Anna Howard Shaw

Sermon at the World's Congress of Representative Women - May 21, 1893

Anna Howard Shaw
May 21, 1893— Chicago, Illinois
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I will read for our scripture lesson from the words of Jesus.

"Ye are the light of the world." "A city that is set on a hill can not be hid."

"Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house."

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

Now I have a little paragraph from the religion of the far east, from Zoroaster: "The man who has done good rather than evil, morally and physically, outwardly and inwardly, may fearlessly meet death, well assured that radiant spirits will lead him across into the paradise of eternal happiness. Souls risen from the grave will know each other and say, that is my father, or my brother, my wife, or my sister. The weak will say to the good, wherefore when I was on the world didst thou not teach me to know righteousness, O thou pure one? It is because you did not instruct me that I am excluded from the assembly of the blest."

And from Buddhist scripture we have: "There are treasures laid up in the heart, treasures of charity, piety, temperance, and soberness. These treasures a man takes with him beyond death when he leaves this world."

And we have from the Mohammedan scriptures this: "One hour of justice is worth seventy years of prayer."

And from the Chinese, from Confucius: "The good man loves all men. He loves to speak good of others. All within the four seas are his brothers. Love of man is chief of all the virtues. The mean man sows that some of his friends may be helped, but the love of the perfect man is universal."

And we have from St. Augustine these words: "I have read in Plato and Cicero. They are wise and very beautiful, but I never read in either of them, 'Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden.' "

"The multitude that published the tidings were a great host." In the new version it is changed, both in letter and in spirit, for instead of being a past word and past revelation, it is an ever present word, an ever present revelation, and the people who publish the tidings are a new class of people — they are our people. " The Lord giveth the word. The women that publish the tidings are a great host."

The inspirations and aspirations which have been aroused by this remarkable conference will awaken in our hearts such thoughts of joy and blessedness that neither time nor distance shall ever be able to separate it from you until time shall be lost in eternity; and your journey up the steep and rugged heights where truth dwells will ever be made easier, and at the last be made surer because of our meetings here the last week. The women who have read various papers, who have discussed the various subjects which have been before you, have, in the undertone of all that has been uttered, voiced but one cry, the cry to be free; free to be; free to do; free to become that which is best and truest for God's people everywhere. Each has voiced the heartache and sadness which has come from woman who, in the past, has endeavored in any line of activity or research to lift herself or her sisters on a higher plane of life. Each has felt the cramping, crippling, and dwarfing power of prejudice and custom. Each has felt the terrible strain which the endeavor to fight against these barriers has put upon all the energies of her nature, and each has given voice to the vision revealed by him who revealed all truth of the time when the struggle for freedom shall be over, and when men and women shall live in that true and nobler atmosphere, in which truth and not tradition shall be our guide; the time when each man and each woman will take as a sublime watchword that which was to her, one of our old leaders, the very tone of her entire life: "Truth for authority, and not authority for truth." In the heartache which has followed this vision, as the darkness of the ever present has closed about the right, these women have turned to God, and lifting their eyes mutely to him have asked: "O! thou infinite One, give me freedom that I may help the world to find Thee." And then turning to men for guidance, they have asked the scholar: "Where shall freedom be found for the race?" And the scholar has answered: "The pathway to knowledge is the highway to freedom." But these women have known that knowledge is not, and has not been, the power to free the race, and that many who have been the most learned have been not only the most oppressed but the greatest oppressors. Then they have turned to the statesman, and asked of him where freedom shall be found, and the statesmen have answered: "The highway to freedom leads through constitutions and laws. Governments will ultimately evolve such perfect systems of law that all men shall be free." But we have known that laws and constitutions have been used as instruments by which men have been enslaved and oppressed. They have turned to the church, and asked of the churchmen where freedom was found, and the churchman pointed to his creeds and to his rites and ceremonies, saying: "Believe and you shall be free." But we have known, not so much by our own experience as by the history of the past, that creeds have been cruel, ceremonies and rites have enslaved, and that they who are most bound by the creeds are least free. Then the soul has turned back again to the vision, and has asked Him who was able to reveal the future: "Shall freedom come?" And He has answered: "My child, neither in constitutions and laws, nor in knowledge, nor in creeds, shall you find the way to freedom, but the truth itself, and the truth alone, can make men and women free."

