Read CROWDS AND HEROES - CHAPTER XII of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


During the coal strike I took up my morning paper and read from a speech by Vernon Hartshorn, the miners’ leader:  “In a week’s time, by tying up the railways and other means of transportation, we could so paralyze the country that the government would come to us on their knees and beg us to go to work on terms they are now flouting as impossible.”

During the dockers’ strike I took up my morning paper and read Ben Tillett’s speech, at the meeting the day before, to fifty thousand strikers on Tower Hill. “‘I am going to ask you to join me in a prayer,’ Tillett said.  ’Lord Devonport has contributed to the murder, by starvation, of your children, your women, and your men.  I am not going to ask you to do it, but I am going to call on God to strike Lord Devonport dead,’ He asked those who were prepared to repeat the ‘prayer’ to hold up their hands.  Countless hands were held up, and cries:  ’Strike him doubly stone dead!’ The men then repeated the following ‘prayer’, word for word, after Tillett: 

    “‘O God, strike Lord Devonport dead.’

“Afterward the strikers chanted the words:  ’He shall die!  He shall die!’”

There are times when it is very hard to have courage for other people.

It is when one watches people doing cowardly things that one finds it hardest to have courage for them.

I felt the same way both mornings at first when I held my paper in my hand and thought about what I had read, about the government’s going down on its knees, and about God’s striking Lord Devonport dead.

The first feeling was one of profound resentment, shame-a huge, helpless, muddle-headed anger.

I had not the slightest trace of courage for the miners; I did not see how the government could have any courage for them.  And I had no courage for the dockers, or for what could be expected of the dockers.  I did not see how Lord Devonport could have any courage for them.

I repeated their prayer to myself.

The dockers were cowards.  I was not going to try to sympathize with them, or try to be reasonable about them.  It was nothing that they were desperate and had prayed.  Was I not desperate too?  Would not the very thought that fifty thousand men could pray a prayer like that make any man desperate?  It was as if I had stood and heard fifty thousand beasts roaring to their god.

“They are desperate,” I said to myself:  “I will not take what they think seriously.  It does not matter what desperate people think.”

Then I waited a minute.  “But I am desperate, too,” I said; “I must not take what I think seriously.  It does not matter what desperate people think.”

I thought about this a little, and drove it in.

“What I think will matter more a little later, perhaps, when I get over being desperate.”

“Perhaps what the dockers think will matter more a little later, too.”

In the meantime are not their scared and hateful opinions as good as my scared and hateful opinions?

The important and final opinions, the ones to be taken seriously, that can be acted on, will be the opinions of those who get over being scared and hateful first.

Then I stood up for myself.

I had a reason for being scared and hateful.  They and their prayer drove me to be scared and hateful.

I thought again.

Perhaps they had a reason, too.

Then it all came over me.  I became a human being all in a minute when I thought of it.

I became suddenly full of courage for the hateful dockers.

I thought how much more discouraging it would be if they had not been hateful at all.

I do not imagine God was sorry when He heard those fifty thousand dockers asking Him to strike Lord Devonport dead.

Not that He would have approved of it.

It was not the last word of wisdom or reasonableness.  It was lacking in beauty and distinction as a petition, as being just the right form of prayer for those fifty thousand faultless dockers up on Tower Hill that afternoon (the whole of London listening, in that shocked and proper way that London has).

But I have not lost all courage for the dockers who made it.

They still want something!  They still are men!  They still stand up when they speak to Heaven!  There is some stuff in them yet!  They make heaven and earth ring to get a word with God!

This all means something to God, probably.

Perhaps it might mean something to us.

We are superior persons, it is true.  We do not pray the way they pray.

We believe in being more self-controlled.  We take our breakfasts quietly, and with high collars and silk hats, and with gilt prayer-books we go into the presence of our Maker.  We believe in being calm and reasonable.

But if men who have not enough to eat are so half-dead and so worthless that they can feel calm and reasonable about it, and can always be precisely right and always say precisely the right thing-if, with their wives fainting in their arms and their babies crying for food, all that those dockers had character enough to do, up on Tower Hill, was to make a polite, smooth, Anglican prayer to God-a prayer like a kind of blessing before not having any meat, and not that awful, fateful, husky cry to Heaven, a roar or rending of their hearts up to the black and empty sky-what would such men have been good for?  What hope or courage could any one have for them, for such men at such a time, if they would not, if they could not, come thundering and breaking into His presence, fifty thousand strong, to get what they want?

I may not know God, but whatever else He is, I feel sure that He is not a precise stickler-god, that He is not pompous about spiritual manners, a huge, literal-minded, Proper Person, who cannot make allowances for human nature, who cannot hear what humble, rough men like these, hewing their vast desires for Him out of darkness, and out of little foolish words, are trying to say to Him.

