A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.-Hebrew Proverb.
This is what I call debasing the moral currency; lowering the value of every inspiring fact and tradition.-George Eliot.
Many of us must have frequently reflected over the origin, the development, the present meaning, and the probable future of the words composing our great English language. Those who have done so do not need to be reminded of the interest attending the study; nor are they in need of an urgent invitation to continue it.
Doubtless our era is in possession of many more words than are really needed to express its knowledge and feeling. It is, at least, very certain that no individual, in his common speech or writing, ever uses more than a very small proportion of the terms that have come forward into our age. The Century Dictionary contains two hundred and twenty thousand words. As illustrating the comparatively small number in ordinary circulation it may be stated that the Old Testament contains less than six, and the New Testament less than five thousand distinct terms. The Iliad and Odyssey contain about nine thousand. Milton employed eight, and Shakespeare employed about fifteen thousand words to express their thoughts and emotions.
If the two hundred and twenty thousand terms belonging to us were an indication that our knowledge and our reasoning and emotional powers were fifteen times greater than those of Shakespeare, twenty-five times greater than those of Milton, and fifty times greater than those of the translators of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, there would be much cause for self-congratulation. Of course, one would pretend, for a moment, that this is so. It must be admitted that the many discoveries in the vat-ions fields’ of science, the multitude of inventions, and the many new applications of mechanical power, of necessity, have added a great number of pages to our modern dictionaries. In the Standard Dictionary there are nearly four thousand terms used to describe the operations and applications of electricity alone. However, it still remains true that there are many more words than are absolutely necessary for general use. The reserve fund is immense in proportion to the actual circulation of this kind of currency.
Nevertheless,, we may rejoice that’ the treasury is practically inexhaustible. In order to carry on the mental and moral and spiritual commerce of the, world, there is no need of. counterfeiting or, in any way, debasing the circulating medium of exchange. It is not fiat money. It has the laws of nature back of it; and every piece bears the image and superscription, not of a temporary potentate like some Caesar, but an ever reigning sovereign called the Mind of Man.
Were we to find a bag of gold that had been buried in some far-off time, it would, be as valuable as if it had been dug out of a mine today in its original state. Its coins might be of strange denominations; its emblems’ ‘might “be unknown and its inscriptions illegible but the fact that it is gold would settle all disputes concerning its real value. It would only need to be recoined to pass in any market.
The same ancient people pictured the sun as riding in a gorgeous chariot. To the horses which drew the car they gave the name of “Grats.” Be-cause through their efforts, life and beauty and gladness were showered upon earth, these horses were much admired and reverenced by those far-off children of the race. But, after a time, other things were compared with the free and generous movement of these celestial horses. Human beings were sometimes seen to have a similar freedom of movement and generosity of behavior. After a time, the sky horses were forgotten, but their name remained. The Greeks called them “Charites” and the Latins called them “Gratiae. But they were no longer drawing a chariot through the sky, but through human life,a chariot in which rode sweetness, kindness, sympathy and all that made man divine. In our speech those horses reappear in “grace” and “gracious” and “gratitude” and many another term. Grace de-scribes not only rhythmic and light and circular movement,as a leaf fluttering in the breeze, or a waving flag, or a dancing child, or clouds floating above hilltops, or a brook winding through a meadow, or a rainbow arching the sky vault, but it describes a human heart from which all harshness and rigidity and hatred are absent and in which mercy and sweetness abound. Not only so, but it has become one of the great terms of religion. It is used to describe the attitude of God when, having laid aside the scales of strict justice and thrown away the sword of vengeance, He stoops in compassion and forgiveness toward a sad and sinful earth. The term Grace, in theology, is as a summer evening in nature.
But if words expand to make room for a larger, so may they contract to adjust themselves to a smaller meaning. Certain kinds of fruits are capable of two changes. They improve under care ; they degenerate under neglect. The apple, the peach, and the orange have reached their present high condition by cultivation. They came from sour and bitter fruit. Withdraw the cultivation, and, in a few generations, they will revert to their ancestral type. The old sourness and bitterness will come back.
