From Cornfield Philosophy, by C. D. Strode, Illustrated, Chicago: The Blakely Printing Co., 1902; pp. 7-14.
A NEW YEAR’S SERMON.
Here we are at the end of the year. I would be glad of that if it were not that we are also at the beginning of a year. Sophocles said that “every gentleman is glad when a year is done.” That’s the way I feel about it, so I suppose I am a gentleman. If a year is ended and a man has done his best, he ought to be glad. It is one less mile on the journey. When a man is on a journey he feels exultant and joyful at each milestone he approaches, but when he passes it he cannot but be depressed by the fact that it will be some time ere he passes another. The only thing which keeps him going is the knowledge that, in a general way, he is approaching the end of his journey.
How many men are there who have reached the age of forty who would, were they given free choice, live their lives over again from the beginning? Very few. Why, then, may not a gentleman be glad when a year is done? Why should a gentleman dread to grow old?8
This is the time for making resolutions and a great number of people would feel that a bright spot had been rubbed out of their lives if the privilege of making resolutions on New Year’s was denied them. New Year’s is a fountain at which they renew their virtue. It is a starting point to which they return each year, thus being prevented from wandering away with the goats entirely.
They are like the man whom I once knew who got religion every winter and lost it every spring when he went to plowing among the stumps. He kept this up for ten years, and then, the stumps having all rotted out of his farm, his religion staid with him the year around. He would have a slight relapse occasionally, but with the burning of the last stump the evil may be said to have taken flight; and the man became a very devout man and an ornament to society. As years went by his habits of Godliness grew and strengthened so that he remained steadfast under the severest provocation.
I remember one instance in particular. I was fishing in the creek one hot day in July, and on the other side the deacon (he had become a deacon) was “laying by” a patch of corn with a bar plow. Everybody else in the neighborhood was through plowing corn and the deacon knew it. He could see them driving along the road, and he believed they were making fun of him. The day was desperately hot, the corn nearly as high as his head, and the deacon had sweat until his shirt and even his pantaloons were wet. Altogether he was feeling nervous and “fretted,” and his nervousness communicated itself to the mare he was driving. She streaked it through the field at a 2:40 gait, thereby making the deacon warmer and more “fretted” then ever, but he didn’t say a word out of the way. I sat in the shade unseen and marveled 9 at the deacon’s self-possession. At last, in coming out at the end, a blade of corn hit the deacon in the eye and he plowed up two hills and then jerked the plow over and dropped it on his toe.
“Dad bing it!” he yelled at the mare, “Ho!”
This rattled the mare, and she tramped down two hills of corn and got a tug unhitched. The deacon took out his handkerchief and mopped his dripping face. Then he stooped to hitch the tug, when the mare lifted one hind foot and kicked him where he sits down so that he fell among the weeds in the fence corner. He arose and took the mare by the bits and said earnestly:
“Dad-burn the dod-dinged, infernal, ring-tailed luck to the very deuce! Dog gone and double durn the blamnation corn field to thunder, anyhow!”
But he didn’t swear.
How many of my readers ever plowed among stumps? That’s what tries a man’s nerve and his religion. Anyone can be a Christian on the prairie, where there is nothing to do but watch the soil curling from the moldboard of the riding plow from one end of the field to the other; but when the plow strikes a green root and the handle thumps you in the ribs, and then the root breaks and flies back and hits you on the shin, what are you going to do about it? Just grin and bear it and pull the plow back and start again? That’s the thing to do, but did you every try it? And is it as wicked for a man to swear under such circumstances as under others?
This is no joke. It is a serious matter, and we will be up to our necks before you know it. Do circumstances alter cases? When the final round-up comes will the Lord make allowances? When the recording angel charges that the sinner in the dock was a very profane man, will it be taken into consideration that all his life 10 he plowed among the stumps? When the angel says: “The prisoner at the bar was a thief,” will he be allowed to plead in extenuation that his children were hungry and in no other way could he feed them? Surely, surely.
Some people plow among stumps all their lives. Every day the plow handles hit them in the ribs and the broken roots crack them on the shins. Now, will those people be judged by the same standard as that applied to those who plow in clear fields?
Some men swear too much. Some drink too much. Some smoke too much tobacco. Some spend too much time in idleness. All those things, however, are little things, and as a rule, don’t do much harm except to the man practicing them. If a man wants to stand in the street and kick himself, or black his own eyes or bloody his own nose, the people, so long as the law reckons him a sane man, will not pay much attention, save, maybe, to laugh at him. So if a man will deliberately fill his hide with whisky until he falls in the gutter, or use tobacco until he has palpitation of the heart, it doesn’t do much good to talk to him. If he is fool enough to do those things, knowing better, he is such a fool that your talking won’t do him much good.
As I see it, the besetting sin of humanity is self-complacency. This I believe is especially true of the readers of such a book as this, for they are most all clean, substantial, intelligent people, the very class most apt to pull its robe of correct living about its shoulders and turn up its nose at everybody else. It isn’t necessary to urge this class of people to take better care of itself. Bless its selfish heart! It will take care of itself. It is the custom of the press and the pulpit to pat these people on the back and assure them that they are entitled to all 11 the good things of this life and a front seat in Heaven; but that is a mistake.
