The Abominations of Modern Society

T. De Witt Talmage, Brooklyn, January 1st, 1872

Some of the Club-houses

Iniquity never gives a fair fight. It springs out from ambush upon the unsuspecting. Of the tens of thousands who have fallen into bad habits, not one deliberately leaped off—but all were caught in some sly trap. You may have watched a panther or a cat about to take its prey. It crouches down, puts its mouth between its paws, and is hardly to be seen in the long grass. Just so, iniquity always crouches down in unexpected shapes, takes aim with unerring eye, and then springs upon you with sudden and terrific leap. In secret places and in unlooked-for shapes—it murders the unsuspecting.

Men are gregarious. Cattle group in herds. Fish group in schools. Birds group in flocks. Men group in social circles. You may, by the discharge of a gun, scatter a flock of quails, or by the plunge of the anchor send apart the denizens of the sea; but they will gather themselves together again. If you, by some new power, could break the associations in which men now stand, they would again adhere. God meant it so. He has gathered all the flowers and shrubs into associations. You may plant one "forget-me-not" or "hearts-ease" alone, away off upon the hillside—but it will soon hunt up some other "forget-me-not" or "hearts-ease." Plants love company; you will find them talking to each other in the dew.

You sometimes see a man with no out-branchings of sympathy. His nature is cold and hard, like a ship's mast, ice-glazed, which the most agile sailor could never climb. Others have a thousand roots and a thousand branches. Innumerable tendrils climb their hearts, and blossom all the way up; and the fowls of heaven sing in the branches. In consequence of this tendency, we find men coming together in tribes, in communities, in churches, in societies. Some gather together to cultivate the arts; some to plan for the welfare of the State; some to discuss religious themes; some to kindle their mirth; some to advance their craft. So every active community is divided into associations of artists, of merchants, of bookbinders, of carpenters, of masons, of plasterers, of shipwrights, of plumbers. Do you cry out against it? Then you cry out against a tendency divinely implanted. Your tirades will accomplish no more than if you should preach to a busy ant-hill or bee-hive a long sermon against secret societies.

Here we find in our path the oft-discussed question, whether associations that do their work with closed doors, and admit their members by passwords, and greet each other with a secret grip, are right or wrong. I answer that it depends entirely upon the nature of the object for which they meet. Is it to pass the hours in revelry, reveling, blasphemy, and obscene talk, or to plot trouble to the State, or to debauch the innocent? Then I say, with an emphasis that no man can mistake, "NO." But is the object the improvement of the mind, or the enlargement of the heart, or the advancement of arts, or the defense of the government, or the extirpation of crime, or the kindling of a pure-hearted sociality? Then I say, with just as much emphasis, "YES."

There is no need that we who plan for the conquest of right over wrong, should publish to all the world our intentions. The general of an army never sends to the opposing troops, information as to the coming attack. Shall we who have enlisted in the cause of God and humanity, expose our plans to the enemy? No! We will in secret plot the ruin of all the enterprises of Satan and his cohorts. When they expect us by day, we will fall upon them by night. While they are strengthening their left wing, we will double up their right. By a plan of battle formed in secret conclave, we will come suddenly upon them, crying: "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!"

Secrecy of plot and execution are wrong—only when the object and influence are nefarious. Every family is a secret society; likewise with every business firm, and every banking and insurance institution. Those men who have no capacity to keep a secret are unfit for positions of trust anywhere. There are thousands of men whose vital need is culturing in capacity to keep a secret. Men talk too much—and women too. There is a time to keep silence, as well as a time to speak. Although not belonging to any of the great secret societies about which there has been so much violent discussion, I have only words of praise for those associations which have for their object the reclamation of inebriates, or like the score of mutual benefit societies, called by different names, that provide temporary relief for widows and orphans, and for men incapacitated for earning a livelihood, by sickness or accident. I suppose there are club-houses in our cities to which men go with clear consciences, and from which they come after an hour or two of intellectual talk, and cheerful interview, to enjoy the domestic circle. But that this is not the character of scores and hundreds of club-houses we all know. Can I, then, pass this subject by without exposition of the monstrous evil?

