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Lectures to Young People

William B. Sprague, 1830


"Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings." Proverbs 4:10

It can hardly have escaped the observation of any reader of the Bible, that a large part of the writings of Solomon, and especially of his proverbs, have a peculiar adaptation to the circumstances of the young. From this fact it is doubtless a legitimate inference, that he attached a peculiar importance to the period of youth; and as he was unrivalled for practical wisdom, and wrote under the inspiration of God—we may fairly conclude that his opinion on this subject is correct. It is, moreover, an opinion which has been held by the wise and good of every age; and it requires but a moment's reflection to perceive that it is built on a correct view of the principles of human nature, and of the connection between man's character and destiny.

YOUTH IS A PERIOD OF GREAT IMPORTANCE. To illustrate this truth is the object of the present chapter.

I. The importance of the period of youth is manifest from the consideration that youth is the commencement of a rational and immortal existence, the condition of which is, in some important respects, concealed from us.

Youth is the commencement of a rational existence. There are orders of being below us, which we contemplate with various degrees of interest, according to their different properties. We look, for instance, with higher emotions upon the operations of vegetable life in the flower unfolding its beauties, or the tree stretching forth its boughs towards heaven, than we do upon the clods of the valley. In the brute creation, we discover evidences of a still higher creating agency; for they are endued with animal life and instinct; with a capacity for enjoyment and suffering. But man, though only next above the brutes in the scale of being, leaves them, in respect to his capacities, at an immense distance.

Superadded to his animal nature, is the gift of REASON; a principle which is capable of an indefinite expansion; by which, standing on this earth, he can measure the heavens, and explore the distant parts of creation. Moreover, he has not only an intellectual, but a MORAL nature; he has a conscience, which recognizes God as a moral Governor, and his law as the rule of duty; and which more than intimates the fact of an approaching retribution. He is susceptible of enjoyment and suffering, not merely as an animal—but as an intellectual and moral being; and it is in these higher departments of his nature, that he is capable of enjoying the bliss of a seraph, or of being tortured with the agony of a fiend. However lightly man may think of himself as a creature of God, or however he may abuse his own powers, he is gifted in a manner which evidently points to some mighty result.

But it were a supposable case, that man might be endowed with the very powers which he now has, and yet, by an annihilating act of the Being who created him, his existence might, at some future period, be blotted out; and in this case, even the mighty capacities of the soul would, in a great measure, lose their importance. But man is not only gifted with reason—but is destined to IMMORTALITY. Time was, when he had no existence; but in all future time, he will be a living, intelligent, active being. When the foundations of the earth were laid, and the heavens spread out as a curtain, he did not exist to witness that exhibition of Almighty power; but when the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, he will exist, not only as a spectator—but a sharer in those amazing scenes. And farther and still farther onward in the progress of ages, even to an interminable duration, his existence will be protracted: it is not at his option whether it shall be continued or not; for immortality is entailed upon him; and though by his conduct he may affect the condition of his being, he can never accomplish the extinction of it.

But though it is certain that man is destined to an endless existence, there is much in respect to the character of it, which, at its commencement, cannot be known, except by the Creator. This is true even in respect to the present life. No one can predict with certainty what his condition will be, even during the brief period of his sojourning here: whether he is to be signally blessed by the smiles of God, or to be unusually buffeted by the storms of adversity, is an mystery which no present circumstances can enable him to solve. And so in regard to a future existence—we cannot decide in respect to any one, at his entrance into life, whether he is hereafter to be an heir of glory or an heir of woe—a companion of fiends or a companion of angels. Such is the mutability of the world, the treachery of the heart, the sovereignty of God, that the condition of our being, both in the present and future life, must be, in a great measure, concealed from us, until we learn it by actual experience.

