Adventures in Christianity


I AM here trying to set down the conclusions of fifty years of what might be called experimental living and about five years of sorting out and arranging the results, and although these conclusions are none of them new I am now clear that they are essential to my life. But I had to discover them for myself through years of the most painful search, which very nearly killed me. They were not taught me, nor even hinted at by others, and I have now written them down without shame (commonplace though they are) because I hope that they may be suggestive to others.

We have passed through, I think, a period of great change, which has rendered the visibility of our world so low that each of us has been like a ship captain navigating in a fog where his compass was useless and he could get no observation of the sun. Now it is clearing, and like the lookout in the crosstrees I report what I see.

If anybody who happens to read this should observe that it is all to be found in the works of abstract thinkers, some of which were written centuries ago, I shall not be surprised. In fact, I should be both surprised and shocked if it were otherwise; for if the experience of my own life is not borne out by the experience of the race from the dawn of history I am either a lunatic or have failed to understand my own life.

I have not read the books and probably should have learned nothing from them if I had, for I do not learn much from books, nor do most other men. The books of great abstract thinkers are truly closed to most of us. I landed high and dry in the first chapters of Saint Augustine, Kant, and Swedenborg, and there stuck fast for thirty years, and I am not ashamed of it. It is exactly what one must expect, for no man can think abstractly to any purpose until he has lived concretely, and no other man can understand my words unless he has had my experience. The only book which is open to all is the Book of Life — a man’s own personal experience. I therefore make no apology for interpreting what I see in terms of my own experience. I can do nothing else, and I am not without hope that a glimpse of how I have reduced my religious conceptions from chaos to disorder may be suggestive to other men.

In the Atlantic for August 1923 I attempted to record the process by which I arrived at the conclusion that without faith in God a man may be hard put to it to prove that he can accurately be called alive; and I shall now try to outline a method by which such a faith may be revived and maintained.

But some man may have the curiosity to inquire what I mean by faith in God; or, in other words, what is the nature of the relation of man to his God which I desire to maintain. It is a fair question. If I cannot give him an answer it is useless to expect him to go farther.

I can give him an answer which meets my own need in regard to those aspects of man’s relation to God with which I have here to deal. As Christians, we believe that God is the source of life and power; but so do men of all religions. One of the most essential teachings of Christ, however, — a thread which runs through the whole fabric of it, — seems to me to be not only that God is the source of all power, but that all power remains in God. Power is not given to man to act as and of himself. In an age when we are surrounded with the appearance of material power, such a belief is particularly difficult for a business man to grasp. His daily life seems to be passed in exercising the powers which modern science has bestowed upon him, and it is hard for him to imagine that he has no power in himself.

This, I suppose, is what we mean when we say we live in a material or scientific age.

The great pioneers of science are often accused of undermining our religious faith; but I do not find it so, for the industries in which I have worked and which have deeply affected my character furnish me with the most vivid symbols of my faith. I worked for years with electrical engineers, and I take an example from that field of industry.

Using the language of the trade, if we call God the Power House, or Generating Station, and man the transmitting wire to the factory or to the job, we get what is to me an illuminating analogy. In that case, there is no power in the wire: the wire simply passes the power on. It is true that appearances are otherwise, for if you carelessly take hold of a live wire it may kill you. Many of us have seen a broken trolley-wire squirming and blazing in the street. Some of us have been in the high-tension room of a power house during a thunder storm, when the lightning broke across the horn-gaps of the transformers with the sound of machine-gun fire, or at the main switchboard when the sudden dead grounding of the transmission line blew out a main breaker with a roar like a riven oak. Such scenes make fine images of a type of Hell which is now out of fashion, but which may return.

It is hard to imagine that there is no power in the wire, but it is true all the same. Disconnect it for a second from the power house and it is dead. The wire has no power. It merely passes it on.

And so it is, I think, with God and man. We may pray for power to do something for ourselves, but we shall not get it. If we ask for power to do the will of God, He will pass the power through us and His purpose will be carried out.

