Address to the Female Society in Colchester
I feel so incompetent to the task assigned me, that I address you with sensations not unlike those enspired[A] by guilt. My judgment tells me, that one of my age and abilities should listen in silence to the instructions of others. And as a great number of those that I address, are much older, and a still greater number, much wiser, than myself, I should think it proper for me to apologize for attempting either to instruct or entertain you, were not the task imposed upon me as a duty. A ready, and a cheerful acceptance of appointments in our society, is a duty which has often been inculcated on its members, and it is one, which, as we regard the good of our institution, we ought to consider as binding on all. I have been actuated by a sense of this duty, in regulating my conduct on the present occasion, lest my refusal should plead as an example to others, and thus prove injurious to the society. I accepted the appointment; and while I am attempting to discharge the duties of it, the reflection that I have set a good example by accepting, shall in part, at least, balance the mortification I must suffer, from an exposure of my weakness.
I can offer no thoughts better suited to the present occasion, than those suggested by the distinguished blessings, which, both us individuals, and as a society, we have, for the year past, enjoyed. To heighten our sense of the peculiar blessings with which we have been surrounded, let us compare our condition with that of our less fellow creatures in other parts of the world. We need not, for this purpose, extend our thoughts to the eastern continent, in pursuit of heathenish darkness, oppressive tyranny, and desolating war; but in many parts of our own country, we may find a complete contrast to our happy situation. We have had, comparitively no share in the heavy judgments, with which our nation has been visited; and know but little respecting them, except by report. The destroying angel, which, in the form of a malignant fever, has been desolating many of our towns, has been commissioned to attack none of us, and has cut down but few, with whom any of us were intimately connected. We have not, like many of our fellow creatures, fallen victims to cruel savages, nor been driven from our homes, to escape their vengance.
Nor have our Fathers, our husbands, our brothers or our sons been called to endure the hardships of war, and afterwards been taken captive, or sent to an untimely grave. We are not within the reach of our enemey’s cannon, and can perhaps form no adequate idea of the consternation of those who are perpetually exposed to shot and bombs from the ships of our enemy’s. Instead of suffering from the pestilence, and from the terrors, the privations and the ravages of war, we, and most of our friends have enjoyed; without interruption all the blessings of health, peace and plenty.
But altho we have been more favored than others, we must not hence infer, that we are more innocent; guilt and suffering are not, in this world, always propotional. In the world to come there will be an exact retribution. But for ought we see the judgments of Heaven, in the present life, especially those inflicted for national sins, fall indiscriminately upon all characters; and we are taught, by our Saviour, that those crushed by the fall of a tower, are not on that account, to be considered more guilty, than others.
We must however infer, that by this exception from calamities, and by these peculiar blessings, our obligations to exercise gratitude towards our Maker, and benevolence towards our fellow men, are greatly increased. All distinguished will undoubtedly be numbered among the talents, for the improvement of which we must give an account, and, if they do not make us better, if they do not lead us to repent of our sins, “to trust in the Lord, and do good;” [B] and animate us in the discharge of all our duties; they will enhance our guilt, and render our condition hereafter, far worse than it would have been, if they shad not been enjoyed.
In addition to the peculiar blessings already named that of being united in such a Society is one which might be mentioned as holding a distinguished rank, and involving a high degree of responsibility for its faithful improvement. The professed objects of our union, are of information and active benevolence. Both these objects, our institution is well calculated to promote; and if they are not promoted, it will be because we are not faithful in using the talents committed to our trust. With respect to information, let us not be satisfied with what we can learn by merely hearing a member read for an hour or two, once in a month, but from one meeting of our society to another, let us employ a part of our leisure moments in reflecting upon, and digesting, what was read at the last meeting, and in preparing ourselves for the exercises of the next. If we have doubts respecting the meaning of any passages of scripture which was read, let us endeavour to remove them; and also, to qualify ourselves to remove at the next meeting, any doubts which were expressed by others. Let us collect such topics of enquiry, as may, with advantage, be proposed to the society and if able inform ourselves respecting the subjects which may have been prososed at the preceding meeting. Let us also, be active in obtaining all such information as will enable us to converse, at our meetings, both with more freedom and more profit. Such exertions would render our meetings not only more interesting, but a continual source of improvement.
