by C. H. Spurgeon
From the September 1867 Sword and Trowel
ER MAJESTY'S SMALLEST FOREIGN POSSESSION is the island of Heligoland. This little jewel in the British crown sparkles in a setting of liquid emerald, at the foot of Denmark, out in the North Sea, between the mouths of the two great German rivers, the Elbe and the Weser. Three or four hours' steam from Cuxhaven, or eight from Hamburg, brought us off this remarkable triangular rock, and twelve Hamburg shillings, value one shilling English, given to one of the sturdy boatmen, secured each of us a landing on the shingly beach which forms the lower part of the island. There lies our steamer in the channel to the right, and our landing-place is opposite to the building with a wooden tower, and a flag-staff, which the reader sees in the engraving. What a landing for a poor limping invalid longing for quiet, and come to sea to find it! All the visitors and half the population stood staring upon the new comers with all their eyes, and some of them with quizzing glasses in addition. Between two lines of more than ordinarily curious and inquisitive observers, all new arrivals had to run the gauntlet, the whole of the two clouds of witnesses gazing as intently as if they had never seen one of Adam's race in all their lives before. Well-bred ladies and gentlemen, no doubt, these staring humanities esteemed themselves to be, but another opinion found a supporter in one of the victims, who growled inwardly at the whole mob, and would have growled more savagely if he had not remembered that this is after the manner of all seaside societies, whether German or English; the sea-side being the licensed arena for the display of the natural boorishness of those pitiful superficialities whose gentility lies in their apparel, and not in their nature. The humble cottager, whose unaffected modesty would shrink from staring into a stranger's face, is a far truer lady than the girl with a truss of somebody else's hair at the back of her head, whose forward manners betray the absence of genuine good breeding. The world's politeness is at its best a dancing master's postures, but when its citizens follow their natural modes and manners, it is a barbarous world, or little better. Jesus of Nazareth is the teacher of the true gentle life, and those who know him and receive his meek and quiet spirit are, without learning rules of etiquette, from mere force of nature, the true gentlemen; but with all their Lord Chesterfields and dancing academies, and calisthenics, many of the fashionable classes remain essentially and in their inmost souls vulgar, and low, and brutish. Something after this sort our thoughts foamed and raged within us as we paraded ourselves before the crowd: hundreds of miles away from the place, we think our grumbling were very nearly correct, and therefore set them down in print.
Happily we are out of the thick of the crowd, but where are we going? It is ascertained in a minute or two that all the hotels are full; our friend and counselor Mr. Oncken is equally well informed that lodgings are few and far between. He is off to the top of the rock to the upper town, while our friend Mr. Passmore is scouring the lower regions, and we too lame and ill for locomotion, sit down with our best earthly companion upon a bench, thinking of the traveler at Gibeah, of whom it is written, "And when he went in, he sat him down in a street of the city; for there was no man that took him into his house to lodging." The boys of Heligoland ought to remember us if we visit the island fifty years hence, for they gathered around us, and for half an hour or more interested and amused themselves with minute observations upon the two unfortunates who had not where to lay their heads. Their interest in us, however, was eminently practical; they were evidently most willing to give us all the help they could, with a view to the shillings which might be forthcoming, addressing us alternately in German, in Frisian, and in something pretended to be English, expressing most unmistakable desires to carry our luggage off to the utmost verge of their green isle, if we would but tell them in which direction to move. At last a good clear voice with the accent of the sea, delighted us with the enquiry, "Do you want lodgings?" "Yes, Mr. Bluejacket, that is the one desire of our hearts; let us see what your accommodation is like." Glad enough we were when the said lodgings were found to be clean as a new pin, and so situated that if we had been allowed the choice of every place in the island, we could not have bettered' ourselves. Blessings on those bare-legged urchins and their never-ceasing tongues; they had no doubt spread the information of our desolate position, and brought tidings to the good man of the house that wayfarers were abiding in the street. Down in the lower town close to the sea, with our windows looking upon the wide ocean, we took up our abode for the next week with the most kind, attentive, clean, and good-tempered people that it was ever our lot to see. Our little trivial discomfort this occasion was a gentle reminder to our hearts that there is always some good thing provided for us if we will but wait and watch; God will not leave us out in the cold; he will be better to us than our fears, and after brief intervals of trial we shall sing of goodness and mercy.
