On Sowing Hopeseed

F. W. Boreham, The Three Half-Moons, Part I, ch. VIII

In her Glimpses of the Past, Miss Elizabeth Wordsworth tells of a visit that she paid to Mrs. Selwyn, the widow of the great Doctor Selwyn, the pioneer Bishop of New Zealand. Miss Wordsworth began to talk a little dismally about the world and his wife—shocking sinners, both of them!

‘Ah, my dear,’ replied the gentle old lady, ‘you must sow a little hopeseed! The Bishop was a great believer in sowing hopeseed. There’s Faith, you know, and Hope and Charity,’ ticking each of them off on her soft and wrinkled fingers as she spoke. ‘Well, we say a great deal about Faith, and a great deal about Charity; but poor Hope, somehow, gets left out in the cold!’

Now, since this little world began, Hope has been portrayed under an extraordinary wealth of imagery. How we delighted, as children, in the old-world story of Pandora and the fascinating box of mystery! Would Pandora, defying the commands of Epimetheus, lift the lid of the tantalizing box? We hoped she would, for our curiosity was as great as hers. And she did! And out flew all the troubles that have since distressed mankind. And, last of all, out flew Hope, a fairy elfish thing, all made of sunshine, with rainbow-tinted wings. Its mission, it explained, was to make amends for all the mischief that the other creatures must inflict, and straightway kissing the inflamed spot on Pandora’s forehead where one of the hideous pests had stung her, the pain magically vanished, and Pandora felt it no more.

One is tempted to descant upon Bunyan’s golden anchor—the golden anchor that, hanging on the walls of the Palace Beautiful, so captivated the eyes of Christiana and her sons that the Sisters of the Palace made them a present of it. And it would certainly be pleasant to discuss the profound significance of the familiar painting by G. F. Watts. In most of our homes there hang copies of the famous picture in which Hope is portrayed as a female figure seated upon the globe, bending fondly over her broken harp. The light is dim and uncertain; but she is blind to the gloom, for her eyes are bandaged. Only one string of the harp remains; but to that single string she applies her skilful fingers, a look of infinite wistfulness and expectancy lighting up her gentle face. One string remains, but there is one; and, that being so, she bravely resolves to flood the world with melody.

But, beautiful as are all such images, I turn from them to-day without regret. I am like the child who, on catching sight of a new toy that takes his fancy, drops the playthings that have so often charmed him. For this new though—the thought of Mrs. Selwyn’s hopeseed—completely holds my mind. In contrast with harps and anchors, and all the time-honored symbols of hope, this new phrase has in it the suggestion of life and of life more abundant. Hopeseed! Seed is the world’s oldest and divinest mystery. A sower is a man with a basket of miracles on his arm. The very thought of seed fills the imagination with visions of secret fructification and endless multiplication. I feel instinctively that if, following Mrs. Selwyn’s advice, I can contrive to scatter a little hopeseed, it will soon fill my garden with beauty and fragrance, and will spread to all the gardens up the street.

And the best of this new symbol is that it finds its vindication in the eternal order of things. Hope deserves to be allied, not with inanimate things like harps and anchors, but with things that live and flourish and propagate their kind. Hope belongs to God’s great out-of-doors, to the sea and the earth and the sky, to the lofty hills and the laughing valleys, to the fields and ,the woods and the streams. Nature, as Dr. G. H. Morrison has eloquently pointed out, is instinct with hope. ‘Every seed cast into the ground is big with hopefulness of harvest. Every sparrow in the winter ivy is quivering with hope of its nest and its younglings. Every burn that rises in the lonely hills, and that goes brawling over the granite of the glen, is rejoicing in the hope of its union with the sea. Winter comes with iciness and misery, but in the heart of winter is the hope of spring. Spring comes, tripping across the meadow, and in the heart of spring there is the hope of summer. Summer comes, garlanded with beauty, and in the heart of summer is the hope of autumn, when sower and reaper shall rejoice together. The very word natura means something going to be born. A woman in travail is a woman agitated by a wonderful hope. Nature is the supreme revelation of the amazing hopefulness of God.’ Mrs. Selwyn has done us good service, therefore, in bringing the whole subject into the open air. Even the rooms of the Palace Beautiful get a little stuffy at times, and it becomes difficult to interpret Hope worthily in that close atmosphere; but out here, amidst the perfume of roses, the song of thrushes and the murmur of bees, one begins to understand.

