The Worlds Greatest Sermons by Grenville Kleiser: 009. The Colonization of the Desert

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The Worlds Greatest Sermons by Grenville Kleiser: 009. The Colonization of the Desert

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The Colonization of the Desert

God saw everything that he had made. And behold, it was very good.—Gen_1:31.

THIS simplest expression of the earliest religion comes back to us with new force in the midst of all the wonderful revelations of our modern life.

In ten weeks’ time I have crossed from one ocean to the other; I have crossed backward and forward over the Allegheny and the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, with the valleys between them, and the slopes which rise from the ocean on either side. This means a journey through twelve of the old thirteen States and fifteen of the new States and Territories. It means intercourse with people of the North and the South, the Gulf and the West, the Pacific coast and the mountains. It means intercourse with the white race, the black race, the red race, and the Chinaman. The variety of climate is such that I have welcomed the shade of palm-trees, and that I have walked over snow where it had drifted twenty feet beneath me. I have picked oranges from the tree, and camellias from the twig in the open air, and within three hours of good-by to the camellia I was in a driving snow-storm, where the engine drivers were nervous because they had no snow plow. In all this variety I have a thousand times recalled the simplest expression of the oldest words of the Bible: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

The solid recognition of this truth—not, indeed, in any small sense; but in that sense which is general and comprehensive—is at the bottom of all true religious philosophy. It is not true in any smaller sense. For I cannot say that it is good to be bitten by a mosquito or worried by a fly, if I can escape fly or mosquito. No, that is not true. And I do not suppose that the simple author of this text meant any such extravagance. But this is true, that the world is so made and ordered that man, who is himself a creator—man, who shares the wishes, instincts, and plans of the Power who directs the world—man can take the world in his hands and compel it to serve his nobler purposes.

God saw the world, and he said: “Yes, this is what I want for My home and the home of children who love Me. It is a world very good to them, and they shall subdue it to My purposes.” To recognize this, to feel the fitness of the world for man and man’s fitness for the world, this is the basis of consistent optimism. Nobody says that the top of the Rocky Mountains is a good place for whales, or that the Ojai Valley is a good place for polar bears; but a consistent optimism says that the world is a good place for man; and it says that man is so closely allied to the God who is the life of the world that he can take the world for his own, and make it his home and his heaven. This consistent optimism is the basis of all sound theology.

It is to be observed, however, that man gains no such control of the world, and the world does not prove fit for man, unless he has found out that he is akin to God and can enter into His work. There is no such victory to the savage, who is afraid of God. So long as he thinks the powers of nature are his enemies, he makes them his enemies. I do not believe the old cave-dwellers, fighting hyenas with clubs, and often finding that they were second-best in the encounter, thought this world the best of worlds. I do not believe that the Digger Indian, who spent his tedious day in rummaging for ants and beetles to eat, and was very happy if he caught a lizard—I do not believe that he said that the world was very good. True, I think both of them had visions and hopes of a better time; but while they were in the abject misery of cold and starvation, that better time had not dawned. It did not dawn because they had not taken on them the dignity and duty of children of God. They were not about their Father’s business. They did not see Him nor hear Him, nor in any wise know Him. They did not conceive that they were on His side nor He on theirs. And it is not till man comes up to some comprehension that God has sent him here on an infinite business; that he and the Author of this world are at one in this affair of managing it; it is not till man knows God as his friend and not his enemy, that man with any courage and success takes the business of managing into his own hands. Then is it that he finds what pleasure, nay what dignity, there is in taming the lightning and riding on the storm. And then he knows enough of the divine Being, His purpose and His power, to see that the world is good, and that God should call it good in its creation.

All this forces itself on one’s thought as he sees how it is that nature has been pursued and caught and tamed in these mountains and these valleys. For nature is the nymph so wittily described by Virgil. She

“Flies to her woods; but hopes her flight is seen.”

