William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

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history of self-educated genius, that sometimes it exists and works frequent debasement It
the inhabitant of a hovel, looking out on the is hard for any of us to interpret justly our
serene sky, the illumined cloud, the setting own nature; and how peculiarly hard for the
sun, has received into his rapt spirit irapres- poor ! Uninstructed in the import and dig-
sions of divine majesty and loveUness, to nity of their rational and moral powers, they
which the burning words of poetry give but naturally measure themselves by their out-
faint utterance. True, the rich may visit dis- ward rank. Living amidst the worshippers
tant scenery, and feed thdr eyes on the rarest of wealth, they naturally feel as if degraded
and most stupendous manifestations of crea- by the want of it. They read in the looks,
tive power; but the earth and common sky tones, and manners of the world the evidences
reveal, in some of their changeful aspects, a of being regarded as an inferior race, and
grandeur as awful as Niagara or the Andes ; want inward force to repel this crud, dis-
and nothing is wanting to the poor man, in heartening falsehood. They hear the word
his ordinary walks, but a more spiritual eye respectable confined to other conditions, and
to discern a beauty which has never yet been the word low applied to their own. fs'^ow,
embodied in the most inspired works of habitual subjection to slight or contempt is
sculpture or painting. crushing to the spirit. It is exceedingly hard for

Thus for the poor, as for all men, there are a human being to comprehend and a^jpredate

provisions for h^piness; and it deserves re- himself amidst outward humiliation. There

mark that their happiness has a peculiar is no greater man than he who is true to himself

dignity. It is more honourable to be content when all around deny and forsake him. Can

with few outward means than with many ; to we wonder that the poor, thus abandoned,

be cheerful amidst privation, than amidst should identify themselves with-their lot ; that

overflowing plenty. A poor man, living on in their rags they should see the sign of in-

bread and water, because he will not ask for ward as well as outward degradation ?

more than bare sustenance requires, and lead- Another cause which blights their self-

ing a quiet, cheerful life through his benevo- respect is their dependence for pecimiary aid.

lent sympathies, his joy in duly, his trust in It is hard to ask alms and retain an erect

God, is one of the true heroes of the race, mind. Dependence breeds servility, and he

and understands better the meaning of happi- who has stooped to another cannot be just to

ness than we, who cannot be at ease unless himself. The want of self-respect is a pre-

we clothe ourselves "in purple, and fare paration for every evil. Degraded in their

sumptuously every day" — unless we surround, own and others' esteem, the poor are removed

defend, and adorn ourselves with all the pro- from the salutary restraint of opinion ; and

ducts of nature and art. His scantiness of having no caste to lose, no honour to forfeit,

outward means is a sign of inward fulness, often abandon themsdves recklessly to the

whilst the slavery in which most of us hve grossest vice.

to luxuries and accommodations shows the 2. The condition of the poor is unfriendly

poverty within. to the action and unfolding of the intellect —

I have given the fair side of the poor roan's a sore calamity to a ration^ being. In most

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men, indeed, the inrellect is narrowed by ex-
clusive cares for the body. In most, the con-
sciousness of Its excellence is crushed by the
low uses to which it is perpetually doomed.
But still, in most, a degree of activity is given
to the mind by the variety and extent of their
plans for wealth or subsistence. The bodily
wants of most carry them in a measure into
the future, engage them in enterprises re-
quiring invention, sagacity, and skill. It is
the un happiness of the poor that they are ab«
soft)ed in immediate wants, in provisions for
the passing day, in obtaining the next meal,
or in throwing off a present burden. Accord-
ingly their faculties "live and move," or
rather pine and perish, in the present moment
Hope and imagination, the wings of the soul,
canying it forward and upward, languish in
the poor; for the future is iminviting. The
darkness of the present broods over coming
years. The great idea which stirs up in other
men a world of thought, the idea of a better
lot, has almost faded from the poor man's
mind. He almost ceases to hope for his
children, as well as for himself. Even pa-
rental love, to many the chief quickener of the
intellect, stagnates through despair. Thus
poverty starves the mind.

