The Abominations of Modern Society

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


Blasphemy is a crime that aims at God—but does its chief harm to the one who fires it off. So I compare it to a piece of imperfect firearms to which the marksman puts his eye, and, pulling the trigger, by the backlash finds himself in the dust.

I tell you a story, Oriental and marvelous. History speaks of the richest man in all the East. He had camels, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and what would make any man rich even if he had nothing else—seven sons and three daughters. It was the custom of this man's children to have family reunions. One day he is at home, thinking of his darling children, who are keeping banquet at their elder brother's house. Yonder comes a messenger in hot haste, evidently, from his looks, bearing evil tidings. Recovering himself sufficiently to speak, he says: "The oxen and the donkeys have been captured by a foraging party of Sabeans, and all the servants are butchered except myself." Another messenger is coming. He says that the sheep and the shepherds have been struck by lightning. Another messenger is coming. He says that the Chaldeans have come and captured the camels, and killed all but himself. Another messenger, who says: "While your sons and daughters were at the feast, a hurricane struck the corner of the tent, and they are all dead!"

But his misfortunes are not yet completed. The old man is smitten with the black leprosy. Tumors from head to foot; face distorted; forehead ridged with offensive tubercles; eyelashes fall out; nostrils excoriated; voice destroyed; intolerable exhalation from the whole body; until, with none to dress his sores, he sits down in the ashes, with nothing but broken pieces of pottery to use in the surgery of his wounds. At this point, when he needed all consolation and encouragement, his wife comes to him, and says, virtually: "This is intolerable! Our property gone, our children slain, and now this loathsome, disgusting disease is upon you. Why don't you swear? Curse God and die!" But profanity would not have removed one tumor from his agonized body; would not have brought to his door one of the captured camels; would not have restored any one of the dead children. Swearing would have made the pain more unbearable, the pauperism into which he had plunged more distressing, the bereavement more excruciating.

And yet, from the swearing and blasphemy with which our land is cursed, one would think there were some great advantage to be reaped from the practice. There is today in all our land no more prevalent custom, and no more God-defying abomination, than profane swearing. You can hardly walk our streets five minutes without having your ears stung and your sensibilities shocked. The drayman swearing at his horse; the tinman at his solder; the sewing-girl imprecating her tangled thread; the bricklayer cursing at his trowel; the carpenter at his hammer; the sailor at the tackling; the merchant at the customer; the customer at the merchant; the printer at the miserable proofsheet; the accountant at the troublesome line of figures; swearing in the cellar and in the loft, before the counter and behind the counter, in the shop and on the street, in low saloon and fashionable bar-room. Children swear, men swear, ladies swear! Profanity from the lowest haunt calling upon the Almighty God—to the fashionable "O Lord!" of the glittering drawing-room. This whole country is blasted with the evil.

Coming from the West, a gentleman sat behind two people conversing. Profanities were so frequent in the conversation of the two people in front, that the gentleman behind took out his pencil and paper and made a record. The profanities filled several sheets in the course of two days, at the close of which time the gentleman handed the manuscript to the people conversing. The men said: "Is it possible that we have uttered so many profanities in the course of two days?" The gentleman said: "Yes." "Then," said one of the men, "I shall never swear again."

I make no abstract discussion. I hate abstractions. I had rather come right out and have a talk with you about a habit that you admit to be wrong. This habit has grown from the fact that the young often think it an evidence of manliness. There are thousands of boys and youth who indulge in it. I hear children along the street—but just able to walk, practicing this iniquity. They cannot talk straight—but they get enough distinctness to let you know that they are damning their own souls and the souls of others. Oh! it is horrible to see a little child, the first time it lifts its feet to walk—set them down on the burning pavement of hell!

Between sixteen and twenty years of age there is apt to come a time when a young man is as much ashamed of not being able to deliver an curse word, as he is of the dizziness that comes from his first cigar. He has his hat and coat and boots of the right pattern, and there is but one thing more now to bring him into fashion, and that is a capacity to swear. So there are some of our young men surrounded by an atmosphere of profanities. Curses sit on their lips, they roll under their tongues, and nest in the shock of hair. In elegant drawing-rooms they abstain from such utterances; but fill club-room and street with their immoralities of speech. You suggest the wrongfulness of the habit, and they thrust their finger in the sleeve of their vest, and swagger, and say: "Who cares!" They have no regard for God—but great respect for the ladies. Ah! there is no manliness in that. The most ungentlemanly thing a man can do is to swear.

