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By Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864, 1844

A Good Man's Miracle


IN every good action there is a divine quality, which does not end with the completion of that particular deed but goes on to bring forth good works in an infinite series. It is seldom possible, indeed, for human eyes to trace out the chain of blessed consequences, that extends from a benevolent man's simple and conscientious act, here on earth, and connects it with those labors of love which the angels make it their joy to pefform, in Heaven above. Sometimes, however, we meet with an instance in which this wonderful and glorious connection may clearly be perceived. It has always appeared to me, that a well-known incident in the life of Mr. Robert Raikes offers us one of the most hopeful and inspiring arguments, never to neglect even the humblest opportunities of doing good, as not knowing what vast purposes of Providence we may thereby subserve. This little story has been often told, but may here be related anew, because it so strikingly illustrates the remark with which we began.

Mr. Raikes, being in London, happened one day to pass through a certain street, which was inhabited chiefly by poor and ignorant people. In great cities, it is unfortunately the case, that the poor are compelled to be the neighbors and fellow-lodgers of the vicious; and that the ignorant seeing so much temptation around them, and having no kind advisers to direct them aright, almost inevitably go astray and increase the number of the bad. Thus, though doubtless there are many virtuous poor people, amidst all the vice that hides itself in the obscure streets of a great city, like London, still it seems as if they were kept virtuous only by the special providence of God. If He should turn away His eyes for a single instant, they would be lost in the flood of evil that continually surrounds them. Now, Mr. Raikes, as he passed along, saw much to make him sad, for there were so many tokens of sin and wretchedness on all sides, that most persons, hopeless of doing any good, would have endeavored to forget the whole scene as soon as possible.

There is hardly a gloomier spectacle in the world than one of those obscure streets of London. The houses, which were old and ruinous, stood so close together as almost to shut out the sky, and even the sunshine, where a glimpse of it could be seen, was made dusky and dim by the smoke of the city. A kennel of muddy water flowed through the street. The general untidiness about the houses proved that the inhabitants felt no affection for their homes, nor took pride in making them decent and respectable. In these houses, it is to be feared that there were many people sick, suffering for food, and shivering with cold, and many, alas! who had fallen into the sore disease of sin, and sought to render their lives easier by dishonest practices. In short, the street seemed a place seldom visited by angels of mercy, or trodden by the footsteps of good men. Yet it were well that good men should often go thither, and be saddened by such reflections as now occurred to Mr. Raikes, in order that their hearts might be stirred up to attempt a reformation.

"Alas, what a spectacle is here!" thought this good man to himself. "How can any Christian remain idle, when there is so much evil to be remedied within a morning's walk of his own home?"

But we have not yet mentioned what it was that chiefly moved the heart of Mr. Raikes with sorrow and compassion. There were children at play in the street. Some were dabbling in the kennel, and splashing its dirty water over their companions, out of the mere love of mischief. Others, who had already been taught to gamble, were playing at pitch-and-toss for half-pence. Others, perhaps, were quarelling and fighting. In a word--for we will not describe what it was so sad to witness--these poor children were growing up in idleness, with none but bad examples before their eyes, and without the opportunity of learning anything but evil. Their little, unclean faces looked already old in naughtiness; it seemed as if the vice and misery of the world had been born with them, and would cling to them as long as they existed. How sad a spectacle was this for a man like Mr. Raikes, who had always delighted in little children, and felt as if the world was made more beautiful, and his own heart the better, by their bright and happy faces! But, as he gazed at these poor little creatures, he thought that the world had never looked so dark, ugly, and sorrowful, as it did then.

"Oh, that I could save them!" thought he. "It were better for them to have been born among the wildest savages, than to grow up thus in a Christian country."

Now, at the door of one of the houses, there stood a woman, who, though she looked poor and needy, yet seemed neater and more respectable than the other inhabitants of this wretched street. She, like Mr. Raikes, was gazing at the children; and perhaps her mind was occupied with reflections similar to his. It might be, that she had children of her own, and was ready to shed tears at the thought, that they must grow up in the midst of such bad examples. At all events, when Mr. Raikes beheld this woman, he felt as if he had found somebody that could sympathize with him in his grief and anxiety.

