The Abominations of Modern Society
T. De Witt Talmage, Brooklyn, January 1st, 1872
The newspaper is the great educator of the nineteenth century. There is no force compared with it. It is book, pulpit, platform, forum—all in one. And there is not an interest—religious, literary, commercial, scientific, agricultural, or mechanical—that is not within its grasp. All our churches, and schools, and colleges, and asylums, and art-galleries feel the quaking of the printing-press. I shall try to bring to your parlor-tables the periodicals that are worthy of the Christian fireside, and try to pitch into the gutter of scorn and contempt, those newspapers that are not fit for the hand of your child or the vision of your wife.
The institution of newspapers arose in Italy. In Venice the first newspaper was published monthly, and was printed for the purpose of giving military and commercial information to the Venetians. The first newspaper published in England was in 1588, and called the English Mercury. Others were styled the Weekly Discoverer, the Secret Owl, Heraclitus Ridens, etc. Who can estimate the political, scientific, commercial, and religious revolutions roused up in England for many years past by Bell's Weekly Dispatch, the Standard, the Morning Chronicle, the Post, and the London Times? The first attempt at this institution in France was in 1631, by a physician, who published the News, for the amusement and health of his patients. The French nation understood fully how to appreciate this power. Napoleon, with his own hand, wrote articles for the press, and so early as in 1829 there were in Paris 169 journals.
But in the United States the newspaper has come to unlimited sway. Though in 1775 there were but thirty-seven in the whole country, the number of published journals is now counted by thousands; and today—we may as well acknowledge it as not—the religious and secular newspapers are the great educators of the country. In our pulpits we preach to a few hundreds or thousands of people; the newspaper addresses an audience of twenty thousand, fifty thousand, or two hundred thousand. We preach three or four times a week; they every morning or evening of the year. If they are right—they are gloriously right; if they are wrong—they are awfully wrong.
I find no difficulty in accounting for the world's advance. Four centuries ago, in Germany, in courts of justice, men fought with their fists to see who should have the decision of the court; and if the judge's decision was unsatisfactory, then the judge fought with the counsel. Many of the lords could not read the deeds of their own estates. What has made the change? "Books," you say. No, sir! The vast majority of citizens do not read books. Take this audience, or any other promiscuous assemblage, and how many histories have they read? How many treatises on constitutional law, or political economy, or works of science? How many elaborate poems or books of travel? How much of Boyle, or De Tocqueville, Xenophon, or Herodotus, or Percival? Not many! In the United States, the people would not average one such book a year for each individual!
Whence, then, this intelligence—this capacity to talk about all themes, secular and religious—this acquaintance with science and art—this power to appreciate the beautiful and grand? Next to the Bible, the newspaper— swift-winged, and everywhere present, flying over the fences, shoved under the door, tossed into the counting-house, laid on the work-bench, hawked through the railroad cars! All read it: white and black, German, Irishman, Swiss, Spaniard, American, old and young, good and bad, sick and well, before breakfast and after tea, Monday morning, Saturday night, Sunday—and week day!
I now declare, that I consider the newspaper to be the grand agency by which the Gospel is to be preached, ignorance cast out, oppression dethroned, crime extirpated, the world raised, heaven rejoiced, and God glorified.
In the clanking of the printing-press, as the sheets fly out, I hear the voice of the Lord Almighty proclaiming to all the dead nations of the earth, "Lazarus, come forth!" And to the retreating surges of darkness, "Let there be light!" In many of our city newspapers, professing no more than secular information, there have appeared during the past ten years, some of the grandest appeals in behalf of religion, and some of the most effective interpretations of God's government among the nations. That man has a shriveled heart, who begrudges the five pennies he pays to the newsboy who brings the world to his feet. There are today connected with the editorial and reportorial corps of newspaper establishments, men of the highest culture and most unimpeachable morality, who are living on the most limited stipends, martyrs to the work to which they feel themselves called. While you sleep in the midnight hours, their pens fly, and their brains ache in preparing the morning news. Many of them go, unrested and unappreciated, their cheeks blanched and their eyes half quenched with midnight work, toward premature graves, to have the "proof-sheet" of their life corrected by Divine mercy, glad at last to escape the perpetual annoyances of a fault-finding public, and the restless, impatient cry for "more copy!"
Will this great inrush come from personal presence of missionary or philanthropist? No. When the time comes for that grand demonstration I think the press in all the earth will make the announcement, and give the call to the nations. As at some telegraphic center, an operator will send the messages, north and south, and east and west—all catching the flash at the same instant; so, standing at some center to which shall reach all the electric wires that cross the continent and undergird the sea, someone shall, with the forefinger of the right hand, click the instrument that shall thrill through all lands, across all islands, under all seas, through all palaces, into all dungeons, and startle both hemispheres with the news, that in a few moments shall rush out from the ten thousand times ten thousand printing-presses of the earth: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men!"
