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Advice to Youth

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

ERROR—its Causes and Consequences.

"I envy no man his learning, his wit, his eloquence, or his imagination, but of all possible possessions, there is none I prize so highly as a firm and well-established religious belief." Who, think you, made this remark? It was not a disappointed and desponding man turning in disgust from a world which had refused him its pleasures, nor was it a minister of the gospel, called by his very office to speak of the Bible and eternity. No! these are the sober and well-considered words of one courted by the great and the gay—a man of high distinction in the scientific world, for years in succession President of the Royal Society of Great Britain, and the inventor of the Safety Lamp, of such inestimable benefit to miners. The language is that of Sir Humphrey Davy—a name of renown. No man in the early part of the present century stood higher as a practical philosopher; and his lectures were attended by brilliant audiences, attracted as well by the results of his experiments, as the eloquence of his manner and the clearness of his expositions. Such a man has a right to speak. From him it is we learn, that a well-established religious faith is to be prized above all other attainments and possessions.

Weighty sentiment this—and happy will it be for us if it exerts its proper influence! The times are full of peril. We see the minds of people wandering through every grade and form of skepticism, from the more dignified and manly infidelity of the last century, down to the lying wonders of Spiritism. Such is its chameleon face that we can scarcely sketch its likeness, before it assumes some new form. The only stability about it is, its contrariety to the simple truths of the Bible—its rejection of the claims of God and divine truth.

But why is it so? The CAUSES of every sort of infidelity are three—Ignorance, Pride of understanding, and a Bad Life.

That ignorance is a fruitful source of infidelity, especially in our day, there can be no reasonable doubt. The time seems to have gone by when men of talents and learning, like Hobbes, and Collins, and Bolingbroke, and Shaftesbury, are willing to be ranked among open and avowed unbelievers. One full experiment of what wit and erudition could do to put the Bible down was permitted, but it is not repeated and probably never will be. The thing has been tried and failed, ignominiously and forever. It is seldom now that we find real learning and lofty intellect enlisted in the work of overthrowing the Bible and the ministry of the gospel. The business seems entrusted to feeble and unfledged hands.

Lord Bacon understood the matter well, and he has given us his opinion in language which every school-boy should remember. "A little learning," I quote the words of the distinguished sage and the profound philosopher, "a little learning may incline a man to infidelity—but a good deal is sure to bring him back to the Bible." This remark is well founded, and seldom needs the least qualification. If infidelity is making proselytes, and probably it is in some quarters, I venture to affirm it is not among the well-educated, the deeply-read, the truly intelligent. It is instructive to mark who they are, here and there, that take sides against the Bible. What class of people is it, that rise up and say Christianity is a failure; responsibility to God is a figment of the brain; and suffering in the world to come is a bugbear? Men of respectability and station in society no longer hazard such destructive assertions. The infidels of our cities and larger towns, except foreigners and newcomers, are the young and inexperienced people of little learning and less good sense. These are they, who gather up and retail errors that have been exploded a thousand times before.

I am well aware that in making this statement, I shall be considered as treading on tender ground. Be it so. It is enough for me to know where I stand, when I affirm fearlessly, and beg you to bring the affirmation to the touch-stone of the most rigid scrutiny, that the infidelity of our day is mainly the infidelity of ignorant pretense. What if these people can start inquiries which their humble and pious neighbors are unable to solve? A child of five years may ask questions about himself and his destiny, about this world and the next, about the soul and God, which the best educated men on earth are unable to answer.

Let nothing of this kind move you from your steadfastness. Faith in the Bible, just as it reads, with all its duties and precepts, is but believing in God, as a child believes in a fond father, or a wife believes in a faithful husband, or a patient believes in a skillful physician, or a soldier believes in a brave commander; and is no less reasonable.

Pride of understanding, too, comes in to help on this work of infidelity. Humility is a hard lesson for sinful men to learn. There is something in the human heart that rises in opposition to inspired truth, on a variety of subjects connected with God and sin, and law and pardon, and justification and final punishment. These are subjects in relation to which young men, more than any other class, are prone to cavil and object. You would be surprised to hear any such doubts suggested or denials made by those of the other sex. A young lady would lose her respectability at once, if it were known that she could talk lightly about the Scriptures, salvation, or the world to come.

