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as essential, and might strive for breadth and compre-
hension in Christianity, while yet remaining in healthful
relations with the church. I also read with profit and
pleasure the Rev. Thomas Beecher's book, "Our Seven
Churches," which showed that each Christian sect in
America has a certain work to do, and does it well;
also, the sermons of Robertson, Phillips Brooks, and
Theodore Hunger, which revealed a beauty in Christi-
anity before unknown to me.

Another influence was of a very different sort. From
time to time I went on hunting excursions with the pastor
of the Methodist Episcopal church at Ann Arbor; and
though he made no parade of religion, there was in him
a genial, manly piety which bettered me.

But I cannot say that this good influence was always
exercised upon me by his coreligionists. There was es-
pecially one, who rose to be a "presiding elder," very
narrow, very shrewd, and very bitter against the State
University, yet constantly placing himself in comical
dilemmas. On one occasion, when I asked him regard-
ing his relations with clergymen of other religious bodies,
he spoke of the Roman Catholics and said that he had
made a determined effort to convert the Bishop of Detroit.
On my asking for particulars, he answered that, calling
upon the bishop, he had spoken very solemnly to him and
told him that he was endangering his own salvation as
well as that of his flock; that at first the bishop was evi-
dently inclined to be harsh; but that, on finding that he
the Methodist brother disliked the Presbyterian Dr.
Duffield, who had recently attacked Catholic doctrine, as
much as the bishop did, the relations between them grew
better, so that they talked together very amicably.

At this point in our conversation a puzzled expres-

IN LATER YEARS-1856-1905 561

sion overspread the elder's face and he said, "The most
singular experience I ever had was with a French Catho-
lic priest in Monroe. Being in that town and having a
day or two of vacation, I felt it my duty to go and remon-
strate with him. I found him very polite, especially after
I had told him that his bishop had received me and dis-
cussed religious questions with me. Presently, wishing
to make an impression on the priest, I fixed my eyes on
him very earnestly and said as solemnly as I could, 'Do
you know that you are leading your flock straight down
to hell 1 J To this the priest made a very singular answer
very singular, indeed. He said, ' Did you talk like that
to the bishop?' I answered, 'Yes, I did.' 'Did n't he
kick you out of his house?' 'No, he did n't.' 'Then,'
said the priest, '/ won't.' " And the good elder, during
the whole of this story, evidently thought that the point
of it was, somehow, against the priest!

As a professor at the University of Michigan lectur-
ing upon modern history, I, of course, showed my feelings
in opposition to slavery, which was then completely domi-
nant in the nation, and, to all appearance, intrenched in
our institutions forever. From time to time I also said
some things which made the more sensitive orthodox
brethren uneasy ; though, as I look back upon them now,
they seem to me very mild indeed. In these days they
could be said, and would be said, by great numbers of
devoted members of all Christian churches. These ex-
pressions of mine favored toleration and dwelt upon
the absurdity of distinctions between Christians on ac-
count of beliefs which individuals or communities have
happened to inherit. Nothing like an attack upon Christi-
anity itself, or upon anything vital to it, did I ever make ;
indeed, my inclinations were not in that direction: my
greatest desire was to set men and women at thinking,
for I felt sure that if they would really think, in the light
of human history, they would more and more dwell on
what is permanent in Christianity and less and less on
what is transient ; more and more on its universal truths,

II. 36


less and less upon the creeds, forms, and observances in
which these gems are set ; more and more on what draws
men together, less and less on that which keeps them

I became convinced that what the world needed was
more religion rather than less ; more devotion to human-
ity and less preaching of dogmas. Whenever I spoke
of religion, it was not to say a word against any exist-
ing form; but I especially referred, as my ideals of re-
ligious conduct, to the declaration of Micah, beginning
with the words, ' * What doth the Lord require of thee ! " ;
to the Sermon on the Mount ; to the definition of "pure re-
ligion and undefiled" given by St. James; and to some
of the wonderful utterances of St. Paul. But even this
alarmed two or three very good men; they were much
exercised over what they called my "indifferentism";
and when I was chosen, somewhat later, to the presidency
of Cornell University, I found that they had thought it
their duty to write letters urging various trustees to pre-
vent the election of so dangerous a heretic.

