Female Piety—The Young Woman's Guide Through Life to Immortality
John Angell James, (1785—1859)
THE ORNAMENTS OF A PROFESSION OF RELIGION
"And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. But they must show themselves to be entirely trustworthy and good. Then they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive in every way." Titus 2:9-10
"Don't be concerned about the outward beauty that depends on fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should be known for the beauty that comes from within--the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God." 1 Peter 3:3-4
There is in human nature an instinctive propensity to 'decoration'. To whatever principle the taste may be traced, whether to innate perception of the beautiful, or to a desire to excite admiration--the fact is indubitable. It is seen equally in savage and civilized nations; and is manifested by them alike in attention to the decoration of both their bodies and their dwellings--and indeed in all their social customs and usages. The string of shells, fish teeth, or bits of bone--around the neck of the Polynesian; and the blaze of diamonds, or rubies--upon the brow or bosom of the British Queen, indicate the same instinctive propensity for decoration. This propensity to decoration, however in many cases it may be altogether corrupted in its object, wrong in its principle, or excessive in its degree--is in its own nature an imitation of the workmanship of God, who, "by his Spirit has garnished the heavens," and covered the earth with beauty. Who can look over one of creation's lovely scenes, and behold the display of elegance of form, and beauty of color--in the flowers of the field and garden--in the plumage of the birds--in the meandering rivers--and the gentle undulations of the ground--exhibiting forest and copse, hill and dale--all gilded with the beams of the glorious sun. I say, who can witness all this without being convinced that God himself delights in decoration! He has made a world which he has ornamented so profusely that he has scattered beauties where there are no eyes but his own to behold them!
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed waves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its fragrance on the desert air."
To reject all design and effort to add the lovely to the good, and the beautiful to the useful--would be to oppose and not to imitate, to condemn and not to approve--the works of the Great Creator. And indeed no sect has ever arisen among Christians which has even pretended to disclaim all attention to what is ornamental. Even those who conscientiously repudiate the pearl, diamond, and ruby, the feather, and the flower, erect their buildings, select their furniture, plant their gardens, and choose their garments, according to their ideas of taste, and with some regard to the laws of beauty. Hence, I think that both the apostles who touch on the subject of personal decoration for Christian women, are to be understood not as condemning all ornament--but only regulating it.
The propensity to personal decoration is, without all doubt, peculiarly strong in the female heart. That a maid "should forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire," is spoken of by the prophet as unlikely to a proverb. There is nothing wrong in the instinct itself. It serves important purposes. Its total absence is felt as a serious interruption to the pleasure of social communion. A sloven is disagreeable--one habitually negligent of neatness or cleanliness in personal appearance, is intolerable. Christianity no make war on any of man's natural propensities--but only on their abuse. Its object is not to eradicate our instincts, but to prune and train them, and make them bear good fruit.
Now it is well known that some, in what the apostles say on this subject, find an absolute prohibition of all ornaments of dress, and an injunction to wear only the most plain and unadorned apparel. I think Christian women may fall into much more dangerous misinterpretations of Scripture than this; yet I have no doubt it is a misinterpretation. The prohibition seems to be comparative rather than absolute, and contains an injunction to be far more attentive to the ornaments of the soul than to those of the body. "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice," means, "'I prefer mercy to sacrifice." At the same time, there can be no doubt that in the words of the text it is taken for granted that women at all times are, and that the women of those times were, far too much addicted to ornamental dress; that they trenched both upon modesty and economy by their habits. And therefore that in these verses the apostle laid down some very important hints as to the principles on which Christian women should regulate their attire. They inculcate modesty in opposition to what is immodest—economy in opposition to extravagance.
"Excessive costliness," says Leighton, on this passage, "argues and feeds the pride of the heart, and defrauds, if not others of their dues, yet the poor of their charity, which in God's sight is a due debt. And far more comfort shall you have on your death-bed, to remember that at such a time, instead of putting lace on my own back, I helped clothe a naked back. I abated somewhat of my former extravagances to supply the poor with necessities. Far sweeter will this be than to remember that I could needlessly spend large sums of money to serve my pride, while I grudged a penny to relieve the poor."
Barnes has given, I think, the true meaning of the apostle. "It is not to be supposed that all use of gold or pearls as articles of dress is here forbidden; but the idea is that the Christian female is not to seek these as the adorning which she desires, or is not to imitate the world in these personal decorations. It may be a difficult question to settle how much ornament is allowable--and when the true line is passed. But though this cannot be settled by any exact rule, since much must depend on age, and on the relative rank in life, and the means which one may possess; yet there is one general rule which is applicable to all, and which might regulate all. It is, that the true line is passed when more is thought of this external adorning, than of the ornament of the heart. Any external decoration which occupies the mind, and which engrosses the time and attention more than the virtues of the heart, we may be certain is wrong. The apparel should be such as not to attract attention; such as befits our situation; such as will not be particularly singular; such as will not leave the impression that the heart is fixed on it. It is a poor ambition to decorate a dying body with gold and pearls. It should not be forgotten that it will soon need other clothing--and will occupy a position where gold and pearls would be a mockery! When the heart is right, when there is a true and supreme love for religion, it is usually not difficult to regulate the subject of dress."