Thus words are sometimes victims of arrested development. Some of them show signs of great deterioration. Our term “cad,” describing one who is ill-bred, is from cadet,the younger son of a noble family. “Boor” once meant a farmer.
“Knave” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning a boy. In the German word, Knabe, its original meaning is still retained. But in English it has deteriorated until it is symbol of habitual dishonesty and trickery. Will the term politics run a similar course? Once it stood for the science of government, and included the whole duty of man as citizen. Under human care the wild rose has become a wonderful blossom. Whether it will ever be permitted to sink back to a single petalled corolla, it would be vain to prophesy. But, if it should, the misfortune would be small compared with that resulting from politics sinking from a noble science of government and citizenship to the cunning art of carrying elections. The term ought to stand for the welfare of eighty millions of people. Too often it is only a symbol of the petty ambitions and vanities and opportunities for gain of a few men. It may shrink until it can no more hold a nation’s welfare than an earthen vase on a window sill could hold one of the giant trees of California or a stagnant wayside pool could contain the Atlantic ocean.
It would be well if this were the only word that has been permitted to degenerate. But this is not the case. When a frost comes in June it does not single out one plant upon which to blow its cold, blighting breath. In some degree the whole gar-den acknowledges its baleful influence. So, not one, alone, but many great terms have been made to suffer. Words are what the soul makes them. If the soul be small or insincere or indifferent, its words soon’ show that some kind of blight has fallen upon them.
In 1860, from Italy, whither he had gone in search of health, but where he remained to die, Theodore Parker wrote a characteristic letter to James Freeman Clark in which he used the expression, “Damaged phraseology.” He used it in connection with the theological import of the word “sin,” then in current use. His argument was that the term had been so long employed in an artificial wayused to describe a condition of humanity that had no existence, outside of theological systems, and in ascribing an infamous character to God that all its real meaning and value were gone. It was so badly damaged by misuse and overuse that it should be retired from active service. Being in a state of insolvency, be-cause it had no thought capital, it ought to be gazetted as a bankrupt and compelled to go out of business.
It is a great art to know when and how to use words ; but it is also well to know when and how not to use them. While one era may make itself famous and even glorious by the use of certain terms, a succeeding age may as greatly distinguish itself by neglecting their use. The reputed saying of Jesus, “new wine must be put in new bottles,” has a perpetual significance.
Many theological terms that did duty in the sixteenth century cannot hold meanings appropriate to the twentieth century. Religion is asking for a new terminology. In our youth much use was made of the phrase “sovereign election.” . It meant that, by an arbitrary decree, God selected a few favorites for salvation. In its original sense there is no more use for the phrase. It should be marked obsolete. It no longer stands for any reality. The truth upon the subject demands a new. form of expression. That which was once regarded as a divine caprice in favor of a few individuals, is better regarded as a universal and constant law. Moses was no more chosen than was Lincoln ; Miriam no more than Florence Nightingale. If Isaiah was inspired, so was Whittier. If Paul was selected to set forth the doctrine of righteousness in Rome and Corinth, none the less was Sumner selected to utter the doctrine of human liberty in Boston and Washington. The same power chose some plants to bloom in most of color and fragrance ; chose some birds to sing in most of sweetness; chose some stars to shine in most of brightness. Thus the old terms in which theologians sought to enclose the idea are no longer adequate.
In the pleasing story, the cloud that had escaped from an urn and overspread the sky could be called back to its prison ; but no magician can compel this earth encompassing idea to return into a theological word. A river may flow into the sea, but a sea cannot flow back into a river. So, a sectarian thought may be swallowed up by the thought of mankind ; but the thought of mankind cannot lose itself in the’ thought of a sect.
