The Professor At
Table - Atlantic
WHAT HE SAID, WHAT HE HEARD, AND WHAT HE SAW.
The Professor finds a Fly in his Teacup.
I have a long theological talk to relate, which must be dull reading to
some of my young and vivacious friends. I don't know, however, that any
of them have entered into a contract to read all that I write, or that I
have promised always to write to please them. What if I should sometimes
write to please myself?
Now you must know that there are a great many things which interest me,
to some of which this or that particular class of readers may be totally
indifferent. I love Nature, and human nature, its thoughts, affections,
dreams, aspirations, delusions,—Art in all its forms,—virtu in all
its eccentricities,—old stories from black-letter volumes and yellow
manuscripts, and new projects out of hot brains not yet imbedded in the
snows of age. I love the generous impulses of the reformer; but not less
does my imagination feed itself upon the old litanies, so often warmed
by the human breath upon which they were wafted to heaven that they glow
through our frames like our own heart's blood. I hope I love good men
and women; I know that they never speak a word to me, even if it be of
question or blame, that I do not take pleasantly, if it is expressed
with a reasonable amount of human kindness.
I have before me at this time a beautiful and affecting letter, which
I have hesitated to answer, though the postmark upon it gave its
direction, and the name is one which is known to all, in some of its
representatives. It contains no reproach, only a delicately-hinted fear.
Speak gently, as this dear lady has spoken, and there is no heart so
insensible that it does not answer to the appeal, no intellect so virile
that it does not own a certain allegiance to the claims of age, of
childhood, of sensitive and timid natures, when they plead with it not
to look at those sacred things by the broad daylight which they see in
mystic shadow. How grateful would it be to make perpetual peace with
these pleading saints and their confessors, by the simple act
that silences all complainings! Sleep, sleep, sleep! says the
Arch-Enchantress of them all,—and pours her dark and potent anodyne,
distilled over the fires that consumed her foes,—its large, round drops
changing, as we look, into the beads of her convert's rosary! Silence!
the pride of reason! cries another, whose whole life is spent in
reasoning down reason.
I hope I love good people, not for their sake, but for my own. And most
assuredly, if any deed of wrong or word of bitterness led me into an act
of disrespect towards that enlightened and excellent class of men who
make it their calling to teach goodness and their duty to practise it,
I should feel that I had done myself an injury rather than them. Go and
talk with any professional man holding any of the mediaeval creeds,
choosing one who wears upon his features the mark of inward and outward
health, who looks cheerful, intelligent, and kindly, and see how all
your prejudices melt away in his presence! It is impossible to come into
intimate relations with a large, sweet nature, such as you may often
find in this class, without longing to be at one with it in all its
modes of being and believing. But does it not occur to you that one may
love truth as he sees it, and his race as he views it, better than even
the sympathy and approbation of many good men whom he honors,—better
than sleeping to the sound of the Miserere or listening to the
repetition of an effete Confession of Faith?
The three learned professions have but recently emerged from a state of
quasi barbarism. None of them like too well to be told of it, but it
must be sounded in their ears whenever they put on airs. When a man has
taken an overdose of laudanum, the doctors tell us to place him between
two persons who shall make him walk up and down incessantly; and if he
still cannot be kept from going to sleep, they say that a lash or two
over his back is of great assistance.
So we must keep the doctors awake by telling them that they have not
yet shaken off astrology and the doctrine of signatures, as is shown by
their prescriptions, and their use of nitrate of silver, which turns
epileptics into Ethiopians. If that is not enough, they must be given
over to the scourgers, who like their task and get good fees for it. A
few score years ago, sick people were made to swallow burnt toads and
powdered earth-worms and the expressed juice of wood-lice. The physician
of Charles I. and II. prescribed abominations not to be named.
Barbarism, as bad as that of Congo or Ashantee. Traces of this barbarism
linger even in the greatly improved medical science of our century. So
while the solemn farce of over-drugging is going on, the world over,
the harlequin pseudo-science jumps on to the stage, whip in hand, with
half-a-dozen somersets, and begins laying about him.