It is somewhat remarkable that Plato, the loftiest of all the Grecian sages, has a passage which strikingly resembles that of the apostle. "Behavior and not gold is the ornament of a woman. To immoral women, these things, jewels and ornaments, are advantageous to their catching more admirers; but for a woman who wishes to enjoy the favor of one man, good behavior is the proper ornament, and not dresses. And you should have the blush upon your countenance, which is the sign of modesty, instead of paint—and worth and sobriety instead of gold and emeralds." It is impossible not to notice this similarity between the apostle and the philosopher; and equally impossible, one would think, not to mark the superiority over the reason of the one of the inspiration of the other. "The philosopher is of the earth, earthly—the apostle brings the authority of God, and the power of the unseen world distinctly into view. While Plato leads wives to seek exclusively the honor that comes from men, Peter teaches them to seek the honor which come down from God, the true Judge of excellence, the great Fountain of honor."
Before we pass from this subject of personal decoration, we will just notice the very beautiful reference which the apostle makes to that part of our nature, which it is to be your chief concern to beautify. "Don't be concerned about the outward beauty that depends on fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should be known for the beauty that comes from within--the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God." How exquisitely is this put. How impressive the ideas which are conveyed. It is the decoration of the soul rather than of the body, about which Christian women should be chiefly solicitous and concerned. The soul is indestructible and immortal; so should its ornaments be. What can jewels of silver or jewels of gold do for this? Can the diamond sparkle upon the intellect? or the ruby blaze upon the heart? Or the pearl be set in the conscience? Or the gorgeous robe clothe the character? Or the feather or the flower wave over the renewed and holy nature? No! The appropriate ornaments of the soul are truth, holiness, knowledge, faith, hope, love, joy, humility; and all the other gifts and graces of the Spirit--wisdom, prudence, fortitude and gentleness. These are the jewels with which the heart should be adorned. The outer body is corruptible. Dust it is, and unto dust it shall return.
That beautiful woman glittering in all the profusion of diamonds--the admiration and envy of the party or the ball room, must before long be a mass of putrefaction too ghastly to be looked upon--and then a hideous skeleton, a collection of bones, a heap of dust! And where will be the immortal spirit? Will it wear the cast-off jewels of the body? O no! These remain, rescued from the grasp of the 'king of terrors', but only to ornament other bodies!
But turn now to that other female, the woman who, regardless of the decoration of the body, was all intent upon the beauty of the soul. Look at her, who was clothed with the robe of righteousness and the garment of salvation, and decorated with the ornaments of a meek and quiet spirit. She too dies; but the indestructible and immortal spirit over which death has no dominion, goes not unadorned into the presence of the Eternal; for the jewels with which it decorated itself on earth are as indestructible as its own nature, and go with it to shine in the presence of God!
"Men," says Leighton, "think it poor and base to be meek. Nothing is more exposed to contempt than the spirit of meekness; it is mere folly with men. But that is no matter of concern—this overweighs all disesteem, it is with God of great price. And these are indeed as He values them, and no otherwise. Though it be not the country's fashion, yet it is the fashion at Heaven's court; yes, it is the King's own fashion; 'Learn of me,' says he, 'for I am meek and humble in heart.' Some that are court bred, will send for the prevailing fashions there, though they live not at court; and though the peasants think them strange dresses, yet they regard not that, but use them as finest and best. So care you not what the world says—you are not to stay long with them. Desire to have both your clothing and your fashions from heaven. The robe of humility, the garment of meekness, will be sent to you. Wear them for his sake who sends them to you. He will be pleased to see you in them, and is not this enough? It is never right in anything with us until we attain to this--to tread on the opinion of men, and eye nothing but God's approbation."
But we now pass from the ornaments of the Christian woman's body
to those of her profession, and these indeed are the chief subject of this chapter. There is something impressive in the exhortation, "Then they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive in every way." Even the great truth of our Divine Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, is thus represented as susceptible of decoration on the part of those who profess it. The sentiment conveyed is that the holy life of a consistent Christian is an adornment of the profession of this sublime doctrine. This, more than all splendor of tasteful architecture, or gorgeous forms, or imposing ceremonies, or anything else which can appeal to the senses, is the decoration of Christian doctrine. It is this, as it shines forth in the beauties of holiness, that truly decorates religion. "Beyond the pomp that charms the eyes--or rites adorned with gold."
