This sermon by Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes (1844-1917), preached at Stanford, comes from “The Sunday Sermon,” a weekly summary of the sermon preached at Stanford printed in the Daily Palo Alto of Stanford University, vol. 7, no. 78, Monday, May 6, 1895, p. 1. This reads like someone’s careful notes of the sermon; it is too awkward, and far too short, to be an actual reading text. Nevertheless, it gives a good sense of how Wilkes preached late in her career.
The sermon also gives a opportunity to see one way an experienced evangelist made herself known in a community. She doubtless chose to address the topic of evolution because it would be a topic of interest in a university chapel. In less than six months, Wilkes had gathered a group of Unitarians and other liberals, who then formally organized as a Unity Society (not a full church, but a lay-led society) in January, 1896. The Unity Society did not last long, but it laid the groundwork for the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, which was organized in 1905, and lasted until the Great depression.
The sermon Sunday morning was preached by Mrs. Eliza T. Wilkes of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. The subject was “The Forgiveness of Sins in the Light of Evolution.”
Do not think I do not realize the awful presumption of speaking to you on such a subject. A short time ago a minister asked me if I believed in evolution. I said most certainly I did so far as I had gone. Sin has been considered the choice of the imperfect for the perfect. Today most of us regard it as a crime against life. Your body, complete in every function, is a model body. Violating anything which retards this, is sin; retarding life is immorality and bin. Dying to live is full complete life. A criminal has more to hope for than the licentious person. We see all around us the results of sin. It is as much a sin to think wrong as it is to do wrong.
Evolution, with its awful fact of heredity, emphasizes the old law that the father’s sins descend upon the children. Children suffer for sins not only of the father but of the third and fourth generations. It emphasizes the curse against wrong-doers. We are not living in a universe of goodness. Hell cannot be put off. “Whatever a man soweth that he reapeth.” Are we held hand and foot in the inexorable grip of vice? Cannot we get free? Must the prodigal son be stricken from the gospel’s pages? True, there are no longer any punishments left in our philosophy, only consequences. Are there no evangelists for us to see? Are there none to save the captive and to help the lost?
A few months ago I was preaching in a room over a saloon. A friend who always waited to see me home was standing in the doorway. I preached on the well known subject, “Salvation Through Character.” My sermon sounded void and empty, but when I reached the door my friend, who drinks, gambles, and according to the old saying, “whose worst enemy is himself,” said, “I like those sermons on character, but how about us poor devils who haven’t any?” We must ask that question or stop preaching. If the philosopher can not help those poor ones who need help we had better stop and tell again the old, old story.
Life has in it a re-creating force. Life brings to us sweetest results: it takes the scar and destroys every sign. Every great thought clearing the brain gives new re-creative force, puts new life into the very scum of things. Through intellect and affection, new life comes to fainting souls. Every new burst of emotion arouses the will, and it is through action alone that character arises. We change our lives by our wills. Our destinies are in our own hands. “What thou lovest thou bccomest.” Moral power has in it the life principle of re-creating. The worst consequences of sins are the breaking down of intellect and character. When one’s soul has come to sin, all the beauty of the present time is left behind. The great power is a loving power. But how docs one know it? Only through the touch of human love. You may talk to some who know not of love, but every soul forgives sins. The consequence of sin is distrust in other hearts.
Some one spoke to me of the fate of poor women who had sinned. I could not think how to help them. I was influenced by another’s sin. One of them came to me. At first I could say nothing, but my own soul helped me. Though our hearts hasten to Calvary, shall we pass by those who want us to help them?
I stood by a poor girl who was suffering for her own and another’s sin. I said, “God will forgive.” “Yes,” she answered, “God will forgive, but women won’t.” There are sins which can never be forgiven in this world or the world to come; but out of this loss come new hope and spiritual gain. They become monuments of love, faith, and trust in fellow men.
As I finished talking to her, they sent for me to go and see a man. I found him in a dark, gloomy corner of our beautiful city — a wreck, apparently. He had sown to the wind and was reaping the whirlwind, he had done what many young men are doing — he had “sown his wild oats.” He was what we should call a delicate man; used the vernacular which learned men use; he was a college man. “I got off the wrong way,” he said, “I want to know how to get hold of life anew. I can’t see a clear way.” He told me that all through these years his one true friend had been his little wife, and now for her sake he wanted to begin life again. I said: “My friend, I can’t help you to begin life anew. Reap what you have sown. There is no power in Heaven or on earth that can give you back these years. But God isn’t in a hurry; there is plenty of time. Take hold of that wife’s faith in you and it will help you. And in after years you will say you have gained much, you have been helped to carry character to a higher level. Remember this — the universe is before you waiting to raise the will of man when he is ready.” When I had finished I thought it would have been better to say, “Except ye become as a little child, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”