The Daughters of England/Chapter XII
Without having made any pretension in this volume to class it under the head of a religious work, I have endeavoured to render it throughout conducive to the interests of religion, by pointing out those minor duties of life, and those errors of society, which strictly religious writers almost universally consider as too insignificant for their attention. And, perhaps, it is not easy to interweave these seeming trifles in practice, with the great fundamental principles of Christian faith.
I cannot but think, however, that, to many, and especially to the young, this minuteness of detail may have its use, by bringing home to their attention familiar instances upon which Christian principle may be brought to bear. For I am one of those who think that religion ought never to be treated or considered as a thing set apart from daily and familiar use, to be spoken of as belonging almost exclusively to sabbaths, and societies, and serious reading. To me it appears that the influence of religion should be like an atmosphere, pervading all things connected with our being; that it ought to constitute the element in which the Christian lives, more than the sanctuary into which he retires. When considered in this point of view, nothing can be too minute to be submitted to the test of its principles; so that, instead of our worldly and our spiritual concerns occupying two distinct pages in our experience, the one, according to this rule, becomes regulated by our spiritual views; and the other applied to our worldly avocations, as well as to our eternal interests.
In relation to this subject, it has been remarked, in the quaint language of an old writer, that no sin is "little in itself, because there is no little law to be despised; no little heaven to be lost; no little hell to be endured;" and it is by this estimate that I would value every act, and every thought, in which the principles of good and evil are involved.
The great question, whether the principles of Christian faith, or, in other words, whether the religion of the Bible, shall be adopted as the rule of conduct by the young, remains yet to be considered, not in relation to the nature of that faith, but as regards the desirableness of embracing it at an early period of life, willingly and entirely, with earnestness, as well as love.
I am writing thus, on the supposition, that, with all who read these pages, convictions of the necessity and excellence of personal religion have at one time or other been experienced. The opinion is general, and, I believe, correct, that the instances are extremely rare in which the Holy Spirit does not awaken the human soul to a sense of its real situation as an accountable being, passing through a state of probation, before entering upon an existence of endless duration. Nor amongst young persons born of Christian parents, and educated in a Christian country, where the means of religious instruction are accessible to all, is it easy to conceive that such convictions have not, at times, been strong and deep; though, possibly, they may have been so neglected as to render their recurrence less frequent, and less powerful in their influence upon the mind.
Still it is good to recall the time when the voice of warning, and of invitation, was first heard; to revisit the scene of a father's faithful instruction, and of the prayers of a lost mother; to hear again the sabbath- evening sermon, to visit the cottage of the dying Christian; or even to look back once more into the chamber of infancy, where our first tears of real penitence were shed. It is good to remember how it was with us in those by-gone days when we welcomed the chastisements of love, and kissed the rod that was stretched forth by a Father's hand. How blest did we then feel, in the belief that we were not neglected, not forgotten, not overlooked! Has anything which the world, we have too much loved, since offered us, afforded a happiness to be compared with this belief? Oh! no. Then why not hearken, when the same voice is still inviting you to come? and why not comply when the same hand is still pointing out the way to peace ? What is the hinderance which stands in your way? What is the difficulty which prevents the dedication of your youth to God? Let this question be seriously asked, and fully answered; for it is of immense importance that you should know on what grounds the invitations of the Holy Spirit have been rejected; and why you are adopting another rule of conduct than that which is prescribed in the gospel of Christ.
I repeat, it is of immense importance, because this is a subject which admits of no trifling. If it is of importance in every branch of mental improvement, that we should be active, willing, earnest, and faithful, it is still more important here. When we do not persevere in learning, it does not follow of necessity that we grow more ignorant, because we may remain where we are, while the rest of the world goes on. But, in religion, there is no standing still, because opportunities neglected, and convictions resisted, are involved in the great question of responsibility; so that no one can open their Bible, or attend the means of religious instruction, or spend a Sabbath, or even enter into solemn communion with their own heart, as in the sight of God, but they must be so much the worse for such opportunities of improvement, if neglected or despised.
