The Meetinghouse and the Laboratory

ONE of my early memories is of a church, a brick church with a long, broad flight of steps leading up to a big bare churchroom — and at the front of this room three tall Christmas trees decorated with tinsel and cotton, with candles ready for the lighting. The trees were arranged in a triangle with the centre one at the back. Of the mechanics of those three trees I have a vivid memory, because I was to be the golden-haired angel with a starry crown, standing on a platform higher than my father’s head — an angel with one hand poised beneath the dove of peace, and the other extending an olive branch. After I was poised the outer trees were to be swung back by a scissor arrangement to disclose the angel.

It seemed strange that God and the minister should want a little girl to wear a white nightgown, and no shoes or stockings, in the church. It made the little girl’s heart beat very hard and fast.

They were lighting the candles when the cotton caught on fire, and there was almost a stampede among the audience. My sister and her nurse were pushed down the long front steps, and people were knocked down. After the excitement was over and the candles safely lighted, the angel was put on the platform — a little girl not over four years old, with one outstretched hand holding a spray of leaves, and the other touching a white dove that gently swayed on its wire. The outer trees were moved aside, and red-fire flares lighted. As the flares blazed up, terror struck to the heart of the frightened child, and with a wild cry for her father she leaped from the platform into his arms, and the dove of peace still swayed from the tree. There was no thought of God or any heavenly protection. I do not believe that religion is inherent in the human soul or that it is an hereditary factor. It is the result of training and of the need for something by which one may live.

Religion, temperance, and politics were a sad mixture in my childish mind, because at that same time I remember being put on the big church platform to recite ‘Have courage, my boy, to say No,’ at a temperance rally; and then, not knowing how to get ofl the platform, I stood there and cried at the top of my voice until mother came and lifted me down — that was church again. Then I remember a political parade, with torches, celebrating the reflection of our Congressman, Colonel Pete Hepburn, after a defeat four years before. Mary held me on a fence post and mother marched well at the head of the parade with a little flag; and the old man standing next to me kept shouting, ‘Praise God!’ — so that was religion, too. I thought one had to be good to be allowed to carry the flag in a big parade. This was Western Iowa in the early eighties.

Prayer meant nothing to me in my very early childhood — it was pieces to be spoken in a certain way and at certain times, without any personal connection. The first time I really prayed a prayer of my own was when I was six years old — and then I prayed for something that I knew was wrong, and my prayer was granted.

Mother and the baby had been at grandfather’s for some months because Aunty Belle was very ill there, and all that winter I was alone with my father and Mary, who took care of the house and me and of my father and the horse and the cow, and I wanted mother to come home. So I went out into the barn, knelt down, squeezed my eyes tight shut, and prayed aloud that Aunty Belle might die so that mother and the baby would come home. And Aunty Belle did die — almost immediately, as I remember now.

Mary told me very gently, but I went out into the barn to rejoice. I knew I must pretend to be sorry, so when I came back into the house my face was solemn, and I cried. Even to this day, after almost forty years, I can always bring tears when I really want to laugh by thinking, ‘Aunty Belle is dead.’

A long time afterward I asked mother whether God would answer a prayer if you asked for something wrong, and she said, ‘Of course not!’

The Bible was traditional in our household. Aunt Martha had read the Bible through before she was six, they said. I tried to do it, but was interrupted when we moved, and I doubt if now I have ever read all of it — I have a bad habit of skipping all the ‘begats.’ Our family is old Covenanter Scotch, and during the summer-time we lived with grandfather and grandmother, who were strict United Presbyterians. Sunday was always the Sabbath, and on that day no unnecessary work was done. We sang Psalms (‘Sams’), not hymns. The church was bare and forbidding except for the sunlight through the stained-glass windows. There were no cushions on the uncomfortable pews. We heard long sermons on doctrine, and no music except the Psalms and a choir without accompaniment. We belonged to the more progressive church — the second church which split off from the first because those in the first church held that it was ungodly to start the choir with a pitch-pipe instead of a do-me-sol-do which might be pitched too high or too low. I loved some of the Psalms: —

By Babel’s streams we sat and wept
For mem-em-em-ory still-ill-ill to Zion clung
The wind alone our harp strings swept
That a-a-on the droo-oo-ooping willows hung.

We were not allowed to read anything but the Bible on the Sabbath, our meals were cold, and we might not go buggy-riding or play. We were taught that God was a righteous God, and that He was ever waiting to visit His wrath on His children. Hell was close ahead — the true Biblical version.

