Letter to one who is lacking in reverence for the truth as a moral virtue

From an anonymous work, published in 1855 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, under the title, Monitory Letters to Church Members.

As you may possibly infer from the subject of my letter, that I suppose you capable of deliberately and intentionally violating the truth, I wish to begin what I have to say by utterly disavowing such an idea. I doubt not that the obligation of every one to speak the truth, makes part of your creed as truly as it does of mine. And I am fully persuaded that you do not mean to allow yourself in what you consider an infringement of this great law of God and man that binds society together. But I am obliged to add that I am equally convinced that there are at least two points, in relation to this general subject, at which you are extremely vulnerable. I propose to direct your attention a little, in all frankness, to each of them. The first is an unfortunate habit you have acquired of making exaggerated statements. You have a lively imagination, and to embellish a little never costs you any trouble; and besides, you seem to consider the sober truth as tame and lacking in interest; you want something more exciting — better fitted to arrest the attention and stir up the feelings. If it is something humorous that you are relating, you seem disposed to create a louder laugh than you would otherwise secure, by throwing every circumstance into the most ludicrous light you can. If it is something of a gloomy and appalling character, you task your imagination for yet darker shades than the fact supplies, in order to work up a picture that shall tell more powerfully upon the sensibilities of those who listen to you. If it is a mere ordinary occurrence, you still show your wish to make it extraordinary, by either magnifying it into quite another thing, or else connecting with it something to which it is at best but remotely related. I tell you candidly, that I have heard you tell stories, by which I could not help being amused, but which were so entirely overcoloured, that I could scarcely recognize the facts of which they purported to be a faithful narrative. Once in particular, I remember your figuring in this way in the presence of a large company; and though you professed to be telling the truth, yet your imagination so perfectly led you captive, that I could not but think that there was about as much difference between your statement and the veritable fact, as there was between that of a man’s having vomited three black crows, and that of his having vomited something as black as a crow.

The evils which result from this habit, you may rest assured, are neither few nor small. The fact that you should have formed such a habit, shows a pre-existing state of mind that is far from being in harmony with the divine requirements. It evinces a loose way of thinking and feeling, in regard to the obligation to strict veracity; and the habit itself is really nothing else than a habit of voluntary misrepresentation. You may take the comfort of thinking that you mean no harm, and that those who listen to you will not be likely to be misled, as they will make due allowance for your passion for telling a good story; but even if this be so, it does not prevent your doing a great injury to yourself. If you accustom yourself to relate apocryphal stories as verities, merely for amusement, or to exaggerate the truth till it loses its character as truth, you need not marvel, if that which begins in the want of due reverence for the truth, should issue in an utter disregard to it; and if, from this unfortunate training which you are giving yourself, you should, by and by, find yourself capable of serving a purpose by deliberate and downright falsehood.

Let me say, too, that this habit to which I refer is altogether unprofitable. It does not secure the end at which it aims. Your tendency to exaggeration soon becomes known, and your statements are all received with due allowance; and besides, where you have occasion to relate a really remarkable thing, you do it at a great disadvantage, as your whole vocabulary of superlatives is exhausted upon ordinary matters. So far as your example goes, I need not say that it is evil. The circumstance of your being a professor of religion will give it more authority in the view of some, while it will lead others to make religion itself the object of reproach.

I would advise you, then, as you value either your Christian character or Christian influence, to take heed that your representations on all subjects are in strict conformity to truth. Better fall below, than go beyond the line, in any statements you may have occasion to make. The habit which you have formed will yield to nothing short of the most vigilant care and persevering effort. But to be free from it were worth more than all the care and effort which it would cost you.

The other point to which I wish to refer, is the uncommon facility which you have in making promises, and the equal facility with which you seem to forget or overlook them. Here again, I am far from charging you with an intention to falsify, and yet you cannot wonder that the frequent recurrence of such cases, causes your good to be sometimes evil spoken of. It has seemed to me that you act habitually from a wish to make everybody as happy as you can for the moment; and hence, you readily make promises without thinking that there are any difficulties in the way of their fulfillment; and when those difficulties present themselves, you seem to feel absolved from all obligation to keep your word. The old maxim, that circumstances alter cases, comes up as a salvo to your conscience; but the person to whom you have made the promise admits no such apology, and, in his estimation, you stand charged with a culpable delinquency. If I mistake not, you frequently fail to keep your engagements from mere forgetfulness; indeed, it would seem, sometimes, that your promises were made only to be forgotten, or disregarded.

This must be considered a greater evil than the one to which I previously referred; inasmuch as it not only involves a still worse form of moral delinquency, but it implies a willingness, if not a disposition, to trifle with the interests of others. You cannot habitually or frequently fail to fulfill your promises, even on the ground of mere carelessness, but that your name will become a reproach. They whom you have needlessly disappointed will withdraw from you their confidence, and will manifest it by never putting themselves in the way of being disappointed by you again. And they will relate the history of their experience to others, and before you are aware of it, your reputation for integrity, both in the church and in the world, will be in the dust. I will not undertake to say to what extent this sad result has already been realized, respecting you; but I should be unfaithful to my convictions, not to say that you have gone to a point that has, at least, greatly diminished your Christian influence.

I knew an individual, many years ago, whose history furnished one of the saddest illustrations of trifling with one’s own word, that I have ever happened to observe. He was a man of commanding talents, of excellent education, of amiable disposition, and of the most bland and persuasive address. He was, withal, a professor of religion, and an office bearer in the church. At the commencement of his career, no man gave higher promise than he of Christian respectability and usefulness; but, unhappily, he fell into the habit of unscrupulously making promises, which he did not and could not fulfill. His friends early admonished him in relation to it, but they might as well have spoken to the wind. He would promise, indeed, to heed their admonitions; but this like most of his other promises, seemed never to be thought of after it was made. He became, at length, extensively known for his false dealing; and, by common consent, he lost his standing, both as a citizen and a Christian. He had many fine, generous feelings; but between him and the truth there seemed to be no affinity. I never believed that he uttered deliberate and studied falsehoods; and yet those who suffered and writhed under his broken promises held a less indulgent opinion concerning him. It is far from being a new-made grave that he occupies; but there are many, whose associations with it are still painful and revolting. When I think from what and to what he fell, I am the more earnest in entreating you to avoid not only the reality, but even the appearance of this evil.

Related Reading