The pulpit (1860).
A Discourse before the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society, Music Hall, November 18, 1860.
I am going to use the hour you lend me this morning in speaking of the pulpit.
Not that I expect to say anything new to you who have statedly frequented these seats for many years; but the subject commends itself to my interest just at this moment when we all feel so earnestly the propriety and the duty of endeavoring to perpetuate this legacy of Theodore Parker
This pulpit,--there are two elements which distinguish it from all other pulpits in New England
, which distinguish it emphatically from all other pulpits in the city.
One is this: you allow it to be occupied by men and by women, by black men and white men, by the clergy and by laymen.
That is a very short statement, and seemingly a very simple one; but how vast an interval of progress is measured by the extent of that simple statement!
It seems to me the first, the very first time that the central idea of New England
has gotten expression; for if there be anything that lies at the very root of New England
moral life, it is a protest against the idea of a priesthood,--a select class, set apart with peculiar authority, and capable, and they alone, of peculiar functions.
Our churches have drifted away from the old idea; but New England
was the vanguard of that Protestant protest against the idea of a priest,--the idea
that the laying on of hands, or the consent of a brotherhood of peculiar devotion, could so set apart one individual as to make him more capable of certain functions, or more entitled to instruct.
You, it seems to me, are the first who have boldly faced the ultimate consequences of that principle.
Congregationalism blossoms in its “bright, consummate flower” here.
I feel a peculiar interest in this principle.
The first man, if you will allow me to go back for a moment,--the first man who bore my name this side of the ocean, said to his church at Watertown
, when they proceeded to induct him to office because of his calling in England
, “If they would have him stand minister by that calling which he received from the prelates in England
, he would leave them.”
When, a year later, Governor Winthrop
went to Watertown
to settle certain dissensions there, the church said to him, “If you come as a magistrate you have no business here; if you come with authority from the court we have no business with you; if you come as friends from a neighbor church you are welcome.”
That was a fair representation of the original spirit of New England
When you initiated your church, you remembered it. Down to the present moment it has grown and unfolded, until at last you stand here with a platform which recognizes nothing but moral purpose; which ignores sex, race, profession; which goes down to the central root of the pulpit,--a moral purpose,--and says, practically, Whoever can help us in that is welcome here.
The second element that distinguishes you is, no creed.
You have remembered another great philosophical principle, that men never can unite on metaphysics.
The human machine cannot beat time in unison with a million of others.
Charles V., when he endeavored to crowd Europe
into one creed, and resigned, tried, you remember, to make a dozen watches beat time together,
Then he said, “What a fool I have been all my life, trying to make a million of minds beat time together!”
But there is one thing which can melt multitudes together, which can make a million of men one.
It is not metaphysics, it is not dogma, but it is purpose
,--the same which moulds a political party into one thunderbolt, the same which at all times aggregates men, travelling over different routes, and actuated by different motives, to one single end.
You are not as new in that as your enemies would have it believed; for it is a singular but forgotten fact that the first churches in New England
, the first three in this city, and the general church throughout New England
at its earliest day, had no statement of doctrine in their creeds.
They confined themselves to a simple statement of purpose; for our fathers did not attempt to refine, they felt
,--which has always been the strength of all ages,--and obeying, with simple, childlike loyalty, that instinctive feeling, they shaped their churches to serve their age. You are in that but the descendants, the legitimate children of New England
Not that I think it necessary to prove that Protestantism sustains us, but simply to show that the ignorance and shortsightedness of critics fail to see that you are not an abnormal monster, but the normal growth of New England
I should spend the whole hour that you give me if I insisted, as it deserves, on this first or this second element of your difference from the churches about you, but it is enough to state them.
Let us look now for a moment at the essence of the pulpit, and in order to that, in a moment, I will read you my text.
There is no mystery about a pulpit.
There is no necessary connection between a church and a pulpit, a very common mistake.
You may have as much or as little of a church as you please.
I believe in
more of a church than most of you do. I think the experience of centuries has shown that an organization of men for the culture of what you may consider the religious sentiment and devotional feeling, the unfolding of these two elements of our nature, is a good thing.
I think that to a certain extent the “ordinances” of what are called churches are good.
Understand me, I would never join one of those petty despotisms which usurp in our day the name of a Christian Church.
I would never put my neck into that yoke of ignorance and superstition led by a Yankee Pope
, and give my good name as a football for their spleen and bigotry.
