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Advice to Youth

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


That there is a vast amount of evil in the world, all admit. Complaints are made on every side of the early development of bad dispositions—as seen in impatience of parental restraint, disregard of the counsels of experience, and contempt of divine institutions. But the question arises, whence this premature impiety. There is doubtless a reason for it; and perhaps the reason may be found partly in the fact, that in our times too much attention is paid to the mere surface of character. We forget that the way to cleanse the outside is to make the inside clean. It is not properly considered that men are never safe, and can never be really happy, until they become a law to themselves. Young men must set out in the world with good principles.

You cannot but be interested to see in what light the Scriptures present this subject.

No book more fully inculcates the value of sound and firmly-established principles. We scarcely go too far when we affirm, that the grand design of this communication from God, in all the lessons it prescribes and in all the duties it enjoins, is to prepare men to be a law to themselves. The demands of the Bible are complied with, really and in truth, only when we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. This covers the entire ground. Let these two short, explicit, easily-remembered requisitions be obeyed, and it would restore our jarring, discordant world to the peace and serenity of Paradise itself.

It is instructive to mark what worth the Bible always attaches to internal rectitude. Take up the volume at what page you please, the Pentateuch of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, the Epistles of Paul, or our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, and you will see that it proceeds upon the one idea that every man is to be tried by his principles. Appear as he may, unless right in this respect he is no better than a whited sepulcher, beautiful on the outside but within full of all uncleanness. There must be a renewal of the heart, before the life can be correct.

Nothing is sounder in philosophy, or more orthodox in piety, than to make the tree good as the only method of securing good fruit. The whole scheme of revealed religion implies the necessity of an internal renovation. God must first put his Spirit in men and create in them a clean heart, before they will walk in his statutes or keep his commandments to do them. A new moral taste has to be created, a new motive power supplied, a new principle implanted. "Marvel not," cries the Great Teacher in the ears of the astonished Nicodemus, "Marvel not that I said unto you, you must be born again." This renders a man, in the highest and best sense of the words, a law to himself.

This is the scriptural way of reforming the world. Make a man a new creature, as the Bible phraseology is, or, which is the same thing, bring him to love God supremely, to trust in Christ sincerely, and to delight in the divine law heartily—and you secure at once his right conduct, in all places and circumstances. No other religion seeks thus to change the principles of the inner life. It is the glory of the great system of truth, embraced between the covers of this venerable book, that it seeks to establish itself in the love and humility and reverence of the heart, as the only true, as it certainly is the only successful method of controlling the life.

These remarks throw light on a variety of modern movements to rectify the evils of society. As a general thing, no real, enduring good is attained by merely taking advantage of the impulse of the moment to induce men to promise that they will avoid this or that pernicious course. The amendment may be very valuable in itself, and very much demanded by the circumstances of the case; but the pledge to amend, which is administered with no instruction, and adopted with no conviction, will be hardly likely to outlive the excitement in which it originated. There is nothing to support it; the seed has no roots, no tendrils reach down into the soil.

Mistake not my meaning. Specific pledges are sometimes useful, but their usefulness must depend upon the intelligent and well-considered motives which prompt to them. While it may be proper to call them in to strengthen actual purposes of reform, they must never be suffered to take the place of such purposes. In the case of the thoughtless, the inconsiderate and the unprincipled, they will, almost as a matter of course, prove like the morning cloud or the early dew, which vanish away.

The divine plan is infinitely better, because it goes on the assumption that the state of the heart regulates the habits of the life. You do comparatively little for a man, when you put the book of the law into his hands, unless you can at the same time secure the putting of the spirit of the law into his mind. In addition to the precepts of an external revelation, written with pen and ink on the page before him, there must be a writing of those same precepts on the tablet of the soul within him. Then the man becomes, by a sort of happy necessity, his own rule of conduct. Were there no other preacher, he would still love his neighbor, be honest in his dealings, and fear God. The Bible regulates the great sources of feeling and of action. Only secure scriptural principles in the heart of the community, and commercial integrity will prevail, prudent habits will be formed, diligence in business will be practiced, and all the gifts of Providence will be put to the wisest use. This book speaks with a voice that hushes into silence the din and tumult of the world. To scatter it everywhere over the land is really to sow the seeds of stability of character and enduring independence, and to secure for all time to come the spectacle of a powerful, thriving, well-ordered society.