Man, so long as he is savage, hates her and fears her. If he worships, it is the abject worship of those who bring sacrifices to buy her favor. And it may be said in passing that the last visible form of pure barbarism or savagery is any theology which supposes that God’s favor must be bought by any price paid by man in exchange. When man finds, by any revelation, the conditions of absolute religion, which are simply faith, hope and love, all this is changed. When he looks up to God gladly, looks forward to the future cheerfully, and looks round on the world kindly, he finds, possibly to his surprize, that he is working on the lines God works on, and means to have him work on. Now he is on “his Father’s business.” While he rows the boat, the tide sweeps the right way. While he stretches the wire, the lightning is waiting and eager to do his errand. And so soon as man the divine appears upon the scene—man the child of God, who knows he shares God’s nature—why, easily and quickly the valleys are exalted and the mountains and the hills made low; the deserts blossom as the rose, and even the passing traveler sees that this world was made for man and man for this world. And he understands as he has never understood before what this is, that he himself is of the nature of the God at whose present will this world comes into order. He understands better what the old text means, which says that God is satisfied with the world which He has made.

I crossed the continent westward and eastward on this journey, fresh from recent reading of the history of the first Spanish occupation. What did the Spaniards find there? They found in what we call New Mexico the Zuni cities which, in a sad decline, exist to-day. From those cities Casteneda led a party of Spanish horsemen eastward in search of a certain mythical king who was supposed to have much gold and many jewels. Those adventurous men rode for a whole summer across the prairies and plains which are now Colorado, and Kansas, and Missouri, and struck the Missouri, or perhaps the Mississippi. You know that much of the country is now fertile beyond praise. Mile after mile you can see corn, wheat; wheat, corn; corn, wheat; wheat, corn; and the production to the acre increases year by year. The States through which Casteneda’s line of travel passed now number four or five millions of people; and they feed, from their agriculture, say twenty millions more. Now when Casteneda and his people passed and repassed over this region they did not meet a single man. woman or child. They were opprest by the horrible loneliness of their journey. They felt, as Magellan’s people felt when they were crossing the Pacific Ocean, with that horrible east wind, with a calm sea before and never a sight of an island or a man. When Casteneda came at last to the Mississippi—or Missouri—they had no heart to build a raft to cross it and incur more such solitude; and they went back the way they came. And the fame of its loneliness was such that no man attempted the adventure for more than a hundred years.

When, in 1682—say a hundred and thirty years after—the great La Salle discovered the Mississippi River, and sailed south upon it, leaving Chicago, crossing Illinois, and so striking the Father of Waters, his experience of this utter loneliness was the same. He touched every night on one shore or the other. He is, therefore, the discoverer of seven of the Western States—States which now feed fifty million people and number seven or eight million of their own. Only twice, I think, did he meet any great body of men. Not five times did he find traces of the hand of man or the foot of man. Through the same solitude he returned; and his report was of a virgin world of elk, and deer, and buffalo; of shrubs and trees, of fish and fowl; but a world without men.

The inference was drawn, hastily, but not unnaturally, that these regions could not sustain men. On the Atlas given me as a boy, the “Great American Desert” covered the greater part of the region west of the Mississippi. It is now the home of the millions I have been enumerating. And in the last map I have seen, the Great American Desert appears as hardly a “speck on the surface of the earth.”

The change which I have described has been wrought in the lifetime of people of my age. It is wrought simply and wholly by the passion for emigration which belongs to our own race. In Mr. Hoar’s happy phrase, people of our blood “thirst for the horizon.”

In the year 1833 De Tocqueville, observing the steadiness of this wave, calculated its average flow as seventeen miles westward every year. That was the rate at which it had moved since the Federal Constitution made it possible. Speaking roughly, there were then two thousand miles of desert between the Missouri River and the Pacific. At De Tocqueville’s rate, the wave would have been one hundred and twenty years in reaching that ocean. But it happened that in 1849 the Western coast was settled in the gold discovery. An Eastern wave began which has now met the Western. The two together have founded the great cities—for we must call them so—of the Rocky Mountains.

Now, in the face of that contrast between the last century and this century, one asks why that half of our continent is any more fit for men than it was then. The answer is, that it was not fit for the kind of men on it then; and that the kind of men that have tamed it are the kind of men who were fit for it, and whom it was fit for.