We should then have a motive, which perhaps would often enduce us to spend many leisure hours either in reading, writing or reflection, which we should otherwise spend in neither. And it would perhaps induce those who now spend all their leisure in reading, to be more particular in the choice of books to read with more attention, and of course with more profit. In making these remarks, I do not go upon the supposition that the ideas, communicated by us upon any subject will be more wise or better expressed than those which may be found upon the same subject, in books. The benefit, which, in my opinion, will result from having a greater part of our exercises consist of our own effusions, is that it will promote the habit of thought, increase the spirit of inquiry, induce us to spend more of our leisure moments in reading and reflection, learn us to communicate with ease and freedom, what ideas we have and thus to render our progress in knowledge, far greater than it otherwise would be.
I would take the liberty to ask, whether for the sake of promoting this object, it might bet be proper, at every meeting, when it can be done with convenience, for the Lady who expects to entertain the Society at the next meeting to let us know what passage of scripture she designs to read. One reason which might be urged in favor of adopting this practice, is, that we should then have an opportunity, by reading the passage before hand, to collect a greater number of thoughts and those more worthy of communication, and to communicate them in a better manner. Many perhaps would then venture to express their thoughts, who now dare not do it because it must be done without premeditation. It would, at least, induce us to study, with critical attention twelve chapters of the Bible in a year; and as we should be under the necessity of recurring to other parts of the Bible for an explanation of passages in these twelve chapters, the probability is that it would be the means of making us more intimately acquainted with many other parts of scripture. I have ventured to suggest this innovation because I think it would be an improvement; but whether it shall be adopted or not, will be determined by those who are better judges than myself. If we would form a just estimate of the benefits which may be expected to result from the exercises of our meetings, we must not limit our thoughts to the rooms in which we meet, nor to the town in which we live; nor indeed to our own lives; nor even the present world. We may, with confidence, expect that our exercises, if conducted with prudence and faithfulness, would in a few years almost entirely exclude from our friendly circles, that frivilous conversation, for which our sex is, with too much justice censured, and introduce in its stead, something better becoming accountable and immortal beings.
Whatever improvements we might make in this particular, would, in a degree, be inherited by our daughters. They again, wherever they might be scattered, would influence others. Thus we might be the means of producing a happy effect on the habits and morals of great numbers to the end of time; and of making at least some of them, happy to eternity. Let us be animated by these and other considerations to promote, as much as we are able, this important object of our society; and let us not be deterred by fear, form doing that, which, by our reason, we are told is our duty.
Clearly the other principal object of our union, is a duty, which with benevolent hearts, we can all easily perform. It requires no superior mental endowments, and no peculiar advantages for obtaining information. Nor does it require, as some are apt to think, that we should be in a state of affluence. It is a duty in the very performance of which we seem to be rewarded. We are so constituted, by nature, that, if we have any benevolence in our hearts, we must of necessity, share in the joy which we communicate to others. A happy illustration of the truth, that “Wisdom’s ways are ways of pleasant[n]ess.”[C] And still, the performance of this duty, altho so delightful, is incouraged by promises of the most ample rewards, both in this life and in that to come.
So much has been written on Charity, that it would perhaps be difficult for even a learned person, to offer many new thoughts on the subject, or to inforce the duty, by any new motives. The attempt in me would certainly be vain. I shall however make a few remarks respecting the excuses by which we sometimes attempt to justify ourselves in refusing to give, and also respecting the degree to which our liberality should be extended.
The plea, most frequent in the mouths of the unfeeling, is, that the objects are, or have been, vicious. Many undoubtedly are glad of an opportunity to urge this plea, as they can thereby save their money, and, at the same time, silence their consciences, and justify themselves, in the view of the world.
This plea however is often urged upon mere presumption and it would seldom be a sufficient excuse, even if the presumption were true.
If it is not in our power to supply the wants of all, the virtuous have, without doubt, a superior claim.
We should also be careful, that by our liberality, we do not encourage vice; but we should be as careful not to arrogate to ourselves the right of punishment. This is the perrogative of God alone. We have no right to inflict punishment, except for the purpose of reforming the criminal, or preventing crimes in others. And punishment should never be inflicted by unauthorized individuals, according to their own caprice; but by those only who are authorized to do it, either by law or by nature. Had it been the design of Heaven that all should suffer in this world according to their guilt, things would have been constituted very differently from what they were; and so constituted, that the suffering would, of necessity, have followed the guilt, with out the impertinent intiferance of man. Instead of dealing out, at our own discretion, the vengance of Heaven, it is undoubtedly our duty, to mitigate to the utmost of our power, the sufferings of our fellow men, wherever it can be done without injuring the cause of virtue. And before we refuse to supply the wants of the needy, because we suppose they are vicious, let us at least, be well assured, that their profligacy would not whiten into a virtue, when compared with our covetousness and hardness of heart.
