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Advice to Youth

by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society in 1855.


"Solomon my son is young and tender," was the remark of one of the best of men and kindest of fathers. There is nothing striking in language like this, viewed simply by itself; and yet it can scarcely be uttered without awakening a train of emotions in every generous bosom. No other period of life affects so deeply human character and destiny, and none other calls forth so many solicitudes and prayers.

Three classes of people range themselves around us—the aged, the middle-aged, and the young. To each belong hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, peculiar to itself. As men of gray hairs have trials and comforts which may very properly be denominated their own, so it is also with those in the meridian of life, and with bright and buoyant youth. At every different period, existence assumes a new phase, and requires to be addressed in new and appropriate terms. None of these groups of human beings must be overlooked; but if it be right to discriminate, we can easily see where our chief interest should be concentrated. To be useful to the young is to be useful for the longest time, and on the largest scale.

But who is sufficient to assume the office of guide to a company of immortal beings, in the morning of life! I feel my inability, beloved youth, in the burden of responsibility which I take upon myself in attempting barely to sketch the path in which it will be safe for you to walk. Yet one thing encourages me—your dearest and best friends and parents, will all afford me their countenance.

The plan to be developed in the chapters before us, will be found to have a compass somewhat large. Many topics are to come under review, suited to improve your character and advance your respectability, which are not made the basis of public instruction as often as their importance demands. My wish is that you should be thoroughly equipped for the great work of life. Religion is indeed to give shape to each distinct theme; but it is to be religion as connected with every-day duties and enjoyments, and affording every-day strength and consolation. Making one's "calling and election sure," is not the only thing required—you must "do justly and love mercy," as well as "walk humbly with God."

Let me begin by calling your attention to some remarks on the season of youth, considered in its bearing upon the whole after-life.

1. At no subsequent time are such valuable acquisitions made. Now it is, that the affections are most ardent, the heart most susceptible, the memory most retentive, and all the mental, moral, and physical faculties most susceptible of improvement. Everything leaves its impress on the young—the faces they look at, the voices they hear, the places they visit, the company they keep, and the books they read. It is impossible to over-estimate the importance, for this world and the next, which attaches to a few of the earlier years of one's existence. The first quarter of life is worth more, as a period of acquisition, than all the rest.

Consider what attainments are made by a child within twenty or thirty months from its birth. Even while a helpless infant, it learns to read inward feelings as expressed in the changes which the countenance assumes, and can readily distinguish between a smile and a frown. Approach it with caresses, and its eyes sparkle and its features brighten. Put on a forbidding aspect, use angry words, and its bosom heaves, its tears fall. This is the time for the feeble one to become acquainted with the difficult art of poising itself, and standing erect. Before it has reached a fourth of its size, its step is often as regular as if it understood all the laws of gravitation, and its motions as graceful as if it had been trained by the most skillful hand. And stranger still, during this very period the weak and apparently inattentive creature masters a new language! That which adults never acquire without long and patient study, a child gains without Grammar or Dictionary, and with scarcely a single painful exertion.

Deem not such thoughts as these to be trivial and unimportant. You will not judge so, be assured, if you ever live to become parents yourselves, and are permitted to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of marking how a little son or daughter looks up and tries to read your heart in your face, or of noticing the first efforts which a sweet child makes to walk alone, or of hearing the busy prattler utter words until they become easy, and join syllables until they become intelligible.

But I have higher reasons than all these, for thus pausing at the threshold of human existence, and fixing your attention on the future man in his earliest days. Much may be learned of the fathomless purposes of the Divine mind, and the unraveled mysteries of Providence, in such a sight as this. That child just beginning to fix its gaze upon its father's features, to make trial of the strength of its own limbs, and to lisp the name of mother, may have a destiny more glorious than yonder sun shining in his strength. What we as yet behold is only the first bursting of the bud, that the flower may emit its fragrance and disclose its tints. The putting forth of such efforts by one so frail and tender, is but breaking the shell, so that the living thing within may find its exit, and open its wings, and plume its feathers, and prepare for its lofty flight. Now, another immortal being is started on its marvelous and hitherto unwritten course. A commencement is made, and it is such a commencement as foretells a rapid and glorious progress.

Premature development, mental or physical, is not desirable. Plants that are so forced in their growth as to come forward before their proper time, seldom have much strength of stem, width of leaf, or richness of odor. That which grows up in a night, not infrequently perishes in a night. But without undue pressure, and under the influence of the mildest and gentlest methods, surprising advances will often be made.