In 1817, perhaps you remember, the law of wager by battle was
unrepealed, and the rascally murderous, and worse than murderous, clown,
Abraham Thornton, put on his gauntlet in open court and defied the
appellant to lift the other which he threw down. It was not until the
reign of George II. that the statutes against witchcraft were repealed.
As for the English Court of Chancery, we know that its antiquated abuses
form one of the staples of common proverbs and popular literature.
So the laws and the lawyers have to be watched perpetually by public
opinion as much as the doctors do.
I don't think the other profession is an exception. When the Reverend
Mr. Cauvin and his associates burned my distinguished scientific
brother,—he was burned with green fagots, which made it rather slow and
painful,—it appears to me they were in a state of religious barbarism.
The dogmas of such people about the Father of Mankind and his creatures
are of no more account in my opinion than those of a council of Aztecs.
If a man picks your pocket, do you not consider him thereby disqualified
to pronounce any authoritative opinion on matters of ethics? If a man
hangs my ancient female relatives for sorcery, as they did in this
neighborhood a little while ago, or burns my instructor for not
believing as he does, I care no more for his religious edicts than I
should for those of any other barbarian.
Of course, a barbarian may hold many true opinions; but when the ideas
of the healing art, of the administration of justice, of Christian love,
could not exclude systematic poisoning, judicial duelling, and murder
for opinion's sake, I do not see how we can trust the verdict of that
time relating to any subject which involves the primal instincts
violated in these abominations and absurdities.—What if we are even now
in a state of semi-barbarism?
Perhaps some think we ought not to talk at table about such things.—I
am not so sure of that. Religion and government appear to me the two
subjects which of all others should belong to the common talk of people
who enjoy the blessings of freedom. Think, one moment. The earth is a
great factory-wheel, which, at every revolution on its axis, receives
fifty thousand raw souls and turns off nearly the same number worked up
more or less completely. There must be somewhere a population of two
hundred thousand million, perhaps ten or a hundred times as many,
earth-born intelligences. Life, as we call it, is nothing but the edge
of the boundless ocean of existence where it comes on soundings. In
this view, I do not see anything so fit to talk about, or half so
interesting, as that which relates to the innumerable majority of our
fellow-creatures, the dead-living, who are hundreds of thousands to one
of the live-living, and with whom we all potentially belong, though we
have got tangled for the present in some parcels of fibrine, albumen,
and phosphates, that keep us on the minority side of the house. In point
of fact, it is one of the many results of Spiritualism to make
the permanent destiny of the race a matter of common reflection and
discourse, and a vehicle for the prevailing disbelief of the Middle-Age
doctrines on the subject. I cannot help thinking, when I remember how
many conversations my friend and myself have reported, that it would be
very extraordinary, if there were no mention of that class of subjects
which involves all that we have and all that we hope, not merely for
ourselves, but for the dear people whom we love best,—noble men, pure
and lovely women, ingenuous children,—about the destiny of nine-tenths
of whom you know the opinions that would have been taught by those old
man-roasting, woman-strangling dogmatists.—However, I fought this
matter with one of our boarders the other day, and I am going to report
* * * * *
The divinity-student came down, one morning, looking rather more serious
than usual. He said little at breakfast-time, but lingered after the
others, so that I, who am apt to be long at the table, found myself
alone with him.
When the rest were all gone, he turned his chair round towards mine, and
I am afraid,—he said,—you express yourself a little too freely on a
most important class of subjects. Is there not danger in introducing
discussions or allusions relating to matters of religion into common
Danger to what?—I asked.
Danger to truth,—he replied, after a slight pause.
I didn't know Truth was such an invalid,—I said.—How long is it since
she could only take the air in a close carriage, with a gentleman in
a black coat on the box? Let me tell you a story, adapted to young
persons, but which won't hurt older ones.
——There was a very little boy who had one of those balloons you may
have seen, which are filled with light gas, and are held by a string to
keep them from running off in aeronautic voyages on their own
account. This little boy had a naughty brother, who said to him, one
day,—Brother, pull down your balloon, so that I can look at it and take
hold of it. Then the little boy pulled it down. Now the naughty brother
had a sharp pin in his hand, and he thrust it into the balloon, and all
the gas oozed out, so that there was nothing left but a shrivelled skin.
