The Young Lady's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character
by Harvey Newcomb, 1843
Mental Cultivation. READING
In the parable of the talents, our Lord teaches us that we shall be called to account for all the means of usefulness he has bestowed upon us, and that we are under obligation not only to employ our talents in his service, but to increase them as we have opportunity. Among these talents stand foremost the powers of mind which he has given us; and therefore, if we neglect the proper cultivation of our intellectual faculties, we shall come under the condemnation of the servant who hid his talent in the earth. But, when I speak of the improvement of the mind, I do not mean reading merely, but such discipline as will call into exercise the intellectual powers, and enable us to employ them in the investigation of the truth. This discipline is a necessary preparation for profitable reading.
It is a great mistake to suppose that mental ability is entirely innate, or that only a few possess intellectual faculties capable of searching into the deep recesses of knowledge. It is true, some have talents of a superior order; but none, except idiots, are incapable of improvement; and many of the greatest minds have been formed upon a foundation which appeared, in the early stages of their education, to consist of little else than dullness and stupidity. The most crooked and unpromising twig may, by proper care and culture, become a great and beautiful tree. The proper objects of education are, to give the ability of acquiring knowledge, and to prepare for usefulness. We are not to disregard ourselves; and knowledge is an object of intrinsic value to us. God is glorified in us in proportion as we are filled with knowledge and spiritual understanding. But we are to love others as ourselves, and seek their good as our own. Although our heads may be filled with knowledge, yet, if we have not the capacity of employing it for practical purposes, it will be comparatively of little value. Many people excuse themselves for neglecting to improve their minds, upon the ground that they are incapable of doing anything great or brilliant. But this arises from a foolish pride. If we have but a single talent, we are equally under obligation to improve it in the service of our Master as if we had ten. And it was upon this principle that the servant was condemned to whom but one talent was given.
The discipline of which I speak may be effected in many ways. But the method I shall propose is one that can be pursued without an instructor, while employed most of the time in active pursuits. The course already recommended in relation to meditation and the study of the Scriptures, will be found a valuable means of mental discipline. But other means should likewise be employed. I know of nothing which more effectually calls out the resources of the mind, thanWRITING. To a person unaccustomed to this exercise it appears very difficult; but a little practice will make it a pleasing and delightful employment. The mind is more deeply interested with its own discoveries or productions than it is with second-hand thoughts, communicated through the medium of the senses; and all the intellectual faculties are strengthened and improved by exertion.
I would therefore advise you to pursue a regular plan of written exercises. This will be very easy, if you only learn to think methodically. Select chiefly practical subjects; which your Sabbath school lessons, your subjects of meditation, and your daily study of the Scriptures, will furnish in great abundance. One reason why young people find this exercise so difficult is, that they select abstract subjects, which have little to do with the common concerns of life. On this account, it will be greatly to your advantage to choose some Scripture truth as the subject of your exercise. The Bible is a practical book, and we have a personal interest in everything it contains. When you have selected your subject, carefully separate the different parts or propositions it contains, and arrange them under different heads. This you will find a great assistance in directing your thoughts. If you look at the whole subject at once, your ideas will be obscure, indefinite, and confused. But this difficulty will be removed by a judicious division of its parts. Take time, as often as you can, to devote to this exercise; and make up your mind to it, with the determination that you will succeed. Do not indulge the absurd notion that you can write only when you feel like it. Your object is to discipline the mind, and bring it under the control of the will; but this you will never accomplish, if you allow your mind to be controlled by your feelings in the very act of discipline. Finish one division of your subject every time you sit down to the exercise, until the whole is completed; then lay it aside until you have finished another. After this, review, correct, and copy, the first one. The advantage of laying aside an exercise for some time before correcting it is, that you will be more likely to discover its defects than while your first thoughts are fresh in your mind.