I have dwelt much in this volume upon the law of perfect love, as well as upon the sincerity and the faithfulness with which that law should be carried out; and never is this more important, or more essential, than in our religious profession. The very groundwork of the Christian faith is love; and love can accomplish more in the way of conformity in life and practice, than could ever be effected by the most rigid adherence to what is believed to be right, without assistance from the life-giving principle of love.
Still the state of the Christian in this world is always described as one of warfare, and not of repose; and how, without earnestness, are temptations to be resisted, convictions acted upon, or good intentions carried out? As time passes on, too, faithfulness is tried. What has been adopted, or embraced, must be adhered to; and in this, with many young persons, consists the greatest of their trials; for there is often a reaction on first learning to understand something of the realities of life, which throws them back from the high state of expectation and excitement, under which they first embraced religious truth.
But let us return to the objections which most frequently operate to prevent the young surrendering themselves to their convictions of the importance and necessity of personal religion. "If I begin, I must go on." Your mind is not then made up. You have not counted the cost of coming out from the world, nor honestly weighed the advantages of securing the guidance, support, and protection of personal religion, against every other pursuit, object, or idol of your lives. Perhaps it is society, amusement, or fashion, which stands in your way. Be assured there is society of the highest order, where religion is supreme; and if not exactly what is popularly called amusement, there is a heartfelt interest in all which relates, however remotely, to the extension of the kingdom of Christ—an interest unknown to those who have no bond of union, founded upon the basis of Christian love.
Is it possible, then, that fashion can deter you—fashion, a tyrant at once both frivolous and cruel—fashion, who never yet was rich enough to repay one of her followers, for the sacrifice of a single happy hour—fashion, whose realm is folly, and who is perpetually giving place to sickness, sorrow, and the grave? Compare for one instant her empire with that of religion. I admit that her power is extensive, almost all-pervading; but what has her sovereign sway effected upon the destinies of man? She has adjusted ornaments, and selected colours; she has clothed and unclothed thousands, and arrayed multitudes in her own livery—but never has fashion bestowed dignity or peace of mind upon one single individual of the whole family of nan.
It would be an insult to the nature and the power of religion to proceed farther with the comparison. Can that which relates merely to the body, which is fleeting as a breath, and unstable as the shadow of a cloud, deter from what is pure, immortal, and divine?Still I am aware it is easy, in the solitude of the chamber, or in the privacy of domestic life, to think and speak in this exalted strain, and yet to go into the society of the fashionable, the correct, and the worldly-minded, who have never felt the necessity of being religious, and to be suddenly brought, by the chilling influence of their reasoning or their satire, to conclude that the convenient season for you to admit the claims of religion upon your heart and life, has not yet arrived.
I believe the most dangerous influence, which society exercises upon young women, is derived from worldly-minded persons, of strong common sense, who are fashionable in their appearance, generally correct in their conduct, and amiable and attractive in their manners and conversation. Young women guardedly and respectably brought up see little of vice, and know little of
"The thousand paths which slope the way to sin."
They are consequently comparatively unacquainted with the beginnings of evil, and still less so with those dark passages of life, to which such beginnings are calculated to lead. It follows, therefore, that, except when under the influence of strong convictions, they may be said to be ignorant of the real necessity of religion. It is but natural then, that those correct and well-bred persons, to whom allusion has been made, who pass on from the cradle to the brink of the grave, treating religion with respect, as a good thing for the poor and the disconsolate, but altogether unnecessary for them, should appear, on a slight examination of the subject, to be living in a much more enviable state, than those who believe themselves called upon to renounce the world and its vanities, and devote their time, and their talents, their energies and their affections, to a cause which the worldly-minded regard at best, as visionary and wild.
I have spoken of such persons passing on to the brink of the grave, and I have used this expression, because, I believe the grave has terrors, even to them; that when one earthly hold after another gives way, and health declines, and fashionable friends fall off, and death sits beckoning on the tomb-stones of their newly buried associates and relatives; I believe there is often a fearful questioning, about the realities of eternal things, and chiefly about the religion, which in idea they had set apart for the poor, the aged, and the disconsolate, but would none of it themselves.
