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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


Young people, while at school, generally look forward with much desire, and longing anticipation, to the happy time when they shall terminate their scholastic pursuits, throw off the restraints of the academy, and enter upon the engagements which are to prepare them for their future station in life. They are seldom aware of the immense importance of this period of their existence; and but rarely consider, that it is at this time the character usually assumes its permanent form.

I will suppose, my dear children, that you have now left the schoolroom, for the warehouse, the office, or the shop; exchanged grammars and dictionaries for journals and ledgers; and the researches of learning for the pursuits of business. All is new and all is interesting. Youthful feelings are subsiding into something like a consciousness of approaching manhood; and the comparative insignificance of the schoolboy is giving way to the incipient importance of the man of business. At this very point and period of your history, it behooves you to stop and reflect. Instead of being led on in joyous thoughtlessness, by the new scenes that are opening before and around you, and leaving your habits and your character to be formed by accident or by chance, I beseech you to ponder on the very critical circumstances in which you are now placed.

The period which elapses from fourteen to eighteen years of age, is indeed the crisis of your history and character. It is inconceivably the most eventful and influential term of your whole mortal existence. Comparing the mind to substances which, under the influence of heat, are capable of being molded to any form—it is at this period of its history that it is in the most suitable temperature and consistency to yield to the plastic influence of external causes, and to receive its permanent form and character—before this, it is too fluid and yielding, and afterwards too stiff and unbending. This, this is the very time, when the ever variable emotions, passions, and pursuits of boyhood, begin to exhibit something like the durable and settled forms of manhood.

In reference to the affairs of this life; if a young person ever become a good mechanic, or a good tradesman, he gains the elements of his future excellence about this period. So it is in poetry, painting, learning. Before this, the first decisive and unequivocal traits of genius sometimes appear, and even after this they are sometimes developed—but generally speaking, it is from the age of fourteen to eighteen, that the marks of future eminence are put forth. It is the 'spring season' of mind, and habits, and genius.

The same remarks will apply to the formation of character. Then the passions acquire new vigor, and exert a mighty influence; then the understanding begins to assert its independence, and to think for itself; then there is a declaration of its liberty on the part of the mind, and a casting away of the restraints of education; then there is a self-confidence and a self-reliance, which have received as yet few checks from experience; then the social impulse is felt, and the youth looks round for companions and friends; then the eye of parental vigilance and the voice of parental caution are generally at a distance. Then, in fact, the future character is formed. At this time, generally speaking, true religion is chosen or abandoned; and the heart is given to God or the world. Can anything be more awfully important, than such reflections to those who are yet about this age? You are now deciding for both worlds at once. You are now choosing to become a Christian on earth, and a seraph in heaven—or a worldling here, and a fiend hereafter! You are now setting out on a journey, which is to conduct you to glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life—or to the blackness of darkness forever! Yes, the starting point for the realms of eternal day—or the regions of eternal night—has generally been found to be within the period which I have named.

These remarks apply more strictly to young men than to young women; inasmuch, as females generally remain at home, under the eye, and voice, and example of parental piety, and are far less exposed than boys to the temptations and sins of youth. All young men, therefore, of this age, should pause and reflect thus—"I am now arrived at that period which must be considered as the most eventful era of my whole existence; when my character, both for time and eternity, will, in all probability, be formed; when I may be said to be commencing the career which is to terminate in heaven or hell; as well as that path which is to lead me to respectability and comfort—or to depression and poverty—in the present world. How critical my age! How important that I should consider wisely my situation, and decide aright!"

Permit me to give you a little ADVICE, in some measure suited to your circumstances.

1. Most sacredly observe the Sabbath, and constantly attend the means of grace.

Let nothing induce you to prostitute the hallowed day to worldly pleasure. Never listen to the enticements of a companion, who would tempt you, even once, to forsake the house of God. Abandon such an acquaintance. He is unfit for you, and will ruin you. Sabbath-breaking is a sin of most hardening tendency. When tempted to commit it, imagine you hear the dreadful voice of divine prohibition, followed with the loud deep groan of a holy father, and the exclamation of a pious mother, "Oh, my son! my son! do not pierce my heart with anguish." Attach yourselves to a sound, evangelical ministry, and listen not to those who subvert the very foundations of the gospel. Avoid those preachers who oppose all that is peculiar to Christianity.

2. Keep up attention to the private duties of true religion.

Never let a day pass without reading the scriptures and private prayer. While these practices are continued, I have hope for you—they show that piety has still some hold upon your heart. Secure some portion of every day, if it be but a quarter of an hour in the morning, and in the evening, for this most important duty. Should you not have a chamber to yourselves, let not the company of others prevent you from keeping up this practice. It would be better, however, in this case, to retire to your room, so you can be alone.

3. Be very careful in the selection of companions.

All that I have before said on the subject of company, applies with great force to this period of your life. It is now that the mischief of evil associations will be felt in all its devastating influence. One bad companion at this time, when the character is assuming its permanent form, will give a most fatal direction. Your company will probably be courted—but resist every overture which is not made by individuals of well-known, unbending virtue.

4. Strive to excel in the business or profession to which your life is to be devoted.

It is quite a laudable ambition for a man to aspire to eminence in his secular vocation. Be not satisfied with mediocrity in anything that is lawful. Even as a tradesman, you should endeavor to be distinguished. It will give you weight in society, and thus, by increasing your influence, augment the means of your usefulness. A dolt, however pious he may be, possesses but little weight of character. Give your mind, therefore, to business. Penetrate into all its secrets, comprehend all its principles, study all its bearings. Care nothing about pleasure—but find your recreation in your employment. It is astonishing how few rise to eminence in their calling, either in trade or in the professions. The summits are gained by a very small number; the multitude grovel below. Why? Because they did not seek nor begin to ascend, during their apprenticeship. They did not give themselves wholly to these things during this important season. Excellence in any department of human affairs can be looked for only from diligent and early culture. Industry and close application will keep you out of the way of temptation. Let your mind be occupied with business, and there will be neither leisure nor inclination for polluting amusements.

5. If your attention to business leaves any free time, I advise you to carry on a course of reading.

Make companions of useful books, and you will need no other. And as it is every man's chief praise to excel in his own profession, let your reading bear a relation to that in which you are engaged. (The author hopes he shall be pardoned for the frequency with which he urges a taste for reading. He knows the importance of the subject.)

6. If you can find a pious and intelligent associate, embrace the opportunity of innocent and pleasurable companionship. "As iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend." With such a friend carry on some course of intellectual improvement, and both give and receive the stimulus which fellowship affords.

Again and again, remember the tremendous importance which attaches to the period to which this chapter more particularly refers; and believing, as you must, that it is from fourteen to eighteen, the character, in relation to both worlds, is generally formed, judge what manner of people you ought to be at that time, if you wish to be a good tradesman, and real Christian upon earth, or a glorified and happy spirit in heaven.

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