Deacon Van Winkle’s Dream (Looking Backward)

I’m in the midst of a Sequels of Looking Backward marathon, working my way through as many of the early responses to Edward Bellamy’s novel as I can get my hands on. In the process of tracking these down, I’ve come across a couple of short pieces that are worth a look. “Deacon Van Winkle’s Dream,” by George H. Hubbard, is a sharp Christian response to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, centered on Thanksgiving Day. The author appears to be the George Henry Hubbard (1857-) who wrote The Teaching of Jesus in Parables, and who was a persistent, relatively conservative voice in the discussions of reform. (As he was an fairly eloquent proponent of his position, I have included links to a number of his articles below.) However moralistic, the “Dream” is a clever piece, well constructed as a sequel to Bellamy’s novel.


Deacon Van Winkle was proud of his pedigree. He delighted to talk of the old Van Winkle family in Holland, and pointed with satisfaction to various characteristics in the children which, he said, indicated their Dutch ancestry. Again and again in the long winter evenings he would take down a well-worn copy of Irving’s “Sketch Book,” and read the story of Rip Van Winkle, and none of the family ever seemed to tire of hearing it.

Not long since, however, the deacon was seriously startled, not to say grieved, by a rumor that his famous ancestor had found a formidable rival in the person of one Julian West, whose story had just been placed before the public. Filled with jealousy, not a wicked, worldly jealousy, but a mild and righteous jealousy becoming to an orthodox deacon, he determined at the first opportunity to purchase a copy of “Looking Backward” to see if it was anything more than a weak imitation of the old story of Rip Van Winkle’s sleep,

He happened to find it on the day before Thanksgiving Day, and brought it home to read in the evening.

At the supper-table the conversation turned on the plans for the next day. Heretofore it had been the custom for the Van Winkle family to attend church on Thanksgiving Day; for they were somewhat conservative in their ideas, a became a family with so long a pedigree. This year, however, a revolution seemed imminent. The younger members of the family pleaded for a change. They couldn’t see the use of going to church to hear a political or historical sermon. There would be only a few there, and the service would be dull. Besides they really ought to stay at home to prepare for the grand family gathering of Van Winkles that would be with them to take dinner. Finally it was decided that the church service should be given up, and the whole force of the family should be concentrated on the dinner.

Immediately after supper the deacon sat down to read his new book, and so absorbed did he become that, notwithstanding sundry admonitions from Mrs. Van Winkle, he refused to retire till he had finished the very last page. Then, hastily closing the book, he went to bed and quickly fell asleep. As a result of his unusual mental exertion of the evening he began to dream.

It was Thanksgiving Day, but he was not in the old house. His surroundings were strange. He was in a well-furnished parlor, and opposite to him sat a pleasant looking old gentleman, whom he at once recognized as Dr. Leete. With as little surprise as dreamers usually feel, he realized that he, too, had dropped into the twentieth century, and he determined to make some investigations on his own account.

With what seemed quite a natural transition from preceding conversation, he said: “By the way, Doctor, as this is Thanksgiving Day, shall we go to church, as has always been the custom in my family?”

The doctor looked at him thoughtfully, and replied: “You speak of something that few would understand at the present day. I remember, however, having read about it in history. This is one of our public holidays; but we do not call it Thanksgiving Day, altho it takes the place of that ancient festival. We call it Social Day. We attribute all the blessings that we enjoy not to a mythical being called God, but to our refined and perfected social system. Hence we devote the day to feasting and pleasure in honor of our social system.”

“This is indeed a great change from the old idea,” said the deacon. “How did it come about? Were there not very many who protested when the change was made?”

“Oh no,” replied Dr. Leete. ”The change was so gradual that it would be hard to say just when it took place. In fact, it was but the expression of a gradual development in public thought and feeling. If I mistake not, you yourself saw some of the beginnings of the movement. Do you not remember how few people cared to attend church on Thanksgiving Day? Half a dozen churches by uniting, could not secure as large an audience as would be found in any one of the churches on the Sabbath, These gatherings grew smaller each succeeding year until at length they were wholly abandoned.

The next step was the inevitable decay of the sense of gratitude in the heart. Such emotions unexpressed soon cease to exist. All the while the popular mind was developing and men began to see the folly of looking for help and blessing to an external and mysterious power utterly beyond their ken. It gradually dawned upon them that the secret of all good or evil lies in the make up of society. Given a correct social system and all evil will disappear as if by magic. Viewed in its true light, sin is atavism, suffering is error, and gratitude is superstition. Social reforms have saved the world; they have regenerated humanity. How foolish then, to talk of gratitude to God for these things! I see you are somewhat shocked; but when you have time to think it over carefully I am sure you will acknowledge the present state of things to be the natural outcome of the tendencies of your own time.”

“It seems to me,” said the deacon, “That religion itself has become a thing of the past. I see no place for it in the present order of things.”

“That is a mistake naturally arising from the narrow and distorted views in which you were educated, if you will pardon the adjectives,” replied Dr. Leete. “Religion has not ceased to exist. On the contrary, it has grown broader, more practical, more consistent with itself, and as a natural consequence it is universally accepted. We have no infidels or skeptics now except among those who are recognized as unworthy members of society. In your day skeptics were the result of the inconsistencies of your religion. You preached one system of truth and practiced another. You said a great deal about God and his Word In your pulpits: but expediency was usually the controlling motive of your life. You seldom brought the Bible into direct contact with practical affairs. When you urged men to keep the Sabbath, it was seldom on the ground of sanctity, or because it was God’s day. The all-powerful arguments were personal profit, physical health, and other economic advantages. And even the most devout Christians looked for greater practical blessings from proposed social reforms than from the preaching of the Gospel. How many of your ministers, for example, gave over the preaching of Christianity to become advocates of political prohibition, the single tax doctrine, and various other schemes of reform.

“We have merely carried out their ideas in a more logical fashion. Dropping the purely sentimental ideas of God and spirituality, we recognize the essence of religion in love for mankind and a true devotion to the interests of society.”

“Can this be the end of that which seemed so slight at the beginning?” said the deacon. “The edge of the wedge was very thin. Only a slight indifference to duty, only a little yielding to worldly principles, only a trifling lack of faith in the power of God: and the result has been the dethronement of God from his place in the universe.”

Just at that moment the doctor accidentally touched an electric button connected with the machinery of the National Orchestra, and the sudden ringing of a peel of musical bells gave the deacon such a start that he awoke to hear the last tones of the breakfast-bell reminding him that he had overslept in consequence of sitting up so late the previous evening,

At the breakfast-table he related his dream to the family and concluded by saying: “I’ve made up my mind to stick to the old custom and go to church today whatever the rest of you do. You know,” he added, addressing his wife, “We’ve really more than usual to be thankful for this year. Tom and Mary were brought out of the fever almost by a miracle. And I shall not easily forget how providential it was that I missed that train that was wrecked. Besides my business has been more prosperous this year than ever before.”

As be spoke of these things the other members of the family were reminded of numerous unusual blessings enjoyed during the year, and soon the old superstition of gratitude got the better of their progressive ideas, and they unanimously voted that the dinner would taste better and the family gathering be all the more jolly if they went to church first.


George H. Hubbard in the New Englander and Yale review:

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2650 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.