"My good woman," said he, pointing to the children, "this is a dismal sight--so many of God's creatures growing up in idleness and ignorance, with no instruction but to do evil."

"Alas, good Sir," answered the woman, "it is bad enough on week-days, as you see;--but if you were to come into the street on a Sunday, you would find it a thousand times worse. On other days some of the children find employment, good or bad; but the Sabbath brings them all into the street together--and then there is nothing but mischief from morning till night."

"Ah, that is a sad case indeed," said Mr. Raikes. "Can the blessed Sabbath itself bring no blessing to these poor children? This is the worst of all."

And then, again, he looked along the street, with pity and strong benevolence; for his whole heart was moved by what he saw. The longer he considered, the more terrible did it appear that those children should grow up in ignorance and sin, and that the germs of immortal goodness, which Heaven had implanted in their souls, should be for ever blighted by neglect. And the earnestness of his compassion quickened his mind to perceive what was to be done. As he stood gazing at the spectacle that had so saddened him, an expression of delightful hope broke forth upon his face, and made it look as if a bright gleam of sunshine fell across it. And, if moral sunshine could be discerned on physical objects, just such a brightness would have shone through the gloomy street, gladdening all the dusky windows, and causing the poor children to look beautiful and happy. Not only in that wretched street would the light of gladness have appeared; it might have spread from thence all round the earth; for there was now a thought on the mind of Mr. Raikes, that was destined, in no long time, to make the whole world brighter than it had been hitherto.

And what was that thought?

It must be considered that Mr. Raikes was not a very rich man. There were thousands of people in England, to whom Providence had assigned greater wealth than he possessed, and who, as one would suppose, might have done far more good to their fellow-creatures than it lay in his power to do. There was a king, too, and princes, lords and statesmen, who were set in lofty places, and entrusted with the making and administration of the laws. If the condition of the world was to be improved, were not these the men to accomplish it? But the true faculty of doing good consists not in wealth nor station, but in the energy and wisdom of a loving heart, that can sympathize with all mankind, and acknowledges a brother or a sister in every unfortunate man or woman, and an own child in each neglected orphan. Such a heart was that of Mr. Raikes; and God now rewarded him with a blessed opportunity of conferring more benefit on his race, than he, in his humility, had ever dreamed of. And it would not be too much to say, that the king and his nobles, and the wealthy gentlemen of England, with all their boundless means, had for many years, done nothing so worthy of grateful remembrance, as what was now to be effected by this humble individual.

And yet how simple was this great idea, and how small the means by which Mr. Raikes proceeded to put it in execution! It was merely, to hire respectable and intelligent women, at the rate of a shilling each, to come, every Sabbath, and keep little schools for the poor children whom he had seen at play. Perhaps the good woman with whom Mr. Raikes had spoken in the street, was one of his new school-mistresses. Be that as it might, the plan succeeded, and, attracting the notice of benevolent people, was soon adopted in many other dismal streets of London. And this was the origin of Sunday-schools. In course of time, similar schools were established all over that great city, and thence extended to the remotest parts of England, and across the ocean to America, and to countries at a world-wide distance, where the humble name of Robert Raikes had never been pronounced.

That good man has now long been dead. But still, on every Sabbath-morning, in the cities and country villages, and wheresoever the steeple of a church points upward to the sky, the children take their way to the Sunday-school. Thousands, and tens of thousands, have there received instruction, which has been more profitable to them than all the gold on earth. And we may be permitted to believe, that, in the celestial world, where the founder of the system now exists, he has often met with other happy spirits, who have blessed him as the earthly means by which they were rescued from hopeless ignorance and evil, and guided on the path to Heaven. Is not this a proof; that when the humblest person acts in the simplicity of a pure heart, and with no design but to do good, God may be expected to take the matter into His all-powerful hands and adopt the action as His own?

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