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Sermons for the Times, 22 - PUBLIC SPIRIT

By Charles Kingsley


      (Preached at Bideford, 1855.)

      1 Corinthians xii. 25, 26. That there should be no division in the body; but that the members should have the same care, one of another. And whether one member suffer, all suffer with it; or whether one member be honoured, all rejoice with it.

      I have been asked to preach in behalf of the Provident Society of this town. I shall begin by asking you to think over with me a matter which may seem at first sight to have very little to do with you or with a provident society, but which, nevertheless, I believe has very much to do with both, and is full of wholesome spiritual instruction for us all.

      Did it ever happen to any of you, to see a mob of several thousands put to instant flight by a mere handful of soldiers? And did you ever ask yourself how that apparent miracle could come to pass? The first answer which occurred to you, perhaps, was, that the soldiers were well armed, and the mob was not: but soon, I am sure, you felt that you were doing the soldiers an injustice; that they would have behaved just as bravely if every man in that mob had been as well armed as they, and have resisted till they were overpowered by mere numbers. You felt, I am sure, that there was something in the hearts and spirits of those soldiers which there was not in the hearts of the mob; that though the mob might be boiling over with the greediest passions, the fiercest fury, while the soldiers were calm, cheerful, and caring for nothing but doing their duty, yet that there was a thought within them which was stronger than all the rage and greediness of the thousands whom they faced; that, in short, the seeming miracle was a moral and a spiritual miracle.

      What, then, is this wonder-working thought which makes the soldier strong?

      Courage, you answer, and the sense of duty. True; but what has called out the sense of duty? What has inspired the courage? There was a time, perhaps, when each of those soldiers was no braver or more steady than the mob in front of them. Has it never happened to you to know some young country lad, both before and after he has become a soldier? Look at him in his native village (if you will let me draw for you the sketch of a history, which, alas! is the history of thousands), perhaps one of the worst and idlest lads in it--unwilling to work steadily, haunting the public-house and the worst of company; wandering out at night to poach and caring for nothing but satisfying his gross animal appetites; afraid to look you in the face, hardly able to give an intelligible, certainly not a civil answer; his countenance expressing only vacancy, sensuality, cunning, suspicion, utter want of self-respect.

      It is a sad sight, but how common a sight, even in this favoured land!

      At last he vanishes; he has been engaged in some drunken affray, or in some low intrigue, and has fled for fear of the law, and enlisted as a soldier.

      A year or two passes, and you meet the same lad again--if indeed he is the same. For a strange change has come over him: he walks erect, he speaks clearly, he looks you boldly in the face, with eyes full of intelligence and self-respect; he is become civil and courteous now; he touches his cap to you 'like a soldier;' he can afford now to be respectful to others, because he respects himself, and expects you to respect him. You talk to him, and find that the change is not merely outward, but inward; not owing to mere mechanical drill but to something which has been going on in his heart; and ten to one, the first thing that he begins to talk to you about, with honest pride, is his regiment. His regiment. Yes, there is the secret which has worked these wonders; there is the talisman which has humanized and civilized and raised from the mire the once savage boor. He belongs to a regiment; in one word, he has become the member of a body.

