Isabella Alden never bought into the excuse, “But I’m only one person. What difference can one person make?”
Her answer to that question was always, “Plenty!”
How do we know? Because one of the most common themes in Isabella’s stories is the difference a single person can make in the lives of other people.
Flossy Shipley, one of the Chautauqua Girls, was a prime example.
So was Nettie Beldon in Only Ten Cents.
In today’s free read, Alice Vincent and Laura Keats, students at a seminary for young ladies, learn that small efforts can have big results.
The Systematic Givers was first published in 1887 as a short story in Isabella’s anthology, Harry’s Invention and Other Stories, and you can read it here for free!
The Systematic Givers
Slowly Alice Vincent and Laura Keats walked down the slope until they came to the rustic bridge that spanned the stream that ran through the seminary grounds; here in one of the pavilions that jutted out over the water they seated themselves for a talk.
“I know,” said Alice, taking up the thread of their conversation where it had been broken off a little way back when they met a party of girls bound for the butternut grove. These two had been urged to join the others, but they evidently preferred each other’s company, though they were not rude enough to say just that. “I know it does seem as though we might do something, but how to begin?”
“I do not know of any way but just to begin,” replied Laura.
“But who will start it?”
“Why, you for one, and I for another. Here you have been saying ever since we heard Mrs. Van Benshoten speak, that it seems as though we might do something; but saying that will never do anything. We must just do it.”
“What?” asked Alice.
“Call a meeting of the girls and organize for work.”
“The girls won’t come.”
“You and I will be there, and Minnie Crawford, and there are only three sides to a triangle, and that is all we had to begin geometry with.”
“But we shall have more than that,” replied Alice, laughing. “Annie Clark will join us and make a quadrilateral.”
“Well,” said Laura, “that will be a good beginning, and you know how we progress from polygons to circles—we may have a mission circle before we know it.”
That evening when, after tea, the students gathered for evening worship, the principal said:
“Immediately after this service, all who are interested in the forming of a mission band are requested to meet in the small room adjoining the library.”
Accordingly, instead of three or four, as the originators of the scheme had looked for, twenty-five girls filled the little room to overflowing.
Alice Vincent called the meeting to order, saying, “Miss Keats will state to us the object of this call.”
And Miss Keats stepped forward with a dignity which may have been assumed at first, but which gave place to something that was real, as she lost herself in her subject.
“We have lately heard,” she said, “some very astounding facts. Some of us knew a part of the truth before; at least we might have known it, but I dare say very few of us have been interested in knowing. But I think that in the course of the very able address to which we were privileged to listen last Sabbath, it was brought home to us very forcibly that there are millions upon millions of men and women sitting today in the darkness of heathenism. Many of them know that they are in the dark, and they are crying out to us to send them the light of the Gospel. You remember that we were told that people used to think that there were two points only to be looked at in this matter of sending the Gospel to the heathen: Were the people ready to receive it? and, Were the messengers ready to go? These two things Christians have been praying for, and now it would seem that ‘all things are ready.’ The heathen world has opened its doors to the Gospel; men and women well fitted for the work are ready and waiting to go; yet there is a halt in the work. Instead of two links there are three, and the middle one is missing. It is literally a golden link that is wanting. Now, girls, fellow students, does it not seem a burning shame that when so many are willing to take up the self-denying work—now that the very thing which the Church has been praying for has come to pass—I say, is it not a shame that the money should be wanting? I think we will all agree to that, and if so, we must own that a part of the disgrace is ours. The most of us are Christians; some part of the work belongs to us. Shall we take it up, and begin now? We have been called together to talk over the matter of organizing a mission circle; I would put it, a giving circle, for that is exactly what we propose to do, give! It is not quite time to propose a name for the organization, but when it comes to that, I want to propose, ‘The Systematic Givers.’”
Now I do not intent to give you in this sketch a lesson upon organization, so I shall not give a full report of the proceedings, or tell you how closely they followed Parliamentary usage. It is enough to tell you that “The Band of Systematic Givers” was duly organized, and properly officered. This motto was adopted:
“Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by in store as God hath prospered him.”
Each member of the band pledges herself to give one tenth of her spending money, or the money which she calls her own. Considerable discussion has arisen among the girls as to what moneys they have a right to tithe.
“What would you do about taking a tenth out of the money your father sent to you for a new dress?” asked Lily Case.
“Well,” replied Laura, “I will tell you what I did. Papa sent me thirty dollars for a dress, hat, etc., and I decided to take out a tenth, and got a new dress of a little cheaper materials, or a plainer hat. But I tell you, Lily, I never made even thirty dollars go so far as the twenty-seven did. Bess says my dress is prettier than hers that cost twenty-five dollars, and I know it will be more durable than hers.”
“With those of us who have an allowance which must cover all personal expenses there can be no question about the matter,” said Alice Vincent. “If we choose to deny ourselves of some luxuries, we have the right to do so, I suppose, but some of our fathers will say, ‘get what you need and have the bill sent home.’”
“I know,” replied Laura, “there is difficulty in some cases of knowing just what we may do; but all of us have something that we may call our very own, and that is all we are responsible for, after all. I know the girls pretty well, and with one or two exceptions, a tithe of what we spend for confectionery, creams and ices in the course of the term would buy a good many Bibles. We girls might almost support a missionary; certainly we can take a scholarship in some of the schools.”
And this is what they did: pledged themselves to support a pupil in a mission school. After several months had passed Lily Case remarked one day:
“Is it not wonderful how much we can do by following out a regular system? Why, I do not miss the money I give, and I actually give dollars where I used to give cents!”
“I am sorry you lose the blessing of self-denial,” said Laura, smiling. “You ought to give enough to miss it.”
“Oh, you need not imagine I do not feel it. Every time I take out the tenth it hurts, for I am naturally stingy. And I say to myself, ‘You old miser! You have got to deny yourself even if it does pinch.’ But after I put the money in the little gilt box, I find that I get along just as well without it to spend. And I love to hand it over to the treasurer. That is what I meant when I said I did not miss it.”
It was only a little while ago that Laura said, one evening, “Girls, I want to tell you something. I am going to India.”
And it was then and there decided that when Laura Keats goes to India “The Systematic Givers” will have a missionary of their own.
In this story, Isabella’s characters were inspired by a speech given by “Mrs. Van Benschoten,” who was a real person in Isabella’s life.
Mary Crowell Van Benschoten was an author and a leader in the Temperance Movement, but her greatest talent was in public speaking. She traveled the country, speaking in churches and at events where she inspired audiences to aid charities, fund churches, and contribute to women’s clubs and girls’ schools.
We can’t know how well Isabella knew Mary Van Benschoten, but Mary’s skill as an orator clearly made such an impression on Isabella, she felt compelled to mention her in the story as the inspiration behind the The Systematic Givers.