The study of history and of physical geography becomes a study of what we mean by man and man’s capacities. California, for instance, was the same country in 1650 that it was in 1850. The south wind blew from the sea, and that, in the north temperate zone, is the great physical requisite. There was as much gold, and quicksilver, and copper, and tin in the mountains as there is now. There was the same soil and the same water on the hillsides. But the men, and women, and children were afraid of their gods; they were afraid of nature; they had neither faith, nor hope, nor love. They had none of the elements of eternal power except as an acorn has the possibilities of an oak.

To these people there came, sooner or later—with the best motives, but still without the essentials of life—fifty families of Franciscan monks. They came, observe, without wives or children. They defied thus the first law of human life, or the life God intends His children to live in. The primitive trinity, from which all false trinities have grown, is the father, the mother and the child. The Franciscan communities were false to all Divine law, if it were only in their failure here.

They gathered around them, by the higher civilization which they brought, great communities of starving Indians. They taught them to feed themselves as they had never been fed before. So far they improved the race, and lifted its civilization above that ant-eating and lizard-chasing of the Digger Indian. But then the Catholic Church, by the necessary subordination of man to the organized Church, takes man’s life out of him.

“The day That makes a man a slave, takes all his life away.”

The words are as true to-day as they were in Homer’s time. Nor is there any sadder instance of it than is the powerlessness of the tribes of amiable slaves who were collected under the protection of the Franciscan missions in California, or Jesuit missions in Paraguay.

The native races between the Pacific and the Atlantic were dying faster than their children were born. They were dying of the diseases named laziness, ignorance, and war. They were not subduing the continent. They were not fit for it, nor it for them. What is the distinction of the race to which we belong, that it succeeds where these have failed? The history of the country accentuates that distinction.

It would be absurd to pretend that the average frontiersman was a man of what are called saintly habits. Often he was not conscious that he had any divine errand. But the frontiersman, to whose courage and perseverance is due that forward wave we study, was a man. He did not take his opinion or instruction from any priest. There was no one between him and the good God. Often he sought Him. So far so good. And often he did not seek Him. That one admits. But he never sought any one else’s advice or direction. He was no slave, as the Indian of California was. He was not commissioned by a superior, as the Franciscan priest of the mission was. He was a man. He was independent and he was brave. If he did the right thing, therefore, he succeeded; if he did the wrong thing, why, he failed. And no one else tried just the same experiment. In this first trait of absolute independence he showed the infinite characteristic of a child of God.

Second, and perhaps more important, he took with him his wife and his children. Here is the great distinction of American emigration, which contrasts against the plans of Spaniards or Frenchmen, and of the earlier Englishmen. Historically it begins with the Pilgrims, of whom there were as many Pilgrim mothers as there were Pilgrim fathers. It is of them that Emerson says that “they builded better than they knew.”

The frontiersman is independent. He lives with and for his family. And, once more, he is an enthusiast in determining that to-morrow shall be better than to-day. The Indian had no such notion. The Franciscan had not. But this profane, ignorant pioneer had. He believed implicitly in the country behind him and in the future before him. “I tell you, sir, that in ten years you will see in this valley such a city as the world never saw.” Profane he may be, ignorant he may be, cruel he may be; but he believes in the idea; he is quickened and goaded forward by an infinite and majestic hope.

Given such conditions, the historical steps are easy. All this is impossible till you have a nation, to give peace and compel peace, so that the separate settler shall know that the whole majesty of the world is behind him. There shall be no abiding quarrel between man and man as to the line of a claim or the title of a mine. The nation shall decide, and its whole majesty shall enforce the decision. Or, if there is any massacre by an Apache or a Blackfoot, the country behind, though a thousand miles behind, shall stretch forth her arm to avenge that lonely family. This means peace instead of war. All this had to wait, therefore, until the formation of the nation called the United States—the greatest peace society the sun ever shone upon, and the model for societies yet larger. With the birth of that nation, the real Western wave begins.

