Copyright
Andrew Dickson White.

Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White (Volume 2) online

. (page 45 of 54)
Online LibraryAndrew Dickson WhiteAutobiography of Andrew Dickson White (Volume 2) → online text (page 45 of 54)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Startled as I was at this scene, I felt that the doctrine
had not stood the test. More and more there was de-
veloped in me that feeling which Lord Bacon expressed so



EARLY IMPRESSIONS-1832-1851 523

profoundly and pithily, in his essay on " Superstition, "
when he said:

It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an
opinion as is unworthy of Him ; for if the one is unbelief, the
other is contumely : and certainly superstition is the reproach of
the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose : " Surely, I had
rather a great deal that men should say there was no such man
at all as Plutarch, than that they should say that Plutarch ate his
children as soon as they were born ; " as the poets speak of
Saturn : and as the contumely is greater towards God, so the dan-
ger is greater towards men.

The "danger" of which Bacon speaks has been noted
by me often, both before and since I read his essays.
Once, indeed, when a very orthodox lady had declared to
me her conviction that every disbeliever in the divinity of
the second person in the Trinity must be lost, I warned her
of this danger and said, ' ' We lately had President Grant
here on the university grounds. Suppose your little girl,
having met the President, and having been told that he was
the great general of the war and President of the United
States, should assert her disbelief, basing it on the fact
that she had formed the idea of a much more showy and
gorgeous person than this quiet, modest little man; and
suppose that General Grant, on hearing of the child 's mis-
take, should cruelly punish her for it; what would you
think of him? and what would he think of you, were he to
know that you asserted that he could be so contemptibly
unjust and cruel? The child's utterance would not in
the slightest offend him, but your imputation to him of
such vileness would most certainly anger him."

A contribution to my religious development came also
from a very different quarter. Our kitchen Bridget, one
of the best of her kind, lent me her book of devotion the
' * Ursuline Manual. ' ' It interested me much until I found
in it the reasons very cogently given why salvation was
confined to the Roman Catholic Church. This disgusted



524 RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT -I

me. According to this, even our good rector had no more
chance of salvation than a Presbyterian or Baptist or
Methodist minister. But this serious view of the case was
disturbed by a humorous analogy. There were then fight-
ing vigorously through the advertisement columns of the
newspapers two rival doctors, each claiming to produce
the only salutary ' ' sarsaparilla, ' ' and each named Town-
send. At first one claimed to be "the Dr. Townsend,"
then the other claimed to be "the Dr. Townsend" ; the first
rejoined that he was "Dr. Jacob Townsend," whereupon
the other insisted that he was ''Dr. Jacob Townsend"; to
this the first answered that he was "the original Dr. Jacob
Townsend," and the other then declared that he was "the
original Dr. Jacob Townsend"; and so on, through issue
after issue, each supplying statements, certificates, argu-
ments, rejoinders ad nauseam. More and more, then, the
various divines insisting on the exclusive possession of the
only remedy for sin reminded me of these eminent sarsa-
parilla-makers, each declaring his own concoction genu-
ine and all others spurious, each glorifying himself as
possessing the original recipe and denouncing his rivals
as pretenders.

Another contribution to my thought was made one day
in the Sunday-school. While reading in the New Testa-
ment I had noticed the difficulties involved in the two gen-
ealogies of Jesus of Nazareth that in Matthew and that
in Luke. On my asking the Sunday-school teacher for an
explanation, he gave the offhand answer that one was the
genealogy of Joseph and the other of Mary. Of course it
did not take me long to find this answer inadequate ; and,
as a consequence, Sunday-school teaching lost much of its
effect upon me.

But there was still one powerful influence left in behalf
of the old creed. From time to time came the visitation
by the bishop, Dr. DeLancey. He was the most impres-
sive man I have ever seen. I have stood in the presence
of many prelates in my day, from Pope Pius IX down;
but no one of them has ever so awed me as this Bishop of



EARLY IMPEESSIONS-1832-1851 525

Western New York. His entry into a church chancel was
an event; no music could be finer than his reading of the
service ; his confirmation prayer still dwells in my mem-
ory as the most perfect petition I have ever heard ; and
his simple, earnest sermons took strong hold of me. His
personal influence was also great. Goldsmith's lines in
the "Deserted Village,"

" Even children f ollow'd with endearing wile,
And pluck'd his gown, to share the good man's smile,"

accurately pictured the feelings of many of us as we lin-
gered after service to see him greet our fathers and
mothers.