And, now that I look back across the years from this angle, it seems to me that the choicest, sweetest, sanest, and most lovable people I have ever known have been the people who have constantly filled their pockets with hope seed and who have taken care to keep a hole in every pocket. I am not thinking of the good folk who go through life with a fixed, and somewhat exasperating, smile, bidding us, even in our bleakest and bitterest moments, to look on the bright side of things. In his ‘In Memoriam,’ Tennyson has told us how, in the hour of his desolating bereavement, these well-meaning optimists tortured him beyond endurance. No, no; I am not speaking of tares: I am speaking of wheat; for, just as there can never be wheat without tares, so there can never be hopeseed without a spurious imitation of hopeseed.

Kingsley has pilloried one of these offenders in the pages of his Water-babies. We all remember old Dennis. The visiting angler, laden with rod and basket, consults him as to the chances of a good day’s sport.

‘Are there salmon here, Dennis?’

‘Salmon, yer honor? Why, cartloads of them; regiments of them; the fish are fair shouldering each other out of the water!’

Elated at this exciting prospect, the angler soon settles down to business, whipping the stream all day without getting a rise. Re-crossing the fields in the sunset, he again meets Dennis.

‘There are no salmon there, Dennis,’ he exclaims, a trifle testily: ‘and, in fact, there can’t be, for if a fish came up last tide, he’d be gone to the higher pools by now.’

‘Shure, then, yer honor’s the thrue fisherman and understands it all like a book!’

‘But, Dennis, you said that the salmon were shouldering each other out of the water!’

‘Shure,’ replied Dennis, with a delicious smile, a wicked twinkle in his sly gray eye, ‘and didn’t I think that yer honor would like a pleasant answer?

Anybody can see at a glance that poor Dennis had it in his heart to sow a little hopeseed about the world, but, unfortunately, he had not carefully tested the contents of his basket. He was sowing something that closely resembled hopeseed, just as the tares closely resemble wheat, but the counterfeit hope seed was destined to produce a pitiful harvest of disappointment and discontent. That is the worst of the people with the set smile, the people whose only conception of hopefulness is to give you a pleasant answer whether the facts of the case justify that pleasant answer or not. They work like penny-in-the-slot machines. You drop in the tale of your troubles: you draw out an assurance that all’s well: and you go away with the click of the machine still ringing in your ears. It is too automatic.

There are people, on the other hand, who display a rare skill in sowing hopeseed. It is said of Lord Shaftesbury that he had an extraordinary genius for convincing criminals that their career of lawlessness was merely a temporary lapse from the path of rectitude. The most hardened gaol-birds felt, after a chat with him, that a life of honor and integrity lay before them, and they often anticipated that fresh phase with passional enthusiasm. How often has a boy carved his way to fame because of his intense consciousness that somebody expected him to become great? Somebody had sowed a little hopeseed in his heart: somebody had fired his boyish ambition: somebody’s eyes were upon him: and the boy went out into the world feeling that, at any cost, somebody’s dream must be translated into actuality. I have just laid down the Life of Laurence Sterne, and the book furnishes me with a case in point.

Laurence Sterne was a member of an extraordinary family. They were incessantly on the move. They seem to have gone into a place; stayed there until a child had been born and a child buried; and then jogged on again. He would be a bold historian who would declare, with any approach to dogmatism, how many babies were born and buried in the course of these nomadic gipsyings. They seem to have lived for a year or so in all sorts of towns and villages, and, with pitiful monotony, we read of their regret at having to leave such-and-such a child sleeping in the churchyard. ‘My father’s children,’ as Sterne himself observes, ‘were not made to last long’ Laurence himself, however, was one of the lucky ones.

At the age of ten, having survived the jaunts and jolts to which the wanderings of the family exposed him, he was ‘fixed’ in a school at Halifax, and was profoundly impressed by the conviction of his Yorkshire schoolmaster that he was destined to become a distinguished man. The good dominie lost no opportunity of sowing hopeseed in his pupil’s heart by speaking of his certainty on this point. On one occasion the ceiling of the schoolroom was being whitewashed. The ladder was left against the wall. ‘One unlucky day,’ says Sterne, ‘I mounted that ladder, seized the brush, and wrote my name in large capital letters high up on the wall. For this offence the usher thrashed me severely. But the master was angry with him for doing so, and declared that the name on the wall should never be erased. For, he added, I was a boy of genius, and would one day become famous, and he should then look with pride on the letters on the schoolroom wall. These words made me forget the cruel blows that I had just received.’ The words did more. They implanted a glorious hope in the boy’s breast: they inspired efforts that he would never otherwise have made: they account, in large measure, for his phenomenal success.

