GRACE CHURCH, NEW YORK,
Thanksgiving Day, 1883.
BY THE RT. REV. THOMAS M. CLARK, D.D., LL.D.,
BISHOP OF RHODE ISLAND.
PUBLISHED BY REQUEST.
God setteth the solitary in families.—PSALM lxviii., 6.
THE family is older than any other divine institution. In the very act of creation, God established this ordinance. The household was the original type of the Church—its head was the priest, and he offered sacrifice on a family altar. It was also the model of the State. Social life, the principle of subordination, the supremacy of law, were first developed in the domestic relation. There is scarcely a form of barbarism so low as to be without this institution, and wherever its bonds sit loosely a general social deterioration follows of necessity. It is a natural instinct which makes men desire to have their own homes, their own domestic board, and their own private fireside. You can hardly appreciate the sadness of one who feels that in all this great world there is no place that he can call his home. The laborer rejoices when the shades of evening descend, because then he "homeward plods his weary way." It is a blessed sight to the traveller as he climbs the last hill in his long journey and sees the smoke rising from his own hearth-stone. The merchant leaves the perplexities of business outside the threshold when he goes home. In sickness and distress, there is no place like home. And [3/4] what must it be to grow old and feeble and find one's self without a home! To have had a home, and to lose it at any period of life is trying enough; to see the house which you had occupied dismantled, and pictures, furniture, books, and all the numberless things around which tender and sacred associations had gathered, pass into the hands of strangers; to lock the door for the last time, and thenceforth to feel that you have no right to enter there—this is a bitter experience, let it come when it may. But the pang is a hundredfold more acute when one has reached that period of life when it is too late to rally, too late to repair the shattered fortune, too late to build up another home. At this present time there is a multitude of such cases as this. The shore is lined with wrecks. Many a proud craft is heading fast for the rocks, where danger is little suspected. Who will strike next no one knows.
To be poor is hard in itself, but to become so after having been rich; to be reduced to hard straits after living in affluence; to be obliged to look at a dollar long and carefully when one has been accustomed to scatter wealth like water—"this is the true misery."
I have selected this for my subject to-day, for the reason that the best offering of Thanksgiving to Almighty God is the enlistment of our sympathies in behalf of those who are in want of the blessings that we ourselves enjoy. "The problem of the poor" is a topic which has become very familiar in the ministrations of this sanctuary, and engaged in a peculiar [4/5] degree the practical attention of this congregation. What you have accomplished in solving one of the most difficult of all questions is known throughout the land, and your own homes will be made more joyful by the recollection of what you have done for those upon whose habitations no ray of light would fall to-day, but for your sympathy and your benefactions.
Poverty in its worst sense and in its extremest forms is found in the centres of our highest civilization. In the most advanced condition of society the world has ever known, in the wealthiest nations of the wealthiest period of history, there are multitudes of people who do not know in the morning where they will sleep at night, or from what source they are to receive their daily bread. And it is in our cities, where wealth is most concentrated, that the most abject poverty abounds.
There are certain causes that tend to make and to keep men poor, which are common to all periods and all communities. Misfortunes which come in the providence of God, protracted illness, accidents that incapacitate for labor, losses by flood and fire, the devastation of crops; these and the like calamities may reduce one to want, in spite of all his industry and in defiance of all his foresight.
Or again, poverty may come because of the lack of industry and foresight. Many live "from hand to mouth," and whenever an emergency comes, they are without resource and helpless.
Then there is always a large class who, without [5/6] any special fault of their own, never seem to get on, are never able to accumulate anything. Nothing to which they address themselves prospers; the income always falls short of the expenses. They are faithful, honest, industrious, but they lack the element of success, whatever that may be.
I hardly know a more pitiable sight than that of a strong, able-bodied man standing before his fellows with outstretched hands, and saying, "Here I am ready to work in any honest calling, ready to work long and hard, if I can only get the means to keep me from freezing and starving; but there is nothing for me to do—no man will hire me!"
