There was a moment’s hush over the room and then a man near the front of the hall slowly rose. He was an old man, and the hand he laid on the back of the bench in front of him trembled as he spoke.
“I think I can safely say that I have many times been in just such a condition, and I have always tried to be a Christian under all conditions. I don’t know as I have always asked this question, What would Jesus do?’ when I have been out of work, but I do know I have tried to be His disciple at all times. Yes,” the man went on, with a sad smile that was more pathetic to the Bishop and Mr. Maxwell than the younger man’s grim despair; “yes, I have begged, and I have been to charity institutions, and I have done everything when out of a job except steal and lie in order to get food and fuel. I don’t know as Jesus would have done some of the things I have been obliged to do for a living, but I know I have never knowingly done wrong when out of work. Sometimes I think maybe He would have starved sooner than beg. I don’t know.”
The old man’s voice trembled and he looked around the room timidly. A silence followed, broken by a fierce voice from a large, black-haired, heavily-bearded man who sat three seats from the Bishop. The minute he spoke nearly every man in the hall leaned forward eagerly. The man who had asked the question, “What would Jesus do in my case?” slowly sat down and whispered to the man next to him: “Who’s that?”
“That’s Carlsen, the Socialist leader. Now you’ll hear something.”
This is all bosh, to my mind,” began Carlsen, while his great bristling beard shook with the deep inward anger of the man. “The whole of our system is at fault. What we call civilization is rotten to the core. There is no use trying to hide it or cover it up. We live in an age of trusts and combines and capitalistic greed that means simply death to thousands of innocent men, women and children. I thank God, if there is a God –which I very much doubt– that I, for one, have never dared to marry and make a home. Home! Talk of hell! Is there any bigger one than this man and his three children has on his hands right this minute? And he’s only one out of thousands.
And yet this city, and every other big city in this country, has its thousands of professed Christians who have all the luxuries and comforts, and who go to church Sundays and sing their hymns about giving all to Jesus and bearing the cross and following Him all the way and being saved! I don’t say that there aren’t good men and women among them, but let the minister who has spoken to us here tonight go into any one of a dozen aristocratic churches I could name and propose to the members to take any such pledge as the one he’s mentioned here tonight, and see how quick the people would laugh at him for a fool or a crank or a fanatic.
Oh, no! That’s not the remedy. That can’t ever amount to anything. We’ve got to have a new start in the way of government. The whole thing needs reconstructing. I don’t look for any reform worth anything to come out of the churches. They are not with the people. They are with the aristocrats, with the men of money. The trusts and monopolies have their greatest men in the churches. The ministers as a class are their slaves. What we need is a system that shall start from the common basis of socialism, founded on the rights of the common people–”
Carlsen had evidently forgotten all about the three-minutes rule and was launching himself into a regular oration that meant, in his usual surroundings before his usual audience, an hour at least, when the man just behind him pulled him down unceremoniously and arose. Carlsen was angry at first and threatened a little disturbance, but the Bishop reminded him of the rule, and he subsided with several mutterings in his beard, while the next speaker began with a very strong eulogy on the value of the single tax as a genuine remedy for all the social ills. He was followed by a man who made a bitter attack on the churches and ministers, and declared that the two great obstacles in the way of all true reform were the courts and the ecclesiastical machines.
When he sat down a man who bore every mark of being a street laborer sprang to his feet and poured a perfect torrent of abuse against the corporations, especially the railroads. The minute his time was up a big, brawny fellow, who said he was a metal worker by trade, claimed the floor and declared that the remedy for the social wrongs was Trades Unionism. This, he said, would bring on the millennium for labor more surely than anything else. The next man endeavored to give some reasons why so many persons were out of employment, and condemned inventions as works of the devil. He was loudly applauded by the rest.
Finally the Bishop called time on the “free for all,” and asked Rachel to sing.
Rachel Winslow had grown into a very strong, healthful, humble Christian during that wonderful year in Raymond dating from the Sunday when she first took the pledge to do as Jesus would do, and her great talent for song had been fully consecrated to the service of the Master. When she began to sing tonight at this Settlement meeting, she had never prayed more deeply for results to come from her voice, the voice which she now regarded as the Master’s, to be used for Him.