You see, therefore, that, in the plain words to be written, I have no grudges to gratify against the newspaper press. Professional men are accustomed to complain of injustice done them—but I take the censure I have sometimes received and place it on one side the scales, and the excessive praise, and place it on the other side, and they balance, and so I consider I have had simple justice.
But we are all aware, that there is a class of men in towns and cities who send forth a baleful influence from their editorial pens. There are enough bad newspapers weekly poured out into the homes of our country to poison a vast population. In addition to the home manufacture of iniquitous sheets, the mail-bags of other cities come engorged with abominations. New York scoops up from the sewers of other cities, and adds to its own newspaper filth. And tonight, lying on the tables of this city, or laid away on the shelf, or in the trunk, for more private perusal—are papers the mere mention of the names of which would send a blush to the cheek, and make the decent and Christian world cry out: "God save the city!"
There is a paper published in Boston of outrageous character, and yet there are seven thousand copies of that paper coming weekly to New York for circulation. I will not mention the name, lest some of you should go right away and get it. It is amazing how quick the fingers of the printer-boy fly—but the fingers of sin and pollution can set up fifty thousand types in an instant. The supply of bad newspapers in New York does not meet the insatiable appetite of our people for refuse, and garbage, and moral swill. We must, therefore, import corrupt weeklies published elsewhere, which make our newspaper stands groan under the burden.
But we need not go abroad. There are papers in New York that long ago came to perfection of shamelessness, and there is no more power in venom and mud and slime, to pollute them. They have dashed their iniquities into the face of everything decent and holy. And their work will be seen in the crime and debauchery and the hell of innumerable victims. Their columns are not long and broad enough to record the tragedies of their horrible undoing of immortal men and women.
God, after a while, will hold up these reeking, stenchful, accursed papers, upon which they spread out their guilt, and the whole universe will cry out for their damnation!
See the work of bad newspapers in the false news which they bring! There are hundreds of men today penniless, who were, during the war, hurled from their affluent positions by incorrect accounts of battles that shook the money-market, and the gold gamblers, with their hoofs, trampled these honest men into the mire. And many a window was hoisted at the hour of midnight as the boy shouted: "Extra! Extra!" And the father and mother who had an only son at the front, with trembling hand, and blanched cheek, and sinking heart, read of battles that had never occurred. God pity the father and mother who have a boy at the front when evil tidings come!
If an individual makes a false statement, one or twenty people may be damaged; but a newspaper of large circulation which willfully makes a misstatement in one day—tells fifty thousand falsehoods! The most stupendous of all lies is a newspaper lie! A bad newspaper scruples not at any slander. It may be that, to escape the grip of the law, the paragraphs will be nicely worded, so that the suspicion is thrown out and the damage done without any exposure to the law. Year by year, thousands of men are crushed by the ink-roller. An unscrupulous man in the editorial chair, may smite as with the wing of a destroying angel. What to him is— commercial integrity, or professional reputation, or woman's honor, or home's sanctity? It seems as if he held in his hand a hose with which, while all the harpies of sin were working at the pumps, he splashed the waters of death upon the best interests of society.
The express-train in England halts not to take in water—but between the tracks there is a trough, one-fourth of a mile in length, filled with water; and the engine drops a hose that catches up the water while the train flies. So with bad newspapers that fly along the track of death without pausing a moment, yet scooping up into themselves the pollution of society, and in the awful rush making the earth tremble.
The most abandoned man of the city may go to the bad newspaper and get a slander inserted about the best man. If he cannot do it in any other way, he can by means of an anonymous communication. Now, a man who, to injure another, will write an anonymous letter, is, in the first place, a coward; and, in the second place, a villain. Many of these offensive anonymous letters you see in the bad newspaper, have been found to be written in the editorial chair. The bad newspaper stops not at any political outrage. It would arouse a revolution, and murder a million brave men in the trenches, rather than not have its own circulation multiply. What to it are the hard-earned laurels of the soldier, or the exalted reputation of the statesman?
There are enough falsehoods told at any one of our autumnal elections, to make the "Father of Lies" disown his monstrous progeny. Now it is the Mayor, then the Governor, now the Secretary of State, and then the President, until the air is so full of misrepresentation, that truth is hidden from the view, as beautiful landscapes by the clouds of summer insects blown up from the marshes.
