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Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.

Dangers of Evil Companions

My dear brother,
From your earliest infancy you have been taught to avoid bad companions, and I hope you see the importance of this more and more. Our manners, our habits, and our ways of thinking are gathered very much from the people with whom we associate. If you are pleased with the society of idle, impious, or profane boys—it is a sure sign that you are already corrupted. And the longer you continue in their company the more you will be injured.

In every school there are some lads who are seducers and corrupters of the rest. They are not always crude or insolent, nor so openly wicked as to shock you at the first acquaintance. Often they are young people of good manners and gentle behavior; but under this cloak, they are false, malignant, or licentious. When you first become acquainted with them, you are charmed by their pleasant deportment; and it is not for a good while that you find out their real character.

There is a saying of a Latin poet which is very true, "No one ever became profligate all at once." The first steps are very slight. The progress is almost imperceptible. When a boy who has been piously educated first comes among ungodly companions, he is shocked with their wickedness. He trembles when he hears them profane the name of God, and retreats from their presence. Their immodest conversation causes him to blush. When they tell willful falsehoods, he is frightened at their daring. After having been some time in their company, this alarm and horror give way. He still dislikes their wicked words and actions—but his ear becomes familiar to the unholy sounds, and he grows used to their impieties. Perhaps a boyish curiosity leads him to mingle in their circle, and listen to their tales. By degrees he is indifferent to what at first so much startled him. "Evil communications corrupt good manners," and he grows more and more like his company. Unless restrained by divine grace, he becomes worse every day.

Beginning with foolish exclamations and minced oaths, he at length desires to appear manly and spirited, and ventures upon some profane expression. At his first oath, it is likely he turns pale or feels an inward shuddering. But by degrees this goes away. He is shamed out of his early principles, and tries to let his companions see that he is as fearless as themselves. So he proceeds, (if not hindered) until he becomes a complete profligate.

Alas! this is the course of many a young man over whom the tears of piety have been shed. Many a youth has thus gone on, until he has broken a tender mother's heart, and brought down her "gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.' Evil company is one of the chief things which corrupt youth. Without bad companions, they would not learn to swear, to curse, or to use indelicate language. Without bad companions, they would not be tempted to taste intoxicating drinks, to gamble, or to practice dishonesty. It is likely that Satan tempts quite as much by wicked people (who are his tools) as he does directly by his own suggestions to our hearts.

As no one can touch pitch without being defiled; so no young person can be much with wicked playmates without being corrupted. Do not be deceived about this. We all think a great deal of our own resolution, and perhaps you will flatter yourself that you are not to be influenced by bad companions. "Let him that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall." The only safety is in flight. You cannot sincerely pray, "Lead us not into temptation," if you rush into bad company, which is one of the very worst of all temptations. It may be the duty of some people to go among the wicked, to do them good; just as it may be the duty of some people to go into a fire, to put it out. But it would be the height of presumptuous folly to walk through the raging flames without necessity; and it is just as presumptuous and as foolish to frequent the society of the wicked.

One of the principal disadvantages of impious company is that it prevents or destroys serious impressions on the heart. As soon as wicked youth perceive that one of their number is thinking about religion, they all turn upon him in ridicule. And in too many cases they are successful. The poor deluded coward is more afraid of their scorn, than of the wrath of God. He is ashamed to let it be known that he prays or reads the Bible. Thousands and thousands have thus been drawn away from the door of life by the taunts of scoffers. Now, my dear brother, as you value your immortal soul, beware of this. Never be ashamed of Christ. And to avoid this temptation, avoid all wicked companions. Consider carefully who your intimate associates are.

If there is among them a single boy who is idle, profane, lewd, deceitful, false, or quarrelsome, shun that boy. Break off all acquaintance with him at once. Have as little to say to him and to do with him as possible. You need not offend him—but you must assuredly avoid him. The psalmist describes the good man as one who "walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful." Solomon says, "My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent—my son, walk not you in the way with them, refrain your foot from their path." Read also the following passages—"Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it; don't travel on it. Turn away from it, and pass it by." "Forsake the foolish, and live, and go in the way of understanding." "He who walks with the wise shall be wise; but a companion of fools shall be destroyed."

By acting in the way which I recommend, it is possible that you may displease some of your schoolmates; but it is better to displease them than to offend God. And in the end, it is very likely that even they will see that your way of life is better than theirs. Remember, that the path of youth is beset with dangers, and ask help of God, and instruction from his word. "How shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to your word." Farewell.

Your affectionate brother,

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