Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sermon: Poverty and the Gospel
By Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887)
Texts: Luke iv. 17–21, Matt. xi. 2–6

HERE was Christ’s profession of his faith; here is the history also of his examination, to see whether he were fit to preach or not. It is remarkable that in both these instances the most significant indication that he had, both of his descent from God and of his being worthy of the Messiahship, consisted in this simple exposition of the line of his preaching,—that he took sides with the poor, neglected, and lost. He emphasized this, that his gospel was a gospel of mercy to the poor; and that word “poor,” in its most comprehensive sense, looked at historically, includes in it everything that belongs to human misery, whether it be by reason of sin or depravity, or by oppression, or by any other cause. This, then, is the disclosure by Christ himself of the genius of Christianity. It is his declaration of what the gospel meant.  1
  It is still further interpreted when you follow the life of Christ, and see how exactly in his conduct he interpreted, or rather fortified, the words of the declaration. His earliest life was that of labor and poverty, and it was labor and poverty in the poorest districts of Palestine. The dignified, educated, and aristocratic part of the nation dwelt in Judea, and the Athens of Palestine was Jerusalem. There Christ spent the least part of his life, and that in perpetual discussions. But in Galilee the most of his miracles, certainly the earlier, were performed, and the most of his discourses that are contained bodily in the gospels were uttered. He himself carried out the declaration that the gospel was for the poor. The very miracles that Christ performed were not philosophical enigmas, as we look at them. They were all of them miracles of mercy. They were miracles to those who were suffering helplessly where natural law and artificial means could not reach them. In every case the miracles of Christ were mercies, though we look at them in a spirit totally different from that in which he performed them.  2
  In doing thus, Christ represented the best spirit of the Old Testament. The Jewish Scriptures teach mercy, the very genius of Jewish institutions was that of mercy, and especially to the poor, the weak, the helpless. The crimes against which the prophets thundered their severest denunciations were crimes upon the helpless. It was the avarice of the rich, it was the unbounded lust and cruelty of the strong, that were denounced by them. They did not preach against human nature in general. They did not preach against total depravity and the original condition of mankind. They singled out violations of the law in the magistrate, in the king, in rich men, everywhere, and especially all those wrongs committed by power either unconsciously or with purpose, cruelty upon the helpless, the defenseless, the poor and the needy. When Christ declared that this was his ministry, he took his text from the Old Testament; he spoke in its spirit. It was to preach the gospel to the poor that he was sent. He had come into the world to change the condition of mankind. Beginning at the top? No; beginning at the bottom and working up to the top from the bottom.  3
  When this view of the gospel enters into our understanding and is fully comprehended by us, how exactly it fits in with the order of nature, and with the order of the unfolding of human life and human society! It takes sides with the poor; and so the universal tendency of Providence and of history, slowly unfolded, is on the whole going from low to high, from worse to better, and from good toward the perfect. When we consider, we see that man begins as a helpless thing, a baby zero without a figure before it; and every step in life adds a figure to it and gives it more and more worth. On the whole, the law of unfolding throughout the world is from lower to higher; and though when applied to the population of the globe it is almost inconceivable, still, with many back-sets and reactions, the tendency of the universe is thus from lower to higher. Why? Let any man consider whether there is not of necessity a benevolent intelligence somewhere that is drawing up from the crude toward the ripe, from the rough toward the smooth, from bad to good, and from good through better toward best. The tendency upward runs like a golden thread through the history of the whole world, both in the unfolding of human life and in the unfolding of the race itself. Thus the tendency of nature is in accordance with the tendency of the gospel as declared by Jesus Christ, namely, that it is a ministry of mercy to the needy.  4
  The vast majority of mankind have been and yet are poor. There are ten thousand men poor where there is one man even comfortably provided for, body and soul, and hundreds of thousands where there is one rich, taking the whole world together. The causes of poverty are worthy a moment’s consideration. Climate and soil have much to do with it. Men whose winter lasts nine or ten months in the year, and who have a summer of but one or two months, as in the extreme north,—how could they amass property, how could they enlarge their conditions of peace and of comfort? There are many parts of the earth where men live on the borders of deserts, or in mountain fastnesses, or in arctic rigors, where anything but poverty is impossible, and where it requires the whole thought, genius, industry, and foresight of men, the year round, just to feed themselves and to live. Bad government, where men are insecure in their property, has always been a very fertile source of poverty. The great valley of Esdraelon in Northern Palestine is one of the most fertile in the world, and yet famine perpetually stalks on the heels of the population; for if you sow and the harvest waves, forth come hordes of Bedouins to reap your harvest for you, and leave you, after all your labor, to poverty and starvation. When a man has lost his harvest in that way two or three times, and is deprived of the reward of his labors, he never emerges from poverty, but sinks into indolence; and that, by and by, breeds apathetic misery. So where the government over-taxes its subjects, as is the case in the Orient with perhaps nearly all of the populations there to-day, it cuts the sinews and destroys all the motives of industry; and without industry there can be neither virtue, morality, nor religion in any long period. Wars breaking out, from whatever cause, tend to absorb property, or to destroy property, or to prevent the development of property. Yet, strange as it may seem, the men who suffer from war are those whose passions generally lead it on. The king may apply the spark, but the combustion is with the common people. They furnish the army, they themselves become destroyers; and the ravages of war, in the history of the human family, have destroyed more property than it is possible to enter into the thoughts of men to conceive.  5
