Reflections on Past Labors, &c.

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VIII (7) | Start of Chapter

The time for a little review of the past, and preparation for the future, had now come. Ireland had been explored, and England was in prospect. The Americans had written that the last donation was on the ocean, and probably no more would be sent. Why should my stay be protracted; for the inward voice was continually urging, "I have finished the work that thou gavest me to do." Far, far be it from me to say that this work was well finished; many, many mistakes might be corrected, but this I would candidly and humbly say, they were not willful, but ignorant or misjudging ones. So faithful was conscience in her scrutinizing, that hours, yes days, when sitting alone in a chamber at Richard Webb's, preparing for London, she would ask, and earnestly too, Had I done what I could?—had I not sometimes consulted my own ease?—had I labored to the extent, with hands, feet, money, tongue, pen, and influence, to do, by little or by great means, what my Master had required?—had I not sometimes, when condemning the whisky-drinking and wine-bibbing of the clergy and gentry, spent a penny on some little relish to take with my bread, when that penny would have given a poor laboring man a pound of meal, and my bread could have been taken without it? had I not burned a candle an hour, when neither reading or working, or put an additional piece of turf on the grate, when the poor, sick, dying cabiners had not either?—had I not paid a shilling for riding, when my feet were able for the journey? But above all, that trunk of clothes! When packing it to leave, the question was suggested, Is not this laying up treasures on earth? and should "moth corrupt," or "thieves break through and steal," my hoarding would be justly rebuked.

I had often thought, as the last alternative, of selling everything for bread to give the starving, that could possibly be spared, without leaving myself in a suffering state. This had not been done, the clothes were hoarded, and the virtual thieves—the pawnbrokers—had taken if not stolen them. This was followed by the startling passage, "If thine own conscience condemn thee, God is greater than thy conscience, and knoweth all things." Oh! what searching of heart is there contained in the Holy Scriptures. Then again—had I by precept and example presented Christ, and so walked in Him that all who saw me took knowledge that I had learned of Him?—had the words of eternal life been read and explained in every place where God gave me ability and opportunity, as might have been—had I been as faithful in rebuking the sins of the great, where opportunity presented, as I had those of the mean and despised?—had "a gift ever blinded my eyes," to lead me unjustly to favor the giver, and had the kindly heartfelt welcomes of the poor been as grateful in some lowly mud cabin, and the humble invitation to a dinner of potatoes as flattering as the polished salutations of the rich, with the proffered arm of the master of the feast to sit down to a sumptuous table with honorable invited guests? Had I rejoiced with "exceeding great joy," when my name had been cast out as evil, when reviled, and all manner of evil falsely said against me?—had that legacy of long standing and sure title been as salutary and as gratefully received, as would have been a bequest from the government, for sacrifices made for the poor? All this and more sunk deep, and remained long, when conscience arraigned me for rendering the stewardship of that four years' labor. "What hast thou done with thy Lord's money?" Ah! what indeed? Has a portion been given to "seven, and also to eight?"—has the bread been cast upon the waters; and shall I find it after many days? To the cross I flee, there let me hide—simply, simply, solely there I cling.

Turning from myself, and the retrospect of the past four years, the coming out from Cork, at the last and almost finishing touch of the whole, presented, Theobald Mathew, with the impression made on my mind, when he stood on the dock, by the packet, on the Lee, as the vessel sailed away. His countenance is a marked one, and would be distinguished as such in a crowd of strangers. But grief and blasted hopes have so scathed his warm heart, that though he retains that benignity of expression so peculiarly his own, yet the pencil of sorrow has so shaded it, continued anxiety has so paralyzed that hope which ever is, and ever must be the wellspring of the soul, that there seems a trembling doubting in every feature, whether to settle into a desponding passiveness, or struggle to maintain that wonted complacency which has seemed an innate and inseparable part of his whole constitution. The scourge that has laid waste his people has withered, has scathed his very soul. He stood "between the living and the dead," like a Phineas, till the plague was measurably stayed, when, in letting go his strained grasp, he found, he felt that his own hand had been weakened, and though he complained not, he saw, he knew that many who had cried "Hosanna," if they did not say "crucify him, crucify him," would turn away and walk no more with him. The palsy that shook his body was a faint shadow of the palsy that withered the springs of his heart, and dried up the life-blood of his soul. Great as was his goodness, and good as was his greatness, they neither of them had power to sustain a fabric whose framework was gentleness and confiding love.

