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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


True religion, my dear children, is the first and the principal thing which I am anxious that you should possess—but it is not the only one. It is the basis of excellence which should be well laid, to bear whatever things are lovely, or of good report, or, changing the metaphor—it is that firmness and solidity of character which, like the substance of the diamond, best prepares it to receive a polish, and is rendered more beautiful and more valuable by being polished. The religion of some people is like the gem in the rough, the excellence of which is concealed and disfigured by many foreign adhesions—there is real principle at the bottom—but it is so surrounded by imprudence, crudeness, ignorance, slovenliness, and other bad qualities, that it requires a skillful eye to discern its worth. I most earnestly admonish you, therefore, to add to your piety

1. PRUDENCE. By prudence, I mean a calculating and deliberative turn of mind, as to the tendency of our words and actions; coupled with a desire so to speak and act, as to bring no inconvenience either upon ourselves or others. It is that right application of knowledge to practice, which constitutes wisdom. A person may have an immensity of knowledge, with scarcely a grain of prudence; and, notwithstanding the stores of his understanding, may always have his peace destroyed.

I am aware that prudence is too often regarded by the ardent and optimistic minds of the young, as a cold and heartless virtue; a sort of November flower, which, though regular in its growth, and mild in color, has neither glow nor fragrance—but stands alone in the garden as the memorial of departed summer, the harbinger of approaching winter. Youth are captivated by what is exciting and impetuous, even when it leads to "Headlong Hall." If by prudence I meant mere cold reserve, or that selfishness which chills the ardor of kindness, and freezes the spring of benevolence in the heart, you might well beware of a disposition so unlovely.

But when I simply mean a habit of thinking before you speak or act, lest your thoughtlessness should prove injurious to the comfort of your own mind, or the comfort of others; when I only require you to exercise that judgment upon the tendencies of your conduct, which is one of the chief distinctions of a rational creature; when I merely call upon you to put forth the power of foresight which God has planted in your nature—surely, surely, there is nothing unsuited either to your age, or to the most generous mind, in this. That rashness of speech, or of conduct, which is always involving a person, and his friends too, in difficulties, inconveniences, and embarrassments, has little to commend itself to your admiration, with whatever good temper or mirthful liveliness it may happen to be associated; society must be a chaos, if all its members were formed upon this model.

You must have seen, my dear children, the mischiefs which imprudence has brought in its train. What strifes have been engendered by a rash, unguarded use of the tongue; by people giving a hasty opinion of the character, conduct, and motives of others—I believe that half of the quarrels which exist, may be traced up to this source. If then you would journey along through life in honor and in peace, I cannot give you a more important piece of advice than this—"Be very cautious how you give an opinion of the character, conduct, or motives of others. Be slow to speak. For one that has repented of having held his tongue, myriads have bitterly grieved over the imprudent use of it." Remember what Solomon says, "A prating fool shall fall;" and almost all fools do prate. Silence is generally a characteristic of wise men, especially in reference to the concerns of others. I know not a surer mark of a little, empty mind—than to be always talking about our neighbors' affairs. A collector of rags is a much more honorable, and certainly a far more useful member of society, than a collector and vender of tales.

But let your prudence manifest itself in reference to your conduct, as well as to your words. Never act until you have deliberated. Some people invert the order of nature and reason; they act first, and think afterwards; and the consequence very generally proves, as might have been expected, that first impressions are fallacious guides to wise actions. I scarcely know anything against which young people should be more seriously warned than this habit of acting from first impressions; nor anything which they should be more earnestly advised to cultivate, than an almost instinctive propensity to look forward, and to consider the probable results of any proposed line of conduct. This calculating temper is to be preferred, far more than the knowledge of the rash; for it will preserve both the peace of its possessor, and that of others who have to do with him.

Multitudes, by a lack of prudence in the management of their financial affairs, have ruined themselves, plunged their families into poverty, and involved their friends in calamity. They have engaged in one rash speculation after another, and formed one unpromising connection after another; scarcely recovered from the complicated damage of one, before they were involved in the failure of the next—until the final catastrophe came in all its terrors, which might have been foreseen, and was predicted by everyone except the rash projector himself. When we consider that in such cases a man cannot suffer alone—but must extend the effects of his conduct to others, prudence will appear to be not only an ornament of character—but a virtue; and imprudence not only near to immorality—but a part of it.