This habit is becoming more and more prevalent because of the immorality of parents and employers. There are very many fathers who indulge in this habit. They feel moved to express themselves in this way—but first look around to see if their children are present. They have no idea that their children know anything about it. The probability is that if you swear, your children swear. They were in the next room and heard you, or somebody told them about your habit. Your child is practicing to do—just as you do. He is laughed at, at first, for his awkwardness—but after a while he will swear as well as you.

Then look at the example of master carpenters, masons, roofers, and hatters. You know how some of you go around the building, and, when the work of laborers does not please you—what do you say? It is not praying, is it? Forthwith, your laborers learn the habit. Hence our hat-shops, and house-scaffoldings, and side-walks, and wharves, and dockyards, and cellars, and lofts—ring with blasphemies. Men argue that swearing can be overlooked in men who have merely their day's wages. Because they are poor must they be denied this one luxury?

This habit becomes more prevalent because of the infirmities of temper. There are many men who, when at peace, are most fastidious of speech—but when aroused into the violence of passion, blaze with imprecations! The Oriental's wife spoken of, would not have liked her husband to be profane under ordinary circumstances—but now that the camels are gone, and the sheep are gone, and the property is gone, and the boils have come, she says: "Why don't you swear? Curse God and die!" Others, all the year round, have not the froth of profanity wiped from their lips—but try to expend all the fury of a twelvemonth in one red-hot paragraph of five minutes. A man apologized for his occasional swearing by saying that, once in a year, in this way he cleared himself out. There are men who have no control of their blasphemous utterances, who want us to send them to Congress. Others have blasphemed in senatorial places, pretending afterwards that it was a mere rhetorical flourish. Many fall into this habit through the frequent use of what are called by-words. I suppose that all have favorite phrases of this kind in which there is no harm; but a profusion of this style of speech often ends in bald profanity. It is, "I declare!" "My stars!" "Mercy on me!" "Good gracious!" "By George!" "By Jove!" and "By heavens!" and no harm is intended; but it is a very easy transition from this kind of talk to that which is fully obnoxious.

The English language is magnificent, and capable of expressing every shade of feeling and every degree of energy and zeal; and there is no need that we take to ourselves unlawful words. If you are happy, Noah Webster offers to your tongue ten thousand epithets in which you may express your exhilaration; and if you are righteously indignant, there are in his dictionary whole armories of denunciation and scorn, sarcasm and irony, caricature and wrath. Utter yourself against some baseness or hypocrisy in all the blasphemies that ever smoked up from perdition; and I will go on to denounce the same baseness and hypocrisy with a hundred-fold more stress and vehemency in words across which no slime has ever trailed, and through which no infernal fires have shot their forked tongue,—words pure, innocent, all-impressive, God-honored; in which Milton sang, and Bunyan dreamed, and Shakespeare wrote.

But whatever is the source of this habit—it is on the increase. At sixteen, boys swear with as much facility as the grandfather did at sixty. Our streets are cursed by it from end to end. Our hotels, from morning until midnight, resound with it. Men curse on the way to the depot to get their morning grain; curse the news-boy who cries the "paper!"; curse the breakfast for being cold; curse at the bank, and curse at the store; curse on the way to bed; curse at the stone against which they strike their foot; and curse at the splinter that gets under the nail. If you do not know that this is so, it is because your ear has been hardened by the perpetual din of profanities which are enough to bring down upon any city, the hurricane of fire which consumed Sodom!

The habit is creeping up into the higher circles. Every true woman despises flat and unvarnished imprecations; but in the most elevated circles there are women who swear without knowing it. They have read Bulwer, and George Sand, and the exaggerated style of some of our imported as well as home-made periodical literature, until they do not actually know what decency of speech is. They utter their oaths, and recklessly speak the holiest of names, without the faintest blush. This is helped on by the second glass of wine, which is perfectly harmless; and though no one dare charge her, being so finely dressed, with anything like intoxication, yet there comes a glassiness to the eye, and a glow to the cheek, and a style of speech to the tongue that were not known before she took the second glass that was perfectly harmless.

