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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/August 1889/Editor's Table

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 observation and reason. In one of the dispatches received by "The New York Times" from the scene of the disaster it was stated that some persons who had been rescued from the flood only to find themselves sole survivors of their families had abandoned all faith in Providence, and had emphasized their change of mind by casting away their Bibles. This affords an illustration of a kind of faith that never should have existed. These persons had evidently cherished the idea that, if they tried to live religiously, Providence would see that they did not suffer from the effects either of their own or of others' carelessness; and that natural agencies of a destructive character would in some mysterious way be instructed to pass them over, even while causing havoc all around. This expectation having been falsified by facts, their faith in the divine government is not only shaken but destroyed. Their standpoint is manifestly a less reasonable and noble one than that of the patriarch Job, who in the depth of his trouble could exclaim, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust him."

Herein lies a lesson for the clergy and for all teachers of youth. The only stable faith is one that reposes upon the order of nature, or at least that fully accepts that order, and is therefore prepared for all that may flow from it. The man who supposes that by any pious observances he can, to even the smallest extent, guarantee himself or bis household from fire or flood, from pestilence, famine, or any form of physical disaster is virtually a fetich-worshiper. The pact he strives to make with the power he recognizes is of the nature of a private bargain, according to the terms of which exceptions to the general working of natural laws are to be made whenever his individual interests seem to require it. That man, on the other hand, has a rational faith which will never be put to shame, who, accepting the general scheme of things as something fixed, and preparing himself for all that may necessarily flow therefrom, strives to make the best possible life for himself and others. Such a man does not expect security if the conditions that guarantee it have not been fulfilled. Ho knows that pestilence will "come nigh his dwelling" unless sanitary measures are enforced in the neighborhood. He knows that vigilance is the price not only of civil liberty but of freedom from all the avoidable ills of life. He sees that the laws of life rightly observed are the source of abundant happiness, and that all that is needed to make life increasingly worth living is greater insight into the natural order of things, and a due inclination of the heart to do the things which the book of the law prescribes. It seems too much almost to hope that any adequate compensation can be found for so stupendous a disaster as that at Johnstown and in the valley of the Conemaugh; but the suffering and loss it has entailed will not have been wholly in vain if we can bring ourselves to regard the calamity as a great national object-lesson in the paramount necessity of placing human life under the safeguards that science is prepared, to supply, and in the duty that devolves upon every individual in the community to contribute his own quota of reflection and action to the general welfare. One man, by a policy of masterly inactivity, re-established the falling fortunes of the Roman state: who knows what one man, by a resolute activity founded on common sense, might have done to avert one of the greatest calamities of modern times?

 

 
MENTAL GROWTH FROM MANUAL TRAINING.

The new class of schools which includes in its course of study exercises for the hands has been much misunderstood, even by some who have undertaken the charge of such institutions. The phrase "manual training" in the names of these schools has conveyed the impression that hand-work is not only their distinctive but their dominating feature. The true aim and the intellectual character of these schools are admirably presented in the article on "The Spirit of Manual Training," by Prof. C. Hanford Henderson, which opens this issue of the "Monthly." As Prof. Henderson shows, there is no school whose plan is so free from one-sidedness as the manual training school. "The specific purpose of such schools," he says, "is to offer an education that includes as far as possible all of the faculties. Its favorite maxim is, 'Put the whole boy to school.' Its mode of carrying out this purpose is the very practical one of occupying the time in any way, formal or informal, that will best lead to the end proposed." The chief danger which besets such a school is that of becoming a shop, and producing artisans rather than developing men. There are many who are not aware that any other effect follows from the training of the hands than the power to make certain articles. But not a finger can be consciously lifted unless an impulse is first sent to that finger from the brain. The bungling motions of unpracticed hands are due to the imperfect control of an undeveloped brain, and the gradual acquirement of the power to move the hands to just the right extent, in just the right direction, and with just the right amount of force, is accompanied by a proportionate development in the brain. The increasing sensitiveness of the eye to detect slight deviations from a perfect square, vertical, or circle carries with it a general ability to see accurately, and to rightly interpret the visual impressions presented to the mind. Manual training has also a higher influence. The boy takes a pride in his work, and, in overcoming the difficulties of his successive tasks, he develops the virtues of perseverance, self-reliance, and honesty. These schools are still in a formative stage, and doubtless imperfections and errors may be found in the character of any particular institution; but if the spirit which Prof. Henderson reveals shall dominate the manual training school, its book-study and its shop-work promise to form the best system of all-around educational development that has yet been devised.

 

 
BRUNO'S STATUE AT ROME.

The erection at Rome of a statue to Giordano Bruno, who on the 17th of February in the year 1600 was publicly burned in that city for the heresies alleged to be contained in his philosophical writings, is a noble act of justice to the memory of a great and much-injured man. It is more than this, however, for it bears emphatic witness to the determination of the Italian Government and people to range themselves on the side of the widest freedom in speculation, and thus to place their whole civilization under the auspices and guidance of the modem spirit. It is satisfactory that, amid not a few partial signs of reaction, we have this great and formal vindication of the principle of intellectual liberty on the part of one of the leading nations of the world. When we read of the thousands of telegrams of sympathy sent to the Pope in connection with this event, we can not help wondering how the sympathizers, who, it may be presumed, all enjoy a fair measure of civil liberty in the countries throughout which they are scattered, would themselves like to be in the hands of a power that could bring them to the stake if their opinions were not of the pattern which that power chose to approve. From the modern point of view the execution of Bruno was simply the cold-blooded murder by ignorant fanatics of a man immeasurably their superior in knowledge and intellectual power; and who, by his refusal, in the face of death, to recant his opinions, proved himself possessed also of the highest degree of moral heroism. He was accused of atheism in his day, but his system of thought was pantheistic rather than atheistic. He believed that the universe had an animating soul, which was diffused through every form of material existence, giving to each the powers and properties it was found to possess. He was a warm upholder of the Copernican system of philosophy; for adherence to which Galileo also suffered at a later date. He believed that the universe was of infinite extent and embraced an endless multitude of worlds. In a word, he had broken the fetters of ecclesiastical dogma, and had entered on a career of original speculation and research. No wonder he was considered a dangerous man, and that first the prison, and finally the stake, were his portion. Times, however, have greatly changed; and he who was led as a criminal to death for having dared to think for himself and uttered his thought, is now placed high on the honor-roll of the forerunners of modern liberty and civilization, and is gratefully remembered by thousands of intelligent men and women the world over.