One evening, the little boy's father called him to the window to see the
moon, which pleased him very much; but presently he said,—Father, do
not pull the string and bring down the moon, for my naughty brother will
prick it, and then it will all shrivel up and we shall not see it any
Then his father laughed, and told him how the moon had been shining a
good while, and would shine a good while longer, and that all we could
do was to keep our windows clean, never letting the dust get too thick
on them, and especially to keep our eyes open, but that we could not
pull the moon down with a string, nor prick it with a pin.—Mind you
this, too, the moon is no man's private property, but is seen from a
good many parlor-windows.
——Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay,
you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and
full at evening. Does not Mr. Bryant say, that Truth gets well if she is
run over by a locomotive, while Error dies of lockjaw if she scratches
her finger? I never heard that a mathematician was alarmed for the
safety of a demonstrated proposition. I think, generally, that fear
of open discussion implies feebleness of inward conviction, and great
sensitiveness to the expression of individual opinion is a mark of
——I am not so much afraid for truth,—said the divinity-student,—as
for the conceptions of truth in the minds of persons not accustomed to
judge wisely the opinions uttered before them.
Would you, then, banish all allusions to matters of this nature from the
society of people who come together habitually?
I would be very careful in introducing them,—said the divinity-student.
Yes, but friends of yours leave pamphlets in people's entries, to be
picked up by nervous misses and hysteric housemaids, full of doctrines
these people do not approve. Some of your friends stop little children
in the street, and give them books, which their parents, who have had
them baptized into the Christian fold and give them what they consider
proper religious instruction, do not think fit for them. One would say
it was fair enough to talk about matters thus forced upon people's
The divinity-student could not deny that this was what might be called
opening the subject to the discussion of intelligent people.
But,—he said,—the greatest objection is this, that persons who have
not made a professional study of theology are not competent to speak on
such subjects. Suppose a minister were to undertake to express opinions
on medical subjects, for instance, would you not think he was going
beyond his province?
I laughed,—for I remembered John Wesley's "sulphur and supplication,"
and so many other cases where ministers had meddled with
medicine,—sometimes well and sometimes ill, but, as a general rule,
with a tremendous lurch to quackery, owing to their very loose way of
admitting evidence,—that I could not help being amused.
I beg your pardon,—I said,—I do not wish to be impolite, but I was
thinking of their certificates to patent medicines. Let us look at this
If a minister had attended lectures on the theory and practice of
medicine, delivered by those who had studied it most deeply, for thirty
or forty years, at the rate of from fifty to one hundred a year,—if he
had been constantly reading and hearing read the most approved textbooks
on the subject,—if he had seen medicine actually practised according to
different methods, daily, for the same length of time,—I should think,
that, if a person of average understanding, he was entitled to express
an opinion on the subject of medicine, or else that his instructors were
a set of ignorant and incompetent charlatans.
If, before a medical practitioner would allow me to enjoy the full
privileges of the healing art, he expected me to affirm my belief in a
considerable number of medical doctrines, drugs, and formulae, I should
think that he thereby implied my right to discuss the same, and my
ability to do so, if I knew how to express myself in English.
Suppose, for instance, the Medical Society should refuse to give us an
opiate, or to set a broken limb, until we had signed our belief in
a certain number of propositions,—of which we will say this is the
I. All men's teeth are naturally in a state of total decay or caries,
and, therefore, no man can bite until every one of them is extracted and
a new set is inserted according to the principles of dentistry adopted
by this Society.
I, for one, should want to discuss that before signing my name to it,
and I should say this:—Why, no, that isn't true. There are a good many
bad teeth, we all know, but a great many more good ones. You mustn't
trust the dentists; they are all the time looking at the people who
have bad teeth, and such as are suffering from toothache. The idea that
you must pull out every one of every nice young man and young woman's
natural teeth! Poh, poh! Nobody believes that. This tooth must be
straightened, that must be filled with gold, and this other perhaps
extracted; but it must be a very rare case, if they are all so bad as to
require extraction; and if they are, don't blame the poor soul for it!