The style of living on, what a writer in "Household Words," calls this very tight little island, is a great improvement upon the lodging-house system of English watering-places: you do not feel called upon to have your food spoiled by the people of the house; but you adjourn for breakfast, dinner, or tea, to a restaurant, where you can feed at discretion at your own hours. The particular restaurant which we patronized provided us viands of every variety, of the best quality, cooked in the best style, at the most moderate prices; we should like to see a similar establishment at every seaside resort. In this one respect, if not in some others, Heligoland is quite up to the mark in the race of progress.
We get up early on the island, Germans generally do; and out here in mid ocean, except under certain circumstances, the air is so delicious that it wakes you up and keeps you awake. Then when breakfast is over, or if you like before, the boats are ready to take you over to Sandy Island, where everybody goes to bathe. The long sandy islet about half a tulle off, which the natives call the Dune, is the faithful satellite of Heligoland, and helps to fill the pockets of the islanders. The boats carry from twenty to thirty passengers each, and with oars or sails, and sometimes with both, the bather skims over a sea which for clearness must surely be unrivalled, since in fine weather stones and sea plants, and zoophytes, may be clearly seen upon the ocean's bottom far below. Never was there such a sand to bathe upon, or a bath so pellucid; never more obliging servants to minister to your comfort, while using those neat little bathing machines. If you did not get your breakfast before your plunge, Sandy has one habitation which is a restaurant, and in the company of scores of sea nymphs, fresh from the brine, you may feast upon the fat of the land. The landlord has lived in America, and will understand you well, even though you call say no more German than "yah, yah." Sweet is it to the weary in mind and body to wander over the sand island, and to find at last a corner out of the sun, where one can lie down in the sand and listen to the deep mysterious murmur of the main. When all the visitors and boatmen have returned to their homes, solitude may be enjoyed in all its charms, and silence with all its solemnity. Walk round the islet, and you remark tokens of frequent wrecksshore blessings as they were called in the old barbarous days: in one place lies a bark breaking up at every tide, and in another almost a mountain of spoiled grain, once the freight of some good Baltic vessel. Saddest of all is a little enclosure in the sand, for the islet is all sand and pebbles, in which are three graves of nameless individuals, one grave being marked by a black cross, bearing the initials J.P., which were found upon the lady's linen, and the motto, "The earth is everywhere the Lord's." Better theology this than that uncivilized, unchristian, infamous teaching which walls off a bit of land, calls it consecrated, and then forbids the burial of the unbaptized within the select enclosure. How far more like the free spirit of the gospel, to believe that the whole earth is consecrated by the Lord's presence, than to imagine that some peculiar holiness belongs to plots of soil, dedicated by superstitious rites for the interment of ourselves and our fellow secretaries! He who sleeps amid the soft sand of the Divine, having his requiem sung by winds and waves, rests as blessedly as any one of all the company over whom priests have muttered, and consecrated clods have been laid.
Returning to the mother island, we will give the reader in a few words an idea of it. Imagine a sand-bank lying under a red cliff, said sandbank covered with houses, almost every one of which is either a shop, an inn, or a lodging-house; forenamed houses arranged in two or three streets, the chief of which are paved with wooden planksthis is the Unterland, the lower town. Here is the Regent Street of the island, and here also is the Grand Parade in front of the sea, but upon the same scale as St. Paul's Cathedral carved out of a cherry-stone; and lastly, here also is the Conversations-haus, with its balls and concerts, and worse; so that though lower geographically, the Unterland is by no means the inferior part of the island. Walk on the planks in the evening, and see if our lower town cannot show as much foppery and frivolity as any place of its size. Observe the dresses such as Chinese and Japanese artists depict upon rice paper with glowing colors, and note especially the heads of the ladies, some of them growing out behind like double potatoes, and others piled aloft with heaps of hay or horsehair, till they become like pyramids! Now, who shall dare to insinuate that our little town on the lowland cannot be as insanely fashionable as Brighton itself? Let us not, however, do the natives of the island so great a wrong as to let it be imagined that we are describing their apparel, for there is nothing to complain of in their neat attire, in which, indeed, the only conspicuous item is the bright red petticoat, bound with a broad band of still brighter yellow.
