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Lectures to Young People

William B. Sprague, 1830


by William Sprague

The plan of the following course of Lectures was suggested to the author, by his having often felt the need of a book to put into the hands of the young, which would yield them counsel and instruction adapted to every variety of circumstances. Such a book he has here attempted to supply—a book designed to guard the moral principles and habits of youth, amidst the temptations of the world; to impress them with the infinite obligations and advantages of true religion; to conduct them through that most interesting period of anxious inquiry concerning their salvation; to bring them to a cordial acceptance of the gospel offer; to assist them in ascertaining their claims to the Christian character; and to enable them to prosecute the various duties and conflicts of the Christian life, in such a manner that they may finish their course with joy.

Several of these lectures were written during the author's connection with his late charge at West-Springfield, and the whole course was originally intended especially for the benefit of the youth of that congregation. Since his connection with his present charge, he has completed the course; and the several lectures embraced in it have been delivered in the hearing of the youth to whom he now ministers: and it is in compliance with a respectful and affectionate request from them, as well as in accordance with his original design, that the series is now given to the public.

To the youth of his former charge, whose friendly attentions he gratefully remembers, and in whose happiness he will ever cherish a lively interest, as well as to the youth of his present charge, whose many expressions of kindness he would gladly meet by his best efforts to do them good, these lectures are now,

Affectionately inscribed, with every sentiment of regard, and with fervent prayers for their present and eternal well-being,
By their obliged friend,
William Sprague



by Samuel Miller, Princeton, July, 1830

The man who becomes, by any means, instrumental in guiding a single youth to knowledge, virtue, piety, and true happiness, is a rich public benefactor: for the training of every such youth is a precious blessing conferred on his generation. But he who by sending forth a good book—a book well adapted to serve as a guide to thousands beyond the reach of his personal address; and even to exert a beneficial influence on the temporal and eternal welfare of multitudes, in succession, long after he shall have ceased from his labors; is a benefactor to mankind to an extent which no human arithmetic can calculate. Not only are his contemporaries rendered much his debtors; but future generations also will have reason to rise up and call him blessed.

It gave me, therefore, great pleasure to learn that the author of the ensuing volume had been warmly solicited by a number of his friends, and had finally consented, to publish from the press a series of Lectures which had been, with much acceptance, addressed by him from the pulpit to the youth of his pastoral charge. My long and intimate acquaintance with him, first as a beloved Pupil, and secondly as a highly esteemed friend and brother in the Gospel Ministry, convinced me that he was well qualified to execute the task which he was prevailed upon to undertake, with honor to himself, and with benefit to his readers. Of course, when requested to introduce the work to the public, by a preliminary address, I could have no other objection than that which arose from a persuasion that such an introduction was altogether unnecessary. It struck me, too, that when a third person, at any time, interposes between an Author and his reader, and claims an audience first, he ought to have something weighty to offer; more weighty than I can hope to present in the pages assigned to this testimonial of respect and friendship. But whatever of reluctance may have arisen from these considerations, has been made to yield to the suggestion, that if the humblest individual should happen to be induced by this testimonial to procure and peruse the following lectures, I shall be richly rewarded for the offering. He who feels admonished by advancing age, that his period of active labor cannot be continued much longer, ought to be "ready to every good work;" and to be cautious of permitting false delicacy to deter him from the smallest effort to be useful.

Since the delivery of these Lectures, I have enjoyed the privilege of perusing a considerable portion of them in manuscript: and although it has not been in my power to extend this perusal to the whole work, yet I have examined so much of it as fully to confirm, and even to increase, all my previous expectations in its favor. So far as my opportunity of examination has extended—it is rich and judicious in content; neat, perspicuous, and attractive in style; and peculiarly adapted to engage and reward the attention of enlightened, reflecting, and sincere youth. Indeed, if I were asked to point out a manual, better suited than any other within my knowledge, to be put into the hands of students in the higher literary institutions, I know not that it would be in my power to name one more likely to answer the purpose than this volume.