At this time there is the memory also of family worship night and morning. Grandfather’s house was on one crest of the double-crested hill, and two hundred yards across the road on the other crest was great-grandfather’s house, where he lived with great-grandmother; and as a child I always wanted to go across the road for evening worship, for just as the darkness began to fall we would hear faintly the quavering voices singing a Psalm. We did not sing at worship at grandfather’s. We had a reading from the Bible and then a prayer. Grandfather had two basic prayers, one for morning and one for evening, with little personal variations each day. I did not always understand all the words — they went so fast, always ending ‘command sin and sickness to proper distance from us, and command Thy blessing upon us, for Thine is the power and glory forever. Amen.’

Family worship and blessing before we might partake of food are always tinged with the picture of grandmother sitting on the edge of her chair, ready to run to the kitchen, saying, ‘Just say a short blessing, Pa— I’m afraid my chicken will burn,’or ‘ Make it a short reading — I want to get to my washing early,’ and scarcely waiting for the Amen to be said.

The forms of religion were closely observed, and I believe grandfather and grandmother lived this religion all the time. It was not a comforting one; there was always the fear of things undone which should have been done.

I grew up with this outward religious form — and no conception of what it really meant. My soul was untouched by any divine flame.

And then we moved to Chicago, to a block with forty-four children in it, when I was almost nine. Sabbath changed. We slept late, went to Sunday School at almost noon, came home to an especial Sunday dinner; then, in the afternoon, we went driving through the parks. The minister was young and interesting, — he tried to hold the children, — and he has since done worlds of good in his ministry in Chicago. He offered a prize of five dollars to the child who would make the best abstract of one of ten sermons he was giving. I won the five — chiefly because I had a good memory, to which were added a few surreptitious notes. He made an appeal that the Sunday School did not. We were a pert, sophisticated lot of children — at least those in my class. We constantly kept the banner for attendance, but we refused to repeat any verses or sing any songs in which, as little materialists, we did not believe. We doubted everything. Our superintendent was very fond of one song, ‘At the Cross,’ which used to be on page ninety of our songbook. We would sing lustily except for one line, ‘For such a worm as I.’ We were not worms, so why tell a lie? Always, on that line, the volume of song diminished half.

I suppose it was well to become a worshiper of truth, but it was hard on the Sunday School morale.

When I was twelve I had a big decision to make, all by myself: whether I would agree with mother or with father. It was too big a problem for a child to solve, so I decided to go to see our minister. I timidly got to the front door and rang the bell. He came and, without inviting me in, asked what I wanted. I could not ask my question on the doorstep, so I said ‘Nothing,’ and went down his steps. It was the only time I had ever asked for help, and it was my last attempt at presenting a problem of my own to a minister for solution. I will present other people’s troubles, but for myself I wait for time and thought to solve my difficulties.

I felt that the church had not functioned properly, and I did not join it with the other children of mv class.

It was somewhere in this interval ot time that a cousin of mother’s, the pastor of a Brooklyn church, came to visit us. He was a man distinctly ranking himself superior to the rest of us. The first morning he was there Cousin Nelse suggested family worship, which we had discontinued in our Chicago household. Our schedule provided for breakfast and school without much leeway. My sister and I knelt by the window and watched the children going to school, while Cousin Nelse prayed on and on — for all the sinful family, beginning with great-grandfather and his six or eight real children and the four adopted ones, on down through the littlest babies; for the governments, from the national to the ward politicians; for missionaries in all foreign countries; for protection from all the conceivable ordinary and extraordinary forms of sin; and my sister and I, kneeling, watched the children go to school and heard the school-bell ring. We had never been late before. Mother wrote us each a note explaining that our visitor had prayed so long at family worship that we had to be late. I started off to school, but did not go, because I could not give that explanation to the teacher. It was my first truancy.

Through college I led a carefree life, without religious influence. It was a state university. I glibly signed my church preference — went occasionally, and did some work with the Y. W. C. A. There was nothing in college to disturb any religious views I might have had. Biology, evolution, and embryology did not offer any disturbing conflicts. I could still fit them to my Bible by stretching my six days of creation over a tremendous span of time, as some Biblical authorities claimed. As I think of it now, there were no influences either for or against religion in my college life. It was a neutral ground.

I once learned at a Y. W. C. A. meeting that white lies were ‘sin spots — freckles — on the sou!.’

After college I drifted, against my better judgment and against my wishes, into teaching. The first year I taught science in a high school in a little town in Eastern Illinois. This town was a close community of people who had intermarried until sometimes I wondered if there was anyone there aside from myself who was not related to at least one fourth of the town. We had two trains a day — one in, one out — and we were the end of the railroad branch. In a community like this, religious sentiment is strong. My superintendent was superintendent of the Methodist Sunday School, and he requested firmly that I attend church regularly in order that I might be a good example — and I did. He was a good-natured, stolid, round-faced man with rosy cheeks, whose favorite song was ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.’ We had it every Sunday, down through the chorus. Then he would sav: —

’ Let ‘s have that chorus again, and this time I want every girl in the audience to sing this — big girls, little girls, old girls, young girls — every girl in this room help sing this chorus.’

