternest dogmas that ever came from a soul cramped or palsied by an obsolete creed become wonderfully softened in passing between the lips of a mother. The cruel doctrine at which all but case-hardened “ professionals" shudder comes out, as she teaches and illustrates it, as unlike its original as the milk which a peasant mother gives her babe is unlike the coarse food which furnishes her nourishment. The virus of a cursing creed is rendered comparatively harmless by the time it reaches the young sinner in the nursery. Its effects fall as far short of what might have been expected from its virulence as the pearly vaccine vesicle falls short of the terrors of the confluent small-pox. Controversialists should therefore be careful (for their own sakes, for they hurt nobody so much as themselves) how they use such terms as “ parricide ” as characterizing those who do not agree in all points with the fathers whom or whose memory they honor and venerate. They might with as much propriety call them matricides, if they did not agree with the milder teachings of their mothers. I can imagine Jonathan Edwards in the nursery with his three-year-old child upon his knee. The child looks up to his face and says to him, —
“ Papa, nurse tells me that you say God hates me worse than He hates one of those horrid ugly snakes that crawl all round. Does God hate me so? ”
“ Alas! my child, it is but too true. So long as you are out of Christ you are as a viper, and worse than a viper, in his sight.”
By and by, Mrs. Edwards, one of the loveliest of women and sweetest of mothers, comes into the nursery. The child is crying.
“ What is the matter, my darling ?”
“ Papa has been telling me that God hates me worse than a snake.”
Poor, gentle, poetical, sensitive, spiritual, almost celestial Mrs. Jonathan Edwards ! On the one hand the terrible sentence conceived, written down, given to the press, by the child’s father ; on the other side the trusting child looking up at her, and all the mother pleading in her heart against the frightful dogma of her revered husband. Do you suppose she left that poison to rankle in the tender soul of her darling ? Would it have been moral parricide for a son of the great divine to have repudiated the doctrine which degraded his blameless infancy to the condition and below the condition of the reptile ? Was it parricide in the second or third degree when his descendant struck out that venomous sentence from the page in which it stood as a monument to what depth Christian heathenism could sink under the teaching of the great master of logic and spiritual inhumanity ? It is too late to be angry about the abuse a well-meaning writer received thirty years ago. The whole atmosphere has changed since then. It is mere childishness to expect men to believe as their fathers did ; that is if they have any minds of their own. The world is a whole generation older and wiser than when the father was of his son’s age.
So far as I have observed persons nearing the end of life, the Roman Catholics understand the business of dying better than Protestants. They have an expert by them, armed with spiritual specifics, in which they both, patient and priestly ministrant, place implicit trust. Confession, the Eucharist, Extreme Unction, — these all inspire a confidence which without this symbolism is too apt to be wanting in over-sensitive natures. They have been peopled in early years with ghastly spectres of avenging fiends, moving in a sleepless world of devouring flames and smothering exhalations; where nothing lives but the sinner, the fiends, and the reptiles who help to make life an unending torture. It is no wonder that these images sometimes return to the enfeebled intelligence. To exorcise them, the old Church of Christendom has her mystic formulæ, of which no rationalistic prescription can take the place. If Cowper had been a good Roman Catholic, instead of having his conscience handled by a Protestant like John Newton, he would not have died despairing, looking upon himself as a castaway. I have seen a good many Roman Catholics on their dying beds, and it always appeared to me that they accepted the inevitable with a composure which showed that their belief, whether or not the best to live by, was a better one to die by than most of the harder creeds which have replaced it.
In the more intelligent circles of American society one may question anything and everything, if he will only do it civilly. We may talk about eschatology,— the science of last things,— or, if you will, the natural history of the undiscovered country, without offence before anybody except young children and very old women of both sexes. In our New England, the great Andover discussion and the heretical missionary question have benumbed all sensibility on this subject as entirely, as completely, as the new local anæsthetic, cocaine, deadens the sensibility of the part to which it is applied, so that the eye may have its mote or beam plucked out without feeling it, — as the novels of Zola and Maupassant have hardened the delicate nerve-centres of the women who have fed their imaginations on the food they have furnished.
The generally professed belief of the Protestant world as embodied in their published creeds is that the great mass of mankind are destined to an eternity of suffering. That this eternity is to be one of bodily pain — of “torment” — is the literal teaching of Scripture, which has been literally interpreted by the theologians, the poets, and the artists of many long ages which followed the acceptance of the recorded legends of the church as infallible. The doctrine has always been recognized, as it is now, as a very terrible one. It has found a support in the story of the fall of man, and the view taken of the relation of man to his Maker since that event. The hatred of God to mankind in virtue of their “ first disobedience ” and inherited depravity is at the bottom of it. The extent to which that idea was carried is well shown in the expressions I have borrowed from Jonathan Edwards. According to his teaching, — and he was a reasoner who knew what he was talking about, what was involved in the promises of the faith he accepted, — man inherits the curse of God as his principal birthright.