It is no objection to such a publication as the present, that a number of excellent works on the same general subject, are already in possession of the religious public; and that several of recent appearance, and much value are in very extensive and useful circulation. The truth is, works on practical religion, like works of devotion, provided they be well written, can scarcely be too much multiplied. With respect to articles of secular trade, we know that an increase of demand must generally precede an increased supply. But this principle by no means applies to moral and spiritual provision. Here, indeed, the practical rule is rather the reverse. There is no natural demand in the human mind for pious instruction. The supply must precede and create the demand. We must abundantly replenish the market, nay, we must run the risk, as has been remarked, of "overstocking" it, if we would extend the taste for spiritual food. Besides, we know that personal and local considerations lead thousands, in every age, to patronize and read that which their own pastors or neighbors have published, when, perhaps, scarcely anything else would bring them in contact with moral and pious works of the highest intrinsic excellence. Surely, in these circumstances, he who adds a new and excellent manual to those already in circulation, however numerous its predecessors, confers on the public a rich benefit.

The formation of the youthful mind to knowledge, virtue, and true religion, is, in all countries, of incalculable consequence. But in this favored country of America, it is manifestly a matter of most peculiar interest. In many other communities, the form of the government furnishes a substitute for popular purity. The strong and the prompt arm of power may be brought to bear continually, and may be applied with success to curb the excesses of unlawful indulgence, and to arrest the violence and the progress of crime. But the vital principle of our government is the intelligence and virtue of the people. Here public sentiment is everything; and those whose character is now forming, are soon to govern that sentiment, and to hold in their hands the peace, the order, and the happiness, of the community.

Now the hope of maintaining order and happiness in any social body without true religion, is a chimera. It never was, and never can be realized. It follows, of course, then, that the Christian education of our youth is, under God, our only hope. It ought to be the prime object of every lover of his country's welfare. The citizen as well as the Christian ought to desire it, and pray for it without ceasing. Without it, the elective franchise, highly as we prize the privilege, will be a curse instead of a blessing. Without it, the liberty with which the great Governor of nations has been pleased to make us free, will only serve, in the end, to rivet upon us more ignoble and more wretched chains than any human despot ever forged. If I would see the formation of youthful character upon the principles of the gospel, becoming an object of earnest and general attention—I would consider it as an infinitely surer pledge of the stability of our national privileges, and the continued progress of our national greatness, than all the human devices in the world could furnish; than all the secular improvements, which seem to be the idol of so many millions of our population. Thinking men ought to know, that these mere secular improvements, though multiplied and extended to any imaginable degree, can never make a people happy—nay, that their extension without a corresponding moral and pious improvement, will infallibly serve to render any population more active in corruption, more fruitful in crime, and more opulently and splendidly miserable!

There is, perhaps, no class of the community more negligent of the department of true religion, in conducting the education of their youth—than the wealthy and the honorable. And to this fact, we are perhaps, to ascribe another, as melancholy as it is notorious; namely, that the children of what are commonly called the higher classes so frequently fall victims to dissipation and vice. The truth is, there is no portion of our youth who so imperiously need the restraining and purifying influence of true religion, in forming their character and habits—as the children of opulent and distinguished families. Why is it that they are so frequently profligate; and so seldom either retain the wealth which has been bequeathed to them, or keep up the honors which their fathers acquired by knowledge, virtue, or public services? Obviously because they are commonly furnished with so many means of sensual gratification—are placed in circumstances adapted so strongly to flatter and inflate—and are surrounded with a thousand temptations, which are all so many bars to sobriety of mind. In short, feeling, at every step, as if they had something to sustain them besides their own exertions, and as if the advantages of birth and fortune would more than supply the place of personal accomplishments, they too often fall into habits of gross self-indulgence, and soon forfeit all the advantages which they fondly imagined could never be lost. Forfeit them, did I say?—far worse than this—they convert them into means of the most humiliating corruption and degradation; and thus often fall far lower than the most indigent and uneducated of their contemporaries. That this is the natural influence of wealth and station on the children of those who enjoy them—has been matter of universal experience: so that the instances of those who escape the evil power of these circumstances, and in the midst of them, attain a character elevated, dignified, and pure—are proverbially rare. Now, can anything more conclusively prove, that the children of the wealthy and the honorable, stand in more urgent need of the influence of true religion than any other class of the young; that there is the utmost danger of their being lost without it; and that nothing can more powerfully tend to guard them against their peculiar temptations, to inspire them with true elevation of sentiment and affection, and to render every temporal advantage at once an ornament and a blessing?