I can imagine one of your self-complacent people marching up to the bar of justice on the day of Judgment; with his arms folded and a confident smile on his face, he will say, “Oh, Lord, while upon the earth I lived a very upright life. I didn’t swear nor steal, nor go fishing on Sunday. I was a model citizen.”
Then will be said: “That is not enough. In being a model man and leading an upright life you only obeyed the impulses implanted in you. To have done anything else would have been to outrage your sensibilities. You lived an upright life because you couldn’t help it. Moreover, your endowments and circumstances which surround you made your life on earth a life of ease and pleasure. You slept in a downy bed, while many slept in the fields and hedges and the ‘barrel houses’ of the cities, or walked the streets to keep from freezing. You were enabled to live on the fat of the land, while others of My children suffered hunger. Of course you lived an upright life. What else could you do?” And then, with the eye of the Almighty looking into his soul, what is he going to say?
When his case is disposed of, and the Lord only knows what’ll be done with him, a poor, crime-stained wretch steps up to the bar with his head bowed and despair in his heart. He says:
“I have lived an evil life, O Master. I struggled against it, but ever the evil in me got the upper hand. I can only ask for mercy.”
Then the great Intercessor will say: “This man, O Father, had a hard time. He was born with low instincts and with little moral sense. His surroundings were unfavorable, and those who should have helped him failed 12 in their duty. He was kicked and cuffed and hounded like a wolf. I ask that he be forgiven and that his sins be charged to the self-righteous, who should have helped him.”
Man comes out of the darkness, whence he knows not; travels a little space across the earth, why he knows not; then goes away into the darkness again, where he knows not. Whence he comes, why he is here and where he goes are things which are mysteries to him. He is an insect infesting an atom of creation, for some reason given a mind to understand some things and a heart to feel. Given a mind which can dimly realize the tremendous forces at work about him and so realizing to wonder why he was ever given a mind at all; given a heart to feel the suffering of fellow insects about him and having withheld from him the power to alleviate that suffering. Why was the mind and the heart given to him at all? Why not have made him like the ox or the tree?
What I’m trying to do is to get you in shape for New Year’s resolutions, and the first thing necessary to New Year’s resolutions is that you get into a proper frame of mind. I don’t care what kind of New Year’s resolutions you make about yourself. You’ll look out for yourself all right. What I want you to do is to make a New Year’s resolution that in the coming year you will live a little closer to your fellow men than you have in the past year. We are a helpless and miserable lot enough without tramping on one another.
In the first place you want to understand that you are not a whit better than anybody else. Because you are a clean man and a prosperous man and you don’t want to go around swelling your chest out and patting yourself on the back. Just thank the Almighty that you are not a pauper and a thief. It is His mercy you are not. And 13 here you’ve been going around all these years believing it was because you were smart and honest and a whole lot of nice things. It’s no such thing, my man.
Suppose you had been born into the world with but little more brains than a monkey? What would you have done about it? Could you have changed the shape of your head and put brains where no brains were before? And in that event would you be the prosperous and prominent man you are?
Not much you wouldn’t. You’d be shoving lumber at — well, you know what you are paying your lumbar shovers. And your wife and children would be wearing ragged clothes and skirmishing about the streets hunting bits of coal and scraps of board to cook your meager supper.
Or, if you had been born with all the instincts and passions of a beast and no moral strength to control them, would you be a pillar in the church and an ornament to the best society to-day? No, sir. You’d be looking through the bars from the wrong side, as thousands of men are doing to-day who are no more to blame for their conditions than you deserve credit for yours.
It’s only God’s mercy that you are not a beggar or a thief. And you want to disabuse your mind of the belief that because you were born with most of your brains in front of and above your ears, with a strong moral sense and no strong appetites, and are slipping through life in a well-oiled groove, eating the fat, drinking the cream and sitting in the soft places, that when you die you are going to Heaven and whang a golden harp through all eternity simply because you have not violated your nature by becoming a criminal. I want to say to you, my man, that if you are such a one and are using the brains and talents God gave you, and with the possession of which 14 you had nothing to do, merely for purposes of selfish gratification, that you’ll never whang any golden harps in the life to come. No, sir, you’ll go to hell, if there is such a place, for you’re the biggest criminal in God’s universe. A beautiful doctrine that is, that because a man is born badly and grows up in infamous surroundings, he being not responsible either for the birth or the bringing up, that after battling all his life against his impulses, after leading the life of a dog all his days, that he shall go to hell and suffer eternal torment because he could not resist his nature and became a criminal. That’s a fine doctrine, that is!
Now, see here, dear reader, I’m not mad at you. I am acting for your own good, as Uncle John used to say when he whipped me. I am only trying to impress upon you that during our brief and involuntary journey through the world, such insignificant little creatures as you and I have no call to become stuck upon ourselves. And we mustn’t believe that God Almighty is sitting up nights planning rewards for us for being good. There will be some surprises on the day of Judgment if I am not mistaken.
So in making your New Year’s resolutions bear in mind that for all that is given you an accounting will probably be asked. If the Almighty has been good to you you must “pass it along.” And be careful that all your New Year’s resolutions do not simply mean a determination to be better to yourself next year than ever before.