Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“Come apart to a desert place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31).
Here Christ advises His apostles to take a vacation. They have been living an excited as well as a useful life, and He advises that they get out into the country.
Six weeks ago, standing in this place, I advocated, with all the energy I could command, the Saturday afternoon holiday, I did not think the people would so soon get that release. By divine fiat it has come, and I rejoice that more people will have opportunity of recreation this summer than in any previous summer. Others will have whole weeks and months of rest. The railway trains are being laden with passengers and baggage on their way to the mountains, the lakes, and the seashore. Multitudes of our citizens are packing their trunks for a restorative absence.
The city heat is pursuing the people with torch and fear of sunstroke. The long silent halls of sumptuous hotels are abuzz with excited arrivals. The crystalline surface of Winnipiseogee [Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire] is shattered with the stroke of steamer, laden with excursionists. The antlers of Adirondack deer rattle under the shot of city sportsmen. The trout make fatal snaps at the hook of adroit sportsmen and toss their spotted brilliance into the game-basket.
Already the baton of the orchestral leader taps the music stand on the hotel green, American life puts on festal array, and the rumbling of the tenpin alley [bowling], the crack of the ivory balls on the green-baized billiard tables, the jolting of the barroom goblets, the explosive uncorking of champagne bottles, the whirl and the rustle of the ballroom dance, and the clattering hoofs of the racecourses attest that the season for the great American watering places [seaside, lakeside, riverside] is fairly inaugurated. Music—flute, drum, cornet-à-piston, and clapping cymbals—will wake the echoes of the mountains.
Glad I am that exhausted American life for the most part will have an opportunity to rest, and that nerves racked and destroyed will find a Bethesda. I believe in watering places. Let not the commercial firm begrudge the clerk, the employer the journeyman, the patient the physician, or the church its pastor a season of inoccupation. Luther used to sport with his children; Edmund Burke used to caress his favorite horse; Thomas Chalmers, in the dark hours of the church’s disruption, played kite for recreation—as I was told by his own daughter—and the busy Christ said to the busy apostles: “Come apart awhile into the desert and rest yourselves.” I have observed that they who do not know how to rest do not know how to work.
But I have to declare this truth today, that some of our fashionable watering places are the temporal and eternal destruction of “a multitude that no man can number” (cf Revelation 7:9) and with the congratulations of this season and the prospect of the departure of many of you for the country, I must utter a note of warning—plain, earnest, and unmistakable.
The first temptation that is apt to hover in this direction is to leave your piety at home. You will send the dog, cat, and canary bird to be well cared for somewhere else; but the temptation will be to leave your faith in the room with the blinds down and the door bolted. Then you will come back in the autumn to find that it is starved and suffocated, lying stretched on the rug stark dead.
There is no surplus of piety at the watering places. I never knew anyone to grow in grace at the Catskill Mountain House, Sharon Springs, or the Falls of Montmorency. Generally the Sabbath is more of a carousal than any other day: there are Sunday walks, Sunday rides, and Sunday excursions.
Elders, deacons, and ministers who are entirely consistent at home, sometimes when the Sabbath dawns on them at Niagara Falls or the White Mountains, take the day to themselves. If they go to the church, it is apt to be a sacred parade, and the discourse, instead of being a plain talk about the soul, is apt to be what is called a crack sermon—a discourse picked out of the effusions [literary bursts] of the year as the one most adapted to excite admiration. In those churches, from the way the ladies hold their fans, you know that they are not so much impressed with the heat as with the picturesqueness of half-disclosed features [casualwear]. Four puny souls stand in the organ loft and squall a tune that nobody knows. Worshipers, with $2,000 worth of diamonds on the right hand, drop a penny into the poor box. Then the benediction is pronounced, and the farce is ended.
The toughest thing I ever tried to do was to be good at a watering place. The air is bewitched with “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” There are Christians who in three or four weeks in such a place have had such terrible rents made in their Christian robe that they had to keep darning it until Christmas to get it mended! The health of a great many people makes an annual visit to some mineral spring an absolute necessity; but, my dear people, take your Bible along with you, and take an hour for secret prayer every day, though you be surrounded by guffaw [loud laughing] and saturnalia [merrymaking].
Keep holy the Sabbath, though they denounce you as a bigoted Puritan. Stand off from those institutions that propose to imitate on this side the water the iniquities of Baden-Baden. Let your moral and your immortal health keep pace with your physical recuperation, and remember that all the waters of Hathorne and sulphur and chalybeate [mineral] springs cannot do you so much good as the mineral, healing, perennial flood that breaks forth from the “Rock of Ages.” This may be your last summer. If so, make it a fit vestibule of heaven.