We often tell the POOR, that vital religion (the only kind of religion that deserves the name) is the richest treasure which they can seek for themselves and their children; that it is adapted to alleviate their sorrows, to sustain them under the heaviest trials of life, to lift them at once to usefulness and enjoyment, and to lead their offspring to the truest and best elevation. But quite as strongly, nay, by arguments of peculiar urgency, may we recommend this Treasure to the RICH, not only as the best hope of their own souls, but also as the only adequate hope of their children; as the best of all security that those whom they dearly love, shall not prove fugitives and vagabonds on the earth; and convert all the advantages which they, with so much toil, have bequeathed to them, into mere incentives to crime and infamy.

With peculiar earnestness would I apply this train of remark to such youth as are enjoying the advantages of a refined literary education; and particularly to those young men who are ambitious of distinguishing themselves in the higher walks of literature and science. To such I would say—The object which you seek, is noble, is worthy of your pursuit. But, like everything else, if it is not sanctified, you will have no ultimate reason to rejoice in it—even if attained.

The religion of Jesus Christ properly understood, and cordially embraced, gives to learning its highest finish; to genius its most exquisite power; to poetry its deepest feeling and tenderness; to eloquence its most resistless energy; to professional skill its most invaluable aids; and to political wisdom its happiest insight, and preparation for blessing mankind. The groves of Academus will assuredly prove more verdant, more fragrant and more fruitful, by having the "Tree of Life" planted and thriving in the midst of them. Nay, without the presence and power of the "Plant of Renown," their most luxuriant growth will be likely to be followed by morbid tendencies, and pestilential influences, fitted to countervail, and more than countervail all their richest benefits. The beauties of Homer and Virgil, of Horace, Demosthenes and Cicero, will be more exquisitely relished, as well as more profitably improved, by those who have previously imbibed the true spirit of the BIBLE, than by any others. We may even go further, and ask—Can the refinements of classic literature, the ingenious dreams of Pagan mythology, and the recondite lore of mathematical and metaphysical science, fail of doing harm—if not consecrated by the faith and practice of true religion? Do not both scripture and experience inform us that they are adapted to puff up, and to corrupt—if not sanctified by an evangelical taste? In a word, we may say of every part of education—if it has not a decisively Christian character conferred upon it—it may boast and excite, it may dazzle and inflate; but can never be expected to promote the real purity or happiness of its most diligent votaries. To every aspirant after literary wealth and fame, then, the caution of the inspired Apostle is most appropriate and important—"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."

There is another thought of deep interest which occurs in this connection. The highly favored, but most responsible population of this land, is now conducting an experiment of incalculable importance to ourselves and to mankind—the experiment whether men are capable of self-government? In other words, whether they can live permanently and in peace under rulers of their own choice, and laws of their own formation; or whether they are destined, until the Millennium shall open on our world, continually to vibrate between anarchy and despotism—between the manacles of privileged orders, and the exactions of an established Church—and the infuriated licentiousness of popular profligacy, which refuses to obey any law, either of God or man? This experiment, as I said, is now going on; and it will probably be decided by the men of the next generation; by those whose principles and characters are now forming. Of course, every youth who is decisively won to the side of Christian knowledge and practice, is so much paced to the cause of our national hopes.

If, then, we wish to transmit all our privileges, civil and pious, unimpaired, to the last posterity, let our young men be deeply imbued with the spirit of the bible! If we wish to avert from our country the curse of an ecclesiastical establishment—that bane of both church and state, let the bible, and nothing but the bible, be impressed upon the minds of our youth—as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Here, and here alone, do we find those principles which are equally opposed to slavery and licentiousness. Every young man who has been trained in the spirit of the Bible, will be, as far as his influence goes, an impregnable barrier against every species of oppression, civil or religious; and equally against every species of disorder. Only let the great mass of our population for the next forty years, drink deep into the spirit of the bible—and we may probably consider our stability and happiness as a nation finally secured.

The peculiar character of the day in which we live presents a further incentive to the young to seek after the best of all qualifications for being extensively useful. The lot of the present generation is cast in a period more strongly marked than any that ever preceded it—by a spirit of Christian benevolence and enterprise. The friends of God and man are engaged more generally and zealously than ever before, in endeavoring to meliorate the intellectual and moral condition of mankind. That youth, then, who is not intelligently and decisively on the side of Christ, is not fit to take his part in the great movements which now distinguish, and in some measure pervade the civilized world. He will either be a drone or a cipher in his day; or unite himself with that large mass who are the foes of all good, and who live for the miserable purpose of persuading men that their true happiness will be promoted by trampling upon every divine institution, and dissolving every moral tie, however sacred. Can any youth of elevated sentiments be at a loss to decide which of these ranks he ought to join, and to the aid of which he ought to consecrate all the powers which God has given him?