      The member of a body, in which if one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one member be honoured, all rejoice with it. A body, which has a life of its own, and a government of its own, a duty of its own, a history of its own, an allegiance to a sovereign, all which are now his life, his duty, his history, his allegiance; he does not now merely serve himself and his own selfish lusts: he serves the Queen. His nature is not changed, but the thought that he is the member of an honourable body has raised him above his nature. If he forgets that, and thinks only of himself, he will become selfish sluttish, drunken, cowardly, a bad soldier; as long as he remembers it, he is a hero. He can face mobs now, and worse than mobs: he can face hunger and thirst, fatigue, danger, death itself, because he is the member of a body. For those know little, little of human nature and its weakness, who fancy that mere brute courage, as of an angry lion, will ever avail, or availed a few short weeks ago, to spur our thousands up the steeps of Alma, or across the fatal plain of Balaklava, athwart the corpses of their comrades, upon the deadly throats of Russian guns. A nobler feeling, a more heavenly thought was needed (and when needed, thanks to God, it came!) to keep each raw lad, nursed in the lap of peace, true to his country and his Queen through the valley of the shadow of death. Not mere animal fierceness: but that tattered rag which floated above his head, inscribed with the glorious names of Egypt or Corunna, Toulouse or Waterloo, that it was which raised him into a hero: he had seen those victories; the men who conquered there were dead long since: but the regiment still lived, its history still lived, its honour lived, and that history, that honour were his, as well as those old dead warriors': he had fought side by side with them in spirit, though not in the flesh; and now his turn was come, and he must do as they did, and for their sakes, and count his own life a worthless thing for the sake of the body which he belonged to: he, but two years ago the idle, selfish country lad, now stumbling cheerful on in the teeth of the iron hail, across ground slippery with his comrades' blood, not knowing whether the next moment his own blood might not swell the ghastly stream. What matter? They might kill him, but they could not kill the regiment: it would live on and conquer; ay, and should conquer, if his life could help on its victory; and then its honour would be his, its reward be his, even when his corpse lay pierced with wounds, stiffening beneath a foreign sky.

      Here, my friends, is one example of the blessed power of fellow feeling, public spirit, the sense of belonging to a body whose members have not merely a common interest, but a common duty, a common honour.

      This Christian country, thank God! gives daily many another example of the same: and every place, and every station affords to each one of us opportunities,--more, alas, I fear, than we shall ever take full advantage of: but I have chosen the case of the soldier, not merely because it is perhaps the most striking and affecting, but because I wish to see, and trust in God that I shall see, those who remain at home in safety emulating the public spirit and self- sacrifice which our soldiers are showing abroad; and by sacrifices more peaceful and easy, but still well-pleasing unto God, showing that they too have been raised above selfishness, by the glorious thought that they are members of a body.

      For, are we not members of a body, my friends? Are we not members of the Body of bodies, members of Christ, children of God, inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven? Members of Christ--we, and the poor for whom I plead, as well as we; perhaps, considering their many trials and our few trials, more faithfully and loyally by far than we are. There are some here, I doubt not, to whom that word, that argument, is enough: to whom it is enough to say, Remember that the Lord whom you love loves that shivering, starving wretch as well as He loves you, to open and exhaust at once their heart, their purse, their labour of love. God's blessing be upon all such! But it would be hypocrisy in me, my friends, to speak to this, or any congregation, as if all were of that temper of mind. It is not one in ten, alas! in the present divided state of religious parties, who feels the mere name of Christ enough of a bond to make him sacrifice himself for his fellow Christians, as a soldier does for his fellow soldiers. Not one in ten, alas! feels that he owes the same allegiance to Christ as the soldier does to his Queen; that the honour of Christianity is his honour, the history of Christianity his history, the life of Christianity his life. Would that it were so: but it is not so. And I must appeal to feelings in you less wide, honourable and righteous though they are: I must appeal to your public spirit as townsmen of this place.

      I have a right as a clergyman to do so: I have a duty as a clergyman to do so. For your being townsmen of this place is not a mere material accident depending on your living in one house instead of another. It is a spiritual matter; it is a question of eternity. Your souls and spirits influence each other; your tastes, opinions, tempers, habits, make those of your neighbours better or worse; you feel it in yourselves daily. Look at it as a proof that, whether you will or not, you are one body, of which all the members must more or less suffer and rejoice together; that you have a common weal, a common interest; that God has knit you together; that you cannot part yourselves even if you will; and that you can be happy and prosperous only by acknowledging each other as brothers, and by doing to each other as you would they should do unto you.

      It may be hard at times to bring this thought home to our minds: but it is none the less true because we forget it; and if we do not choose to bring it home to our own minds, it will be sooner or later brought home to them whether we choose or not.

