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Robert Ingersoll Letters Hall And Van Norden

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Hall And Van Norden

Robert Green Ingersoll


Question. Have you read the article in the Morning Advertiser
entitled "Workers Starving"?

Answer. I have read it, and was greatly surprised at the
answers made to the reporter of the Advertiser.

Question. What do you think of the remarks of the Rev. John
Hall and by Mr. Warner Van Norden, Treasurer of the "Church
Extension Committee"?

Answer. My opinion is that Dr. Hall must have answered under
some irritation, or that the reporter did not happen to take down
all he said. It hardly seems probable that Dr. Hall should have
said that he had no time to discuss the matter of aiding the needy
poor, giving as a reason that there were so many other things that
demanded his immediate attention. "The church is always insisting
that it is, above all things, a charitable institution; that it
collects and distributes many millions every year for the relief of
the needy, and it is always quoting: "Sell that thou hast and give
to the poor." It is hard to imagine anything of more importance
than to relieve the needy, or to succor the oppressed. Of course,
I know that the church itself produces nothing, and that it lives
on contributions; but its claim is that it receives from those who
are able to give, and gives to those who are in urgent need.

I have sometimes thought, that the most uncharitable thing in
the world is an organized charity. It seems to have the
peculiarities of a corporation, and becomes as soulless as its
kindred. To use a very old phrase, it generally acts like "a beggar
on horseback."

Probably Dr. Hall, in fact, does a great deal for the poor,
and I imagine that he must have been irritated or annoyed when he
made the answer attributed to him in the Advertiser. The good
Samaritan may have been in a hurry, but he said nothing about it.
The Levites that passed by on the other side seemed to have had
other business. Understand me, I am saying nothing against Dr.
Hall, but it does seem to me that there are few other matters more
important than assisting our needy fellow-men.

Question. What do you think of Mr. Warner Van Norden's
sentiments as expressed to the reporter?

Answer. In the first place, I think he is entirely mistaken.
I do not think the Cloak-makers brought their trouble upon
themselves. The wages they receive were and are insufficient to

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support reasonable human beings. They work for almost nothing, and
it is hard for me to understand why they live at all, when life is
so expensive and death so cheap. All they can possibly do is to
earn enough one day to buy food to enable them to work the next.
Life with them is a perpetual struggle. They live on the edge of
death. Under their feet they must feel the side of the grave
crumbling, and thus they go through, day by day, month by month,
year by year. They are, I presume, sustained by a hope that is
never realized.

Mr. Van Norden says that he is not in favor of helping the
poor and needy of the city, save in the way employed by the church,
and that the experience of centuries teaches us that the giving of
alms to the poor only encourages them in their idleness and their

Is Mr. Van Norden ready to take the ground that when Christ
said: "Sell that thou hast and give to the poor," he intended to
encourage idleness and crime?

Is it possible that when it was said, "It is better to give
than to receive," the real meaning was, It is better to encourage
idleness and crime than to receive assistance?

For instance, a man falls into the water. Why should one
standing on the shore attempt to rescue him? Could he not properly
say: "If all who fall into the water are rescued, it will only
encourage people to fall into the water; it will make sailors
careless, and persons who stand on wharves, will care very little
whether they fall in or not. Therefore, in order to make people
careful who have not fallen into the water, let those in the water
drown." In other words, why should anybody be assisted, if
assistance encourages carelessness, or idleness, or negligence?

According to Mr. Van Norden, charity is out of place in this
world, kindness is a mistake, and hospitality springs from a lack
of philosophy. In other words, all should take the consequences of
their acts, not only, but the consequences of the acts of others.

If I knew this doctrine to be true, I should still insist that
men should be charitable on their own account. A man without pity,
no matter how intelligent he may be, is at best only an
intellectual beast, and if by withholding all assistance we could
finally people the world with those who are actually self-
supporting, we would have a population without sympathy, without
charity -- that is to say, without goodness. In my judgment, it
would be far better that none should exist.

Mr. Van Norden takes the ground that the duty of the church is
to save men's souls, and to minister to their bodies incidentally.
I think that conditions have a vast deal to do with morality and
goodness. If you wish to change the conduct of your fellowmen, the
first thing to do is to change their conditions, their
surroundings; in other words, to help them to help themselves --
help them to get away from bad influences, away from the darkness
of ignorance, away from the temptations of poverty and want, not
only into the light intellectually, but into the climate of

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prosperity. It is useless to give a hungry man a religious tract,
and it is almost useless to preach morality to those who are so
situated that the necessity of the present, the hunger of the
moment, overrides every other consideration. There is a vast deal
of sophistry in hunger, and a good deal of persuasion in necessity.