What shall we say to the doctrine of the fall of man as the ground of inflicting endless misery on the human race? A man to be punished for what he could not help ! He was expected to be called to account for Adam’s sin. It is singular to notice that the reasoning of the wolf with the lamb should be transferred to the dealings of the Creator with his creatures. “ You stirred the brook up and made my drinking-place muddy.” “ But, please your wolfship. I could n’t do that, for I stirred the water far down the stream, — below your drinking-place.”" Well, anyhow, your father troubled it a year or two ago, and that is the same thing.” So the wolf falls upon the lamb and makes a meal of him. That is wolf logic, —and theological reasoning.
How shall we characterize the doctrine of endless torture as the destiny of most of those who have lived, and are living, on this planet? I prefer to let another writer speak of it. Mr. John Morley uses the following words : “The horrors of what is perhaps the most frightful idea that has ever corroded human character, — the idea of eternal punishment.” Sismondi, the great historian, heard a sermon on eternal punishment, and vowed never again to enter another church holding the same creed. Romanism he considered a religion of mercy and peace by the side of what the English call the Reformation. — I mention these protests because I happen to find them among my notes, but it would be easy to accumulate examples of the same kind. When Cowper, at about the end of the last century, said satirically of the minister he was attacking,
he was giving unconscious evidence that the sense of the barbarism of the idea was finding its way into the pulpit. When Burns, in the midst of the sulphurous orthodoxy of Scotland, dared to say,
To hand the wretch in order,”
he was only appealing to the common sense and common humanity of his fellow-countrymen.
All the reasoning in the world, all the proof-texts in old manuscripts, cannot reconcile this supposition of a world of sleepless and endless torment with the declaration that “ God is love.”
Where did this “ frightful idea ” come from ? We are surprised, as we grow older, to find that the legendary hell of the church is nothing more nor less than the Tartarus of the old heathen world. It has every mark of coming from the cruel heart of a barbarous despot. Some malignant and vindictive Sheik, some brutal Mezentius, must have sat for many pictures of the Divinity. It was not enough to kill his captive enemy, after torturing him as much as ingenuity could contrive to do it. He escaped at last by death, but his conqueror could not give him up so easily, and so his vengeance followed him into the unseen and unknown world. How the doctrine got in among the legends of the church we are no more bound to show than we are to account for the intercalation of the “ three witnesses ” text, or the false insertion, or false omission, whichever it may be, of the last fourteen verses of the Gospel of St. Mark. We do not hang our grandmothers now, as our ancestors did theirs, on the strength of the positive command, “ Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
The simple truth is that civilization has outgrown witchcraft, and is outgrowing the Christian Tartarus. The pulpit no longer troubles itself about witches and their evil doings. All the legends in the world could not arrest the decay of that superstition and all the edicts that grew out of it. All the stories that can be found in old manuscripts will never prevent the going out of the fires of the legendary Inferno. It is not much talked about nowadays to ears polite or impolite. Humanity is shocked and repelled by it. The heart of woman is in unconquerable rebellion against it. The more humane sects tear it from their “ Bodies of Divinity ” as if it were the flaming sheet of Nessus. A few doctrines with which it was bound up have dropped or are dropping away from it: the primal curse ; consequential damages to give infinite extension to every transgression of the law of God ; inverting the natural order of the degree of responsibility; stretching the smallest of offences to the proportions of the infinite ; making the babe in arms the responsible being, and not the parent who gave it birth and holds it.
After a doctrine like “ the hangman’s whip ” has served its purpose, — if it ever had any useful purpose, — after a doctrine like that of witchcraft has hanged old women enough, civilization contrives to get rid of it. When we say that civilization crowds out the old superstitious legends, we recognize two chief causes. The first is the naked individual protest; the voice of the inspiration which giveth man understanding. This shows itself conspicuously in the modern poets. Burns in Scotland, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, in America, preached a new gospel to the successors of men like Thomas Boston and Jonathan Edwards. In due season, the growth of knowledge, chiefly under the form of that part of knowledge called science, so changes the view of the universe that many of its long-unchallenged legends become no more than nursery tales. The text-books of astronomy and geology work their way in between the questions and answers of the time-honored catechisms. The doctrine of evolution, so far as it is accepted, changes the whole relations of man to the creative power. It substitutes infinite hope in the place of infinite despair for the vast majority of mankind. Instead of a shipwreck, from which a few cabin passengers and others are to be saved in the long-boat, it gives mankind a vessel built to endure the tempests, and at last to reach a port where at the worst the passengers can find rest, and where they may hope for a home better than any which they ever had in their old country. It is all very well to say that men and women had their choice whether they would reach the safe harbor or not.
Give grandam kingdom, and it grandam will
Give it a plum, a cherry and a fig.”