Scattered through the Michigan university town were
a number of people who had broken from the old faith
and were groping about to find a new one, but, as a rule,
with such insufficient knowledge of the real basis of be-
lief or skepticism that the religion they found seemed less
valuable to them than the one they had left. Thiers,
Voltairian though he was, has well said, ' ' The only altars
which are not ridiculous are the old altars."

Some of the best of these people, having lost very dear
children, had taken refuge in what was called ' ' spiritual-
ism"; and I was invited to witness some of the "mani-
festations from the spirit-land," and assured that they
would leave no doubt in my mind as to their tremendous
reality. Among those who thus invited me were a county
judge of high standing, and his wife, one of the most
lovely and accomplished of women. They had lost their
only daughter, a beautiful creature just budding into
womanhood, and they thought that "spiritualism" had

IN LATER YEARS-1856-1905 563

given her back to them. As they told me wonderful things
regarding the revelations made by sundry eminent me-
diums, I accepted their invitation to witness some of
these, and went to the seances with a perfectly open and
impartial mind. I saw nothing antecedently improbable
in phenomena of that sort; indeed, it seemed to me that
it might be a blessed thing if there were really something
in it all; but examination showed me in this, as in all
other cases where I have investigated so-called ''spirit
revelations," nothing save the worthlessness of human
testimony to the miraculous. These miracles were the
cheapest and poorest of jugglery, and the mediums were,
without exception, of a type below contempt. There was,
indeed, a revelation to me, not of a spirit-world beyond
the grave, but of a spirit-world about me, peopled with
the spirits of good and loving men and women who find
"joy in believing" what they wish to believe. Com-
pared with this new worship, I felt that the old was in-
finitely more honest, substantial, and healthful ; and never
since have I desired to promote revolutionary changes
in religion. Such changes, to be good, must be evolution-
ary, gradual, and in obedience to slowly increasing know-
ledge: such a change is now evidently going on, irresist-
ibly, and quite as rapidly as is desirable.

There were other singular experiences. One day a
student said to me that an old man living not far from
the university grounds was very ill and wished to see
me. I called at once, and found him stretched out on his
bed and greatly emaciated with consumption. He was
a Hicksite Quaker. As I entered the room he said,
* * Friend, I hear good things of thee : thou art telling the
truth; let me bear my testimony before thee. I believe
in God and in a future life, but in little else which the
churches teach. I am dying. Within two or three days,
at furthest, I shall be in my coffin. Yet I look on the
future with no anxiety; I am in the hands of my loving
Father, and have no more fear of passing through the
gate of death into the future life than of passing through


yonder door into the next room." After kindly talk I
left him, and next day learned that he had quietly passed

After about five years of duty in the University of
Michigan, I was brought into the main charge of the
newly established Cornell University; and in this new
position, while no real change took place in my funda-
mental religious ideas, there were conflicting influences,
sometimes unfortunate, but in the main happy. In other
chapters of these reminiscences I have shown to what
unjust attacks the new institution and all connected with
it were subjected by the agents and votaries of various
denominational colleges. At times this embittered me,
but the ultimate result always was that it stirred me to
new efforts. Whatever ill feelings arose from these on-
slaughts were more than made up after the establishment
of the Sage Chapel pulpit. I have shown elsewhere
how, at my instance, provision was made by a public-
spirited man for calling the most distinguished preachers
of all denominations, and how, the selection of these hav-
ing been left to me, I chose them from the most eminent
men in the various Christian bodies. My intercourse with
these, as well as my hearing their discourses, broadened
and deepened my religious feeling, and I regard this as
among the especially happy things of my life.

