A Community of Freethinkers
A History of the Ethical Society of
By James Alan O’Neal
Unpublished, unedited manuscript commissioned by The Ethical Society of St. Louis
Copyright 2006, The Ethical Society of St. Louis
Compiled from scanned images of a printed document and the initial text files of the writer by Matthew G. Hile
1: Felix Adler and the Founding of Ethical Culture
Introduction: A practical visionary
Diversity in Creed, Unanimity in Deed
Evolution of an Ethical Ministry
2: Walter L. Sheldon Apostle to the St. Louisans
Sheldon’s value to history of the Society
A prophet of ethical religion - Sheldon's Philosophy of Being
The True Destiny of the Human Soul
The Nature of Things: Sheldon's Social Philosophy
On the Rights and Privileges of Women
A Tortured Soul: Sheldon's journal
Correlation between journal and formal writings
Working For The Visions Within
3: A Gravitational Shift - The Founding of the Ethical Society of St. Louis
An Experiment in "Educational Philanthropy"
4: The Sanctity of Duty - Formation of the Ethical Sunday School
5: Cultivating Character - The Self‑Culture Halls Association
6: Ethical Momentum - From Experiment to Institution
8: Percival Chubb - A Passion for Unity
The Spiritual Illumination of Common Things
The Contemporary Literature Circle
The Young People's Association
10: Moral Thoughtfulness - The Sunday School under Chubb
Kindling Ardor for All That is Admirable
11: J. Hutton Hynd - A Champion of Pure Ethics
Enthusiasm for a Fine Quality of Life
12: Confluence - From Lecture Club to Community
Baptized In The Good Life: The Sunday School under Hynd
Seeking "the Good" in the Arts
"Living Together": A Unified Curriculum
Expanding Minds - Maturation of the Platform Program
Paying the Piper, Breaking the Pipes
Setting Clocks, Marking Calendars
The Encampment: Initiation in Democracy
Taking a Stand on Taking Stands
Racial Integration: A Call to Integrity
Tackling Challenges with Sparse Tackle
Of the Members, by the Members
Slogging through the Depression
Cultivating Ethical Leadership
13: James F. Hornback - Evangelical Humanist
14: John Hoad; A Diligent Seeker
Translating Morals into Manners
15: A Critical Transplant - The Move to Suburbia
17. Rolling And Coasting - Sunday School From 1950 to 1986
Trial Balloons and Brass Tacks
A Definitive Course of Studies
18. The Main Attraction - Continuity and Experimentation in the Platform Program
19. Partners Without Parent - The Evolving Model of the National Union
A Collective Voice for Justice
20: Toward Responsible Giving - Fund Raising 1950 to 1986
The “YES” Campaign - Raising Consciousness About Raising Funds
Reliable Reservoirs: The Establishment of Reserve Funds
21: Service with a Knowing Smile - Social Action—and Inaction—1950 to 1986
Apple Butter and Humane Mascara
22: The Sheldon Experiment - Taking a Stab at Social Service
Humanism’s Approach to the Urban Crisis
A Discouraging Batting Average
Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, was a practical visionary. Like Emerson, he envisioned a religion focused on ethics rather than metaphysical beliefs; unlike Emerson, he took on the challenge of inaugurating such a movement. He brought to rational ethics a passion more commonly associated with sectarian crusaders and nationalistic warriors. His spiritual and intellectual quest set the liberal tone of Ethical Culture, and it serves as something of a paradigm for contemporary freethinkers.
Adler was born
Essentially, the Philadelphia Platform affirmed that the
messianic mission of
My mother had often sent me as a child on errands of charity, and had always impressed upon me the duty of respecting the dignity of the poor while ministering sympathetically to their needs. I was prepared by this youthful training to resent the indignity offered to the personality of the laborer, as well as the suffering endured by him in consequence of existing conditions. (An Ethical Philosophy of Life Presented in its Main Outlines, Felix Adler, Ethica Press, New York, 1918, p. 12)
According to Horace L. Friess, Felix Adler's son‑in‑law and literary executor, "these excursions … were not only lessons in charity, but gave the child an early and visible impression of the existence and meaning of poverty." (Felix Adler and Ethical Culture, Horace L. Friess, Columbia University Press, New York, 1981, p. 20)
Two other striking influences in Adler's youth deserve mention. First, he felt terribly lonesome and alienated in his school environment. As he wrote in his memoirs, "A Jewish boy from a family largely German among typically American boys of the wealthy class, I found I was forced back upon myself by lack of companionship." (Autobiographical notes of Felix Adler, quoted in Friess, p. 20).
When he entered college at age 15, his relative youth
exacerbated his social awkwardness. In addition to encouraging the development
of Adler's inner life, this alienation introduced the youth to the harsh
realities of economic stratification and religious and racial prejudice. His
later efforts to break through class distinctions and sectarian boundaries were
no doubt partly fueled by his memories of isolation. Secondly, the Civil War
broke out only a few years after the Adler family immigrated to the
Adler's undergraduate studies were less than enlivening.
Also, during his undergraduate years, Adler discovered and
consciously developed his skills as a writer and orator. At
In his religious development, Adler adopted his father's beliefs as his starting point. The journal he kept during adolescence indicates he believed firmly in a providential God, an all‑powerful being that mysteriously intervenes in the lives of individuals as well as in the grander affairs of the human race. Like his father, he considered theistic faith the only reliable impetus for ethical behavior:
If man were not restrained by the consciousness that God's eye is upon him at all times, he would say "my small affairs are too insignificant for this great God. I will follow my senses…” And thus the very foundation of society, its morality and values would be destroyed. (Book of jottings, Felix Adler, p. 23, quoted in Kraut, p. 20)
Felix embraced the Reform Jewish doctrine that the Jews had been entrusted with the sacred mission of spreading monotheistic faith throughout the world. This mission, he believed, justified maintaining a distinct Jewish identity. In an essay published in the Jewish Times in 1869, he railed against the custom of Jews erecting Christmas trees in their homes during the Christian holiday season. Titled "The Christmas Tree," the article expressed outrage that Jews should, in the name of cultural assimilation; mark a holiday that Adler believed signified centuries of Jewish martyrdom. But although he respected the integrity of Jewish culture, Adler began to dream of liberating the faith from its racial boundaries so that it might fulfill its missionary role.
However, Adler took to heart the doubts that arose during
his quest. Samuel had imparted to his children his disgust for the
indiscriminate perpetuation of orthodox customs and doctrines; in late
adolescence, young Adler began to follow his father's iconoclasm to its logical
conclusions. He questioned the value of fasting and performing sacrificial
rituals on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement; he eventually asserted that
social activism is the only genuine form of atonement. He also found it difficult
to accept the validity of the Old Testament in toto. He could not reconcile his
fundamental belief in a benevolent God with Biblical stories of divine
retribution ‑‑ such as the turning of
Inevitably, Adler came to question the very existence of a personal God. Looking about at the dreadful suffering of New Yorkers in the midst of postwar unemployment and inflation, he doubted whether belief in a caring, providential God was tenable. His introductory study of science, with its naturalistic explanations of biological evolution and the harmony of matter and energy, further undermined his need to invoke a deity that actively participates in the workings of the world. He retained, for a time, belief in an intelligent, omnipotent creator, but he stripped his God‑image of the personality and loving kindness that had so appealed to him in childhood. According to Kraut, Adler noted in a memoir that "the anthropomorphic conception of God had already disappeared while I was in college. I stopped praying one day." (Autobiographical notes, Felix Adler, p. 1, quoted in Kraut, p. 35)
In 1870, Adler returned to
The Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Academy
for Jewish Learning), the
That Felix had mastered Arabic and received his doctorate summa
cum laude fanned Samuel's hope that he might pass on his post to his son. In a
I was overcome with surprise and delight and gave thanks to the Almighty. Now, indeed the time has come to think of your future career. I believe you know that my dearest wish is to gradually retire, enjoy my old age in peace and see you take my place. (Letter of Samuel Adler to Felix Adler, May 13, 1873, Ethical Culture Archives, quoted in Kraut, p. 49)
Although Samuel kept up a steady correspondence with his sons, he failed to appreciate ‑‑ or refused to accept ‑‑ the change that Felix had undergone during his graduate studies. The European academic world had been rocked by the new paradigms of Darwinian biology and the emergent social sciences. Deism continued to hold sway in various forms, but the concept of a providential God was generally deemed irrelevant in light of fresh scientific discoveries. Physical scientists acknowledged that metaphysics, the study of ultimate causes and principles, was outside their ken, but their new constructs of the evolutionary process and the interplay of cosmic forces required no reference to a universal monarch; in fact, their discoveries challenged the age‑old assumption that the universe is orderly and, therefore, ordered. Social scientists, for their part, had begun to interpret religions as manmade belief systems which fulfill utilitarian functions such as ordering authority structures and establishing commonly held ethical values. Again, most thinkers were not intent on debunking theism per se, but their broadening understanding of religion's cultural evolution and functional roles inevitably relativized the value of specific religions.
Adler eagerly examined these trends of thought; he listened closely, studied arduously, and submitted his faith to the scrutiny of reason. He came to see that Judaism, like all religions, evolved in response to a people's need to understand the world; it provided an overarching mythology within which human existence, striving, and suffering could be seen as meaningful. He saw religion as culturally useful, but he could not but doubt any religion's claim to substantial, authoritative truth. In his unbounded studies of both ancient and modern modes of thought, he decided that strict adherence to a single belief system deprives the mind of the depth acquired through eclectic experimentation.
Adler recalled his departure from mainstream Judaism as "a gradual, smooth transition, the unfolding of a seed that had long been planted.… The truth is, I was hardly aware of the change that had taken place until it was fairly consummated. One day I awoke, and found that I had traveled into a new country." (Ethical Philosophy of Life, p. 14)
In time, Adler rejected traditional monotheism. He found no firm, rational proof of the existence of a creator‑God, and the notion of making a "leap of faith" struck him as intellectually irresponsible. While at the University of Berlin, he later recalled, "I … undertook to grapple in grim earnest with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The net outcome was not atheism in the moral sense, ‑‑ I have never been what is called an atheist, ‑‑ but the definite and permanent disappearance of the individualistic conception of Deity." (Ibid., p. 9) Along with theism, Adler necessarily rejected the divine origin of both scripture and the "Jewish mission." He acclaimed prophetic writings of the Old Testament on the basis of their intrinsic validity, and he affirmed the value of channeling the moral momentum of Jewish history toward worldwide ethical evangelism; however, he denied that the Jews had been chosen, instructed, and sanctioned to carry out such a mission.
Like most ardent truth seekers, Adler felt a certain thrill upon dispensing with an "old wineskin":
The curtain that had intervened between my eyes and the world, on which was painted the image of an individual man‑like God, slowly drew aside, and I looked upon the world with fresh eyes. (Autobiographical notes of Felix Adler, quoted in Kraut, p. 55)
There was a flip side to Adler's change in consciousness: In addition to a sense of relief and unprecedented freedom, he felt the grief that inevitably follows the surrender of certainty:
I look back with dread to that time when everything seemed sinking around me, when the cherished faith which seemed at one time dearer to me than life itself was going to pieces under me, and it seemed to me that I could save nothing out of the wreck of all that seemed holiest to me. (Autobiographical notes of Felix Adler, quoted in Kraut, p. 55)
Ultimately, Adler saved much of the "wreck" of his religious heritage. Despite his fundamental departure from Judaism, he never lost his reverence for the Jewish contribution to universal ethical values:
The prophets of
Adler found a crucial refinement of that principle in Christianity, a religion to which he "came from the outside, with a fresh mind to receive first‑hand impressions." (Ibid., p. 30) He put aside the "mythological idealization of Jesus … as a thing that did not concern me," but he found in the teachings of Jesus a revolutionary contribution to ethical thought. (Ibid., p. 32) In Jesus' admonition to "turn the other cheek," Adler saw the introduction of a reflective, soul‑searching approach to ethical behavior, as opposed to mere resolve to abide by moral dictates:
There is a way, [Jesus] says to the victim, in which you can spiritually triumph over the evil‑doer, and make your peace with irresistible oppression. Use it as a means of self-purification; pause to consider what the inner motives are that lead your enemy, and others like him, to do such acts as they are guilty of, and to so violate your personality and that of others. The motives in them are lust, greed, anger, willfulness, pride. Now turn your gaze inward upon yourself, look into your own heart and learn, perhaps to your amazement, that the same evil streams trickle through you; that you, too, are subject, even if it be only subconsciously and incipiently, to the same appetites, passions, and pride, that animate your injurers. Therefore let the sufferings you endure at the hands of those who allow these bad impulses free rein in their treatment of you lead you to expel the same bad impulses that stir potentially in your breast; let this experience fill you with a deeper horror of the evil, and prove the incentive to secure your own emancipation from its control. (Ibid., p. 34) Adler saw Jesus as a prophet of what he came to call divine life, the ultimate reality, which manifests itself in the will to goodness. Jesus, he said, clearly perceived "the pure thing in man that thrusts out as alien to itself whatever is impure.” (Ibid., p. 35) By sharing in Jesus' perception of the divine life in everyone, Adler said, the seeker finds that one's will to behave ethically is elevated to a new height, the height of love:
To love men is to be conscious of one's unity with them in the central life, and to give effect to this consciousness… To love another is to… think of him, and act towards him, as if he possessed the same capacity for purity with oneself. (Ibid., p. 36)
According to Adler, only the perception of divine life makes it possible to follow Jesus' admonition to love one's enemies:
To bless them that curse you, to bless them that despitefully use you, means to distinguish between their overt conduct, to see the human, the potentially divine face behind the horrible mask, and to invoke the influence of the divine power upon them in order that it may change them into their purer, better selves. (Ibid., p. 38)
Despite his deep and lasting reverence for Jesus, Adler
always looked at Christianity from the perspective of an outsider. First, of
course, he could not accept Jesus' characterization of a heavenly father who
cares for the needs of his children; that image, Adler said, "raises
expectations which experience does not confirm." (Ibid., p. 23) Secondly,
he rejected the apocalyptic vision on which Jesus' ethics are predicated. Jesus
taught that the material world is not the true home of humanity, that earth's
inhabitants are living in exile as they await the day when they shall enter the
Thus, Adler found it necessary to make a fundamental departure from the Judeo‑Christian tradition:
Religious growth may … be compared to the growth of a tree. To expect that development shall continue along the Hebrew or Christian lines is like expecting that a tree will continue to develop along one of its branches. There is a limit beyond which the extension of a branch cannot go. Then growth must show itself in the putting forth of a new branch. (Ibid., p. 18)
Although he rejected theism in its usual conceptualizations, Adler retained his urge to revitalize religion. If religion is an institution subject to the universal principles of cultural evolution, he reasoned, then the modern generation is obliged to overhaul the institution to serve the needs of its age. He adopted Matthew Arnold's depiction of God as a moral power, and he embraced Kant’s supposition that ethical behavior is based not on faith but on an irrefutable moral imperative operating in the mind of every individual. He believed that this stance provided the foundation for a religion that would respect and incorporate intellectual advances while promoting social cohesiveness and ethical progress.
Members of the
[This religion shall have] institutions … bearing on all conditions and relations of life. [This] religion, not confined to church and synagogue alone, shall go forth into the marketplace, shall sit by the judge in the tribunal, by the counselor in the hall of legislation, shall stand by the merchant in his warehouse, by the workman at his work. In every department of life, wherever man's activity is unfolded its quickening influences shall be felt; religion and life shall be wedded once more in inseparable union.
We discard the narrow spirits of exclusion, and loudly proclaim that Judaism was not given to the Jews alone, but that its destiny is to embrace in one great moral state the whole family of man.… The genius of religion … is the genius of Judaism; … again shall it proclaim its great humanitarian doctrine, its eternal watchword: One Truth, One Love, One Hope in the Highest, One great brotherhood of men on Earth. ("The Judaism of the Future," Ethical Culture Archives, quoted in Kraut, pp. 77‑78)
Nowhere in the sermon did Adler refer to God ‑‑
an omission that did not go unnoticed. The sharpest reaction to the sermon came
from Gustav Gottheil, Samuel Adler's associate rabbi, who threatened to resign
rather than share his responsibilities with the young rebel. When temple
officials, responding to Gottheil's criticism, asked Adler to clarify his
position with regard to the deity, Adler acknowledged that he no longer
believed in the personal, providential God exalted in the Bible. After that
confrontation, he must have recognized that
This advice was repelled by every inmost fiber of my being, and could not but be utterly rejected. I was to publicly represent a certain belief with the purpose of undermining it. I was to trade upon the simplicity of my hearers in order to rob them of what they, crudely and mistakenly perhaps, considered their most sacred truth, by feigning provisionally, until I could alter their views, to be in agreement with them. Would this be fair to them or to myself? Was I to act a lie in order to teach the truth? (An Ethical Philosophy of Life, p. 26)
Despite Adler's theological departure, many of Emanu‑El's
congregants were deeply impressed by his erudition, social idealism, and
oratorical skill. In October 1873, a month after his temple sermon, 47
congregants signed a letter inviting him to deliver a series of lectures
"on subjects congenial to and connected with your line of studies."
(Letter of October 21, 1873, quoted in Kraut, p. 86) Adler was gratified by the
invitation; between November 1873 and March 1874, he delivered six public
Adler used the Lyric Hall addresses to subtly provoke intellectual
change in his primarily Jewish audiences. By outlining the evolution of
religions within their narrow cultural matrices, he invited his listeners to
apply the tools of critical reasoning to their own faith; only several years
later did he openly debunk the underpinnings of Judaism and dispense with his
Jewish religious identity. The lectures were well‑received in the liberal
Jewish community and among
The notoriety Adler attained through the lecture series led
to his appointment as a nonresident professor of Hebrew and Oriental literature
The abrupt end of Adler's academic career was fortuitous,
for it allowed him to turn his attention to the establishment of the
"practical religion" he had long prophesied. In May 1876, Adler spoke
at a meeting that had been called by liberal
There is a great and crying evil in modern society. It is want of purpose. It is that narrowness of vision which shuts out the wider vistas of the soul.… It is the absence of those sublime emotions which, wherever they arise, do not fail to exalt and consecrate existence.… True, the void and hollowness of which we speak is covered over by a fair exterior. Men distill a subtle sort of intoxication from the ceasely flow and shifting changes of affairs…, but there comes a time of rude awakening. A great crisis sweeps over the land…
[I]t is my dearest object to exalt the present movement above the strife of contending sects and parties, and at once to occupy that common ground where we may all meet, believers and unbelievers, for purposes in themselves, lofty and unquestioned by any. Surely it is time that a beginning were made in this direction. For more than 3,000 years, men have quarreled concerning the formulas of their faith.… [F]reedom of thought is a sacred right of every individual man. Believe or disbelieve as you list ‑‑ we shall at all times respect every honest conviction ‑‑ but be one with us where there is nothing to divide ‑‑ in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed. This is that practical religion from which none dissents. This is that Platform broad enough to receive the worshipper and the infidel. This is that common ground where we may all grasp hands as brothers united in mankind's common cause.… (Address delivered by Felix Adler on May 15, 1876, at Standard Hall in New York City; Ethical Culture Archives)
In his proposal, Adler called for regular Sunday meetings
that would include lectures and music; he explicitly ruled out the use of
prayer and rituals. By the following fall, more than 250 people had bought
subscriptions to the first lecture series, and on
While its founders intended to express those ideals in the
institution's name, "Ethical Culture" always has struck many of its
adherents as prim, antiquated ‑‑ and unfortunate. Interestingly,
Adler himself referred to the term as "curious" and
"inadequate." In an 1897 address, he explained that the name had been
chosen to signify the "need of getting to work thoroughly and cultivating
ourselves as you would cultivate the hard ground ‑‑ rake it up and
make it fruitful and do not spare the sharp spade in digging." ("What
Has Religion Done for Civilization?"
As the membership of the New York Society grew and
stabilized, it undertook a variety of social services and reform activities. In
addition to its Sunday school for the children of members, it ran a free
kindergarten for the children of the poor. Its members and associate leaders
founded two settlement houses to provide health, educational, and job‑placement
services to immigrants. A Guild for Aiding Crippled Children and an employment
bureau for handicapped adults were organized. Henry Moskowitz, an associate
leader of the New York Society for 15 years, was one of three principal organizers
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909;
several of his fellow Ethical leaders assisted in his efforts. In response to
the abysmal health care system in
In 1878, consonant with Adler's belief that the working
class can advance only through education, the society founded the Workingman's
School, an elementary and secondary school that combined training in industrial
arts with ethics classes and a conventional pedagogy. After it began admitting paying
pupils in the mid‑ 1 890s, the school was renamed the
The movement expanded quickly after the founding of the New
York Society. Between 1882 and 1886, ethical societies were founded in
In 1886, the American Ethical Union (AEU) was founded as a
federation of the ethical societies in the
Just as the Ethical Culture movement has shifted the
religious "center of gravity," the leaders who serve ethical
societies have developed a mode of ministry profoundly different from that of
traditional religions. Having no imperial directives from
Ethical society members brook no authoritarianism; like political officeholders in a democracy, ethical leaders serve at the will of their congregants. And, like constituents in a democracy, congregants do not speak with one mind. Elsie De Wald, a member of the St. Louis Ethical Society from 1962 until her death in (198?), said in an interview that it is virtually impossible for a leader to measure up to the varying standards of a society's members:
It's a very difficult row to hoe, to be a leader of the Ethical Society. My heart goes out to them. There's criticism on all sides; it's very unfair. Somebody doesn't like the way you talk, somebody doesn't like something else ‑‑ they expect too much. If s a 25‑hour‑a‑day job. You have to have somebody who is highly intelligent, because ifs a very intelligent group of freakish people. They're high‑grade people, and you need stimulation [to get] people to want to come.
During most of his lifetime, Felix Adler hand‑picked leaders, oversaw their training, and placed them in positions, largely at his own discretion. In making his selections, he emphasized the need for erudition:
What is needed in a leader is scholarship. A man should be versed in religion and in philosophy, for our religion is a way of life and to be a Leader is to know what people in the past have found or thought that they have found and expressed in their philosophies and their religions. (New York Board of Trustees, Minutes, November 1925)
At Adler's insistence, most of the movement's early leaders
undertook graduate studies in philosophy at a German university. The next phase
of training was an apprenticeship under Adler at the New York Society or one of
the agencies spawned and maintained by that society ‑‑ the
If Adler minimized the value of typically pastoral
attributes, his Socratic ideal of leadership was counterbalanced by the style
of several men who served in his inner circle. Most notable among those early
leaders is John Lovejoy Elliott, a native of
Years ago, when I first met Dr. Adler at Cornell, he made a deep impression on me when he spoke of the "new profession of teaching people how to live." I would change that phrase now to the "profession of living with people," with people of all kinds, in sickness, people in trouble, in the most soul‑searching kind of trouble. (New York Board of Trustees, Minutes, 1925)
De Wald, a graduate of
Everybody loved Dr. John he was "Dr. John" to all of us. We loved him. He'd sit in his office and we'd pass by the little children in the school ‑‑ and there was Johnny waving his hand to everybody: "Hello, dear heart," he'd say. He was adorable, a beautiful man. He was no speaker ‑‑ he was a terrible speaker ‑‑ but he held everybody in the palm of his hand. Dr. Elliott was tall and handsome ‑‑ oh, what a beautiful man he was! He was a bachelor, and he lived down in Hudson Guild. He had good friends down there. He was the soul of the whole community down there. He was very, very loving.
He had one of his "parishioners," as he would call them, a boy who was sent to Sing‑Sing, which is a criminal prison. Every week, he'd go up to visit this man. He never missed a week. That was John Elliott. He was so darling. He was so sweet. He loved life. He was spontaneous ‑‑ he couldn't be anything but John Elliott. I think he was the most beloved person I've known.
By contrast, De Wald recalled Adler as an aloof, professorial man:
You couldn't say you loved the man. You had great regard for him. He was a cold man. He was very arrogant, quietly arrogant. I mean, he didn't parade it, but you knew that you were just a little pigeon on the walk.
He was a brilliant man. When he was dying, he read Homer in the original Greek ‑‑ that's the kind of man he was. He talked about everything. He would stop in the middle (of a lecture) and go into a sideline, and he'd come back again after five minutes of the most exciting, stimulating talk and pick up from the last word he'd aid before his mind went astray. It was fantastic! But he was very withdrawn.
Throughout the history of the movement, Adler and Elliott have been held up as polar paradigms of leadership style. Seldom has a leader succeeded in blending the best qualities of both. The Ethical Society of St. Louis, in its first century, has had five principal leaders. Each has redefined the role and given it a distinctive character. With one exception, each has made leadership in the Ethical movement a lifelong career.
Walter Lorenzo Sheldon, the inaugural leader of the Ethical
Society of St. Louis, was at once the most ponderous and most activist of the
Society's leaders. He was a complex man, a stoic and rationalist with a
profound appreciation of mystical experience. Though fettered by guilt and
bouts of dark depression, he was a seminal thinker in the early development of
Ethical Culture and a pioneer in the movement's education of children. He
shared with the fellowship his devotion to free thought, the edification of
working‑class people, and cultivation of the inner life. If one searches
for reasons why the Ethical movement has flourished in
Sheldon was born in
In this year the whole course of my life has been changed by my resolve to go through college. There is growing within me a respect for all creeds and religions and I have grown much more liberal in my views respecting religions & creeds, but I fear that I have gone too far so that now in many respects my mind is puzzled and it is only by a slow process that I must feel my way forward or backward as must needs be best. (Ibid.)
Now that I have taken a stand so wide from the religious
His career plans shattered; Sheldon felt adrift. After
graduation, he traveled throughout
From 1883 to 1885, Sheldon worked with Adler at the New
York Society; his principal role was as leader of the Society's Young Men's
James F. Hornback, leader of the
Man has four aspects in his total nature. He is, first, a physical being or structure, which is but a piece of nature following its laws without choice or duty. Second, he is a sentient organism, no longer just an effect but a vital cause, with the duty to maintain life through the satisfaction of the appetites, procreation, and struggle, while avoiding the giving or the suffering of unnecessary pain. Third, he is a man among men, a brother, who sees himself as an end in himself and ought to see and treat other men in the same way. Fourth and finally, he is a self, with special and even unique capacities, an individual striving for his highest possible effect and realization in the universe, in progressive equilibrium with the strivings of others.
Out of struggles, conflicts, and antagonisms among the aspiring consciousnesses raise the sense of duty and the "four great duties of men to one another, Truth, Benevolence, Justice and Cooperation." Even in the higher development of the self as unique, these basic duties apply, for there is always interrelation and struggle with an imperfect self, and with the environment. But if the whole universe had a single consciousness, or "an ideal to work out," according to Sheldon a sense of duty would not exist, for there would be no struggle against the environment. The end would come of itself."
Thus did Walter Sheldon arrive at an ethic of self‑realization, in a multiplicity of consciousnesses to whom the earthly end is clear, though the means are cloudy approximations aimed at the greatest possible progressive equilibrium. There are no absolutes in ethics, whatever there may be in the great unknown and unknowable area formerly bound to ethics by religion. (JFH, p. 192‑3)
Despite his satisfaction in working out this system of
thought, Sheldon was not sufficiently confident of its veracity to continue in
the Ethical movement. Intellectually stymied in his progress as an ethicist,
Sheldon considered turning toward a medical career and, in 1885, enrolled at
the school of medicine at the
I too see Sheldon depart with regret. I cannot conceive that medicine should be his proper sphere. Sheldon despairs of an assured intellectual basis for his moral convictions. I on the other hand should despair of the movement without such a basis! You tell me that Sheldon "believes and would teach the freedom of the will, but when it comes to a philosophical explanation of it he finds contradictions which he cannot reconcile." With what confidence then can a belief be promulgated of which the teacher is aware that he cannot state it without self‑contradiction?
I must work until I can get a satisfactory reason for the faith that is in me. But Sheldon refuses to do this, and what is more asks that his state of intellectual indecision be erected into a precedent and a rule in our movement. To this demand I can only return an inflexible negative. I need not repeat that in requiring reasons for his faith it is not implied that he should give our reasons, only strong reasons, reasons that will make him feel that he has a right to teach what he does teach, and that will guarantee the permanence of his moral convictions. (Letter from Felix Adler to S. Burns Weston, September 1885)
During his year at medical school, Sheldon warmed to Adler's calm attitude toward open‑ended philosophical problems. He agreed that one can adopt a "religious attitude" while one's ideas are in the making. As he acknowledged in an essay written some years later:
Mind as mind would never have a religion, but only a philosophy of religion. In the long run, of course, there must be intellectual conviction behind the attitude we take. But the truth‑seeking tendencies of our nature are not the forces which drive us toward it. No; it is the human will, seeking for guidance and support, which falls back upon religion.
The whole scheme of human thought is in the process of
change. Philosophy is in a state of transition. But while all this is taking
place, we want something to cling to. We are reluctant to look upon ourselves
as out in the cold, barren of religious sympathies, unauthorized to have ideals
or aspirations, solely because we are not convinced of the truth of one system
of thought. I have ventured to assert that according to the real meaning of the
term, and in agreement with the most fundamental standpoint of the human heart,
we can still be religious while waiting for a philosophy of religion. ("Being
Religious - What it Means to an Ethical Idealist," from An Ethical
Movement, W.L. Sheldon, Macmillan and Co.,
In the spring of 1886, he returned to
Sheldon was devoted to his role as part of the founding generation of Ethical leaders. Along with Adler, Elliott, Salter, and Weston, he was shaping a religious movement which he expected to flourish in the centuries to come. Acknowledging the movement's roots in Greek and Kantian ethics, and its inspiration in the works of Emerson, he spoke of it as “in part only a revival,” an orchestrated sounding of “a neglected chord in history.” (The Meaning of an Ethical Movement, from An Ethical Movement, W.L. Sheldon, Macmillan and Co., New York, 1896; p. 2)
He believed that Western civilization, and particularly
At the outset of his career, Sheldon believed that Western
civilization stood on the threshold of a new religious age. The development of
industrial technology had strengthened humanity's sense of mastery over nature,
and the burgeoning labor movement had given workers a new‑found
perception of economic power, fostering "a determination to establish a
This desire is not something vague, mystical, or far away, taking us into the realms of the remote and supersensible. It is definite, concrete, and positive, in the original form in which it awakens within us. It may exist faintly at times, and seem almost to die away altogether. But it has been in us at some period or other in the course of our lives. A man in the very depths of his nature is not quite content with what he is at any one moment; he would always like to be something else, a trifle better, a little further along in the scale of being. From this standpoint the difference between man and man is only a matter of degree. We are haunted with visions of a "better self' and a "better human world." Our common meeting‑ground, therefore, is in the mutual interest we take in "the good life."
The new Emphasis on Ethics would have for its aim to bring into the foreground this universal interest or desire, and to utilize all conceivable means for developing it and making it become a dominant factor in the conduct of every living man. (Ibid., pp. 7‑8)
This Emphasis on Ethics, Sheldon wrote, would treat as sacred subjects all ethical relations of life, including the family, the state, property rights, individual rights, and reform efforts. Its sources of inspiration would be the greatest books of world literature, including the works of Shakespeare, George Eliot, Goethe, and Dante; the movement would seek guidance from recent statesmen such as Washington and Lincoln, just as the Hebrews had looked to David and Saul for wisdom grounded in everyday life; and it would value economics and political science as much as it would the study of ancient scriptures.
Apart from encouraging devotion to a deity, the movement he conceived would include the traditional elements of religion: Sunday morning meetings, moral instruction of children, social service and activism, and a trained clergy. He expounded on his definition in a statement of purpose which he proposed for adoption by all ethical societies:
An Ethical Society exists for the purpose of inducing people to think more about conscience, duty, justice, the cultivation of the higher nature, working for others, about High Conduct in all its phases, Morality in all its aspects. It exists supremely to emphasize the importance of Ethics.
An Ethical Society exists for the purpose of persuading people to do more than they are doing toward making themselves better men and women and toward improving the rest of the world.
An Ethical Society exists for the purpose of keeping public attention on the moral aspects of the Questions of the Day, and not allowing people to judge on such matters from their own personal interests or from purely material considerations.
An Ethical Society exists for the purpose of organizing practical educational work in social reform on a basis which shall be strictly neutral on all matters pertaining to religion. In all such effort the Society will seek to establish the motto "the work for the work's sake."
An Ethical Society exists in order to serve as a meeting‑ground for people who are unable to agree in their religious beliefs and yet who are warmly interested in working together for their own moral improvement and for the moral improvement of the whole human race.
An Ethical Society exists for the sake of cultivating the sense of reverence and fostering the moral and spiritual nature of each person, while allowing every man to think as he pleases or as his judgment may compel him to think. An Ethical Society exists for the purpose of awakening and fostering higher scruples in one's conduct in the home, personal life, public affairs, commercial life, and in one's relations to the city, the State, or the nation to which one may belong.
An Ethical Society, amid the changes now going on in religious beliefs, exists for the purpose of persuading men to hold tenaciously to the great Moral Principles established by the experience of past ages, and approved by the voice of conscience, while at the same time always seeking light wherever it may be found.
An Ethical Society exists in order to accomplish these various purposes by means of lecture courses, educational clubs, classes for children, organized efforts for social reform, courses of reading or study, all concentrated on the one aim. (Ibid., pp. 17‑18)
Sheldon defied the traditional categories of religious disposition, refusing to call himself a theist, atheist, or agnostic. He considered himself deeply religious, and his scrupulous intellectual honesty forbade him to reduce his attitude to such neat terms. He found that the word "God" had become so laden with personification and superstition that it tended to trivialize the ineffable mystery it was intended to honor; he wrote that he rarely used the word, not "because it means so little to me, but because it means so much." ("How People Can Use the Word "God," p. 84) He was tempted to avoid the use of the word altogether so as not to "degrade it … and our own natures, by tossing it heedlessly about," (Ibid. pp. 85‑86) but he feared that by doing so "we shall separate ourselves completely from many persons with whom we may be in close bonds of sympathy." (Ibid. p. 86) Aware that "God" is used to signify very different ‑‑ and even contradictory ‑‑ meanings, he was intrigued by the efforts of poets and philosophers to coin circumscribed substitutes ‑‑ Infinite Power, Supreme Being, the Absolute, the Ultimate Source, the Great Lawgiver, the Invisible Companion, and so on ‑‑ but he owned that such terms never had gained sufficient currency to be of use in common discourse. For his part, he chose to affirm certain specific conceptions, experiences, and beliefs the term "God" is used to designate. In an address titled "How People Can Use the Word 'God,"' he maintained that three aspects of human experience point to a reality which could, with proper caution and reverence, be termed "God." They are: the mystery of being, the unity of nature, and a universal force or tendency toward moral goodness. Of his experience of the "sheer mystery of being" he wrote:
It is not the process of development or evolution itself which overwhelms me with its mysterious grandeur, but the bare fact that anything exists at all. I look down at the paving stones under my feet, and ask myself how came they into being, what holds them there, ‑‑ not what they are made of, not the changes in shape or locality which their substance has undergone, not the conditions by which their chemical structure is explained, not what they are as contrasted with something else, but just the fact that they are! There is something so baffling and awe‑inspiring in the simple fact of their existence, that when thinking about it I feel everything slipping away from me as I sink deeper and deeper and lose myself and all my thinking in this one bewildering circumstance. It gives me a feeling akin to fear, and yet allied to the sublime.
