Theodore Parker.

A sermon of the moral condition of Boston, preached at the Melodeon, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1849 online

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Online LibraryTheodore ParkerA sermon of the moral condition of Boston, preached at the Melodeon, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1849 → online text (page 1 of 7)
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S E 11 M O N







111 Washington Street.


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"Hitherto hath the Lord helped us." — 1 Samuel, vii: 12.

A MAN who has the Spirit of his Age can easily be a
popular man ; if he have it in an eminent degree he must
be a popular man in it: he has its hopes and its fears;
his trumpet gives a certain and well known sound ; his
counsel is readily appreciated ; the majority is on his side.
But he cannot be a wise Magistrate, a just Judge, a com-
petent Critic, or a profitable Preacher. A man who has
only the spirit of a former age can be none of these four
things ; and not even a popular man. He remembers
when he ought to forecast, and compares when he ought
to act ; he cannot appreciate the age he lives in, nor have
a fellow feeling with it. He may easily obtain the pity
of his age, not its sympathy or its confidence. The man
who has the spirit of his own, and also that of some fu-
ture age, is alone capable of becoming a wise Magistrate,
a just Judge, and a profitable Preaclier. Such a man
looks on passing events somewhat as the future historian
will do, and sees them in their proportions, not distorted ;
sees them in their connection with great general laws, and
judges of the falling rain not merely by the bonnets it
may spoil and the pastime it disturbs, but by the grass
and corn it shall cause to grow. He has Hopes and
Fears of his own, but they are not the hopes and fears
of men about him ; his trumpet cannot give a welcome or
well known sound, nor his counsel be presently heeded.
Majorities are not on his side, nor can he be a popular

To understand our present Moral Condition, to be able
to give good counsel thereon, you must understand the
former generation, and have potentially the spirit of the
future generation ; must appreciate the Past, and yet be-
long to the Future. Who is there that can do this ? No
man will say, " I can." Yet conscious of the difficulty,
and aware of my own deficiencies in all these respects,
I will yet endeavour to speak of the Moral Condition of

I. I will speak of the actual moral condition of
Boston. Let me begin with the Morals of Trade. In
a city like Rome, you must first feel the pulse of the
Church, in St. Petersburg that of the Court, to deter-
mine the moral condition of those cities. Now Trade is
to Boston what the Church is to Rome and the Imperial
Court to St. Petersburg : — it is the pendulum which
regulates all the common and authorized machinery of
the place ; it is an organization of the Public Conscience.
We care little for any Pius the Ninth, or Nicholas the
First ; the Dollar is our Emperor and Pope, above all
the parties in the State, all sects in the Church, Lord
Paramount over both, its spiritual and temporal power not
likely to be called in question ; revolt from what else we
may, we are loyal still to that.

A little while ago, in a Sermon of Riches, speaking of
the character of Trade in Boston, I suggested that men
were better than their reputation oftener than worse ;
that there were a hundred honest bargains to one that
was dishonest. I have heard severe strictures on that
statement which gave me more pain than any criticism I
have received before. The criticism was, that I overrated
the honesty of men in trade. Now it is a small thing to
be convicted of an error — a just thing and a profitable
to have it detected and exposed ; but it is a painful thing
to find you have overrated the moral character of your
townsmen. However, if what I said be not true as His-
tory, I hope it will become so as Prophecy ; I doubt not
my critics will help that work.

Love of money is out of proportion to love of better
tilings — to love of Justice, of Truth, of a Manly Charac-
ter developing itself in a Mtinlj Life. Wealth is often
made the end to live for ; not the means to live by, and
attain a Manly Character, The young man of good
abilities does not commonly propose it to himself to be a
noble man, equipped with all the intellectual and moral
qualities which belong to that, and capable of the duties
which come thereof. He is satisfied if he can become a
rich man. It is the highest ambition of many a youth in
this town to become one of the rich men of Boston ; to
have the Social Position Avhich that always gives, and
nothing else can commonly bestow in this country. Ac-
cordingly, our young men will sacrifice every thing to this
one object ; will make wealth the End — and will become
rich without becoming noble. Now wealth without noble-
ness of character is always vulgar. I have seen a clown
staring at himself in the gorgeous mirror of a French
palace, and thought him no bad emblem of many an ig-
noble man at home, surrounded by material riches which
only reflected back the vulgarity of their owner.