That lesson I learned of my father long before boyhood ceased.
I could never see any essential difference between the one portentious Roman Pope
and the thousand petty ones who ape him in our pulpits.
In the fervor of the Reformation, men dreamed they were getting rid of the claim to infallibility and the right to excommunicate.
But the Protestant Church, in consequence of the original sin of its constitution, soon lapsed into the same dogmatism and despotism.
does not seem to believe that there ever was any real intent in the Reformers to surrender these prerogatives.
“The scheme was,” he says
, “merely to rob the Babylonian enchantress of her ornaments, to transfer the cup of her sorceries to other hands, spilling as little as possible by the way
But I quite agree with the last speaker who occupied this desk, Mr. Sanborn
, when he intimated the eminent utility, perhaps necessity, of a pastor in the full sense of that term.
The many needs of your daily domestic life in which he could aid you are evident.
But a pulpit has no connection with a church.
The Roman Catholic Church, which makes seven sacraments and bases her whole religious life and purpose upon sacraments, gives very little or no importance whatever
to the pulpit.
For centuries she had no pulpit.
They are totally distinct elements, the devotional and the morally intellectual.
The pulpit springs into being whenever there is an earthquake in society, whenever the great intellectual heavens are broken up, and men begin to shape their purposes and plans anew.
Whenever a nation is passing through a transition period in its thought, then the pulpit springs into being and special value.
The priesthood of Solomon's Temple
was one thing; that was a church.
The prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah, were a totally distinct body, and they were a pulpit.
The pulpit, therefore, you perceive by this very statement, must shape itself according to its time.
Its object is not distinctly to educate, as we most often use that word.
Here is the division of the spheres of education.
The theatre amuses, the press instructs, the pulpit improves.
Education with the motive of moral purpose is the essence of the pulpit.
That element has always existed.
Let me glance a moment at its different forms, and then come down to ours.
Among the Jews, what you read in the last half of the Old Testament, that is a pulpit.
It covered everything; it covered politics, national manners, the thoughts, sins, and customs of the day. Everything that made the intellect of Judea, Isaiah and Jeremiah touched upon.
Their diocese was as broad as conscience, no matter how broad those limits were.
If you went to Greece
had two instruments of education.
She had the theatre, and she had the public assembly, like our legislature.
There being no books,--that is, not enough to need mentioning,--and a very small circle of learned men in the academy, the people got what ideas they did get from the theatre on the one side, and from the orators' discussion of national affairs, on the other; and the effect of that method was, that neither the one nor the other
had a distinctly moral purpose.
The theatre was amusement, was intellect: politics was success, no broader than Athens
,--to make the Greek keep the Barbarian under his feet; the means, war,--that was the end of politics.
When Christianity came she had to fight her way against the customs, the fashion, and the intellect of Rome
Instantly she leaped into the pulpit, and her sons preached.
The Apostles preached; all the earl ages preached.
The last half of the New Testament, the letters of the Fathers, everything that has come down to us from the first three centuries, is controversial; it is aggressive; it is an attempt to dislodge one idea and plant another.
It was done.
When it was done, the age went to sleep in its hermitage; it went to sleep in sentiment, and the pulpit died.
Luther sprang into existence.
He wanted to wake the mind of the people from its long dream of a holiness that abounded in emotions; he wanted to plant an intellectual vigor of thought.
Instantly he seized the pulpit; and during that age the pulpit covered everything that we call the newspaper-press, literature, politics, religion.
Luther wrote upon everything, he spoke upon everything; and so did his compeers.
There was no question, public or private, that the pulpit did not deal with.
That was the secret of its influence; it was a live man speaking to men alive on all live questions.
Now we come down to our day. We have things that call themselves pulpits.
And here I want to read you my text.
It consists of an extract from an apology of the Rev. Dr. Ellis
, of Charlestown
, for the stupidity of the pulpit.
You observe that a clergyman never steps into an ordinary meeting and takes the platform, that one half the time he does not commence his remarks by saying, by way of relief to his audience, “I am not going to impose a sermon on you.”
As if a sermon was
the last ounce That would break the camel's back.