We have no sense of the strange or the mysterious in the thought of nothingness. But the step from nothing to something utterly dazes the mind. (Ibid., pp. 89‑90)
Sheldon owned that some people lack awe before the fact of existence, and are moved only by awareness of organic life, or of the "self‑conscious soul." But those aspects of reality, he insisted, are "mere phases" of the fundamental fact of existence. "The grandeur, the solemnity, the majesty of it all," he insisted, "is just as much in the atom or the wave motion of the ether as in this subjective life of ours." (Ibid., p. 91) He believed that awe before the mystery of existence, rather than fear of some particular source of power, was the most primitive religious sentiment. When impelled to give a name to the mystery of existence, one may, he said, "with reluctance or dread, in fear of committing sacrilege in reference to what is deepest and most sacred.… speak of it as 'God.' " (Ibid., pp. 91‑92) He made it clear that he applied the term strictly to the fact of existence; he did not apply it to a creator that supposedly brought into being all that exists, for such a designation would simply beg "the greater mystery of the being of that Creator." (Ibid., p. 9 1)
Mysticism and critical observation blend in the
apprehension of the second aspect of deity, the unity of nature ‑‑
"the kinship between everything existing throughout the universe."
(Ibid., p. 92). Sheldon credited Indian and Greek philosophers for crudely
depicting the interrelatedness of things, a perception that would be refined by
1 do not see how any one can ever look at the skies in the splendor of evening without thinking of the fact which we now know beyond dispute, that the substance there, the very atoms of the stars are like the atoms of the earth we stand upon, that the chemical constituents are much the same there as here, that the quantity of matter throughout the universe is unchanged and unchanging. Or if we single out one of those glittering lights in the heavens, shall we not at once begin to fancy that it, too, may be a sun with planets like our own moving around it, that every one of those stars may be the centre of an evolving planetary system where organic life may appear, and where the great struggle for justice may begin, as self‑conscious beings arise.
This sublime kinship, by which we recognize unity of substance and relationship in development everywhere, thrills us and possesses us in a way that no language can express.
At rare intervals I believe that the student of philosophy or the man of science in thinking of this unity will wait for an instant, and then whisper, "God." (Ibid., pp. 92‑94)
In forming a construct worthy of the name "God," Sheldon deemed the preeminent element to be the "stream of tendency" in nature supporting moral goodness ‑‑ a tendency experienced personally as the aforementioned "desire to reach a higher level of being." He admitted, with some distress, that this aspect of Ultimate Reality could not be empirically substantiated. And while he repeatedly intimated that history validates the tendency toward righteousness, he presented no compelling evidence of the claim. That this axiom served as the bedrock of his lifelong philosophy of ethics helps to explain his unshakable faith in it:
No matter how unphilosophical this may appear, the human mind is strangely prepossessed with the conviction that, even if nature or the "cosmic process" is indifferent, there is a process of the process, or nature of things, on the side of those who devote themselves to the ideally Good.… We are led to assume that when we sacrifice our personal or transient interests in the cause of Duty, there is something in the universe or behind it which is aiding us and standing by us, that we are fighting in the cause of some fundamental principle in the universe.
A conviction of this kind seems almost ineradicable. The new science and new philosophy have had little effect upon it. They have shattered innumerable beliefs, torn away the veil from many a mystery, reduced a multitude of our prepossessions to fanciful illusions. Yet they have not shaken humanity's faith that there is a "stream of tendency" in the nature of things working in the interest of righteousness. The man who dies for a cause is satisfied that his effort cannot be altogether unavailing, inasmuch as he thinks it will be taken up and carried forward by such a stream of tendency. (Ibid., pp. 94‑95)
He traced the belief in "fighting on the side of right" back to ancient cultures, including the Greeks, the Hebrews, and the early Christians. In its crude form, he wrote, the belief was manifest as trust that divine providence was "on our side" in a conflict. Through history, the belief matured into the "grander thought … that we are taking sides with the divine providence or the nature of things." (Ibid., p. 96) He was mindful of the inevitable objection to his axiom: that in a war between people of different faiths, warriors on both sides believe they are sanctioned and empowered by God and are fighting for a righteous cause. Though he did not directly address that objection, he warned against degrading the axiom into its primitive form, the tendency to "materialize the impression and think … of the hand of a deity interfering in the conflicts of life, just as the gods in the stories of Homer entered here and there in the battles, and took sides with their favourite [stet] heroes." (Ibid., p. 97) He taught that one acquires faith in the power of righteousness only by actively fighting for justice. "The more groveling natures," he wrote, "know nothing of it." (Ibid., p. 96)
Because of his reverence for the elements of deity, Sheldon took umbrage at the cultural inclination to attach human attributes to that reality. "Some will personify it and speak of 'Him,' clothing that power with feelings of sentiment and loving care," he wrote. "They will fancy the sheltering arms of a Personal Father reaching out to them from the skies." That belief, which he spoke of as a child's conception, "would be a sacrilege to a mind like that of Spinoza or Goethe," he wrote. (Ibid., p. 98) He also decried as blasphemous the popular depiction of God as constable:
We shall only degrade the whole subject by dealing with theistic beliefs as a useful means for encouraging good behavior. There is something utterly repugnant to the finer moral sense in the famous saying of Voltaire: "If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent one," ‑‑ meaning, as I understand him, that such a belief is necessary to the preservation of "social order." Every argument for the existence of a deity from that standpoint will only be repellent to people of high character, while leading others to glaring, defiant atheism. No man can reverence a Power of which he is simply afraid, because of the penalties which such a Being can execute upon him. An "expediency" God means no God at all for any except the most inferior or most decrepit natures. Only a decaying civilization, which has lost its virility and is reaching out for any straw to save itself from utter collapse, will stoop so low as to drag down the grand conceptions associated with the idea of deity, by desiring to make such a Being a substitute for a police force. If there is not something implanted in human nature which can develop an inner strength and of itself furnish a motive for high conduct, then our civilization is doomed … If we cultivate the belief in a deity because we need such a Being, for reasons of practical expediency, then in the higher sense we have surrendered manhood and Godhead alike. (Ibid., p. 100)
From Sheldon's perspective, then, it was reverence, rather than "mere unbelief or negative Agnosticism," (Ibid., p. 101) that restrained him from uttering the word "God." He encouraged respectful appreciation of the three elements of the deity as he conceived it, but he quietly discouraged use of the common term. When it seemed necessary to refer to an overarching reality, he preferred to speak of the "Power" ‑‑ that is, "the totality, the Being from whence everything came and to which everything returns, the Power whence springs the fact of law, the Source of the all‑pervading Unity, the Guiding Energy which takes sides for justice and righteousness. " (Ibid., p. 101)<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Far from holding that belief in a deity, however conceived, is essential to the ethical life, he asserted that it is of no ethical relevance. All that is needed to carry on "the ethical cause," he taught, is the conviction that "the nature of things is on the side of Right" -- and that, he said, comes inevitably to those who engage in the struggle.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Sheldon's conception of religion, though essentially this‑worldly, was nevertheless imbued with spirituality ‑‑ what he described as attentiveness to sentiments that point to a higher reality, however inchoate. An ardent truth seeker who had "left the fold" of a creedal religion, he offered a fresh, if inconsistent, alternative to those whose religious doubts had undercut their sense of place in the universe. He delineated the hallmarks of true religion as: 1) a consciousness of what Wordsworth termed "moving about in worlds not realized"; and 2) surrender of the will to the "All‑inclusive aim of the universe."
Sheldon spoke of being religious as a matter of character
and disposition rather than of belief or piety. He deemed religious "those
pure, deep, lofty natures," individuals of "serene, unselfish
inwardness" who display "a certain steady loftiness of purpose."
("Being Religious ‑‑ What it Means to an Ethical
Idealist," from An Ethical Movement, W. L. Sheldon, Macmillan and Co.,
His elevation of that consciousness placed him in a
philosophical hinterland. Though he did not actually profess belief in a non‑material
order of existence, he was resolutely opposed to the philosophy of materialism,
the supposition that all reality ‑‑ including thought, will, and
feeling ‑‑ is essentially matter. "I may be tolerant of many
creeds or many systems of philosophy, but for one attitude I have no
toleration, and that is the thing called materialism," he wrote.
"Toward this my feeling is one of disgust and loathing, and I mean to
fight it till I die." ("What the Ethical Idealist Has to Fight
For," by Walter L. Sheldon, Ethical Addresses, Vol. XIII No. 1,
It is not that we are altogether of another world, not that we are absolutely unlike the earth whereon we dwell; but we are conscious that there are orders and degrees, ‑‑ as it were, a higher and lower everywhere. Our order is not the same as that of the outer world. This is what we imply in saying that the human being has a soul. It is not the same as the old distinction between this and another world, or between matter and spirit. Strictly speaking, as we know, there is only one world and one universe. But there is a difference in order or degree. We are higher or superior to what we look out upon, ‑‑ the earth, the air, the mountains, and the sea. The religious man is the person who is conscious of this difference. How religious he is, may depend on how strong an impression this fact makes upon him.
It is religion which emphasizes unity everywhere; only it is a unity of the spirit, and not of the fleeting pageant of the outer world. We belong to the truly real. It is this phase which connects religion with our thoughts of an Invisible Being. That Being is the great Spiritual Centre, and we belong to its order. The old conception is true, that man was made in the image of his Maker. We may not be able to have definite beliefs about that Being; indeed, it is far more vital that we should have such beliefs about our own being, its meaning and destiny and the laws it should obey. But our kinship is with the great Central Fact. Of that much we are assured.
That sense of belonging to a superior order of existence, the "starting point of all true Idealism," was of no worth to Sheldon unless it was allied with the other crucial element of religion, the surrender of the will. "Religion has its supreme value in that it serves as the agent for breaking and taming the wild caprices of the human will," he wrote. "It puts the soul of man into a harness." (Ibid., p. 31) The oft‑heralded "aspiration to reach a higher level of being," he taught, must be informed and disciplined; it must be consciously directed toward a high aim. To devote one's energies toward a low aim, such as acquiring wealth or power, will produce a "cold, heartless nature." (Ibid., p. 34) To be religious one must surrender the will to a "Supreme Something" beyond one's personal satisfaction. That "Something," he said, need not be a personal deity, but it must represent what one understands to be the highest aims of humanity. In sum, Sheldon defined religious life as "the surrender of the will to ideal or sacred principles which are to us the expression of the true destiny or worth of the human soul." (Ibid., pp. 38-39)
Having established the essence of religion, Sheldon laid
out a methodology for cultivating the soul, "the something in us which is
not mind and is not body, and which separates us from all other animate or
inanimate existence that we have any knowledge of." ("Methods for
Spiritual Self‑Culture," from An Ethical Movement, W.L. Sheldon,
Macmillan and Co.,
First, he advocated assembling a personal "Bible," a collection of literature which one finds "expressive of the whole struggling spirit of mankind." (Ibid., p. 206). His suggestions for inclusion in one's "Bible" ranged from the works of Plato and Marcus Aurelius to the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of Wordsworth; he revered the Hebrew‑Christian Bible, but he also found guidance in the Buddhist "Path of Virtue." He stressed the importance of regularly rereading the works in which one finds inspiration. "When you truly have a Bible," he wrote, "its thoughts, its sayings, will move you, thrill you, strengthen you, nerve you to tread the pathway of your life." (Ibid., pp. 208‑209). He added that people who are especially moved by music should consider the musical selections that most elevate them to be part of their personal bibles.
Sheldon's second method for "spiritual self‑culture"
was appreciation of nature. He recommended spending time out of doors attending
to one's interrelation with plants and animals, soil and sky. "We restrict
the soul‑life," he wrote, "when somehow we do not get into some
sort of conscious relationship with every form of existence to which we are in
any degree whatsoever allied." (Ibid., p. 211) Even without leaving the
bustling life of a city, he said, one can find a "healing power" in communing
with nature by looking up at the stars or examining a green leaf. Sheldon
himself found inspiration in walking along the shore of the
Every city which has a river flowing along its borders, offers an opportunity for mingling with Nature. In its way it is as grand as the mountains or the sea. All the great poets have been conscious of this, and have talked about it and mused over it. A river is as suggestive and inspiring to the soul as the unclouded sky of evening may be to a lonely traveler on a country road. It is Nature! We watch the turbid, muddy stream and follow it with our mind's eye in its sinuous course through cities and states, until it pours its waters into the great sea. What is it but a suggestion of time and eternity! Does it not remind us of the stream of our own life, wending its way through time to the ultimate Something to which all must go? Does it not suggest the relationship of the finite to the infinite; or make us think of the soul of man yearning to lose itself and be swallowed up in the Divine? (Ibid., p. 214)
Sheldon also advocated the cultivation of a sense of
mystery. "My idea of mystery," he wrote, "is that we come to a
borderline beyond which we feel that we cannot go; while at the same time we
are convinced that if we could get beyond it, we should find something more,
something grander, than anything we know of now." (Ibid., p. 215) But
while he often spoke of the sense of mystery as vital to the religious life, he
sternly warned against all forms of occultism, which he referred to as "materializing
the spiritual side of things until the truly spiritual has vanished from our
conceptions altogether." (Ibid., p. 215) The best guard against slipping,
he said, is to scrupulously adhere to scientific facts. "The man who reads
Shelley," he wrote, "should also read
Solitude was another of Sheldon's methods for spiritual self‑culture. One must spend time alone to expand one's awareness of the soul, he taught, for constant human interaction makes one self-conscious ‑‑ that is, attentive to the perceptions of others rather than to the "higher spiritual atmosphere of the self of the selves." (Ibid., p. 217) It is in that realm, he said, that one "will get in touch with the spirit land of all human nature." (Ibid., p. 218)
But for all his talk of mystery and the "spirit land," Sheldon believed that the principal arena for spiritual self‑culture is the working world. The unrelenting battle for survival, he said, is the "grindstone on which our spiritual self is shaped." (Ibid., p. 219) The true self emerges through day‑to‑day conflict, through striving, disappointment, and physical pain. This, for Sheldon, was the paradox of paradoxes: that "active life in the world is the true nursery for spiritual culture. We must mix in the daily struggle; toil and labour with our fellows; go through their trials, their defeats, and their victories; jostle and be jostled, and so gradually develop the higher life at the same time." (Ibid., p. 220)
Many of Sheldon's addresses and essays were variations on
his central thesis ‑‑ that religion consists of promoting and
cultivating the universal impulse to do good. For Sheldon, this desire ‑‑
"this restless longing for something more, something grander, something
deeper, something higher than you have yet realized" ‑‑ was
the basis of morality. ("Duty ‑‑ to One Who Makes a Religion
of It," from An Ethical Movement, W.L. Sheldon, Macmillan and Co.,
He was so passionately loyal to his belief in that "mysterious" Voice that he avoided examining it, even discounting his own knowledge of socialization. He evidently felt that calculated explanations of the phenomenon would diminish its purity, rendering it unworthy of the devotion he gave it. The very title of one of his addresses on the theme indicates how highly he exalted it: "Duty ‑‑ to One Who Makes a Religion of It." He opened that address by asking his listeners how the drive to obey one's Sense of Duty could be even stronger than love of life and fear of death:
Can you explain why it is that a man should value anything more than his own life? We know this to be true of an immense number of people. Some will give up their lives in one cause, others in another. It is not life itself which we seem most to care for. If it came to a choice, we should rather die than be obliged to take a certain course of action. There is something in all of us that we would not surrender even at the cost of life … We ask ourselves, How is it possible that a man can love this human life, care passionately for earthly existence, and yet prefer to do what may cost him his life? What interest should the outcome of his acts have for him, if he is no longer here on earth to share in it? … What motive has he for making such a surrender? (Ibid., pp. 42‑43)
In working toward an answer to that question, Sheldon asserted that the Sense of Duty is innate. "[W]e start out in life with an original measure of values," he wrote. "We do not come by it from thought or abstract reflection." (Ibid., p. 43) He spoke of Duty as one of the chief distinctions between human beings and other animals; because it leads inexorably toward high ideals, it is at war with animal desires. "We, of all creatures in the universe," he wrote, with more than a touch of mournfulness, "must be tortured and checked and held down, or urged along another line against our inclinations, by this relentless authority." (Ibid., p. 45) But while he often described the Voice of Duty as "persistent," 11stern," or "severe," he observed that it also is gentle and reassuring. It can, he wrote, "soothe while it controls us" and "inspire while it dominates us." (Ibid., p. 49) He found that Duty conveys the sense that human beings do not belong to themselves, that they are part of a higher reality that exerts an overarching will. As noted earlier, he preferred not to name or describe that reality, venturing only that "what we have is a suggestion of something beyond, an order that is outside of us and yet includes us." (Ibid., 50) Obedience to that Voice, he wrote, saves us from alienation: It "puts us in touch with our fellowmen; yes, with all living things, with inanimate nature, with the whole wide universe. Duty no longer strikes us as something altogether stern and sombre. We are glad to obey it, because it adds more to our life and puts us in accord with life everywhere." (Ibid., p. 5 1) Sheldon acknowledged, though in passing and by way of illustration, the psychological and sociological underpinnings of Duty. He noted that a child learns to obey the will of his parents rather than his own because "greater happiness is given to him by belonging to the home than by belonging just to himself " (Ibid., p. 5 1) As we mature, he wrote, we learn that through obedience to the Voice of Duty 11we join the world's family," obtaining peace and calm by fulfilling our roles in the Grand Order of Things. (Ibid., p. 52) However, he firmly denied that Duty is a worthy master only because it puts one in harmony with others, or that it controls one only in human relations. Rather, he claimed, it is a "grandly impersonal" force: "What we are commanded to obey is not a person, but a principle." (Ibid., p. 53) In other words, Duty, as a relation between each individual and the universal "rule of law," is innate and ever‑present, but human interaction calls it forth and develops it. He believed that the Voice of Duty is utterly independent of social norms and expectations, so that "if there were no other man or woman on the face of the earth, if there were no Supreme Companion, yet, alone in space with no other conscious fellowship anywhere, the Voice of Duty would still exist in you and call for obedience." (Ibid., p. 55) Answering the question he posed at the outset of the address, he asserted that it is the deific omnipresence of Duty that compels one to obey it even at the cost of one's life. He recognized the validity of the theistic perception of Duty as the "Voice of God," but he found that such a conception tarnished the grandeur of the "universal law" by depicting it as a set of arbitrary decrees rather than the changeless, absolute structure of reality ‑‑ what he called the Nature of Things. His ultimate definition of Duty:
Duty is the command of our Highest Self, bidding us, in scorn of transient consequences, to act as if we belonged not to ourselves, but to a universal system or order, and to render unconditional obedience to the highest law or highest measure of value that we are conscious of. (Ibid., p. 57)
Having underscored the changeless nature of the "rule of law," Sheldon ‑‑ departing from a conviction of his youth ‑‑ owned that the long‑prevalent conception of conscience as an innate ability to distinguish right from wrong was no longer serviceable. "The pathway of life is never perfectly illumined," he wrote. "It is not always a clear, plain course. We are obliged to think and brood and ponder, before we choose and decide." At the same time, however, he contended that everyday human experience usually makes clear the "true course" one must pursue; iniquity, he said, arises not from perplexity over conflicting obligations but from "the calm defiance of all sense of duty." (Ibid., p. 59)
For Sheldon, Duty was the linchpin of civilization. "When civilization begins to weaken and decay, this indicates not necessarily a loss of religious belief, not a spread of rationalism, but simply a decline in the regard men pay to the authority of their sense of duty," he wrote. "If men will only come to have the spirit of the soldier standing at his post, I feel that human society is safe and that the race of man will go on advancing." (Ibid., p. 59)
Sheldon saw Christianity and Ethical Culture as sharing a common starting point ‑‑ namely, the longing to be good. His unpublished writings reveal that his own surrender of Christian faith was a frightful experience, a change that eviscerated his sense of meaning and of belonging to the universe. Much of what he wrote, both privately and for his readers and listeners, indicates a lifelong effort to retrieve and reinvigorate whatever kernel of truth had endeared him to Christianity.
Sheldon observed that Christianity so thoroughly pervades
Western culture that getting at its wellspring requires intellectual tenacity
and a sensitivity to human nature. Because most Christians adopt faith in the
central figure of the religion without examining the historical evidence of his
life or questioning the plausibility of gospel accounts, Sheldon sought to
understand what there is in human nature that predisposes people to believe in
such a person. In doing so, he examined the two principal aspects of the
popular conception of Christ ‑‑ the "mystical Christ," an
incarnation of an Infinite Personal Father sent to save humanity from the
domination of sin and lead it to a higher moral path, and the "human
Christ," a gentle, patient man who endured great suffering and persuaded
his followers to devote themselves to ideals of justice. The first aspect, he said,
corresponds to the "tendency toward the Good," giving shape to the
universal, original faith that "the nature of things is on our side in the
struggle against evil." ("The Ethical Christ " from An Ethical
Movement W.L Sheldon Macmillan and Co.
In the second aspect he found an inspiring legend of one who surrendered life itself in devotion to a "sacred Cause." (Ibid., p. 115) For Sheldon, that aspect of Christ, compellingly illustrated by his death on the cross, expresses the universal yearning "to merge our wills and our individual purposes into a larger Will or larger Purpose." (Ibid., p. 117) Christendom, he wrote, bows before the image of Christ on the cross "because men have been driven to think that the religious life of self‑surrender is the highest and most perfect life." (Ibid., p. 118)
In this way, Sheldon naturalized and humanized Christianity, virtually baptizing Christ in Ethical Culture. While he could not accept the divinity of the figure or believe that his death was salvific, he could without apology share in revering him as a composite paradigm of goodness. He saw in Jesus a man who embodied qualities to which human nature instinctively aspires –kindness, selflessness, devotion to universal brotherhood. Seeing Christianity as an enshrinement of the Ethical Ideal redeemed for Sheldon the rich heritage of the religion in art, architecture, music, and literature:
When … I see another in prayer or worship before the image of Christ, I may have to say: I cannot pray your prayer or take your attitude of worship toward the Personal Jesus; whether all the events you believe in actually occurred, I do not know; but the motive which makes you revere this human Christ exists in me also. There is the same instinctive reverence on my part toward that image or picture. Like you, I should be glad to realize something of that ideal in my own life. I, too, aspire to live in that spirit, to have that gentle, yet heroic, endurance, to surrender myself to some larger Purpose, to deny myself and walk in those footsteps, and to do what I can to help my fellows towards the higher life.
To others this “human” Jesus will have occupied a very definite place at some one epoch in history, just as the “mystical” Christ will have assumed a realistic, concrete shape in their theology. But I look upon this sublime type of character rather as something which has developed through a long progressive series of impressions covering many centuries. In the very effort to interpret the meaning of this wonderful life, each man himself has helped to give more concrete shape to the picture; he has sought to clothe it by means of the very ideal which it has awakened and called forth. The Christ of Gothic architecture, of the painters of Italy, of Thomas a Kempis, is a conception which has grown out of the heart’s own yearnings as well as out of the events which took place in Palestine some eighteen or nineteen hundred years ago. This, to me, gives it an even greater significance and makes the picture seem the more true in a universal sense. When you show to me a Christ, as a type of character such as you would like to cultivate in yourself, then I am one with you. I see in this image the story of a struggling humanity, seeking for a means to conquer evil, and endeavoring to picture for itself a form of life by which that conquest
We might call this other Christ which is left to us who are unable consistently or conscientiously to accept the conventional beliefs, the “Ethical” Christ. It must always be regarded as in part a creation of the ideal in ourselves, because unless such an ideal already existed in the human heart, men would not accept it when presented to them from the outside. In all candour I shall have to say that it appeals to me, moves me, and inspires me far more than when I viewed the subject in the conventional way. It gives me greater pleasure now to read the Scriptures which tell the story of that life. I enjoy listening to the music of Handel’s “Messiah” more than ever before. The paintings of the great masters, which illustrate that life, stir me more profoundly; the splendour of the cathedral architecture, which speaks for the new spiritual view of life, has an even greater hold upon me. I can even read the “devotional literature” of Christianity, and be more helped and inspired by it.
Formerly I was constantly led to think how much I disagreed with such writings; but now it is the other way, and I keep thinking how much I am in sympathy with them. As long as we have to dispute about points of philosophy or the facts of history, the disagreement will have no end. But when we come down to the issue, what our hearts hunger and crave for, then we draw close together. We who may be dubious about historic records which are perfectly satisfactory to others, will nevertheless be equally anxious to see this ideal type of character more and more reproduced in ourselves. (Ibid., p. 119-120)
For all his veneration of the “Ethical” Christ, Sheldon considered the image a limited portrait of ethical character. Positing that ethically heroic people exhibit the characteristics that are most needed in their historic times and places, he suggested that Jesus of Nazareth captured the popular imagination because forgiveness and gentle humility were efficacious qualities among oppressed Jews in the Roman Empire. However, Sheldon believed that modern civilization, in which social conditions provide opportunities for substantive change, has need of more “aggressive” virtues. “What is called for now,” he said, “is not merely a sublime humility or passive endurance, but also the aggressive energy, the determined will, the venturesome mind by which we may go forward and plant anew the garden of life.” (Ibid., p. 126)
Next to Christianity, Sheldon’s most revered model of religion was Stoicism. For Sheldon, this humanistic philosophy of life, born in the Roman Empire, was “the highest product of pagan thought, the noblest gift to the world from Europe in antiquity.” (“The Message of the Stoics,” from An Ethical Movement, W.L. Sheldon, Macmillan and Co., New York, 1896; p. 129) Its chief virtues, by Sheldon’s reckoning, were its unblinking acceptance of hardship and its somber training of the human will. Stoicism, he wrote, “inspired the heart to endure nearly every form of trial. It sweetened the cup of pain and sorrow.” (Ibid., p. 129) One of his favorite Stoics was the slave Epictetus, a “houseless, homeless, friendless, cripple belonging to the undermost stratum of human society” who found serenity and happiness through endurance. (Ibid., p. 131) He marveled at—and, as evidenced by his private journal, clearly envied—Epictetus’ disregard for external influences; he celebrated the man for his ability to maintain emotional equilibrium amid terrible suffering and deprivation.
Sheldon found in Stoicism something of a corrective for Christianity. Unlike the humble submissiveness of Christ, the endurance of the Stoics struck him as “almost savage in its masculine quality.” (Ibid., p. 133) Stoicism represented for him a crucial refinement of Christian virtue because it did not preach trust in a benevolent deity but only acceptance of inevitable conditions; it encouraged aggressiveness when it was of avail. It taught that discipline and difficulty make for strong character rather than meekness. The Stoic, said Sheldon, “loved strength of soul, just as the athlete loves strong and steady muscles.” (Ibid., p.134) Beyond the popular understanding that Stoicism urged suppression of the passions, Sheldon saw its ultimate aim as strong will. “It was by his struggle with the passions of his nature, in the effort to bring them under control, rather than to crush them out, that [the Stoic] could get the will-power, the possession of which was his keenest delight,” he wrote. “These passions furnished the rough and stony path over which he walked in his process of self-discipline.” (Ibid., pp. 134-135)
Inspired by the Stoics, Sheldon repeatedly observed that character is attained by overcoming adversity through devotion to one’s ideals. He saw illness, the loss of loved ones, financial collapse, and other hardships as opportunities to inaugurate a higher mode of thought. Such trials, he taught, force a reassessment of one’s values and goals; they challenge the status quo of the inner life and point the way to spiritual liberation. He advocated self-reliance, but always in the context of one’s duty in the Grand Order of Things. In a 1901 address titled “The Good Side to Adversity,” he taught that one key to accepting loss and hardship is the acknowledgement that one is part of something far bigger and more important than oneself:
There is a great deal in just being able to set one’s teeth in the face of calamity and wait. It is that sort of grit which carries a man through a crisis coming from those circumstances over which he has no control. To give way to despair may only intensify the calamity, and one may have still less resistance power for the next blow when it comes. We must get it out of our heads that the universe has been tuned in key to our small systems. We shall do much better to try and tune our systems to the key of the great universe.
One good that comes from adversity lies in the fact that it does make a person think, and, what is more, think hard. And I can assure you, if you have not been aware of it already, that human nature is very much averse to thinking. It takes an excitement in order to get the brain into full activity. The tendency is for the blood to go to the muscles rather than to the head.
When one’s calculations are all upset, then one’s brain is in a turmoil as one begins to ask the what or the why or the wherefore. Under these circumstances some persons are led to cynicism and others to despair. But if one escapes either of these two catastrophes as an outcome of his adversity and his new thinking, he does get a quickening of his inner life and a wider horizon than he ever had before. He realizes, perhaps, for the first time that he is part of a system of things and that he must bend his will to the great system of which he is an atom or a member.
(“The Good Side to Adversity,” Ethical Addresses, October 1901)
While Sheldon was considerably more confident speaking of hardship than of happiness, he recognized that his listeners were somewhat more interested in the latter. So, while he made a career of extolling Duty, endurance, and the “higher life,” he occasionally addressed the question of whether such a life would bring one happiness. But because—as he admitted privately—he thought himself a virtual stranger to joie de vivre, it was for him a sticky and rather embarrassing question. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the desire for pleasure is natural. “We hunger for it as we do for meat and drink,” he wrote. “We appear to need happiness as we do sunshine and the light of day.” (“Does High Conduct Bring Happiness?” from An Ethical Movement, W.L. Sheldon, Macmillan and Co., New York, 1896; p. 148) At the same time, he observed that happiness is never unalloyed, that it is always experienced in a bittersweet mixture. Most importantly, he did not consider it a worthy object of striving. He asserted that proper conduct could not be effectively evaluated according to the amount of happiness it brings, since ethical standards were developed—or rather, ascertained—without regard for their personal effects. Civilized human beings, he said, “had an ideal of what they wanted to make of themselves or of what they wanted to become, long before they had scrutinized the motives which led them to pursue at that aim, or the sensations which accompanied them in the pursuit.” (Ibid., p. 151)
Sheldon taught that those who pursue the Ethical Ideal experience a rare sort of happiness, a deep satisfaction in being true to one’s Duty and honoring universal law. “The lower class of natures,” he said, content themselves with mere idleness and comfort—a standard of happiness beneath even that of a dog. The person of a “superior nature,” by contrast, wins intense happiness by arousing to action latent capabilities in the service of a worthy purpose. “[T]he man gets his real joy,” he contended, “while struggling after his purpose, rather than in the ultimate accomplishment of it.” (Ibid., p. 160) However, he warned that such happiness requires sacrifice and diligence; to obtain it, one must renounce the lower kind of happiness enjoyed by those who devote themselves to material success. “If you pursue what gratifies the beast,” he wrote, “then you cannot have the higher sensations of the man.” (Ibid., p. 156) He was sincere in urging his listeners to make a conscious choice between devotion to high aims and the acquisition of ordinary pleasure, for he believed that seeking happiness on both planes—that is, demanding that the Grand Order of Things coincide with one’s personal interests—is a prescription for the worst kind of sorrow:
Now and then unhappiness may predominate overwhelmingly in certain lives. When a man will not undertake to adjust himself to the inevitable conditions, when he insists that the outer conditions ought to adjust themselves to him, when he will not put his life in accord with the circumstances which envelop him, when he insists on securing one form of pleasure or none at all, -- then he will not get what he wants, and will cry out against the Nature of Things: “Why has thou deceived me?” Such a man is doomed to the very quintessence of misery. The most acute and prolonged wretchedness usually comes to those who simply sit still and chafe internally because they cannot have their own way or get just what they think they want. They literally burn themselves up by a slow internal fire. Some of the saddest failures in all history have been where men who were possessed of high natures, fine capacities, and deep sentiments, consumed and lost their lives in raging against the Universe or against God, endlessly crying out, “Why has thou deceived me?”
(Ibid., p. 157)
But again, Sheldon saw in unhappiness the potential for personal redemption. For beneath the frustrated desires near the surface of consciousness, he believed that the reflective person could identify “divine discontent,” the longing to reach a higher way. However often life may disappoint one, therefore, one faces the option of changing one’s ultimate aim to realization of the Ethical Ideal, and of taking on hardship as a means to work toward that end. “We have something to create, a block of manhood to shape and fashion into noble form,” he wrote. “Only that could be the supreme aim, which would call forth all the highest capabilities of our nature and concentrate them on one purpose.” (Ibid., p. 163)
Sheldon considered himself a "radical" by dint of his unconventional religious beliefs, but in social ethics his thought ranged from conservative to reactionary. He was, above all else, a defender of Great Institutions of Western Civilization ‑‑ marriage, the family, the state, free enterprise. He applied the central precepts of his philosophy of the individual ‑‑ Duty, natural law, the "stream of tendency" supporting moral goodness ‑‑ to each of the institutions to which the individual belongs. He encouraged strong expressions of individuality, but always in the service of the good of others; as a spouse, family member, and citizen, one must assert creativity but defer to the mandates of the greater whole as expressed in custom and law. In his addresses on the individual's place in society, he expressed reverence for the institutions that have evolved to bring out the best in each of their members. His attitude toward political reformers was detached and paternalistic; he was sympathetic with the movements for women's and workers' rights, but he consistently counseled patience, warned against narrow self‑interest, and condemned civil disobedience. Nowhere did he advocate a sharp departure from the status quo.
Sheldon spoke of marriage as the most potent factor in the
quality of a person's life. "According as you act in this matter," he
wrote, "your life may be a success or failure." ("Marriage ‑‑
In the Light of the New Idealism," from An Ethical Movement, W.L. Sheldon,
Macmillan and Co.,
In that address, Sheldon hammered away at his belief in the
necessity of selflessness. One who is not capable of it, who is "not
willing … to give up the caprice of the eye and caprice of the heart in
lifelong devotion to another," ought not marry, he asserted. He believed
that it is "only as we gradually rise out of brute selfishness, that we
become capable of this higher relationship," and that the human race is
"only partially worthy of this ideal institution" because it has
"only partially evolved." (Ibid., p. 234) However, in a later address
titled "The Marriage Problem of To‑Day" ‑‑ an
address, it should be noted, written in 1902, after 10 years of direct
experience of the institution ‑‑ he softened his tone considerably,
stressing the need for tolerance and forgiveness. "There are not two
people on the face of the earth to‑day absolutely, unselfishly devoted to
each other," he owned, "because there is not an unselfish heart
anywhere. We are not made that way. We all have our streaks of imperfection
somewhere." ("The Marriage Problem of To‑Day," Ethical
Addresses, Walter L. Sheldon; S. Burns Weston, publisher;
In both addresses, but especially the latter, Sheldon railed against the romantic image of love that saturated popular literature and music. Talk of two people being "made for each other" or discovering "two hearts that beat as one" struck him as obscenely silly and contrary to human nature. Noting that the sentiments trumpeted by popular culture are peculiar to courtship and the first few years of marriage, he denigrated what he called "the spasm‑theory of marriage." Those who cling to it, he wrote, are apt to believe that their love has died once the "mad ebullition of passion" has passed. Only those lovers who remain faithful beyond that point can reap the profound but unheralded joys of marriage, he taught. "Time must be given for a further reunion to arise on a spiritual plane, but where prose and poetry must jostle together in the daylight of stern reality," he wrote. "In that second experience, it is no longer the sentiment‑standpoint of two souls with a single thought or the two hearts that beat as one ‑‑ a fantastic impossibility ‑‑ it is an awakening to the actualities of life, and to all its possibilities. An affection may then arise which can admit of imperfections in the one for whom it exists, which can cling in spite of weakness and selfishness and caprice." (Ibid., p. 110) In the earlier address, he even suggested that by wisely attending to the inevitable shift in feelings, married lovers can discover "a sentiment transcending in value all the poetic dreams of early life." (Ibid., p. 228) By his observation, only bland, passionless individuals find themselves stuck in bland, passionless marriages.