Yes, I believe, if the young could witness the solitude of such persons, could visit their chambers of sickness, and gain admittance to the secret counsels of their souls, they would find there an aching void, a want, a destitution, which the wealth and the fashion, the pomp and the glory of the whole habitable world, would be insufficient to supply.
It is often secretly objected by young people, that, by making a profession of religion they should be brought into fellowship and association with vulgar persons: in answer to which argument, it would be easy to show that nothing can be more vulgar than vice, to say nothing of worldly-mindedness. It is, however, more to the purpose to endeavour to convince them, that true religion is so purifying in its own nature, as to be capable of elevating and refining minds which have never been either softened or enlightened by any other influence.
All who have been extensively engaged in the practical exercise of Christian benevolence; and who, in promoting the good of their fellow-creatures, have been admitted to scenes of domestic privacy amongst the illiterate and the poor, will bear their testimony to the fact, that religion is capable of rendering the society of some of the humblest and simplest of human beings, as truly refined, and far more affecting in its pathos and interest, than that of the most intelligent circles in the higher walks of life. I do not, of course, pretend to call it as refined in manners, and phraseology; but in the ideas and the feelings which its conversation is intended to convey. That is not refined society where polished language is used as the medium for low ideas; but that in which the ideas are raised above vulgar and worldly things and assimilated with thoughts and themes on which the holy and the wise, the saint and the philosopher, alike delight to dwell.
It is no exaggeration then to say, that the conversation of the humble Christian on her death-bed—her lowly bed of suffering, surrounded by poverty and destitution—is sometimes so fraught with the intelligence of that celestial world on which her hopes are fixed, that to have spent an hour in her presence, is like having had the glories of heaven, and the wonders of immortality, revealed. And is this a vulgar or degrading employment for a refined and intellectual being? to dwell upon the noblest theme which human intellect has ever grasped, to look onward from the perishable things of time to the full development of the eternal principles of truth and love? to forget the sufferings of frail humanity, and to live by faith amongst the ransomed spirits of the blest, in the presence of angels, and before the Saviour, ascribing honour, and glory, dominion, and power, to Him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb forever and ever?
In turning back to the world, from the contemplation of such a state of mind, we feel that vulgarity consists neither in religion itself, nor in its requirements, but in attaching undue importance to the things of time, and in making them our chief, or only good.
If young people are often deterred from becoming religious by seeing a great number of genteel, correct, and agreeable persons, who, for anything they can discover to the contrary, are doing very well without it they are still more forcibly deterred by feeling no want of it within themselves.
Perhaps you are so protected by parents, and so hemmed in by domestic regulations, that you feel it more difficult to do what is positively wrong, than what is generally approved as right. But do not be so blind and presumptuous as to mistake this apparently inoffensive state, for being religious; and remember, if it is difficult to do wrong now, it is the last stage of your experience in which you will find it so. Obliged to quit the parental roof, deprived by death of your natural protectors, required as years advance to take a more active part in the duties of life, or to incur a greater share of culpability by their neglect; thrown amongst strangers, or friends who are no longer watchful or solicitous for your temporal and spiritual good; involved in new connections, and exposed to temptations both from within and from without, how will your mind, lately so careless and secure, awake to a conscious feeling of your own weakness, and a secret terror of impending harm. For woman from her very feebleness is fearful; while from her sensitiveness she is peculiarly exposed to pain. Without religion, then, she is the most pitiable, the most abject, the most utterly destitute of all created beings. The world—society—nay, even domestic life, has nothing to offer on which her heart in its unregenerate state can rest in safety. Each day is a period of peril, if not of absolute agony; for all she has to give—her affections, which constitute her wealth—are involved in speculations, which can yield back into her bosom nothing but ashes and mourning.It is not so with the woman who has made religion her stronghold—her defence—her stay. Unchecked in the happiest and most congenial impulse of her nature, she can still love, because the Lord her God has commanded that she should love him with all her heart, and with all her strength, and that she should love her neighbour as herself. Thus, though disappointment or death may blight her earthly hopes; or though a cloud may rest upon the bestowment of her affections in this vale of tears, the principle of love which fills her soul remains the same, and she is most happy when its sphere of exercise is unbounded and eternal.