And there is another way in which it pro-
duces this effect, particularly worthy the
notice of this assembly. I'he poor have
no society beyond their own class— that is,
be>-oiKl those who are confined to their own
narrow field ai thought. We all know that
it is contact with other minds, and especially
with the more active and soaring, from which
the intellect receives its chief impulse. Few
of us could escape the paralyzing influence of
perpetual intercourse with the uncultivated,
sluggish, and narrow-minded; and here we
sec— what I wish particularly to bring to
view— bow the poor suffer from the boasted
civilization of our times, which is built so
much on the idea of Property. In communi-
ties little advanced in opulence, no impassable
barrier separates different classes, as among
oureclvcs. The least improved are not thrown
to a distance from those who, through natural
endowment or peculiar excitement, think
more strongly than the rest ; and why should
such division exist anywhere? How cruel
and unchri:>lian arc the pride and prejudice
which forni the enUghtened into a caste, and
kave the ignorant and depressed to strengthen
and propagate ignorance and error without

3. I proceed to another evil of poverty —
its disastrous influence on the domestic aftcc-
tioiis. Kindle these affections in the poor
man's hut, and you give him the elements of
the best earthly happiness. But the more
delicate sentiments find much to chill them
in the abodes of indigence. A family crowded

into a single and often narrow apartment,
which must answer at once the ends of
parlour, kitchen, bedroom, nursery, 3nd
hospital, must, without great energy and
sclf-rcspcct, want neatness, order, and com-
fort. Its members are perpetuallv exposed
to annoying, petty interference. The decen-
cies of life can be with difficulty observed.
Woman, a drudge, and in dirt, loses her
attractions. The young grow up without the
modest resene and delicacy of feeling in
which purity finds so much of its defence.
Coarseness of manners and language, too
sure a consequence of a mode of life which
allows no seclusion, becomes the habit almost
of childhood, and hardens the mind for vicious
intercourse in future years. The want of a
neat, orderly home is among the chief evils
of the poor. Crowded in filth, they cease
to respect one another. The social affections
wither amidst perpetual noise, confusion, and
clashing interests. In these respects the poor
often fare worse than the uncivilized. True,
the latter has a ruder hut, but his habits and
tastes lead him to live abroad. Around him
is a boundless, unoccupied nature, where he
ranges at will, and gratifies his passion for
liberty. Hardened from infancy against the
elements, he lives in the bright Ught and pure
air of heaven. In the city, the poor man
must choose between his close room and the
narrow street. The appropriation of almost
every spot on earth to private use, and the
habits of society, do not allow him to gather
his family, or meet his tribe, under a spreading
tree. He has a home, without the comforts
of home. He cannot cheer it by inviting his
neighbours to share his repast. He has few
topics of conversation with his wife and
children, except their common wants. Of
consequence, sensual pleasures are the only
means of ministering to that craving for
enjoyment which can never be destroyed in
human nature. Thciic pleasures, in other
dweUings, are more or less refined by taste.
The table is spread with neatness and order ;
and a decency pervades the meal, whicli
shows that man is more than a creature of
sense. The poor man's table, strewed with
broken food, and seldom approached with
courtesy and self-resjject, serves too often to
nourish only a selfish, animal life, and to
bring the partakers of it still nearer to the
bnite. I speak not of what is neccssiyy
and universal ; for poverty, under sanctifying
inlluences, may find a heaven in its mrrow
home; but I speak of tendencies which are
strong, and which only a strong religious
influence can overcome.

4. I proceed to another unhappy influence
exerted on the poor. They live in the sight
and in the midst of innumerable indulgence*
and gratifications, which are placed br>ond