Begin life, then, with a systematic effort to cultivate a habit of sound discretion, and prudent foresight; and for this purpose, observe attentively the conduct of others—profit both by the sufferings of the rash, and the tranquility of the cautious—render also your own past experience subservient to future improvement. I knew a person, who having imprudently engaged in a litigation which cost him a considerable sum of money, made the following entry in his diary, "March—Paid this day, one hundred and fifty pounds for wisdom." Experience, it has been said, keeps a costly school—but some people will not learn in any other, and they are fortunate who improve in this. I most emphatically recommend to you the diligent study of the book of Proverbs, as containing more sound wisdom, more prudential maxims for the right government of our affairs in this life, than all other books in the world put together!

2. MODESTY (that is, true humility) is a very bright ornament of the youthful character—without it the greatest attainments and the strongest genius cannot fail to create disgust.

Conceitedness, I have already stated to be one of the obstacles to youthful piety, and even where its evil does not operate so fatally as this, it certainly disfigures true religion. Young people should consider, that even if they have much knowledge—they have but little experience. Everything pert, flippant, obtrusive, and self-confident, is highly unsuitable in those who, whatever they may know of scholastic literature, have but little acquaintance either with themselves or mankind. Strong intellect and great attainments will soon commend themselves, without any pains being taken to force them upon our attention; and they never appear so lovely, nor attract us with such force, as when seen through a veil of modesty. Like the blushing violet, which discloses its retreat rather by its fragrance than by its color, youthful excellence should modestly leave others to find out its concealment, and not ostentatiously thrust itself on public attention.

I do not wish to inculcate that extreme demureness which makes young people bashful and timid, even to awkwardness and sheepishness; which prevents even the laudable exertion of their powers; and which is not only distressing to the subjects of it themselves—but painful to others. Nothing can be further from my views than this; for it is a positive misery to be able neither to speak nor be spoken to, without blushing to the ears, and trembling to the very toes. But there is a wide difference between this bashfulness and genuine modesty.

"Modesty is a habit, or principle of the mind, which leads a man to form a humble estimate of himself, and prevents him from ostentatiously displaying his attainments before others—bashfulness is merely a state of timid feeling. Modesty discovers itself in the absence of everything pretended—whether in look, word, or action; bashfulness betrays itself by a downcast look, a blushing cheek, and a timid air. Modesty, though opposed to self-conceit, is not incompatible with an unpretending confidence in ourselves; bashfulness altogether unmans us, and disqualifies us for our duty."

Modesty shields a man from the mortifications and disappointments which assail the self-conceited man from every quarter. A pert, pragmatical youth, fond alike of exalting himself and depreciating others, soon becomes a mark for the arrows of ridicule, censure, and anger. While a modest person conciliates the esteem of all, not excepting his enemies and rivals; he disarms the resentment even of those who feel themselves most injured by his superiority; he makes all pleased with him by making them at ease with themselves; he is at once esteemed for his talents, and loved for the humility with which he bears them. Arrogance can neither supply the lack of talents, nor adorn them where they are possessed.

It is of importance to cultivate modesty in youth, for if lacking then, it is seldom obtained afterwards. Nothing grows faster than conceitedness; and as no weed in the human heart becomes more vigorous—so none is more offensive than this. I have known individuals, who, by their extensive information, might have become the delight of every circle in which they moved—have yet by their positive, dogmatical and overbearing temper, inspired such a dread, that their arrival in company has thrown a cloud-shadow on every countenance!

A disputatious temper is exceedingly to be dreaded. Nothing can be more opposed to the peace of society than that disposition, which converts every room into the arena of controversy, every company into competitors, and every diversity of sentiment into an occasion of discord. There are times when a man must state and defend his own opinions; when he cannot be silent, when he must not only defend—but attack. But even in such cases he should avoid everything dogmatical and overbearing; all insulting contempt of others, and all that most irritating treatment, which makes his opponent appear like a fool. Our arguments should not fall and explode with the noise and violence of thunderbolts—but insinuate themselves like the light or the dew of heaven.

Take it, my dear children, as the result of nearly a quarter of a century's observation and experience in no contracted circle of human life, that verbal controversy in company produces very little good, and a great deal of harm. In such a situation men contend for victory—not for truth. And each goes into the war of words, determined to avoid, if possible, the disgrace of a public defeat.

