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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


The invention of the art of printing, forms an era in the history of mankind, next in importance to the promulgation of the law, and the publication of the gospel. Until this splendid gift was bestowed upon man, books, which were all in manuscript, were circulated within a comparatively narrow sphere, and knowledge was in the possession of only a privileged few. This invaluable art, however, rendered the fountains of information accessible to all, and gave opportunity to the poorest of our race, to slake their mental thirst at the deepest and purest streams of truth. There was a time when ignorance was rather a misfortune than a reproach; and when, indeed, a craving after information would, with many, have been rather a calamity than a benefit—since the means of satisfying the appetite were beyond their reach. The state of things is altered now, and almost a whole circle of science may be purchased for a few shillings.

Education is also much improved and extended. Under these circumstances, ignorance is a deep reproach; and a young person who can allow days and weeks to pass without taking up a book, is a pitiable spectacle of doltish insipidity. Cultivate, then, my children, a taste for reading; and, in order to this, there must be a thirst after information. "Knowledge," says Lord Bacon, "is power;" and if it were not power—it is pleasure. Knowledge gives us weight of character, and procures for us respect. Knowledge enables us to form an opinion with correctness, to state it with clearness, to offer it with confidence, and to enforce it with argument. It enlarges the sphere of our usefulness, by raising the degree of our influence. Other things being equal, that man will be the most useful, who has the greatest measure of information. Here I shall offer some directions for your guidance in the selection of books.

The BIBLE of course occupies the supreme place, an elevation exclusively its own. It is, as its title signifies, THE BOOK—the standard of all right sentiments; the judge of all other works. Sir William Jones, that prodigy of learning, wrote on the fly-leaf of his Bible these remarks—"I have carefully and regularly perused these holy Scriptures, and am of opinion that the volume, independently of its divine origin, contains more sublimity, purer morality, more important history, and finer strains of eloquence, than can be collected from all other books, in whatever language they may have been written." Salmasius, the learned antagonist of Milton, said on his death-bed, "That were he to begin life again, he would spend much of his time in reading David's Psalms and Paul's Epistles." Whatever books you neglect, then, my children, neglect not the Bible. Whatever books you read, read this. Let not a day pass without perusing some portion of holy writ. Read it devoutly; not from curiosity, nor with a view to controversy—but to be made wise unto salvation. Read it with much prayer. Read it with a determination to follow its guidance wheresoever it leads.

As to that class of books denominated novels, I join with every other moral and religious writer in condemning, as the vilest trash, the greater part of the productions, which, under this name, have carried a turbid stream of vice over the morals of mankind. They corrupt the taste, pollute the heart, debase the mind, demoralize the conduct. They throw prostrate the understanding, sensualize the affections, enervate the will, and bring all the high faculties of the soul into subjection to an imagination which they have first made wild, insane, and uncontrollable. They furnish no ideas, and generate a morbid, sickly sentimentalism, instead of a just and lovely sensibility. A wise man should despise them, and a godly man should abhor them.

As to religious novels, they are rarely worth your attention. I would be sorry to see this species of writing become the general reading of the Christian public. Symptoms of a craving appetite for this species of mental food have been very apparent of late. These are far more likely to lead young people of pious education to read other kinds of novels, than they are to attract the readers of the latter to pious tales. They have already, in many cases, formed a taste for works of fiction, which is gratifying itself with far more exceptionable productions. They have become the harbingers, in some families, of works, which, until they entered, would have been forbidden to pass the threshold.

It is very evident that the taste of the present age is strongly inclined for works of fiction. I am not unacquainted with the arguments by which such productions are justified, nor am I by any means prepared to pronounce a sweeping sentence of condemnation upon them all. Genius is elicited and cherished by writing them; and taste is formed, corrected, and gratified, by reading them. Provided they are totally free from all unscriptural sentiments and immoral tendencies, they form a recreation for the mind, and keep it from amusements of a worse character. I am also aware that they may be, and have been, made the vehicle of much instruction. Johnson tells us that this, among many other arts of instruction, has been invented, that the reluctance against truth might be overcome. And as medicine is given to children in confections, biblical precepts have been hidden under a thousand appearances, that mankind may be bribed by a pleasure to escape destruction.

Will not history and biography answer all the ends of fiction, unattended with its injurious effects? Here all is life, variety, and interest. Here is everything to amuse, to recreate. Here the finest moral lessons are inculcated in the details of facts. Here are passions, motives, actions—all forming the most exquisite delineations of character, set home upon the heart with the aid of the powerful conviction that these are facts. I am sure that none can have attended to the more secret and subtle operations of their own minds, without perceiving that a display of virtue or vice, embodied in fact, has inconceivably more power over the mind, than the same character exhibited by the most extraordinary genius in a fiction. While reading the latter, we may have been deeply affected, we may have glowed with anger at the sight of vice, melted with pity at the display of misery, or soared in rapture at the exhibition of excellence—but when the book is laid down, and the mind recovers from the illusion, does not the recollection, that all this was the creation of imagination, exert a cold and chilling influence upon the heart, and go far to efface almost every favorable impression, until, by a kind of revenge for the control which a fiction has had over us, we determine to forget all we have felt. We cannot do this in rising from a fact.

Fiction is generally overwrought. It is vice in caricature, or virtue in enamel; the former is frequently too bad to be dreaded as likely to happen to us; the latter too high to be an object of expectation. All the attendant circumstances are too artificially contrived. There is little that is like it in real life. Our passions are too much excited, our hopes are too much raised. And when we come from this ideal world into the every-day scenes of ordinary life, we feel a sense of dullness, because everything looks tame and commonplace. The effect of such works is great for the time—but it is not a useful effect—it is like the influence of ardent spirits, which fit men for desperate adventures—but not for the more steady and sober efforts of ordinary enterprise.

Observe then, although I do not totally condemn all works of fiction, for then I would censure the practice of Him who spoke as never man spoke, whose parables were fictitious representations; yet I advise a sparing and cautious perusal of them, whether written in poetry or prose. History, biography, travels, accounts of the manners and customs of nations, will answer all the ends of fiction; they will amuse, and they will in the most easy and pleasing way instruct. They will exhibit to us every possible view of human nature, and every conceivable variety of character. They will introduce us to a real world, and exhibit to us the feelings and the excellences of men of like passions with ourselves; and who, according to the complexion of their character, may be regarded as beacons to warn us, or the polar star to guide us.

Again, and again, I say, cultivate, my children, a taste for the acquisition of knowledge; thirst after information as the miser does after wealth; treasure up ideas with the same eagerness as he does pieces of gold. Let it not be said, that for you the greatest of human beings have lived, and the most splendid of human minds have written—in vain. You live in a world of books, and they contain worlds of thought. Devote all the time that can lawfully be spared from business to reading. Lose not an hour. Ever have some favorite author at hand, to the perusal of whose production, the hours, and half-hours, which would otherwise be wasted, might be devoted. Time is precious. Its fragments, like those of diamonds, are too valuable to be lost. Let no day pass without your attempting to gain some new idea. Your first object of existence, as I have already stated, should be the salvation of your soul; the next, the benefit of your fellow-creatures; and then comes the improvement of your mind.

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