“Thou Shalt Not Steal”
The words forming the heading of this chapter are instantly recognized by the reader as one of the ten commandments. It is a law written not only on the tablet of stone on Mt. Sinai, but on the fleshly tables of the heart by the finger of God. It is not therefore to be wondered at that we find it incorporated in all the statute books and moral codes of the various nations of the earth. Nor are we surprised that the violation of this commandment is attended with the forfeiture of moral and social respectability, and the violator visited with penalties more or less severe, according to the magnitude of the offence. A man detected in the act of stealing goods or money will get to know what eternal punishment means in the sense of never being fully trusted again by the community. Some may forgive and believe in the reclamation and reformation, but the majority will not.
So this commandment with others of the decalogue is carefully kept, even by irreligious men, so far as the letter goes, if for no other reason than self-protection. The thieving principle in them, if gratified at all, is kept within the words of the civil law, or operates under the sanctions of the looser code which regulates the business world, where many things are allowed that will never pass muster or go punished at the day of judgment. This might be called Business Stealing.
No doubt men who would not or dare not purloin from their fellow-creatures on the highway, have robbed them in business transactions. In plain English they have stolen, and grown enormously rich by such repeated stealings. They looked to the country at large, which said nothing, or whispered and muttered. They next turned their eyes to Wall Street and to the great Exchanges, and the men there said it was all right. They forgot to refer the matter to Him who descended upon Mt. Sinai and wrote the words of the commandment. They said it was a sharp, clever business proceeding; but God said it was downright theft.
Nevertheless this kind of stealing is regarded by many as a decided improvement on picking pockets on the streets and roads, that it is much more respectable, and so is ardently defended, especially by those who succeed in the matter, while others who have lost their all by it as bitterly condemn.
Then there is what we would term Careless Stealing. If the reader desires light on what is meant here, let him approach his centre-table and see if there are any hymnbooks there which belong to the church, and which he has never paid for. It would be interesting also to know how long they had been away from the place where they properly belonged. Next let him go to his library and look at the title-pages of the volumes before him and he would discover a startling number belonging to other people.
There is no intentional roguery here, but a careless kind of purloining. That carelessness, however, ought not to be in the heart, and needs looking after.
But there are still other forms of theft. David says, “Thy commandment is exceeding broad.” It goes further and stretches wider than many such to realize. Jesus opened the eyes of men here by saying that men could break the law regarding adultery with the eye and heart. So with the commandment prohibiting stealing, it can be violated in more ways than those already mentioned.
In addition to open robbery, business theft, and careless pilfering, we have Reputation Stealing.
It is a fearful thought that a good name and consequent influence can be stolen away. Any right-thinking person would far rather be robbed of money than a good reputation. The first can be replaced, but how difficult it is and oftentimes impossible to recover from the effect of a foul slander. It cannot be overtaken, for it secured the first start and keeps traveling.
It is marvelous how people who would rather die than take a copper cent from another, yet deliberately with tongue or pen steal from a fellow-being that which is far beyond gold or silver in value to the possessor, his hitherto unclouded reputation.
The thief in this instance is oftentimes not certain about the truth of the report, but nevertheless gives vent to his suspicions, and perpetrates the foul, heartless robbery. The effect on the wronged human life can be imagined with but little trouble.
Then there is Musical Stealing.
We do not mean that men are robbing to the accompaniment of song and musical instrument; but that the stealage itself consists of songs and hymns. For instance, we heard a lovely hymn in California, with words and melody by two parties whom we will call A and B. Some months later we heard the same hymn exactly, note for note, and with but the change of a single word, sung by another man, whose name was at the top of the piece as the author and composer. His name we will call X. It was with quite a shock we made the discovery. Now came the question, Who had committed the robbery? That God’s commandment had been broken there could be no question. The only mystery was who was the thief? Was it A and B, or was it X? Perhaps we will never know until the last day. But we will know then.
A startling additional thought is that we have seen the evidence of musical theft three times in the last year; while a leading singer tells me that as a practice it is common.
Still another form of theft is the purloining of striking illustrations heard in pulpits and on platforms. Illustration Stealing we would call it.