Now I am going to read the remarks of one of the ablest men of the Unitarian
denomination, standing in what professes to be, and what is the most influential spot that an intellectual man can occupy in our age, a spot to which men look up with instinctive and passive reverence, ready to accept its tenets almost without examination; one whose vocation is to deal with everything that can stir the very depths of our nature; one who speaks to us on the themes that make the blood tingle, and which make life worth living; an able man in an able place, on the most momentous of all themes.
It will not do to make the pulpit talents of the preacher the main motive-impulse of attraction to the meeting-house on Sunday.
Our New England people, especially, have been falling into an error here, and the interests of religious institutions among us are feeling the effects of it. The courses of lyceum and miscellaneous lectures, which are provided for annually in our cities and towns, enlist the services of a few gifted men of extraordinary popular talents, who seize upon fascinating subjects and treat them with a fantastic skill, and so are listened to with a lively interest by mixed and sometimes crowded audiences.
These men — picked out of the whole mass of cultivated, scholarly, or eloquent writers and speakers in our communities — have a whole year for the composition of one of their lectures.
They learn what is the popular taste, and they adapt themselves to it, not always trying or helping to improve it Some of their lectures are not really half so good or sensible or instructive as ordinary sermons.
If you were to take them apart, you could not put them together again.
Occasionally they are positively unwholesome and mischievous.
But these lectures, such as they are, indicate and help to fix a standard for public discourses.
People get the names of a few speakers or racy lecturers on their lips, and are apt to judge of common preaching as it
compares with the lively talk and discursive essays of these itinerants.
They call preaching dull and commonplace by comparison.
And so it is; just as a corn-field or grain-field or potato-field or any other spread of acres covered with substantial food or fodder of daily life, is dull in comparison with a little garden patch of peonies, marigold, and poppies, pinks, and coxcombs.
If some of these lyceum attendants could only overhear the secret banter of two or three itinerant lecturers, as to the sort of stuff which takes with the people, the homoeopathic doses of sound wisdom and the lavish mixture of light nutriment which suits the popular fancy, perhaps such hearers might not be flattered by the information.
Now, it may as well be confessed that the preacher of weekly sermons cannot treat the commonplace themes of sober and homely truth so as to tickle itching ears.
Altogether too much is expected of preaching; and that preaching which many like most to hear does them the least benefit.
Now, that is half truth, and a half truth often does as much harm as a whole lie. It is no doubt true that you cannot take a platform, and let successively a dozen of the ablest men in the community occupy it, without making it more attractive than the same platform occupied continuously by one able man; but it is not true that the lyceum owes its interest to the “sparkling talk and lively rattle” of its lecturers.
It is not true that the pulpit may trace its weakness to the “commonplace treatment of sober and homely truth.”
Let me show you this.
The “Mercantile library Association” of this city for years engaged almost the same men that you do to occupy the platform of its lyceum course.
That lyceum course is dead and buried; yours still lives.
Not because you have gotten better men, abler men, with more “sparkling talk and lively rattle” than they have.
did not fill these walls because of his unmatched pulpit talent.
It was because all that he thought,
all that he planned, all that he read, all that he lived, he brought here.
All the great topics that make the court, the street, the caucus,--life,--interesting to you, he brought here.
All that makes your life a life
he brought here.
That is what gives interest to this pulpit.
If we go to see the androides
--as we used to when we were children — which can haul a wheelbarrow out, and water a plot of ground, and whip the children, and strike the hour of he day on the clock, we do not go more than once; in once we have seen all that they can do. The moment the world realizes that the pulpit has a limit which it cannot pass; that they are not seeing a man there, but the puppet of something behind; that when you have seen the performance once or twice you have gauged the extent, sounded the bottom,--men do not go more than twice, unless attracted by some rare rhetorical gift, as they crowded long ago to hear Everett
read the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians in Brattle-Street Church, the same as some hang night after night on the same words from Kean
; unless they go from the motive of example, from a sense of duty, from an idea of supporting the religious institutions of their times,--as Coleridge
, you know, said he found, on inquiry, that four fifths of the people who attended his preaching attended from a sense of duty to the other fifth.
Now, that is not a pulpit, in the sense of being able to keep the mind of an age. Mark me, I am not speaking in any bitterness toward the pulpit.
I have no more bitterness than the municipality of Paris
has when it cuts down an old street in order to make a new thoroughfare.
My opinion is, that the age, in order to get all its advantage from the pulpit, needs a new type of the pulpit.
Look at our life!