Grasping this thought, then, women have gone forth regardless of custom, regardless of prejudice, regardless of the reproach of the church, and in the words of him of old, have cried out: "Is it better to obey the law of man or to be directed by the spirit of God?" And helped by this thought these women who have gathered here together have been out in the world through the years that are passed, teaching and preaching in all realms of life, and in all spheres of activity, the truth which shall ultimately make us all free.

This gathering together of women has taught the world that women are learning that one lesson which is the hardest for the human race to know, that lesson of toleration each for the other. And in our coming together here there has been aroused a kindlier interest in each other's work, a kindlier friendship for each other; and no woman of us shall go to our homes who does not feel that her heart throbs in unison with all women everywhere whose eyes are lifted toward the light; and we have learned as we never could have learned in any other way, that lovers of the law are one. We have learned of the past; we have had enough of the creeds. What matters our label so truth be our aim? But coming forth from this blessed experience, we shall each feel that whether the world accepts our truth now, or whether it shall do so in the years to come, yet there is in our heart such oneness of sympathy and oneness of hope, that no woman can ever say truthfully again, "I am all alone of all the women in the world."

But as we have come together we have realized, perhaps more than ever before, the obstacles and difficulties which lie in our way. This has been our love-feast, but it will be of little value to us if it does not fit us better to go forth to meet the real experiences of life which shall come to us when we have laid aside our day of thought and have entered into life's practical mission. The difficulties which we have met in the past are still around us, and we shall find that the world to-day is bound to its own thought as in the past. One of the greatest obstacles which we shall meet is the fact that there are certain classes of people gathered together of a single church, of a single society, who cry out: "If you are not seeking truth in our way, then it can not be that you are true, and you are not seeking truth at all." These are people who are bound to truth by their limited vision of it, who cry: "My creed, my philosophy, my work is true, therefore all else is false." But the women who go forth from this great gathering shall feel that there can be no great movement to which has gathered any number of people but that underlying it, and running all through it, is some deep and profound truth, and that it is only a barren mind that can look upon any great movement followed by any large number of people, and can say it is all false. This has been the mission of this great congress, and our women have learned that it has been a high privilege to search all the great movements presented here, and out of each one of them to gather a germ of truth, and unite it with a germ which has been discovered in another great movement, until in going forth we shall be bound together by one great chain, each link a great truth gathered up out of the world and made our truth. So that we shall go forth, not as women of individual thought, or an individual church, but we shall go forth as women in whose souls have been planted germs of many great truths, and we shall be what was explained to us as the root-thought of the word Sorosis, yesterday, that great coming together of many seeds, the result of which shall be the bread of life to the people of the world.

Not only shall we meet the obstacles which have always been in our way, but we shall also find that other great obstacle which more than any other keeps woman in the background to-day. Women have always been taught that self-submission is the highest part of womanly character; that they should efface themselves, give up all hope of education, and all development and growth in themselves, that another may grow; we have justified the sacrifices of a sister in order that she may earn the means by which a brother shall be educated; the sacrifices of a wife that she may help push to the front her husband; or the sacrifices of a mother that she may assist her son; not because there is any principle in it; not because there is any special good accomplished; not because the son, or husband, or father has any special power in himself; but the sacrifice of the woman for the uplifting of the man seems to be the one thought, regardless of the principle of justice. But the sequel shows that many women have gone to their graves broken-hearted to lift up a man who was not worthy of living after he had been lifted; a man incapable of recognizing the sacrifice; a man who did not begin to possess in himself such possibilities as were in the one that was sacrificed. Women will need to revise their table of virtues. Men have made it for us in the past, but in the future when we shall revise it we will leave in the table of virtues self-sacrifice, but we will put by its side self-assertion. What God needs in humanity to-day is recognition of the fact that one-half of the divine nature in the world is clothed in womanhood, and unless womanhood is developed, one-half of divinity itself is kept from the knowledge of the peoples of the world. The mission of woman in the pulpit is not alone to keep alive the fire of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of men and women in this world, and teach men and women the truth of the power of God to transform human life and human character; but one of the missions of the woman preacher is to people heaven with the feminine thought as well as the earth, and the race must be taught that they can no more be half-orphans in heaven than they are on earth, and that in the spirit of divine life, in the spirit of infinite love, in divinity itself, we have the feminine and the masculine, and God is the eternal parent of us all, the father and mother of the human soul. And when heaven shall be re-peopled by the Divine Spirit, which is the spirit of motherhood as well as fatherhood, oh how the heart of the human race will gladly sit at the feet of the mother-heart of God, and be comforted in the woes and sorrows and heartaches of life!