Other young men inherit wealth, but seldom regard it
as a means of power for high and noble ends, only as the
means of selfish indulgence ; unneeded means to elevate
yet more their self-esteem. Now and then you find a
man who values wealth as an instrument to serve man-
kind withal. I know some such men ; their money is a
blessing akin to genius, a blessing to mankind, a means
of philanthropic power. But such men are rare in all
countries, perhaps a little less so in Boston than in most
other large trading towns ; still, exceeding rare. They
are sure to meet with neglect, with abuse, and perhaps
with scorn ; if they are men of eminent ability, superior
culture, and most elevated moral aims, set off, too, with
a noble and heroic life, they are sure of meeting with
eminent hatred. I fear the man most hated in this town
would be found to be some one who had only sought to do
mankind some great good, and stepped before his age too
far for its sympathy. Truth, Justice, Humanity, are not
thought in Boston to come of good family ; their follow-


ers are not respectable. I am not speaking to blame
men, only to sho^y the fact ; we may meddle with things
too high for us, but not understand nor appreciate.

Now this disproportionate love of money appears in va-
rious w^ays. You see it in the advantage that is taken
of the feeblest, the most ignorant, and the most exposed
classes in the community. It is notorious that they pay
the highest prices, the dearest rents, and are imposed
upon in their dealings oftener than any other class of
men ; so the raven and the hooded crow, it is said, seek
out the sickliest sheep to pounce upon. The fact that a
man is ignorant, poor, and desperate, furnishes to many
men an argument for defrauding the man. Now it is
bad enough to injure any man ; but to wrong an ignorant
man, a poor and friendless man ; to take advantage of
his poverty or his ignorance, and to get his services or
his money for less than a fair return — that is petty base-
ness under aggravated circumstances, and as cowardly as
it is mean. You are now and then shocked at rich men
telling of the arts by which they got their gold — some-
times of their fraud at home, sometimes abroad, and a
good man almost thinks there must be a curse on money
meanly got at first, though it falls to him by honest inher-

This same disproportionate love of money appears in
.the fact that men, not driven by necessity, engage in the
manufacture, the importation, and the sale of an article
which corrupts and ruins men by hundreds ; which has
done more to increase Poverty, Misery, and Crime than
any other one cause whatever ; and, as some think, more
than all other causes whatever. I am not speaking of
•men who aid in any just and proper use of that article,
but in its ruinous use. Yet such men by such a traffic
never lose their standing in society, their reputation in
trade, their character in the church. A good many men
will think worse of you for being an Abolitionist ; men
have lost their place in society by that name ; even Dr.
Channing " hurt his usefulness " and " injured his repu-
tation" by daring to speak against that Sin of the Na-
tion ; but no man loses caste in Boston by making, im-

porting, and selling the cause of ruin to hundreds of fami-
lies — though he does it with his eyes open, knowing that
he ministers to crime and to ruin ! I am told that large
quantities of New England Rum have already been sent
from this city to California ; it is notorious that much of
it is sent to the nations of Africa — if not from Boston,
at least from New England, — as an auxiUary in the
slave-trade. You know with what feelings of grief and
indignation a clergyman of this city saw that character-
istic manufacture of this town on the wharves of a Ma-
hometan city. I suppose there are not ten ministers in
Boston who would not " get into trouble," as the phrase
is, if they Avere to preach against Intemperance and the
causes that produce Intemperance with half so much zeal
as they innocently preach " regeneration " and a " form
of piety " which will never touch a single corner of the
earth. As the minister came down, the Spirit of Trade
would meet him on the pulpit stairs to warn him : " Busi-
ness is Business ; Religion is Religion. Business is ours,
Religion yours ; but if you make or even alloAv Religion
to interfere with our Business, then it will be the worse
for you — that is all ! " You know it is not a great while
since we drove out of Boston the one Unitarian minister
who was a fearless apostle of Temperance. His presence
here was a grief to that " form of piety " ; a disturbance
to trade. Since then the peace of the churches has not
been much disturbed by the preaching of Temperance.
The effect has been salutary : no Unitarian minister has
risen up to fill that place !

