The next morning, it being again necessary for Edith to report at her post of duty, I accompanied her to the railway station. While we stood waiting for the train my attention was drawn to a distinguished-looking man who alighted from an incoming car. He appeared by nineteenth-century standards about sixty years old, and was therefore presumably eighty or ninety, that being about the rate of allowance I have found it necessary to make in estimating the ages of my new contemporaries, owing to the slower advent of signs of age in these times. On speaking to Edith of this person I was much interested when she informed me that he was no other than Mr. Barton, whose sermon by telephone had so impressed me on the first Sunday of my new life, as set forth in Looking Backward. Edith had just time to introduce me before taking the train.
As we left the station together I said to my companion that if he would excuse the inquiry I should be interested to know what particular sect or religious body he represented.
"My dear Mr. West," was the reply, "your question suggests that my friend Dr. Leete has not probably said much to you about the modern way of regarding religious matters."
"Our conversation has turned but little on that subject," I answered, "but it will not surprise me to learn that your ideas and practices are quite different from those of my day. Indeed, religious ideas and ecclesiastical institutions were already at that time undergoing such rapid and radical decomposition that it was safe to predict if religion were to survive another century it would be under very different forms from any the past had known."
"You have suggested a topic," said my companion, "of the greatest possible interest to me. If you have nothing else to do, and would like to talk a little about it, nothing would give me more pleasure."
Upon receiving the assurance that I had absolutely no occupation except to pick up information about the twentieth century, Mr. Barton said:
"Let us then go into this old church, which you will no doubt have already recognized as a relic of your time. There we can sit comfortably while we talk, amid surroundings well fitted to our theme."
I then perceived that we stood before one of the last-century church buildings which have been preserved as historical monuments, and, moreover, as it oddly enough fell out, that this particular church was no other than the one my family had always attended, and I as well--that is, whenever I attended any church, which was not often.
"What an extraordinary coincidence!" exclaimed Mr. Barton, when I told him this; "who would have expected it? Naturally, when you revisit a spot so fraught with affecting associations, you will wish to be alone. You must pardon my involuntary indiscretion in proposing to turn in here."
"Really," I replied, "the coincidence is interesting merely, not at all affecting. Young men of my day did not, as a rule, take their church relations very seriously. I shall be interested to see how the old place looks. Let us go in, by all means."
The interior proved to be quite unchanged in essential particulars since the last time I had been within its walls, more than a century before. That last occasion, I well remembered, had been an Easter service, to which I had escorted some pretty country cousins who wanted to hear the music and see the flowers. No doubt the processes of decay had rendered necessary many restorations, but they had been carried out so as to preserve completely the original effects.
Leading the way down the main aisle, I paused in front of the family pew.
"This, Mr. Barton," I said, "is, or was, my pew. It is true that I am a little in arrears on pew rent, but I think I may venture to invite you to sit with me."
I had truly told Mr. Barton that there was very little sentiment connected with such church relations as I had maintained. They were indeed merely a matter of family tradition and social propriety. But in another way I found myself not a little moved, as, dropping into my accustomed place at the head of the pew, I looked about the dim and silent interior. As my eye roved from pew to pew, my imagination called back to life the men and women, the young men and maidens, who had been wont of a Sunday, a hundred years before, to sit in those places. As I recalled their various activities, ambitions, hopes, fears, envies, and intrigues, all dominated, as they had been, by the idea of money possessed, lost, or lusted after, I was impressed not so much with the personal death which had come to these my old acquaintances as by the thought of the completeness with which the whole social scheme in which they had lived and moved and had their being had passed away. Not only were they gone, but their world was gone, and its place knew it no more. How strange, how artificial, how grotesque that world had been!--and yet to them and to me, while I was one of them, it had seemed the only possible mode of existence.
Mr. Barton, with delicate respect for my absorption, waited for me to break the silence.
"No doubt," I said, "since you preserve our churches as curiosities, you must have better ones of your own for use?"
"In point of fact," my companion replied, "we have little or no use for churches at all."
"Ah, yes! I had forgotten for the moment that it was by telephone I heard your sermon. The telephone, in its present perfection, must indeed have quite dispensed with the necessity of the church as an audience room."
"In other words," replied Mr. Barton, "when we assemble now we need no longer bring our bodies with us. It is a curious paradox that while the telephone and electroscope, by abolishing distance as a hindrance to sight and hearing, have brought mankind into a closeness of sympathetic and intellectual rapport never before imagined, they have at the same time enabled individuals, although keeping in closest touch with everything going on in the world, to enjoy, if they choose, a physical privacy, such as one had to be a hermit to command in your day. Our advantages in this respect have so far spoiled us that being in a crowd, which was the matter-of-course penalty you had to pay for seeing or hearing anything interesting, would seem too dear a price to pay for almost any enjoyment."