Another temptation around nearly all our watering places is the horse-racing business. We all admire the horse [daily transportation]. There needs to be a redistribution of coronets [crowns] among the brute creation. For ages the lion has been called the king of beasts. I knock off its coronet and put the crown on the horse, in every way nobler, whether in shape, spirit, sagacity [wisdom], intelligence, affection, or usefulness. The horse is semi-human: he can reason on a small scale. The centaur of olden times, part horse and part man, suggests that the horse is something more than a beast.
Job sets forth his strength, his beauty, his majesty, the panting of his nostril, the pawing of his hoof, and his enthusiasm for the battle. What Rosa Bonheur [artist] did for the cattle, and what Edwin Landseer [artist] did for the dog, Job, with mightier pencil, does for the horse. Eighty-eight times does the Bible speak of him. He comes into every kingly procession, into every great occasion, and into every triumph. It is evident that Job, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and John were fond of the horse. He came into much of their imagery. A red horse—that meant war; a black horse—that meant famine; a pale horse—that meant death; a white horse—that meant victory (cf Revelation 6:1-8).
As the Bible makes a favorite of the horse, the patriarch, the prophet, the evangelist, and the apostle, stroking his sleek hide, patting his rounded neck, tenderly lifting his exquisitely-formed hoof, and listening with a thrill to the chomp of his bit, so all great natures in all ages have spoken of him in encomiastic [flattering] terms. Virgil in his Georgics almost seems to plagiarize from the description of Job. The Duke of Wellington would not allow anyone irreverently to touch his old war horse, Copenhagen, on whom he had ridden fifteen hours without dismounting at Waterloo; and when old Copenhagen died, his master ordered a military salute fired over his grave. John Howard showed that he did not exhaust all his sympathies in pitying the human race, for when sick he writes home: “Has my old chaise horse become sick or spoiled?”
But we do not think that the speed of the horse should be cultured at the expense of human degradation. Horse-racing, in olden times, was banned by Christian people. So, in our day horse-racing goes by euphemisms like a “summer meeting,” almost suggestive of positive religious exercises. Or an “agricultural fair,” suggestive of improved methods of farming. But under these deceptive titles are the same cheating, the same betting, the same drunkenness, the same vagabondage [rascality], and the same abominations that were to be found under the old horse-racing system.
I never knew a man yet who could give himself to the pleasures of the turf [racetrack] for a long reach of time, and not be battered in morals. Men hook up their spanking team, put on their sporting-cap, light their cigar, take the reins, and dash down the road to perdition. The great day at Saratoga, Long Branch, Cape May, and nearly all the other watering places [seaside or lakeside vacation resorts] is the day of the races. The hotels are thronged, nearly every kind of equipage is taken up at an almost fabulous price, and there are many respectable people mingling with jockeys, gamblers, libertines, foul-mouthed men, and flashy women. The bartender stirs up the brandy-smash. The bets run high. The greenhorns, supposing all is fair, put in their money soon enough to lose it. Three weeks before the race takes place, the struggle is decided, and the men in the secret know on which steed to bet their money. The two men [jockeys] on the horses riding around long before arranged who will win.
Leaning from the stand or from the carriage are men and women so absorbed in the struggle of bone and muscle and mettle that they make a grand harvest for the pickpockets, who carry off the pocket-books and portemonnaies [wallets]. Men looking on see only two horses with two riders flying around the ring; but there is many a man on that stand whose honor, domestic happiness, and fortune—white mane, white foot, white flank—are in the ring, racing with inebriety [intoxicated], with fraud, with profanity, and with ruin—black neck, black foot, black flank. Neck and neck they go in that moral Epsom [English racecourse].
Ah, my friends, have nothing to do with horse-racing dissipations this summer. Long ago the English government ceased looking to the turf for the dragoon and light-cavalry horse. They found the turf depreciates the stock, and it is yet worse for men.
Thomas Hughes, Parliament member and author, known the world over, hearing that a new turf enterprise was being started in this country, wrote a letter, in which he said: “Heaven help you, then; for of all the cankers of our old civilization there is nothing in this country approaching in unblushing meanness, in rascality holding its head high, to this belauded institution of the British turf.”
Another famous sportsman writes, “How many fine domains have been shared among these hosts of rapacious [grasping] sharks during the last two hundred years; and unless the system be altered, how many more are doomed to fall into the same gulf!”
The Duke of Hamilton, through his horse-racing proclivities [passions], in three years got through his entire fortune of £70,000, and I will say that some of you are being undermined by it. With the bullfights of Spain and the bear-baitings of the pit may the Lord God annihilate the infamous and accursed horse-racing of England and America!