And the simile goes still farther. Many men have observed that when they pray fiercely, demanding help from God, they do not get it. Only when they surrender themselves to God’s will and ask Him to work through them, is their prayer answered. It is just so with the transmission wire. The current will follow the path of least resistance. If there is resistance in one wire the current will take another path; there are plenty more. And thus God has many servants who can execute His will, and He chooses those who do not resist but who surrender themselves to Him.

Sometimes the prayer for personal power appears to be answered; but it is the prayer of the worshipers of Mammon. The Devil does give personal power, but he sells it at a price. You may make a compact with the Devil for worldly power and he will give it; but you must serve him and you must live in Hell. As he said to Jesus, after showing him all the kingdoms of the world: ‘All these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me.’ He got his answer. Most men, if they see clearly, will give the same one.


It has taken me more than thirty years to grasp this relationship of man to God, and it is not surprising, therefore, that I am keenly interested to discover how such a faith can be found and laid hold upon before it is too late. Obviously, we should be taught it at a very early age. But why was it not taught to me? Mainly, I think, because I was too dull to learn, but there were other contributing causes.

To our fathers the faith in God by which they lived and which radiated through their lives was taught in their homes and in their schools. For they were born at a time when the school-teachers were mostly ministers, and when even in the colleges the Christian religion was still taught. But in our day Democracy has banished religious teaching from the schools and we know full well that it is not taught in our homes, for men cannot teach what they do not know.

Just what has been the cause of the decay of religious faith it would be folly to try to state. No man knows the cause, but we can see some of the causes. During the last hundred years science has torn aside the veil of mystery in so many places and exposed such marvels to our view that our attention has become concentrated on the material world, on the laws of evolution and change, and on what we call ‘progress.’ With minds fixed upon the ideas of time and change the conception of a God of Infinite Power, to Whom there is no such thing as change — to Whom Past, Present, and Future are the Everlasting Now — is almost impossible. We can hardly be so engrossed in the visible world and give much thought to the Unseen.

And then too, the Protestant churches, at least, must deal with a class of men in whom the poetic imagination and the stirrings of emotion have been stifled by the intellect. With such men the religious poetry of the ancient faith gets a scant hearing. The modern system of pseudo-scientific education has so loaded our minds with undigested (perhaps indigestible) facts that the imaginative faculty, which is essential to religion, has been smothered.

But, I repeat, religious faith must be taught, and if it cannot be done in the ways of our fathers we must find another. ‘Where hope and faith have vanished and even love grows dim,’ the old avenues of approach are blocked and the motives which set our fathers going will not move us. One great motive force, however, remains to us — the power of Fear.

In all the ages of the past fear has been one of the most powerful motives of the race. The most ancient teachers of religion were forever preaching the terrors of Hell, a practice which has been followed by most preachers of the Gospel, down to this generation. In the present day the practice has fallen into disrepute because it seems to have the effect of driving worshipers out of the church instead of into it. In an ordered world where every effect has a cause there must, I think, be a reason for this, and if you will be patient with me, perhaps I can throw some light upon this point.

But in the meantime, I repeat, if our faith is to be revived we must fall back upon the power of fear. In doing this we shall have one great advantage, namely, that we are not attempting to introduce a new motive; quite the opposite, in fact, for our lives are now dominated mainly by fear or by fears. It is our heritage from the brutes. All animals live in habitual fear of their enemies; our great-grandfathers ten thousand times removed lived in terror of dynosaurs and demons; the Psalmists lived in terror of their enemies, and we also live among fears. The workman fears unemployment, and the shop girl fears old-maidhood; the business man fears hard times, his wife fears to be out of fashion. I am afraid of a draught, Jones is afraid of his wife, who browbeats him, and she lives in terror of her cook. We all unite in the fear of death.

And, moreover, we know very well that anger and hatred are the children of Fear. Fear was what finally drove us to war with Germany, and the present condition of Europe is due to fear.

