Christian Inquirer
Henry Ward Beecher
Unitarian Association of the State of New York, 8 November 1862

From the Independent


  WE have received a deeply interesting letter, published below, and with it a note, which, on some accounts, should go with it, and which we take the liberty of inserting here:

My Awakener and Reprover

  I respectfully ask you to give the accompanying narrative a place in the Independent, for my relief. I shall be happy when I have given my warning. Repentance is not diffident, hardly modest. My motto I got from Seneca: "Philosophia stemma non inspicit. Platonem non accepit nobilem philosophia, sed fecit." Now my motto is: "Whatsoever ye would that," etc. I'll try and help you.


  We shall be surprised if this confession does not strike many a conscience with conviction of like wastefulness of knowledge and power. There are thousands who are mere mind-misers. They hoard knowledge. They heap up treasures without use. Others, with wondrous fitness of faculty for usefulness, are delicately kept like a lute in its case; and though made to soothe, to cheer, to lead, they will, when rendering up to God and account of life, be obliged to confess that no soul has ever been led by them along any upward path.

  It may be that this sober and earnest confession may be a beginning of usefulness to our unknown friend and reader. Our columns are open. H. W. B.

A Scholar's Confession.

NEW-YORK, July 20, 1862.

To Rev. Henry W. Beecher

  MR. EDITOR—I read your sermons in the Independent, and a sentence in one of them has filled me with self-abasement. Your doctrine is, he who receives is bound to give. I have just passed the "grand climacteric" of life, and have lived these sixty-three years as a semi-recluse. My father had money enough to supply all my wants, because all my wants were comprised in one word—books.

  In a large and retired family, I was my father's favorite daughter, and he allowed me to become a book-eater. I read every new publication of interest that my time would allow, and all my time was my own. I permitted no one to direct or hinder me, and cared not who criticized me. I rambled much among the libraries of my favorites, Philadelphia and New Haven, but visited so few friends, and worked so little for the poor, and watched so little with the sick, that my life was one breathless chase after mere mental self-sustenance. As a woman, I suppose I have a heart, but my intellect seems to have eaten it up. Scholarship has been my idolatry, not so much for the fame of it as for its agreeable self-absorption. My first ambition was languages, and I tried Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German, and Italian. I have read some of their histories and poets. Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare's Tempest, I nearly committed to memory. For the last forty years it has been my habit to run over the best articles in the Edinburgh Review and London Times. Of my own countrymen, I prefer Prescott, Bryant, and Longfellow; and of our female authors, I most relish Mrs. Stowe and Miss Sedgwick.

  I do now with grief confess that I have been a gormandizer of books. It seems as if I am now a mere conglomerate, wholly made up of others. I am they. I wonder if any of my original personal identity is left! I am afraid that in another world each author who has enriched my mind will come and take from me what he gave, and thus leave me poor indeed! Perhaps they all would say, "Why did you not do unto others as we did to you? Could you not find any ignorant and necessitous whom you could benefit? What apology have you to offer to the ten thousand uncultivated whom you could have enlightened?"

  Mr. Editor—From my inmost heart I cannot help feeling that the condemnations of your sermon fall upon me here. He who receives is bound, in his time and measures, to give. This maxim is common sense, Christian politics, and Gospel truth, binding on every grade of ability. You quote that sacred (yet to me damning) text (Prov. iii. 27), "Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thy hand to do it." For more than fifty years, I have hoarded knowledge with a miser's greed, and during that time have distributed next to nothing to the necessities of the ignorant or the young! I have never written or published a review of any book I ever read! I have passed a life of intense intellectual selfishness; and now I feel that my accumulations are so many witnesses against me. In my abysmal mortification and regret, I begin to rank myself among the first-class pirates! In the beginning of my course, I acted from the worthy desire of improving my mind and increasing my happiness. The intellectual appetite strengthened every time it was gratified; and the more I hungered, the more I ate, forgetting, alas! that the whole of life does not consist in eating.

  As I could not find people who wished to talk on my topics, I have had a silent life, save a few letters I once wrote on African colonization. If I had been a great talker, that would have been something, though comparatively a very small something. I believe that Miss Edgworth's "Parent's Assistant," and Mrs. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," have done five thousand times more real good than I have done with my half-century of hard study. The heavens and the earth are full of benedictions on these noble women. Oh! it is a mistake, an awful mistake, an inexcusable mistake, to live for one's self. Nature's doctrine and the Gospel's doctrine is, "Be ready to distribute, willing to communicate." The lake that turns the mill-wheel keeps healthy by its outlettings. I have denied myself through life the happiness of giving. I cannot now excuse myself for not translating and publishing some of the noble works which have appeared in Germany and Russia and France, or for not taking the place of head in some female college, or orphan charitable society, or city mission. I now think of half a dozen ways in which my talents and attainments might have been employed to strengthen the risen and mould the rising generation; yet, woe is me, I have neglected them all.

  Mr. Editor—It is with acutest heart-pain that I have written the above. I write thus, not to ask your advice or your opinion. I need neither. I write that I may warn every young lady throughout my country not to do as I have done. My young sisters, choose some department in human life according to your talents and taste, and then study and labor for its advancement in knowledge, virtue, and happiness; thus you will live best for yourselves, by living most out of yourselves.