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"I want you to go with me over to San Quentin next Thursday, and preach a thanksgiving-sermon to the poor fellows in the State-prison."
On the appointed morning, I met our party at the Vallejo-street wharf, and we were soon steaming on our way. Passing under the guns of Fort Alcatraz, past Angel Island - why so called I know not, as in early days it was inhabited not by angels but goats only - all of us felt the exhilaration of the California sunshine, and the bracing November air, as we stood upon the guards, watching the play of the lazy-looking porpoises, that seemed to roll along, keeping up with the swift motion of the boat in such a leisurely way. The porpoise is a deceiver. As he rolls up to the surface of the water, in his lumbering way, he looks as if he were a huge lump of unwieldy awkwardness, floating at random and almost helpless; but when you come to know him better, you find that he is a marvel of muscular power and swiftness. I have seen a "school" of porpoises in the Pacific swimming for hours alongside one of our fleetest ocean-steamers, darting a few yards ahead now and then, as if by mere volition, cutting their way through the water with the directness of an arrow. The porpoise is playful at times, and his favorite game is a sort of leap-frog. A score or more of the creatures, seemingly full of fun and excitement, will chase one another at full speed, throwing themselves from the water and turning somersaults in the air, the water boiling with the agitation, and their huge bodies flashing in the light. You might almost imagine that they had found something in the sea that had made them drunk, or that they had inhaled some sort of piscatorial anaesthetic. But here we are at our destination. The bell rings, we round to, and land.
At San Quentin nature is at her best, and man at his worst. Against the rocky shore the waters of the bay break in gentle splashings when the winds are quiet. When the gales from the southwest sweep through the Golden Gate, and set the white caps to dancing to their wild music, the waves rise high, and dash upon the dripping stones with a hoarse roar, as of anger. Beginning a few hundreds of yards from the water's edge, the hills slope up, and up, and up, until they touch the base of Tamalpais, on whose dark and rugged summit, four thousand feet above the sea that laves his feet on the west, the rays of the morning sun fall with transfiguring, glory while yet the valley below lies in shadow. On this lofty pinnacle linger the last rays of the setting sun, as it drops into the bosom of the Pacific. In stormy weather, the mist and clouds roll in from the ocean, and gather in dark masses around his awful head, as if the sea-gods had risen from their homes in the deep, and were holding a council of war amid the battle of the elements; at other times, after calm, bright days, the thin, soft white clouds that hang about his crest deepen into crimson and gold, and the mountaintop looks as if the angels of God had come down to encamp, and pitched here their pavilions of glory. This is nature at San Quentin, and this is Tamalpais as I have looked upon it many a morning and many an evening from my window above the sea at North Beach.
The gate is opened for us, and we enter the prison-walls. It is a holiday, and the day is fair and balmy; but the chill and sadness cannot be shaken off, as we look around us. The sunshine seems almost to be a mockery in this place where fellow-men are caged and guarded like wild beasts, and skulk about with shaved heads, clad in the striped uniform of infamy. Merciful God! is this what thy creature man was made for? How long, how long?
Seated upon the platform with the prison officials and visitors, I watched my strange auditors as they came in. There were one thousand of them. Their faces were a curious study. Most of them were bad faces. Beast and devil were printed on them. Thick necks, heavy back-heads, and low, square foreheads, were the prevalent types. The least repulsive were those who looked as if they were all animal, creatures of instinct and appetite, good-natured and stupid; the most repulsive were those whose eyes had a gleam of mingled sensuality and ferocity. But some of these faces that met my gaze were startling - they seemed so out of place. One old man with gray hair, pale, sad face, and clear blue eyes, might have passed, in other garb and in other company, for an honored member of the Society of Friends. He had killed a man in a mountain county. If he was indeed a murderer at heart, nature had given him the wrong imprint. My attention was struck by a smooth-faced, handsome young fellow, scarcely of age, who looked as little like a convict as anybody on that platform. He was in for burglary, and had a very bad record. Some came in half laughing, as if they thought the whole affair more a joke than anything else. The Mexicans, of whom there was quite a number, were sullen and scowling. There is gloom in the Spanish blood. The irrepressible good nature of several ruddy-faced Irishmen broke out in sly merriment. As the service began, the discipline of the prison showed itself in the quiet that instantly prevailed; but only a few, who joined in the singing, seemed to feel the slightest interest in it. Their eyes were wandering, and their faces were vacant. They had the look of men who had come to be talked at and patronized, and who were used to it. The prayer that was offered was not calculated to banish such a feeling - it was dry and cold. I stood up to begin the sermon. Never before had I realized so folly that God's message was to lost men, and for lost men. A mighty tide of pity rushed in upon my soul as I looked down into the faces of my hearers. My eyes filled, and my heart melted within me. I could not speak until after a pause, and only then by great effort. There was a deep silence, and every face was lifted to mine as I announced the text. God had touched my heart and theirs at the start. I read the words slowly: God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ. Then I said:
"My fellow-men, I come to you today with a message from my Father, and your Father in heaven. It is a message of hope. God help me to deliver it as I ought! God help you to hear it as you ought! I will not insult you by saying that because you have an extra dinner, a few hours respite from your toil, and a little fresh air and sunshine, you ought to have a joyful thanksgiving today. If I should talk thus, you would be ready to ask me how I would like to change places with you. You would despise me, and I would despise myself, for indulging in such cant. Your lot is a hard one. The battle of life has gone against you - whether by your own fault or by hard fortune, it matters not, so far as the fact is concerned; this thanksgiving-day finds you locked in here, with broken lives, and wearing the badge of crime. God alone knows the secrets of each throbbing heart before me, and how it is that you have come to this. Fellow-men, children of my Father in heaven, putting myself for the moment in your place, the bitterness of your lot is real and terrible to me. For some of you there is no happier prospect for this life than to toil within these walls by day, and sleep in yonder cells by night, through the weary, slow-dragging years, and then to die, with only the hands of hired attendants to wipe the death-sweat from your brows; and then to be put in a convict's coffin, and taken up on the hill yonder, and laid in a lonely grave. My God! this is terrible!"