Certainly her prayer was being answered as she sang. She had chosen the words,
“Hark! The voice of Jesus calling, Follow me, follow me!”
Again Henry Maxwell, sitting there, was reminded of his first night at the Rectangle in the tent when Rachel sang the people into quiet. The effect was the same here. What wonderful power a good voice consecrated to the Master’s service always is! Rachel’s great natural ability would have made her one of the foremost opera singers of the age. Surely this audience had never heard such a melody. How could it? The men who had drifted in from the street sat entranced by a voice which “back in the world,” as the Bishop said, never could be heard by the common people because the owner of it would charge two or three dollars for the privilege. The song poured out through the hall as free and glad as if it were a foretaste of salvation itself. Carlsen, with his great, black-bearded face uplifted, absorbed the music with the deep love of it peculiar to his nationality, and a tear ran over his cheek and glistened in his beard as his face softened and became almost noble in its aspect.
The man out of work who had wanted to know what Jesus would do in his place sat with one grimy hand on the back of the bench in front of him, with his mouth partly open, his great tragedy for the moment forgotten. The song, while it lasted, was food and work and warmth and union with his wife and babies once more. The man who had spoken so fiercely against the churches and ministers sat with his head erect, at first with a look of stolid resistance, as if he stubbornly resisted the introduction into the exercises of anything that was even remotely connected with the church or its forms of worship. But gradually he yielded to the power that was swaying the hearts of all the persons in that room, and a look of sad thoughtfulness crept over his face.
The Bishop said that night while Rachel was singing that if the world of sinful, diseased, depraved, lost humanity could only have the gospel preached to it by consecrated prima donnas and professional tenors and altos and bassos, he believed it would hasten the coming of the Kingdom quicker than any other one force. “Why, oh why,” he cried in his heart as he listened, “has the world’s great treasure of song been so often held far from the poor because the personal possessor of voice or fingers, capable of stirring divinest melody, has so often regarded the gift as something with which to make money? Shall there be no martyrs among the gifted ones of the earth? Shall there be no giving of this great gift as well as of others?”
And Henry Maxwell, again as before, called up that other audience at the Rectangle with increasing longing for a larger spread of the new discipleship. What he had seen and heard at the Settlement burned into him deeper the belief that the problem of the city would be solved if the Christians in it should once follow Jesus as He gave commandment. But what of this great mass of humanity, neglected and sinful, the very kind of humanity the Savior came to save, with all its mistakes and narrowness, its wretchedness and loss of hope, above all its unqualified bitterness towards the church? That was what smote him deepest. Was the church then so far from the Master that the people no longer found Him in the church? Was it true that the church had lost its power over the very kind of humanity which in the early ages of Christianity it reached in the greatest numbers? How much was true in what the Socialist leader said about the uselessness of looking to the church for reform or redemption, because of the selfishness and seclusion and aristocracy of its members?
He was more and more impressed with the appalling fact that the comparatively few men in that hall, now being held quiet for a while by Rachel’s voice, represented thousands of others just like them, to whom a church and a minister stood for less than a saloon or a beer garden as a source of comfort or happiness. Ought it to be so? If the church members were all doing as Jesus would do, could it remain true that armies of men would walk the streets for jobs and hundreds of them curse the church and thousands of them find in the saloon their best friend? How far were the Christians responsible for this human problem that was personally illustrated right in this hall tonight? Was it true that the great city churches would as a rule refuse to walk in Jesus’ steps so closely as to suffer – actually suffer – for His sake?
Henry Maxwell kept asking this question even after Rachel had finished singing and the meeting had come to an end after a social gathering which was very informal. He asked it while the little company of residents with the Raymond visitors were having a devotional service, as the custom in the Settlement was. He asked it during a conference with the Bishop and Dr. Bruce which lasted until one o’clock. He asked it as he knelt again before sleeping and poured out his soul in a petition for spiritual baptism on the church in America such as it had never known. He asked it the first thing in the morning and all through the day as he went over the Settlement district and saw the life of the people so far removed from the Life abundant. Would the church members, would the Christians, not only in the churches of Chicago, but throughout the country, refuse to walk in His steps if, in order to do so, they must actually take up a cross and follow Him? This was the one question that continually demanded answer.
The End of Chapter 30