Sermon: True Heroism

January 12, 2020
17 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from True Heroism and Other Sermons, by R. N. Sledd (published 1899). 

“But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” — Acts iv, 19, 20.
“Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.” — Acts v, 29.

The attitude of Peter and John as here described is very impressive. In a worldly sense “they were unlearned and ignorant men.” They were from an humble sphere in life, and had enjoyed none of the advantages of a liberal education. There was not a member of the Sanhedrim at whose bar they were arraigned, who was not far more deeply versed than they were in the law, in the traditions of the elders, and in the secular learning of the day. Nor had they any support from public opinion. Those in official station, both civil and ecclesiastical, and men of culture, wealth, and social position and influence, were almost without exception, hostile to them. They were the followers of One who but recently stood at the bar of this same court, and who, with its approval, had been crucified as a malefactor. It was but natural that the enmity that had persecuted him to the death should now be visited upon them. No position could be, humanly speaking, more perilous or more hopeless than theirs. But they had convictions, not senti
ments or opinions only, but clearly defined convictions, both of the understanding and the conscience, based on what they had seen and heard and felt. And they had the courage of their convictions, the courage to give expression to them before that venerable Senate, and in the face of its order to the contrary to proclaim them on the streets of Jerusalem. Arrested and brought before the same tribunal a few days later, the high priest asked them: “Did we not straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? ” In reply Peter and his companions decided the issue once for all, saying: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” They thus declared their sense of solemn obligation and their deliberate determination, whatever might be the result to themselves, to be true to their convictions of truth and duty. They were ready to suffer and, if need be, to die “for the testimony which they held.”

The character of these men as illustrated by this incident and their conduct, has perhaps already suggested to the thoughtful hearer our theme: True Heroism. By every token they were heroic, and their heroism was of the noblest, truest type.

We all have, or ought to have, some ideal toward which we are pressing, and which we hope more or less fully to realize. This ideal, if clearly defined, will exert a potent influence in the formation of our character and in the direction and results of our life. I shall be most happy if in the analysis and discussion of my subject I shall offer any suggestions that may be helpful to you in the choice and pursuit of an ideal worthy of your manhood and your destiny.

There is much that passes current among men as heroic that has scarcely any element of that virtue. Romance, poetry, and history have embalmed and perpetuated as heroic deeds that were conceived in selfishness and ambition, and consummated in enormities of cruelty, rapaciousness, and bloodshed. Truth and righteousness in character and moral quality in conduct too often have no place in the world’s estimate of men. That which strikes the sense or captivates the imagination will win the palm of popular adulation, while genuine merit and a noble life ofttimes do not receive the scanty meed of a word or glance of approval. The world in its recklessness is every day repeating the ancient folly of calling bitter sweet, darkness light, and evil good.

True heroism has its seat and inspiration in moral conviction. It may not always be enlightened conviction. Others may regard it as grossly erroneous. The man himself, on better information, may modify or entirely change his views; but at the time he verily believes that he is right. His understanding, according to its light, fully approves his position; his conscience, whose decisions depend on the understanding, gives its imperative approval, and he accordingly feels that he ought to stand where he stands, and ought to do what he does. His sense of obligation, of duty, is commanding. The question of first importance with him is not, “Is this expedient?” or, “Will this meet the approbation of others; but, is this my duty? ” A doubtful answer to this question will beget a hesitation and consequent weakness incompatible with true heroism; a decisive affirmative will prepare him for the highest exhibition of this virtue.

Out of such conviction comes a delicate sense of honor. No word is of more frequent application to the character of a man accounted a hero than honor. But what is honor, or the sense of honor, as commonly understood? When reduced to its last analysis, it is found to be but little more than a nice perception of what is reputable among men, and a prudent regard for one’s personal popularity. There are two articles in its creed: first, public opinion is supreme authority on all questions and second, the protection of reputation is the first of all duties. In other words, any interest must be sacrificed, any principle violated, any tie, however tender and sacred, trampled under foot at the behest of public opinion, however vicious, or rather than suffer any reproach to be cast upon the reputation. The true hero despises and utterly rejects such a creed. Reputation, or what men may think of him, gives him but little anxiety. He cannot be wholly indifferent, yet he neither fears the condemnation nor courts the approbation of public opinion. The right, and not the accident of popularity or unpopularity, is his standard of honor. He feels and says with Tennyson :

Because right is right, to follow right
Were wisdom, in scorn of consequence.

Right, however much it may seem to conflict with interests that are present and secular, is in his view the only path of honor; while wrong, however much it may promote those interests, is the path of infamy. This is his creed, and in its illustration and vindication he is willing to be singular, and stand alone, or, like one of old, to be accounted the offscouring of all things. His sense of honor binds him to consistency with it. He feels that any voluntary infringement of it would be a degradation of his manhood. To meet with fidelity its demands, to do his whole duty, as he understands it, is his supreme ambition as well as his highest honor.