The word “Faith” furnishes another illustration. Not very long ago it signified only a mental and emotional attitude regarding certain doctrines. If this kind of faith were present, the soul might be sure of its salvation. It was thus very limited in its meaning and operation. But real faith is not thus circumscribed. It is not private property. In the ancient temple only the high priest was allowed to wear jewels on his breast-plate; but this jewel may be worn on every bosom. Faith is not the acceptance of a church creed. It is rather the moral and spiritual drift of the whole of life out toward some concealed greatness, as we are told the whole solar system is drifting through space, irresistibly drawn by some mighty, but in-visible constellation. Once we were taught that it was only a small oasis in a vast desert upon which a few favorites of heaven were permitted to live in plenty and happiness. Now the sand has retreated on every side; brazen skies have turned to a gentle blue, over which, at times, great clouds float, pouring down earth-rejoicing showers and all nations may reap harvests of salvation. The old word must grow rapidly if it wishes to hold the new meaning.
There are many other religious words whose historical meaning does not fit the present condition. The term “Atonement” must be reopened to receive a larger import. It is not a single act completed in Palestine ; it is rather a world-wide and age-long process. The same thing is true of the word “Inspiration.” It cannot be used to describe only one event. That illumination which produced the sacred books of Judea was not caused by a torch lighted for one spot of earth. It was caused by a sun that shines everywhere. The term “Sacrament” cannot longer signify only that grace which attends some symbols of bread and wine and water. The two acts of the Protestant and the seven acts of the Catholic Church cannot exhaust the meaning of Divine Grace. They are only two or seven branches broken from a great forest. The universe is the true sacrament,visible symbol of an infinite grace and power and beauty.
In a North Carolina village a palm was planted in a greenhouse. For a year or two there was plenty of room. But there came a time when its fronds reached the roof. Then a dome was built over it. For a while there was space enough, but again the dome had to be enlarged.
It is thus with religion. It is outgrowing those houses planned and constructed by the theological architects of former times. Either it must be cut down or the roof must he raised. It may be raised gradually, but it must be raised much. Perhaps no ecclesiastical architect can plan a house large enough to accommodate its growth. It may need to be transplanted where the horizon is its only walls and the sky its only dome.
It is a valuable thing that some churchmen see that the religious heart of our period has moved away from many church terms. There can be no wickedness in the fact itself and no wickedness in recognizing the fact. The mere statement of religion, in value, must be much inferior to religion itself. A silent, but reverent soul in true devotion far surpasses that one engaged in a voluble, but thoughtless repetition of a creed.
History is contained in words; but not all words are of equal importance. The term Liberty holds a much greater meaning than does the term nation. Democrat and Republican cannot equal the word Country. Partisanism is much smaller than Patriotism. It is thus in religion. When the word Catholic or Protestant is pronounced, we think only of one part of earth and a few centuries of time; but when the word Religion is uttered a picture of all times and all places rises before our minds. At the mention of Trinitarian or Unitarian only a few persons are interested ; but when God and Immortality are pronounced all humanity listens. We should never try to crowd the meaning of the word Christian into the word Methodist or Presbyterian.
In the use of words there should always be mental sincerity. An educated person is careful of his pronunciation. But inaccuracy of sound is a small error compared with inaccuracy of meaning. Students are trained to detect a, false quantity in a line of ancient or modern poetry; much more carefully should they be taught to detect and reject a false meaning lurking in some high sounding phrase. Dante said: “‘No rhyme has ever led me into saying other than I would.” At this time it would be wise for all teachers of religion to lay this to heart. The phraesology of a theological system is the last thing to die. The old accustomed words run right on after they have ceased to have any meaning. Preachers often become. victims of their own verbiage. The constant repetition of great phrases cheapens them. Bank cashiers and others, who handle much money lose the sense of its value. The same thing occurs on the part of those who, from habit or from a necessity of their profession, use many religious terms. There are words, great in themselves, and which uttered a few times and only on commanding occasions in a whole lifetime, might cause a heart to thrill, constantly repeated produce no effect whatever. Profanity may be defined as taking the name of God in vain. Hence a voluble, but thoughtless prayer is a form of blasphemy.