Sheldon's attitude toward divorce also softened over the years. Essentially, he considered marriage vows irrevocable. Writing in an age when the accessibility and social acceptability of divorce were hotly debated, he initially dismissed those who questioned the permanence of marriage as plainly selfish. "The plea such persons make is not a plea for mankind," he wrote in the first address, "not for the welfare of the human race in the future, but rather a plea for themselves and for their disposition always 'to do exactly as they please."' (Ibid. p. 224) He rigidly declared that "the sanctity of this institution is beyond debate and beyond discussion," and vowed to keep clear of the "unholy" men and women who attacked it. (p. 235) But while he stood foursquare on the side of the Roman Catholic Church in the debate, he insisted that his reasons ‑‑ though unspecified ‑‑ were naturalistic:
From a purely rationalistic basis I believe in the indissoluble sanctity of this relationship. What we have to do is to take our stand once more on the original sanctity of the institution. We must go back behind the Church itself, to the great law of Nature. We must surround the institution with every possible solemnity; we must rest it, not on the authority of Church or of society, but look for its basis in the Nature of Things. We must refuse to secularize it. We must make it even more solemn than it has been made by the Church. We must see in it the ideal surrender of self. We are to make it religious by connecting it with what is universal in religion. That is to say, we should associate it with the idea of Law and of reverence for the principles of Duty. When this is done, and done completely, we shall at last realize all the possible ideals in the Institution of Marriage. (Ibid., pp. 244‑245)
He conceded ‑‑ again, in agreement with the Catholic Church ‑‑ that family life can be destroyed by certain kinds of behavior, such as infidelity, and that separation is sometimes justifiable. Even in the case of a separation, however, the marital bond perdures, for "it was registered for eternity." ("Marriage ‑‑ In the Light of the New Idealism," p. 244) Remarriage in the lifetime of the estranged spouse was unacceptable.
In the latter address, he changed his tone markedly and loosened his official policy, if only slightly. First, he entertained as legitimate the arguments of social philosophers for "monogamic unions, freely contracted and at need freely dissolved by simple mutual consent," and he empathized with unhappily married people who chafed against the "tyranny of tradition." Secondly, rather than baldly asserting that "Duty" commands everlasting union, he laid out an anthropological argument by which he claimed that the evolution of permanent monogamy had been in integral element of the advance of civilization. "I believe," he concluded, "that all the most careful study goes to show that those types of races or people will be the most liable to survive, where the tendency continues in the direction of tightening the knot of the marriage‑relationship, or where, at any rate, that relationship has of itself a tendency to be an abiding one, lasting until the separation of death." ("The Marriage Problem of To-Day," p. 100) Lastly, beyond restating his position that two people may justly separate rather than 11continue in hell," he opened the door to the possibility of remarriage. He considered the legal dissolution of a marriage to be legitimate but insisted that the "spiritual tie" is indissoluble; accordingly, he held that the "innocent party" of a dissolved marriage should be permitted to remarry under state sanction ‑‑ but without religious rites. At the same time, he called for a national divorce law forbidding the "guilty party," the spouse responsible for the breakdown of the marriage, to remarry. He condemned the "loophole" by which states grant uncontested divorces without ascertaining guilt, calling the resulting freedom of adulterous or abusive spouses to remarry "an outrage on the institution and an outrage on human nature." (Ibid., p. 102)
Sheldon's views on sexual equality were less than
progressive. He lumped the women's rights movement in with the labor movement
and the socialist movement, calling attention to the collective "social
problem" of the age. "All this agitation now manifest in so many
directions have developed out of the intense individualism which is
characteristic of the nineteenth century," he wrote. "It is this
which is responsible for the demand of the new woman for emancipation, for
equality, for the obliteration of all distinctions between men and women."
(from an address titled "The New Woman," as quoted in Thoughts from
the Writings and Addresses of Walter L. Sheldon; compiled by Cecelia Boette,
Nixon-Jones Printing Co., St. Louis, 1919; pp. 40‑41) He claimed to
"sympathize with woman in the demand for right to her individuality,"
and he underlined the philosophical axiom that all individuals are centers of
thought and will. "The great declaration of Immanuel Kant that every human
being is an end in himself stands unrefuted and should stand forever even
unchallenged," he wrote. "When
He stopped far short of declaring women to be equal to men or deserving of the same legal and social rights. (Ibid., pp. 41‑42) He dodged the question, claiming that the concept of equality could not be applied to such dissimilar beings. Just as the differences between male and female bodies "were fixed in the structure of the human being hundreds of thousands of years ago," he contended that there are "like distinctions in the mental and spiritual structure of man and woman." (Ibid., p. 46) Those differences in character, he held, equip the sexes for different roles: "Woman, as a rule, shows her peculiar character in art, or in the life of the home; man, on the other hand, expresses himself through practical life in the outside world. It is as natural for the one to care for the one, as for the other to care for the other." ("Marriage ‑‑ In the Light of the New Idealism," p. 239) He believed that these differences should be "cultivated rather than suppressed; so that woman shall be more truly woman and man more truly man." (Ibid., p. 47) He asserted that the distinct roles of the sexes arise from natural differences, and that neither sex can be said to be superior to the other. "You can no more compare them in that regard than you can determine whether poetry is a higher art than music, or painting than sculpture." (Ibid., p. 47)
He emphasized a crude, unscientific, and patently prejudiced distinction between the "fundamental facts" of the nature of women ‑‑ presumably, qualities related to child‑bearing ‑‑ and "mere tendencies" of the sex. For instance, he noted that a girl's mind develops more quickly than a boy's, but that among adults over 30, men exhibit a tendency to continue their intellectual growth while women are vulnerable to "arrested development." Likewise, he observed that women are less apt to succeed in professional careers because, unlike men, they are disinclined "to plod on alone, slowly, determinedly, energetically, for a score of years, in order to realize one purpose." (Ibid., pp. 48‑49) Unlike the immutable "facts" of womanhood, however, he believed that a secondary quality of the sex could be overcome. "Now if a woman would only appreciate this mere tendency, which is characteristic of the very structure of her being, physically, mentally and spiritually, then by knowing it in advance she might be able to conquer it," he wrote. "One cannot get around facts or laws, but one can get around tendencies, if you know them beforehand." (Ibid., p. 48)
Sheldon approved of the opening of career opportunities to women. "The time has come," he wrote, "when we should give woman a chance to show what she can make of herself. She should have the right to enter all the spheres of life and occupation pursued by man, providing she really desires to do so.… Nothing is more injurious to the advance of civilization than to check any human being in his rights because of some abstract theory that we may believe in." (Ibid., p. 42) He quickly added, however, that any woman interested in pursuing a career is morally obliged to remain single. As Sheldon saw it, the right of a family woman to pursue a career is cancelled by "the rights of the society to which she belongs." A woman who chooses family life is bound by the Nature of Things to devote herself to the responsibilities of home life. And while a man can shut up his office at the end of the workday, he observed, "the care of the home is a complete occupation in itself." (Ibid., p. 43) Even a married woman without children could not justifiably work outside the home. "On this point I am old‑fashioned and conservative," he admitted. "I am still convinced that there is the loftiest possible opportunity for a career on the part of woman just simply in the effort to help her husband to achieve a career." Women who follow that path, he averred, "get the most satisfaction out of life, in spite of all the disappointments which may have come." (Ibid., p. 45) About the only stand he took against conventional expectations was his exaltation of the single life for women. "Many a woman would far more realize the ends of her being, be a more complete character, by remaining single, than by yielding to the dread of prejudice and marrying a man wholly unworthy of her," he wrote. "Some of the grandest, noblest, most ideal women in the world have been those who have never entered into this relationship." (Ibid., p. 45)
He evidently maintained neutrality on the question of women's suffrage. Though a contemporary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Carrie Chapman Catt, he avoided touching on the subject in his addresses, probably because his listeners held sharply divergent opinions on it. In "Citizenship and the Duties of a Citizen," a Sunday School textbook published in 1904, he merely made mention of the issue in the chapter on voting. In a note to the teacher, he suggested having students investigate the limitations of suffrage, making sure they learned that women could vote in local elections in three Western states. He then advised the teacher not to "go far into a discussion as to the wisdom of woman suffrage." (Citizenship and the Duties of a Citizen, Walter L. Sheldon, American Ethical Union, Philadelphia, 1904; p. 136)<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Sheldon lived in a time of historic social change, a time
of strikes, lockouts, boycotts, and mass protests; a time The address was
originally released in pamphlet form under the title "Marriage and Its
Ideals." The condensed and polished later version, "Marriage In the
Light of the New Idealism," was published in An Ethical Movement, an 1896
Macmillan and Co. collection of Sheldon's signal addresses. All excerpts and
page references are from the latter version when unionists and political
progressives fought hard for a national minimum wage, child‑labor laws,
and guarantees of humane working conditions; a time when journalistic
muckrakers attacked the "boss" systems of urban governments; a time
when feminists battled for voting and property rights. In contrast to his
What set him apart from reformers ‑‑ both
within and outside the Ethical movement ‑‑ was his all‑consuming
concern for individual reform. He believed that changes in the external
structures of society would have no direct effect on the moral caliber of
citizens. Further, "visionary schemes" that appealed to the
"masses" struck him as contemptibly ignorant of history and
sociology. A thinker well versed in the social and political philosophies of
Plato, Thomas Moore, Rousseau, and Marx, he saw popular social theories as
"lacking in the scientific spirit or wanting in philosophy"; he went
so far as to say that "sometimes they read more like wild, incoherent
cries, than sober, well‑considered schemes worthy of being given a
trial." ("Social Ideals and What They Signify to the Ethical
Idealist," from An Ethical Movement, W.L. Sheldon, Macmillan and Co.,
I am inclined to prophesy that, by the close of the coming [20th] century, the enthusiasm may be for what I have termed the Ethical Ideal. The ambition or expectation of being able to establish a perfect system of government, or the ideal industrial system, will have exhausted itself. The structure of our political institutions will have been very much improved, and our industrial system will be on a far higher plane. Neither of them will have been revolutionized, and the dream of the radical will not have come to pass. But, in the meantime, a few men, ever increasing in number as years go on, will have become more and more eager to realize this other aim, to concentrate every energy on developing the higher individual personality. The subjective spiritual side of our nature will have asserted its rights, perhaps even secured a supremacy. The plans for altering industrial, political, or social institutions will be weighed, first and supremely, from this other standpoint. The problem will be in every instance: How will it serve in developing man? You ask: Why not both enthusiasms at the same time? I must answer: That cannot be. No man can hold two objects supreme, although he may work for both in various ways. It would imply almost as much as having two religions. Your energies, your heart, your being, will concentrate along one line or the other. This is natural and inevitable. (Ibid., p. 298)
In the years just before his death, Sheldon all but
recanted his optimistic prophecy of an age of ethical preeminence. His doubt
that economic reform would nurture moral character was, he believed, vindicated
by the response of Americans to increasing prosperity. What grieved him was
that progress on the material plane did not foster a deeper appreciation of
things spiritual ‑‑ the mystery of being, the unity of nature, the
universal tendency toward moral goodness. Instead, he saw the soul, the
"man within the man," obscured or surrendered in the quest for
wealth. Materialism, as a school of philosophy, was on the wane at the turn of
the century, but by his reckoning, people more and more behaved as if they
believed in it ‑‑ as if the deepest human longings could be
satisfied by the acquisition of material goods. This insidious progeny of
materialism, he wrote, "is eating at the very vitals of our
civilization." ("What the Ethical Idealist Has to Fight For," by
Walter L. Sheldon, Ethical Addresses, Vol. XIII No. 1,
At first, he expressed his concern in a measured, philosophical tone. As the nation pulled out of the severe depression of the early‑ to mid‑1890s, he warned his listeners not to assume that their happiness would rise in proportion to their improved economic conditions. In an 1899 address titled "Why Prosperity Does Not Always Bring Happiness," he owned that steady employment, higher wages, and healthier business interests would make a difference in peoples' lives, that "having a little more money may make it more possible for us to get a little more happiness," but he anticipated that the improvement would be slight. ("Why Prosperity Does Not Always Bring Happiness," by Walter L. Sheldon, Ethical Addresses, Series VI No. 9, Philadelphia, 1899; p. 186) He further predicted that the wave of economic vitality would precipitate "an enormous amount of disappointment" and "a great deal of bitterness." (Ibid., p. 172) He founded his prediction on the observation that ease of life makes people more sensitive to hardship and more exacting in their demands. He spoke of his dread upon meeting men he had known in times of adversity, once‑kind and companionable men whose material success had spawned selfish preoccupation with their comforts and discomforts ‑‑ a condition he termed "spiritual dyspepsia." That increasing prosperity brings with it increasing discontent is fortunate, he said, for it spurs individuals to work harder and fuels further scientific and social progress; nevertheless, he wrote, the inevitable dashing of expectations "gives a shock to the moral character" which could undercut commitment to ethical principles.
To his eyes, the national character that emerged in the dawning of the new century proved that his worst fears had been realized. Laborers had secured better pay and conditions, and the middle class was swelling and gaining political strength, but while he had hoped that such advances would predispose the American people to turn their attention to "the spiritual side" of human nature, he saw only a growing obsession with the craving for affluence. In an address delivered at the 1905 AEU assembly, he vented his disgust at the decline of moral values:
It is doubtful whether in all history the human race has ever reached quite as low a level of groveling materialism as it has reached at this precise moment. The conditions were bad enough twenty years ago; but they are worse to‑day. There have been other periods, when special classes of men have fallen low in their ideals. In our age it is no longer a matter of class, for the whole human race would seem more or less infected.
The earth has opened up its riches as it has never done before and may never do again. The change has come suddenly, almost as it were in a night. At the beginning of the twentieth century the race of man has waked up to find itself possessed of hoards of treasure such as even the Aladdin of earlier times never dreamed of. And the temptation has been too great for the soul to withstand. The human race has become convinced at heart that satisfaction is to be had out of "the world and the things of the world." It is determined to feed its senses with all that is to be had out of this life and the next one too. Mephistopheles is playing a deep game and his stake is high.
Mankind has never before had the opportunity to get a full taste of the earth's riches, ‑‑ eat them, drink them, wear them, parade in them, murder with them, glut itself with them. We can only learn from experience. The present generation must pay the death penalty with the rope around its neck, whereby future generations may take home the lesson and find their soul. ("What the Ethical Idealist Has to Fight For," pp. 8‑10)
His doleful observations forced him to reassess the value and prospects of Ethical Culture. He told the assembly he had been drawn to the movement because of its practicality ‑‑ summed up in the slogan, "Deed, not Creed" ‑‑ and its respect for intellectual freedom. Early on, he had believed that "the religious millennium would begin to draw nigh" as the movement loosened the shackles of dogma. After 20 years of service to ethical religion, however, he was forced to admit that it had not been "winning its way," that in fact the world was "much farther away than it was twenty years ago, from all that is dearest and highest and most precious to me." (Ibid., p. 8) Belief in dogmas ‑‑ including the existence of hell and a vengeful God ‑‑ had declined, but not in the course of a search for truth. Instead, people were merely seeking and crafting "a comfortable religion, a soothing religion, one that shall make them feel safe in this world and safe for the next ‑‑ a religion that shall given them a sense of after‑dinner comfort for body and soul alike." (Ibid., p. 10) He saw that Duty was not becoming the central element of religion. Instead, he said, "we have been getting art, a sensuous art, in the guise of religion, and an irrational mysticism in the place of creeds." (Ibid., p. 10) He recognized that, contrary to his earlier convictions, the abolition of creeds would not necessarily lead to spiritual regeneration and emphasizing deed over creed would not necessarily nurture a hunger for righteousness. He even doubted if the "practicality" of Ethical Culture was much of a guard against corruption: "There may be as much of formalism and conventionality, of make‑believe and subterfuge in a religion of deeds as in a religion of creeds." (Ibid., P. 11)
His disillusionment did not shake his faith in the potential of ethical religion. On the contrary, he felt that his experience had made it a more personal gospel and a more worthy mission. After getting his "bearings," he decided that the movement's future lay in an inward direction, in discovering that "the deed like the creed must have its roots in the living soul." (Ibid., p. 14) Unless the movement promotes spiritual development, he concluded, its aims are too shallow to be called religious:
Behind the deed as well as behind the creed there must go a faith of man in himself, in his own spiritual nature. Without this, his honesty and rectitude are only mechanical, like the good behavior of the dog which growls at his feet. It has its value, but it is not religion. When, however, in the presence of the whole animal kingdom, in the presence of the dust he treads on, yes, in the presence of the whole physical universe, he can say and feel, "I am better than thou," ‑‑ at that moment he stands on another plane and his conduct acquires a meaning it did not have before.
The richest gift of the religious consciousness has not been the faith in a God, nor the hope of heaven, nor the decrees of conscience, but rather the belief in soul, ‑‑ yours and mine, soul anywhere and everywhere. It took the human race a hundred thousand years and more, to grow up to this conception. All the burden of all teaching of all religion of all time has centered in that one query: What shall a man given in exchange for his soul? At the present moment the human race is bartering its spiritual nature for simple dirt. It is the soul of man we are called upon to rescue, whatever our creed may be or distrust of creed, whether our religion be that of an Ethical Society or of the established Church, whether we are atheists, agnostics, theists, Jew or Christian. It is not the God‑belief, the Christ‑belief, the belief in heaven which is menaced to‑day, but just this faith in the human soul, in the worth of man's spiritual nature.
And so it is that I give my answer as to the direction in which every earnest religious teacher is called upon to throw the emphasis of his efforts. He must put up a new fight for the human soul. A bread‑and‑butter religion of simple philanthropy will not do. There is something worse than starving or aching bodies. There is something higher even than feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. If we do anything for men's bodies, its ultimate purpose is that we may reach the spiritual nature and build up the soul. (Ibid., p. 11 ‑ 12)
In addition to his formal writings Walter Sheldon bequeathed to posterity a private journal, a painfully revealing collection of self‑criticism and cries of despair. This slender, leather‑bound book, as long as a reporter's notebook and slightly wider, contains nearly 700 entries, all written in pencil. Because he was writing for his eyes only, he made liberal use of abbreviations and was careless about punctuation and grammar. The script is so rough throughout as to require deciphering, and many of the entries expressing anguish are written in a frenzied hand; some words are simply illegible. Though he did not date any of the entries, sparse references to dates indicate he kept the journal from roughly 1887‑91; his last entries describe his first encounters with Anna Hartshorne, whom he married in1892. The journal tells little about the circumstances of his life. It does mention that he had a dog (it annoyed his neighbors), that he lived in an apartment building or duplex (he felt he had neglected the family that lived upstairs), and that he was chronically short of money. In the main, though, the journal is a chronicle of Sheldon's inner life: It served as a tool for self‑improvement and a catharsis for the feelings he would not permit himself to share with friends. It presents a vivid portrait of a guilt‑ridden, alienated man, a man of intense but repressed feelings, a man who yearned for affection and professional success but doubted he would ever attain them. One can only guess at his reasons for leaving it in his papers; in omitting the names of the people he most despised, he admitted his fear of its discovery. Perhaps he hoped that someone, safely removed by time, would finally understand and appreciate his torment.
Sheldon was self‑critical in the extreme. The form of
journal entry he made more than any other was marked with the codes "
E. of offering the lamb to Miss G before she had offered it to me
E. mistake last year of not calling on Mr. [E.N.] Plank [first resident superintendent of the Self‑Culture Clubs] when invited
E. of not speaking to Mrs. Taussig [probably wife of James Taussig, vice president and de facto president of the board in 1886] at the wedding of R.J. Taussig
E. Carelessness of pointing with my fingers at persons when conversing with Mrs. B. at supper. [Possibly a reference to the wife of William Brandenburger, director of advertising for Anheuser‑Busch Cos. and one of the Society's chief lay leaders.]
E. mistake not to rise when Mrs. Lackland came up to speak to me at Mrs. Plant's
E. of offering Mrs. Taussig my left arm when going out to dinner.
E. The mistake of the carelessness of housekeeping and carelessness at evenings of Social Science Club
Me. Mistake of going to the Leap Year Ball on Saturday evening the mistake in getting myself in that position when I could not get out
N. of showing Miss N. the gift of another friend to me which was prettier than her gift ‑‑ unkind & unfeeling thoughtlessness
N. when coming to dinner extremely hungry not sufficient restraint and self control over eagerness to quiet the physical unrest of hunger.
Me. My blunder in staying so late with Professor & Mrs. Ives [Halsey C. Ives was director of the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, where the Society met until 1912, and guiding force behind the building of the Palace of Fine Arts, which would become the St. Louis Art Museum after the World's Fair]
E. Not giving the armchair to Miss Boeck but keeping it myself
Me. The carelessness that comes upon me in table manners from eating alone. Stop it
Rem. [Remember] Black Wednesday. after visit to Mammoth cave. 1 arrival. rush of reminiscences of my failures and the conditions which led me. in a word the "ghosts" 2 the discovery of mistake toward Mrs. Dormitzer. 3 the hour of gloom before the fireplace in the afternoon under the depression of the influence of working with a man so much stronger than myself in what he can do. 4. evening ‑‑ spilling the coffee on Mrs. L's dress
Me. Another F.P. [faux pas] at the
E. of bowing to Miss R when apparently she did not wish to bow to me.
Blunders! Blunders! Blunders! [capitalized and underlined]
Me. Blunder at the Single Tax League one of the worst in my life. fortunately it has come early enough to teach me a lesson.
Blunders! Blunders! I wonder how I manage to keep alive here in spite of them all.
Perhaps no other single aspect of social intercourse caused Sheldon as much consternation as his clothing. His difficulty in dressing appropriately was to him a sign of his alienation. "I try to be like other people at least in dress," he wrote in one entry, "but even then I make a failure of it." He criticized himself for not wearing a dress suit to dinner at the Costes, and for being the only man at the wedding of 56
"Mr. N" ‑‑ other than the ushers ‑‑who
wore evening dress. He was chagrined at discoveries of disheveled clothing ‑‑
allowing his undershirt sleeves to stick out beneath his cuffs during a visit
to "Mrs. L," having his socks down "in presence of ladies,"
going about with his necktie improperly tied, going to "Miss A's"
with "untidy cuffs or wristbands," and speaking from the platform
with a hole in one of his coat sleeves. On one occasion he believed he had
spoiled an evening at the home of Washington and Martha Fischel, two of the
Society's most supportive members, by failing to clean his boots beforehand.
One of his many dislikes about
Sheldon was intrigued by games but embarrassed by his ineptness while learning them. He scolded himself for "playing at bowling when not knowing anything about it at the club" and for "going into whist [a card game similar to bridge] when I was so poor a player, thus giving the impression of being an ‘unfinished mind."' Several times he resolved "not play as amateur a game with strangers where I cannot play well." Once he learned to play a respectable hand of whist, he became finicky about keeping to the rules, believing that allowing deviations "spoils you when you come to play with those who do follow the rules." His characteristic rigidity sometimes made him a trying partner; on one occasion he regretted "taking the game so seriously as to anger Malcolm by caring about the accuracy of the count and blaming him." And though he came to enjoy this innocent diversion, he worried that it encouraged him to let his guard down; he once upbraided himself for "playing whist too much and being too familiar" on a train trip.
It is easy to understand why Sheldon was perceived as stuffy and self‑conscious; he regularly berated himself for speaking without proper restraint:
N. referring harshly of the South before one from the South.
N. grievous mistake of speaking to Mrs. [L.D.] Hildenbrandt [one of the principal fund‑raisers for the Self‑Culture Clubs] about "my conscience being free of the matter"
Me. The egregious blunder at board meeting of saying of Prof. A. [Adler] "he will come when he pleases"
Me. I talk too much ‑‑ give too many explanations and reasons, especially to ladies
N. Bite off my tongue for my brutal report of what was said to me about Mrs. Wiggin
Rem. Remark of [Thomas] Carlyle [I9th century British writer] "Keep your mouth shut and you will feel so much more compact!"
N. That was a carefree and unfeeling remark which I made to Mr. F. in the presence of Dr. F [Washington Fischel, a prominent member of the Society and husband of Martha Fischel, a Self‑Culture Hall instructor and later the first woman president of the Society]
Me. I talk too much
Sheldon saw himself as disorganized, forgetful, and lazy. He chastised himself for his chronic tardiness, listing the inconveniences he frequently caused himself and others by missing trains, arriving late for meetings and social engagements, and making club members await his arrival outside the Society's rented quarters. Clearly an absent‑minded man, he often noted with shame that he had missed appointments, forgotten to pass along information, and misplaced important items. At times he criticized himself for failing to make comprehensive plans; at other times he bemoaned his "waste of time thro having complicated arrangements." He was mortified by his frequent inability to remember names, a problem he attempted to rectify by listing the names of people he did not know well but was apt to encounter. He chided himself for his "absence of method" and "careless waste of time." He often criticized himself for a lack of preparation for talks before Self‑Culture Clubs, Sunday School classes, and other gatherings sponsored by the Society. He set for himself a demanding schedule, yet he was forever frustrated with his habit of rushing to complete vital tasks. His procrastination in personal matters also was an endless bane: He told himself that his delay in having his eyeglass chain mended led to the breakage of the glasses, and that his dog collar was lost "thro carelessness in not taking trouble to lock it. Putting it off." He was upset with his "constant way of getting and spoiling nice things" -- including an oak table and washstand he had neglected, a rifle he had allowed to rust, and, of course, clothing that had gotten soiled and torn; he told himself he did not "deserve to have them." He often took himself to task for failing to keep his room tidy and his books properly arranged, a habit he considered "suggestive of a possible untidyness of my mind ‑‑ not keeping my ideas in shape and order ‑‑ not having a clearing out & clearing up of mind sufficiently often." He lamented that his "subjective nature" kept him from efficiently handling "more practical matters"; his response to his repeated shortcomings alternated between resolve to be more diligent and resignation to his habit of ‑‑ in the oft‑quoted words of Wordsworth ‑‑ "moving about in worlds unseen."
Underlying Sheldon's critical watchfulness of his speech and behavior was a tormenting consciousness of his self‑interest. Believing that impure motivation turned a right into a wrong, he demanded that even his thoughts and feelings conform to his ethical ideals. He repeatedly castigated himself for desiring notoriety, for longing for the appreciation of Society members ‑‑ even for wanting a strong showing on Sunday morning. "I must watch my emotions," he resolved. "It is so easy to think I am doing something for a cause when I am doing it for myself." He even questioned his motive in taking note of his errant behavior, reminding himself that his penitence did not give him permission to forgive himself. "One needs to be careful in keeping a confessional book, just as attending confessional," he wrote. "The merely setting down the wrong does not atone. The shame of the guilt is still there." In other entries, he told himself that the practice of recording misdeeds was, by itself, shallow ‑‑ that he must "scrutinize and record the wrongs of inner feelings as well ‑‑ the very source of wrong." Guilt was such a constant that he sought to appreciate it as a helpful companion: "There is after all an element of laziness about me. I only do my best work when goaded by disappointment. What would the world be good for without pain. It is that which makes men have dep [sic] feelings and goads men into thinking." In a similar entry, he reminded himself "that a man is never going to do effective work unless he feels uncomfortable."
Sheldon's self‑doubt seems to have been unrelieved. The journal is shot through with cries of sorrow over what he saw as a failed life. His uncertainty about his vocation, which earlier had prompted him to leave the Ethical movement and try his hand at medicine, would continue to plague him. In an entry he wrote upon turning 30, he noted that he had "fulfilled the condition of success of long preparation & waiting" but that his failure lay "in not taking the right direction." He regretted that he had 11no permanent profession" and that he was "too far advanced in life to learn a profession and have time or determination to make a success of it at an age when it is clear that I am not of the stuff ever to be at the top." In assessing the life of the mind at that milestone, he noted his success in "getting culture so far as it meant reading books yet failure so far as it meant reaching an equipoise on a higher level, so far as getting suavity of soul conditions."
Sheldon repeatedly declared a sense, if not a decision,
that it was time to leave the profession and seek one less fearsome and
harassing. One such collection of entries began after William Salter, the
leader of the Chicago Society, spoke before the St. Louis Society. Salter
evidently left at least one of his listeners in reflective or awestruck
silence. "What would I not give," wrote Sheldon, "if some one
were to say to me or of me too what Mr. N. [Charles Nagel, a prominent
I have reached the turning point at last. It is settled now. Whether it is late or soon it does not matter. But I give it up. My spirit is broken. This day has decided it. It was all a mistake. Five years are nearly over. I am where I began. Now to hold myself together until I find my successor. My life is stranded. I must take the consequences. I have brought it upon myself I mistook my profession. Today was the test. I knew it was coming. This occasion decided it. From this time on my course is clear. To finish up what I have begun to fix the work so that it can stay of itself. No more care about establishing myself. No more thought about my personal hold. Absolute indifference about my own standing. That is over. But what of me now! My eyes had been dry but today not today
Ref. [Reflection] This Informal Club certainly has given me an experience, a good many experiences
Ex. [Exclamation] I am tired so tired, so very tired even to being almost sick. Worse still I am sick of myself so discouraged so disheartened with myself. I have struggled so hard agonized so much and yet accomplished so little. Saddest of all, worst of all I have suffered so much at my own failure that I have committed the most selfish act of my profession in not being able to be absorbed in the suffering of others. Is it possible that a man could strike lower depths than when I be face down and moan in my soul. Yet why don't I disclose it? Was it a mistake. He does not yet understand it. He has experience [sic] suffering from one kind of experience He does not yet see that the identical degree of pain may come from another cause [written in margin] And yet I have never been so tired as to be willing wholly willing to give it up and die
Q. [Question] Was that a mistake that Sunday afternoon with Mr. Nagel. I wonder. I wonder
Sheldon felt compelled to make a significant contribution, but he despaired of doing so. Many of his journal entries bemoaned his failure ‑‑ as a lecturer and clergyman, as a scholar, as a man ‑‑ and sought to explain it as inevitable. In one typical entry, he ventured that he was " too earnest to be successful on a large scale. Too subjective." In another he resolved to "go into the world to conquer this sense of being an unfrocked priest." His emotional pain kept him from working with "continued purpose," leaving him virtually convinced that he was inadequate to fulfill his role. He felt deficient in everything his vocation required: he considered his education wanting, his public speaking style stiff and dull, and his social skills abysmal. He feared that his inconquerable daydreaming ‑‑ his habit of "moving about in worlds not realized" ‑‑ rendered him incompetent at directing the practical affairs of the Society and the Self‑Culture Halls, yet he never let go of his yearning to be both "a man of culture and a man of the world."
Only rarely were his expressions of despondency and self‑doubt countered by words of encouragement to himself:
Rem. with frail human nature such as it is be content with limited results many may be climbing the hill but many stop & digress in the ascent
Rem. the factor in in [sic] my failure is my want of persistence the factor of my success is my restlessness. encourage the last keep up the causes of the restlessness, but discourage the causes that cause the want of persistence.
Rem. The reason that makes success so much harder for us than men in the world (politics or business) is That we are restricted to purity of methods ‑‑ hence so harassing.
Rem. the world loves most the man who works with All the life that is in him never stopping to breathe or rest. To be widely loved one must be a Chas. Kingsley> [I 9th century English novelist] or Robert Ekmere.
Ex. How it digs into me, this impression as though I were offering myself where I am not wanted. what a relief it would be to be in a work where what I did was something which the world not only needed but wanted
Rem. I wanted to be a man of culture and a man of the world but I was not large enough to be both and I must choose till there is no doubt where my choice lies
Suppose I was to begin all over again. Suppose Tolleton was right
Rem. My mistake of youthfulness, not giving the impression of maturity
Reg. [Regret] I wish I had given a full year to
Ex. How it makes me jump or sits me ajar when a letter on
matters of business comes from
Ex. How utterly impossible it is to be the man of thought and the man of affairs. instance. getting settled in the fall ‑‑ [garbled word] how it irritates me!
Ref. I can never succeed because I can never "fill the gallery" and yet that is essential in order even to keep up the courage of the serious. (But the gallery does not mean the poor who cannot afford better seats)
Ref. I simply dare not do it and cannot even think of it. A financial crisis, the loss of three or four friends from change of sympathy, the death of three or four, the whisper of a false scandal, and where am I then? stranded. I cannot please the multitude, even the few only partially. Each one sympathizes with only part of what I do or one direction. The deepest that I can do, my best, I cannot do because those for whom or with whom I could do are shut away from me by a wall of suspicion. Where I touch on what I know most about and feel the most deeply I have the least hearing. And yet I cannot move hand or foot. To whisper my own doubts of my own capacity would increase the doubts of others. In this country a man must believe in himself before he can make others believe in him. Yet I must stay till I find another to fill my place. But each year I wait it will make it more and more difficult to do anything with myself when I must step out. I have nerve and pluck, but where would be the years for the new apprenticeship. Oh that figure ‑‑ "the wound in the side"
Ex. I have nerve, energy, will, mind, gift of speech, belief in what I am doing. But others with the same gifts do three times as much. ergo ____________
Rem. One thing is certain. If I do not succeed the defect lies wholly with myself. People have treated me as well as I deserve to be treated If I cannot awaken their enthusiasm I may be worthy of it but I have lacked the power in my self to call it out
Ex. A man can smile and smile, and yet be awfully unhappy. That gnawing sense that I mistook my vocation!
Ex. This sense of depression, of gathering oneself together for a pull when one is tom in pieces internally where in the depths have I not been this last fortnight. And yet it is not physical. It has its reason. It is the sense of defect, the littleness of results beside what I have been working for! Oh my God I keep saying it over to myself why not here I suffer so much myself that I have not time to sympathize with the suffering with others
Me. I don't get time to do any reading am falling behind. Where will I be in a few years
Q. Am I a "disappointed man"? What does that mean? defeat in one's main life-purpose? The accomplishment of only a small part of what one sets out to accomplish? Certainly I have defeats enough. How many efforts I have made which only drove me back into the same haven from which I started. How many times I feel "knocked down," struck to the earth. Perhaps "a disappointed man" means one who has not accomplished what he has felt himself capable of. But that would include the failures both of fools as well as geniuses
Q. Remember that remark. You are doing this work because you desire to establish yourself " find a position or sphere of work for your faculties in the world. 'How much does that mean
Q. I try to analyze my motives. I seek to stifle all unworthy suggestions
Rem. If a man is to know and influence the world he must move near the center of the whirl, where the forces are the most concentrated. The sources whence the energies move out which control the events
So much effort is used up in just trying to be like other men, and I know I am not like other men.
Q. It is true of a strong teacher that he is filled to overflowing with one idea. He wants to put it forward. Have I such an idea, or do I just want to be a teacher and find the idea afterward.
Q. It does come to us all at times the feeling. Are they worth it. is it worth the while. Can we do anything. My God! My God ‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑‑
Ref. I suppose the one elemental difference between the successful & the unsuccessful man is that the one always looks for the obstacle in himself. The other in conditions.
Ref. Self sacrifice comes hard. When it does not help the growth of the receiver but merely makes up for his defects at the same time that is not merely giving up a satisfaction to the other but surrendering his own opportunity or means of growth. Then the problem is hard.
E. That awful point of confusing one's cause with one's personal ambition.
Rem. A man may delude himself by giving dignified names to very unworthy feelings.
E. What a ludicrous dream one can build up and see it vanish like a bubble come and gone ‑‑ it leaves no void. only a dream
Ex. I may as well face the truth. My effort has been a
failure. In my work I am a failure. I have now worked four years and have not
established a work. It still hangs by a thread. A cloudy sky or a concert or an
uninteresting subject and they stay at home. I have put all my soul in it and
am burning up inside. My hair is getting grey. I have suffered over it all the
agony which usually men only suffer when they taste the bitterness of grief. I
do not know how to smile, have almost forgotten what it means in
Oh! but a man does feel so shackled!