Accompanying this sense of honor, and necessary to the maintenance of its integrity, is courage. By the world at large this is regarded as the first of virtues. Among the ancients it bore the name of all virtue. Where Peter says, “Add to your faith virtue,” the meaning of the original is courage. Thomas Hughes says: “The conscience recognizes courage as the foundation of all manliness, and manliness as the perfection of human character.” But the courage of which he speaks is something very different from what is ordinarily meant by the word; it is more than an intense assertion of individual will and force; more than a contempt for ease, and a defiance of danger and pain and death. The bulldog, as well as the man, has this sort of courage. It has its seat in the blood and nerves and muscles of the body in a state of excitement. It is destitute of the intellectual and moral element, and is but little, if anything, more than a gross compound of unthinking animal impulse. A true, rational courage has its source and seat in a mind, conscience, heart, in right relation to truth and duty, and in its manifestation it is an unfaltering adherence to these, despite all opposition and all peril. It does not find its inspiration in angry passion or wounded pride or public opinion or the dreams of ambition, but in a profound conviction of right, a love of the right, and a deliberate purpose to do right under all conditions and at every hazard. It does not court opposition or dally with danger; but if they come, it does not tremble, but meets them with steady step and eye unquailing, in different to any issue save the vindication of the right. It is said that the King of France summoned the Prince of Conde before him and gave him the choice of three things: “Go to mass, die, or be imprisoned for life.” Said the Prince in reply: “With regard to the first, I am fully determined never to go to mass; as to the other two, I am so perfectly indifferent that I leave the choice to your Majesty.” We find an illustration also in the three Hebrews to whom Nebuchadnezzar presented the alternative of worshiping his golden image or being cast into the fiery furnace. Said they: “We are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us out of thy hands, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” They were in the hands of absolute power, and power as unscrupulous and merciless as it was absolute. But compliance with its demands would be in the teeth of their cherished convictions of right. Rather than violate or compromise these they chose the fire. Here are all the elements of heroism so far mentioned: Moral conviction, a sense of honor, and an unshrinking courage in the presence of death in its most terrific form. History, especially the history of the Church, abounds with such illustrations. And no one with an appreciative sense of the morally sublime can study them without having awakened within him a feeling akin to reverence for human nature, its capabilities of attainment and achievement, of suffering and glory, and with this feeling the kindling of a desire to emulate their excellence and share in their glory.

It were idle to think of assuming and holding such a position as this without the spirit of self-sacrifice — that magnanimity that will surrender personal feeling, interest, and claims for noble ends; that lays self upon the altar of the right and the common good. There can be no heroism — nothing but littleness and meanness — in the selfish soul. The man whose only thought is of his own merit and aggrandizement may perform what the world will call heroic deeds, and poetry may celebrate his praise, and the marble may perpetuate his name; but he is little and mean still, and no nattering art can ever make him great. A man must be able to forget self; and instead of exclusive engrossment with personal interests, there must be a looking also on the things of others, and a self- sacrificing devotion to others’ good. Instead of magnifying our own claims at the expense of those of others, there must be the preferring of one another in love; there must be that self-abnegation and that consecration to a lofty purpose that, though another man may carry off the palm for the achievement of that purpose, will constrain a man to say of that other’s triumph, “I therein do rejoice; yea, and will rejoice.”

Nothing is more contemptible in a man than that conceit of his own worth that makes him think it grievous wrong if all the world does not recognize his merit and pay him court. He whines about the world’s not doing him justice — not giving him what he deserves. Very true; if it did, it would consign him to immediate and utter oblivion. Many a poor fool seems to think that the country will go to the bad if he does not get a certain cross-road post-office. If he gets it, his conceit of his dignity and importance is simply amazing. If now somebody will only call him “colonel,” like the worthless toad-fish when tickled, he will swell well-nigh to the point of bursting. His mien and movements all seem to say: “If I were to stand from under, the very heavens would fall.” There is no alchemy that can distill the first element of true heroism out of such a character. “Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him.”

Think of Col. Robert E. Lee, resigning his commission in the Federal army in 1861 and going to Virginia, saying to himself as he did so, “Well, Albert Sidney Johnston, Beauregard, Joe Johnston, Bragg, are all clever soldiers, and will do well in subordinate positions; but if merit is recognized and justice is done, I will be the man to command the armies of the South;” and then himself writing, or suborning some one else to write, paragraphs for the newspapers setting forth his merits; buying the influence of this and that paper, interviewing this or that man who stood near the President, and using all the machinery that self-conceit could invent to attain his end. Who can think of him as condescending to such methods to secure promotion and gratify personal vanity and ambition? So far from this, under the impulse of a profound conviction of right and duty, he went to his mother State, asking of her nothing but the privilege of rendering any service that she might require at his hands. He remained in comparative obscurity, faithfully doing the work assigned him, until a casualty of battle opened the way for his advancement to high command. Thenceforward when successes were achieved he put the laurel wreath on the brow of his lieutenants and their brave battalions; when disaster came, he said, “It is my fault.” The royal virtues of humility, generosity, unselfishness, devotion to duty, were his in preeminent degree. He was a hero, and none the less a hero because his cause was lost.

