If The Affair at the Creek has not been wholly jejune, the reader has already discovered that our purpose is to write of the divine ownership, and of its corollary, human stewardship. In these pages we shall be compelled to note the persistence of heathenism in the heart of our Christian civilization. This is polewide from affirming that Christianity is like heathenism. On the contrary, it is a significant proof that Christianity, in spite of the dead weight of heathenism which still overlays it, is lifting both itself and the world from an unmeasured morass of evil.

It is no indictment of Christianity that this progress has been slow. That Christianity is still a vital thing in the world is the miracle of it all. To this day heathenism hangs like a pestilent fog around the sunny hills of Christianity. The sleepless vigil of the modern missionary is to guard the Christian communities in pagan lands from its persistent blight, for it creeps back like an atmosphere. It is a simple fact that the Christian communities now forming in eastern and southern Asia are more intelligently guarded from the influences of surrounding heathenism than was the church in central and northern Europe a thousand years ago.

Only yesterday the wickedness of human slavery was separated from Christianity and pushed back into the dark. This was our inheritance from primeval barbarism. The social conscience of Greek and Roman paganism never questioned it, and it was fastened upon Christian civilization by an infamous appeal to law. When unrighteousness appeals to law it challenges the very law to whose sanction it appeals, and forces the ethical issue. Thus, when slavery made its appeal to Christian history and to Christian jurisprudence, righteous men, who themselves revered the law, were compelled to ask themselves this question, "The decree that permits me to hold a man as property, whence came it?" It was no outward compulsion of force, but the quickened conscience of slaveholders themselves that first questioned their own rights under the law. And this was, of necessity, a personal conviction before it broadened into a social conscience. The writer's great-great-grandfather impoverished both himself and his family by setting free a household of slaves. And that was in the year 1795, when no man had yet dreamed of Lincoln and the Proclamation.

What we are saying is this: In the progress of social righteousness men find themselves in a twofold relation. As citizens, they must cooperate with other men. As individuals, each man must "absolve him to himself." As citizens they may, and indeed must, proclaim the right as they see it, but they may not harness their own social program upon their unwilling neighbors. On the other hand, as individuals, they must gear their own private conduct to their own moral convictions. Moreover, the problems of social righteousness compel men to determine their own personal attitude long before they can decide upon wise cooperative action. The beverage traffic in strong drink is an immediate illustration. Thousands of men know what their attitude is, and must be, toward this destroyer of manhood; their personal attitude has determined for them the practice of personal abstinence, even though they find themselves questioning this or that proposed method of abating the public evil. In a word, personal morality resolves itself into a question of personal attitude.

Now, in dealing with the principle of property, or, as it is commonly understood, with the doctrine of ownership, we are not discussing a historic institution such as slavery, nor a policy of government such as war, nor a program of reconstruction such as socialism; nor are we dealing with any financial or political or religious propaganda whatsoever. We are writing of those finer spiritual elements which make for permanent human values. Not by any forcing of the argument can we touch, even remotely, the economic organization of society. It may be true or not true that property, as an institution, should be changed; but this is a problem of economic efficiency and not of elemental ethics. We are not at all concerned in a man's title to property; the court records are sufficient for that. But we are very much concerned in a man's attitude to property, and that is a very different thing.

Ownership confidently affirms: "The registrar has completed the record, the title deeds are securely locked away, and now the property is mine." In the name of high honor we protest that this thing is not true, it never was true, and no record of any court can ever make it true. The registrar's record and the title deeds are correct; they show that guaranteed possession has been granted, according to the law. But here the record ends. The law grants a title to possession, but possession and ownership are not interchangeable terms. The two ideas are closely related, but they can never become identified. If no syllable of the Christian Scriptures had ever been written, nevertheless it is inscribed in the very constitution of theism itself, "The earth is the Lord's; unto you is it given for a possession."

When, therefore, our common jurisprudence argues that uninterrupted and unchallenged possession culminates in absolute ownership, the appeal is to pagan and not to Christian ethics. The result is a confusion in our common-law definition of property, and the confusion roots back in heathen philosophy. It will require no great erudition to prove this completely.

If, therefore, it shall appear that certain respectable notions of ownership have been buttressed into their honorable place by heathen laws rather than by Christian teaching, and if it shall appear that stewardship is the only doctrine of property that was ever recognized in the Christian Scriptures, or can ever have an inch of standing room in final Christian civilization, then, with all confidence, we make bold to say two things. (1) The righteous man will accept the facts, and determine thereby his personal attitude toward his material possessions. (2) He will cooperate, as he has opportunity, with righteous men and righteous movements whose purpose is to realize a Christian social order in the world.

Meanwhile, as he approaches this serious study, he will have a very particular conviction that it is no desecration of the sacred temple of the law to pause thoughtfully before each ancient statute and inquire, "Who wrote it?"