(See Chapter lxxvii)
What a ludicrous satire it was upon Christian charity! — even upon the vague, theoretical idea of it which doubtless this small saint mouths from his own pulpit every Sunday. Contemplate this freak of nature, and think what a Cardiff giant of self-righteousness is crowded into his pigmy skin. If we probe, and dissect; and lay open this diseased, this cancerous piety of his, we are forced to the conviction that it is the production of an impression on his part that his guild do about all the good that is done on the earth, and hence are better than common clay — hence are competent to say to such as George Holland, “You are unworthy; you are a play-actor, and consequently a sinner; I cannot take the responsibility of recommending you to the mercy of Heaven.” It must have had its origin in that impression, else he would have thought, “We are all instruments for the carrying out of God’s purposes; it is not for me to pass judgment upon your appointed share of the work, or to praise or to revile it; I have divine authority for it that we are all sinners, and therefore it is not for me to discriminate and say we will supplicate for this sinner, for he was a merchant prince or a banker, but we will beseech no forgiveness for this other one, for he was a play-actor.”
It surely requires the furthest possible reach of self-righteousness to enable a man to lift his scornful nose in the air and turn his back upon so poor and pitiable a thing as a dead stranger come to beg the last kindness that humanity can do in its behalf. This creature has violated the letter of the Gospel, and judged George Holland — not George Holland, either, but his profession through him. Then it is, in a measure, fair that we judge this creature’s guild through him. In effect he has said, “We are the salt of the earth; we do all the good work that is done; to learn how to be good and do good men must come to us; actors and such are obstacles to moral progress.” Pray look at the thing reasonably a moment, laying aside all biases of education and custom. If a common public impression is fair evidence of a thing then this minister’s legitimate, recognized, and acceptable business is to tell people calmly, coldly, and in stiff, written sentences, from the pulpit, to go and do right, be just, be merciful, be charitable. And his congregation forget it all between church and home. But for fifty years it was George Holland’s business on the stage to make his audience go and do right, and be just, merciful, and charitable — because by his living, breathing, feeling pictures he showed them what it was to do these things, and how to do them, and how instant and ample was the reward! Is it not a singular teacher of men, this reverend gentleman who is so poorly informed himself as to put the whole stage under ban, and say, “I do not think it teaches moral lessons”? Where was ever a sermon preached that could make filial ingratitude so hateful to men as the sinful play of “King Lear”? Or where was there ever a sermon that could so convince men of the wrong and the cruelty of harboring a pampered and unanalyzed jealousy as the sinful play of “Othello”? And where are there ten preachers who can stand in the pulpit preaching heroism, unselfish devotion, and lofty patriotism, and hold their own against any one of five hundred William Tells that can be raised upon five hundred stages in the land at a day’s notice? It is almost fair and just to aver (although it is profanity) that nine-tenths of all the kindness and forbearance and Christian charity and generosity in the hearts of the American people today got there by being filtered down from their fountain-head, the gospel of Christ, through dramas and tragedies and comedies on the stage, and through the despised novel and the Christmas story, and through the thousand and one lessons, suggestions, and narratives of generous deeds that stir the pulses, and exalt and augment the nobility of the nation day by day from the teeming columns of ten thousand newspapers, and not from the drowsy pulpit.
All that is great and good in our particular civilization came straight from the hand of Jesus Christ, and many creatures, and of divers sorts, were doubtless appointed to disseminate it; and let us believe that this seed and the result are the main thing, and not the cut of the sower’s garment; and that whosoever, in his way and according to his opportunity, sows the one and produces the other, has done high service and worthy. And further, let us try with all our strength to believe that whenever old simple-hearted George Holland sowed this seed, and reared his crop of broader charities and better impulses in men’s hearts, it was just as acceptable before the Throne as if the seed had been scattered in vapid platitudes from the pulpit of the ineffable Sabine himself.
Am I saying that the pulpit does not do its share toward disseminating the marrow, the meat of the gospel of Christ? (For we are not talking of ceremonies and wire-drawn creeds now, but the living heart and soul of what is pretty often only a specter.)
No, I am not saying that. The pulpit teaches assemblages of people twice a week nearly two hours altogether — and does what it can in that time. The theater teaches large audiences seven times a week — 28 or 30 hours altogether — and the novels and newspapers plead, and argue, and illustrate, stir, move, thrill, thunder, urge, persuade, and supplicate, at the feet of millions and millions of people every single day, and all day long and far into the night; and so these vast agencies till nine-tenths of the vineyard, and the pulpit tills the other tenth. Yet now and then some complacent blind idiot says, “You unanointed are coarse clay and useless; you are not as we, the regenerators of the world; go, bury yourselves elsewhere, for we cannot take the responsibility of recommending idlers and sinners to the yearning mercy of Heaven.” How does a soul like that stay in a carcass without getting mixed with the secretions and sweated out through the pores? Think of this insect condemning the whole theatrical service as a disseminator of bad morals because it has Black Crooks in it; forgetting that if that were sufficient ground people would condemn the pulpit because it had Crooks and Kallochs and Sabines in it!
No, I am not trying to rob the pulpit of any atom of its full share and credit in the work of disseminating the meat and marrow of the gospel of Christ; but I am trying to get a moment’s hearing for worthy agencies in the same work, that with overwrought modesty seldom or never claim a recognition of their great services. I am aware that the pulpit does its excellent one-tenth (and credits itself with it now and then, though most of the time a press of business causes it to forget it); I am aware that in its honest and well-meaning way it bores the people with uninflammable truisms about doing good; bores them with correct compositions on charity; bores them, chloroforms them, stupefies them with argumentative mercy without a flaw in the grammar or an emotion which the minister could put in in the right place if he turned his back and took his finger off the manuscript. And in doing these things the pulpit is doing its duty, and let us believe that it is likewise doing its best, and doing it in the most harmless and respectable way. And so I have said, and shall keep on saying, let us give the pulpit its full share of credit in elevating and ennobling the people; but when a pulpit takes to itself authority to pass judgment upon the work and worth of just as legitimate an instrument of God as itself, who spent a long life preaching from the stage the selfsame gospel without the alteration of a single sentiment or a single axiom of right, it is fair and just that somebody who believes that actors were made for a high and good purpose, and that they accomplish the object of their creation and accomplish it well, should protest. And having protested, it is also fair and just — being driven to it, as it were — to whisper to the Sabine pattern of clergyman, under the breath, a simple, instructive truth, and say, “Ministers are not the only servants of God upon earth, nor his most efficient ones, either, by a very, very long distance!” Sensible ministers already know this, and it may do the other kind good to find it out.
But to cease teaching and go back to the beginning again, was it not pitiable — that spectacle? Honored and honorable old George Holland, whose theatrical ministry had for fifty years softened hard hearts, bred generosity in cold ones, kindled emotion in dead ones, uplifted base ones, broadened bigoted ones, and made many and many a stricken one glad and filled it brimful of gratitude, figuratively spit upon in his unoffending coffin by this crawling, slimy, sanctimonious, self-righteous reptile!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00