Res. There is just one thing for me to do. I am so unlike the other men in my work that I can be of no good or consequence to them. I must push out in a new field where they do not reach. I gain influence so slowly that were I am not alone I can do nothing. I am adapted to a certain class of minds and they are not the kind which the other men bring or which the movement in its present spirit would draw. I must work and wait and find my own field. It requires some philosophy to hold the will firm in the face of the kind [of] looking‑down‑from‑the‑height feeling which I receive from the men with whom I feel myself equal. But then it's a small matter. It is not for the esteem of others that I work. But yet I am that human that I would like to do one special piece of work which could distinctively bear the imprint of myself
Ex. It's so pathetic that a man can help the world more with his second‑best than with his first‑best
Ex. Oh this wound in the side. My God! My God! It takes so much energy and so little comes
Ex. After all what it's all worth! a man must say it sometimes. It comes like the tears and brings relief I pull so hard and it won't come
Q. Is it right to dissemble to appear gay or lighthearted when my heart is like lead. No wonder Mrs. G thinks I think the world about right! Yet I can't show the truth. For myself I can see no future I must inevitably retire sooner or later. I have no profession no means of permanent livelihood I cannot have a home. My life is going to be a failure (although for the sake of the cause I am consecrated to, I may not for a moment disclose my feeling). Yet I could stand up against this if I saw the world getting better. But I can't even see that. I work in the spirit of that young Captain of the Salvation Army, but without the buoy and faith
Ex. I feel as tho I were bleeding all over. I ache in my very soul.
R. I'm not working from the heart now, but from the will. It tells
Me. Of showing my consciousness of the size of my audiences
What a curious thing it is my [encountering] a business man and asking him the question "What do you think of the silver question?" me!!
Ref. I am so disappointed in myself. I accomplish so little! And I seem to waste so much time. I get scarcely more than a half dozen hours a day. I don't keep up with the world. My brain does not improve as a self acting instrument. If I go to the country it sleeps. I love to travel, to be on the move, to be in the whirl in order to have the incentive to think. I am not one thing or another.
Good God! I have given my life blood to this thing for five years and I am half dead. I have given my all and yet ‑‑ and yet ‑‑ Well I suppose it must go as it is. I see men with less devotion make more and better friends. I can't make myself understood. Sometimes I even think I am an unselfish man after all. But this trying to please people, be what they want to have me be, trying to go in four directions at once Oh I'm tired I'm tired. Somehow it seems as tho ‑‑. well I can't do anything but go it alone. but I shall tumble ere long and my light go out. But if my work can go on, I shall be at peace. It is a wonder as it is, stranger in the world as I am that I have accomplished anything at all. I had no right to expect it, to expect anything.
If only I could ever catch up People want so much and expect so much If only I could get to the point where people would have faith in me without wondering why I do it this way or that way or the other way. But there's no use It cannot be. Never mind what people may not be to me. What I am to think of is what I can be to them.
Sheldon's guiding aspiration was to make his mark as an Ethical leader. That vocation, which he defined as spurring people to rise above mediocrity, was the path by which he hoped to raise himself above mediocrity. Whatever may have been the actual source of his lingering sense of despair, he interpreted it as the sober recognition that he was failing on both counts. "I suppose there is about as acute misery in this profession of religious teacher as a human could suffer," he wrote in the very first entry in the journal. "It is silent but it is intense. The awful, awful jar which makes the soul ache, ache so much." In many other entries throughout the journal, he explored the hardships and disappointments of his work:
Rem. that the nucleus of the earnest is very small at all times. The Savonarolas must be alone in their cells even while they live in this world. [Girolamo Savonarola, 1452‑98, was an Italian monk, a religious and political reformer who was burned at the stake for heresy.]
Rem. the penalty of isolation attached to my profession. in the very need of being impersonal whereas it may be the duty of men in other professions to regard & allow their course in consideration for the feeling of others, for us it is a duty to disregard such feelings, to take the one path (hence reason for not marrying) see effect of Beecher's political course & his loss of friends [Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and an early contemporary of Sheldon's, was a clergyman and lecturer]
Rem. whereas for the artist (e.g. Professor 1.) policy
being polite, diplomacy would be a duty. for me in my profession it would [be]
a crime [Professor Halsey C. Ives was director of the
Rem. the chief value of our work must be in the new direction in which it leads. the wastes of unitarianism is in adapting to the old. All that is new that we give may live. the old will not live. it is purely for the present. Will the time ever come that men believe in me, not in what I teach but in me as a man
Ex. What wears a man out is that sense of defeat in winning people that will hold. The loss of a man's hold on people is what wears him out. It isn't the work that wears
Ref. How inevitable it is. to accomplish a result one needs to arrange and plan and work desperately hard with a view to twice the results one actually gets and not only that as a stimulus he needs to expect twice the result he will actually get and then keep up his courage when only the I comes.
Ref. What eats into a man is this dread uncertainty of a I or losing hold on people. A man never knows just where his work stands or how near it is to the brink of a precipice
Ex. What a melancholy experience this is, the working down of a man's spirit to adjust himself to the niche he must occupy
Q Ex. [Query and Exclamation] This sense of homelessness since I came into the Ethical Movement a "stranger in a strange land." My life is divided into two labors
2. Would I regret that I ever came to the Ethical Movement if I found there was no place for me there? Do I begin to regret it now? Sometimes I feel as tho I had been entangled in a [sentence unfinished]
Ref. The most melancholy epoch in a man's life is when he is beginning to realize the limitations of his powers. That no effort he can make will lift him above mediocrity. It is the critical period, for it determines whether it will check his ambition. Res. If the hour should come when in the work of my society I did not realize it growing and gaining strength in the community, or when the next year was to go on doing the same work as last year, then let me stop or die, for I shall be dead in soul already.
Ref. When asked how my work goes I have but one answer "splendidly." It ought to be written on my tombstone
Ref. It worries me to think that I never can do any great work. I have discovered my limitations. It comes hard to come down to the connection that I must be one of the rank and file, to do just the work others do or have done. It is not that I would care to have a name. I think it would be just the same if I could do a great work and yet never have it known that it came from me. I should know it. That would be enough. Now comes the struggle to accept mediocrity of result and yet keep up enthusiasm
Ex. It is beginning all over again. I thought it would be different this year. This gnawing sense that I am unable to make myself an essential factor to others, to make them feel they need me. My fourth year I have been here and yet even this year my work begins and even my stipend is not voted Oh but it hurts! hurts! Yet I alone am responsible. I am not strong enough to make them feel me worth it.
Ref. Here it is, the first Sunday with that sense of sick exhaustion. To continue 30 Sundays! What am I to do [?] Ach Golt!
Ex. What worries me more than anything else is the fear lest I be sidetracked, lest my work may be not on the main line of progress. work may be progressing but not on the main line and so not tell on the future.
Ref. The great difficulty in such work is always to keep heart that it is worth the while; that men are worth doing it for. We have to conquer the craving for personal appreciation or gratitude. we never doubt that some are worth it. the hardest part is to feel that mankind is worth it
I have started from the one thought men are careless with their lives, they just exist from day to day. They don't live up to the best in themselves. The finer elements which distinguish us from the brute men let them die. When they are young they lay plans but later on they do not carry them out. They sink back to the unequal level and live to get a living I did want to urge men to be something more. I felt that the existing teaching did not do this. Could not give this spur. I wanted to do it. But how? how? How
Ref. I am dominated by one ambition, to accomplish some specific result, to do some definite, effective work in the world: just to live ‑‑ for that I do not care, unless I can show a product. and the worry, the dread is, lest I may not ‑‑ lest I cannot do it. I am learning so much, my own restrictions and limitations. a man could hurt me more by striking at my work than by striking at me
Ref, The saddest thing about leadership and power is that it develops arrogance, even of religious leaders. he is cordial according to the degree of deference shown to him
Q. I wonder if this work makes a man cold or selfish. I do so hunger for something. But I can't have it I can't have it. My soul is exceeding [sic] sorrowful even unto death
While Sheldon's talents as a scholar, writer and lecturer made him well‑suited to the work of an Ethical leader, founding the St. Louis Society forced him to develop his much weaker administrative skills. Until 1891, when Robert Moore ably began his 30‑year stint as the Society's president, the community's members and lay leaders expected Sheldon to guide its financial affairs and handle many of its organizational tasks. Sheldon accepted the role resentfully:
Rem. that a man who founds a Society is not likely to be able to continue the leader of it because in the necessity of his working to push the practical machine into working operation he is thrown into a light that alters his influence purely as a teacher. R[esolve] Work therefore to build up a Society and then be ready to step out for a successor who can be to the people what the first cannot be by reason of his double functions.
Res. I must bend every energy first for one or two years to building up the Ethical Society in members and finances so that it shall be on an existing basis Then 1 must think of my standing with scholars and the outside world. My existence here will depend on my prestige among that class. My personality is so unlike that of other men that I can not rely on it to sustain me.
Ex. How I dread those Board meetings. If only I could bathe in the ether after coming away from them. That I must not only be the teacher of religion, but have to show them how to raise the money.
Rg. [Regret] If I could only get to the point where I would not be haunted with the consciousness that my work looked as tho it were for the purpose of getting a living. I have to push the Society at the top and also at the bottom and that sort of thing eats into a man. It is not the work that wears a man out, but the nervous chafing that goes on inside of me while doing the work.
The Ethical Society of the late 1800s, like the city at large, was a heterogeneous community marked by conflict between native‑born Americans and recent immigrants. Some of the most vocal and active members of the Society ‑‑ German‑born freethinkers and ethnic Jews ‑‑ tended toward cliquishness, and Sheldon, a New Englander of Protestant upbringing, felt ill‑equipped to cope with the inevitable conflicts that at times seemed to threaten the community's continued existence:
Rem. The three different elements to be met in my Society. (1) the radical German the (2) conservative American and (3) the Hebrew. how to blend them.
Rem. If failure comes, it comes through the fact that in dealing with the diverse elements we may not as in politics or the press use diplomacy.
Ex. Baffled, baffled by this Hebrew question! cramped by it and never can get away from it
Ex. What a turn my life took when I swung away from the old moorings. The old human relations. Now I am a stranger among H's & G's [Hebrews and Germans]
Ref. I begin now with "the wound in the side." Oct 21. Yet let me not own it outside to nobody but the leader. Let me throw all I have into the rest of the year and then stop. Even if I go on it would be idle. Perhaps if I had started two years ago more fully fledged as I am now it would have been different What with my own nervous exhaustion, the Hebrew difficulty, the anti‑radical feeling, the listless indifference of those who are outside of the churches and my own want of personal attractiveness there's exhaustion enough
Sheldon also was perplexed but what he saw as a class conflict in the needs and appeal of the young Society: To survive, it had to attract people wealthy enough to make substantial contributions, but the very people who were most apt to become wealthy were least inclined to join such a community. "The misfortune of our work," he wrote, "is that we make it so expensive that it depends on the membership of the rich and how can we expect many of that class when naturally we appeal to the most refined natures and the art or method of getting rich requires thick skin a rough & tough sensibilities." By Sheldon's reckoning, that conflict did not augur well for the future of the Ethical movement: "How can we expect to get the financial support from the very classes which we propose to find fault with, to expect them to pay us for chiding them for their neglect of their duty [?]" In looking over "the class of the rich" in St. Louis, Sheldon noted that he could identify only about a half‑dozen "refined gentlemen," affluent men who exhibited commitment to ethical ideals; the only Society members he numbered among them ‑‑ "John T.D." and N.O. Nelson ‑‑ were "2 in 1,000." It disturbed him to think that men drawn to the Society at a young age might be dissuaded from ever joining that elite. "I wonder is there danger, in our work of making persons too tender skinned to be able to cope with difficulties to meet [garbled word] in their struggle for a living," he wrote. "We run a risk in discouraging a young man from wanting to be rich." Elsewhere he noted that "the difficulty is to induce a refined nature to have push and self assertion."
Sheldon felt he was particularly lacking in organizational and motivational skills. He was frustrated by his inability to inspire Society members to do more for the community. "Alas it is disheartening," he wrote. "I have been at work three years and yet I have not been able to induce ten persons, no not five, to do steady work for others. There is so much talk about philanthropy but so little done of the actual thing from one man to another." He worried that the Society's reliance on a handful of volunteers rendered its continuance precarious. "How true it is that only a few men constitute the running force of the world," he mused. "Take out certain 10 men out of it would wreck any society it would wreck any church." Further, it seemed to Sheldon that even those who did give generously of themselves tended to concentrate their energies in narrow areas of the community's life. "How alone a man is who is carrying a multitude of aims in mind in each of which separate persons are working," he complained. "Each one thinks his part the chief if not the whole. scarcely one of them enters into the aims and central thought of the leader." Some of the "blunders" he listed indicate that he had trouble marshalling volunteer assignments and activity schedules. Committee work only multiplied his distress: "Me. [Mistake] if only we had had persons, not committees to do the work."
He especially feared that his poor administrative skills would hurt the progress of the Self-Culture Clubs Association. He chided himself for his "lack of determined enterprise in connection with the Reading Rooms" and the "unbusinesslike methods" with which he managed them. "I shrink from going ahead," he once wrote, blaming his ineptitude on "this accursed subjectivity."
Sheldon consistently fell short of his aims as a pastor. He observed, probably correctly, that his preoccupation with his ambitions and his inner turmoil kept him from attending closely to members of the community. "Unlike the true 'minister,"' he wrote, "instead of being full of the troubles of others I am full of thought of my own success or failure." Suppressing his sorrow sometimes required stoical discipline. "Never show tears in the eyes before another unless they are tears of sympathy for another," he resolved. "In oneself for oneself they indicate want of pluck. rem[ember] the instance of the laborer Fenton who came to see me." He complained of his difficulty in paying attention to people in conversation while harassed by concerns about the Society as a whole. Similarly, he worried that his devotion to his scholarly work undercut his effectiveness on a person‑to‑person level. "There is danger lest in doing so much for my work for mankind in general I do little or nothing for individuals in particular," he reminded himself. "What persons have I helped [?]" In an effort to overcome his tendency to "move in worlds not realized," he made resolutions to accomplish specific pastoral tasks, such as calling on Society members who had stopped coming to platform meetings, paying visits to gatherings of women's clubs, and keeping himself posted on the health of ailing members.
Sheldon's difficulty in accepting human nature is evident in several of his reflections on his vocation. "One reason why a man can not do effective work if he is of thorough culture is because the people whom he might help are not of thorough culture and do not want it," he reflected. "They want 'just a little."' He also expressed exasperation with students and discussion club members who wanted him to "do the talking"; he once observed that his "great failure as a teacher is in drawing others out and inducing them to talk so as to interest others."
Although devoted to the ethical education of young people,
Sheldon felt he could neither understand them nor appeal to them. "Why is
it that I do not win children [?]" he asked himself after an upsetting
encounter with children at the
The platform service was the focus of Sheldon's attention. He wrote his addresses with care, combining his extensive knowledge of philosophy, religion, and world literature with anecdotes. "The 0element of success in a lecture," he noted, "is in the proper combination of principle with facts of every day experiences everybody has the experiences. a few know the principles. very few know them properly together."
Never confident of his speaking ability, Sheldon
continually experimented with changes in his style of delivery. Though stung by
criticism, he took to heart the observations of his colleagues: M.M. Mangasarian,
who replaced William Salter in
A low turnout at a platform meeting was a source of grief for Sheldon. "It is those missing faces that wear on a man," he wrote. "He feels so much the limitations of his power." Clearly the fluctuations were real, as he noted several occasions when lay leaders expressed their concerns about attendance, deepening his chagrin. His anxiety was not solely self‑centered, however; he believed that a strong showing at meetings underscored for regular participants that they were part of a vital movement. "I can never succeed because I can never 'fill the gallery,"' he wrote, "and yet that is essential in order even to keep up the courage of the serious." He had yet‑another reason to hope for high attendance: A small gathering of loyal members created an atmosphere of intimacy that unnerved him because it made his formal oratorical style seem inappropriate. "When congregation small," he told himself, "either read or stand behind the desk."
In selecting topics for his addresses, Sheldon took into account his strengths as well as the preferences of his listeners. Recognizing his inclination to speak about literature (his inventory of his first 25 addresses in St. Louis includes talks on Robert Browning, Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter," and Shakespeare's "King Lear"), he made a concerted effort to "give stress to philosophy, so to keep the balance." It was with difficulty that he rounded out his offerings with a third category ‑‑ what he called "the Social Problems"; he often told himself that one of his chief failings was in not sufficiently grasping ‑‑ or speaking out on ‑‑ current issues in the nation and on the global scene. In 1888, the year that Benjamin Harrison claimed an Electoral College victory over the winner of the popular vote, incumbent Grover Cleveland, Sheldon faulted himself for "taking abstract subjects and not themes in connection with what everybody was thinking about, at election time." For Sheldon, to speak on "practical subjects" was to risk exposing his ignorance and offending political sensibilities:
Rem. A democracy makes it impossible for the leaders to be more than a little way ahead of the people just so in politics just so in religion. how can we touch on social questions when even the best of the multitude know so little and feel so intensely about them Yet what is my work worth if I [avoid them] in my speech [?]
As badly as he wanted to win the approbation of the membership, Sheldon came to take their suggestions and complaints regarding platform topics with a grain of salt. For one thing, he discovered that there was "not a single subject in which my congregation as a whole has an interest That is where I am handcuffed." (In deliberating over topic selection, Sheldon once reminded himself of a man who would no longer come to the platform meetings because he "did not want to hear any more about Jesus Christ." The reminder prompted him to exclaim, "alack! alack!") Further, he genuinely feared that letting the membership dictate his choices would lower the caliber of the platform program. "Whatever work is for the multitude and yet is above them and aims to draw them up to it cannot be supported by them for they will not see the value of the higher plane till they get there," he reminded himself. "If a man follows his inclinations he will not walk up hill”.
In a couple of entries, Sheldon admitted a concern that he might run out of original ideas. "Sometimes I worry in fear lest there will be nothing left to say," he wrote, referring to his writing as well as his public speaking. "All the best thots [thoughts] will be said or printed by the others. Well in that case all the better unless the time comes when I shall have thots which are so much a part of myself that others can't say them. I wonder did that anxiety ever worry Emerson?" In one entry, he consciously soothed his fear that the membership would tire of him. "I need never be troubled in my self if people think they now possess all that I have to say," he asserted. "So long as each year I am in my self conscious that I myself can be advanced to higher & higher standpoints. If they do not see it, it may be due either to my want of power in showing it by not knowing how to say it or by their own want of advance."
Next to lecturing, Sheldon held writing to be the most important aspect of his vocation. Though an erudite man whose library numbered some 3,000 volumes, he recognized that he was not a groundbreaker; he saw his mission as making philosophy and religious studies comprehensible and relevant to people of limited education. "In literary work which is not exploration of knlg [knowledge], importance of form of expression," he wrote. "Even tho not have great learning if we can in single sentences say what others feel, or crystalize. their experiences for them we still do a great work. It was the work of Emerson." Again, in expressing his admiration of Emerson and poet‑essayist Matthew Arnold, he reminded himself that "half of the power of the essayist the thinker the reflecting mind as contrasted with the systematic mind of science or philosophy lies in the choice of expression … The keenest observer might not be able to say anything." One entry expresses his sentiments succinctly: "I would rather have been Emerson than Kant." Because he so appreciated the power of a well‑turned phrase, he reminded himself of the importance of jotting down thoughts and sentences as soon as they came to him. "If a thought in reflection comes," he resolved, "catch it in its first expression as it occurs in the mind." While he was no doubt gratified to have several books published by Macmillan and Co., he did not expect them to reach a large audience. That Emerson's books sold poorly during. Sheldon's lifetime, in contrast to popular novels, confirmed for Sheldon that "effrontery & the commonplace do succeed in this country."
One singular entry in the journal, a record of evening engagements, shows how thoroughly is Sheldon's social and professional lives were interwoven:
Record of evenings for a month --
Monday Informal Club 6 ‑ 10. Mercantile 10 ‑ 11. Mr. Nagels 12 ‑ 1
Tuesday Unitarian Club Dinner at Mercantile Club
Wednesday Piano Club. afterwards at Prof Ives
Thursday lecture to
Friday Mr. Taussigs at supper. Lecture afterward [garbled word or name]
Saturday Supper at Nelsons. Then home
Sunday D Carels here. then at Dr. Fischels. 10‑11
Monday Supper here. Reform Club. Afterward Nagels 10‑12:30
Tuesday Planks for supper. P Office. then Civics Club
Wednesday Supper at Meaux Then to meeting at Bringhurst studio
Thursday Supper home. Call on Arnstein. Mercantile Club/ 11 ‑ 12 at Nagels
Friday Campbell at supper. not go out
Saturday Plass for supper. then to Salvation Army. Standard Theatre [garbled word]
Sunday Whole evening at home!!
Monday Supper at Mr. Nelsons. Then home.
Tuesday Supper at home. Call on Mrs. Stone. Art Museum Reception then Fischels 12:30
Wednesday Supper at Learneds. Address to Knights of Labor
Thursday Lecture of Factory girls. Then home.
Friday Supper & evening with
Saturday night on train to
Sunday On train to
Monday Supper at Mr. Taussigs. home rest of evening
Tuesday Civics Club. Then Mrs. Allen's Reception
Wednesday Biography Club ‑‑ Nagel home I a.m.
Thursday Symphony concert
Friday Mr. Nagels to [garbled name]
Saturday Round Table
Sunday Dr. Holland's Church
Sheldon lived on a tight budget, receiving a stipend of
only about $1,200 a year in his first few years in
He second‑guessed his spending decisions, scolding
himself for his "stupidity" in accumulating library fines of up to a
dollar, his "careless waste of money in selection of ill‑fitting
shoes," and his "business blunder of taking this house." Then,
as always, the Big Apple was particularly hard on the pocketbook; he resolved
to "stop running out of money and having to borrow when visiting
I am haunted, haunted by the feeling that in the comforts of the world I have more than my share, or at least that I have more opportunities to get comforts. Tho I doubt whether I use my money with the common sense way of getting comfort or luxury to the amt that most persons get who do not expend one quarter the amt of money. I am squandering privileges (or money, which is the same thing) It may be as much wrong to waste money as to spend it on one's selfish comfort. Think what other strugglers could do with it.
In addition to the "irritating necessity of not being quite sure of making ends meet," Sheldon was perturbed by his inability to be generous with friends and to contribute to worthy causes. "It does worry me very much that I spend so little money for others," he wrote. "My work is for others and I spend it in fitting myself to do my work. But I ought also to share my privileges." On some occasions, however, he had to restrain his tendency to use his personal funds for the work of the Society and the Self‑Culture Clubs. "If I am to make ends meet I must stop throwing money into the Reading Rooms," he resolved. "I subscribed $25 twice, but in the last 12 months they have probably cost me $125.00." He repeatedly resolved to sharply reduce his expenditures so he could set aside money to carry him through a stretch of unemployment or a sharp drop in his stipend, which was set anew each year. Because his income depended on the health of the Society and the generosity of the board of trustees, he considered moving into a home "in the cheap neighborhoods with the working men" so that the hardship of a slashed stipend would not be compounded by the need for a sudden move. "The hour may come at any moment when my income may be reduced 50 or 60% and the sudden necessary change would throw me in bad plight," he warned himself. "I should be where the change would not require any change on the outside. Then too I should have a reserve fund to fall back on. a too sudden relapse is liable to break the spirit."
He had mixed feelings about the nature of his employment. On the one hand, he wanted to be so pure in his devotion to the cause that he would not concern himself with his income level; on the other, he envied professionals in other fields whose income was determined by the market value of their services rather than the uncertain generosity of contributors:
Rem. that remunerations must depend on the amount of work a man can do. I can do scarcely one third what A [Adler] can do. The man can do more, needs more remuneration so as to better equip him for the larger work.
Q. Is my desire that my work shall reach that point where I can have an adequate salary for what I consider my needs an indication of a mercenary spirit? Rem. We who are in the lead in matters of religion must work for the cause only without recognition without remuneration. The recognition & remuneration falls to the "safe men" the men who keep the line up to where the leaders left it but never carry it ahead They are the men who never jump the tracks. They do their work, a good work, and they get their pay So do we only in a different coin
Rg. [Regret] If I could only get to the point where I would not be haunted with the consciousness that my work looked as tho it were for the purpose of getting a living.
Ref. What wears is that sense that people have to beg others to support us. In serving people's personal interests one makes oneself wanted but there's no profession more humiliating than that of a reformer. People have to be begged to support it. It would be such a relief to be actually earning one's living by serving people where they can see that they need [garbled words] that's the way in other professions but in ours we seem to live on charity. It hurts.
Sheldon's loneliness was constant and crushing, at least during the time he kept the journal. He was frightfully ill at ease in social ‑settings, whether formal or informal‑ He was alienated, feeling himself too different from others and "too largely in the subjective life" to form friendships. He expected perfection of others, as he did of himself, and his inability to accept human frailty left him bitterly disappointed. Wounded by criticism and hobbled by envy of highly respected peers, he sought ‑feverishly but unsuccessfully ‑‑ to find an inner tranquility that did not depend on loving relationships. He ultimately renounced the path of celibacy and solitude when, in defiance of all reason and contrary to his longstanding intentions, he fell in love.
As the leader of a religious community, Sheldon felt
obliged to attend the Society's rare social functions, but they were for him
occasions of abashment and dismay. He once resolved to "beware of
receptions" because they "accomplish little and seldom do the right
kind of people come." Assemblies of the American Ethical Union, which
included leaders' meetings as well as dreaded receptions, especially unnerved
him because they tended to deprive him of solitude. "I do not enjoy those
Conventions," he wrote after one. "A man feels himself common after
it is over. no separate private life for his soul … as tho he were on
exhibition." Characteristically, he promised himself that in the future he
would travel to assemblies by himself and stay in private quarters. At one
assembly, probably in 1889, he felt he had committed "an awful blunder … totally
destroyed the weight of my words by speaking too long. It was so awfully
stupid." To help establish the Society's place in the larger community,
Sheldon also accepted invitations to
While acknowledging that his "peculiar ways"
inevitably would be noticed, he sought to fit in, to "be as much like the
rest of the world as I reasonably can without going back on my real self."
At times, however, he resolved to "stop forcing appearance of sociability
which I do not feel"; he once averred that to feign congeniality was to do
"violence to my own nature. shy, a recluse, a natural hermit. I try to put
on a savoir-faire and go into the world. But it does not succeed." In
addition to attending society functions, Sheldon frequently accepted outside
speaking engagements. He noted that in a single year he had spoken before a
committee meeting of the Post-Dispatch Charity Fund and at meetings and
banquets of the Knights of Labor, the Carpenters Council, the Rationalists
Club, the Single Tax League, the Informal Club, the
His journal shows he was as harshly critical of others as he was of himself, and whatever belief he had in the native goodness of people was more theoretical than actual. "After all," he reflected, "the hardest thing is to keep up one's faith in the divine in human nature. I am more impressed by the slow cattle like sluggishness." He recognized that his "want of sympathy for all sides of human nature" put people off, but he found it "so hard to esteem or love men who do not have pluck, who wilt under difficulties and curse the world," and noted that "what wears on the mood is dealing with the 'weaker brethren."' Even those he most respected could not fulfill his superhuman expectations. "I am inspired by people till I know them personally," he observed, "then somehow they dwindle before me." Sooner or later, those he knew best let him down: "It is painful to find a friend human," he wrote, "yet inevitable." Elsewhere he noted wistfully, "We would so like to have some men just perfect! " His disappointment was not unrelieved, however. In examining the distress of "finding people out," he owned that "we like them or we love them just as before. They are stronger in some ways & weaker in others. But they are different from what we thought. It is that difference which is painful."
Further, Sheldon was racked with envy of successful and
well‑loved people, for he felt all the more insignificant by comparison.
"It is not that I am not truly glad at the success of the other," he
wrote in reference to an unidentified colleague, "but it does make one so
weighed down with disappointment over himself." He acknowledged his envy
only in the context of seeking to eradicate it; he asked himself if there was
"no way of conquering these accursed little feelings which play on the
surface of the consciousness when preference is shown to others." He felt
ashamed that he could not "exult" with a man he identified as
"Y" when Y had achieved some sort of social success; he admitted that
he even had "a passing sense of gratification at a possible calamity that
might level things." He was humbled by the recognition of his streak of
malice: "Do all men have these brute feelings," he asked, "or is
it the curse of this subjective life [?]" Another man, identified only by
a dash, engendered distrust "so intense as to make the repulsion almost a
sin"; he accepted the distrust as justified, but resolved to overcome the
feeling which accompanied it. Several times he reminded himself of an experience
he had had in the woods near his boyhood home in Salisbury, Vermont, when
someone he identified as "J" came to tell him that J's father had
been injured; because he was haunted by guilt over his emotional reaction, it
is reasonable to guess that Sheldon felt elation at the possibility that his
friend would lose his father, as Sheldon had in childhood. He once thought of
the incident in the context of exploring his invidiousness: "Q. Does this
depression at another man's success come from jealousy or does it come from
sadness over my own incapacity [?] Rem. the experience in the
One colleague especially aroused Sheldon's envy and anger.
Throughout the journal, Sheldon referred to this man, a public figure whose
popularity he coveted, only as "G."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Sheldon's
dislike of G was instantaneous. Early in the journal, apparently not long after
meeting the man, Sheldon told himself that he should "never hope to have
relations of mutual harmony with G. The inevitable nails in the heel will show
themselves. Silence, silence and patience!" He further reminded himself of
the "inevitable experience when he visits me" and cited a
particularly unpleasant encounter at a reception. He apparently had trouble
following his own advice; he told himself he had committed a "grave
error" by engaging in a "confidential talk with G. at the hotel
supper." While he described G as arrogant, he chided himself for his
antipathy. He sought to counter his ire by reminding himself that "the
work is larger than the man." Nevertheless, it was with difficulty that he
restrained himself from undermining G's stature by venting his anger behind the
man's back. He asked himself if he had been wrong in speaking freely of G to
"Mr. 7 ‑‑ probably James or Joseph Taussig. And in the very
next entry, he asked himself if he was justified "in telling Mr. H
something about G when I know it might shake his faith in him just a little.
was my motive pure [?]" He envied G's earthy manner of public speaking ‑‑
his ability to "play with and use the foibles of men" ‑‑
and he admitted feeling a "sinking at heart" when he learned that G
had been warmly received at a speaking engagement in
At times, Sheldon tried to convince himself that his spontaneous emotions, however base, were morally neutral. He initially told himself he must have been "low down" to have felt such intense anger at "S." ‑‑ possibly William Salter, leader of the Chicago society, or Rabbi Samuel Sale of Temple Shaare Emeth in St. Louis ‑‑ when S told Sheldon he could not accompany him to Europe one summer; "it's bad very bad and I feel mean & ashamed," he wrote of his reaction to the news, "tho it is only a bad feeling. " He also attempted to soften or dilute his bitterness, making it more nearly acceptable. "It is so hard to feel just pity and nothing more for people who show themselves very small," he told himself, "and yet that is all they are worth."
Sheldon was hypersensitive to criticism, especially of his professionalism. He was so distressed by comments about his stilted public speaking style and his "difficulty in coming to a point" in conversation that he jotted them down ‑‑ sometimes repeatedly, as if probing a wound ‑‑ and he once remarked that the face of a critic often "crowds before the mind with some unpleasant remark or experience" as he was working. He complained that "jarring conflict with people" so wore him down that he collapsed "in exhaustion." For Sheldon, the most grievous hardship of being a public figure ‑besides having to attend balls ‑‑ was opening himself to criticism in newspapers in an era when journalists freely expressed their opinions in news stories; one such "attack" on him in the St. Louis Republican haunted him with a "sense of isolation." His sensitivity further drove him to seek refuge in solitude. "If I didn't undertake to live with men," he wrote, "then there would not be the need to be dissatisfied with me." He once assuaged his hurt feelings by reminding himself that "others are not my conscience nor my judge, but they are simply the aids by which I can appear more truly before the inner seat of judgment." In moments of calm, he seemed able to accept his frailty. "Well I suppose I am human too," he reflected. "People get disappointed in me as I in others. They discover in me what gives them pain."
Sheldon hid his feelings assiduously. "How very very seldom it is that I expose my real self to people," he noted. "I talk chaff or I talk business or I talk ephemeral but I never feel aloud. Indeed I am rarely my self save when alone." Perhaps because his severity caused people discomfort, he tried to mask it as a way of muting his self‑consciousness. "I laugh on matters which I feel about the most deeply," he wrote. "It is my way of hiding myself in the crowd." His notes on the observations of others indicate that he often succeeded in appearing sanguine, and he believed that he alone knew the truth about his anguish. "My joking or laughter or light speech is a play or screen behind which I can hide my real & sombre self," he wrote. "A man can smile and smile ‑ and yet be very miserable." The very success of his masquerade sometimes struck him as absurd. "What a curious feeling this is," he noted, "to ache and throb in every nerve of the soul and yet wear a calm exterior ‑‑ the same quiet face through it all." He wryly marveled at the presumptuousness of people who "get used to a man's face and so by & by they think they know his soul too. And yet they have never crossed the threshold." Generally, he felt "glad & fortunate … that my exterior does not give away my feelings." At times, however, he feared that his masquerade might fail, that he was "too introspective to appear strong & firm & calm ‑‑ chafe too much inwardly." He also questioned the moral value of his studied disingenuousness: "I jest about what I feel most deeply in order not my real self be seen [sic] is it wrong [?] Well I am a sober man. My laughter is made up. I can be jocose when in the very depths."
Even with those he liked and respected, he rarely permitted himself to express his feelings. He 'N dearly wanted to confide in colleagues and acquaintances who made friendly overtures, but he forbade himself to give in to the desire, telling himself that a cleric should concern himself with the sorrows of others ‑‑ and should never impose his own on them. While conversing with an inviting friend, he observed, "my brain half reels with emotions that I may not express." When he did reveal his feelings to a friend, he invariably regretted it as a "loss of control" and vowed not to let it happen again. "I told Mr. N. [N.O. Nelson, a lay leader and friend] just how the whole situation was last night," he recalled after one such lapse. "But it was selfish on my part. I am here on the plea of helping others and yet cry for help myself. That is all wrong. Am I really unselfish [?] I begin to doubt." On another occasion his weariness prompted him to let his guard down: "Blunder that I should again have gone to some one when I was tired. I must not must not do it. No matter how solitary I am, [I must] stay by myself." And when once he told someone of his debilitating fatigue, he cursed himself for his "stupidity," demanding of himself, "Why didn't I hold my head up like a man [?]" Similarly, he accused himself of "lalling" (a contemporary colloquialism meaning to babble or whimper like a baby) to John Calvin Learned, the Unitarian pastor of the Church of the Unity, about his "want of success." One unnamed friend was a particular source of exasperation because, while Sheldon wanted "an explicit understanding of a modus vivendi by which we meet just as minds," this man insisted on meeting "both ways" ‑‑ that is, sharing feelings as well as ideas. "How I shrink from [this man]," he wrote, drawing a dash in place of the name. "How I shrink!" Writing in his journal was the only outlet Sheldon permitted himself. "I call this book my confessional," he wrote, "but it has become rather the book I cry into as I can't cry in the presence of others. It takes the place of crying with tears. It is curious I do not remember having a good cry that way for 20 years. But the tears come occasionally." He considered keeping the confessional vital to his well‑being; after not having written in it for five months, he told himself that he "must begin again and go deeper. I shall be in greater danger than ever before."
Sheldon was disturbed and puzzled by his lack of empathy.