Collect now the several circumstances which have been mentioned under this article, and tell me whether they do not invest the morning of human life with peculiar interest. It is the period in which a rational soul commences a career as unlimited as the existence of Jehovah; and attended by joy or woe which imagination in its boldest flights never conceived. And over the whole path of the soul's existence, there hangs, at present, a fearful uncertainty. No one can say, in what manner these unfolding faculties are hereafter to be employed; whether in serving God—or in opposing him; whether in bringing upon the soul a perpetual shower of blessings—or an everlasting torrent of wrath. Is that an interesting moment, when the inexperienced adventurer steps from the shores of his native country, and trusts himself to the mighty deep, to be borne to some far distant region? How much more interesting the period, in which an immortal soul commences the voyage of life, not knowing how much he may be tempest-tossed during his passage, or whether he may not even be wrecked on the dark coast of eternity! If, in the former case, the eyes of anxious friends follow the mariner as he goes off into the deep—is it not reasonable to suppose, in the latter, that the watchful regards of angels are attracted by the condition of a young immortal, whose character is yet to be formed, and whose destiny is yet to be revealed?

II. The importance of the period of youth is farther evident from the consideration, that probably, in most cases, youth gives a complexion to the whole future existence. Every moral action, no doubt, exerts an influence on the prevailing disposition of the person by whom it is performed; and if we could subject the character of an individual, at any given period, to a rigid analysis, we would find that it was precisely that which might be expected from the combined influence of all his previous moral actions. There are instances in which a single action, and that in itself apparently an unimportant one—has manifestly decided the character and the destiny for life. One wrong decision has frequently been the means of clothing the prospects of an individual with gloom and disgrace; while one good purpose, one victory gained over temptation, has often proved the seed which has yielded a rich harvest of reputation and virtue.

But if the influence of a single action, whether good or bad, has often such a decisive and visible bearing upon future character, what shall be said of the combined influence of all the actions which an individual performs, during a considerable period of life, and especially in the season of youth? It is at this period that the habits of thought, and feeling, and action, are formed; that the inclinations usually become fixed; and the whole character assumes a definite complexion. It would seem probable, therefore, antecedently to experience, that, in general, the first impulse given to the mind and heart would be the decisive one. But what reason teaches, experience abundantly confirms.

If we look abroad into the world, some indeed we shall find who have disappointed the hopes which they early awakened in respect to usefulness and piety; and others, whose early life was a scene of profligacy, who have afterwards been plucked as brands from the burning. But in the great majority of instances, it will appear that the direction which the character received in youth, is retained in every succeeding period of life. In far the greater number of cases in which you see old age cheered by the hopes and comforts of true religion, you will find that the foundation of this tranquility was laid in the morning of life; and on the other hand, where you see hoary headed vice shuddering in despair on the borders of eternity, it will usually be safe to conclude that the agony which you witness is to be referred especially to the early neglect of true religion.

Hitherto I have spoken only of the influence which the period of youth exerts upon the subsequent periods of the present life: but its influence is equally decisive upon our whole future eternal existence. In many cases, indeed, the season of youth constitutes the whole period of life, and of course, the whole period of probation: in all such instances, none can doubt that it must be decisive of the soul's everlasting destiny. Nor is the case materially different, where life is continued even to old age; for if our condition in a future world depends upon our character at death—and if our character in the later periods of the present life usually takes its complexion from the period of youth—then it follows that the influence of this period reaches onward to eternity—that it is emphatically the seed-time for eternal life—or eternal death!

III. Another consideration which still farther illustrates the importance of the period of youth is, that youth furnishes peculiar advantages for rendering the whole future existence happy; or for becoming practically pious.

There is a general susceptibility of character attending this period, which is favorable to the cultivation of true religion. I mean not to imply that the human heart is not originally the seat of corrupt inclinations; for that were to call in question not only the decision of the oracles of God—but the results of every day's experience. But this melancholy truth notwithstanding, it admits of no question—that there is something in the very state of the soul during the period of youth, which may be said in a comparative sense, to favor the work of its own sanctification. The understanding, not having been brought under the dominion of prejudice, is open to the reception of truth. The conscience, not having had its dictates frequently opposed and trifled with, is ready faithfully to discharge its office. The various affections of the heart are easily excited; and more easily than at any subsequent period, may receive a right direction. Who will not say that there is in all this, a most desirable preparation for becoming truly pious; especially when the state of the soul to which I have here referred, is contrasted with that almost invincible prejudice, that deep moral insensibility, which often results from long continued familiarity with the world.

