A Gigantic Poorhouse

By Hugh O. Pentecost

[Delivered on October 6, 1889 to the Unity Congregation at

Newark, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.
Published in
Twentieth Century October 10, 1889. -- Ed.]

The Door to the Poorhouse

I wonder if it ever occurred to you that this world is exceedingly poor, as compared with the wealth it might possess. The poverty of the world is what strikes me almost more than anything else. I know, of course, that we are richer now than we ever were before. The progress that we have made since primeval man roamed the forests, the possessor of no social wealth, and the owner of almost no personal property, has been incalculable. It has been so great that we are given to glorification about it. I have no wish to underrate the advancement we have made. We should be ceaselessly thankful that we live now rather than in any preceding age. This is a great and glorious era. Everything that the Fourth of July orator and the taffy-tongued political aspirant says of it, when he makes perspiring efforts for votes, is true. But when I think of what might be, of what may be, and what, I think, will be, the mind is clouded and the heart made sick by vulgar poverty in the midst of which we live.

I am not now thinking, particularly, of the poor persons who crowd the human pig sties of our great cities. The sight of them is sufficiently appalling and the smell of them is worse, I admit. I have been into their pens and see their bare floors, crusted with dirt, their dark closets, in which they sleep on things called beds, their tables from which they eat directly out of the pots, kettles and pans, in which what they call their food, but what is more appropriately designated "grub," is cooked, and over which hordes of cockroaches forage, undismayed. I have sat down with them in these prison pens, these slave quarters (more cheerless than the cells which criminals occupy, more comfortless than the cabins of chattel slaves, with which I was also familiar in my boyhood),1 until I turned sick and faint from the foulness of the place and was obliged to get to the window for purer air.

These poor persons are the scandal of the world. Every minister of the pretended Gospel of Jesus ought to walk in sackcloth and ashes, every church ought to be draped in mourning, and if there is a personal God, he should deluge the earth with his tears, shake the mountains with the force of his sighs, and fill the air with one incessant thunder peal of protest, until the disgrace of personal poverty is purged away. The Devil himself, if there were a Devil, would have appeared long before this and protested that into whatever wickedness he may wish to draw men, he is not mean and low enough to have conceived of the big flats in the Mulberry bend,2 or any other vile smelling tenement house. While these poor people and their nasty dwelling exist the idea of a supervising God is an offence to the sound mind and sympathetic heart, the Church is an imposture, religion a failure, and justice and mercy are unrealised dreams.

But I am not particularly concerned with the phenomenon of poor persons. These poor persons are, indeed, microcosms of the world-poverty of which I am thinking, but I wish to get before you, if I can, the fact that there is very little wealth existing where there should be an incalculable amount. One reason why there are so many poor persons is that there is not enough wealth to enrich each one, even if it were equally of equitably distributed. The curse of the world is two-fold. That which is most apparent is that what wealth there is, is very unequally distributed, but the most important fact is that there is too little wealth, and this latter phase of the question is what I want to get before you if I can. I want you to see the fact and understand the reason of the fact.

Let us not think wholly of material wealth –of houses and horses and bonds and paintings and statues. There is wealth of the mind and wealth of the heart that we lack and that we might have but for the causes which rob us also of material riches.

How poor the world is in thought. It is true that there are countless thousands of books, all packed with thoughts, but only some thoughts are in all of them, for the most part. There are only a few real books; books full of original thought. I cannot tell you just which are the real books but Emerson or Carlyle would have named you off a few books, perhaps not more than would have gone over your fingers once, and would have said: "These are the thought mines from which all other books have been quarried."

The world is rich in books but it is poor in thought, and what thought there is has been the product of a few intellectual millionaires, so as to speak. The average run of men are poor in thought. Talk to them as you meet them and you will soon grow tired of them. Their minds go round in a little circus ring and you soon get all the way round, and you discover that every time you meet them you see the same performance, now a summersault, now a leap through a hoop, but most of the time just jogging along. A large proportion of the human race think of nothing but how much money they made or lost, or expect to make or lose, or have or haven’t; or else where they went or expect to go, or what they did or expect to do, and who they were with. Dollars, and sayings and doings not worth talking about, make up the sum of most of our thinking and speaking. Poverty of thought! I look at some people and wonder how they can live with their little range of thought, just as I wonder how some people can live in their two or three rooms, with a stove, a bed, a chair and a table.

Now, why are we so poor in thought? Why is it that Plato, and Shakespeare, and Goethe, and George Eliot rear themselves so far above our heads? Why should there be so few great thinkers? We may not ask for any greatest than our greatest, but why should there not be more thought and more thinkers?

