The Natural History of a Soul


THE first definite information about God came from the ‘Ella girl.’ That was what we always called her, and memory offers no other name. She had a gift for dramatic narration and sources of information denied to Sunday School teachers. Her father was a Millerite, and no doubt what she told the Boy was her own understanding of what that sect believed. Millerites, he knew, were people who gathered in the fields outside the town dressed in their nightgowns in readiness for the second Advent. She was a year or two older than the Boy, and in the intervals of play she told him about God. After a season of revelation he went about scared and nervous. He learned that God was a Being of infinite powers and a disconcerting disposition. According to the Ella girl God could do anything, and she illustrated what she meant by ‘anything’ as feats of legerdemain, such as making the clock run backward, or the wheelbarrow fly, or the red sun turn blue, and the Boy would hurry fearfully home in the gathering dusk, expecting God to pop out from behind the next bush and perform some of His wonders. He had no desire to witness miracles. He was about six years old, and the new theology kept him awake nights. Streaming with perspiration, he clutched the bedclothes to his chin for protection, and eyed the ‘heat lightning’ which played along the horizon. They were the flames of Hell, he thought, and the Devil might come for him any moment.

All of a long hot summer he suffered, but he suffered in silence. If he could only have brought himself to confess his fears to his mother, they would soon have been explained away. But from his earliest recollection he felt a reluctance to talk about his soul. A sort of shame prevented him. He seemed to feel that his soul was in no state for public inspection. And this reluctancy grew as he became increasingly aware of the hostile and inquisitive attitude of a Western town in which religion seethed and boiled. In those far-off days the line of demarcation was definitely fixed. You were either ‘damned’ or ‘saved’ and there was no middle ground.

The creed of the Boy’s mother was a practical one, the asperities of the belief in which she had been reared being softened by her sound common-sense. Her father was a grim figure of the Boy’s childhood, tall, slightly bent, with a grizzled beard and shaved upper lip, as though made up for the part of the religious zealot. He was one of the pioneers of that region and had the virtues as well as the vices of empire-builders. In his austere creed whatever was pleasant was wrong. Fortunately he lived in a neighboring village, so his visitations were infrequent, but while they lasted they were terrible. The paternal grandfather was the protagonist, a cheerful old sinner, who got drunk on occasions and who was seldom seen without a scythe over his shoulder, as his occupation was cutting the grass that bordered the village streets. He had a white beard and was entirely bald, and looked so unbelievably old that he stood in our cosmogony for Father Time, just as the other grandfather seemed like one of the denunciatory Minor Prophets out of the Bible. His son was of the same easy-going disposition and seldom went to church, but strangely enough he backed up mother’s determination that the children should go. But his skeptical attitude was a constant influence, and produced a cross current which further complicated the Boy’s attempts to unravel the riddle of existence.

The First Baptist Church was a wooden building painted yellow, the grandest structure the Boy had ever seen, except the opera house, and was as full of mysterious passages as a castle of romance. He explored the belfry with awe, fearing and yet hoping that the great bell would begin to swing. And in the basement beneath the pulpit he discovered coils of pipes and a force pump with which Joe Lorain’s father idled a tank beneath the pulpit, over which the minister stood while he preached; and, though he sometimes stamped on the floor in the transports of exhortation, he never broke through, as the Boy sometimes hoped he would.

Early impressions of church remain: the characteristic lead-pencil smell of mother’s mink furs, kept in cedar during week days; the long sermon by Elder Haigh, who looked like a skull, and whose voice was hollow and echoed dismally through the barnlike church, supplying a living emblem of mortality — when the choir sang ‘Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound,’ the Boy thought it meant the sermon; uncontrollable curiosity as to whether the tessellated floor and pillars painted on the back drop behind the pulpit were real or not: —

‘Could the minister walk back there if he wanted to?’ he would whisper, only to be told to ‘hush.’ The same with the pipes between the windows. What were they? To be told they were ‘gas’ and not to talk got him nowhere. What was gas? The light at home was furnished by a kerosene lamp with a red-flannel wick.