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tlieir reach. Their connection with the
affluent, though not close enough for spiritual
communication, is near enough to mflame
appetites, desires, wants, which cannot be
satisfied. From their cheerless rooms they
look out on the abodes of luxury. At their
cold, coarse meal, they hear the equipage
conveying others to tables groaning under
plenty, crowned with sparkling wines, and
fragrant with the delicacies of every clime.
I'ainting with toil, they meet others unbur-
dened, as they think, with a labour or a care.
They feel that all life's prizes have fallen to
others. Hence burning desire. Hence brood-
ing discontent. Hence envy and hatred.
Hence crime, justified in a measure to their
own minds by what soem to them the unjust
and cruel inequalities of social life. Here
are some of the miseries of civilization. The
uncivilized man is not exasperated by the
presence of conditions happier than his own.
I'here is no disproportion tx-tween his idea of
happiness and his lot. Among the pogr the
disproportion is infinite. You all understand
how much we judge our lot by comparison.
Thus the very edifices, which a century ago
seemed to our fathers luxurious, seem now to
multitudes hardly comfortable, because sur-
rounded by more commodious and beautiful
dwellings. We httle think of the gloom
added to the poor by the contiguity of the
rich. They are preyed on by artificial wants,
M hich can only be gratified by crime. They
are surrounded by enjoyments, which fraud
or violence can make their own. Unhappily
the prc\'alcnt — 1 had almost said, thewl.o'e—
spirit of the rich increases these temptations
of the poor. Very seldom does a distinct,
authentic voice of wisdom come to them from
the high places of society, telling them that
riches arc not happiness, and that a felicity
which nchcs cannot buy \^ within reach of
all. Wealth-worship is the spirit of the
prosperous, and this is the strongest possible
mcuication of discontent and crime on the
VX)or. The rich satisfy themselves with giving
alms to the needy. They think little of more
fatal gifts, which they perpetually bestow.
They think little that their spirit and lives,
their self-indulgence and earihliness, their
idolatry of outward prosperity, and their
contempt of inferior conditions, are perpe-
tually teaching the destitute that there is but
one good on earth, namely, property — the
very good in which the poor have no share.
They little think that by these influences they
do much to inflame, embitter, and degrade
the rainds of the poor, to fasten them to the
earth, to cut off their communication wish

5. I pass to another sore trial of the poor.
Whilst their condition, aa we have •teen,
denies them many gratifications, which on

every side meet their view and inflame desire,
it places within their reach many debasing
gratifications. Human nature has a strong
thirst for pleasures which excite it above its
ordinary tone, which relieve the monotony of
life. This drives the prosperous from their
pleasant homes to scenes of novelty and
stirring amusement How strongly must it
act on those who are weighed down by
anxieties and privations t How intensely must
the poor desire to forget for a time the wearing
realities of life ! And what means of escape
does society afford or allow them? What
present do civilization and science make to the
poor? Strong drink, ardent spirits, hquid
poison, liquid fire, a type of the fire of hell !
In every poor man's neighbourhood flows a
Lethean stream, which laps him for a while
in oblivion of all his humiliations and sorrows !
The power of this temptation can be little
understood by those of us whose thirst for
pleasure is regularly supplied by a succession
of innocent pleasures, who meet soothing
and exciting objects wherever we turn. The
uneducated poor, without resource in books,
in their families, in a well-spread board, in
cheerful apartments, in places of fashionable
resort, and pressed down by disappointment,
debt, despondence, and exhausting toils, arc
driven, by an impulse dreadfully strong, to
the haunts of intemperance ; and there they
plunge into a misery sorer than all the
tortures invented by man. They quench the
light of reason, cast off the characteristics of
humanity, blot out God's image as far as they
have power, and take their place among the
brutes. Terrible misery! And this, I beg
you to remember, comes to them from the
very civilization in which they live. They
arc victims to the progress of science and the
arts; for these multiply the poison which
destroys them. They are victims to the rich ;
for it is the capital of the rich which erects
the distillery and surrounds them with temp-
tations to self-murder. They are victims to
a partial advancement of society, which mul-
tiplies gratifications and allurements, without
awakening proportionate moral power to
withstand them.

Such are the evils of poverty. It is a con-
dition which offers many and pecuhar obstruc-
tions to the development of intellect and
affection, of self-respect and self-control. The
poor are peculiarly exposed to discouraging
views of themselves, of human nature, of
human life. The consciousness of their own
intellectual and moral power slumbers. Their
faith in God's goodness, in virtue, in immor-
tality, is obscured by the darkness of their
present lot. Ignorant, desponding, and
sorely tempted, have they not svolenin clanrs
on their more privileged brethren, for aid{>
which they have ne\cr yet received?

