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Advice to Youth

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


Someone remarked to the celebrated John Wesley, as he was entering upon his religious course, "You must either find companions—or make them." This is true of every one. It is not good for man to be alone. Even the bliss of Paradise was not deemed complete, until Adam had a companion to unite with him in his labors, and share with him his joys.

This is a law of our nature, operating upon all, but felt with most force in early life. Young people are formed for communion and companionship. It would make them wretched to immure them in a hermit's cell. But just in proportion to the strength with which their feelings fasten upon those whom they call their friends—will be the power of these friends to be either a blessing or a curse to them.

Scarcely anything else is so pregnant of weal or woe. Solomon has said, "He who walks with wise men shall be wise—but a companion of fools shall be destroyed."

You will have friends—and you will feel their influence. The link is mysterious which binds human beings together, so that the heart of one answers to the heart of another, like the return of an echo; but such a link exists. There seems to be a sort of welding process, by which the feelings and principles of two individuals, before entire strangers, are soon reduced to a complete identity. One catches the spirit, and copies the manner of the other, so that in a short time the same character belongs to both! Wax does not more certainly retain the figure of the seal, than does the mind retain the impression produced by communion and association. The influence is often silent and unperceived, like the rolling in of a wave in a quiet sea; but like that same wave it is mighty and resistless.

On the one hand, make wise and good men your chosen companions, and you put yourselves in the direct way of becoming wise and good. Intimacies of this sort are invaluable in the formation of character. A network of virtuous associations will thus be woven around you, through which you will find it difficult to break, even should you desire so to do. The operation is secret and imperceptible, but the effects are striking. Could we only persuade the youth among us to mix with the pure, the considerate, and the amiable—they would feel the happy influence. Strongly inclined to evil as is the heart of man—godly friendship never fails to be a check. Let them once become the companions of such as fear the Lord, and they will rarely be found disbelieving his word and profaning his name, or trampling his Sabbath in the dust. The power of a truly consistent godly example, bad as the world is, is immense. Even when it does not reach so far as to be saving, it proves salutary; and when it does not prevent eventual ruin, it has the effect of putting far off the evil day.

But, on the other hand, become the associate of men of bad principles and practices, and you are in danger of walking in the same path. Example, always influential, is peculiarly so, when it sets in the wrong direction. The reason is that in every such case the 'depraved model' finds something in the bosom congenial to itself—and the 'wicked pattern' finds its agreement in the existing state of the heart. On this account it is, that a single improper friendship often works the most fatal results. All that parents, teachers, and pious friends have been doing for years, disappears as the refreshing dew before the rising sun. Associate with the vile, and you will most assuredly become vile. To "walk in the counsel of the ungodly," is the first step towards "standing in the place of sinners," and "sitting in the seat of the scornful."

All this is well understood by those who have children to educate, or sons to send out into the world. There is always a sense of security, when it is certain that the roommate is studious and sober-minded, and the fellow-apprentice and clerk are steady and church-going. Men who have no real religion themselves, are often desirous to place their sons and daughters in circumstances where God is honored, and the Bible is treated as a book from heaven. This is a kind of homage, which truth and goodness exact of thousands whose hearts after all continue wedded to the paths of iniquity.

Remember, in this connection, that whatever is good or bad, lofty or degrading, virtuous or vicious—in the human bosom—will be most fully developed in society. Lot, no doubt, would have been a better man than he was, had he been surrounded with examples of piety; and Esau would have been a worse man than he was, had he lived in a wicked family. Encouragement is thus given to those who are struggling upward, and obstacles are put in the way of those who are going downward. No one, unsustained by companionship and associates, ever rises to the fullest measure of excellence; and no one, who is not urged on by others, ever sinks to the lowest depths of depravity. The pious are more decidedly pious—and the wicked are more decidedly wicked—as the result of union, concert, and cooperation.

It is a well-ascertained fact, that a company of bad men will generally be more openly and boldly vile than any one of that company would dare to be alone. In this case, the first stimulates and draws on the second, the second the third, until the voice of conscience is drowned, and every feeling of shame is eradicated from the heart. If a person really wishes to rid himself of all virtuous restraint, he has only to go with the multitude to do evil, and the end is gained. In the confusion and bustle of noisy associates, sin has no such sting as it has in private. What opportunity is there here for those serious reflections and painful misgivings, which come thronging upon the mind in the stillness of the bed-chamber and the solitary walk. Instead of asking what God and conscience approve, the only question now is—What will gratify the company? If this point can be secured, there seems to be no thought of the remorse thus stored up for a sick chamber, or a dying bed.