That most of our fears are groundless (what the medico-psychologists call ‘phobias’) increases rather than weakens their power over us. No man can look his world squarely in the face and deny that we are the servants, or the slaves of, fear, so that when I suggest the power of fear as a working motive,

I am not advocating the introduction of fear into a world ruled by love, but the substitution of one Holy Fear — the Fear of the Lord — for the multitude of fears and phobias which now control it.

To make the suggestion practical, I propose that we follow the example of the business world. We live in an era of combination rather than competition in industry. We combine factories into trusts for the sake of efficiency and economy in operation. If carried too far this process collides with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act; but suppose we were to combine all our fears in one huge combination or trust — the Trust in God. The result would be to abolish all independent fears and free us from the slavery of fear under which we groan. Just fancy the increase of efficiency and the economy of such a Trust; all our fears, the fear of the poorhouse, the fear of accident and disease, the fear of our neighbors and a bleak old age, even the fear of death, wiped out by consolidation into the Trust of God. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ indeed — I think almost the whole of it; and it is also the beginning and the whole of liberty.

For the benefit of the lawyers who are expert in dealing with fear, I pause to remark that such a Trust not being ‘ in restraint of trade’ may be made a complete monopoly without violating the Sherman Act and that the Mosaic Law does not appear to contain any statute against monopolies.


The fear of God I take to be the reverence and awe with which men regard His Goodness and Wisdom, and the terror and misery in which men live when they have disobeyed and broken His law. No man may see the face of God, and we must learn to fear Him by personal experience of the consequences of sin so biting as to make this truth eat into our very souls. We can, however, be taught much in regard to it, and we ought to be. I lived in Hell for years without knowing how to get out of it, and it was what seemed like accident and the fear of death which finally brought me the knowledge.

The first point to make clear to ourselves is, of course, what we mean by Hell. The early Christian conception and one which is still held by a large porportion of Christian worshipers, was of a place in which the souls of men after death suffered eternal torment on account of the sins committed during their lives. Some of the greatest works of art produced by the race have pictured this place with the minutest detail. But these descriptions are at best the efforts of the finite mind to measure the Infinite. To grasp and to hold them as part of his faith a man’s centre of gravity must be in the heart and not in the head, and for many Protestant Christians such a poetic conception is quite impossible. Its place is occupied by a very nebulous or unreal substitute. This will not do. Hell is a reality, vital to our lives. When Hell has faded away, Faith fades too, and spiritual death is the result. Imaginative torpor has doubtless served to dim the vision of Hell, but there is, I think, another cause.

The Hell of the early Christian was a main pillar of the ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, which taught its members that someone in Heaven (usually symbolized as Saint Peter) kept a ledger account with every human soul in which every act of his life was appraised with divine precision and duly set down upon the books. The complications of such a system to the mind of the modern expert accountant are staggering, for besides the billions of accounts which were always open, the normal birth and death rate of mankind required the opening and closing of several hundred thousand accounts each day. And worse than that it did not conform to the standards of sound bookkeeping. Price, Waterhouse & Co. would utterly condemn it, for the accounts were never balanced until the debtor died. At all other times it was impossible for a man to learn how his account stood and whether he was headed for Heaven or Hell. This left him in a state of intolerable suspense from which he absolutely must escape, and if his Church did not provide him with a method he must leave it and go to another. This, I think, is the reason why Protestant preachers in this generation are so shy of taking the terrors of Hell for a text. It results, they find, in emptying their churches.

But the Roman Church did provide a method of escape. It faced and conquered this dilemma with the skillful ecclesiastical strategy which has ever characterized it. The Pope, being the direct successor of Saint Peter, had a perfect understanding with him, and while he could not furnish a man with an accurate statement of his account in Heaven, because it was not made up, he could guarantee that the credits would exceed the debits and that the true believer would not go to Hell. For the Pope, as Christ’s deputy, and his priests, as deputies from him, had the power to forgive a man his sins after confession and penance.

But the Protestant, who denied the power of any man, even the Pope, to forgive the sins of another, had lost this refuge from the storm, and if he continued to believe in Heaven and Hell his position was one of unbearable anxiety. With Hell burning, so to speak, before his eyes, he did not know and no man could tell him up to the day of his death, whether he was bound there or not.

