The Only Unpardonable Sin

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The Only Unpardonable Sin


Bibliographic Citation

Warren Edwin Brokaw, “The Only Unpardonable Sin,” The Pacific Monthly 15, no. 6 (June 1906): 763-767.


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The Only Unpardonable Sin


LUTHER BURBANK is reported by W. S. Harwood, in “New Creations in Plant Life,” as saying that “ignorance is the only unpardonable sin.” The statement, as it stands, is too sweeping in its scope. Ignorance is that condition which results from ignoring, and there are as many kinds of ignorance as there are ways to ignore and things to be ignored. Ignorance falls naturally into three classes: that which is due to lack of opportunity to acquire knowledge; that which results from misconceptions — whatever their cause; and that which comes from neglect or refusal to learn when there is opportunity. The last may properly be called willful ignorance. If, then, we modify Luther Burbank’s statement so as to read, “Willful ignorance is the only unpardonable sin,” it will stand the test as an impregnable truth.

Years ago, in discussion with a socialist at the home of a mutual friend, near St. Paul, Minnesota, I chanced to remark that there was but one cause for all the misery and injustice in this world. Instantly the socialist asked, What is it?” My prompt reply was: “Ignorance.”

All the years of my study since then have but confirmed that opinion. It is true, as Patrick Edward Doye says: “It has been well said that ‘error is the cause of human misery’: and as surely may it be said that knowledge is the antidote of error, and the means of man’s redemption from misery.”

The fact that a person has knowledge of one subject—accurate, clear, and profound knowledge—is no evidence that va has knowledge on other subjects. In fact, the tendency of modern methods of education has been to so narrow the range of the specialist’s study as to make va exceedingly ignorant of other subjects—often of allied or collateral subjects winch have some necessary bearing on va’s specialty.

It has thus often transpired that those who are looked to as the highest authorities on—those having the deepest insight into—any given subject, are also looked to as authorities on subjects of which they are densely ignorant. Too often they assume that their knowledge on the one qualifies them to speak with authority on the other, and they then resent any attempt to set them right, ignoring plain truths by so doing, and thus committing “the only unpardonable sin.”

According to Harwood,” Luther Burbank is unique among men in his knowledge of nature and in his manipulation and interpretation of her forces.” “Speaking of the making of a blue rose, * * * a lesser man would have hastened forward on the road that leads to this strange floral wonder; but, despite the novelty and the fascination that always surrounds the development of a new creation, he would not enter in upon it when so many greater and more valuable things for the advancement of the world lay before him. So everything that he does must have, if possible, a definite practical end in view—it must help the world along.”

Persons, as well as plants, are a part of “nature,” and equally subject to the orderly trend of material forces, a trend which is invariable, as Luther Burbank recognized when he said: “Nature never lies.” This trend, as he has demonstrated with plants, fixes those characteristics which are maintained by the environment for a few generations.

In order to break up old, and establish new habits, a sudden radical change is made by pollination or grafting. Then the plant is closely watched until the new habits are fixed, after which it will continue in its new way. Mere care and careful selection of seeds, cultivation, etc., will not break up the old habits, which he calls “heredity,” “the sum of all past environments.” He says that “similar environments produce similar results on the life-forces, even with the most distantly related plants or animals.”

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Luther Burbank said:

“We in America form a nation with the blood of half the peoples of the world within our veins. We are more crossed than any other nation in the history of the world; and here we meet exactly the same results that are always seen in the much-crossed race of plants; all the best as well as all the worst qualities of each are brought out in their fullest intensity, and right here is where selective environment counts. All the necessary crossing has been done, and now comes the work of elimination, the work of refining, until we shall get an ultimate product that will be the finest human race that has ever been known.”

Whatever may be true as to the crossing of races of persons in America, the crossing of races of plants by Luther Burbank was guided by his intelligence, and with some definite object of his in view. The essential element of the work was the thought of Luther Burbank. The “work of elimination,” of “refining,” of “selective environment,” was directed by the intelligence and will of Luther Burbank, not by the plants. But what outside higher intelligence is to step in and do similar work for persons? None. Persons have what plants have not—the power to consciously choose and change their own physical environment.

But persons, as well as plants, tend to follow the line of least resistance and greatest attraction in their activities. Luther Burbank selects one or two plants from among thousands or millions and then destroys—burns up—the rest, thus freeing the selected ones from an environment of their influence.