But never commence a subject, and leave it unfinished. If you do so, you will nourish a fickleness of mind which will unfit you for close study and patient investigation. Finish what you begin, however difficult you may find it, or however unsatisfactory your performance may be when it is done. Scarcely any habit is of more practical importance than perseverance. Do not be discouraged, even if you should be able to bring forth but one idea under each division of your subject. You will improve with every exercise. And you will permit me to say, for your encouragement, that, the first attempt I made at writing, with all the study of which I was capable, I could not produce more than five or six lines. Carefully preserve all your manuscripts. By referring to them occasionally, you will discover your progress in improvement. In these exercises, you can make use of the knowledge you acquire in reading, whenever it applies to your subject. You will find advantage, if you have a friend who is willing to take the trouble of criticizing your performances. But do not be discouraged, if the criticisms should make them appear lowly in your own eyes; neither be displeased with your friend's severity. It will do you good; and, if you persevere, you will always be thankful for the advantage of having your defects pointed out.
When you have practiced so as to have acquired considerable facility of expression, it will be a stimulus to effort, occasionally, to send a piece to some periodical for publication. And, if you find your writings acceptable, it will increase your means of usefulness. In my early attempts at writing, I had no instruction, and no one to aid or encourage me; but, from the moment my first piece appeared in print, I felt a stimulus, leading me to exertion which I would never have made without it. But, in everything, remember your dependence upon God, and seek the direction of his Holy Spirit; and carefully guard against being elated with success, or puffed up with the idea that you possess extraordinary talents. Such a notion will only subject you to mortification when you discover your mistake. But, should it be true, it would be no ground of pride; for you have nothing but what you have received from God. What can be more contemptible than being proud of our talents? It is like a beggar being puffed up with the idea that he is rich, because someone has given him a few coppers.
READINGis likewise an important means of intellectual improvement. But you should never engage in reading for mere amusement or mental excitement; but have always in view the acquisition of knowledge and the improvement of your mind. And, when you read, do not make your mind a mere reservoir, to hold the waters that are poured into it; but, when you read the thoughts which others have penned, think them over, and make them your own, if they are good, or mark their defects, and reject them, if they are bad. And, when you read history or news, let it always be accompanied with reflections of your own.
But the first thing which claims attention is the kind of books to be read. It would hardly seem necessary to caution the class of people I am addressing against the reading of pernicious books; because serious piety generates a chastened taste, which turns away from whatever conflicts with its spirit. Yet, since the question as to what kinds of reading are pernicious is by no means settled in the Christian community, and as the "last new NOVEL" finds a place on the center-tables of many professedly religious people, I have thought it might be useful, in this place, to enter into a discussion of the tendencies of this kind of reading. I shall not stop to define the terms novels and romances, because their popular acceptance is sufficiently definite for my purpose. Nor is it necessary to inquire whether there may not be exceptions to the charges preferred against them; because the objections lie against the general character of a whole class of writings, and grow naturally out of this general character. It would be strange, indeed, if there were no gems of intellect, no fine sentiments, in the deluge of productions emanating from the exuberant imaginations of novel writers; but to attempt to separate the precious from the vile, would be like diving into a common sewer to hunt for pearls!
Says Mr. Hall, "If we would divide the novels of the present day into a thousand parts, five hundred of these parts must be at once condemned as so contemptibly frivolous as to render the perusal of them a most criminal waste of time! Four hundred and ninety-nine of the remaining five hundred parts are positively corrupting in their influence. They are as full of representations which can have no other tendency than to mislead, corrupt, and destroy, those who habitually peruse them. There remains, then, but the thousandth part, in defense of which anything can be said. Perhaps highest merit than that can be attributed to novels, is that they are 'innocent and amusing compositions.' This merit, small as it is, is greater than can be conceded. All books are not innocent, which may be exempt from the charge of disseminating secularism and licentiousness. If they convey false impressions of life, excite a distaste for its duties, and divert the mind from real life to fantasies of its own creation—they are decidedly pernicious! This, to a greater or less extent, is the effect of all novels. Every discerning reader knows this to be the fact."
But, without further preliminary remarks, I proceed to specify some of theobjections to novel reading; and, in doing so, I shall endeavor to establish my positions by the testimony of competent witnesses.
