The Proselytes, by John Greenleaf Whittier

Tales and Sketches

[1833]

THE student sat at his books. All the day he had been poring over an old and time-worn volume; and the evening found him still absorbed in its contents. It was one of that interminable series of controversial volumes, containing the theological speculations of the ancient fathers of the Church. With the patient perseverance so characteristic of his countrymen, he was endeavoring to detect truth amidst the numberless inconsistencies of heated controversy; to reconcile jarring propositions; to search out the thread of scholastic argument amidst the rant of prejudice and the sallies of passion, and the coarse vituperations of a spirit of personal bitterness, but little in accordance with the awful gravity of the question at issue.

Wearied and baffled in his researches, he at length closed the volume, and rested his care-worn forehead upon his hand. "What avail," he said, "these long and painful endeavors, these midnight vigils, these weary studies, before which heart and flesh are failing? What have I gained? I have pushed my researches wide and far; my life has been one long and weary lesson; I have shut out from me the busy and beautiful world; I have chastened every youthful impulse; and at an age when the heart should be lightest and the pulse the freest, I am grave and silent and sorrowful,' and the frost of a premature age is gathering around my heart. Amidst these ponderous tomes, surrounded by the venerable receptacles of old wisdom, breathing, instead of the free air of heaven, the sepulchral dust of antiquity, I have become assimilated to the objects around me; my very nature has undergone a metamorphosis of which Pythagoras never dreamed. I am no longer a reasoning creature, looking at everything within the circle of human investigation with a clear and self-sustained vision, but the cheated follower of metaphysical absurdities, a mere echo of scholastic subtilty. God knows that my aim has been a lofty and pure one, that I have buried myself in this living tomb, and counted the health of this His feeble and outward image as nothing in comparison with that of the immortal and inward representation and shadow of His own Infinite Mind; that I have toiled through what the world calls wisdom, the lore of the old fathers and time-honored philosophy, not for the dream of power and gratified ambition, not for the alchemist's gold or life-giving elixir, but with an eye single to that which I conceived to be the most fitting object of a godlike spirit, the discovery of Truth,—truth perfect and unclouded, truth in its severe and perfect beauty, truth as it sits in awe and holiness in the presence of its Original and Source!

"Was my aim too lofty? It cannot be; for my Creator has given me a spirit which would spurn a meaner one. I have studied to act in accordance with His will; yet have I felt all along like one walking in blindness. I have listened to the living champions of the Church; I have pored over the remains of the dead; but doubt and heavy darkness still rest upon my pathway. I find contradiction where I had looked for harmony; ambiguity where I had expected clearness; zeal taking the place of reason; anger, intolerance, personal feuds and sectarian bitterness, interminable discussions and weary controversies; while infinite Truth, for which I have been seeking, lies still beyond, or seen, if at all, only by transient and unsatisfying glimpses, obscured and darkened by miserable subtilties and cabalistic mysteries."

He was interrupted by the entrance of a servant with a letter. The student broke its well-known seal, and read, in a delicate chirography, the following words:—

"DEAR ERNEST,—A stranger from the English Kingdom, of gentle birth and education, hath visited me at the request of the good Princess Elizabeth of the Palatine. He is a preacher of the new faith, a zealous and earnest believer in the gifts of the Spirit, but not like John de Labadie or the lady Schurmans.

[J. de Labadie, Anna Maria Schurmans, and others, dissenters from the French Protestants, established themselves in Holland, 1670.]

"He speaks like one sent on a message from heaven, a message of wisdom and salvation. Come, Ernest, and see him; for he hath but a brief hour to tarry with us. Who knoweth but that this stranger may be commissioned to lead us to that which we have so long and anxiously sought for,—the truth as it is in God. "LEONORA."

"Now may Heaven bless the sweet enthusiast for this interruption of my bitter reflections!" said the student, in the earnest tenderness of impassioned feeling. "She knows how gladly I shall obey her summons; she knows how readily I shall forsake the dogmas of our wisest schoolmen, to obey the slightest wishes of a heart pure and generous as hers."