He was unfazed by two calamities that occurred in 1889 ‑‑ a
disastrous flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and an outbreak of yellow fever in
Jacksonville, Florida ‑‑ and he wondered if his emotional
detachment was evidence of his "over subjective habit which makes external
things slow to reach my mind." In these instances, he concluded that he
was more sensitive to spiritual ruination than to natural catastrophes:
"It is the slow, long working evils and disasters I feel, not the sudden
shocks. The slow dying of millions affects me more than the sudden death of ten
thousand." In another reflection in which he sought to apprehend
"what is wrong with me that I do not have more sympathy," he ventured
that he had not suffered enough; "I certainly have suffered mentally ‑‑
agony enough there," he owned, "but perhaps not enough
physically." He elsewhere attributed his coolness to the demands of his
work: "There is no sadder experience for me than the fact that my feelings
and attention are so absorbed in the success or defect of my efforts to build
up the Society that no time or space is left to be worried or saddened by the
trials and troubles of others." He felt his inability to empathize was a
prime factor in what he considered a failed career. "If I had the sympathy
of Mr. L [Learned] and the sweetness of life of Mr. S [again, probably Salter
Sheldon was introspective to the point of narcissism ‑‑ and he knew it, if not by that name. "My supreme defect or mistake," he wrote, "[is] that people interest me abstractly and not as persons. So it is that they are interesting to me more when absent than when present. Would it be possible to try the other method [?]" He was committed to perfecting himself, to reaching an ever-higher plane of spiritual refinement, and he wondered at times if his intellectual or moral superiority prevented intimacy: "I see now the secret of my failure I attract [garbled word] because few men interest me. shall a man take the unction to himself that he [is] above others and therefore exceptional, or put it plainly that he is more restricted in his sympathies, narrow, and therefore exceptional [?]" It actually grieved him to recognize his need for friendship; he evidently wanted to reach some sort of nirvana, and he felt that human intercourse held him down in his quest:
Q. What is the reason that when I meet early friends I always feel a certain sense of internal distress, mental distress. Is it because I each year outgrow or grow above the earlier self and the friend treats or deals with me as the earlier self and so compels me to go back on the old level of myself and so I feel pulled back [?] I feel the same attachments to earlier friends but yet for that reason do not find the same pleasure in their company unless the friend appears exclusively from his new level and so gives the incentive to larger friendship again. [Applies] also for my relation to my bro [brother] for that reason advisable in meeting old friends unless they heartily and fully respond to one's new added life better not allude to it at all for it thus gets the new life small in the inner vision.
Q. I begin to think I ought to break away from many of these earlier connections & associations. In the last year I have grown into a new life. now to go out and develop into still newer life where I can work out from my new plane and not constantly be drawn back on my old plane.
Q. Why is it that I have to look to external stimulus (a conversation, a book, a poem, a novel) in order to get into a higher state of inner feeling? Could I by self thinking, by a process of contemplation thro my own imagination, effect the same thing [?]
Q What's a man like myself to do who lives to see the spirit himself yet wants to influence men who live in the world
I flounder so when I come down to earth.
Ex. What an isolation it is! solemn yet terrible. This being ahead of the world or being outside of its general feelings think of all the pain that has been suffered in the process in making the new species whether in the animal or the spiritual world
Ex. I can't get en rapport with people I am never happy save when alone and yet when alone I long for an unknown something It was always so even when I had the faith and the God. At the same time pure humanism does not fill & satisfy. I want something more than human society
[written in margin] a person comes in and I feel myself drop into a new atmosphere I can't keep upon the level where I was when alone
Rem. People seem to have such a way of standing still. I get back to my natural self when I get to the mountains to the undefined & illimitable
Ref. Every time that I meet people to talk with them I seem to myself to come down.
Ref. I am fond of being alone and yet when the end of the day comes I gasp for company
Ex. As soon as I come in the neighborhood of people I know then I feel this appalling sense of loneliness. I want to come near people and yet shrink from it It is as tho I felt myself dwindle in stature when I am with others. Yet the world is a desolately lonely place
Oh the solitude of the pathway
Ref. The trouble with me is my feelings center around ideas not men. I live in myself and there is my failure.
Me. My great defect is that I do not have within myse4(the stimulus for thought. I have to read or travel in order to have my mind aroused to thought. After I have been in one place a certain length of time or in environment my mind stagnates. every winter I need to go to N.Y. every summer to travel. It is a misfortune
Here among my books and thoughts I am myself
Ex. "When I am alone then am I least alone." But this is not the feeling for a man who wants to influence people.
Ref. It is not an ideal condition when in the rare intervals the tears comes [sic] to the eyes that it should never be for others but over one's own disappointment. Even the struggle to help others seems to concentrate a man's attention on himself
Sheldon's yearning for euphoric solitude alternated with a maddeningly unconquerable craving for companionship. "After all I am weak," he admitted. "I can't hold out to be alone. Later in the evening I do so crave company. How I long and long to go and see Mr. N. Well I'm not much of a philosopher." He sometimes wondered, briefly, if his sense of isolation stemmed from his renunciation of Christian faith. "Lord! but life is awfully lonely," he once exclaimed, then asked himself if it would be any different if he still believed in God and could pray. "No I doubt it," he answered. "The want is the want of human relations. I am near to no man." The incessancy of his loneliness is underscored by two lines of a German poem which he entered repeatedly throughout the journal: "Allein! Allein! Ach Gott ein enzig wisen/Um dieses Hampt an seine Brust degen" ["Alone! Alone! Oh God in such a way/this head on your breast to lay"]; one such entry was followed by the words, "Cold ‑‑ cold ‑‑ ice cold." Sheldon's feeling of being odd and unaccepted ("My God how like an outcast on the face of the earth I feel myself to be!") was lifelong. "From earliest boyhood people have always misunderstood me," he wrote. "I have always had to explain myself." In one entry he traced his history of alienation:
Ref. My life is an awfully solitary one ‑‑ I
wonder if it comes because I work for results so far ahead and so never have
much to show. But I win the esteem and trust of so very few persons. The school
boys drew away from me because I was so abnormally conscientious and they did
not know what was going on within. In college I was just a "hard
Weary of "explaining himself" and "trying to be like others," he pined for "just one person who would take me for what I am and think I must be right." He frequently bemoaned his inability to gain people's trust, and hoped to win them over by sheer persistence. "This long waiting," he reminded himself, "is the price I pay for the long time it takes me (owing to my peculiar nature) to make men have confidence in me." He took some comfort in the feeling that he was unappreciated because he was out of his element. "When in the life of the spirit and using his eye of spiritual discernment his [esteem] is very high," he reflected, apparently writing of himself as an archetype, in the third person. "When in the life of the flesh or of the world he is of the inferior grade. Just about the average. So according as he is met in the one or the other sphere is he judged."
Sheldon wrote about failed and obstructed friendships to the near‑exclusion of healthy ones, perhaps in part because of the cathartic nature of his "confessional." In St. Louis, his favorite companions were Learned, the Unitarian minister; Robert Moore, who served as president of the Society through most of Sheldon's tenure but apparently was not on the scene during the time Sheldon kept the journal; and N.O. Nelson, a lay leader he designated as "N" or "Mr. N." At one time he thought of Nelson as "the one friend of my mature years," but he did not feel fully accepted by him. "I am so unlike other people that I somehow cannot receive the same trust as other men receive," he wrote in a typical entry, adding that "even N only half trusts me." He feared a disagreement would rend the friendship. "How I dread the hour when Mr. N. & myself may come to a radical difference of opinion," he wrote. "With him it will mean 'to part company' for with him convictions are the man. Yet I could love him in spite of convictions. For me if it ever comes it will be one of the saddest moments in my life." He evidently saw every relationship as doomed; after voicing fear that his friendship with someone called "K" would fail, he asked, "Can men not be familiar without the inevitable decline [?]"
He often felt that his vocation, his dedication to ethical religion, so consumed him that he could not pledge loyalty to a person. "How this working for a cause hinders the action of the sympathies," he wrote in exploring the decline of one friendship. "I love the man, his joy is my joy, and yet because what would please him would not be well for the cause, or what would be the best thing for his interests would not be best for the cause, I may not encourage or help him. The larger work forbids the sympathies. So it is we are alone for the friend can never be quite satisfied that our love for the cause is not care for our own interests.… On the heights one is alone." Sheldon interpreted that sense of being "alone on the heights" as a kind of "consecration" analogous to priestly celibacy. "Why is it that I fail to make men love me," he once asked himself. "I hardly know of any man who has so few have the feeling of love for him. And yet I love others. How much I think of N. of W. [S. Burns Weston, leader of the Philadelphia Society] of V.N. [unknown] of P [probably Paul F. Coste, treasurer of the board of trustees] of Mr. L. [Learned] Is it because I am cold or because I am 'consecrated' [?] "
He wrangled with his introspection, seeing it alternately as a worthy undertaking and a bar to companionship. On the one hand, he claimed that a man of the spirit "must husband his resources and spend [them] on his own development"; on the other, he reminded himself that "my danger is to excuse myself by the plea of need for my own development." He believed that egocentricity was, in part, an inevitable tendency of aging. "As we mature we become self absorbed in our aims," he observed. "They take our sympathies and we have left less to give to others. in youth with unformed purposes we give our sympathies freely. But the sad part of it is we each see the self absorption in the others and forget that it is also in ourself."
Apart from the few men he deemed intellectual and spiritual
peers, he felt he could interact with people only in very limited ways.
"We cannot have full friends with men of less breadth than ourselves
unless the man be conscious of his lack of breadth," he reflected.
"We can be friends with men on their own sphere but when outside of that
if they do not know their limitations we cannot be at home together." He
scrupulously avoided making friends out of selfish motives. "Remember the
saying of the person in
Q. Are the "men of success" the men of the highest inner moral refinement? Doubtful. So one will have to choose: one can't be both. "Success" where it has to be won can only be achieved by treating other men as tools or instruments & so sacrificing the "man in the man" in them & thus losing respect for the "man in the man" in himself.
Even his relationships with other Ethical leaders, his comrades in the cause, were strained. Adler was for him a father figure whose respect he coveted but feared he would never have. He compared himself unfavorably to Adler, expressing envy of his sagacity, equanimity, and stamina. "I can see the strength of A now," reads one such observation. "It is not in intellect, but in will His heart never sinks. he always appears as tho he felt strong." Likewise, he dreamed of emulating "the masterly way by which A is able to get men to serve him and his purposes and yet to have them feel as though he was doing the favor to them." Sheldon dreaded Adler's visits to St. Louis because the movement's guiding spirit always attracted an exceptionally large audience; he knew an address by Adler would bring out "the ghosts ‑‑ the many faces that used to come but now come no more." He was stung by Adler's criticisms ‑‑ such as his observation that Sheldon was a "creature of nerves" ‑‑ but he fought his inclination to defend himself; he once berated himself because he "did not remain absolutely silent instead of rebelling" when Adler found fault with him. But while Adler's private confrontations were unsettling, Sheldon apparently did not suspect him of backstabbing; he once wrote that "one of the reasons for Adler's success" was that he "never expresses criticism of others." All of the entries that identify Adler by name or initial are essentially positive. However, contrary to form, Sheldon did not identify the subjects of a few of his most spiteful entries. Most of these do not establish the subject's place in his life, nor do adjoining entries offer any definite clues. But the subject of one such entry clearly was an authority figure in whom Sheldon had a considerable emotional investment; if it does refer to Adler, it shows that Sheldon's admiration for "the chief' was mixed with rage:
Ref. How I do loathe that man. He gives me a moral nausea. I dread to look at him to listen to him. And yet I can obey. But it does make a man sick at heart.
Sheldon also questioned his competence vis‑a‑vis his other Ethical colleagues ‑‑ Salter of Chicago, Stanton Coit of London, and Weston, his one true friend among the leaders. He once advised himself to begin from "the standpoint of resignation," to admit that he could "never equal Adler or Coit" because he possessed "neither the tact, the capacity for work nor the diversity of sympathies." In a similar vein, he bemoaned that he had not "the worldly tact of Professor A, nor the personal sweetness of W, nor the objective personality of C." Excepting Weston, he felt his fellow leaders did not hold him in high regard. "It cuts hard this distrust of my mental capacity among colleagues," he lamented. "Intellectually I am their equal (of any [of] them) but I lack the gift of showing it, of figuring before men." He continually fought to squelch his instinctive attempts to win their favor. "Work by myself," he resolved. "Make no effort any longer to impress Salter, Coit or Adler of what I can do. let them find out for themselves. in their presence unless I feel impelled or am addressed remain silent." Similarly, he vowed to "stop letting Salter, Adler & the rest treat me as a youth and an apprentice. It was needful at the start to learn from their experience. Now it defeats that end. Not that I should not feel young, but I should not continue to go for advice as tho I did not know my own mind."
Sheldon and the other leaders customarily gathered each
summer at the Adler‑Goldmark estate in
Sheldon cherished Weston's friendship. He wrote
appreciatively of Weston's gentlemanliness, his "matchless delicacy"
in considering the feelings of others. He referred to him as "the only man
I seem never to weary of." He was deeply saddened when the friendship
fell, at times, to what he called " the bread and butter level," and
he repeatedly asked himself what he might do to "fetch it up." He
observed that what he perceived as coolness in his friend had the marked effect
of "reducing the level of one's inner life." The shared summers in
Curiously, Sheldon explicitly mentioned his mother only once in the journal. That mention ‑"the feeling at my mother's death" ‑‑ is included in "Things which stick in my memory," a list of eight recurring memories noted without embellishment. The first item in the list ‑‑ "the handful of sand when 7 years old" ‑‑ may indicate that he witnessed his father's drowning, or that he was playing in the sand onshore when he learned of it.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
One other passage ‑‑ near the end of the journal but before his first references to his future wife ‑‑ likely expresses Sheldon's need for his mother's love: "Oh if only I could go home and put my head on her shoulders for five minutes just rest it there and rest."
The only other entries he wrote about family regarded his Uncle Charles, from whom he borrowed money, and his unnamed brother, for whom he had little affection. He mentioned "the feelings that come on me when I receive the melancholy letters from my brother," but he never named those feelings. His brother had an illness of some sort, evidently a mental illness which Sheldon referred to as "a disease of the will"; typically, Sheldon noted his "want of deep fraternal sympathy" when he learned of the illness and wondered if "this subjective life" rendered him cold. He did feel a certain pity toward him, however, writing of him as "my poor, poor brother" and reminding himself that he must treat him as a sick man, & sick mind ‑‑ not as a natural man." For years he struggled with the question of how far he would go ‑‑ and how much he would sacrifice ‑‑ to help his brother. "The grand query with me," he wrote, "is in how far I am to let my brother's condition interfere with doing a complete life work. I am not responsible for what he has done. his condition [is] his shortcoming. But on the other hand he is my brother." His brother often reminded him that he ‑‑ Walter ‑‑ was "much better off than him and accused him of duplicity for expressing concern about the poor. "He does not understand," Sheldon told himself "Comfort is a state of mind, not furniture." Sheldon did give his brother money on at least one occasion, but his brother's apparent spitefulness and ingratitude deprived Sheldon of any satisfaction in making the gift:
It is true I have not been generous to my brot[her]'s family in money. Perhaps I have been wrong but I meant to do right. As long as he spent $2,500.00 he could not be poor. altho always like myself in distress for money because we both spend more than our income. and so as it was a question of inclinations, I did not do it because I took no pleasure in it. Gift was taken as a matter of fact way. [sic] it gave none of the pleasure of the real gift. The constant reminder on their part how much better off I was than they were took the pleasure away of mutual sympathy and giving was no pleasure. And so their charges ‑‑ of my selfishness and want of feeling spoiled the relationship. I love my bro ‑‑ but his love for me has been so mixed with fault finding that it makes impossible that cordial intercourse.
Sheldon maintained his detachment to the end. He believed that his brother's death was somehow hastened because he had succumbed to his emotions. "A man with a work cannot allow himself to feel or give way to his feelings," he wrote after the funeral. "He must hold his nerves taut. My experience at my brother's grave! He did allow himself to feel and alas the consequences! " His only other reflection on the death was in the form of quoting two lines of poetry on the ephemeral nature of life: "The colors in the raindrop on the grass/ The wind comes, they are gone!" Sheldon's lack of "cordial intercourse" with his brother's family made for a tense gathering at the funeral. "It's a curious thing a woman's understanding of the world," he wrote, apparently in reference to his brother's wife or another relative. "They wonder why the world does not stop or come to a standstill if a near calamity comes to them. A man involved in numerous responsibilities shakes himself free after a desperate effort goes a thousand miles to offer his sympathy and aid; and then is blamed because he did not arrive a day earlier for the funeral." He noted that the relative thought him "unfeeling" for not dropping everything to travel East as soon as possible. Privately, at least, he defended his behavior. "I can feel," he wrote, "but certainly I do not show it as others show it. I feel in a different way. If only a man could be allowed to be himself."
A well‑educated, professional man of meager means, Sheldon felt alienated from both the working class and the wealthy. He often pondered class distinctions, trying to come to terms with his mixed feelings and conflicting loyalties. Both in his way of life and his professional service, his sense of place in the social order was ambiguous.
As evidenced by his founding of the Wage Earner's Self‑Culture
Clubs, a network of educational programs, Sheldon was committed to raising the
intellectual and cultural awareness of working‑class people. He was
genuinely moved by the plight of laborers. From the window of his home on
He praised the grit and ingenuity of working people and rebelled against the snobbishness of the educated people he moved among. He found it "curious" that the "cultured and refined form a class which does not admit the more rough shod worker in literature, art, religion. But in the next generation or century the work of this former rough shod class is the intellectual nutriment of the new refined class." He cursed "these polished elegant aristocratic followers of religions and teachings or political doctrines which had their origin down at the bottom or among the common people!" Similarly, he found it "depressing always so depressing to see so many people (comfortable people) visiting the tombs of the martyrs (e.g., Savonorola) as one of the 'sights' when these very persons would be the first to begin the persecution if another [garbled word] those martyrs came forward."
In one of his first entries on the subject of class, Sheldon referred to 1888 ‑‑ the year he founded the Self‑Culture program ‑‑ as "the epoch when I met and learned about the working class." He quickly retreated from that assertion, however, bemoaning his difficulty in communicating with people whose experience of life was so different from his own. He fought the temptation to "win the working men by saying things to please them," and he noted with exasperation a colleague's comment that "the working men don't think me sincere because I don't come out!” meaning, perhaps, that he taught them, but he didn't go drinking with them.
In all, Sheldon was able to accept his status as outsider among working people, but he struggled for a way to move and work among the wealthy without sacrificing his integrity. A populist at heart, he derided the attitude of an old‑money family that objected to its daughter's marriage into a family that "had earned its own money," and he found it "curious" that his "two most intimate friends" ‑‑ probably Nelson and Weston ‑‑ came from "the people enamored of the social aristocracy and now marry there." But although he was committed to the cause of the working class and repulsed by elitism, he identified with the culture of the upper class, and he sometimes admitted a longing to fully take part in it. "Tbe saddest thing to me," he wrote, "is that my peculiar position and work shuts me off from the sympathy of the most refined, with whom I feel most akin. An everlasting barrier stands between us."
His ambivalence is illustrated by his feelings about one John T.D., a "perfect gentleman" who, because he exemplified the class in which Sheldon thought he ought to feel at home, deepened his sense of ostracism. "Yet whenever I see him," he continued, "it brings home to me the feeling how much force has to be whittled away in order to make so perfect a gentleman. Such men make splendid figures to run the machinery but not to invent it. Whittle away just a little more and there would not be force enough to run the machinery." His economic philosophy likewise was shot through with contradiction. He held to the principle that social reform must begin with self‑culture, and one of the personal reforms he firmly advocated was to live simply; in his journal, however, he puzzled over the fact that a sharp drop in the demand for luxury goods ‑‑ such as the talking dolls that recently had become popular ‑‑ would put wage earners out of work.
Philosophically, Sheldon's loyalty to the working class predominated. "I must conquer this desire to be one of the 'classes' and must keep firm hold of the fact that I am to be a man of the people," he resolved. "My lot is with them. it is here the classes have the refinement and I hunger for that, but the people have the energy, the will, the future belongs to them. If the choice comes I must choose the people." In practice, however, he continued to move in both worlds as an alien. On the one hand, he chastised himself for trying to fit in with the wealthy, for "spending my full income and more in order to make people believe I belong to their class." On the other, he despaired of being "left or lost exclusively in the lower class I live among." In his work, he worried that Ethical Culture repulsed the very class of people for which it was best suited. "Our movement is on a grade for the cultured and conventional classes and they are just the ones who are afraid of it because it is so explicit and 'pronounced,"' he wrote. He observed that people choose religious associations as much for social status as for philosophical compatibility. "There's no hope of getting people from the upper classes," he reflected, "for you must have 'our set! They will not go just for the thing itself." At times, he voiced fear that the peculiar nature of ethical religion kept it from finding a stronghold in any class: "After all we cannot reach the religious classes. they are afraid. We cannot reach the business men because we are 'theorists.' we cannot reach the workingmen because we are not workingmen."
Sheldon's general discomfort with people became acute in the company of women. While he agonized over the difficulties of establishing friendships with men, women were such foreigners to him that his thoughts of intimacy with them were more in the realm of fantasy than intention. He tried to minimize his constant "blunders" in his dealings with women by adhering to the Victorian code of conduct governing relations between the sexes. "One of the mistakes of my life," he told himself, "is treating women without distinction of sex ‑‑ rem[ember] that [a] woman has to be treated with a kind of respect totally unlike the respect shown in the presence of men either recognize that fact or do not go into women's society."
His feelings about the possibility of getting married were sharply ambivalent. He often wrote of being "consecrated," marked by fate to live a solitary life. "My God! My God!" he exclaimed, "here I am ‑‑ devoted, doomed, manacled as much as tho I had taken the vows or were in prison for life. burning up inside. no way to turn. here I stand I cannot speak what I feel even to the nearest and dearest." Not surprisingly, he had difficulty conceiving of himself as a lover. "How inevitable it is that I shrink from the regular contact with individuals," he wrote. "What a strange person I would be as a married man." When friends suggested that he consider marrying, he dismissed the notion as preposterous. "They don't know what I feel," he told himself. "I can ask no one to share this awful struggle. I will fight it out alone." Further, he constantly worried that he might be fired or that an emotional breakdown would force him out of the profession, and he wanted to remain "in a position, to withdraw if need be with no power pulling me from behind and showing the need of means of subsistence." But believing in the necessity of celibacy did not relieve the pain of isolation. "It is so fortunate that I am not married," he reflected, "and yet so dreary!" Bouts of depression intensified both his relief and his sorrow: "Q. Why is it in all these depressed moods every time it strikes me when I feel myself beaten down, despair coming over me I exclaim how fortunate that I am not married. And yet ‑‑ and yet ‑‑ Oh my God In several entries in the latter part of the journal and a cluster of exceptionally long entries at the very end, he confronted his assumptions about his forced celibacy, wrangled with the seemingly bizarre effects of love and sexual attraction on otherwise sane people, and bewailed his own experience of coming under that strange spell:
Q. Why is it that even in the finest natures to receive unrequited affection gives an element of satisfaction. surely it ought to make them feel only pain in the pain they give by not be [sic] able to reciprocate. Is it because it makes a man or woman conscious that she really has worth to excite that affection [?]
Ref. One man eating out his heart for a woman the woman eating out his [sic] heart for another man. The other man eating out his heart for he knows not what. How things do get mixed up
Ref. The crisis of my life has come. A choice seems to [be] upon me. A man thinks in a vague way he can take the consequences. He doesn't know what it means till it comes. Ideally it is grand to have a purpose so high that this or that in one's circumstances don't signify. But it is more serious when the actual experience comes and we taste the reality, what it means to be one of the souls "who stand alone." I hear the voice plainly enough saying "You can't do it because of your vocation." That fixes your condition You cannot step outside of it. The world which "does what other persons do" has no room for you because you cannot do what others do. That world disapproves of a departure even in politics, it disapproves still more of a departure in social conventions, it disapproves worst of all of a departure in religion. And we must go to the world which welcomes what we want to do. Tho in what we are we may be more at home in the other world the refinement does draw me, the richness of life comes so natural to me. It has what I want but it does not want me, that is, it does not want my work. And yet it is just this work which has refined me. But I must accept the Inevitable. All the soul I have is in the work. I am this or nothing. A man can give up a joy which is only a thought. That is one kind of resignation. But it means something else to give up what he begins to understand by actual feeling what his whole being wakes up to the existence of and craves ‑‑ that comes hard.
Ref. Well this is a curious experience it sets at defiance every theory of self dependence. Suddenly almost without reason a man loses control of his mind can't work connectedly can't stay quietly by himself, is [garbled word] & consuming from [desire] to be with another just to get to that other's presence! can't think of anything else, sees that face all the time coming between the book and himself, in defiance of reason with no special occasion to bring it about, no particular community of sympathy, remotely separate in tastes, life interests & convictions, just mastered by a force, or voice, or face or motion or personality. It isn't pleasure it is pain. The unaccountable restlessness and longing. And still it is almost purely psychical, save in the wish to be with the other. It may be sufficient if the person is in the room tho there be hundreds of others. The Consciousness is there. A region is desolate if the person is gone. It can't be reasoned away. Reasons have no effect. No wonder it has played a great role in history
Ref. Think a moment. I know one man who would rather die than go thro another such year. in love with a woman who has said yes and then said no and is in agony because she cannot say yes I know another woman eating out her heart for years for a man and another man eating out his heart for her in vain. I know a third woman loving another for fifteen years never giving up hope desperate even to the grave. I know a man caring for another woman he can never have. And now I see a father's heart breaking as he sees his child slipping from him to go forever. How can a mortal ever be happy?
Ref. What a curious feeling the intense overpowering desire to be with a certain person, so that one would be willing to circle the globe only to be with that person for half an hour! It seems to have no reason
Ex. My God My God what can I do what can I do all thy waves have gone over me now. For the first time actually I have tasted the poignancy of suffering. I know now what others feel. I never knew before. Just think! to lean my head up against the window and to cry like a child In a few short months to have one person take precedence over every other and to shake me all over with a feeling like this
With those words, Sheldon closed the book. On
1 have an awful confession to make. I feel as tho I had
done something unpredictable, wicked and I don't know what else. But during the
last few months I have actually found a woman who is willing to take the awful
risk of venturing to have her life [garbled word] tied to mine. I am scared in
my very soul at the responsibility. I suppose the women of
It is evident from what Sheldon reveals about his "nervous condition" that he was chronically depressed, and possibly manic‑depressive. He was never inspired to write when overcome with elation, but entries he wrote in the dark, agonizing depressions that followed indicate that his. "high" periods were brief, intense, and precarious. Apart from those highs, he generally felt fatigued and despondent. Unable to find effective medical treatment, he tried to ameliorate his condition by changing his personal habits, bracing himself with stoical declarations, and reminding himself that his pain goaded him to do his best. Depression hit Sheldon in waves. It came on suddenly, "just like a return of a pain in the body," and grew stronger by the day; as wave upon wave laid him down, it seemed to Sheldon that that it took him longer and longer "to pull out of it." He tried to override his depressions, telling himself to straighten up, to stop appearing before others "in neglige mood" or "in unstrung state of mind." Though compelled to attend closely to his inner life, he was unsure if his introspection was a help or a hindrance. "Is it selfishness this falling in on oneself," he asked, "or is it necessary in order to retain steadiness of purpose and strength [?]" The syndrome was so familiar to him that he did not specify the symptoms ‑he simply bewailed its return. The journal is pervaded with exclamations of grief‑
Res. Take care about these hours of physical exhaustion in allowing the moments of depression. remember that it is the physical exhaustion which is the cause. go out. go somewhere. remember that the melancholy can prey like a disease and become a disease. it eats out the strength of the will.
Q. What does this mean, this curious silent inner laughter at myself Last year the tears came to my eyes. This year there is as much cause and the sinking of the heart even heavier yet the eyes are dry
Ref. It is at the moment when I seem nearest defeat that I pull up and do my best work. It seems to require that sense of intense depression to goad me to find the new steps. The nightmare from which I shall never recover are [sic] the B‑ Me s. ["Me s." denotes "mistakes"; "B‑" may be a kind of expletive deleted, such as "bloody."] how it does dig into me. it comes on me with a sense of weariness and prostration similar to that after a long mountain climb and I want to fall back & bathe in the infinite & rest there
"Pain! Pain! Err! forever!" Prometheus
Ref. I wish that I could escape that state of feeling as tho I had lost care for much of anything. Remember that it is often due to physical depression.
Ref. Strange it is. we after all make our own bed of pain.
I have enough money. I could retire to the country. live content and
comfortable in mind. I would not be miserable. Yet here my life is steady
inward mental suffering always pain. I could give it up. No outward force would
cause me fear no anxiety about penalties of judgment. What others would say
would not trouble me. I am driven on just by my own inward impulsion. The mere
shrinking from sinking back, of vegetating The sense that I owe myself to this
work ‑‑just naked duty. Is not this the secret of all mental pain.
Every man could just live. but he wants more than just to live, and then comes
the agony. When I find that I go to sleep readily at night that worries me and
I fear that I am slipping back. The thoughts come, the deep feelings, only in
these times of intense inward commotion. They tell me I do not like
Rem. And still it is true it requires the goad to make us do our best
Ref. How true it is that a mere thought, a possibility, which has no ground for it may yet worry the mind like a sliver in the finger
Ex. Tired of thinking: I used to be given to dreaming. Now I can hardly ever do it for a moment save now & then a little of one dream. [presumably, a reference to the dream of living in the country]
Ref. unhappy me, unhappy me! Surely it is no sin to say it here! I will fight the fight bravely.
Ex. This sense of depression, of gathering oneself together for a pull when one is tom in pieces internally where in the depths have I not been this last fortnight. And yet it is not physical. It has its reason. It is the sense of defect, the littleness of results beside what I have been working for! Oh my God I keep saying it over to myself why not here I suffer so much myself that I have not time to sympathize with the suffering with others
Ref. I suppose a man can shed tears internally just as he can bleed internally
Ex. My God! My God! it is beginning over again
Ex. Sick in mind. Sick at heart!
Ex. The worst difficulty is that I cannot laugh. It is not that I lack the feeling of intensity. But the world is too awfully behind on the road I cannot get over the fact
I know the trouble is in myself But where? where? If I could only locate it only only mend it
Ex. I feel as tho I were bleeding all over. I ache in my very soul.
Ref. It would be so pleasant to have all the rest of the world happy because one might allow himself the luxury of feeling wretched himself without thinking that it must be selfish to feel so
Ex. I am so dissatisfied with myself, so disappointed with myself
Rem. A part of this depression comes from physical exhaustion not enough nerve force to hold up against it It is curious what silent man this profession makes one and the silence makes the life intense. It wears on the soul If I speak I say it wrong
Ref. Oh I'm so sick at heart, so sick so sick. And yet not of love nor grief This has been a time of acute misery I am so tired of wearing an even face. Not one mortal in the city knows what I have been feeling. And yet I must keep on hang on. But Oh if only I could get away somewhere anywhere, just creep into a hole and be there and rest. What it does mean that awful sense of defeat. powerlessness. it is more crushing than grief for it leaves not even the self to lean upon. Oh my God my God!
Ref. Well the week is over again. Oh how I shiver! it is cold so awfully cold what a lot of lead can settle in on a man's being and weigh him down and then again I am burning up
Ex. Just think when will it stop. Each Sunday begins the agony over again Oh those missing faces. I'm tired and sick. This wearing a smile in the face of failure comes hard. But it is all right.
Ex. It does take will and grit and belief to move on this way knowing what one knows but giving no sign that one does know. Through distrust or trust through criticism or sympathy to move on straight ahead Oh God I'm tired
Ex. When I give way it will come with a snap.
Ref. Back again comes the pain. just like a return of a pain in the body
Sheldon's depressions often included bouts of extreme agitation, a "restlessness" characterized by roiling emotions and confused thoughts. "How I bum inside of me!" he exclaimed. "Up in the brain and down in the heart! There is a meaning in the old figure a ‘consuming fire."' When Adler wrote to Salter that Sheldon was a "walking volcano" who "must be permitted from time to time to emit fire and smoke," he revealed that Sheldon was not wholly successful in suppressing his turmoil:
N. Alas how I am torn and tossed by this inward conflagration The man of the world and the man of the spirit. Who would guess that while I am talking calmly I am in that state of tension that I want to stamp on the floor. The cold sombre face of the scholar and thinker but all on fire within. I may be talking intently on one subject and yet being agitated and up heaved by a second wave of thought going on inside.
Sheldon reported moments when his depression lifted when he felt contented, confident, and vital. Those moments were rare, short‑lived, and draining. "What hinders me so is that I am nervously in time, on my height, only for a limited time," he lamented. "Then I feel like a dried sponge." While he usually saw himself as hopelessly ineffectual, times of elation gave him a sense of greater capacities. "A little more worldliness," he wrote, "a little more savoir-faire and what mountains I could move!" He found that he sometimes could precipitate such moments by reading edifying books or listening to music, but he regretted the need for such influences. "I am so disappointed with myself," he wrote. "I so seldom get on the heights and can stay there only for so short time. Even then I require a stimulus to draw me up there. My own mind does not furnish the power." Several times he noted that he had dispelled a moment of lightness out of guilt. "Curious," began one such entry. "For a moment I felt as tho things were going to go all right. I felt a surcease of worry. I was contented and happy and then suddenly it was as tho I was a little sorry I did not have something to be anxious about. I felt ashamed to be content." Sheldon's energy and drive ‑‑ what he called "nerve force" ‑‑ was forever sapped by "nervous strain." He apparently lived in an almost constant state of fatigue. "The secret of my failure is want of surplus vitality," he wrote. "My strength gives out so soon. if I walk I cannot read. An extra exertion drains every drop of vitality. As limp as a wet rag." He complained of sleepless nights, and sought to find the cause in his diet or other personal habits. He wrote of being worn out from the "up and down movement" of his emotions and from "always working for twice the result I accomplish." Because of his weariness, he often had trouble concentrating on his reading or paying attention to conversation; again and again, he berated himself for teaching classes or leading discussion groups in a state of exhaustion. He exerted a tremendous force of will to push on through. "God, God, God I am so tired and discourage [sic]," he wrote in one of many such passages. "Yet say nothing, say nothing ‑‑ work ahead! But oh the weariness of it!" Sundays were especially draining. "It does not seem as tho I could stand another year of this nervous strain," he once exclaimed. "Each Sunday seems to take a month out of my life."
