Remarks at Carnegie Hall in New York City
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:
I am glad to have the chance of addressing this representative body of the great Church which Wesley founded, on the occasion of the commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. America, moreover, has a peculiar proprietary claim on Wesley's memory, for it is on our continent that the Methodist Church has received its greatest development. In the days of our Colonial life Methodism was not on the whole a great factor in the religious and social life of the people. The Congregationalists were supreme throughout most of New England; the Episcopalians on the seaboard from New York southward; while the Presbyterian congregations were most numerous along what was then the entire Western frontier; and the Quaker, Catholic, and Dutch Reformed Churches each had developments in special places.
The great growth of the Methodist Church, like the great growth of the Baptist Church, began at about the time of the Revolutionary War. To-day my theme is purely Methodism.
Since the days of the Revolution not only has the Methodist Church increased greatly in the old communities of the thirteen original States, but it has played a peculiar and prominent part in the pioneer growth of our country, and has in consequence assumed a position of immense importance throughout the vast region west of the Alleghanies which has been added to our Nation since the days when the Continental Congress first met.
For a century after the Declaration of Independence the greatest work of our people, with the exception only of the work of self-preservation under Lincoln, was the work of the pioneers as they took possession of this continent. During that century we pushed westward from the Alleghanies to the Pacific, southward to the Gulf and the Rio Grande, and also took possession of Alaska. The work of advancing our boundary, of pushing the frontier across forest and desert and mountain chain, was the great typical work of our Nation; and the men who did it—the frontiersmen, the pioneers, the backwoods men, plainsmen, mountain men—formed a class by themselves. It was an iron task, which none but men of iron soul and iron body could do. The men who carried it to a successful conclusion had characters strong alike for good and for evil. Their rugged natures made them powers who served light or darkness with fierce intensity; and together with heroic traits they had those evil and dreadful tendencies which are but too apt to be found in characters of heroic possibilities. Such men make the most efficient servants of the Lord if their abounding vitality and energy are directed aright; and if mis directed their influence is equally potent against the cause of Christianity and true civilization. In the hard and cruel life of the border, with its grim struggle against the forbidding forces of wild nature and wilder men, there was much to pull the frontiersman down. If left to himself, without moral teaching and moral guidance, without any of the influences that tend toward the uplifting of man and the subduing of the brute within him, sad would have been his, and there fore our, fate. From this fate we have been largely rescued by the fact that together with the rest of the pioneers went the pioneer preachers; and all honor be given to the Methodists for the great proportion of these pioneer preachers whom they furnished.
These preachers were of the stamp of old Peter Cartwright—men who suffered and overcame every hardship in common with their flock, and who in addition tamed the wild and fierce spirits of their fellow pioneers. It was not a task that could have been accomplished by men desirous to live in the soft places of the earth and to walk easily on life's journey. They had to possess the spirit of the martyrs; but not of martyrs who could merely suffer, not of martyrs who could oppose only passive endurance to wrong. The pioneer preachers warred against the forces of spiritual evil with the same fiery zeal and energy that they and their fellows showed in the conquest of the rugged continent. They had in them the heroic spirit, the spirit that scorns ease if it must be purchased by failure to do duty, the spirit that counts risk and a life of hard endeavor if the goal to be reached is really worth attaining. Great is our debt to these men and scant the patience we need show toward their critics. At times they seemed hard and narrow to those whose training and surroundings had saved them from similar temptations; and they have been criticised, as all men, whether missionaries, soldiers, explorers, or frontier settlers, are criticised when they go forth to do the rough work that must inevitably be done by those who act as the first harbingers, the first heralds, of civilization in the world's dark places. It is easy for those who stay at home in comfort, who never have to see humanity in the raw, or to strive against the dreadful naked forces which appear clothed, hidden, and subdued in civilized life—it is easy for such to criticise the men who, in rough fashion, and amid grim surroundings, make ready the way for the higher life that is to come afterward; but let us all remember that the untempted and the effortless should be cautious in passing too heavy judgment upon their brethren who may show hardness, who may be guilty of shortcomings, but who nevertheless do the great deeds by which mankind advances. These pioneers of Methodism had the strong, militant virtues which go to the accomplishment of such great deeds. Now and then they betrayed the shortcomings natural to men of their type; but their shortcomings seem small indeed when we place beside them the magnitude of the work they achieved.
And now, friends, in celebrating the wonderful growth of Methodism, in rejoicing at the good it has done to the country and to mankind, I need hardly ask a body like this to remember that the greatness of the fathers becomes to the children a shameful thing if they use it only as an excuse for inaction instead of as a spur to effort for noble aims. I speak to you not only as Methodists—I speak to you as American citizens. The pioneer days are over. We now all of us form parts of a great civilized nation, with a complex industrial and social life and infinite possibilities both for good and for evil. The instruments with which, and the surroundings in which, we work, have changed immeasurably from what they were in the days when the rough backwoods preachers ministered to the moral and spiritual needs of their rough backwoods congregations. But if we are to succeed, the spirit in which we do our work must be the same as the spirit in which they did theirs. These men drove forward, and fought their way upward, to success, because their sense of duty was in their hearts, in the very marrow of their bones. It was not with them something to be considered as a mere adjunct to their theology, standing separate and apart from their daily life. They had it with them week days as well as Sundays. They did not divorce the spiritual from the secular.
They did not have one kind of conscience for one side of their lives and another for another.
If we are to succeed as a nation we must have the same spirit in us. We must be absolutely practical, of course, and must face facts as they are. The pioneer preachers of Methodism could not have held their own for a fortnight if they had not shown an intense practicability of spirit, if they had not possessed the broadest and deepest sympathy for, and understanding of, their fellowmen. But in addition to the hard, practical common-sense needed by each of us in life, we must have a lift toward lofty things or we shall be lost, individually and collectively, as a nation. Life is not easy, and least of all is it easy for either the man or the nation that aspires to do great deeds. In the century opening, the play of the infinitely far-reaching forces and tendencies which go to make up our social system bids fair to be even fiercer in its activity than in the century which has just closed. If during this century the men of high and fine moral sense show themselves weaklings; if they possess only that cloistered virtue which shrinks shuddering from contact with the raw facts of actual life; if they dare not go down into the hurly-burly where the men of might contend for the mastery; if they stand aside from the pressure and conflict; then as surely as the sun rises and sets all of our great material progress, all the multiplication of the physical agencies which tend for our comfort and enjoyment, will go for naught and our civilization will become a brutal sham and mockery. If we are to do as I believe we shall and will do, if we are to advance in broad humanity, in kindliness, in the spirit of brotherhood, exactly as we advance in our conquest over the hidden forces of nature, it must be by developing strength in virtue and virtue in strength, by breeding and training men who shall be both good and strong, both gentle and valiant—men who scorn wrong doing, and who at the same time have both the courage and the strength to strive mightily for the right. Wesley accomplished so much for mankind because he refused to leave the stronger, manlier qualities to be availed of only in the interest of evil. The Church he founded has through its career been a Church for the poor as well as for the rich and has known no distinction of persons. It has been a Church whose members, if true to the teachings of its founder, have sought for no greater privilege than to spend and be spent in the interest of the higher life, who have prided themselves, not on shirking rough duty, but on undertaking it and carrying it to a successful conclusion. I come here to—night to greet you and to pay my tribute to your past because you have deserved well of mankind, because you have striven with strength and courage to bring nearer the day when peace and justice shall obtain among the peoples of the earth.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at Carnegie Hall in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343449