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is apt to be measured by the commercial standard, and accordingly a
church numerically weak, but financially strong, ranks, in the
estimation of the town, not according to its number of souls, but its
number of dollars. We heard a fine young fellow, last summer, full of
zeal for everything high and good, conclude a glowing account of a
sermon by saying that it was the direct means of adding to the church
a capital of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. He meant
nothing low or mercenary; he honestly exulted in the fact that the
power and influence attached to the possession of one hundred and
seventy-five thousand dollars were thenceforward to be exerted on
behalf of objects which he esteemed the highest. If therefore the
church before our view cannot boast of a numerous attendance, it more
than consoles itself by the reflection, that there are a dozen names
of talismanic power in Wall Street on its list of members.

"But suppose the Doctor should leave you?" objected a friend of ours
to a trustee, who had been urging him to buy a pew in a fashionable
church.

"Well, my dear sir," was the business-like reply; "suppose he should.
We should immediately engage the very first talent which money can
command."

We can hardly help taking this simple view of things in rich
commercial cities. Our worthy trustee merely put the thing on the
correct basis. He frankly _said_ what every church _does_, ought to
do, and must do. He stated a universal fact in the plain and sensible
language to which he was accustomed. In the same way these
business-like Christians have borrowed the language of the Church, and
speak of men who are "good" for a million.

The congregation is assembled. The low mumble of the organ ceases. A
female voice rises melodiously above the rustle of dry-goods and the
whispers of those who wear them. So sweet and powerful is it, that a
stranger might almost suppose it borrowed from the choir of heaven;
but the inhabitants of the town recognize it as one they have often
heard at concerts or at the opera; and they listen critically, as to a
professional performance, which it is. It is well that highly
artificial singing prevents the hearer from catching the words of the
song; for it _would_ have rather an odd effect to hear rendered, in
the modern Italian style, such plain straightforward words as these: -

"Can sinners hope for heaven
Who love this world so well?
Or dream of future happiness
While on the road to hell?"

The performance, however, is so exquisite that we do not think of
these things, but listen in rapture to the voice alone. When the lady
has finished her stanza, a noble barytone, also recognized as
professional, takes up the strain, and performs a stanza, solo; at the
conclusion of which, four voices, in enchanting accord breathe out a
third. It is evident that the "first talent that money can command"
has been "engaged" for the entertainment of the congregation; and we
are not surprised when the information is proudly communicated that
the music costs a hundred and twenty dollars per Sunday.

What is very surprising and well worthy of consideration is, that this
beautiful music does not "draw." In our rovings about among the noted
churches of New York, - of the kind which "engage the first talent that
money can command," - we could never see that the audience was much
increased by expensive professional music. On the contrary, we can lay
it down as a general rule, that the costlier the music, the smaller is
the average attendance. The afternoon service at Trinity Church, for
example, is little more than a delightful gratuitous concert of boys,
men, and organ; and the spectacle of the altar brilliantly lighted by
candles is novel and highly picturesque. The sermon also is of the
fashionable length, - twenty minutes; and yet the usual afternoon
congregation is about two hundred persons. Those celestial strains of
music, - well, they enchant the ear, if the ear happens to be within
hearing of them; but somehow they do not furnish a continuous
attraction.

When this fine prelude is ended, the minister's part begins; and,
unless he is a man of extraordinary bearing and talents, every one
present is conscious of a kind of lapse in the tone of the occasion.
Genius composed the music; the "first talent" executed it; the
performance has thrilled the soul, and exalted expectation; but the
voice now heard may be ordinary, and the words uttered may be homely,
or even common. No one unaccustomed to the place can help feeling a
certain incongruity between the language heard and the scene
witnessed. Everything we see is modern; the words we hear are ancient.
The preacher speaks of "humble believers," and we look around and ask,
Where are they? Are these costly and elegant persons humble believers?
Far be it from us to intimate that they are not; we are speaking only
of their appearance, and its effect upon a casual beholder. The
clergyman reads,