One wild, terrific wave of blasphemy is sweeping over the land. See the effects of this widespread profanity in the increasing perjury. If men in ordinary conversation so commonly use the name of God, is it astonishing that in the court-house, and in the alderman's office, and in the custom-house so many swear falsely? Notice the way an oath is administered. They toss the Bible at a man, and in the most trivial way say: "So help you God—kiss the book." I suppose enough lies are every day told in the custom-house to sink it. Smuggling, although it be done against a solemn oath, is in some circles considered a grand joke; and you say some day to your friend, "How can you sell those goods so cheaply?" and your friend says with an eye-twinkle, "The Custom-House tariff was not as high on those things as it might have been." Men more easily break their solemn oaths than formerly.

What is an oath? Anything solemn? Anything appealing to the Almighty? Anything stupendous in man's history? No! In a land where the name of God so often becomes the football of what are called respectable circles, how can we expect that it can excite any veneration when, in the presence of county clerk, or alderman, or judge, or legislative assembly, it is used in solemn adjuration?

This habit of swearing—lowers, bedwarfs, and destroys the entire moral nature. You might as well expect to raise harvests and vineyards on the side of a belching volcano—as to have any great excellency grow upon your soul, when it so often overflows with the scum of this awful propensity. You will never swear yourself up. You can only swear yourself down. The Mohammedans, when they find a slip of paper they cannot read, put it aside, for fear the name of God is on it. That, you say, is one extreme. We go to the other.

You are willing to acknowledge this a miserable habit, and would like to have some recipe for its cure. Reflect much upon the uselessness of the habit of swearing. Did a volley of oaths ever move a heavy load? Did curses ever unravel a tangled skein? Did they ever extirpate the baseness of a customer? Did they ever collect a bad debt? Did they ever cure a toothache? Did they ever stop a twinge of the gout? Did they ever save you a dollar, or put you a step forward in any great enterprise? or enable you to gain a position, or to accomplish anything that you ever wanted to do? How much did you ever make by swearing? What, in all the round of a lifetime of profanity, did you ever gain by the habit?

Reflect, also, upon the fact—that it arouses God's indignation! The Bible reiterates, in paragraph after paragraph, and chapter after chapter, the fact that all swearers and blasphemers are accursed now—and are to be forever miserable! There is no iniquity that has been so often visited with the immediate curse of God. At New Brunswick, a young man was standing on the railroad track blaspheming. The cars passed, and he was found on the track with his tongue cut out. People could not understand how, with comparatively little bruising of the rest of his body, his tongue could have been cut out. Not long ago, in Chicago, a man told a falsehood, and said that he hoped, if what he said was not true, God would strike him dead. He instantly fell. There was no longer any pulse. There was no reason for his death, except that he asked God to strike him dead—and God did it. In Scotland a club was formed, in which the members competed as to which could use the most horrid oaths. The man who succeeded best in the infamy, was made president of the club. His tongue began to swell. It protruded from his mouth. He could not draw it in. He died within three days. Physicians were astounded. There was nothing like it in all the medical books. What was the matter with him? He cursed God—and died! Near Catskill, N.Y., during a thunder-storm, a group of men were standing in a blacksmith-shop. There came a crash of thunder, and the men were startled. One man said that he was not afraid; and he made a wager that he dared go out in front of the shop, while the lightnings were flying, and dare the Almighty God. He went out; shook his fist at the heavens, crying, "Strike, if you dare!" Instantly a thunder-bolt struck him. He was dead. He cursed God, and died!

God will not tolerate this sin. He will not let it escape. There is a kind of carbon paper, by which a man may, with a heavy pencil, write upon a dozen sheets at once—the writing going down through all the sheets. So every oath and blasphemy goes through, and is written indelibly on every leaf of God's remembrance. Ah! how much our Father bears! Can you make an estimate of how many blasphemies will roll up from the streets and saloons of our cities tonight? If you go out and look up you cannot see them. There will be no trail of fire on the sky. But the air is full of them. The name of Christ is not so often spoken in worship—as in derision. God will be cursed tonight by hundreds of lips. The grog-shops will curse him. The houses of shame will curse him. Bedford street will curse him. Chestnut street will curse him. Madison square will curse him. Beacon street will curse him. Every street in all our cities will curse him.

