The chief difference between a wise man and an ignorant one is, not that the first is acquainted with regions invisible to the second, away from common sight and interest, but that he understands the common things which the second only sees.
—Sight and Insight
If you had chanced to live in Boston in the early Nineties, alert for all good things in a mental and spiritual way, you would have made the Sundays sacred to Minot Savage, Phillips Brooks and Edward Everett Hale.
Emerson says that if you know a clergyman’s sect and behold his livery, in spite of all his show of approaching the subject without prejudice, you know beforehand exactly to what conclusions he will come. This is what robs most sermons of their interest. Preaching, like humor, must have in it the element of surprise. I remember with what a thrill of delight I would sit and watch Minot Savage unwind his logic and then gently weave it into a fabric. The man was not afraid to follow a reason to its lair. He had a way of saying the thing for the first time–it came as a personal message, contradicting, possibly, all that had been said before on the subject, oblivious of precedent.
I once saw a man with a line around his waist leap from a stranded ship into the sea, and strike out boldly for the shore. The thrill of admiration for the act was unforgetable.
The joy of beholding a strong and valiant thinker plunge into a theme is an event. Will he make the shore, or shall he go down to defeat before these thousands of spectators?
When Minot Savage ceased to speak, you knew he had won–he had brought the line safely to shore and made all secure.
Or, if you have heard Rabbi Hirsch or Felix Adler, you know the feeling. These men make a demand upon you–you play out the line for them, and when all is secure, there is a relief which shows you have been under an intense strain. To paraphrase Browning, they offer no substitute, to an idle man, for a cushioned chair and cigar.
Phillips Brooks made small demand upon his auditors. If I heard Minot Savage in the morning and got wound up tight, as I always did, I went to Vespers at Trinity Church for rest.
The soft, sweet playing of the organ, the subdued lights, the far-away voices of the choir, and finally the earnest words of the speaker, worked a psychic spell. The sermon began nowhere and ended nowhere–the speaker was a great, gentle personality, with a heart of love for everybody and everything. We have heard of the old lady who would go miles to hear her pastor pronounce the word Mesopotamia, but he put no more soul into it than did Phillips Brooks. The service was all a sort of lullaby for tired souls–healing and helpful.
But as after every indulgence there comes a minor strain of dissatisfaction following the awakening, so it was here–it was beautiful while it lasted. Then eight o’clock would come and I would be at Edward Everett Hale’s. This sturdy old man, with his towering form, rugged face and echoing bass voice, would open up the stops and give his blessed “Mesopotamia” like a trumpet call. He never worked the soft pedal. His first words always made me think of “Boots and Saddles!” Be a man–do something! Why stand ye here all the day idle!
And there was love and entreaty, too, but it never lulled you into forgetfulness. There was intellect, but it did not ask you to follow it. The dear old man did not wind in and out among the sinuosities of thought–no, he was right out on the broad prairie, under the open sky, sounding “Boots and Saddles!”
In Doctor Hale’s church is a most beautiful memorial window to Thomas Starr King, who was at one time the pastor of this church. I remember Doctor Hale once rose and pointing to that window, said: “That window is in memory of a man! But how vain a window, how absurd a monument if the man had not left his impress upon the hearts of humanity! That beautiful window only mirrors our memories of the individual.”