And is it possible that any of the rational beings whom I am addressing would dare to rush upon the dangers and temptations of this uncertain and precarious life, without the protection and support of religion? Oh! no, they tell me they are all believers in religion—all professors of the Christian faith. But are you all religious? Deceive not yourselves. There is no other way of being Christians, except by being personally religious. If not personally religious now, are you then ready to begin to be so? Delay not; you have arrived at years of discretion, and are capable of judging on many important points. You profess to believe in a religion which expressly teaches you that it is itself the one thing needful. What then stands in the way? If, after mature and candid deliberation, you decidedly prefer the world, injure not the cause of Christ by an empty profession, nor act the cowardly part of wearing the outward badge of a faith which holds not possession of your heart and affections. It is neither honourable nor just to allow any one to doubt on whose side you are. If, therefore, your decision be in favour of religion, it is still more important that you should not blush to own a Saviour, who left the glory of the heavenly kingdom, inhabited a mortal and suffering frame, and finally died an ignominious death, for you.
Nor let the plea of youth retard the offering of your heart to Him who gave you all its capacity for exquisite and intense enjoyment. If you are young, you are happy in having more to offer. Though it constitutes the greatest privilege of the Christian dispensation, that we are not required to bring anything by which to purchase the blessings of pardon and salvation; it surely must afford some additional satisfaction to a generous mind, to feel that because but a short period of life has passed away, there is more of health and strength, of elasticity and vigour, to bring into the field of action, than if the decision upon whose side to engage, had been deferred until a later period.
What, for instance, should we think of the subjects of a gracious and beneficent sovereign, who maintained a small territory in the midst of belligerent foes, if none of these subjects would consent to serve in his army for the defence of his kingdom, until they had wasted their strength and their vigour in the enemy's ranks, in fighting deliberately and decidedly against the master, whom yet they professed to consider as their rightful lord; and then, when all was lost, and they were poor, decrepit, destitute, and almost useless, returned to him, for no other reason, but because he was a better paymaster than the enemy, under whose colours they had fought for the whole of their previous lives? What should we say, if we beheld this gracious master willing to receive them on such terms, and not only to receive, but to honour and reward them with the choicest treasures of his kingdom? We should say, that one of the most agonizing thoughts which could haunt the bosom of each of those faithless servants, would be regret and self-reproach, that he had not earlier entered upon the service of his rightful lord.
There is besides, this fearful consideration connected with the indecision of youth, that in religious experience none can remain stationary. Where there is no progress, there must be a falling back. He who is not with me, is against me, was the appalling language of our Saviour when on earth; by which those who are halting between two opinions, and those who are imagining themselves safe on neutral ground, are alike condemned, as being opposed to the Redeemer's kingdom. It is but reasonable, however, that the young should understand the principles, and reflect maturely upon the claims, of religion, before their decision is openly declared. Much injury has been done to individuals, as well as to society at large, by a precipitate and uncalculating readiness to enlist under the banners of the Cross, before the duties of a faithful soldier of Christ have been duly considered. It is the tendency of ardent youth, to invest whatever it delights in for the moment, with ideal qualities adapted to its taste and fancy. Thus has religion often—too often—been decked in charms more appropriate to the divinities of Greece and Rome, than to the worship of a self-denying and persecuted people, whose lot on earth, they have been fully warned, is not to be one of luxury or repose.The first and severest disappointment to which the young enthusiast in religion is subject, is generally that of finding, on a nearer acquaintance with the devout men and honourable women who compose the religious societies into which they are admitted, that they have faults and failings like the rest of mankind, and even inconsistencies in their spiritual walk, which are still more unexpected, and more difficult to reconcile. The first impulse of the young, on making this discovery, is often to give up the cause altogether; 'for if such,' say they, 'be the defects of the Christian character, after such a season of experience, and while occupying so exalted a position, it can be of little use to us to persevere in the same course.' They forget, or perhaps they never have considered, that the highest attainment of the Christian in this world, is often that of alternate error and repentance; and that it is the state of the heart before God, of which he alone is the judge, which constitutes the difference betwixt a penitent, and an impenitent sinner. Besides which, they know not all. The secret struggles of the heart, the temptations overcome, the tears of repentance, which no human eye beholds, must alike be hid from them, as well as the fearful effects upon the peace of mind which these inconsistencies so seriously disturb, or destroy.