There are multitudes who are unconsciously having their physical, moral, and eternal well-being endangered by club-room dissipation. Was it right to expose the plot of Guy Fawkes, by which he would have destroyed the Parliament of England? And am I wrong in disclosing a peril which threatens not only your well-being here—but your throne in heaven? I deplore this ruin the more, because this style of dissipation is taking down our finest men. The admission-fee sifts out the penurious, and takes only those who are called the best prospects. Oh! how changed you are! Not so kind to your wife as you used to be; not so patient with your children. Your conscience is not so much at rest. You are not half so happy. It is not the public drinking-saloon which is taking you down, nor theatrical amusements, nor the houses of sin which have cost thousands of other men their eternity: but it is simply and undeniably, your club-room. You do not make yourself as agreeable in your family as once. You go home at twelve o'clock with an unnatural flush upon your cheek and a strange color in your eye—which you got at the club. You merely acknowledge that you feel different. You say that champagne never intoxicates; that it only exhilarates, makes the conversation fluent, shakes up the humor, and has no bad effect except a headache next day. Be not deceived. Champagne may not, like whiskey, throw a man under the table; but if, through anything you drink, you gain an unnatural fluency of speech and glow of feeling—you are simply drunk!

If those imperilled were heartless young men, stingy young men, I would not be so sorry as I am; but there are many of them generous to a fault, frank, honest, cheerful, talented. I begrudge the devil such a prize. After a while these people will lose all the frankness and honor for which they are now distinguished. Their countenances will get haggard, and instead of looking one in the eye when they talk, they will look down. After a while, when the mother kindly asks, "What kept you out so late?" they will make no answer, or will say "That is my business!" They will come cross and befogged to the store and bank, and ever neglect some duty, and after a while will be dismissed. And then, with nothing to do, will rise in the morning at ten o'clock, cursing the servant because the breakfast is cold, and then go down town and stand on the steps of a fashionable hotel, and criticize the passers-by.

While thousands of other young men of the city have gone up to higher and more responsible positions—he has been going down, until there he passes through the street with bloated lip, and bloodshot eye, and staggering step, and hat mud-spattered and set sidewise on a shock of greasy hair, the ashes of his cigar dashed upon his cravat. Here he goes! Look at him, all you pure-hearted young men, and see the work of the fashionable club-room!

I knew one such who, after the contaminations of his club-house, leaped out of the third-story window to put an end to his wretchedness. Many who would not be seen drinking at the bar of a tavern, think there is no dishonor and no peril connected with sitting down at a marble stand in an elegantly furnished parlor, to which they go with a private key, and where none are present except gentlemen as elegant as themselves. Everything so chaste in the surroundings! Soft carpets, beautiful pictures, cut glass, Italian top tables, frescoed walls. In just such places there are thousands of young men, middle-aged men, and old men, preparing themselves for overthrow! In many of these club-rooms the talk is not as pure and elevated as it might be. How is it, at half-past eleven o'clock, when the tankards are well emptied, and the smoke curls up from every lip? Do they ever swear? Are there stories told unworthy of a man who venerates the name of his mother? Does God, whose presence cannot be hindered by bolt, and who comes in without a pass-word, and is making up His record for the judgment-day, approve of the blasphemies you utter?

You think that there is no special danger, yet acknowledge that you have felt different sometimes. Your head was not right, and your stomach was disturbed. I will tell you what was the matter. You were drunk. You understood not that protracted hiccough; it was the drunkard's hiccough. You could not explain that nausea; it was the drunkard's vomit. The fact is that some of you, who have never in your own eyes or in the eyes of others fully sacrificed your respectability, have for six months been written down in God's book—as drunkards! How far down need a man go before he becomes an inebriate? Must he fall into the ditch? No! Must he get into a bar-house fight? No! Must he be senseless in the street? Must he have the delirium tremens? No! He may wear satin and fine linen; he may walk with hat scrupulously brushed; may swing a gold-headed cane, and walk in boots of French leather, dismount from a rich carriage, or draw tight rein over a swift, sleek, high-mettled, full-blooded Arabian horse—but yet be so thoroughly under the power of strong drink—that he is utterly offensive to his Maker and rotten as a heap of garbage.