When the blast swept over him, and he felt his feet sliding, he reached out his believing hand to the supports he thought near him—they were gone! It was then that the "iron entered into his soul,"—it was then that he found that love dies with money, and popularity thrives best when its hand is fullest, and needs it the least;—it was then that he found experimentally that benevolence must be content with its own reward, till the "time of the restitution of all things," when every man shall be rewarded according to his works; and that though he might have given "all his goods to feed the poor," his recompense in return from his fellow man might only be, "Who hath required this at your hands?" When a man is in trouble and his feet are fast sliding, the prompt inquiry is, "What brought him here?—Has he been industrious, has he been honest, has he been temperate?" But when he is in prosperity, and the tide of fortune flows smoothly, who inquires whether he honestly, industriously, or soberly acquired this prosperity? Who stands aloof from sharing his honors, which flow from his abundance, lest these honors come from an abundance too unjustly acquired? Has he robbed the poor and despoiled the widow and fatherless to fill his granaries and decorate his halls? Who has any right to investigate that?—Let every man mind his own business, is the rebuke. Theobald Mathew was in debt—how came he there? Why everybody knew it was not to aggrandize himself; but he is in debt—he must have been imprudent if not dishonest! True, he was, as the world calls it, in debt, but virtually he owes no man anything—the world never has, the world never will, the world never can repay him; his debt is giving to the poor, when the poor were dying, what he then thought was justly his own, and justly tangible; and that depravity is to be pitied that imputes blame to generosity like this—a generosity which seeks not its own, but the good of those that are ready to perish. He loved his country—he loved his fellow-man of every clime, and his whole life has been spent in seeking their good. When he saw the world had misunderstood him, then he suffered unutterable things; and the shock that both body and mind sustained has left an impress that throws a constraint upon that full freedom which his real friends have been wont to exercise toward him; so abstracted does his mind at times appear, that it is sometimes difficult to know either what chord to touch or what time to strike it, lest the unostentatious sensibilities of his heart should be awakened afresh to painful sensations.

God preserve him, as well as all others, who live for the world and its benefit. The current of man's heart must run in a different channel before it can render at all times even blessing for blessing, and better is he treated than was his Master, if the question do not apply to him also, "Many good works have I shown you; for which of these works do you stone me?" The last famine has drawn out the true character of the people there, in a light most favorable to be understood; it has shown what is in man, by a dissection of almost every part of his system, and they never can hide again as they have done, and the great pity is, that amid so much upturning there has been so little cleansing. True, the pool has not yet become quiescent, nor the sediment had time to settle; and when it shall, many that were "filthy will be filthy still," and those that were "righteous will be righteous still."

Though truth must and will triumph, judgment sometimes long delays, and the accusations against the nation of that island have a foundation in truth, yet the perverted judgment of men have so misapplied them, that at present the force they contain falls almost powerless. That there is injustice there cannot be denied, and this injustice has often been exercised by those who would have been least suspected. The famine, in spite of all evasions, has told some singular tales of this. The liberality of all nations has been most shamefully abused there, but the poor were not in the fault, and yet the poor must and do suffer all the sad consequences; for now, while the wail of woe and death is still going up in many parts, the response is neither money nor bread, but "they have been ungrateful, they have been dishonest, and we are tired of hearing of Ireland." And were I to speak from honest conviction of what passed there, in much of the distributions belonging to government, and much from other places, that went through paid hands, had it been cast into the sea, the fishes might have been better benefited than were the starving; but to private donors, and to the churches of England, and the laboring classes, who intrusted their offerings to isolated churches and isolated almoners of their gifts, without fee or reward, let it he said, their donations in most cases were well applied, and greatly blessed. I have known, and record it with pleasure, that when a church there, from one here, was presented with money, clothing, or food, the minister of that church would divide it among such men and women as cheerfully sought out and supplied the most needy, with the utmost integrity. Many felt apparently that it was the Lord's money in very deed, and belonged to the Lord's poor, and that they must render a strict account of their stewardship; and had one half even that the government sent been withheld, and the other half intrusted to such hands, as managed with like discretion and honesty, many more lives would have been saved, and less complaint of ingratitude been made.

