Where Are The Heroes Now?
The HISTORY OF THE WORLD has always been the biography of her great men.
There was a time in these United States when youth was inspired by Hero Worship. Lives of Washington and others were published in country town and exchanged by travelling peddlers for anything farmers had to sell. Those were the days when a picture of Washing or Lincoln adorned every school room wall…
When on special days, small boys-wriggling uncomfortably in their store-bought clothes-pointed to the American flag and recited Washington’s Farewell Speech or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
And in the dim sanctuaries of every parlor, along with the ponderous Family Bible on the Victorian table and the hymn books on the old-fashioned square piano, there looked down from the walls the likenesses of our national heroes-Washington…Lincoln…Lee.
During long winter evenings, the stories of their lives were read aloud to the family, while the flickering firelight made grotesque shadows on the walls, and the tales of the hardships and triumphs became the pattern for every American boy.
Those were the days of great beliefs-belief in the authority of the Scriptures, belief that prayer was really answered, belief in marriage and the family as permanent institutions, belief in the integrity and worth of America’s great men.
These beliefs laid the groundwork for producing more great men, for many a boy figured, “If that man could do it, get an education, make his life count for something, then I can too.”
Then there dawned the day when the pictures of Washington and Lincoln did not fit in with our concept of modern décor…The old Family Bible looked embarrassingly out of place beside the Surrealistic paintings and cocktail cabinets or a bar.
So the pictures and the Bible were often relegated to the Attic of Forgotten Things. There went with them some of the most stabilizing influences of American life.
We had become a more sophisticated people, somewhat cynical of the cherished beliefs of our ancestors, rather blasé, frankly skeptical of old-fashioned sentimentalism.
Along with our higher education came a debunking contest. This debunking became a sort of national sport…It was smarter to revile than to revere…more fashionable to depreciate than to appreciate.
In our classrooms at all levels of education, no longer did we laud great men-those who had struggled and achieved. Instead, we merely took their dimensions and ferreted out their faults. We decided that it was silly to say God sent them for a special task: they couldn’t help being what they were-merely “creatures of the time,” the products of their environments.
So we congratulated ourselves that at last our history books were teaching the young the untarnished and unlovely ‘truth”: That Washington cutting down the cherry tree was a myth, that we fought the American Revolution for commercial reason, that Paul Revere didn’t make a ride at all, that the Constitution, that hitherto cherished charter of American liberties, was drawn up by men who never spoke on a telephone or flew in a plan, therefore, we should change the Constitution to suit modern ways.
We avowed that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Bacon, that Abraham Lincoln was an unbeliever, that Christ was purely and simply an historical figure, that the Bible is a collection of Jewish folklore, pious legends, and ancient superstitions.
It made us feel adventuresome to shock those of the older generation who still believed...It was a sign of knowledgeability and scholarship to refute the certainties of another age.
But we failed to realize that when we were denying the existence of great men, we were also denying the desirability of great men. So now, many of our children have grown up without the guiding star of Hero-Worship…holding in their hands only a bunch of bedraggled question marks, with no keys with which to open the doors of knowledge and life.
The young no longer had any particular ambition to become heroes. Their ambition now was to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, in whatever way was most convenient.
Even in Thomas Carlyle’s day an iconoclastic skepticism was abroad in his native Britain, and we hear him commenting: “I am well aware that in these days Hero Worship professes to have gone out and finally ceased…No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men. There is no sadder symptom of a generation than such with faith only a heap of barren dead fuel. It is the last consummation of unbelief…”
Thus, our debunking is more than a tendency of thought…more than a mere fad. It is rather a sign of decaying foundations of character to the individual and in the national life-and true character must always be founded upon Christianity. Why do Hero Worship and Christianity go hand in hand? Because faith in God engenders faith in man. One goes inextricably with the other.
But why all the debunking? Well, one contributing factor may be that after the spate of talented and dedicated heroes-most of them young men-who launched this republic, since then too many have been warriors.
Two World Wars, with wars in between, took their toll of idealism. Deep in our hearts we knew that as much as we admired war heroes, this was not the ultimate heroism. For example, twenty-two years after World War I, Hollywood decided to make a movie of Sergeant Alvin York’s story. In order to do this, it was necessary to track down York’s squad to get their permission to impersonate them.
