The Abominations of Modern Society

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


The inhabitants of one of the old cities were told that they would have to flee for their lives. Such flight would be painful, even in the flush of spring-time—but superlatively aggravating if in cold weather; and therefore they were told to pray that their flight be not in the winter. There is something in the winter season, which not only tests our physical endurance—but, especially in the city, tries our moral character. It is the winter months that ruin, morally, and forever, many of our young men. We sit in the house on a winter's night, and hear the storm raging on the outside, and imagine the helpless crafts driven on the coast; but if our ears were only good enough, we could, on any winter night, hear the crash of a hundred moral shipwrecks.

Many who came last September to town, by the first of March will have been blasted. It only takes one winter to ruin a young man. When the long winter evenings have come, many of our young men will improve them in forming a more intimate acquaintance with books, contracting higher social friendships, and strengthening and ennobling their characters. But not so with all. I will show you before I get through that, at this season of the year, temptations are especially rampant: and my counsel is, Look out how you spend your winter nights! I remark, first, that there is no season of the year in which vicious allurements are so active. In warm weather, places of dissipation win their tamest triumphs. People do not feel like going, in the hot nights of summer, among the blazing gas-lights, or breathing the fetid air of assemblages. The receipts of the grog-shops in a December night are three times what they are in any night in July or August. I doubt not there are larger audiences in the casinos in winter than in the summer weather. Iniquity plies a more profitable trade. December, January, and February are harvest-months for the devil. The play-bills of the base entertainments then are more charming, the acting is more exquisite, the enthusiasm of the spectators more bewitching.

Many a young man who makes out to keep right the rest of the year, capsizes now. When he came to town in the autumn, his eye was bright, his cheek rosy, his step elastic; but, before spring, as you pass him you will say to your friend, "What is the matter with that young man?" The fact is that one winter of dissipation has done the work of ruin. This is the season for parties; and, if they are of the right kind, our social nature is improved, and our spirits cheered up. But many of them are not of the right kind; and our young people, night after night, are kept in the whirl of unhealthy excitement until their strength fails, and their spirits are broken down, and their taste for ordinary life is corrupted; and, by the time the spring weather comes, they are in the doctor's hands—or sleeping in the cemetery! The certificate of their death is made out, and the physician, out of regard for the family, calls the disease by some Latin name, when the truth is, that they died of too many parties. Away with these wine-drinking convivialities! How dare you, the father of a household, trifle with the appetites of our young people? Perhaps, out of regard for the minister, or some other weak temperance man, you have the decanter in a side-room, where, after refreshments, only a select few are invited; and you come back with a glare in your eye, and a stench in your breath, that shows that you have been out serving the devil.

Someone asks, "For what purpose are these people gone into that side-room?" "O," replies one who has just come out, smacking his lips, "they have gone in to see the white dog!" The excuse which Christian men often give for this is, that it is necessary, after such late eating, by some sort of stimulant to help digestion. My plain opinion is, that if a man has no more control over his appetite than to stuff himself until his digestive organs refuse to do their office, he ought not to call himself a man—but rather to class himself among the beasts! I take the words of the Lord Almighty, and cry, "Woe to him that puts the bottle to his neighbor's lips!"

Young man, take it as the counsel of a friend, when I bid you be cautious where you spend your winter evenings. Thank God that you have lived to see the glad winter days in which your childhood was made cheerful by the faces of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, some of whom, alas! will never again wish you a "happy New Year," or a "Merry Christmas." Let no one tempt you out of your sobriety. I have seen respectable young men of the best families drunk on New Year's day. The excuse they gave for the inebriation, was that the ladies insisted on their taking it. There have been instances where the delicate hand of woman has kindled a young man's taste for strong drink, who after many years, when the attractions of that holiday scene were all forgotten, crouched in her rags, and her desolation, and her woe under the uplifted hand of the drunken monster who, on that Christmas morning so long ago, took the glass from her hand! And so, the woman stands on the abutment of the bridge, on the moon-lit night, wondering if, down under the water, there is not some quiet place for a broken heart. She takes one wild leap—and all is over!

Ah! mingle not with the harmless beverage of your festive scene—this poison of adders! Mix not with the white sugar of the cup—the snow of this awful leprosy! Mar not the clatter of cutlery at the holiday feast with the clank of a madman's chain! Stop and look into the window of that pawnbroker's shop. Elegant furs. Elegant watches. Elegant scarfs. Elegant flutes. People stand with a pleased look gazing at these things; but I look in with a shudder, as though I had seen into a window of hell. Whose elegant watch was that? It was a drunkard's watch! Whose furs? They belonged to a drunkard's wife! Whose flute? Whose shoes? Whose scarf? They belonged to a drunkard's child! If I could, I would take the three brazen balls hanging at the door-way, and clang them together until they tolled the awful knell of the drunkard's soul. The pawnbroker's shop is only one eddy of the great stream of municipal drunkenness. Stand back, young man! Take not the first step in the path which leads here. Let not the flame of strong drink ever scorch your tongue!