I go further, and speak of another temptation that hovers over the watering places; and this is the temptation to sacrifice physical strength. The modern Bethesda was intended to recuperate the physical health; and yet how many come from the watering places, their health absolutely destroyed! New York and Brooklyn idiots boasting of having imbibed twenty glasses of Congress water before breakfast. Families accustomed to going to bed at ten o’clock at night gossiping until one or two o’clock in the morning. Dyspeptics, usually cautious about their health, mingling ice cream, lemon, lobster salad, and coconut until the gastric juices lift up their voices of lamentation and protest. Delicate women and brainless young men chassezing [chasing] themselves into vertigo and catalepsy [unconsciousness]. Thousands of men and women coming back from our watering places in the autumn with the foundations laid for ailments that will last them all their life long. You know as well as I do that this is the simple truth.
In the summer you say to your good health: “Good-bye, I am going to have a good time for a little while. I will be glad to see you again in the autumn.”
Then in the autumn, when you are hard at work in your office, store, shop, or counting-room, Good Health will come and say: “Good-bye, I am going.”
You say, “Where are you going?”
“Oh,” says Good Health, “I am going to take a vacation!”
It is a poor rule that will not work both ways, and your good health will leave you choleric [irritable], splenetic [bad-tempered], and exhausted. You coquetted [flirted] with your good health in the summertime, and your good health is coquetting with you in the wintertime.
A fragment of Paul’s charge to the jailer (Acts 16:28) would be an appropriate inscription for the hotel register in every watering place: “Do yourself no harm.”
Another temptation hovering around the watering place is to the formation of hasty and lifelong alliances. The watering places are responsible for more of the domestic infelicities [inappropriate behavior] of this country than all the other things combined. Society is so artificial there [on vacation] that no sure judgement of character can be formed. Those who form companionships during such circumstances go into a lottery where there are twenty blanks to one prize. In the severe tug of life you want more than glitter and splash.
Life is not a ballroom where the music decides the step, and bow, prance and graceful swing of long trail can make up for strong common sense. You might as well look among the gaily painted yachts of a summer regatta for war vessels as to look among the light spray of the summer watering place to find character that can stand the test of the great struggle of human life. In the battle of life you want a stronger weapon than a lace fan or a croquet mallet! The load of life is so heavy that to draw it, you want a team stronger than a masculine grasshopper and a feminine butterfly.
If there is any man in the community that excites my contempt, and that ought to excite the contempt of every man and woman, it is the soft-handed, soft-headed fop, who, perfumed until the air is actually sick, spends his summer in taking killing attitudes, waving sentimental adieus, talking infinitesimal nothings, and finding his heaven in the set of a lavender kid-glove. Boots as tight as an Inquisition, two hours of consummate skill exhibited in the tie of a flaming cravat, his conversation made up of “Ah’s,” “Oh’s,” and “He-hee’s.” It would take 500 of them stewed down to make a teaspoonful of calves foot jelly [aspic].
There is only one counterpart to such a man as that, and that is the frothy young woman at the watering place, her conversation made up of French moonshine. What she has on her head equaled only by what she has on her back; useless ever since she was born, and to be useless until she is dead: and what they will do with her in the next world I do not know, except to set her on the banks of the River Life for eternity to look sweet! God intends us to admire music, fair faces, and graceful step, but in the middle of the heartlessness, the inflation, and the fantastic influences of our modern watering places, beware how you make lifelong covenants!
Another temptation that will hover over the watering place is that of baneful literature. Almost everyone starting off for the summer takes some reading matter. It is a book out of the library or off the bookstand, or bought of the boy hawking books through the cars. I believe there is more pestiferous [diseased, poisonous] trash read among the intelligent classes in July and August than in the other ten months of the year. Men and women who at home would not be satisfied with a book that was not sensible are found sitting on hotel piazzas or under the trees reading books that would make people blush.
“Oh,” they say, “you must have intellectual recreation!”
Yes. There is no need that you take along to a watering place Hamilton’s Metaphysics, some thunderous discourse on the eternal decrees, or Faraday’s Philosophy. There are many easy books that are good. But if you choose light reading that is bad, you might as well say, “I propose now to give a little rest to my digestive organs; and, instead of eating heavy meat and vegetables, I will for a little while take lighter food—a little strychnine and a few grains of ratsbane.” Literary poison in August is as bad as literary poison in December. Mark that. Do not let the frogs and the lice of a corrupt printing press jump and crawl into your Saratoga trunk or your White Mountain valise.
Would it not be an awful thing for you to be struck with lightning someday when you had in your hand one of these paper-covered romances—the hero a Parisian roué [debauched], the heroine an unprincipled flirt—chapters in the book that you would not read to your children at the rate of $100 a line? Throw out all that stuff from your summer baggage. Are there not good books that are easy to read—books of entertaining travel, books of congenial history, books of pure fun, books of poetry ringing with merry canto, books of fine engravings, books that will rest the mind as well as purify the heart and elevate the whole life? My hearers, there will not be an hour between this and the day of your death when you can afford to read a book lacking in moral principle.
