Henry Ward Beecher on Cynicism

I picked up a very old (1887) biography of Henry Ward Beecher over Christmas, as I occasionally like to read (and hold and smell and marvel at the beautiful cover art of) vintage books. I know very little about this influential man from the Civil War era and I’m immediately discovering his unparalleled gift for descriptive prose. Wow, what a wordsmith! I’ll try to share a few samples in the coming days if I have time to get back to it between all my school reading and paper deadlines approaching!

In this excerpt, Beecher is railing on the cynics of his day for only seeing the worst in people. Beecher was a master student of human nature and knew how wicked the human heart could be. Still we see his pastoral confidence that God is busy trying to bring something good from even the darkest places and hardest of hearts. I love that last paragraph especially — that’ll preach!

“Thus [the Cynic’s] eye strains out every good quality and takes in only the bad. To him religion is hypocrisy, honesty a preparation for fraud, virtue only want of opportunity, and undeniable purity, asceticism. The livelong day he will coolly sit with sneering lip, uttering sharp speeches in the quietest manner, and in polished phrase transfixing every character which is presented. His words are softer than oil, yet are they drawn swords.

“All this, to the young, seems a wonderful knowledge of human nature; they honor a man who appears to have found out mankind. They begin to indulge themselves in flippant sneers; and with supercilious brow, and impudent tongue wagging to an empty brain, call to naught the wise, the long-tried, and the venerable.

“I do believe that man is corrupt enough; but something of good has survived his wreck; something of evil religion has restrained, and something partially restored. Yet, I look upon the human heart as a mountain of fire — I dread its crater. I tremble when I see its lava roll the fiery stream. Therefore I am the more glad if, upon the old crust of past eruptions, I can find a single flower springing up. So far from rejecting appearances of virtue in the corrupt heart of a depraved race, I am as eager to see their light as ever a  mariner was to see a star on a stormy night.

“Moss will grow upon gravestones; the ivy will cling to the mouldering pile; the mistletoe springs from the dying branch; and, God be praised, something green, something fair to the sight and grateful to the heart will yet twine around and grow out of the seams and cracks of the desolate temple of the human heart! ”

The Life of Henry Ward Beecher by Joseph Howard, Jr. p. 76

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