These are the incipient efforts, and they prepare the way for subsequent and longer steps.

Few things are more interesting than to consider what an amount of valuable knowledge—knowledge of God and man, of time and eternity, of earth and heaven—may be gained in the first twelve or fifteen years of one's life. During this period the science of numbers and distances, opening the door to mathematics, geography and astronomy, may be fairly entered upon and its grand principles mastered. Nature, too, begins now to unlock her mysterious treasure-house, and the mere stripling of a student often finds himself able to comprehend the operation of a thousand of those laws on which life and happiness depend. Especially is this the season to have the mind stored with the great events, which fill for us the pages of ancient and modern history. Acquisitions which cannot be gotten for gold, and for the price of which silver cannot be weighed, may be made, and often are made, while one is still young and tender.

Permit me to remark here, that this is especially the period of life for adding to the compass and retentiveness of the memory. To reason logically and arrive at wise and safe results, requires a sound judgment; and such a judgment is usually the fruit of deep experience, and large opportunities of comparing one thing with another. But to collect the materials with which a riper understanding can work out its conclusions, is the special province of youth. Every one who expects to make his mark high in the world, should begin early to form a collection of valuable facts, and not a day should pass without adding to their number.

This, let me add for your encouragement, is a work in which you may make a degree of progress that will surprise yourselves. It is not necessary that a young man, in order to become intelligent and well-informed, should enjoy the instructions of erudite professors, and have access to universities and richly endowed colleges. Many a man has contrived to engrave his name very legibly in the Temple of Fame, with fewer opportunities for improvement than often in our day fall to the lot of the humblest laborer. But this is a thought which, though deeply interesting, I cannot pursue at present. It is sufficient here to say, that no youth, who feels the workings of a single noble aspiration, need be disheartened at any apparent difficulties that lie in his path. The highest idea of education is the training of the mind to surmount obstacles.

Volume upon volume, bringing the richest secrets of art and science within your reach, lie open before you; a very few shillings, easily saved from not going to the bar-room or the saloon, will put you in possession of a fund of information, to which many of your parents and older friends had no early access. Above all, the book of God is on your table, and in it you are sure to meet with the truest history, the best prudential maxims, and the purest devotion. Only use well your advantages, and you may make acquisitions in comparison with which houses and lands are as nothing.

2. Youth is the season in which impressions prove most abiding. It is the time for keeping as well as getting, for remembering as well as learning, for retaining as well as acquiring. To bring truth into contact with the mind of an open, ingenuous youth, is like applying a seal to the newly melted wax, so that you are sure of getting not only a correct, but a permanent likeness. The lines are drawn deeply on the tender heart, and no waves of subsequent business or care can entirely obliterate them. Years may pass away, and the head blossom for the grave, and the eye grow dim, and the hand tremble; but the scenes of early life reappear with the freshness of yesterday.

Youth and old age, in more senses than one, seem to be closely connected. If you visit a man who, like a venerable oak, stands while every tree around it has fallen, you will find that his mind, though almost a perfect blank as to recent transactions and events, is alive to those of childhood and youth. This is a deeply interesting fact, and it deserves to be well and carefully pondered by such as are laying up a store for time to come. Forget what else he may, the patriarch of many days is not likely to forget the tree under which he played, the brook by which he strolled, or the hill which he climbed when a boy. Half of both his waking and sleeping hours are employed in living that sunny and halcyon period of his life over again. Two thirds of a century may have gone, never to return, but still his thoughts linger around the paternal fireside, the bed in which he slept, and the room where he joined in his mother's prayers. Let me ask those advanced in life, if this be not so. You remember the very form of groves long since cut down, of books long since read, of classmates long since gone, and of ministers long since in the grave. It is of your memory of the occurrences of last week and yesterday that you complain, and not of your memory of events a generation ago. These are all vivid and fresh.

Whatever may be said of the latter stages of life, its commencement will leave traces never to be worn out. The intellect is now taking a shape, and the affections receiving a texture, and the individual acts turning into habits, which, if somewhat modified by after-scenes and impressions, are seldom very essentially changed. This is the point from which men start, and it generally determines their whole future course. Here the path is entered upon, which leads to virtue or vice, honor or infamy, heaven or hell. Let the mother of John Newton take her little son to her closet for prayer, let Doddridge be taught Scripture history when a child, by the pictures on the chimney-tiles, and let Buchanan, when a boy, wander into a church where Jesus is preached—and the effects remain. All the agents in these tender transactions—parents, friends, ministers—may be sleeping in the grave, but their work endures.

