Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
“The Sparks of Nature”
By Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887)
 
[Life Thoughts. Gathered from the Extemporaneous Discourses of H. W. B. by Edna Dean Proctor. 1858.—Beecher as a Humorist. Selections, etc…. by Eleanor Kirk. 1887.]

DOCTRINE is nothing but the skin of Truth set up and stuffed.
  1
 
  It is not well for a man to pray cream, and live skim-milk.  2
 
  The man that has lived for himself has the privilege of being his own mourner.  3
 
  When laws, customs, or institutions cease to be beneficial to man, they cease to be obligatory.  4
 
  Success is full of promise till men get it; and then it is a last year’s nest, from which the bird has flown.  5
 
  Character, like porcelain ware, must be painted before it is glazed. There can be no change after it is burned in.  6
 
  A Christian is the best commentary on the New Testament. But there are not enough such commentaries to send out. The edition is small.  7
 
  Shoot and eat my birds? It is but a step this side of cannibalism. The next step beyond, and one would hanker after Jenny Lind or Miss Kellogg.  8
 
  “Now abideth Faith, Hope, Love, these three; but the greatest of these is Love,” for love is the seraph, and faith and hope are but the wings by which it flies.  9
 
  A conservative young man has wound up his life before it was unreeled. We expect old men to be conservative, but when a nation’s young men are so, its funeral bell is already rung.  10
 
  There, on the very topmost twig, that rises and falls with willowy motion, sits that ridiculous but sweet-singing bobolink, singing, as a Roman-candle fizzes, showers of sparkling notes.  11
 
  This world would be a great groaning machine if God had not sent humor to make its wheels run smooth, and sparkling wit by which to light a torch that should guide a thousand weary feet in right ways.  12
 
  A lie always needs a truth for a handle to it, else the hand would cut itself which sought to drive it home upon another. The worst lies, therefore, are those whose blade is false, but whose handle is true.  13
 
  The way to avoid evil is not by maiming our passions, but by compelling them to yield their vigor to our moral nature. Thus they become, as in the ancient fable, the harnessed steeds which bear the chariot of the sun.  14
 
  Many men want wealth—not a competence alone, but a five-story competence. Everything subserves this; and religion they would like as a sort of lightning-rod to their houses, to ward off, by and by, the bolts of divine wrath.  15
 
  Many men carry their conscience like a drawn sword, cutting this way and that, in the world, but sheathe it, and keep it very soft and quiet, when it is turned within, thinking that a sword should not be allowed to cut its own scabbard.  16
 
  Men think God is destroying them because he is tuning them. The violinist screws up the key till the tense cord sounds the concert pitch; but it is not to break it, but to use it tunefully, that he stretches the string upon the musical rack.  17
 
  It is with the singing of a congregation as with the sighing of the wind in the forest, where the notes of the million rustling leaves, and the boughs striking upon each other, altogether make a harmony, no matter what be the individual discords.  18
 
  This concert, I perceive by the notice, is to be “partly sacred and partly instrumental”; that is to say, one part is to be just as sacred as the other; for all good music is sacred, if it is heard sacredly, and all poor music is execrably unsacred.  19
 
  There is much contention among men whether thought or feeling is the better; but feeling is the bow, and thought the arrow, and every good archer must have both. Alone, one is as helpless as the other. The head gives artillery; the heart, powder. The one aims and the other fires.  20
 
  I think the wickedest people on earth are those who use a force of genius to make themselves selfish in the noblest things; keeping themselves aloof from the vulgar, and the ignorant, and the unknown; rising higher and higher in taste, till they sit, ice upon ice, on the mountain top of eternal congelation.  21
 
  Do you think oxen better, on the whole, for farm-work, than horses? I seriously wish your advice as to which I had better have. For I have just bought a pair of oxen, and am, like most men, now ready to ask advice under circumstances which make it impossible for me to take it, unless it accords with a foregone fact.  22
 