The press, flooding us every day with ideas; the theatre, open to very serious objections, yet sometimes lifting the people by addressing its love of
amusement, which is a beautiful, necessary, and useful part of our nature; on the other side, government, energizing the elements of popular life into greater extent of being than they ever had before, by committing to the masses the great questions of the age; business, taking up the four corners of the globe, feeding nations, changing the current of commerce, supplying wants, creating wants.
Side by side with these stands an instrumentality of education which does not advance a whit, which does not attempt to make the life of the nation its business.
Henry Ward Beecher
said last week in his pulpit that the Antislavery enterprise was not owing in any degree to the Church
; that it had its origin, its life, its strength outside of the Church
What a confession!
You know yourselves, that in regard to two thirds of these pulpits in Boston
, no man who sits beneath them ever expects to learn, or does learn, his duty, as a voter, for instance.
Take the single question of the position of woman, on the result of which hangs the moral condition of New York.
On a law to be passed by the legislature hangs the right of the laboring mother to the possession of her wages; out of that grows the welfare of the child, care of its training, preservation of home, the lessening of temptation, the drying up of the great cancer of social life.
It is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, moral question of our day. I certainly should not exaggerate if I said that a man might attend ninety-nine out of a hundred pulpits from here to New Orleans, and he would never have his course as a voter on that question enlightened or directed, or have one motive addressed to him, -not one.
I might take Temperance, I might take any other of the great social questions of the day, and you would know, as I do, that the last place where a man would have his moral nature awakened and melted would be
the pulpits of this city.
It is not my business now to complain of them; I am not here to find fault with them.
They do as well as they can; they fulfil their contract.
They exist for a different purpose.
The fault is not in the tenant of the pulpit; the fault is in that corrupt sentiment which belittles the pulpit, which supposes that it comes with “homely and sober truth,” meaning by that, that it comes with something that everybody has heard a thousand times, and is tired of hearing; that it comes with something that a man submits
to hear, but has no interest in hearing.
Of course their real and great sin is, that while conscious of this inherent slavery of their position, they still pretend to be independent in thought and speech, to speak unfettered, and, as some claim and many believe, by exclusive right, for God.
I affirm, with no bitterness of spirit, but as an American interested in the great machinery that is to create the future,--I affirm that the pulpit of this country, tenanted though it is by some of the best educated and some of the ablest men in the country, does not hold the helm of the intellectual life of America
It does not guide the thought, as it did in the early ages of New England
It has a momentous influence, but it is only through dread and awe. It has made the masses afraid to think.
It has told them that thought is infidelity, that intellectual activity is ruin; and they look up to it, thinking that stupidity is heaven, that chaining thought is agreeable to God, that suicide of the mind is doing honor to the Maker who gave us mind; and having drilled the people into that superstition, the pulpit broods over it like a nightmare; but it does not lead them.
There are clergymen who lead the thought of their time, but they do not lead it through the pulpit, they lead it through the pros, through reviews.
They throw off the
shackles when they get into the Christian Examiner
, into the North American Review
, or into any other of the channels of active life.
But the sin of this pulpit is, that it permits you to think.
Now, I value the Sunday for this,--it is one step toward intellect.
The Devil invented work,--I mean forced work.
Heaven is leisure.
When we clutched a day and gave it to the mind, we just redeemed one seventh of the time from the Devil, and gave it to God.
You may use that in two ways.
You may use it as a mere intellectual instrumentality ; but the mere culture of the intellect does not make a man. Take a common man and teach him to read; lift him up into intellectual life, as the newspaper does, as the review does; and take him in the mass,--he will not murder, he will not rob, he will not knock a man down in the highway, the crimes of violence will decrease; but he will steal, he will cheat on the Stock Exchange
The channel of the intellect becomes the channel in which his character and nature move.
Now, the world
has reached that point.
The press has done its work marvellously well.
Politics has done its work; it has taken the vassal and lifted him up into a voter; it has taken the mere plodder in the ditch and lifted him up into a man whose thought makes industry gainful and wealth more safe.
So far you have done a great deal.
Now what you want in addition is a literature that has a moral purpose,--that is, you want a pulpit.
In order to that, it must cover the whole sphere of intellectual life,--sanitary questions, social questions, health of the body, marriage, slavery, labor, the owning of land, temperance, the laws of society, the condition of woman, the nature of government, the responsibility to law, the right of a majority, how far a minority need to yield.