And in a high falsetto we would all sing: ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.’

‘That’s fine,’ he would say. ‘Now every buy in this audience — big boys, little boys, old boys, and young boys — every boy help sing this chorus!’

And in a deep bass would come, ‘ I ‘ll be a sunbeam for Him.’

‘That’s fine, but it’s better with all of us together. Now, all together, let’s sing the chorus once more!'

Each chorus was sung some four or five times, sometimes left side, sometimes right side, sometimes grown-ups, sometimes children, sometimes men, and sometimes women, but always all together at the end.

That is my memory of a year at that Sunday School.

That church holds another recollection, that of my first revival. Our little town was not far from the coal-mining districts, and something had happened to the city wells—they had all gone dry or become alkaline and corrosive — so that, to run the electric plant, water was hauled fourteen miles, in tanks, from an old coal-mine. This particular week we were to have an evangelist who was widely known and a singer whose reputation had spread over the Middle West, for an interdenominational revival. They organized a choir of fifty voices and, again at the superintendent’s request, I volunteered. The first three nights went beautifully. We practised singing ‘Come, sinner, come!’ — just that one phrase over and over again, very softly, but very distinctly and slowly. The fourth night the pump at the mine had broken down and there was no water for the electric-light plant. The entire town was without electric lights.

I wish I could picture that big dark church, with the high-vaulted ceiling, lighted by about a dozen flickering oillamps that threw only a little circle of light and made the open space beyond it darker than ever. We sang from memory. A tiny lamp lighted the pulpit desk, but the evangelist stepped beyond its rays and preached like an artist, taking the key from his background. He preached Hell. Hell, he said, ‘is a place where one is in eternal darkness. It is like the tunnels in the coal-mine, all black-dark, with a lone soul at the end of each blind tunnel shut up in total blackness for all eternity, isolated from all other souls, eternally lonesome, in eternal silence, meditating on the sins he has committed, trivial sins, little sins, and big sins, for all the rest of time — alone in absolute silence and absolute darkness.

You could feel the terror sweep over the congregation as he paused, and the very silence seemed audible. Then his voice rose clear and like a trumpet: ‘All of you who do not want to go to this Hell — rise!’ And like a wave the congregation rose to its feet. The choir remained seated and he turned to us with the same question — and with one exception they all stood. I was the exception. It was sinful, I felt, for each man to make up his own form of Hell, for ‘if any man shall add unto these things — ‘

The choir was seated after an instant, and then sang slowly and softly ‘Come, sinner, come’ over and over until the entire congregation that packed the church had marched by and taken the evangelist’s hand, with a promise of reform. When the choir had finished and we were going out, the man leaned over and said directly to me: ‘ I want to see you when the rest are gone.'

The church emptied and there I was alone on the platform. He placed a chair at the front for me and one opposite for himself, so he could look into my eyes. The lights were growing dimmer and more flickering. The sexton put them out in the back. Off to the left sat the retired minister and his wife with whom I lived. Their heads were bowed and they were praying softly and yet audibly for me and my soul. In the dark centre of the church sat one of my nicest high-school boys waiting to take me home, and ‘way in the back stood the lady who planned the music, waiting for directions for the next night. She was standing, holding a heavy sleeping baby in her arms.

For two hours that evangelist sat and faced me. I told him I believed in God and in Christ’s teaching; but he told me, in a low voice that reached only my ears, that I should never be able to get married, — no one would have me, — that I could never hold any responsible position and that I should lose my present job, that my mind would grow weaker and weaker, that my health would be lost, and that many other horrible things would certainly happen to me if I did not join the church. Two long hours we sat on that platform with his eyes glued on mine. ‘You are yielding,’ he would say, ‘you are just ready to come — you will rest to-night in the arms of Jesus’; and I would draw myself back with a start, realizing that always I had felt that joining a church must be like love — a great overpowering thing that would come over my soul and make it impossible to do anything but join the church. Never, I thought, could my church connection be lorced by fear or by an artificially stimulated emotion. It must be a deliberate decision.

It was long after twelve when I tore my eyes away from his — his eyes that seemed to hold me so I could not think, so I could hardly tell what he was saying — and forced myself to rise from the chair. I told him I would think it over and write him a note the next day.

The old minister and his wife came to take me home, convinced that my soul was safe. The lady with the sleeping baby came wearily to the platform, and the high-school boy followed ten feet behind the minister, his wife, and myself— followed all the way home, although he lived at the opposite end of town. After we entered the house I was forced to enter the living-room for some more prayers. I was just twenty when t his happened. I never did get married, and I did lose my job that year, but not as a result of his prophecy. I wrote a little note saying I was sorry but it would be impossible for me to sing in the choir for the rest of the week.

This experience, which should never have been allowed to happen, left a scar so deep that it was years before I went into any church affairs. I occasionally attended a service, but took no part in church activities.