Mindful of his tendency to pack his schedule, working for
weeks at a time without a day off, he frequently made conscious efforts to
minimize and accommodate his fatigue. Believing himself to be 1'extremely
limited in the am't of steady work" he could do, he reminded himself that
when he foresaw a need to be fresh in the evening he would have to remain idle
in the afternoon, and that when he needed to be fresh in the forenoon he would
have to restrict his work the previous evening. Similarly, he observed that
"for every extra strain, be it a
Me. Am worried at the decline of ambition stealing on me. Is it in the atmosphere? A man is not induced to do his best when his next‑best will do as well. but the danger is to myself. I shall shrink to the level of my next best. That is the danger. Am not thin and pale enough at this season. It shows that I am weakening not straining enough. I look too well
One of the ways in which Sheldon sought to accept his "nervous condition" was to correlate its oscillations with the seasons or the weather, taking comfort in the inevitable passage of both. Always fearful of a poor showing at the platform service, he felt utterly desolate when rain clouds rolled in. "On rainy Sundays I enter into the depths," he wrote. "I feel as tho in the Book of Infinite Wisdom, the Allmighty [sic] had written me down a fool." He reflected that "ministers must be glad indeed that in heaven at least there can can [sic] be no 'rainy Sunday' ‑‑ when a stormy Sunday comes I feel as tho I had been knocked over by a block of wood." To guard against that incapacitating effect, he several times resolved to "absolutely never read the weather bulletin." Upholding that resolution in the face of a near obsession required "a regular struggle at the end of the week." While weather forecasts were merely hazardous, the calendar year was a veritable landmine. Several times he referred to January as a time of such heavy exhaustion that "even quantity of sleep does not restore me." But he struggled through "the inevitable state of exhaustion about the middle of the winter" only to face "the invariable letting down of strength and courage as Spring approaches." The Christian holidays were an annual nadir. "My Christmas season of despair is coming on," he observed one year. "Tis a long number of years since I passed a joyous Christmas season." He counted on the summer to provide at least a few "odd moments" of lightheartedness, but he actually felt more himself in the harshness of winter. "In winter," he wrote, "I think I live for the summer and count the days till then ‑‑ In summer, I chafe and long for the harness and think I live for the winter." When he did allow himself to shrug off the anxieties of the Ethical season, he felt guilty about it:
R. Curious the contrast. In the summer when I get away by myself I scarcely understand the positive agony of the last season. None of those terrific days of mental pain come over me. I seem just quiet. I was even asked the other day whether I ever was serious. In the winter I ask myself could I ever be anything else but serious. But it seems selfish This momentary lull I am not feeling the world's misery enough.
Sheldon believed that living in
He bemoaned "the blighting effect of
Acting on the hypothesis that his "mistakes & lapses" stemmed from his "irregularity of life all round," Sheldon worked to moderate or eliminate personal habits that contributed to his ill health. He tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to keep to a diet of gluten bread and coffee for breakfast, gluten bread and tea for supper, and one full meal per day. He blamed a variety of late‑night excesses for his poor sleep: Too much hearty food ("Should just eat crackers"), too much cognac, too much English breakfast tea. Though his notations on daily expenses indicate he was fond of cigars, he was wary of their effects. "Rem. [ember] that when I smoke a cigar one day," he noted, "I am quite sure to lose the most of the next day in reaction." Likewise he wondered if a diminishment of his marksmanship indicated that he was "losing my steadiness of nerve thro too much coffee & tobacco." To compensate for his insomnia, Sheldon tended to sleep late when sleep did come ‑‑ and when his schedule allowed. But recognizing that his irregular hours put him out of synch with his colleagues, he instructed himself several times to rise early (like an acquaintance, one Mr. Fusz, who rose at 6 a.m. regardless of when he retired) and begin the day by reciting a poem or taking a walk.
He also tried to cultivate habits that would sharpen his critical judgment ("Res. Put to myself problems for solution or books to criticize when on a walk"), increase his efficiency ("Rem. the immense loss of time through not doing up things at once when downtown"), or help him maintain his vigilance in the face of potential opposition ("Res. Carry Mr. Ts letter in my pocket as a warning for the future of the thorns in the pathway"). Recognizing the effect of his environment on his state of mind, he once resolved to add a decorative article to his home each fall ‑‑ something in the range of $22 to $50 ("This year it was The Dog"). And in his quest for orderliness, he kept lists of various kinds ‑‑ a roster of people he was likely to encounter, inventories of his addresses and the many books in his collection, and summaries of travel highlights (when in London he stayed at Charing Cross Hotel, and on trips to New York he visited the Statue of Liberty and took in a Broadway production of "As You Like It" that featured Julia Marlowe).
One cluster of entries indicates that Sheldon sought medical treatment for his disorder, but that he found the experience humiliating and exasperating. "How his visits make me quiver," he wrote. "No feeling of sympathy, no helping hand, no 'rejoicing with me when I rejoiced' no 'weeping with me when I weep’ just looks me over, feels my pulse, sets me down.… God I feel as tho I had been handled over like a piece of goods or used as a foot mat." Whatever advice the physician offered, Sheldon dismissed it as perfunctory: "It is like tapping a vein, taking a bowl of blood flow, then telling a man to go ahead just as before." His relationship with the man was "like an iceberg ‑‑ no community of feeling no reciprocity."
In the absence of sound therapy, Sheldon was left to cope with his illness through self-examination and determination. The mysteriousness of the condition frustrated him. "I know the trouble is in myself," he wrote, "but where? where? If I could only locate it only only mend it [sic]." Had he had access to competent medical or psychological treatment, he might have uncovered the source of his anguish and had an opportunity to heal. Psychoanalyst Paul DeWald, former director of the Psychoanalytic Institute of St. Louis and a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, analyzed Sheldon's disorder from the information available in the journal; though a century too late to help Sheldon, the diagnosis underscores the intensity of the battle he fought:
"That Sheldon suffered from such a disorder can hardly be seen as a diminishment of his character. On the contrary, his greatness lay in serving the Society ‑‑ through "naked duty" ‑‑ in spite of it. Though ever tempted to give up his post and find refuge in a quiet country cottage, he persevered, writing, teaching, lecturing, and administering a nascent religious community that would thrive like no other of its kind. He deemed his achievements paltry, but time has proved him wrong.
Before the publication of this book, Walter L. Sheldon was to members of the Ethical Society little more than a portrait hanging in a side gallery at the meeting house. His books and addresses had not been in circulation for generations, and only a few members of scholarly bent had even been aware that the journal was extant. Consequently, these revelations about his suffering, his personality, and his foibles will not demolish a cherished icon. Instead, it is hoped that they will bring to life a man who served his ideals in the face of unrelenting sorrow."
In addition to providing a penetrating look at Sheldon's
inner life, the journal shows how this reflective man wove his life philosophy
from the threads of his experience. Though he forbade himself to publicly speak
or write of his suffering, he freely used the knowledge he gained in his
struggle to forge and promulgate ethical religion. From his feeling that, like
it or not, he was consecrated to the service of Ethical Culture came this
reflection: "[T]here is fixed in our consciousness a feeling that we are
to stay in a certain niche and do a certain work. It may be irksome, and we may
not like it. If it were wholly a choice for our own sakes, we should not stay
there. But it is because of this something outside of ourselves to which we
belong, that duty exacts it of us in spite of ourselves." ("Duty ‑‑
to One Who Makes a Religion of It," from An Ethical Movement, W.L.
Sheldon, Macmillan and Co.,
During Sheldon's life and for several decades afterward,
his writings were cherished by members of the Society. He prepared his
addresses with such fastidiousness that they could be published with little
revision. Scores of unpublished drafts of his lectures remain in the archives
Sheldon was more an orator and essayist than scholar.
Nevertheless, he made a few well received contributions to the intelligentsia
of his day. In January 1903, he presented an oral overview of recent ethical
philosophy before the
One of Sheldon's most far‑reaching contributions to
the intellectual community was his chairmanship of the Social Science Section
of the Congress of Arts and Sciences at the
Perhaps Sheldon's most fervent intellectual undertaking was the "redemption" of the Bible for the edification of believers and unbelievers alike. He saw in the Bible an unparalleled collection of histories, ethical studies, and literary masterpieces, and he grieved at the decline of its usage because of the bias against supernaturalism among free thinkers. Drawing upon the 19th century's radical scholarly approach to the Bible ‑‑ then termed the "Higher Criticism" ‑‑ he sought to counterpoise the prevalent "believe it or leave it" attitude toward the Bible with a level‑headed, unintimidated appreciation of Western civilization's most influential book. Characteristically, he scrupulously avoided challenging anyone's beliefs in scriptural theology or divine revelation; he found in the historical method a way to make the Bible accessible and valuable for every open‑minded reader:
There is a splendid freedom for the mind in the ethical attitude ‑‑ according to which our one purpose is to find light on the pathway of the true life and to learn how to lead the best life possible. No anxiety need concern us as to where our light comes from on this score, so long as we know that the light is genuine. I feel no hesitation in talking enthusiastically over the literature of the Bible and the light which I find there ‑‑ all the more for the reason that I feel no constraint as if I must find the light there, whether it is there or not.
No authority requires it of me that I should place this literature higher in importance than the literature of other religions or other races. I turn to its pages as I would turn to the pages of the literature of the Stoics, or the Buddhists, or to Plato. (The Story of the Bible from the Standpoint of Modern Scholarship, Ethical Society of St. Louis, 1916, p. 170)
In the late 1890s Sheldon delivered a series of nine
lectures that presented, in popular form, the latest findings in Biblical
scholarship. He was aware ‑‑ and unabashedly proud ‑‑
that the Ethical Society took the lead in publicizing this nascent science in
In the early lectures, Sheldon laid out the methodology and some of the principle findings of biblical scholars. His listeners learned that the Bible is not a cohesive book but rather a compendium of an ancient culture's most significant literary works; they learned that the books of the Bible are arranged so as to maximize their impact, not in the order in which they were written; they learned that most of the books are themselves amalgams of disparate documents sewn together and embellished by successive writers. They also learned that the strict science of chronicling history is a relatively late development in Western civilization; apocryphal story‑telling was ‑‑ to the writers of the Old Testament, at least ‑‑ an effective mode of edification that bore no taint of dishonesty.
In later lectures, Sheldon recounted the social and
intellectual development of the Jewish culture by interpreting excerpts from
the Bible and non‑canonical works of the same era. He detailed the slow
transition of the Jews from primitive polytheism to a belief in a preeminent
God among gods to a clearly defined monotheism. With cool candor, he showed how
folk Judaism apparently adopted beliefs in immortality, divine judgment, and
heaven and hell from the Zoroastrian religion of Persia in the centuries before
Jesus, and he showed how Paul and the author of the Gospel of John recast the
teachings of Jesus by drawing upon contemporary Greek philosophy. He put Old
Testament prophecy in its place by examining some of the linguistic
machinations by which New Testament writers claimed the coming of a spiritual
messiah had been foretold for centuries. And drawing upon the historical and
sociological training he had received in
Sheldon's principal delight in biblical literature ‑‑ and, for that matter, in all theological writings lay in its exposition of the sociological development of ethics:
I may as well own first as last that beliefs about God have a fascination for me. I like to meet with them in poetry, in the Bible, in the early classical literature; and whenever I come upon those beliefs my attention is held at once. In fact, I can never let the subject alone. I like it and want to study it, and I find it more and more interesting as the years go on. It continues to draw me, to move me, to inspire me. What makes the study of the beliefs about God so interesting is just this: By means of those beliefs we are able to trace the steps of growth of the moral sense. That is the secret of my enthusiasm for the study of theology. (Ibid., p. 88)
Sheldon drew correlations between the evolving God‑concepts and ethical precepts of the ancient Jews. He saw in their primitive depiction of a vengeful God a personification of an embattled tribe's defensiveness and hegemonic drive. He found in the Song of Deborah the gratitude of ruthless warriors toward a God of cruelty, and he noted how that God‑image was later ousted by the stern God of justice ‑the God who taught Jonah a lesson in racial tolerance, and who sent Nathan to chasten David for his inhumanity. The Old Testament depiction of God, he taught, reached its zenith in the psalmists' vision of a God of tenderness and mercy, a God who was pleased not by burnt offerings but by family loyalty, tribal peace, and acts of compassion. Like Adler, Sheldon exalted Jesus as the greatest revolutionary in the history of ethics. Condemning the formalism, pretense, and hypocrisy of the pharisees, the most legalistic of the prevailing Jewish sects, Jesus taught his followers to "clean the inside of the cup," to cultivate a charitable disposition. Sheldon noted that Jesus, by redefining the essence of the "good life," reinvigorated a people in despair; he proffered both a reason to live and a way to live:
In turning over the pages of this New Testament as the closing portions of the Bible, you feel that the emphasis of the teaching of the New Prophet lay in one supreme direction. It was to call the attention of the human race to the value of the spiritual side of life and to make man feel that the spiritual life as such was the one life worth living. It is this which has made the gospel of Jesus essentially the gospel of the poor, because the import of its teaching is to point to the value of the inside things. When you say in your despair, if you are hungry or houseless, or homeless, if you have lost all you ever had, are penniless and without work ‑‑ when you say, "I have nothing, absolutely nothing, it is all gone," then this teaching of Jesus, the New Prophet, gives you reply. The answer comes: "Stand up; you have got your soul, and it is worth more than all the possessions you have lost, or all that wealth you dreamed of and never got."… And with that doctrine of the soul in man, went the beautiful, sublime humanitarianism of the New Prophet. (Ibid., p. 168)
Again, Sheldon rendered no judgment on the validity of belief in Jesus' salvific death and resurrection. By noting the scholarly opinion that no New Testament writer knew Jesus firsthand, and by elucidating the archaic standards of that era’s "historians," he subtly cast doubt on such a belief, but he made no frontal attack on Christian doctrine. Instead, he sought to shift the attention of his listeners from theology to ethics:
The number who believe in the mystical significance of the death of Jesus, could perhaps be counted by the hundreds of millions of the people today. But the number who undertake to live out fully and completely the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, could be counted in the hundreds with the millions left off. And if Christianity survives as a world religion, it will be owing to these hundreds, rather than to the hundreds of millions. (Story of the Bible, Page 16 1)
By his own admission, Sheldon brought little original thought to his work in biblical criticism and speculative philosophy. As his sense of ministry developed, his desire to break new ground in modern thought gave way to his evangelical mission. Hornback, in his critical assessment of Sheldon, noted that his predecessor minimized philosophical clarity in favor of heartfelt ideals:
As a philosopher, Sheldon was clearly a popularizer and an eclectic, despite his ability to rise on occasion to competent scholarship and criticism. His sources were … varied . . ., and many which he accepted with apparent enthusiasm were mutually exclusive. His sanctions were deeply felt rather than closely reasoned .…
The guilt or disappointment he felt over the loss of a boyhood Christian faith could be satisfied with nothing less than a heroic demonstration of goodness and love for man, and the repeated assertion that such goodness and love justified his existence. (Hornback, p. 227‑8)
Nathaniel Schmidt, a Cornell professor and an influential writer and speaker in the Ethical movement, believed his colleague's preference for insight over scholarly sophistication served well the needs of the Ethical Society. In an introductory note to the third edition of "The Story of the Bible," Schmidt praised Sheldon's approach to adult education:
Mr. Sheldon had a rare capacity for making things plain.
As lecturer of the Ethical Society of St. Louis for more than twenty years, he
covered an astonishingly wide range of topics. But whether he dealt with the
Bible or Dante, with Aristotle or Spencer, he always knew how to extract the
meat and to give, in a simple and effective manner, what he felt that men were
most in need of. He had little taste for subtle distinctions, minutiae of
criticism, chronological details, or elaborated elegancies of style. He saw
things in the large and took his hearers to the heart of every subject he
treated. Everywhere he searched for the moral value; and when he found it, he
set it forth interestingly and impressively. ("The Story of the
Bible," Ethical Society of
In addition to the edification of adults, Sheldon took an active interest in the moral education of children. He started the Sunday School in the Society's first year of existence. For several years, he conducted the children's classes himself. In time, volunteer teachers were recruited from the membership, but he always supervised the school's curriculum and pedagogy.
Like his mentor in the East, Sheldon was not content to focus all his attention on the welfare of Ethical Society members. From the start, he encouraged the fellowship to take part in philanthropic enterprises. The most influential social program he launched was the Self Culture Halls Association. Begun in 1888, this experiment in "educational philanthropy" gave working‑class St. Louisans an opportunity to expand their intellectual horizons through book loans, lectures, debating clubs, and classes in home economics. In the first decade of the century, Sheldon also initiated the Philosophical Club and the Colored People's Self‑Improvement Association. These programs will be detailed in a later chapter. For now, it is worth noting that Sheldon overrode his shy, bookish nature to promote the educational opportunities offered by the society; with the boldness of a cultist, he approached strangers on the street and workers returning from lunch break:
In a word, it has meant work, hard work, indeed, the hardest kind of work, for a long while to bring home to the artisan class the value of the facilities we were offering to them.… We tried every method one could think of. I have gone out in an evening to the street corners, and seeing a band of young fellows standing chatting or chaffing with each other, have stepped up to them like an old friend, talked to them like a Salvation Army captain, asking them to come in to an illustrated lecture. As a rule, they are not disagreeable, and may answer, "Oh, Yes, we'll come." You go back to headquarters, and in three cases out of four they never materialize. But here and there one does make his appearance. You begin to get used to averages in all such undertakings.
We worked through individuals whom we knew in special factories; possibly a foreman who believed in our cause, or some exceptional artisan who appreciated it, and would do his best to bring his comrades there. Gradually we got the respect of the superintendent or the office force of large manufacturing establishments. When this was accomplished, a great gain had been made. They have allowed us to go into the factories at noontime and distribute our circulars. Once and again at such times we have mounted a box or a barrel like a stump‑speaker, with an assembled throng of working girls or working men around us, just from their lunch, and talked to them for five or ten minutes about our work, the value of self‑culture, urging them to come to our lectures, distributing our programs in their midst …
[W]e have kept at it year after year, trying all these methods; going perhaps to meetings of trade unions, getting the privilege of addressing them and telling them of our work; or distributing our programs at the doors of factories when the throng of men and women are coming out at evening time. They may take us for Salvation Army officers, and think that we are distributing tracts. We go on the principle that this is another kind of Salvation Army. I feel no hesitation in going after people in this way, following them even to their homes, catching them wherever possible, and persuading them, if I can, to come and avail themselves of these privileges for self‑improvement. ("The Wage Earners' Self‑Culture Clubs of St. Louis: A Sketch of their History," ethical addresses, March and April 1900)
True to his principle of devoting oneself to a worthy end,
Sheldon spent himself in his writing, lecturing, and organizational efforts.
His death at the age of 48 probably was hastened by his untreated anxiety
disorder. He died on
It means, most of all, to be willing to work for an outcome that he will never see, to be willing to walk blindfolded all his days, to work for the visions within, and to go down in death while the work is not yet done, while the battle is going on, while not one gleam has come to him of the fruits of his labors.
There can be no banquets for those who are working for the big causes, no toasts to be drunk there, no assemblages of the workers to rejoice over the victory, working without seeing any victory. In those centuries to come as in our day, there must always be the few who work for the big causes, live for them, live in them, die with faith unshaken; and yet who do not see the end. ("What It Means to Work for a Cause," Ethical Address, December 1904)
In a memorial address, William Salter recalled his colleague as an independent and industrious man who lived by the gospel he taught:
Mr. Sheldon was one of the most individual of men.… He was so much so that we came near losing him from our movement at an early day, and he always remained a unique figure in it. He would not follow another's lead. He had to map out his own course. He would listen to you and weigh, no doubt, what you had to say, and then go his own way.…
[I]t was because he was so essentially and thoroughly a modern and progressive man in his views, that he had the rich, sane influence on his community and time that he had. Intellectually speaking, Sheldon was of no common order. If he had not found a practical outlet for his energies, I surmise that he might have done no mean work in philosophy or some of the social sciences.
But he was not only a thinker. This shy man, with almost the manners of a recluse when I first knew him, had a rare power of seeing men as they are and conditions as they exist. He knew how to estimate a situation. He knew what might be done and what he had better not attempt. He was prodigious, lavish in his energies, but along practical lines. He did not identify himself with causes that would not go.
But the things he did undertake he pushed to the end. There was something dauntless, untiring about him, as if he would weary heaven and earth rather than not get what he wanted. He did not allow himself to be discouraged.…
[B]ehind all and deeper
than all was the soul of the man with its far‑reaching visions, its reverences,
its absolute trust. His philosophy taught him that the disposition to mutual
helpfulness was a part of human nature and prior to any specific religions ‑and
love and justice were an immediate reality to his mind. To them he bowed, of
them he expected the final victory, in the life found its meaning ‑‑
they were to him man's higher self on which he can ever rely.… Man must act
from his highest self ‑‑ this was his feeling. It is a new version
of the old commandment, "Seek ye first the
(Walter L. Sheldon Memorial Address by William Salter, Ethical Addresses, October 1907)
In April of 1886, the
On November 13, Adler launched the first season of the St.
Louis Society with a Memorial Hall address on "The Aims of the Ethical
Movement." The address was followed by an organizational meeting at which
a committee was appointed to prepare a Constitution and By‑Laws for a
Society for Ethical Culture in
The Constitution adopted at the founding meeting reflected the movement! s deliberate shift of what Percival Chubb, then a teacher at the Ethical Culture School in New York, termed religion's "center of gravity": "Whereas, It is our desire and purpose to aid in developing, apart from the churches, a new movement, which shall put morality into the foreground in religion, and shall rest upon a basis of ethics independent of theology; Therefore, We, who are here assembled, do hereby organize ourselves into The Society for Ethical Culture of St. Louis, and adopt the foregoing declaration as and for our Constitution." The Society's first annual report celebrated the community's departure from tradition:
The phrase "apart from the churches" was not designed to express it as the special purpose of the Society to antagonize those organizations, but simply to express the freedom of the movement from the authority of supernatural revelation, as the final criterion of moral truth. Great as may have been the work which they have accomplished, it is doubtful whether the churches are adequate to meet the religious needs of the advancing world, and to give to ethics a scientific basis. This movement, while it leaves the churches to go on in their own way, desires for itself to try the new methods ‑‑ to take a new start ‑‑ in the effort to put morality into the foreground in religion, by finding for it the same kind of authority as that whereon rest the truths of natural science. (First annual report of the Society for Ethical Culture of St. Louis; Ethical Society archives)
In a flier circulated in the first season, Sheldon clarified the Society's distinction from churches, emphasizing its exaltation of conscience:
Ethical Culture recognizes that not only as a matter of right and duty, should personal morality be taught and cultivated primarily, but as affording the only solution of the gravest practical problems which confront the world at the present day. Of all needed reform the beginning must be made in the moral life of the individual. The movement affirms no creed new or old, and denies none. It does not deal directly with theology. The question whence man derived the power of knowing right and wrong it leaves open to such belief as may be entertained, without concerning itself at all therewith. For Ethical Culture it is sufficient to know the fact that such a power does exist in man, and with the presence of that power it begins, developing moral law and applying it to the affairs of human life independent of Theology and therefore "apart from the churches."
Formal membership in the Society indicated a moral commitment to building one's character and a broader commitment to advancing Ethical Culture and serving the community at large. Only members could hold office, chair committees, and participate in board and by‑law elections. A handful of people who became members in the first season looked upon the Society as a sort of fraternal club and resigned when its essentially religious character became evident. To prevent a continuation of ill‑informed membership applications, the membership at the end of the second season passed a by‑law revision requiring applicants to hold the status of associate member for one year before applying for full membership. There is no record of a membership applicant being turned down. At the time of their acceptance, members made financial pledges, which they paid annually or semi‑annually in advance. Originally, the by‑laws stated that "every member who has the means to do so shall subscribe something annually to the support of the Society, the amount of subscription to be at the option of the member." At the second annual meeting, acting on the assumption that any sincere membership applicant could afford at least a token donation, the membership voted to strike from that rule the words "who has the means to do so." Annual contributions ranged from one dollar to $300; most members pledged $5‑10.
At its inception, the society was made up of 93 members; of
these, 86 were full members and seven were associate members. By the summer of
1887, that number had more than doubled to 196, despite the departure of first‑year
dilettantes. The St. Louis Society's growth outpaced that of its predecessors:
The makeup of the Society's membership was democratic but
predominantly middle‑class and educated. Although all of the charter
members were men, women quickly came to make up a substantial portion of the
membership. In the Society's first year, the board appointed a Ladies Committee
to assist the general membership committee in soliciting members. With its
emphasis on individuality, the Society never was content to enroll only heads
of households, as was the custom in
Although the national movement already had caught the attention of the academic and clerical communities, the St. Louis Society sought to enhance its standing in the public eye by enlisting the vocal support ‑‑ and, preferably, the membership ‑‑ of prominent citizens. In addition to Nagel, notables among the Society's early supporters included Adolphus Busch, president of Anheuser‑Busch Companies and for years the Society's largest single contributor<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>; active member John H. Gundlach, a North St. Louis businessman and key civic promoter who later served as president of the City Council; active member Dr. William Taussig, prime mover in the construction of Union Station and principal partner of James B. Eads in the construction of Eads Bridge; contributor John C. Learned, Unitarian pastor of the Church of the Unity and the Society's first ally among established St. Louis clergy; and active member Hugo Muench, a circuit court judge.
The pattern of the Society's exercises was the same as that established in the East. A typical Sunday service included an organ recital, a song by a quartet choir, readings, and an address. Announcements of the services were run in the St. Louis Republican and the St. Louis Globe‑Democrat. Charles Kunkel, the organist for the first season, directed the music. The song lyrics were written by Ethical leaders, including Adler, to the tune of classical compositions. The readings were selected from the works of Emerson, Wordsworth, Kant and other modern writers as well as from the Bible. Sunday services were held at
Following the pattern of the Eastern societies, which held
services from mid‑October to mid-May, the St. Louis Society held its last
platform meeting of the first season on
In the first season's addresses, Sheldon proffered the
movement's fresh attitude toward morality as a distinctively religious way of
life; he set the Society's approach in contradistinction to that of established
religions, while at the same time exalting the wisdom and virtue found in
Western religious heritage. Among the topics of his addresses that year were
"What Attitude Shall We Take toward the Churches?"; "What
Attitude Shall We Take toward Christianity?"; "The Ethical
Significance of the Christmas Festival"; "The Poet Shelley and his
Idea of God"; "The Success and Failure of the Decalogue (the Ten
Commandments)"; "The Historic Jesus"; "The Ideal Jesus and
the Christ That is to Be"; and "The Starting Point of the New
Ethics." Outside speakers during the year were Adler, Weston, and Learned;
William M. Salter, leader of the Chicago Society; and Dr.
The Society took great pride in its standing as the only
religious institution in
The reception with which the undertaking has met is a plain indication of its need in our city. The inference which is now so commonly made by large numbers, whether true or not, that the teachers in the pulpits may not utter fully and freely the convictions which they have in their study, is threatening to imperil the very existence of moral and religious truth in the world. There is need of a platform which, by its attitude of independence from the original church organization, shall be free of any ambiguous committal to convictions which the modern world in its private thought is not disposed to accept, and yet at the same time have as the aim to preserve and develop that which is eternally true, by putting into the foreground the ethical aspect of religion. (First annual report of the Society for Ethical Culture of St. Louis; Ethical Society archives)
The basic adult program having been established, the Society opened its Sunday School in February 1887. The first department organized took in children from 7 to 14. Because the supply of teachers and instruction materials was limited, the school could not accept all the children who applied for admission. Sheldon had proposed to hold classes on a weekday afternoon, when he was free from his responsibilities to the adult members, but the membership preferred the convenience of having children's classes on Sunday mornings. As an experiment, the students were divided into two classes which met at Sundays at Memorial Hall. Each was taught by a woman member of the Society. This arrangement continued into the second year, but Sheldon, who considered the direct instruction of children one of his principal duties, eventually reached a compromise with the board under which he held classes at 3 p.m. Sundays at his office.
In the first two years, children's classes centered on a discussion of the ethical values expressed in Aesop's fables and other folk tales. Gradually, Sheldon introduced the older children to stories of the Bible. His approach, which was based on that of other ethical societies, was to emphasize the ethical import of biblical tales without rendering any judgment on their theological content. In some instances, stories were recited and students were expected to remember the details. At other times, Sheldon and his associates used the stories as starting points for broad discussions of morality.
The Sunday School ‑‑ or, as it was officially called, the School for Ethical Instruction of Children ‑‑ was more formally organized at the start of the Society's second season. A second department was created for children over 14. In addition to instructing children, Sheldon trained the teachers and supervised both departments. To help parents appreciate the program's offerings, and to court admissions, Sheldon devoted three platform addresses in fall 1887 to the ethical education of the young. On Oct. 23, he spoke on "How Shall We Deal with the God Idea in the Religious Education of the Young?"; Oct. 30, "How Shall We Deal with the Old Testament in the Religious Education of the Young?"; and Dec. 18, "How Shall we Deal With the Story of Jesus in the Religious Education of the Young?" On Dec. 25, the pupils of the school took to the platform to render "Ethics for Children," a set of ceremonial responsive readings written by Sheldon.
The Society's expenses for the first season amounted to
$2,380.30. That sum was met by 124 contributors, most of whom were members. In
the 1887‑88 season, the first for which a breakdown of expenses is
extant, the outlay totaled $3,235.09. The greatest single expense was Sheldon's
salary of $1,200. This was followed by: hall rental, $700; music, $577.90;
rental of headquarters, $240; and lecturers' fees and travel expenses, $120.
Other expenses included printing, postage and advertising; secretarial help;
travel and lodging costs for delegates to a convention of ethical societies in
Sheldon felt an almost morbid embarrassment over the fact that the board set his salary according to the Society's projected income, which meant that membership growth was reflected in his paycheck, Hoping to maintain the purity of his motivation and reputation, he asked Coste, his "right-hand man," to have the figure set without his consultation before he returned for the start of the Society's second season. "If the matter is to come up at all," he wrote, "I wish to ask you to have it settled before I come out so that there need be no further allusion to the matter. I will adjust myself to whatever the board may decide, only I beg to have it decided and out of the way. You cannot realize what an embarrassment of mind it is for me to be harassed by the consciousness that the growth of the Society can be of financial concern to me personally. I do not want to have the consideration in mind." (Letter from Walter L. Sheldon to Paul F. Coste, dated Sept. 1, 1887, from Salisbury, VT, Ethical Society archives)
In its second season, the Society quickly escalated its programs. In addition to the expansion of the Sunday School, the second year saw the addition of clubs for mothers, young men and boys; and committees on finance, music, and printing and publication. The Ladies’ Home Club, which met on alternate Wednesday afternoons at the Society headquarters, held discussions on parenthood and family life. Literary works and books on the moral education and nurturing of children served as the common ground of discussion. In the first season, participants debated the merits of Rousseau's "Emile." The meetings drew an average of 25 women. The Young Men's Section was devoted to the study of ethical topics in literature. In the club's first year, the men studied Tolstoy's "My Religion" and Plato's "Republic." The club met on alternate Wednesday evenings. Sheldon initiated both clubs, but he encouraged the members to direct the discussions themselves; although a qualified academic, he generally avoided lecturing to auxiliary groups. The Boys' Debating Club, which numbered about 20, met on Sunday afternoons at the homes of its members. The group's purposes were to facilitate critical reasoning and foster self‑confidence in presenting one's ideas. A Young Women's Section for the study of literature also had been planned but did not come off.
The board elected a new slate of officers in its second year.
Charles W. Stevens, a well‑known physician, replaced Tredway as
president; Albert Arnstein was elected secretary and Leo Levis, treasurer. It
is unclear whether anyone held the title of vice president, but James Taussig
remained a principal decision maker. Taussig, himself an ethnic Jew, had
reservations about the number of Jews on this slate of officers. Mindful of the
Sheldon had no voting authority on the board, but his opinions regarding its composition were solicited and respected. This, too, caused him no little consternation: "It relieves me of a great embarrassment if I do not have to take part in the selection of men and thus be forced to display a discrimination of persons. For me as the lecturer, there ought not to be the semblance of respect for persons' save as they are each and all members of a Society to which I am responsible. At present, however, I must, I suppose, make my suggestions, as the ideal system can only come in the course of years." (Ibid.) It happens that the one man Sheldon especially wanted to see on the board's second slate of officers was a departing member of the Church of the Unity; out of regard for his Unitarian friend Learned, he quickly withdrew the suggestion.
Services continued to be held at Memorial Hall, which had been secured for Sunday mornings from mid‑October to mid‑May. In addition to Sheldon, platform speakers included Adler, Coit, Learned, Salter, and Charles W. Stevens, the president. The Society's emerging self‑definition continued to dominate the platform. Sheldon's addresses included "The Future of Religion"; "Is Ethics Without Religion?"; "Are We Atheists?"; "Are We Materialists?"; "Why We Cannot Pray"; and "The Substitute for Prayer." Advancing the Society's reputation for radicalism, he also spoke on Charles Darwin and the provocative American freethinker Robert Ingersoll. Salter spoke on "Courage" and "What Have We to Offer in Place of the Old Faith?"; Adler spoke on "Are We Agnostics?" and "The Old Testament from a Human Standpoint"; Coit spoke on "The Social Responsibilities of Young Men" and "The Social Responsibilities of Young Women." Proposed "Members' Sundays," on which lay members of the Society were to speak on various ethical themes, did not materialize.
The Society's liturgical program received a strong boost in
its second year with the installation of William Henry Pornmer as music
director. Pornmer, who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music and
under Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory, later achieved distinction as
a composer, supervisor of music instruction for the
In its second season, the Society launched the grandest of its philanthropic undertakings, the Self‑Culture Hall Association. This program, which Sheldon termed "educational philanthropy," was intended to give working‑class people an opportunity to enhance their intellectual life through reading, lectures, discussion groups, classes and concerts. Sheldon formed a committee consisting of himself, Taussig, J.A. St. John, and N.O. Nelson to steer the program. It was agreed the Ethical Society board of trustees would oversee the project, but the association had its own treasurer and accounts. The committee elected Nelson as its first treasurer. Sheldon was director of the project, but he never received any salary from the organization, nor from any of the funds with which it was administered. In preparation for the program, a circular was issued in the fall of 1887 setting out the purposes of the project:
Philanthropy is at its best when it is educational. Our city is supplied with admirable institutions to meet the distress of poverty; but there is missing to a large degree that other form of charity, which is mainly preventive and curative in its aim. We miss in our city what is known as educational philanthropy.
It is proposed this winter to initiate such an undertaking by opening a public reading room for workingmen. The chief reading room of the kind, the Public Library, is altogether too remote from a large portion of the residences of the classes for whom it is provided for them to be induced to avail themselves of the privilege, although under these circumstances it is largely patronized. Such rooms need to be placed in the neighborhoods where the workingmen live. They ought to be scattered in different localities all over the city, each to become a centre of educational interest for the families in the neighborhood. Ultimately they should become, if properly managed, self-supporting, although this cannot be anticipated at the outset of the undertaking. In reading and educational matters, it is often the supply which creates the demand, and not the demand the supply.
It is probable that the first of these rooms thus started
will be under the auspices of the Society for Ethical Culture of this city,
inasmuch as the committee who offer the plan are members of that Society. The
philanthropic undertakings under the auspices of a similar Society in
Three women, identified only as Mrs. J. A. St. John, Mrs.
James H. Green, and Mrs. L. D. Hildenbrandt, canvassed the community and
secured pledges amounting to $1,015.50. The largest contributions were $100
from Taussig and $50 from Adolphus Busch; the rest, ranging from $5‑25,
came from businesses as well as private citizens. In 1888, the committee rented
quarters on the second floor of the Union Dairy Co.,
Once the rooms began to draw a steady number of readers,
the committee inaugurated lecture courses on Friday nights. Topics of the
lectures were wide‑ranging; series were given on American history, art
history, the physical sciences, engineering, biographies, and health. The first
season's offerings included "An Hour in Picturesque London";
"How Insects Help Plants and Trees to Bear Their Fruit";
"Picturesque Berlin" (by Sheldon); "Popular Readings; Humorous,
Dramatic and Poetic"; "English Parliament Buildings and the English
Parliament"; and "Astronomy: The Earth compared with other
Planets." In this pre‑motion picture era, the illustrated travel
lectures were among the most popular offerings. Volunteer lecturers included
Martha Fischel, who later would serve as the first woman president of both the St. Louis Society and the AEU, taught girls domestic skills such as cooking, sewing, housecleaning and laundering. In the following decades, the Self‑Culture Halls Association incorporated as a separate entity from the Ethical Society, purchased halls on the North Side and South Side, and added coursework and study clubs to its educational offerings.
