The Spirits of the Centuries

When the Nineteenth Century died, its Spirit descended to the vaulted chamber of the Past, where the Spirits of the dead Centuries sit on granite thrones together. When the new comer entered, all turned toward him and the Spirit of the Eighteenth Century spoke: “Tell thy tale, brother. Give us word of the human kind we left to thee.”

“I am the Spirit of the Wonderful Century. I gave man the mastery over nature. Discoveries and inventions, which lighted the black space of the past like lonely stars, have clustered in a Milky Way of radiance under my rule. One man does by the touch of his hand what the toil of a thousand slaves never did. Knowledge has unlocked the mines of wealth, and the hoarded wealth of to-day creates the vaster wealth of to-morrow. Man has escaped the slavery of Necessity and is free.

“I freed the thoughts of men. They face the facts and know. Their knowledge is common to all. The deeds of the East at eve are known in the West at morn. They send their whispers under the seas and across the clouds.

“I broke the chains of bigotry and despotism. I made men free and equal. Every man feels the worth of his man hood.

“I have touched the summit of history. I did for mankind what none of you did before. They are rich. They are wise. They are free.”

The Spirits of the dead Centuries sat silent, with troubled eyes. At last the Spirit of the First Century spoke for all. “We all spoke proudly when we came here in the flush of our deeds, and thou more proudly than we all. But as we sit and think of what was before us, and what has come after us, shame and guilt bear down our pride. Your words sound as if the redemption of man had come at last. Has it come?

“You have made men rich. Tell us, is none in pain with hunger to-day and none in fear of hunger for to-morrow? Do all children grow up fair of limb and trained for thought and action? Do none die before their time? Has the mastery of nature made men free to enjoy their lives and loves, and to live the higher life of the mind?

“You have made men wise. Are they wise or cunning? Have they learned to restrain their bodily passions? Have they learned to deal with their fellows in justice and love?

“You have set them free. Are there none, then, who toil for others against their will? Are all men free to do the work they love best?

“You have made men one. Are there no barriers of class to keep man and maid apart? Does none rejoice in the cause that makes the many moan? Do men no longer spill the blood of men for their ambition and the sweat of men for their greed?”

As the Spirit of the Nineteenth Century listened, his head sank to his breast. “Your shame is already upon me. My great cities are as yours were. My millions live from hand to mouth. Those who toil longest have least. My thousands sink exhausted before their days are half spent. My human wreckage multiplies. Class faces class in sullen distrust. Their freedom and knowledge has only made men keener to suffer. Give me a seat among you, and let me think why it has been so.”

The others turned to the Spirit of the First Century, “Your promised redemption is long in coming.”

“But it will come,” he replied.

-Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907)



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