Some five years afterward I received an offer to head a department in a denominational school for girls in one of the oldest Southern states. It was a Methodist Episcopal college. The president wrote and asked me for my church affiliations. I wrote back that I was not a church member, but that I was a Christian and would be willing to attend church, and that I should never influence the religious views of the st udents. Strangely enough I got the appointment. In a characteristic letter this same president wrote me that he had an application from a perfectly good Methodist from Virginia, but she gave no evidence of being able to teach science; and another from an excellent science-teacher from Tennessee, but she was a Baptist and he had all the Baptists he could stand on his faculty; so the Board of Trustees had decided to appoint me.

This president was the broadest-minded, fairest minister with whom I have had the privilege of working. His chapel talks were simple straightforward talks on the ordinary things of life, — our relationships with each other, honesty, morality, — and he preached that each one was a model for someone else, that every day and every minute of our conduct were important, that our girls were training for leadership, and that it must be the highest type of leadership. There was never any attempt to influence my religious views. I even taught evolution under the heading of Theoretical Biology, without a textbook, correlating it so that there could be no religious conflicts raised; making it modern evolution, the changing of species with the development of hereditary qualities that better fitted the group to a changing environment; explaining in words of one syllable that Darwin did not say we are superior monkeys. Those four years came the nearest to developing a religion for me of any years in all my life so far. The admission to the school of one girl who was expelled from another college for stealing crystallized my conception of religion into a doctrine of helpfulness, giving a fellow another chance, forgiveness, and real love. The president said, speaking of this girl: ‘She is young and has made a mistake, but if we give her a chance she will win her own salvation.’

The God of the South was a gentle God, and a God who was very constantly a daily force— not just a God of the Sabbath day.

Just below the college there was an old man — with the calmest face I have ever seen, a face that was alight with an inner glow — who had received ‘ the gift of tongues’ and was ‘sanctified.’ Sanctification was a great gift for him: he was beyond all temptation in this world, he was one with God, and all desire for wrong things was gone. I would give much for a belief like that.

During all these twenty-five years, the life after death was a puzzle to me.

I was not sure, never sure during all those years, that there was anything more. How could we be made in the image and likeness of God, and then cast off our earthly shell and have the spirit go to Heaven or Hell in the same likeness? Was n’t the soul that strange physico-chemical thing we call life, that flickered out in this form to be preserved as an energy that might furnish the magic spark to create a new life? Was there an independent life after death?

And then I came North, into an anatomy room, to study. The dead body meant nothing at all to me. I could not visualize the man or woman it might have been. Life left few records on those immobile faces. For weeks I worked, and each day the wonder grew; and then, one day, I was working on an arm and hand, studying the perfect mechanical arrangements of the muscles and tendons — how the sheaths of certain muscles are split to let the tendons of other muscles through, that the hand may be delicate and small and yet powerful. I was all alone in the laboratory when the overwhelming belief came: a thing like this is not just chance, but a part of a plan, a plan so big that only God could have conceived it. Religion had been a matter of form, a thing without convictions, and now everything was an evidence of God; the tendons of the hand, the pattern of the little blue butterfly’s wings—it was all part of a purpose. There must be a life after death. What it is we may not vision; we are not able to conceive it — any more than I am able to convey to anyone else my own exact conception of a color or a sound. Is my red your red? Is my middle C yours? Or do you have overtones and vibrations which my ear cannot receive?

And here began my religious philosophy. I know there is a ruling power, which, for lack of better name, we call God. I know there is something coming after death, and I believe the Christian system of things gives us the best guide by which to govern our present life. I have no quarrel with any church denomination, or with any religion. I have no desire to force my views on any other person; but I do wish to emphasize the fact that for each of us religion must come as a personal revelation, and it must come differently to each of us — it is not necessarily marked by the function ol joining a church.

Death is a strange thing, for which religion must account. I never saw anyone die until four years ago. I had seen old people and invalids and insane people clinging hard to life, begging for more years here, but never actual death. I thought the strongest thing in life was the desire to live. Then I saw a man die. He was badly hurt, and had suffered for days. I went into his room just as we thought he was growing better. It was very quiet. He was not moaning, and there was a smile on his face. ‘ I’m easier now, ‘ he said, and then he looked at me again. ‘Your face is dark.’ Then he raised his hand, and with a puzzled look he stared at it; and it dropped down to his side, and he was dead — dead with a smile on his face. And I was glad it was so easy.

Never, — and I have seen many deaths since then, — never have I seen a horror of death. It seems always, when the moment comes, a welcome thing. I never think of sending for a minister, unless it be a family oi the Roman faith; then I remember that for the sake of the living the sacrament must be given. I never think of asking whether there are unrepented sins. One’s life is lived, and the judgment rests in God’s hands.