The answer seems to me perfectly plain. We do everything we can to repress thought and discourage thinking. Your intellectual circus rider is the great man. He who reproduces what others have said; he who goes round and round in the beaten sawdust ring; he who smiles upon spectators, as he jogs along, as much as to say: You need not be afraid. You may come right up to the side of circus ring without any danger. The ring-master cracks his whip but it does not mean anything. Me and my horse go round and round always inside the ring." This sort of thinker is considered a safe man. He becomes your college president, your pope, your bishop, your parson, your judge, your lawyer, your editor, your successful politician, your great and much-sought-for after-dinner speaker.

But if a man arises with a new thought, giving honor to the old in its time and place, but beginning where the last thinker left off and going on from that point; if he takes his pilgrim staff and goes into the unexplored country and comes back telling what he saw and heard; if he gets out of the circus ring, we throw rotten eggs at him, we laugh at him as a crank, we denounce him as a dangerous man, we stop dealing with him, we have our children shun him as if he were a leper, and if his new thought threatens "vested rights" we throw him into prison; we circulate all kinds of lies about him, we call him a corrupter of youth, we declare he is immoral; in short we announce to the world that if any man has a new thought he will express it only at the risk to his reputation, his comfort, his liberty, or his life.

Is it any wonder that we are poor in thought? If a minister expresses a new idea the Church brings all her accursed machinery to bear upon him and he must either shut up or get out. If a doctor or a lawyer or a school teacher makes a new discovery in fact or method, and announces it, he there and then begins a life of torment – patients, clients and pulpits desert him. If a public man -- a statesman or a political economist – sees a new truth and speaks it, he is relegated to private life at once. No ordinary editor who should dare to put a new thought into his newspaper could hold his position a week. As for a politician – well, a politician who did any independent thinking would not be a politician. A politician is a man who asks the lowest and meanest of the people -– those who are most behind the age – what they think, and when he discovers it, or thinks he does, he smiles upon them, hoping they will not see his liar’s heart, and tells them what they think is what he thinks.

Is it any wonder that the world is an intellectual poor-house when it is the policy of all the so-called leaders of the human race, both in religion and secular thought, to kill every new idea before it is fairly born? Happily truth cannot be suppressed, otherwise our present rulers, including majorities, would run the world back to minimalism by mental breeding in and in.

So also the world is poor in love, and for the same reason. Everything is done to kill love. We are taught with our dawning consciousness that patriotism is one of the noblest instincts of the mind. We are taught that we should love America and Americans better than any other land or people. Ah, yes. If it were not for that cry:"For God and Native Land" how would despots and plutocrats maintain their sway? It is to the interest of kings that the people of different nations should hate one another. It is to the interest of manufacturers that the workmen of different lands should look upon each other as competing rivals. Patriotism – one of the meanest emotions of which man is capable – what is it but the repression of love between men which, if patriotism could be broken down, would make of the world one people? Cosmopolitanism is better that patriotism.

See how we are divided into ranks and classes. Aristocrat and gentry and commoners. The child of the bank clerk must not play with the child of the hod-carrier.3 So the parents say, but the children will have to be kept apart by force, for childhood knows nothing of rank. The wholesale merchant will not associate with the greengrocer, and the woman who lives in a house with only ten families scorns the woman in a double-decker.

How can a world be rich in love as long as men love a flag better that they love a fellow; as long as they arm themselves to fight against once another; as long as they separate themselves by titles and genealogical tables and bank accounts?

Even lovers and sweethearts are only allowed to love each another conditionally. Those only of the same rank or grade in society are encouraged or permitted to love or to wed, and in some of our States if two lovers wished to unite their poverty they could not do it, because there is a tax on marriage. I, myself, was obliged to pay the town clerk fifty cents for the privilege of marrying the woman I love. Fortunately I had the fifty cents.4

Everything is done that can be done to prevent the production of heart-wealth – brotherly kindness and romantic love. Every possible stumbling block is put in the way of persons or peoples who wish to love one another. Happily, love, like truth, cannot be killed, or else our religious and social leaders would, by the development of sectarianism and patriotism, turn the world into a den of wild beasts. Love breaks the bonds of aristocracy and nationality and creed. The peer often loves the peasant, and while the two armies fight, the living soldier in one uniform gives a drink of water from his canteen to the dying soldier in the other uniform, and in spite of the petticoated priest or long-faced parson, Christians love each other and sometimes their hearts even go out to an Infidel.

But the world is all too poor in love.

