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THE LAW OF DEGENERATION The Nadir and Zenith of the Soul's Thermometer
\HE possibilities of heaven and hell lie con
cealed in every man. Jesus and Judas
these two names are sufficient to indicate the height and depth of human possibility. Depravity and divinity are the nadir and the zenith of the soul's thermometer. The greenish streak of human meanness is to be found on the tear-stained page of the story of the race. For cruelty who can equal Attila, the king of the Huns, and called by his victims “The Scourge of God”? For bigotry who can surpass Queen Isabella of Spain, in the fifteenth century ? Listen to her words: “I have depopulated happy villages, rich towns and fertile districts in the holy name of religion.” For tricks of cruel cunning who has achieved a more unenviable reputation than Cæsar Borgia, who would invite his enemy to a banquet and then deposit a few drops of swift poison into a loving cup? For personal ambition, cold and relentless, where shall we find a more striking illustration than in the words of Napoleon III : “Give France a war every four years and the people will be content"? For a secret manifestation of meanness in the private affairs of life, where shall we look for a more cruel circumstance than that recorded in the autobiography of Edgar Allan Poe, who says: “In infancy I was fed on mild concoctions of liquor in order to keep me quiet”? He died of delirium tremens, in a Baltimore hospital, on October 7, 1849. Read the sad comment on his own life: "My life has been a terrible blending of temper, impulse and passion.” What does that mean? A life cursed by cruel neglect and professional meanness. His trained nurse had chained him to an evil habit before he had clambered out of the cradle.
But in the brief space allotted to me I am not called upon to present a historical review of any particular phase of human weakness or depravity, but rather to cull from my own experience and observations certain unusual and outstanding incidents and events which will tend to arouse the careless and cause the wayward to think. Truth is stranger than fiction, and the story of every life has in it certain elements of universal interest.
I was fourteen years of age when I witnessed a scene which stands out like a perfect motion picture on the screen of my youthful imagination. I stood in the scantily furnished parlour of an earnest Christian woman, when the property owner—the landlordentered the room to demand a month's rent in advance. According to the deed and contract it was due on that very day. The head of the house was absent seeking for employment. One plan after another had failed. One hope after another had faded in the mother's heart. Everything had gone wrong. Her rent was paid up to that hour, but she could not pay the rent in advance. She did not know, then, where the next meal would come from. I remember the scene distinctly. The landlord stood there, tall, sallow complexioned, with lips compressed. Bringing his stout cane down on the worn characters of the old, faded carpet, he exclaimed: “The rent, madam, the rent, one month in advance, by this time to-morrow, or I will land every piece of furniture you ve on the sidewalk !” With that he disappeared through the door, closing the same in a manner sufficiently suggestive to give an added emphasis to his words.
I was a boy of fourteen, with a boy's curiosity. I had a boyish fad-a fad for meetings. Where two or three were gathered together in the name of God or man, I was there. Prayer-meetings, political meetings, social gatherings and Sunday-school anniversaries were all of equal importance to me. Among my list of special attractions was the "noon meeting," held daily, at the time indicated in the building of the Young Men's Christian Association. I was a regular attendant. I knew every "crank,"
exhorter," "prayer-meeting killer” and rising religious orator to be heard at the noon hour in yonder benevolent institution. What was my youthful consternation when I beheld in the personality of the impatient, imperative and unreasonable landlord one of the recognized leaders of the faithful band which presided over the destiny of the "noon meeting." How often in the after days have I heard him as he “approached the throne of grace," enriching his petitions with such familiar phrases as “ Dear Lord,” “Blessed Master" and "Omnipotent Jehovah.” But the fervour of his eloquence had lost its charm. Something in my soul rebelled. My boyish heart uttered bitter words. I said to myself, “You are the meanest man I ever knew !" How little I knew of the world, or of men, or of human nature! Was he the meanest man I ever knew? I wonder!
At thirty years of age I resided in a manufacturing town in Western Pennsylvania. I was engaged in a line of business which brought me in contact with the leading capitalists and men of affairs in the community. Most of these I knew well and a few I knew intimately. Among my intimate friends there was one whom I counted it a high honour to know. A man who had Puritan blood in his veins, stern, upright, unselfish and true. He was the successful manager of a great manufacturing concern, an officer in the church, a teacher in the Sundayschool, a leader in the Young Men's Christian Association and a citizen of recognized integrity and ability. This man had a son who, socially, was as popular as his father had been successful from a business standpoint. All the fond hopes of a father's heart centred in the boy. The unrealized dreams of his own life were to be fulfilled in the future of that boy. He was to be the head of a great commercial concern, a pillar in the church, a tower of defense in the city for the ideals of a Christian civilization, yea, the very reincarnation of his father's spirit.
But an unexpected event blasted the dream. One unlooked-for disaster dissipated every fond hope. The youth suffered the loss of the master motive which makes a man's life and history truly great. He lost his faith in God, in the Bible, in the Christ, and in the importance of spiritual things. I remember the day when the father told me, in strict confidence, that which seemed to be the greatest catastrophe which could have come into his life. The snapping of the anchorage of the boy's faith, the eclipse of his Christian ideals and the clouding over of the sky of his spiritual perceptions. How the great man sobbed as he told me in broken syllables of the subtle undermining influence of a certain high school teacher, who, by the use and abuse of his professional position as a public teacher and instructor, had gradually created an atmosphere of doubt in the mind of the young man.
“Why should he," I said to myself, "have gone out of his way to sneer at the Grand Old Book and to weaken and destroy the faith of a soul in the miraculous power of the unmatched Galilean?"
The strong man breathed out his great sorrow and, referring to the recreant teacher, exclaimed : “I can hardly treat him with due Christian courtesy when I meet him in social and commercial circles. Oh, why should he have robbed my boy of the brightest jewel of his manhood ?” And in the atmosphere of that great grief I murmured to myself: