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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


Man was made for society, and society is thought to be essential to his happiness. Adam did but half enjoy the lovely and untainted scenes of Eden, while there was no rational companion, to whom he could impart the raptures of his soul—and Paradise was incomplete until God gave him a friend. How much more might it be expected, that now, when the human bosom is bereft of its innocence, man should look outside of himself for happiness, and endeavor to find it in society. Young people, especially, are anxious to form associations of this kind, and are in imminent danger of choosing companions that will do them no good. The design of the present chapter is to put you, my children, on your guard against this evil, and to assist you in the selection of those friends with whom you daily mingle. This subject has been already adverted to—but it is of sufficient importance to occupy a separate chapter.

It behooves you very seriously to reflect on the influence which your companions, of whatever kind they are, will certainly have in the formation of your character.

"We are all," says Mr. Locke, "a kind of chameleons, that take a tincture from the objects which surround us." A still wiser man has told us, that "He who walks with wise men shall be wise—but a companion of fools shall be destroyed." Hence he says to us; "make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man you shall not go; lest you learn his ways, and get a snare to your soul." These admonitions are founded on the general principle, that the example of our companions will exert an strong influence in the formation of our own character, slow and silent, perhaps—but irresistible and successful—and this influence will be in proportion to the love and esteem we cherish for them. All nations and all ages have confessed the truth of this sentiment.

The example of a beloved companion is powerful—more especially if he be a sinful one, because a bad model finds in the depravity of our nature, something that prepares it to receive the impression. One evil companion will undo in a month—all that parents and teachers have been laboring for years to accomplish. Here then pause, and consider that the character of your associates will, in all probability, be your own. If you do not carry to them a similarity of taste, you will be sure to acquire their dispositions; "for how can two walk together except they be agreed?"

Let me now set before you the DANGERS to be apprehended from bad company.

By bad company I mean all those who are destitute of the fear of God; not only the infidel, the profligate, the profane—but those who are living in the visible neglect of true religion. Now these are no fit companions for you. They may be respectable and noble as to their rank in life; they may be graceful and proper in their manners; they may be people of fine taste, and cultivated minds; humorous, and polished wit—but these things, if connected with ungodly habits, only make them the more alarmingly and successfully dangerous. They are like the fair speech, and lovely form, and glowing colors, which the serpent assumed when he attacked and destroyed the innocence of Eve. Look through these gaudy ornaments, pierce this dazzling exterior, and recognize the fang and the venom of the wily foe! The more external accomplishments any one has, if he be without the fear of God—the greater is his power to do evil. And remember, that when you have listened to his wiles, and feel the sharpness of his tooth, and the deadly agony of his venom, it will be no compensation, nor consolation—that you have looked on his gaily-colored skin, and have been ruined by the fascination of his charms! The companions you are to avoid, then, are those who are obviously living without the fear of God.

Consider the many dangers arising from such associates—you will soon leave all sense of serious piety, and lose all the impressions you may have received from a religious education. These you cannot hope to preserve; you may as soon expect to guard an impression traced with your finger in the sand from being effaced by the tide of the Atlantic ocean. Even they whose religious character has been formed for years, find it hard to preserve the spirituality of their mind in ungodly company. "Throw a blazing firebrand into snow or rain, and its brightness and heat will be quickly extinguished, so let the liveliest Christian plunge himself into sinful company, and he will soon find the warmth of his zeal abated, and the tenderness of his conscience injured."

How, then, can you expect to maintain a sense of true religion, whose habits are scarcely formed, and whose character has yet so much of the tenderness and suppleness of youth? Do consider your proneness to imitate; your dread of singularity; your love of praise; your morbid sense of shame. Can you bear the sneer, the jest, the broad, loud laugh? With none to defend you, none to join in your reverence for piety, what are you to do singly and alone?

In such company you lay yourselves open to temptation, and will probably be drawn into a great deal of guilt. In private and alone, the force of temptation and the power of depravity are very great—but how much greater when aided by the example of intimate friends. As united fires burn the fiercer, and the concentrated virus of many people thrown into the same room infected with the plague, renders the disease more malignant—so a sinful community grows in impiety, as every member joins his brother's pollution to his own. Nothing is so contagious as bad morals! Evil communications corrupt good manners. Multitudes have committed those sins without scruple in society, which they could not have contemplated alone without horror. It is difficult indeed to wade against the torrent of evil example, and, generally speaking—whatever is done by the group—must either be done or approved by every individual of which it is composed.

In such company you will throw yourselves out of the way of repentance and godliness. The little relish you once had for devotional exercises will soon be lost. Your Bible will fall into disuse, the house of God will be neglected, and pious friends carefully shunned. Should an occasional revival of your serious feelings take place under a sermon, or the remonstrances of a friend, they will be immediately lulled again to repose, or banished from your bosom by the presence and conversation of an ungodly companion.

In many cases, evil society has destroyed forever even the temporal interests of those who have frequented it. Habits of self-indulgence, amusements, folly, and extravagance—have been acquired; character has been ruined, business neglected, poverty and misery entailed. But if this should not ensue, the influence of evil association will go far to ruin your souls and sink you to eternal perdition! A companion of fools shall be destroyed; their path is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death. Yes—if you connect yourselves with them, they will drag you into the vortex of their own ruin, as they sink into the gulf of eternal perdition. Is there the companion on earth whose society you will seek to retain at this dreadful hazard? Is there one, for the sake of whose friendship you would be willing to walk with him to the bottomless pit?