"I can imagine," I said, "that ecclesiastical institutions must have been affected in other ways besides the disuse of church buildings, by the general adaptation of the telephone system to religious teaching. In my day, the fact that no speaker could reach by voice more than a small group of hearers made it necessary to have a veritable army of preachers--some fifty thousand, say, in the United States alone--in order to instruct the population. Of these, not one in many hundreds was a person who had anything to utter really worth hearing. For example, we will say that fifty thousand clergymen preached every Sunday as many sermons to as many congregations. Four fifths of these sermons were poor, half of the rest perhaps fair, some of the others good, and a few score, possibly, out of the whole really of a fine class. Now, nobody, of course, would hear a poor discourse on any subject when he could just as easily hear a fine one, and if we had perfected the telephone system to the point you have, the result would have been, the first Sunday after its introduction, that everybody who wanted to hear a sermon would have connected with the lecture rooms or churches of the few widely celebrated preachers, and the rest would have had no hearers at all, and presently have been obliged to seek new occupations."
Mr. Barton was amused. "You have, in fact, hit," he said, "upon the mechanical side of one of the most important contrasts between your times and ours--namely, the modern suppression of mediocrity in teaching, whether intellectual or religious. Being able to pick from the choicest intellects, and most inspired moralists and seers of the generation, everybody of course agrees in regarding it a waste of time to listen to any who have less weighty messages to deliver. When you consider that all are thus able to obtain the best inspiration the greatest minds can give, and couple this with the fact that, thanks to the universality of the higher education, all are at least pretty good judges of what is best, you have the secret of what might be called at once the strongest safeguard of the degree of civilization we have attained, and the surest pledge of the highest possible rate of progress toward ever better conditions--namely, the leadership of moral and intellectual genius. To one like you, educated according to the ideas of the nineteenth century as to what democracy meant, it may seem like a paradox that the equalizing of economic and educational conditions, which has perfected democracy, should have resulted in the most perfect aristocracy, or government by the best, that could be conceived; yet what result could be more matter-of-course? The people of to-day, too intelligent to be misled or abused for selfish ends even by demigods, are ready, on the other hand, to comprehend and to follow with enthusiasm every better leading. The result is, that our greatest men and women wield to-day an unselfish empire, more absolute than your czars dreamed of, and of an extent to make Alexander's conquests seem provincial. There are men in the world who when they choose to appeal to their fellow-men, by the bare announcement are able to command the simultaneous attention of one to five or eight hundred millions of people. In fact, if the occasion be a great one, and the speaker worthy of it, a world-wide silence reigns as in their various places, some beneath the sun and others under the stars, some by the light of dawn and others at sunset, all hang on the lips of the teacher. Such power would have seemed, perhaps, in your day dangerous, but when you consider that its tenure is conditional on the wisdom and unselfishness of its exercise, and would fail with the first false note, you may judge that it is a dominion as safe as God's."
"Dr. Leete," I said, "has told me something of the way in which the universality of culture, combined with your scientific appliances, has made physically possible this leadership of the best; but, I beg your pardon, how could a speaker address numbers so vast as you speak of unless the pentecostal miracle were repeated? Surely the audience must be limited at least by the number of those understanding one language."
"Is it possible that Dr. Leete has not told you of our universal language?"
"I have heard no language but English."
"Of course, everybody talks the language of his own country with his countrymen, but with the rest of the world he talks the general language--that is to say, we have nowadays to acquire but two languages to talk to all peoples--our own, and the universal. We may learn as many more as we please, and we usually please to learn many, but these two are alone needful to go all over the world or to speak across it without an interpreter. A number of the smaller nations have wholly abandoned their national tongue and talk only the general language. The greater nations, which have fine literature embalmed in their languages, have been more reluctant to abandon them, and in this way the smaller folks have actually had a certain sort of advantage over the greater. The tendency, however, to cultivate but one language as a living tongue and to treat all the others as dead or moribund is increasing at such a rate that if you had slept through another generation you might have found none but philological experts able to talk with you."
"But even with the universal telephone and the universal language," I said, "there still remains the ceremonial and ritual side of religion to be considered. For the practice of that I should suppose the piously inclined would still need churches to assemble in, however able to dispense with them for purposes of instruction."
"If any feel that need, there is no reason why they should not have as many churches as they wish and assemble as often as they see fit. I do not know but there are still those who do so. But with a high grade of intelligence become universal the world was bound to outgrow the ceremonial side of religion, which with its forms and symbols, its holy times and places, its sacrifices, feasts, fasts, and new moons, meant so much in the child-time of the race. The time has now fully come which Christ foretold in that talk with the woman by the well of Samaria when the idea of the Temple and all it stood for would give place to the wholly spiritual religion, without respect of times or places, which he declared most pleasing to God.