The leaders of the Reformation, when they cut adrift from the Church of Rome, and denied some (but not all) of its dogmas, do not appear to have grasped the fact that this structure is a connected whole and that you cannot destroy a part of it and keep the rest. Augustine and Aquinas were not feeble-minded persons. The structure which they built was a masterpiece of art, and the reformers who tore away the doctrine of forgiveness of sin simply brought it down about their ears. Their efforts to shore it up have been lamentable failures. The high priests have continued to live among the ruins but the congregations have fled.

This is, I think, one of the main causes of the vanishing of Hell from the thought of our daily lives. Men were forced to it, for the agony of believing vividly in Hell and of never knowing how you could escape it would drive men mad. But ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ and the individual (though not his church) has found a way out, which is ingenious and complete. The Protestant who could never be sure that the debits in his account would not exceed the credits solved the equation by boldly wiping out all the debits. This he accomplished by reasoning himself clean out of his belief in Hell, and some of us, I fear, are more ingenious than honest, for we have wiped out the debits and let the credits stand. Hell has disappeared but Heaven remains — a little misty perhaps, but there nevertheless.

This is no jest, for it is what I did, and it can fairly be called the business man’s solution of the problem. We have been subconsciously ashamed of it, and it would have been impossible but for the feebleness of our faith.

I lived in that belief for many years, but now I think I have learned a better one. The fear of death drove me in upon myself and taught me another conception of Hell. It is one which I believe I share with many of my contemporaries, and while it is far less poetic than that of the early Christians, it is perhaps better adapted to my type of mind. Some of my contemporaries seem to feel that they have made an advance and have arrived at a higher point of religious development; but while I share their view of Hell, I do not look upon it as an advance, for we are here struggling with an impossible task, the effort to grasp and describe the Infinite. The finite mind cannot do it. We can only fall back upon poetry and music to give us some image or symbol of the thing for which we seek; and it seems to me that the Hell of Dante, for example, is in a way finer and more poetic than the intellectual Protestant conception which I shall try to sketch.


Following the example of science, I match the theory of the conservation of energy which assumes that energy is immortal and every blow is conserved, with the theory of the immortality of the soul and every act irrevocable. I believe, in short, that every act and every thought is etched indelibly upon the soul and will remain there for all eternity. For the accounting system of Saint Peter I substitute an automatic system kept for itself by each individual soul, the balance of which is struck every instant; and the spiritual habitation of each soul is known to itself. Instead of waiting until we die to go to Heaven or to Hell, we live in Heaven or in Hell here and now, and thereafter forevermore, according to the import of our daily lives.

Do not imagine that such a Hell is inferior in its terrors to the Hell of Dante. No man, who has so mismanaged his life as to experience it will complain that it lacks anything in variety or fierceness of tortures. To be suddenly confronted in the watches of the night with your irrevocable act in all its naked ugliness will whiten the face of the boldest. These tortures commonly take the form of fears (real or imaginary) whose number is legion, which drive a man through a welter of needless hurry to the injury of his work and the ruin of his nerves and which destroy the joy of life. They are, in fact, those very fears to which I have previously referred.

Of the Heaven which stands against it, I cannot speak. I have never been there, but such glimpses of it as I have obtained are deeply cheering. It will never be described in words for it is a harmony beyond their reach, like music; as well try to set down in plain English a great Beethoven symphony.

Such a Heaven and Hell are perhaps better suited to the scientific temper of our day than the dramatic terror of the fires of Dante’s Hell and the ineffable bliss of a Heaven up in the clouds. Our anxious wives have trained us to beware of damp cellars, and for a man who wears Jaeger underclothing, the garments of the angels look suspiciously like cotton. That I am unable to grasp the Hell of Dante may well be a serious spiritual color-blindness (I rather think it is) but being color-blind is my misfortune and not my fault. It is no use to make believe that I can see when I cannot. I must make the best of such powers as I have.

