How Christmas Came to Roaring Camp
by F. W. Boreham
It may or may not have happened in December; Bret Harte does not say, and it certainly does not matter; for whether it happened in April or September or December, it was Christmas time in Roaring Camp.
It is always Christmas when a little child is born; the angels sing their song in Somebody’s sky, and heaven fills the atmosphere of Somebody’s home with its Gloria in Excelsis—its message of peace on earth and goodwill among men.
It certainly was Christmas-time in Roaring Camp. Peace and goodwill were unknown at Roaring Camp until the little babe was born. Even among the mining camps of the lawless west, Roaring Camp has a sinister and unenviable notoriety. When men differed in opinion over their cards, and, to settle the dispute, shot each other dead on the spot, the gamblers at the neighboring tables merely nodded and calmly went on with their play. To die a natural death at Roaring Camp was to die at the pistol’s point.
There was just one woman there—poor Cherokee Sal—and, as Bret Harte says on the first page of the story, the less said of her the better. And anyhow, she dies, and dies at the beginning of the tale.
Stumpy, who in earlier and better days, had been a medical student or something of the sort, did his best for her He managed to save the baby, but the plight of poor Sal was beyond his skill.
The baby belonged to the camp, and the Camp resolved to do its duty bravely. The baby was lying on some rags in a box. The character of the box is not recorded; it certainly wasn’t a soap box—soap was a negligible quantity at Roaring Camp. But everyone felt that the box wouldn’t do; so a man was sent eighty miles on a mule to get a rosewood cradle, the best that money could buy. The cradle was brought; but then rags seemed out of place; and the messenger had to return to Sacramento for the daintiest and softest lace and filigree-work and frills, to be bought regardless of the cost.
But when the pink little baby, lying amidst its froth of snowy white-work in the rosewood cradle, took his place in the middle of the room, the men observed with dismay a thing they had never before noticed; the floor was positively filthy! And when they had scrubbed the floor, as only horny handed miners could scrub it, and made it almost as clean as the day on which the boards were first laid, they made a new discovery. For they saw that, in order to match the floor and the rosewood cradle and the lace-work and the baby, the walls would have to be cleaned and the ceiling whitewashed, and the windows mended and draped with curtains!
Moreover, there had to be long periods of quiet, to allow the baby to sleep, and so the quality that had given the Camp its name departed from it. Then, on fine days, the men took the rosewood cradle out to the mines; but the mining area was a dusty, dreary place; so to please the baby’s eye, they planted brightly colored flowers round the spot where the cradle stood; they had, of course, to plant them in some kind of order and with some design; and so the very mines became a garden.
The men noticed too, that some of the stones that they turned up with their picks had a certain brightness and beauty; they found themselves putting aside glittering bits of quartz, prettily-colored pebbles and flakes of mica and playthings for the baby! Best of all, a change came over the appearance of the men themselves. Up at Tuttle’s Store the astute proprietor, seeing which way the wind was blowing down at the Camp, placed mirrors about the apartment in which the men lounged and chatted and smoked. And soon there was an extraordinary demand for soap and shaving materials, collars, ties and even suits of clothes. The baby transformed everything.
Which things are an allegory—a Christmas allegory. The world itself was Roaring Camp two thousand years ago. As Matthew Arnold says in Oberman:
On that hard pagan world disgust,
And secret loathing fell:
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life hell.
Man—every man—was either a slave-owner or a slave, either a pitiless tyrant or a cringing victim. Womanhood was debased and dishonored. Childhood was destitute of sanctity; children, unwanted were strangled or drowned; there was nothing to prevent it; nobody cared.
Seneca the Philosopher, was born at just about the same time as Jesus. Seneca was no brute. Indeed, he was regarded as the most refined and most cultured of noble Romans. Yet we shudder still as we read references to little children: ‘We strangle mad dogs,’ he says, ‘slaughter a fierce ox, and plunge the knife into sickly cattle, lest they taint the herd; children also, if they are born weakly or deformed, we drown.’
In his Light from the Ancient East, Professor Deissmann recently reproduced a letter written by a Grecian laborer to his wife at about the time that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. In this letter Hilarion instructs his wife concerning the little child that they were expecting. If it turns out to be a girl,he tells her that she is to murder it without hesitation! If it is a boy, it may, on certain conditions, be allowed to live! The philosophy of Rome and the culture of Greece could do no more than this for the infants. Drown! Strangle! Expose!
Then a Little Child was born at Bethlehem. In the presence of that Little Child, men saw, as they had never seen before, that the world needed tidying-up. The cry of the slave would not harmonize with the song of the angels, so slavery had to go. The degradation of womanhood was put to shame by the human grace and divine glory of the Virgin Mother. A halo fell upon the brow of motherhood. The drudge was lifted form the dust at the feet of her lord and seated by his side—helpmeet, his companion, his queen. And, ever since that Little Babe was born, childhood has been treated as a sacred thing.