This blasphemy is an abomination that no words of mine can describe—and God hears it. They curse His name. They curse his Bible. They curse his people. They curse his Only Begotten Son. Yes; they swear by the name of Jesus! It makes my hair rise, and my flesh creep, and my blood chill, and my breath catch, and my foot halt! Dionysius had a cave where men were incarcerated. At the top of the cave was an aperture to which he could put his ear, and could hear every sigh, every groan, every word of the inhabitants. This world is so arranged that all its voices go up to heaven. God puts down his ear and hears every word of praise offered, and every word of blasphemy spoken. Our cities must come to judgment. All these oaths must be answered for. They die on the air—but they have an eternal echo. Listen for the echo. It rolls back from the ages to come. Listen: "All blasphemers shall have their place in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone."

Some have thought that a lost soul in the future world will do that which it was most prone to do in this world. If so, then think of a man blaspheming God through all eternity! This habit grows upon a man, until at last it pushes him off into the bottomless pit forever. I saw a man die with an oath between his teeth. Voltaire rose from his dying pillow, and, supposing that he saw Christ in the room, cried out, "Crush the wretch!" A celebrated officer during the last war fell mortally wounded, and the only word he sent to his wife was: "Tell her I fought like hell!" There are thousands of men who are having all their moral nature pulled down by the fiery fingers of this habit. At last, pinched, shriveled, and consumed, they will get down on their beds to die, and at the step of the doctor in the hall, or the shutting of the front door, they will start up, thinking they hear the sepulchral gates creak open.

Who is this God that you should maltreat his name? Has he been haunting you, starving you, or freezing you all your life? No! He is your Father, patient and loving. He rocked your cradle with blessings, from the time you were born. He clothes you now, and always has clothed you. You never had a sickness but he was sorry for you. He has brooded over you with wings of love. He has tried to press you to his heart of kindness and compassion. He wants to forgive you. He wants to help you. He wants to make you happy. He watched last night over your pillow while you slept. He will watch tonight. He was your father's God, and your mother's. He has housed them safe from the blast, and he wants to shelter you. Do you trifle with his name? Do you smite him in the face? Do you thrust him back by your imprecations?

Who is this Jesus Christ that I hear men swearing by? Who is he? Some destroyer, that they so treat his name? What foul thing has he done, that our great cities speak his name in thousand-voiced jeer and contempt? Who is he? A Lamb, whose blood simmered in the fires of sacrifice—to save you. A Brother, who put down his crown of glory—that you might take it up. For many years he has been striving, night and day, to win your affections. There is nothing in heaven that he is not willing to give you. He came with blistered feet and streaming eyes, with aching head and broken heart to relieve you. On the craft of a doomed humanity he pushed out into the sea, to pick you off the rock. Who will ever again malign his name? Is there a hand that will ever again be lifted to wound him? If so, let that hand, blood-dipped, be lifted now. Which one of my readers will ever again utter his sacred name in imprecation? If any, now let them speak. Not one! Not one!

One summer among the New England hills there was an evening memorable for storm and darkness. The clouds, which had been all day gathering, at last unlimbered their batteries. The Housatonic, which flows in silence, except as the paddles of pleasure-parties rattle them, was lashed into foam and its waves staggered, not knowing where to lay themselves. The hills jarred at the rumbling of God's chariots. Blinding sheets of rain drove the cattle to the bars, and beat against the window-pane as if to dash it in. The corn-fields crouched in the fury, and the ripened grain-fields threw their crowns of gold at the feet of the storm-king. Its black mantle was rent with the lightnings, and into its locks were twisted the leaves of uprooted oaks, and shreds of canvas torn from the masts of the beached shipping. It was such a night as makes you thank God for shelter, and bids you open the door to let in even the spaniel howling outside with the terror. We went to sleep under the full blast of heaven's great orchestra, and the forests with uplifted voice, in choiring hosts that filled all the side of the mountains, praising the Lord. We waked not until the fingers of the sunny morn touched our eyelids. We looked out and the Housatonic slept as quiet as a baby's dream. Pillars of white cloud set up along the heavens looked like the castles of the blessed, built for hierarchs of heaven on the beach of the azure sea. The trees sparkled as though there had been some great joy in heaven, and each leaf had been God-appointed to catch an angel's tear. It seemed as if God our Father had looked down upon earth, his wayward child, and stooped to her tear-wet cheek, and kissed it.

Even so will the darkness of our country's crime and suffering be lifted. God will roll back the night of storm, and bring in the morning of joy. Its golden light will gild the city spire, and strike the forests of Maine, and tinge the masts of Mobile; and with one end resting upon the Atlantic beach and the other on the Pacific coast, God will spring a great rainbow arch of peace, in token of everlasting covenant that the land shall never again be deluged with crime.