The last element of true heroism that we name is fortitude in disaster and sorrow. Aaron displayed the heroic spirit when the judgment of heaven fell on his sons, and he held his peace, and moved forward in the discharge of his priestly duties; and David, when, though the hearts of the people were stolen from him and he was a fugitive from his throne, he could cheerily sing, “I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God;” and Paul, when, with bonds and afflictions awaiting him in every city, he could say, ” None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” Every man finds occasion for the exercise of this spirit. However favorable the conditions of a man’s life, in its history are many pages of grief, records of disappointment and sorrow. It is in large part written in tears. But it is not all darkness and tempest. It has been said that “every cloud is fringed with gold, or arched with a bow of promise; every desert has its well, and every lion’s carcass its treasures of honey.” He is the hero who, instead of shuddering at the blackness of the cloud rejoices in the splendor of the bow; instead of repining in fruitless lamentations over the barrenness of the desert, gladly refreshes himself at the lone well; instead of shrinking in loathing from the carcass, feasts on the honey it contains.

It was a saying of Seneca that “the good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things which belong to adversity are to be admired.” That the ardent and sanguine spirit of the young should recoil at the thought of adversity is but natural. They would rather have life as one continual song, or as the unceasing laughter of the summer wave. But they wish not wisely. It is trial, darkness, and struggle that bring into exercise the noblest energies and sweetest feelings, and give the most delicate touches of beauty to the soul. The hardest porphyry is found on the stormiest coasts; the brightest jewels are refined in the hottest fires; the soul reaches its highest perfection only through much tribulation. Trial tests and illustrates the strength and glory of our character far more decisively than any triumph that we might win. Marius is neither strong nor heroic when he sits hopeless amid the ruins of Carthage, calling up the ghosts of things that were, only to see them vanish and leave him hopeless still. He is the truest hero who meets disaster and the disappointment of his hope, with tears it may be, but without repining and despairing lamentation, and sets himself at once to the task of repairing his fortunes, and to new labors for his own and for others’ good. Such a man is a king as well as a hero — a king of storms, grasping their reins and turning their wild fury to the working out for himself of a nobler character and a higher destiny.

Your own fathers and mothers, young gentlemen, have furnished one of the grandest exhibitions of the heroic spirit that the world has ever witnessed. A generation ago our beautiful South was in the dust. “Grim-visaged war” with sword and torch had stalked over all her length and breadth. Desolation’s raven wing was outstretched over her fair fields, and sorrow sat in tears beside her once happy hearth stones. Her children were fatherless and her mothers were widows; husbands, fathers, sons, by the ten thousand, had gone down in the harvest of death. Her industries were all paralyzed, her commerce was dead; her institutions of learning had closed, and teachers and pupils alike had gone to the field of strife. At length, overwhelmed by numbers and superior resources, they surrendered, not their principles or their convictions, but their swords. Then, still led by Lee, their peerless commander, with invincible fortitude they began patiently to rebuild their ruined fortunes. Ere long the vines began to creep and the flowers to bloom over the wounds made in earth’s bosom by red Battle’s hoofs and shot and shell and grinding wheels. The fields again gave gladdening response to the tiller’s toil, and the song of harvest home again echoed along our vales. The hum and stir of busy enterprise are now heard and seen on every side, and the land we love so well has not only risen from her ashes, but has advanced to a position of intelligence, wealth, and power of which our proudest sons may well be proud.

There are some who say that we have a “new South” now. New in what? Not in the greater chivalry, intellectual power, or patriotism of her sons; not in the greater purity, beauty, and self-sacrificing devotion of her daughters; not in greater piety towards God or good will towards men. But we do find forms of political intrigue and corruption new to those of us who came from the ante-bellum days; we do find a disrespect for woman and a decline of womanly reserve and modesty new to the Southerners of the olden time; we do find a shoddyism and pinchbeck glare in many places that the genuine Southron, now as of old, holds in utter contempt.

No; it is not to the influx of any new power that we owe the recuperation of the fortunes and the surprising advancement of our land. It is due to the intelligence, fortitude, and devotion of the genuine manhood and womanhood of the South. Such men and women as have glorified our past and current history would glorify any country or age. Our glory is not a foreign importation; what is great among us to-day is “native here, and to the manner born;” and we can wish no greater good or higher glory for the oncoming generations than that they illustrate in their character and life the splendid virtues of the men and women who have made our history.