1. Novel reading produces a morbid appetite for mental excitement.The object of the novelist generally is, to produce the highest possible degree of excitement, both of the mind and the passions. The effect is very similar to that of intoxicating liquors on the body. Hence the confirmed novel reader becomes a kind of literary inebriate, to whom the things of eternity have no attractions, and whose thirst cannot be slaked, even with the water of life. As intoxication enfeebles the body and engenders indolent habits, so this unnatural stimulus enfeebles the intellectual powers, induces mental indolence, and unfits the mind for vigorous effort. Nothing less stimulating than its accustomed excitement can rouse such a mind to action, or call forth its energies. Being under the influence of such mental intoxication, dethrones and misdirects reason, and destroys the power of self-control.
2. Novel reading promotes a sickly sensibility.A medical writer, speaking of the too powerful excitement of the female mind, says, "In them the nervous system naturally predominates. They are endowed with quicker sensibility, and far more active imagination, than men. Their emotions are more intense, and their senses alive to more delicate impressions. They therefore require great attention, lest this exquisite sensibility, which, when properly and naturally developed, constitutes the greatest excellence of woman—should either become excessive by too strong excitement, or suppressed by misdirected education."
Novel reading produces just the kind of excitement calculated to develop this excessive and diseased sensibility; and the effect is, to fill the mind with imaginary fears, and produce excessive alarm and agitation at the prospect of danger, the sight of distress, or the presence of unpleasant objects; while no place is found for the exercise of genuine sympathy for real objects of compassion. That sensibility which weeps over imaginary woes of imaginary beings, calls forth but imaginary sympathy. It is too refined to be excited by the vulgar objects of compassion presented in real life, or too excitable to be of any avail in the relief of real distress. It may faint at the sight of blood, but it will shrink back from binding up the wound. If you wish to become weak-headed, unstable, and good for nothing, read novels! I have seen an account of a young lady who had become so nervous and excitable, in consequence of reading novels, that her head would be turned by the least appearance of danger, real or imaginary. As she was riding in a carriage over a bridge, in company with her mother and sister, she became frightened at some imagined danger, caught hold of the reins, and backed the carriage off the bridge, down a precipice, dashing them to pieces!
This excessive sensibility renders its possessor exquisitely alive to all those influences which are unfriendly to human happiness, while it diminishes the power of endurance. Extreme sensibility, especially in a female, is a great misfortune, rendering the ills of life insupportable. Great care should therefore be taken, that, while genuine sensibility is nourished, its extremes should be avoided, and the mind fortified by strengthening the higher powers. On this subject, Hannah More has the following sensible remarks: "Serious study serves to harden the mind for more trying conflicts; it lifts the reader from sensation to intellect; it abstracts her from the world and its vanities; it fixes a wandering spirit, and fortifies a weak one; it corrects that spirit of trifling which she naturally contracts from the frivolous turn of female conversation, and the petty nature of female employments; it concentrates her attention, assists her in a habit of excluding trivial thoughts, and thus even helps to qualify her for pious pursuits. Yes—I repeat it—there is to woman a Christian use to be made of sober studies; while books of an opposite cast, however unexceptionable they may be sometimes found in point of expression, however free from evil in its more gross and palpable shapes, yet, from their very nature and constitution, they excite a spirit of relaxation, by exhibiting scenes and suggesting ideas which soften the mind and set the imagination at work; they take off wholesome restraints, diminish sober-mindedness, and, at best, feed habits of improper indulgence, and nourish a vain and visionary indolence, which lays the mind open to error and the heart to seduction!"
3. Novel reading gives erroneous views of life.The testimony of Fenelon, on this point, is valuable, as showing that the influence of novels, a hundred years ago, in another country, was the same as it now is among us. He says, "Uninstructed and ignorant girls are always possessed of an erratic imagination. For lack of solid nourishment, all the ardor of their curiosity is directed toward vain and dangerous objects. Those who are not without talent often devote themselves entirely to the perusal of books which tend to cherish their vanity; they have a passionate fondness for novels, plays, narratives of romantic adventures, in which licentious love occupies a prominent place; in fine, by habituating themselves to the high-flown language of the heroes of romance, their heads are filled with visionary notions. In this way, they even render themselves unfit for society; for all these fine sentiments, these adventures which the author of the romance has invented to gratify the imagination, have no connection with the true motives that excite to action and control the interests of society, or with the disappointments invariably attendant on human affairs. A poor girl, full of the tender and the marvelous, which have charmed her in the perusal of such works—is astonished not to find in the world real characters resembling these heroes. She would wish to live like those imaginary princesses, who, in the fictions of romance, are always charming, always adored, always placed beyond the reach of necessary duties. What must be her disgust when compelled to descend from these flights of fancy—to the humble details of domestic life!"
