Beholden and Giving Back
Please allow me to use a quote from a book we recently published, Reading Along with Laura Ingalls at Her Kansas Prairie Home, from the chapter titled “Beholden to No One.”
“Pa Ingalls built his door without nails, but he needed nails for his roof and he had none.
Today we buy nails by the pound. For a three or three and a half inch nail, there are about sixty nails to the pound, and they cost only a few cents per nail. In America, the length of nails is designated by penny; a two inch nail is a six penny nail, a three inch is a ten penny, and a four inch is a twenty penny. That refers to how much a nail cost in England in the fifteenth century, per hundred nails. The size is written out, not with the word penny, but with the letter ‘d,’ as 6d, 10d, or 20d, and the ‘d’ stands for the Roman coin denarius, which was similar to a penny. England used this system for sizing nails into the twentieth century, when it switched over to Europe’s metric sizes. America still follows the old English terminology, and that’s how Pa Ingalls would have known his nails.
Nails have been made for thousands of years. Up until the nineteenth century they were forged by hand. Families often made nails in their homes to earn extra income. Nails were so valuable they could be bartered like a currency and nail making was an honorable profession. When Thomas Jefferson was not writing Declarations of Independence, he made nails, as he wrote in a letter. “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.”
Around 1800, nails began to be made by machines from iron rods, so the nails were square. About the time Pa was nailing the roof on his cabin, nails began to be made from wire, although that type of production was still far off in Europe. Eventually almost all nails were mass produced wire nails, making them inexpensive and widely available.
Since Charles didn’t have nails for his roof, he borrowed some from their neighbor Mr. Edwards. However, Pa still only had a small number of nails. When he mishit a nail and it bent and sailed out into the grass, Laura and Mary quickly searched for it until they spied it. Then Pa painstakingly straightened out the crook and nailed it on into the roof boards.
That’s how he got their roof done – with the neighbor’s nails.
Ma didn’t want Pa to borrow Mr. Edwards’ nails, though.
“But I don’t like to be beholden,” Caroline said, “not even to the best of neighbors.”
And Charles immediately and strongly agreed with her. “Nor I,” Pa replied. “I’ve never been beholden to any man yet, and I never will be.”
Beholden is not a commonly used word any more. This is one dictionary’s description of the term.
“The adjective beholden describes owing someone for something the person did to help you — it’s your duty to repay the person. If your army buddy saves your life, you’re beholden to help him when he gets injured.
Being beholden to someone means more than just feeling like you owe someone for a small favor. When you’re beholden, it involves a bigger feeling of responsibility, one that sticks with you — and might even weigh on you — until you’re able to repay it. Some people feel so uncomfortable being beholden to others that they try not to accept assistance from anyone out of worry over what they’d have to do in return.” (www.vocabulary.com)
And that described Ma. She was worried about taking Mr. Edwards’ nails because she didn’t know how they could return some to him. Once they borrowed his nails, then she and Charles would be held accountable – beholden – by a higher power to pay Mr. Edwards back.”
This attitude of not being beholden was picked up by the daughters, Mary and Laura. When the family lived near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, the girls went into a store to buy a slate tablet to write on for school. Pa had given them money to buy the slate, but they did not have an extra penny to buy a pencil.
From On the Banks of Plum Creek, “Nellie Oleson” chapter:
“They [Nellie and Willie Oleson] went on stuffing candy into their mouths and staring at Mary and Laura. Mr. Oleson took no more notice of them. Mary gave him the money and he gave her the slate. He said: “You’ll want a slate pencil, too. Here it is. One penny.”
Nellie said, “They haven’t got a penny.”
“Well, take it along, and tell your Pa to give me the penny next time he comes to town,”
said Mr. Oleson.
“No, sir. Thank you,” Mary said. She turned around and so did Laura, and they walked out of the store. At the door Laura looked back. And Nellie made a face at her. Nellie’s tongue was streaked red and green from the candy.”
