"A Great Object-Lesson," Independent, 30 July 1903

Dublin Core


"A Great Object-Lesson," Independent, 30 July 1903


Pope Leo XIII; Religion


“A Great Object-Lesson”

The great Controller of the world does not often gratify the dramatic sense of his creatures with a finer scene than that of the death of the Pope[1] the other day.

A man who was one of the foremost rulers of the world, who had compelled the respect of all nations by his wisdom and kindliness, a man whom millions of men regarded as the Vicegerent[2] of God on earth, after nearly a century of busy work fought with death hour after hour for weeks—to stay—to keep to his work. He was driven back step by step, and went at last into the outer darkness, calm and unafraid leaving a blessing behind him on us all. No man, be he Pagan, Papist or Protestant, could be blind to the dramatic grandeur of that exit. The Church of which he was the earthly head missed a point when she did not devise a way in which the world could have saluted the departing shade.

A few years ago, as we all remember, when a great railway king died, every train on the system which he controlled stopped wherever it might be during the hour of his funeral. Later, when Mr. McKinley[3] died, the whole country stood still while his body was laid to rest. Traffic stopped from Maine to California; even the most crowded streets of New York were silent and motionless for that half-hour. Men uncovered and women breathed a prayer.

I wonder that the Catholic Church, which is so ready to use every means to influence popular opinion, and so skillful in using them, did not honor her great head in some such way. Who could object? In older countries they take time to respect every dead man. The nobleman in his liveried coach draws to one side upon the road to make room for the unknown pauper's hearse, and every passer-by stops and uncovers as he goes upon his last journey.

There is no man in America who would not have been helped by a moment's pause and silence as Pope Leo was laid in his grave, if it were only to give him time to define to himself his opposition to the great priest and to the doctrines which he taught.

What I am trying to say is that we all should be helped by object-lessons and pauses in our incessant work. Many dark questions would grow clearer to us through them.

But we modern Americans have become so commercial and practical that we have a contempt for such romantic doings. Books and newspapers, we hold, are the only fountains of knowledge necessary for sane men and women. When we go to older countries we are apt to look with pitying contempt on the pictured Madonnas[4] and the little old shrines of the Infant Christ on the street corners and in the back of the shops with lamps burning before them.

It does not occur to us that the picture and the carved crucifix, with all the cheap symbolism of the early churches, were the only methods they had of teaching the truths of the Christian religion to the people. There were no printed books, and how many could have read them if there had been?

Even at this late day, too, the American, with all of his keen mother wit and hoards of facts and of knowledges from his babyhood packed daily into his brain, done up in separate packages, labeled and ready for instant use, is still oddly susceptible to the teaching of object-lessons.

The Liberty Bell, in its journeys through the country, does more to make loyal citizens of our people than all the books that ever were written. It is one thing to read on a cold printed page that you are free to earn your living as you please, to make your own laws, and to worship God as you choose, and another to actually see and touch the old bell that first told this glad tidings to the land and proclaimed Liberty to all the inhabitants thereof. Even if Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation and owns the bell, she should not grumble when it goes out on its triumphant journeys, but thank God for the lesson it teaches—that Americans are still individual freemen, not to be ruled by bosses or walking delegates any more than by kings or czars.

Every flag, too, fluttering on the top of our schoolhouses is a more powerful lesson to the boys inside than any in their text-books, and the custom of rising when the first bars of the “Star Spangled Banner” are played—young and old, children and tottering age together—is another which makes our hearts burn with love and pride for our country. What book or newspaper does that?

God himself, it seems sometimes, teaches us by object-lessons.

We are all busy with work or play, comfortable and complacent together, congratulating each other daily that what with our sciences and arts and mother wits we have conquered every difficulty in life. We have exposed and tamed all the secrets of Nature; we have found the elements, they are our slaves; the lightnings answer our call and carry the messages of the smallest child. And some day, in the very midst of our boasting and complacency, old Nature rises at His bidding like a huge beast in the forest and shakes herself, and a great blizzard or a tidal wave sweeps over cities and villages or Mt. Pelee[5] vomits her fire. Nothing remains afterward but death. Where is our skill or science then?

