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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


It is a trite remark, that the mind, like a bow, will lose its power by being always strained; and that occasional relaxation from the cares of business is necessary to preserve the vigor and elasticity of the human faculties. Allowing this to be true, it becomes a question, in what way recreation may be lawfully sought; or, in other words, what kind of amusement may be innocently resorted to. Here TWO RULES may be laid down.

1. All recreations are improper which have an injurious influence upon the moral and religious character. This is an axiom. No reasoning is necessary to support it—no eloquence is requisite to illustrate it—none but an atheist can oppose it.

2. All recreations are improper which, by their nature, have a tendency to dissipate the mind, and unfit it for the pursuit of business; or which encroach too much on the time demanded for our necessary occupations. This rule is as intelligible and as just as the former.

These two directions, the propriety of which all must admit, will be quite sufficient to guide us in the choice of amusements.

First, there are some diversions, which, by leading us to inflict pain—produce 'cruelty of disposition'.

A reluctance to inflict misery, even to an insect, is not a mere decoration of the character, which we are left at liberty to wear or to neglect—but it is a disposition which we are commanded, as matter of duty to cherish. It is a necessary part of virtue. It is impossible to inflict pain, and connect the idea of gratification with such an act, without experiencing some degree of mental hardening. We are not surprised that he who, while a boy, amused himself in killing flies, should, when he became a master, exhibit the character of a cruel and remorseless tyrant. To find pleasure in causing animals to fight and devour each other, is a disposition truly diabolical; and the man who can find delight in dog-fighting, cock-fighting, bull-baiting—is quite prepared to imitate those cannibals who sported with the mangled carcases and palpitating limbs of their murdered victims, and dragged them about with their teeth in their gardens.

Horse-racing, in addition to the cruelty with which it is attended, is generally a means of assembling on the course, all the gamesters, swindlers, and vile characters in the neighborhood—and is the cause of much drunkenness, debauchery, and ruin. All field sports, of every kind, are, in my view, condemned by the laws of humanity. Shooting, hunting, fishing—are all cruel. What agony is inflicted in hooking a worm or a fish; in maiming a bird; in chasing and distressing a rabbit. And to find sport in doing this, is inhuman and unchristian. To say that these animals are given for food, and must be killed, is not a reply to my argument. I am not contending against killing them, or eating them—but against the act of killing of them for sport!

The infliction of death, under any circumstances, and upon any creature, however insignificant in the scale of creation, is too serious a matter to be a source of amusement. No two terms can be more incongruous than death and sport. It seems totally monstrous, that after having subjected the irrational creation to the terrors of death by his sin, man should experience pleasure in executing the sentence. Death is the enemy even of animals. And irrational creates manifest symptoms of instinctive horror at man's approach. For one to find delight in throwing the shuddering victim to the devourer, is shocking. I would extend these remarks to all animals, and say, that it is unlawful to find sport in killing such as are harmful. Wolves, bears, serpents, are to be destroyed when their continuance endangers human life—but to find pleasure in the act of killing even these, has a hardening tendency on the human heart.

Secondly. Some amusements tend to cherish selfish and avaricious feelings—and at the same time tend to produce that gambling taste which leads to the utter ruin of both the temporal and eternal interests of mankind. Billiards, cards, dice, have this tendency—and indeed, all other games that are played for money. The object of the player in these games is to get money, by a speedy process. What arts of fraud and deception are often resorted to, in order to avoid the loss and shame of defeat—and secure the gain and honor of success! What anger and ill-will are often produced in the mind of the unsuccessful party! Even the rules of decorum observed in polished society, are not sufficient, in many cases, to restrain the passionate invective, and the profane oath. I may here most confidently appeal to the frequenters of the card-table, for the truth of what I say, when I affirm, that the lack of success during an evening at whist is a trial of temper, which few are able to bear with honor to themselves, or the comfort of those around them. Passion, petulance, and sullenness are always waiting under the table, ready to appear in the person and conduct of the loser.

I have had scenes described to me by spectators of them, which I would have thought a disgrace to the vulgar company assembled at an alehouse, much more the polite party in the drawing-room. Have not the most serious misunderstandings arisen from this source between man and wife! What wrath and fury has the latter, by her tide of ill success, brought down upon her head from her irritated husband. The winner sees all this, retains his ill-gotten gain, and knows not all the while, that a chilling frost of selfishness is upon his heart, freezing up the generous feelings of his nature.

Nothing is more bewitching than the love of gambling. The winner having tasted the sweets of gain, is led forward by the hope of still greater gain; while the loser plunges deeper and deeper into ruin, with the delusive expectation of retrieving his lost fortune. How many have ruined themselves and their families forever by this mad passion! How many have thrown down the cards or dice, only to take up the pistol or the poison; and have rushed, with all their crimes about them, from the gambling-table to the—fiery lake of hell!

To affirm that these remarks are applicable only to those who play high, is nothing; because it is the nature of vice to be progressive. Besides, it is a fact, that many tradesmen, and even laboring people, have ruined themselves by the love of gambling. It is, as I have said, a most ensnaring practice, leading us from one degree to another, until multitudes who begin with only an occasional game, end in the most confirmed and inveterate habits of gambling.

Thirdly. Some amusements tend to foster vanity and pride, while, at the same time, they generate a distaste for all the serious pursuits of true piety, and the sober occupations of domestic life.

If I mistake not, these remarks will apply to balls, games, and concerts. I am not quite sure that the morals of society have not suffered considerable deterioration by such assemblies. Circumstances are connected with this species of amusement, the tendency of which is more than questionable. The mode of dress adopted at these fashionable resorts; the nature of the employment; the dissipating tendency of the music, the conversation, and the elegant uproar; the lateness of the hour to which the dazzling scene is protracted; the love of display which is produced; the false varnish which is thrown over many a worthless character, by the fascinating exterior which he exhibits in a ball room—have a tendency to break down the mounds of virtue, and expose the beholder to the encroachments of vice.

And if it were conceded, which it certainly cannot be, that no immoral consequence results to those who occupy the upper walks of life, who are protected by the decorum of elegant society, yet what mischief is produced to their humble imitators, who attend the assemblies which are held in the barn or the ale-house!

I look upon dancing, among these, to be a practice fraught with immorality; and my soul is horrified at this moment by remembering the details of a most tragic event which occurred in this neighborhood a few years since, to an young female, who, after having lost her virtue on the night that followed the dance, was found, a few hours after, murdered, either by her seducer or herself. Have nothing to do then with this fascinating, though injurious species of amusement. Besides, what an encroachment does it make upon time, which is demanded for other pursuits! How does it dissipate the mind, and poison it with a vain and frivolous taste for dress and personal decoration! How completely does it unfit the soul for piety, and even the necessary occupations of domestic life! Let there be a love once acquired for these elegant recreations by any female, and, from my heart, I pity the man who is destined to be her husband!

My opinion of the STAGE I shall reserve for a separate chapter; in the meantime I shall reply to a question which, no doubt, before this, you are ready to ask, "What amusements I would recommend?"

I do not hesitate at once to observe, that young people stand in much less need than is supposed, of any amusement properly so called. Their spirits are buoyant, their cares are light, their sorrows are few, and their occupations rarely very fatiguing to the mind. What more is necessary beyond mere change of employment, I should say, may be found in activities both strengthening to the body, and improving to the mind. A country ramble amid the beauties of nature, where, surrounded by sights and sounds which have awakened and cherished the spirit of poetry, we may admire the works of God and man together, will, to every mind of taste or piety, be quite enough to refresh and stimulate the wearied faculties.

The perusal of an entertaining and instructive book, where our best authors have said their best things, and in their best manner too, will have the same effect. My children, acquire a taste for reading. Aspire to an independence of the 'butterfly pursuits of the pleasure hunter'. Seek for that thirst after knowledge, which, when the soul is jaded with the dull and daily round of secular affairs, shall conduct her to the fountains of thought contained in the well-stocked library—where, as she drinks the pure perennial streams of knowledge, she forgets in their murmurs the toils of the day. And where young people are happily situated beneath the wing of their parents, the pleasures of home, the agreeable communion of the domestic circle are no base or insufficient recreation from the fatigues of business.

But perhaps many a youthful bosom will at this thought heave a sigh, and sorrowfully exclaim, "I am not at home. In that beloved retreat, and with its dear inhabitants, I would need no further amusements. My father's greeting smile; my mother's fond embrace; the welcome of my brothers and my sisters; the kind looks, the fond inquiries, the interesting though unimportant conversation of all, would recruit my strength, and recreate my mind. But I am far from these. I am in a distant town, a stranger in a strange place; a mere lodger, where the attentions which I receive are all bought and paid for. Wearied and dispirited, I ofttimes return from the scene of labor, and find in the cold and heartless salutation of my employer, and in the dreary solitude of my own chamber, that I am, indeed, not at home. Often and often, as I sit musing away the hour that intervenes between business and sleep, and carrying out into painful contrast my lodging and my home.