I need not add, that genuine piety is the best pledge of personal and professional success in life. The youth who consents to embark on the ocean of life, in any profession, without unfeigned piety—is simply infatuated. He proceeds without compass or chart. He is without any sure "anchor of the soul." He is absolutely destitute of anything suited either to hold, or to direct him securely on the troubled waters. On the other hand, all experience proves, that he who, in entering on his career, takes the Gospel of Christ as his guide in every pursuit—derives from it his standard of morals—appeals to it to learn his duty—to solve his doubts—to animate his hopes—and to form all his principles of action—is in the fairest way to be happy in himself, beloved of all around him, prosperous in his affairs, and favored, in a word, with the best kind of success which true wisdom can desire or pray for here below. If man is to be prepared by education for the duties as well as the business of life, then surely that education which alone is likely to purify and quicken the conscience, to elevate the affections, to soften the heart, to inspire with practical wisdom, and to bind the individual by the ties of supreme love to God, and by those of enlightened and impartial benevolence to men—is adapted to promote in the highest degree, personal and social happiness, in this life, as well as in that which is to come.

In forming the religious character here recommended, it is of the utmost importance that the foundation be laid in clear views of divine truth. Doctrinal knowledge is apt to be undervalued by private Christians, and especially by the young. They imagine, according to the popular prejudice, that if the heart be right, and the conduct correct—the doctrines embraced are of small consequence. This supposes that the heart of anyone may be right, while his principles are essentially wrong; or that his practice may be pure, while his religious opinions are radically erroneous. But nothing can be more contrary both to Scripture and experience. The great Founder of our holy religion declares that men are "sanctified by the truth." In fact, it is only so far as the truth is received, loved and obeyed—that real religion has any place either in the heart or life. To suppose that any one can be sanctified, or in any respect benefited, by embracing error, is as repugnant to reason as it is to the word of God. He who "has a hope in him," ought ever to be ready to "give a reason for it with meekness and fear;" and he will be ready to do so, if his hope is scriptural and intelligent.

It is melancholy to think how frequently this matter is in a great measure disregarded by professing Christians, otherwise well informed. Physicians, Lawyers, Merchants, and others, who confidently call themselves by the name of Christ, who have given many laborious days and nights to the acquirement of other kinds of knowledge, and who would be ashamed of being found ignorant of those branches of literature or science to which they profess to have attended; manifest no shame whatever in acknowledging themselves ignorant of the plainest subjects in Theology. It is not intended here either to assign the reasons, or to show the sin and folly of this deplorable fact; but to remark that the foundation of this fact is commonly laid in youth. If the young, and even the thinking and serious portion of the young, were as careful to store their minds with elementary principles, and with clear, discriminating views of revealed truth, as they are with the best and most accredited elements of other sciences—we would not find so many hoary-headed Christians unable to defend their own professed principles, and led astray by the artful votaries of error. That firm and accurate foundation of knowledge which is laid in youth, is most apt to remain unmoved, and to serve as a basis for the loftiest and most useful superstructure in after life.

But, above all, let the young see to it, that they content not themselves with a mere doctrinal, or speculative religion. Listen, beloved youth, to the servant of God, when he faithfully tells you in the following pages, that your nature is in a state of moral ruin; that you need pardoning mercy, and sanctifying grace; that you must be "transformed by the renewing of your minds," or be forever shut out from the kingdom of God; and that that true religion which will effectually serve you, either in life or death, must reign in the heart, and govern the conduct. The principles and the practice to which he invites you, are not those of a sect or party, but those of the Bible; and without some experimental acquaintance with which no one is a Christian. And the more cordially and practically they are received, the more efficient will be their sustaining and sanctifying power, and the more beneficent the influence which they will diffuse over your whole character and destiny.

May the Divine blessing rest on this and every other attempt to conduct our precious youth to knowledge, piety and salvation!

Samuel Miller, Princeton, July, 1830.

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