The Reaction of Moral Instructions upon Social Reform, April 3, 1909

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Each generation of clergymen, moralists, educators, and publicists find themselves facing an inevitable dilemma, first to keep the young committed to their charge "unspotted from the world," and second to connect them with the ruthless and materialistic world all about them, in such wise, that they may make it the theater for their noblest exploits.

It is fortunate for these teachers that sometime during the "Golden Age" lying between the years of thirteen and twenty-three the most prosaic youth is seized by a new interest in remote and universal ends, and that if a clue be but given him by which he may connect his lofty aims with his daily living, he himself will drag the very heavens into the most sordid tenement. The perpetual difficulty consists in finding the clue for him and placing it in his hands, for while the greatest possible wrong is done him if this expanding period of human life is not seized upon for spiritual purposes, at the same time, if the teaching is too detached from life it does not result in any psychic impulsion at all. Youth invariably becomes impatient of a creed which does not afford a guide to actual conduct, and it must be grand, vague and noble conduct at that!

We are obliged to admit, however, that in many cases both the school and the church have failed to perform this office for him, and that thousands of young people in every great city are either frankly hedonistic, or are vainly attempting to work out for themselves a satisfactory code of morals. They cast about in libraries, in settlements and in theaters for the clue which shall connect their loftiest hopes with their actual living.

Several years ago a committee of lads came to see me in order to complain of a certain high-school principal because "He never talks to us about life." When urged to make a clearer statement they added, "He never asks us what we are going to be, we can't get a word out of him, excepting lessons and keeping quiet in the halls."

Of the dozens of young women who have begged me to make a connection for them between their dreams of social usefulness and their actual living, I recall one of the many whom I had sent back to her clergyman, returning with this remark: "His only suggestion was that I should be responsible every Sunday for fresh flowers upon the alter. I did that when I was fifteen and liked it then but when you have come back from college and are twenty-two years old, it doesn't quite fit in with the vigorous efforts you have been told are necessary, in order to make our social relations more Christian."

That old desire to achieve, to capture the world, seizes the ardent youth of today with a stern command to bring about juster social conditions. They are impatient with "rose water for the plague" prescriptions, and insist upon something strenuous and vital. It would seem a golden opportunity for those to whom is committed the task of spiritual instruction, for to preach and seek justice in human affairs is one of the oldest obligations of religion and morality. All that would be necessary would be to attach this teaching to the contemporary world, and really to believe that "if the hydraulic force of religion could be turned into conduct, there is nothing which it could not accomplish."

The particular faith from which it is preached is not so important as that it should be connected with actual social movements, in such wise, that the eager youth might feel a tug upon his faculties and a sense of participation in the moral life about him. The youth of Jewish birth has been taught that prophets and statesmen for three thousand years declared Jehovah to be a God of Justice who hated oppression and desired righteousness more than sacrifice. But there is no real appeal to his spirit of moral adventure [page 2] unless he is told that the most stirring attempts to translate justice into the modern social order have been inaugurated and carried forward by men of his own race, and that until he joins in the contemporary manifestations of that attempt, he is recreant to his highest traditions and obligations.

The Christian youth has been taught that man's heart-breaking adventure to find justice in the order of the universe, moved the God of Heaven himself to send a mediator in order that the justice man craves and the mercy by which alone he can endure his weakness, might be reconciled, but he will not make the doctrine his own until he reduces it to action and tries at one and the same time to "do justice" and to "love mercy," realizing in his own experience that the order can never be reversed.

If your youth calls himself an "evolutionist" (it is rather hard to find a name for this youth, but there are thousands of him and a fine fellow he often is), he knows of that long struggle beginning with the earliest tribal effort to establish just relations between man and man, and that after all justice can be worked out upon this earth only by those who will not tolerate a wrong to the feeblest member of the community, and that it will become a social force in proportion only as men steadfastly desire it and establish it.

If young people who have been subjected to this varied religious instruction have also been stirred to action, or rather if the instruction has been given validity because it has been attached to conduct, then it may be comparatively easy to bring about certain social reforms in America, which now seem so impossible.

The whole agitation for state industrial insurance may afford a good example. In one year in the German Empire one hundred thousand children were cared for through money paid from the state insurance fund to their widowed mothers and invalided fathers. Certainly we shall have to bestir ourselves if we would care for the victims of the industrial order as well as other nations do, and it ought to be easy to exhort a care for the widow and the fatherless from the point of view of all religions, or from that evolutionary standpoint which asserts that a sound physique is the only basis of progress, and that to guard the mothers of the race is simple sanity.

And yet from lack of preaching of these varied creeds we do not unite for action because we are not stirred to act at all, and protective legislation in America is shamefully inadequate.

