Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“The Lord grant you that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband” (Ruth 1:9).
This was the prayer of pious Naomi for Ruth and Orpah, and is an appropriate prayer now in behalf of unmarried womanhood. Naomi, the good old soul, knew that the devil would take their cases in hand if God did not, so she prays, “The Lord grant you that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.”
In this series on “The Wedding Ring” I last time gave prayerful and Christian advice to men in regard to selecting a wife. Today I give the same prayerful and Christian advice to women in regard to selecting a husband. But in all these discourses saying much that I hope will be appropriate for all ages and all classes.
I applaud the celibacy of a number of women who, rather than make unfit selection, have made none at all. It has not been a lack of opportunity for marital contract on their part, but their own culture and refinement, and their exalted idea as to what a husband ought to be, have caused their prudence.
They have seen so many women marry imbeciles, ruffians, incipient sots, lifetime incapables, magnificent nothings, or men who before marriage were angelic and afterward diabolic, that they have been alarmed and stood back. They have seen so many boats go into the maelstrom that they have steered into other waters.
Better for a woman to live alone, though she live a thousand years, than to be annexed to one of these masculine failures with which society is surfeited. The patron saint of almost every family circle is some such unmarried woman. Among all the families of cousins she moves around. Her coming in each house is the morning; her going away is the night.
In my large circle of kindred, perhaps twenty families in all, was an Aunt Phoebe. Paul gave a letter of introduction to one whom he calls “Phoebe, our sister” (Romans 16:1) as she went up from Cenchrea to Rome, commending her for her kindness and Christian service, and imploring for her all courtesies. I think Aunt Phoebe was named after her. If there was a sickness in any of the households, she was there ready to sit up and count out the drops of medicine. If there was a marriage, she helped deck the bride for the altar. If there was a new baby, she was there to rejoice at the nativity. If there was a sore bereavement, she was there to console.
The children, rushed out at her first appearance, crying, “Here comes Aunt Phoebe,” and but for parental interference they would have pulled her down with their caresses—for she was not strong, and many severe illnesses had given her enough glimpses of the next world to make her heavenly-minded. Her table was loaded with Baxter’s Saints’ Rest, Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Jay’s Morning and Evening Exercises, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and similar books that have equipped whole generations for the path to heaven on which they have already entered.
“DeWitt,” Aunt Phoebe said to me one day, “twice in my life I have been so overwhelmed with the love of God that I fainted away and could hardly be resuscitated. Don’t tell me there is no heaven. I have seen it twice.”
If you would know how her presence would soothe an anxiety, lift a burden, cheer a sorrow, or leave a blessing on every room in the house, ask any of the Talmages. She had tarried at her early home, taking care of an invalid father, until the bloom of life had somewhat faded; but she could interest the young folk with some three or four tender passages in her own history. We all knew that it was not through lack of opportunity that she was not the queen of one household, instead of being a benediction on a whole circle of households.
At about seventy years of age Aunt Phoebe made her last visit to my house; and when she sat in my Philadelphia church, I was more embarrassed at her presence than by all the audience, because I felt that in the Christian walk I had progressed no further than the ABCs, while she had learned the whole alphabet, and for many years had finished the XYZ. When she went out of this life into the next, what a shout there must have been in heaven, from the front door clear up to the back seat in the highest gallery! I saw the other day in the village cemetery of Somerville, New Jersey, her resting place, the tombstone having on it the words that thirty years ago she told me she would like to have inscribed there; namely, “The Morning Cometh.”
Did Aunt Phoebe have a mission in the world? Certainly. As much as Caroline Herschel, first amanuensis [copyist, literary assistant] for her illustrious brother, afterward his assistant in astronomical calculations, and then discovering worlds for herself, dying at ninety-eight years of age, still busy with the stars till she sped beyond them. As much as had Florence Nightingale, the nurse of the Crimea; or Grace Darling, the oarswoman of the Long Stone Lighthouse; or Mary Lyon, the teacher of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary; or Hannah More, the Christian authoress of England; or Dorothea Dix, the angel of mercy for the insane; or Anna Etheridge, among the wounded of Blackburn’s Fort; or Margaret Breckenridge, at Vicksburg; or Mary Shelton, distributing roses, grapes, and cologne in Western Hospital; or thousands of other glorious women like them, who never took the marriage sacrament. Appreciate all this, my sister, and it will make you deliberate before you rush out of the single state into another, unless you are sure of betterment.