Don't tell us, as some old dentists used to, that everybody not only
always has every tooth in his head good for nothing, but that he ought
to have his head cut off as a punishment for that misfortune! No, I
can't sign Number One. Give us Number Two.
II. We hold that no man can be well who does not agree with our views
of the efficacy of calomel, and who does not take the doses of it
prescribed in our tables, as there directed.
To which I demur, questioning why it should be so, and get for answer
the two following:—
III. Every man who does not take our prepared calomel, as prescribed by
us in our Constitution and By-Laws, is and must be a mass of disease
from head to foot; it being self-evident that he is simultaneously
affected with Apoplexy, Arthritis, Ascites, Asphyxia, and Atrophy; with
Borborygmus, Bronchitis, and Bulimia; with Cachexia, Carcinoma, and
Cretinismus; and so on through the alphabet, to Xerophthalmia and Zona,
with all possible and incompatible diseases which are necessary to make
up a totally morbid state; and he will certainly die, if he does not
take freely of our prepared calomel, to be obtained only of one of our
IV. No man shall be allowed to take our prepared calomel who does not
give in his solemn adhesion to each and all of the above-named and the
following propositions (from ten to a hundred) and show his mouth to
certain of our apothecaries, who have not studied dentistry, to
examine whether all his teeth have been extracted and a new set inserted
according to our regulations.
Of course, the doctors have a right to say we shan't have any rhubarb,
if we don't sign their articles, and that, if, after signing them, we
express doubts (in public) about any of them, they will cut us off from
our jalap and squills,—but then to ask a fellow not to discuss the
propositions before he signs them is what I should call boiling it down
a little too strong!
If we understand them, why can't we discuss them? If we can't understand
them, because we haven't taken a medical degree, what the Father of Lies
do they ask us to sign them for?
Just so with the graver profession. Every now and then some of its
members seem to lose common sense and common humanity. The laymen have
to keep setting the divines right constantly. Science, for instance,—in
other words, knowledge,—is not the enemy of religion; for, if so,
then religion would mean ignorance. But it is often the antagonist of
Everybody knows the story of early astronomy and the school-divines.
Come down a little later. Archbishop Usher, a very learned Protestant
prelate, tells us that the world was created on Sunday, the twenty-third
of October, four thousand and four years before the birth of Christ.
Deluge, December 7th, two thousand three hundred and forty-eight years
B.C.—Yes, and the earth stands on an elephant, and the elephant on a
tortoise. One statement is as near the truth as the other.
Again, there is nothing so brutalizing to some natures as moral
surgery. I have often wondered that Hogarth did not add one more
picture to his four stages of Cruelty. Those wretched fools, reverend
divines and others, who were strangling men and women for imaginary
crimes a little more than a century ago among us, were set right by a
layman, and very angry it made them to have him meddle.
The good people of Northampton had a very remarkable man for their
clergyman,—a man with a brain as nicely adjusted for certain mechanical
processes as Babbage's calculating machine. The commentary of the laymen
on the preaching and practising of Jonathan Edwards was, that, after
twenty-three years of endurance, they turned him out by a vote of twenty
to one, and passed a resolve that he should never preach for them again.
A man's logical and analytical adjustments are of little consequence,
compared to his primary relations with Nature and truth; and people have
sense enough to find it out in the long run; they know what "logic" is
In that miserable delusion referred to above, the reverend Aztecs and
Fijians argued rightly enough from their premises, no doubt, for many
men can do this. But common sense and common humanity were unfortunately
left out from their premises, and a layman had to supply them. A hundred
more years and many of the barbarisms still lingering among us will, of
course, have disappeared like witch-hanging. But people are sensitive
now, as they were then. You will see by this extract that the Rev.
Cotton Mather did not like intermeddling with his business very well.