This is an essential point, and happy will it be if you fully comprehend it. The world is full of expedients to render individuals, families and communities virtuous and happy. Multitudes are standing at the head of every street, crying, "Lo here!" or "lo there!" Each one has some remedy, some panacea for the numerous ills which embitter life. But when will these self-styled benefactors come to know, that all changes for the better must be the product of inward principle? In no other way is the work to be effected; there is no other hope for the gambler, the drunkard, or the licentious.

Young men, above all others, ought to understand that the book of God is not directed so much against any particular form of evil in the life, as against the indulgence of evil in the heart. Its appliances are less for the spot on the cheek, than for the hidden ulcer on the lungs. It is not so intently occupied with plucking and destroying the fruit when it ripens, as with laying the axe at the root of the great upas-tree. Its aim is to crush the egg before it breaks out into the viper. To correct the deportment of the outer man, it operates at once on the soul.

What you want is to go forth into the world with a firm and well-garrisoned heart. This will fit you by the steadiness it imparts to your feelings, and the correctness it gives to your judgment, and the sobriety it throws over your anticipations, to travel forward safely in the highways and by-paths of life. It will act as a curb on every unruly appetite.

It will cool the raging fire of ambition. It will break the shock of disappointed hope. Only become, after this sort, a law to yourselves, and you will find no difficulty in submitting to the law of God and man.

No, I go farther. Build on this foundation, and you will have the promise of the life to come, as well as of the life that now is; for good principles are in their very nature eternal. Such mere conventional rules as men often adopt to regulate their interaction with others, are not suited to every stage of existence. After a while they become obsolete, wax old, and vanish away. But not so the principles of inspired rectitude. The man who by studying the Bible, communing with God, and relying on the Savior, becomes a law to himself, will act properly in every state and condition. External circumstances do not affect him. Should he change his climate and even his world, he will still be the same man in all the essential elements of his character.

But how is the value of good principles illustrated in actual life.

You need but little acquaintance with men to see how one's external ways depend on his internal feelings. Only let those views which the word of God gives of truth and duty be cordially received, and become the basis of character, and they will produce such steadfastness of purpose, as no fickleness of fashion, opinion or pursuits can very seriously influence. This will enable a man to stand erect in difficulty and danger. A character thus formed and thus supported will abide the day of trial, whatever be the darkness or tribulation such a day may bring.

Only see to it, that conscience is enlightened, and passion restrained, and love of truth and of right embedded in the soul, and you have nothing to fear. Specific rules for the control of every individual feeling and the guidance of every individual act cannot be given; and if they were they would not be read. The world itself could not contain the books which must be written to meet such a demand. Nothing more is necessary, than general principles cordially adopted by the farmer in the field, the mechanic in the shop, the clerk at the counter, and the student at the desk—and applied to cases as they occur. Let the mind be well imbued with them, and you will scarcely feel the need of a direct injunction against the wine-cup, the gaming table, or the house that is on the way to hell. This will extract the moisture from the root of poisonous plants, so that they will die of themselves.

It is refreshing to see how men of like passions with yourselves, feeling the same weaknesses and plied with the same temptations, have maintained their integrity in circumstances of great peril, and kept their garments undefiled. Delightful illustrations of the sustaining power of real, inward principle, appear on every side. Even the fear of death could not make the fainting David drink of the water of Bethlehem, or keep Daniel from his daily prayers, or cause Shadrach and his companions to fall down before the idols. Men so self-supported could eschew pleasure, defy pain, and brave the lions' den and the heated furnace. So long as their own hearts did not condemn them, they had nothing to fear.