"Come let _us_ join in sweet accord,"

and straightway four hired performers execute a piece of difficult
music to an audience sitting passive. He discourses upon the
"pleasures of the world," as being at war with the interests of the
soul; and while a severe sentence to this effect is coming from his
lips, down the aisle marches the sexton, showing some stranger to a
seat, who is a professional master of the revels. He expresses,
perchance, a fervent desire that the heathen may be converted to
Christianity, and we catch ourselves saying, "Does he mean _this_ sort
of thing?" When we pronounce the word Christianity, it calls up
recollections and associations that do not exactly harmonize with the
scene around us. We think rather of the fishermen of Palestine, on the
lonely sea-shore; of the hunted fugitives of Italy and Scotland; we
think of it as something lowly, and suited to the lowly, - a refuge for
the forsaken and the defeated, not the luxury of the rich and the
ornament of the strong. It may be an infirmity of our mind; but we
experience a certain difficulty in realizing that the sumptuous and
costly apparatus around us has anything in common with what we have
been accustomed to think of as Christianity.

Sometimes, the incongruity reaches the point of the ludicrous. We
recently heard a very able and well-intentioned preacher, near the
Fifth Avenue, ask the ladies before him whether they were in the habit
of speaking to their female attendants about their souls'
salvation, - particularly those who dressed their hair. He especially
mentioned the hair-dressers; because, as he truly remarked, ladies are
accustomed to converse with those _artistes_, during the operation of
hair-dressing, on a variety of topics; and the opportunity was
excellent to say a word on the one most important. This incident
perfectly illustrates what we mean by the seeming incongruity between
the ancient cast of doctrine and the modernized people to whom it is
preached. We have heard sermons in fashionable churches in New York,
laboriously prepared and earnestly read, which had nothing in them of
the modern spirit, contained not the most distant allusion to modern
modes of living and sinning, had no suitableness whatever to the
people or the time, and from which everything that could rouse or
interest a human soul living on Manhattan Island in the year 1867
seemed to have been purposely pruned away. And perhaps, if a clergyman
really has no message to deliver, his best course is to utter a jargon
of nothings.

Upon the whole, the impression left upon the mind of the visitor to
the fashionable church is, that he has been looking, not upon a living
body, but a decorated image.

It may be, however, that the old conception of a Christian church, as
the one place where all sorts and conditions of men came together to
dwell upon considerations interesting to all equally, is not adapted
to modern society, wherein one man differs from another in knowledge
even more than a king once differed from a peasant in rank. When all
were ignorant, a mass chanted in an unknown tongue, and a short
address warning against the only vices known to ignorant people,
sufficed for the whole community. But what form of service can be even
imagined, that could satisfy Bridget, who cannot read, and her
mistress, who comes to church cloyed with the dainties of half a dozen
literatures? Who could preach a sermon that would hold attentive the
man saturated with Buckle, Mill, Spencer, Thackeray, Emerson,
Humboldt, and Agassiz, and the man whose only literary recreation is
the dime novel? In the good old times, when terror was latent in every
soul, and the preacher had only to deliver a very simple message,
pointing out the one way to escape endless torture, a very ordinary
mortal could arrest and retain attention. But this resource is gone
forever, and the modern preacher is thrown upon the resources of his
own mind and talent. There is great difficulty here, and it does not
seem likely to diminish. It may be, that never again, as long as time
shall endure, will ignorant and learned, masters and servants, poor
and rich, feel themselves at home in the same church.

At present we are impressed, and often oppressed, with the too evident
fact, that neither the intelligent nor the uninstructed souls are so
well ministered to, in things spiritual, as we could imagine they
might be. The fashionable world of New York goes to church every
Sunday morning with tolerable punctuality, and yet it seems to drift
rapidly toward Paris. What it usually hears at church does not appear
to exercise controlling influence over its conduct or its character.

Among the churches about New York to which nothing we have said
applies, the one that presents the strongest contrast to the
fashionable church is Henry Ward Beecher's. Some of the difficulties
resulting from the altered state of opinion in recent times have been
overcome there, and an institution has been created which appears to
be adapted to the needs, as well as to the tastes, of the people
frequenting it. We can at least say of it, that it is a living body,
and _not_ a decorated image.

