Project Canterbury

The Religious Use of Wealth: A Sermon Commemorative of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Preached in Grace Church, New York, Easter-Day, April 10th, 1887.

By William Reed Huntington.

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1887.


ST. JOHN XX. 16: Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself and saith unto him, Rabboni, which is to say, Master.

NEXT to a touch of a hand, there is nothing that so quickly rouses the attention as the sound of one’s own name. When we wish to wake a person out of sleep, or call back to consciousness one who has fainted or is stunned, our first impulse is to speak his name. It often happens that an ear deaf to every other sound is sensitive to that.

Mary of Magdala, dazed and bewildered by her grief, took little notice of the angels clothed in white, whom through her tears she saw sitting, the one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. She looked dreamily at them; answered their question; and turned away. She took little notice of Him whom she supposed to be the keeper of the garden. From Him also she would have turned, had He not with a single word broken the spell of her entrancement. He called her by her name. “Jesus saith unto her, Mary.” It is enough; she knows Him; there is no longer any doubtfulness; He stands revealed. And now gathering up all her gratitude and all the love of which her soul is full, she utters the one only word that can contain them. She saith unto Him, “Master.” There is comfort here.

By appearing as He did, first to one and then to another of the disciples after his resurrection, speaking with them familiarly and affectionately, reminding them of what had happened in the past while He was still with them, and speaking words of counsel about the future, Jesus seems to have given a sort of pledge that his risen life would be, as his earthly life had been, knit closely to the common, everyday interests of man.

It was not as if he had suddenly appeared high up in the air, and in an unearthly voice, audible to the world’s end, had made the announcement, “I am risen.” This would have been startling, but not winning. In point of fact, He chose a very different way. He had his word for Mary, a woman well used to tears, “Why weepest thou?” He had his word for Thomas, the materialist among the Twelve, “Reach hither thy finger and behold my hands.” He had his word for Simon Peter, thrice repeated in gentle reminder of the threefold denial, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” And thus, by methods shaped to suit the special needs and characters of each, He strove to make each feel that in Him he had a friend. The Resurrection had not set him on a throne so high that he could no longer distinguish one face from another among those who once had been his companions; on the contrary, it had made possible a still closer intimacy and brought about an even better understanding than of old. This is the Gospel of the Resurrection; this is the glad message of Easter-day to you and me. “Mary,” “Rabboni,” the call of Christ, the answer of the soul;—taken together they give us the beginning and the end of personal religion. To be assured that God knows us severally by name, by name selects us for this task or for that, by name holds us responsible for what we do,—what a tonic influence it has on the failing energy of the human will, how it startles, rouses, wakens us, at moments when life has begun to run along in a slumberous, dreamy fashion without purpose, without plan, without connection.

There is all the difference in the world between believing that there is a God and believing in the God which is. Instantly we hear Him call us by name, the one sort of faith deepens into the other. “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” becomes straightway the question uppermost. Plough-handle, weapon, pilgrim’s staff, whatever it may be, it matters not, I am ready to grasp it, and with a cheerful courage to go forward.

You can tell the lives into which this call of God has come by looking at them. They carry the broad-arrow mark, and are signed with the King’s sign. Nay, there is a descriptive title better still; they are consecrated. The uttered voice of God has hallowed them.

Palm Sunday rounded out the life of a Christian woman to whom Grace Parish owes an enduring debt of gratitude. A little after sunrise on the day that followed, she was dead. We took the palm branches from the house of prayer to carry them to the house of mourning, and where she lay, quiet and still after long weariness, there faithful and loving hands disposed in seemly order those emblems of the victory which overcometh the world.

I cannot speak of CATHARINE WOLFE out of that adequate knowledge which comes of many years of personal intercourse, and intimate acquaintanceship. I would there stood in my place at this moment that venerable and venerated man, now crippled by ill health, who was her father’s counsellor, and who, because he had been that, needed no other passport to her confidence. [The Rev. Dr. Heman Dyer] I would there stood in my place the former rector of this church, her friend and ours, the minister under whose pastoral guidance the years of her greatest activity were spent. To such resources as his memory holds in possession I can make no claim. Were it possible to imagine Miss Wolfe desiring an elaborate eulogy at the lips of anybody, certainly he, rather than I, ought to be the eulogist.

But you would justly charge me with a lack both of right feeling and of a proper sense of the fitness of things, were I to let any consideration whatever hinder me from paying honor in this place to the memory of one who loved Grace Church more dearly, perhaps, than she loved any spot on earth, her own home not excepted, and to whose intelligent liberality the building owes a large measure both of its usefulness and of its charm.

Let me, then, laying hesitation aside, speak freely with you about the traits in this woman’s character which would appear to have been her strongest and her best.

