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HENRY WARD BEECHER AND HIS
S there anything in America more peculiar to America, or
more curious in itself, than one of our “fashionable ” Protestant churches, such as we see in New York, on the Fifth Avenue and in the adjacent streets? The lion and the lamb in the Millennium will not lie down together more lovingly than the Church and the World have blended in these singular establish ments. We are far from objecting to the coalition, but note it only as something curious, new, and interesting.
We enter an edifice, upon the interior of which the upholsterer and the cabinet-maker have exhausted the resources of their trades. The word “subdued” describes the effect at which those artists have aimed. The woods employed are costly and rich, but usually of a sombre hue, and, though elaborately carved, are frequently unpolished. The light which comes through the stained windows, or through the small diamond panes, is of that description which is eminently the “dim, religious.” Every part of the floor is thickly carpeted. The pews differ little from sofas, except in being more comfortable, and the cushions for the feet or the knees are as soft as hair and cloth can make them. It is a fashion, at present, to put the organ out of sight, and to have a clock so unobtrusive as not to be observed. Galleries are now viewed with an unfriendly eye by the projectors of churches, and they are going out of use. Everything in the way of conspicuous lighting apparatus, such as the gorgeous and dazzling chandeliers of fifteen years ago, and the translucent globes of later date, is discarded, and an attempt is sometimes made to hide the vulgar fact that the church is ever open in the evening. In a word the design of the fashionable church-builder of the present mo ment is to produce a richly furnished, quietly adorned, dimly illuminated, ecclesiastical parlor, in which a few hundred ladies and gentlemen, attired in kindred taste, may sit perfectly at their ease, and see no object not in harmony with the scene around them.
To say that the object of these costly and elegant arrangements is to repel poor people would be a calumny. On the contrary, persons who show by their dress and air that they exercise the less remunerative vocations are as politely shown to seats as those who roll up to the door in carriages, and the presence of such persons is desired, and, in many instances, systematically sought. Nevertheless, the poor are repelled. They know they cannot pay their proportion of the expense of maintaining such establishments, and they do not wish to enjoy what others pay for. Everything in and around the church seems to proclaim it a kind of exclusive ecclesiastical club, designed for the accommodation of persons of ten thousand dollars a year, and upward. Or it is as though the carriages on the Road to Heaven were divided into first-class, second-class, and third-class, and a man either takes the one that accords with his means, or denies himself the advantage of travelling that road, or prefers to trudge along on foot, an independent wayfarer.
It is Sunday morning, and the doors of this beautiful drawing. room are thrown open. Ladies dressed with subdued magniticence glide in, along with some who have not been able to leave at home the showier articles of their wardrobe. Black silk, black velvet, black lace, relieved by intimations of brighter colors, and by gleams from half-hidden jewelry, are the materials most employed. Gentlemen in uniform of black cloth and white linen announce their coming by the creaking of their boots, quenched in the padded carpeting. It cannot be said of these churches, as Mr. Carlyle remarked of certain London ones, that a pistol could De fired into a window across the church without much danger of bitting a Christian. The attendance is not generally very large; but as the audience is evenly distributed over the whole sur face, it looks larger than it is. In a commercial city everything is apt to be measured by the commercial standard, and accordingly a church numerically weak, but financially strong, ranks, in the estimation of the town, not according to its number of souls, but its number of dollars. We heard a fine young fellow, last summer full of zeal for everything high and good, conclude a glowing account of a sermon by saying that it was the direct means of adding to the church a capital of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. He meant nothing low or mercenary; he honestly exulted in the fact that the power and influence attached to the possession of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars were thenceforward to be exerted on behalf of objects which he esteemed the highest. If therefore the church before our view cannot boast of a numerous attendance, it more than consoles itself by the reflection, that there are a dozen names of talismanic power in Wall Street on its list of members.
“ But suppose the Doctor should leave you ? ” objected a friend of ours to a trustee, who had been urging him to buy a pew in a fashionable church.
“Well, my dear sir," was the business-like reply; “suppose he should. We should immediately engage the very first talent which money can command.”
We can hardly help taking this simple view of things in rich commercial cities. Our worthy trustee merely put the thing on the correct basis. He frankly said what every church does, ought to do, and must do. He stated a universal fact in the plain and sensible language to which he was accustomed. In the same way these business-like Christians have borrowed the language of the Church, and speak of men who are “good” for a million. The congregation is assembled. The low mumble of the organ
A female voice rises melodiously above the rustle of dry-goods and the whispers of those who wear them. So sweet and powerful is it, that a stranger might almost suppose it borrowed from the choir of heaven; but the inhabitants of the town recognize it as one they have often heard at concerts or at the opera; and they listen critically, as to a professional performance, which it is. It is well that highly artificial siuging prevents the hearer from catching the words of the song; for it woulo have rather an odd effect to hear rendered, in the modern Italian style, such plain straightforward words as these :