Wednesday, September 7, 2011

the finest thing Herman Melville never said

Rev Henry Melvill
Eminent People Portrait  via Amazon
Update: see more proof here, if you need it...


Sorry, wrong Melville:
We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.  HERMAN MELVILLE
Hillary Clinton
"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men."
Brainy Quote; Thinkexist
"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects."  The Quotations Page
"We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” famousquotes
searchquotes
Garrison Keillor
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg
All these lovely quotes and misquotes about "sympathetic threads" and "invisible fibers" (or in some versions, "sympathetic fibers" and "invisible threads") connecting humanity derive from a sermon by the once famous Anglican preacher Henry Melvill (1798-1871).
On Tuesday morning, June 12, 1855, the Rev. Henry Melvill gave a sermon on "Partaking in Other Men's Sins" at St. Margeret's Church, Lothbury.  No. 2,365 in the "Penny Pulpit" series, Melvill's exposition of 2 John 11 was reprinted in a book of Melvill's Golden Lectures for 1855.  Here's the original quote in its original context, Henry Melvill's sermon on the evil consequences of setting a bad example:
You see, then, how in a variety of ways the fact that every man may set an example generates this other fact, that every man may be partaker of the sins of other men. We allow no man to shelter himself under the plea of insignificance. We deny that a man can be insignificant; he was formed in the image of his God, he is destined to be immortal. We deny yet more strongly a Christian to be insignificant; he is "a city set upon a hill;" penury cannot make him insignificant, lowliness of station cannot make him insignificant; he is a new creature, and as a new creature must attract attention and become a centre of influence. There is not one of you whose actions do not operate on the actions of others—operate, we mean, in the way of example. He would be insignificant who could only destroy his own soul; but you are all, alas! of importance enough to help also to destroy the souls of others; and henceforwards we would have you remember, that whensoever you act you act for a multitude; eyes are upon you, many or few, according to the position that you occupy ; some are either watching to take pattern, or waiting for your halting. Be vicious, and viciousness may go down as an heir-loom in half a hundred families; be inconsistent, and enmity to the gospel may be propagated over a parish ; give occasions of offence, and many may fall; those who are entering in the narrow way may be discouraged, and those who have already entered may be made to stumble. Ye live not for yourselves; ye cannot live for yourselves ; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects. Ye sin not for yourselves; ye cannot sin for yourselves; ye are members of a body, and as no member can suffer alone, neither can any be injurious alone. Oh! fearful but unquestioned power which every one of us possesses—the power through the influence of example of multiplying ourselves, so that we may sin in places where we have never been, and in times when we shall not be alive. Example is like the press; a thing done is the thought printed; it may be repeated, if it cannot be recalled; it has gone forth, with a self-propagating power, and may run to the ends of the earth, and descend from generation to generation. So then, my brethren, appear we must at the tribunal of God; judged we must be by things done in the body; but when our personal actions have all been examined and weighed in themselves, alas! alas! there may remain a catalogue which thought itself can hardly measure; and these may be made up of infractions—infractions through example, for example may be justly said to bid God speed to evil doers—infractions to the prohibition contained in the words—" He that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds."  --Henry Melvill, The Golden Lectures
Here's the quotation from a nineteenth-century collection, correctly attributed to "H. Melvill":
EXAMPLE—Evil Influence of.
Be vicious, and viciousness may go down as an heirloom in half a hundred families; be inconsistent, and enmity to the Gospel may be propagated over a parish; give occasions of offence, and many may full; those who are entering in the narrow way may be discouraged, and those who have already entered may be made to stumble. Ye live not for yourselves; ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.
H. 
Melvill.
Six Thousand Illustrations of Moral and Religious Truths (London, 1885), ed. John Bate, 311-12. In 1885 the deceased preacher was far more famous than the living writer, and readers on both sides of the Atlantic could be expected to know "H. Melvill" meant the Reverend Henry Melvill. If they didn't the index told them: "Melvill, Rev. H."

It's a simple case of mistaken identity.  Showing among other things how error multiplies, and also the deceptive authority of numbers.  A thousand false iterations, in this case a thousand (at least?) mis-attributions of the "sympathetic threads" quote to Herman Melville, do not validate the statement.

Not that Herman Melville would necessarily have disclaimed the fine words of Reverend Melvill.  While visiting London in 1849, Herman made a point of going to hear Henry preach.  Melville on Melvill:
This morning breakfasted at 10, at the Hotel de Sabloneire (very nice cheap little snuggery being closed on Sundays)  Had a "sweet ommelette" which was delicious.  Thence walked to St: Thomas's Church, Charter House, Goswell Street, to hear my famed namesake (almost) "The Reverend H Melvill."  I had seen him placarded as to deliver a Charity Sermon.  The church was crowded--the sermon was admirable (granting the Rev: gentleman's premises).  Indeed he deserves his reputation.  I do not think that I hardly ever heard so good a discourse before--that is from an "orthodox" divine.  [entry for December 16, 1849, Melville's Journals]
Related melvilliana post:

5 comments:

  1. Scott, Thanks for your research. You saved me from repeating what appears to be a very common mistake!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey! I finally found someone who knows Melvill! I actually have an original copy of Bible Thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Admirable "granting the Rev: gentleman's premises" seems to be an important caveat. Wonder what the sermon was that day. (by Colin Dewey, no google account to sign in with)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Maybe they will correct it if 'It Takes a Village' makes it to a gala 20th anniversary presidential typeface replica signature donor edition.
    https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B86gMl7IvdErQzhQa1NiOGs0ckE&authuser=0

    ReplyDelete