The deeply entrenched evils of antiquity have been swept away. The sinister superstitions and cruel customs of the nations vanish, like darkness at sunrise, where the Good News of the Little Child comes. Widow-burning in India, cannibalism in Africa, foot-binding in China, burial alive in the isles of the Pacific—the Little Child cleans it all up.
Yes, the deeply entrenched evils of antiquity have been swept away. And the deeply entrenched evils of modernity are doomed. As the Little Child of Bethlehem asserts His authority over the hearts of men, the things that still disfigure our civilization must vanish one by one. The bitterness of our industrial strife; the vices of our social life; the menace of the liquor evil; the horrors, crimes and agonies of war—all these must yield to His sublime authority. As surely as the Babe of Bethlehem is the Son of God, the regeneration of Roaring Camp must be carried to completion.
Let me show just one way in which He is doing it! I have already referred to the fact that Greece and Rome thought it no crime to slay a new-born babe: the nicest and noblest people did it. Let us follow this development a little.
The greatest happening in the religious history of Great Britain was the epoch-making revival of the eighteenth century. Have we any conception today of the conditions of the child-life before that new breath swept over the country? Whilst John Wesley’s face still shone with the glow of his transforming experience at Aldersgate Street, the minds of his countrymen were awakening to the fact that a great bitter evil existed among them.
In his essay on Captain Coram’s Charity, Mr. Austin Dobson tells a startling story. In moving about the parish of Rotherhithe, in which he lived, the good captain was horrified at the number of half-clad infants—some alive, some dead, some dying—who had been abandoned by their parents to the mercy of the streets.
Two or three years after the fire had been lit in the soul of Wesley, Captain Coram established a foundling Hospital for those unwanted infants. He soon discovered to his dismay that he had only abolished one evil to make room for another.
As soon as the existence of the institution became known, babies poured in from every part of the kingdom. It became a lucrative trade, Mr. Dobson says, for carriers to convey infants from remote country places to Captain Coram’s hospital. One wagoner brought eight to town on one trip, seven of whom were dead when they reached their destination. On another occasion a man with five babies in baskets got drunk on the road and three of his little charges were suffocated.
The inevitable outcome of all this was that the Governors of the Hospital found themselves unable to maintain this army of babies. They accordingly applied to Parliament, which voted them ten thousand pounds, but, at the same time, embarrassed them by stipulating that they must receive all comers. A basket was forthwith hung at the gate, with the result that, on the very first day of its appearance, no fewer than one hundred and seventeen babies were placed within it!
But, by this time, England was feeling the pulsations of the revival. Everything took on a fresh aspect, Old things passed away; all things became new. Childhood assumed a sanctity and a sweetness it had never before known. The educational crusade began; Sunday Schools sprang into existence; orphanages became common; and the movement grew and grew until, in our day, we have maternity hospitals, clinics, creches, baby health centres, kindergartens and a whole host of institutions as monuments to the new value that has been set upon the life of a child.
There is one other phase of the matter. For every man who knows his own heart knows where the real Roaring Camp stands. Bret Harte’s lovely story is a parable of the regeneration of the individual soul. What is it that the poet says?
Though Christ a thousand times
In Bethlehem be born,
If He’s not born in thee
Thy soul is all forlorn.
That is the point. The Christ-child is born afresh; and the heart is the inn; and the angels sing as they sang in the field of Bethlehem; and the shepherds and sages come once more to see the wonder that has come to pass. And, in that same soul, all the miracles are repeated; blindness vanishes; song visits dumb lips; deafness yields to the hearing of unutterable things; leprosy departs and death trembles into life.
That is the aim and end of all our preaching. We are not here to scold, to find fault, to criticize. The pulpit exists to bring the Babe of Bethlehem, the Christ of Calvary, into each individual heart.
Henry Drummond has a lovely story of a young lady who visited her sweetheart at his rooms at the university. She noticed that the walls were covered with pictures of race-horses and pugilists and actresses of the more doubtful kind. She said not a word. But on his next birthday, she sent him a beautiful Ecce Homo—a framed painting of the thorn-crowned face of Jesus. He gave it a place of honor on the wall of his room. And very soon, the other pictures vanished and were replaced by landscapes and paintings more in keeping with that central Face.
It is the story of Roaring Camp all over again. It is the Christmas idyll in a modern setting. When the wonder of that Eastern manger is repeated in the secrecy of a human soul, all that is sordid and selfish and unclean is shamed out of existence by the mystic presence and power of the Holy Babe.
Without saying a word, the Little Child makes Roaring Camp a place of sweetness and nobleness and harmony and fragrance. When Christ is born in the soul, all life stands irradiated and transfigured. Therein lies the very essence of the gospel.
A Witches Brewing
Epworth – UK