PEOPLE CAN CHANGE
James A. Garfield (1831-1881) was one of the finest men ever elected President of the United States. His reputation for personal integrity, industry and Christian character was considered stellar and never seriously questioned. His Vice President, Chester A. Arthur was thrust upon him without his consent. Arthur was was also the polar opposite of Garfield in terms of personal character and respectability.
Chester A. Arthur was the product of, and could have been a poster boy for, corruption in politics. For his lap-dog type loyalty to the political power brokers of his day, he was made collector of the New York Customs House until he was forced out of that office by charges of corruption. He had never been considered to be anything more than a puppet and henceman for a powerful New York Senator named Roscoe Conkling. Arthur was nothing but a toady to, and a tool of, Conkling’s political machine. Before he became Vice President, Arthur did everything he could to help Conkling oppose Garfield’s election, and after he became Vice President, he did everything he could to help Conkling obstruct Garfield’s presidency.
By the time President Garfield was shot by an assassin, after only a few months in office, Chester A. Arthur, age 52, had a well earned national reputation as an unprincipled, untrustworthy, self-serving political weasel. So much so that he and the rotten political element he represented immediately began to be blamed to one degree or another for what had happened to Garfield. E. L. Godkin, the editor of The Nation, wrote in an editorial: “It is out of this mess of filth that Mr. Arthur will go to the Presidential chair iin case of the President’s death.”
Chester A. Arthur was the kind of man, whom everyone, including himself, would have thought was past redemption and incapable of changing. But he did become, almost over night, a radically changed man. Immediately upon learning that Garfield’s had been shot, Chester broke down, wept like a child, and remained isolated and emotionally inconsolable during the three months that followed until Garfield died. He was tormented by the disloyalty he had shown the president and by a deep sense of the contrast between Garfield’s goodness and his own badness.
Arthur, to everyone’s surprise, courageously defied Conklin and the corrupt political machine that he had served so completely throughout his adult life heretofore. Upon Garfield’s death, he assumed the presidency with such compassion and commitment that a citizenry that had once despised him would come to love and support him.
The great transformational change in Chester A. Arthur came about as the result of letters he began receiving from a young invalid named Julia Sand; a person unknown to him and living in a distant state. Here are some excerpts from her letters in the order in which they were received by him:
“The hours of Garfield’s life are numbered—before this meets your eye, you
may be President. The day he was shot, the thought rose in a thousand minds
that you might be the instigator of the foul act. Is not that a humiliation which
cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce?”
“It is not the proof of highest goodness, never to have done wrong, but it is
a proof of it … to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it. Once in a
while there comes a crisis which renders miracles feasible. The great tidal
wave of sorrow which has tolled over the country, has swept you loose from
your old moorings, & set you on a mountaintop, alone.”
“Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the
first that you have none but the purest of aims.”
In one place noted above, Julia Sand wrote, “Once in a while there comes a crisis which renders miracles feasible.” She wrote this against the backdrop of two crisis situations. One crisis involved the taking of Garfield’s life, and the other crisis had to do with where Chester A. Arthur’s life had taken him. In Arthur’s case, a miracle became feasible, and through the intervention of Julia Sand’s letters, a miracle took place in his life.
Now, the whole purpose of this article is to remind us of two things: Number one, that people can change. There are those concerning whom their past record, present behavior or the passing of time may make us think that they are past redemption. But this may very well not be true at all. They may just be Chester Arthurs in need of a Julia Sand. Secondly, there may be some of us who desperately need to change, and we need to know that we can. Regardless of how poor our character and conduct has been up until now and how long we have been the way we are, we can be changed as dramatically for the rest of our lives as Chester A. Arthur was.
It is only too late for ourselves or others to change for the better if we think it is. It's only too late if we let it be too late. Consider the powerful truth there is in Romans, chapter 12 — truth that can be applied to our own or to someone else’s life:
“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
“And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing
of your mind, that ye may proce what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Will you be somebody else’s Julia Sand? Will you speak truth, honestly and encouragingly to them as to their need to change and the possibility for their changing? Do you need to take encouragement from, and heed her words yourself?
"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."