As noted in my last blog, Sheshequin Universalist Society member O. H. P. Kinney was a regular contributor to the Elmira Sunday Telegram in the early 1880s. His weekly “Short Sunday Sermons” were published under the pen name “Peter Klaus.”
One of his more trenchant sermons about orthodox Christian doctrine appeared in the Aug. 15, 1880, number of the Telegram. The subject of this sermon was the book of Revelation, the final book in the New Testament of the Bible. Revelation, whose author is identified as “John,” is one of the most challenging books in the Bible to interpret. Some scholars see it as a vision of the future, others as an allegory, and others as a broad view of history.
Kinney’s “sermon” addresses the concept of heaven as John described it. He wrote:
“I suppose you have all heard of heaven, and know what John was talking about. I heard of it in my early boyhood, and was told that, of all places in the world, it was the most desirable, but the hardest to get into. There are now about a thousand patent elevators warranted to hoist a man right up into the New Jerusalem for no pay, provided you come down pretty well to the clerical conductor before you start. I am unable to enumerate the different patents, or their meritorious working points, but some are run by water, some by psalm singing, some by the great money power yoked with piety… Although all are guaranteed with any amount of collaterals, I am told but few ever reach their destination. If heaven be so desirable a place, better and surer facilities should be provided for the journey. If the priests had left this matter to Yankee ingenuity and enterprise, there would have been a railroad there long before the Italians got one to the crater of Mt. Vesuvius.
“… It is possible that, when people arrive there by these short-cut patent routes, they are so disappointed in the appearance of things that not more than one in ten can be induced to venture in. They hear no brass band, no growling of animals, no familiar jokes of the clown, and they may suspect that the thing is a sell.
“… John says that heaven is a city surrounded with four walls, having three gates on each of the four sides. Now, I never go much on cities, especially those that are walled in. There is something suspicious about them, and in these latter days, when walled cities are almost unknown, people distrust them as they would a penitentiary… As I understand cities, they are the places where people spend a brief, nervous, sickly existence chasing and fighting for the mighty dollar, but when business becomes a little dull, and vice and vanity become surfeiting, they flee from the city, as they would from a pestilence, to get a little fresh air and quiet repose in the country. These experiences may account for so few caring to enter John’s heaven with its ponderous gates and invulnerable wall. I notice that they have institutions in all states and all countries surrounded by high walls to keep people inside, instead of out, and some may have an instinctive dread of going inside of such walls through a gate, even of pearl. The creaking of such gates on their hinges is not suggestive of anything pleasant or desirable, especially when the term is for eternity…
“But what is inside? The first thing mentioned is that the streets are paved with gold. This expensive paving material is well calculated to catch the miserly… and make them ‘come down handsomely’ to the church under the promise of picking up gold right in the streets of heaven. Just how this old game works I do not know, but I think these sordid old fellows do not readily give up a certainty for an uncertainty, by parting with their present gold for the promise of abundance in the next world. It is a tremendous temptation, however, and may secure considerable ready funds to the church. And what is more, John says the whole city is ‘pure gold, and clear like unto glass.’ This looks a little suspicious, for gold ‘clear like glass’ has never been known in this world, and sharp financiers doubt the genuineness of the thing. That part should be, on motion, stricken out for the benefit of the church.
“The proprietors of summer resorts in this world advertise their attractions, and especially the means of diversion and recreation; but John was not well up in this advertising business, and so mentions only one source of amusement, and that is singing praises to God ‘night and day, forever and ever.’ That may be a good way to divert, but they must do better at the concert business up there than down here, or after about a week of night and day psalm singing, the people will rise up and cry out with one voice: ‘O, Lord, give us a rest.’…
“John further says, to show how comfortable the place is, and as an additional inducement to patronage: ‘Neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.’ This was undoubtedly put in the programme to catch the tropical fellows who dwell upon the burning sands, … for their highest ambition has always been to loll in some shade where the ‘sun shall not light on them, nor any heat.’ But while fishing for these southern fellows, like a modern politician, he loses largely among us northern fellows who have to endure winter six months in the year, and are happy when the sun lights on us, and also a little heat. So thousands of poor cusses at the north conclude that heaven must be a pretty cold place, and have, therefore, a hankering for the other place.
“John adds, however, that the ‘throne of God and the Lamb shall be in it;’ that ‘they shall see his face,’ that he sitteth upon the throne in the Holy City, and shall dwell among them forever. Thus John the Revelator boils the infinite God of an infinite universe down to the stature and looks of a man. What pitiful and puny ideas of God that Revelator must have had. His revelations, from first to last, represent Him as simply a larger man who sits upon a throne in a walled city, and who has a few favorite children that have come up, purified through tribulation, with whom he is specially to dwell for an eternity to come. Well, if I entertained such feeble and pitiful ideas of God, I might take in John’s heaven and call it good. But if any of my hearers expect to find any such heaven, or any such God in the vast eternity of the future, they will be worse disappointed than on the result of the next election…”
Kinney ended his sermon with his own view of the afterlife, which may reflect his spiritualist belief that the spirits of those who have died can interact with the living:
“When you step through the thin veil that separates the two worlds, you will find the next, in its nature and character, the counterpart of this, with its grossness left out, or you will find none at all. You will be the same beings, essentially, you are now, entering upon a world which challenges the same intellectual, moral and affectional powers as this, or you will be nothing. All things will be the same in character, but purer, freer, higher, nobler. If not, what is the use of this world’s experiences and disciplines? Why this earth life, with its varied sources of development, progress and refinement, if in the next we are to be shut up in a walled city to spend an eternity in idleness, except the scourge of psalm singing night and day forever and ever. Nay, my friends, the experiences of this life are not to be lost in the next, so let this life be what you desire to continue in the next, remembering that this is but the beginning of an eternal and unbroken existence.”
John may not have meant that heaven was an actual physical structure with walls and streets literally paved with gold. He may have used those images to give people a sense of what heaven would be like in terms that they could relate to. Likewise, Kinney’s criticism of John’s view of heaven is not about its physical structure but rather about its metaphorical character: that some people would be kept out, and that eternity would be spent in “idleness.”
Kinney certainly had his detractors, who considered him a heretic. But he also had a lot of admirers, who appreciated his sharp mind and clever wit. More of Kinney’s writings on other subjects will appear in future posts.