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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Hurrell Mallock (1849–1923)

A Lay-Sermon and a Shipwreck

From “The New Paul and Virginia”

THE PROFESSOR, as was natural, held quite aloof, and pondered over a new species of bug which he had found very plentiful in his berth. But it soon occurred to him that he often heard the name of God being uttered otherwise than in swearing. He listened more attentively to the sounds, which he had at first set down as negro melodies; and he soon became convinced that they were something whose very existence he despised himself for remembering—namely, Christian hymns. He then thought of the three curates, whose existence he despised himself for remembering also. And the conviction rapidly dawned on him, that though the passengers seemed fully alive to his fame as a man of science, they could yet know very little of all that science had done for them, and of the death-blow it had given to the foul superstitions of the past. He therefore resolved that next day he would preach them a lay-sermon.

At the appointed time the passengers gathered eagerly round him—all but Virginia, who retired to her cabin when she saw that the preacher wore no surplice, as she thought it would be a mortal sin to listen to a sermon without one.

The professor began amidst a profound silence. He first proclaimed to his hearers the great primary axiom in which all modern thought roots itself. He told them that there was but one order of things, it was so much neater than two; and if we would be certain of anything we must never doubt it. Thus, since countless things exist that the senses can take account of, it is evident that nothing exists that the senses cannot take account of. The senses can take no account of God; therefore God does not exist. Men of science can only see theology in a ridiculous light; therefore theology has no side that is not ridiculous. He then told them a few of the new names that enlightened thinkers had applied to the Christian Deity—how Professor Tyndall had called him “an atom-manufacturer,” and Professor Huxley, “a pedantic drill-serjeant.” The passengers at once saw how demonstrably at variance with fact was all religion, and they laughed with a sense of humour that was quite new to them. The professor’s tones then became more solemn; and, having extinguished error, he proceeded to unveil the brilliant light of truth. He showed them how, viewed by modern science, all existence is a chain, with a gas at one end, and no one knows what at the other; and how humanity is a link somewhere, but, holy and awful thought!—we can none of us tell where. “However,” he proceeded, “of one thing we can be quite certain: all that is, is matter; the laws of matter are eternal, and we cannot act or think without conforming to them. And if,” he said, “we would be solemn, and high, and happy, and heroic, and saintly, we have but to strive and struggle to do what we cannot for an instant avoid doing. Yes,” he exclaimed, “as the sublime Tyndall tells us, let us struggle to attain to a deeper knowledge of matter, and a more faithful conformity to its laws!”

The professor would have proceeded; but the weather had been rapidly growing rough, and he here became violently sea-sick.

“Let us,” he exclaimed hurriedly, “conform to the laws of matter and go below.”

Nor was the advice premature. A storm arose, exceptional in its suddenness and its fury. It raged for two days without ceasing. The Australasian sprang a leak; her steering gear was disabled; and it was feared she would go ashore on an island that was seen dimly through the fog to the leeward. The boats were got in readiness. A quantity of provisions and of the passengers’ baggage was already stowed in the cutter. When the clouds parted, the sun came out again, and the storm subsided almost as quickly as it arose.

No sooner were the ship’s damages in a fair way to be repaired, than the professor resumed his sermon. He climbed into the cutter, which was still full of the passengers’ baggage, and sat down on the largest of Virginia’s boxes. This so alarmed Virginia that she followed the professor into the cutter to keep an eye on her property. But she did not forget to stop her ears with her fingers, that she might not be guilty of listening to an unsurpliced minister.

The professor took up the thread of his discourse just where he had broken it off. Every circumstance favoured him. The calm sea was sparkling under the gentlest breeze; all nature seemed suffused with gladness; and at two miles’ distance was an enchanting island, green with every kind of foliage and glowing with the hues of a thousand flowers. The professor, having reminded his hearers of what nonsense they now thought all the Christian teachings, went on to show them the blessed results of this. Since the God that we once called all-holy is a fable, that Humanity is all-holy must be a fact. Since we shall never be sublime, and solemn, and unspeakably happy hereafter, it is evident that we can be sublime, and solemn, and unspeakably happy here. “This,” said the professor, “is the new gospel. It is founded on exact thought. It is the gospel of the kingdom of man; and had I only here a microscope and a few chemicals, I could demonstrate its eternal truth to you. There is no heaven to seek for; there is no hell to shun. We have nothing to strive and live for except to be unspeakably happy.”

This eloquence was received with enthusiasm. The captain in particular, who had a wife in every port he touched at, was overjoyed at hearing that there was no hell; and he sent for all his crew, that they might learn the good news likewise. But soon the general gladness was marred by a sound of weeping. Three-fourths of the passengers, having had time to reflect a little, began exclaiming that as a matter of fact they were really completely miserable, and that for various reasons they could never be anything else. “My friends,” said the professor, quite undaunted, “that is doubtless completely true. You are not happy now; you probably never will be. But that is of little moment. Only conform faithfully to the laws of matter, and your children’s children will be happy in the course of a few centuries; and you will like that far better than being happy yourselves. Only consider the matter in this light, and you yourselves will become happy also; and whatever you say, and whatever you do, think only of the effect it will have five hundred years afterward.”

At these solemn words the anxious faces grew calm. An awful sense of the responsibility of each one of us, and the infinite consequences of every human act, was filling the hearts of all, when, by a faithful conformity to the laws of matter, the boiler blew up, and the Australasian went down. In an instant the air was rent with yells and cries; and all the Humanity that was on board the vessel was busy, as the professor expressed it, uniting itself with the infinite azure of the past. Paul and Virginia, however, floated quietly away in the cutter, together with the baggage and provisions. Virginia was made almost senseless by the suddenness of the catastrophe; and on seeing five sailors sink within three yards of her, she fainted dead away. The professor begged her not to take it so much to heart, as these were the very men who had got the cutter in readiness; “and they are therefore,” he said, “still really alive in the fact of our happy escape.” Virginia, however, being quite insensible, the professor turned to the last human being still to be seen above the waters, and shouted to him not to be afraid of death, as there was certainly no hell, and that his life, no matter how degraded and miserable, had been a glorious mystery, full of infinite significance. The next moment the struggler was snapped up by a shark.