A very large proportion of the members of all Christian churches are women, and young women too. This, on many accounts, is a very delightful fact. It has, however, been sometimes complained that like others, they are not so anxious to sustain their profession well, as to make it attractive. And it is for their sake, and to lead them to consider what would set off their profession to the best advantage, that this chapter is designed. What is really ornamental attracts attention and excites admiration--these are virtues which Christians should secure by their conduct. I shall proceed on this subject, into the four following particulars.
I. The PERSONAL QUALITIES which will make the gospel attractive.As incongruity of conduct in reference to any profession whatever, is a blemish and not a beauty, a deformity and not a decoration--remember that inconsistency would be a blemish and deformity in you, in reference to religion. Study your profession, and thoroughly understand what it implies and enjoins. Consider well what holiness of conduct; what spirituality of mind; what separation from the world in spirit and taste; what devotional feelings; what faith, hope, love, and humility; what amiableness of disposition and kindness of disposition, are included in that declaration you have actually made--"I am a Christian."
You should not have made such a profession if you did not understand it--or intend to sustain it. I must remind you, it is a solemn thing to profess to be a disciple of Christ. It supposes you to be a new creature, that old things are passed away, and that all things have become new with you; that you have new principles, new motives, new ends of life, new tastes and new pleasures. Now, your profession is to be maintained with a due regard to this. Your conduct must correspond with it. You must be dissimilar in these things, quite so, to those who make no such profession. They must see the difference as well as hear of it. You must commend yourselves to them as consistent with yourselves. You must compel them to say, "Well, we do not like her religion, but it is quite in harmony with her profession." But what is this CONSISTENCY? The following remarks will perhaps explain it.
There must beEARNESTNESS, without enthusiasm, fanaticism, or bigotry. Lukewarmness as to any duty is odious. Earnestness on the other hand excites attention, and sometimes admiration, even where its object is far from commendable; how much more where that object is holy, benevolent, and useful. It is a noble and a lofty spectacle to see amid a race of frivolous mortals, one, who being immortal, is intent upon its immortality; and though surrounded by the frivolities of this visible world, is intent upon the realities of the unseen eternal world!
Nothing can be more dull and repulsive than a lukewarm and heartless profession of religion--a pale, sickly, and shriveled form, which has all the decay of consumption, without its hectic flush or dimmed eye. On the other hand, how impressive a spectacle is it to behold a young woman amid the wonderment of some of her companions, and the laughter of others, rising upon the wings of faith and habitual devotion above the region of their levities, into that of devotion; to see her eye, as it is upturned to heaven, sparkling with the beam of eternity that has fallen upon it; and to follow her in her ardent career, pursuing her seraphic course, undeterred by contrary examples or opposing influence.
But there must be no 'enthusiasm' leading her to violate the law of sobriety; no 'fanaticism' leading her to tie down others to all the rules she has imposed upon herself, and to cherish a hostile, much less a malignant feeling towards them, because they seem to differ from her in some things which she deems important. There must be the most profound humility blended with all this intense earnestness, and the mildest forbearance towards others, combined with the utmost conscientiousness as regards the laws which she imposes on herself.
Earnestness implies a resolute determination never to allow others to interfere with our convictions; a courage that dares to be singular; a fortitude which braves opposition, though it should be united with gentleness even under persecution. Earnestness must be shown by an intelligent and well-regulated zeal to bring others under that influence which is the spring of its own energies. Mild in persuasion, gentle in entreaty, and with a loving insinuating manner, the female religious professor must aim at the conversion of others. Usefulness, in the way of holy activity for the temporal and eternal happiness of mankind, must be a conspicuous trait of her character. Selfishness, indolence, and inertness, are disfigurements of character--while benevolent activity is one of its richest ornaments.
There must be seriousness without gloom. On the one hand, she who is bent upon eternity and anxious for salvation, cannot sink down into the levity of those who are all taken up with fashion, amusement, and folly! On the other, true religion includes such an intelligent joy as makes its possessor satisfied with her own sources of enjoyment, without running to the amusements of the world for pleasure and excitement. The young female professor must let it be seen and felt that her religion is her bliss--and not her penance; that it is her song and her solace. She must appear as irradiated with sun-beams, and not invested with gloominess. Her countenance must be the index of a heart at peace--of a bosom serene and happy.
