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Card Playing.


Card Playing.

James Dodson




The apostle’s injunction, “Be not conformed to this world,” is but little thought upon in this day. Its vital significance to the Christian is not duly appreciated. The “world” means the evil and unregenerate ways of human society that neither in principle nor in practice accord with the obligations of the gospel. Some think they have kept this injunction if they have abstained from flagrant vice; others, if they have not violated the conventional proprieties; while multitudes fly in the face of it by disregarding its salutary caution, to the detriment of their religious life, and the degrading of the tone of their piety. Our heavenly Father desires that all his children should be kept unspotted from the world. To do this, James tells us, is pure religion before God. Yet how often do God’s professed children accommodate their conduct to the ways and sentiments of the world and suffer spiritual detriment thereby. In nothing is this more common than by indulging in sports and diversions that have by their abuse fallen into ill repute, and become linked with low associations that it is difficult to separate from them. Among these, card playing may be cited.

Every one knows how common is the use of cards for gambling purposes. No censure upon that evil practice can be so strong that I cannot heartily endorse it. Yet I suppose that all who gamble with cards first play for amusement, most of them unconscious of the danger they are inviting, and without a thought of how the taste they are forming may prove to them a snare and the gateway of ruin. Most of them begin with the stout resolve, that their playing shall be no more than “just a little social game,” and shall never go as far as gambling. But it is a beginning, a learning how, followed by a learning to love it. And this passion when developed results in the selection of associates who have a similar taste. Mark the progress of this man. To gratify his newly acquired fondness, he must affiliate with such persons as will play with him. Here is a new bond he is about to form. Ask him what is there in common between him and those whom he now welcomes as the companions of his sport. Is it that they are intelligent or learned or witty? Is it that they have good breeding or social culture or high moral standing? No. It is this: They can play cards. The kinship between them is only this. They may be inferior in blood, in culture, and in morals. But they have kindred tastes, and they now gravitate into each other’s society. Thus he who accounts himself a gentleman comes to sit down with the blackleg and they become equals, though he would deny the latter admittance to his drawing-room or introduction to his family. His fondness for cards, by tempting him to consort with an unworthy class, has become a source of danger to him. Very soon, to add zest, it is proposed that they put up a stake; not for the profit of the winner, but only a tip, a quarter, a forfeit of cigars taxed upon the loser, to make the game more social and exciting. He hesitates at this, but as it is a trivial sum and only in sport he consents. And now our new-fledged gambler is well under way on the downward road to a damaged reputation, to a hardened conscience and perhaps to perdition. His equipment consists in the knowledge of a game learned maybe in the parlor of some church-member, and a fondness for any society that will furnish him companions for a sport that is all too fascinating. Of course he did not mean to be a gambler, and the good men or good ladies who fed the flames of his incipient love for this amusement around their firesides, will be indignant if told that they are in part responsible for the evil course of this youth, and when cautioned as to these tendencies, will perhaps retort that you will make home and religion distasteful to the youth by depriving them of all innocent amusements.

Experience shows that many players for pastime become gamblers, who did not intend to become such, and who somehow, as their love for cards increased, lost their aversion to the vice in which it landed them. Every one who gains his consent to play exposes himself to the possibility of this peril, which peril is all the more real in that it is so generally overlooked, or else regarded with indifference. Drawn by a common passion, unlike characters meet at the table, and there they become alike. Good breeding will not protect one here from associates that are unworthy. Social scruples give way before the exactions of a growing love and prove an inadequate barrier, as witness the number of gamblers who are the degenerate scions of proud and noble families.