And if some of the faithful seek to entice me into argument by charging that I have dragged down Hell to the level of my own degraded soul, I must reply that the point is not debatable. The most masterly descriptions of Hell are at best working hypotheses, the purpose of which is to help men to understand the Universe in which they live and to tune themselves in harmony with it. You may call my Hell, if you choose, the Hell ol the stockbroker, but stockbrokers as well as saints have souls to be saved and they are more in need of saving. If this conception of Hell catches my mind and lights up my imagination, it has served its purpose: namely, as a starting-point or a jumping-off place for a faith in God by which I can steer my course through life. In such a Hell I can and do believe.

But mark this well. Your stockbroker, with his conception of Hell organized on strictly business principles, may have achieved a measure of certainty which he craves; he can find out, if he wants to, whether he is headed for Heaven or Hell by consulting his own soul. But he has not escaped from the penalties of sin. If confession, penance, and absolution are beyond bis reach, where shall he look for help to save him from the penalty of his sins? The question cuts deep, and he who shall seek to arouse another to such a belief in Hell must beware lest he succeed and drive his poor brother to the madhouse, fleeing in panic terror from the Hell to which his sins, by the evidence of his own soul, condemn him, from which he is powerless to save himself, and from which no man can save him. But to this there is an answer. It is true that he is powerless to save himself, but his God can save him. Let him conceive of himself as the transmission wire to which I have referred and pray his God to use him.

‘ Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.’ No, by no means if you will help to get it out.


For those who are unable to believe that any man, however saintly, can grant absolution for the sin of another, and who at the same time hold the doctrine of the irrevocable nature of every act, repentance and the confessional may seem to have lost their value. But it is not so; for them these are even more vital than for others. The feeling of repentance and the desire to be forgiven are not enough while they remain in the sphere of emotion and sentiment. Complete repentance demands that the sin be dragged out into the daylight of the mind, be stripped naked and fully exposed to view. To accomplish this the spoken word is for most of us essential, for we think best when we think aloud, that is — when we talk. It is not for nothing that the confessional has survived all these centuries despite its frequent abuse.

In strict theory a man can and perhaps should confess directly to God, but it is a hard thing to do. Most men need a father confessor to help them explore their souls, root out the sins from their hiding-places, and to define and sort them out. Few of us can do this unaided. The confessor need not necessarily be a priest. A man may confess to his wife or to his friend, but most of us will find help in confession to someone.

He who cannot confess his sin to man must confess it to God. His prayers of confession must cover every feature of his sin and expose every part of it to view. Only so can it be made utterly vivid to the man himself.

He must exhaust his imagination and his will-power to develop the technique of his praying to the highest possible pitch. Then he can ask forgiveness of his God and he will experience an incredible sense of relief. But to what is this sense of relief due? We can hardly suppose that an all-wise God would violate His own law on our behalf. If the act is irrevocable the stain cannot be wiped away. Whence, then, this wave of calmness? What has taken place? For me, the answer is this. The prayers and longings of true repentance have converted the sin into an experience and stamped it so indelibly upon the soul that real growth has taken place. I can never sin in quite that fashion again. Achievements such as this are the stones out of which our character is built. We may well believe that such a process of building is the purpose of our lives in this world, and this may perhaps explain the common experience of men that they often gain more from sin and failure than from what look like virtue and success. Beware the man who never sinned. Like the bond salesman ‘in business for forty years, sir, and never lost a dollar for a customer’; he is either a liar or a lunatic.

This view of the effect of repentance is, I think, quite in harmony with the teachings of Christ. ‘Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him.’ It could not well be otherwise if God is all-wise. But if this be true it must also be true that God knows our sins before we confess them or even before we commit them. We cannot give any information to our God, and therefore the purpose of confession must, be mainly for its effect upon the character of the man himself. I confess and examine my sin, in order that I may not commit another by seeking to hide it from my God. I cannot hide it and I must not try.