In a large majority of cases, pre-eminence in evil results from the abuse of that social principle, which God has implanted in our bosoms as a help to the development of piety. Where is it, let me ask, that the profane jest is uttered against the Scriptures, the Lord's-day, and the ministry of the Sanctuary? Under what circumstances is it, that the song of the drunkard is heard, and the silence of midnight is disturbed by the mutterings and curses of the gambler? How does it come to pass that here one, and there another, is enticed to the house of infamy and the vortex of damnation? These are not vices which spring up in retirement and are connected with thinking on one's ways. They have their origin in noise and bustle and excitement—and not in stillness or solitude.

This is the point at which the road starts which leads to profaneness, intemperance, and debauchery. Festive seasons and days of mirth, afford a fruitful soil for the growth of sin. The mind is thus unbent; pleasurable sensations are excited, and one gives countenance to another, until the most disgusting impiety and inebriation ensue.

There is more of weight and importance in these truths than is always supposed. A solitary Deist or Universalist living in a neighborhood of consistent Christians, is not likely to hold his errors very firmly, or broach them with a very confident air. Infidelity is a plant which does not thrive well by itself. It grows up more rankly and bears its more noxious fruit amid the noise and smoke and fumes of the bar-room, and puts on its deepest hues while the drunken cup is passing around. Who ever heard of a man's railing against the Bible, or the final doom of the wicked, in his solitary chamber? Perhaps such a thing is sometimes done, but impiety like this loves publicity and show. Clairvoyants would not "mutter and peep" if there were none to hear.

It is well, too, to remark that young men of amiable dispositions are often most in danger from bad company. Owing to that great catastrophe which so utterly deranged man's whole moral nature, some of those very traits of character which are denominated virtues—seem really to open the door to vice. This is but too true of thousands who are blessed with a soft, mild and yielding disposition. Like some plants which change the color of their blossoms as often as you change the soil in which they stand, these people take their tone of feeling from surrounding circumstances. While at home, where the Bible was read, prayer offered, the sanctuary visited and God worshiped—everything apparently went well with them. But after receiving the farewell blessing of a kind father, and the parting embrace of a fond mother—new scenes soon opened and new impressions were made.

We are pleased to see a soft and kindly temper in early life; but it is not to be concealed that such a temper exposes one to peculiar peril. A person of such a disposition, usually lacks firmness and independence of character. Hence we frequently see him falling in with the opinions and practices of his companions, even in opposition to his own convictions of right and wrong. He has not internal strength to resist evil, provided it puts on an inviting aspect. Often is he drawn into fellowship with the wicked in scenes of dissipation and vice, simply because he has not the courage to resist. Sooner than turn his back upon some unprincipled associate, he will sacrifice conscience, peace of mind, and the favor of God.

Sad is it for such a one, when he falls into the snares of those who, under a gentle and deceitful appearance, hide a heart of deadly opposition to the ways of piety. The fly in the web of the spider, or the fish on the hook of the angler, is a fit emblem of a victim like this.

Sir Matthew Hale, one of the most learned and upright judges who ever sat on the bench in England or any other country, came near being ruined in this very way. When quite young he was amiable and studious, and great hopes were entertained of his future eminence. But some strolling theatrical players came to the town where he lived, and he was induced by his own yielding disposition, to become a witness of their performances. This so completely captivated his heart, that he lost all relish for study, and gave himself up to dissipated company. Happily, however, for his prospective usefulness and peace of mind, as he was one day surrounded by vile associates, it pleased God to put a stop to their folly, by smiting one of their number with a sudden disease, which soon sent him to the grave. This broke the bonds which tied the heart of young Hale to a life of dissipation, and drove him to his closet, his Bible, and his God.

Instances of the like wandering are common—alas that instances of like return are so few. Let one of an easy complying disposition, and with little fixedness of principle, come into contact with educated and refined iniquity—and the work of ruin is speedily done. The politeness of the exterior renders him unsuspicious of the sink of corruption within. At first he only listens, then he begins to imitate, and soon he goes as an "ox to the slaughter and as a fool to the correction of the stocks!"

