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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Conflict of Opinions

By Margaret Deland (1857–1945)

[Born in Alleghany, Penn., 1857. Died in Boston, Mass., 1945. John Ward, Preacher. 1888.]

THEY rode quite silently to the house of the minister with whom John had exchanged, where they were to dine; after that, the preacher was to go back to the church for the afternoon sermon.

Mrs. Grier, a spare, anxious-looking woman, with a tight friz of hair about her temples, which were thin and shining, met them at the door. She had hurried home to “see to things,” and be ready to welcome her guests. John she ushered at once into her husband’s study, a poor little room, with even fewer books than Mr. Ward’s own, while Helen she took to the spare chamber, where she had thoughtfully provided a cambric dress for her, for the day had grown very warm, and the riding-habit was heavy.

She sat down in a splint rocking-chair, and watched her guest brush out her length of shining bronze hair, and twist it in a firm coil low on her neck.

“It was a good gathering,” she said; “people came from a distance to hear Mr. Ward. The folks at Lockhaven are favored to listen to such preaching.”

“No doubt they feel favored to have Mr. Grier with them to-day,” Helen answered, courteously; but there was an absent look in her eyes, and she did not listen closely.

“Well, people like a change once in a while,” Mrs. Grier admitted, rocking hard. “Mr. Grier’s discourse was to be on the same subject as your husband’s, foreign missions. It is one that moves the preachers, and the people seem to like it, I notice, though I don’t know that it makes much difference in the collections. But I think they like to get all harrowed up. You’ll find there won’t be such an attendance in the afternoon. It is ways and means then, you know. Yes, seems as if sermons on hell made them shiver, and they enjoyed it. I’ve sometimes thought—I don’t know as I’m right—they get the same kind of pleasure out of it that worldly people do out of a play. Not that I know much about such things, I’m sure.”

Helen smiled, which rather shocked Mrs. Grier; but though the guest scarcely listened, the little sharp babble of talk was kept up until they went down to dinner.

There had been no chance for the husband and wife to speak to each other. John looked at Helen steadily a moment, but her eyes veiled any thought. In the midst of Mrs. Grier’s chatter, she had gone into the solitude of her own heart, and slowly and silently light was beginning to shine into the mysterious darkness of the last few days. John’s grief must have had something to do with this terrible sermon. She felt her heart leap up from the past anxiety like a bird from a net, and the brooding sadness began to fade from her face. The preacher had come down from the pulpit with a certain exhilaration, as of duty done. He was inspired to hope, and even certainty, by the greatness of the theme. Helen should see the truth, his silence should no longer mislead her, she should believe in the justice of God. He had forgotten his sin of cowardice in the onward-sweeping wave of his convictions; he seemed to yield himself up to the grasp of truth, and lost even personal remorse in the contemplation of its majesty.

Mrs. Grier had four noisy children, who all spoke at once, and needed their mother’s constant care and attention, so John and Helen could at least be silent; yet it was hard to sit through the dinner when their hearts were impatient for each other.

In a little breathing-space at the end of the meal, when two of the children had clambered down from their high chairs and been dismissed, Mrs. Grier began to speak of the sermon.

“It was a wonderful discourse, sir,” she said; “seems as if nobody could stand against such doctrine as you gave us. I could have wished, though, you’d have told us your thoughts about infants being lost. There is a difference of opinion between Mr. Grier and two of our elders.”

“What does Brother Grier hold?” asked the preacher.

“Well,” Mrs. Grier answered, shaking her head, “he does say they are all saved. But the elders, they say that the confession of faith teaches that elect infants are saved, and of course it follows that those not elect are lost. My father, Mr. Ward, was a real old-fashioned Christian, and I must say that was what I was taught to believe, and I hold by it. There now, Ellen, you take your little sister and go out into the garden, like a good girl.”

She lifted the baby down from her chair, and put her hand into that of her elder sister.

“Mrs. Grier,” Helen said, speaking quickly, “you say you believe it, but if you had ever lost a child I am sure you could not.”

“I have, ma’am,”—Mrs. Grier’s thin lip quivered, and her eyes reddened a little,—“but that can’t make any difference in truth; besides, we have the blessed hope that she was an elect infant.”

It would have been cruel to press the reason for this hope, and Helen listened instead with a breath of relief to what John was saying. He, at least, did not hold this horrible doctrine.

“No, I agree with your husband,” he said. “True, all children are born in sin, and are despised and abhorred as sinners by God. Jonathan Edwards, you know, calls them ‘vipers,’ which of course was a crude and cruel way of stating the truth that they are sinners. Yet, through the infinite mercy, they are saved because Christ died—not of themselves; in other words, all infants who die are elect.”

Mrs. Grier shook her head. “I’m for holding to the catechism,” she said; and then, with a sharp, thin laugh, she added: “But you’re sound on the heathen, I must say.”