There never were so many such sights to be seen in our land as we behold to-day. Society is suffering just now the collapse which follows a financial debauch. The air has been filled with splendid bubbles, and one by one these are now melting away into the vapor from which they came.
We are passing through a somewhat trying crisis. The land is flooded with all the substantials of wealth, richer to-day than it ever was before; the granaries are full to repletion; manufactured goods of all sorts are superabundant; the facilities for transporting merchandize are fifty-fold in advance of what they were a score of years ago; there was never so much money in the country as there is now; but the wind that a while ago seemed to blow so prosperously has died away, the sails drop motionless, and there is a great calm. "The merchant people are cut down," as they once were in Tyre; fortunes are vanishing like smoke.
 I do not believe that this state of things will last long, but meanwhile certain peculiar styles of misfortune are operating that must bring to penury multitudes who have never known absolute want before. Very many such persons are already reduced to want, if not made homeless, by unfortunate investments. Perhaps they had just a comfortable competency, enough to live on decently with care and economy. They took good advice when they invested, and so they looked forward to the coming on of old age without anxiety, so far as the means of living are concerned. But one day they were informed that the dividend in a certain stock had been passed, and the next day, that the bonds which they held in another company were worthless, and one day after, that the office in which they had deposited funds had suspended; and so on, day after day, until the morning came when the sad truth flashed upon them that they must leave the house in which they had lived for many years, and where they had expected to die, and go forth not knowing whither.
Others are brought to want by the fault or misfortune of their friends and neighbors. As a mere matter of accommodation they have written their names on paper which they never imagined they would be called to redeem; but at last the fatal day comes, and all the earnings of a life-time are suddenly swept away. Not a few who have toiled hard, lived frugally, and conducted a safe and reasonably lucrative business for a long series of years, find themselves ruined in old age by the reckless [7/8] expenditure of their children, or by some daring speculation in the process of which the junior partners hope to double or triple the profits of their father's life-long business in a day. And many a head has grown prematurely gray because of the downright villainy of men whom everybody trusted.
Numberless causes have of late combined to produce a degree and a kind of destitution, such as has not been known before. It is not merely the bedridden, the helpless orphan, and the widow that will need our help, but stout men must have some aid, who, if it were not for their pale wives and crying children, might be content to suffer and be still. There is to-day many a scene of domestic suffering, upon which pride bars the door to keep out the gaze of the curious; many a precious household treasure finds its way covertly to the shop of the pawn-broker; there is many a hearthstone in which the fire burns feebly in these cold winter nights, and there is scanty food on many a table of which you hear nothing.
And now I put to you the practical question—in this emergency what is to be done? Nothing rashly, nothing imprudently, nothing unreflectingly. It is important for us to know what we will not do, as well as what we must do.
You should be careful to hold out no such inducements as will be likely to bring amongst you the idle and profligate of other regions, or even those who may be destitute and worthy of aid, but have no direct claim upon your community. Only let it [8/9] be known that you are ready to provide for them, and applicants will pour in from all quarters on foot and by rail, by land and by sea, a certain proportion of whom will very probably settle down upon you permanently. Amongst this crowd of strangers you cannot discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy. Those who need assistance ought to remain where they are best known, and the deserving will generally do so. It is all important that you should make the wisest possible distribution of your charities and guard carefully against imposture. There is a class of vagabonds who go wandering about from place to place, sometimes in rags and sometimes in broadcloth, getting their living by fraud and falsehood, and they are worse than highway robbers, because they pick our pockets without any personal risk, prejudice the cause of the worthy poor, harden our hearts, and exhaust the supplies of the benevolent. It requires a keen and practised eye to detect these locomotive swindlers, and the most acute are liable to be deceived. Occasionally, indeed, there may be some poor wanderer, friendless and homeless, used to the pelting rain and familiar with the cold of winter, who demands our pity, and whether he deserves it or not, ought not to be sent quite empty away. He may be an old man, very useless now, perhaps never of much use, but he was young once and may have seen better days. As he walks at night through your streets and sees the bright light gleaming through the parlor windows and hears the sound of music and [9/10] festivity within, he may recall the time when he had a home and played with his brothers by the cheerful fireside and sat with his father and mother around the genial board. He once had prospects in life, looked forward and dreamed of good things to come. The good things never came; perhaps he did not deserve to succeed; but he has ceased to look forward now. Give him a little aid, enough to deaden his hunger and save him from the cold; that is all he asks, all he cares about now. His life has been a failure; it is too late to rectify that; give the old man something, whether he deserves it or not; he will not trouble anybody long.