All this is confirmed by the fact, that young men are sure to be estimated by the character of their companions. Not only do a man's familiar friends exert an influence over him, but what is more, they constitute the sure and ready test by which others judge of his worth. There is an old proverb, and all experience verifies it—"every man is known by the company he keeps." On this account it is that shrewd and intelligent observers of human nature seldom put themselves to the trouble of looking any further in order to decide upon a person's reputation. Tell them where the clerk or apprentice spends his evenings, and with whom he takes his walks, and it is enough. Nothing would seem stranger to them than to look for a sober, considerate, trustworthy young man—in the midst of the idle, the profane, and the licentious. Never do they expect to find one that is temperate, industrious and correct—among a noisy, dissipated and drunken crew. So certain is it, that every individual will be what his companions are—in character, habits, and way of life—that in nine cases out of ten, no further testimony is required.

REPUTATION is a delicate plant, which will not bear the touch of violence, or the breath of pollution. Though it advance by slow and almost imperceptible degrees, it often, like the Prophet's gourd, withers in a night. It is possible for you to lose in an hour—what it costs years of care and prudence to gain. A little lack of consideration—a little forgetfulness of what is due to yourselves—a little yielding to the blandishments of vice—may inflict an injury never to be repaired! But take another course. Seek the society of the good—cast in your lot among the virtuous and faithful—and your standing will become reputable at once. Everybody will see that you respect yourselves, and this will secure the respect of others.

I charge you, ponder well these remarks. If you are seen to associate freely with such as are known to have no respect for the Scriptures, and no reverence for the Sabbath, especially if it should once come to be understood that you can cast in your lot with those who have gone so far in the ways of transgression as to glory in their shame, you must not deem it a hardship to be treated as if you maintained the very same character. This is perfectly natural, and not at all to be complained of. You might as well visit a district infected with the plague, and expect to be welcomed at once to the bosom of families where health prevails; as to associate with the workers of iniquity, and hope to pass along without having a mark fixed upon you, by men of every name and place.

What a penalty to pay for going astray in this one particular; and yet it must be paid, if the false step be taken. Such are the legitimate fruits of friendships formed without regard to the high interests of morality and virtue; and they open the way to a miserable life—as well as an undone eternity. A young man of good character may hope to gather around his dwelling the blessings of peace, and the comforts of plenty. But with no safe and reliable passport like this, he enters upon life only to end it in grief to himself and disappointment to his friends. Ah! who would be willing to purchase the friendship of the wicked at so dear a rate? Who can consent to pay such a price for the privilege of filling his own cup with wormwood and gall?

As united fires send up the tallest and fiercest flames, so in the case before us, the wickedness of the entire group seems to concentrate upon each individual. Shun then, as you would pestilence and death—all such as have contracted wicked habits. No matter what gay clothing they wear, how flippant their conversation, or how respectable their friends—they are not the companions for you. It is impossible to join affinity with them, without exposing yourself to be dragged into the same gulf, in which they are fast sinking.

If you will take the advice of one older than yourselves—do not be ambitious of having a multitude of bosom friends. Far be it from me to utter a syllable, which might by any possibility be construed into an encouragement of those misanthropic feelings, which sometimes struggle for ascendency, even in the youthful bosom. But still let me tell you, that to open your arms to everyone's embrace, and to form friendships with every newcomer, is to sow the seeds of sorrow for yourselves. My advice is—be polite, be kind, be courteous to all. But for your own sakes, be close friends with very few. Make companions of parents, brothers and sisters, and you need never feel lonely.

Let me say further—in choosing friends, learn to set a much higher value on virtue and religion—than on any outward distinctions. Surely, you need not wonder at the multiplied sorrows which too often embitter life, if you but call to mind on what principle it is, that some of its most sacred ties are formed. The inquiry is not—Has the individual a truly good character; but, has he wealth, is he prosperous in business, and do his connections stand high in the world? Family, fortune, and personal attractions are not infrequently regarded as a tolerably fair offset for serious suspicions against purity of morals. Oh, is it any matter of surprise that this world of ours is to so great an extent a sad and disappointed world. What real happiness can a young person, male or female, expect from a voluntary alliance with that which is low in feeling, debased in taste, and depraved in habits? The hope of after-reformation in such cases, is so fallacious, that you should never dream for a moment of relying upon it. Let the change for the better come first, and let the union, if it ought to take place, follow.

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