"Let the Levites of the Lord keep close to their Instructions," he
says, "and God will smile thro' the loins of those that rise up against
them. I will report unto you a Thing which many Hundreds among us know
to be true. The Godly Minister of a certain Town in Connecticut, when
he had occasion to be absent on a Lord's Day from his Flock, employ'd
an honest Neighbour of some small Talents for a Mechanick, to read a
Sermon out of some good Book unto 'em. This Honest, whom they ever
counted also a Pious Man, had so much conceit of his Talents, that
instead of Reading a Sermon appointed, he to the Surprize of the
People, fell to preaching one of his own. For his Text he took these
Words, 'Despise not Prophecyings'; and in his Preachment he betook
himself to bewail the Envy of the Clergy in the Land, in that they did
not wish all the Lord's People to be Prophets, and call forth Private
Brethren publickly to prophesie. While he was thus in the midst
of his Exercise, God smote him with horrible Madness; he was taken
ravingly distracted; the People were forc'd with violent Hands to
carry him home…. I will not mention his Name: He was reputed a Pious
Man."—This is one of Cotton's "Remarkable Judgments of God, on Several
Sorts of Offenders,"—and the next cases referred to are the Judgments
on the "Abominable Sacrilege" of not paying the Ministers' Salaries.
This sort of thing doesn't do here and now, you see, my young friend! We
talk about our free institutions;—they are nothing but a coarse outside
machinery to secure the freedom of individual thought. The President
of the United States is only the engine-driver of our broad-gauge
mail-train; and every honest, independent thinker has a seat in the
first-class cars behind him.
——There is something in what you say,—replied the
divinity-student;—and yet it seems to me there are places and times
where disputed doctrines of religion should not be introduced. You would
not attack a church dogma—say, Total Depravity—in a lyceum-lecture,
Certainly not; I should choose another place,—I answered.—But, mind
you, at this table I think it is very different. I shall express my
ideas on any subject I like. The laws of the lecture-room, to which my
friends and myself are always amenable, do not hold here. I shall not
often give arguments, but frequently opinions,—I trust with courtesy
and propriety, but, at any rate, with such natural forms of expression
as it has pleased the Almighty to bestow upon me.
A man's opinions, look you, are generally of much more value than his
arguments. These last are made by his brain, and perhaps he does not
believe the proposition they tend to prove,—as is often the case with
paid lawyers; but opinions are formed by our whole nature,—brain,
heart, instinct, brute life, everything all our experience has shaped
for us by contact with the whole circle of our being.
——There is one thing more,—said the divinity-student,—that I wished
to speak of; I mean that idea of yours, expressed some time since, of
depolarizing the text of sacred books in order to judge them fairly.
May I ask why you do not try the experiment yourself?
Certainly,—I replied,—if it gives you any pleasure to ask foolish
questions. I think the ocean telegraph-wire ought to be laid and will be
laid, but I don't know that you have any right to ask me to go and
lay it. But, for that matter, I have heard a good deal of Scripture
depolarized in and out of the pulpit. I heard the Rev. Mr. F. once
depolarize the story of the Prodigal Son in Park-Street Church. Many
years afterwards, I heard him repeat the same or a similar depolarized
version in Rome, New York. I heard an admirable depolarization of the
story of the young man who "had great possessions" from the Rev. Mr. H.
in another pulpit, and felt that I had never half understood it before.
All paraphrases are more or less perfect depolarizations. But I tell you
this: the faith of our Christian community is not robust enough to
bear the turning of our most sacred language into its depolarized
equivalents. You have only to look back to Dr. Channing's famous
Baltimore discourse and remember the shrieks of blasphemy with which it
was greeted, to satisfy yourself on this point. Time, time only,
can gradually wean us from our Epeolatry, or word-worship, by
spiritualizing our ideas of the thing signified. Man is an idolater or
symbol-worshipper by nature, which, of course, is no fault of his; but
sooner or later all his local and temporary symbols must be ground to
powder, like the golden calf,—word-images as well as metal and wooden
ones. Rough work, iconoclasm,—but the only way to get at truth. It is,
indeed, as that quaint and rare old discourse, "A Summons for Sleepers,"
hath it, "no doubt a thankless office, and a verie unthriftie
occupation; veritas odium parit, truth never goeth without a scratcht
face; he that will be busie with vae vobis, let him looke shortly for
The very aim and end of our institutions is just this: that we may think
what we like and say what we think.