Helen shivered, and it did not escape her hostess, who turned and looked at her with interested curiosity. She, too, had heard the Lockhaven rumors.

“But then,” she proceeded, “I don’t see how a person can help being sound on that, though it is surprising what people will doubt, even the things that are plainest to other people. I’ve many a time heard my father say that the proper holding of the doctrine of reprobation was necessary to eternal life. I suppose you believe that, Mr. Ward,” she added, with a little toss of her head, “even if you don’t go all the way with the confession, about infants?”

“Yes,” said John sadly, “I must; because not to believe in reprobation is to say that the sacrifice of the cross was a useless offering.”

“And of course,” Mrs. Grier went on, an edge of sarcasm cutting into her voice, “Mrs. Ward thinks so, too? Of course she thinks that a belief in hell is necessary to get to heaven?”

The preacher looked at his wife with a growing anxiety in his face.

“No,” Helen said, “I do not think so, Mrs. Grier.”

Mrs. Grier flung up her little thin hands, which looked like bird-claws. “You don’t!” she cried shrilly. “Well, now, I do say! And what do you think about the heathen, then? Do you think they’ll be damned?”

“No,” Helen said again.

Mrs. Grier gave a gurgle of astonishment, and looked at Mr. Ward; but he did not speak.

“Well,” she exclaimed, “if I didn’t think the heathen would be lost, I wouldn’t see the use of the plan of salvation! Why, they’ve got to be!”

“If they had to be,” cried Helen, with sudden passion, “I should want to be a heathen. I should be ashamed to be saved, if there were so many lost.” She stopped; the anguish in John’s face silenced her.

“Well,” Mrs. Grier said again, really enjoying the scene, “I’m surprised; I wouldn’t a’ believed it!”

She folded her hands across her waist, and looked at Mrs. Ward with keen interest. Helen’s face flushed under the contemptuous curiosity in the woman’s eyes. She turned appealingly to John.

“Mrs. Ward does not think quite as we do, yet,” he said gently; “you know she has not been a Presbyterian as long as we have.”

He rose as he spoke, and came and stood by Helen’s chair, and then walked at her side into the parlor.

Mrs. Grier had followed them, and heard Helen say in a low voice, “I would rather not go to church this afternoon, dearest. May I wait for you here?”

“Well,” she broke in, “I shouldn’t suppose you would care to go, so long as it’s just about the ways and means of sending the gospel to the heathen, and you think they’re all going right to heaven, any way.”

“I do not know where they are going, Mrs. Grier,” Helen said wearily; “for all I know, there is no heaven, either. I only know that God—if there is a God who has any personal care for us—could not be so wicked and cruel as to punish people for what they could not help.”

“Good land!” cried Mrs. Grier, really frightened at such words, and looking about as though she expected a judgment as immediate as the bears which devoured the scoffing children.

“If you would rather not go,” John answered, “if you are tired, wait for me here. I am sure Mrs. Grier will let you lie down and rest until it is time to start for home.”

“Oh, of course,” responded Mrs. Grier, foreseeing a chance for further investigation; for she, too, was to be at home.

But Helen did not invite her to come into the spare room when she went to lie down, after John’s departure for church. She wanted to be alone. She had much to think of, much to reconcile and explain, to protect herself from the unhappiness which John’s sermon might have caused her. She had had an unmistakable shock of pain and distress as she realized her husband’s belief, and to feel even that seemed unloving and disloyal. To Helen’s mind, if she disapproved of her husband’s opinions on what to her was an unimportant subject, her first duty was to banish the thought, and forget that she had ever had it. She sat now by the open window, looking out over the bright garden to the distant peaceful hills, and by degrees the pain of it began to fade from her mind, in thoughts of John himself, his goodness, and their love. Yes, they loved one another,—that was enough.

“What does it matter what his belief is?” she said. “I love him!”

So, by and by, the content of mere existence unfolded in her heart, and John’s belief was no more to her than a dress of the mind; his character was unchanged. There was a momentary pang that the characters of others might be hurt by this teaching of the expediency of virtue, but she forced the thought back. John, whose whole life was a lesson in the beauty of holiness—John could not injure any one. The possibility that he might be right in his creed simply never presented itself to her.

Helen’s face had relaxed into a happy smile; again the day was fair and the wind sweet. The garden below her was fragrant with growing things and the smell of damp earth; and while she sat, drinking in its sweetness, a sudden burst of children’s voices reached her ear, and Ellen and the two little boys came around the corner of the house and settled down under the window. A group of lilacs, with feathery purple blossoms, made a deep, cool shade where the children sat; and near them was an old grindstone, streaked with rust and worn by many summers of sharpening scythes; a tin dipper hung on the wooden frame, nearly full of last night’s rain, and with some lilac stars floating in the water.