Old Deacon Wiswell in front goes to sleep with his head resting on the back of the pew. The Boy docs n’t know he is asleep. He thinks he is interested in something on the ceiling. He leans his head back and stares at the ceiling too. Up there are more of those iron pipes sticking through holes in the roof. Are they ‘gas’ too? He must remember to ask about it when he gets home, but dinner, long delayed, drives out every other thought, and so he never asks and never learns.

Then there was Sunday School, which followed church, for another hour and a half at least, more when somebody wanted to talk after the lesson — a returned missionary, for instance, the dullest entertainment a hungry boy ever listened to. After a preliminary service in the big room the school broke up into classes, two — the oldest and the youngest, the Bible Class and the Infant Class—having rooms to themselves. The others turned over a seat and made a little niche like a section in a sleeping-car. The Infant Class was taught by a well-meaning lady whose husband was superintendent of the school. Her way of talking was much like that of the Line upon Line book, and her regular discourse consisted of one long sentence that lasted the entire lesson hour, moistened and lubricated with a superfluity of saliva, due to false teeth. The Boy sat on the front seat, where he was exposed to this barrage and finished the session damp but informed.

Every thirteen weeks there was ‘review Sunday, or lesson selected by the school,’ when twelve Infant Class stars, flushed with pride and scared to death, marched up on to the platform before the entire Sunday School and intoned a rubric that went something like this: —

‘And the first lesson was,

‘Ahab’s Wicked Reign,

‘And the verse,

‘And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him.’

From that early time when the Bible narrative was broadcasted in a sort of voluble chronicle, illustrated by chalk diagrams on the blackboard, until the Boy became an independent thinker and struck out for himself, and sampled other Sunday Schools, he worked his way at least three times through the entire Bible, barring a few indecent passages and the long catalogues of the begats, assisted by Line upon Line and the Biblical Reason Why, and later by Farrar’s Life of Christ and Peloubct’s Select Notes on the International Sunday School Lessons. Without undue vaunting he believes he could, and still can, give a connected outline of Bible history from ‘ In the beginning’ up to where the historical trail is lost in the vague generalities of the Minor Prophets, and from the beginning of the New Testament to the Epistles. He sets this down with particular emphasis because of the old belief about bringing a child up in the way he should go, on Holy Writ and in the fear of the Lord. There was nothing the Boy feared more than the Lord and, as for Holy Writ, there was nothing he was so thoroughly grounded in; and here he is, fifty years later, trying to set down his spiritual state of mind and appraise what he got out of it all.


The town where he grew up was a religious town. Everybody went to church, in theory at least, and everybody’s children were made to go to Sunday School. To escape this fate was a rare and thrilling adventure, reserved for the daring few. The local college had been founded by Christian pioneers, for the sole purpose of training young men to preach the Gospel, and it had n’t got that idea out of its head even when the Boy attended. No other use for an education was dreamed of in their philosophy.

There were some twenty churches in that little town, ranging from a very small Episcopalian at one end up to a very large Catholic at the other. In between were Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, — firsts, seconds, and Africans, — to say nothing of scattering Campbellites, Universalists, Lutherans, Christian Brothers, Wesleyans, Unitarians, Second Adventists, and, a little later, Christian Scientists. Each regarded itself as the only direct, rock-ballasted, doubletracked way to Heaven, and looked upon all competitors with the same scornful intolerance with which the general passenger agent of the ‘Q’ regarded the general passenger agent of the Santa Fe.

Sunday was a busy day for the devout, with meetings as exacting as the ‘hours’ in a mediæval convent. The programme began at nine in the morning with Gospel meeting, followed by church at ten-thirty, Sunday School at noon, and Y. M. C. A. at four. There was Young People’s Society at six and church again at seven. Wednesday night there was the regular weekly prayer meeting, and Friday night the college Y. M. and Y. W. C. A. had their devotional sessions.