Allow me to illustrate my idea by a reference to the life of the late excellent Dr. Dwight. When he entered upon the presidency of Yale College, no small portion of the students, we are told, were bold and declared infidels. Indeed, so proud were they of this distinction, that they assumed the names of the principal Deists of England and France. Full of confidence in themselves, they resolved to bring the matter to an early issue, and overwhelm the new president at the very outset of his course. Accordingly the first question which they proposed for public debate was, "Are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments the word of God?" They were told to select which side of this inquiry they chose, and bring forward all the facts and arguments which were supposed to bear on the subject. Most, if not all, who were expected to take part in the debate, appeared as the open champions of infidelity. But what was the result? When they had ended, and were congratulating themselves on having gained a victory, the president took up their arguments one by one, and succeeded in showing them that they did not at all understand the subject. From that day skepticism began to go down in the college, until it became universally unpopular.

A story very similar to this is told of the learned and venerable Chief Justice Marshall. Much in the same way did he silence a company of forward and boastful young men at a public inn, who had just been making out to their own satisfaction, that the Bible is not the book of God. That venerable man, in a strain of simple and convincing eloquence, such as he well knew how to employ, went over the whole ground of the Divine authority of the Scriptures, as they all sat together by the fireside, and so clearly did he make out the case, that not one of them had another word to utter. But what is it except pride and self-confidence that makes such people infidels? Instead of being really distinguished for free and liberal thought, these are the men of all others, whose minds are hampered, and whose horizon is narrow. Notice it when and where you will, real superiority is always connected with modesty and self-distrust. The great Sir Isaac Newton was a pattern of modesty.

But, above all, skepticism has its origin in a sinful life. Nothing has such an influence in leading men to break loose from the Bible and the Savior—as the love of sin. Thousands are against religion for no other reason than because it condemns their wicked practices. You never heard of an individual that was humble and holy and prayerful—who rejected the Scriptures, denied an hereafter, and called in question the being of a God. This is the fruit which grows only on the brambles and thorns of vicious indulgences. A person must have a reason for wishing there were no final account and no eternal retribution, before he can believe that there is none.

The principles and practices of men will exert a powerful influence over each other. Those who do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, are never forced to raise an outcry against the doctrine of human depravity, or the judgment of the great day. If this be done at all, it is almost sure to be done by such as cast off fear and restrain prayer before God. The heart is led to adopt some false scheme of religious opinion and practice from a consciousness—a painful consciousness—that the life will not abide the test of the true one. Look around you and see if these things are not so. When you find people rejecting the gospel, decrying the most sacred institutions, and seeking to cut away the cords which bind our country to the throne of God, you may conclude of a certainty, that there is something wrong in themselves. Good men never sow such seeds of bitterness. This is the work of an enemy—an enemy as really to human welfare, as to the government of Jehovah.

The matter is every now and then brought to the decision of actual experiment. Let some skeptical lecturer come along, and what class of the community will be drawn around him? As a general thing, be assured, you will not see the steady, the sober-minded, the church-going part of the people there. If there be open sinners and drunkards in the vicinity, they will be likely to be attracted to the spot; and if there be men of loose habits and unkind to their wives, they will be sure to make a portion of the audience. You may know the man and his message, from the character of his followers.

If anything be established beyond contradiction, it is that a sinful life is a fruitful source of wrong beliefs. A clergyman of my acquaintance tells of a boy, not over ten years of age, who stood up and looking wise among his associates declared that he did not believe the Bible. I myself have seen a man, but a few degrees removed from idiocy, avowing his belief in universal salvation. What principle was at work here? Why, the very same that led the infamous Rousseau to become an infidel after he had resolved to lead the life of a profligate. We have it from his own lips that the rejection of the Bible made him feel comfortable in his wicked courses. After conscience was thus lulled to sleep, it was easy to "work all uncleanness with greediness."

Ponder this, beloved youth, and you will be prepared to look at some of the CONSEQUENCES of embracing error.