And perhaps we, too, do not need to be literal-minded about a prayer that we may hear, or that we may overhear, roaring its way up past our smooth, beautiful lives rudely to Heaven.

What is the gist of the prayer to God, and to us?

What is it that the men are trying to say in this awful, flaming, blackening metaphor of wishing Lord Devonport dead?

The gist of it is that they mean to say, whether they are right or wrong (like us, as we would say, whether we were right or wrong), they mean to say that they have a right to live.

In other words, the gist of it is that we are like them, and that they are like us.

I, too, in my hour of deepest trial, with no silk hat, with no gloves, with no gilt prayer-book, as I should, have flashed out my will upon my God.  I, too, have cried with Paul, with Job, across my sin-my sin that very moment heaped up upon my lips-have broken wildly in upon that still, white floor of Heaven!

And when the dockers break up through, fling themselves upon their God, what is it, after all, but another way of saying, “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God....”

It may have been wicked in the dockers to address God in this way, but it would have been more wicked in them not to think He could understand.

I believe, for one, that when Jacob wrestled with the angel, God looked on and liked it.

The angel was a mere representative at best, and Jacob was really wrestling with God.

And God knew it and liked it.

Praying to strike Lord Devonport dead was the dockers’ way of saying to God that there was something on their minds that simply could not be said.

I can imagine that this would interest a God, a prayer like the dockers’ prayer, so spent, so desperate, so unreasonable, breaking through to that still, white floor of Heaven!

And it does seem as if, in our more humble, homely, and useful capacity as fellow human beings, it might interest us.

It seems as if, possibly, we might stop criticising people who pray harder than we do, pointing out that wrestling with God is really rather rude-as if we might stop and see what it means to God and what it means to us, and what there is that we might do, you and I, oh, Gentle Reader, to make it possible for the dockers on Tower Hill to be more polite, perhaps, more polished, as it were, when they speak to God next time.

Perhaps nothing the dockers could do in the way of being violent could be more stupid and wicked than having all these sleek, beautiful, perfect people, twenty-six million of them, all expecting them not to be violent.

In my own quiet, gentle, implacable beauty of spirit, in my own ruthless wisdom on a full stomach, I do not deny that I do most sternly disapprove of the dockers and their violence.

But it is better than nothing, thank God!

They want something.

It gives me something to hope for, and to have courage for, about them-that they want something.

Possibly if we could get them started wanting something, even some little narrow and rather mean thing, like having enough to eat-possibly they will go on to art galleries, to peace societies, and cathedrals next, and to making very beautiful prayers (alas, Gentle Reader, how can I say it?) like you-Heaven help us!-and like me!

I would have but one objection to letting the dockers have their full way, and to letting the control of the situation be put into their hands.

They do not hunger enough.

They are merely hungering for themselves.

This may be a reason for not letting the world get entirely into their hands, but in the meantime we have every reason to be appreciative of the good the dockers are doing (so far as it goes) in hungering for themselves.

It would be strange indeed if one could not tolerate in dockers a little thing like this.  Babies do it.  It is the first decency in all of us.  It is the first condition of our knowing enough, or amounting to enough, to ever hunger for any one else.  Everybody has to make a beginning somewhere.  Even a Saint Francis, the man who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, who rises to the heights of social-mindedness, who hungers and thirsts for everybody, begins all alone, at the breast.

Which is there of us who, if we had not begun our own hungering and thirsting for righteousness, our tugging on God, in this old, lonely, preoccupied, selfish-looking way, would ever have grown up, would ever have wanted enough things to belong to a Church of England, for instance, or to a Congregational Home Missionary Society?

It is true that the dockers are, for the moment (alas, fifty or sixty years or so!), merely wanting things for themselves, or wanting things for their own class.  And so would we if we had been born, brought up, and embedded in a society which allowed us so little for ourselves that not growing up morally-keeping on over and over again, year after year, just wanting things for ourselves, and not really being weaned yet-was all that was left to us.

There is really considerable spiritual truth in having enough to eat.

Sometimes I have thought it would be not unhelpful, would make a little ring of gentle-heartedness around us, some of us-those of us who live protected lives and pray such rich, versatile prayers, if we would stop and think what a docker would have to do, what arrangements a docker would have to make before he could enjoy praying with us-falling back into our beautiful, soft, luxurious wanting things for others.

Possibly these arrangements, such as they are, are the ones the dockers are trying to make with Lord Devonport now.

The docker is trying to get through hungering for something to eat, to arrange gradually to have his hungers move on.