Another advantage for embracing true religion connected with this period, is, that it is a season of comparative leisure. Then the cares of the world which cluster upon manhood, are comparatively unknown. The more active scenes of life—the strife of business, the din of worldly enterprise, are seen and heard only at a distance. Not as in subsequent life, is there a family to be provided for, and a thousand domestic cares pressing upon the heart, and putting in their requisitions. There is much leisure for serious reading; especially for reading the volume of inspired truth, which is given to be a light to our feet, and a lamp to our paths. There is much leisure for serious reflection, and self-examination; for applying the truths of God's word to the regulation of the heart and life. There is much leisure for private communion with God; for Christian fellowship; for attendance on the various means of true religion—in short, for everything which may be instrumental either of the renovation of the soul, or of its growth in grace. The season of youth, however it may be employed, is emphatically the leisure season of life; and he who does not find time to become pious then, has no reason to expect that he shall ever find it afterwards.

It is another favorable circumstance in respect to the period of which I am speaking, that the efforts which are then made towards a life of true religion, meet a peculiarly ready and cordial cooperation from Christian friends. When the Christian looks upon the veteran in sin, who has reached an old age of carelessness, though his eye may affect his heart, as he reflects upon his character and his doom, yet the hopelessness of the case seems to dampen resolution, and discourage effort; and even when he discovers in him some relentings in view of the past, or some anxiety in respect to the future, it is difficult for him to regard even these as symptoms of thorough reformation. But in regard to the young it is far otherwise. So much is there in their circumstances to favor pious impressions, that Christians are peculiarly encouraged to be faithful towards them.

This is true especially of pious parents. They look upon their children, in the morning of life, with a mixture of concern and hope; and they are prompted not only by Christian feeling—but by parental affection, to do everything in their power to secure their salvation. Hence they often warn them of the danger of a life of sin, and urge them to enter immediately on a life of true religion. Hence, every indication of serious feeling on the part of their children is regarded by them as a signal to double their diligence, in pressing upon them their obligations, and in endeavoring to bring them to repentance. Hence too, they make them the objects of daily prayer, and not only bring them around the domestic altar—but earnestly intercede for them in the closet. Nor are these efforts for the young confined to parents; but Christians in general feel themselves especially called upon to labor and strive for their salvation; and whenever they show any symptoms of concern, there are many around them who stand ready to second every effort they make to escape from the wrath to come.

And is it not a privilege, my young friends, thus to be wrestled for by Christian parents—thus to be borne on the hearts of God's people—thus to be counseled, and exhorted, and aided by those who are walking in the path to heaven? Let repentance be delayed to old age, if indeed old age should ever arrive—and where then will be the pious mother to embalm her supplications with her tears; or where will be the companion in years to encourage and accompany you in the rugged path of self-denial; or where will the Christians be found who will have hope enough in respect to you to come, while your last sands are running out, and plead you with the earnestness which they now manifest, to prepare for heaven?

As the last and perhaps the most important advantage for becoming pious, which belongs to the season of youth, I would say that the Spirit of God then, more frequently than at any other period, exerts his gracious influences. These influences he does indeed exert at every period; and sometimes even when the heart has become encrusted with the mildew of spiritual death. But experience proves that the young are far more likely to be the subjects of them than people at a more advanced period of life. To youth he speaks most frequently through the dispensations of Providence, the preaching of the word, the operations of conscience, and even the vanities of the world, and charges them to make true religion the object of their immediate and supreme regard.

And I may appeal to the fact that his efficacious influences actually are exerted during this period far more frequently than in any subsequent one; that much the larger part of all who embrace true religion, do it in the morning of life. Let revivals of true religion be brought to testify on this subject; and if I mistake not, you will find that, while a multitude of youth, during these scenes of divine mercy, are seen pressing into the kingdom; there are comparatively few who have reached the period of middle life, and only here and there an individual from the ranks of old age. What does this fact prove, my young friends, other than that the Holy Spirit is peculiarly ready to exert his influences in bringing you to repentance?

IV. My last general remark illustrative of the importance of the period of youth, is, that youth is fraught with peculiar dangers.

In illustrating this article, I shall take for granted the fact that man is naturally inclined to evil—a fact which, you will readily perceive, must invest with much additional importance the several sources of danger to which I shall refer.