I hope what I have been saying may help you to see clearly, if you do not already, what I mean when I say that the world is poor in material wealth. There is not enough food raised to keep a portion of the race from dying by slow starvation! There are not enough clothes made to keep humanity decently and comfortably clad. There are not enough houses built to shelter the race from the weather, to say nothing of decently or comfortably housing them! I tell you the world is a poor-house.

Look at the streets in our cities. No pavements or bad pavements. Mud in wet weather; dust in dry weather. Garbage cans everywhere. Hideous telegraph poles. Tumbledown shanties where there should be good houses. Gates hanging by one hinge. Fences rotting away. Paint needed everywhere. Hardly any parks, art galleries, museums, statuary or good architecture. Almost our only public decorations are tobacco store Indians and policemen.

I never walk a street, even the best of them, without being impressed with the poverty of the world. Economy is the one word that is dinned into our ears. "Government economically administered." I am sick of the phrase. People growl if taxes are raised by a hair, and well they may, because the world is poor. If it were not, people would not have to be forced to give money for public purposes. Economy! It is taught to our children as if it were a virtue and the preachers urge it upon everybody -- except in the matter of pew rents5 – as if Jesus had never said: "Take no anxious thought for the morrow. Consider the birds how they live from day to day." It is no wonder this vice has been made a virtue, for the world is poor.

But why? Because, as the priest and politician think it is to their interest to repress thought, and the king and the manufacturer think it is to their interest to repress love, so the selfish money-grabber thinks it is to his interest to discourage the production of wealth. The typical rich man is foolish in that he thinks that he contributes to his own happiness by being wealthy in the midst of poverty. He does not understand how much better of he would be if all others were as rich as he. He becomes a monopolist, and a monopolist is one who discourages the production of wealth. He wants to force people to buy of him at the highest possible price, which, of course, discourages their use of goods and that, in turn, discourages their production.

The greedy employer tries to crowd wages down. How foolish. Whence will come the demand for goods if men have nothing to buy with? The sugar trust puts up the price of sugar. How foolish. People will simply buy less sugar.

But the great wealth reducer and man-starver is he who holds vacant land out of use and he who limits the supply of money. There is a starving man, and a there is vacant land.

Put your man on the land and he begins to enrich the world at once. There is a man with houses and goods but little money. He is helpless. Give him a medium of exchange and he begins to enrich the world at once.

The world will always be poor until men are free to use unoccupied land and to trade together without any restrictions upon their medium of exchange. There need be no mistake, then, about who keeps it poor. It is the vacant landowner and he who puts restrictions of any kind upon trade. These are the enemies of the race. These are they who should be held up to public ridicule and contempt. These are they who should be made more disreputable than any other kind of women and child killers, because their business is respectable and carried on by wholesale. And these are they who repress thought and love, for when men and women have material wealth, they will think what they please and love one another as much as they please regardless of the interest of kings and politicians.

Oh, I like to think of the rich world, wherein thought will bound into fullness of life, wherein love will overflow its artificial boundaries, wherein it will be so easy to get food and clothes and houses that they will no longer seem worth the sacrifice of everything else to attain. You may say I am a dreamer, a fanatic, a crank, if you like; but I do not care. I live in that rich world more than in this poor one,6 and so pleasant is it that it would be well worth the sacrifice of life if one by dying could bring it all into being.

1 Hugh Owen Pentecost (1848-1907) was raised from age two at Albion, Illinois within a community of utopian social reformers, and he accompanied his elder brother George (a Union Army chaplain) to Kentucky as a boy during the Civil War. This is apparently the period he refers to, during which he visited slave quarters.
2 The famous photographer and journalist Jacob Riis (1849-1914) had an office on the Mulberry Bend (along Mulberry Street) in what is now called Little Italy in Manhattan, and by 1889, he had been recorded the horrible human conditions of the nearby tenement dwellers in several New York newspapers for 16 years. Certainly Pentecost is referring to Riis’ work here.
3 "Hod-carrier" was the 19th Century term for a laborer who carried bricks and other construction materials at building sites; a "hod" being the box that was fastened to his back.
4 Pentecost married his second wife Ida Gatling in Hartford, Connecticut in 1880.
5 At the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, each family in the congregation paid a quarterly rental fee for a pew in the sanctuary. The practice continued through the entire 19th Century.
6 Hugh Pentecost had been a Protestant preacher to wealthy congregations for most of his career, and his father-in-law Richard Jordan Gatling was, in 1889, quite wealthy due to the success of his invention of the "Gatling gun." Gatling lost his fortune with the invention of the Hotchkiss machine gun in 1892.

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