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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


You are born, my dear children, in no common age of the world. You have entered upon the theater of existence, when some of the most interesting scenes of the great drama are being presented. There are eras, when the moral world seems to stand still, or to retrograde; and there are others, when it is propelled with accelerated movements towards the goal. Ours is of the latter kind. After the dark and stormy epoch, which was terminated by the glorious revolution of 1688, the churches of Christ, blessed with religious liberty, sunk to inglorious repose. Little was done, either to improve the moral condition of our own population at home, or the state of heathen countries abroad. Whitfield and Wesley broke in upon this slumber, when it seemed to be most profound. From that time, the spirit of religious zeal awoke, and increasing its energies, and multiplying its resources until our days, it now exhibits a glorious array of means and instruments, from which in the long run, may be expected the conversion of the world.

Christendom presents at this moment a sublime and interesting spectacle in its Bible Societies, Missionary Societies, Tract Societies, with all the other institutions adapted to the moral needs of every class and condition of mankind. War is not only declared—but prosecuted with vigor, against the powers of darkness; the armies of the Lord are marching forth to the field of conflict; the sound of the trumpet is heard, and the call of warriors floats on the gale. Spiritual patriotism is breathed into the souls of all denominations of Christians. Instruments of the holy warfare are invented and distributed, which suit the hands of people of every rank, condition, stature, and strength; while females are invited to emulate the Spartan women of antiquity, and to assist in this conflict by the side of their fathers, husbands, and brothers.

All young people ought to enlist themselves in this cause. They should rise up into life, determined to do all the good they can, and to leave the world better than they found it. To see them reluctant to come forward, is an indelible disgrace to them. It is a poor, miserable kind of life to live only for ourselves; it is, in fact—but half living. It is an opposition both to reason and Scripture. He who does nothing to bless others, starves his own soul. You must therefore set out in life, my children, with a resolution, by God's help, to act the part of a religious philanthropist. "He who converts a sinner from the error of his ways, shall save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins." Aspire to this honor. Think how many things you can already do. You can instruct a class of ignorant children in a Sunday School. You can distribute religious tracts. You can join in the labors of Bible associations, or in the exertions of missionary societies to youth.

It is to the great dishonor of many young people in affluent circumstances, that they are retiring from our Sunday schools, and leaving the work to those who are in humbler life. Well, we must do without them—but let them remember that for their indolence, or pride, or whatever else be the cause of their secession, they must give an account at the bar of Christ.

Here, however, I must suggest a caution or two. Females who are employed in the labor of collecting gratuitous contributions to public societies of any kind, should be very watchful against the least infringement on that delicacy and modesty of character which is the chief ornament of their sex. Their exertions, I know, are the life's blood of some causes; be it so—but let their benevolence flow like the vital fluid through the veins—unseen, unheard. I believe that in general the strictest rules of modesty have been observed by the female collectors of our Missionary Societies—but I have heard of instances very much to the contrary. Happily, such cases are rare. I think it quite questionable whether very young females, whose characters are scarcely formed, should be thus employed.

It would be a source of mischief and regret, if the present mode of employing females in collecting for public institutions should abate one jot of that retiredness of disposition, and love of home, which are so essential to the beauty and excellence of their character. A gossiping, unsettled, roving temper, that can be better pleased with wandering round the town from door to door, than performing the duties which fall to the lot of a grown-up daughter at home, is no present ornament, and affords but a forlorn hope of future worth. I confess I look with some degree of jealousy upon the efforts of female zeal, for if public spirit is to be maintained at the expense of private usefulness, the world will be no great gainer in the end. Exertions for the public should be regarded not as a substitute for—but a recreation from, the more stated duties of home.

It is more necessary still, perhaps, to caution young men against acquiring, by their activity—a bold, forward, obtrusive, and dictatorial temper. If zeal should render them conceited, vain, and meddling, it would be a heavy deduction from its clear amount of usefulness. There is some little danger lest Satan, perceiving it to be impossible to repress the ardor of youth, should attempt to corrupt it.

Observing these cautions, you cannot be too ardent in the cause of true religion, and the interests of the human race. Those who are likely to occupy the middling classes of society, who are the sons and daughters of people in comparatively affluent circumstances, and are likely, by the blessing of God, to occupy the same rank themselves, should feel most specially bound to consecrate their energies to the public welfare, inasmuch as they possess far more means of usefulness than others, and are likely to have greater influence in society.

But even the poorest can do something. There is no one who is destitute of all the means of doing good. In France, during the reign of the late emperor, the conscription law extended to people of all ranks in society; and in the same regiment, the sons of the rich and of the poor contended, side by side, for the glory of their country—nor did the former think themselves degraded by such an association; they felt that to fight under the imperial and victorious eagle, was an honor sufficient to annihilate every other consideration. How much more justly will this apply to people who are marshaled under the banner of the cross!