      For bear in mind, that St. Paul does not say, if one member suffers, all the rest ought to suffer with it: he says that they do suffer with it. He does not say merely, that we ought to feel for our fellow townsmen; he says, that God has so tempered the body together as to force one member to have the same care of the others as of itself; that if we do not care to feel for them, we shall be made to feel with them. One limb cannot choose whether or not it will feel the disease of another limb. If one limb be in pain, the whole body must be uneasy, whether it will or not. And if one class in a town, or parish, or county, be degraded, or in want, the whole town, or parish, or county, must be the worse for it. St. Paul is not preaching up sentimental sympathy: he is telling you of a plain fact. He is not saying, 'It is a very fine and saintly thing, and will increase your chance of heaven, to help the poor.' He is saying, 'If you neglect the poor, you neglect yourself; if you degrade the poor, you degrade yourself. His poverty, his carelessness, his immorality, his dirt, his ill-health, will punish you; for you and he are members of the same body, knit together inextricably for weal or woe, by the eternal laws according to which the Lord Jesus Christ has constituted human society; and if you break those laws, they will avenge themselves.'--My friends, do we not see them avenge themselves daily? The slave-holder refuses to acknowledge that his slave is a member of the same body as himself; but he does not go unpunished: the degradation to which he has brought his slave degrades him, by throwing open to him. the downward path of lust, laziness, ungoverned and tyrannous tempers, and the other sins which have in all ages, slowly but surely, worked the just ruin of slave-holding states. The sinner is his own tempter, and the sinner is his own executioner: he lies in wait for his own life (says Solomon) when he lies in wait for his brother's. Do you see the same law working in our own free country? If you leave the poor careless and filthy, you can obtain no good servants: if you leave them profligate, they make your sons profligate also: if you leave them tempted by want, your property is unsafe: if you leave them uneducated, reckless, improvident, you cannot get your work properly done, and have to waste time and money in watching your workmen instead of trusting them. Why, what are all poor-rates and county-rates, if you will consider, but God's plain proof to us, that the poor are members of the same body as ourselves; and that if we will not help them of our own free will, we shall find it necessary to help them against our will: that if we will not pay a little to prevent them becoming pauperized or criminal, we must pay a great deal to keep them when they have become so? We may draw a lesson--and a most instructive one it is--from the city of Liverpool, in which it was lately proved that crime--and especially the crime of uneducated boys and girls--had cost, in the last few years, the city many times more than it would cost to educate, civilize, and depauperize the whole rising generation of that city, and had been a tax upon the capital and industry of Liverpool, so enormous that they would have submitted to it from no Government on earth; and yet they had been blindly inflicting it upon themselves for years, simply because they chose to forget that they were their brothers' keepers.

      Look again at preventible epidemics, like cholera. All the great towns of England have discovered, what you I fear are discovering also, that the expense of a pestilence, and of the widows and orphans which it creates, is far greater than the expense of putting a town into such a state of cleanliness as would defy the entrance of the disease. So it is throughout the world. Nothing is more expensive than penuriousness; nothing more anxious than carelessness; and every duty which is bidden to wait, returns with seven fresh duties at its back.

      Yes, my friends, we are members of a body; and we must realize that fact by painful experience, if we refuse to realize it in public spirit and brotherly kindness, and the approval of a good conscience, and the knowledge that we are living like our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, who laboured for all but Himself, cared for all but Himself; who counted not His own life dear to Himself that by laying it down He might redeem into His own likeness the beings whom He had made; and who has placed us on this earth, each in his own station, each in his own parish, that we might follow in His footsteps, and live by His Spirit, which is the spirit of love and fellow-feeling, that new and risen life of His, which is the life of duty, honour, and self-sacrifice.

      Yes. Let us look rather at this brighter side of the question, my friends, than at the darker. I will preach the Gospel to you rather than the Law. I will appeal to your higher feelings rather than to your lower; to your love rather than your fear; to your honour rather than your self-interest. It will be pleasanter for me: it will meet with a more cordial response, I doubt not, from you.