An unexpected dramatic effect followed these words. The heads of many of the convicts fell forward on their breasts, as if struck with sudden paralysis. They were the men who were in for life, and the horror of it overcame them. The silence was broken by sobbings all over the room. The officers and visitors on the platform were weeping. The angel of pity hovered over, the place, and the glow of human sympathy had melted those stony hearts. A thousand strong men were thrilled with the touch of sympathy, and once more the sacred fountain of tears was unsealed. These convicts were men, after all, and deep down under the rubbish of their natures there was still burning the spark of a humanity not yet extinct. It was wonderful to see the softened expression of their faces. Yes, they were men, after all, responding to the voice of sympathy, which had been but too strange to many of them all their evil lives. Many of them had inherited hard conditions; they were literally conceived in sin and born in iniquity; they grew up in the midst of vice. For them pure and holy lives were a moral impossibility. Evil with them was hereditary, organic, and the result of association; it poisoned their blood at the start, and stamped itself on their features from their cradles. Human law, in dealing with these victims of evil circumstance, can make little discrimination. Society must protect itself, treating a criminal as a criminal. But what will God do with them hereafter? Be sure he will do right. Where little is given, little will be required. It shall be better for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for Chorazin and Bethsaida. There is no ruin without remedy, except that which a man makes for himself by abusing mercy, and throwing away proffered opportunity. Thoughts like these rushed through the preacher's mind, as he stood there looking in the tear-bedewed faces of these men of crime. A fresh tide of pity rose in his heart, that he felt came from the heart of the all-pitying One.
"I do not try to disguise from you, or from myself the fact that for this life your outlook is not bright. But I come to you this day with a message of hope from God our Father. He hath not appointed you to wrath. He loves all his children. He sent his Son to die for them. Jesus trod the paths of pain, and drained the cup of sorrow. He died as a malefactor, for malefactors. He died for me. He died for each one of you. If I knew the most broken, the most desolate-hearted, despairing man before me, who feels that he is scorned of men and forsaken of God, I would go to where he sits and put my hand on his head, and tell him that God hath not appointed him to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us. I would tell him that his Father in heaven loves him still, loves him more than the mother that bore him. I would tell him that all the wrongs and follies of his past life may from this hour be turned into so much capital of a warning experience, and that a million of years from today he may be a child of the Heavenly Father, and an heir of glory, having the freedom of the heavens and the blessedness of everlasting life. O brothers, God does love you! Nothing can ruin you but your own despair. No man has any right to despair who has eternity before him. Eternity? Long, long eternity! Blessed, blessed eternity! That is yours - all of it. It may be a happy eternity for each one of you. From this moment you may begin a better life. There is hope for you, and mercy, and love, and heaven. This is the message I bring you warm from a brother's heart, and warm from the heart of Jesus, whose life-blood was poured out for you and me. His loving hand opened the gate of mercy and hope to every man. The proof is that he died for us. O Son of God, take us to thy pitying arms, and lift us up into the light that never, never grows dim - into the love that fills heaven and eternity!"
As the speaker sunk into his seat, there was a silence that was almost painful for a few moments. Then the pent-up emotion of the men broke forth in sobs that shook their strong frames. Dr. Lucky, the prisoner's friend, made a brief, tearful prayer, and then the benediction was said, and the service was at an end. The men sat still in their seats. As we filed out, of the chapel, many hands were extended to grasp mine, holding it with a clinging pressure. I passed out bearing with me the impression of an hour I can never forget; and the images of those thousand faces are still painted in memory.