It is of the utmost importance that young people should begin life with a considerable portion of public spirit in their character; since it is rarely found that this virtue, if planted late, attains to any considerable magnitude, beauty, or fruitfulness. The seeds of benevolence should be sown, together with those of piety, in the first spring of our youth; then may we expect a rich autumnal crop. The first lesson which a child should learn from his parents is, how to be blessed; and the second, how to be a blessing.

You have been taught this, my children, from the very dawn of reason—now then practice it. Live for some purpose in the world. Act your part well. Fill up the measure of your duty to others. Conduct yourselves so that you shall be missed with sorrow when you are gone. Multitudes of our species are living in such a selfish manner, that they are not likely to be remembered a moment after their disappearance. They leave behind them scarcely any traces of their existence—but are forgotten almost as though they had never been. They are, while they live, like one pebble lying unobserved among millions on the shore; and when they die, they are like that same pebble thrown into the sea, which just ruffles the surface, sinks, and is forgotten, without being missed from the beach. They are neither regretted by the rich, wanted by the poor, nor celebrated by the learned. Who have been the better for their life? Who are the worse for their death? Whose tears have they dried up, whose needs supplied, whose miseries have they healed? Who would unbar the gate of life, to re-admit them to existence; or what face would greet them back again to our world with a smile? Wretched, unproductive mode of existence! Selfishness is its own curse—it is a starving vice. The man that does no good, gets none. He is like the heath in the desert, neither yielding fruit, nor seeing when good comes; a stunted, dwarfish, miserable shrub.

We are sent into the world to do good; and to be destitute of public spirit, is to forget one half of our errand upon earth. Think what opportunity there is for the increase and operations of this noble disposition. We are in a world which abounds with evil. There are six hundred million immortal souls, yet enslaved in their minds by the chains of Pagan superstition or Mohammedan delusion—without God, and without hope in the world; there are one hundred and twenty million following the Papal Beast, and bearing his image; there are nine million Jews—wandering as vagabonds over the face of the whole earth, with the thick veil of unbelief upon their hearts. In our own country, many towns and villages are yet unblessed with the faithful preaching of the gospel; multitudes of adults are still without Bibles to read, and myriads of uneducated children; and ignorance of the grossest kind, vice of the most abominable forms, are to be found in every street.

And then, as to express misery, what aboundings are to be seen in every collection of human abodes; where can we go and not hear the groans of creation ascending round us, and not see the tears of sorrow flowing in our path? Poverty meets us with its heart-breaking tale of want and woe; disease in a thousand shapes appeals to our compassion; widows, orphans, destitute old men, and fatherless babes, with numbers ready to perish—are almost everywhere to be seen. Shall we live in the center of so much sin, ignorance, and wretchedness, and not feel it our duty to do good? What a wretch must he be, who, in such a world, is destitute of public spirit! For all that selfishness ever hoarded, may you, my children, never be cursed with an unfeeling heart. Here is something for all to do, and all should do what they can.

Consider the FELICITY of doing good. Public spirit is a perennial source of happiness in a man's own bosom. The miser is rightly named; the word signifies 'miserable'—and miserable he is. Benevolence is happiness. Its very tears are more to be desired than the most exulting smiles which avarice ever bestowed upon its accumulating treasures. Who does not covet that exquisite delight which Job must have experienced in the days of his prosperity, and of which he thus speaks—"All who heard of me praised me. All who saw me spoke well of me. For I helped the poor in their need and the orphans who had no one to help them. I helped those who had lost hope, and they blessed me. And I caused the widows' hearts to sing for joy. All I did was just and honest. Righteousness covered me like a robe, and I wore justice like a turban. I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame. I was a father to the poor and made sure that even strangers received a fair trial." Job 29:11-16. O tell me, what are all the pleasures of sense or appetite, all the mirthful festivities of worldly amusements, when compared with this? To do good, is to be like God in operation and bliss; for he is the blessed God, because he is the merciful God.

Public spirit is most HONORABLE. Even the heathen accounted a benefactor a most honorable character. Never does humanity appear adorned with so bright a crown of glory, as when distinguished benevolence, united with humble piety, enters into the character. When a young lady, instead of frittering away her time in frivolous pursuits, parties of pleasure, personal decorations, or scenes of vanity, employs her hours in visiting the cottages of the poor, alleviating the sorrows of the wretched, reading Scripture to the sick, how like an angel does she appear; and one can almost imagine that she is watched with exalted delight, on her visits of mercy, by the heavenly messengers who minister to the heirs of salvation, and who hail her as a co-worker in their embassies of love.

