The Bulwark, by Theodore Dreiser
How easy it is for a man’s wealth or his position to compromise his principles.
Solon Barnes was a Quaker. Ardently, he wished to sustain those beliefs and customs which were his by heritage and conviction. He desired to live by the “Inner Light” and to practice simplicity in dress, speech and mode of living.
But even in Philadelphia, the city of Friends, simplicity was difficult to achieve as the calendar turned to the twentieth century. Success came willingly to Solon. A worthwhile position in a bank was offered him; he married the daughter of a wealthy fellow Quaker; his investments were sound. All these material gifts appeared to be the result of his industry and good stewardship.
Nevertheless, these possessions implied a responsibility that did not always rest lightly upon Solon Barnes. He sensed that comfort and even luxury crept into his habits of living. Many of the younger Friends had begun to adopt modern clothing, to let slip the “thee” and “thou” used in speech, to furnish their homes past necessity by introducing pictures, carpeting and china. The signs indicated an increasing emphasis on the material world along with a corresponding neglect of the spiritual life.
This devout Quaker sought to hold the reins tight for himself and his children. He never allowed his advancement to interfere with his own conscience. But his children were not imbued with their father’s religiosity as they termed it. They felt themselves starved for a little luxury, a bit of worldly glitter. With them, a profitable marriage was of first importance. And they had need of fun first. Eventually, this seeking after pleasure and freedom led to deceit, stealing, shame and disgrace for all the family.
In this book, Mr. Dreiser teaches that under the press of modern life a man can scarcely build up his faith at the same time that he seeks material success. Where the snare of riches escapes himself, his children are caught fast. It follows that the blame rests upon the father in large measure for failing to lead his children to the proper value of his religion.
It is true, of course, that an abundance of worldly goods often undermines a man’s spiritual conscience. And the Bible affirms that it is harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass thru a needle’s eye.
Yet the author appears to think of religion as a set of moral truths which may be accepted or rejected to the benefit or hurt of the person involved. He ignores the fact that God’s grace must be operative in the heart or no amount of instruction will produce a believing child.
We are no Quakers. But we might learn a lesson from this book for we are tempted constantly to seek after pleasures and treasures of this life. And in our search after them, we allow our spiritual lives to suffer. It seems we need a reminder to bring us back to looking for the things of God and to turning our backs upon the things of the world.