This same disproportionate love of money appears in
the fact that the merchants of Boston still allow colored
seamen to be taken from their ships and shut up in the
jails of another state. If they cared as much for the
Rights of Man as for money, as much for the men who
sail the ship as for the cargo it carries, I cannot think
there would be brass enough in South Carolina, or all the
South, to hold another freeman of Massachusetts in bond-
age merely for the color of his skin. No doubt, a mer-
chant would lose his reputation in this city by engaging
directly in the slave-trade, for it is made piracy by the


law of the land. But did any one ever lose his reputation
by taking a mortgage on slaves as security for a debt ; by
becoming, in that way or by inheritance, the owner of
slaves, and still keeping them in bondage ?

You shall take the whole trading community of Boston,
rich and poor, good and bad, study the phenomena of
Trade as astronomers the phenomena of the Heavens, and
from the observed facts, by the inductive method of phi-
losophy, construct the Ethics of Trade, and you will find
one great principle to underlie the whole : Money must be
made. This is to the Ethics of Trade what Attraction is
to the Material World ; what Truth is to the Intellect, and
Justice in Morals. Other things must yield to that ; that
to nothing. In the effort to comply with this universal law
of trade, many a character gives way; many a virtue gets
pushed aside ; the higher, nobler qualities of a man are
held in small esteem.

Now this characteristic of the trading class appears in
the thought of the people as well as their actions. You
see it in the secular literature of our times, in the Laws,
even in the Sermons : nobler things give way to love of
gold. So in an ill-tended garden, in some bed where
Violets sought to open their fragrant bosoms to the sun,
have I seen a Cabbage come up and grow apace, with thick
and vulgar stalk, with coarse and vulgar leaves, with rank
unsavory look ; it thrust aside the little Violet, which, un-
derneath its impenetrable leaf, lacking the morning sun-
shine and the dew of night, faded and gave up its tender
life : but above the grave of the Violet there stood the
Cabbage, green, expanding, triumphant, and all fearless
of the frost. Yet the Cabbage also had its value and its

There are men in Boston, some rich, some poor, old
and young, who are free from this reproach; men that
have a Avell-proportioned love of money, and make the
pursuit thereof an effort for all the noble qualities of a
man. I know some such men, — not very numerous any-
where, — men who show that the common business of life
is the place to mature great virtues in ; that the pursuit
of wealth, successful or not, need hinder the growth of


no excellence, but may promote all manly life. Sucli mea
stand here as Violets among the Cabbages, making a
fragrance and a loveliness all their own ; attractive any-
where, but marvellous in such a neighbourhood as that.

Look next on the morals of Boston, as indicated by
THE Newspapers — the daily and the weekly Press.
Take the whole Newspaper Literature of Boston, cheap
and costly, good and bad, study it all as a whole, and by
the inductive method construct the Ethics of the Press,
and here you find no signs of a higher morality in general
than you found in Trade. It is the same centre about -
which all things gravitate here as there. But in the
newspapers the want of great principles is more obvious,
and more severely felt than in Trade — the want of Jus-
tice, of Truth, of Humanity, of a Sympathy with Man.
In Trade you meet with signs of great power ; the high-
way of commerce bears marks of giant feet. Our news-
papers seem chiefly in the hands of little men — whose
Cunning is in a large ratio to their Wisdom or their Jus-
tice. You find here little ability, little sound learning,
little wise political economy — of lofty morals almost noth-
ing at all. Here, also, the Dollar is both Pope and King ;
Bight and Truth are vassals, not much esteemed, nor over
often called to pay service to their Lord, who has other
soldiers with more pliant neck and knee. It is a signifi-
cant fact that the commercial newspapers, which of course
in such a town are the controlling newspapers, in report-
ing the European news, relate first the state of the mar-
kets abroad, the price of Cotton, of Consols, and of Corn ;
then the health of the English queen, and the movements
of the nations. This is loyal and consistent ; at Rome,
the journal used to announce first some tidings of the
Pope, then of the lesser dignitaries of the Church, then
of the discovery of new antiques, and other matters of
great pith and moment ; at St. Petersburg, it was first of
the Emperor that the journal spoke ; at Boston, it is
legitimate that the health of the Dollar should be reported
first of all.