When Pa and Ma Ingalls would not borrow nails without paying them back, and when Mary and Laura would not take a penny pencil until they paid for it, their attitude was that if you were given to, you were morally obligated to give back. One acquaintance of Laura’s remembered that once, when Almanzo was feeling poorly, a close friend of the Wilders baked him a cake – an upside-down pineapple cake. The Wilders gladly accepted the cake, especially Almanzo, since that was his favorite cake, but a short time later, Laura made the friend some candied fruit slices. They would not be given to without giving back.
Americans today are infected with the opposite attitude, that if someone gives to you, they owed it to you, anyway. They expect to be given to more than they expect to give. America’s children today are often taught this attitude, where the children are indulged and taught to put themselves first. The parents say they are doing that for the children. Often the parents do it just to keep from disciplining the children. And often those children wind up like Nellie and Willie, because they are raised the same way.
Christians may have the same attitude. Because Christ gave himself for us, they believe, we don’t have to do anything. We expect God to indulge us instead of disciplining and training us. We assume we don’t have to obey the commandments as he did, we don’t have to make ourselves a living sacrifice as he did, and we don’t have to give as he gave. Sometimes churches purposely have their people do nothing, other than to go to church, make donations and be quiet. The ministry – ‘those who are called’ – does all the work. This is comfort Christianity, sacred socialism, requiring very little effort on the part of the individual, where you can be part of God’s people without having to do much personally at all for God. Just sit and quit.
For ten years, we have held contra dances for the homeschoolers. We have a system that we use to minimize the work, but it does involve some work. When we are setting up or taking down after the monthly dances, the individual homeschoolers will be in two groups. One group may go about their individual business, or just visit with each other. Another group will help with food or tables and chairs or just ask us what they can do to help. They know we are giving to them by holding the free dances and they want to try to give back. When they do that, as many do, we really appreciate it. After all, we are nearing the end of our seventh decade of life and Margie can’t carry nearly as many tables as she used to. And we take note of those helpful people as being people who do not want to be out-given..
Caroline and Charles Ingalls did not want to be beholden to anyone. The Ingalls would not let someone out-give them. However, we will always be beholden to Christ. No matter what we do, we will always be out-given.
(20) Because by the works of the law, no flesh will be justified in his sight. For through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
(21) But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets;
(22) even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe. For there is no distinction,
(23) for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
(24) being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;
(25) whom God sent to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance;
(26) to demonstrate his righteousness at this present time; that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus.
(27) Where then is the boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.
(28) We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
(29) Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn’t he the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,
(30) since indeed there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith, and the uncircumcised through faith.
(31) Do we then nullify the law through faith? May it never be! No, we establish the law.
We can never be justified by our own obedience — or disobedience — to the law, but only by faith in the one who was obedient to the law. Does that faith, then, destroy the law? Of course not. The commandments tell us what sin is and it is because of those commandments that we require a sacrifice for our sins, and so the law is established. Christ obeyed the Ten Commandments, and by his sacrifice our debt is paid. So what should we do then? We should obey them, too.
In the same way, Christ out-gives us. We will always be beholden to him. No amount of candied fruit slices can ever repay that upside-down pineapple cake. So what should we do then? Those young homeschoolers who move a few chairs and tables at a contra dance will not repay us for ten years of dances, but what should they do then? Should they not help us at all at any dances?
The fact that Christ gave so much for us should motivate us to give back to him. Because he gave all, we should want to give all back. Because he gives us unending blessings, our lives should be a never-ending effort to give back by blessing others.
Now this is not just theoretical theology. This is the opposite of sit-and-quit church attendance. This is the opposite of letting someone who is ‘called’ do the work. This is the opposite of Nellie Oleson and her brother Willie being given to and not being willing to share.
This means that you need to do something to give back to the Big Giver. No, you will never out-give him, or even come close to being even. Yes, you will always be beholden. But his great giving to you, instead of making you not want to give, should make you burn with givviness.
And each morning you should ask for help that today, dear God, because you have given me this extra day of life, I will try to do something worthwhile with it. That does not mean that I will try to make more money. That does not mean that I will try to make a name for myself. That does mean that on this day, I will try to do something for God and others. Even though I have no chance of ever being even, I will try my best to be a giver and not to be out-given.
– – – – –
Hartville, MO. 65667