My picture of the stockbroker fleeing in terror from the judgment of his own soul is, however, fanciful, not to say fantastic. He often lives in Hell but his descent has been gradual; he has become habituated to it and many of his friends are there too. He recognizes where he is well enough but he will make no effort to escape. Of course, it is the office of the Church to teach him the folly of this course, but it is no easy task. His soul is asleep. Call him never so loudly you shall not wake him. But there comes a time in middle life when most of us awake to see the road stretch straight and dusty to the grave, and then is the opportunity of the priest. If he seize it with vigor he may succeed.

But how shall he do it? Let us not deceive ourselves. No conception of Hell and no theory of atonement and salvation by the prayer of confession will achieve any important results so long as they remain theories. Such intellectual conceptions are in the brain, an organ easily accessible but powerless to produce action. Countless works of religion and philosophy have dealt with the nature of God, His relation to man, the nature of Hell, and the problems of prayer, confession and forgiveness of sin. Every type of heart and mind can find a statement suited to its need, but they are of no use as long as they remain in the mind. Not until they get into the great region of the emotions, which is the seat of action, can they become the working motives that control men’s lives.

The Christian religion, as I see it in the Protestant churches, might be compared to a great Rolls-Royce car, perfect in most particulars but with a burnt-out ignition system; a cunningly devised machine of great power, but one which in this condition is useless. The problem of these churches is to get their ignition systems running. If they fail they will remain as empty as they now are. Their records appear to show that their membership is rapidly increasing, but my own observation leads me to suspect that if the congregations were counted instead of the membership the figures would not agree, for the fact is most of them are nearly empty and in summer many are closed.

When Jesus found the Temple at Jerusalem full of traders he exclaimed, ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.’ But are our churches in better case? The ancient Hebrews, I fancy, were in the same dilemma as ourselves. In the periods between festivals there was not enough business to occupy the Temple as ‘a house of prayer, and so, being a commercial people, they used it for a stock exchange. But at least they used it while our closed or empty churches have been turned not ‘into dens of thieves’ but into dens of spiders.

It is a tragic situation and one which must be remedied or we shall perish. But how can it be done? How can the practice of worship be revived? What type of ignition system can we devise which will restart this great engine?


Be of good cheer. The task is not hopeless, for the dilemma is no new one. Men in the past have grappled with this demon and defeated him. It can be done again. The method most often tried is exhortation by the ministers, but it is commonly ineffective. The congregations sleep on. As one minister said when I advised him to preach more often about Hell, ‘I have been preaching Hell for twenty years without the slightest effect.’

The revivalists were somewhat more effective. Men like Moody converted thousands, and on the whole they left their world better than they found it. They were preachers of extraordinary power, and they were shrewd enough to have a partner with them. Moody would have been powerless without Sankey and Billy Sunday without Rodeheaver. They began by stirring the emotions by the power of music, and when the audience was thoroughly afire the appeal of the preacher found its mark.

Many were converted, but the method had serious defects, for it is notorious that most of the conversions were only temporary and evil passions as well as good ones were aroused, so that the practice has fallen into disrepute as it ought to have. The remedy was incomplete. Those men brought an ignition system with them and started many a man’s engine for him, but when the revival was over they packed their trunks, put the starting mechanism in their pockets, and went away.

When a man’s engine ran down he had no way to start it again. It is no use to take your motor-car to a repair shop, repair the ignition and set it going if you leave without the starting-crank. A man must have a self-starter, which the method of the great revivalists does not provide. Their system of ignition was more like a bonfire. It went off with an explosion that often did more harm than good and their it went out.

The fact appears to be that permanent awakening of a man’s soul does not result from the action of another man. Some way must be found to enable a man to tap some source of power which will do for him what the revivalist sought to do. When awakened and set in motion by the act of another his soul may run for a time, but for a time only. Then it will run down and it must be wound up again.

Unfortunately, there is no key with which the soul can be wound up like a watch. From the earliest times ingenious minds have been at work upon the problem. Many devices have been invented and patents duly applied for. Under favorable conditions and in special cases many of them work well, but as a class they impressed me very much like patent medicines. They work temporarily but the effect wears off and you have to go and buy another one.