A newspaper is an instrument of great importance : all


men read it ; many read nothing else ; some it serves as
TteasDn and Conscience too — in lack of better, why not?
It speaks to thousands every day on matters of great
moment — on matters of Morals, of Politics, of Finance.
It relates daily the occurrences of our land, and of all the
world. All men are affected by it ; hindered or helped.
To many a man his morning paper represents more reality
than his morning prayer. Now there are many in a
community like this who do not know what to say — I do
not mean what to think ; thoughtful men know what to
think — about any thing till somebody tells them ; yet
they must talk, for " the mouth goes always." To such
a man a newspaper is invaluable ; as the idolater in the
Judges had " a Levite to his Priest," so he has a news-
paper to his Reason or his Conscience, and can talk to
:he day's end. An able and humane newspaper would
get this class of persons into good habits of speech, and
do them a service, inasmuch as good habits of speech are
better than bad.

One portion of this literature is degrading ; it seems
purposely so, as if written by base men, for base readers,
to serve base ends. I know not which is most depraved
thereby, the taste or the conscience. Obscene advertise-
ments are there, meant for the licentious eye ; there are
loathsome details of vice, of crime, of depravity, related
with the design to attract, yet so disgusting that any but
a corrupt man must revolt from them ; there are ac-
counts of the appearance of culprits in the lower courts,
of their crime, of their punishment ; these are related
with an impudent flippancy and a desire to make sport of
human wretchedness and perhaps depravity, which amaze
a man of only the average humanity. We read of Judge
Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes in England, one hundred
and sixty years ago, but never think there are in the
midst of us men who, like that monster, can make sport
Df human misery ; but for a cent you can find proof that
jhe race of such is not extinct. If a penny-a-liner were
to go into a military hospital, and make merry at the
sights he siw there, at the groans he heard, and the keen
smart his eye witnessed ; could he publish his fiendish


joy at that spectacle — you would not say he was a man.
If one mock at the Crimes of men, perhaps at their Sms,
at the infamous punishments they suffer — what can you
say of him ?

The Political Newspapers are a melancholy proof of the
low morality of this town. You know what they will say
of any party movement ; that measures and men are
judged on purely party grounds. The Country is com-
monly put before mankind, and the Party before the
country. AVhich of them in political matters pursues a
course that is fair and just ; how many of them have
ever advanced a great Idea, or been constantly true to a
great principle of Natural Justice ; how many resolutely
oppose a great wrong ; how many can be trusted to expose
the most notorious blunders of their party ? How many
of them aim to promote the higher interests of mankind ?
With what joy does each point out the faults or the follies
of the hostile party, or watch for its fall ! What servility
is there in some of these journals — a cringing to the public
opinion of the party ; a desire that " our efforts may be
appreciated ! " In our Politics every thing which relates
to money is pretty carefully looked after, though not al-
ways well looked after ; but what relates to the moral
part of Politics is commonly passed over with much less
heed. You would compliment a Senator who understood
Finance in all its mysteries, and sneer at one who had
studied as faithfully the mysteries of War, or of Slaverj'.
The Mexican War tested the morality of Boston, as it
appears both in the newspapers and in trade, and showed
its true value.

There are som.e few exceptions to this statement : here
and there is a journal which does set forth the great
Ideas of this age, and is animated by the Spirit of Hu-
manity. But such exceptions only remind one of the
general rule.

In the Sectarian Journals the same general morality
appears, but in a worse form. What would have been
political hatred in the secular prints becomes theological
odium in the sectarian journals ; not a mere hatred in the
name of party, but hatred in the name of God and Christ.


Here is less fairness, less openness, and less ability than
there, but more malice ; the form, too, is less manly.
What is there a strut or a swagger is here only a snivel.
They are the last places in which you need look for the
spirit of true morality. "Which of the sectarian journals
of Boston advocates any of the great reforms of the day ;
na}^, which is not an obstacle in the path of all manly
reform ? But let us not dwell upon this, only look and
pass by.