  But besides these external reasons of poverty, there are certain great primary and fundamental reasons. Ignorance breeds poverty. What is property? It is the product of intelligence, of skill, of thought applied to material substances. All property is raw material that has been shaped to uses by intelligent skill. Where intelligence is low, the power of producing property is low. It is the husbandman who thinks, foresees, plans, and calls on all natural laws to serve him, whose farm brings forth forty, fifty, and a hundred fold. The ignorant peasant grubs and groans, and reaps but one handful where he has sown two. It is knowledge that is the gold mine; for although every knowing man may not be able to be a rich man, yet out of ignorance riches do not spring anywhere. Ignorant men may be made the factors of wealth when they are guided and governed by superior intelligence. Slave labor produced gigantic plantations and estates. The slave was always poor, but his master was rich, because the master had the intelligence and the knowledge, and the slave gave the work. All through human society, men who represent simple ignorance will be tools, and the men who represent intelligence will be the master mechanics, the capitalists. All society to-day is agitated with this question of justice as between the laborer and the thinker. Now, it is no use to kick against the pricks. A man who can only work and not think is not the equal in any regard of the man who can think, who can plan, who can combine, and who can live not for to-day alone, but for to-morrow, for next month, for the next year, for ten years. This is the man whose volume will just as surely weigh down that of the unthinking man as a ton will weigh down a pound in the scale. Avoirdupois is moral, industrial, as well as material, in this respect; and the primary, most usual cause of unprosperity in industrial callings therefore lies in the want of intelligence,—either in the slender endowment of the man, or more likely the want of education in his ordinary and average endowment. Any class of men who live for to-day, and do not care whether they know anything more than they did yesterday or last year—those men may have a temporary and transient prosperity, but they are the children of poverty just as surely as the decrees of God stand. Ignorance enslaves men among men; knowledge is the creator of liberty and wealth.  6
  As with undeveloped intelligence, so the appetites of men and their passions are causes of poverty. Men who live from the basilar faculties will invariably live in inferior stations. The men who represent animalism are as a general fact at the bottom. They may say it is government, climate, soil, want of capital, they may say what they please, but it is the devil of laziness that is in them, or of passion, that comes out in eating, in gluttony, in drinking and drunkenness, in wastefulness on every side. I do not say that the laboring classes in modern society are poor because they are self-indulgent, but I say that it unquestionably would be wise for all men who feel irritated that they are so unprosperous, if they would take heed to the moral condition in which they are living, to self-denial in their passions and appetites, and to increasing the amount of their knowledge and fidelity. Although moral conditions are not the sole causes, they are principal causes, of the poverty of the working classes throughout the world. It is their misfortune as well as their fault; but it is the reason why they do not rise. Weakness does not rise; strength does.  7
  All these causes indicate that the poor need moral and intellectual culture. “I was sent to preach the gospel to the poor:” not to distribute provisions, not to relieve their wants; that will be included, but that was not Christ’s primary idea. It was not to bring in a golden period of fruitfulness when men would not be required to work. It was not that men should lie down on their backs under the trees, and that the boughs should bend over and drop the ripe fruit into their mouths. No such conception of equality and abundance entered into the mind of the Creator or of Him who represented the Creator. To preach the gospel to the poor was to awaken the mind of the poor. It was to teach the poor—“Take up your cross, deny yourselves, and follow me. Restrain all those sinful appetites and passions, and hold them back by the power of knowledge and by the power of conscience; grow, because you are the sons of God, into the likeness of your Father.” So he preached to the poor. That was preaching prosperity to them. That was teaching them how to develop their outward condition by developing their inward forces. To develop that in men which should make them wiser, purer, and stronger, is the aim of the gospel. Men have supposed that the whole end of the gospel was reconciliation between God and men who had fallen—though they were born sinners in their fathers and grandfathers and ancestors; to reconcile them with God—as if an abstract disagreement had been the cause of all this world’s trouble! But the plain facts of history are simply that men, if they have not come from animals, have yet dwelt in animalism, and that that which should raise them out of it was some such moral influence as should give them the power of ascension into intelligence, into virtue, and into true godliness. That is what the gospel was sent for; good news, a new power that is kindled under men, that will lift them from their low ignorances and degradations and passions, and lift them into a higher realm; a power that will take away all the