Another feature of the university was not so helpful
to me. I have spoken in another chapter regarding the
establishment of Barnes Hall at Cornell as a center of
work for the Christian Association and other religious
organizations of the university, and of my pleasure in
aiding the work there done and in noting its good results.
At various times I attended the services of the Young
Men's Christian Association; and while they often
touched me, I cannot say that they always edified me.
I am especially fond of the psalms attributed to David,
which are, for me, the highest of poetry ; and I am also
very fond of the great and noble hymns of the church,
Catholic and Protestant, and especially susceptible to the

IN LATER YEARS -1856-1905 565

best church music, from Bach and Handel to Mason and
Neale : but the sort of revival hymns which are generally
sung in Christian Associations, and which date mainly
from the Moody and Sankey period, do not appeal to my
best feelings in any respect. They seem to me very thin
and gushy. This feeling of mine is not essentially un-
orthodox, for I once heard it expressed by an eminent
orthodox clergyman in terms much stronger than any
which I have ever used. Said he, "When I was young,
congregations used to sing such psalms as this:

" The Lord descended from above,

And bowed the heavens most high ;
And underneath His feet He cast
The darkness of the sky.

" On cherubim and seraphim

Right royally He rode,
And on the wings of mighty winds
Came flying all abroad.

" His seat is on the mighty floods,

Their fury to restrain ;
And He, our everlasting Lord,
Forevermore shall reign.

But now," he continued, "the congregation gets together
and a lot of boys and girls sing :

" Lawd, how oft I long to know-
Oft it gives me anxious thought
Do I love Thee, Lawd, or no ;
Am I Thine, or am I nawt !

There," said he, "is the difference between a religion
which believes in a righteous sovereign Ruler of the uni-
verse, and a maudlin sentiment incapable of any real,
continued, determined effort."

I must confess that this view of my orthodox friend
strikes me as just. It seems to me that one of the first


needs of large branches of the Christian Church is to
weed out a great mass of sickly, sentimental worship
of no one knows what, and to replace it with psalms and
hymns which show a firm reliance upon the Lord God

It is with this view that I promoted in the university
chapel the simple antiphonal reading of the psalms by
the whole congregation. Best of all would it be to chant
the Psalter; the clergyman, with a portion of the choir,
leading on one side, and the other section of the choir
and the congregation at large chanting the responses.
But this is, as regards most Protestant churches, a coun-
sel of perfection.

Staying in London after the close of my university
presidency, I was subject to another influence which has
wrought with power upon some strong men. It was my
wont to attend service in some one of the churches in-
teresting from a historical point of view or holding out
the prospect of a good sermon ; but, probably, a combina-
tion which I occasionally made would not be approved
by my more orthodox fellow-churchmen. For at times
I found pleasure and profit in attending the service be-
fore sermon on Sunday afternoon at St. Paul's, and then
going to the neighboring Positivist Conventicle in Fetter
Lane to hear Frederic Harrison and others. Harrison's
discourses were admirable, and one upon Koman civil-
ization was most suggestive of fruitful thought. My
tendency has always been strongly toward hero-worship,
and this feature of the Positivist creed and practice es-
pecially attracted me; while the superb and ennobling
music of St. Paul's kept me in a religious atmosphere
during any discourse which succeeded it.

My favorite reading at this period was the * * Bible for
Learners," a book most thoughtfully edited by three of
the foremost scholars of modern Europe Hooykaas;
Oort, and Kuenen. Simple as the book is, it made a deep
impression upon me, rehabilitating the Bible in my mind,
showing it to be a collection of literature and moral truths

IN LATER YEARS-1856-1905 567

unspeakably precious to all Christian nations and to
every Christian man. At a later period, readings in the
works of Kenan, Pfleiderer, Cheyne, Harnack, Sayce, and
others strengthened me in my liberal tendencies, without
diminishing in the slightest my reverence for all that is
noble in Christianity, past or present.