In order that time might not hang too heavy on the hands of small boys on Sunday afternoons, before they were old enough to join the Y. M. C. A., they attended the Band of Hope. This was a temperance organization, but with a strong evangelical flavor. Its meetings were held in a small white chapel standing beside a large white church, of which it was evidently the architectural offspring. The church was Congregational, but was called the old First Church in recognition of the fact that it was the pioneer church of the colony. Around it hung the aura of romance. Runaway slaves had been concealed in its attic when it was one of the stations on the underground railway. But the Band of Hope was not denominational. Citizens of either sex who had reached the age of six and wished to assume an uncompromising attitude toward the demon rum were eligible. Just how uncompromising that attitude was may be learned from the pledge, recited standing and in concert at the beginning of each session: —

‘Trusting in God to help me keep this pledge, I do solemnly promise to abstain from the use of all intoxicating liquor as a beverage, wine, beer, and cider included, from all profanity, and from the use of tobacco in all of its forms. ‘

In the short interval between church and Sunday School it was permitted to go to the post office for the mail, a respite as grateful in the midst of so much religion as mi-carême in Lent. On the way one passed the free spirits loafing in front of Andy Dow’s livery stable and realized that there were other worlds in which church and Sunday School were not the chief end of man.

Then there were the revivals and protracted meetings, periods of unhealthy excitement when hardened sinners of ten years tried vainly to keep their feet against waves of emotion that almost swept them away, while comrades and playmates who but yesterday had played marbles for keeps abandoned one on one’s island of immunity and went down to join those being prayed for, and were wept over by the famous twin evangelists whose record for harvests of souls was high, and who charged accordingly. The technique of these two remarkable harvesters was similar to that of the redoubtable Billy Sunday, but no others had such a way of fomenting the excitement after each accession to the mourner’s bench by the constantly reiterated query, ‘Ar-r-re there another? Ar-r-re there another?’ like an auctioneer running up the bids.

The protracted meetings began sometime in January and lasted for several weeks. Everything was laid aside, housework, social life, and study. During these weeks the assault on the Boy’s soul, which went on intermittently all the time, reached a climax. Every night he was faced by two dreadful alternatives — to give his heart to Christ and go forward to be prayed for, or to hang back and be cast into outer darkness where there would be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. The wear and tear of such experiences as these, the mental agony of resisting, at one knew not what awful penalty, of watching the subsequent careers of those who ‘got religion,’ of the antidote of father’s skepticism, all had their cumulative effect on a small growing mind. Mother always kept her head, and her sanity was a help. Her sense of duty made her go through with it, — it was a part of the religion she professed, — but she reserved the right to reason for herself, and some of the good sisters of the church shook their heads over her also.

After each revival there was always a series of immersions, dramatic spectacles, when the pulpit rolled back like a scroll and was discovered full of water underneath, and the minister put on great rubber boots (‘baptismal pants,’ they were called) that came to his waist, and waded out into the midst of the font, and a trembling row of boys and girls — mostly girls, in white, with the hems of their dresses weighted with iron washers sewed into them to keep them from floating, while the boys wore their second-best suits — were handed down in the pool.

The minister took the candidate by the right hand, placed his left hand behind his shoulder, and said, ‘On the public confession of thy faith I now baptize thee, my dear brother, in the name of the Father, the Son,’ — the candidate was tipped back suddenly until completely immersed, and then raised to his feet again, — ‘and the Holy Ghost,’ and immediately the choir began, ‘Ye must—be plunged — be-neath — the wave.

The haunting weird melody added to the painful solemnity of the scene; the little shivering procession climbed up the opposite steps while the minister said the benediction standing waistdeep in the water.