A DIFFICULT BUSINESS
Deliberate and pray. Pray and deliberate. As I showed you in my former sermon, a man ought to supplicate divine guidance in such a crisis. How much more important that you solicit it! It is easier for a man to find an appropriate wife than for a woman to find a good husband. This is a matter of arithmetic, as I showed in my former discourse—there are more women than men. By hundreds of thousands. It seems woman is a favorite with the Lord and, therefore, He has made more of that kind. From the order of the creation in Paradise it is evident that woman is an improved edition of man. But whatever the reason, the fact is that she who selects a husband has a smaller number of candidates than he who selects a wife.
Therefore, a woman ought to be especially careful in her choice of lifetime companionship. She cannot afford to make a mistake. If a man err in his selection, he can spend his evenings at the club; but woman has no clubroom for refuge. If a woman make a bad job of marital selection, the probability is that nothing but a funeral can relieve it. Divorce cases in court may interest the public, but the love letters of a married couple are poor reading, except for those who write them. Pray God that you be delivered from irrevocable mistake!
YOUR OWN PEOPLE
Avoid affiance with a despiser of the Christian faith, whatever else he may have or may not have. Marriage with a man who hates the Faith will insure you a life of wretchedness. He will caricature your habit of kneeling in prayer. He will speak depreciatingly of Christ. He will wound all the most sacred feelings of your soul. He will put your home under the anathema of the Lord God Almighty. In addition to the anguish with which he will fill your life, there is great danger that he will despoil your hope of heaven, and make your marriage relation an infinite and eternal disaster. If you have made such engagement, your first duty is to break it. My word may come just in time to save your soul.
Further, do not unite in marriage with a man of bad habits in the idea of reforming him. If now, under the restraint of your present acquaintance, he will not give up his bad habits, after he has won the prize, you cannot expect him to do so. You might as well plant a violet in the face of a nor’easter with the idea of appeasing it. You might as well run a schooner alongside of a burning ship with the idea of saving the ship. The consequence will be that schooner and ship will be destroyed together.
The almshouse could tell the story of a hundred women who married men to reform them. If by twenty-five years of age a man has been grappled by intoxicants, he is under such headway that your attempt to stop him would be much like running up the track with a wheelbarrow to stop a Hudson River express train. What you call an inebriate nowadays is a victim not to wine or whiskey, but to logwood, strychnine, and nux vomica. All these poisons have kindled their fires in his tongue and brain, and all the tears of a wife weeping cannot extinguish the flames. Instead of marrying a man to reform him, let him reform first. Then allow time to see whether the reform is permanent. Let him understand that if he cannot do without his bad habits for two years, he must do without you forever.
Avoid union with one supremely selfish, or so wound up in his occupation that he has no room for another. You occasionally find a man who spreads himself so widely over the path of life that there is no room for anyone to walk beside him. He is not the one blade of the scissors incomplete without the other blade; he is a chisel made to cut his way through life alone, or a file full of roughness, made to be drawn across society without any affinity for other files. His disposition is a lifelong protest against marriage. Others are so married to their occupation or profession that the taking of any other bride is a case of bigamy.
There are men as severely tied to their literary work as was Chatterton, whose essay was not printed because of the death of the Lord Mayor. Chatterton made out the following account: “Lost by the Lord Mayor’s death in this essay one pound eleven shillings and six-pence. Gained in elegies and essays five pounds and five shillings.” Then he put what he had gained by the Lord Mayor’s death opposite to what he had lost, and wrote under it: “And glad he is dead by three pounds thirteen shillings and six-pence.” When a man is as hopelessly literary as that he ought to be a perpetual celibate; his library, his laboratory, his books are all the companionship needed.
Indeed, some of the mightiest men this world ever saw have not patronized matrimony. Cowper, Pope, Newton, Swift, Locke, Walpole, Gibbon, Hume, and Arbuthnot were single. Some of these marriage might have helped. The right kind of a wife might have cured Cowper’s gloom, given to Newton more practicability, and been a relief to Locke’s overtasked brain. A Christian wife might have converted Hume and Gibbon to a belief in Christianity. But Dean Swift did not deserve a wife, from the way in which he broke the heart of Jane Waring first, Esther Johnson afterward, and last of all “Vanessa.” The great wit of the day, he was outwitted by his own cruelties.