Turn aside for a moment and contemplate the character of the beloved Joseph. Few narratives are more instructive, than that of this young man, as he dreams of future advancement, seeks out his brethren on the field of Dothan, is carried into Egypt by the Midianites, becomes the servant of Potiphar, is cast into prison, interprets the vision of Pharaoh, is clothed in princely robes, and rides in the second chariot of the kingdom. What chequered scenes for one to pass through, at his early time of life! Never was virtue more severely tried, and never was its triumph more complete. Mark the noble youth at whatever point you will, you see the same lofty, unbending principle. This was the reason why he did not become dispirited in bondage, or yield to the blandishments of an artful woman, or give up all for lost within the walls of a prison, or feel the intoxication of power when the chain of gold was put upon his neck. The Lord was with him, and in the best sense of the word, he was a law to himself.

Such conduct shines brightest by contrast. Look then a little at the course of an unprincipled man, or which is nearly the same thing, a man without any fixed principle. See how he veers with every change of fortune—today one thing, and tomorrow another. Only let wealth, fame, or office hold out their lure, and there is no sacrifice of feeling or conscience which he will not make to gain the prize. Trust such a one? Never! Never! For a time he may carry himself with so much apparent propriety and move so steadily along, that it seems almost uncharitable to suspect him. But depend upon it, nothing is lacking but opportunity, and he will betray your confidence. In no instance is it safe to rely on one who is unsound at heart. Just when exigencies arise and firmness is most required, you will find him giving way, and if he become not a Judas, it is because he lacks a fit occasion.

To make the case clearer let me select two individuals, known the country over, and within a few years past numbered with the dead. Both of them had a worthy ancestry, both were possessed of fine talents, both were highly educated, and both were called in the Providence of God to act a distinguished part in life. Everything promised an equally useful and honorable course for each. Their fame was wider than the land which gave them birth. Side by side, they rose from one position of honor and trust to another, until no earthly glory which men can desire, seemed beyond their reach. But here the parallel fails. One of these distinguished individuals had good principles, the other was unprincipled.

The first of these men early in life cast off the fear of the God of his fathers, renounced the Bible as a light from heaven, gloried over the spoils of female virtue, killed in a duel a man far better than himself, became suspected of treason against his country, gradually slunk away from all decent society, and when he died was carried to the grave and put under the clods of the valley in silence and sorrow. There was no lamentation over him. No one shed a tear, except in pity that such a sun should set in clouds so dark and troubled.

Not so the other. Living a life of unsuspected purity, cultivating habits of the strictest temperance, making the Scriptures his daily study, never failing to be in his pew on the Sabbath, and devoting himself to duty with an energy that never gave out, he rose from one elevation to another, until he had nothing further to wish, and his country nothing greater to give. For long years did he steadily hold on his way. But at length he died. And when it was told that the old man eloquent—or as it could better be said, the old man honest—had fallen at his post, uttering the significant cry "This is the last of earth," a sensation was produced, which not only reached to his own New England hills, but was felt in all the cities of the sunny South, and over all the prairies of the mighty West. The statesmen of the land vied with each other in paying honors to his memory.

Names have not been given and names are not necessary. Such things cannot be done in a corner. But my young friends, can you look at these men as they pass on step by step, until the day of one terminates in poverty, neglect, and despair—while a halo of more than earthly glory encircles the dying couch of the other, without getting a deeper impression of the importance of being a law to yourselves. Here was indeed a forcible illustration of the value of good principles.

Shall such examples be lost upon the youth of the land? They can here learn what power there is in a good character to carry men safely over the rough voyage of life; while a lack of such character is sure to send the brightest and most brilliant to a dishonored tomb.