A wiser application of this humbling lesson, would be, for youth to reflect, that if such be the defects in the character of more experienced Christians, they themselves enjoy the greatest of all privileges, that of profiting by the example of others, so as to avoid stumbling where they have fallen; and instead of petulantly turning back from a path which will still remain to be right, though thousands upon thousands should wander from it, they will thus be enabled to steer a steadier course, and to finish it with greater joy.
Another great discouragement to the young, consists in finding their efforts to do good so feeble and unavailing—nay, sometimes almost productive of evil, rather than of good. In their charities, especially, they find their confidence abused, and their intentions misunderstood. On every hand, the coldness of the rich, and the ingratitude of the poor, alike repel their ardour. If they engage in schools, no one appears the better for their instruction. If they connect themselves with benevolent societies, they find their individual efforts so trifling, in comparison with the guilt and the misery which prevail, as scarcely to appear deserving of repetition; while, in the distribution of religious books, and the general attention they give to the spiritual concerns of the ignorant and the destitute, they perceive no fruit of all their zeal, and all their labour.
I freely grant, that these are very natural and reasonable causes of depression, and such as few can altogether withstand; but there is one important secret which would operate as a remedy for such depression, if we could fully realize its supporting and consoling power. The secret is, are we doing all this unto God, or unto man? If unto man, and in our own strength, and solely for the sake of going about doing good; but especially if we have done it for the sake of having been seen and known to have done it; even if we have done it for the sake of the reward which we believe to follow the performance of every laudable act; or with a secret hope of thereby purchasing the favour of God; we have no need to be surprised, or to murmur at such unsatisfactory results, which may possibly have been designed as our wholesome chastisement, or as the means of checking our farther progress in folly and presumption.
But, if in every act of duty or kindness we engage in, we are actuated simply by a love to God, and a sense of the vast debt of gratitude we owe for all the unmerited mercies we enjoy, accompanied with a conviction, that whatever the apparent results may be, our debt and our duty are still the same; that whatever the apparent results may be, our heavenly Father has the overruling of them, and is able to make everything contribute to the promotion of his glory, and the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom, though in ways which we may neither be able to perceive nor understand; then, indeed, with this view of the subject, we are enabled to persevere through every discouragement, rejoicing only in the ability to labour, and leaving the fruit of our labour with him who has appointed both.I must yet allude to another cause of discouragement with which the young have to contend, and that is, their own spiritual declension, after the ardour of their early zeal has abated. Perhaps I ought rather to say, their imagined declension, because I believe they are often nearer heaven in this humbled, and apparently degraded state, than when exulting in the confidence of untried patience, fortitude, and love. The prevalent idea under this state of mind is, that of their own culpability, in having made a profession of religion in a state of unfitness, or on improper and insufficient grounds, accompanied with an impression that they are undergoing a just punishment for such an act of presumption, and that the only duty which remains for them to do, is to give up the profession of religion altogether.
Perhaps no delusion is greater, or more universal, than to believe, that because we have been wrong in assuming a position, we must, necessarily, throw ourselves out of it, in order to be right. This principle would, unquestionably, be just, in all situations where any particular qualification was needed, which could not immediately be acquired; but, if the regret be so great on discovering that you are deficient in the evidences of personal religion, surely you can have no hesitation in choosing to lay hold of the means which are always available for obtaining that divine assistance, which shall render your profession sincere, rather than to give up the duties, the hopes, and the privileges of religion altogether.