As to my biblical studies, they were continued, though
not perhaps as systematically as they might well have
been. The Protestant Episcopal Church has for a youth
at least one advantage in this respect, that the services,
including Introits, Canticles, Psalter, Lessons, Epistles,
Gospels, and various quotations, familiarize him with the
noblest utterances in our sacred books. My mother had
received instruction in Bible class and prized Scripture
reading ; therefore it was that, when I was allowed to stay
at home from church on Sunday afternoons, it was always
on condition that I should read a certain number of chap-
ters in the Bible and prove to her upon her return that I
had read them carefully, and this was not without its
uses.

Here I am reminded of a somewhat curious event.
One afternoon, when I had been permitted to remain at
home, on the usual conditions, my mother, returning from
service, said .to me that by staying away from church I
had missed something very interesting : that there was a
good sermon well given, that the preacher was of fine
appearance, dignified, and an Indian ; but that she would
never have suspected him to be an Indian were it not for
his words at the conclusion of his sermon, which were as
follows : ' ' And now, my brethren, I leave you. We shall
probably never meet again in this world, and doubtless



526 RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT-I

most of you will forget all the counsels I have given you
and remember nothing save that you have to-day heard a
sermon from an Indian." The point of interest really
was that this preacher, Eleazar Williams, though he gave
no hint of it on this occasion, believed himself, and was
believed by many, to be the lost Dauphin of France,
Louis XVII, and that decidedly skilful arguments in fa-
vor of his claims were published by the Rev. Mr. Hanson
and others. One of the most intelligent women I have
ever known believes to this hour that Eleazar Williams,
generally known as a half-breed Indian born in Canada,
was the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and that
his portly form and Bourbon face were convincing addi-
tions to other more cogent testimonies.

At various times I sought light from new sources, and,
finding on the family shelves a series of books called the
"Evangelical Family Library," I read sundry replies to
Hume, Gibbon, and other deists; but the arguments of
Hume and Gibbon and those who thought with them
seemed to me, to say the least, quite as forcible as those in
answer to them. These replies simply strengthened my
tendency to doubt, and what I heard at church rather in-
creased the difficulty ; for the favorite subjects of sermons
in the Episcopal Church of those days, after the "Apos-
tolical Succession" and "Baptismal Regeneration," were
the perfections of the church order, the beauty of its ser-
vices, and the almost divine character of the Prayer-book.
These topics were developed in all the moods and tenses ;
the beauties of our own service were constantly con-
trasted with the crudities and absurdities of the worship
practised by others ; and although, since those days, left to
my own observation, I have found much truth in these
comparisons, they produced upon me at that time anything
but a good effect. It was like a beautiful woman coming
into an assemblage ; calling attention to the perfections of
her own face, form, and garments ; claiming loudly to be
the most beautiful person in the room ; and so, finally, be-
coming the least attractive person present.



EARLY IMPRESSIONS-1832-1851 527

This state of mind was deepened by my first experiences
at college. I had, from my early boyhood, wished to go to
Yale ; but, under pressure from the bishop, I was sent to
the little church college at Geneva in western New York.
There were excellent men among its professors men
whom I came to love and admire ; but its faculty, its en-
dowment, its equipment, were insufficient, and for fear of
driving away the sons of its wealthy and influential pa-
trons it could not afford to insist either on high scholarship
or good discipline, so that the work done was most unsat-
isfactory. And here I may mention that the especial
claim put forth by this college, as by so many others like
it throughout the country, was that, with so small a body
of students directly under church control, both the intel-
lectual and religious interests of the students would be
better guarded than they could be in the larger and com-
paratively unsectarian institutions. The very contrary
was then true; and various experiences have shown me
that, as a rule, little sectarian colleges, if too feeble to
exercise strong discipline or insist on thorough work, are
the more dangerous. As it was, I felt that in this partic-
ular case a wrong had been done me and charged that
wrong against the church system.