There used to be, however, what the engineers call ‘a standard practice, used throughout the world for thousands of years with success but of late generally abandoned. It is high time it was revived. I refer to fasting as a preparation for prayer. In ancient, and in fact, down to quite modern times, fasting and prayer were so closely connected that it was almost like the marriage tie, but nowadays fasting is regarded as unhygienic and a little disreputable.

During the last season of Lent, our daily papers reported a sermon by a well-known minister preached to a fashionable congregation on the injunction to fast as it should now be interpreted. It was a good sermon by a truly spiritual man, and, considering the prejudices of his audience and their habits of eating, what he said was doubtless wise, for he pointed out that perhaps it was not intended that we should take this particular teaching in a too literal sense; that spiritual, rather than bodily, fasting was meant and the public, as represented in the press, appeared to regard this as good common sense.

Nor was the preacher alone. I have myself heard fasting referred to very often as if it were disreputable, and I have never heard anyone remark upon the possible unwisdom of feeding a body already overfed and starving a soul nearly reduced to coma. Perhaps this is an application of the teaching that, ‘For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.’ Rut to me this is dangerous literalism.

My criticism of this preacher was that (as is all too often the case with men of his cloth) he had no personal knowledge of that whereof he spoke, while the ancient prophet who gave the law undeniably had. For to men of all races in their primitive state famine was a common occurrence and all men were familiar with the sensations of starvation even to the point of death. In which fact lies the explanation of the knowledge which came to the acuter minds of every race whose history we know that a certain degree of starvation would produce a state of mind highly favorable to religious worship and to the purging of the soul by confession of sin.

Only men of very recent times indeed have been deprived of this essential experience by being practically guaranteed three square meals a day for life. It is an achievement of doubtful value.

The priests or ‘medicine men’ of every race knew this fact by experience and were deeply skilled in the use of it to control the minds and souls of their worshipers or patients, and it is, I think, something more than a coincidence that the northern and Asiatic races which, on account of climatic conditions, have had more experience of fasting than the people of the tropics, have originated and developed all of the great religions of the world.


It is important to make clear the distinction between fasting as a religious exercise and starvation, for the effects are quite opposite. Starvation when forced upon a man will bring out all that is worst in him, and the reason is not far to seek. A starving man will labor terribly to provide himself with food, thus drawing down an already reduced vitality and flooding his mind with a feeling of anger and of fear. His whole attitude is one of fighting an enemy, while that of the worshiper who fasts as an aid to prayer is exactly the reverse. With him it is an act which he does of his own will, entered upon and carried out with calmness and purpose. Instead of fighting madly to escape, he rests with a clear and quiet mind, conserving his bodily strength so that his vitality is not impaired. As compared with a man at work, one third of the supply of food will maintain a man at rest, especially if his mind as well as his body is at ease and he has no cause for anxiety. This distinction between fasting and starving is vital.

The practice of fasting is, I believe, the way in which a man may reach the spring of action in his own soul. If he will put his finger on it periodically there is more than a chance that his conversion will be permanent.

This is not a mere notion of mine, for it has been my fortune to have been forced by disease into a course of regulated fasting extending over about ten years, and as a result I can testify of my own knowledge to the effects of it. My fasting has covered the whole range from complete starvation for short periods up to about one third of the diet of a normal working man. For many years it has never exceeded that, and I know that in my own case mental and spiritual conditions which very closely resemble those described by the Holy Men of the East and by the Saints of Europe can thus be produced.

Everyone is familiar with the feeling which follows a heavy meal, in which vapors ascending from the stomach seem to cloud the brain with the grosser and more sensual conceptions. With me fasting has just the opposite effect. The mind becomes clear and calm, the imagination is more active, music and poetry stimulate more, and the whole region of emotional and spiritual consciousness is brought into the foreground. After the first discomfort has passed away complete starvation will produce a feeling of exhilarating lightness and great mental activity, in which the prayer of confession, involving the keenest self-analysis, is most effective.