Up the stairs we must now ascend to the Oberland; there are nearly two hundred broad steps, with a needlessly small rise; two at a time is a trifle too much, but one is too little for a nimble foot. In the "Transatlantic Review," we read, "when the summit is reached one stands upon the real island, for the sand bank below is an accident and an intruder. Heligoland proper may be described as a precipice-plateau, containing a small cluster of houses, a lighthouse, various pole-nets, springes, and other contrivances for catching woodcocks in their migratory flights, and a few miniature potato and corn fields. The extent of this plateau is not quite equal to that of Hyde Park." Of course, the inhabitants have no need of railways or stage coaches, when ten minutes' walk takes them from one end of the land to the other; indeed, there are no beasts of burden, no roads, and nothing upon wheels except, perhaps, a barrow or two. There is a legend that the governor keeps a cow, or did keep one, but we were never fortunate enough to see so much as a horn of the animal: as an Irishman would say, all the cows we saw were sheep, which are tethered each one to its owner's scanty plot, and milked three times a day; although sheep's milk is but poor stuff, it is doubtless far better than none. Potatoes are the staple production of the rural part of our island, and exceedingly good they are, though seldom larger than a pigeon's egg, so small indeed that we should never cook them at all. A German friend told us that he wondered at the English eating such large, coarse potatoes, and that in his country they gave the large potatoes to the pigs; but upon watching the turning up of several hills of potatoes on the island, we thought the pigs must receive but a very small share of the produce, for we did not see so much as one root which could by exaggeration have been accused of being large. Every one to his taste, we make small potatoes the measure of what we think of a man who's very low in our esteem, and our neighbors on the other hand, count the smallest of their earth apples to be the best.
The narrow alleys which form the streets of the upper town might be pleasant, if it were not that on either side the filthy drainage flows along, reeking with abominable odors, exposing its foulness both to eye and nose. The glorious sea breezes which God sends to make us all healthy and happy, might turn away in disgust from the laziness or stupidity which allows the sewage of so small a population to become a gigantic nuisance, not only to be smelled by those who walk in the narrow paths between its double streams, but constituting the source of a horrible effluvium, which taints the air of the lower town, and is discernible and loathesome even out at sea. When the wind blows from that corner of the island over which the sewage is poured, it is difficult to conceive of the rank and sickening odor. Fortunately, the visitors for the most part accept the declaration of the natives that it is the seaweed, a declaration, to which they all adhere most unanimously, adding that it is good for the health. Poor seaweed, what an action for slander might be raised on thy account, and every unsophisticated nostril would be thy witness, that such a stink (reader, we cannot help it, there is no other name for it), never came from any growth of Neptune's dominions, where "every prospect pleases and only man is vile!" To call the reek of sewage seaweed, is a specimen of man's craft, which he uses in every place wherein it is unprofitable to call things by their right name: all the world over verbal aprons of fig-leaves are manufactured to cover the nakedness of human wrongdoing; sin is imprudence, rebellion against God is a fine high spirit, and lasciviousness is the pardonable sowing of wild oats. Mephistophiles must surely smile as he sees how thoroughly his pupil, man, has become master of the art of shuffling words. We did not find in the case in hand that by the sweeter name the noxious exhalation smelled one whit the sweeter, and glad enough were we when the colors on the flagstaff blew in another direction, and real seaweed-sniffs and whiffs from the pure blue ocean came in at the window with the west wind. O men of Heligoland, have ye any noses? Are ye afraid that, the air will be too fresh and pure for fallen humanity? It may be true that as the fox is not killed by the foulness of his own hole, so you are not hurt by the effluvia of your own drains; but as ye value the good red gold of English visitors, and would fain tempt them to your lovely islet, reform, purge, purify! Set up a Sanitary Board, and knock it down again if it does not drain your houses within a month.