——Think what we like!—said the divinity-student;—think what we like!
What! against all human and divine authority?
Against all human versions of its own or any other authority. At our own
peril always, if we do not like the right,—but not at the risk of
being hanged and quartered for political heresy, or broiled on green
fagots for ecclesiastical treason! Nay, we have got so far, that the
very word heresy has fallen into comparative disuse among us.
And now, my young friend, let us shake hands and stop our discussion,
which we will not make a quarrel. I trust you know, or will learn, a
great many things in your profession which we common scholars do not
know; but mark this: when the common people of New England stop talking
politics and theology, it will be because they have got an Emperor to
teach them the one, and a Pope to teach them the other!
* * * * *
That was the end of my long conference with the divinity-student.
The next morning we got talking a little on the same subject, very
good-naturedly, as people return to a matter they have talked out.
You must look to yourself,—said the divinity-student,—if your
democratic notions get into print. You will be fired into from all
If it were only a bullet, with the marksman's name on it!—I said.—I
can't stop to pick out the peep-shot of the anonymous scribblers.
Right, Sir! right!—said Little Boston.—The scamps! I know the fellows.
They can't give fifty cents to one of the Antipodes, but they must have
it jingled along through everybody's palms all the way, till it reaches
him,—and forty cents of it get spilt, like the water out of the
fire-buckets passed along a "lane" at a fire;—but, when it comes to
anonymous defamation, putting lies into people's mouths, and then
advertising those people through the country as the authors of
them,—oh, then it is that they let not their left hand know what their
right hand doeth!
I don't like Ehud's style of doing business, Sir. He comes along with a
very sanctimonious look, Sir, with his "secret errand unto thee," and
his "message from God unto thee," and then pulls out his hidden knife
with that unsuspected left hand of his,—(the little gentleman
lifted his clenched left hand with the blood-red jewel on the
ring-finger,)—and runs it, blade and haft, into a man's stomach! Don't
meddle with these fellows, Sir. They are read mostly by persons whom you
would not reach, if you were to write ever so much. Let 'em alone. A man
whose opinions are not attacked is beneath contempt.
I hope so,—I said.—I got three pamphlets and innumerable squibs flung
at my head for attacking one of the pseudo-sciences, in former years.
When, by the permission of Providence, I held up to the professional
public the damnable facts connected with the conveyance of poison from
one young mother's chamber to another's,—for doing which humble office
I desire to be thankful that I have lived, though nothing else good
should ever come of my life,—I had to bear the sneers of those whose
position I had assailed, and, as I believe, have at last demolished, so
that nothing but the ghosts of dead women stir among the ruins.—What
would you do, if the folks without names kept at you, trying to get a
San Benito on to your shoulders that would fit you?—Would you stand
still in fly-time, or would you give a kick now and then?
Let 'em bite!—said Little Boston;—let 'em bite! It makes 'em hungry to
shake 'em off, and they settle down again as thick as ever and twice as
savage. Do you know what meddling with the folks without names, as you
call 'em, is like?—It is like riding at the quintain. You run full
tilt at the board, but the board is on a pivot, with a bag of sand on an
arm that balances it. The board gives way as soon as you touch it; and
before you have got by, the bag of sand comes round whack on the back of
your neck. "Ananias," for instance, pitches into your lecture, we will
say, in some paper taken by the people in your kitchen. Your servants
get saucy and negligent. If their newspaper calls you names, they need
not be so particular about shutting doors softly or boiling potatoes.
So you lose your temper, and come out in an article which you think is
going to finish "Ananias," proving him a booby who doesn't know enough
to understand even a lyceum-lecture, or else a person that tells lies.