You remember the story…It happened in the Argonne Forest, that region where the wheat field were mowed by the sharpest scythes that man could devise…where men fell like ripened grain.
The sergeant from Tennessee led his squad in an attack through the woods, crouching for cover whenever possible, short rushes from tree to tree toward the enemy position, advancing in the face of murderous machine gun fire, hurling hand grenades as they went. York and hi men overcame the machine gun nest…killed twenty-five Germans…captured on hundred, thirty-two.
When the troops returned from France, York and his squadron rode up Broadway amid cheers and showers of ticker tape. Gifts were lavished upon them. They were lionized in the newspapers and periodicals. Newsreels threw their smiling faces on movie screens from coast to coast.
But what the movie scouts wanted to know twenty-two years later was what had happened to those heroic men?
After a long and arduous search, ten of the squad were located: Two were farming in comfortable circumstances…One was driving a truck for a city in Massachusetts…One was working in a mill…Another was a mill watchman…Yet another was a porter in a barber shop…The seventh was in a veteran’s home…
But what of the remaining three? One of those was a hopeless drunkard, a saloon bum. Another man was living in a hobo jungle beside the city dump in Philadelphia, his home a shack made from packing boxes. The final man was living in a one-room shack in Texas. He refused even to come to the door or show his face.
Yet twenty-two years before, those men had ridden up Broadway to the cheers of the crowd-heroes. A grateful nation, they were told, meant to show them that nothing was too good for them. So what went wrong with the heroes?
We do not have enough facts to draw generalizations, but we can’t help having some thoughts about it…Such as-it’s what one does after the parade is over that counts when the bands have marched into the distance, when the shouting has died away. What then? For character is what a person does when he is alone, the decisions he makes away from the persuasions of his friend.
I say this even though I am one of those who believe that there are some principles worth fighting for and worth dying for, if need be. The trouble with our time is that when we can’t believe there is anything left to us worth dying for, then we’re not sure there’s anything worth living for either.
As a Christian minister-I find myself on the horns of a terrible dilemma: we all hate and loathe war…we denounce it…It is contrary to all the principles and ethics of Christ.
Yet I also feel that there are certain qualities, certain liberties, certain precious heritages for which a man should be willing to fight and even dare to die. I cannot reconcile these two positions: I shall not even try. I don’t believe there is a reconciliation in this present blundering and bleeding world.
Oddly, the same dilemma was that of a hero venerated all over the world-Abraham Lincoln. I have come to know Lincoln better-the heart and spirit of the man-since I met him in the tradition of this church I now serve in Washington, than ever I knew him in history books.
Soon after assuming this pastorate, I happened one day upon an old safe, little used, in the church basement. Fascinating minutes of session meetings were there, dating almost back the year the church was born-1802. Among these were some pew rental books, and I flipped open to a page with the inscription at the top: “A. Lincoln.” The annual rent of the pew was fifty dollars a year, and the notations of payments began in March, 1861, and continued until the President’s assassination four years later.
Upon coming to Washington, Mr. Lincoln had sought the advice of a member of his cabinet on the choice of “a suitable church home” for himself, his wife, and his three boys. One of his stipulations was that it had to be “a clergyman who holds himself aloof from politics.” The President’s choice was Dr. Phineas Gurley of this church.
As the clouds of Civil War gathered, increasingly, Mr. Lincoln sought the friendship of the clergyman. He liked to attend the mid-week prayer meetings by sitting on the other side of a glass-topped door, with the door ajar. On nights when the President would be deeply disturbed by the horror of Americans having to fight fellow-Americans, he would sometimes send a messenger to fetch Dr. Gurley.
Later, Dr. Gurley was to tell how the two of them would walk up and down the south portico of the White House-up and down, all through the night talking…praying until dawn flushed pink in the eastern sky.
For here was a man on the horns of that terrible dilemma: he believed that a nation divided could not stand…that the Union was worth saving…yet he loathed war, all of it from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.