All this was a part of the religious education of the Boy. It made a profound impression on him that has lasted all his life. For instance, almost the only music he has known was what he heard during those early years while his ears remained open, and that was almost entirely the music of the Sunday Schools and prayer meetings. Instead of the mighty chants of the two elder churches, he had dinned into his ears and mind the apparently endless series of Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs turned out by Messrs. Moody and Sankey, five volumes during the period of his apprenticeship. Beside the fecundity of these two song-writers Irving Berlin is tonguetied. There were two editions of each book, large ones with the music for singers, and small librettos so that the unmusical might follow the words. Whenever a prayer meeting struck a dull spot, someone would start a hymn and the rest would come trailing in.

Over and over the Boy heard these songs until he learned them by heart, and is now unable to forget them. He can repeat the words of hundreds — ‘Pull for the Shore, Sailor,’ ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’‘The Palace of the King,’ ‘Beulah Land,’ ‘Alas, and did my Saviour bleed’ — and they run in his head and haunt his nights. Like most deafened he has head noises, — the medical term for which, tinnitus aurium, is far more poetical, — and these noises are always rhythmical; and in the silent watches of the night, when he cannot sleep, he listens to the endless variations of ‘Will anyone there at the beautiful gate,’ or ‘Palms of victory, palms of glory, palms of victory, I shall bear.’ At least he is less afflicted than that one of Thomas Hardy’s humble characters who always heard the sound of frying fish.

As the Boy advanced in the public schools new interests competed to weaken the grip of evangelicism. He became acquainted with wickedness, committed various deadly sins, including, no doubt, the mysterious sin against the Holy Ghost. Increasing deafness made religious discourse as ineffective as secular, and there were periods when he ceased to be at all concerned about his soul. But his entrance into the local college brought him in contact with a new force for righteousness. Many of his fellow students were something more than passive Christians. They were preparing themselves for the ministry, or the foreign missionary field, and in the meanwhile practised on the heathen around them, of which the Boy was evidently one

But by now he had begun to think for himself. He had pushed his reading into religious history. The searching cross-examinations about the state of his soul which once stirred him so now merely annoyed him. There was one student more persistent than the others. He fancied himself a sort of voice crying in the wilderness. He was not obnoxious because he was a Christian, but he made Christianity obnoxious to all who were brought into contact with him. He was privately known as ‘the dirty Christian’ because of his aversion to soap and water. With him cleanliness was not a close second to godliness. He possessed the vocabulary of the exhorter, and used to labor with his fellow students to ‘give their hearts to God,’ ‘get right with Christ.’ ‘Where do you expect to spend eternity?’ he would ask, as one might inquire about vacation plans.

The language of the college evangelist was not so crude as that of the Baptist Church, where one old deacon astonished the Wednesday night prayer meeting by announcing that he ‘was all unbuttoned with the grace of God,’ but its tenor was the same. The Boy continued to feel that his soul was his own, that his plans for spending eternity were a personal matter; and in his eagerness to escape Scylla he forgathered with Charybdis, and became identified with the freer spirits of the college world, and was the subject of earnest prayers, especially on the part of the co-eds. He became wiser in his generation than the children of light, and used his familiarity with the Bible to confute many of his inquisitors, some of whom were not so well posted. But his deafness acted as a check in either direction. He could not hear well enough to get the full effect of religious propaganda, but neither could he learn the ways of the worldly so fully as he desired. He lived in a twilight country, unable to be very good or very bad, and remained friends with both parties.

It is a good thing he had not heard of Saint Augustine’s City of God in those early years when religion was such a travail with him, for that worthy pillar of the early Church argued that, as spiritual counsel came only through the ear, the deaf were forever denied the Kingdom of Heaven. But Saint Augustine overlooked the converse of his proposition, which is that the deaf are equally immune from the voice of temptation. The adder, sings King David, is deaf and will not hear the voice of the charmer, charming never so wisely.