Another suborganization founded in 1888 was the Ladies Philanthropic Society, whose first undertaking was the establishment of an "underage kindergarten" for children under 7 (under prevailing Missouri law, 7 was the earliest age at which children could enter the public school system) at the free reading rooms; the concept was still a new one, as Susan Blow had established the nation's first kindergartens in St. Louis in 1873. The first kindergarten class at the readings rooms was held November 26. Mrs. L.D. Hildenbrandt, president of the Ladies Society, oversaw the project.
In its second season, the Society formalized its
association with the parent organization. The American Ethical Union had yet to
be formed, but the first three societies had established a federation called
We feel that we are in the right direction; that we have the basis on which all religious effort for the future will develop. When compared to the churches, it is true that we are small in numbers; but the greatness of an effort consists not at the outset in the number of its supports, but in the intrinsic worth of the idea which it represents. The numbers come when the work is done. We, however, who believe in it, and are assured that the idea at the basis of our work is to be the basis of the religion of the future, propose, whatever be our membership, to give our strength, our energy and our enthusiasm to doing the work; to be in the vanguard of that great work. Here, and here alone, we feel that we can be loyal to our convictions and faithful to the highest interests of our posterity. (Second annual report of the Society for Ethical Culture of St. Louis; Ethical Society archives)
In the 1890s, Sheldon developed a fixed course of study for the Sunday School. Equally dissatisfied with secular civics texts and sectarian catechisms, he wrote a series of books for the ethical instruction of children. His task, as he saw it, was to inspire in children the same reverence for Duty ‑he habitually capitalized the word ‑‑ that the God image commands in explicitly theistic religions. The ethical precepts he taught were recognizably Judeo‑Christian, right down to the "thou shalt not" phrasing, but he presented them without reference to supernatural sanction. Rather, he repeatedly referred to them as "the truths of the lessons in ethics which have been found out from thousands of years of experience on the part of the human race." (Lessons in the Study of Habits, Walter L. Sheldon, W. M. Welch Co., Chicago, 1903; p. 16; italics added) Although the Bible was his principal source of moral teachings and illustrations, his frequent use of texts from Buddhism, Confucianism, the Stoics, and modern philosophers of the West bolstered his contention that justice is a universal and self‑evident law. The "God problem" was not introduced until the last stage of the program.
Sheldon considered the ethical instruction of children a sacred task. To fail to provide it, or to provide it badly, was for him far worse than common crimes of selfishness. He took to heart the biblical admonition that it would be better for one to "be drowned by a millstone around his neck, in the depths of the sea" than to lead a child astray. (Matthew 18:6; New American Bible) By modern estimation, he took the task too seriously. He clearly delighted in the moral nurturance of children, but his concessions to their childishness were more pragmatic than sympathetic. Cleverly used, songs and lighthearted dialogues served to garner attention and secretly edify even the most unwitting child; fun as fun had no place in the program.
The instructional session that Sheldon developed lasted for
an hour and a quarter on Sunday mornings. The session began with a religious
service that corresponded to the adult program. Singing was a regular feature
of the service. Because most sectarian songs were inappropriate, Sheldon relied
on songs arising within the Ethical movement, such as Adler's "City of
No man securely doth command, unless he hath learned readily to obey. ‑‑ Thomas a Kempis
If you wish for anything that belongs to another, that which is your own is lost. ‑‑ Epictetus
How long I shall live depends upon accident; but it depends upon myself how well I live. ‑‑ Seneca
The superior man thinks of virtue; the small man thinks of comfort. The superior man thinks of the sanctions of law; the small man thinks of favors which he may receive. ‑‑ Confucius
Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.
What fools say is pleasure, that the noble say is pain; what fools say is pain; that the noble know as pleasure. ‑‑ Buddha (Ibid., pp. 14‑15)
Sayings of Jesus were conspicuously absent from the collection: Sheldon wanted those sayings to stand out in the minds of the children from all other classes of literature. When the children regrouped after their formal lessons, the "Beautiful Thought" for the day was recited by a member of each class, and then by all the children in unison. This repetition, of course, was designed to help the students commit the aphorisms to memory.
Frequently, the children's service also included a responsive exercise that called for the children's assent to ethical commands and devotion to Platonic ideals. Sheldon claimed to share in the popular distaste for rote learning, but he maintained that this exercise was needed to "lodge at once in the minds of the young the few main, fundamental principles underlying our whole scheme of instruction." (Ibid., p. 3) Because it amounts to an Ethical Society catechism, the exercise is worth quoting in full:
Superintendent: "Truth is the strong thing, Let man's life be true.
The School: The Sense of Duty we should place above everything else in the world.
Superintendent: "Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong, and the most ancient heavens through thee are fresh and strong.
The School: The Good Life for its own sake, without thought of reward, is what we should most care for.
One of the Teachers: "Where your treasure is,” Though
the cause of evil
there will your heart prosper, yet 'tis truth
be also. "alone is strong."
Superintendent: COMMANDS WE ARE TO OBEY
1. Thou shalt not lie.
2. Thou shalt not steal.
3. Thou shalt do no murder.
4. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
5. Thou shalt not covet what belongs to another.
One of the Teachers:
"The Eternal seeth not” Whoever fights,
as man seeth; for man whoever falls,
looketh on the outward Justice conquers evermore,
appearance, but the Justice after as before."
Eternal looketh We should all
on the heart." love Justice.
Superintendent: COMMANDS WE ARE TO OBEY
1. Thou shalt obey thy conscience.
2. Thou shalt revere the soul in thyself and in all others.
3. Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.
4. Thou shalt respect the laws of thy country.
5. Thou shalt make thyself of service to thy fellow man.
One of the Teachers: One of the
"Look not outside of" To thine own self be true; |
yourself for a refuge; Thou canst not then be false
be a refuge to yourself." to any man."
Superintendent: WHAT WE ARE TO LOVE
We are to love the Good with a supreme love.
We are to love knowledge, and to seek Truth wherever it may be found.
We are to love the Beautiful; but even more we are to love the Good and the True.
We are to love these as if they were one: the True, the Beautiful and the Good.
One of the Teachers: One of the
"The Soul itself is the " I do nothing but go
witness of the Soul, and about, persuading old
the Soul is the refuge of and young alike, to care
the Soul; despise not thine first and chiefly for
own Soul, the supreme the greatest
witness of men." improvement of the soul."
Superintendent: WHAT WE ARE TO DO
1. We should think first of our father and mother.
2. We should labor for the welfare of our own home.
3. We should help those who are weak or in trouble.
4. We should work for the good of our country.
5. We should believe in the Brotherhood of Man.
One of the Teachers: One of the
"He that is greatest" Now abideth
among you shall be as faith, hope, love,
one that serves." these three;
May we always be ready but the greatest
to serve. of these is love."
Superintendent: WHAT WE ARE TO STRIVE FOR
The School: To be true to ourselves, true to our home, true to our country, true to our fellow‑men. We are to strive to be true in everything.
Superintendent: "Truth is the strong thing, Let man's life be true.
(Ibid., pp. 4‑5)
In these services, as in their adult counterparts, Sheldon sought to create an atmosphere of reverence. In his instructions for the use of lantern slides, for instance, he recommended dwelling on Greek statues and the madonnas of Raphael to conjure a sense of the sublime. Likewise, he incorporated recitals of classical music, talks on the Egyptian pyramids, and other presentations that promised to arouse "solemn, mystical feelings." These devices, he wrote, helped the children "associate the sentiments belonging to the Eternal, the Infinite, the Absolute, with the distinctions between Right and Wrong, with the thought of the Moral Law." (Ibid., p. 10) He did not put much value on the meditative mood per se, but he believed it made the pupils especially receptive to the serious business of their ethical lessons. He deemed these "warm‑up" exercises so powerful that he called for a kind of "cool-down" exercise after the lessons ‑‑ perhaps a short story that would "'let the minds down' from the high level we have been endeavoring to keep them on during the study time." (lbid.,p. 18)
The ethical lessons consisted of Bible stories and studies in ethical duties. The youngest children, generally ages , studied Sheldon's "Old Testament Bible Stories for the Young." Sheldon's rendering of those tales minimizes references to the Deity: "Yahweh," in his rare appearances, comes across as a mythical figure on the order of Zeus. The stories were presented much the way fables are told, without mention of their historicity. Sheldon chose the Bible over other possible literary bases because he found in it a comprehensive collection of ethical illustrations. Furthermore, he was mindful that children of Ethical Society members were being raised in a peculiar religious environment, and he feared they would be at a social and intellectual disadvantage if they never learned the classic tales their peers studied in sectarian Sunday schools.
The next stage of the program introduced the study of personal duties. Sheldon's "Lessons in the Study of Habits," the teacher's manual for this stage, was intended to foster reflective, deliberate character formation. The 31 chapters that made up the body of the text were devoted to expositions of such virtues as truthfulness, perseverance, and bravery, and such vices as laziness, cheating, and exaggeration. Each chapter included a list of applicable proverbs, a list of duties to be committed to memory and faithfully adopted, and an illustrative poem. The substance of each lesson was given in a hypothetical teacher‑pupil dialogue, which was intended to help the teacher elicit the students' ethical insights. Those insights, however, invariably were guided toward preconceived precepts; Sheldon's belief in an absolute "Moral Law" was reflected in his presumption that right‑thinking students would always arrive at the same moral conclusions. The purpose of these lessons, as Sheldon stated in his suggestions to parents and teachers, was "to influence the moods and temperament, the feelings or character of the young people." (Ibid., p. 15) Students were encouraged to examine their motives and weigh conflicting values. The loss of friendship and respect is repeatedly presented as the price of immoral behavior. With its Puritan severity and elevation of self‑abnegation, "Study of Habits" is something of a children's version of Thomas a Kempis's "Imitation of Christ," one of Sheldon's most revered books on the inner life. An excerpt from the dialogue on "Humility" illustrates that tone:
[W]hen a boy or girl is anxious that other people should look at them, point them out, and say how smart they are, how much more they know than other boys or girls; what persons are they really thinking of most of all? You or me, for example? "No," you say, "they are thinking about themselves."
Yes, but in what way? Is such a person thinking about improving himself, forming better habits for himself, or blaming himself for some mistake? "No," you answer, "that is not it at all. It is self‑admiration."
At the age of 10 or 11, Sunday School pupils were introduced to the next stage of instruction, "Duties in the Home and the Family." In this section, teachers stressed the uniqueness and sanctity of family relations. The children were taught that obedience to their parents was the most fundamental of moral commands. "When the final question comes as to why one should obey," Sheldon wrote, "this theme always ends with the one crucial answer: Because they are my father and mother." Obeying the letter but not the spirit of parental orders, or obeying them only when in the presence of authority ‑‑ what Sheldon called "eye‑service" ‑‑ were roundly denounced. Nor did the obligations of a child end with independence: The lesson plan underlined "how mean and base those people are who neglect their aged parents." Furthermore, the children were taught that "obedience is a great, universal rule of life, and that all persons of all ages are obliged to obey."
Turning to sibling relationships, the course promoted harmony and "mutual service." Teachers pointed out that, in some families, brothers and sisters dissolved their ties as they grew to adulthood; the children were exhorted to consciously maintain those bonds. This section also detailed common courtesies, such as table manners and points of thoughtfulness to be remembered during times of sickness and grief. To minimize lapses of attention, Sheldon urged teachers to tell animal stories from time to time. The blood relations of animals, he said, underscore the universality of family ties and point to the superiority of human life. Another relief measure used in this section was the study of holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and memorials. Significantly, Christmas was presented as the birth of Jesus, whom Sheldon forever held up as the world's greatest teacher, but Easter was described as a timeless festival marking the renewal of life.
Jesus of Nazareth was the focal point of the course for 11- and 12-year-olds. Sheldon collaborated with associate teachers and the mothers of pupils in writing "Story of the Life of Jesus for the Young told from an Ethical Standpoint," which was first published in 1895. The book, a Sunday . School staple for decades, portrayed Jesus as an ethical revolutionary, a man of exemplary kindness and mercy. His teachings, which Sheldon termed "the rarest jewels of ethical experience that the moral nature of man has ever evolved," were italicized to facilitate memorization. (An Ethical Sunday School, p. 102) Sheldon drew upon his Palestinian sojourn in describing the story's geographical and cultural setting, and he took broad liberties in extrapolating the thoughts and feelings of Jesus and the apostles from New Testament accounts. Sheldon found that the story of Jesus, which he frequently referred to as "the most beautiful story in the world," illustrated every ethical precept he held dear. He expounded on each of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, contrasting the "higher way" Jesus taught with the brutishness of what Plato called "the unreflective life." Although he portrayed all the principals of the story sympathetically, Sheldon held up Judas as the archetype of greed and disloyalty; the Pharisees represented shallow self‑righteousness; and Pontius Pilate, haughty indifference. In the story of Martha and Mary, Sheldon found an illustration of his own reverence for the inner life over material comfort.
In keeping with the Society's metaphysical neutrality, the book is innocent of theology. It may be the world's only account of the life of Jesus that makes no mention of God, prayer, miracles, or resurrection. Sheldon defined the "kingdom of heaven" as the inner peace enjoyed by those who live lives of charity. When Sheldon's Jesus was baptized, "he fancied he saw in the sky a grand and solemn face looking down upon him," and the being that tempted him in the desert was not Satan but "the weaker, lower self within him." (Story of the Life of Jesus for the Young told from an Ethical Standpoint, Walter L. Sheldon, S. Burns Weston, Philadelphia, Second Edition, 1909; pp. 33, 38) Miracles also are related in naturalistic terms. For instance, Sheldon wrote that Jesus, with his extraordinary tranquility, calmed his frantic apostles, not the stormy sea; "years afterward," he wrote, "they said that it seemed to them at that instant as if the storm itself had subsided and the sea become calm." (Ibid., p. 64) Likewise, he wrote that Jesus's compassion had such a marked effect on the sick and lame that "many persons, after being visited by him and having felt that gentle hand, dated their recovery from that very moment." (Ibid., p. 59) As always, Sheldon did not attack beliefs in supernatural events, but he gently noted that "when a person of this kind appears in the world, he is so strange and unlike other people, so much above them and different from them, that they only partly understand him; and so it is that they may be very much confused about what he said and did, and may have told it sometimes in one way when he said it or did it in another." (Ibid., pp. 18‑19)
At the age of 12 or 13, students moved on to
"Citizenship and the Duties of a Citizen." Based on another of
Sheldon's instructional books, this section was intended to inculcate in
students a love of country and a determination to uphold the standards of
civilized society. Like "Study of Habits," its chapters included
teacher‑student dialogues and lists of duties to be committed to memory.
In this case, the duties included voting, paying taxes, obeying laws, and
performing military service. Ethical points were illustrated by historical
tales of civil service and wartime heroism; excerpts from classic political
orations; and poems expressing patriotic sentiments. Though not intended as a
civics text, the book outlined the principles of American government as a base
for ethical reflection. The children were taught to extend their regard for the
family to the state: "We want to do away with the old, crude conception
about 'government being a necessary evil,' by trying to have the young see in
their national life a certain element of sacredness," Sheldon wrote. (An
Ethical Sunday School, pp. 126‑127) He underscored this point by
insisting that an American flag be ceremoniously hung in the classroom each
Sunday. He pointed out that patriotism demands the willingness to die for one's
country, but he emphasized the equal value of living for it by fulfilling civic
responsibilities. The course included four to six classes on the history of
The next course in the series, "Duties to One's Self," formally introduced students to principles of introspection. Now in their early to mid‑teens, the students were taught to attend closely to their thoughts, feelings, and motives. Sheldon's psychology was primitive: he treated the mind, body, "heart," and will as somehow distinct. But he was honest enough to disclaim psychoanalytic authority, asserting instead that character development no more requires intellectual certainty than it does theistic faith. Students were taught to show proper regard for the body in hygiene and dress, but the "mind‑life" always was deemed pre‑eminent. Likewise, the "rights" of the senses were recognized, but love of knowledge was shown to be a higher and more lasting pleasure than sensual satisfactions. Sheldon was a stern advocate of Self Mastery, and his denunciations of such "evil feelings" as anger and jealousy were lacking in sympathy and delicacy. The principle lesson of the course, he wrote, was to make it clear to the students that "they can control their feelings if they choose to do so." (Ibid., p. 155) He was not entirely devoid of emotional sophistication, however. He took pains to illustrate the way feelings arise from mental preoccupations, and taught that "we can shut out one subject by calling up another, and in that way shut out a bad feeling by calling up a good one." (Ibid., p. 155) His proposed dialogue on "The Importance of Feelings" illustrates his insistence on one's responsibility for one's character:
Where do our feelings come from? "Oh," you reply, "they are born in us, of course; we get them just as we get the shape of our body or the expression of our face." All of our feelings, do you mean, every one of them; are they all born in us? "No; perhaps not quite all of them," you say, "but some of them, at any rate." Yes; you are right; some of them are born in us. But where do the others come from, if they are not born in us? "Why," you answer, "they come by growth, little by little, according to what we think or say or do."
How does it happen that certain feelings that were very weak in us at the first, became very strong, and other feelings which were very strong became weak and seemed to die away?
"Well," you answer, "that depends somewhat on the way we conduct ourselves, on what we do, what sort of experiences we have." Can you give me an illustration of what you mean?
Do you suppose, for instance, it ever happens that a person who seems to be born with a good temper, as we say, with no special disposition to be irritable or to become angry ‑‑ do you think it might happen that such a person later on in life might have a bad temper, be inclined to be cross or out of sorts, to show anger or to be irritable?
"Yes," you say, "it might happen." And how about the other side? Do you consider it possible that a person might be born with a bad temper, inclined to be cross, irritable with everybody, and yet, when the person grew up, really not to have such a temper at all? "Yes," you reply, "that might be possible."
Which happens more often, do you suppose ‑‑ the change where a person loses a bad temper; or where a person not born with it, acquires a bad temper? "Oh," you answer, "probably it more often happens that a man gets a bad temper, instead of losing it." I am afraid that you are right. At any rate it appears, after all, that all the feelings we have do not depend wholly on the feelings we were born with; some of them we get ourselves.
(Ibid., pp. 150‑152)
The final course in the Sunday School dealt with religious beliefs. This course was for 15‑ and 16‑year‑olds, though Sheldon worried that, even at that age, the students may be too young to grasp the subtleties of religious thought. Naturally, the course presented no metaphysical creed; its purpose was to give an overview of religious history and to "start certain tendencies of thought or belief' that would evolve into a mature transcendentalism. Sheldon felt it was critical to point the youngsters in the right direction before they entered the world. Without the proper start, he wrote, they might become "out-and-out atheists" or "go off on a side‑track and return to a supernaturalism that suggests the fetish worship of thousands of years ago." (Ibid., p. 176) The course traced the development of cultural beliefs about gods and God. It included a study of the Bible, the Koran, the writings of Confucius, and the Buddhist "Path of Virtue." The students were taught to hold these writings in special regard.
A brief account of anthropological history set the stage for the study of beliefs about divinity. The students traced the evolution of beliefs from primitive nature worship to pantheism to monotheism. They examined the ways in which theistic beliefs can affect human behavior ‑‑ sometimes inspiring virtue, sometimes inspiring bizarre rituals and irrational acts. They studied the manifestations of superstition in contemporary culture. Through it all, they drew correlations between the evolution of the God‑concept and the growth of ethical sophistication. For instance, Sheldon noted that the belief in a plethora of capricious gods was matched by a philosophy of "every man for himself." By contrast, he taught that the most advanced religious attitude ‑‑ that is, appreciation of the interconnectedness and ultimate unity of things ‑‑ had found expression in the comparatively orderly civilization of the Industrial Age. Sheldon took no stand on the existence of a Supreme Being, but he taught that beneath the prevalent belief in a Judgment Day lay a reliable intuition that "the Universe, or the Power behind it, supports the Cause of Right." (Ibid., p. 186) He left it to parents to tell their children whether that Power is personal or "too grand, too lofty, to be described by any one word or any one name." (Ibid., p. 206) The belief he counted as universal and self‑evident, the culminating assertion of the course of instruction, was that Duty, "the God who speaks on the inside," is deserving of unqualified devotion.
As a body, the Ethical Society of St. Louis has not
consistently engaged in activism. In this regard, it stands in the shadow of
its parent the New York Society, which has had a pronounced impact on its
community through a variety of service projects. For most of its history, the
The enthusiasm for unity and brotherhood … will mean nothing unless it calls forth a unity and brotherhood to some definite purpose; otherwise it will sink into an old-time religious emotionalism. I see no purpose in religious organization unless it can alter and refine the very foundations of human society. ("The Religious Beliefs of Others," An Ethical Movement, pp. 81‑82.)
Sheldon's most expansive undertaking was the establishment of free community schools called the Wage Earners' Self‑Culture Clubs. As noted earlier, this program began in 1888 as an experiment in "educational philanthropy"; it offered educational opportunities that were then available only to the affluent. Program offerings included reading rooms, lectures, course work, debating clubs, excursions, concerts, and social gatherings. The program employed no examinations and bestowed no certificates. Cultural and moral edification, rather than training in employment skills, was its object:
What we wished to call out or foster was the latent manhood or womanhood of the artisan class, which tends to die away or never appear at all, owing to the monotonous grind in the routine of daily toil, or to the restricted sphere in which their lives are cast, or to the cheap and often vulgar amusements to which they are attracted. It was the belief of the management that opportunities for intellectual self‑improvement worked in the direction of upbuilding of character. By opening out a wider area of interests, connecting what they know of the present by a knowledge of the past; by fostering interest in the physical world around them through the study of natural science, an element of soul is called forth, the man or woman side is aroused, a sense of personal dignity and self‑respect is awakened, and the individual from that time forth stands on another plane of life. What he gets may be the most fragmentary knowledge, scraps of information, only a glimpse here and there into history, literature, or the laws of nature He may come to us for only a few months, and disappear forever from our ken. But I venture to say that in almost every such instance a new impulse has been given, or the foundation laid for higher possibilities of advance in that one man. He will never be quite the same commonplace creature he had been before." ("The Wage Earners' Self‑Culture Clubs of St. Louis: A Sketch of Their History," By Walter L. Sheldon, Ethical Addresses, undated volume; pp. 45‑6.)
Although administered by Sheldon and Ethical Society members, the Self‑Culture program was not an exercise in Ethical Culture propaganda. In fact, Sheldon insisted the program maintain strict neutrality regarding religion and politics. Neither religious organs nor anti‑religious periodicals were permitted in the reading rooms. Believers and unbelievers were equally welcome in the program, and no attempt was made to sway their beliefs. As with the theological neutrality maintained by the Ethical movement itself, this policy did not mean that religion was a taboo topic or that clergy were unwelcome. Priests, ministers and rabbis were frequent lecturers, but Sheldon noted that, to his knowledge, they said nothing "which could be considered as denominational language that might in any way jar on the people who come there, representing practically all the religious phases in St. Louis." Unless they had special academic knowledge to share, clergy were asked to offer their listeners non‑doctrinal folk wisdom. In the 1895‑96 season, for instance, Bishop D.S. Tuttle of Christ Church Cathedral spoke on "How to Enjoy Life in a Sensible Way"; and Rev. S.J. Niccolls of Second Presbyterian offered advice on "How One Can Get the Most Pleasure Out of Life While Having to Work Very Hard."
At the outset, the program consisted of free reading rooms
When the project outgrew its quarters in 1892, it was moved
In May of 1895, the association and the Ethical Society board agreed that the association would henceforth assume full responsibility for its increasingly demanding financial affairs. In its official capacity, the Society's board of trustees no longer helped the association raise or administer funds. Nonetheless, the association's volunteer administrative force continued to be drawn primarily from Society membership. The following October, Plank resigned from his posts as associate lecturer of the Society and resident superintendent of Self‑Culture Hall. He was replaced by William H. Lighty, who also served the Ethical Society as superintendent of the Sunday School.
After experimenting with a satellite program in rented
quarters at 2004 1/2 South Broadway, the association in 1895 purchased a
The next fall, the association moved its headquarters from
The association also conducted satellite programs at
several rental halls. Over the years, these included Marten's Hall,
In the association's heyday, lectures were offered five or
six evenings a week at various locations. At each of the permanent halls,
separate evenings were reserved for men's and women's lectures. Addresses at
satellite sites were open to men, women, and children alike. The schedule
followed at the Washington Street site in 1892 was typical: The debating club
met Monday evenings; Tuesdays were for entertainment and talks for boys ages 10
to 15; Thursdays, lectures and entertainment for women; Fridays, lectures and
entertainment for men and their families; and Saturdays, Domestic Economy
classes and social gatherings. Women generally preferred lecture courses in
art, literature, and family relations, while men preferred courses in history,
law for the layman, engineering, and architecture. The men formed a weekly
study group in civil government; over the years, this group examined the U.S.
Constitution, studied biographies of statesmen, and investigated city
government. In this latter effort, the men used the city charter of
By the turn of the century, fifteen to thirty study groups, each with its own volunteer teacher, were in progress at a time. Membership ranged from five to 20 participants per group. Courses in reading, elocution, and English composition were taught to those who already had a command of the language; courses in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English as a second language were offered as demand warranted. In addition to academic subjects, lessons were offered in singing and dancing; calisthenics and gymnastics; and piano, mandolin, and guitar. The association also offered a few classes in employment skills such as stenography, bookkeeping, and mechanical drawing, but Sheldon minimized these offerings, and stretched a point in calling them elements of the program's "general upbuilding method."
Once the association acquired permanent quarters on both
the North Side and South Side, Fischel implemented an elaborate curriculum in
the Domestic Economy Schools. Each Saturday, 100 to 150 girls attended the
school at each of the permanent halls. Each location had its own
superintendent. Twenty‑five to thirty volunteer teachers served the
schools; an early member of the South Side volunteer corps was Lilly Anheuser
Busch, the wife of Adolphus Busch, president of Anheuser‑Busch Cos.
Courses were taught in cooking, sewing, laundering, money management, and other
aspects of homemaking.
At the North Side hall, four or five rooms were set apart
for the exclusive use of the
In the association's formative years, other children's activities were limited to the Underage Kindergarten, run on weekday mornings by the Ladies Philanthropic Society of the Ethical Society for children ages 3 to 6; and supervised use of playgrounds, gymnasiums, and game rooms during after-school hours. To counterbalance the Domestic Economy Schools, the association experimented with boys‑only courses in handicrafts and military exercises. That program was slow to gain steam, probably because it lacked a director of Fischel's vitality. Sheldon, however, laid the early failure of the boys' program to the inherent rowdiness of boys. "Only after they have gone to work," he wrote, "and some of the wild animal spirits in them have been toned down by the routine of toil, do they usually begin to show ambitions in a higher direction." By 1908, however, the association offered children of both sexes a full program of after‑school and Saturday‑morning activities, including boys' classes in carpentry, woodcarving, iron working, basketry, and gymnastics; girls' classes in cooking, sewing, basketry, singing, and gymnastics; and co‑ed classes in story‑telling, dramatics, clay modeling, and dancing. In addition, association volunteers took the children on field trips and led them in organized games. Participation in the program cost only 10 cents a month; pupils paid an additional 10 cents for piano lessons and 2 cents for use of soap and towels for taking baths.
Another educational experiment of the Self‑Culture program was the debating club. The young men who took part in this club met once a week, usually under the supervision of a public school teacher or administrator, to discuss topical issues. It was a rule with the club that every person present give his opinion on the subject. Participants chose the topics of debate by vote. Among the issues they debated were: "Should the Education of Children be Made Compulsory?"; "Is the Employment of Women in Stores, Factories, and Workshops Detrimental to the Best Interests of Society?"; "Should the Right of Suffrage be Extended to Women?"; "Has the Invention of Machinery been Advantageous to Wage‑ Earners?"; and "Is a Protective Tariff Immoral?" Sheldon encourage debating clubs as a spur to critical reasoning, but he noted that they never lasted long: "Only a limited number care for such a department; still fewer care to talk; and the result is they talk themselves out and tire of listening to each other."
In addition to educational programs, the Self‑Culture
association sponsored a variety of cultural events. Classes in civic history
were augmented by field trips to the Missouri Historical Society museum.
Excursions also were made to the
In the late 1890s, the association began offering concerts at its halls and satellite sites. The St. Louis Musical Club, the Union Musical Club, and the Rubinstein Club volunteered their services in various years, and scores of other musicians provided solos and accompaniment. Sheldon reported that the working‑class people who attended the concerts found that they enjoyed "really good music as well as the cheap worthless kind they often hear elsewhere in the city." Program participants who were learning to play instruments at the Self‑Culture Halls sometimes gave concerts of their own; Sheldon charitably noted that, at those concerts, "it has to be taken for granted that the music cannot be of the same high order." In its quest to upgrade the use of leisure time, the association also sponsored dancing classes. These doubled as incentives for studiousness: Only those who had attended a class or lecture within the preceding seven days were permitted to attend. Dances and other social gatherings had no such strings attached.
In an effort to encourage thrift ‑‑ yet another of the Puritan virtues Sheldon extolled ‑‑ the association opened a Savings Department. When a participant succeeded in squirreling away the tidy sum of $3, the money was deposited in the St. Louis Union Trust Co. to draw interest. Children who participated in the Penny Savings Department received account books when they saved one dollar. To dispel participants' fears for the safety of their savings, the association found three "influential citizens" to guarantee the fund up to $10,000. In the 1901‑02 season, 36 participants deposited a total of $2,793.70 in the fund. Of the 137 children who took part in the Penny Savings Department that year, 43 succeeded in opening bank accounts.
The Self‑Culture Clubs ‑‑ the social units of program participants ‑‑ were loosely organized. Members elected an executive committee and a secretary for both the men's club and women's club associated with each of the permanent halls. The presidents, however, were appointed by Sheldon or his associates. To charges that this practice was autocratic, Sheldon responded that pure democracy was inappropriate in a club that existed primarily for educational purposes; he considered it his duty to ensure that authority be vested in the best‑educated members. The issue itself was academic since it appears the clubs had little more than an advisory role in curriculum planning and the management of volunteers. However, they did take part in putting out a monthly bulletin. Begun in October 1897, this eight‑page publication contained essays on moral character by Sheldon and other program administrators; announcements of lectures and special events; items of news regarding the association and club members; literary quotes; and letters from members. A 1901 edition contains an essay on the good life by John Lovejoy Elliott, founder and director of the New York Ethical Society's Hudson Guild; a listing of the more than 200 lantern slides acquired in conjunction with a lecture series on the Civil War; plans for holiday celebrations; a message chiding a club member for skipping classes after his nuptials; a note of thanks for donations of potted plants and a photographic exhibit; and announcements regarding the formation of a glee club, an instrumental musical group, and a needlework guild.
More than 500 people belonged to the four permanent Self‑Culture
Clubs at the turn of the century. Separate clubs were formed by the Stationary
Engineers Brotherhood, which met monthly at Power House Hall, and by
participants in a satellite branch at the manufacturing town of
Like the platform services of the Ethical Society, the educational programs of the Self‑Culture Halls Association were suspended over the summer. The season ran from the first of October until the first of June. Even still, Sheldon noted, it required "the greatest possible exertion not to have the lagging time begin by the middle of April." During the off‑season, women's clubs continued to hold informal meetings and social gatherings about once a week. As for the men, however, "it would . . . be practically impossible to drag them inside the building for any educational work during the summer months."
The program cost about $5,000 a year. Most of the budget was raised through donations of $2 to $50 annually from private citizens. Formal appeals stressed the program's non‑sectarianism and promotion of good citizenship. In addition to cash donations, books and periodicals were contributed regularly by business people and the St. Louis Club. Fund‑raising was the principal responsibility of the trustees who served on the finance committee; when their efforts fell short of budgetary requirements, they often made up the difference out of their own pockets. Club members also did what they could to offset deficits: When the furnace at the North Side Hall went on the fritz in the 1902‑03 season, they raised the $600 needed to replace it by throwing a bazaar.
To encourage the broadest possible participation, program fees were kept to a minimum. Most lectures were free and open to the public, but participants who wished to join study groups, take field trips, or use the halls' recreational facilities were required to enroll as club members for a fee of less than a dollar a year. About three‑fourths of the teachers were volunteers, and their classes were free. For classes taught by paid teachers, the association charged enough to at least offset the additional cost. Students paid for their textbooks and study materials. At Power House Hall, where participants numbered 300 to 400 a year and operational costs were especially high, club members bought booklets containing coupons for each lecture and concert in the season. Fees for the use of the shower baths and gymnasiums covered the cost of maintaining those facilities.
Volunteers made the program possible. Had all the teachers
and assistants been paid, Sheldon estimated the program would have cost at
least twice as much. By Sheldon's count, more than 300 volunteers had taught
classes, given lectures, or performed music for the association by the turn of
the century; an additional 100 to 150 volunteers assisted in putting on the
concerts. In an average year, about 50 teachers volunteered their services once
a week; 70 to 80 people gave occasional lectures; and dozens more provided
auxiliary services. Most of the lecturers were
I can recall the devotion with which business men ran up and down the city, canvassing for funds, or labored in the executive management, attending to the wearisome details essential to such a complex institution. And I know today also, what hearty devotion our committees are rendering, and what labor their efforts involved, and how much they are doing for us. Looking over the long list of co‑workers, helpers in the cause, who have rendered service in many ways, it certainly stirs a feeling of the profoundest gratitude to one and all of them ‑‑ although naturally most of all to those who have sacrificed not only a single evening in the season, but whole days or scores of evenings in our cause.
What, after all, makes the success of such work is not the management at the head, but the devotion of the colleagues, the superintendents, and the volunteer workers. And if there has been anything unique in our institution, it has been the intense ardor of those who have served the institution in this way in devoting themselves to its purposes. The superintendents take hold of it as it were a matter of life or death. The work itself seems to arouse a certain inspiration and love for it, which grows as the time goes on. (Ibid., pp. 77‑78.)
Most of the club members were laborers. Censuses taken on random evenings turned up carpenters, tailors, cooks, machinists, factory workers, telephone operators, and teamsters. A smattering of teachers, clerks, and other white‑collar workers also took part. One census showed that participants represented about 161 businesses and factories. Few construction workers took part in the program, leading Sheldon to question whether "the irregularity in employment among the building trades does not foster a certain indifference to self‑improvement." In its first year, the program was open only to men; in successive seasons, the proportion of women and men in the program was about even. Membership was higher at the North Side site than on the South Side, which had a higher proportion of non‑English speaking immigrants.
While Sheldon boasted that "members of nearly all the
races who speak the English language" participated in the program, he
bemoaned its exclusion of African‑Americans.
In all, tens of thousands of working people took advantage of Self‑Culture programs. In its annual report, the Self‑Culture Hall Association listed the following attendance figures for the 1900‑01 season:
Total attendance at all branches 37,035
Total attendance at weekly lectures, concerts, socials 10,531
Total number baths taken (over 12 months) 9,693
Total attendance in adult classes 8,562
Total attendance in boys' and girls' classes 7,528
Total number men enrolled in classes 259
Total number women enrolled in classes 297
Average weekly attendance,
North Side Hall 110
South Side Hall 107
Daily average at free reading rooms 23
Estimated daily playground attendance 40‑50
The following season, total attendance rose to 39,351. Despite these figures, Sheldon lamented what he deemed intellectual sluggishness among working‑class people. He never expected Self‑Culture to catch on like the phonograph, but he worried that industrialization was smothering the native curiosity of urban laborers:
It is often said that people are hungering for opportunities of enlightenment. But our experience was precisely to the contrary, and to many would have been profoundly discouraging. It has never struck me that there was any great rush for self‑improvement from the artisan or any other class in this country.