Some, while searching for an excuse that shall be sufficient to justify them in withholding their supplies from the poor, many perhaps satisfy their conscionces by the consideration, that they have already done more than their part, and that if others would contribute according to their wealth, in the same proportion, the wants of the poor, would be well supplied.
But this can never, with propriety, be urged as a reason for withholding our supplies. The poor have all a right to the nessesseties of life; and, if virtuous to its comforts.
And, if a great part of mankind have no heart to contribute for this purpose, and will not do it, the rest are under as strong obligations to do the whole, as if they were the only persons who had the power to do it. The consideration, that therefore, that others will not contribute their proportion, will never justify us in stopping our ears to the cries of the poor, but, on the contrary, it forms a powerful reason that we should give the more.
By some, perhaps, the poor will be sent empty away, because they are supported, either wholly or part, by the town.
Before we are deterred, by this consideration, from relieving their wants, let us be persuaded that their wants are, in reality, supplied in such a manner, as might reasonably satisfy ourselves, if in their condition. The rule of doing to others, as we would, they should do to us, is the best of all rules, and of easy application. By it, we may in the present case, determine not only to whom we ought to give, but also to what extent. And if it was made a rule of conduct, by us all, the cents which we now contribute would perhaps, in many instances, be changed for dimes, and the dimes for dollars. What should we wish the rich to do unto us, what should we think it their duty to do, if we had no means of defending ourselves, or our children, against the cold? And could not, without depriving ourselves of a meal, give even a crust of bread to a child crying for food? If we had lived in the days of our Saviour, or he had not where to lay his head, and had excluded him from our houses, to lodge in the street, or retire to the mountain, and had afterwards learnt to whom we refused admission what would our feelings have been? And what should we have expected the Judge would say to us on the subject, at the final day? Do we ever, to save ourselves a little trouble, turn from our door the weary, friendless wanderer, who may perhaps be another Lazarus covered with sores? If we do and afterwards reflect upon our conduct, what must our feelings be when we consider that, at the last day, the Judge may say unto us, “in as much as ye did not unto” that poor, friendless wanderer, who is now in Abraham’s bosom, “ye did it not unto me.”[D] I will say no more on the subject, than merely to warn you, not to place any dependence on good works, but to remember, we are taught by St. Paul, that we may give all our substance to feed the poor, and still be destitute of that Charity, which is the essence of true religion.
Permit one to advert for a moment, to another subject, which, though not a professed object of our society, will be a necessary, and a happy consequence of it. I refer to the friendship and harmony, which by means of it, will be diffused throughout the parish. By engaging us in the pursuit of the same objects, and rendering our intercourse with each other so frequent and delightful, it will naturally unite us all in the bonds of affection.
The truth of this remark is witnessed by my feelings on the present occasion. Although by using the word me instead of you, I have included myselfwithin your number, the probability is, that I shall meet with you no more.[E] I perceive that by means of this society, the number of those whom I love, has been greatly increased. I find myself strongly attached to many, with whom, on account of the distance at which we have lived from each other, I should perhaps without the society, have had no acquaintance. I perceive also that, by means of it, my affection for those, who have favoured me with their intimacy and friendship, has been greatly increased. This will indeed increase the pain with which I shall leave the place, but it will also increase the pleasure with which I shall hereafter call to mind the days that I have passed here.
When I shall reflect on our happy meetings, and, in imagination, renew the pleasure which I have here enjoyed; when with mingled emotions of gratitude and love, I shall cherish the memory of those, by whom I have been treated with so much kindness, friendship, and respect, I will indulge the thought that I am sometimes remembered by them, and remembered with pleasure. And that by many of them, I am classed in the number of their friends, and habitually remembered at the throne of grace. I shall ever rejoice to hear of your happiness as individuals, and of the prosperity of your society. But among so many, I have reason to expect, If I should live myself, that I should hear, that some of you are in affliction, and others in their graves.
Of many of you, I could hope, should I hear the tidings of your deaths, that you had made a happy exchange, and that my loss had been yourunspeakable gain.
May I never hear that any one of you is called till the tidings will be attended with this consolation. And if, in future years, after weeping in your grave-yard, over the ashes of my first-born, I should read on a stone the name of any beloved sister of this society, while I remember her virtues, and beden her grave with my tears, let me also read, as a consolation of my grief, some hopeful assurance that she has gone to Heaven. Behold the glorious morning comes That speaks the Saviour rose.
Source: George N. Allen Papers, Record Group 30/67, Box 6, Oberlin College Archives.