I have never known any good to come of card playing. On the other hand, I have never known any who cultivated cards but I thought were hurt by it. If they are Christians, their spirituality is lowered and their growth impeded. Their usefulness and activity in the church are impaired. Or, if they are not believers, they are thrust by it farther away from the kingdom, and made to feel less concern for their salvation. They are less easily reached by the gospel. All who play cards may not become gamblers, but all who play do suffer in their spirituality, their delicacy of sentiment and their religious interest. Nor will your thinking that no harm will ensue, and your not intending any evil, preserve you from danger. Intention to do harm is not always the measure of the harm that is done. Your thinking that fire would not burn you, or that a certain drug would not nauseate you, would not change the nature of fire, or alter the properties of the drug. We cannot, may be, see the harm just yet. Nor can you see the waving stalks of corn on the day you plant your seed. A man of fifty may look back and see what a boy of fifteen cannot look forward and see. The proper question should be: Is it safe for me to habituate myself to cards, assuming that I am no more proof against insidious temptations to evil than the average of men? Will it help my piety? Will it not cloud the prospect of my coming to salvation? If you cannot feel that card playing will be spiritually helpful to you, I doubt if you can justify yourself in playing cards under any circumstances. For the Bible tells us, “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Are cards ever played with that end in view? Many good Christian people tolerate cards, in the belief that only innocent results will follow, who would cheerfully banish them from their parlors if they felt that there was any impropriety in their encouraging the game, and who, if they are in error, are more than willing to have their danger pointed out to them.

Now, just what I would think of cards played only for pastime, if our natures were other than they are, or if society was composed of different elements, I need not say. There is more or less danger in all appeals to chance where profit or amusement is habitually sought. Appeals to chance and faith in providence do not go together. Chance naturally links with skepticism as to Providence. It begets a sinful impatience as to the slow methods of providence and a repugnance to that necessary toil which providence imposes as a condition for reaping her blessings. But taking things as we find them, taking society with its multiplied temptations and its wide infusion of badly assimilated elements, taking the present unsettled condition of our country, with so many of the barriers against immorality broken down, is it safe to rear our children to be a generation of card-players? Can the church afford to have her youth so educated? Would it not be a decided gain to both church and country if the game of cards was banished from us entirely?

Cards are hopelessly linked with evil associations. Its very terminology is so trailed in the mire, that no man or woman who pretends to culture will venture to use the phrases of the game in polite society, such gambling phrases being more appropriate to some Buck Fanshaw in some Western mining town than to gentlemen and ladies in our parlors. To use card language in social conversation is regarded as boorish and unrefined. Addison, speaking in the Spectator on methods of spending time, said one hundred and eighty years ago: “I must confess I think it is below reasonable creatures to be altogether conversant in such diversions as are merely innocent, and have nothing else to recommend them but that there is no hurt in them. Whether any kind of gaming has even this much to say for itself, I shall not determine. But I think it very wonderful to see persons of the best sense passing away a dozen hours together in shuffling and dividing a pack of cards, with no other conversation but what is made up of a few game phrases, and no other ideas but those of black or red spots ranged together in different figures. Would not a man laugh to hear any one of this species (that is, one who resorts to this expedient to kill time) complaining that life is short?”

Buck relates the following incident of the renowned John Locke:

“Mr. Locke having been introduced by Lord Shaftesbury to the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Halifax, these three noblemen, instead of conversing with the philosopher, as might naturally have been expected, on literary subjects, in a very short time sat down to cards. Mr. Locke, after looking on for some time, pulled out his pocket-book and began to write with great attention. One of the company observing this, took the liberty of asking him what he was writing. ‘My Lord,’ said Locke, ‘I am endeavoring, as far as possible, to profit by my present situation; for, having waited with impatience for the honor of being in company with the greatest geniuses of the age, I thought I could do nothing better than to write down your conversation; and, indeed, I have set down the substance of what you have said for this hour or two.’ This well-timed ridicule had its desired effect, and these noblemen, fully sensible of its force, immediately quitted their play, and entered into a conversation more rational and better suited to the dignity of their characters.”

But why is a glib and dextrous use of card phrases thus out of taste? Why should these technical words be thus avoided in cultured speech, if there be not an impropriety in the game itself that by adoption has become the peculiar property of the fraternity of gamblers for generations? Why is it indelicate for a young lady to spice her conversation with such slang? Why is it a matter of joke among the unsanctified, if any awkward incident is told or fabricated, which associates a minister of the gospel with the card-deck, or puts the card-player’s phraseology on his lips?

