Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/August 1886/Editor's Table



THERE are some good things that seem just a little too good for many of those who profess to prize them most highly. One of these, we regret to say, is religious liberty. If there is any one thing that the people of this country, taken in the mass, are bent on preserving and enjoying, it is this; and yet it is this very thing that some excellent people, who are far from regarding themselves as abettors of spiritual tyranny, are continually seeking to undermine. Our excellent contemporary, the "Journal of Education," of Boston and Chicago, has lately called attention to the action of the Presbyterian Synod of the State of New York, in referring to a committee, to be reported on at the next annual meeting, a resolution affirming that, while a union of church and state in this country is not to be thought of, it would still be desirable to incorporate into "the course of State and national education" certain very specific theological doctrines, in which, as it was stated, all Christian sects agreed. These were: the existence of a personal God, the responsibility of man to God, the immortality of the soul, and a future state of rewards and punishments. We can not suppose for one moment that those who favored this resolution would wish such doctrines as these to become topics of discussion in the public schools, or to be treated as in any way open to doubt or as subject to possible future rectification. If taught at all, they would have to be taught on authority, just as the catechism might be taught in church schools. This being the case, we can not understand how the members of the synod who favored the resolution could help seeing how vain was their disclaimer of any desire to establish a connection between church and state. The whole essence of an ecclesiastical establishment consists in the assumption by the State of the right to guide individual citizens in the formation of theological opinions. It matters not how many or how few those opinions may be, how much or how little of theological subtilty their formulation may involve; whenever and wherever the State looks upon the individual as unfit to guide himself in such matters, and therefore undertakes to teach him dogmatically what he ought to believe, then and there we have the elements of ecclesiastical government.

Now, the instinct of the American people has hitherto been that theology and religion do better without the patronage of the State than with it, and that it is not safe to intrust the civil power, whether Federal or local, with the making of any law looking either to the establishment of a church or to the encouragement of any special form of religious belief. We choose our own rulers and we set them over us, not in spiritual matters, but in temporal only, and, if we are wise, we shall restrict their action even in the temporal sphere as much as possible. This by the way: What is perfectly clear is that our people do not want to receive direction in theological questions at the hands of the State, and therefore are not prepared to have theology even its most widely accepted propositions introduced into public-school teaching. It is felt that the State has no business to make opinion in these matters, which it undoubtedly would do if it were allowed to impart any theological instruction whatever. Let, for example, the propositions above mentioned become a part of public-school teaching through-out the length and breadth of the land, and the modification of opinion to which this would lead would tend to prepare the way for the introduction of more specific theological teaching, and, little by little, we should have, by the help of the State, a kind of official theology formed, the influence of which on the development of thought, and perhaps also of morals, would be far from favorable. No better way of stereotyping a civilization could be devised than for a government, through the public schools, to undertake to tell people what they should believe on the most fundamental questions of theology and philosophy.

We should therefore strongly advise all well-meaning people to pause before they give their support to measures which certainly would not have the beneficial results which we may be sure they have at heart. In what we have said above we have assumed the success of the supposed attempt of the State to control the theological opinions of the people. But there is a possibility that things might take a different turn, and that State patronage of certain forms of opinion might tend to produce skepticism in regard to the very doctrines it was sought to protect and strengthen. We hold very strongly, for our own part, that in the public schools, controlled as they are by the civil authorities, nothing should be taught beyond the broad and demonstrable results of human inquiry. We may perhaps trust our politicians, through their nominees, to give our children facts; because, if they depart from facts when they are purporting to give them, it is comparatively easy to bring them to book. It is a different thing, however, to intrust them with the enunciation of theories, particularly in the region of theology. If they go wrong there, who is to check them? What standard is to be applied? If they teach in a dull, formal, mechanical way what, if taught at all, should be taught with earnestness and conviction, how are we to repair the mischief they will certainly do?

There is, lastly, a point to consider, which our contemporary, above referred to, urges with a great deal of force—the question of simple justice. It is known that, whether or not all Christian sects are agreed in accepting the theological propositions set forth, the whole community does not accept them. It may be unfortunate that it should be so—we do not discuss that question—the fact is that it is so; and people who want a merely secular education for their children would have reason to complain if a teaching they did not think best for their children's minds should be forced upon them. The State, be it remembered, has completely dwarfed and starved out private enterprise in education, so that the average parent has no choice but to send his children to the public school. Should, then, anything be taught there which presupposes a uniformity of opinion that does not exist? If the reason why we have no state church in this land is that we could not have one without doing injustice to some element or elements of the population, the same objection precisely will apply to having an authoritative teaching in the schools of matters that every man claims the right to judge of for himself, and in regard to which important differences of opinion prevail. The case is very simple and clear—too clear to admit of much mystification in the popular mind; and it is to the good sense of the people at large that we trust for the decisive overthrow of any measures looking to the perversion of our school system by making it an agency for the propagation of an official theology.

We invite attention to the opening article in the present number of the "Monthly," which is on a subject of great economical importance. The author, Mr. P. H. Dudley, is an engineer who has given much time and attention to special investigations of the decay of wood and its causes, and presents some interesting and valuable facts respecting it. As will be noticed by the careful reader, he speaks of what he has himself observed, and much of what he says will be new to all but experts, as it has only recently been recognized by science. His observations establish the fact that most of the decay of wood, including what was formerly called eremacausis or slow combustion and dry rot—the name now representing the result, whereas it was formerly held to describe the cause—is produced by the growth of mycelia of fungi, which effect the disorganization of the wood-cells. The figure on page 438, which is from a photograph, tells more on this subject than many pages of letter-press could do. Some of the fungi described and figured by Mr. Dudley are old acquaintances to frequenters of the woods who have observed the curious forms of their pilei on stumps and logs, and have supposed them to be fruits of rottenness. Mr. Dudley exhibits the more essential parts of these fungi, the mycelia penetrating and interpenetrating every part of the interior of the wood, and generating the rottenness of which the pilei are the sign. Some suggestive observations may also be found in the article concerning the relations of moisture to the growth of fungi. Mr. Dudley will continue the subject in another article, with some practical suggestions founded on the results of his investigations.

We print in this number of the "Monthly" the last of the series of papers by Mr. David A. Wells upon the economic condition of Mexico. Accurate information of a country with which we must inevitably come into intimate political and financial relations is in the highest degree desirable, but has heretofore been very difficult to obtain. Mr. Wells—whose competency to perform the task he has undertaken will be questioned by no one—has done a valuable service, making us acquainted with the actual condition of this but little-known country. As he says, the pictures usually drawn of the natural resources of the country and its future possibilities have been rose-colored in the extreme. He finds, on the contrary, that the country is almost hopelessly poverty-stricken—to such an extent, indeed, that the problem of a stable government is beset with the greatest difficulties. With an army consuming a third of the revenue of the state, a system of internal tariffs between each of the States, or political divisions composing the republic, and with an almost entire absence, until very recently, of means of communication between different parts of the country, anything like industrial progress or political stability has been out of the question. His study of the country does not lead him to any very hopeful prediction of its future. Its natural conformation—that of a great table-land, devoid of navigable streams, with a strip of coast-land on either side which can only be reached by abrupt descents—is unfavorable to the material development of the country; while the character of the people, their extreme poverty, and the enormous load of public debt, are almost insurmountable obstacles to any great degree of prosperity. In our own interest, as well as that of Mexico, he bespeaks a kindly and helpful attitude on the part of this country toward the weaker republic, and his words are well worthy the attention of all Americans who desire to see their country without reproach in all its international relations.