Such a method cannot be applied to persons. And since all changes of environment of persons must be made by their own conscious or unconscious efforts, ideal results can only be attained by first having ideal conceptions to be realized—conceptions consistent with conditions which the orderly trend of the forces of nature make possible. This requires much more serious and careful thought than is necessary for the development of new or better forms of plant life.

It is evident, from Luther Burbank’s remarks, that he has not given this subject much thought.

Harwood says that “the very heart and spirit of Mr. Burbank’s method are directly opposed to any monopolistic control of his new fruits.” “Success to him means the accomplishment of the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of people.” “His life work has been primarily twofold in its sweep: first, embracing the widest possible service to the world; and, second, accomplishing this service under the most exacting and persistent adherence to scientific truth.” The proprietors of privileges, who are reaping the benefits of his work, do not constitute “the world.” Scientific truth is, necessarily, rational, logical. If, by “the world “is meant “the people on earth,” to accomplish “the widest possible service” to them, “under the most exacting and persistent adherence” to the rational, logical, trend of truth, R knowledge of the forces dictating the equilibrium of equity is prerequisite.

If mere ignorance was “the only unpardonable sin,” then Luther Burbank would be guilty of committing it: but it is not. Luther Burbank has been too busy in his chosen field of investigation to thoroughly study sociology. His experience in plant study early taught him to look to nature, rather than to the schools and books, for knowledge. He uses books, but cannot rely on them as he can on nature. The student of sociology will find the same to be true in that field. From the standpoint of the desire to really benefit all the people of the world, Luther Burbank’s labors have been, and are, up to date, a complete failure. He has but added to the misery and degradation of the people. I will prove it.

Never were truer or more vitally important words uttered than those of Henry George’s:

“Improvement, no matter how great, and reform, no matter how beneficial in itself, cannot help that class, who, deprived of all right to the use of the material elements, have only the power to labor. * * * Hence, let other conditions be what they may, the man who, if he lives and works at all, must live and work on land belonging to another, is necessarily a slave or a pauper.”

Can anybody successfully refute this? Land tenure systems throughout all civilized countries tend to the concentration of the control of land hi the hands of a few. Every improvement in the knowledge and processes of production and distribution of wealth but adds to the power of those few to squeeze tribute from the masses. Can this be refuted?

To the thinker I have proved my point. All that Luther Burbank has done merely tends to the increase of wealth, but, as Henry George pointed out, so long as competition for employment on the part of persons who are powerless to employ themselves tends to force wages to the minimum that gives the laborer but a bare living, this is all the ordinary laborer can get. Better and more prolific fruit trees and plants, and greater varieties, from the same efforts, make it possible for laborers to give more of their time to earning tribute money with which to enrich the proprietors of privileges. If Harwood is correct in saying that success, to Luther Burbank, means the placing of more and better fruit and flowers within the reach of more people—that is, of making life more enjoyable for them, then he is not succeeding, and never can, so long as land tenure systems do not secure equitable human relations.

If Luther Burbank’s object is the diffusion of benefits—not the enrichment of a few—then the more he does in his present line the more he tends to defeat his object. On this point he is ignorant. But the time has come, now that he has publicly expressed himself on the sociological subject, and touched the vital point—the question of environment—him to be ignorant will be to commit part, is no longer excusable.

A very little investigation and reflection will show him that his chief object is balked by the power of property in privileges, and that, if that really is his chief object, it is imperative that he understand the sociological problem, so as to be able to speak as correctly concerning its solution as he can now regarding plant life. Once he has the opportunity to know the truth on this subject of most vital importance to all persons, ignorance on his part will thereafter be willful—henceforth for him to be ignorant will be to commit “the only unpardonable sin.”

Ignorance—ignorance which can be dissipated only by the spread of knowledge—is the only real barrier to an equitable land tenure system.

In the Equilibrium of Equity we have a simple and complete solution of the problem. By means of it Equal Freedom in the use of the earth can be attained. It will settle the land question—fix it for all future time. Once a knowledge of it becomes general, its application will be very easy and simple. The total abolition of property in privileges— which is involved in the application of the Equilibrium of Equity—will make it impossible for any person or number of persons to oppress others. The fulcrum will thereby be removed, and there will no longer be any place on earth on which the lever of oppression can rest.