What training then can be compared with that of preparing men to be a law to themselves? You may put a Bible into the hands of a young man and charge him to read it, you may lay down rules for the government of his conduct and beg him to observe them, you may set before him the example of good men, and exhort him to follow it; but all will not answer unless the principle of right-doing is imbibed. There will be hours of forgetfulness when that Bible will not be read; there will be assaults of temptation, when those rules will be neglected; and there will be allurements to evil, when the example of others will be powerless. Nothing, nothing, will serve the purpose, short of fixed and settled principles.

The eye of friendship cannot follow you, as you go out to embark in business, toss in ships, and travel in cars, everywhere in danger, everywhere needing protection. If God and your own good principles do not stand you in good stead, fall you will. You must be a law to yourselves, in the mart of trade, the cabin of the steamboat, and the crowded inn, or you will soon make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. No shield less strong can quench the darts of Satan and bad men.

This is the grand safeguard. Thoroughly furnish a man with this resource, and he will go calmly and steadily forward, breasting the storm which would hinder his progress, and beating back the waves which threaten to overwhelm him.

Think of Samuel, old and gray-headed in the service of God and his country. "Behold," says he, "here I am; witness against me before the Lord—whose ox have I taken? or whose donkey have I taken? or whom have I defrauded?" Look at Paul as he stands arraigned before the Jewish Sanhedrin. Lifting himself up in conscious and self-sustaining rectitude, he cries out, "Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day." Contrast these cases with the dreadful lamentation of the degraded Wolsey—"Had I served my God with half the zeal I have served my king, He would not have forsaken me in my old age."

The subject is fully before you, and will you not arise and gird yourselves for duty as best you may?

If I am right in the views now given, what you need above all else is truth in the inward parts. As for having a kind father always near to brace up your minds amid the changes and chances of this mortal life, or a fond mother at hand to watch over you in the "ups and downs" of your course like a guardian angel, or a sweet sister to cheer away your sadness, and encourage you to buffet manfully the billows of the world, it is impossible. The hours hasten on, when you must be alone with nothing but God and good principles for your guide.

No! to some of you this hour has perhaps come already. Affectionate parents, a gladsome fire-side, and a pleasant home, are things of remembrance rather than of present enjoyment. If such be the case, you have my sympathies and my prayers. Who now is to speak words of consolation to you when your cheeks are covered with tears and your eyelids are heavy with pain? But despond not. Only confide in God, and adopt good principles, and you can get forward without other aid.

The great Milton put into the mouth of a fallen spirit a momentous truth—"The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell in heaven." In other words be right yourselves, and this will make all right.

Do you know who was that signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the first Congress, of whom Thomas Jefferson remarked, "He never said a foolish thing in his life?" It was Roger Sherman, a poor youth, brought up to an humble occupation. But he was a man, the superstructure of whose character was laid on the broad principles of the word of God; and this united with native force and energy enabled him to rise higher and higher, until he could cope successfully with the strong and mighty men of the land.

This, be assured, is the hinge on which everything will turn. The difficulty in getting onward in the world is not perhaps where you deem it to be. What if competition be earnest, and every prize hotly contested; this is just as it should be. In this broad land of free institutions, high mountains, deep rivers, and warm hearts, we are not to look for the dead level of Spain and Portugal. It is all the better, that you are forced out upon an arena, where you must try your strength, and measure your weapons with young men as full of life and zeal as yourselves. But only be true-hearted, and some door will open which all the world cannot close. If you cannot be one thing, be another. A man's true self does not depend on the coat he wears, or the house he lives in.

My young friends, if ever brought into such circumstances that losses must be sustained to keep the ship afloat, cut away the masts, cast over the lading, let the entire cargo go, sooner than give up the helm. Or to speak without a figure, renounce the favor of the rich and powerful, sacrifice health, and even life itself, rather than relinquish one iota of right principle, or yield to a single inroad upon a clear conscience. Come what will, only hold fast your integrity, and you will never be left without resources. "Getting wisdom is the most important thing you can do! And whatever else you do, get good judgment. If you prize wisdom, she will exalt you. Embrace her and she will honor you." Proverbs 4:7-8

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