With the national election now (mostly) in the rearview mirror but yet not so distant, we are again in a time of reflection on national service and what it means to be a citizen, most especially on our duties to our fellow citizens. Unfortunately, most of the reflection is of a rather cynical and externalized sort, trying to figure out why this candidate won or lost, whom to blame, etc. I don’t see much of the sort on how exactly we are supposed to love our country, just mostly on how The Other Team doesn’t love our country (which means of course that Our Team does). Few are asking what we citizens are supposed to be doing.
In thinking about this, I recalled some words from 115 years ago, written for a Memorial Day address in 1901. In those days, Memorial Day was in remembrance of the Civil War (a.k.a. the Late Unpleasantness), which was closer to them than the Vietnam War now is for us. On that day, my great-great-grandfather, the Rev. George Franklin Sibley, was called upon to give an address at the Congregational Church in Shutesbury, Massachusetts. Here’s how it was reported rather prosaically in the local newspaper:
Shutesbury—Memorial services were held in the Cong’l Church Thursday at 1 p.m. The exercises Were mostly by the children. All did well, but the recitation by Hazel Grossman was particularly good, it showed care and method in preparation. The orator of the day was Major C. F. Branch, M.D., Amherst. His address was excellent, he gave the life of war as he has learned it from experience. He was a soldier in the 9th Vermont regiment, going at the age of 17 with 1000 others. When they returned there were 363 remaining. He was 21 years old lacking three days, a major in command of the regiment. His speech was highly appreciated by his hearers. Rev. Geo. F. Sibley spoke interestingly of the lessons to be learned from the war. After the exercises in the church the company, preceded by the Wendell brass band which was in attendance, marched to the cemetery where the dead comrades’ graves were decorated. George A. Berry was chairman of the day.
A few days after this report, another newspaper ran the full text of Rev. Sibley’s speech. Parts of it are illegible, so I have noted where I cannot make out what is written and have had to supply a few words by guesswork here and there:
We are now in the enjoyment of peace. Yet blind would we be if [illegible] peace has its perils as well as war. There are battles to fought with weapons that must be far mightier than things of steel. At such a time our beloved country needs a defence which armies and battleships cannot supply. The warfare that is now being raged is the struggle of true and pure citizenship against the alien hearted mercenaries of the political arena and against the black hearted dealers of our social life. He serves his country best who gives to her his best. The best that any man can give is his life’s blood, given to his country in the noble exercise of brawn and brain, undefiled and unstained by destroying appetites and the pollutions of passion, or spilled upon the field of battle a sacrifice for home and friends and native land.
Comrades and friends, we are not now called upon to offer ourselves for the sacrifice of death. What our country asks of us is a living sacrifice, a life spent in ennobling self-denial for the good of our neighbors, for a blessing to our town, for the increase of our commonwealth, for the glory of our country. The nations of earth are looking with wondering eyes. They gaze with astonishment at the progress and increasing power of our great republic. Soon we shall hold, if we do not already possess, the key that shall determine the welfare of all nations. Are we prepared for this great responsibility?
This question is a personal one as well as national. Have you and I that wisdom? Have you and I that moral force, that strength of character, that shall have its place, however small, in turning the tide of co-operate national life toward truth and righteousness? He is the true patriot, he alone truly loves his country, who, in his daily life, gives to the world the best of that of which he is capable. In this time of peace they best serve their country who give to her lives unstained by defiling passions and unfettered by destroying appetites. They who present to their country’s service lives thus ennobled by self-denial supply her with a phalanx which under God is invincible and render to her a glory of unsurpassable lustre and power.
These comrades have fought their battle well. Let us take courage by their example and in response to our country’s call, and in sympathy with her present needs give to her our best. Then shall history’s pages continue to be enriched by the record of lives of even greater nobility and of greater heroism than theirs. God be praised for the Grand Army of our Republic. God be praised for the noble host of self-denying, true-hearted patriots who attended them. Let us ever seek the increase of their ranks, that righteousness may fill our land and our possessions from north to south, from east to west. Then shall the blessing of heaven forever be the priceless possession of our beloved country.
It’s hard to imagine any public orator speaking like this these days. It’s not just a sense of nostalgia for a more elevated and archaic form of rhetoric that I have, but a sense that we have lost something precious of that civic love that Rev. Sibley speaks of here. And he knew something that I think our society now mostly does not, namely, that “they best serve their country who give to her lives unstained by defiling passions and unfettered by destroying appetites,” that we are ennobled by self-denial.
My great-great-grandfather was a Baptist pastor, and so on first blush one might presume that he would not have much in common with the Orthodox Christian priest that his descendant became some 105 years after this address. But in speaking of the necessity of reining in the passions and of seeking a life of self-denial, I think he may have more in common with Orthodox tradition than his own religious successors, who don’t seem to speak often of the dangers of defiling passions and destroying appetites. In that, I hope, we are more alike than different.