But the following testimony of Goldsmith is, if possible, still more valuable, as the writer's wisdom, like Solomon's, is experimental, he having written one of the least objectionable novels in the English language. "Above all things," he says, in a letter to his brother, "never let your son touch a romance or a novel. These paint beauty in colors more charming than nature, and describe happiness that man never tastes. How delusive, how destructive, are those pictures of consummate bliss! They teach the young mind to sigh after beauty and happiness which never existed; to despise the little good which Fortune has mixed in our cup, by expecting more than she ever gave. And, in general—take the word of a man who has studied human nature more by experience than precept—take my word for it, I say, that such books teach us very little of the world."
4. Novel reading strengthens the evil passions, weakens the virtues, and diminishes the power of self-control.Multitudes may date their ruin from the commencement of this kind of reading; and many more, who have been rescued from the snare, will regret, to the end of their days, its influence in the early formation of their character. The novel writer, having no higher object in view than to amuse the reader, and being deficient in moral principle, appeals to the imagination and the passions, as the readiest way of access to the heart. A love affair, of some sort, is indispensable to this species of writing. Indeed, both novel writers and novel readers seem to be worshipers at the shrine of an imaginary sentiment, denominated 'love'—but which, if traced to its source, would be found to have a much more questionable origin than the sentiment which leads to marital union.
To a very great extent, these works unite in the same person some of the noblest traits of character with secret or open immorality; thus clothing vice in a garb of loveliness, and insensibly undermining virtuous principle. Yet, in many of them, the subtle poison is so diffused as not to be seen by its victims until it is too late to apply a remedy. To substantiate this charge, I shall produce the authority of one whose literary character and position in society gave her the most ample opportunity of judging correctly. Though the principal drift of the following remarks of Mrs. Hannah More is directed against a particular class of these writings, yet, from the commencement, it will be seen that she meant to apply them indiscriminately to novels and romances of every description, at least in their ultimate tendencies. It may be true that, in regard to some of them, the picture is highly wrought; yet the more covert and insidious the poison, the greater is the danger. If there are any, of the whole tribe of novels and romances, which are not obnoxious to these charges, they all fall under those already enumerated; and they will all be found tending towards the imminent dangers here portrayed; for the appetite, once created, will demand still stronger and stronger stimulus, until it has tasted the whole. It may, however, be safely asserted that no work of imagination, the incidents of which are interwoven with a love affair, can be wholly free from these dangers.
5. Novel reading is a great waste of time.Few will pretend that they read novels with any higher end in view than mere amusement; while, by the strong excitement they produce, they impose a heavier tax on both mind and body than any other species of mental effort. If anything valuable is to be derived from them, it may be obtained with far less expense of time, and with safety to the morals, from other sources. No Christian, who feels the obligation of "redeeming the time because the days are evil," will fail to feel the force of this remark. We have no more right to squander our time and waste our energies in frivolous pursuits, than we have to waste our money in extravagant expenditures. We are as much the stewards of God in respect to the one as the other.
6. Novel reading is a great hindrance to serious piety.Such is the mental intoxication produced by it, that we might as well attempt to reach the conscience of the inebriate with the truths of God's word, as that of the novel reader! The heart that can be feasted on such vile dainties cannot have sufficient relish for the "sincere milk of the word" to "grow thereby."