There are those dwelling about us who must be looked to more carefully. Some who have been accustomed to receive occasional aid, are now entirely dependent upon charity, while others will be helped for the first time. Do not always wait for them to ask; it may be hard enough to receive without asking. It requires a special effort for one to take as an alms what has heretofore come to him as his due. Be very gentle, therefore, as you go about doing good. Remember that delicate fingers are needed to handle freshly-opened wounds. If you are so privileged as to be Christ's almoners, and do the work which He would have done if He had remained on earth, try to do it just as He would. No unhappy creature ever felt more unhappy because He was by; no guilty creature need have felt despair in that Divine presence. He identified Himself with the poor so intimately that, as He [10/11] declared, whatever is done for them, is done for Him. Would that He might walk again for a while in the streets, as He once walked in Jewry, and show us what His religion means.
At the present time, there are comparatively few persons who have not begun to feel the need of retrenchment. This may, however, be developed in wrong directions, and to a mischievous degree. Retrenchment with certain classes means something. It means the diminution of the already scanty loaf, and the dwindling to very small proportions of the little stock of fuel; it means that the children can no longer be comfortably clothed, or the monthly rent promptly paid; it means a gradual retrenchment of the blood that nourishes the body, and the energy that nerves the arm. In other cases it means the giving up of certain superfluities and luxuries, the reduction of the servants' establishment, the selling of a few horses and carriages, and the practice of a little more economy in the matter of dress.
Unless it becomes a matter of absolute necessity, it is not wise to retrench by dismissing from their employment those who depend upon their daily wages for a living; for they must be supported somehow, and it is on all accounts better that they should work for their bread than to be sustained by charity. The moral perils of such a period as the present, growing out of enforced idleness, the decay of self-respect and self-reliance which comes of dependence upon charity, are not so likely to be [11/12] apprehended as the physical suffering that is patent to the senses. We say of a man that he is ruined when he has lost his property, whereas he is only ruined when he has lost his manhood.
"Sweet are the uses of adversity;" so the poet sings, and so we are apt to say when the blow falls upon some one else and not upon ourselves. Adversity is bitter and not sweet; it may have its use as a medicine, but no one hankers after a nauseous drug. No one chooses to be poor. The loudest declaimer against riches is glad to get eight per cent where he had six before. Abject poverty is a curse. You do not find the highest style of character in the lowest ranks of society. Hunger and cold are not conducive to mental or spiritual growth. They do not make one amiable, or unselfish, or magnanimous. Hunger knows no law but to appease itself. The soul has hard work to keep the currents warm when the body is aching with cold. It is a wearing thing to be all the while on the lookout for something to keep soul and body from parting company. We expect too much of the poor, too much patience, too much gratitude, too much good behaviour in general; more, perhaps, than we show when we are crossed in little things.
It would be very easy for me to stand up here and preach about the blessings of poverty; the various moral lessons that it teaches, the temptations from which it shields us, the benefit of being debarred from enervating luxuries, the mental stimulus derived from a crust of bread and a glass [12/13] of water, the clearness of brain, the vigor of soul, the release of all our faculties from the bondage of earth; but it would be another thing if I were called to illustrate all this in real life. No man would be poor if he could help it. He may be willing to give away everything that he does not need for his own support, but he would like to have the money in order to give it away; and most people like to have it for other reasons.