No sermon of prophet or saint ever told us as plainly as these stupendous catastrophes of Nature that God, not man, rules, and that there is a future life. What does the death in one day of two thousand human beings in India or China matter to their Maker who knows he has but removed them to another place to go on living?

Of course, there are doubting Thomases, who gibe at all these things. This kind of man learns nothing from any object-lesson, even if the Almighty teaches it. You will not find him putting flowers on any grave, or getting on his legs when the band plays the “Star Spangled Banner.” He went to see “Everyman”[6] last winter. His neighbors sat pale and silent listening to the tap of the drum of death and thinking:

“I, too! Before long I shall hear that call, and how can I answer it?"

But he was giggling at the color of the angels’ wings or criticising the embroidery of the costumes.

Did he approve when the country stood silent and motionless while the murdered President was laid in his grave?

Certainly not. “Business suffered,” he said. “His own mail was a half-hour late. Americans have no time for sentimental high jinks. Besides—” and then he whispered a reminder that there were many who considered McKinley to be only a shrewd political trickster. The other day, too, when the Pope died he was eager to assure us that he was only an Italian priest elevated to the Pontificate[7] by chicanery,[8] a keen politician and a poor poet.

No doubt to many of the readers of THE INDEPENDENT, honest, well meaning folk all of them, the pathos and significance of the deaths of these two men were blotted out by their conviction of the iniquities of the Republican party and the Roman Church. They insist that these charges were true to the letter. But is not this the letter that killeth? Surely it is more wholesome and helpful for us, whatever our church or party may be, to find honesty in McKinley and piety in Leo than to jeer at both as frauds.

This kind of wideawake Thomas sees a drunken woman, her baby in her arms, staggering on the street. She is nothing to him but a fit candidate for the Black Maria.[9] The wiser man sees in her look at the child all the possibility, the hope that lies in the motherhood of the world. But it is Thomas who is popularly rated as a shrewd fellow. You can't fool him! He wants the facts, he is not to be blinded by cheap sentiment.

He can show us the ugly skeleton below the flesh and blood of all men and women. These working folk, he tells us, are all anarchists, ready to empty our pockets or cut our throats; the Four Hundred[10] are all idiots or criminals; all clergymen are hypocrites; Russians are brutes and Jews cheats; lynchers and lynched are all beasts together.

There is a certain truth in what he sees; but is there no truer truth beneath?

It is your man with enthusiasm, with a dramatic sense, who throws himself into other human beings, who finds in each the flame which God put into him. Your fact-abiding man trampled the mud of this world under his feet and kicked the stones aside and breathed the air for ages, and found in them nothing but wind and stones and mud. But the enthusiast came along and found in them all the electric fire that propels the world. It is he who will see the real meaning of Leo’s death and of all God’s other object- lessons.


[1] Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), head of the Catholic Church from 1878-1903, notable for attempts to modernize the positions of the church.

[2] A papal term, leader believed to be acting as an earthly agent of God.

[3] William McKinley (1843-1901), U.S. President from 1897 until his assassination by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in 1901.

[4] The Virgin Mary, frequently depicted holding the Infant Christ in images of the Catholic Church.

[5] Mt. Pelée, a volcano on the island of Martinique, which erupted in 1902 killing nearly 30,000 people.

[6]Everyman, an update of a 15th century morality play of the same name, was performed on Broadway in 1902 following its British debut a year prior. The play deals with themes of Christian salvation.

[7] Term for the tenure of the Pope in the Catholic Church.

[8] Use of trickery, especially in pursuit of political agenda.

[9] Slang term for a police vehicle for transportation of incarcerated individuals, believed to originate from the reputation of a black woman named Maria Lee, who assisted police in many arrests from her Boston boarding house during the mid-19th century.

[10] “The Four Hundred” refers to a curated list of New York City’s most prominent socialites first published in The New York Times in 1892 by Ward McAllister (1827-1895), friend to the Astor family, of Waldorf-Astoria Hotel fame. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (1830-1908) was considered the leader of this group, which included far fewer than 400 people, though that number is thought to derive from the maximum capacity of a number of fashionable locales at the time, such as Delmonico’s restaurant and Astor’s own ballroom.


Jency Wilson


Updated December 5, 2020


Alicia MIscha Renfroe



Jency Wilson, “"A Great Object-Lesson," Independent, 30 July 1903,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/219.

Output Formats