3. COURTESY is a most valuable disposition. This is required not only by those authors who are the law givers of the social circle—but by Him who has published laws for the government of the heart.

"Be courteous," says the word of God. By courtesy, I mean that benevolence of disposition which displays itself in a constant aim to please those with whom we associate, both by the matter and manner of our actions; in little things as well as great ones. Crabbe, in his English Synonyms, has given us this definition of courtesy and amiability—"Courtesy in one respect comprehends more than amiability; it includes the manner, as well as the action; it is, properly speaking, polished amiability. On the other hand amiability includes more of the disposition in it than courteousness; it has less of the polish—but more of the reality of kindness. Courteousness displays itself in the address and the manners—amiability in direct good offices. Courteousness is most suitable for strangers; amiability for friends, or the nearest relatives. Among well-bred men, and men of rank, it is an invariable rule to address each courteously on all occasions whenever they meet, whether acquainted or otherwise. There is a degree of amiability due between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and members of the same family, which cannot be neglected without endangering the harmony of their communion."

It is my earnest desire, my children, that you should be both courteous and amiable. The union of both these constitutes true politeness. True politeness is excellence carried to its highest polish.

Life is made up for the most part of petty interactions—and is checkered more by the light and shade of minor pains and pleasures, than by the deeper hues of miseries and ecstasies. Occasions rarely happen, when we can relieve or be relieved by the more splendid efforts of benevolence; while not a day, scarcely an hour, passes without an opportunity of giving or receiving gratifications of amiability.

"Politeness is one of those advantages which we never estimate rightly but by the inconvenience of its loss. Its influence upon the manners is constant and uniform, so that like an equal motion, it escapes perception. Wisdom and virtue are by no means sufficient without the supplemental laws of good breeding, to secure freedom from degenerating into crudeness; or self-esteem from swelling into insolence—a thousand incivilities may be committed, and a thousand offices neglected without any remorse of conscience, or reproach from reason."

The true effect of genuine politeness seems to be rather ease than pleasure. The power of delighting must be conferred by nature, and cannot be delivered by precept, or obtained by imitation. But though it be the privilege of few to ravish and to charm, every man may hope, by rules and cautions, not to give pain, and may therefore, by the help of good breeding, enjoy the kindness of mankind, though he should have no claim to higher distinctions.

"The universal axiom in which all amiability is included, and from which flow all the formalities that custom has established in civilized nations, is—that no man shall give any preference to himself. This is a rule so comprehensive and certain, that perhaps it is not easy for the mind to imagine an incivility, without supposing it to be broken."

Do not think, however, that politeness is only to be acquired by frequenting what is called fashionable company, and places of public entertainment. Amiability is the offspring of benevolence, the tiny daughter of kindness; and this may be found in the cottage, where I have often seen as much real courtesy as ever graced a mansion. Hear the testimony of Dr. Johnson on this subject—"I have indeed not found, among any part of mankind, less real and rational amiability—than among those who have passed their time in paying and receiving visits, in frequenting public entertainments, in studying the exact measures of ceremony, and in watching all the variations of fashionable courtesy.

"They know, indeed, at what hour they may be at the door of an acquaintance, how many steps they must attend him towards the gate, and what interval should pass before his visit is returned—but seldom extend their care beyond the exterior and unessential parts of civility, nor refuse their own vanity any gratification, however expensive, to the quiet of another."

By a neglect of amiability, many people of substantial excellence have deprived their virtues of much of their luster, and themselves of much kindness—of whom it is very common to have it said—"Yes, he is a good man—but I cannot like him." Surely such people, by their unamiable disposition, have sold the attachment of the world at too low a price, since they have lost one of the rewards of virtue, without even gaining the profits of wickedness.

4. ON ADMIRATION OF THE CHARACTERS OF OTHERS, I think it important to say a few things. To observe, admire, and imitate the excellences of those around us—is no less our duty than our interest. It is a just tribute to their moral worth, and the means of promoting our own. It is of great consequence, however, that our admiration of character should be well directed. For as we naturally imitate what we admire, we should take care that we are attracted and charmed only by real excellence. Do not be led astray, my children, by a mere spuriousness—or showiness of character. Let nothing be regarded by you as worthy your admiration, which is not in connection with moral worth. Courage, frankness, heroism, politeness, intellect, are all valuable—but unless they are united with genuine principle, and true integrity, they only render their possessor more dangerous, and invest him with greater power to do harm. Do not allow your imagination to be captivated by the dazzling properties of a character, of which the substantial parts are not approved by your judgment; nothing is excellent which is not morally so.