"With the ritual and ceremonial side of religion outgrown," said I, "with church attendance become superfluous for purposes of instruction, and everybody selecting his own preacher on personal grounds, I should say that sectarian lines must have pretty nearly disappeared."
"Ah, yes!" said Mr. Barton, "that reminds me that our talk began with your inquiry as to what religious sect I belonged to. It is a very long time since it has been customary for people to divide themselves into sects and classify themselves under different names on account of variations of opinion as to matters of religion."
"Is it possible," I exclaimed, "that you mean to say people no longer quarrel over religion? Do you actually tell me that human beings have become capable of entertaining different opinions about the next world without becoming enemies in this? Dr. Leete has compelled me to believe a good many miracles, but this is too much."
"I do not wonder that it seems rather a startling proposition, at first statement, to a man of the nineteenth century," replied Mr. Barton. "But, after all, who was it who started and kept up the quarreling over religion in former days?"
"It was, of course, the ecclesiastical bodies--the priests and preachers."
"But they were not many. How were they able to make so much trouble?"
"On account of the masses of the people who, being densely ignorant, were correspondingly superstitious and bigoted, and were tools in the hands of the ecclesiastics."
"But there was a minority of the cultured. Were they bigoted also? Were they tools of the ecclesiastics?"
"On the contrary, they always held a calm and tolerant attitude on religious questions and were independent of the priesthoods. If they deferred to ecclesiastical influence at all, it was because they held it needful for the purpose of controlling the ignorant populace."
"Very good. You have explained your miracle. There is no ignorant populace now for whose sake it is necessary for the more intelligent to make any compromises with truth. Your cultured class, with their tolerant and philosophical view of religious differences, and the criminal folly of quarreling about them, has become the only class there is."
"How long is it since people ceased to call themselves Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Methodists, and so on?"
"That kind of classification may be said to have received a fatal shock at the time of the great Revolution, when sectarian demarcations and doctrinal differences, already fallen into a good deal of disregard, were completely swept away and forgotten in the passionate impulse of brotherly love which brought men together for the founding of a nobler social order. The old habit might possibly have revived in time had it not been for the new culture, which, during the first generation subsequent to the Revolution, destroyed the soil of ignorance and superstition which had supported ecclesiastical influence, and made its recrudescence impossible for evermore.
"Although, of course," continued my companion, "the universalizing of intellectual culture is the only cause that needs to be considered in accounting for the total disappearance of religious sectarianism, yet it will give you a more vivid realization of the gulf fixed between the ancient and the modern usages as to religion if you consider certain economic conditions, now wholly passed away, which in your time buttressed the power of ecclesiastical institutions in very substantial ways. Of course, in the first place, church buildings were needful to preach in, and equally so for the ritual and ceremonial side of religion. Moreover, the sanction of religious teaching, depending chiefly on the authority of tradition instead of its own reasonableness, made it necessary for any preacher who would command hearers to enter the service of some of the established sectarian organizations. Religion, in a word, like industry and politics, was capitalized by greater or smaller corporations which exclusively controlled the plant and machinery, and conducted it for the prestige and power of the firms. As all those who desired to engage in politics or industry were obliged to do so in subjection to the individuals and corporations controlling the machinery, so was it in religious matters likewise. Persons desirous of entering on the occupation of religious teaching could do so only by conforming to the conditions of some of the organizations controlling the machinery, plant, and good will of the business--that is to say, of some one of the great ecclesiastical corporations. To teach religion outside of these corporations, when not positively illegal, was a most difficult undertaking, however great the ability of the teacher--as difficult, indeed, as it was to get on in politics without wearing a party badge, or to succeed in business in opposition to the great capitalists. The would-be religious teacher had to attach himself, therefore, to some one or other of the sectarian organizations, whose mouthpiece he must consent to be, as the condition of obtaining any hearing at all. The organization might be hierarchical, in which case he took his instructions from above, or it might be congregational, in which case he took his orders from below. The one method was monarchical, the other democratic, but one as inconsistent as the other with the office of the religious teacher, the first condition of which, as we look at it, should be absolute spontaneity of feeling and liberty of utterance.