These are numerous, and they have been in part anticipated, but we may go somewhat more into detail. "As truth," to adopt the beautiful language of Jeremy Taylor, "has its origin and dwelling-place in the bosom of God," no one can renounce the truth and embrace error without harming himself. The following effects are sure to be produced by such a course—it bewilders the mind—it affords no support in the day of trial—and it stands in the way of salvation.

There is something in error which has a direct tendency to bewilder and enthrall the mind. We often speak of infidels as "free-thinkers," but if by free-thinking is meant, real, conscious liberty, the term is egregiously misapplied. If there be anything like mental bondage—a bondage servile and degrading, a bondage worse than that imposed by the tyrants of Egypt, it is theirs. What do such men know, and what indeed can they know of thought so emancipated from everything dark and earthly, as to be able to lift itself up to God and commune with eternity? The man who renounces the Bible and its Savior, has descended into a cavern where no light can reach him with its healing beams. All the movements he now makes are the mere groping experiments of one that has not a ray of the Sun of Righteousness to guide his footsteps, or cheer his heart.

All error is downward, and the farther a person advances, the darker does his path become. To go forward seems easy and natural, but if he ever begins to think—and desires to return, he finds that he is involved in a labyrinth, from which there appears to be no escape. This accounts for the fact, that men so seldom renounce opinions which they have once embraced and avowed before the world. We have had in our own country an example of a clergyman running the whole round of loose opinions, relinquishing this truth of the Bible and that, until at length he landed in universal skepticism. Such facts should be held up as beacons to warn the inexperienced and unwary. Once come to harbor the idea, that this and the other great doctrines of the Scripture is not to be believed—and the delusion will be very likely to go down to the grave with you. The false notion will fix itself like a gloomy veil on the mind, and prevent your seeing the force of any opposite evidence. What you embrace from ignorance and pride, or a love of sin—will rivet fetters upon your soul never likely to be broken, until death arrests you.

It has been my lot to witness an example of this sort of mental thraldom. The individual referred to, had been in the habit, while a mere youth, of reading infidel books, and what was still worse, had often come under the influence of infidels themselves. In this way the poison had taken effect, and it seemed impossible to expel it from the system. Though he could see the evils of skepticism, and appeared really desirous to exercise faith in Divine salvation, the shackles were too strong for him to break asunder. Little does any one know, who has not made the trial, how tenacious are the cords spun and twisted by infidelity. Nothing short of the all-conquering grace of God can bring such a man to the knowledge and acknowledgment of the truth.

Again, infidelity affords no sure support in the day of trial. Skeptics, as a class, are generally unhappy men—uneasy in themselves, and dissatisfied with everything around them. They act like people treading on yielding and uncertain ground, unable to bear their weight. What indeed can there be to cheer the heart and brighten the prospects of one who has no Bible to rely upon, no God to go to, and no Savior to trust in? If he can manage to be gay and volatile in the season of prosperity, it is far otherwise when health fails, and property disappears, and friends die. Then it is that we see the sadness of such as have no hope, and are without God in the world.

Well may the Christian say, "their rock is not as our rock, our enemies themselves being judges."

You have never heard of an humble and devout believer who, in the day of sickness or on the bed of death, regretted that he had confided too implicitly in the Scriptures. We may challenge the world to produce a solitary case. But who has not heard of multitudes of skeptics, that were filled with anguish as eternity approached, and were ready to curse the hour when they began to forsake the right path? Such instances are familiar in almost every part of the land. Of all the enemies of revealed religion, in days gone by, Hume stands without a rival among those who reason, and Voltaire among those who scoff. But who were these men, what kind of life did they lead, and how did they die? Let these inquiries be answered fairly and truthfully, and there will be found to be nothing encouraging in their example. One of them left the world joking about the boat which was to carry him over the dark river, and the other raving with madness at the companions of his crimes. It is not necessary to dwell on the spectacle of the poor, drunken, bloated Paine. There are people in our country lost enough to self-respect to keep the anniversary of this man's birth—but his death was awfully appalling.