We say in despair sometimes that because we are a people who hold such varied creeds there are not enough of one religious faith to secure anything, but the truth is that it is easy to unite for action people whose hearts have once been filled by the fervor of that willing devotion, which religion always generates in the human breast, from whatever creed it may be preached. It is comparatively easy to enlarge a moral concept, but extremely difficult to give it to an adult for the first time as those of you, for instance, who have had experience with certain legislators can testify. We are failing to meet the requirements of our industrial life with courage and success simply because we do not realize that unless we establish some of that humane legislation, which has its roots in a consideration for human life, our industrialism itself will fall behind. It is suffering from inbreeding, growing ever more unrestrained and more ruthless. It would seem obvious that in order to secure relief in a community dominated by commercial ideals, that an appeal must be made to the old moral sanctions for human conduct, that we must reach motives more substantial and enduring than the mere fleeting experiences of one phase of modern industry which vainly imagines that its growth would be curtailed if the health of its employees were guarded by the state.

And yet when we attempt to appeal to these old sanctions, the conclusion is often forced upon us that they have not been ingrained in the present generation, that they have never been worked over into character, that they cannot be relied upon when they are brought into contact with the arguments of commercialism, that the colors of the flag flying over the fort of our spiritual resources wash out and disappear when the storm actually breaks.

It seems sometimes as if the church and the school, because they are so reluctant [page 3] to admit that conduct is the supreme and efficient test of moral validity, had turned over to commercialism itself the teachings upon our most vexed social problems. To the credit of commercialism be it said that it has boldly stepped in and so far as people will pay for it, is entering the field as moral instructor.

There is no doubt that we are at the beginning of a period when the stage is becoming the most successful popular teacher in public morals. Many times the perplexed hero reminds one of Emerson's description of Margaret Fuller, "I don't know where I am going, follow me," but nevertheless the stage is dealing with these moral themes in which the public is most interested. This may have come about largely through the very exigencies of dramatic art. The playwrights must at least reduce their creeds to action, they must translate their beliefs into interesting conversation, if they are to be played at all.

While many young people and older ones as well go to the theater if only to see represented and to hear discussed the themes which seem to them so tragically important, there is no doubt that what they hear there, flimsy and poor as it often is, easily becomes their actual moral guide. In moments of moral crisis, they turn to the sayings of the hero who found himself in a similar plight. The sayings may not be profound, but they are at least applicable to conduct. It would be a striking result if the teachings of the contemporaneous stage should at last afford the moral platform upon which the various members of the community would unite for common action in matters of social reform. This platform would be adopted, not because the teachings of the stage had of necessity been fine, but because they had made an appeal for justice and fair play in our social relations and had at the same time reduced this appeal to suggestions for actual conduct. A dozen plays are on the stage at the present moment whose titles might easily be translated into a proper heading for a sociological lecture or a sermon:

  1. The Battle might be called The Need for Model Tenements.
  2. The Melting Pot, The Value of Immigration.
  3. The Easiest Way, The Entrenchments of the Social Evil.
  4. The Strong People, A Strike and Its Unfair Suppression.
  5. The Man of the Hour, An Effort to Combat Municipal Corruption.
  6. The Lion and the Mouse, The Ruthless Methods of Big Business.
  7. The Dawn of a [Tomorrow], Optimism as a Rectifier of Social Wrongs.
  8. The Third Degree, Sweating in Police Courts Resulting in False Confessions.
  9. Salvation Nell has been called rightly or wrongly, The Divine Comedy of the Poor.
  10. The Writing on the Wall, An Exposition of the Methods of Trinity Church in Administrating Its Property.
  11. Sampson, The Results of Frenzied Finance.
  12. The Flag Station, The Accidents Resulting from Long House of Labor.

This list does not even mention the plays of Ibsen, Shaw, and [Hauptmann], which deal so directly with moral issues that the moralists themselves wince under their teachings and declare them brutal.

Educators, moralists, clergymen, publicists, all of us forget how very early we are in the experiment of founding a first civilization in this trying climate of America, and that we are making the experiment in the most materialistic period of all history, having out last court of appeal against that materialism, only the wonderful and inexplicable instinct for justice which resides in the heart of man. This instinct may be cultivated or neglected as we choose to give it opportunity for expression, and it is never so irresistible as when the heart is young.

It is as if we ignored a wistful creature who walked through our city streets calling out, "I am the spirit of youth, with me all things are possible." We fail to understand what he wants or even to see that he is caught into all sorts of movements for social amelioration, some of them abortive and foolish simply because they appeal to him as an effort to moralize our social relations. We may either feed the divine fire of youth with the historic ideals and dogmas which are after all the most precious possessions of the race, or we may smother it by platitudes and heavy discourses. We may listen to the young voice rising clear above the roar of industrialism and the prudent counsels of commercialism, or we may become hypnotized by the sudden new emphasis placed upon wealth and power and forget the supremacy of spiritual forces in men's affairs.