poverty that needs to be taken away. Men may be doctrinally depraved; they are much more depraved practically. Men may need to be brought into the knowledge of God speculatively; but what they do need is to be brought into the knowledge of themselves practically. I do not say that the gospel has nothing in it of this kind of spiritual knowledge; it is full of it, but its aim and the reason why it should be preached is to wake up in men the capacity for good things, industries, frugalities, purities, moralities, kindnesses one toward another: and when men are brought into that state they are reconciled. When men are reconciled with the law of creation and the law of their being, they are reconciled with God. Whenever a man is reconciled with the law of knowledge, he is reconciled with the God of knowledge, so far. Whenever a man is reconciled with the law of purity he is so far reconciled with a God of purity. When men have lifted themselves to that point that they recognize that they are the children of God, the kingdom of God has begun within them.  8
  Although the spirit and practice of the gospel will develop charities, will develop physical comfort, will feed men, will heal men, will provide for their physical needs, yet the primary and fundamental result of the gospel is to develop man himself, not merely to relieve his want on an occasion. It does that as a matter of course, but that is scarcely the first letter of the alphabet. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [food and raiment] shall be added unto you.” The way to relieve a man is to develop him so that he will need no relief, or to raise higher and higher the character of the help that he demands.  9
  In testing Christianity, then, I remark first that it is to be tested not by creeds, but by conduct. The evidence of the gospel, the reality of the gospel that is preached in schools or churches, is to be found in the spirit that is developed by it, not in the technical creeds that men have constructed out of it. The biography of men who have died might be hung up in their sepulchres; but you could not tell what kind of a man this one had been, just by reading his life there—while he lay dead in dust before you. There are thousands of churches that have a creed of Christianity hung up in them, but the church itself is a sepulchre full of dead men’s bones; and indeed, many churches in modern times are gnawing the bones of their ancestors, and doing almost nothing else.  10
  The gospel, changed from a spirit of humanity into a philosophical system of doctrine, is perverted. It is not the gospel. The great heresy in the world of religion is a cold heart, not a luminous head. It is not that intelligence is of no use in religion. By no means. Neither would we wage a crusade against philosophical systems of moral truth. But where the active sympathy and humanity of loving hearts for living men, and for men in the ratio in which they are low, is laid aside or diminished to a minimum, and in its place is a well-elaborated philosophical system of moral truths, hewn and jointed,—the gospel is gone. If you go along the sea-shores, you will often find the shells of fish—the fish dead and gone, the shells left. And if you go along the shores of ecclesiastical organization, you will find multitudes of shells of the gospel, out of which the living substance has gone long ago. Organized Christianity—that is, the institutions of Christianity have been in the first instance its power, and in the second instance its damnation. The moment you substitute the machinery of education for education itself, the moment you build schools and do not educate, build colleges that do not increase knowledge in the pupils, you have sacrificed the aim for the instrument by which you were to gain that aim. In churches, the moment it is more important to maintain buildings, rituals, ministers, chanters, and all the paraphernalia of moral education than the spirit of personal sympathy, the moment these are more sacred to men than is the welfare of the population round about which they were set to take care of, that very moment Christ is dead in that place; that very moment religion in the midst of all its institutions has perished. I am bound to say that in the history of the world, while religious institutions have been valuable and have done a great deal of good, they have perhaps done as much harm as good. There is scarcely one single perversion of civil government, there is scarcely one single persecution of men, there is scarcely a single one of the great wars that have depopulated the globe, there is scarcely one great heresy developed out of the tyranny of the church, that has not been the fruit of institutional religion; while that spirit of humanity which was to give the institution its motive power has to a certain extent died out of it.  11
  Secondly, churches organized upon elective affinities of men are contrary to the spirit of the gospel. We may associate with men who are of like taste with ours. We have that privilege. If men are knowledgeable and intellectual, there is no sin in their choosing for intimate companions and associates men of like pursuits and like intellectual qualities. That is right. If men are rich, there is no reason why men who hold like property should not confer with each other, and form interests and friendships together. If men are refined, if they have become æsthetic, there is no reason why they should not associate in the realm of beauty, artists with artists, nor why the great enjoyers of beauty should not be in sympathy. Exit all these are not to be allowed to do it at the price of abandoning common humanity; you have no right to make your nest in the boughs of knowledge, and let all the rest of the world go as it will. You have no right to make your home among those who are polished and exquisite and fastidious in their tastes, whose garments are beauty, whose house is a temple of art, and all whose associations are of like kind, and neglect common humanity. You have no right to shut yourself up in a limited company of those who are like you in these directions, and let all the rest of men go without sympathy and without care. It is a right thing for a man to salute his neighbor who salutes him; but if you salute those who salute you, says Christ, what thank have ye—do not even the publicans so? It is no sin that a man, being intellectual in his nature, should like intellectual people, and gratify that which is divine and God-like in him; but if, because he likes intellectual people, he loses all interest in ignorant people, it convicts him of depravity and of moral perversion. When this is carried out to such an extent that churches are organized upon sharp classification, upon elective affinities, they not only cease to be Christian churches, but they are heretical; not perhaps in doctrine, but worse than that, heretical in heart….  12