Another experience, while it did not perhaps set me
in any new trains of thought, strengthened me in some
of my earlier views. This was the revelation to me of
Mohammedanism during my journey in the East. While
Mohammedan fanaticism seems to me one of the great
misfortunes of the world, Mohammedan worship, as I
first saw it, made a deep impression on me. Our train
was slowly moving into Cairo, and stopped for a time
just outside the city; the Pyramids were visible in the
distance, but my thoughts were turned from them by a
picture in the foreground. Under a spreading palm-tree,
a tall Egyptian suddenly arose to his full height, took
off an outer covering from his shoulders, laid it upon
the ground, and then solemnly prostrated himself and
went through his prayers, addressing them in the direc-
tion of Mecca. He was utterly oblivious of the crowd
about him, and the simplicity, directness, and reverence
in his whole movement appealed to me strongly. At
various other times, on the desert, in the bazaars, in
the mosques, and on the Nile boats, I witnessed similar
scenes, and my broad-churchmanship was thereby made
broader. Nor was this general effect diminished by my
visit to the howling and whirling dervishes. The mani-
festations of their zeal ranged themselves clearly in the
same category with those evident in American camp-
meetings, and I now understood better than ever what
the Eev. Dr. Bacon of New Haven meant when, after
returning from the East, he alluded to certain Christian
"revivalists" as "howling dervishes."

I must say, too, that while I loved and admired many
Christian missionaries whom I saw in the East, and re-
joiced in the work of their schools, the utter narrowness


of some of them was discouraging. Anything more cold,
forbidding, and certain of extinction than the worship
of the "United Presbyterians" at the mission church at
Cairo I have never seen, save possibly that of sundry
Calvinists at Paris. Nor have I ever heard anything
more defiant of sane thought and right reason than the
utterances of some of these excellent men.

But the general effect of all these experiences, as I now
think, was to aid in a healthful evolution of my religious

It may now be asked what is the summing up of my
relation to religion, as looked upon in the last years of
a long life, during which I have had many suggestions
to thought upon it, many opportunities to hear eminent
religionists of almost every creed discuss it, and many
chances to observe its workings in the multitude of sys-
tems prevalent in various countries.

As a beginning, I would answer that, having for many
years supplemented my earlier observations and studies
by special researches into the relations between science
and religion, my conviction has been strengthened that
religion in its true sense namely, the bringing of human-
ity into normal relations with that Power, not ourselves,
in the universe, which makes for righteousness is now,
as it always has been, a need absolute, pressing, and

As to the character of such normal relations, I feel that
they involve a sense of need for worship : for praise and
prayer, public and private. If fine-spun theories are pre-
sented as to the necessary superfluity of praise to a per-
fect Being, and the necessary inutility of prayer in a
world governed by laws, my answer is that law is as likely
to obtain in the spiritual as in the natural world: that
while it may not be in accordance with physical laws to
pray for the annihilation of a cloud and the cessation
of a rain-storm, it may well be in accordance with spiri-
tual laws that communication take place between the In-

IN LATER YEARS- 1856-1905 569

finite and finite minds; that helpful inspiration may be
thus obtained, greater power, clearer vision, higher

As to the question between worship by man as an indi-
vidual being, face to face with the Divine Power, and
worship by human beings in common, as brethren moved
to express common ideas, needs, hopes, efforts, aspira-
tions, I attribute vast value to both.

As to the first. Each individual of us has perhaps an
even more inadequate conception of l ' the God and father
of us all ' ' than a plant has of a man ; and yet the univer-
sal consciousness of our race obliges a human being under
normal conditions to feel the need of betterment, of help,
of thankfulness. It would seem best for every man to
cultivate the thoughts, relations, and practices which he
finds most accordant with such feelings and most satisfy-
ing to such needs.

As to the second. The universal normal consciousness
of humanity seems to demand some form of worship in
common with one's fellow-men. All forms adopted by
men under normal conditions, whether in cathedrals,
temples, mosques, or conventicles, clearly have uses and
beauties of their own.

If it be said that all forms of belief or ceremonial ob-
scure that worship, "in spirit and in truth," which aids
high aspiration, my answer is that the incorporation, in
beliefs and forms of worship, of what man needs for his
spiritual sustenance seems to me analogous to the incor-
poration in his daily material food of what he needs for
his physical sustenance. As a rule, the truths necessary
for the sustenance and development of his higher nature
would seem better assimilated when incorporated in forms
of belief and worship, public or private, even though
these beliefs and forms have imperfections or inade-
quacies. We do not support material life by consuming
pure carbon, or nitrogen, or hydrogen: we take these in
such admixtures as our experience shows to be best for


us. We do not live by breathing pure oxygen: we take
it diluted with other gases, and mainly with one which,
if taken by itself, is deadly.

