The Abominations of Modern Society

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

Lies—White and Black

There are ten thousand ways of telling a lie. A man's entire life may be a falsehood, while with his lips he may not once directly falsify. There are those who state what is positively untrue—but afterwards say, "may be," softly. These departures from the truth are called "little white lies;" but there is really no such thing as a little white lie. The whitest lie that was ever told—was as black as perdition! No inventory of public crimes will be sufficient, which omits this gigantic abomination. There are men, high in Church and State, actually useful, self-denying, and honest in many things, who, upon certain subjects, and in certain spheres, are not at all to be depended upon for veracity. Indeed, there are multitudes of men who have their notions of truthfulness so thoroughly perverted, that they do not know when they are lying. With many it is a cultivated sin; with some it seems a natural infirmity. I have known people who seemed to have been born liars. The falsehoods of their lives extended from cradle to grave. Prevarication, misrepresentation, and dishonesty of speech, appeared in their first utterances and was as natural to them as any of their infantile diseases, and was a sort of moral croup or spiritual scarlet-fever.

But many have been placed in circumstances where this tendency has day by day, and hour by hour, been called to larger development. They have gone from attainment to attainment, and from class to class, until they have become persistent liars. The air of the city is filled with falsehoods. They hang pendent from the chandeliers of our finest residences; they crowd the shelves of some of our merchant princes; they fill the side-walk from curb-stone to brown-stone facing. They cluster around the mechanic's hammer, and blossom from the end of the merchant's yard-stick, and sit in the doors of churches.

Some call them subterfuges, disguises, delusions, evasions, pretenses, fables, deceptions, misrepresentations; but, as I am ignorant of anything to be gained by the hiding of a God-defying outrage under a lexicographer's blanket, I shall chiefly call them what my father taught me to call them—lies! I shall divide them into agricultural, mercantile, mechanical, and ecclesiastical lies; leaving those which are professional, social, and political—for some other chapter.

First, then, I will speak of those lies, which are more particularly agricultural. There is something in the perpetual presence of natural objects to make a man pure. The trees never issue "false stock." Wheat-fields are always honest. Rye and oats never move out in the night, not paying for the place they have occupied. Corn shocks never make false assignments. Mountain brooks are always "current." The gold on the grain is never counterfeit. The sunrise never flaunts in false colors. The dew sports only genuine diamonds. Taking farmers as a class, I believe they are truthful, and fair in dealing, and kind-hearted. But the regions surrounding our cities do not always send this sort of men to our markets. Day by day there creak through our streets, and about the market-houses, farm wagons that have not an honest spoke in their wheels, or a truthful rivet from tongue to tail-board. During the last few years there have been times when domestic economy has foundered on the farmer's firkin.

Rural districts are accustomed to rail at great cities, as given up to fraud and every form of unrighteousness; but our cities do not absorb all the abominations. Our citizens have learned the importance of not always trusting to the size and style of apples in the top of a farmer's barrel, as an indication of what may be found farther down. Many of our people are accustomed to watch to see how correctly a bushel of beets is measured; and there are not many honest milk-cans. Deceptions do not all cluster around city halls. When our cities sit down and weep over their sins, all the surrounding counties ought to come in and weep with them. There is often hostility on the part of producers against traders, as though the man who raises the corn were necessarily more honorable than the grain dealer, who pours it into his mammoth bin. There ought to be no such hostility. The occupation of one is as necessary as that of the other. Yet producers often think it no wrong, to snatch away from the trader; and they say to the bargain-maker, "You get your money easy." Do they get it easy? Let those who in the quiet field and barn get their living, exchange places with those who stand today amid the excitements of commercial life, and see if they find it so very easy. While the farmer goes to sleep with the assurance that his corn and barley will be growing all the night, moment by moment adding to his revenue, the merchant tries to go to sleep, conscious that that moment his cargo may be broken on the rocks, or damaged by the wave which sweeps clear across the hurricane deck; or that the gold gamblers may, that very hour, be plotting some monetary revolution, or the burglars be prying open his safe, or his debtors fleeing the town, or his landlord raising the rent, or the fires kindling on the block that contains all his estate. Easy! is it? God help the merchants! It is hard to have the palms of the hand blistered with out-door work; but a more dreadful process when, through mercantile anxieties, the brain is consumed!

In the next place we notice mercantile lies, those before the counter and behind the counter. I will not attempt to specify the different forms of commercial falsehood. There are merchants who excuse themselves for deviation from truthfulness, because of what they call commercial custom. In other words, the multiplication and universality of a sin—turns it into a virtue!

There are thousands of fortunes made in commercial spheres that are thoroughly righteous. God will let his favor rest upon every scroll, every pictured wall, every traceried window; and the joy that flashes from the lights, and showers from the music, and dances in the children's quick feet, pattering through the hall, will utter the congratulation of men and the approval of God. A merchant can, to the last item, be thoroughly honest. There is never any need of falsehood. Yet how many will, day by day, hour by hour, utter what they know to be wrong. You say that you are selling at less than cost. If so, then it is right to say it. But did that item actually cost you less than what you ask for it? If not, then you have lied. You say that article cost you twenty-five dollars. Did it? If so, then all right. If it did not, then you have lied.