What is the most celebrated beauty that ever became the center of attraction, the object of voluptuous gaze, the subject of general envy to one sex, and of admiration to the other; when, amid the blaze of diamonds, and the perfumery of the East, she displayed her charms in the ball-room—compared with that modest and unostentatious young woman, who, in her woolen cloak and miry shoes, is seen on a cold wintry day at the sick bed of the poor expiring mother, first reviving the sinking frame of the sufferer with the cordials she has prepared with her own hands, then dispensing bread to the clamorous hungry babes, then comforting the agitated mind of the departing wife with the consolations of true religion, and, last of all, soothing the troubled bosom of the distressed husband with the prospect of a country, where there shall be no more death!

Or what is the man of polished manners, affable address, sparkling wit, and endless anecdote, whose society is courted, and who is the life of every company into which he enters; who everywhere receives the incense of praise, and the worship of admiration; I say, what is this man, in real grandeur, utility, and moral beauty of character—compared with the unassuming youth, who though well educated and extensively read, and with a mind that could luxuriate in all the pleasures of literary pursuits, devotes a large portion of his time to the exercises of benevolence—who on a sabbath journeys to some neighboring village on foot, sustaining the storms of winter, and the sultry heats of summer, to teach a school of ignorant children, bound to him by no tie but that of our common nature, to read the word of God—who is often seen in the retired streets and alleys of his own town, checking the torrents of wickedness by the distribution of tracts, or the circulation of the Bible—who, when fatigued with business, would gladly seek the repose of home, or else, thirsting for knowledge, would gladly converse with books—yet instead of this, devotes his evening hours to assist in managing the business of Christian institutions!

Need I ask which of these two is the most honorable character? They admit of no comparison. The wreath of literary fame, the laurel of the warrior, the tribute of praise offered to superior wit—are empty and worthless compared with the pure bright crown of the Christian philanthropist. There is a time coming when the former shall be of no value in the eyes of their professors, or the world—but the distinctions of superior beneficence belong to an order which shall be acknowledged in heaven, and shall be worn with unfading brilliancy through eternity!

I exhort, therefore, my children, that you do all the good you can, both to the souls and bodies of your fellow-creatures—for this end, as I have already said, you were born into the world, and society has claims upon your attention, which you cannot neglect without disregarding the authority of God. Give your property for this purpose. Begin life with a conviction that every one ought to devote a fair portion of his worldly substance for the benefit of others. No man ought to set apart a less proportion of his income for the good of the public than a tenth. Whatever estate yours may be, whether great or small, consider that it comes to you with a reserved claim of one-tenth for the public. Consider yourself as having a right to only nine-tenths. Pay tithes of all you possess to the cause of God and man. Be frugal in your personal expenditure—that you may have the more to do good with. Waste not that upon unnecessary luxuries of dress or living—which thousands and millions need for necessities and religious instruction. The noblest transformation of property is not into personal jewels, or splendid household furniture, or costly equipages—but into clothing for the naked, food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, knowledge for the ignorant, holiness for the wicked, salvation for the lost!

Give your INFLUENCE, whatever it be, to the cause of the public. We all have a circle of influence, and it is more extensive than we imagine. We are all, and always, doing good or harm. Two people never meet, however short the duration, or whatever be the cause of the meeting, without exerting some influence upon each other. An important transaction, a casual hint, a studied address, each and all may become the means of controlling the mind of those with whom we have to do. Let your influence be all thrown into the scale of the public good. Do your own duty, and endeavor to rouse others to do theirs.

Let your exertions in the public cause be the result of deliberate purpose, not of mere accident. Set yourselves to do good. Pursue a system, and act not from caprice. Let not your zeal be a blaze at one time, and a mere spark at another. Study your situation, circumstances, talents—and let your benevolence flow through that channel which Providence has more especially opened before you. All are not fitted for, nor are they called to, the same work. In the division of the labor of mercy, occupy that station, and be content with that work, to which you are obviously destined. Avoid the disposition which will be first in the front rank, or nowhere. This is selfishness, not benevolence. Be anxious to do good, though, like the ministering angels, your agency should never be seen—but only felt. Do not be discouraged by difficulty, nor disheartened by ingratitude; seek your reward in the approbation of conscience, and the smile of God—not in the acknowledgments of men. Persevere to the end of life; and be not weary in well doing. Be diligent, for the world is dying around you, and you are dying with it. You are young—but you are mortal. Your time of working may be short, and therefore strive to do much in a little time; for a man's life is to be measured not so much by the years that he lives, as by the work he does. You may die—but if you do good, your work lives; lives and multiplies its kind on earth, and then follows you to heaven, to live in your own remembrance, and the happiness of others through everlasting ages.

"As therefore we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto those who are of the household of faith. And let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not."

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