He passed hastily through one of the principal streets of the city to the dwelling of the lady, Eleonora.

In a large and gorgeous apartment sat the Englishman, his plain and simple garb contrasting strongly with the richness and luxury around him. He was apparently quite young, and of a tall and commanding figure. His countenance was calm and benevolent; it bore no traces of passion; care had not marked it; there was a holy serenity in its expression, which seemed a token of that inward "peace which passeth all understanding."

"And this is thy friend, Eleonora?" said the stranger, as he offered his hand to Ernest. "I hear," he said, addressing the latter, "thou hast been a hard student and a lover of philosophy."

"I am but a humble inquirer after Truth," replied Ernest.

"From whence hast thou sought it?"

"From the sacred volume, from the lore of the old fathers, from the fountains of philosophy, and from my own brief experience of human life."

"And hast thou attained thy object?"

"Alas, no!" replied the student; "I have thus far toiled in vain."

"Ah! thus must the children of this world ever toil, wearily, wearily, but in vain. We grasp at shadows, we grapple with the fashionless air, we walk in the blindness of our own vain imaginations, we compass heaven and earth for our objects, and marvel that we find them not. The truth which is of God, the crown of wisdom, the pearl of exceeding price, demands not this vain-glorious research; easily to be entreated, it lieth within the reach of all. The eye of the humblest spirit may discern it. For He who respecteth not the persons of His children hath not set it afar off, unapproachable save to the proud and lofty; but hath made its refreshing fountains to murmur, as it were, at the very door of our hearts. But in the encumbering hurry of the world we perceive it not; in the noise of our daily vanities we hear not the waters of Siloah which go softly. We look widely abroad; we lose ourselves in vain speculation; we wander in the crooked paths of those who have gone before us; yea, in the language of one of the old fathers, we ask the earth and it replieth not, we question the sea and its inhabitants, we turn to the sun, and the moon, and the stars of heaven, and they may not satisfy us; we ask our eyes, and they cannot see, and our ears, and they cannot hear; we turn to books, and they delude us; we seek philosophy, and no response cometh from its dead and silent learning.

[August. Soliloq. Cap. XXXI. "Interrogavi Terram," etc.]

"It is not in the sky above, nor in the air around, nor in the earth beneath; it is in our own spirits, it lives within us; and if we would find it, like the lost silver of the woman of the parable, we must look at home, to the inward temple, which the inward eye discovereth, and wherein the spirit of all truth is manifested. The voice of that spirit is still and small, and the light about it shineth in darkness. But truth is there; and if we seek it in low humility, in a patient waiting upon its author, with a giving up of our natural pride of knowledge, a seducing of self, a quiet from all outward endeavor, it will assuredly be revealed and fully made known. For as the angel rose of old from the altar of Manoah even so shall truth arise from the humbling sacrifice of self-knowledge and human vanity, in all its eternal and ineffable beauty.

"Seekest thou, like Pilate, after truth? Look thou within. The holy principle is there; that in whose light the pure hearts of all time have rejoiced. It is 'the great light of ages' of which Pythagoras speaks, the 'good spirit' of Socrates; the 'divine mind' of Anaxagoras; the 'perfect principle' of Plato; the 'infallible and immortal law, and divine power of reason' of Philo. It is the 'unbegotten principle and source of all light,' whereof Timmus testifieth; the 'interior guide of the soul and everlasting foundation of virtue,' spoken of by Plutarch. Yea, it was the hope and guide of those virtuous Gentiles, who, doing by nature the things contained in the law, became a law unto themselves.