The immoral newspaper stops not at the impure advertisement. It is so much money—for so many words, and will cost no more to advertise the most impure book, than the new edition of Pilgrim's Progress. A book such as no decent man would touch, was a few months ago advertised in a New York paper, and the getter-up of the book, passing down one of our streets the other day, acknowledged to one of my friends that he had made $18,000 out of the enterprise. In one column of a paper we see a grand ethical discussion, and in another—the droppings of most accursed nastiness. Oh! you cannot by all your religion, in one column—atone for one of your abominations in another! I am rejoiced that some of our papers have addressed those who have proposed to compensate them for bad use of their columns, in the words of Peter to Simon Magus: "May your money perish with you!" But I arraign the newspapers that give their columns to corrupt advertising for the nefarious work they are doing.
The most polluted plays which ever oozed from the poisonous pen of leprous dramatist, have won their deathful power through the medium of newspapers! The evil is stupendous! O you reckless souls must get money—though morality dies, and society is dishonored, and God defied, and the doom of destroyed people opens before you! Get money! Though the melted gold be poured upon your naked, blistered, and consuming soul—get money! Get money! It will do you good when it begins to eat like a canker! It will solace the pillow of death, and soothe the pangs of an agonized eternity! Though in the game you do stake your soul, and lose it forever—get money!
The bad newspaper hesitates not to assault Christianity and its disciples. With what exhilaration it puts in capitals, that fill one-fourth of a column, the defalcation of some agent of a benevolent society! There is enough meat in such a carcass of reputation to gorge all the carrion-crows of an iniquitous printing-press. They put upon the back of the Church all the inconsistencies of hypocrites—as though a banker were responsible for all the counterfeits upon his institution! They jeer at religion, and lift up their voices until all the caverns of the lost resound with the howl of their derision. They forget that Christianity is the only hope for the world, and that—but for its enlightenment, they would now be like the Hottentots, living in mud hovels, or like the Chinese, eating rats.
What would you think of a wretch who, during a great storm, while the ship was being tossed to and fro on the angry waves, should climb up into the light-house and blow out the light? And what do you think of these men, who, while all the Christian and the glorious institutions of the world are being tossed and driven hither and there, are trying to climb up and put out the only light of a lost world?
The bad newspaper does not stop at publishing the most damaging and impure story. The only question is: "Will it buy it?" And there are scores of men who, day by day, bring into the newspaper offices manuscripts for publication which unite all that is pernicious; and, before the ink is fairly dry, tens of thousands are devouring the impure issue with avidity. Their sensibilities deadened, their sense of right perverted, their purity of thought tarnished, their taste for plain life despoiled—the printing-press, with its iron foot, has dashed their life out!
While I speak, there are many people, with feet on the ottoman, looking down on the page, submerged, mind and soul, in the perusal of this God-forsaken literature; and as the city clock strikes the hour of midnight, will go death-struck to their prayerless pillows. One of the proprietors of a great paper in this country gave his advice to a young man then about to start a paper: "If you want to succeed," said he, "make your paper trashy, intensely trashy—make it all trash!" Brilliant advice to a young man just entering business! It is very often that, as a paper purifies itself, its circulation decreases, and sometimes when a paper becomes truly religious, it becomes bankrupt, unless some benevolent and Christian men come up to sustain it by contributions of money and means. There are but few religious newspapers in this country, which are self-supporting. The reason urged is—the country cannot stand so much religion!
Hear it! Christian men and philanthropists! Many papers that are most rapidly increasing today, are unscrupulous. The facts are momentous and appalling. And I put young men and women and Christian parents and guardians on the look-out. This garbage cannot be handled without being polluted! Away with it from parlor, and shop, and store! There is so much newspaper literature which is pure, and cheap, and elegant; shove back this leprosy from your door. Mark it well—a man is no better than the newspaper which he habitually reads!
You may think it a bold thing thus to arraign an unprincipled printing-press—but I know there are those reading this, who will take my counsel. In the discharge of my duty to God and man—I defy all the hostilities of earth and hell! Representatives of the secular and religious press! I thank you, in the name of Christianity and civilization, for the enlightenment of ignorance, the overthrow of iniquity, and the words you have uttered in the cause of God and your country. But I charge you in the name of God, before whom you must account for the tremendous influence you hold in this country—to consecrate yourselves to higher endeavors. You are the men to fight back this invasion of corrupt literature. Lift up your right hand and swear new allegiance to the cause of philanthropy and true religion. And when, at last, standing on the plains of judgment, you look out upon the unnumbered throngs over whom you have had influence, may it be found that you were among the mightiest energies that lifted men upon the exalted pathway, which leads to the renown of heaven. Better than to have sat in editorial chair, from which, with the finger of type, you decided the destinies of empires—but decided them wrong—that you had been some dungeoned exile, who, by the light of window iron-grated, on scraps of a New Testament leaf, picked up from the hearth, spelled out the story of Him who takes away the sins of the world. IN ETERNITY, DIVES IS THE BEGGAR!