      Some dislike appeals to honour. I cannot, as long as St. Paul himself appeals to it so often, both in the individual and in bodies. His whole Epistle to Philemon is an appeal, most delicate and graceful, to Philemon's sense of honour--to the thought of what he owed Paul, of what Paul wished him to repay, not with money, but with generosity.

      And his appeal to the Corinthians is a direct appeal to their honour: not to fears of any punishment, or wrath of God, but to the respect which they owed to themselves as members of a body, the Church of Corinth; and to the respect which they owed to that body as a whole, and which they had disgraced by allowing an open scandal in it.

      And his appeal was successful: they took it just as it was meant; and he rejoices in the thought that they did so. 'For this, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what revenge! In all things you have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter,'

      Noble words, and nobly answered. My friends, you, too, are members of a body: go, and do likewise in the matter of this Society's failing funds.

      May I boldly ask you to alter this to-day? This, remember, is no common day. It is a day of thankfulness. The thankfulness which you professed, and I doubt not many of you felt, on Thursday night, has not evaporated, I trust, by Sunday morning. You have not yet forgotten--I trust that there is many a one who will never forget-- what you owe as townsmen of this place, to God who has preserved you safe through the dangers and sorrows of the past autumn. You owe more than one debt to God. You owe, all England owes, thanks to Him for the late bounteous harvest, thanks to Him for the present prosperous seed-time: think what our state might have been with scarcity, as well as war, upon us, and pay part of your debt this day. You owe a thank-offering for the cessation of the cholera; a thank-offering for the sparing of your own lives;--pay it now. You owe a thank-offering for the glorious victories of our armies:--pay it now. You belong, too, to an honourable body, which has a noble history, and sets you many a noble example; show yourselves worthy of that body, that history, those examples, now.

      And what fitter place than this very church to awaken within you the thought of duty and of public spirit?--this church which stands as God's own sign that you are the townsmen, the representatives, ay, some of you the very descendants, of many a noble spirit of old time?--this church, in which God's blessing has been invoked on deeds of patriotism and enterprise, of which the whole world now bears the fruit?--these walls, in which Elizabeth's heroes, your ancestors, have prayed before sailing against the Spanish Armada,-- these walls, which saw the baptism of the first red Indian convert, and the gathering in, as it were, of the firstfruits of the heathen,--these walls, in which the early settlers of Virginia have invoked God's blessing on those tiny ventures which were destined to become the seeds of a mighty nation, and the starting-point of the United States,--these walls, which still bear the monument of your heroic townsman Strange, who expended for his plague-stricken brethren, talents, time, wealth, and at last life itself. For, to return, and to apply, I hope, to your consciences, the example of the soldier with which I began this Sermon:--shall it be only on the battle-field that the power of fellow-feeling is shown forth? Shall public spirit be only strong when it has to destroy, and not when it has to save and comfort? God forbid! Surely you here have a common corporate life, common history, common allegiance, common interest, which should inspire you to do your duty, whatsoever it may be, for the good of your native place, and to show that you feel an honourable self-respect in the thought that you belong to an ancient and once famous town, which though it may be outstripped awhile in the race of commerce, need never be outstripped, if you will be worthy sons of your worthy ancestors, in that race to which St. Paul exhorts us; the race of justice and benevolence, the noble rivalry of noble deeds.

      Oh, look, I beseech you, upon this church as its old worshippers, the forefathers of many of you who sit here this day, were wont to look on it. Remember that this church is the sign that you are one town, one parish, one body; that century after century, this church has stood to witness to your fathers, and your fathers' fathers, that all who kneel within these walls are brothers, rich or poor; that all are children of one Father, redeemed by one Saviour, taught by one Spirit. This, this is the blessed truth of which the parish church is token, as nought else can be--that you are one body, members one of another, and that God's blessing is on your union and fellow-feeling; that God smiles on your bearing each other's burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ. Look on this church, and do to others as this church witnesses that God has done for you.