This is but a poor and rough analogy, but it seems a
legitimate illustration of a fact which we must take ac-
count of in the whole history of the human race, past,
present, and future.

It will, in my opinion, be a sad day for this or for any
people when there shall have come in them an atrophy of
the religious nature ; when they shall have suppressed the
need of communication, no matter how vague, with a su-
preme power in the universe; when the ties which bind
men of similar modes of thought in the various religious
organizations shall be dissolved; when men, instead of
meeting their fellow-men in assemblages for public wor-
ship which give them a sense of brotherhood, shall lounge
at home or in clubs; when men and women, instead of
bringing themselves at stated periods into an atmosphere
of prayer, praise, and aspiration, to hear the discussion of
higher spiritual themes, to be stirred by appeals to their
nobler nature in behalf of faith, hope, and charity, and
to be moved by a closer realization of the fatherhood of
God and the brotherhood of man, shall stay at home and
give their thoughts to the Sunday papers or to the con-
duct of their business or to the languid search for some
refuge from boredom.

But thus recognizing the normal need of religious ideas,
feelings, and observances, I see in the history of these an
evolution which has slowly brought our race out of lower
forms of religion into higher, and which still continues.
Nowhere is this more clearly mirrored than in our own
sacred books ; nowhere more distinctly seen than in what
is going on about us ; and one finds in this evolution, just
as in the development of our race in other fields, sur-
vivals of outworn beliefs and observances which remain
as mile-stones to mark human progress.

Belief in a God who is physically, intellectually, and
morally but an enlarged "average man" unjust, whim-

IN LATER YEARS-1856-1905 571

sical, revengeful, cruel, and so far from omnipotent that
he has to make all sorts of interferences to rectify faults
in his original scheme is more and more fading away
among the races controlling the world.

More and more the thinking and controlling races are
developing the power of right reason ; and more and more
they are leaving to inferior and disappearing races the
methods of theological dogmatism.

More and more, in all parts of the civilized world, is
developing liberty of thought; and more and more is left
behind the tyranny of formulas.

More and more is developing, in the leading nations,
the conception of the world 's sacred books as a literature
in which, as in a mass of earthy material, the gems and
gold of its religious thought are embedded; and more
and more is left behind the belief in the literal, prosaic
conformity to fact of all utterances in this literature.

To one who closely studies the history of humanity,
evolution in religion is a certainty. Eddies there are,
counter-currents of passion, fanaticism, greed, hate,
pride, folly, the unreason of mobs, the strife of par-
ties, the dreams of mystics, the logic of dogmatists, and
the lust for power of ecclesiastics, but the great main
tide is unmistakable.

What should be the attitude of thinking men, in view
of all this 1 ? History, I think, teaches us that, just so far
as is possible, the rule of our conduct should be to assist
Evolution rather than Revolution. Religious revolution
is at times inevitable, and at such times the rule of con-
duct should be to unite our efforts to the forces working
for a new and better era; but religious revolutions are
generally futile and always dangerous. As a rule, they
have failed. Even when successful and beneficial, they
have brought new evils. The Lutheran Church, resulting
from the great religious revolution of the sixteenth cen-
tury, became immediately after the death of Luther, and
remained during generations, more inexcusably cruel and
intolerant than Catholicism had ever been; the revolution


which enthroned Calvinism in large parts of the British
Empire and elsewhere brought new forms of unreason,
oppression, and unhappiness; the revolution in France
substituted for the crudities and absurdities of the old
religion a "purified worship of the Supreme Being"
under which came human sacrifices by thousands, fol-
lowed by a reaction to an unreason more extreme than
anything previously known. Goldwin Smith was right
when he said, ' ' Let us never glorify revolution. J '

Christianity, though far short of what it ought to be
and will be, is to-day purer and better, in all its branches,
than it has ever before been; and the same may be said
of Judaism. Any man born into either of these forms of

Online LibraryAndrew Dickson WhiteAutobiography of Andrew Dickson White (Volume 2) → online text (page 48 of 54)