The school-house is the largest structure in the place, and reflects a credit upon the public spirit of the island. We inspected the school vicariously through a lady friend well versed in scholastic matters, and speaking German to boot, and upon her report we award the schools most honorable mention. The bigger children were necessarily away, as the parents needed them during the visiting season; but all the long winter the children are regular in their work, and make good progress, although they labor under the unusual disadvantage that all the teaching is in German, which is not their mother-tongue; and the little ones have to pick up the language from their schoolfellows before they can understand the teacher.
The church externally looks as though it required some one to take pity upon it; it stands much in need of a frequent replenishment of the box for repairs, which is placed at the gate, with a reminder that the spire points to heaven, and that it would be well to keep in order the house where men meet to worship God. Inside it is quaint enough, the gallery front being enriched with paintings by Van Daub, or some other rustic notability. The font, like nearly all ancient specimens, is large enough for immersion; the ancient candlesticks upon the altar are the gift of Gustavus Vasa; the seats are adorned upon their backs with the names of the owners of the pew behind, painted in all the colors of the rainbow: from the ceiling hangs a ship with three masts, in full sail, a votive offering from a grateful mariner; and, as for the pulpit, it is right glorious to behold: so huge is the screen in which it is set, and so elaborate is the whole concern, that the minister looks like a fly in amber, or a miniature portrait in oil, set in a frame of mahogany, six feet deep all round. We suppose the natives go to church in winter, but we can bear personal witness that they do not overcrowd the edifice in summer; there was enough to form a quorum, truly, and the minister was not quite reduced to Sydney Smith's small assembly, which he addressed as "Dearly beloved Roger;" but the worshippers were few and far between. It was sadly odd to see the young men when they entered, put their hats over their noses and stare about to see who was there; all the while, we suppose, professing to be seeking a blessing in silent prayer. Query: Is not that putting the hat over the eyes one of the present ensigns of hypocrisy which genuine believers should utterly renounce? "Ma, why does Mr. Black always smell his hat when he comes into church?" was the very natural question of a youngster not yet trained in the fashions of Phariseeism. Where there is least of the kernel there is usually most of the shell.
Lutheran worship is plain and unpretentious, and would have reminded us of the conforming Puritans, if the specimen before us had not been rather too grotesque. We sung more than twenty verses to the same tune (if a tune at all), accompanied by the organ and some boys, one of the boys having a voice which, for screeching power, excelled all the curlews and seamews in the universe; this was an accident, and to be borne with, but the sermon was an evil not to be remembered without sorrowful indignation. By-the-way, the minister gave us a specimen or two of intoning, solo singing, nasal whining, or whatever may be the proper name of the noise which is now so popular among the High Church brethren; whether he was praying or singing we do not know, but upon the whole, we should say it was a successful attempt, if he intended it to be funny; if he aimed at solemnity, it was as dead a failure as if he had read us one of "Ingoldsby's Legends." Not that there was any lack of solemnity in the gentleman's face, and hands, and prayer-book, and gown, and bands, and bowing, and lifting of the eyes and hands, of this there was enough leaven to leaven a thousand German miles of clergy, but it was the masquerading solemnity which, takes in the superstitious and ignorant, but makes manly minds revolt into laughter or scorn. When will preachers lay aside attempts to look devout? Why can they not serve God in truth, and not give themselves holy airs and make sanctimonious faces? When men take bitter physic, they screw up their physiognomies as much as to say, "We don't like it;" but no one has to set his countenance in order when he takes a draught of the clear crystal, and is refreshed thereby; it is because men do not enjoy religion that they make pious faces, and try to be anything but themselves. All faults of manner, however, are pardonable; but the matter of the sermon was beyond all bearing from a Lutheran. The theme was the young man whom Jesus loved, who claimed to have kept the commandments from his youth, but could not bear the crucial test of giving up all to follow Jesus; and the strain of the preacher was to the effect that many go a long way in religion, and stop short somewhere; but that if we would be saved we must go still further; we must be perfectwe could be perfect, and that was the way of salvation. Nothing about the sin-cleansing blood of Jesus, or the power of the Holy Spirit, or the value of precious faith, but much crying up of the creature and his perfection. Alas! for a people doomed to hear such unscriptural teaching. Well may they stay away from church when such husks are poured from the pulpit. Happy they who sit under a ministry which deals with gospel truth honestly and with heavenly unction; let such be very grateful, and do their utmost to help every earnest effort to educate sound preachers, praying that the Master may send forth many such into his harvest. We wished heartily that Martin Luther could have risen from the dead, and come into that church, he would not have heard the priest read half his sermon before he would have shouted to him to come down, and then the burly old reformer might have repeated his memorable protest upon the article of justification:
"I, Martin Luther, an unworthy preacher of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thus profess and thus believe: that this article, THAT FAITH ALONE WITHOUT WORKS, CAN JUSTIFY BEFORE GOD, shall never be overthrown neither by the emperor, nor by the Turk, nor by the Tartar, nor by the Persian, nor by the Pope, with all his cardinals, bishops, sacrificers, monks, nuns, kings, princes, powers of the world, nor yet by all the devils in hell. This article shall stand fast whether they will or no. This is the true gospel. Jesus Christ redeemed us from our sins, and he only. This most firm and certain truth is the voice of Scripture, though the world and all the devils rage and roar. If Christ alone take away our sins, we cannot do this with our works: and as it is impossible to embrace Christ but by faith, it is, therefore, equally impossible to apprehend him by works. If, then, faith alone must apprehend Christ, before works can follow, the conclusion is infragable, that faith alone apprehends him, before and without the consideration of works; and this is our justification and deliverance from sin. Then, and not till then, good works follow faith, as its necessary and inseparable fruit. This is the doctrine I teach; and this the Holy Spirit and church of the faithful have delivered. In this will I abide. Amen."
Dismissing the thought of the spiritual barrenness of the land with a fervent prayer for a reformation, and the hope that our friend Mr. Oncken may be able to send an evangelist there for a season, we are reminded by our churchgoing of the abundant fish which enrich the surrounding sea: lovers of fish will find a perfect paradise in Heligoland. By the way, the inhabitants, pronounce it Helgoland, and they ought to know the name of their own country. Turbot, haddock, brill, lobsters, all sorts of good sea creatures beside, reward the venturous fisherman. But why did the church service remind us of the finny tribes? Answer. Because they were prayed for by name. First came her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Alexandra, and all the Royal Family, then the Governor and then four sorts of fish. "God bless them and multiply them exceedingly, and send a good catch of them to our bold fishers;" that was, we suppose, the spirit of the petition; and a very proper petition too, and one in which we should, be all likely to agree. Far more so than if the prayer had been about the weather. "I recollect," says Mr. Cradock, in his "Memoirs," "a very worthy rector, possessed of a great living in one of the Midland Counties, who informed me that, on his induction to it, he had met with a particular difficulty; for an enclosure had just taken place, and half of his parish petitioned that he would pray for rain, that their quickset hedges might grow; and the other half that he would intercede for fair weather, as they were in the midst of their hay harvest."
Fish is frequently brought to the island for sale by English fishing boats belonging to Hull, Yarmouth, and other ports; and in connection with this business we learned a most saddening fact. There are six English soldiers upon the island, and in conversation with them we learned that they are stationed there because of the drunkenness and consequent riotous conduct of our fellow countrymen, who come on shore from the fishing smacks. Riots had been caused by them, and once the whole place was likely to have been in flames; hence an order has been made that there shall be only six on shore at the same time, and each of these is attended by a soldier armed with a cutlass. We were thoroughly ashamed to hear the drunken maudlin song of a poor intoxicated fellow countryman, who staggered along with a soldier at his side; and we felt the more heart-sick, because the noble appearance of the fine hardy fellow when he landed in the morning, called forth expressions of admiration. What must be the estimate formed of Englishmen when our representatives abroad are so addicted to drunkenness, that they must be shut out from an island over which the Union Jack proudly waves? Should any laborers for the Lord in our eastern ports read this article, we wish they would take note of it, and inquire how it is that the fishing boats are left in such a state. Our friend Mr. Passmore gave his own Bible to one man, who said that in the ten boats with which he sailed, there was not a single copy of the word of God. Believers of Hull, Grimsby, Lowestoft, London, is there no method of evangelizing this bold race of men? Is there no method of redeeming them from the disgraceful drunkenness which makes them a terror where they land? All are not so. "There are bad and good of all classes," said one honest Jack to us, and his face bespoke him one of the good; but what a pity that so many should belong to the bad! The place has many temptations doubtless, for since everything is untaxed, wines, spirits, and tobacco, are marvelously cheap; but for all this, since we do not hear of Germans, or Danes, or Frenchmen, needing to be watched over by a military escort, this indulgence in drink is a special disgrace to us as a nation, and this particular case calls for the vigilant and vigorous efforts of earnest Christians in our ports. There are some, we know, in the port of Hall who will look after this.
