One's Debts Should be Admitted
Minister Asserts in Sermon on Thanksgiving | Little Payments Now and Then Show Man is Honest, Rev. Jesse Halsey Says
Acknowledgement of debt to the past formed the basis of Dr. Jesse Halsey’s Thanksgiving sermon at the Seventh Presbyterian Church yesterday morning.
Describing the sacrifices with which modern privileges have been bought and comparing life in the United States with life as he saw it in Russia during the Bolshevik uprising, he said:
‘With this in mind—our comforts and their destitution—with this in mind, I ask you and myself—‘Am I a Bolshevik? Will I destroy the wells of the past, or seek to maintain and to build better?’
Using the text, “Wells digged which thou diggest not,” Dr. Halsey said:
“Ancient civilizations developed along the water courses. The Pilgrims chose Plymouth because of its brook. Isaac and Abraham and Jacob built wells. Water is indispensable.”
“We daily use the wells of the fathers. They wrought: we enjoy. Lightly we accept the blessings of home and country, forgetting the awful cost.
Examples Are Given
“Think, then, of some ‘well diggers’ in whose debt you have come within the last few hours. A telegram here is the result of Morse’s experimentation and privation. He had the greatest difficulty in persuading Congress to appropriate money to build the first line of telegraphic communication. Today we use his well, forgetting his labor.
“The shade of Alexander Graham Bell stands by every time you use the telephone. Into your breakfast room this morning came Cyrus McCormick when you made the toast. He with a thousand others who have perfected agricultural machinery and technique are your creditors. Your radio suggests Henry’s experiments, Pupin, Marconi, a thousand more. All this at your disposal for a few dollars—so simplified that a boy of 10 can make a receiving set.
“A railway journey—James Watt is there to see you off. His bubbling teakettle was 12 years becoming a steam engine and then only by starvation and deprivation. Ten thousand men on guard at switch and throttle and keyboard, making your journey safe. Pioneers, blazing trails, fighting savages made your journey possible. The Fair of the Iron Horse staged by the Baltimore and Ohio last month was a marvelous moving picture of the development of transportation. It only emphasizes our debt to the past—to inventors and engineers and investors. Your automobile—the tires alone speak of Goodyear and 12 starving years of experimentation and delayed success. Turn where you will, you only multiply your feeling of obligation.
Newspaper Given as Example
This morning’s paper—10 cents? Back of it, Cadmus, the Phoenician, or whoever it was that invented letters; Gutenberg and moveable types; Hoe and his presses. News gathers at the ends of the earth; syndicated material from the wits and poets and philosophers of every land. All for 10 cents—plus toil and blood and tears. For in Russia, for example, you couldn’t have your newspaper, uncensored. Free speech lies written here between the lines. Runnymede and Magna Carta, a thousand places, ten thousand martyrs—all yours in a newspaper for 10 cents, or two.
“Political rights are yours. Why? Because of Independence Hall and Bunker Hill, and Valley Forge. Track their feet across the blood-stained snow that bitter winter 150 years ago, and then cast your ballot as you handle a sacred thing. A woman in a certain precinct refused a ballot the other day because it was soiled. The clean one she received in its place was marked with blood, the blood of heroes and patriots. Every ballot cast in America is like that, it represents sacrifice. How lightly we use it.
“Your doctor is the most wanted and most needed member of society—at times. He comes armed to fight dread disease, equipped to give you the best science has to give. With the hospital equipment at his disposal he gives you the best that human skill can offer. What did it cost? Well, very much more than your contribution to Christ Hospital or some other. You may have given a large sum, but you’re still in debt! Listen to a bit of the story. Harvey was hounded when he told of his discovery of the circulation of the blood. Lord Lister was laughed at for a decade while he developed antiseptic and aseptic surgery. Sixty years ago Pasteur and Koch were derided while, with painstaking skill and superhuman thoroughness, they perfected the germ theory of disease and produced anti-toxins. On the basis of averages it would be a simple thing to say how many of us are here today because of the introduction of diphtheria anti-toxin alone.
“Think of Martyrs”
“And religion—wells Thou digest not.” Think of the martyrs of religious persecution, the fires of Smithfield, John Bunyan a dozen years in jail for conscience sake. Think of the makers of the first American Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim Fathers—and Mothers. Driven from home, to Holland, a leaky boat on the squally autumnal Atlantic, rockbound shore, deadly pestilence, bleak winter—all for conscience sake. Thanksgiving came out of that. Down on your knees, people, before the altars of your God, grateful for the wells of life given us by our forefathers
I speak to you with the lurid background of revolution in my mind. Ten years ago I was in Russia. All that interminable winter we saw destruction rampant. Wells destroyed, the best fruits of civilization wasted. And with this in mind—our comforts and their destitution—with this in mind I ask you and myself—‘Am I a Bolshevik?’ Will I destroy the wells of the past or seek to maintain and to build better?
“Privilege means obligation to any honest soul. There are many slackers. Taking all the past offers and saying no thanks in word or deed.
“Welldiggers are still needed. There are arid areas in business. Last night I received a booklet—“What the Central Trust Company Can Do for You.” This bank, or any other, is a Temple of Faith; it can promise and guarantee certain things because of the same costly well-digging process that has been going on through the centuries. Business must extend the areas of service and goodwill if ever it lives up to the obligations imposed by the past.
“Next time you open your Bible (today I hope) think of John Wycliffe and of William Tyndale, burned at the stake that you might read in your own tongue the wonderful works of God. Next time some civic duty presents itself remember Saratoga and Lexington. And before the campaign closes tomorrow night send something to Christ Hospital*—you can’t pay your debt in full; make a payment on your account. For you are a debtor to science, you’ve been drinking at a well you never digged.
“In Labrador, where I once lived, when a fisherman gets in debt to a trade, no matter how large the debt, if every year he makes a payment on the debt, even small payment, he is considered an honest man. This is called ‘acknowledging the debt.’ I’d like to acknowledge my debt to the past, today at this Thanksgiving season; I can’t pay it in full, even if I were rich as Croesus, but I can and do acknowledge the debt and with grateful heart will seek to pay a little.”
*(Helen Augusta—b. Feb. 8, 1914 at Bethesda Hospital, Cin.; Wilmun Haynes, b. Sept. 30, 1920, at Christ Hospital, Cin.)
With thanks to: The Jesse Halsey Manuscript Collection. Special Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.