I do not claim for every pioneer that he thought he went as an apostle of God. But in the emigrant wave from the very beginning, the best blood, the best faith, the best training of the parent stocks have gone. Science has sent her best. The determination for thorough education has planted better school houses in the wilderness than the emigrant left at home. And on Sunday, in a church, one is proud to say that the organized Church of Christ, in the liberty of a thousand communions, has covered with her egis the settler most in advance. He could not keep in advance of the missionary and of his Bible; and, to his credit be it said, he did not want to.

So much for the personnel. Now, speaking roughly, what has been the motive for the great Western wave, which is making this garden out of that desert?

First, there is the passion for adventure, the thirst for the horizon, which drives old Leather-stocking and the men like him away from the haunts of men. This in itself produces nothing. Next and chiefly, the desire to make homes—the noblest desire given to man, and the desire in which he follows the will of God most distinctly and completely. Miners want to strike metals; farmers want to find good soils; fruit men try for climate and irrigation; all with the direct wish to make homes more happy than they have been before.

Again, young men go that they may get forward faster than in old communities—and who can wonder? Men of sense give up the unequal contest with nature in a northern and eastern climate to find a country where nature is on their side. People in delicate health go where they find softer air, more spring and less winter. But no man goes to get rich alone. No man wants to eat gold or to drink it. The wish and hope is to make homes where father, mother and children can live the life which God ordained. These are no Franciscan friars, these are no Apache bandits, to whom has been given the subjugation of a continent. Side by side with the pioneer is the surveyor, marking the lines of future homesteads. Hard behind him are father, mother, boys and girls, to whom the nation gives this homestead thus designated. If the man is sick the woman nurses him. The children grow up to know the world they live in. The boundary of the nation is not a mere chain of garrisons nor the scattered posts of missions; it is a line of homes, founded with all that the word home involves.

All these lessons of three centuries point one way. They show that the world is not very good for wandering Apaches or Digger Indians, freezing and starving under hard winters when harvests have failed. To their point of view it was a world hard and cruel. To Franciscan friars, ruling a little empire which yielded none but physical harvests, where the garden, and orchard, and vineyard were only so many specks in the midst of an unbounded desert, the world can not have seemed a better world—a world made for wild horses, and further East for wild buffaloes, but not for men—”the great American Desert.” It is not till man asserts the courage and freedom of a son of God, it is not till man appears with wife and child and proposes to establish his heaven here; it is not till then that he masters nature, and she gladly obeys him. Nay, then he has no success unless he appears as the vicegerent of God Himself, and establishes over this vast domain the empire of law, and speaks as God might speak, with “Thou shalt do this,” and “Thou shalt not do that” in this empire.

The Old-World writers are fond of telling us that we owe the prosperity of this nation to its physical resources. It is not so. The physical resources have existed for centuries. It is only in the moral force of sons and daughters of God; it is such working power as takes the names of law, courage, independence, and family affection; it is only in these that our victory is won. The drunken swaggerer of the advance only checks the triumph. The miser, who would carry off his silver to use elsewhere, only hinders the advance. The victory comes from the hand of God to the children of God, who establish His empire in the magic spell of three great names. As always these names are: Faith, which gives courage; Hope, which determines to succeed; and Love, which builds up homes.

It is impossible to see the steps of such a victory without owning the infinite Power behind it all. You cannot use magnetic ore and coal for its smelting and the silicates for its fusion, all flung in together side by side, without asking if the Power who threw these priceless gifts together where each was needed for each did not know what He was doing. But the buffalo passes over it, and the gopher mines under it, and it might be so much gravel of the sea. Savages pass over it, with no future, no heaven, and one would say no God. It is worthless desert still, but one day a man comes who deserves his name. He is a child of God. He is determined that to-morrow shall be better than to-day. He knows he is lord of nature, and he bids her serve him. The coal burns, the iron melts, the silicate fuses. It is impossible to see that miracle and not feel that for this man the world was created, and for this world this man was born. He is in his place. He did not have to seek it; it was made for him. With him it is a garden. Without him it is a desert. He can hew down these mountains. He can fill up these valleys. And where he has filled, and where he has hewed, lo, the present heaven of happy homes! It is thus that prophecy accomplishes itself, and

“The car of the Lord rolls gloriously on.”