Now you think you've got him! Not so fast. "Ananias" keeps still and
winks to "Shimei," and "Shimei" comes out in the paper which they take
in your neighbor's kitchen, ten times worse than t'other fellow. If you
meddle with "Shimei," he steps out, and next week appears "Rab-shakeh,"
an unsavory wretch; and now, at any rate, you find out what good
sense there was in Hezekiah's "Answer him not."—No, no,—keep your
temper.—So saying, the little gentleman doubled his left fist and
looked at it, as if he should like to hit something or somebody a most
pernicious punch with it.
Good!—said I.—Now let me give you some axioms I have arrived at, after
seeing something of a great many kinds of good folks.
——Of a hundred people of each of the different leading religious
sects, about the same proportion will be safe and pleasant persons to
deal and to live with.
——There are, at least, three real saints among the women to one among
the men, in every denomination.
——The spiritual standard of different classes I would reckon thus:—
1. The comfortably rich.
2. The decently comfortable.
3. The very rich, who are apt to be irreligious.
4. The very poor, who are apt to be immoral.
——The cut nails of machine-divinity may be driven in, but they won't
——The arguments which the greatest of our schoolmen could not refute
were two: the blood in men's veins, and the milk in women's breasts.
——Humility is the first of the virtues—for other people.
——Faith always implies the disbelief of a lesser fact in favor of
a greater. A little mind often sees the unbelief, without seeing the
belief, of a large one.
The Poor Relation had been fidgeting about and working her mouth while
all this was going on. She broke out in speech at this point.
I hate to hear folks talk so. I don't see that you are any better than a
I wish I were half as good as many heathens have been,—I said.—Dying
for a principle seems to me a higher degree of virtue than scolding for
it; and, the history of heathen races is full of instances where men
have laid down their lives for the love of their kind, of their country,
of truth, nay, even for simple manhood's sake, or to show their
obedience or fidelity. What would not such beings have done for the
souls of men, for the Christian commonwealth, for the King of Kings,
if they had lived in days of larger light? Which seems to you nearest
heaven, Socrates drinking his hemlock, Regulus going back to the enemy's
camp, or that old New England divine sitting comfortably in his study
and chuckling over his conceit of certain poor women, who had been
burned to death in his own town, going "roaring out of one fire into
I don't believe he said any such thing,—replied the Poor Relation.
It is hard to believe,—said I,—but it is true for all that. In another
hundred years it will be as incredible that men talked as we sometimes
hear them now.
Cor facit theologum. The heart makes the theologian. Every race,
every civilization, either has a new revelation of its own or a new
interpretation of an old one. Democratic America has a different
humanity from feudal Europe, and so must have a new divinity. See, for
one moment, how intelligence reacts on our faiths. The Bible was a
divining-book to our ancestors, and is so still in the hands of some of
the vulgar. The Puritans went to the Old Testament for their laws; the
Mormons go to it for their patriarchal institution. Every generation
dissolves something new and precipitates something once held in solution
from that great storehouse of temporary and permanent truths.
You may observe this: that the conversation of intelligent men of the
stricter sects is strangely in advance of the formulae that belong to
their organizations. So true is this, that I have doubts whether a large
proportion of them would not have been rather pleased than offended,
if they could have overheard our talk. For, look you, I think there is
hardly a professional teacher who will not in private conversation allow
a large part of what we have said, though it may frighten him in print;
and I know well what an under-current of secret sympathy gives vitality
to those poor words of mine which sometimes get a hearing.
I don't mind the exclamation of any old stager who drinks Madeira
worth from two to six Bibles a bottle, and burns, according to his own
premises, a dozen souls a year in the cigars with which he muddles his
brains. But for the good and true and intelligent men whom we see all
around us, laborious, self-denying, hopeful, helpful,—men who know
that the active mind of the century is tending more and more to the two
poles, Rome and Reason, the sovereign church or the free soul, authority
or personality, God in us or God in our masters, and that, though a
man may by accident stand half-way between these two points, he must
look one way or the other,—I don't believe they would take offence at
anything I have reported of our late conversation.
