The Abominations of Modern Society

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


It is the celebration of Herod's birthday. The palace is lighted. The highways leading thereto are ablaze with the pomp of invited guests. Lords, captains, merchant princes, and the mightiest men of the realm, are on the way to mingle in the festivities. The tables are filled with all the luxuries that the royal purveyors can gather—spiced wines, and fruits, and rare meats. The guests, white-robed, anointed and perfumed, take their places. Music! The jests evoke roars of laughter. Riddles are propounded. Repartees indulged. Toasts drunk. The brain befogged. Wit gives place to uproar and blasphemy. And yet they are not satisfied. Give us more music. Sound the instruments. Clear the floor for the dance! Bring in Salome, the graceful and accomplished princess. The doors are opened and in bounds the dancer. Stand back and give plenty of room for the gyrations. The men are enchanted. They never saw such poetry of motion. Their souls whirl in the reel, and bound with the bounding feet. Herod forgets crown and throne— everything but the fascinations of Salome. The magnificence of his realm is as nothing, compared with that which now whirls before him on tiptoe. His heart is in transport with Salome, as she dances before him. He sways with every motion of the enchantress. He thrills with the quick pulsations of her feet, and is bewitched with the posturing and attitudes that he never saw before, in a moment exchanged for others just as amazing. He sits in silence before the whirling, bounding, leaping, flashing wonder! And when the dance stops, and the tinkling cymbals pause, and the long, loud plaudits that shook the palace with their thunders had abated, the entranced monarch swears unto the princely performer: "Whatever you shall ask of me—I will give it to you—up to the half of my kingdom!"

Now there was in prison a minister by the name of John the Baptist, who had made much trouble by his honest preaching. He had denounced the sins of the king, and brought down upon himself the wrath of the females in the royal family. At the instigation of her mother, Salome takes advantage of the king's extravagant promise, and demands the head of John the Baptist on a dinner-plate.

There is a sound of heavy feet, and the clatter of swords outside of the palace. Swing back the door! The executioners are returning, from their awful errand. They hand a platter to Salome. What is that on the platter? A new jug of wine to rekindle the mirth of the lords? No! It is redder than wine, and costlier. It is the ghastly, bleeding head of John the Baptist! Its locks dabbled in gore. Its eyes set in the death-stare. The distress of the last agony in the features. That fascinating form, that just now swayed so gracefully in the dance, bends over the horrid head without a shudder. She gloats over the blood; and just as the maid of your household goes, bearing out on a tray the empty glasses of the evening's entertainment, so she carried out on a platter the dissevered head of that godly man, while all the banqueters shouted, and thought it a grand joke, that, in such a brief and easy way, they had freed themselves from such a plain-spoken, troublesome minister!

What could be more innocent than a birthday festival? All the kings from the time of Pharaoh had celebrated such days; and why not Herod? It was right that the palace should be lighted, and that the cymbals should clap, and that the royal guests should go to a banquet; but, before the rioting and revelry which closed the scene of that day, every pure nature revolts. Behold the work, the influence, and the end of an infamous dancer!

I am, by natural temperament and Bible truth, utterly opposed to the position of those who are horrified at every demonstration of mirth and playfulness in social life, and who seem to think that everything, decent and immortal, depends upon the style in which people carry their feet. On the other hand, I can see nothing but ruin, moral and physical, in the dissipations of the ball-room, which has despoiled thousands of young men and women, of all that gives dignity to character, or usefulness to life.

Dancing has been styled "the graceful movement of the body adjusted by art, to the measures or tune of instruments, or of the voice." All nations have danced. In other days there were festal dances, and funeral dances, and military dances, and bacchanalian dances. Queens and lords have swayed to and fro in their gardens; and the rough men of the backwoods in this way, have roused up the echo of the forest. There seems to be something in lively and coherent sounds, to evoke the movement of hand and foot, whether cultured or uncultured. Men passing the street unconsciously keep step to the music of the band; and Christians in church unconsciously find themselves keeping time with their feet, while their soul is uplifted by some great harmony.

