“The Way of the Reformer” is one of my favorite essays by William George Jordan. In it he discusses the challenges faced by those who seek to make the world a better place. They are not always popular and on more than one occasion have given their lives for their cause. William Tyndale comes to mind. He translated the Bible into English in the early 1500’s. His work so displeased the King and other prominent leaders that he ended up fleeing to Antwerp to continue his work. He was eventually captured, tried for heresy, and put to death. Below is a short video which summarizes William’s inspiring life work.
Jordan’s essay below is dedicated to those who, like Tyndale, labor to make the world a better place in the face of opposition.
The Way of the Reformer
from The Power of Truth, by William George Jordan
The reformers of the world are its men of mighty purpose. They are men with the courage of individual conviction, men who dare run counter to the criticism of inferiors, men who voluntarily bear crosses for what they accept as right, even without the guarantee of a crown. They are men who gladly go down into the depths of silence, darkness and oblivion, but only to emerge finally like divers, with pearls in their hands.
He who labors untiringly toward the attainment of some noble aim, with eyes fixed on the star of some mighty purpose, as the Magi followed the star in the East, is a reformer. He who is loyal to the inspiration of some great religious thought, and with strong hand leads weak trembling steps of faith into the glory of certainty, is a reformer. He who follows the thin thread of some revelation of Nature in any of the sciences, follows it in the spirit of truth through a maze of doubt, hope, experiment and questioning, till the tiny guiding thread grows stronger and firmer to his touch, leading him to some wondrous illumination of Nature's law, is a reformer.
He who goes up alone into the mountains of truth and, glowing with the radiance of some mighty revelation, returns to force the hurrying world to listen to his story is a reformer. Whoever seeks to work out for himself his destiny, the life work that all his nature tells him should be his, bravely, calmly and with due consideration of the rights of others and his duties to them, is a reformer.
These men who renounce the common place and conventional for higher things are reformers because they are striving to bring about new conditions; they are consecrating their lives to ideals. They are the brave aggressive vanguard of progress. They are men who can stand a siege, who can take long forced marches without a murmur, who set their teeth and bow their heads as they fight their way through the smoke, who smile at the trials and privations that dare to daunt them. They care naught for the hardships and perils of the fight, for they are ever inspired by the flag of triumph that seems already waving on the citadel of their hopes.
If we are facing some great life ambition let us see if our heroic plans are good, high, noble and exalted enough for the price we must pay for their attainment. Let us seriously and honestly look into our needs, our abilities, our resources, and our responsibilities, to assure ourselves that it is no mere passing whim that is leading us. Let us hear and consider all counsel, all light that may be thrown on every side, let us hear it as a judge on the bench listens to the evidence and then makes his own decision. The choice of a life work is too sacred a responsibility to the individual to be lightly decided for him by others less thoroughly informed than him. When we have weighed in the balance the mighty question and have made our decision, let us act, let us concentrate our lives upon that which we feel is supreme, and, never forsaking a real duty, never be diverted from the attainment of the highest things, no matter what honest price we may have to pay for their realization and conquest.
When Nature decides on any man as a reformer she whispers to him his great message, she places in his hand the staff of courage, she wraps around him the robes of patience and self reliance and starts him on his way. Then, in order that he may have strength to live through it all, she mercifully calls him back for a moment and makes him,—an optimist.
The way of the reformer is hard, very hard. The world knows little of it, for it is rare that the reformer reveals the scars of conflict, the pangs of hope deferred, the mighty waves of despair that wash over a great purpose. Sometimes men of sincere aim and unselfish high ambition, weary and worn with the struggle, have permitted the world to hear an uncontrolled sob of hopelessness or a word of momentary bitterness at the seeming emptiness of all effort. But men of great purpose and noble ideals must know that the path of the reformer is loneliness. They must live from within rather than in dependence on sources of help from without. Their mission, their exalted aim, their supreme object in living, which focuses all their energy, must be their source of strength and inspiration. The reformer must ever light the torch of his inspiration. His own hand must ever guard the sacred flame as he moves steadily forward on his lonely way.