I have been glad to learn of late years that the college
just referred to has, since my student days, shared the
upward progress of its sister institutions and that with
more means and better appliances a succession of supe-
rior instructors have been able to bring its students into
steady good work and under excellent discipline.

Much was made in those days of the " Christian evi-
dences," and one statement then put forth, regarding
the miraculous, produced a temporary effect upon me.
This statement was that the claims of the religions
opposed to Christianity did not rest upon miracles ; that
there was, at any rate, no real testimony to any except
Christian miracles ; and that, as a rule, other religions did
not pretend to exhibit any. But when I, shortly after-
ward, read the life of Mohammed, and saw what a great



528 RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT-I

part was played by his miracle at the battle of Beder, dur-
ing which, on his throwing dust into the air, there came to
his rescue legions of angels, who were seen and testified to
by many on the field, both by his friends and by his ene-
mies ; and when I found that miraculous testimonies play
a leading part in all religions, even in favor of doctrines
the most cruel and absurd, I felt that the ''evidences"
must be weak which brought forward an argument so ill
grounded. Moreover, in my varied reading I came across
multitudes of miracles attributed to saints of the Roman
Catholic Church, miracles for which myriads of good
men and women were ready to lay down their lives in at-
testation of their belief, and if we must accept one class
of miracles, I could not see why we should not accept the
other.

At the close of this first year, for reasons given else-
where, I broke away from this little college and went to
Yale.



CHAPTER LIX

IN THE NEW ENGLAND ATMOSPHEEE 1851-1853

AT Yale I found myself in the midst of New England
J~\ Congregationalism ; but I cannot say that it helped
me much religiously. It, indeed, broadened my view,
since I was associated with professors and students of
various forms of Christianity, and came to respect them,
not for what they professed, but for what they really
were.

There also I read under an excellent professor my
dear friend the late President Porter Butler's " Anal-
ogy " ; but, though it impressed me, it left on my mind the
effect of a strong piece of special pleading, of a series of
arguments equally valuable for any religion which had
once ' ' got itself established. ' '

Here, too, a repellent influence was exercised upon me
by a "revival." What was called a "religious interest"
began to be shown in sundry student meetings, and soon it
came in with a full tide. I was induced to go into one or
two of these assemblies, and was somewhat impressed by
the penitence shown and the pledges given by some of my
college friends. But within a year the whole thing was
dead. Several of the men who had been loudest in their
expressions of penitence and determination to accept
Christianity became worse than ever : they were like logs
stranded high and dry after a freshet.

But this religious revival in college was infinitely better
than one which ran its course in the immediate neighbor-
hood. Just at the corner of the college grounds was a
Methodist Episcopal church, the principal one in New

II. 34 529



530 RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT -II

Haven, and, a professional revivalist having begun his
work there, the church was soon thronged. Blasphemy
and ribaldry were the preacher 's great attractions. One
of the prayers attributed to him ran as follows : ' ' Come
down among us, Lord! Come straight through the
roof -, I '11 pay for the shingles ! ' ' Night after night the
galleries were crowded with students laughing at this
impious farce; and among them, one evening, came
"Charley" Chotard of Mississippi. Chotard was a very
handsome fellow: slender, well formed, six feet three
inches tall, and in any crowd a man of mark, like King
Saul. In the midst of the proceedings, at some grotesque
utterance of the revivalist, the students in the galleries
burst into laughter. The preacher, angrily turning his
eyes upon the offenders, saw, first of all, Chotard, and
called out to him: "You lightning-rod of hell, you flag-
staff of damnation, come down from there ! ' * Of course
no such grotesque scenes were ever allowed in the college
chapel: the services there, though simple, were always
dignified ; yet even in these there sometimes appeared in-
congruous features.