But that which harmonizes all the elements of a true heroism and moulds them into a beautiful unity is the Christ-life, of which we become partakers through the operation of the Holy Ghost. The Sanhedrim marveled when they saw the boldness of Peter and John. The secret of it was that they had been with Jesus. They knew him and the power of his resurrection. Knowing him, they knew the truth. Under the operation of the Spirit the truth became to them an experimental verity, and the gospel the grandest of all realities. For the excellency of this knowledge and experience they counted everything else but loss. Without such knowledge and experience there is no combination of qualities that can overcome the tendency in human nature to deterioration and destruction; with it, our manhood is allied and akin to the divine. If, therefore, we would meet the demands of the present, and have our life crowned with beneficent results and continue to reproduce itself in such results in the years to come, we must put the Christ back of it, and before it, above it, beneath it, and through and through it. We reach the perfection of manhood, we are complete, only in him. He is God’s ideal of manhood, and to attain “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” is our high calling’s glorious hope. What are earthly dignities and emoluments when compared with this? It is in this knowledge of Jesus and fellowship with him, and in the steadfast pursuit of this wonderful ideal, that men are fashioned into heroes not of earthly, but of divine type.

Young gentlemen, would you be men of lofty moral purpose, of truest honor, of dauntless courage, of unselfish aim, of resolute endurance? Where will you find these virtues in such beauty and perfection as in the man Christ Jesus? Take him as the model of your character and life, take him into your heart, live in vital union with him, and your life will blossom with the graces that glorified his life and that have filled the ages with their fragrance.

Would you be strong for the work and the warfare that are before you? Who so strong as he who is “rooted and built up” in Jesus Christ? The old philosopher, in his enthusiasm on the discovery of the power of the lever, cried: “Give me where I may stand, and I will move the world!” His aspiration has become an experience in a sense deeper and grander than it ever entered into his heart to conceive. A man in union with Christ by faith can and does move the world. He has access to infinite resources. He can boldly say: “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” “I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me.” “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in mine infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Until within a few years past there was in the mouth of the harbor of New York a mighty mass of granite which was a constant menace to navigation. So perilous was the passage that the spot acquired the name of Hell-Gate. Capital and labor, directed by science, undertook the removal of the great obstruction. Passage-ways and chambers were cut into the very heart of the rock; these were packed with giant powder, and the powder connected by wire with an electric battery on the shore. When all was in readiness, the tiny finger of a little child touched the key and sent the mighty current down into those deep, dark chambers under the sea that exploded the powder, shivered the granite, and opened a safe gate-way to the commerce of the world. But that little child was held in the arms of her father, and his hand guided her finger as it touched the key. In the arms of Jesus, close to his heart, in loving union and sympathy with him — ah! there is the hiding place of power, power with God, power with men. That heart embraces all. His wondrous love reaches down into the deepest, darkest caverns of human woe. Touch his heart with the ringer, the prayer of faith, and while you will feel a rapturous thrill, you will send the mighty magnetism down into human souls about you, exploding adamantine indifference and unbelief, and opening the gate-way of hope and life eternal to the imperiled voyagers of time. If you would be strong for achievement, strong for endurance, and strong to resist the fiercest onsets of the gates of hell — if you would move the world heavenward, and at the same time lift yourself above the unwholesome vapors of earth into eternal sunshine, then live in the arms of Jesus.

The lighthouse may be in the right place; it may be strongly built, and complete in all its appointments; but without its light it is worthless in the night of darkness and storm. You may have a noble physical manhood and a well-disciplined and richly-furnished intellect, and yet all about you may be strewn moral wrecks whom you were helpless to guide and save. But let the edifice of your manhood be illumined from foundation to capstone with the light of the indwelling Christ, and the mariners of time, both now and in years to come, discerning your light from near and from far, will glide safely into the harbor of eternal repose. With Christ in you, you will be heroes indeed, enrolled as such in the annals of the kingdom of God, and honored as such through the cycles of eternity.

And now hear the conclusion of the whole matter:

Dare to think though others frown, Dare in words your thought express;
Dare to rise though oft cast down,
Dare the wronged and scorned to bless.
Dare from custom to depart;

Dare the priceless pearl possess; Dare to wear it next your heart;
Dare when others curse to bless.
Dare forsake what you deem wrong,
Dare to walk in wisdom’s way; Dare to give where gifts belong,

Dare God’s precepts to obey.
Do what conscience says is right,
Do what reason says is best; Do with all your mind and might;
Do your duty and be blest.


Robert Newton Sledd

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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