We know what the child will take. So which course we shall take depends very much on the way the choice is presented to us, and on what the chooser is by nature. What he is by nature is not determined by himself, but by his parentage. “ They know not what they do.” In one sense this is true of every human being. The agent does not know, never can know, what makes him that which he is. What we most want to ask of our Maker is an unfolding of the divine purpose in putting human beings into conditions in which such numbers of them would be sure to go wrong. We want an advocate of helpless humanity whose task it shall be, in the words of Milton,
We have heard Milton’s argument, but for the realization of his vision of the time
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day,”
our suffering race must wait in patience.
The greater part of the discourse the reader has had before him was delivered over the teacups one Sunday afternoon. The Mistress looked rather grave, as if doubtful whether she ought not to signify her disapprobation of what seemed to her dangerous doctrine. However, as she knew that I was a good churchgoer and was on the best terms with her minister, she said nothing to show that she had taken the alarm. Number Five listened approvingly. We had talked the question over well, and were perfectly agreed on the main point. How could it be otherwise ? Do you suppose that any intellectual, spiritual woman, with a heart under her bodice, can for a moment seriously believe that the greater number of the high-minded men, the noble and lovely women, the ingenuous and affectionate children, whom she knows and honors or loves, are to be handed over to the experts in a great torture-chamber, in company with the vilest creatures that have once worn human shape?
“ If there is such a world as used to be talked about from the pulpit, you may depend upon it,” she said to me once, “ there will soon be organized a Humane Society in heaven, and a mission established among ‘ the spirits in prison.’ ”
Number Five is a regular church-goer, as I am. I do not believe either of us would darken the doors of a church if we were likely to hear any of the “ old-fashioned ” sermons, such as I used to listen to in former years from a noted clergyman whose specialty was the doctrine of eternal punishment. But you may go to the churches of almost any of our Protestant denominations and hear sermons by which you can profit, because the ministers are generally good men, whose moral and spiritual natures are above the average, and who know that the harsh preaching of two or three generations ago would offend and alienate a large part of their audience. So neither Number Five nor I are hypocrites in attending church or “ going to meeting.” I am afraid it does not make a great deal of difference to either of us what may be the established creed of the worshipping assembly. That is a matter of great interest, perhaps of great importance, to them, but of much less, comparatively, to us. Companionship in worship, and sitting quiet for an hour while a trained speaker, presumably somewhat better than we are, stirs up our spiritual nature, — these are reasons enough to Number Five, as to me, for regular attendance on divine worship.
Number Seven is of a different way of thinking and feeling. He insists upon it that the churches keep in their confessions of faith statements which they do not believe, and that it is notorious that they are afraid to meddle with them. The Anglo-American church has dropped the Athanasian Creed from its service ; the English mother church is afraid to. There are plenty of Universalists. Number Seven says, in the Episcopalian and other Protestant churches, but they do not avow their belief in any frank and candid fashion. The churches know very well, he maintains, that the fear of everlasting punishment more than any or all other motives is the source of their power and the support of their organizations. Not only are the fears of mankind the whip to scourge and the bridle to restrain them, but they are the basis of an almost incalculable material interest. “ Talk about giving up the doctrine of endless punishment by fire ! ” exclaimed Number Seven ; “ there is more capital embarked in the subterranean firechambers than in all the iron-furnaces on the face of the earth. To think what an army of clerical beggars would be turned loose on the world, if once those raging flames were allowed to go out or to calm down! Who can wonder that the old conservatives draw back startled and almost frightened at the thought that there may be a possible escape for some victims whom the Devil was thought to have secured ? How many more generations will pass before Milton’s alarming prophecy will find itself realized in the belief of civilized mankind ? ”
Remember that Number Seven is called a “crank” by many persons, and take his remarks for just what they are worth, and no move.
Out of the preceding conversation must have originated the following poem, which was found in the common receptacle of these versified contributions : —
That “ God is love ” so plain I read,
Shall dreams of heathen birth affright
My pathway through the coming night ?
Ah, Lord of life, though spectres pale
Fill with their threats the shadowy vale,
With Thee ray faltering steps to aid,
How can I dare to be afraid ?
Outface the charter of the soul ?
Shall priesthood’s palsied arm protect
The wrong our human hearts reject,
And smite the lips whose shuddering cry
Proclaims a cruel creed a lie ?
The wizard’s rope we disallow
Was justice once, — is murder now !
And dwells the Omnipresent there ?
Does He behold with smile serene
The shows of that unending scene,
Where sleepless, hopeless anguish lies,
And, ever dying, never dies ?
Say, does He hear the sufferer’s groan,
And is that child of wrath his own ?
Lift thy pale forehead from the dust!
The mists that cloud thy darkened eyes
Fade ere they reach the o’erarching skies!
When the blind heralds of despair
Would bid thee doubt a Father’s care,
Look up from earth, and read above
On heaven’s blue tablet, GOD IS LOVE !
Oliver Wendell Holmes.