Some years ago a distinguished soldier and statesman was sent, as the representative of our government, to a leading European court. There he achieved fame and eclipsed all his former renown by introducing to society the great American game of Draw-poker, and publishing a pamphlet of rules governing the same. His eminent patronage made it popular with a certain stratum of society, but he was recalled by our President, amid the laughter and disgust of two continents. His undignified and unmanly course ended his political career. The recent Baccarat scandals at Tranby Croft, involving names high in the social and military circles of Britain, including some very near the throne, are enough to dissatisfy all good people with card playing among those who enjoy distinction among their fellow-men.

What assurance have you that your boy, if he plays, will not be damaged thereby? What security have you for his welfare, when he goes out into the wide world, and is no longer under your parental restraint? It would relieve many fears, if you knew that he was steeled in the resolve to let cards alone. When your sons and daughters make cards one of their parlor games, who can say that your sons and the gentlemen who call upon your daughters are not being thus equipped and schooled for careers as gamblers, should later life bring them under temptation. Having learned to love the game, whom will these seek as the companions of their sport when they have gone out from the parental roof? The chances are very great that such may come to while away their idle hours and gratify their fondness for cards outside of the circle of the good.

So great is the danger that card playing by young men away from home will lead to gambling or breed habits of idleness, that authorities of the University where I graduated, in whose faculty were such names as Waddel, Lyon, and Garland, inflicted severe penalties on students found at cards. Nor was there ever complaint that they were too rigid on this point. I fear for a card-playing boy when he goes to college. With what hope shall we even pray for him when he has been suffered to form habits that fit him for companionship with designing and masterful young men, less carefully raised, and without that regard for religion he has been taught to cherish. Such a boy’s moral convictions are put to the test, and likely, off he goes. His knowledge of cards may be the Achilles’ heel that will prove his vulnerable spot.

But you may say: “My father permitted card playing when I was a boy, and he was a good man, and I cannot believe that what my father did was anything but right.” But how many of your father’s family have come to the Saviour? How many of them are noted for their piety? Are you not pleading your father’s shortcomings to justify your own? That you escaped the extremest injury under his lax government, does not secure that your boy will also escape. His surroundings may be different from yours. At any rate, complete safety lies only in your son being brought up not only in ignorance of such games, but with such fixed aversion to them as will guarantee that he will never be induced to learn them. I can say of him who cannot play cards that he will not gamble in this most common mode, but I am without that assurance if the associations of his youth have led him to love the tainted sport and relish its terminology of slang.

Bishop Newman asks: “Why should parents complain when their sons are mined. Were I,” says he, “a dramatist, I would write a drama of five acts: 1. A young man in a private house at cards, where beauty smiles and wealth allures. 2. In a hotel where gentlemen meet, where the game is played for the refreshments of the hour, and where conscience is quieted by the soothing assurance that it is only pastime. 3. A gambling hell, where the professionals do congregate, where the attention to the game is intense, where self-consciousness reigns, where fortunes are won and lost. 4. A den of thieves, from which decency and honor have departed, where dishonesty holds high carnival, where depredations on the property of honest citizens are organized, where murder is pleasure. 5. A gallows, on which hangs the form of that once young and splendid man. It is the last game; he loses all!”

The atmosphere of the card-table is not congenial to piety. Our best Christians never play. Card playing among church-members means coldness in religion, little reading of God’s Holy Word, little praying. Often a pastor is troubled to observe a decline of interest in this or that one of his members. He has become irregular in his attendance upon the sanctuary. There is a certain shyness about him when they are together. The pastor wonders what is the matter, when accidentally he hears what he did not know before, but had begun to suspect, that he is addicted to cards. That explains everything. Again, everybody wonders why so and so does not connect himself with the church. No wonder to me when I know he is fond of cards. A chilly temperature surrounds these, of which they themselves may not be conscious, but which does not escape detection by those who live in the warm and genial atmosphere of communion with God.

I have read of an eminent minister, Rev. Mr. Dodd, who, on being solicited to play at cards, arose from his seat and uncovered his head. The company asked him what he was going to do. He replied, “To crave God’s blessing.” They immediately exclaimed, “We never ask a blessing on such an occasion.” “Then,” said he, “I never engage in anything but on what I can beg of God to give his blessing.”