If there be a sight on earth truly distressing, it is that of an aged and feeble skeptic, neglected by men and forsaken of God. While his spirits were joyous and his anticipations bright, he could trifle with the Bible and the Savior. But it is a very different thing now that the frosts of many years are gathered on his head. With health gone, and a mind debilitated, and days and nights devoid of comfort, where is he to look for consolation, and to what refuge is he to betake himself? The heavens are all dark above him, and the earth is all desolation around him. One foot is already in the grave, and he feels himself drawn irresistibly forward toward a judgment for which he is not prepared, and a world where he can hope for no enjoyment. What a picture of despair! In vain does he cry aloud, "Come back! my early days, come back!" Ah, young men, there is no power in error to chase away the sadness of life's dark hours. In the midst of wine and song and merriment, it may do to laugh at the Bible and deny that there is a hell. But this is a poor resort for days of pain and nights of wakefulness. When heart and flesh fail, God alone can be the strength of the heart, and the portion forever.

Then, finally, skepticism of every sort stands directly in the way of salvation. This is the worst effect of all, and it is one, alas, which we have reason to fear is realized in thousands of instances. If it be under God, the truth, the simple truth of the Bible which converts men, how are they ever to be brought out of darkness into the marvelous light of the gospel, while their hearts are full of unbelief? Nothing indeed is too hard for Omnipotence, but such a state seems to me to be hopeless above all others. Let a man once imbibe some favorite system of error, and like a thick cloud it will be sure to shut out the light of heaven from his mind.

This is a point which may be brought to the touch-stone of every one's experience or observation. Tell a person that he is not lost and ruined by sin, that he needs no regeneration to fit him for the kingdom of heaven, that God is too merciful to cast off any of his creatures forever, and that there is no demand for so much prayer and effort, and you are doing all you well can to make his damnation sure. If he believes what you say, each of these opinions will prove like a bar between him and the path of life. How can he flee from the wrath to come, the very existence of which he denies, or how can he fall into the arms of Christ as a Savior, when he has no conviction that he needs such a Savior? Little do men think what consequences a rejection of these doctrines of the Bible is sure to involve. You will never find a man anxious about obtaining a new heart, until he believes that a new heart is necessary, or desirous to be made holy, until he believes that "without holiness no man shall see the Lord." In matters of this nature, the conduct is controlled by the creed.

Take heed then how you yield to the beginnings of this evil. If you give up the doctrine of total depravity, or the final condemnation of the ungodly, you may for the very same reason give up any other and every other truth which you happen to dislike. The whole is made up of its several parts, and to blot out one chapter is to impugn the character of the entire book. There is a process in the human mind, in the reception of error, which you will do well to note. The man who begins by doubting in regard to certain specified statements, will generally be found after a while caviling at them; and soon the open and utter rejection of them follows as a matter of course. These things naturally and almost unavoidably follow each other. The steps are usually short which lead men down from incipient skepticism—to bold and unblushing infidelity.

How then can I do otherwise than warn you against listening to the instruction that causes to err from the words of knowledge. Tell me, my young friend, when or where has infidelity enlightened, purified or blessed a nation, tribe or family? Where has it taken up its abode in the domestic circle to render parents more kind, or children more dutiful, or brothers and sisters more happy in themselves, or in one another?

Where has it entered an individual bosom to soothe its sorrows, establish its hopes, and expel its apprehensions? These are achievements effected by the Bible, and the Bible alone.

I must urge you therefore to hearken to no one, be his reputation or talent what it may, who would lessen your reverence for the word of God. Never allow the beauty of language or the fascination of eloquence to diminish your regard for simple, unadulterated truth. The pill may be gilded, and yet contain arsenic. If the living teacher or the printed page be found to give you diminutive views of sin, or hide the glory of the Savior—you have heard and read enough. Take not another step in this direction. No matter what pretense is set up, your peace of mind is of more significance to you than all besides; and sooner than relinquish this blessing, burn the book that would injure you, and sacrifice the friend who would lead you astray.

But I forbear. There is one safeguard, and you will find it in cherishing an habitual reverence for the Bible as the book of the living and true God. Hold fast here, fail what may, and it will be well with you in life, well with you in death, and well with you in eternity.

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