All these are the moral questions of our day,--not
metaphysics, not dogmas.
Hindostan settled these thou sands of years ago. Christianity did not bury itself in the pit of Oriental
metaphysics; neither did it shroud itself in the hermitage of Italian
The pulpit is not, as seen in the north-west of Europe
and in this country, a thing built up of mahogany and paint and prayers.
It is the life of an earnest man; it is the example of the citizen, the reformer, the thinker, the man, who means to hold up, help, broaden, and unfold his brother.
That is a pulpit; and that is the reason you and I owe it to the community in which we live to perpetuate such a pulpit as this.
You observe, you cannot get the ultimate and entire good from such an institution when you confine its functions to a class, when you set apart a certain body of men to minister at it. In the first place, that is a priesthood, the esprit de corps
instantly comes into existence, and they begin to plot against their neighbors.
In the next place, they cannot know life.
No one can know life except from suffering.
A man cannot argue the Woman Question
Literary men never do justice to the wrongs or duties of women.
We know nothing of slavery; we never shall know it until God's hand sweeps the strings of four millions of broken hearts, and lets us hear from the plantations of the Southern
half of this nation.
It is in the protest of men ground ^own under some wrong principle that the world learns the depth and the extent of right.
It is only, therefore, by putting into this desk women as well as men, all races, all professions, that you will sound the diapason of man's moral and intellectual nature.
And that is what has been done in every great moving age.
The early idea of Christianity was that of a free
What is the meaning of those directions in which the Apostles said, “Let your women keep silence
in the churches” ? Do you not see without going into the nature of that command that it is evident from the very prohibition that everybody was in the habit of speaking, men and women, every one that sat in the church?
The early Church was not like the Catskill Falls
, where, when you crawl up to see them, a man pulls away a board and lets the water down.
It was Niagara
, poured by God's hand from a million of voices and a million of hearts.
The purposes, the wants, the thoughts, the hopes of every Christian man bubbled up to the surface.
Now there are practical difficulties in the way of that.
Our ideal is to stand midway.
Men do not go to a caucus in Faneuil Hall from the idea of example.
A man does not say to his wife, “My dear, I am going down to Faneuil Hall to-night in order to hold up the institutions of the country.
If I don't go, my neighbors won't do their duty; I am sorry to waste the hour, but I must do it and set a good example to my children.”
He goes, because his heart is there half an hour before he is. He goes, because he cannot stay away; because there are live men there who are making his cradle safer; who, with earnest blows on the hot iron of the present, are to shape his future.
He goes to share in the great struggle, and glow in the electric conflict.
You do not need to have societies to preach to men the duty of going to Faneuil Hall.
That organ plays itself.
The real pulpit does not need Dr. Ellis
It can hold its own against the lyceum.
“Lively talk and sparkling rattle” are not what most deeply interests the human heart.
One earnest sentence will scatter all the “lively rattle” that ever came from countless lyceum lecturers.
Thousands crowd to listen to the man who appeals to his fellows, saying, “Brothers, I find great suffering, help me to cure it; I find great darkness,
help me to enlighten it. I find one half the race bowed down by injustice of which we have never been conscious; lift them up. I seek a faithful, spotless church; let us find or make it. I see men only half conscious of the vice or the injustice that herds them with brutes; let us inspire them with manhood.”
That is a pulpit.
That is what I would have you continue here.
I see that in order to do that it is necessary we should breast for a time the prejudice of a community which thinks that an example like yours is uprooting what are called, emphatically and particularly, the religious institutions of the country f but that it seems to me is founded in this mistake.
More than half the world is always afraid to use the liberty God gives it. You see this want of faith cropping out on all sides.
One man is in favor of a strong government.
He wants somebody to hold everybody else.
Why? Because although he does not confess it, he thinks that the world is made up of children.
You go into a church, and somebody is afraid of having all the truth told.
Why? He cannot trust men to hear it. Men are children.
They are to be put under guardianship; they are to be hoodwinked; they are not to be trusted with the life God gave them, or all the truth he shows to his saints.
In fact we are exactly in this condition.
One quarter of the community is awake, alive; there is another quarter that pretends to be awake; and the other half are afraid of everybody that is awake.
It is just that last half which dreads the opening of this hall on Sunday.