On this subject an accomplished writer, the late Dr. Holland, has said: “I have all my days had a card-playing community open to my observation, and I am yet unable to believe that that which is the universal resort of the starved in soul and intellect, which has never in any way linked to itself tender, elevating or beautiful associations, the tendency of which is to unduly absorb the attention from more weighty matters, can recommend itself to the favor of Christ’s disciples. The presence of culture and genius may embellish, but can never dignify it. I have this moment,” he said, “ringing in my ears, the dying injunction of my father’s early friend: ‘Keep your son from cards. Over them I have murdered time and lost heaven!’ Fathers, mothers, keep your sons and daughters from cards in the home circle. What must the good angels think of a mother at the prayer-meeting asking prayers for the conversion of her son whom she has allowed to remain at home playing cards for a pastime.” And what sadness in this lament of a Christian mother I recently read: “I kept cards and round dancing out of my house as long as possible, but my daughters attended a party given at the house of an elder in our church who has always been regarded as a peculiarly saintly man, and there the round dances and cards were introduced, and since that I have been obliged to yield, for my children say to me, ‘Are you any better than Mr. B? He allows these things in his house.’ What could I reply to that?”

I have heard refined and judicious people affirm that they regard the influence of card playing on woman as worse than that of the ball-room with its mazy dance. The atmosphere of both is unhealthy for Christians. There is a wall of uncongeniality erected between the giddy, card-loving woman and the woman of deeper spiritual sympathies, and both are conscious of it.

Card players seldom feel at home in a church that requires a profession of the new birth and spiritual earnestness in its members. Too often they drop over into some other congregation or branch of the church, not from doctrinal reasons, but that they may retain those chilling practices that debar them from cordial fellowship with the church in which they were reared, while yet enjoying the name of being in the church, and the soothing influence of such membership on their conscience. These seek a church where the bars are lower and the restraints upon their worldly natures are less. They never develop as Christians after that. From the claims of high personal piety they have effected an escape. They have repudiated all prospect of a holy character and a Christly spirit, that they might hold on to the unconsecrated ways of worldly society.

None know that card playing is hurtful to the influence and standing of Christians better than those Christians who themselves play. It makes them backward and unreliable for Christian work, and they avoid any prominence in the church. What minister would accept a call to a church that had card-playing elders, card-playing deacons, a card-playing superintendent in its Sunday-school, aided in his heavenly work by a corps of card-playing teachers? Yet I doubt not men have declined office in the church, to which they had been elected, because conscious of the embarrassment they would experience when gibes should be cast at the church for the quality of its officers. The world may tempt church-members to play, but its verdict is that it is degrading to that membership, and it is an inconsistency that destroys the whole testimony of such to the gospel of the lowly Nazarene.

A lady who once heard Mr. Romaine preach, expressed herself mightily pleased with his discourse, and told him afterwards that she thought she could comply with his doctrine and give up everything but one. “And what is that, madam?” “Cards, sir.” “You think that you could not be happy without them? “No, sir! I could not.” “Then, madam, they are your god, and they must save you.” This pointed and just reply, says Buck, from whom we get this incident, is said to have issued in her conversion.

The reason why, in many places, card playing is permitted by good people, not without, we may believe, some inward protest, is because of an erroneous idea of what their social position demands of them. “It is done in good society, therefore I will not be amenable to criticism if I play also.” Alas! many things are justified by such shifting of responsibility. I have often been led to observe the tyranny with which what is called “society” lords it over those who aspire to admission into its charmed circle. I know of no tyranny more exacting or more to be feared than that of society, whose reward is respectability and whose lash is criticism. The pastoral counsels of the church go unheeded by those of its members over whom society and fashion rule as mistress. Dr. J.W. Alexander has written these significant words: “The door at which those influences enter which countervail parental instruction and example, I am persuaded, is yielding to the ways of good society. By dress, looks, and amusements, an atmosphere is formed in society which is not that of Christianity. More than ever do I feel that our families must stand in a kind, but determined, opposition to the fashion of the world, breasting its waves like the Eddystone light-house. And I have found nothing yet which requires more courage and independence than to rise a little, but decidedly, above the par of the religious world around us.”