I am not about to censure the conductors of these
journals, commercial, pohtical, or theological. I am no
judge of any man's conscience. No doubt they write as
they can or must. This literature is as honest and as able
as " the circumstances will admit of." I look on it as an
index of our moral condition, for a Newspaper Literature
always represents the general morals of its readers. Gro-
cers and butchers purchase only such articles as their
customers will buy ; the editors of newspapers reveal the
moral character of their subscribers as well as their corre-
spondents. The transient hterature of any age is always
a good index of the moral taste of the age. These two
witnesses attest the moral condition of the better part of
the city ; but there are men a good deal lower than the
general morals of Trade and the Press. Other witnesses
testify to their moral character.

Let me now speak of our moral condition as indicated
by the Poverty in this City. I have so recently spoken
on the subject of Poverty in Boston, and printed the ser-
mon, that I will not now mention the misery it brings. I
will only speak of the moral condition which it indicates,
and the moral effect it has upon us.

In this age. Poverty tends to barbarize men ; it shuts
them out from the educational influences of our times.
The sons of the miserable class cannot obtain the intel-
lectual, moral, and religious education which is the birth-
right of the Comfortable and the Rich. There is a great
gulf between them and the culture of our times. How
hard it must be to climb up from a cellar in Cove Place
to Wisdom, to Honesty, to Piety. I know how comforta-


blj Pharisaic self-righfceousness can saj, " I thank Thee I
am not wicked like one of these," and God knows which
is the best before His eyes, the scorncr, or the man ho
loathes and leaves to dirt and destruction. I know this
Poverty belongs to the state of transition we are now in,
and can only be ended by our passing through this into a
better ; I see the medicinal effect of Poverty, — that with
cantharidian sting it drives some men to work, to frugality
and thrift ; that the Irish has driven the American beg-
gar out of the streets, and will shame him out of the
almshouse ere long. But there are men who have not
force enough to obey this stimulus ; they only cringe and
smart under its sting. Such men are made Barbarians by
Poverty — barbarians in Body, in Mind and Conscience,
in Heart and Soul. There is a great amount of this bar-
barism in Boston ; it lowers the moral character of the
place, as icebergs in your harbour next June would chill
the air all day.

The fact that such Poverty is here, that so little is
done by public authority, or by the ablest men in the
land, to remove the evil tree and dig up its evil root ; that
amid all the wealth of Boston and all its charity, there
are not even comfortable tenements for the poor to be
had at any but a ruinous rent — that is a sad fact, and
bears a sad testimony to our moral state ! Sometimes
the spectacle of misery does good, quickening the moral
sense and touching the electric tie which binds all hu-
man hearts into one great family ; but when it does not
lead to this result, then it debases the looker on. To
know of want, of misery, of all the complicated and far
extended ill they bring ; to hear of this and to see it in
the streets ; to have the money to alleviate, and yet not
to alleviate, the wisdom to devise a cure therefor, and
yet make no efforts towards it — that is yourself to be
debased and barbarized. I have often thought, in see-
ing the Poverty of London, that the daily spectacle of
such misery did more in a year to debauch the British
heart than all the slaughter at Waterloo. I know that
misery has called out Heroic Virtue in some men and
women, and made Philanthropists of such as otherwise


had been only getters and keepers of gain, — we liavt
noble examples of that m the midst of us ; but how manj
men has Poverty trod down into the mire ; how many-
has this sight of misery hardened into cold worldliness
— the man frozen into mere respectabihty, its thin smile
on his lips, its ungodly contempt in his heart !

Out of this Barbarism of Poverty there come two oth-
er Forms of Evil which indicate the moral condition of
Boston ; of that portion named just now as below the
morals of Trade and the Press. These also I will call up
to testify.

One is Intemperance. This is a crime against the
body ; it is felony against your own frame. It makes
a schism amongst your own members. The amount of it
is fearfully great in this town. Some of our most wealthy

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Online LibraryTheodore ParkerA sermon of the moral condition of Boston, preached at the Melodeon, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1849 → online text (page 1 of 7)