After such a period a small amount of food will go to your head like wine and produce sensations of religious emotion and mystic joy which are not accessible to me by any other road. It is, perhaps, only honest to say that I have known one man in whom alcohol would produce just such an effect, and Mr. L. P. Jacks describes such a man in Snarley Bob, in his Mad Shepherds. But such cases are extremely rare and are, I believe, quite irrelevant, for the emotional reactions produced by alcohol are usually like the dream states of chloroform and ether which Professor James investigated. These anæsthetics do actually bring into the sphere of consciousness imaginative conceptions indistinguishable from the revelations of the mystic, except, in one essential particular — they vanish and leave no trace.

But there is no question that for me fasting, regulated with skill, will accomplish two results. It will subordinate and bring under control the lusts of the flesh which poison the religious emotion, and it will make audible the ‘still small voice,’ or, as I prefer to call it, the harmonic or overtone, which is the Voice of God, and which is inaudible to most men in the normal clatter of their lives. The Communion of Silence, which is the time when God speaks to us, is to me another version of the same fact.

And as to the lusts of the flesh, which shut us off from such communion, I have this suggestion. It is a wellknown fact that true and lasting conversion most commonly takes place after a man is forty, and I think it is more than a coincidence that this is the period in men’s lives when nervous breakdown is most common in Americans. Many a doctor has told such a patient in effect that what he needed was not a tonic but a faith.

The sudden awakening to which I referred before comes at this period, which seems to resemble the climacteric in women, and I have come to believe that if at a very much earlier age the lusts of the flesh were brought under control by systematic periods of fasting, permanent conversion could he produced earlier and many a shattering collapse of middle life averted.

But fasting is too dangerous a thing to be practised by an amateur without direction. There is nothing new about that. The old books are full of instructions as to how, and how far, to proceed, but the amazing progress of medical science in our time has put them out of date. The doctors can and will instruct a man better how to proceed and what he may safely do. Their patients consult them freely when the insurance agent tells them that they are dangerously overweight, and any man will fast quick enough when he has a belly ache. But an ache of the soul gets far less attention, although it is far more dangerous. Few men die of a stomach ache, but a diseased soul is the cause of half the deaths of the body — and yet we commonly disregard it. Far be it from me to say that we are worshipers of a belly god, but I am bold enough to suggest that the god of our bellies seems to be more real to most of us than the God of our souls. Many a man has said to me when I urged upon him the importance of worship, ‘Oh, I get along very well without that sort of thing!’ — and the worst of it is that he honestly thinks so.

I am firmly convinced, however, that he is wrong, and that the best thing that most men could do to improve their health and their whole operating efficiency would be to lay down all their private and business affairs for at least a week several times a year, and retire to some quiet place where, with the aid of their doctor and their priest, they could orient and reanimate their souls.

My own experiences of the last ten years, coupled with much random thinking, have led me to the conclusion that the ignition system and self-starter which we Protestant Christians are searching for is to be found in systematic fasting and prayer, and by ‘systematic,’ I mean a system of places of retreat where we can go periodically to fast and pray, and to obtain such medical and spiritual advice and aid as we require. But do not imagine that I am considering for myself or recommending to others a life of monastic retirement. On the contrary, I am searching for a way by which we can do our work in the world better. There are, it is true, a few men in each generation of such spiritual power that the greatest service they can do for the world is to retire from the welter of it which hides their illumination, to some quiet hill top from which it can be seen afar. Most of us, however, are fit only to do the chores of life. It is our duty to do them well.

No one can be more conscious than I am of the feebleness of the tallow dip with which I have attempted to light up this subject, but I have some hope that a stronger soul will light his torch at my candle and carry it to some worthy destination. There is, I believe, great power in the conceptions after which I have been groping, and I venture without fear the prediction that the preacher who, during the coming year, shall handle them with insight and with power will have to put up in his Church a sign, ‘Standing Room Only,’ and will have to call loudly for more room to house the applicants for his Bible Classes.