Of course we all have to draw in a general way from the knowledge of others on every side; and these multitudinous facts and truths we can, so to speak, grind up and make our own. We do not refer to this, but to a man’s appropriation of the striking and purely original presentations of another, his taking the individual coloring of a subject, the vivid illustrations which belonged to the speaker or preacher, and passing them off as his own mental property and treasure in other places.
Now, when persons bear away in notebooks and in memory these same striking thoughts, arguments, illustrations and incidents and reproduce them as if their own intellectual offspring or property, we unhesitatingly pronounce the act a theft. The fact that it is a literary robbery does not alter the moral character of the transaction. Something has been stolen.
Sometimes this reproduction may be done unconsciously, and so there is no sense of guilt or condemnation. But the conscious, deliberate act stamps the character of the deed as robbery.
But may not the striking thoughts and illustrations of other speakers be used? Certainly. They may and should be utilized. But truth, honor and justice clearly point out the way in which it should be done.
The writer, like many other public speakers, has in his sermons and talks quite a number of vivid illustrations taken from his personal life and family history. In addition he has some others which he obtained from different individuals But whenever he uses this latter class he invariably says, as “Dr. A–said,” or “as I heard Brother B once relate,” etc.., etc.. This he has to do to retain peace of mind, self-respect of soul, and also to keep from being called a literary thief.
We once unwittingly gave great offence to a preacher, who was taking down one of our talks quite voluminously by crying out in a mirthful spirit:
“Give me credit, my brother.”
After the sermon he waited on us with an aggrieved face, and the severe words, “Have you a copyright on all your utterances?”
The reader can imagine the hopeless, helpless feeling which swept over us as we listened to these words. There was such an utter absence of certain delicate instincts of the soul, as well as gross ignorance of laws that rule in the literary work, the breaking of which is to be promptly branded a plagiarist, or book thief, that as we considered the case words utterly failed us.
But there is still a greater, graver theft; where a man not content with taking striking thoughts, appropriates the whole sermon, divisions, subdivisions and all. This is Sermon Stealing.
Dr. Linfield of Mississippi, who is now dead, was a very gifted preacher. His discourses swept through the various stages of the admiration, imitation, appropriation, not to say confiscation of his brethren. On a certain occasion he attended a large camp-meeting on the seashore, and had scarcely arrived when he was promptly interviewed by three preachers, each one of whom made the remarkable request that he would not deliver certain sermons of his, as they had taken the liberty to preach them on sundry and various occasions, and would now feel no little embarrassment if detected in the theft. Their regret seemed to be not in having committed the pulpit purloining, but in having been discovered in the deed. This by the by is the same kind of sorrow felt by the regular street pickpocket when arrested.
A prominent evangelist told the writer that he had recently tracked one of his sermons across the entire length of a state.
The fact of this kind of pulpit thieving is matter for genuine wonder; for if God calls a man to preach the gospel, that man should certainly be able to preach.
Two explanations alone then can be given for such conduct. Either pride is the cause, the man being unwilling to deliver sermons according to his own mental calibre, or it is laziness.
We had colored people in the South who pilfered because seriously disinclined to work. So it may be with some who are called to preach, they are too indolent to dig a sermon out of the Bible and their own brains and hearts, and so let others perform the labor for them. Anyhow the act is a violation of the law, “Thou shalt not steal.”
Let it be understood that it is perfectly legitimate and proper to use a sermon, or striking thoughts and illustrations, or any good thing we hear or read, provided we give credit to the speaker or author from whom we obtained them.
Not to do so is not only wrong, but makes matters quite embarrassing to the true owner of the goods when he comes around and finds another man’s name and brand stamped upon his own mental property. A strange jumble is at once seen, in a remarkable reversal of characters. The plagiarist is at first thought to be the wronged man, and the true man is regarded as the pulpit or platform thief. As the light breaks in as it always does in these matters, there occurs another reversal of characters, the jackdaw is stripped of his borrowed plumes and the penalty of violated law is visited upon the transgressor.
In a word, looking upon the eighth commandment, it is well to keep it. It pays never to break it in any way or under any circumstances whatever.