The reformer in morals, in education, in religion, in sociology, in invention, in philosophy, in any line of aspiration, is ever a pioneer. His privilege is to blaze the path for others, to mark at his peril a road that others may follow in safety. He must not expect that the way will be graded and asphalted for him. He must realize that he must face injustice, ingratitude, opposition, misunderstanding, the cruel criticism of contemporaries and often, hardest of all, the wondering reproach of those who love him best.
He must not expect the tortoise to sympathize with the flight of the eagle. A great purpose is ever isolation. Should a soldier leading the forlorn hope complain that the army is not abreast of him? The glorious opportunity before him should so inspire him, so absorb him that he will care naught for the army except to know that if he lead as he should, and do that which the crisis demands, the army must follow.
The reformer must realize without a trace of bitterness that the busy world cares little for his struggles, it cares only to joy in his final triumph; it will share his feasts but not his fasts. Christ was alone in Gethsemane, but—at the sermon in the wilderness, where food was provided, the attendance was four thousand.
The world is honest enough in its attitude. It takes time for the world to realize, to accept, and to assimilate a large truth. Since the dawn of history, the great conservative spirit of every age, that ballast that keeps the world in poise, makes the slow acceptance of great truths an essential for its safety. It wisely requires proof, clear, absolute, undeniable attestation, before it fully accepts. Sometimes the perfect enlightenment takes years, sometimes generations. It is but the safeguard of truth. Time is the supreme test, the final court of appeals that winnows out the chaff of false claims, pretended revelation, empty boast, and idle dreams. Time is the touchstone that finally reveals all true gold. The process is slow, necessarily so, and the fate of the world's geniuses and reformers in the balance of their contemporary criticism, should have a sweetness of consolation rather than the bitterness of cynicism. If the greatest leaders of the world have had to wait for recognition, should we, whose best work may be but trifling in comparison with theirs, expect instant sympathy, appreciation, and cooperation, where we are merely growing toward our own attainment?
The world ever says to its leaders, by its attitude if not in words, “If you would lead us to higher realms of thought, to purer ideals of life, and flash before us, like the handwriting on the wall, all the possible glories of development, you must pay the price for it, not we.” The world has a law as clearly defined as the laws of Kepler: “Contemporary credit for reform works in any line will be in inverse proportion to the square root of their importance.” Give us a new fad and we will prostrate ourselves in the dust; give us a new philosophy, a marvelous revelation, a higher conception of life and morality, and we may pass you by, but posterity will pay for it. Send your messages C.O.D. and posterity will settle for them. You ask for bread; posterity will give you a stone, called a monument.
There is nothing in this to discourage the highest efforts of genius. Genius is great because it is decades in advance of its generation. To appreciate genius requires comprehension and the same characteristics. The public can fully appreciate only what is a few steps in advance; it must grow to the appreciation of great thought. The genius or the reformer should accept this as a necessary condition. It is the price he must pay for being in advance of his generation, just as front seats in the orchestra cost more than those in the back row of the third gallery.
The world is impartial in its methods. It says ever, “you may suffer now, but we will give you later fame.” Posthumous fame means that the individual may shiver with cold, but his grandchildren will get fur lined ulsters [overcoats]; the individual plants acorns, his posterity sells the oaks. Posthumous fame or recognition is a check made out to the individual, but payable only to his heirs.
There is nothing the world cries out for so constantly as a new idea; there is nothing the world fears so much. The milestones of progress in the history of the ages tell the story. Galileo was cast into prison in his seventieth year and his works were prohibited. He had committed no crime, but he was in advance of his generation. Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood was not accepted by the universities of the world till twenty five years after its publication. Frœbel, the gentle inspired lover of children, suffered the trials and struggles of the reformer, and his system of teaching was abolished in Prussia because it was “calculated to bring up our young people in atheism.” So it was with thousands of others.
The world says with a large airy sweep of the hand, “the opposition to progress is all in the past, the great reformer or the great genius is recognized today.” No, in the past they tried to kill a great truth by opposition; now we gently seek to smother it by making it a fad.