"Look to thyself. Turn thine eye inward. Heed not the opinion of the world. Lean not upon the broken reed of thy philosophy, thy verbal orthodoxy, thy skill in tongues, thy knowledge of the Fathers. Remember that truth was seen by the humble fishermen of Galilee, and overlooked by the High Priest of the Temple, by the Rabbi and the Pharisee. Thou canst not hope to reach it by the metaphysics of Fathers, Councils, Schoolmen, and Universities. It lies not in the high places of human learning; it is in the silent sanctuary of thy own heart; for He, who gave thee an immortal soul, hath filled it with a portion of that truth which is the image of His own unapproachable light. The voice of that truth is within thee; heed thou its whisper. A light is kindled in thy soul, which, if thou carefully heedest it, shall shine more and more even unto the perfect day."

The stranger paused, and the student melted into tears. "Stranger!" he said, "thou hast taken a weary weight from my heart, and a heavy veil from my eyes. I feel that thou hast revealed a wisdom which is not of this world."

"Nay, I am but a humble instrument in the hand of Him who is the fountain of all truth, and the beginning and the end of all wisdom. May the message which I have borne thee be sanctified to thy well-being."

"Oh, heed him, Ernest!" said the lady. "It is the holy truth which has been spoken. Let us rejoice in this truth, and, forgetting the world, live only for it."

"Oh, may He who watcheth over all His children keep thee in faith of thy resolution!" said the Preacher, fervently. "Humble yourselves to receive instruction, and it shall be given you. Turn away now in your youth from the corrupting pleasures of the world, heed not its hollow vanities, and that peace which is not such as the world giveth, the peace of God which passeth all understanding, shall be yours. Yet, let not yours be the world's righteousness, the world's peace, which shuts itself up in solitude. Encloister not the body, but rather shut up the soul from sin. Live in the world, but overcome it: lead a life of purity in the face of its allurements: learn, from the holy principle of truth within you, to do justly in the sight of its Author, to meet reproach without anger, to live without offence, to love those that offend you, to visit the widow and the fatherless, and keep yourselves unspotted from the world."

"Eleonora!" said the humbled student, "truth is plain before us; can we follow its teachings? Alas! canst thou, the daughter of a noble house, forget the glory of thy birth, and, in the beauty of thy years, tread in that lowly path, which the wisdom of the world accounteth foolishness?"

"Yes, Ernest, rejoicingly can I do it!" said the lady; and the bright glow of a lofty purpose gave a spiritual expression to her majestic beauty. "Glory to God in the highest, that He hath visited us in mercy!"

"Lady!" said the Preacher, "the day-star of truth has arisen in thy heart; follow thou its light even unto salvation. Live an harmonious life to the curious make and frame of thy creation; and let the beauty of thy person teach thee to beautify thy mind with holiness, the ornament of the beloved of God. Remember that the King of Zion's daughter is all-glorious within; and if thy soul excel, thy body will only set off the lustre of thy mind. Let not the spirit of this world, its cares and its many vanities, its fashions and discourse, prevail over the civility of thy nature. Remember that sin brought the first coat, and thou wilt have little reason to be proud of dress or the adorning of thy body. Seek rather the enduring ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, the beauty and the purity of the altar of God's temple, rather than the decoration of its outward walls. For, as the Spartan monarch said of old to his daughter, when he restrained her from wearing the rich dresses of Sicily, 'Thou wilt seem more lovely to me without them,' so shalt thou seem, in thy lowliness and humility, more lovely in the sight of Heaven and in the eyes of the pure of earth. Oh, preserve in their freshness thy present feelings, wait in humble resignation and in patience, even if it be all thy days, for the manifestations of Him who as a father careth for all His children."

"I will endeavor, I will endeavor!" said the lady, humbled in spirit, and in tears.

The stranger took the hand of each. "Farewell!" he said, "I must needs depart, for I have much work before me. God's peace be with you; and that love be around you, which has been to me as the green pasture and the still water, the shadow in a weary land."

And the stranger went his way; but the lady and her lover, in all their after life, and amidst the trials and persecutions which they were called to suffer in the cause of truth, remembered with joy and gratitude the instructions of the pure-hearted and eloquent William Penn.