With so many possibilities of fatal mistake, am I not right in urging you to seek the unerring wisdom of God, and before you are infatuated? That most marriages are fitly made convinces us that they are divinely arranged. Almost every cradle has an affinity toward some other cradle. They may be on the opposite sides of the earth, but one child gets out of this cradle, and another child gets out of that cradle, and with their first steps they start for each other. They may diverge from the straight path, going toward North, South, East, or West. They may fall down, but the two rise facing each other. They are approaching all through infancy. The one all through the years of boyhood is going to meet the one who is coming through all the years of girlhood to meet him.
The decision of parents as to what is best concerning them, and the changes of fortune, may for a time seem to arrest the two journeys, but on they go. They may never have seen each other. But the two pilgrims who started at the two cradles are nearing. After eighteen, twenty, or thirty years, the two come within sight of each other. At the first glance they may feel a dislike, and they may slacken their step; yet something that the world calls fate, and that Faith calls Providence, urges them on and on. They must meet.
They come near enough to join hands in social acquaintance, after a while to join hands in friendship, after a while to join hearts. The delegate from the one cradle comes up the east aisle of the church with her father. The delegate from the other cradle comes up the west aisle of the church. The two long journeys end at the snowdrift of the bridal veil. The two chains made out of many years are forged together by the golden link that the groom puts on the third finger of the left hand. One on earth. May they be one in heaven!
But there are so many exceptions to the general rule of natural affinity that only those are safe who pray for a heavenly hand to lead them. Because they depended on themselves and not on God, thousands of women every year are going to the slaughter. In India women leap on the funeral pyre of a dead husband. We have a worse spectacle than that in America—women innumerable leaping on the funeral pyre of a living husband.
Avoid all proposed alliances through newspaper advertisements. Many women, for fun, have answered such advertisements, and have been led on from step to step to catastrophe infinite. All the men who write such advertisements are villains and lepers—all, without a single exception. All! All! Do you answer them for fun? I will tell you a safer and healthier fun. Thrust your hand through the cage at a menagerie, and stroke the back of a cobra from the East Indies. Put your head in the mouth of a Numidian lion, to see if he will bite. Take a glassful of Paris green mixed with some delightful henbane [poison]. These are safer and healthier fun than answering newspaper advertisements for a wife.
My advice is: Marry a man who is a fortune in himself. Houses, lands, and large inheritance are well enough, but the wheel of fortune turns so rapidly that through some investment all these in a few years may be gone. There are some things, however, that are a perpetual fortune—good manners, geniality of soul, kindness, intelligence, sympathy, courage, perseverance, industry, and whole-heartedness. Marry such a one and you have married a fortune, whether he have an income now of $50,000 a year or an income of $1,000. A bank is secure according to its capital stock, and not to be judged by the deposits for a day or a week. A man is rich according to his sterling qualities, and not according to the mutability of circumstances, which may leave with him a large amount of resources today, withdrawn tomorrow. If a man is worth nothing but money, he is poor indeed. If a man have upright character, he is rich. Property may come and go, he is independent of the markets. Nothing can buy him out, nothing can sell him out. He may have more money one year than another, but his better fortunes never vacillate.
Do not expect to find a perfect man. If you find one without faults, incapable of mistakes, never having guessed wrongly, his patience never having been perturbed, immaculate in speech, in temper, in habits, do not marry him. Why? Because you would enact a swindle. What would you do with a perfect man if you are not perfect yourself? And how dare you hitch your imperfection fast on such supernatural excellence? What a companion you would make for an angel! In other words, there is no perfect man. There never was but one perfect pair, and they slipped down the banks of Paradise together. We occasionally find a man who says he never sins. We know he lies when he says it. We have had financial dealings with two or three “perfect” men, and they cheated us woefully. Do not, therefore, look for an immaculate husband, for you will not find him.
PLENTY OF GOOD HUSBANDS
But do not become cynical on this subject. Society has many grand men who know how to make home happy. As husband, they evince a nobility of nature and a self-sacrificing spirit that surprise even the wife. These are the men who cheerfully sit in dark and dirty business offices, ten feet by twelve, in summertime, hard at work while the wives and daughters are off at Saratoga, Mount Desert, or White Sulphur Springs. These are the men who, never having had much education themselves, have their sons at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Virginia. These are the men who work themselves to death by fifty years of age, and go out to Greenwood [cemetery] leaving large estate and generous life-insurance provision for their families.