I select for special emphasis these two—filial reverence and a keen sense of personal responsibility. It surprises you that I do not add a third—generosity. Assuredly she was not found wanting in this grace; nevertheless there is reason for laying the stress where I have laid it rather than elsewhere. Generosity is often the fruit of impulse. For real meritoriousness it is not to be compared for a moment with those strenuous virtues that cost effort. Miss Wolfe was not an emotional giver; she bestowed in charity from time to time great sums of money; indeed, the stream of her beneficence may be said to have flowed on without break; but I do not understand that she gave away her wealth for the pleasure of giving it away. I credit her both with better judgment and with a loftier motive.

But to this point we will return. Let me speak to you first of her filial piety, for it was this that I ventured to name as the most noteworthy of her characteristics. The moment Miss Wolfe became convinced that any charitable enterprise, or public movement, was one that would have challenged her father’s attention and engaged his support, had he been living, there was scarcely any limit to what she would do to make certain the success of it. She may be truly said to have venerated, as the devotee venerates his favorite saint, both the man and his memory. In the judgment of cool observers this principle of action was sometimes operative in excess. But when we consider how rare a virtue, under our modern social conditions, filial reverence is becoming, how rapidly the old-time notions of what is due to a father and a mother because of the commandment “Honor them,” are disappearing, we may well rejoice over instances in which so necessary a virtue has been exemplified in striking ways. When we think of it, filial reverence is the primary school of all worship. This is what St. Paul means when he speaks of learning “to show piety at home.” Piety to parents is the thing he had in mind. It is by habitual looking up to the father of the family that the children acquire those feelings toward the Head of the whole great household, which enable them to say with honest fervency, “Our Father, which art in heaven.” Hence among theologians it has always been an open question whether the fifth of the Ten Words of God ought to be reckoned as belonging to the first table of the Law or to the second; whether it makes part of our duty towards God, or of our duty towards our neighbor; seeing that in a certain way it may be said to take hold of both of them. At all events, in the present instance the two forms of reverence were most intimately blended.

I spoke just now of having had a comparatively brief acquaintance with Miss Wolfe. But friendships formed in the face of approaching death sometimes ripen fast; from the necessity of the case they must; and, during these eighteen months I have not been left without witness that to this woman, whose presence we are trying to recall, worship was a very real thing indeed. She was at heart thoroughly devout. The childlike temper which can see nothing but good in what one’s father thinks and says and does, develops easily into that filial feeling toward the God and Father of us all, which at the supreme moment makes confession “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” It was so with her.

I mentioned, in the second place, Miss Wolfe’s strong sense of responsibility for the right use of the wealth with which God had entrusted her. As reverence is the root-principle of worship, so is a readiness to say “I ought” the ground­work of all rectitude. Taken together, they may be said to cover two­thirds of the area of religion.

Responsibility varies in kind according to the character of the gift entrusted to us; it varies in amount according to the measure of the gift. To the orator attaches one sort of responsibility, to the artist another, to the merchant another, but concerning all of them alike, the law holds good, “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.” To Miss Wolfe had been entrusted great wealth, and no one living realized more keenly than did she the importance of her being able to make a good answer with respect to it in the Judgment. I do not praise her because she was rich. God forbid—though God forbid also that Christ’s ministers should cheaply vindicate their own spirituality by an indiscriminate denunciation of wealth. I do not praise her because she was rich; but for this I praise her, that having in her hands the means of making her life a wholly selfish one, she refused to let it become that, and lived as one who must give account. It is one of the hopeful and cheering signs of the times, one of the tokens that forbid our ever despairing of the Republic, that there is observable a growing disposition on the part of our countrymen to recognize and act upon this principle of stewardship.

We have seen of late numerous instances of men who, after proving their ability to accumulate, have been equally forward in showing their gladness to distribute; men who, instead of looking upon their fortunes as land­locked lakes or private reservoirs, have rejoiced to turn them to account as portions of the great water-system by which the verdure of the whole territory is kept fresh and the thirst of a scattered people quenched. Why may it not turn out to have been Heaven’s purpose that in some such way as this the principles of the Sermon on the Mount should slowly weave themselves into the texture of our social life? On the red flag there is written nothing one-half so good.