Another evil also requires speedy rectifying. At the Conversations-haus the roulette table and rouge-et-noir are in fall operation. When the German princes are many of them putting down the gambling tables, why is gambling allowed and sanctioned in our only German possession? We are loud talkers of morality, but in this instance our example speaks very loudly in contradiction of our words. Cowper argued, "We have no slaves at home, then why abroad?" and the reasoning is to the point here. A gambling saloon would not be tolerated in London, then why in Heligoland? Voices will not be wanted in the House of Commons to ask why the evil is not abolished. England cannot afford to give gambling shelter beneath her flag when even petty German princelets are washing their hands of it. The Heligolanders have their own motives for desiring to see the tables permitted, but their reasons cannot have enough weight to exonerate our authorities, if they defer to so unrighteous a demand. Down with licensed gambling, even though the islanders should then have to pay a trifle to raise the interest of their debt, or discharge necessary expenses. The home government should be always just and generous, but it should not tolerate a known evil, even to please three thousand Heligolanders.
Our readers scarcely care to hear of the politics of this little state. The governor is surrounded by two assemblies of constitutional representatives, and the regime is liberty itself. For all that, there are conservatives and reformers, and party spirits, and diplomacies, and policies, and all the other inventions of governments; in fact, a man may be as eminent a politician in Heligoland as in England, if he aspires to become master of the science. It suffices us to know that if the people are not satisfied, they ought to be, and that in no respect could they expect to be better treated, should the Claw of the Prussian eagle tear them from the Brittanic grip. In the old French wars, the place was exceedingly valuable as a depot for our manufacturers, which were smuggled from hence into Europe, in defiance of the old Napoleon; and even now it may be valuable as an out station, but there is room for difference of opinion upon that matter; it is to be hoped that it may never become a bone of contention between us and Prussia, and if it ever should, it might be well to yield so small a bone at once. Whoever may be its master, let us hope that the red, white, and green flag will always wave over a free and happy people.
Red is the strand,
White is the sand,
Green is the band
These are the colors of Heligoland.
There is a telegraph station on the island, but much cannot be said for it, when we are told that the cable is broken both ways, so that you can neither communicate with England nor Germany. It will hardly pay to send a message to the sea-serpent, for his address is uncertain; but we may at least get a moral from the useless telegraph station, if it remind us of the utter uselessness of mere formal prayer, unless the communication be maintained between our soul and heaven, no result is achieved.
Before we take our leave, we must row round the red island, to note its giant caves, its huge rifts, its enormous detached rocks, its many-colored hands, and its pure sea waves. Echo answers to our joyous shouts. Let us sing a hymn, and what can be more appropriate than "Rock of Ages, cleft for me"? How sweetly blended voices sound upon the water! even the oar-plash is in tune, and all around and above are is unison with the praises of the Son of God.
Grand old rock, farewell! The beams which flash from thy towering lighthouse have saved many a good ship, while thy sunken rocks have sent many a shipwrecked mariner to his watery grave. Evil and good blend in thee as in us all. May the good become supreme. Sentinel of the Elbe, stand fast for ever. Peace be to thy sons and daughters, and grace from the God of peace. God send thee his best blessing, the gospel of his Son, and his Holy Spirit to give power thereto.