And in addition to all this, there must be a most anxious desire to cultivate that prime virtue in the composition of womanly and Christian excellence--GENTLENESS. See how this is commended in the passage which I have already quoted from the writings of the apostle Peter—"The unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God." God values gentleness above all gifts of intellect, delights in it above the most splendid genius, honors it above all that men delight to honor. Gentleness is woman's ornament above all others; it is her defense, for who can oppress the gentleness which never provokes, and can scarcely resist or complain? Who can wantonly tread on that lowly, lovely floweret, which as it lifts its unpretending head, silently says, "Can you crush one that hurts nothing?"
Nothing is more unsightly than the reverse of this--an irritable, discontented, peevish, domineering woman. Hence the declaration of the inspired Israelitish sage, "It is better to live alone in the corner of an attic--than with a contentious wife in a lovely home." "It is better to dwell in the wilderness--than with a contentious and angry woman."
Mr. Jay has drawn a beautiful picture of this virtue in his character of a Christian wife; as one "who can feel neglects and unkindnesses, and yet retain her composure; who can calmly remonstrate, and meekly reprove; who can yield and accommodate; who is not 'easily provoked,' and is 'easily entreated;' who would endure rather than complain, and would rather suffer in secret, than disturb others with her grief." Such is gentleness--the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life--and such the ornament of female Christian profession.
II. The SOCIAL QUALITIES which will make the gospel attractive.
Great injustice has been done to religion, and a great hindrance thrown in the way of its diffusion, by those descriptions of it, which represent it as an abstract thing, almost exclusively appertaining to the Sunday as to time, and to the church as to place; a mere matter of devotion, a transaction between God and the soul about salvation and heaven; but having nothing or little to do with secular affairs, the social relations, and the places of resort in human life; in short, as a thing which looks entirely heavenward, but which casts no glance upon earth. This is superstition, and we find enough of it in Popery, which overlays with a cumbrous ceremonial the moral duties of the law, as well as the free grace of the gospel; cuts in many instances the ties of social life, and isolates men and women from their fellows; and by the devotions of the cloister, the convent, and the church, supersedes the duties of the house, the shop, and the exchange; thus setting forth religion, as fitting men for the next world, but having very little to do with their abode in the present one.
On the contrary, true religion, the religion of the Bible, is seen under two aspects; one looking up to heaven; the other looking down to earth. It gathers all the interests of man under its protection and fostering care. Like the sun, which, though fixed in the heavens, pours the flood of his light and glory and cherishing influence upon earth; or like the atmosphere which, though above the earth, enters into every place upon it, and sustains the insects that creep, as well as the birds that soar; so religion irradiates with its light, guides by its revelations, animates with its stimulus, sanctifies by its power, and blesses with its influence--in all their relations, and all their interests--all those who yield themselves up to its authority and government. It goes to palaces and teaches kings; to the legislature and teaches senators; to the exchange and teaches merchants; to the cottages and teaches peasants and workmen—instructing all in the various duties which they owe to God and to their fellow men.
Religion is also a household thing, a family law—it lifts the latch of the house and goes in and takes its seat at the parental table, and joins the circle round the hearth, as well as round the altar; it swells the joys of the domestic fellowship, as well as responds to the morning prayer, or chants the evening hymn; it founds the duties of the second table of the law upon those of the first, employs the loftiest theology to enforce the commonest morality, and enjoins the most ordinary obligations of social existence by motives drawn from the cross of Christ. Hence the necessity for professors to pay the greatest attention to the various duties of social and domestic life.
We are commanded to let our "light shine before men, that they seeing our good works may glorify God." So in the beautiful passage quoted from the apostle Peter, where he gives directions to Christian wives, he says, "Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." Here again is the fact set out, that religion is intended to regulate the communion, and form the character, of domestic and social life, and that where its influence so exerted is seen, it must be beneficial to the observers of it. I wish to press this most earnestly upon your attention, that the faith of the gospel is intended and calculated to carry social excellence to the very highest perfection. It is the soil in which all the seeds of domestic happiness will best flourish.
It should not be forgotten that social excellence is often seen apart from religion. Exemplary instances of the home duties of life are often found in those who make no profession of religion. Good husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, are found outside the circle of vital piety--a fact which ought to make those that are within it, still more anxious to be exemplary in the discharge of their obligations. A real Christian should excel unconverted people not only in religion, but in morality. She should not only be more holy, but more socially excellent. She should excel the worldling in those things which the latter makes her boast, and rise above the level which she has prescribed as her highest elevation in moral and social virtue. Select, therefore, the most dutiful and affectionate daughter, the most kind and attentive sister you can of this class, and say to yourself, "She makes no profession of religion, and yet she excels, in a manner worthy of attention and admiration, in all the duties of domestic life. Now, as I do profess religion, I must if possible be still more exemplary than she is in all social obligations, for surely nothing could possibly bring religion into greater disrepute than for my parents, or my brothers and sisters, or even the servants, to make a comparison to my disadvantage, between my conduct and hers."