The fact that this whole land today swelters with drunkenness, I charge upon the drinking club houses. They wield an influence which makes it respectable, and I will not put my head to the pillow tonight until I have written against them one burning anathema! When I see them dragging down scores of our young men, and slaying professed Christians at the very altar, and snatching off the garlands of life from those who would otherwise reign forever and forever, I tell you I hate them with a perfect hatred, and pray for more height, and depth, and length, and breadth of capacity with which to hate them.

Along this blossoming and over-arched pathway, and through this long line of temptations which throw their garlands upon the brow, and ring their music into the ear, go a great multitude. No one can estimate the homes that have been shattered by the dissipations of the club-house. There are weak women who would never consent to a husband's absence in the evening, however important the duty that takes him away. Any man who wishes to take his share of the public burdens and is willing to work for the political, educational, and social advancement of the community, must of necessity spend some of his evenings away from home. There are associations and churches that have a right to demand a share of a man's presence and means, and that is a weak woman who always looks offended when her husband goes out in the evening.

But club-houses become a pest, when they demand all a man's evenings; and that is a result we are called to deplore. Every head of a household is called to be its educator, its companion, its religious instructor and exemplar; not only to furnish the wardrobe and to make the money to pay the bills when they come in—but to give his highest intellectual energies and social faculties to the pleasure, instruction, and improvement of the household. But I describe the history of thousands of households when I say that the tea is rapidly taken, and while yet the family lingers—the father shoves back his chair, has "an engagement," lights his cigar and starts out, not returning until after midnight. That is the history of three hundred and sixty-five days in the year, except when he is sick and cannot get out.

How about home duties? Have you fulfilled all your vows? Would your wife ever have married you with such a prospect? Wait until your sons get to be sixteen or seventeen years of age, and they too will shove back from the tea-table, have an "engagement," light their cigars, go over to their club-houses, their night-key rattling in your door after midnight—the effect of your example! And as your son's constitution may not be as strong as yours, and the liquor he drinks more terribly drugged, he will catch up with you on the road to death although you got the head-start on him. And so you will both go to hell together!

A revolving light on the front of a locomotive casts its gleam through the darkness as it is turned around. Just so, I catch up the lamp of God's truth and turn it round until its tremendous glare flashes into all the club-houses of our cities. Flee the presence of the dissipating club-houses! Bu you have already "paid your dues?" Sacrifice that—rather than your soul. "Good fellows," are they? They cannot stay what they are, under such influences.

Molluscs live two hundred fathoms down in the Norwegian seas. The Siberian stag grows fat on the stunted growth of mountain peaks. The Hedysarium thrives amid the desolation of Sahara. Tufts of osier and birch grow on the hot lips of volcanic Schneehalten. But can good character and a useful life thrive amid club-room dissipations—Never! The best way to make a wild beast cower, is to look him in the eye—but the best way to treat the temptations I have described, is to turn your back and fly! O! my heart aches! I see men struggling to get out of the serfdom of bad habits, and I want to help them. I have knelt with them and heard their cry for help. I have had them put one hand on each of my shoulders, and look me in the eye, with an agony of earnestness, that the judgment shall have no power to make me forget, and from their lips, scorched with the fires of ruin, have heard them cry "God help me!" There is no rescue for such, save in the Lord Almighty.

Well, what we do, we had better do right away. The clock ticks now—and we hear it. After a while the clock will tick—and we shall not hear it. Seated by a country fireside, I saw the fire kindle, blaze, and go out. I gathered up from the hearth, enough for profitable reflections. Our life is just like the fire on that hearth. We put on fresh logs, and the fire bursts through and up, and out, mirthful of flash, mirthful of crackle—emblem of boyhood. Then the fire reddens into coals. The heat is fiercer; and the more it is stirred, the more it reddens. With sweep of flame it cleaves its way, until all the hearth glows with the intensity—emblem of full manhood. Then comes a whiteness to the coals. The heat lessens. The flickering shadows have died along the wall. The fagots drop apart. The household hover over the expiring embers. The last breath of smoke has been lost in the chimney. Fire is out. Shovel up the white remains. ASHES!