According to tradition in my time, an aged divine,
greatly and justly beloved, from a neighboring city, had
been asked to preach before the students. It was at the
time when the whole English-speaking world had been
thrilled by the story of the relief of Lucknow, and the cry
of the Scotch lassie who heard the defiant slogan and
heart-stirring pibroch of the Highlanders coming to the
relief of the besieged had echoed across all the oceans.
Toward the close of his sermon the dear old doctor became
very impressive. He recited the story of Lucknow, and
then spoke in substance as follows : " So to-day, my young
friends, I sound in your ears the slo-o-o-broch of salva-
tion." The alliteration evidently pleased him, and he
repeated it with more and more emphasis in his perora-
tion. When he sat down another clergyman who was with
him at the sacred desk reminded him of his mistake,
whereupon the good old doctor rose and addressed the



IN THE NEW ENGLAND ATMOSPHERE- 1851-1853 531

students as follows: "My young friends, you doubtless
noticed a mistake in my final remarks. I said 'slo-o-o-o-
broch'; of course I meant ' pi-i-g-a-a-an. ' "

Then, too, it must be confessed that some of the week-
day prayers made by lay professors lent themselves
rather too easily to parody. One of my classmates
since known as a grave and respected judge was espe-
cially gifted in imitating these petitions, with the very
intonations of their authors, and these parodies were in
great demand on festive occasions. The pet phrases, the
choice rhetoric, and the impressive oratory of these pray-
ers were thus made so familiar to us in caricatures that
the originals were little conducive to devotion.

The influence at Yale of men like Goodrich, Taylor,
Woolsey, and Porter, whom I saw in their professors'
chairs, was indeed strong upon me. I respected and ad-
mired them; but their purely religious teaching took but
little hold on me ; I can remember clearly but two or three
sermons which I heard preached in Yale chapel. One was
at the setting up of the chapel organ, when Horace Bush-
nell of Hartford preached upon music ; and another was
when President Woolsey preached a baccalaureate ser-
mon upon "Righteous Anger." The first of these ser-
mons was very beautiful, but the second was powerful. It
has had an influence and, I think, a good influence on
my thoughts from that day to this; and it ought to be
preached in every pulpit in our country, at least once a
year, as an antidote to our sickly, mawkish lenity to crime
and wrong.

In those days conformity to religious ideas was carried
very far at Yale. On week-days we had early prayers at
about six in the morning, and evening prayers at about
the same hour in the afternoon ; but on Sundays we had
not only morning and evening prayers in the chapel, but
morning and afternoon service at church. I attended St.
Paul 's Episcopal church, sitting in one of the gallery pews
assigned to undergraduates ; but cannot say that anything
that I heard during this period of my life elevated me es-



532 RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT-II

pecially. I joined in the reading of the Psalter, in the
singing of the chants and hymns, and, occasionally, in re-
citing part of the creeds, though more and more this last
exercise became peculiarly distasteful to me.

Time has but confirmed the opinion, which I then began
to hold, that, of all mistaken usages in a church service,
the most unfortunate is this demand which confronts a
man who would gladly unite with Christians in Christian
work, and, in a spirit of loyalty to the Blessed Founder of
Christianity, would cheerfully become a member of the
church and receive the benefit of its ministrations; the
demand that such a man stand and deliver a creed made
no one knows where or by whom, and of which no human
being can adjust the meanings to modern knowledge, or
indeed to human comprehension.

My sympathies, tastes, and aims led me to desire to
enter fully into the church in which I was born ; there was
no other part of the service in which I could not do my
part; but to stand up and recite the creeds in all their
clauses, honestly, I could not. I had come to know on
what slender foundations rested, for example, the descent
into hell ; and, as to the virgin birth, my reading showed
me so weak a basis for it in the New Testament taken
as a whole, and so many similar claims made in behalf of
divine founders of religions, that when I reflected upon the
reasons for holding the doctrine to be an aftergrowth
upon the original legend, it was impossible for me to go
on loudly proclaiming my belief in it. Sometimes I have
refrained from reciting any part of the creed ; but often,
in my reverence for what I admire in the service, in my
love for those whom I have heard so devoutly take part in
it in days gone by, and in my sympathy with those about
me, I have been wont to do what I could, have joined in
repeating parts of it, leaving out other parts which I, at
least, ought not to repeat.