It becomes a serious inquiry on these occasions, whether the inclination is not wrong, and whether a plea is not even wished for, as an excuse for turning back, after having laid the hand on the plough. If not, the alternative is a safe, and easy one. Begin afresh. Make a fresh dedication of the heart to God. Commence the work as if it had never been undertaken before, and all may yet be well—perhaps better than if you had never doubted whether you stood upon the right foundation.
It should always be remembered, for the consolation and encouragement of youth, that in making the decision in favour of religion in early life, there is comparatively little to undo; while if this most important duty is left until a later period, there will be the force of long established habit to contend with on the side of wrong, meshes of evil to unravel, dark paths to travel back, and all that mingled texture of light and darkness, which originates in a polluted heart, and a partially enlightened understanding, to separate thread from thread. And, oh! what associations, what memories are there! what gleaming forth again of the false fire, even after the true has been kindled! what yawning of the wide sepulchre in which the past is buried, though it cannot rest! what struggling with the demons of imagination, before they are cast out forever! what bleeding of the heart, which, like a chastened child, would kiss the rod, yet dare not think how many stripes would be commensurate with its delinquency! Oh! happy youth! it is thy privilege, that this can never be thy portion!
Yes, happy youth! for thou art ever happy in the contemplation of age; and yet thou hast thy tears. Thou hast thy trials too; and perhaps their acuteness renders them less bearable than the dull burden of accumulated sorrow, which hangs upon maturer years. Thou hast thy sorrows: and when the mother's eye is closed, that used to watch thy infant steps so fondly; and the father's hand is cold, that used to rest upon thy head with gentle and impressive admonition; whom hast thou, whom wilt thou ever have, to supply thy parents' place on earth? Whom hast thou? The world is poor to thee; for none will ever love thee with a love like theirs. Thou hast thy golden and exuberant youth, thy joyous step, thy rosy smile, and we call thee happy. But thou hast also thy hours of loneliness, thy disappointments, thy chills, thy blights; when the hopes on which thy young spirit has soared begin for the first time to droop; when the love in which thou hast so fondly trusted begins to cool; when the flowers thou hast cherished begin to fade; when the bird thou hast fed through the winter, in the summer flies away; when the lamb thou hast nursed in thy bosom, prefers the stranger to thee.—Thou hast thy tears; but the bitterest of thy sorrows, how soon are they assuaged? It is this then which constitutes thy happiness, for we all have griefs; but long before old age, they have worn themselves channels which cannot be effaced. It is therefore that we look back to youth with envy; because the tablet of the heart is then fresh, and unimpressed, and we long to begin again with that fair surface, and to write upon it no characters but those of truth.
And will not youth accept the invitation of experience, and come before it is too late?—and come with all its health, and its bloom, and its first-fruits untainted, and lay them upon the altar; an offering which age cannot make? Let us count the different items in the riches which belong to youth, and ask, if it is not a holy and a glorious privilege to dedicate them to the service of the Most High?
First, then, there is the freshness of unwearied nature, for which so many millions pine in vain; the glow of health, that life-spring of all the energies of thought and action; the confidence of unbroken trust—the power to believe, as well as hope—a power which the might of human intellect could never yet restore; the purity of undivided affection; the earnestness of zeal unchilled by disappointment; the first awakening of joy, that has never been depressed; high aspirations that have never stooped to earth; the clear perception of a mind unbiassed in its search of truth; with the fervour of an untroubled soul.
All these, and more than pen could write or tongue could utter, has youth the power to dedicate to the noblest cause which ever yet engaged the attention of an intellectual and immortal being. What, then, I would ask again, is that which hinders the surrender of your heart to God, your, conduct to the requirements of the religion of Christ?
With this solemn inquiry, I would leave the young reader to pursue the train of her own reflections. All that I have proposed to her consideration as desirable in character and habit—in heart and conduct—will be without consistency, and without foundation, unless based upon Christian principle, and supported by Christian faith. All that I have proposed to her as most lovely, and most admirable, may be rendered more, infinitely more so, by the refinement of feeling, the elevation of sentiment, and the purity of purpose, which those principles and that faith are calculated to impart.