  The fact is that a church needs poor men and wicked men as much as it does pure men and virtuous men and pious men. What man needs is familiarity with universal human nature. He needs never to separate himself from men in daily life. It is not necessary that in our houses we should bring pestilential diseases or pestilential examples, but somehow we must hold on to men if they are wicked; somehow the circulation between the top and the bottom must be carried on; somehow there must be an atoning power in the heart of every true believer of the Lord Jesus Christ who shall say, looking out and seeing that the world is lost, and is living in sin and misery, “I belong to it, and it belongs to me.” When you take the loaf of society and cut off the upper crust, slicing it horizontally, you get an elect church. Yes, it is the peculiarly elect church of selfishness. But you should cut the loaf of society from the top down to the bottom, and take in something of everything. True, every church would be very much edified and advantaged if it had in it scholarly men, knowledgeable men; but the church is strong in proportion as it has in it something of everything, from the very top to the very bottom.  13
  Now, I do not disown creeds—provided they are my own! Well, you smile; but that is the way it has been since the world began. No denomination believes in any creed except its own. I do not say that men’s knowledge on moral subjects may not be formulated. I criticize the formulation of beliefs from time to time, in this: that they are very partial; that they are formed upon the knowledge of a past age, and that that knowledge perishes while higher and nobler knowledge comes in; that there ought to be higher and better forms; and that while their power is relatively small, the power of the spirit of humanity is relatively great. When I examine a church, I do not so much care whether its worship is to the one God or to the triune God. I do not chiefly care for the catechism, nor for the confession of faith, although they are both interesting. I do not even look to see whether it is a synagogue or a Christian church—I do not care whether it has a cross over the top of it or is Quaker plain. I do not care whether it is Protestant, Catholic, or anything else. Let me read the living—the living book! What is the spirit of the people? How do they feel among each other? How do they feel toward the community? What is their life and conduct in regard to the great prime moral duty of man, “Love the Lord thy God and thy neighbor as thyself,” whether he be obscure or whether he be smiling in the very plenitude of wealth and refinement? Have you a heart for humanity? Have you a soul that goes out for men? Are you Christ-like? Will you spend yourself for the sake of elevating men who need to be lifted up? That is orthodox. I do not care what the creed is. If a church has a good creed, that is all the more felicitous; and if it has a bad creed, a good life cures the bad creed.  14
  One of the dangers of our civilization may be seen in the light of these considerations. We are developing so much strength founded on popular intelligence, and this intelligence and the incitements to it are developing such large property interests, that if the principle of elective affinity shall sort men out and classify them, we are steering to the not very remote danger of the disintegration of human society. I can tell you that the classes of men who by their knowledge, refinement, and wealth think they are justified in separating themselves, and in making a great void between them and the myriads of men below them, are courting their own destruction. I look with very great interest on the process of change going on in Great Britain, where the top of society had all the “blood,” but the circulation is growing larger and larger, and a change is gradually taking place in their institutions. The old nobility of Great Britain is the lordliest of aristocracies existing in the world. Happily, on the whole, a very noble class of men occupy the high positions: but the spirit of suffrage, this angel of God that so many hate, is coming in on them; and when every man in Great Britain can vote, no matter whether he is poor or rich, whether he has knowledge or no knowledge, there must be a very great change. Before the great day of the Lord shall come, the valleys are to go up and the mountains are to come down; and the mountains have started already in Great Britain and must come down. There may be an aristocracy in any nation,—that is to say, there may be “best men”; there ought to be an aristocracy in every community,—that is, an aristocracy of men who speak the truth, who are just, who are intelligent: but that aristocracy will be like a wave of the sea; it has to be reconstituted in every generation, and the men who are the best in the State become the aristocracy of that State. But where rank is hereditary, if political suffrage becomes free and universal, aristocracy cannot live. The spirit of the gospel is democratic. The tendency of the gospel is leveling; leveling up, not down. It is carrying the poor and the multitude onward and upward.  15
  It is said that democracies have no great men, no heroic men. Why is it so? When you raise the average of intelligence and power in the community it is very hard to be a great man. That is to say, when the great mass of citizens are only ankle-high, when among the Lilliputians a Brobdingnagian walks, he is a great man. But when the Lilliputians grow until they get up to his shoulder, he is not so great a man as he was by the whole length of his body. So, make the common people grow, and there is nobody tall enough to be much higher.