It was not that the wage‑earner opposed us .… but the latent soul I have spoken of, is often very latent, indeed, hidden far down under the surface, out of sight even of the person who may have it. This element of higher manhood doesn't come surging to the front at the start. The conditions of life have seared it over with the majority of boys and girls in these classes, before they have entered their teens. The soul for them was nipped in the very bud. (Ibid., pp. 49‑50.)
Sheldon and his cohorts approached prospective participants
on the streets and in factories; they distributed leaflets and spoke of the
value of self‑culture, taking pains to ensure their listeners that they
were not being lured into some sort of religious meeting. In one instance,
Sheldon reported that more than 100 young women attended a lecture after he
spoke to them in their work place, but his joy was dashed when only two or
three of them returned the following week. When discouraged, he took
consolation in the belief that the association had a leavening effect on the
entire community. "The working class of the city are generally aware that
there is an important educational institution known as the Wage Earners' Self‑Culture
Clubs," he wrote. "The very fact of the existence of such work is an
impulse, or suggestive of a standard or possibilities of self‑improvement,
to thousands who may not come directly under the influence of such a movement.
I believe the effects of the existence of this association can be seen on the
artisan class at large in
In 1888, the year the first reading rooms were opened, the
Ethical Society board of trustees noted in its annual report that the rooms had
become "a kind of neighborhood Guild" and projected that, in time,
"the entire neighborhood may look to them as a literary centre of refining
and educating influence for the families of the neighborhood." An 1892 flyer
referred to the
Now and then it goes to one's heart in special instances where a truly fine, noble nature turns up out of those surging throngs pouring out of the doors from the factories at evening time. Here and there an individual of this other higher type welcomes the privileges, and shows himself glad at heart for the opportunities. And as the months go by, we can see the manhood coming out through the crust which had hidden it under the surface. I have known, too, of young women whose lives seemed to have been transformed by this means. Some of them who had been attending our clubs for years have remarked on the peculiar change coming over the young people after they have attended our lecture courses for a few months; the sense of dignity appearing in them in a way that had not shown itself before; an unconscious improvement in their conduct toward one another. (Ibid., p. 52.)
Sheldon continued to head the Self‑Culture Halls
Association until the fall of 1905, when he retired from the work and turned
over the reins to the resident superintendent; he continued as an ex-officio
member of the association's board of trustees until his death. Lighty,
suffering from ill health, resigned later that season after 11 years of
service; his resignation "was most reluctantly accepted by the Trustees,
who felt that they were losing a worthy, able and conscientious co‑worker,
whose enthusiastic and philanthropic spirit, coupled with intelligent
discrimination, pervaded the whole institution." (18th annual report of
the Self‑Culture Halls Association, 1905‑06) Drawing on his
experience in St. Louis, he later helped develop the extension program of the
The South Side Hall evidently closed in the 1905‑06
season. The North Side Hall was subsumed into the Neighborhood Association,
which has endured to this day. Lighty resigned both his posts in the spring of
1906, but he retained his enthusiasm for Ethical Culture. While working in the
extension program of the
Roger Baldwin, a teacher of sociology at
The Society was anything but cautious in its experiment in ethical religion. The ambitiousness of the Self‑Culture Halls Association was reflected in all the community's endeavors, including the formation of study clubs and the presentation of public lectures. Every new, untried idea backed by a few faithful supporters was enacted in the spirit of adventure; while some projects petered out, others were to endure for generations. Before Sheldon's tenure drew to a close, members of the community acquired faith in the institution as well as the man.
In the Society's early years, Sheldon was chief administrator as well as minister and lecturer. He handled most of the Society's financial transactions, including renting and furnishing meeting quarters; he was, reluctantly, the political kingpin, making decisive recommendations for board officers and committee chairmen; he oversaw the Sunday School, even writing the texts that formed the curriculum; and he supervised the Self‑Culture program and the Society's other philanthropic ventures. When he was exhausted by these responsibilities, as he often was, he complained only to his "confessional." However, he worried that the concentration of authority in his person placed the Society's future in jeopardy. He wanted members of the Society to recognize the institution as theirs, not his. At the end of the fifth season, he put out a call for greater cooperation and initiative. Asking that the Society "regard itself in a certain degree independent of him and his work," (Fifth Annual Report, 1891, drafted by Paul F. Coste) he handed primary responsibility for administration to the board. He called for an end to the Society's policy of planning its projects only after counting its receipts. Instead, he wanted Society members to dream of long‑term endeavors and then dig down deep to fund them. He insisted the board institute a permanent management system so the Society could "feel that it has a root here for all the coming century." (Ibid.) He also asked that committees assume more responsibility, and he assured them their authority would be respected.
This transition of authority was made possible by the emergence of a circle of dedicated laymen who, true to Sheldon's wishes, looked upon the Ethical movement as a personal mission. In practical affairs, Sheldon often turned to Paul F. Coste, who served the Society as treasurer off and on from its inception until his death in 1906, and to Joseph S. Taussig, who began a long stint as secretary in 1889. In the development of the Sunday School, he collaborated with William Brandenburger, director of advertising for Anheuser‑Busch Cos., whom he "loved as a younger brother," and, later, Cecelia Boette. (Story of the Life of Jesus for the Young told from an Ethical Standpoint, Walter L. Sheldon, S. Burns Weston, Philadelphia, Second Edition, 1909; note to children by Anna H. Sheldon) But the man to whom he turned for guidance in matters of philosophy and ethical ministry was Robert Moore<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, who began a 30‑year term as president of the board in 1891 after stints by Tredway, Stevens, and Nagel.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Moore was an engineer and professor of engineering at
Washington University; he served for a time as president of the American
Society of Civil Engineers. He was a Renaissance man who regarded the reflective
life as highly as he did the laws of nature. In his leadership of the
engineers' society, he frequently stressed the necessity of broad education and
character development. Perhaps his most succinct expression of those values is
found in the speech he delivered at the laying of the cornerstone for Cupples
Hall No. 2, which housed
The saying that man cannot live by bread alone is nowhere
truer than in technical education. Fed on the bread‑and‑butter
studies alone, the mind is narrowed and the soul starved. The lawyer, the
physician, the engineer, to reach the highest success even in his own
profession must have a broad general knowledge of other things. He must know
something of the experience of mankind and its lessons as taught in history; he
must know something of what the world's thinkers have thought as taught in
philosophy, something of Plato and Aristotle, of Kant and Spencer; he must know
what science has revealed concerning the history of the earth and the relation
of man to other forms of life. He should be trained not only to think for
himself but to enter with full sympathy into the thoughts and feelings of
others, into the dreams of the poets and into the moral ideals of the prophets
and apostles. In the high society of all who have led or uplifted the world he
should feel himself at home … For the highest success, the professional man
needs the widest outlook based upon the broadest culture. (Pamphlet issued by
In addition to his service to the Ethical Society and the
No result of the great awakening of the human mind which has characterized the last hundred years has been more marked, nor at first blush more melancholy and disastrous, than the havoc which it has wrought upon all current forms of religious belief. When examined in the clear light of modern scientific criticism, the sacred histories of the nations have been one by one resolved into incoherent masses of unverifiable traditions, and the theological systems which have been erected upon them, in some cases with masterly skill, are left without foundation. Much as we may regret this result ‑‑ and to one reared in the old faith, as most of us have been, it is at first, and very naturally, a source of deep disquietude ‑‑ there is no help for it. For one who has followed with any care the results of modern historical investigation there can be no returning to his old creed in theology any more than to the Ptolemaic system of astronomy or to the chemistry of the alchemists. The old temples, once overthrown, cannot be rebuilt. But in the midst of this overthrow, which seems at first to leave nothing unshaken, two great facts stand forth immutable, whose importance and significance as we study them continually grow. These are the physical universe, the wonders of which science is just beginning to unfold, and the universe of mind, glimpses of which we catch in the varied powers of our own minds but to the possibilities of which, under other conditions or in other beings, we can set no limit. As we study the outer world, we find it to be animated with ever‑unfolding life and governed by unchangeable laws. And turning to the study of man, who combines in one being the properties of both mind and matter, we find the same thing to be true. His life is an orderly development.
Animated by hidden but irresistible forces, it is unfolded to a plan and governed by laws from whose jurisdiction there is no escape. On the physical side, obedience to these laws brings health, beauty and strength of body; on the spiritual side, obedience to the laws which govern in that realm means health, beauty and strength of soul; whilst in either realm disobedience brings in its train disorder, disease and ultimate death.
A recognition of these elemental facts of the moral life, sometimes dimly, sometimes clearly seen, has been the animating principle of all religions worthy of the name, and sustained the souls of the saints and heroes of every age and nation. The only error has been in mistaking their origin and significance. They have been heretofore treated as arbitrary enactments by some power outside the soul itself and made known to man through some supernatural revelation. So that any questioning of the reality of this revelation has been thought to place the moral law itself in question.
A deeper study, however, has made it clear to many in this latter age that the laws which govern man's spiritual nature are a part of the very essence of things and are no more supernatural than are the axioms of mathematics or the laws of number. They are natural as human life and the external world are natural, and divine only as these may partake of the divine nature.
To read these laws as written in the individual consciousness and exemplified in the lives of men and the history of nations, to help each other so far as may be to embody them in our own actions, to teach them above all to the young, to stand in a world infected with moral skepticism as a witness to this deepest and most comprehensive of all faiths, faith in the essential righteousness of the universe, is the mission of [a] society like ours. Surely no work can be more worthy of our best endeavors, none more attractive to one anxious to help bring in the new age of nobler manners and better laws.
Sheldon also had two formal associates in his career. The
first, E.N. Plank, was hired in the fall of 1892 as resident superintendent of
the Self‑Culture program. He lived at the first Self‑Culture Hall
Ironically, though he did not inherit Plank's title of
associate leader, he directed several of the Society's in‑house
educational programs and often presided at Memorial Hall services in Sheldon's
absence. Lighty resigned both his posts in the spring of 1906, but he retained
his enthusiasm for Ethical Culture. While working in the extension program of
Besides his formal associates and advisors, Sheldon
maintained friendships with two local colleagues in the liberal ministry, Rabbi
As the Society grew more stable, its self‑consciousness gave way to a broader attentiveness to ethics. Instead of continually defining the Ethical Society, Sheldon turned his attention to social mores and political institutions. Never one for the scientific detachment of the sociologist, Sheldon interpreted history as a series of moral progressions and regressions. In his frequent addresses on American statesmen, for instance, he asked the audience to ponder the moral character of the men and women whose ideals shaped American government. He also spoke on controversial issues such as race relations, the growth of trade unions, and municipal reform.
Sheldon attempted to maintain a balance among addresses on
religion, the inner life, social criticism, and literature. A talk on "The
Pursuit of Happiness" was followed by one on "The Plays of
Ibsen" or "The Meaning of Justice." He had difficulty accepting
the mixed receptions with which his addresses were met: Cerebral members
appreciated his scholarly style, but he perceived that some members found him
stiff. In an 1891 letter to
I have made up my mind that it would be necessary for me
to be a little more popular in my methods and subjects Sunday mornings. It is essential
that the Society be first built up in point of numbers. You and Mrs. Moore will
therefore be a little disappointed in the material that will be given at
Memorial Hall this winter. I have during the past years "struck
high," but there is a certain need that, without descending morally, I
should be willing to "stoop to conquer." Particularly I shall choose
subjects that will be interesting to the Germans of the city, as they are the
more easily reached at the start. Later on, I hope to reach the American
element. But I see plainly that we must first get the Society on its feet in
point of numbers. (Letter to Robert Moore, dated
Ethical leaders regularly toured the circuit of societies.
During Sheldon's tenure, frequent visitors included William M. Salter, who
alternately served as leader of the
Although the platform service was the centerpiece of the Ethical Society, Sheldon considered it a relatively weak form of intellectual stimulation. He ceaselessly urged Society members to read books on philosophy, religion, ethics, and politics, and he formed study groups to facilitate discussion. Although a man of strong convictions, he often refused to voice his opinions before the groups he moderated; he believed the greatest service he could render was to encourage participants to think for themselves.
Carrying his fascination with character development from
the platform to the classroom, Sheldon in 1890 oversaw the formation of the
Biography Club, in which young adults read and discussed the lives of exemplary
people. The club, which met once a month on a weeknight, initially concentrated
on the American founding fathers ‑‑ George Washington, Benjamin
Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Patrick Henry.
Participants presented short papers on the subjects' lives and work, and then
assessed the ethical development of each man. After its first season, the club
elected a more varied reading list. When Lighty took over the group in the 1895‑96
season, it began meeting on Sunday mornings, before the platform service, in
the Society's rooms at the museum. The following season, Lighty expanded the
young adult program with the formation of the Young People's
Sheldon's experience with the Young Men's Section taught
him that men were more interested in current political and business affairs
than in abstract ethics. Accordingly, he initiated for them a Political Science
Club in the fall of 1892. The men also met fortnightly, but on a weeknight. At
times, the group devoted itself to a systematic study of political science
based on a reading list drawn up by Sheldon. In the group's first season,
Sheldon delivered a series of lectures titled "Outlines of
Economics." For the benefit of men who had not attended college, Sheldon
also invited professors from
Sheldon and Moore were greatly encouraged by the success of
these study groups. In his report to Society members at the 1894 annual
The Political Science Club was succeeded by the Men's
Philosophical Club, which held its first meeting on
For those more interested in Paradisaeidae than Parmenides, the Nature Study Section was formed in 1902. This club met once a week on a weeknight and had an average attendance of about 150. In addition to holding lectures and classes, the group organized summertime field trips for young people.
In addition to spawning the Self‑Culture Halls
Association, the Society sponsored numerous short‑term educational
programs for the public. Beginning
Building. In the first two seasons,
In later years, the Society broadened the scope of its
public lectures. In 1898, the Greek Ethics Club sponsored a series of three
lectures on "The Meaning and Scope of Sociology" by Professor Franklin
H. Giddings of
In 1903, the Society sponsored an eight‑week series
of Sunday evening lectures. Professors from the
The blockbuster of the Society's lecture offerings was its introductory series on the World's Fair in 1904. Each Tuesday morning from January 26 to February 23, directors of various departments of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition gave illustrated lectures on the exhibits and programs they were planning. An average of 500 people attended each lecture.
In addition to openings its (rented) doors to the public, the Society frequently reached out to the community in the person of its leader. Besides giving more than a dozen lectures a year in the Self-Culture program, Sheldon chaired a branch of the St. Louis Civics Club and frequently addressed such organizations as the Knights of Labor, the Single Tax League, and the Nationalist Club.
In its first decade, the social interaction of Society
members was largely limited to participation in educational programs. Sheldon
was ill at ease in social settings, and he had no inclination to organize any
gathering that might be termed lighthearted. Fortunately,
[I]ts complete success in bringing pleasantly together a large number of our members who had before been strangers to each other was to all a delight. It proved that we were in closer sympathy with each other than we knew; and if the hint which it gave as to the duty of holding such meetings at more frequent intervals hereafter be followed out, it will mark the beginning of a new era of good fellowship and mutual helpfulness, the value of which to the members and to the society as a whole it would be hard to overestimate. For what better basis is there for enduring friendship than a common pursuit of high ideals; what more helpful than the fellowship of those with like aims?
And what better work for a society like ours than to give an opportunity for such fellowship and a house for such a brotherhood? (Ibid.)
Also in 1896, the Society's tenth anniversary, it held its
first convention of the Union of Ethical Societies. Billed as an "Ethical
Congress," the convention included five public forums. The first of these,
"Woman's Influence on Public Affairs," garnered the greatest share of
public attention. A newspaper story under the subheading "Gathering of
Brainy Women from Five Big Cities" noted that the audience on the morning
of April 23 was full of "young women and elderly women and women betwixt
and between, but all of them earnest and thoughtful. They represented the
intellectual side of woman's life in
The keynote speaker was Lydia Avery Coonley, president of
the Women's Club of the Chicago Ethical Society and a vocal suffragist. Coonley
examined the detrimental effects of sexual inequality and urged her listeners
to be diligent in acquiring political power: "The farmer did not cease to
sow his grain because his first planting failed to come up," she said.
(Ibid.) Coonley also asserted that winning the vote would not radically change
the role of women; they would wield substantial social influence only when they
regained some of the monetary control they customarily relinquished when they
married, she said. Coonley was followed by Mary H. Wilmarth, also of the
Chicago Society. Wilmarth applauded the industriousness of women in starting
the Women's Sanitary Commission, which cared for the wounded during the Civil
War, and the temperance movement. By participating in efforts such as these,
which fell neatly into women's traditional roles, women acquired the savvy
needed to expand their sphere of influence, she said. By way of illustration,
she noted that politically active women had initiated the drive for highway
The second public forum of the assembly focused on
municipal reform. Held the afternoon of Friday, April 24, the meeting was
attended primarily by
Along with the conference on women, the big public draw of
the assembly was a symposium on Moral Education in the Schools" held
Saturday morning, April 25. Among the educators who addressed the meeting were
Hall; F. Louis Soldan, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools; J.M.
Greenwood, superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools; and Washington
University Chancellor W.L. Chaplin. In his keynote address, Hall urged that
children be taught to appreciate ‑‑ and even revere ‑‑ nature
and warned against the early indoctrination of children in religious beliefs.
Although a firm theist, Hall held that love of "the creator" should
be allowed to arise naturally from a child's sense of wonder at clouds, trees,
and flowers. Likewise, he said, moral principles develop as children, through
the study of biology, discover "the universal kinship of all living
things." ("Moral Teaching in the Schools,"
The concluding conference of the assembly on the morning of April 26 also was open to the public but, like the conference on "Ethical Views of Life," it attracted mainly Ethical Society members and delegates. Speakers included Sheldon, Salter, Weston, and Elliott.
In an era marked by burgeoning collectivism in the form of
government bureaucracy and labor organizations, Sheldon and Moore intended the
Ethical Congress to underscore the value of individual character and moral
values. And against the cynicism prompted by widespread political corruption,
they held up personal reformation as a vehicle of hope.
In number of delegates, in importance of the subjects discussed, the ability with which they were treated and the consequent interest on the part of our own members and the public at large, [the congress] was by general consent the most important gathering of the forces of the Ethical movement which has yet been held, and its effect in deepening the interest of our own members and extending the influence of the ideas for which we stand cannot but be great and lasting. It was a further demonstration, if such were needed, that the times are ripe for an organization of the moral forces and aspirations of men which shall be based not upon history or tradition or any outward authority but upon the living words of reason and conscience as revealed to us today. More and more, men are saying in those early words of Emerson, V/ spoken now sixty years ago, "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past …? The sun shines today also.… There are new lands, new men, new thought. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship."
But whilst the number of those who join with us in these words is rapidly growing, we must not shut our eyes to the fact that we are yet a very small minority, and that nothing moves more slowly than the minds and hearts of men; so that for many years all the zeal and faith and patience we can command will be required to uphold and advance the standards under which we have enlisted. (Minutes of Annual Meeting of the Ethical Society, May 4, 1896)
Despite the enthusiasm reflected in the congress, the study
clubs, and the Self‑Culture program, the Society was financially
strapped. The establishment of the working surplus Sheldon had called for was
stymied by the severe depression that hit the nation in the 1890s. Humbled by
The Society was not averse to coaxing members with shame and honor. Beginning in the early 1890s, on treasurer Joseph Taussig's initiative, the Society distributed lists showing each member's annual contribution. This list, said Taussig, would "enable members at a glance to see what others are subscribing, and should they find their friends and equals in means in a higher class than themselves, possibly thereby to become induced to raise the amount of their own subscription." (Letter from Joseph Taussig to Robert Moore dated May 19, 1892, Ethical Society archives) A finance committee was responsible for soliciting and collecting members' pledges, but its members generally served reluctantly and without enthusiasm; when impending debts spurred panic, the committee habitually asked a handful of reliable members to close the gap. Giving patterns were grossly lopsided: Of the $5,355 contributed in 1895, $1,755 came from 199 members who gave from $1 to $50; the remaining $3,600 was given by 23 members who contributed from $50 to $500. In an effort to even the burden, Sheldon regularly invited visitors to become members and pressed members to meet their pledges. The Society also looked to civic‑minded non‑members, distributing solicitation tracts warning that deficient funding threatened the Society's community programs. To encourage regular giving by non‑members, the executive team of Moore, Coste, and Joseph Taussig started a program called the Envelope Fund. Begun in 1898, this initiative provided contributors with numbered envelopes to be deposited weekly at Memorial Hall; the offering in each coded envelope was credited to the sum promised by the corresponding contributor. This system allowed non‑member contributors to make the equivalent of a yearly pledge without committing themselves to formal membership.
In the Society's first 20 years, its annual receipts rose haltingly from $2,400 to nearly $6,400. Expenses exceeded receipts in eight fiscal years in that period, though all but two of those deficits were covered by carryovers from preceding years. The depressed economy, erratic Sunday collections, and reliance on one‑year pledges that often went unfulfilled discouraged the board of trustees from initiating long‑term projects. To offset that uncertainty, a small group of Society members in 1896 signed three-year pledges totaling $1,600. Because the signers ‑‑ who included Moore, Nagel, J.W. Morton, and Adolphus Busch ‑‑ had been reliable contributors for years, the promise added little to the board's confidence.
Sheldon was particularly disturbed by the Society's precarious finances. He envied the permanent facilities of sister societies and was frustrated by the fellowship's inability to commit itself to buying quarters of its own. The situation improved in the fall of 1895, when Sheldon succeeded in securing the museum's western basement room for the Society's exclusive use. The quarters were still cramped, however, and in 1897 Sheldon asked members and friends of the Society to contribute $5‑25 a year beyond their regular subscriptions to help fund a proposed museum addition which would provide permanent space for the Society. In the ensuing year, less than $400 was contributed to the fund ‑hardly enough to influence the museum's board of control.
Sheldon's patience ran out in November 1898 when the board decided on a policy of retrenchment. Harried by encroaching debts and the deaths of several major contributors, the board decided to sharply reduce funds for printing, visiting lecturers, and professional music ‑‑ the Society's costliest non‑essential expenses. A newspaper account referred to these areas as "the favorite departments of Prof. Sheldon," (St. Louis Globe‑Democrat, Dec. 11, 1898) but it is difficult to imagine alternative cuts that would have met with his liking. In the 1898‑99 budget, after the lecturer's salary of $3,000 and rental fees of $1,000, the largest single expenditure was $461 for the Sunday School ‑Sheldon's dearest love. Sheldon simply would brook no retrenchment. On Sunday, November 27, a few weeks after the board meeting, Sheldon announced from the platform that he intended to resign at the end of the season. In a statement published in the Globe‑Democrat the next day, he laid his decision entirely to the Society's finances:
It is true that I contemplate resigning, but I have not resigned. The talk to that effect grew out of an announcement which I made yesterday morning. I thought that it was best to prepare my people for action in that direction. I will probably leave the city in May or June, and did not wish to leave without preparing my people for action in that direction. It is not true that I have already resigned. To resign I will have to go before the board of directors and tender my resignation. No such action has been taken by me as yet. I could not resign to the congregation attending the services Sunday morning. I could only indicate to them my intention of doing so.
The reason I have for wishing to resign is that the
society has decided upon a policy of retrenchment in some directions, and I
have felt that such a policy could best be carried out by a new man. The
movement will not be affected in any way by my action. It will go right ahead
as before, except that a new man will be at the head of the movement. There has
been a constant deficit which the society has had to face each year, and I have
been expecting the action taken by the directors for some time. The directors
felt that, in view of this deficit, it could do nothing less than retrench in
some particulars. As the action has been expected by me for some time, I did
not have to consider long, and that is the reason why I acted so promptly on
the matter. (Globe‑Democrat,
Paraphrasing Sheldon more bluntly, the newspaper reported that "he took the stand … that he had had a hand in the building up of the society, and he did not propose at this time to be a party to tearing it down." (Ibid.)
The announcement stunned the membership. Sheldon's
contention that "the movement will not be affected" by his departure
convinced no one: Despite his protests to the contrary, to many members Sheldon
was the Ethical Society, and his departure would portend dissolution.
[It would] be well to summon [the meeting] without any
reference to finances but just with the announcement that such a meeting was
necessary in order to make plans for the future of the Society in consideration
of the announcement I had made with regard to the step contemplated by me at
the end of the season. What our members need to feel is that they and not
myself constitute the Ethical Society; that they and I together have been
supporting a common cause and that it is their Society rather than mine. It is
important that there should be another tie between our members than the
indirect tie through my personality. This has been a serious misfortune on our
Society here in
I believe that it would be worthwhile for the Executive Committee to say outright at such a meeting, bold and explicitly, that the financial side of the Society had broken down, so that the members shall fully realize the whole situation and not feel that they could tide it over just by raising enough money to pay for the [lecturers'] Exchanges this year. I am simply trying to think out a way … by which those who belong to the Society may feel in every possible way that it is their cause rather than just mine; that it is a cause which ought to be able to go on independent of me.… To you and me, this cause is a religion. (Letter from Walter L. Sheldon to Robert Moore dated Dec. 2, 1898; Ethical Society archives)
Those attending the meeting promised to contribute a total
of $700 above their standing pledges, and members who could not attend sent in
promises of several hundred more. In addition, a committee consisting of Leo
Levis, Louis Bry, Julius Seidel, F.A. Bayer, and Cornelius Skinner was formed
to solicit more three‑year pledges. In the pledge appeal circulated in
January, members were told the Society needed a guaranteed income of at least
$6,000 a year. However, the current year's pledges, minus those of major
contributors who recently had died, provided a guarantee of less than $4,500.
Of that year's 265 pledges, 60 were for amounts less than $5, and 143 were for
amounts from $5 to $10. At the same time, the Society spent about $21 per
capita. The appeal asked members to carry their fair share of expenses and to
sign multiple‑year pledges, thus providing the stability Sheldon
demanded. Coste slated another meeting for
[Y]ou have been informed of the fact that in consequence of the loss by death of several of our most valued friends and supporters, the finances of the society had reached a crisis which threatened a restriction of its activity, and the possible loss of our leader. In view of these dangers, the committee appealed to every member and well-wisher to aid in averting results so disastrous to the Society and to the cause of a purely ethical religion.
To this appeal the response has been so general and so earnest that the Committee are able to report to you that the difficulties which threatened us, have been so far overcome, that they feel assured that the Society will be able to go forward without retrenchment and with no change of leadership.
This, however, does not mean that everything necessary to
secure our future has yet been accomplished. It means rather, that with a
continuation of the interest and activity recently manifested by our members,
and particularly by our young people, whatever is necessary can be
accomplished. It means that the permanent establishment of the Ethical Society
Whilst, therefore, we wish to sound the note of hope and confidence, it is only to call you to renewed activity. Though the Society is stronger today than ever before, we must not forget that to live, we must grow, and what we have done, must be counted as but the beginning of what we hope to do. (Statement read Sunday morning, March 5, 1899, by Robert Moore; reprinted in Globe‑Democrat March 6, 1899)
Despite Sheldon's public pronouncements, it is doubtful
that the Society's finances were his only reason for contemplating resigning.
The despair and vocational doubt he revealed in his journal, coupled with the
relative financial freedom he attained through his marriage, may have prompted
him to consider another career path; he probably feared that the Society's
financial woes reflected a lack of charisma on his part. At the time Sheldon
forced the issue at the Ethical Society, the Rev. John Snyder, a colleague of
Sheldon's in the liberal ministry, was under fire for failing to increase
attendance at the
However, as he had feared, the rise in contributions was short‑lived. In the 1899‑1900 fiscal year, Sheldon won most of the assurances he had sought, including funds for decorating and furnishing a room that was to serve as a fellowship parlor; fees for retaining William Henry Pornmer, the most capable of the Society's choral directors, as well as a professional string quartet; and increased expenditures for study‑club teachers, newspaper advertising, and the printing of lecture extracts. In addition, the Society agreed to pay half the salary of an educational assistant to serve under Sheldon in both the Ethical Society and the Self‑Culture Halls Association. But contributions dropped the following season, and the Society ended the 1900‑1901 fiscal year with a small deficit. Again, the deaths of early stalwarts accounted for most of the loss. The surplus that had been raised in response to Sheldon's threat more than covered the debt, but the drop‑off indicated that the year‑to‑year struggle for survival would continue. To ease the threat of deficits, the board set up an Emergency Fund. In 1905, Moore and Joseph Taussig gave the fund a tremendous boost by donating $5,500 in U.S. Steel Corporation bonds which bore 5 percent interest.
The first years of the century saw a marked increase in
membership. By the end of the 1902‑03 season, the membership mark topped
Its modest growth notwithstanding, the Ethical Society of
St. Louis had become a remarkable success. The fellowship overcame the
inevitable misgivings of a conservative community by providing an arena for
free thought. The Self‑Culture Halls and the Society's lectures and study
groups earned the fellowship a widespread reputation for progressive
intellectualism. The Society's Sunday School, its most concerted experiment in
ethical education, offered a unique alternative to sectarian religious
instruction. In short, the fellowship lived up to its name by helping men,
women, and children learn to cultivate "the good life." In a rare
display of gregariousness, Sheldon arranged a celebration of those successes on
[T]here is one particular favor I beg for most
beseechingly and that is that in all the exercises, there may be as little
reference as possible to me or my name. I should wish this for my own feeling's
sake and also as a matter of principle. We should take the occasion to make the
members feel that they personally constitute the Ethical Society and that the
lecturer is simply an officer of it for the time being, while the real future
of it is in their hands. On the other hand, any strong personal word with
regard to myself would only distress me. Such a meeting as I witnessed in
Sheldon's words were unknowingly prophetic: The anniversary
celebration marked the last time he would mingle with the community in good
health. Shortly afterward, he embarked on a seven‑week tour of
Be patient, O be patient, go and watch
the wheat ears grow
So imperceptibly that ye can mark
nor change nor throe;
Day after day, day after day till the ear
is fully grown,
And then again day after day till the
ripened field is brown.
Sheldon died on June 5. The memorial service on October 12,
a Saturday, was the first fellowship meeting of the new season. Moore presided
over the service, which included tributes by Adler, the Rev. George R. Dodson,
successor to Sheldon's friend J. C. Learned as pastor of the Church of the
Unity; Rev. Samuel Sale of Temple Shaare Emeth, the rabbi who taught Sheldon
Hebrew; Professor M. Anesaki, a member of the Tokyo ethical club that had
sponsored his tour of Japan; Dr. William Taussig, longtime president of the
Self‑Culture Halls Association; William A. Brandenburger, a board member
who grew up in the Society and who recently had become superintendent of the
Sunday School; and Fanny M. Bacon, principal of the Marquette School and a
participant in the Greek Ethics Club. In his report to the membership for the
The year has, indeed, been a very anxious and critical one. But the Society has borne the test in a manner that is full of hope for the future. The additional funds necessary to meet our increased expenses have been promptly and willingly contributed; the attendance upon the Sunday morning lectures has been undiminished; and above all our Sunday School, thanks to the admirable organization perfected by Mr. Sheldon and to the unwearied and unselfish labors of the Superintendent and the teachers, has more than held its own. So that today the Society is more united and stronger than ever before.
During the next year we shall greatly miss the presence of our Leader, but the memory of his life and work will remain with us as a continual inspiration; and we cannot suppress the hope, which with him was a conviction, that each year will find us stronger, and that for years to come the Society will continue as a source of strength to its members and a living witness for all that is best in life and character. (Annual Report of the Ethical Society for the 1906‑07 season)
Sheldon's death required the lay members of the community to do what he had wanted them to do ‑‑ take charge. For four years, Robert Moore and other members of the executive committee ran the Ethical Society without benefit of a formal leader. The Program Committee brought in platform speakers, and other committees tended to social programs and adult education. Cecilia Boette, a Sheldon protege, took the reins of the Sunday School. Sustained attendance at Platform meetings and in the Sunday School allayed fears of disorganization and dissolution. Contributions dropped off, and study clubs grew less active, but those setbacks were expected consequences of the loss of leadership. In time, panic gave way to sober, plodding labor. This period marks the maturation of the community; members who had looked to Sheldon as their father and guide now exerted the initiative he had instilled in them.
As the community's family feeling grew stronger, more and more members adopted Sheldon's dream of building a permanent home. The New York Society was proceeding with its plans to build a school and meeting house on its property on Central Park West, and the West London Society was preparing to acquire a church building. The Ethical movement was becoming an established force in religious life, and St. Louisans wanted to share in this new phase of growth.
Ironically, the World's Fair, which had so captivated
Sheldon and the community, indirectly forced the executive committee to think
more concretely about finding a long‑term home. In 1905, Halsey C. Ives,
director of the
Society members agreed that buying or building a structure would be a preferable solution, but the ‑community's finances indicated that that dream was many years away. In the year following Sheldon's death, pledge contributions dropped nearly a thousand dollars to $4,917. That figure was augmented by Sunday collections, interest on bonds, a donation from the Greek Ethics Club, and a fund‑raising entertainment put on by the Sunday School, but total receipts still lagged behind previous years. The termination of Sheldon's salary, which had been the largest single budget item at $3,200, offered some budgetary relief, but the Society paid out nearly that much in the 1907‑08 season for guest lecturers and a $1,200 stipend for Sheldon's widow, Anna Hartshorne Sheldon. As the old habit of dodging deficits continued, constructing a building seemed far beyond the Society's means. Most members agreed that only substantial membership growth could provide the funding needed for a permanent home.
Anna Sheldon was not a party to that pessimism. She
believed that the members and friends of the Society had the necessary funds,
and that all that was needed to make the dream a reality was a sharp impetus.
In March 1909, she provided that impetus by offering to donate $37,000
[equivalent to about $1.2 million in 2021] toward the erection of a building.
The offer was made on two conditions: The Society had to acquire a suitable lot
with separate funds, and it had to secure enough pledges to complete the
estimated cost of the building. To ensure swift action, Anna Sheldon said the
offer would be open only until
In a report delivered to
At that time, the Society had about 400 members. Of that
number, about 50 provided two‑thirds of the Society's income. Acting on
the assumption that the same core would contribute the lion's share of the
building fund, the Ways and Means Committee called for a membership meeting at
which the largest pledges could be announced. The hope was that a healthy start
would inspire all members to contribute to the fund. At that meeting, held
April 9, members pledged a total of $10,350. The need for extensive fund‑raising
Even as the pledges were being counted, the need for a
permanent home was becoming more urgent. The
By June, a total of $67,000 had been pledged. Contributions continued to trickle in over the summer, and by the start of the new season the Society was only $2,700 short of its official goal. The executive committee closed the gap by pledging that amount from the general fund. Anna Sheldon's gift now was assured, but the executive committee called for an additional $15,000-$25,000 to ensure that the building would be first‑rate. In September, the executive committee called in the first round of pledge payments. Because Anna Sheldon's gift could be used only for the building, the Site Committee could not negotiate for real estate until a substantial portion of contributors made their payments.
The Site Committee concentrated its search on
Anna Sheldon chose as the architect Louis Clemens Spiering,
a native St. Louisan who had studied at l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in
With Anna Sheldon's gift in hand,
Fund‑raising efforts continued in 1910. Most of the new pledges came in small amounts from first‑time contributors, but some of the largest contributors increased their subscriptions still more. Moore raised his pledge by $1,000, Rudolph Schmitz by $2,000. The Women's Conference, successor to the Women's Auxiliary, conducted benefit dinners. The Society also asked the community at large to contribute to the cause. Local publisher William Marion Reedy wrote an editorial in The Mirror, an international literary magazine, calling on "St. Louisans of advan