If you would adorn your profession it must be in this way of domestic excellence. There may be the most seraphic piety, so far as the raptures of devotion go; there may be a most punctilious performance of all the rites and ceremonies of religion; there may be a most eager and regular attendance upon all the public services of religion; there may be an ardent zeal for the spread of the religious peculiarities of your denomination, but if at the same time there be a deficiency of duty, honor, and obedience to your parents, or of kind interest and affection for your brothers and sisters, or of humane consideration for your servants; all this religious profession will only excite disgust, and raise a suspicion of your sincerity, and a prejudice against religion itself.
No one can possibly be attracted to, or conciliated by, a religion which is in any great degree destitute of social and domestic excellence. It is a terrible taunt to be thrown at any one—"Yes, she is, if her own profession and supposition be consulted, a very good Christian; but it is a pity she is not a better daughter, a more kind sister, and a more accommodating neighbor." The most flaming profession must be at once thrown into eclipse by such a sarcasm. If you were to study how most effectually to discredit, not only your profession of it, but religion itself, you could not be more successful than by associating with it such a line of conduct as this. I do therefore most solemnly and anxiously entreat you to enter very deeply into the subject of the chapter entitled, "The Parental Home."
It is probable that this chapter will be read by some who sustain the character of female servants. This is a class of people to be found in all our churches, and in some is very numerous; and I take this opportunity of saying that I have many such who are among the brightest ornaments of the church under my care, and who by their exemplary deportment do much to recommend religion to their employers. Their honesty, diligence, industry, good disposition, and obliging, respectful deportment, make them the comfort of the households in which they live. It is somewhat observable that the text which speaks of our "adorning the doctrine of God our Savior," was addressed to servants. And so far as the ornamental parts of religion are concerned, as well as its substantial elements, none have more occasions, or more favorable circumstances, for exhibiting them than female servants. Their humble situation, by testing their good disposition, devotedness, and submission, gives them an opportunity of bringing out into bold and beautiful contrast, the most lovely traits of Christian piety.
On the other, hand, there are some, who by a lamentable deficiency of these more amiable qualities, though perhaps they may have real religious principle, have excited much prejudice against genuine piety, and led their employers to say, "I am not anxious again to have what are called religious servants, for in most things they are no better, and in some they are worse than others."
III. There are INTELLECTUAL ornaments of your profession, which you should seek--both on their own account and on that of religion. True it is that genuine and consistent religion is its own recommendation, and depends upon nothing extraneous for its real value. Still, since there are those who have imbibed prejudices against it, and have taken up mistaken views of its nature, as if it were at war with the gifts of the intellect and the graces of the character--it would be well to disarm their minds, and by reason and elegance, to convince them that piety is not, as they may suppose, another name for ignorance, stupidity, and vulgarity. For their sakes, then, as well as for your own pleasure, cultivate your minds by study. Acquire an eager thirst for knowledge. Be fond of reading, and of the best kind of reading. Disprove the slander that girls are only fond of tales and novels, of stories of love, female adventures or heroism. Prize knowledge; desire to arrive at truth; be anxious to investigate the wonders of nature; and covet to enrich your minds with the treasures dug up and distributed in such abundance in this wonderful age. Store your minds with this wealth.
But let other faculties be brought into exercise besides your memory; cultivate your judgment, be inquisitive, reflective, discriminating. There are many young people whose memory is a storehouse crowded with facts, names, and dates, but who are lamentably deficient after all in judgment. They may talk French, quote history, and display other worldly accomplishments, but their intellect is too feeble to form, to hold, or to defend, an opinion of their own. We do not of course expect all women to be profound logicians, but most tolerably well-educated women may by vigorous and well sustained efforts arrive at some maturity of sound judgment.
Let it then be seen that the highest kind of wisdom and knowledge does not lead you to despise the lower kinds; lest those who are competent only in them, should by what they see in you, despise that which is the highest. Make it clear that they who are the children of God are most solicitous to become acquainted with all the works of their Heavenly Father, not excepting the wonders and glories of creation. Convince the worshipers of the God of nature, (or rather of the false god, Nature) that while you are chiefly anxious to pass on and worship Him who sits enthroned between the cherubim, upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, you can bow and adore with them in the vestibule of his temple, and ascend with them to the highest altitude of earthly subjects and general knowledge; and that when like birds of weaker pinions, and dimmer vision, they droop the wing and stop their flight, you, like the eagle soaring still upward to the sun, can still pursue your heaven-bound course, and rise into the regions of celestial splendor.
