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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 35.djvu/576

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 

THE JOHNSTOWN DISASTER.

AMONG the published sermons of the Rev. John Wesley is a famous one on "The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes." The cause of earthquakes, according to the eminent divine, was national unrighteousness, and their cure would be found to lie in national reformation. It was, in his opinion, of slight importance to know what physical causes or conditions were concerned in the production of earthquakes; seeing that, when the Almighty proposed to use them for purposes of national chastening, they would always be forthcoming; and when he willed to hold them in abeyance they would not happen. In the case of railway and steamboat accidents we have often been pointed to alleged Sabbath desecration by the railway and steamboat companies as the underlying causes of the calamities. Speaking generally, there have never been lacking those who could interpret every grave occurrence in such a way as to reveal their own familiarity with the special designs of Heaven. In the face of such explanations any reference to secondary or mediate causes seemed superfluous, if not profane. Lord Palmerston incurred much theological odium for suggesting that thorough sanitary measures might be more effectual than prayer in averting cholera from Great Britain; or that, at least, it might be well to try such measures before appointing a day of national humiliation. Down to the present time it has been customary, throughout a large part of society, to let the theological view of all personal bereavements dominate the natural. From one point of view the effect of this has been beneficial; from another it has been quite the opposite. It has been beneficial as affording, in effect, a vindication of the natural order of things and disposing men's minds to resignation and fortitude. It has been the opposite of beneficial in diverting attention from the proximate causes of painful visitations, and so far diminishing the sense of personal responsibility in connection with such things. That mankind would much earlier have acquired the power of combating the various forms of disease successfully, had theological prepossessions been absent, no candid and reasonable person could well deny.

The effect of the Johnstown disaster will be, if we mistake not, to bring into needed prominence the two ideas of the supremacy of natural law and the dependence of human life upon a wise adjustment by society itself of means to ends. No other general lesson is deducible from the sad circumstances of the case. Whatever may have been possible in John Wesley's time, it is hardly possible to-day for any leader of opinion to maintain that the disaster should be regarded as a divine dispensation. The preacher of the Brooklyn Tabernacle himself, who in most matters generally manages to express the most belated view, has openly refused to interpret this calamity as a sign of divine anger; being able, as he states, to affirm of his own knowledge that many of those overtaken by sudden death were among the best people in the country. Then let the lesson which the facts so powerfully teach be taken to heart. Not by righteousness of life, not by religious zeal, not by personal piety or devotion, not by anything that does not directly bear on the dangers to be averted or the benefits to be secured, will human life be protected from ill or enriched with good, so far as the order of things in the physical world is concerned. The prayer that is efficacious is the prayer that stimulates to work; and the work that is efficacious is that which is guided by