Various things combined to increase my distrust for the
prevailing orthodoxy. I had a passion for historical
reading, indeed, at that time had probably read more and



IN THE NEW ENGLAND ATMOSPHERE-1851-1853 533

thought more upon my reading than had most men of my
age in college, and the more I thus read and thought, the
more evident it became to me that, while the simple reli-
gion of the Blessed Founder of Christianity has gone on
through the ages producing the noblest growths of faith,
hope, and charity, many of the beliefs insisted upon within
the church as necessary to salvation were survivals of
primeval superstition, or evolved in obedience to pagan
environment or Jewish habits of thought or Greek meta-
physics or mediaeval interpolations in our sacred books ;
that most of the frightful systems and events in modern
history have arisen from theological dogmatism ; that the
long reign of hideous cruelty in the administration of the
penal law, with its torture-chambers, its burnings of here-
tics and witches, its cruelties of every sort, its repression
of so much of sane human instinct and noble human
thought, arose from this source, directly or indirectly ; and
that even such ghastly scenes as those of the French Revo-
lution were provoked by a natural reaction in the minds
of a people whom the church, by its theory of divine retri-
bution, had educated for ages to be cruel.

But what impressed me most directly as regards the
whole orthodox part of the church was its virtual support
of slavery in the crisis then rapidly approaching. Excel-
lent divines, like Bishop Hopkins of Vermont, the Rev. Dr.
Parker of New Jersey, and others holding high positions
in various sects throughout the country, having based
elaborate defenses of slavery upon Scripture, the church
as a whole had acquiesced in this view. I had become bit-
terly opposed, first to the encroachments of the slave
power in the new Territories of the United States, and
finally to slavery itself; and this alliance between it and
orthodoxy deepened my distrust of what was known about
me as religion. As the struggle between slavery and
freedom deepened, this feeling of mine increased. Dur-
ing my first year at college the fugitive-slave law was
passed, and this seemed to me the acme of abominations.
There were, it is true, a few religious men who took high



534 RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT -II

ground against slavery; but these were generally New
England Unitarians or members of other bodies rejected
by the orthodox, and this fact increased my distrust of the
dominant religion.

Some years before this, while yet a boy preparing for
college, I had met for the first time a clergyman of this
sort the Rev. Samuel Joseph May, pastor of the Uni-
tarian church in Syracuse ; and he had attracted me from
the first moment that I saw him. There was about him
something very genial and kindly, which won a way to all
hearts. Though I knew him during many years, he never
made the slightest effort to proselyte me. To every good
work in the community, and especially to all who were
down-trodden or oppressed, he was steadfastly devoted;
the Onondaga Indians of central New York found in him a
stanch ally against the encroachments of their scheming
white neighbors; fugitive slaves knew him as their best
friend, ready to risk his own safety in their behalf.

Although he was the son of an honored Massachusetts
family, a graduate of Harvard, a disciple of Channing, a
man of sincere character and elegant manners, he was
evidently dreaded by the great majority of the orthodox
Christians about him. I remember speaking to him once
of a clergyman who had recently arrived in Syracuse,
and who was an excellent scholar. Said Mr. May to me,
"I should like to know him, if that were possible." I
asked, ''Why not call upon him?" He answered, "I
would gladly do so, but do you suppose he would return
my call I " "Of course he would, ' ' I replied ; " he is a gen-
tleman." "Yes," said Mr. May, "no doubt he is, and so
are the other clergymen ; yet I have called on them as they
have come, and only two or three of them all have ever
entered my house since. ' ' Orthodox fanatics came to re-
monstrate and pray with him, but these he generally over-
came with his sweet and kindly manner. To slavery he
was an uncompromising foe, being closely associated with
Garrison, Phillips, and the leaders of the antislavery
movement ; and so I came to see that there was a side to



IN THE NEW ENGLAND ATMOSPHERE -1851-1853 535

Christianity not necessarily friendly to slavery: but I
also saw that it was a side not welcomed by the churches
in general, and especially distrusted in my own family.
I remember taking to him once an old friend of mine, a
man of most severe orthodoxy ; and after we had left Mr.
May's house I asked my friend what he thought of the
kindly heretic. He answered, ' l Those of us who shall be
so fortunate as to reach heaven are to be greatly surprised
at some of the people we are to meet there. ' '

As a Yale student I found an additional advantage in
the fact that I could now frequently hear distinguished
clergymen who were more or less outside the orthodox
pale. Of these were the liberal Congregationalists of
New York, Brooklyn, and Boston, and, above all, Henry



Online LibraryAndrew Dickson WhiteAutobiography of Andrew Dickson White (Volume 2) → online text (page 45 of 54)