      And now, some of you may perhaps have been disappointed, some a little scornful, at my having used so many words about so small a matter, and talked of battles, legends, heroes of old time, all merely to induct you to help this Society with a paltry extra thirty pounds. Be it so. I shall be glad if you think so. If the matter be so small, it is the more easily done; if the sum be paltry, it is the more easily found. If my reasons are very huge and loud- sounding, and the result at which I aim very light, the result ought to follow all the more certainly; for believe me, my friends, the reasons are good ones, Scriptural ones, practical ones, and ought to produce the result. I give you the strongest arguments for showing your Christian, English public spirit; and then I ask you to show it in a very small matter. But be sure that to do what I ask of you to do to-day is just as much your duty, small as it may seem, as it would be, were you soldiers, to venture your lives in the cause of your native land. Duty, be it in a small matter or a great, is duty still; the command of Heaven, the eldest voice of God. And, believe me, my friends, that it is only they who are faithful in a few things who will be faithful over many things; only they who do their duty in everyday and trivial matters who will fulfil them on great occasions. We all honour and admire the heroes of Alma and Balaklava; we all trust in God that we should have done our duty also in their place. The best test of that, my friends, is, can we do our duty in our own place? Here the duty is undeniable, plain, easy. Here is a Society instituted for one purpose, which has, in order to exist, to appropriate the funds destined for quite a different purpose. Both purposes are excellent; but they are different. The Offertory money is meant for the sick, the widow, and the orphan; for those who cannot help themselves. The Provident Society is meant to encourage those who can help themselves to do so. Every farthing, therefore, taken from the Offertory money is taken from the widow and the orphan. I ask you whether this is right and just? I appeal, not merely to your prudence and good sense, in asking you to promote prudence and good sense among the poor by the Provident Society; I appeal to your honour and compassion, on behalf of the sick, the widow, and orphan, that they may have the full enjoyment of the funds intended for them. Again, I say, this may seem a small matter to you, and I may seem to be using too many words about it. Small? Nothing is small which affects not merely the temporal happiness, but the eternal welfare, of an immortal soul. My friends, my friends, if any one of you had to support yourself and your children on four, seven, or even (mighty sum!) ten shillings a week, it would not seem a small matter to you then. A few shillings more or less would be to you then a treasure won or lost; a matter to you of whether you should keep a house over your children's heads, whether you should keep shoes upon their feet, and clothes upon their backs; whether you should see them, as they grew up, tempted by want into theft or profligacy; whether you should rise in the morning free enough from the sickening load of anxiety, and the care which eats out the core of life, and makes men deaf and blind (as it does many a one) to all pleasant sights, and sounds, and thoughts, till the very sunlight seems blotted out of heaven by that black cloud of care--care--care-- which rises with you in the morning, and dogs you at your work all day (even if you are happy enough to have work), and sits on your pillow all night long, ready to whisper in your ear each time you wake; 'Be anxious and troubled about many things! What wilt thou eat, and what wilt thou drink, and wherewithal wilt thou be clothed? For thou hast no Heavenly Father, none above who knowest that thou needest these things before thou askest Him.' Oh, my friends, if you had felt but for a single day, that terrible temptation, the temptation of poverty, and debt, and care, which leads so many a one to sell their souls for a few paltry pence, to them of as much value as pounds would be to you;--if, I say, you had once felt that temptation in all its weight, you would not merely sacrifice, as I ask you now to do, some superfluity, which you will never miss; you would, I do believe, if you had human hearts within you, be ready to sacrifice even the comforts of life to prevent him whose heart may be breaking slowly, not a hundred yards from your own door, (and more hearts break in this world than you fancy, my friends,) from passing through that same dark shadow of want, and care, and temptation where the Devil stands calling to the poor man all day long, 'Fall down, and worship me; and I will relieve those wants of thine which man neglects!'

      I have no more to say. I leave the rest to your own good feeling, as townsmen of this ancient and honourable place,--remembering always who it was who said, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me.'

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