But what the dirty Christian failed to accomplish was wrought by a girl. The Boy fell in love with a classmate. It could not be denied that the influential part of the student body, the best students and athletes, the men and women who controlled the destinies of the body politic, were of the Y. M. C. A. party. The girl had a certain pride about it, which influenced the Boy. One night he startled the meeting by rising and testifying, and felt amply repaid by the whispered ‘I am so glad.’ What Heaven thought, Heaven only knows. For a season he enjoyed exalted popularity. He even led one of the Friday night meetings. He tried to give his testimonies a literary quality, illustrating them with inspiring anecdotes, a formula he later found effective in advertising. But alas, in another year his Egeria had become fascinated by a dashing senior, and lost interest in both the Boy and religion, and the Boy fell, like Lucifer, nine times the space that measures day and night, and landed among the unregenerate.

The ‘Evidences of Christianity’ was a senior study taught by the president of the college. This president came at the end of the old dispensation, when college presidents were venerable scholars, and frequently doctors of divinity. Nowadays they are young men with more the aspect and qualifications of sales-managers than professors. Their function is to sell the college, not to teach the students. But Dr. Bateman was venerable and picturesque. He was a little man with a noble head, surrounded by a halo of white hair, which he wore long, and white beard. He looked like a steel engraving in an ancient book, and his old-time appearance was heightened by the long frockcoat, buttoned to the chin, which he habitually wore. ‘ Evidences ‘ interested the Boy greatly, but, like all studies at this time, his lack of hearing rendered it barren as far as the classroom went. And so he did not hear the little incident which follows, but it was told him by classmates afterward.

The topic was the resurrection of the soul. One of the class, whose father was governor of the state, wanted to know if it was not equally conclusive evidence of the resurrection of the body. Prexy closed his book and with considerable severity rebuked a certain questioning and skeptical attitude he had noticed.

‘That is no spirit in which to approach this subject,’he said. ‘We are not here to question the evidences upon which Christianity rests, but to learn them. They are proved and accepted facts, the fruit of wise scholarship directed by learned men for years. Their conclusions are accepted by the Christian world. No facts in science or mathematics are better established. A man who doubts the conclusions in this book is unfit to be a student of this college.’

I quote from hearsay and the memory of many years, but the incident was thoroughly discussed by some of us after class. It aroused a spirit of antagonism. If Christianity was taught as a study, then it should be subject to the same rules and scrutiny as other studies. It was evident that many of the class were thinking for themselves. Somehow the story of the meeting got into the columns of a local newspaper, a scurrilous sheet, edited by a real character known as Gersh Martin. He was far and away the ablest newspaperman in that, little town. His editorials were sometimes reprinted in full in the New York Sun. He had no reverence and no fear. He disliked the college, the church, and the so-called respectable element, and said so on all occasions, and made leaders of news no other local paper dared to print. His weekly sheet was denounced by all and read by all, and enjoyed the largest circulation in the town. Gersh himself was a familiar and picturesque figure, as he strolled down Main Street, seldom sober, and wearing a steeple white-felt hat like a circus clown.

The story was told in the Press and People in full, with such embroidery as Gersh’s fertile fancy suggested. He was a mighty linguist, and was the first, as far as I know, to use capitals for emphasis in the course of his editorials. The paper was all editorial, veritable leaders in the English style — that is, the editor’s opinions and comments. There the local correspondent for the press association saw it, and an item floated around the country to the effect that Knox College, founded by Presbyterians and Congregationalists for the sole purpose of preparing young men for the ministry, would graduate a class of which nineteen were skeptics. I have forgotten the exact word, but it was either skeptics or infidels. From that time the Boy reserved the right to study the question of revealed religion and act on his own findings. He put aside the argument of blind belief he had been asked to accept, and tried to arrive at the truth by methods of reasoning.