But supposing any one do take offence at first sight, let him look
over these notes again, and see whether he is quite sure he does not
agree with most of these things that were said amongst us. If he agrees
with most of them, let him be patient with an opinion he does not
accept, or an expression or illustration a little too vivacious. I don't
know that I shall report any more conversations on these topics; but
I do insist on the right to express a civil opinion on this class of
subjects without giving offence, just when and where I please,—unless,
as in the lecture-room, there is an implied contract to keep clear of
doubtful matters. You didn't think a man could sit at a breakfast-table
doing nothing but making puns every morning for a year or two, and never
give a thought to the two thousand of his fellow-creatures who are
passing into another state during every hour that he sits talking and
laughing! Of course, the one matter that a real human being cares for
is what is going to become of them and of him. And the plain truth is,
that a good many people are saying one thing about it and believing
——How do I know that? Why, I have known and loved to talk with good
people, all the way from Rome to Geneva in doctrine, as long as I can
remember. Besides, the real religion of the world comes from women much
more than from men,—from mothers most of all, who carry the key of our
souls in their bosoms. It is in their hearts that the "sentimental"
religion some people are so fond of sneering at has its source. The
sentiment of love, the sentiment of maternity, the sentiment of the
paramount obligation of the parent to the child as having called it into
existence, enhanced just in proportion to the power and knowledge of
the one and the weakness and ignorance of the other,—these are the
"sentiments" that have kept our soulless systems from driving men off to
die in holes like those that riddle the sides of the hill opposite
the Monastery of St. Saba, where the miserable victims of a
falsely-interpreted religion starved and withered in their delusion.
I have looked on the face of a saintly woman this very day, whose creed
many dread and hate, but whose life is lovely and noble beyond all
praise. When I remember the bitter words I have heard spoken against her
faith, by men who have an Inquisition which excommunicates those who ask
to leave their communion in peace, and an Index Expurgatorius on which
this article may possibly have the honor of figuring,—and, far worse
than these, the reluctant, pharisaical confession, that it might perhaps
be possible that one who so believed should be accepted of the
Creator,—and then recall the sweet peace and love that show through
all her looks, the price of untold sacrifices and labors,—and again
recollect how thousands of women, filled with the same spirit, die,
without a murmur, to earthly life, die to their own names even, that
they may know nothing but their holy duties,—while men are torturing
and denouncing their fellows, and while we can hear day and night the
clinking of the hammers that are trying, like the brute forces in the
"Prometheus," to rivet their adamantine wedges right through the breast
of human nature,—I have been ready to believe that we have even now a
new revelation, and the name of its Messiah is WOMAN!
* * * * *
——I should be sorry,—I remarked, a day or two afterwards, to the
divinity-student,—if anything I said tended in any way to foster any
jealousy between the professions, or to throw disrespect upon that one
on whose counsel and sympathies almost all of us lean in our moments
of trial. But we are false to our new conditions of life, if we do not
resolutely maintain our religious as well as our political freedom,
in the face of any and all supposed monopolies. Certain men will, of
course, say two things, if we do not take their views: first, that we
don't know anything about these matters; and, secondly, that we are not
so good as they are. They have a polarized phraseology for saying these
things, but it comes to precisely that. To which it may be answered, in
the first place, that we have good authority for saying that even babes
and sucklings know something; and, in the second, that, if there is a
mote or so to be removed from our premises, the courts and councils of
the last few years have found beams enough in some other quarters to
build a church that would hold all the good people in Boston and have
sticks enough left to make a bonfire for all the heretics.
As to that terrible depolarizing process of mine, of which we were
talking the other day, I will give you a specimen of one way of managing
it, if you like. I don't believe it will hurt you or anybody. Besides, I
had a great deal rather finish our talk with pleasant images and gentle
words than with sharp sayings, which will only afford a text, if anybody
repeats them, for endless relays of attacks from Messrs. Ananias,
Shimei, and Rab-sha-keh.
[I must leave such gentry, if any of them show themselves, in the hands
of my clerical friends, many of whom are ready to stand up for the
rights of the laity,—and to those blessed souls, the good women, to
whom this version of the story of a mother's hidden hopes and tender
anxieties is dedicated by their peaceful and loving servant.]