Now the customs of society cannot, in things moral and spiritual, determine what is right and safe for us. They are not law unto us. Yet, if you do not conform to its dictation, it casts it at you as a reproach that you are too conscientious and over-particular. For too much conscience is inconvenient in those who would sparkle in society as it exists among us to-day. Christian people should themselves pitch the fashion of the circle in which they move on a high Christian plane, and not suffer a worldly element in society, with less regard to religious expediency, to determine what is the course Christians may pursue. We cannot square our religion with the usages of the world, and it is vain to attempt it. Appointed to shine as lights in the world, we should give law to society, and not take law therefrom. If society be unchristian, and worldly conformity be the price of admission into its charmed circle, it is our duty to come out and be separate, as Lot withdrew from corrupt Sodom, and to seek delight only in the fellowship of the holy and the pure.

If it was not aside from my purpose to treat directly of gambling, I might say something of progressive euchre, which, in the judgment of every one except those who are guilty of playing it, embodies all the essential features of gambling, however little those who indulge may so intend it, and however much they may demur to this indictment. That they cannot see it, or will not admit it, only shows how the practice of cards may result in obscuring one’s judgment, or in his so straining his conscience as to silence its protests. Certainly they who play progressive euchre have no right or power to protest against gambling, when on a larger scale and with more brazen effrontery, it shall be seen flourishing among us. The wide currency which this particular phase of the card game has gained in fashionable society does not alter its nature or atone for its practice by Christian people. That it embodies and popularizes the essential features of gambling is undeniable.

It may take some courage on your part to refuse to join a game of cards when solicited. You need not play, however, just because you are begged to do so, even though you seem to be needed to make up the set. It is no discourtesy in you to ask on conscientious grounds to be excused, though for players to insist on your joining them after you have courteously declined, is a breach of good manners. To dragoon one with beseeching importunity into discarding religious scruples and joining in sport that he is accustomed to shun as doubtful, shows the worst of bad breeding. Never heed one who insists on your doing what your conscience disapproves. What kind of conscience has he who can derive pleasure through persuading you to violate your conscience? Yet this unmannerly solicitation is quite common in what claims to be the very best society.

The young man who is unable to make himself agreeable in company for an evening by intelligent conversation without resort to cards, is one whose company is not apt to be improving. The young lady who fears her accomplishments may not please and win regard, without the aid of the shuffling deck, either disparages her own accomplishments or pays a poor compliment to her company in assuming that such descent on her part is required by their capacity and needful to their entertainment.

A lady once asked me: “It is not possible that you object to a little innocent, social game of cards?” She hampered me in her question, by assuming the two very things I was disposed to allege against the usage: 1. That, in view of all the associations of the game, and the gateway that it opens to gambling, the exciting appeal it makes to chance, and thc possible consequences that may ensue from its practice, it cannot be accounted prudent or safe, nor in view of our responsibility, innocent. 2. It is anything but a social game. You sit and play by the hour, and only hear the slamming of cards on the table, now and then a laugh, and the repetition of card names and gaming phrases. There is no interchange of ideas, no room for improving conversation. It is a substitute for these. It is intended to remove the necessity for such a tax on the intellect, and too often it but hides the vacuity of mind which their absence creates. Young men in whom love for the card-table has become fixed acquire but little or no love for reading, for cards has relieved them of the necessity of intelligence as a means of diversion. They play only in “select” circles, they tell you. But the membership of the circles are selected for their card-loving qualities and not for their nobler endowments of mind and heart. This game therefore operates as the dance often does, as a social leveler, and is too often an apology for a vacant mind. Fondness for cards and fondness for good reading are seldom found in the same person. Card playing operates as a barrier to the growth of intelligence.

The history of this game has been no less reputable than its origin. In the Chinese dictionary of Ching Tse Tang it is said that cards were invented in the reign of Emperor Senn-ko, 1120 A.D., for the amusement of his numerous concubines in their idleness. On the other hand, it is claimed in France that Gringonneur invented the parti-colored pasteboard to amuse and divert the royal melancholy of King Charles VI., in the fifteenth century. The world would have sustained no loss had his Majesty been suffered to die in peace without this invention. In a dozen years the game grew so popular that the Council of Langres had to forbid all the clergy and bishops to play it as ungenteel, so greatly had they with other classes taken to it.