But the reformers themselves must learn, for it is impossible for any woman to become a real reformer who is not herself reformed. It is impossible for any human being to become a teacher who has not first been taught; impossible for any to lead and lift, who has not first learned to obey. Therefore I may be pardoned if I address some of my words to my own colleagues this morning and say, no more can every woman be a reformer than can every woman be a true and righteous mother, or than can every woman be a home-maker. God has not endowed all for any one thing, and those who would themselves become reformers must learn that to be a guide and teacher there are certain qualifications and certain lessons which must become a part of our being, or else we are not equipped for our work in the world; and that this is the center of every reformer's life — a broad, vigorous, healthful character. No woman is fit to be a reformer who does not possess strong character. Now, character is what we are, and no one is nobler and truer than the character which she forms. Taking this thought outside of one's self, no life character is greater than the character of her who has wrought it. A mean mind can not build a vast life structure. A narrow soul can not build broadly, or wisely, or well. So if we would become builders whose building shall remain, if we would become teachers whose lessons shall abide, then must we become women of strong character in all of our relationships to the world and to God. In the building up of the work of the world there must be a strong character, regardless of what one's reputation may be, and in order that we shall be possessed of a strong character three things are essential to us. First, we must be possessed of moral courage, and that is the thing to-day which is rarer than anything else moral courage. Now, moral and physical courage are very different things, and it has been thought that women could not be possessed of strong characters because they were not possessed of strong bodies. But moral courage, which is born of the soul, moral courage which enables one, regardless of his surroundings, to sacrifice anything and everything for truth, that is the first and necessary qualification for a leader and teacher of men. What the world needs to-day is great, broad minds, broad enough to reach out and grasp the truth, and hearts pure enough to receive it, and souls brave enough to defend it. And could the men and women of the world who believe the truth to-day and have minds large enough to grasp it, possess souls brave enough to stand by it, then would there be no more sacrifices of men and women on the altar of persecution and ignorance. But the women who go forth to work in the world to-day must be possessed of this strong character whereby they can stand by the truth through the moral power which enables them to face social ostracism, prejudice, and denunciation, and take their stand by truth, because at the last they only are victors who are found on the side of truth. Longfellow has justly said, "No evil thing can succeed, no good thing can fail. There is no success save in the triumph of the truth." So we who stand by the truth, who are always standing by that, shall in the end be victors. Nations shall pass away, generations of men shall be born and die, the world may even pass into utter oblivion, but the truth, like the Divine One, is eternal and shall abide evermore.

Not alone must we be possessed of moral courage to stand by the truth, but we must be possessed of faith in God to be men and women of strong characters. I do not stand here this morning to define God to you. I do not undertake to tell you just how you shall believe in God or just what your conception of God may be, but no man or woman can ever be possessed of a strong character and become a teacher and leader of men, triumphing over obstacles, confident of victory before the battle has been begun, who has not faith in an overruling power, who is ultimately able to guide all things toward that which is right and pure. Plutarch said long thousand years ago that he made a search up and down the earth that he might find a city without a symbol of the man Christ Jesus, but could never find a city without any symbols or shrines; and what was true in the days of Plutarch is true to-day. In all this world there is no city or nation the center of whose life is not God. There is no number of people who have gathered together for any great purpose who have not some faith in some power somewhere, upon whom all others are dependent.

Then not only must a reformer be possessed of moral courage to stand by what she knows to be true and teach it; not only must she be possessed of faith in God, and know that ultimately she shall see somewhere, at some time, the triumph of the truth, but she herself must become uncompromisingly obedient to the higher laws of God everywhere. You and I, all men and women of every land or clime, know that above the laws controlling our physical and our governmental life there are higher laws controlling our moral and spiritual characters, and it is as natural for us to turn our faces toward these higher laws as it is for the face of the heliotrope to turn toward the sun, and a woman of strong character must evermore keep her face toward obedience. The men and women of strong character then find out what the law of the highest is. You ask, where do we find it ? I do not know, only in this world it is to be found, we believe, and it is to be found written on the hearts and lives of our fellow men and women everywhere. It is to be found written on the face of nature everywhere. In all lands and under all conditions God has never left himself without a witness to all peoples of the world. Therefore, we may learn the law of God in our relations in life, in our associations each with the other.