This was evidently a favorite playground with the children, for under the frame of the grindstone were some corn-cob houses, and a little row of broken bits of china, which their simple imagination transformed into “dishes.” But to-day the corn-cob houses and the dishes were untouched.

“Now, children,” Ellen said, “you sit right down and I’ll hear your catechism.”

“Who’ll hear yours?” Bobby asked discontentedly. “When we play school you’re always teacher, and it’s no fun.”

“This isn’t playing school,” Ellen answered, skilfully evading the first question. “Don’t you know it’s wicked to play on the Sabbath? Now sit right down.”

There was a good deal of her mother’s sharpness in the way she said this, and plucked Bobby by the strings of his pinafore, until he took an uncomfortable seat upon an inverted flower-pot.

Ellen opened a little yellow-covered book and began:

“Now answer, Jim. How many kinds of sin are there?”

“Two,” responded little Jim.

“What are these two kinds, Bob?”

“Original and actual,” Bob answered.

“What is original sin?” asked Ellen, raising one little forefinger to keep Bobby quiet. This was too hard a question for Jim, and with some stumbling Bobby succeeded in saying:

“It is that sin in which I was conceived and born.”

“Now, Jim,” said Ellen, “you can answer this question, ’cause it’s only one word, and begins with ’y.’”

“No fair!” cried Bob; “that’s telling.”

But Ellen proceeded to give the question: “Doth original sin wholly defile you, and is it sufficient to send you to hell, though you had no other sin?”

“Yes!” roared Jim, pleased at being certainly right.

“What are you then by nature?” Ellen went on rather carelessly, for she was growing tired of the lesson.

“I am an enemy to God, a child of Satan, and an heir of hell,” answered Bobby promptly.

“What will become of the wicked?” asked the little catechist.

Bobby yawned, and then said contemptuously: “Oh, skip that,—cast into hell, of course.”

“You ought to answer right,” Ellen said reprovingly; but she was glad to give the last question. “What will the wicked do forever in hell?”

“They will roar, curse, and blaspheme God,” said little Jim cheerfully; while Bobby, to show his joy that the lesson was done, leaned over on his flower-pot and tried to stand on his head, making all the time an unearthly noise.

“I’m roarin’!” he cried gayly.

Ellen, freed from the responsibility of teaching, put the little yellow book quickly in her pocket and said mysteriously: “Boys, if you won’t ever tell, I’ll tell you something.”

“I won’t,” said Jim, while Bobby responded briefly, “G’on.”

“Well, you know when the circus came,—you know the pictures on the fences?”

“Yes!” said the little boys together.

“’Member the beautiful lady, ridin’ on a horse, and standin’ on one foot?”

“Yes!” the others cried, breathlessly.

“Well,” said Ellen slowly and solemnly, “when I get to be a big girl, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m tired of catechism, and church, and those long blessings father asks, but most of catechism, so I’m going to run away and be a circus.”

“Father’ll catch you,” said Jim; but Bobby, with envious depreciation, added:

“How do you know but what circuses have catechism?”

Ellen did not notice the lack of sympathy. “And I’m going to begin to practice now,” she said.

Then, while her brothers watched her, deeply interested, she took off her shoes, and in her well-darned little red stockings climbed deliberately upon the grindstone.

“This is my horse,” she said, balancing herself, with outstretched arms, on the stone, and making it revolve in a queer, jerky fashion by pressing her feet on it as though it were a treadmill, “and it is bare-backed!”

The iron handle came down with a thud, and Ellen lurched to keep from falling. The boys unwisely broke into cheers.

It made a pretty picture, the sunbeams sifting through the lilacs on the little fair heads and dancing over Ellen’s white apron and rosy face; but Mrs. Grier, who had come to the door at the noise of the cheers, did not stop to notice it.

“Oh, you naughty children!” she cried. “Don’t you know it is wicked to play on the Sabbath? ‘Ellen’s playing circus,’ do you say, Bobby? You naughty, naughty girl! Don’t you know circus people are all wicked, and don’t go to heaven when they die? I should think you’d be ashamed! Go right up-stairs, Ellen, and go to bed; and you boys can each learn a psalm, and you’ll have no supper, either,—do you hear?”

The children began to cry, but Mrs. Grier was firm; and when, a little later, Helen came down-stairs, ready for her ride, the house was strangely quiet. Mrs. Grier, really troubled at her children’s sinfulness, confided their misdeeds to Helen, and was not soothed by the smile that flashed across her face.

“They were such good children to study their catechism first,” she interceded, “and making a horse out of a grindstone shows an imagination which might excuse the playing.”

But Mrs. Grier was not comforted, and only felt the more convinced of the lost condition of Mrs. Ward’s soul. The conviction of other people’s sin is sometimes a very pleasing emotion, so she bade her guest good-by with much cordiality and even pulled the skirt of her habit straight and gave the gray a lump of sugar.