For many years, this church upon Brooklyn Heights has been, to the
best of the visitors to the metropolis, the most interesting object in
or near it. Of Brooklyn itself, - a great assemblage of residences,
without much business or stir, - it seems the animating soul. We have a
fancy, that we can tell by the manner and bearing of an inhabitant of
the place whether he attends this church or not; for there is a
certain joyousness, candor, and democratic simplicity about the
members of that congregation, which might be styled Beecherian, if
there were not a better word. This church is simply the most
characteristic thing of America. If we had a foreigner in charge to
whom we wished to reveal this country, we should like to push him in,
hand him over to one of the brethren who perform the arduous duty of
providing seats for visitors, and say to him:

"There, stranger, you have arrived; _this_ is the United
States. The New Testament, Plymouth Rock, and the Fourth of
July, - _this_ is what they have brought us to. What the next
issue will be, no one can tell; but this is about what we
are at present."

We cannot imagine what the brethren could have been thinking about
when they ordered the new bell that hangs in the tower of Plymouth
Church. It is the most superfluous article in the known world. The
New-Yorker who steps on board the Fulton ferry-boat about ten o'clock
on Sunday morning finds himself accompanied by a large crowd of people
who bear the visible stamp of strangers, who are going to Henry Ward
Beecher's church. You can pick them out with perfect certainty. You
see the fact in their countenances, in their dress, in their demeanor,
as well as hear it in words of eager expectation. They are the kind of
people who regard wearing-apparel somewhat in the light of its
utility, and are not crushed by their clothes. They are the sort of
people who take the "Tribune," and get up courses of lectures in the
country towns. From every quarter of Brooklyn, in street cars and on
foot, streams of people are converging toward the same place. Every
Sunday morning and evening, rain or shine, there is the same
concourse, the same crowd at the gates before they are open, and the
same long, laborious effort to get thirty-five hundred people into a
building that will seat but twenty-seven hundred. Besides the ten or
twelve members of the church who volunteer to assist in this labor,
there is employed a force of six policemen at the doors, to prevent
the multitude from choking all ingress. Seats are retained for their
proprietors until ten minutes before the time of beginning; after that
the strangers are admitted. Mr. Buckle, if he were with us still,
would be pleased to know that his doctrine of averages holds good in
this instance; since every Sunday about a churchful of persons come to
this church, so that not many who come fail to get in.

There is nothing of the ecclesiastical drawing-room in the
arrangements of this edifice. It is a very plain brick building, in a
narrow street of small, pleasant houses, and the interior is only
striking from its extent and convenience. The simple, old-fashioned
design of the builder was to provide seats for as many people as the
space would hold; and in executing this design, he constructed one of
the finest interiors in the country, since the most pleasing and
inspiriting spectacle that human eyes ever behold in this world is
such an assembly as fills this church. The audience is grandly
displayed in those wide, rounded galleries, surging up high against
the white walls, and scooped out deep in the slanting floor, leaving
the carpeted platform the vortex of an arrested whirlpool. Often it
happens that two or three little children get lodged upon the edge of
the platform, and sit there on the carpet among the flowers during the
service, giving to the picture a singularly pleasing relief, as though
they and the bouquets had been arranged by the same skilful hand, and
for the same purpose. And it seems quite natural and proper that
children should form part of so bright and joyous an occasion. Behind
the platform rises to the ceiling the huge organ, of dark wood and
silvered pipes, with fans of trumpets pointing heavenward from the
top. This enormous toy occupies much space that could be better
filled, and is only less superfluous than the bell; but we must pardon
and indulge a foible. We could never see that Mr. Forrest walked any
better for having such thick legs; yet they have their admirers. Blind
old Handel played on an instrument very different from this, but the
sexton had to eat a cold Sunday dinner; for not a Christian would stir
as long as the old man touched the keys after service. But not old
Handel nor older Gabriel could make such music as swells and roars
from three thousand human voices, - -the regular choir of Plymouth
Church. It is a decisive proof of the excellence and heartiness of
this choir, that the great organ has not lessened its effectiveness.