What a precious fact is this, and how full of encouragement! Give me the successful shaping of a child's character in all its earlier stages, until eighteen or twenty years are gone by, and I shall never, under God, despair of him afterwards. Go astray he may, be forgetful he may, become wayward he may, for a time; but by and by the arm of Divine mercy will be extended, and the stream which had sunk in the sand will rise again to the surface, more limpid and life-imparting than ever. The disappointment in such cases, we have every reason to conclude, will be but partial and temporary.

I grant that radical changes of character do occasionally occur, after the most promising part of life is gone. We sometimes see females, who, during the whole of their earlier years, seemed to be given to vanity and frivolity, becoming patterns of everything excellent and of good report, when translated into a new sphere and invested with new responsibilities. So, too, we now and then find a wicked, dissolute young man, who like Cecil or Gardiner, lives to repent of his folly, and leads a new life. Such reformations, blessed be God, are not altogether strange in the history of the world and the Church; and when they do occur, we are to regard them as illustrious instances of the power of Divine grace.

Nor do we hesitate to admit, that here and there a child, who once gave promise of better things, is left to make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. But I am speaking of what is common, and what we have a right in ordinary circumstances to expect; for the grace of God, though mysterious in its nature and sovereign in its operations, was not intended to supersede the influence of motives, or counteract the ordinary laws of the human mind.

Depend upon it, beloved youth, the impressions of early life will remain. Only fill your minds at this tender period, with images of truth, purity and goodness, and they will stay there to enliven the solitude and brighten the anticipations of your latest years. But habituate your thoughts to scenes of vice and deeds of infamy, and the taint will stick by you like a leprosy, until death comes. Oh, could you look at this subject as those look at it who have traveled the path, we should oftener hear you cry, "My Father, be the guide of my youth!"

Examine this subject—the permanency of early impressions—I entreat you, in the light of testimony and observation. Have you ever known a good mechanic, who did not gain the elements of success in his youth; a kind, considerate master who did not serve a virtuous apprenticeship; an eminent lawyer, physician, or pastor, who was not a diligent student? This is true of those qualities which come into play in active, business life; and it is still more true of the quiet and passive virtues. I question whether you have ever heard of a placid, serene, tranquil and contented old man happy in God and in fulfilling the various responsibilities of life, who was noted in his youth for noise, recklessness, impatience, or lack of self-control. This is a kind of wild-oats, which, if sown at all, is sure to produce a crop. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil." Jeremiah 13:23

Could my voice reach every young man and woman in the land, I would warn them not to yield their hearts to injurious impressions. Little, ah little, do they think, while listening to some slur on the profession of piety, or opening their ears to some sly objection to the truth of the Bible, or poring over the pages of some novel filled with tales of lust and blood—what havoc all this is making with the peace of their own minds, or how it is adapted to cut up by the very roots those principles of virtue which enter essentially into the formation of a good character. This is like poison, taken into the physical system, and will be sure, sooner or later, to reveal its bitter results. The mark is made, not on the sand, but on enduring rock.

3. Associations are now formed, which go far to mold the whole after-life. Man is so made for friendship and for social communion, that his joys have a double relish, and his sorrows lose half their weight, when shared by others. Even a child cannot bear to keep either his pleasures or his pains to himself. There is, from the first, a felt necessity for the affections to go out and fasten upon some external object. This is the reason why most men are so much the creatures of circumstances, and why the weaving of early ties so powerfully controls every subsequent step. The first things not infrequently deter mine the last.

Look at men of eminence in the world, and you will generally find that much of the foundation of that eminence was laid in the associations of early life. Joseph, David, and Daniel are examples in sacred volume, not only of providential leadings and indications, but of voluntary choice and preferences having an influence, in preparing them for the lofty position which they eventually reached. Luther was only twenty-nine years old, when he gave the Papal Hierarchy his first deadly blow; and Calvin but twenty-five, when he wrote the immortal Institutes. Bonaparte was a mere stripling when he accomplished his glorious campaign in Italy; and the dew of youth was still on the brow of our beloved Washington, when he distinguished himself on the day of Braddock's defeat. Who can say how much of all that these men accomplished, depended, under God, on the course adopted at the commencement of life?

No wonder that good men feel such an interest in the associations which their young friends form. They see that the company which you now keep, the principles you now adopt, and the habits you now form, are likely to settle the question of the future with a certainty which is well-near infallible. Full well do they know, that in the minds, and manners, and character of the young, we have an index to the state of society, for many years to come. Give us a favorable spring, that the precious seed may be safely sown, and we shall the more confidently anticipate a fruitful summer, an abundant autumn, and a plentiful winter. The connection is so close between the present and the future, that every step taken now will show itself in outcomes and results, for years to come. An unfortunate relationship may wed a man to misery of the most poignant kind, until his dying day; and a happy one may shed a sweet and reviving light all along his pathway, until it opens into glory. It would be true, had the Bible never asserted it—that "whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap."

I am but asserting what all know to be a fact, when I say that the hearts of the young are full of high anticipations. After the sun has passed the meridian, there are few who have the resolution to embark in new enterprises, and who feel like trying to accommodate themselves to new circumstances. Old people cry out, like Barzillai, "Can I hear any more the voice of singing men or singing women? Let your servant, I pray you, turn back again, that I may die in my own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and of my mother." Very proper is this feeling for the aged; but it ought not to be thus with those who feel the life-blood coursing warm and rapid through their veins. God forbid that they should pause and stand still, as men who would gladly take off the armor.

No, beloved youth, you could not be inactive, if you would; and you would not if you could. Your hearts throb with impulses, which, like an eagle beating against the bars of its cage, must express themselves in plans and purposes and high resolves, or turn back upon their fountain to make it stagnant and corrupt. Can the full-fed war-horse be restrained from chomping the bit and pawing the earth, without breaking his very nature? We blame you not, ardent and aspiring youth, for being all alive to those stirring inmovings, which are a part of that mental and moral constitution conferred upon you by your Maker. Go on, we rather say, with firm and earnest steps in the path to which God and duty call you. But while we thus give you large liberty and a clear field, deem it not unkind in us, if we feel constrained to whisper words of caution in your ears.

Only apply the principles of Solomon's Proverbs, of Christ's Sermon on the mount, and of Paul's epistles, to every movement you make, and we have no fear for the consequences. Let all the associations you form in business operations, in companionship for leisure hours, and in alliances for life, be begun, continued, and ended with God, and you may calculate upon their bringing a blessing along with them. This will realize the fulfillment of the prayer—"May our sons flourish in their youth like well-nurtured plants. May our daughters be like graceful pillars, carved to beautify a palace." Psalm 144:12.

But discard these counsels of heavenly wisdom, and give yourselves over to a friendship with the irreligious, the impure and the skeptical, and you fix thorns in your pillow never to be extracted. We all know who has said, "He who walks with wise men shall be wise, but a companion of fools shall be destroyed."

I look forward a few years, and find children become youth, and youth men and women in active life. The seeds sown in infancy by some fond mother have swelled and grown, and become trees of righteousness, and the lessons given by a kind father are yielding their appropriate fruit. One comes out and joins himself to the industrious, the prudent and the pious; while another associates with the indolent, the dissipated and the profane. From this point you may trace their destiny for two worlds. Let me see how youth assort themselves in the school, the workshop and the college, and I need no prophet's vision to predict what they will be and what they will do when they become men. Viciously inclined as a young man may be, a virtuous companionship is often the means of his salvation. Virtuously disposed as he may be, an ungodly friendship may work his ruin.

Reflect, then, my young friend, seriously and prayerfully, on the importance of the season through which you are now passing. Little do you think how deep an interest is felt for your welfare. There is the man that begat you, and the woman that bore you, each crying out, "My son, if your heart shall be wise, my heart shall rejoice, even mine." Kind friends draw near and ask for blessings on your heads, which shall reach to the utmost bounds of the everlasting hills. Your minister prays that you may become his joy and the crown of his rejoicing in the day of the Lord Jesus. Above all, God himself looks down, and blending his claims with your highest welfare, speaks out, "My son, give me your heart." Oh, shall all this interest be felt for you, in heaven and on earth, in vain! Will you not at this early hour on the dial of human life, realize the grandeur and glory of the destiny that awaits you!

Be faithful to yourselves, to your fellow-men, and to God for ten, fifteen, or twenty years, and I almost dare promise you a useful life, a happy death, and a blissful immortality!

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