Look into the history of the race, and what will you find? You will find that God has placed in the hands of men and women some wondrous powers, wondrous possibilities. Some of the great poets of old have had given to them by God harps that were divinely attuned, and he has asked of them to sing a song which, when sung, would thrill the heart of the race and lift it up toward him ; but they have taken these harps divinely attuned and sunk them in the dust at the feet of their lusts, and to-day the world mourns the lost songs everywhere. To every man and woman of us here God has given a soul, a soul so divinely attuned that we may hear the very harmonies of heaven; a soul so divinely attuned that we may hear the voice of God speaking with us, and be directed by that voice out into a high and holy plane. So whether that which we believe is true or not, if we stand by what we believe to be truth, God will illuminate the path, and we shall by and by know the truth, if we are true to the bit of truth we all possess now; for they who are loyal to truth will find that truth is always loyal to them; and they who harken to its divine voice shall hear it all about them, and know the voice of truth and follow it, and the voice of a stranger will they not follow.

Now then, you ask, what shall be the reward of these who are thus laboring for the uplifting of truth? I say: My sister, be not disheartened. It matters not what your reward shall be. It matters not how it shall come. Your reward may not be the great, sweet honor of grateful success, but this it shall be — you shall be lifted into a true life, able to look out without servility, able to look up to God without fear, and though your truth may not be accepted, though you yourself may be rejected, though you may die and yet the world refuse to hear, this is not life's greatest sorrow. It is a greater one never to have heard the voice of truth speaking in the soul. As George Eliot says: "The words of deepest bitterness that can be known to the human soul can never be wrung from the lips; they are outward. It is only when one has covered her head in shame and humility, and has said, 'I am not worthy to be a martyr. The truth shall prosper, but not by me.' "

And, therefore, my sister, if it be your high and exalted privilege to have gotten a glimpse of truth, thank God. If it has been your higher and still more exalted privilege to have been able to give this truth to the world, thank God. If it has been your sublime privilege to see the world accept it, thank God. But in every case and all cases thank God that truth is, and that you have heard its voice.

Then, oh, woman! what may we not prophesy of thee, when thou hast come into perfect harmony with the truth, when thou hast heard its voice speaking in thine own being? What may we not prophesy of thee when from off the altar a living coal shall be pressed to thy lips, and thou shalt speak words all aflame with truth, which, when sinking into the heart of humanity, shall kindle a flame all divine within each heart, and a nation shall be born, an unknown nation yet, but a nation shall be born who shall call thee blessed?

It has been said that it is the greatest sacrifice one can make for a friend to give tip one's life for one's love; to sacrifice one's life; to lay down your own to find it in the good of another. But how much richer, how much holier, is the praise of her who lays down her own good, who sacrifices it for the good of another unknown, or for the good of a nation yet unborn. This is the highest test of loyalty to truth. So that whether that which you have in your soul to-day, which burns like a living flame, shall be accepted by the race or not, if you lay down your own good for the good of a race that shall be, then you have manifested the greatest loyalty to truth that can be manifested by any one, and the truth has come, and your reward shall be the love of a people.

Do not now say I lift the standard too high. The standard of God can not be lifted too high. The standard of truth must ever be high above the standards of the world, and the standard-bearers of truth must ever be in advance of the great march of the world behind them. Therefore, do not lower your standard one inch. Do not stay your progress one moment. Do not hesitate or falter, but remember the words of the young color-bearer in our late war, who, when the standard-bearer of his regiment was shot down, sprang forward, caught the colors ere they reached the ground, and then, thrilled with enthusiasm, pressed on before, on, on, up the hill toward the rampart upon which they were charging. Seeing him go faster than the men could follow, the colonel shouted out: "Bring back those colors!" But without faltering he glanced back and cried, "No, colonel, bring your men up to the colors!" And on he went and planted the colors, and the men gathered around the flag of their country.

And so, my sisters, do not falter; and when they cry, the world is not ready, the world has not been educated up to your truth, call back to the world, "We can not lower our standard to the level of the world. Bring your old world up to the level of our standard." Then shall the people of the world be lifted nearer to God, near the glory which evermore surrounds truth, near the eternal peace of God flowing like a mighty river, near in heart and soul to the truth and the source of all truth, the infinite love of Divinity itself.

Therefore, let me close in the words of one not of our faith, or the faith of any here; one from across the seas, a Brahman, who said: "The differences in religious views have divided the world into seventy great nations. I scan them all, and in and through them all I gather one truth — divine love."

And let us add to that the words of Jesus Christ of Nazareth: "One is your father, even God; and all ye are brethren."