In the end, according to Dr. Gurley who knew Lincoln so well, Lincoln found no way except the route of faith in God:
“After being near him steadily and with him often for more than four years,” Dr. Gurley said, “I can affirm that God’s guidance and mercy were the props on which he humbly and habitually leaned; that they were the best hope he had for himself and for his country…He recognized and received the truth that God is the governor among the nations, and that our only hope, in the President’s own words, was ‘to humble ourselves…confess our national sins, and pray for clemency and forgiveness.’”
The biographers who have rather desperately tried to prove that Abraham Lincoln was an unbeliever, have wisely ignored Dr. Gurley’s testimony…
The minister was present when Willie Lincoln died in the White House, and received from him the little iron bank containing pennies which the little boy asked him to give to the Sunday school.
He was there in the tiny hall bedroom in the red brick house on Tenth Street, keeping an all-night vigil with the leaders of the nation, as the President lay dying. As daylight broke and the faint breathing died away, the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton, broke the stillness with words which were almost a sob, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Then he asked Dr. Gurley to pray.
The nation needed prayer more than ever – without Lincoln. That was the note of the eulogy in the East Room which Dr. Gurley delivered, “It is by his steady confidence in God that he would speak to us today. His message would be: Cling to liberty and right, battle for them, bleed for the, if need be, but most important, have faith in God…”
It is because of those intimate anecdotes-and many more-that we in this church treasure the memory of men like Abraham Lincoln. We who are Christians, believe that God gives the world a few great men to lead the rest of us closer to Him, that to depreciate or to deny their greatness is to deny one of God’s revelations of Himself to mankind.
The heroes the Christian cherishes, Lincoln included, are no demi-gods: they were (or are) human…They have their weakness…Their faults are well-known to their friends, better known to themselves. But the point is that with God and His guidance, they can provide the moral leadership that our nation so sorely needs.
America needs heroes on the battlefield of everyday life…in our homes, in our schools, on college campuses, in offices and factories, who can lead us towards a return to idealism.
For time is running out for us. We are a country plagued by almost continual industrial strife, betrayed and exploited by political expediency, disintegrated by a steadily increasing divorce rate, weakened and sickened by lewdness and immorality, torn by racial and political hatreds.
But I know this-and it must be repeated over and over again: no nation ever made progress by going in a downward direction. No people ever became greater by lowering their standards, least of all by changing laws to suit the lower standards. No society was ever enriched or improved by a looser morality.
Have we fought two World Wars-and lesser wars since then, only to slip back into the suicidal path of apathy, materialism, and the decay that is eating away the foundations of Christian civilization, turning the world into a vast slaughter house reeking with the stench of human blood, stark with hunger and despair?
Where is America going?
You and I-and other ordinary citizens-are the only ones who can answer that. For the call today is for Christian heroes and heroines who are not afraid to be different…who are willing to speak a good word for Jesus Christ…who are willing to live by the undiluted values of Christian morality in the pagan atmosphere of our society surrounded by lewdness, pornography, and profanity.
This may be a higher bravery than that of any battlefield: to face ridicule, sarcasm, sneering disdain for what one believes to be right. To fight for goodness and right…fighting the battle first in our own hearts and souls…seeking God’s help to overcome our particular temptations for the sake of peace…for the sake of America…for our own sake…for God’s sake.
Where are the heroes now? They will be with us, God will raise them up whenever we are finally ready to listen to the strong words of our Father-God.
And so I end on my text, so that you can leave this place with the words ringing in your ears and engraven on your heart. Isaiah, in the first chapter:
“hear ye the word of the Lord, ye rulers: Give ear unto the law of our God, ye people…When ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes; When ye make your prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean: Put away the evil of your doings from mine eyes…Come NOW, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
Oh God! Raise us up heroes to win this war too.
20 Centuries of Great Preaching
Vol. 12 Waco: Word, 1971 p. 11-19
Peter Marshall was born in Coatbridge, Scotland May 27, 1902. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1938. Marshall served as Chaplain of the United States Senate (from 1947 until his death), where great crowds gathered to hear him pray. He often spoke concerning family life and placed women on a pedestal. Of death he said, “When the clock strikes for me, I shall go, not one minute early, and not one minute late. Until then, there is nothing to fear.” He died January 25, 1949, three hours after suffering his second heart attack. Senator Vandenberg (MI) said of Marshall: “He always spoke with courage, with deepest human understanding, and with stimulating hope.”