Who can wonder that in such a situation I should occasionally pay a visit to the theater, or the concert, and seek to forget that I am not at home—by amusements which have a tendency to drown reflection and divert my mind. Oh! give me again the pleasures of home, and I will make a cheerful surrender of all that I have adopted as their substitutes."

I feel for such young people. I too have been in their situation; I have felt all that they feel. I have wept at the contrast between being a stranger—and a happy child at home. I too have returned at night to meet the silent look, or cheerless greeting of the hostess, instead of the smiling countenance and fond expression of the mother who bore me, the father who loved me. I too have retired to my room to weep at thoughts of home. I can therefore sympathize with you. And shall I tell you how, in these circumstances, I alleviated my sorrows and rendered my situation not only tolerable—but even sometimes pleasant? By the exercises and influence of true piety; by the communion of a holy fellowship with pious companions; and by the assistance of books. Try, do be persuaded to try the same means.

"RELIGION, what treasures untold
Reside in that heavenly word!
More precious than silver and gold,
Or all that this earth can afford."

This will find you a home, and a father and friends—in every place. It will soften your banishment, and open to you springs of consolation, which shall send their precious streams into your forlorn abode. It will render you independent of the theater and the ball-room. It will guard you from vices, which, where they are committed, only serve to render the recollection of home still more intolerable. It will give you an interest and a share in all the pious institutions which are formed in the congregation with which you associate, and will thus offer you a recreation in the exercise of a holy and enlightened philanthropy.

Amusements, in the usual acceptance of the word, are but the miserable expedients resorted to by the ignorant and unsanctified mind of man for happiness; the ineffectual efforts to restore that peace which man lost by the fall, and which nothing but true piety can bring back to the human bosom. In departing from God, the soul of man strayed from the pasture to the wilderness, and now is ever sorrowfully exclaiming, as she wanders on, who will show us any good? To relieve her sense of need, and satisfy her cravings, she is directed to amusements—but they prove only the flowers of the desert, which, with all their beauty, do not satisfy.

No, no. It is the return of the soul to God through faith in Jesus Christ which can alone give true and satisfying delight. Believing in him—we have peace which passes understanding—the mind is at rest in the contemplation of saving truth—and the heart in the enjoyment of the chief good. Peace with God, attended by peace with conscience, producing peace with the world, and affording a foretaste of peace beyond the grave—gives a feast to the soul, compared with which worldly pleasures are but as noxious and gaudy flowers around the food of an hungry man, adding nothing to its relish by their colors, and only spoiling all by their odors. True religion conducts us to the fountain of living waters, and shows that these things are but broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Amusements are but expedients to make men happy without piety. The mere husks, which they only crave after, and feed upon, who are destitute of the bread which comes down from heaven; and which are rejected by those who have their appetite satisfied with this celestial manna.

In addition to this, cultivate a taste for reading. Employ your leisure hours in gaining knowledge. Thus even your situation will be rendered comparatively comfortable, and the thoughts of home will neither destroy your happiness, nor send you for consolation to the polluting sources of worldly amusement.

But there are some who will reply, "I have neither taste for true religion nor reading, and what amusements do you recommend to me?" None at all. What, that man talk of amusement, who, by his own confession, is under the curse of heaven's eternal law, and the wrath of heaven's incensed King? AMUSEMENT! what, for the poor wretch who is on the brink of perdition, the verge of hell, and may the next hour be lifting up his eyes in torment, and calling for a drop of water to cool his parched tongue! Diversion! what, for him who is every moment exposed to that sentence, "Depart from me, accursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!" What, going on to that place where the worm dies not, and the fire is never quenched; where there is weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth—and calling for amusements! Oh monstrous absurdity! We have heard of prisoners dancing in their chains—but who ever heard of a poor creature asking for amusements on his way to the place of execution? This is your case. While you have no taste for true piety, you are certainly under sentence of eternal wrath. You are every day traveling to execution. Yet you are asking for amusements! And what will be your reflections in the world of despair, to recollect that the season of hope was employed by you, not in seeking the salvation of the soul, and everlasting happiness—but in mere idle diversions, which were destroying you at the very time they amused you! Then will you learn, when the instruction will do you no good, that you voluntarily relinquished the fullness of joy which God's presence affords, and the eternal pleasures which are to be found at his right hand, for the joy of fools, which as Solomon truly says, is but as "the crackling of thorns beneath the pot." Before you think of amusement seek for true piety!

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