  The clearest window that ever was fashioned, if it is barred by spiders’ webs, and hung over with carcasses of insects, so that the sunlight has forgotten to find its way through, of what use can it be? Now, the church is God’s window; and if it is so obscured by errors that its light is darkness, how great is that darkness!  23
 
  The average and general influence of a man’s teaching will be more mighty than any single misconception, or misapprehension through misconception. A man might run around, like a kitten after its tail, all his life, if he were going around explaining all his expressions, and all the things he had written. Let them go. They will correct themselves.  24
 
  Never gauge the duration of your sleep by the time any one else sleeps. Some men will tell you that John Wesley had only so much sleep; Hunter, the great physiologist, so much; and Napoleon so much. But when the Lord made you, as a general thing he did not make Napoleons. Every man carries within himself a Mount Sinai, a revealed law, written for himself separately.  25
 
  When a child is first born, what is it but a pulpy, warm little bit of animal, wrapped up in flannel?—without original righteousness, without original orthodoxy, without original heterodoxy, without original arithmethic, without original rhetoric, without original anything, though the organs are there. The most perfect know-nothing in the world is that of the cradle, agnostic from the beginning.  26
 
  On one occasion a well-intentioned but feeble-minded, feeble-voiced woman arose in Plymouth prayer-meeting, and meandered on for a long time in mystical, meaningless talk. When she finally sat down, Mr. Beecher (who had sat motionless, with downcast eyes, all the while) looked up with the play of a humorous twinkle on his face, but said with a perfectly serious voice, “Nevertheless,—I am in favor of women’s speaking. Sing eight thirty-eight” (or whatever the number was).  27
 
  Folks use their children as if they were garret-pegs, to hang old clothes on—first a jacket, then a coat, and then another jacket. You have to take them all down to find either one. Our children go trudging all their lives with their load of names, as if they were Jews returning with an assortment of old clothes. People use their children as registers to preserve the names of aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, and so inscribe them with the names of the dead, as if tombstones were not enough.  28
 
  Patriotism, in our day, is made to be an argument for all public wrong, and all private meanness. For the sake of country a man is told to yield everything that makes the land honorable. For the sake of country a man must submit to every ignominy that will lead to the ruin of the state through disgrace of the citizen. There never was a man so unpatriotic as Christ was. Old Jerusalem ought to have been everything to him. The laws and institutions of his country ought to have been more to him than all the men in his country. They were not, and the Jews hated him; but the common people, like the ocean waters, moved in tides towards his heavenly attraction wherever he went.  29
 
  When men begin their prayers with, “O thou omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-seeing, ever-living, blessed Potentate, Lord God Jehovah!” I should think they would take breath. Think of a man in his family, hurried for his breakfast, praying in such a strain! He has a note coming due, and it is going to be paid to-day, and he feels buoyant; and he goes down on his knees like a cricket on the hearth, and piles up these majestically moving phrases about God. Then he goes on to say that he is a sinner: he is proud to say that he is a sinner. Then he asks for his daily bread. He has it; and he can always ask for it when he has it. Then he jumps up, and goes over to the city. He comes back at night, and goes through a similar wordy form of “evening prayers”; and he is called “a praying man”! A praying man? I might as well call myself an ornithologist because I eat a chicken once in a while for my dinner.  30
 
  When I see how much has been written of those who have lived; how the Greeks preserved every saying of Plato’s; how Boswell followed Johnson, gathering up every leaf that fell from that rugged old oak, and pasting it away,—I almost regret that one of the disciples had not been a recording angel, to preserve the odor and richness of every word of Christ. When John says, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written,” it affects me more profoundly than when I think of the destruction of the Alexandrian Library, or the perishing of Grecian art in Athens or Byzantium. The creations of Phidias were cold stone, overlaid by warm thought; but Christ described his own creations when he said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are life.” The leaving out of these things from the New Testament, though divinely wise, seems, to my yearning, not so much the unaccomplishment of noble things as the destruction of great treasures, which had already had oral life, but failed of incarnation in literature.  31
 
 
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