Suppose you are a purchaser. You are "beating down" the goods. You say that that article, for which five dollars is charged, is not worth more than four. Is it worth no more than four dollars? Then all right. If it is worth more, and, for the sake of getting it for less than its value, you willfully depreciate it, you have lied. You may call it a sharp trade. The recording angel writes it down on the ponderous tomes of eternity, "Mr. So and So, merchant on Water street, told one lie."

You may consider it insignificant, because relating to an insignificant purchase. You would despise the man who would falsify in regard to some great matter, in which the city or the whole country was concerned; but this is only a box of buttons, or a row of pins, or a case of needles. Be not deceived. The article purchased may be so small you can put it in your vest pocket—but the sin was bigger than the Pyramids, and the echo of the dishonor will reverberate through all the mountains of eternity.

You throw out on your counter some specimens of handkerchiefs. Your customer asks, "Is that all silk? no cotton in it?" You answer, "It is all silk." Was it all silk? If so, all right. But was it partly cotton? Then you have lied. Moreover, you lost by the falsehood. The customer, though he may live at Lynn, or Doylestown, or Poughkeepsie, will find out that you defrauded him, and next spring, when he again comes shopping, he will look at your sign and say: "I will not try there. That is the place where I got that handkerchief." So that, by that one dishonest bargain—you picked your own pocket—and insulted the Almighty!

Would you dare to make an estimate of how many falsehoods in trade were yesterday told by hardware men, and clothiers, and fruit-dealers, and dry-goods establishments, and importers, and jewelers, and lumbermen, and coal-merchants, and stationers? Lies about saddles, about buckles, about ribbons, about carpets, about gloves, about coats, about shoes, about hats, about watches, about carriages, about books—about everything! In the name of the Lord Almighty, I arraign commercial falsehoods, as one of the greatest of abominations in city and town.

In the next place, I notice mechanical lies. There is no class of men who administer more to the welfare of the city than artisans. To their hand we must look for the building that shelters us, for the garments that clothe us, for the car that carries us. They wield a widespread influence. We have the right to expect of those stalwart men of toil—the highest possible integrity. Many of them answer all our expectations, and stand at the front of religious and philanthropic enterprises.

But this class, like the others that I have named, has in it those who lack in the element of veracity. They cannot all be trusted. In times when the demand for labor is great, it is impossible to meet the demands of the public, or do work with that promptness and perfection that would at other times be possible. But there are mechanics whose word cannot be trusted at any time. No man has a right to promise more work than he can do. There are mechanics who say that they will come Monday—but they do not come until Wednesday. You put work in their hands that they tell you shall be completed in ten days—but it is thirty. There have been houses built of which it might be said that every nail driven, every foot of plastering put on, every yard of pipe laid, every shingle hammered, every brick mortared, could tell of falsehood connected therewith. There are men attempting to do ten or fifteen pieces of work—who have not the time or strength to do more than five or six pieces; but by promises never fulfilled keep all the undertakings within their own grasp. This is what they call "nursing" the job. How much wrong to his soul and insult to God a mechanic would save, if he promised only so much as he expected to be able to do.

Society has no right to ask of you impossibilities. You cannot always calculate correctly, and you may fail because you cannot get the help that you anticipate. But now I am speaking of the willful making of promises that you know you cannot keep. Did you say that that shoe would be mended, that coat repaired, those bricks laid, that harness sewed, that door grained, that spout fixed, or that window glazed—by Saturday; knowing that you would neither be able to do it yourself nor get any one else to do it? Then, before God and man, you are a liar! You may say that it makes no particular difference, and that if you had told the truth you would have lost the job, and that people expect to be disappointed. But that excuse will not answer. There is a voice of thunder rolling among the drills, and planes, and shoe-lasts, and shears, which says: "All liars shall have their place in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone!"

I next notice ecclesiastical lies; that is, falsehoods told for the purpose of advancing churches and sects, or for the purpose of depleting them. There is no use in asking many a Calvinist what an Arminian believes, for he will be apt to tell you that the Arminian believes that a man can convert himself; or to ask the Arminian what the Calvinist believes, for he will tell you that the Calvinist believes that God made some men just to damn them. There is no need of asking a pedo-Baptist what a Baptist believes, for he will be apt to say that the Baptist believes immersion to be positively necessary to salvation. It is almost impossible for one denomination of Christians, without prejudice or misrepresentation, to state the sentiment of an opposing sect. If a man hates Presbyterians, and you ask him what Presbyterians believe, he will tell you that they believe that there are infants in hell a span long.

It is astonishing also, how individual churches will sometimes make misstatements about other individual churches. It is especially so in regard to falsehoods told with reference to prosperous enterprises. As long as a church is feeble, and the singing is discordant, and the minister, through the poverty of the church, must go with threadbare coat, and here and there a worshiper sits in the end of a pew—having all the seat to himself, religious sympathizers of other churches will say, "What a pity!" But, let a great day of prosperity come, and even ministers of the gospel, who ought to be rejoiced at the largeness and extent of the work—they begin to denounce, and misrepresent, and falsify! How long before we shall learn to be fair in our religious criticisms! The keenest jealousies on earth are church jealousies. The field of Christian work is so large that there is no need that our hoe-handles hit.

May God extirpate from the world—ecclesiastical lies, commercial lies, mechanical lies, and agricultural lies, and make every man, the world over, to speak truth with his neighbor!