Nearly allied to this, is taste, or a perception and love of the beautiful and sublime in nature, in literature, in accomplishments, in conduct, yes, and in Holy Scripture. The Bible is full of instances of this. With a correct literary taste you will relish more even this bread of life, that came down from heaven--the Word of God. Inspiration has garnished its page with beauties that are hidden from eyes whose vision has not been strengthened by education. The Scripture is a paradise of flowers to be admired, as well as of fruits to be eaten.
Taste displayed even in what are called accomplishments is ornamental to piety, when not carried to excess. As I observed, in a former chapter, these matters of elegance are not to be despised. True, it is a sin for a Christian woman to spend hours and hours of each precious day in the fashionable modes of killing time--by embroidery, crotchet work, painting, languages, and music--to the neglect of religion, useful reading, and all benevolent effort. It is truly affecting, to see a rational, immortal, and accountable creature, dwelling in this world of ignorance, sin, and misery, which she could do something to enlighten, reform and bless, (and she herself on her way to eternity and the bar of God,) consuming the best and preparatory period of her whole existence in this world and the next, in working figures upon canvass, or drawing them upon paper; or in playing and singing; or in acquiring German, French, or Italian.
Let me not however be misunderstood. I am not such a rigid utilitarian as to be the advocate of the merely useful in human character, for I really love and admire the ornamental. I am not all for Doric strength, but contend also for Ionic grace and Corinthian elegance. I am not for young women laying down the needle and the pencil; or for their leaving the piano silent and untouched; or foreign languages unlearned. No such thing! Religion forbids not these matters. Nature, and the Bible too, are full of the sweetest embroidery and enameling, full of music and painting, and all the varieties of a language not our own. Instead of forbidding what can add embellishment to the female character, I enjoin it. Woman, formed to please, yes, made in Paradise, where beauty was in perfection, and where your first lessons in taste were taught by the Great Master of all created beauty, go on to besprinkle your character and to interweave your conduct with every flower of elegance; and especially Christian woman, let it be seen by your sex, that you have not so learned Christ as to throw off all delight in the tasteful, the decorative, and the picturesque, with which pointing to the lily, the vine, the birds, and the flocks, he was pleased to enliven and adorn his own discourses. To me it is always a beautiful sight to behold the robe of righteousness and the garment of salvation, in which genuine piety is ever attired, adorned, (not encumbered,) with the jewels of elegant accomplishments and tasteful decoration.
Now all this is important to you as young unmarried women—and how is the importance of it augmented by your looking forward and contemplating yourselves in future life, as wives and mothers! Without intelligence and taste, are you fitted to be the companion of a wise and sensible man, or to preside with advantage over the education of children? Remember the character of the age in which you live. But even in these days of knowledge and taste we know very well that the aptness and ability of a good house-wife are always invaluable—for it is a poor commendation to say of a woman, "She is exceedingly well informed in all the literature of the day, quite learned, but she knows very little of household affairs." I believe her husband often thinks, if he does not say, "I would dispense with a great deal of her bookishness and her knowledge, if I could have the house kept in a better condition, and enjoy a little more comfort at home."
Still, a wife and a mother, to all the household prerequisites, should and may add intelligence and taste. It is indeed the perfection of womanly character, at once to "look well to the ways of her household" and also, to "open her mouth with wisdom." How impressive and attractive a scene is it to see a pious, well-informed, accomplished woman, respected as well as beloved by her husband, as his intelligent companion, esteemed by his guests, and looked up to with confidence, reverence, and affection by her children, over whose general education she presides with dignity and ability.
IV.There are some things which are not reducible to either of the other heads, and which may therefore be called general excellences of a decorative nature. These have been already dwelt upon in former discourses, and therefore need only be briefly mentioned here. We find them set forth in the early character and conduct of Rebekah; in which we beheld modesty without silliness, frankness without forwardness, courtesy without affectation, and pleasantness without servility. In short, all that maidenly reserve which would restrain whatever is obtrusive, crude, impudent, and bold; and which yet would allow of an artless, ingenuous, and unembarrassed mode of communion with the other sex.
I have sometimes seen good women so bold, obtrusive, and imposing, as to repel and disgust. I could not doubt that they had really some religious principle within this indecorous outside, but it could scarcely be seen. In some cases it has happened that even the very profession of religion, which should have led women to draw closer the veil of modest reserve, has led them to throw it off altogether, and they seemed to act as if the Christian name, which ought to be a guarantee for all that is meek and gentle, was a sanction for improper forwardness.
On the contrary, there are others, whose profession of religion has so disfigured them with the airs of assumed sanctity, so stiffened them into prudish reserve, and so distorted the simplicity of nature with the formalism of gloomy superstition, that they are repulsive as spectres, and lead many to exclaim, "If this be religion, it may be pure, but it is surely unlovely, and, one would imagine, as unfit for heaven, where all is joyous, as it is for earth, where if happiness be lacking, this certainly cannot supply it."