Not only is this true in cultured life—but the native Indians of America have their scalp dances, and green-corn dances, and war dances. It is, therefore, no abstract question that you ask me—Is it right to dance? The ancient fathers, aroused by the indecent dances of those days, gave emphatic evidence against any participation in the dance. Chrysostom says, "The feet were not given for dancing—but to walk modestly; not to leap impudently like camels." One of the dogmas of the ancient church reads: "A dance is the devil's possession; and he who enters into a dance, enters into his possession. As many passes as a man makes in dancing, so many passes does he make to hell." Elsewhere, these old dogmas declare, "The woman who sings in the dance is the princess of the devil; and those who answer are his clerks; and the beholders are his friends, and the music are his bellows, and the fiddlers are the ministers of the devil; for, as when hogs are strayed, if the hog-herder calls one, all assemble together, so the devil calls one woman to sing in the dance, or to play on some instrument, then presently all the dancers gather together."

This wholesale and indiscriminate denunciation grew out of the utter dissoluteness of those ancient plays. So great at one time was the offence to all decency, that the Roman Senate decreed the expulsion of all dancers and dancing-masters from Rome. Yet we are not to discuss the customs of that day—but the customs of the present. We cannot let the fathers decide the question for us. Our reason, enlightened by the Bible, shall be the standard. I am not ready to excommunicate all those who lift their feet beyond a certain height. I would not visit our youth with a rigor of criticism that would put out all their ardor of soul. I do not believe that all the inhabitants of Wales, who used to step to the sound of the rustic pibcorn, went down to ruin. I would give to all of our youth the right to romp and play. God meant it, or he would not have surcharged our natures with such exuberance. If a mother joins hands with her children, and while the eldest strikes the keys, and they fill all the house with the sound of agile feet, I see no harm. If a few friends, gathered in happy circle, conclude to cross and recross the room to the sound of the piano well played, I see no harm. I for a long while tried to see in it a harm—but I never could, and I probably never will.

I wish that men could keep young for a greater length of time. Never since my school-boy days have I loved so well as now, the hilarities of life. What if we have felt heavy burdens, and suffered a multitude of hard knocks—is it any reason why we should stand in the path of those who, unstung by life's misfortunes, are exhilarated and full of glee? God bless the young! They will have to live many a day if they want to hear me say one word to dampen their ardor or clip their wings, or to throw a cloud upon their life by telling them that it is hard, and dark, and doleful. It is no such thing. You will meet with many a trial; but, speaking from my own experience, let me tell you that you will be treated a great deal better than you deserve. Let us not grudge to the young their joy.

As we go further on in life, let us go with the remembrance, that we have had our gleeful days. When old age frosts our locks, and stiffens our limbs, let us not block up the way—but say, "We had our good times—now let others have theirs." As our children come on, let us cheerfully give them our places. How glad will I be to let them have everything —my house, my books, my place in society, my heritage! By the time we get old, we will have had our way long enough. Then let our children come on and we'll have it their way. For thirty, forty, or fifty years, we have been drinking from the cup of life; and we ought not to complain if called to pass the cup along and let others take a drink.

But, while we have a right to the innocent enjoyments of life—we never will countenance sinful indulgences. I here set forth a group of what might be called the dissipations of the ball-room. They swing an awful scythe of death. Are we to stand idly by, and let the work go on, lest in the rebuke we tread upon the long trail of some popular vanity? The whirlpool of the ball-room drags down the life, the beauty, and the moral worth of the city. In this whirlwind of imported silks, goes out the life of many of our best families. Innumerable bodies and souls are annually consumed in this conflagration of ribbons. This style of dissipation is the abettor of pride, the instigator of jealousy, the sacrificial altar of health, the defiler of the soul, the avenue of lust, and the curse of the town. The tread of this wild, intoxicating, heated midnight dance, jars all the moral hearthstones of the city. The physical ruin is evident. What will become of those who work all day—and dance all night? A few years will turn them out nervous, exhausted imbeciles. Those who have given up their midnights to spiced wines—will at last be recorded suicides. There is but a short step from the ball-room to the grave-yard! There are diseases and fierce neuralgias close on the track. Amid that glittering maze of ball-room splendors, diseases stand right and left. A sepulchral breath floats up amid the perfume, and the froth of death's lip bubbles up in the champagne.