There are husbands and fathers here by the hundreds who would die for their households. If crime should ever become dominant in our cities, they would stand in their doorway, and with their own arm would cleave down, one by one, fifty invaders face to face, foot to foot, and every stroke a demolition. This is what makes an army in defense of a country fight more desperately than an army of conquest. It is not so much the abstract sentiment of a flag as it is wife, children, and home that turns enthusiasm into a fury. The world has such men by the millions, and the homunculi [microscopic creatures] that infest all our communities must not hinder women from appreciating the glory of true manhood.
FIDELITY IN ADVERSITY
I was reading of a bridal reception. The young man had brought home the choice of his heart in her elaborate and exquisite apparel. As she stood in the festal drawing room, among the happy group, the young man’s eyes filled with tears of joy at the thought that she was his.
Years passed by, and they stood at the same parlor on another festal occasion. She wore the same dress, for business had not opened as brightly to the young husband as he expected, and he had never been able to purchase for her another dressy dress. Her face was not as bright and smooth as it had been years before, and a careworn look had made its signature on her countenance. As the husband looked at her, he saw the difference between this occasion and the former; and he went over to where she sat and said, “You remember the time when we were here before? You have the same dress on. Circumstances have somewhat changed, but you look to me far more beautiful than you did then.”
There is such a thing as conjugal fidelity, and many of you know it in your own homes.
But after all the good advice we may give you, we come back to the golden pillar from which we started, the tremendous truth that no one but God can guide you in safety about this matter that may decide your happiness for two worlds, this and the next. So, my sister, I put your case where Naomi put that of Ruth and Orpah when she said, “The Lord grant you that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.”
I imagine the hour for which you pledged your troth has arrived. There is much merrymaking among your young friends, but there is an undertone of sadness in all the house. Your choice may have been the gladdest and the best, and the joy of the whole round of relatives; but when a young eaglet is about to leave the old nest, and is preparing to put out into sunshine and storm for itself, it feels its wings tremble.
So the bride has a good cry before leaving home, and at the marriage Father and Mother always cry, or feel like it. If you think it is easy to give up a daughter in marriage, though it be with brightest prospects, you will think differently when the day comes. To have all along watched her from infancy to girlhood, and from girlhood to womanhood, studious of her welfare, her slightest illness an anxiety, and her presence in your home an ever-increasing joy, and then to have her go away to some other home—all the redolence of orange blossoms, all the chime of marriage bells, all the rolling of wedding march in full diapason [organ stop], and all the hilarious congratulations of your friends cannot make you forget that you are suffering a loss irreparable. But you the parent know it is all right, and you have a remembrance of an embarkation as it was twenty-five or thirty years ago, in which you were one of the parties; and, suppressing as far as possible your sadness, you say good-bye.
THE OLD HOME
I hope that you, the departing daughter, will not forget to write often home; for, whatever happens, the old folk will never lose their interest in your welfare. Visit often. Stay as long as you can. There will be changes at the old place after a while. Every time you go you will find more gray hairs on Father’s head, more wrinkles on Mother’s brow. After a while you will notice that the elastic step has become infirmed. And someday one of the two pillars of your early home will fall; after a while the other pillar of that home will fall. It will be a comfort to you if, after they are gone, you can feel that while you were faithful in your new home you never forgot your old home, the first friends you ever had, and those to whom you are more indebted than you ever can be to anyone else except to God—your parents. Alexander Pope put it in effective rhythm when he said:
Me let the tender office long engage
To rock the cradle of reposing age;
With lenient arts extend a mother’s breath,
Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death;
Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep awhile one parent from the sky. ~Alexander Pope
And now I commend all this precious and splendid young womanhood before me today to the God “who sets the solitary in families” (Psalm 68:6).
“That quiet mutual gaze of a trusting husband and wife is like the first moment of rest or refuge from a great weariness or a great danger.” ~George Eliot
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Wedding Rings
*Adapted from “The Choice of a Husband,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], The Wedding Ring: A Series of Discourses for Husbands and Wives and Those Contemplating Matrimony (New York: Louis Klopsch, 1896). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.