There is danger resulting from that very susceptibility of character, which has already been mentioned as favorable to early piety. For if the mind is then peculiarly susceptible of truth, it is also proportionably susceptible of error. If the conscience possesses all its native sensibility, opposition to its dictates must exert a peculiarly hardening influence. If the feelings may be excited, with comparative ease, in favor of true religion, they may even more readily be enlisted against it. And hence the melancholy fact is, that in a multitude of instances, the understanding, the conscience, the affections—the whole man, has become enslaved to a life of sin, at the very period when he was most susceptible of the influences of piety. Let no young person then repose in the conviction that his mountain stands strong, and that he is in no danger of becoming a hardened transgressor, merely because he is occasionally roused, or melted, or agitated, under the exhibition of divine truth. Let him take heed lest the enemy comes, and avails himself of that very susceptibility—to bind him hand and foot with the cords of depravity and error—and consign him over to a most fearful destruction.

Moreover, youth is a season of inexperience; and this constitutes another source of danger. Everyone knows that our most valuable knowledge is derived from experience; that it is far more accurate, more deep, more practical than any other. But of this the young, from the nature of the case, cannot, in a great degree, avail themselves; as it is the exclusive prerogative of riper years. They have had but little experience of their own hearts; but little opportunity of tracing out the sources of human conduct, of becoming acquainted with the evil principles which lurk within them—the treachery, perverseness, rebellion, which constitute the elements of man's depraved nature. They have had but limited experience of the world, and are very inadequate judges of its true character. They have ordinarily seen only its bright side; have not often been pierced by its ingratitude, or betrayed by its faithlessness, or stung by its neglect. Of its temptations too, of the stratagems of the wicked, of the serpentine influence of worldly pleasure, they know comparatively little. How manifestly does this lack of experience give the world which they are entering, a powerful advantage over them!

With but a slight knowledge of themselves, they are liable to misjudge in respect to the circumstances in which they shall be safe, and to put character and happiness in jeopardy, from a wrong estimate of their strength to resist temptation. With but a slight knowledge of the world, they are in danger of trusting it where it intends to betray; and of being carried headlong by its influence into the vortex of pleasure and vice, while yet they have scarcely suspected that they were beyond the limits of virtue and safety. Many a youth has gone into the haunts of sin, and finally into the eternal world of woe, because at the commencement of his course, he did not suspect the danger.

Again: the world has its thousand snares; and here is another source of danger to the young. There are scenes of pleasure, which are misnamed innocent; which, while they avoid the grossness of dissipation, wear a bright and fascinating aspect to the young, and strongly tempt them to the neglect of true religion. There are scenes of profane and intemperate riot, which, though enough to sicken the heart of piety, hold out a powerful temptation to many who have given a few of their first years to what is called innocent pleasure. There is the stage, with all its splendid apparatus for destroying immortal souls. The most burning strains of eloquence, and the most melting strains of music; the exquisite efforts of the pencil and of the chisel, are all prostituted to make an appeal to the youthful heart in favor of irreligion and licentiousness. There are evil books, written with a pen dipped in the poison of asps, for the very purpose of carrying to the youthful bosom the elements of pollution and death. There are evil men, yes, and evil women, too, who go about preaching the doctrine that true religion is a dream, and death an eternal sleep; who encircle the unwary youth, in his down-sitting and his uprising, with the snares of death; and who are prepared to celebrate the wreck of his principles and of his hopes, with a shout of fiendlike exultation. In these circumstances, who will not say that the most appalling dangers hang around his path?

And now, in view of all that has been said, is it not manifest that youth is a period of great importance? I ask you, my young friends, whether, as the commencement of a rational and immortal existence, and as the period which is probably to give a complexion to that existence, it is not too important to be devoted to any other purposes than those for which it was designed? Is it not too important to be wasted in careless levity, in vain amusement; in any of the unfruitful works of darkness? Are not its advantages for becoming pious too important to be neglected; its dangers too serious to be regarded with unconcern?

This critical and deeply interesting season will soon have passed away, and the period of manhood will follow. The period of manhood, did I say? Ah, it may be the period of retribution; that in which the soul shall be mingling in the hosannas of the redeemed—or the wailing of the lost! But wherever, or in whatever circumstances, future years may find you, rely on it, the period of youth will have contributed much to make you what you will then be, both in respect to your character and condition. Regard each moment then as a price put into your hands to gain wisdom; and remember that now, now, emphatically in respect to you, is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation!

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