The polished dissolute person, the generous profligate, the witty and intelligent skeptic, are to be shunned as serpents, whose colorful and beautiful skin should have no power to reconcile us to their venom. You may be charged with lack of taste, or coldness of heart, for withholding your approbation—but it is a far sublimer attainment, and certainly a more difficult one, to have a taste and ardor only in the cause of holiness. Be cautious to examine every character which is presented to you for admiration, to penetrate the varnish of exterior accomplishments; and if you find nothing of genuine integrity and holiness beneath, withhold the tribute of your approbation, regardless of the sneers of those shallow minds who have neither the power to test the things that differ, nor the virtue to approve only such as are excellent.

It is a very important hint to give to young people, just setting out in life, to analyze character before they admire it; remembering that, to borrow an allusion from chemistry, a deadly poison may be held in solution by the most beautifully-colored liquid which the eye can behold.

5. AN EXTREME DREAD OF SINGULARITY, arising out of a morbid sensibility to shame—is a dangerous disposition of mind, to which young people are very liable.

There are some who are so ambitious to be thought singular, that they pretend distinction in folly, or even in vice. They can even bear to be laughed at, if it may be admitted that they are singular; and are content to be persecuted, provided it be for the sake of their singularity. These 'martyrs to strangeness' are in one extremity of character—of which the other is that great dread of being ridiculed as singular, which tries a man's attachment, even to the cause of virtue. There are some so acutely, so morbidly sensible to the least sneer, that they are put in dreadful peril of forsaking the cause of righteousness and morality, rather than take up the cross in the face of laughter. I have already in part considered this, and stated it to be one of the obstacles to early piety—but it not only obstructs the entrance—but the subsequent path of piety, and should therefore be most vigorously opposed by all who are subject to its influence.

A sense of shame, when felt in reference to what is wrong, is one of the guardians of virtue—in this meaning of the phrase, it can never be too acute, nor can it be too delicately susceptible of impression. When any one has ceased to be ashamed of doing what is wrong, and the last blush with which a tender conscience once suffused the countenance has vanished—the progress of sin is nearly completed, and the sinner may be considered as near the end of his wicked career. But when a person is so morbidly sensible to ridicule, that he shrinks from it, even in the performance of that which is right, he not only lets down his dignity—but endangers his principles.

There is something noble and heroic in that disposition, which can dare to be singular in the cause of true religion and morality; which with a mind conscious of doing right, can fight, single-handed, the battles of the Lord, against the army of scorners by which it may be surrounded. It is not a part of virtue to be indifferent to the opinion of others, except that opinion be opposed to the principles of truth and holiness—then it is the very height of virtue to act above it, and against it!

Ridicule is certainly not the test of truth—but it is one of the most fiery ordeals of that courage by which the truth is professed and supported. Many have been vanquished by 'scorn', who were invulnerable to 'rage'; for men in general would much rather have their hearts reproached than their heads, deeming it less disgraceful to be weak in virtue than deficient in intellect. Strange perversion! the effect of that pride which, being injected into our nature by the venom of the serpent in Paradise, still continues to infect and destroy us! Let us oppose this working of evil within us, and crucify this lust of the flesh. Let no ridicule deter us from doing what is right or avoiding what is wrong. Let us emulate the sublime example of the apostle, who exclaimed, "We are fools for Christ's sake." This is the noblest effort of human courage, the loftiest achievement of virtue to be "faithful found among the faithless," and willing to bear any ridicule rather than act in opposition to the convictions of our judgment, and the dictates of our conscience.

It is infinitely better to be scorned for doing what is right, than applauded for doing what is wrong. From the laughter of the wicked you may find a refuge in the approbation of your conscience, and the smile of your God. But in what a miserable situation is that poor cowardly wretch, whose dread of singularity has led him to sacrifice the convictions of his conscience, and who has nothing to comfort him under the frowns of Deity but the applause of fools!

Neither in little things, nor in great ones, allow your dread of singularity to turn your feet from the path of integrity. Arm yourself with this mind-set, to do what is right, though you can find neither companion nor follower!

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