They dread that men should come here and try to lift up the moral purpose of the city of Boston
on every question that can make Boston
a happier, purer, better city to live in. They are afraid to trust you with the whole truth in religion or in politics, even with all they think truth.
I remember Theodore Parker
told me that once in a meeting
clergymen, the head of that sect lectured the assembly on the danger of not believing in the miracles.
saw that the lesson was intended for him, and after saying so, he added, “Now let me ask you, Dr.
--, do you believe in the miraculous conception?”
A solemn silence followed.
The priest refused to answer.
“He knew,” continued Mr. Parker
to me, “that if he said he did not, he would show he had no right to lecture me; if he said he did, three fourths of his audience would think him a fool, though all feared to tell their people as much.”
No worse priestcraft nightmares Rome
I do not believe that “the whole of truth ever did harm to the whole of virtue.”
I believe that the way God intends to educate a community is by throwing broadcast the truth, as far as He shows it to any man living at the time.
There may be here and there a single man to whom it will do harm; but as a general thing, in the long result, in the great average, the seed falls on good ground, raises higher the life, enlarges the thought, strengthens the virtue, and deepens the manhood of those who hear it.
I wish, therefore, a pulpit like this, wholly unfettered.
The reason why Dr. Ellis
has to apologize for the pulpit is simply this.
It is a melancholy truth, and it is a truth which seems harsh in the saying, but it is a true saying, and it is one necessary that somebody should say, that, instead of being a moral agency, an intellectual instrumentality in one half the New England
towns, the pulpit is merely an appendage to the factory.
The minister is just as much employed to preach, as the operative is to tend the loom.
The owner of the works as truly settles the length of the pastor's tether as that owner does the amount of water which it is prudent to allow on the dam. The extent of his authority, the amount of his freedom, the depth of his intellect, are all
bought and paid for. There is a class of men who go and look up to him, conceiving that he tells them all he thinks, and for a while they live contented.
But in fact, the master-hand of that wealth which commands the town, as much decides the quality of the preaching on Sundays as he does the fineness of the cloth made weekdays.
It is merely the jugglery of wealth; merely the reflection of that same unlimited power that now, through all the avocations of life, seem so to control us. You know this as well as I do.
Now, that sort of pulpit ought not to have any influence.
It needs an apology.
The lyceum is Jesus of Nazareth
casting out its devil; and it is natural that such a preacher should say to the lyceum lecturer, “Why dost thou torment me before my time?”
To the dead body, you know, the first movement of blood and the first element of returning life is exquisite pain; so to the mind dwarfed and fettered by such a pulpit, the first entering of a thought endeavoring, with magnetic and electric circles, to new-arrange society, is exquisite pain.
It ought to be.
There is a class of women which is a fair gauge of the influence of this sort of pulpit.
Shut out as women are from politics, and absorbed as this particular class is in petty cares during the week, the pulpit is all their literature.
Notice how narrow and timid is their range of thought, how borrowed are all their ideas, how real their dread of some sect or person to whom or to which the pastor has given a bad name, how unaffected their anxiety when some man of the family breaks out into daring difference with the minister!
In fact, their minds are a blurred photograph of the dwarfed, fossil, shrunken, and stunted creed the priest has substituted for the brain God gave him.
The quiet disdain with which practical men receive
an argument on any topic drawn from the opinions of such a pulpit, shows the real place it fills in our great national school.
“Go home,” I once heard a deacon, sixty years old, sitting as judge in a criminal court, say to a clergyman of his own denomination who offered a suggestion as to the amount of punishment proper for a convict,--“Go home and write your sermons; we'll take care of the world.”
Such a sneer our city pulpits have earned.
As Cardinal Wolsey
wrote to the Pope
, three centuries ago, “This printing
will give rise to sects; and besides other dangers, the common people at last may come to believe that there is not so much use for a clergy!”
They have come to believe so. They do believe rightly that there's no use in a clergy who echo their hearers' prejudices, mile-stones indicating exactly how far the old stage-coach has travelled; who eschew live questions: that is, truth of importance to the passing hour, lest taking sides on them should injure their influence on dead ones,--that is, topics which felt the hot blood of two hundred years ago, but now are as well settled as gravitation and the cause of the tides; priests who affect to believe that their hearers, masters of literature, cannot safely bear the whole truth their gigantic minds have discovered, to whom a stormy and unscrupulous life could pay the compliment that the pew had always been to him a place of repose.