Many of our brightest homes are being sacrificed. There are families that have actually quit keeping house, and gone to boarding, that they may give themselves more exclusively to the higher duties of the ball-room. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, finding their highest enjoyment in the dance, bid farewell to books, to quiet culture, to all the amenities of home. The father will, after a while, go down into lower dissipations. The son will be tossed about in society, a nonentity. The daughter will elope with a French dancing-master. The mother, still trying to stay in the glitter, and by every art attempting to keep the color in her cheek, and the wrinkles off her brow, attempting, without any success, all the arts of the belle,—an old flirt, a poor, miserable butterfly without any wings.

The first time you find these faithful disciples of the ball-room diligently engaged and happy in the duties of the home circle, send me word, for I would go a great way to see such a phenomenon. These creatures have no home. Their children unwashed. Their furniture undusted. Their china closets disordered. The house a scene of confusion, misrule, cheerlessness, and dirt. One would think you might discover even amid the witcheries of the ball-room, the sickening odors of the unswept, unventilated, and unclean domestic apartments. These dissipations extinguish all love of usefulness. How could you expect one to be interested in the alleviations of the world's misery, while there is a question to be decided about the size of a glove or the shade of a pongee? How many of these men and women of the ball-room visit the poor, or help dress the wounds of a returned soldier in the hospital? When did the world ever see a perpetual dancer distributing tracts?

Such people are turned in upon themselves. And it is very poor pasture! This gilded sphere is utterly bedwarfing to intellect and soul. This constant study of petty things; this harassing anxiety about dress; this talk of fashionable infinitesimals; this shoe-pinched, hair-frizzled, fringe-spattered group—who simper and look askance at the mirrors and wonder, with infinity of interest, "how that one geranium leaf does look on my dress?;" this shrivelling up of man's moral dignity, until it is no more observable with the naked eye; this taking of a woman's heart, that God meant should be filled with all amenities, and compressing it until all the fragrance, and simplicity, and artlessness are squeezed out of it; this inquisition of a small shoe; this agony of tight lacing; this wrapping up of mind and heart in a ruffle; this tumbling down of a soul that God meant for great upliftings!

I prophesy the spiritual ruin of all participators in this rivalry! Has the polished, glistening dance floor, ever been the road to heaven? Who at the flash of those chandeliers, has kindled a torch for eternity? From that excited and besweated scene—who went home to say his prayers?

To many, alas! this life is a masquerade ball. As, at such entertainments, gentlemen and ladies appear in the dress of kings or queens, mountain bandits or clowns, and at the close of the dance throw off their disguises; so, in this dissipated life, all impure passions move in mask. Across the floor they trip merrily. The lights sparkle along the wall, or drop from the ceiling. The music charms. The diamonds glitter. The feet bound. Gemmed hands, stretched out, clasp gemmed hands. Dancing feet respond to dancing feet. Gleaming brow bends low to gleaming brow. On with the dance! Flash, and rustle, and laughter, and immeasurable merry-making!

But the languor of death comes over the limbs, and blurs the sight. Lights lower! Floor hollow with sepulchral echo. Music saddens into a wail. Lights lower! The maskers can hardly now be seen. Flowers exchange their fragrance for a sickening odor, such as comes from garlands that have lain in vaults of cemeteries. Lights lower! Mists fill the room. Glasses rattle as though shaken by sullen thunder. Sighs seem caught among the curtains. Scarf falls from the shoulder of beauty—a shroud! Lights lower! Over the polished dance floor, in dance of death—glide jealousies, disappointments, lust, despair. Torn leaves and withered garlands only half hide the ulcered feet. The stench of smoking lamp-wicks almost quenched. Choking damps. Chilliness. Feet still. Hands folded. Eyes shut. Voices hushed. LIGHTS OUT!