Of course there is a charm in mere association. An old piece of furniture or an old book is some-times kept when it has ceased to have any real value. For the same reason words linger after their meaning has gone. Many such terms are found in our theology. They are symbols of thoughts that have ceased to exist.
On the other hand there are those who use more recent phrases in religion with no adequate conception of their meaning. An empty mind cannot fill either a new or an old phrase with any-thing of value. When small men use great terms the incongruity produces a shock. Already the so-called “New Theology” is suffering from thoughtless repetition of its leading terms by those who have learned them by rote from hear-say. Such expressions as: “Our Liberal Religion,” “Our Glorious Freedom,” “Our Advanced Views,” “Our New Thought” concerning God or Bible or Jesus or Heaven or Hell, employed unceasingly by those who, from experience, know nothing about illib- eral religion or theological imprisonment or views that are not advanced, and are not capable of much thought about anything are fast becoming as objectionable as the terms of the old theology.
“What do you read, my Lord?”
“Words, words, words.”
The time is coming when Hamlet’s answer will be as appropriate for him who reads that of the new, as it is now for him who reads the creed of the old theology.
The frequent and thoughtless use of religious phrases is called “cant.” But there may be an unconscious cant. It is simply the mind dominated by habit in its use of words. The line of least resistance is followed. In religious meetings con-ducted by very young persons there is much unconscious hypocrisy. Urged by their elders to take part in the exercises they use religious phrases of whose meaning they cannot have the slightest conception ; they recite experiences through which they could never have passed; they express a sense of sin and a longing for holiness that are purely imitative and artificial.
This is unfortunate, but it is not so bad as conscious cant. Preachers sometimes try to purchase popularity at the cost of verbal sincerity. Heretical in thought, they are orthodox in expression. Not long since a young minister, with a satisfaction amounting almost to glee, said he used all the old orthodox terms, but he did not mean what his deacons thought he meant by them. He did not see that to recite a creed after belief in it has ceased is to mix poison with the soul’s food. Al-though clad in a king’s robe a rogue is still a rogue; and a falsehood is none the less a false-hood even though it is expressed in the stately terms of historic creeds and litanies. There is no such thing as salvation by phraseology. There is only salvation by faith, by truth, by sincerity, by righteousness. If truth is correspondence between things and thought, truth-speaking is correspondence between thoughts and expression. What then shall be said of those masked words sent forth with intent to deceivelike Ehud, with fair exterior, inviting confidence, but carrying a concealed dagger and stabbing unawares ! What of those half libelous, those insinuating words,falsehoods, with just enough of truth in them to make them dangerous ! What of those buffoon words which burlesque every great fact and sacred sentiment and drag all of life down to the level of a low jest!
A distinguishing mark of a great writer is that he shapes his words upon facts. The poet tells what he sees. But life is more than literature. Therefore in our friendships, in our admirations, in our worship it is only when we pour our hearts into our words that we are worthy to be heard. Pretense is always a sign of weakness and vanity. Poor little mortals at best we all are! Can there be anything more laughable or more pitiable than the spectacle of one of us strutting around trying to pass for what he is not? But sad, inexpressibly sad is pretense in religion. To escape this misfortune it is necessary to do something more than repeat its words. Many great terms have come to us from the far past. Like an Amazon or a Mississippi which, beginning in land of pines flows at last in land of palms, growing wider and deeper as it goes, so are the great words of a spiritual religion :
“Words that have drawn transcendent meanings up
From the best passion of all bygone time,
Steeped through with tears of triumph and remorse,
Sweet with all sainthood, cleansed in martyr fires.”
These we may use as symbols of our faith ; but let us first be sure that they stand for something real in our life. May they be urns into which the soul pours its truest thoughts, its holiest emotions, and its farthest reaching expectations.