But this is not what our pulpit should be in New England
I do not believe in a civilization which is to be a vassal to the industrial energy of society.
I do not believe that our nature and race have fallen so low that wealth really will canker the whole of it. A pulpit representing moral energy, announcing its purpose to deal with each question as it arises, to trust the popular conscience, and say, “If God gave you that, take it; it is no responsibility of mine;” such a pulpit will put wealth
where it belongs, under its feet.
It was to such a pulpit the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
went two centuries ago on every great political question, and sat at its feet.
Why the time was when the government and the House of Representatives in this very colony, requested the clergymen to assemble on a great political crisis in the city of Boston
, and tell them what to do. “Political preaching,” forsooth!
Then the pulpit was broad enough to cover the whole intellectual and moral life of the people.
It went exactly as far as conscience goes, and therefore it lived.
That is what you have done here, nothing more.
The ordinary pulpit is completely described by the angry parishioner who told John Pierpont
that he was “employed to preach Unitarianism, not Temperance.”
Our idea of a pulpit is, that wherever a moral purpose dictates earnest words to make our neighbor a better man and better citizen, to clear the clogged channels of life, to lift it to a higher level or form it on a better model, there is a pulpit.
Such a pulpit as this is perfectly consistent with the most Orthodox creed.
It may have baptism and the sacrament; it may have seven sacraments, if it chooses.
This desk has nothing to do with ecclesiasticism.
It is a mere accidental adjunct of Sunday.
It is only something which the mind of Protestantism seized upon as the most convenient instrumentality, and it showed essential good sense in seizing it. The newspaper cannot rebuke its customer; the writer of a book wants it to sell; the man who devotes himself to preaching knows that he has a family growing up about him, and is naturally tempted to preach pleasant things, and not true things, for he cannot afford to starve.
It is no fault of his. You cannot starve; and you have no right to ask of him what you cannot do. But if you say, “Welcome any man to this pulpit who has a new idea
to give us, a new moral plan to propose to us, a better way to suggest, a sin to rebuke, a nation to create, a statute-book to tear asunder, a corrupt custom to assail,” -you get at least one of the elements of pulpit usefulness, Independence.
The other is, Capacity.
What is this desk?
There is no mystery in it. You want thought, growing out of moral purpose, and a man who dares to speak it; and then you have a pulpit.
But you take an able man from Harvard College, with five languages and three philosophies, and tell him: “Teach Unitarianism; if you teach us anything else, go!
Read the Bible
, teach from it, preach from it; but beware lest you find anything in it that the Christian Examiner
does not approve!”
Of what use listening to the preaching of such a man?
You have contracted beforehand that he shall tell you nothing you do not already know.
I alluded to the fact that the clergy have education.
They know enough.
They have the culture of all ages garnered in those brains of theirs.
The only difficulty is the habitual caution which treads on eggs without breaking the shells.
In the very last Christian Examiner
,--the representative of the freest of all the sects, and perhaps I should do no injustice to the others if I were to say that it represents the widest culture of all the sects,--there is an article on Woman's Rights.
It cannot afford to do justice to the scarred and able-headed pioneers who, sacrificing themselves to public ridicule and disgust, have made with their bodies the firm ground upon which the writer treads, and have given him ideas and the courage to utter them; but it is obliged to say that it sees no use in Woman's Rights Conventions and outside agitation, etc. To be sure not, except to supply those pages to which timid respectability looks up, sure that the Scribes and Pharisees have already believed
whatever it finds written there,--except to supply such pages with brains and heart.
Now, you wanted that writer in his own pulpit, ten years ago, to do from the height of a revered, trusted, loved pulpit that which “like a thunder-storm against the breeze,” men of no repute and of few opportunities, and in small audiences have been doing for ten years. To be sure, his idea that agitation was needless is like the clown in the old classic play two thousand years ago, who, seeing a man bring down with an arrow an eagle floating in the blue ether above, said, “You need not have wasted that arrow, the fall would have killed him.”
And we shall certainly succeed.
Here we are outvoted; here we are fanatics; and here we are persecuted.
But persecution is only want of faith.
When a man does not believe what he says he does, he persecutes the man who contradicts him; when he does believe it, he sits quiet.
But all the great thinkers, all the broad minds of Europe
, are on our side.