It is not clear to the distant spectator by what aperture Mr. Beecher
enters the church. He is suddenly discovered to be present, seated in
his place on the platform, - an under-sized gentleman in a black stock.
His hair combed behind his ears, and worn a little longer than usual,
imparts to his appearance something of the Puritan, and calls to mind
his father, the champion of orthodoxy in heretical Boston. In
conducting the opening exercises, and, indeed, on all occasions of
ceremony, Mr. Beecher shows himself an artist, - both his language and
his demeanor being marked by the most refined decorum. An elegant,
finished simplicity characterizes all he does and says: not a word too
much, nor a word misused, nor a word waited for, nor an unharmonious
movement, mars the satisfaction of the auditor. The habit of living
for thirty years in the view of a multitude, together with a natural
sense of the becoming, and a quick sympathy with men and
circumstances, has wrought up his public demeanor to a point near
perfection. A candidate for public honors could not study a better
model. This is the more remarkable, because it is a purely spiritual
triumph. Mr. Beecher's person is not imposing, nor his natural manner
graceful. It is his complete extirpation of the desire of producing an
illegitimate effect; it is his sincerity and genuineness as a human
being; it is the dignity of his character, and his command of his
powers, - which give him this easy mastery over every situation in
which he finds himself.

Extempore prayers are not, perhaps, a proper subject for comment. The
grand feature of the preliminary services of this church is the
singing, which is not executed by the first talent that money can
command. When the prelude upon the organ is finished, the whole
congregation, almost every individual in it, as if by a spontaneous
and irresistible impulse, stands up and sings. We are not aware that
anything has ever been done or said to bring about this result; nor
does the minister of the church set the example, for he usually
remains sitting and silent It seems as if every one in the
congregation was so full of something that he felt impelled to get up
and sing it out. In other churches where congregational singing is
attempted, there are usually a number of languid Christians who remain
seated, and a large number of others who remain silent; but here there
is a strange unanimity about the performance. A sailor might as well
try not to join in the chorus of a forecastle song as a member of this
joyous host not to sing. When the last preliminary singing is
concluded, the audience is in an excellent condition to sit and
listen, their whole corporeal system having been pleasantly exercised.

The sermon which follows is new wine in an old bottle. Up to the
moment when the text has been announced and briefly explained, the
service has all been conducted upon the ancient model, and chiefly in
the ancient phraseology; but from the moment when Mr. Beecher swings
free from the moorings of his text, and gets fairly under way, his
sermon is modern. No matter how fervently he may have been praying
supernaturalism, he preaches pure cause and effect. His text may savor
of old Palestine; but his sermon is inspired by New York and Brooklyn;
and nearly all that he says, when he is most himself, finds an
approving response in the mind of every well-disposed person, whether
orthodox or heterodox in his creed.

What is religion? That, of course, is the great question. Mr. Beecher
says: Religion is the slow, laborious, self-conducted EDUCATION of the
whole man, from grossness to refinement, from sickliness to health,
from ignorance to knowledge, from selfishness to justice, from justice
to nobleness, from cowardice to valor. In treating this topic,
whatever he may pray or read or assent to, he _preaches_ cause and
effect, and nothing else. Regeneration he does not represent to be
some mysterious, miraculous influence exerted upon a man from without,
but the man's own act, wholly and always, and in every stage of its
progress. His general way of discoursing upon this subject would
satisfy the most rationalized mind; and yet it does not appear to
offend the most orthodox.