Another temptation hovering all around our watering places is the intoxicating beverage. I am told that it is becoming more and more fashionable for woman to drink. I care not how well a woman may dress, if she has taken enough of wine to flush her cheek and put glassiness on her eyes, she is intoxicated. She may be handed into a $2,500 carriage, and have diamonds enough to confound the Tiffanys—she is intoxicated. She may be a graduate of Packer Institute [prep school], and the daughter of some man in danger of being nominated for the Presidency—she is drunk. You may have a larger vocabulary than I have, and you may say in regard to her that she is “convivial,” “merry,” “festive,” or “exhilarated,” but you cannot with all your garlands of verbiage cover up the plain fact that it is an old-fashioned case of drunk.
Now, the watering places are full of temptations to men and women to tipple [drink alcohol]. At the close of the tenpin or billiard game they tipple. At the close of the cotillon they tipple. Seated on the piazza cooling themselves off they tipple. The tinged glasses come around with bright straws, and they tipple. First they take “light wines,” as they call them; but “light wines” are heavy enough to debase the appetite. There is not a very long road between champagne at $5 a bottle and whiskey at 5¢ a glass.
Satan has three or four grades down which he takes men to destruction. One man he takes up, and through one spree pitches him into eternal darkness. That is a rare case. Very seldom, indeed, can you find a man who will be such a fool as that.
When a man goes down to destruction Satan brings him to a plane. It is almost a level. The depression is so slight that you can hardly see it. The man does not actually know that he is on the downgrade, and it tips only a little toward darkness—just a little. And the first mile it is claret; the second mile it is sherry; the third mile it is punch; the fourth mile it is ale; the fifth mile it is porter; and the sixth mile it is brandy. Then it gets steeper, steeper, and steeper. The man becomes frightened and says, “Oh, let me off!”
“No,” says the conductor, “this is an express train, and it does not stop until it gets to the Grand Central Depot at Smashupton.”
Ah, “look not on the wine when it is red, when it gives its color in the cup, when it moves itself aright. At the last it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder” (Proverbs 23:31, 32). And if any young man in my congregation should go astray this summer in this direction, it will not be because I have not given him fair warning!
My friends, whether you tarry at home—which will be as safe and as comfortable—or go into the country, arm yourself against temptation. The grace of God is the only safe shelter, whether in town or country.
There are watering places accessible to all of us. You cannot open a book of the Bible without finding some such watering place. “A fountain of water in the wilderness,” “the well of Beerlahairoi” discovered by Hagar (Genesis 16:7, 14). A flood struck out of “the rock in Horeb” by Moses (Exodus 17:6). “A river, the streams of which make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4). “The river of God, which is full of water” (65:9). Wells of water in “the Valley of Baca” (84:6). “A fountain of gardens, a well of living water, and streams from Lebanon” (Song 4:15). “Water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). “Waters to the knees, waters to the loins, waters to swim in, a river that cannot be passed over” (Ezekiel 47:5). “A fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1). “Water of which if a man drink, he shall never thirst; but the water shall be in him a well of living water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). “Rivers of living water” (7:38). “Living fountains of water” (Revelation 7:17). “A pure river of water as clear as crystal proceeding out of the throne of God” (22:1).
These are watering places accessible to all of us. We do not have a laborious packing up before we start—only the throwing away of our transgressions. No expensive hotel bills to pay; it is “without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). No long and dirty travel before we get there; it is only one step away. California in five minutes. I walked around and saw ten fountains, all bubbling up, and they were all different. And in five minutes I can get through this Bible parterre [flat land] and find you fifty bright, sparkling fountains bubbling up into eternal life.
A chemist will go to one of these summer watering places, take the water, analyze it, and tell you that it contains so much iron, sodium, lime, or magnesia. I come to this gospel well, this living fountain, and analyze the water; and I find that its ingredients are peace, pardon, forgiveness, hope, comfort, life, and heaven. “Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come” (Isaiah 55:1) to this watering place!
Crowd around this Bethesda (John 5:2) this morning! O you sick, you lame, you troubled, you dying—crowd around this Bethesda! Step in it! Oh, step in it! The angel of the covenant this morning stirs the water. Why do you not step in it?
Some of you are too weak to take a step in that direction. Then we take you up in the arms of our closing prayer and plunge you clean under the wave, hoping that the cure may be as sudden and as radical as with Captain Naaman (2 Kings 5:14), who, blotched and carbuncled, stepped into the Jordan, and after the seventh dive came up, his skin roseate-complexioned as the flesh of a little child.
“Walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15, 16).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Rockaway Beach, Long Island, Queens, New York (1904)
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.
Isn’t it interesting to see these people at the beach fully clothed?
*Adapted from “Summer Temptations,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.