Some people are possessed by the notion that all this wealth of beneficence should flow through official channels, and that whatever is undertaken for the public good ought to spring from governmental sources. This is the pet notion of the Socialists, who would have the State carry on all the great interests of public life. But at least until their dream comes to pass, certain large areas of beneficence are destined to remain untilled unless the hand of private enterprise takes up the work. Ignorance, suffering, and sin are powers of darkness with which the State wages, at present, a sadly unequal war; and to no better use could the superabundant wealth that lies in private hands be put than that of supplementing, at every point, the meagre force employed. There is no danger that any one method or fashion of doing good will so engross public attention that other and equally important methods will be neglected. This is a matter that is sure to right itself in the long run. Men differ so widely in their mental and spiritual characteristics, in their personal tastes and preferences that there is certain to be variety enough in the forms benevolence will take. One man may choose to build a school and to endow it, another an art gallery, a third a hospital. Each does a good work, and the three together have conspired to illustrate the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Miss Wolfe may have been blamed in some quarters for having given more freely to ecclesiastical enterprises than to those of a purely secular and civil character; but before this criticism is accepted as final, let it be remembered that religion is a field in which the powers of government attempt nothing. That region of our social life, which some of us are bold to count the most important of all, the State leaves simply untouched. Whatever expenditure there is to be in this direction must come of voluntary enterprise, or not at all. The State builds school­houses in abundance, and hospitals, thank God, not a few, and museums of science and of art sometimes, but a church, never. And yet it would not be hard to prove that a church worthily conceived, generously built, and adequately administered, would show itself the most comprehensive of all charities. Of course, this claim could not be made in behalf of any church for which the builders had entertained no higher ambition than that it should do duty as a weekly preaching-room. But a church thoroughly equipped and properly maintained does all the things which the various institutions I just now named do severally. It teaches truth, it exemplifies beauty, it ministers mercy; it is the school, the art museum, the hospital, for it undertakes to do on earth the work of Jesus Christ, and so undertaking it cannot afford to slight any single one of the great instinctive needs of man, cannot afford to disregard the mind’s desire for knowledge, the eye’s appetite for loveliness, the heart’s hunger and thirst after righteousness.

Now men may dissent (and it is entirely their right to do so), even religious men may dissent from this doctrine that the Christian Church offers the best of all channels for the distribution of consecrated riches. But I confess I do not understand their remaining blind to the necessity of our finding some outlet for the accumulated wealth of the Republic, if we would save the huge reservoir from becoming stagnant, and because stagnant, foul. Woe be to the land if our young men and women of wealth are growing up with the notion in their heads that because money is power, as it assuredly is, their first duty is to hoard as much of their riches as they do not spend on themselves and on their children! Woe be to the land when either self­indulgence or self-culture shall have driven out of the minds of our youth the higher, purer thought of self-devotion!

Woe be to the land, if the possessors of wealth can find no better use for it than to attempt to reproduce upon a soil unfriendly to such endeavor the manners and the customs of a dying feudalism! If a government by wealth be inevitable (and perhaps it is), let us at least do what we can to spread the maxim that richesse as well as noblesse oblige.

God will have brought us out in vain into a wealthy place if the only use we make of the green pastures is to turn them into a burying place for treasure, thus hiding in the earth our Lord’s money.

Against any and every such debasing tendency the name and memory of CATHARINE WOLFE abide as a continual protest.

Do we seem to have wandered far away from Easter and from the thoughts that belong to Easter? Scarcely so, for Easter-day is of all days a time to seek “the things which are above,” and of such things above as are attainable by man or woman what more precious than reverence and unselfishness?

We have no need now to go back to the garden where there was a tomb. The Prince of Life has quitted that forever. In the large spaces of the Paradise of God our Saviour lives and breathes. It is a region well-watered, pleasant, beautiful; and to a Holy Communion with Him there He now invites us.

“Christ in his heavenly garden walks all day,
And calls to souls upon the world’s highway,
Wearied with trifles, maimed and sick with sin,
Christ at the gate stands and invites them in.”

Fellow-traveller along these roadways of time, is it not worth thy while to listen to so gracious an invitation?

This Easter morning, He calls thee by thy name. Wilt thou not turn and gladly answer, “Master?” It would be a wise decision.


In thankful memory of CATHARINE LORILLARD WOLFE,

The Rector and Vestrymen of Grace Church, assembled in a building which is itself a monument of her generosity, enter upon their records the following


The relation which Miss WOLFE, for many years before her death, sustained towards the authorities of Grace Parish, was an unusual one. Having done more than enough to entitle her to assert herself, had she so chosen, in the management of the parochial affairs, she remained to the last delicately sensitive to the peril of appearing either intrusive or dictatorial. There is no need of our recounting, in formal order, the number of her benefactions to this Parish. The records of the Vestry bear witness to the frequency and the liberality of her gifts. What we are most of all solicitous, at this time, to express is not so much our gratitude as our grief. We feel that we have lost not only a wise counsellor and an ever­ready helper, but a trusty friend, upon whose intelligent sympathy and loyal support we could count with entire confidence.

Traits of character which, in a man, would be called chivalrous, were continually manifesting themselves in Miss WOLFE’S intercourse with this body. The thought of imposing arduous terms in connection with her benefactions seemed never to occur to her: rather it was her constant study to discover how best, in all graceful and womanly ways, she might aid in lightening the burden of our cares. Her aim was to confer blessing, and her method that of intrusting to her almoners a large discretion.

Whom she helped, she helped without stint; and whom she trusted, she trusted generously.

On the roll of those “honorable women, not a few,” who have done the Church of Christ conspicuous service, she deserves, and will secure a lasting place. And especially within these precincts which her open hand adorned and her devout example beautified, the name of CATHARINE LORILLARD WOLFE shall be remembered with honor.

GRACE HOUSE, Saturday, April 16, 1887.

Project Canterbury