Front Door to Cuba

Martí on Religion

By José Martí | Published in La Nación, Buenos Aires, May 17, 1888

[From: Martí on the USA – Selected and Translated with an Introduction by Luis A. Baralt /Southern Illinois University Press, 1966]

Dated: New York, April 8, 1888


Evidently pompous institutions are not enough, nor are fine systems, impressive statistics, benevolent laws, vast schools, and external paraphernalia sufficient to counterbalance the impetus of a nation that disdainfully passes all this by, swept along with a complacent, selfish conception of life. It seems that this public defect, which in Mexico they are beginning to call “dinerismo” (money-mindedness), this unbounded craving for material wealth, this contempt for whoever lacks wealth, this unworthy adoration of anyone who has accumulated it, even if it has been at the expense of his honor or through criminal action, is brutalizing and corrupting nations. Doubtless those who practice or favor the cult of wealth should be deprived of social esteem and looked upon as disguised enemies of the commonwealth, as blotches, as Iagos. It is a glorious thing to accumulated wealth through honest, hard work, but to amass wealth by violent or sly means, which dishonor the one who employees them and corrupt the nation where they are practiced, is palpable proof of incapacity and shamelessness, a crime worthy of the severest penalty. Rich people, like thoroughbred horses, should display for everyone to see the pedigree of their fortune.

Now, all this becomes apparent here. But even as they study of nature, considered hostile to spirituality, foments a more vigorous and resplendent spirituality cleansed of superstition and strengthened with facts; even as great oppressions engender great rebellions; even as the lands most devoid of natural property breed, because of the very vehemence with which they crave it, the profoundest and most sensitive poets, thus do emerge here—due to the general lack of the finer conditions of character – fervent propagandists, enthusiastic, ardent, mad saints, soap-box redeemers, sitting-room apostles, aggressive priestesses, all sorts of spiritual workers of the most eccentric and ludicrous varieties. It can be said, without fear of contradiction, that the official clergy, nowadays as competitive in serving the rich as they once were in the interpretation of the Scriptures, are the least helpful in this task of uplifting the fallen soul of the nation. It is an improvised clergy that provokes thinking, sees misfortune at closer range, and more eloquently preaches charity toward man and faith in God; a former medicine peddler, with eagle nose and eyes, clean-shaven upper lip and a long beard who now, in his riding boots and frock-coat down to his ankles, hits the town to “preach the Gospel”; a repentant ruffian who builds a church where once stood his own house of shame; a journeyman; an inspired boatman; a stevedore; a poor woman so familiar with misfortune that unhappy people end up by turning her house into a temple which they enter to have their hearts’ sores healed with a soothing, charitable word.

Thus are religions founded here, new temples erected under Christian advocacy, the menaced and half putrescent moral character rekindled, religious educators chosen through a sort of non-written suffrage. What is imposed upon a community is always vain, what is free is vivifying.

An eighty-four-year-old town preacher… has condemned men’s fear of telling the truth lest they offend those whom they count upon as friends in business and politics. “My horror of lying is such that next Sunday I shall preach in this my church my own funeral oration before the bier that will be mine.” And he did. People came from all the neighboring towns.

The coffin was placed at the foot of the dais. On a bench, in deep mourning suitable to the occasion, sat his family. Funeral chants were intoned. Pastor Pridgeon scourged in his two-hour sermon his own “carnal scurrilities” and praised the “victories of his spirit.” The congregation sometimes wept, sometimes laughed. He proclaimed: “No man should remain a bachelor for even a moment when there are so many deserving females anxious to find good husbands.”

One preacher speaks about the influence of science or religion… Another distributes flour from a barrel among the neighborhood poor while he imparts during Lent picturesque lessons on the Bible to women and children in his ungrammatical language and using examples from his own life. Children become absorbed. A husband who on arriving home has found the table unset furiously pulls his wife out of the class. The preacher sides with the culprit and makes a joke, to which the irate husband retorts with a curse while he pushes out that “rascally idler.” …In another temple, improvised in a brewery cellar, even the water cup is tied to a chain and on the mossy wall hangs a sign that reads: “The Lord is our shepherd; He shall take care of His sheep,” next to another warning: “Please do not chew tobacco in this hall.”

What is all this compared to the “conversions,” the thousand conversions the Methodist Harrison has gotten in a week as though he pulled souls out of hell with his own hands? Who knows where this thirty-year-old preacher has come from? Since he was eight he has been in the business of saving souls through the fervor of his eloquence… He starts converting in the morning and it is past midnight when the police have to clear the tabernacle by sheer force…

The service, this extravagant, titanic service ends only to begin again. “Let him come, let him come!” A breathless old man approaches pushing his way through the crowd so that the pastor may “lay his hands” upon him. “One more, one more snatched from the Devil, one more star for heaven, one more blue flame on the road to salvation!” “There were eight hundred,” he says, “now there are eight hundred and one.”

The preacher breaks out in tears. Women weep. Men stamp their feet on the ground. People embrace each other, tell each other aloud their sins. The service starts again. “Let us pray!” and the screaming and sighing subside. The prayer is short. The hymns follow… From the platform they cry out requests to those in back to move closer. The preacher and his lieutenant run up and down the platform clapping their hands, yelling out coarse jokes, giving orders with their outstretched arms. Then the hymn. What is going on? Harrison h as stopped, advanced his right leg, leaned his body forward, stooped to listen as though he heard something from afar. Now he pulls his hair, presses his palms against his temples so hard it seems he might squeeze his eyeballs out of their sockets.