Good disposition, or amiability, is essential to the adornment of a Christian profession. This has been alluded to already in more places than one, but its importance justifies the repetition. I have already admitted that there is a great difference in this respect in natural constitution. Hence it costs some immensely more pains to acquire a small degree of this excellence, than it does others to manifest ten times the amount. And really there may be more of principle and virtue in the small measure of the one, than in the abundance of the other. Some indulgence should therefore be shown to those who are born with a crabbed disposition, and they should not be judged too harshly. We see the fault, but not the contrition with which it is followed; nor do we witness the deep self-abasement which the ebullition of the moment inflicts for hours, if not days. But still we would enjoin on those who are conscious of this infirmity, a most anxious, earnest, and prayerful attention to the subject.
Let every woman who is troubled with an over-wrought sensibility, a morbid susceptibility of offence, an unusual liability to passion, put her heart under discipline, or her constitutional tendency will be a prolific source of misery to herself, and to others around her. It is not, however, as a source of disquietude that I now allude to it, but as a cause of scandal. A bad disposition not only troubles the heart, but it disfigures the profession. Observers can see nothing to love and admire in religion, when found in company with so much ill-temper. There are some people whose bad disposition is unassociated with piety, or indeed moral worth of any kind, and they are wasps, hornets, scorpions, all venom and no honey, according to the degree of malignity they possess. There are others who have real godliness and some sterling excellence of other kinds, and they resemble bees, who though they have honey, yet are somewhat irritable, and have also a sting for those who offend them. Cultivate then a lovely and amiable disposition as one of the brightest ornaments of religion. It is to religion what the burnish is to the gold, the polish to the steel, the fragrance to the rose, the sunshine to the gorgeous scene.
There is one thing which, in addition to all that has been mentioned, is requisite to give the finishing stroke of ornament to the character of the young female professors of religion; and that is the virtue that is sometimes designated good sense, at other times prudence, at others thoughtfulness. I know such dispositions are thought by some minds to partake too much of a grave demeanor, to be ornamental in youth. They may hang like rich ripe clusters round the character of the matron, but such people think the beauty of youth consists of the picturesque, the romantic, with a tinge of the wild, the visionary, and the enthusiastic. There is no poetry they imagine in prudence, no imagination in good sense, no imaginativeness in thoughtfulness. True, and I will concede so much as to allow that a precocious gravity, an anticipation of the sobriety of threescore years and ten, is not what I enjoin, or wish to see in youthful maidens.
Even religion with all its solemn proprieties, all its heavenly sanctities, does not extinguish the vivacity, the sprightliness, the buoyancy of a girl in her teens. I love to see her sparkling eye, her sun-lit countenance, her elastic step, and to hear the merry note of her laughter, and the music of her cheerful voice. These are ornamental, they belong to her age, and the natural flow of her spirits, and it is only superstition that would turn that young and joyous creature into the stiff and silent statue, the nun-like figure, or the unsmiling devotee.
But then, is it any detriment to all this innocent hilarity to have meditative thoughtfulness, an instinctive sense of propriety, cautious reserve and accurate discrimination? Is it a blemish rather than a beauty to be able to consider what in all circumstances is best to be done, and to be able to do it well? To act from principle rather than from impulse, and to be guided by reason rather than by feeling? To weigh words before they are spoken, and estimate actions before they are performed? Is not propriety beauty? Are notions and caprices, whims and eccentricities, imprudence and follies, ornaments? Yes, in the estimation of that silly girl (but in hers alone), who would rather be smiled at for her wildness and her weakness, than commended for her more solid excellence. What kind of a mother is this romantic and wayward creature likely to make? Let the Christian young woman be very jealous then of this romanticism, and consider it is not in keeping with the dignity and sanctity of religion. The matrons are admonished by the apostles to teach the young women to be sober; a word that refers to a prudent thoughtfulness.
Such then are the ornaments of early female religious profession. It has been throughout this chapter supposed that there may be real piety, without some of these accompaniments--a rough unpolished godliness, true but unadorned religion. One young female may be sincere in her profession of religion, and yet have an uncorrected infirmity of disposition—another may be very illiterate or very weak-minded—another may be guilty of various little inconsistencies which tarnish the beauty of her profession—another may be rash, restless, and imprudent—another may be spiritually proud, and something like pretended sanctimonious—another may be lacking in agreeable and accommodating manners or habits at home. In all these ways and in various others, religion may be disparaged, shorn of some of its beauty, rendered less attractive, and made even repulsive to those who observe it.