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I have thus shown, as I proposed, that the
chief evils of poverty are moral in their
origin and character ; and for these I would
awaken your concern. With physical suffer-
ings we sympathize. When shall the greater
misery move our hearts? Is there nothing to
startle us in the fact that in every large city
dwells a multitude of human beings, falling
or fallen into extreme moral degradation,
Uving in dark, filthy houses, or in damp,
unventllated cellars, where the eye lights on
no beauty and the ear is continually wounded
with disoord, where the outward gloom is a
type of the darkened mind, where the name
of God is beard only when profaned, where
charity is known only as a resource for sloth,
where the child is trained amidst coarse
manners, impure words, and the fumes of
intemperance, and is thence sent forth to
prowl as a b^gar? From these abodes
issues a louder, more piercing cry for help
and strength than physical want ever uttered.
I do not mean that all the poor are such as I
have described. Far from it. Among them
are the *'salt of the earth," the "lights of
the world," the elect of God. There is no
necessary connection of poverty and crime.
Christianity knows no distinction of rank,
and has proved itself ec^ual to the wants of all
conditions of men. Sull poverty has tenden-
cies to the moral degradation which I have
dest^bed ; and to counteract these should be
esteemed one of the most solemn duties and
precious privileges bequeathed by Christ to
his followers.

From the views now given of the chief evils
of poverty, it follows that Moral and Reli-
gious ctilture is the great blessin^^ to be
bestowed on the poor. By this it is not
intended that their physical condition de-
mands no aid. Let charity minister to their
pressing wants and sufferings. But let us bear
it in mind that no charity produces perma-
nent good but that which goes beneath the
body, which reaches the mind, which touches
the inward springs of improvement, and
awakens some strength of purpose, some
pious or generous emotion, some self-respect.
That charity is most useful which removes
obstructions to well-doing and temptations to
evil from the way of the poor, and encou-
rages them to strive for their own true good.
Something, indeed, may be done for the
moral benefit of the indigent by wise legisla-
tion; 1 do not mean by poor-law^, but by
enactments intended to remove, as far as
possible, d^rading circumstances fix>m their
condition. For example, the laws should
prohibit the letting of an apartment to a poor
family which is not tenantable, which cannot
but injure health, which cannot be ventilated,
which wants the necessary means of prevent-
ing accnmulations of filth. Such ordinances,

connected with providons for cleansing every
alley, and for carrying piuw, wholesome water
in abundance to every dwelling, would do a
little for the health, cleanUness, and self-
respect of the poor; and on these their
moral well-being in no small degree depends.

Our chief reliance, however, must be placed
on more direct and powerful means than
legislation. The poor need and must receive
Moral and Religious Culture, such as they
have never yet enjoyed. I say Culture, and I
select this term because it expresses the de-
velopment of Inward Principles ; and without
this, nothing efiectual can be done for rich or
poor. Unhappily, religion has been, for the
most part, taught to the poor mechanically,
superficially, as a tradition. It has been
imposed on them as a restraint, or a form ; it
has been addressed to the senses, or to the
sensual imagination, and not to the higher
principles. An outward hell, or an outward
heaven, has too often been the highest motive
brought to bear on their minds. But some-
thing more is wanted; a deeper work, an
inward culture, the development of the
reason, the conscience, the affections, and the
moral will. True religion is a life imfolded
within, not something forced on us from
abroad. The poor roan needs an elevating
power within, to resist the depressing tenden-
cies of his outward lot. Spiritual culture is
the only effectual service we can send him,
and let his misery plead with us to bestow it
to the extent of our power.

Had I time, I might show that moral
and religious principles, as far as they are
strengthened in the breasts of the poor, meet
all the wants and evils which have now
been portrayed; that they give them force
to bear up against all the adverse circum-
stances of their lot, inspire them with self-
respect, refine their manners, give impulse to
their intellectual powers, open to them the
springs of domestic peace, teach them to see
without murmuring the superior enjoyments
of others, and rescue them tirom the excesses
into which multitudes are driven by destitution
and despair. But these topics are not only
too extensive, but are to a degree fainih'ar,
though by no means felt as they should be.
I conceive that I shall better answer the pur-
pose of awakening a spiritual interest in this
class of society, by confining mvself to a
single point, by showing that the Moral and
Religious Culture which I claim for the poor
is the highest cultivation which a human
being can receive. We are all of us, I fear,
blinded on this subject by the errors and
prejudices of our own educadon. We arc
apt to imagine that the only important cul-
ture of a human being comes from libraries,
literary institutions, and elegant accomplish-
ments ; that is, from means b^ond the reach