If there be such danger in card playing, as we have observed, ought we to suffer it or banish it from us? It is in deciding just such questions as this that we prove our faith. Our conduct in matters like this, matters seemingly at first glance indifferent and which we may regard as trivial, is in the highest degree significant. For here lies no inconsiderable part of our moral probation. How we decide in matters like this determines whether our stand as Christians shall be high or low. We may not stumble in the great leading features of our moral life. Mistakes are more liable in the details of our life. To these should our concern be directed. It is the little points of character that mark its delicacy and finish. Apelles, the most illustrious painter of antiquity, was often seen, after a painting was apparently complete, bestowing great pains in touching up seemingly trivial features. “Why thus waste your time,” he was asked, “on trifles?” “Trifles, indeed they are,” he replied; “but trifles make perfection, and nothing that contributes to perfection can be counted a trifle.” As a consequence of such particularity, Apelles, who said he painted for eternity, is the synonym of unrivaled excellence in his chosen art. Far more should the Christian, growing a life, and painting a character for eternity and for the courts of God, realize that he cannot be too particular as to his mode of life and the protection he seeks against detracting influences.

The place to grapple with a social menace like this is in the home. Here the authority of the parent is by divine appointment supreme. As he will not let his children eat of diseased meat or decayed fruit lest bodily health be impaired, so should he take care that all sports that educate habits, which may later in life expose him to moral trouble, or that preclude spiritual growth, be judiciously excluded. Failure to exercise due authority here may bring upon his house evil, as it did on the house of Eli of old. Yet that authority must not be exercised arbitrarily. Clear reasons should be given for your opposition to cards, and they should be kindly and lovingly addressed to the conscience of your child. Yet you should plant yourself on your authority, and not abdicate it to the inferior judgment of your child. Said a father, whom I knew, to his children: “I have observed that card players seldom become Christians. They are hard for the gospel to reach. Where you find a card-playing Christian, he is usually a poor and backward one. That’s my observation, as far as I have been able to see. I would prefer, therefore, that none of my children should ever learn the game.” There was a reason, given kindly and addressed to his children’s intelligence, and one that commanded respect. And though all of them are now grown up, none of them have ever followed this treacherous amusement, or even learned the game.

Parents sometimes permit cards in their house on the plea that if they do not let their boys play at home they will go elsewhere to play. This does not follow. But it would seem to follow, that if they play at home they will ultimately come to play away from home, and where restraints as to method and company are apt to be largely removed. But if the assumption of such parents be true, that their boy is bound to play cards somewhere, I fear that their chance with him has slipped. If your earnest wish that they let wine, cards, the dance, etc., alone, fails to secure the compliance of your children, I can only conclude that you have largely failed in rearing them. For obedience to parents and a delicate regard for their judgment and feelings, are at the foundation of every true and worthy character. You have failed right at the vital point, at the very citadel, where, first and most of all, you ought to have succeeded. You allowed them to have their way where you should have required them to conform to your way. At the formative period of your child’s character, you, who were set as moulders of his young heart and life, abdicated to the child himself. No wonder, then, that so many sons, like yours, are reckless and disobedient, and are such, regardless of the tears and heart anguish of their fathers and mothers, whose disapproval they know they have, without, however, allowing that knowledge to occasion them any trouble.

But if a man persists in saying in the presence of his five or ten year old children, “for the life of me, I do not see that there is any harm in playing cards, so we do not gamble,” those little ones are almost sure to play as they grow up, and that father strengthens in them, then and there, a purpose to so do. A few years later many of our youth will be seen coming out on the Lord’s side, and these holding back. And who knows but our blessed Saviour, who said of the rich young man that refused to make sacrifice of his riches, but went away sorrowful, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven,” who knows but this Saviour may not also be even now saying of these children: How hardly shall they whose love rises no higher than the dance and the card deck enter into the kingdom of heaven!