*        *        *        *        *
  The remarkable people of this world are useful in their way; but the common people, after all, represent the nation, the age, and the civilization. Go into any town or city: do not ask who lives in that splendid house; do not say, This is a fine town, here are streets of houses with gardens and yards, and everything that is beautiful the whole way through. Go into the lanes, go into the back streets, go where the mechanic lives; go where the day-laborer lives. See what is the condition of the streets there. See what they do with the poor, with the helpless, and the mean. If the top of society bends perpetually over the bottom with tenderness, if the rich and strong are the best friends of the poor and needy, that is a civilized and a Christian community; but if the rich and the wise are the cream and the great bulk of the population skim-milk, that is not a prosperous community.  17
  There is a great deal of irreligion in men, there is a great deal of wickedness and depravity in men, but there are times when it is true that the church is more dissipated than the dissipated classes of the community. If there is one thing that stood out more strongly than any other in the ministry of our Lord, it is the severity with which he treated the exclusiveness of men with knowledge, position, and a certain sort of religion, a religion of particularity and carefulness; if there is one class of the community against which he hurled his thunderbolts without mercy and predicted woes, it was the scribes, Pharisees, scholars, and priests of the temples. He told them in so many words, “The publican and the harlot will enter the kingdom of God before you.” The worst dissipation in this world is the dry-rot of morality, and of the so-called piety that separates men of prosperity and of power from the poor and ignoble. They are our wards….  18
  I am not a socialist. I do not preach riot. I do not preach the destruction of property. I regard property as one of the sacred things. The real property established by a man’s own intelligence and labor is the crystallized man himself. It is the fruit of what his life-work has done; and not in vain, society makes crime against it amongst the most punishable. But nevertheless, I warn these men in a country like ours, where every man votes, whether he came from Hungary, or from Russia, or from Germany, or from France or Italy, or Spain or Portugal, or from the Orient,—from Japan and China, because they too are going to vote! On the Niagara River, logs come floating down and strike an island, and there they lodge and accumulate for a little while, and won’t go over. But the rains come, the snows melt, the river rises, and the logs are lifted up and down, and they go swinging over the falls. The stream of suffrage of free men, having all the privileges of the State, is this great stream. The figure is defective in this, that the log goes over the Niagara Falls, but that is not the way the country is going or will go…. There is a certain river of political life, and everything has to go into it first or last; and if, in days to come, a man separates himself from his fellows without sympathy, if his wealth and power make poverty feel itself more poor and men’s misery more miserable, and set against him the whole stream of popular feeling, that man is in danger. He may not know who dynamites him, but there is danger; and let him take heed who is in peril. There is nothing easier in the world than for rich men to ingratiate themselves with the whole community in which they live, and so secure themselves. It is not selfishness that will do it; it is not by increasing the load of misfortune, it is not by wasting substance in riotous living upon appetites and passions. It is by recognizing that every man is a brother. It is by recognizing the essential spirit of the gospel, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is by using some of their vast power and riches so as to diffuse joy in every section of the community.  19
  Here then I close this discourse. How much it enrolls! How very simple it is! It is the whole gospel. When you make an application of it to all the phases of organization and classification of human interests and developments, it seems as though it were as big as the universe. Yet when you condense it, it all comes back to the one simple creed: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Who is my neighbor? A certain man went down to Jericho, and so on. That tells you who your neighbor is. Whosoever has been attacked by robbers, has been beaten, has been thrown down—by liquor, by gambling, or by any form of wickedness; whosoever has been cast into distress, and you are called on to raise him up—that is your neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself. That is the gospel.  20

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