What though you could have the society of the best poets, philosophers, wits, and fashionables of the age—and yet were to lose your own souls—what would this profit you? Will it soothe the agonies of your spirit in those regions of horrible despair, to remember that you joyed in the company of your mirthful companions on earth? Alas! alas! all that rendered your communion on earth delightful, will then come to a final end. There will be no opportunities granted you to gratify your sensual desires together; no delicious food, no intoxicating liquors; there are no amusing tales; no merry songs there; no coruscations of wit will enliven the gloom of hell; no mirthful pleasure will brighten the darkness of eternal despair; no sallies of humor shall illumine the darkness of everlasting night. "But there shall be weeping, and wailing and gnashing of teeth—the worm that never dies, and the fire that is never quenched."

What mind but His, who comprehends the universe in his survey, can count the multitudes that have been ruined for both worlds, by the influence of bad company. Their names have been recorded on every roll of infamy, and found in every memorial of guilt and wretchedness. The records of the workhouse and the hospital; of the jail and the prisons; of the gallows and the morgue, would declare the mischief—and could we look into the prison of lost souls, a crowd of miserable spectres would meet our eye, who seem to utter in groans of despair, this sad confession, "We are the wretched victims of evil companions!"

In the large and populous town where Providence has fixed my lot, I have had an extensive sphere of observation; and I give it as my decided conviction, and deliberate opinion, that improper companions are the most successful means which are employed by Satan for the ruin of men's souls!

The advice then which I offer is this:

1. Be not over anxious about getting friends. Do not take up the opinion that all happiness centers in a friend. Many of you are blessed with a happy home and an agreeable circle round your own fireside. Here seek your companions—in your parents, and your brothers and sisters.

2. Determine to have no companion, rather than have an evil one. The one case is but a privation of what is pleasant—the other is a possession of a destructive evil.

3. Maintain a dignified—but not proud reserve. Do not be too open and naive. Be cautious of too hastily attaching yourselves as friends to others, or them to you. Be polite and kind to all—but communicative and familiar with few. Keep your hearts in abeyance, until your judgment has most carefully examined the characters of those who wish to be admitted to the circle of your acquaintance. Neither run nor jump into friendships—but walk towards them slowly and cautiously.

4. Always consult your parents about your companions, and be guided by their opinions. They have your interest at heart, and see further and better, than you can.

5. Cultivate a taste for reading and mental improvement; this will render you independent of living for society. Books will always furnish you with intelligent, useful, and elegant friends. No one can be dull who has access to the works of illustrious authors, and has a taste for reading. And after all there are but comparatively few, whose society will so richly reward us, as this 'silent converse with the mighty dead'.

6. Choose none for your intimate companions but those who are decidedly pious, or people of very high moral worth. A scrupulous regard to all the duties of morality; a high reverence for the scriptures; a belief in their essential doctrines; a constant attendance on the means of grace, are the lowest qualifications which you should require in the character of an intimate friend.

Perhaps I shall be asked one or two questions on this subject, to which an answer ought to be returned. "If," say you, "I have formed an acquaintance with a young friend, before I had any serious impressions upon my mind, ought I now to leave his society, if he still remains destitute of any visible regard to true religion?" First try, by every effort which affection can dictate, and prudence direct, to impress his mind with a sense of true religion—if, after awhile your exertions should be unavailing, candidly tell him, that as you have taken different views of things, and acquired different tastes to what you formerly possessed; and that as you have failed to bring him to your way of living, and can no longer accommodate your pursuits to his, conscience demands of you a separation from his society.

Sir Matthew Hale, one of the most upright and able judges that ever sat upon the bench, was nearly ruined by his dissolute companions. When young, he had been very studious and sober—but the players happening to come to the town where he was studying, he became a witness of their performance, by which he was so captivated that his mind lost its relish for study, and he addicted himself to dissipated company. When in the midst of his associates one day, it pleased God to visit one of them with sudden death. Matthew was struck with horror and remorse. He retired and prayed, first for his friend, that if the vital spark had not fled, he might be restored; and then for himself, that he might never more be found in such places and company as would render him unfit to meet death. From that day he left all his wicked companions, walked no more in the way of sinners—but devoted himself to piety and literature.

Young people of good habits should take great heed that they do not, by insensible degrees, become dangerous characters to each other. That social turn of mind, which is natural to men, and especially to young people, may perhaps lead them to form themselves into little societies, particularly at the festive season of the year, to spend their evenings together. But let me entreat you to be cautious how you spend them. If your games and your talks take up your time until you entrench on the night; and perhaps on the morning too, you will quickly corrupt each other. Farewell, then, to prayer, and every other religious exercise in secret. Farewell, then, to all my pleasing hopes for you, and to those hopes which your pious parents have entertained. You will then become examples and instances of all the evils I have so largely described.

Plead not that these things are lawful in themselves; so are most of those in a certain degree which, by their abuse, prove destruction to men's souls and bodies. If you meet, let it be for rational and Christian conversation; and let prayer and other devotions have their frequent place among you—and if you say or think that a mixture of these will spoil the company, it is high time for you to stop your career, and call yourselves to an account; for it seems by such a thought, that you are lovers of pleasure, much more than lovers of God. Some of these things may appear to have a tincture of severity—but consider whether I could have proved myself faithful to you, and to him in whose name I speak, if I had omitted the caution I have now been giving you. I shall now only add, that had I loved you less tenderly, I should have warned you more coldly of this dangerous and deadly snare!

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