But the poor we shall always have with us, and although it is hard for them, it is well for the rich that there should be this permanent demand upon their charities. We cannot afford to expend all that we have upon ourselves.
I now come to a very important practical point, and that is the classification of our charities. A very large class of sufferers have no other claim except that they belong to the category of humanity; they are of the same race with ourselves, they were born with the inherent right to live, which right it is possible they have forfeited by their indolence, or improvidence, or vices; they cannot continue to live any longer unless some one gives them help. To meet such cases as these, it is just that the State should interfere, and as far as possible, equalize the burden of their support. It has indeed been found very difficult to provide for the evil without at the same time aggravating it, and the "Poor Laws" are likely to create as many paupers as they relieve. And still it will not do to leave the matter of general relief entirely to a hap-hazard charity, for such [13/14] relief is often only a premium upon laziness. Miscellaneous alms-giving, in the long run, is worse than none at all. In some countries begging has become a national institution. But it does not impress the traveller very favorably when he can never stop for a moment in the highway without being importuned by a herd of mendicants, or enter a church without being implored in the name of the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints for an alms.
As the class now referred to have the feeblest claim upon our sympathy and may therefore expect to receive the minimum of our aid, so, on the other hand, there is a class who have the right to demand our first attention and most liberal assistance. It is a primary duty to provide for those who are nearest of kin to us, whenever they are poor and feeble and lonely. Some persons give great contributions to great societies, which, of course, are duly heralded, and do nothing for their own suffering relatives and friends. Charity should begin at home, whether it ends there or not. "He that provideth not for his own, is worse than an infidel;" and "his own" includes something beyond wife and child, father and mother. It takes in a larger circle who must be cared for, either by their own relatives or by strangers. I do not mean that because a man happens to be rich, he is under any obligation to support either his own or his wife's relatives in idleness; but if they are sick, or disabled, or old, and the heavy hand of adversity has crushed them, for your own sake, if not for theirs, do not leave [14/15] them to the tender mercy of strangers. Give as freely as you will to public charities, but also see to it that those whose blood runs in your veins are not left to suffer.
There is an intermediate class which I now wish to commend to your special attention. They may or they may not be absolutely destitute, but their means are very limited, and they have no rich relatives to look after them. They have seen better days, they once had a comfortable home, they have done their part in the battle of life, but they are getting old now, and one by one the bright hopes of their earlier days have vanished. They are weak, weary, worn-out, needing rest, refreshment, kind attention, kind looks, kind words, and many little comforts to cheer the closing hours of life. What is to be done for them?
It is possible that they may be able to struggle on in some dreary tenement, some back chamber, where the sunlight never comes, and by the aid of charitable visitors, chance gifts, fuel societies, manage to keep from freezing and starvation. Old friends may bring a cast-off garment now and then; occasionally a nice bit of food may be sent in; they are not quite forgotten. But the uncertainty, the anxiety, as to what is to be done when the garment is worn out and the food is gone; the chronic care, the perplexity, the solitude, the want of cheerful occupation, the absence of everything that enlivens existence, the dread of sickness, and other helplessness—who can estimate that? These are the [15/16] respectable poor, the intelligent poor, the virtuous poor, God's poor; can nothing better be done for them?
Your offerings will now be asked in behalf of a very forlorn and helpless class of men—the aged and infirm and indigent clergy. Comparatively few of our ministers are able to lay by anything against the day when they must retire from their posts, and with them lose their only income. They cannot address themselves to any new employment; they may be too old for this; and they are unfitted for it by the nature of their vocation. They will not require much, for they have been used to live on scanty means; but the little which they do need, they must have or starve.
May God open your hearts, and incline you to give for their relief, according as He has prospered you.