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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.

Evil Speaking

My dear brother,
The sins of the tongue are, perhaps, more numerous than all our other outward offenses. And faults of this kind are very common in young people. It is not usual to find a youth who is not fond of talking, and where there is much talking, as I have said to you before, there is commonly much sin. Very few boys or girls feel the importance of keeping a strict watch over their lips—and hence, much of their time is taken up in idle, unprofitable, and wicked conversation. I hope I need not say a word more to you about willful lying, profaneness, or slander. These you have been taught to abhor. But there are vices, allied to these, and partaking of their character, into which young people are very apt to fall. Their wickedness is not so open and glaring, and therefore they are committed without compunction.

When young people are talking together, in high spirits, nothing is more natural than for them to converse about their neighbors and acquaintances; and they are as likely to speak of the faults, as the excellencies of these people. In this way, the habit is formed of remarking too freely on personal character, and thus many, before they suspect themselves, fall into the vice of SLANDER. Even when you know of an offence committed by another, it is right to say nothing of it, except where silence would plainly be a sin. "He that covers a transgression seeks love." Charity, or true Christian love, rejoices not in iniquity—but believes all things, and hopes all things.

In general, the less you talk about absent people the better. Especially, the less you speak of their faults, the better. Some boys are in a hurry to repeat everything they hear about the misdeeds of their acquaintances. This shows a low and depraved temper. We may slander, even by speaking the truth; and if we loved our neighbor as ourselves, we would conceal his frailties, just as we always try to conceal our own. The character of a slanderer is justly abhorred. Try to avoid even the appearance of being such. The Scriptures describe the good man as one "that backbites not with his tongue." And they class together "backbiters, and haters of God." In order to keep clear of this vice, beware of tale-bearing. There are some things, indeed, which your duty as a son or a pupil will constrain you to make known; and this ought not to be called talebearing—but faithfulness.

What I mean to guard you against is the disposition to tattle about every fault or misdemeanor of your playmates or friends. So far as it is practicable or lawful—be the last to carry the bad tidings of a transgression. Be careful not to say anything about others, which you would not be willing they should hear, or which you would not be willing they shall say of you.

Harsh and reviling language used towards others is a kind of slander. It injures the feelings and the character of those to whom it is addressed. And it is, perhaps, more common among boys than among men; for as people grow up to years of maturity, they learn the imprudence and the danger of abusing their neighbors with violent words. "Revilers," we are told, "shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

A very common sort of indirect slander is the ridicule often bestowed by the young upon the foibles of others. You often hear boys laughing at the peculiarities of some unfortunate youth, and amusing themselves with his looks, his walk, his pronunciation, or his clothes. Where there is a talent for mimicry, this disposition is still more encouraged. Young people are fond of making fun of everything humiliating in their playmates. Very few people seem to regard this as wrong; but a little consideration will convince you that it is so; for we always think less of anyone who is thus held up in a ludicrous point of view; and this is the very effect produced by slander. The offence becomes a crime when the ridicule is aimed at the natural defects or misfortunes of others. None but the most hard-hearted will sport with the infirmities of the aged, the blind, the crippled, or the poor. And I would advise you to shun the company of any boy who is in the habit of laughing at, or mimicking the natural and unavoidable peculiarities of those around him.

Take care, my dear brother, how you remark on the faults of any one. Perhaps you are guilty of the very same faults. Or, if not, perhaps the report you have heard is untrue. Or, even if it is true, there may be palliating circumstances of which you are ignorant. Or, even at the worst, if it should be all that you might imagine, it can do no good to remark upon it, and you may be inflicting an injury which you can never repair. There is scarcely anything so dear to man as reputation; and when this is once stained by slander, it is exceedingly hard, and often impossible, to remove the spot.

You are now forming habits for life. I beg you; avoid this habit of evil-speaking. It is one of the most common sins of mankind, and therefore I am the more earnest that you should escape it. Do not even listen to slander. Let all around you know, that it gives you no pleasure to hear your fellow creatures defamed.

Last of all—the surest method of avoiding habits of evil-speaking, is to maintain sincere love for all your fellow-creatures. We never willingly injure those we sincerely love. We never speak bitterly and slanderously of our own dear relations. And so far as we have true charity for all mankind, we shall avoid the very appearance of defamation and slander.

Your affectionate brother,


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