It must be seen that the work was a most arduous and difficult one, and it takes much less time and trouble to sit quietly at home and dictate how it should be done, or complain when it is finished how badly it was executed, than it would to have gone in person and performed the task. It was a hurried work—the four millions of starving men, women, and children were calling for food to-day, they were calling in earnest, they could not wait days, and possibly weeks, till the honesty of a landlord, or the integrity of a rector, should go through the trial of a jury; they could not stand round the doors of a church or chapel, waiting the decision of bishops and clergymen, priests and monks, whether the bread taken in commemoration of the Lord's death, were transformed into a part or whole of his real body or not, before they could have a piece of it; consequently, what was to be done must be done quickly, and in the kindly feelings which promptly lighted up, the givers would naturally and properly throw promiscuously whatever relief could be gathered by any hands that would offer. The government of England might possibly have dozed a little too long, regardless of what these her thriving landlords in that green isle were doing; they might not have precisely understood how they were feeding, housing, and paying their serfs that were squatting "lazily" upon their soil; they might not have applied the laws of mind precisely to this point, that these laws possess the unvarying principle of fixing deeply and firmly in the heart of the oppressor a hatred toward the being that he has unjustly coerced, and the very degradation to which he has reduced him becomes the very cause of his aversion toward him. Therefore such landlords, when famine pressed sorely upon their unpaid tenants, would necessarily by this law pity least, and neglect most, those who by accidental circumstances might be in greatest want.

Those full-fed, government-paid clergymen, who had learned the law of love through her own bread and wine exclusively, and whose jaundiced eyes saw dark and foul spots on all her surplices but her own, would be quick to discern that the "curse causeless does not come;" and that as the Roman Catholics embodied the majority of the sufferers in Ireland, and the Roman Catholics were mostly fed on potatoes, and as God had blasted these potatoes, therefore they ought in humble acquiescence to say, "amen!" while the smoke of this torment was ascending, if not be willing co-workers with God in the infliction of the punishment. When such did give what was intrusted to their hands, it was not always given "with cheerfulness," or without what they thought a merited rebuke. "Don't you see now," said a pert wife of a curate of this class, "don't you see what your idolatry has brought upon you;" handing a starving woman tauntingly a little food; "you've been told that something dreadful would come upon you long before, but you would not believe; now are you ready to come out of that church?" "How," said a bystander, "could you speak so unkindly to that poor starving suppliant at your door; should you like the same treatment under the same circumstances?" "I should deserve it; and beside, how could I see her die under those awful delusions?" "Would it not be better to show her Christ, and try to direct her to him?" "Christ! how can she understand anything of him, while in that church?"

This is not a fac-simile of all in the government church, neither is it an isolated case. Another instance only shall be named, and it is named as an illustration of the spirit that was too much in exercise there, and how it acted upon the sufferers:—

A poor man, with a numerous family, applied to a rector of the Established Church for a portion of the donations committed to his care for the parish. "Where do you go to church?" was the question.

"I am a Catholic," the man answered. "Ah, yes, give your soul to the priest, and come here for me to feed your body; go back, and get your bread where you get your teaching." "This will learn 'em," said the exulting sexton of the church, who related the incident, "this will learn 'em where they are." The poor man went away without relief, though he belonged to the parish, and had a claim. Turning them over to the priests was the worst part of the spirit; for the priests, in the first place, were not a government-paid people, and in the next, they had at that time no donations intrusted to them; and to tantalize a hungry man with that retort, was like hanging him in gibbets, and then telling him to eat bread.

Such treatment was calculated not only to drive the poor to all sorts of intrigue, but to make them hate still more a religion that they always supposed to be false. The question which the Quaker put to the rector could well apply here, when he remarked that no good would be done to the Papists in Ireland while they rejected the Bible—"What good, friend, has thy Bible done thee?" Ah, true; what good does it do any who practice not its spirit? It is not intended to imply, by these statements, that the clergy of the Established Church in Ireland, during the famine, were all bigots, or all hardhearted, and without any true Christianity; but it is intended to say, that the spirit of bigotry and partiality was there, and wherever manifested, whether by that religious party or any other, had a most unfavorable effect both on the bodies and minds of the suffering.

The government could not control that, any more than a crazy inebriate can help doing what he is tempted to do; but the inebriate, when he is sober, should keep so, and not put himself in the power of an enemy that can injure him so much; and if the experience of two or three centuries in Ireland have not proved that carnal weapons are not needed in a church, and that Christ, who should be the head of it, has no occasion for them, surely they must be dull learners.