Finally he steps forward with outstretched, trembling arms raised high over his head… The singing stops but not the weeping and sighing, the hallelujahs and amens. Reclining over the open Bible on the lectern, Harrison is about to deliver his sermon… He starts in a low voice… He goes on speaking as though to himself, one can scarcely make out what he says, when all of a sudden he leaps away from the lectern as though to bounce upon the crowds that press at his feet. “Didn’t you hear what I said?” he yells. “God just told me! Didn’t you hear what I said?” The public with bowed heads sob as would a dog beaten by his master. Then he breaks out with his peculiar eloquence, peculiar not because of what he says, which is the theological jargon, but because of his sudden changes of voice, the anecdotes he interpolates in the middle of a point on divinity, his seeming to draw tears from his eyes and scatter them like pearls over his convulsed followers, his mysterious insistence upon an insignificant phrase which by mere repetition seems to acquire a prophetic, frightful meaning… Step by step he evokes the throne of light upon which the Eternal One sits, a description he begins almost prone upon the platform, as though he were gradually pulling it out of the ground, and on completing the picture on the tips of his toes and raising both arms toward heaven, suddenly he drops his arms, advancing toward the audience, stamps his foot hard and cries: “they tell me shopkeepers will give up cursing this very day.”

The platform seems too small to hold him. He jumps off into the crowd. “All those who have been saved, stand up!” “All those who would be converted come to me!” A stream of tears flows from his eyes. His assistant whoops up the cries. He embraces everyone. He kneels next to them. They touch his garments, kiss his hand. One can actually see the man grow. And when he leaps back onto the platform with his harvest of converts, he tries to speak but cannot. He turns pale, he seems about to swoon. His assistant helps him to a chair where he leaves him holding his head in his hands, sobbing. He has been “smitten by the glory of God.”

What is it that draws crowds to rich Trinity Church, while there are cries in the Stock Exchange and brokers collide with each other on the streets and bankers figure out quotations on gold…? The church fills like no theatre does. Tight-mouthed clergymen, young bespectacled men, freshly-graduated lawyers, harsh, frowning believers, famous preachers, bald-headed potentates in their fur coats, pale, bearded employees storm all doors to gain entrance. They are attracted by faith, curiosity, emulation. Ten old ones to each young one. The young ones, with either mystic or inquisitive eyes, come to hear the preacher. The old ones, in their tight-fitting greatcoats, whisper about famous preachers: ah Channing! Ah, Edwards! Ah Beecher’s father! Ah, Beecher! The church is bursting with people. Reporters at their tables facing the pulpit, sharpen their pencils. Daylight filters like music through the stained-glass windows. Above the main altar rises a window representing the twelve Apostles. There is no more standing room even in the aisles. Those who are seated read the papers, take notes, chat naturally but quietly… A ray of light illuminates a white dove that seems to stand out against the pulpit’s gray shell.

On Phillips Brooks’ entrance the congregation rises. There are people even on the altar dais and outside the doors. He winds his way with bowed head through the crowd, yet taller than the rest. He holds a prayer book against his chest, his white alb reaches to his feet, a black stole draped down both sides. He steps quickly, silently. With a sigh he ascends the pulpit. He holds his chin in his two hands, leans forth as though to speak and calls for the hymn. His two strong, chubby hands firmly hold a red hymnal. A spotlight reveals to us his features: close shaven; fiery eyes; straight, silver hair; toothless mouth. How can that feline manner of walking and that Napoleonic head be reconciled? The congregation standing sing the hymn and then say the “Our Father”; rich men, preachers, the merely curious, office workers, young and old, clergymen, reporters, all join in the “our Father” with equal fervor, a childish fervor. What are not men willing to give for one hour of purity, for that instant in which once again they are as when they chased butterflies? The “Our Father” is childhood. The congregation sits. Brooks is not one for formalities: without announcing his text, as customary, he reads it off fluently. But that is not his real text.

He knows that the whole city has been talking about him; that uptown potentates, in the lounges of their clubs, made blue with smoke, have interrupted their whist for a few minutes to discuss his sermons and that one of them even refused to play for once; that the papers have commented favorably on his rapid oratory, his farsighted Christianity, his sweeping, felicitous metaphors, his tremulous voice which pierces, like wounded birds, his listeners hearts. The day before, a certain man has arrived late to hear him and only succeeded in doing so from where he could neither see the preacher nor grasp the meaning of his words, but back in his office he had dropped into his chair and wept; he knew that no one since Beecher has been able to shake souls as this man does, nor been less theatrical, nor availed himself less of worldly themes, nor spoken on religious matters with a greater semblance of freedom and reason.

For Christianity seems as though it were about to die on the threshold of a new church in which, under the sky’s canopy, will sit the Catholic Christ and the Hindu Christ, flanked by Confucius on one side and Wotan on the other, where there will be no clergy other than the sense of duty, nor candelabra other than the sun’s rays, nor incense burners other than the chalices of flowers. For in this agony of the Christian dogma, which persist in what it contains of morality and universality but, as creed only survives in the wings of owls, some Christians would ransack the world calling the faithful to arise and brand with hell’s iron those who disbelieve or merely question before believing, as in the times of Torquemada or Calvin, while others, like Brooks, hold that, if what is essential, i.e. religious authority, is to be saved, Christians should not be obliged to believe in what their reason condemns, but that Christianity should be presented so no one can deny it, as that sweet yet fearful sense of dependence which every creature feels toward the unknown Creator and that peace which surges from acting disinterestedly and lovingly as did Christ. “Let us picture,” say the liberal Christians, “the religious sentiment which never dies in man and let us call it Christianity. By doing so, man will not deny us what is in him, and our churches will not be emptied, as they are now being emptied.”

José Martí Portal | Martí/Apostle | Timeline | Books | Photos

Antonio Maceo | War for Independence

Front Door | Contents | Galleries | Site Index | Timetables