You may tamper with these things and escape—but your influence will be wrong. Can you not make a sacrifice for the good of others? When the good ship London went down, the captain was told that there was a way of escape in one of the life-boats. He said—"No; I will go down with the rest of the passengers!" All the world acknowledged that heroism. Can you not deny yourself insignificant indulgences, for the good of others? Be not allured by the fact that you drink only the moderate beverages. You take only ale; and a man has to drink a large amount of it to become intoxicated. Yes; but there is not in all the city today, an inebriate who did not begin with ale.

"30:" What does that mark mean? 30 on the beer-barrel: 30 on the brewer's dray: 30 on the door of the gin-shop: 30 on the side of the bottle. Not being able to find any one who could tell me what this mark means, I have had to guess that the whole thing was an allegory: "XXX"—that is, thirty heartbreaks. Thirty agonies. Thirty desolated homes. Thirty chances for a drunkard's grave. Thirty ways to perdition. "30." If I were going to write a story, the first chapter would be "30"; the last—"A pawnbroker's shop." Be watchful! At this season, all the allurements to dissipation will be especially busy. Let not your flight to hell, be in the winter!

I also remark that the winter evenings, through their very length, allow great swing for indulgences. Few young men would have the taste to go to their room at seven o'clock, and sit until eleven, reading Motley's Dutch Republic or John Foster's Essays. The young men who have been confined to the store all day want fresh air and sight-seeing; and they must go somewhere. The most of them have, of a winter's evening, three or four hours of leisure. After the evening meal, the young man puts on his hat and coat and goes out. "Come in here," cries one form of allurement. "Come in here," cries another. "Go!" says Satan. "You ought to see for yourself." "Why don't you go?" says a comrade. "It is a shame for a young man to be as green as you are. By this time you ought to have seen everything."

Especially is temptation strong in such times as this, when business is dull. I have noticed that men spend more money—when they have little to spend. The tremendous question to be settled by our great populace, day by day, is how to get a livelihood. Many of our young men, just starting for themselves, are very much discouraged. They had hoped before this to have set up a household of their own. But their gains have been slow, and their discouragements many. The young man can hardly take care of himself. How can he take care of another? And, to the curse of modern society, before a young man is able to set up a home of his own, he is expected to have enough to support in idleness somebody else; when God intended that they should begin together, and jointly earn a livelihood. So, many of our young men are utterly discouraged, and utterly unfit to resist temptation. The time the pirate bears down upon the ship is when its sails are down and it is making no headway.

People wish they had more time to think. The trouble is now, that people have too much time to think. Give to many of our commercial men the four hours of these winter nights, with nothing to divert them, and before spring they will have lodgings in an insane asylum. I remark further, that the winter is especially trying to the moral character of our young men, because some of their homes in winter are especially unattractive. In summer they can sit on the steps, or have a bouquet in the vase on the mantel; and the evenings are so short that soon after gas-light they feel like retiring. Parents do not take enough pains to make these long winter nights attractive. It is strange that old people know so little about young people. One would think that they had never been young themselves—but had been born with their spectacles on. It is dolorous for young people to spend the three or four hours of a winter's evening with parents who sit talking over their own ailments and misfortunes, and the nothingness of this world. How dare you talk such blasphemy? God was busy six days in making the world, and has allowed it to hang six thousand years on his holy heart; and that world has fed you, and clothed you, and shone on you for fifty years: and yet you talk about the nothingness of this world! Do you expect the young people in your family to sit a whole evening and hear you groan about this magnificent, star-lighted, sun-warmed, shower-baptized, flower-strewn, angel-watched, God-inhabited planet? From such homes young men make a wild plunge into dissipation.

Many of you have the means: why do you not buy them a violin or a picture? or have your daughter cultured in music until she can help to make home attractive? There are ten thousand ways of lighting up the domestic circle. It requires no large income, no big house, no rich wardrobe, no expensive silver, no gorgeous upholstery—but only a parental heart awake to its duty. Have a doleful home—and your children will not stay in it, though you block up the door with Bibles, and tie fast to them a million Heidelberg catechisms!

I said to a man, "This is a beautiful tree in front of your house." He answered, with a whine, "Yes; but it will fade." I said to him, "You have a beautiful garden." He replied, "Yes; but it will perish." I found out afterward that his son was a vagabond, and I was not surprised at it. You cannot groan men into decency—but you can groan them out. "Pray that your flight be not in the winter!"

Devote these December, January and February evenings to high pursuits, innocent amusements, intelligent socialities, and Christian attainments. Do not waste this winter. We shall soon have seen the last snow-shower, and have passed up into the companionship of Him whose raiment is exceeding white as snow—as no launderer on earth can whiten it. To the right-hearted, the winter nights of earth—will soon end in the June morning of heaven. The River of God, from under the Throne, never freezes over. The foliage of the tree of life is never frost-bitten. The festivals, and hilarities, and family gatherings of Christmas times on earth, will give way to the larger reunions, and the brighter lights, and the gladder scenes, and the sweeter garlands, and the richer feastings of the great holiday of Heaven!