Lodestone’s definition—magnetic, to attract strongly—helps clarify the meaning of the following famous quotation: “A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men.” Those are the words of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith. In more colloquial terms, here’s a very loose translation used by a movie star—Thumper in Walt Disney’s “Bambi”: “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.”
It suggests that people respond well to kind and friendly words, which is true. That’s the concept behind a movement launched long ago by a North Country man. In this era of routine public rudeness, lightly veiled slurs, and yelling opposing views at each other as a substitute for substantive discussion, maybe it’s time for the League of the Kindly Tongue to rise again.
Yes, the League of the Kindly Tongue was once a thing, born of excessive gossip, rumors, rudeness, and … well, you get the point. It’s hard to imagine such a pro-civility movement taking root, but it did in a very big way.
The man behind it, Reverend Dr. William Marsh, was born in Potsdam, New York, in 1855. Briefly, his career: Marsh graduated from Syracuse University, taught for a couple of years at Potsdam Normal School, and attended the Boston School of Theology. In 1877 he was licensed by Syracuse to preach, and as a Methodist served in Parishville, Norwood, Malone, Watertown, Utica, and Little Falls before moving to the Midwest for eight years.
Reverend Marsh’s singular claim to fame was born innocently enough. In January 1914, he delivered a sermon in Appleton, Wisconsin, that impressed a parishioner. She called him with a complimentary review that left Marsh glowing with appreciation for having received such kind words. The reverend was so inspired that on January 25, 1914, he stepped to the pulpit and spoke on the value of gracious words. Dismayed by what he perceived as growing uncivil discourse, Marsh elaborated on the concept espoused by a man from another faith (the aforementioned Bahá’u’lláh)—the value of a kindly tongue.
After the service, about 200 parishioners joined with Marsh and pledged to follow his lead. The League of the Kindly Pen already existed to counter detestable comments in print media, and because of Marsh’s sermon, the League of the Kindly Tongue was formed. People were so tired of public nastiness that the simple, loosely formed coalition caught fire beyond anyone’s imagination. The basic rules? Everyone was eligible for membership. Self-initiation was performed by speaking kindly to someone. Membership was maintained by helping people and speaking kindly to them. Those who failed at some point should simply begin again.
It was almost effortless, a gimmick that might last a few days. But people bought into it, reaching out to Marsh’s church for more information. In response, they printed and distributed cards listing the simple rules. By June, six months after Marsh’s sermon, 5400 cards had been given out, and membership consisted of 2350 people in 16 states. By October there were 7,000 members in 19 states.
Across denominations, the idea continued to spread. Letters of congratulation and support poured in, backing the novel idea that people should govern their tongues and limit negative comments.
Less than two years after its founding, the League of the Kindly Tongue had 14,000 members in 36 states and Canada. Marsh, cited as the originator, said, “I take no credit for the organization. I preached a sermon, merely sowing the seed. The ground was fertile; the seed took root, and is bearing fruit in thousands of lives, making them happier, sweeter, richer, better.”
But he did add insight about the founding: “We need educated tongues, tongues that are trained to speak right, to speak kindly. We do not think of having a good voice without training it … and it was with this idea in mind—to watch our tongues and compel them to speak kindly words—that I founded the league.”
By mid-1916 the league had grown to 20,000 members, and had affected countless others in positive ways. After five years there were members in all but three US states, plus Canada, England, India, Russia, and several African countries.
Supporting literature included concepts that registered with readers, things like, “Churches are divided, friends separated, families broken up, lives blighted, happiness destroyed … neutralized by the thoughtless or malicious use of the tongue.”
After six years more than 26,000 had enrolled. At about that time, Marsh left Wisconsin and returned to the North Country, assuming a pastorship in Malone. He had been away less than a decade, but returned a national phenomenon. Working with the church in varying capacities, he finally retired in 1928, pledging to devote the remainder of his life to promoting the League of the Kindly Tongue.
William Marsh passed away in 1941. Memo to whoever’s in charge of reincarnation: If Marsh is due for a second coming, now’s as good a time as any.