Just now two names occur to me, Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer
,--perhaps two of the largest brains in Europe
, two of the profoundest thinkers, and yet from their works I could cull sentence after sentence that would indorse every sentiment you would hear in a twelve-month from this pulpit, organized as I have sketched it. The thinkers and the doers, the men that stand close to the popular heart, and the men sitting still and calm in the Academy, agree.
The upper and the nether mill-stone have said, “Let it come to pass!”
and we shall grind up conservatism between us. The craving of the popular mind for truth, the opening in America
for a wider intellectual and moral battle, taking into its bosom the seed which the Master
who bestows thought is ready to plant,--between us two, we shall make in this very
community in which we live, long before the middle-aged of us are in our graves, those dead desks vocal with what the people need.
If not for their own purposes, then in self-defence, to save their own ground which we are clutching from them, they shall preach upon everything.
We will so affirm upon all possible questions that they shall at least deny, and out of that affirmation and denial will come discussion and agitation, which make the worth of the pulpit.
's life is funded in his books, his example, and this pulpit his creation.
I beseech you, therefore, if your life enables you to do anything for the very best interests of this community, see to it that by every effort in your power, not merely out of grateful, affectionate memory of one whose life is imaged in the institution which consecrates this roof every Sunday, not out of mere love for the only child that Theodore Parker
has left to our guardianship, but out of the broader motive of setting an example for the United States
; of shaming the pulpit into independence; of holding up in weaker communities, by the grandeur and respectability of your example, similar institutions to this; of making the pulpit both caucus and newspaper, literature and college, Bible and moral purpose, to the millions who are asking its guidance,--perpetuate this pulpit here, under the beneficial and beneficent influence of a meeting, stated, always to be found, gathering strength every hour that it lives, subduing the community into respect.
Give us a spot where every new idea of New England
can announce itself from this place to the Mississippi
I would rather every other pulpit in Boston
should die out than this.
I should deem that we had lost one of the largest waves on the shore, if we lost such an institution as this.
We have conquered a peace.
To the farthest West
this pulpit is quoted.
The man who sighs under some unwonted oppression on the
shores of the great lakes, on the other side of Mason
's line, thinks of this free hall in Boston
, and thanks God that he has an advocate.
Every unpopular truth remembers you, and takes courage; and the time will come when the dwarfed souls in these other buildings, who look up and are not fed, who dare not think, who dread their own intellect as a sin, will come to you and learn to live.
Whenever brutal prejudice tramples on right, here shall it find fitting rebuke.
Whenever law, masking tyranny, drives weak men and wicked to some damned deed, here shall they see held up fearlessly their hideous image.
When great interests clashing in a storm make stout hearts quail, and startled routine rushes blindly to some infamous submission, bartering right for safety; while all other desks are silent, and the vassal press gives no certain sound,--here shall the truth, the utter truth, rebuke low interest to its right place, lash the sin plated with gold, and plead the cause of justice against cruel and selfish gain.
Against slave-hunters and mobs, against bigots and time-servers, against cravens and priests, against things wicked, only borne because old, against fashionable sins and profitable errors, we proclaim war. How necessary that the trade or bigot ridden city, in some hour of forced abasement, when honest hearts swell, silent but indignant, should feel, “Music Hall will file a true record and utter the fitting word.”
This is our Faneuil Hall, now that patriotism means plunder; this is our college, now that only what is old and Greek
is deemed true or safe.
The canvass of the last three months, how valuable it is!
You are a canvass every seventh day, and on a higher standpoint, with no necessity to pander to the prejudices or evils of the time.
God's unalloyed truth from pyery lip, welcome it!
A church without a creed,
a constant rotation of sects to speak to you, the moral purpose of the whole Union at your service, if you gain nothing else from it, brothers.
I think it was a Unitarian critic, a member of a church whose right to the name of “church” every other sect denies, that said of you, “Theodore Parker
did not leave a church, he only left a ‘ Fraternity.’
” The great Master said, “One is your Master, and all ye are brethren.”
I do not know what better name could be taken by His followers than “Fraternity.”
If you gain nothing else from your pulpit, you will gain this,--courage.
You will unfold in your natures a courage to listen to every man. You will be able to say to yourselves, “I know I am right, I know why I am right, and I dare to listen to the best that any man can say against me,” --and that is the corner-stone of character, which is better than intellect; that is the cornerstone of manhood, which is next to Godhood, and the nearest that we can come to it.