This apparent contradiction between the spirit of his preaching and
the facts of his position is a severe puzzle to some of our
thorough-going friends. They ask, How can a man demonstrate that the
fall of rain is so governed by unchanging laws that the shower of
yesterday dates back in its causes to the origin of things, and,
having proved this to the comprehension of every soul present, finish
by _praying_ for an immediate outpouring upon the thirsty fields? We
confess that, to our modern way of thinking, there is a contradiction
here, but there is none at all to an heir of the Puritans. We reply to
our impatient young friends, that Henry Ward Beecher at once
represents and assists the American Christian of the present time,
just because of this seeming contradiction. He is a bridge over which
we are passing from the creed-enslaved past to the perfect freedom of
the future. Mr. Lecky, in his 'History of the Spirit of Rationalism,'
has shown the process by which truth is advanced. Old errors, he says,
do not die because they are refuted, but _fade out_ because they are
neglected. One hundred and fifty years ago, our ancestors were
perplexed, and even distressed, by something they called the doctrine
of Original Sin. No one now concerns himself either to refute or
assert the doctrine; few people know what it is; we all simply let it
alone, and it fades out. John Wesley not merely believed in
witchcraft, but maintained that a belief in witchcraft was essential
to salvation. All the world, except here and there an enlightened and
fearless person, believed in witchcraft as late as the year 1750. That
belief has not perished because its folly was demonstrated, but
because the average human mind grew past it, and let it alone until it
faded out in the distance. Or we might compare the great body of
beliefs to a banquet, in which every one takes what he likes best; and
the master of the feast, observing what is most in demand, keeps an
abundant supply of such viands, but gradually withdraws those which
are neglected. Mr. Beecher has helped himself to such beliefs as are
congenial to him, and shows an exquisite tact in passing by those
which interest him not, and which have lost regenerating power. There
_are_ minds which cannot be content with anything like vagueness or
inconsistency in their opinions. They must know to a certainty whether
the sun and moon stood still or not. His is not a mind of that cast;
he can "hover on the confines of truth," and leave the less inviting
parts of the landscape veiled in mist unexplored. Indeed, the great
aim of his preaching is to show the insignificance of opinion compared
with right feeling and noble living, and he prepares the way for the
time when every conceivable latitude of mere opinion shall be allowed
and encouraged.

One remarkable thing about his preaching is, that he has not, like so
many men of liberal tendencies, fallen into milk-and-waterism. He
often gives a foretaste of the terrific power which preachers will
wield when they draw inspiration from science and life. Without ever
frightening people with horrid pictures of the future, he has a sense
of the perils which beset human life here, upon this bank and shoal of
time. How needless to draw upon the imagination, in depicting the
consequences of violating natural law! Suppose a preacher should give
a plain, cold, scientific exhibition of the penalty which Nature
exacts for the crime, so common among church-going ladies and others,
of murdering their unborn offspring! It would appall the Devil.
Scarcely less terrible are the consequences of the most common vices
and meannesses when they get the mastery. Mr. Beecher has frequently
shown, by powerful delineations of this kind, how large a part
legitimate terror must ever play in the services of a true church,
when the terrors of superstition have wholly faded out. It cannot be
said of his preaching, that he preaches "Christianity with the bones
taken out." He does not give "twenty minutes of tepid exhortation,"
nor amuse his auditors with elegant and melodious essays upon virtue.

We need not say that his power as a public teacher is due, in a great
degree, to his fertility in illustrative similes. Three or four
volumes, chiefly filled with these, as they have been caught from his
lips, are before the public, and are admired on both continents. Many
of them are most strikingly happy, and flood his subject with light.
The smiles that break out upon the sea of upturned faces, and the
laughter that whispers round the assembly, are often due as much to
the aptness as to the humor of the illustration: the mind receives an
agreeable shock of surprise at finding a resemblance where only the
widest dissimilarity had before been perceived.

Of late years, Mr. Beecher never sends an audience away half
satisfied; for he has constantly grown with the growth of his splendid
opportunity. How attentive the great assembly, and how quickly
responsive to the points he makes! That occasional ripple of
laughter, - it is not from any want of seriousness in the speaker, in
the subject, or in the congregation, nor is it a Rowland Hill
eccentricity. It is simply that it has pleased Heaven to endow this
genial soul with a quick perception of the likeness there is between



Online LibraryJames PartonFamous Americans of Recent Times → online text (page 32 of 42)