From this time on, the outside world, discourses, and conversation, had less and less effect upon the formation of his beliefs, and what he read became a greater influence. He was less susceptible to the present as lived around him, and fell under the spell of history as recorded in books. Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere was published while he was still in college. The furore it created then has been forgotten. It would excite little comment to-day. The Boy was so stirred by it that he wrote a three-column review for the local newspaper. He took the position that the Church was unnecessarily alarmed by this attack on her citadels, that Mrs. Elsmere was a foil for her husband, that if the latter represented the triumph of skepticism she was equally strong as steadfast faith; but he realized too that the Church was disturbed, that its ministers were alarmed and preached strongly against the book because they were vulnerable, that orthodoxy was still a mooted question. In his three columns of solid nonpareil he defended the faith, but he followed Robert Elsmere.

During the next few years the papers were full of the stories of noted heretics, like David Swing, thrown out of their churches with immense excitement; and then in the course of a few years the Church would advance to the same point, and the heretic became more orthodox than the churchman.

He continued his reading of history until the whole matter assumed a different perspective. He realized that the Christian dogma had been taught him falsely, stripped of its historical setting. Instead of being a supreme event in the history of mankind, it was one of a series of events, all bearing a strong resemblance to one another, and all growing out of the fact that man is essentially religious, that he must have something to worship, that he must make for himself an answer to the two supreme questions, deity and immortality, that he makes his god in his own image, and as he advances in morals and refinement his theism improves.

The foregoing is the religious history of the Boy’s soul. In the thirty years since, there has been nothing corresponding with the terrible struggle of his boyhood. He has had no visions, no great lights from Heaven, no still, small voices. Instead he has had time to read and think, undisturbed by religious currents surging around him. The question is, what has he got out of it? What is his present state of mind? What does he believe?

He has not been inside of a church in the last, twenty-five years, except for weddings and funerals, which even the deaf do not escape, and æsthetic visits to cathedrals and lesser churches of Europe. His deafness, of course, is the obvious excuse, if excuse is needed, but what would he have done, given the intensive training of the first half of life, could he hear? Of course the deafness has made him immune from many influences which might have worked differently, and also his life the last thirty years has been lived in a large city where one chooses one’s circle instead of having it thrust upon one. At any rate, he is no longer on the defensive. For twenty-five years no one has showan the slightest concern as to where he expects to spend eternity. And so it has been necessary that he should show some concern himself.

The men around him that make up his world seem to be divided into two classes — those who go to church and those who do not. He cannot say into those who believe and those who do not. There seems to be little difference between the two classes, except in the churchgoing habit. Some seem to find in being chairman of the greens committee the same outlet, the same escape, that others find in being vestryman. The churches to which these men belong seem to be extensions of those he knew in his native town, divided by differences unessential to the main purpose. He cannot believe that any great majority of their members are greatly excited about Fundamentalism, but they all feel toward their church something of the loyalty that one feels toward his own club or lodge. It’s a sort of ‘my church, may she always be right; but right or wrong, my church.’

The Boy, who is now a man, of course, has reached the point where there are only two vital questions, both unanswered; Is there a Supreme Being? Is there survival after death? To answer yes to either is merely an effort of will. There is no evidence either way, no logical justification for belief or disbelief. The Boy answers yes to both questions, because he is temperamentally an optimist, and because it is pleasanter to think that way. But his belief or disbelief will not affect the facts either way. Nor do they affect his conduct. He feels that the only thing which matters in conduct is character. It is harder to live a decent life than it is to believe this or that dogma, though if believing the dogma helps in the living he has no objection. Character is the finest product we have of this present life that we know. It is not a mere matter of statement, as belief is, but something that must be worked at every day we live. The story of the repentant thief on the cross is one of the most destructive stories we know. One has more sympathy somehow with the unregenerate thief who went to his death sincere and consistent.

The writer is speaking only for himself. He has been curious all these years to see what so much intensive religious training would do for him. His deafness gives him a peculiar isolation, and compels him to work out his own theology, uninfluenced by others. Still he has a sort of conviction that what he has described as the outline of his simple creed is that of a very large proportion of his fellow men.