"It may be said that the old ecclesiastical system depended on a double bondage: first, the intellectual subjection of the masses through ignorance to their spiritual directors; and, secondly, the bondage of the directors themselves to the sectarian organizations, which as spiritual capitalists monopolized the opportunities of teaching. As the bondage was twofold, so also was the enfranchisement--a deliverance alike of the people and of their teachers, who, under the guise of leaders, had been themselves but puppets. Nowadays preaching is as free as hearing, and as open to all. The man who feels a special calling to talk to his fellows upon religious themes has no need of any other capital than something worth saying. Given this, without need of any further machinery than the free telephone, he is able to command an audience limited only by the force and fitness of what he has to say. He now does not live by his preaching. His business is not a distinct profession. He does not belong to a class apart from other citizens, either by education or occupation. It is not needful for any purpose that he should do so. The higher education which he shares with all others furnishes ample intellectual equipment, while the abundant leisure for personal pursuits with which our life is interfused, and the entire exemption from public duty after forty-five, give abundant opportunity for the exercise of his vocation. In a word, the modern religious teacher is a prophet, not a priest. The sanction of his words lies not in any human ordination or ecclesiastical exequatur, but, even as it was with the prophets of old, in such response as his words may have power to evoke from human hearts."
"If people," I suggested, "still retaining a taste for the old-time ritual and ceremonial observances and face-to-face preaching, should desire to have churches and clergy for their special service, is there anything to prevent it?"
"No, indeed. Liberty is the first and last word of our civilization. It is perfectly consistent with our economic system for a group of individuals, by contributing out of their incomes, not only to rent buildings for group purposes, but by indemnifying the nation for the loss of an individual's public service to secure him as their special minister. Though the state will enforce no private contracts of any sort, it does not forbid them. The old ecclesiastical system was, for a time after the Revolution, kept up by remnants in this way, and might be until now if anybody had wished. But the contempt into which the hireling relation had fallen at once after the Revolution soon made the position of such hired clergymen intolerable, and presently there were none who would demean themselves by entering upon so despised a relation, and none, indeed, who would have spiritual service, of all others, on such terms."
"As you tell the story," I said, "it seems very plain how it all came about, and could not have been otherwise; but you can perhaps hardly imagine how a man of the nineteenth century, accustomed to the vast place occupied by the ecclesiastical edifice and influence in human affairs, is affected by the idea of a world getting on without anything of the sort."
"I can imagine something of your sensation," replied my companion, "though doubtless not adequately. And yet I must say that no change in the social order seems to us to have been more distinctly foreshadowed by the signs of the times in your day than precisely this passing away of the ecclesiastical system. As you yourself observed, just before we came into this church, there was then going on a general deliquescence of dogmatism which made your contemporaries wonder what was going to be left. The influence and authority of the clergy were rapidly disappearing, the sectarian lines were being obliterated, the creeds were falling into contempt, and the authority of tradition was being repudiated. Surely if anything could be safely predicted it was that the religious ideas and institutions of the world were approaching some great change."
"Doubtless," said I, "if the ecclesiastics of my day had regarded the result as merely depending on the drift of opinion among men, they would have been inclined to give up all hope of retaining their influence, but there was another element in the case which gave them courage."
"And what was that?"
"The women. They were in my day called the religious sex. The clergy generally were ready to admit that so far as the interest of the cultured class of men, and indeed of the men generally, in the churches went, they were in a bad way, but they had faith that the devotion of the women would save the cause. Woman was the sheet anchor of the Church. Not only were women the chief attendants at religious functions, but it was largely through their influence on the men that the latter tolerated, even so far as they did, the ecclesiastical pretensions. Now, were not our clergymen justified in counting on the continued support of women, whatever the men might do?"
"Certainly they would have been if woman's position was to remain unchanged, but, as you are doubtless by this time well aware, the elevation and enlargement of woman's sphere in all directions was perhaps the most notable single aspect of the Revolution. When women were called the religious sex it would have been indeed a high ascription if it had been meant that they were the more spiritually minded, but that was not at all what the phrase signified to those who used it; it was merely intended to put in a complimentary way the fact that women in your day were the docile sex. Less educated, as a rule, than men, unaccustomed to responsibility, and trained in habits of subordination and self-distrust, they leaned in all things upon precedent and authority. Naturally, therefore, they still held to the principle of authoritative teaching in religion long after men had generally rejected it. All that was changed with the Revolution, and indeed began to change long before it. Since the Revolution there has been no difference in the education of the sexes nor in the independence of their economic and social position, in the exercise of responsibility or experience in the practical conduct of affairs. As you might naturally infer, they are no longer, as formerly, a peculiarly docile class, nor have they any more toleration for authority, whether in religion, politics, or economics, than their brethren. In every pursuit of life they join with men on equal terms, including the most important and engrossing of all our pursuits--the search after knowledge concerning the nature and destiny of man and his relation to the spiritual and material infinity of which he is a part."