Prosperity is apt to make men selfish. They imagine that
because they have succeeded, others and all others, might or may
succeed. If any man will go over his own life honestly, he will
find that he has not always succeeded because he was good, or that
he has always failed because he was bad. He will find that many
things happened with which he had nothing to do, for his benefit,
and that, after all is said and done, he cannot account for all of
his successes by his absolute goodness. So, if a man will think of
all the bad things he has done -- of all the bad things he wanted
to do -- of all the bad things he would have done had he had the
chance, and had he known that detection was impossible, he will
find but little foundation for egotism.

Question. What do you say to this language of Mr. Van Norden.
"It is best to teach people to rely upon their own resources. If
the poor felt that they could get material help they would want it
always, and in this day, if a man and woman cannot get along, it is
their own fault"?

Answer. All I can say is that I do not agree with him. Often
there are many more men in a certain trade than there is work for
such men. Often great factories shut down, leaving many thousands
out of employment. You may say that it was the fault of these men
that they learned that trade; that they might have known it would
be overcrowded; so you may say it was the fault of the capitalist
to start a factory in that particular line, because he should have
known that it was to be overdone.

As no man can look very far into the future, the truth is it
was nobody's fault, and without fault thousands and thousands are
thrown out of employment. Competition is so sharp, wages are so
small, that to be out of employment for a few weeks means want. You
cannot say that this is the fault of the man who wants bread. He
certainly did not wish to go hungry; neither did he deliberately
plan a failure. He did the best he could. There are plenty of
bankers who fail in business, not because they wish to fail; so
there are plenty of professional men who cannot make a living, yet
it may not be their fault; and there are others who get rich, and
it may not be by reason of their virtues.

Without doubt, there are many people in the city of New York
who cannot make a living. Competition is too sharp; life is too
complex; consequently the percentage of failures is large. In
savage life there are few failures, but in civilized life there are
many. There are many thousands out of work and out of food in
Berlin to-day. It can hardly be said to be their fault. So there
are many thousands in London, and every other great city of the
world. You cannot account for all this want by saying that the
people who want are entirely to blame.

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A man gets rich, and he is often egotistic enough to think
that his wealth was the result of his own unaided efforts; and he
is sometimes heartless enough to say that others should get rich by
following his example.

Mr. Van Norden states that he has a typewriter who gets two
dollars a day, and that she dresses better than the lords and
ladies did of olden times. He must refer to the times of the Garden
of Eden. Out of two dollars a day one must live, and there is very
little left for gorgeous robes. I hardly think a lady is to be
envied because she receives two dollars a day, and the probability
is that the manner in which she dresses on that sum -- having first
deducted the expenses of living -- is not calculated to excite

The philosophy of Mr. Van Norden seems to be concentrated into
this line: "Where people are poor it is their own fault." Of course
this is the death of all charity.

We are then informed by this gentleman that "happiness does
not lie in the enjoyment of material things -- that it is the soul
that makes life worth living."

Is it the soul without pity that makes life worth living? Is
it the soul in which the blossom of charity has never shed its
perfume that makes life so desirable? Is it the soul, having all
material things, wrapped in the robes of prosperity, and that says
to all the poor: It is your own fault; die of hunger if you must --
that makes life worth living? It may be asked whether it is worth
while for such a soul to live.

If this is the philosophy of Mr. Van Norden, I do not wish to
visit his working girls' club, or to "hear girls who have been
working all day singing hymns and following the leader in prayer."
Why should a soul without pity pray? Why should any one ask God to
be merciful to the poor if he is not merciful himself? For my own
part, I would rather see poor people eat than to hear them pray. I
would rather see them clothed comfortably than to see them
shivering, and at the same time hear them sing hymns.

It does not seem possible that any man can say that there are
no worthy poor in this city who need material help. Neither does it
seem possible that any man can say to one who is starving that if
he wants money he must work for it. There are hundreds and
thousands in this city willing to work who can find no employment.
There are good and pure women standing between their children and
starvation, living in rooms worse than cells in penitentiaries --
giving their own lives to their children -- hundreds and hundreds
of martyrs bearing the cross of every suffering, worthy of the
reverence and love of mankind. So there are men wandering about
these streets in search of work, willing to do anything to feed the
ones they love.

Mr. Van Norden has not done himself Justice. I do not believe
that he expresses his real sentiments. But, after all, why should
we expect charity in a church that believes in the dogma of eternal
pain? Why cannot the rich be happy here in their palaces, while the

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poor suffer and starve in huts, when these same rich expect to
enjoy heaven forever, with all the unbelievers in hell? Why should
the agony of time interfere with their happiness, when the agonies
of eternity will not and cannot affect their joy? But I have
nothing against Dr. John Hall or Mr. Van Norden -- only against
their ideas.


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