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of the poor. Advantages offered by wealth
seem to us the great and essential means of
bringing forward the human mind. Perhaps
we smile at hearing the word cultivation
applied to the poor. The best light which
their condition admits seems darkness com-
pared with the knowledge imparted by our
seminaries of learning ; and the highest
activity of mind to which they can be excited
is scornfully contrasted with what is called
forth in their superiors by works of philoso-
phy and genius. There is, among-not a few,
a contemptuous estimate of the culture which
may be extended to the poor, of the good
which they are capable of receiving; and
hence much of the prevalent indifference as
to furnishing them the means of spiritual
growth. Now this is a weak and degrading
prejudice. I affirm that the highest culture
is open alike to rich and poor. I affirm that
the rich may extend their most precious
aojuisitions to the poor. There is nothing
in mdigence to exclude the noblest improve-
ments. The impartial Father designs his
best gifts for all. Exclusive good, or thai
which only a few can enjoy, is comparatively
worthless. Essential good is the most freely
diffused. It is time to put away our childish
notions as to human improvement; it is time
to learn that advantages which are a mono-
poly of the few are not necessary to the
development of human nature, that the soul
gfrows best by helps which are accessible to

The truth is, that there is no cultK-ation of
the human being, worthy of the name, but that
which begins and ends with the Moral and
Religious nature. No other teaching can
make a Man. We are striving, indeed, to
develop the soul almost exclusively by intel-
lectual stimulants and nutriment, by schools
and colleges, by accomplishments and fine
arts. We are hoping to form men and women
by literature and science ; but all in \'ain.
We shall learn in time that moral and reli-
gious culture is the foundation and strength
of all true cultivation ; that we are deforming
human nature by the means relied on for its
growth, and that the poor who receive a care
which awakens their consciences and moral
sentiments, start imder happier auspices than
the prosperous, who place supreme depen-
dence on the education of the intellect and the

It is common to measure the cultivation of
men by their knowledge ; and this is certainly
an important element and means of improve-
ment. But knowledge is various, differing in
different men according to the objects which
most engage their minds { and by these ob-
jects its worth must be judged. It is not the
extent, but the kind of knowledge, which
determines the measure of cultivation. In

truth, it is foolish to talk of any knowledge as
extensive. The most eminent philosopher is
of yesterday, and knows nothing. Newton
felt that he had gathered but a few pebbles
on the shores of a boundless ocean. The
moment we attempt to penetrate a subject
we learn that it has unfathomable depths.
The known is a sign of the infinite unknown.
Every discovery conducts us to an abyss of
darkness. In ever3rthing, from the grain of
sand to the stars, the wise man finds myste-
ries before which his knowledge shrinks into
nothingness. It is the kind, not the extent of
knowledge, by which the advancement of a
human being must be measured; and that
kind which alone exalts a man is placed
within the reach of all. Moral and Religious
Truth, this is the treasure of the intellect,
and all are poor without it. This transcends
physical truth, as far as mind transcends
matter, or as heaven is lifted above earth.
Indeed, physical science parts with its chief
dignity when separated from morals — when it
is not used to shadow forth, confirm, and
illustrate spiritual truth.

The true cultivation of a human bein^ con-
sists in the development of great moral ideas;
that is, the Ideas of God, of Duty, of Right,
of Justice, of Love, of Self-sacrifice, of Moral
Perfection as manifested in Christ, of Happi-
ness, of Immortality, of Heaven. The ele-
ments or germs of these ideas belong to every
soul, constitute its essence, and are intended
for endless expansion. These are the chief
distinctions of our nature; they constitute
our humanity. To unfold these is the great
work of our being. The Light in which
these ideas rise on tne mind, the Love which
they awaken, and the Force of Will with

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 15 of 169)