94933_CoverFront1893 was a bad year for the American economy.  The country would not recover from the financial disaster of that year for several years to come.  John Emerson Roberts, preacher of All Souls’ church in Kansas City, was personally affected.  The Board of Trustees of the church reduced his salary by twenty percent, “in hopes that it could be more promptly paid.”

New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1893, was a Sunday.  Perhaps it was a preacher’s instinct for what his congregation wanted to hear that led Dr. Roberts to avoid all mention of current ills and give a sermon which took great leaps into abstractions.  Though the lecture was titled “The days that are gone and the days that are to be” Roberts gave very little attention to the days that are gone.  He began:

This is the day and the hour when by common impulse we pay our homage to time, the warder at the gates of destiny.  Time!  Within that monosyllable what mystery is enshrined; what depth unfathomable, invisible, echoless, vast.

Like God, within it all things live and move and have their being.  But whence is it and what?  Is it an existence, an entity, a fact, a something: and if so what are its parts, its elements?

There are many things which we cannot comprehend, but we define them and with our definition we mask our ignorance and put on airs . . . Our age hastens to be wise.  Restless of mystery, impatient of knowledge, it has cruelly invaded the chaste and tender secrets of the olden time, and now has cold formulas and colorless explanations for everything.

He soon moved from this negative note to flights of positive oratory.

We cannot get rid of God. . . . . To eyes that see, no fact should be plainer than this – that nature is everywhere a manifestation of the Infinite; that all things that are, all things everywhere; show forth . . .  that the supreme fact of the universe is God.

Why have we not found this out?  Why do you sit there and wonder what the preacher means?  Because we have inherited the false notion that nature is exclusive of God, that He can be present only through supernatural means.

We must know God, if at all, in terms of the finite.

Let us ask, what is time?  It is the revelation of eternity in terms comprehensible by man. . . . Time is but the world’s manifestation of God’s eternity.

Roberts concluded:

Marvelous mighty, unspeakable gifts of days!  To make them constellations wheel in space, galaxies keep their silent watches, moons wax and wane, stars come out; suns rise and set, and then, as if to call unthinking men to marvel, the wonderful dawn hangs its crimson drapery, the triumphal gate through which the day is ushered in.

This ministry, this service, this joyous slavery of the universe, this striding of the constellations around the pole, this eternal and tender conspiracy of worlds and galaxies and systems; this birth from eternal mystery of morning and of night – this, oh, human soul is for thee!

Ah. coming days! The days that are to be!  Let me with thee conspire to make time and life divine.  Then shall we greet each morning with a smile and meet all the future with a cry of joy!

Did this idea that the universe goes through its cycle for the sake of humanity comfort the financiers, business owners and other civic leaders who attended Roberts’s church that Sunday, who may have been badly hurt by the financial crisis?  According to the report in Monday’s paper, it pleased them greatly: “This sermon was one of the most eloquent Dr. Roberts has delivered during his pastorate, and at the close he was warmly congratulated by many of the large congregation which listened with closest attention throughout.”

Further evidence that Roberts pleased his audience came a few months later.  In 1894 Roberts received an unusual honor from the larger community.  He won a contest sponsored by the Kansas CityWorld in which readers were asked to vote for the most popular minister in the city.  The prize was substantial: a horse and phaeton.  For Dr. Roberts, things were looking up.  He had many years of positive influence and appreciation ahead of him.

For more on John Emerson Roberts, read John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  You can find it on Amazon or order directly from the author.

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