Imagine, for the moment, that the people of the United States do, as Luther Burbank has repeatedly done, show “supreme indifference to precedent,” and decide to ignore all past precedents and legislation, and to begin afresh, wholly unhampered by laws or customs. Suppose that they decide to base all their rules and regulations regarding their relations to each other on the principle of equal freedom; and that they begin by agreeing that equal freedom in the use of those portions of the earth held in exclusive possession (seeing that unbalanced exclusion is an infringement of equal freedom) may be secured by each exclusive possessor contributing to the maintenance of free highways in proportion to the advantages of such exclusive possession; that they secure this equalization of advantages by issuing notes (of various denominations) to those who do the actual work of maintaining the highways, the notes representing definite amounts of labor and made receivable in lieu of direct labor on the highways. Suppose they arrange that the actual work of building and repairing the highways be let out by contract to the best bidders. Suppose they stop there. Would they not have attained the equalization of advantages of exclusively possessed locations—thus securing equal freedom in the use of such; and free highways, that is, highways open to the equally free use of all; and a currency the units of which represented a defined unit of effort?

There being no other regulations there would be no “corporations” or “franchises,” and no special privileges of any sort. There would be no property in—no ownership of—anything except products. From whence, then, could anyone get any power to collect tribute from another—any power to compel another to work for va without va giving the other an equivalent effort?

Such would constitute the restoration of the Equilibrium of Equity. I submit that the most searching scrutiny of it will fail to show how it would be possible for anyone to rob or oppress another under its application; or that anything more is necessary in the line of action of the “body politic” in order to so change our environment as to produce “the finest human race that has ever been known.”

Can anyone who claims to take any interest whatever in the improvement of the conditions of persons on this earth; in the righting of wrongs; in the abolition of injustice; in the “salvation “of persons from sinning—can any such person neglect to consider—to study—the Equilibrium of Equity, after reading the above, and escape the burden of responsibility imposed by willful ignorance?

In minor matters ignorance is often excusable on the ground that the conditions of human life on this earth do not permit one to test all knowledge for one’s self in the brief span of one’s existence here. But in a matter which concerns all—a matter in which the ignorance of some involves the slavery of others—a matter in which it is impossible for anyone of us to escape exerting some influence either for or against equity—a matter of the supremest importance to every person; namely, the basis upon which all the relations of persons to each other on this earth are, or ought to be, established: in such a matter ignorance, in the face of opportunity to learn, is wholly inexcusable. And the responsibility now rests, and will continue to rest, on those who, having opportunities to know, ignore these opportunities.

It matters not whether the excuse is that “ it is a lucky thing if a university president has a chance to learn anything after he gets into that office”; or that of a doctor of divinity who says, “I am sorry that 1 cannot promise to study the proposition,” “I have a thousand things to do which must be done, and new work cannot be undertaken”: or of the editor who says, “I am so driven with work”; or the merchant or laborer who says, “I haven’t time”; or the “reformer” who says, “You can’t get the people to see it,” or that socialism or some other ism is coming first.

Freedom must be either equal or unequal. There are but these two ways possible. Unequal freedom necessarily involves oppression—slavery. Pigs do not grow on thistles; nor can inequitable methods produce equity. If we are ever to have Equal freedom, we must work for it—not for something else. The fact is susceptible of logical proof, that each and every movement for so-called reform which does not aim directly at the total abolition of property in privileges is postponing the attainment of equal freedom. No sincere reformer can afford to bear the responsibility of willful ignorance of the vital principle of equal freedom.

Of what use to humanity are the labors of D.D.’s, editors, university presidents, floral experts, and the like, so long as the power of appropriation not only exists, but is legalized, and backed by the policeman and soldier: aye, by a militia which, in the United States, now includes every able-bodied man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, liable to be called upon by the President to take up arms in defense of the proprietors of the privilege of appropriation? So long as these public instructors are not laboring to overthrow this power, are they not laboring to strengthen it? In the nature of things—seeing that freedom must be either equal or unequal—how can it be otherwise?

I wish it was within my power to bring so vividly to the perceptions of every sane adult person such a realizing sense of the personal responsibility of each that none could escape feeling the necessity of at once consciously choosing either to defend inequity—injustice and oppression—or to work for equal freedom. The immediate work for equal freedom is necessarily confined to the spread of knowledge about it, by arousing discussion and investigation.


Warren Edwin Brokaw, “The Only Unpardonable Sin,” The Pacific Monthly 15, no. 6 (June 1906): 763-767.




Brokaw, W. E. (Warren Edwin), “The Only Unpardonable Sin,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed October 14, 2019,