So it is written in the book of human nature: The saviors of the world must ever be martyrs. The death of Christ on the cross for the people he had come to save, typifies the temporary crucifixion of public opinion that comes to all who bring to the people the message of some great truth, some clearer revelation of the divine. Truth, right, and justice must triumph. Let us never close the books of a great work and say “it has failed.”
No matter how slight seem results, how dark the outlook, the glorious consummation of the past, the revelation of the future, must come. And Christ lived thirty years and he had twelve disciples, one denied him, one doubted him, one betrayed him, and the other nine were very human. And in the supreme crisis of His life “they all forsook him and fled,” but today—His followers are millions.
Sweet indeed is human sympathy, the warm hand clasp of confidence and love brings a rich inflow of new strength to him who is struggling, and the knowledge that someone dear to us sees with love and comradeship our future through our eyes, is a wondrous draught of new life. If we have this, perhaps the loyalty of two or three, what the world says or thinks about us should count for little. But if this be denied us, then must we bravely walk our weary way alone, toward the sunrise that must come.
The little world around us that does not understand us, does not appreciate our ambition or sympathize with our efforts that seem to it futile, is not intentionally cruel, calloused, bitter, blind, or heartless. It is merely that busied with its own pursuits, problems and pleasures, it does not fully realize, does not see as we do.
The world does not see our ideal as we see it, does not feel the glow of inspiration that makes our blood tingle, our eye brighten, and our soul seem flooded with a wondrous light. It sees naught but the rough block of marble before us and the great mass of chips and fragments of seemingly fruitless effort at our feet, but it does not see the angel of achievement slowly emerging from its stone prison, from nothingness into being, under the tireless strokes of our chisel. It hears no faint rustle of wings that seem already real to us or the glory of the music of triumph already ringing in our ears.
There come dark, dreary days in all great work, when effort seems useless, when hope almost appears a delusion, and confidence the mirage of folly. Sometimes for days your sails flap idly against the mast, with not a breath of wind to move you on your way, and with a paralyzing sense of helplessness you just have to sit and wait and wait. Sometimes your craft of hope is carried back by a tide that seems to undo in moments your work of months. But it may not be really so, you may be put into a new channel that brings you nearer your haven than you dared to hope. This is the hour that tests us, that determines whether we are masters or slaves of conditions. As in the battle of Marengo, it is the fight that is made when all seems lost that really counts and wrests victory from the hand of seeming defeat [see also Persistence Wins: The Battle for Spion Kop].
If you are seeking to accomplish any great serious purpose that your mind and your heart tell you is right, you must have the spirit of the reformer. You must have the courage to face trial, sorrow and disappointment, to meet them squarely and to move forward unscathed and undaunted. In the sublimity of your perfect faith in the outcome, you can make them as powerless to harm you, as a dewdrop falling on the Pyramids.
Truth, with time as its ally, always wins in the end. The knowledge of the inappreciation, the coldness, and the indifference of the world, should never make you pessimistic. They should inspire you with that large, broad optimism that sees that all the opposition of the world can never keep back the triumph of truth that your work is so great that the petty jealousies, misrepresentations, and hardships caused by those around you, dwindle into nothingness. What cares the messenger of the king for his trials and sufferings if he know that he has delivered his message? Large movements, great plans, always take time for development. If you want great things, pay the price like a man.
Anyone can plant radishes; it takes courage to plant acorns and to wait for the oaks. Learn to look not merely at the clouds, but through them to the sun shining behind them. When things look darkest, grasp your weapon firmer and fight harder. There is always more progress than you can perceive, and it is really only the outcome of the battle that counts.
And when it is all over and the victory is yours, and the smoke clears away and the smell of the powder is dissipated, and you bury the friendships that died because they could not stand the strain, and you nurse back the wounded and faint hearted who loyally stood by you, even when doubting, then the hard years of fighting will seem but a dream. You will stand brave, heartened, strengthened by the struggle, recreated to a new, better and stronger life by a noble battle, nobly waged, in a noble cause. And the price will then seem to you—nothing.