"Let not your good," says the apostle, "be evil spoken of." Religion is itself so transcendently excellent, (being the highest glory of man, the image of God, and the disposition of heaven,) that it should be exhibited to the greatest possible advantage. Who that wore the portrait of some dear friend, or suspended a picture of the queen in their house, would not wish to have it so framed as to be worthy of the subject? Who would not deprecate the idea of their keeping it either covered with dust or defilement? True religion is the only thing that can make people happy in this world, or guide them to eternal felicity in the world to come. How solemnly, tremblingly anxious should all who profess it, be to exhibit it in the most advantageous light, and with the greatest and most powerful attractions! How deeply solicitous should we be, lest by anything others see in us, they should take a prejudice against it, and we should thus cast stumbling blocks in their way! How desirous should we feel, and how studious should we be, to invest our profession with whatever things are lovely--that others, beholding our good works, our peace of mind, our meekness, gentleness, and kindness, our usefulness and humility, should be won to Christ; that so if they will not love religion in the first instance for its own sake, they may be conciliated to it by the ornaments with which, in our case, it is decorated!
Before this chapter is concluded, I may with great propriety suppose that some will read it who have not made a profession of religion, who are not in visible connection with a Christian church, and are living in the habitual neglect of the Lord's Supper. Making no profession of religion! How is this? Have you none to profess? Melancholy idea! No religion! Better, I admit, not to profess at all, than to profess what you do not possess, and thus add hypocrisy to your other sins. But is it not painful and fearful to think of a rational, immortal, sinful being, living without penitence, prayer, faith, and love? How can you live another hour in such a state? What are all the intellectual ornaments spoken of above, without personal piety, but a garland of beautiful flowers round the brow of a corpse; or but as diamonds sparkling on the bosom of death? Oh, for your soul's sake, live no longer without remembering your Creator in the days of your youth.
Others, perhaps, will read this discourse, who, though partakers of true faith in Christ and love to God, are not yet professors of the religion they possess. We again say, How is this? Have you pondered that language of the apostle, "With the heart man believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation," or that solemn injunction of Christ, when he instituted the sacred supper, "Do this in remembrance of me." Is this the command you select from the law of the New Testament as the only one you feel at liberty to disobey? This one, so tender, so touching, so loving! This, delivered in sight of the cross, only a few hours before our Lord endured those agonies by which you are saved! What! neglect the command of dying love, a command so positive, an invitation so gracious, an injunction, obedience to which is at once so honorable, so happy, and so useful! What is your reason for this neglect? Do you tremble to make a profession because it is so sacred? Have you not mistaken the design of the Lord's Supper; it is simply a commemorative ordinance, and are you not deluded and terrified by the mystery in which priestcraft has sought to envelope it?
But, "you tremble to make a profession lest you should dishonor it, as so many have done." They have indeed, and the painful fact should lead to caution, self-examination, and earnest prayer for grace, that another stumbling-block should not be furnished by you. But the very fear will, if sincere, be your preservation from the object of your dread. The path of duty is the way of safety. Besides, are you less likely to sin outside the pale of communion than within it? We invite you, therefore, if you are partakers of true faith, to profess, or to use a scriptural synonym, to confess it. The communion of saints and the participation of the Lord's Supper will by God's grace, strengthen the principle, and call forth the exercise, of the Divine life, and be at once your honor and your joy.
And as to you who are already to be found in the fellowship of the faithful, I congratulate you on the choice you have made, and on the decision to which you have come. To your pastors it was a source of unspeakable pleasure to receive you among the number of the followers of the Lamb. You, in an especial manner, are their hope, and joy, and crown of rejoicing, inasmuch as they look to you, and those who may descend from you, to fill up the places of more aged disciples, when they, according to the course of nature, shall be removed to the church triumphant. Acknowledge practically and gratefully the grace you have received from the Lord, by using your influence with labor and judgment, to engage other young people, your relatives and companions, to come and share with you the privileges, and enjoy the blessings of Christian communion.
And to give effect to your persuasions, exhibit all the beauty of consistent example. Let religion be seen in you, combining with all its sanctities and spiritualities, the pleasantness of life, amiability of disposition, general intelligence, correct taste, and general social excellence, which shall predispose them in favor of genuine piety. Make it evident to them that true godliness is as happy a thing as it is a holy one. Convince them by what they see in you as well as by what they hear from you, that you have found the secret, and that your soul has touched the center, of bliss. Let the richest excellences that can adorn the female character--all the most rare and delicate beauties that are admired in it--be strung together upon the golden thread of eminent piety, and be hung like a necklace of heavenly pearls round your profession. Thus, "make the teaching about God our Savior attractive in every way."
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