If the schoolmaster who welcomed the awkward little ten-year-old in 1723 lived, by any chance, until 1760, he must have felt that his handful of hopeseed had produced a most bounteous harvest. For, in 1760, Tristram Shandy took the country by storm. It was chaotic: it was incoherent: it was an audacious defiance of all the conventions: but it was irresistible. Its originality, its grotesque oddity, its rippling whimsicality set everybody chuckling. Immediately after its publication, Sterne went up to London. He was the lion of the hour. His lodgings in Pall Mall were besieged from morning to night. ‘My rooms,’ he writes, ‘are filling every hour with great people of the first rank who vie with each other in heaping honors upon me.’ Never before had a literary venture elicited such homage. And when, a few months later, he crossed the Channel, a similar banquet of adulation awaited him in France. He was instantly enthroned in the charmed circle of the salons. ‘My head is turned,’ he writes to Garrick; and indeed it might well have been. The old schoolmaster’s hopeseed was springing up in waggon-loads-a plenteous harvest indeed.

And the best of sowing hopeseed is that it will take root anywhere. Unlike the seed in the parable, you may sow it by the wayside, or on the stony places, or among the thorns; it does not matter. Hopeseed will flourish in any soil. I recently spent a very pleasant hour in the famous Mission Hall at Water Street, New York City. Every reader of Down in Water Street knows how striking and sensational were many of the conversions there recorded. Some of the most notorious drunkards and criminals of New York were transformed through the instrumentality of the Water Street Mission. When Jerry McAuley was asked how he accounted for the phenomenal success of his wonderful work, he replied, ‘We never abandon hope of anyone l’ He never gave a man up. Many a poor wretch would come, profess conversion, sign the pledge, testify in public to the change that he had experienced, and then, after a few weeks or a few months, relapse into a debauchery more disgusting than that from which he had been rescued. The dog returned to its vomit and the sow to its wallowing in the mire. But at Water Street nobody scolded. There was never a word of reproach. The prodigal was enticed back to the Mission, and was treated with unvarying affection and respect. His best self was appealed to. He was assured that he would be a good and great and upright man in spite of everything. The very feeling that he did not deserve such confidence compelled him to pull himself together. Sometimes these dreadful lapses were twenty times repeated; but nobody lost heart. Every redeemed and reformed citizen who emerged triumphant from the doors of the Water Street Mission was a monument to the dauntless hopefulness of the workers there. The reed might be terribly bruised; they would never break it. The flax might be smouldering hopelessly; they would never quench it. And, as a consequence, the reed at last gave out unfaltering music; and the flax burned with a steady lustre. And thus, according to the word of the prophet, they brought forth judgment unto victory.

As a rule, hopeseed is sown by women. I heard yesterday a good criticism of Sir Luke Fildes’ great painting,The Doctor. Oddly enough, the critic was a medical man. Everybody knows the picture—the physician bending anxiously over the child; the mother sitting in the background with her face buried in her arms, which rest upon the table; and the father standing gloomily awaiting the doctor’s verdict. ‘It is a very good picture,’ said this medical critic, ‘but untrue to life. In the course of a thirty years’ practice, I have never seen a mother bow her head and give up while a breath was left in her child’s body.’ The criticism is sound. Women are gallant hopers. They never give us up, however sick or sinful we may be. And it is largely this refusal to abandon hope that lures us back to life and goodness. ‘A woman never gives up,’ said my doctor friend, ‘as long as a breath remains in her child’s body.’ He might have gone further. She declines to give up, even when the last breath leaves. She goes on pilgrimage to the grave, and, watering it with her tears, she sows her hopeseed there. So do all who share her secret. One of the great romances of missionary enterprise is theLife of Adoniram Judson. Judson buried his wife and his entire family in Burmah. The grave was under a hope-tree and the heartbroken man saw a wealth of significance in that fact. ‘They rest together under the hope-tree,’ he says, again and again, in his Journal and in his letters. If the brave triumphal message of the New Testament means anything, there is always a hopetree scattering its showers of hopeseed into a fruitful soil in which a Christian sleeps.

1 thought on “On Sowing Hopeseed

  1. Pingback: Author Guide: F. W. Boreham | Pioneer Library

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