The following testimony bears intrinsic evidence that the writer speaks from experimental knowledge. Mr. Hall says, "The fictions of a disordered imagination annihilate, as it were, the realities of the future world, as well as of the present. They place men, just so far as they produce their legitimate influence, in the midst of idealistic scenes—which are remote from eternal realities. There are objects of idolatry in the land of shadows, which may as effectually exclude the soul from heaven—as the riches of the miser, or the pleasures of the sensualist. It is truly melancholy to think that any should be led by the actual concerns of time to neglect the interests of eternity. How much greater folly, then, to be diverted from so momentous an affair—by mere phantoms of the imagination! That the productions of the novelist have precisely the tendency which I am attributing to them, cannot be denied. I make my appeal with confidence to those who have for a time indulged in such reading, but at length awakened from the spell of the enchantress. Say, did not you find your interest in true religion, to diminish exactly in proportion as your attachment to works of fiction increased? Were not the hours which you devoted to them your hours of greatest stupidity in regard to your souls? Was not the Bible then a tedious and neglected book to you? Did you not shun the praying circle, and your closets, and the society of devout Christians? Were not your thoughts unfixed and wandering in the sanctuary? There will be, I am confident, but one answer to these questions. The experience of thousands will bear witness that the conscience never slumbers so profoundly as over the pages of the novelist! The mind is then insensible alike to the hopes and the fears of eternity. The ear is so full of other sounds, that God is unheard, though he speak. He may even whet his sword of vengeance, but the fascinated victim sees not its terrible gleam!"
If such is the effect of novel reading, how can one, who has solemnly devoted himself to the service of God, spend the precious moments, given him here for discipline and preparation for a higher and nobler sphere, in thus counteracting the gracious designs of God towards his soul? How dangerous thus to parley with temptation! What an example to set before impenitent friends, which, if they follow it, will place an almost insurmountable obstacle in the way of their conversion! How ungrateful to Him who "died for all, that those who live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again!"
Before leaving this subject, a class of works denominatedRELIGIOUS NOVELS claim some attention. They may, perhaps, find more friends among religious people than common romances, because they profess to recommend religion. But, though they may be free from everything gross and directly tending to irreligion or licentiousness, yet it is believed that the same general objections lie against them as against all others. All that has been said of the influence on the imagination and sensibility, of morbid excitement, and of erroneous views of life, lies equally against religious novels! And, besides these, there is another objection, of sufficient weight to counterbalance all that may be said of their unexceptionable morals. It is, that they give false views of religion. Mrs. More, in a note appended to her description of popular novels, says, "It is to be lamented that some, even of those more virtuous novel writers, who intend to espouse the cause of religion, yet exhibit false views of it. I have lately seen a work of some merit in this way, which was meritoriously designed to expose the impieties of the new philosophy. But the writer betrayed his own imperfect knowledge of the Christianity he was defending, by making his hero, whom he proposed as a pattern, fight a duel!"
On the same subject, Mr. Hall observes, "I would not except from these remarks those productions which, by a strange misnomer, are called religious novels. They have, in some instances, no doubt, been written by men of piety, and from good motives. Such people have, however, it is but too manifest, in this case, misjudged, and done serious injury to the cause which they meant to advance. The objection which is so strong against other works of fiction, lies with equal weight against them. The views of life which the former give are not more erroneous than the representations of religion contained in the latter. Incalculable evil may be the consequence of this. The effect of turning from those images of Christian perfection, which the religious novel presents, to the mixed characters which even godly men exhibit, must be either petulant censoriousness or distrust of all pretensions to piety. This is not all. Apply the test which should always determine your estimate of books. Do romances of this class increase your attachment to the Bible? Are you able, at any moment, to lay them aside, and resume the sacred volume with undiminished interest? Do they prepare your minds for more delightful communion with God? Do they dispose you to more frequent acts of sympathy and benevolence? If any have, even in a slight degree, experienced such effects, they are examples of an exception to the general law. The testimony on this subject bears with overwhelming preponderance the other way. All, except those who are fascinated to delusion, know that the mind may be full of the excitement which a religious novel awakens, while it is enmity itself against God. The danger that those who feel such emotion may substitute it for the subduing power of the gospel, is one which those only will think trifling who know little respecting the deceitfulness of the human heart."
But I would not advise you to read any books, merely because you can obtain no other, nor because there is nothing bad in them. There are many books which contain nothing particularly objectionable, which, nevertheless, are not the best that can be obtained. There are so many books at the present day, that there is no necessity for wasting precious time upon crude, ill-digested, or unprofitable works.
There is such a thing, also, as reading too much. The mind may be filled with ideas and facts which it cannot digest. You may likewise read in such a miscellaneous, desultory manner, as to derive little benefit from it. A house may contain abundance of rich furniture, yet, if it is all stowed away in the attic, it will be of little use. The mind and character may also receive great injury from an undue proportion of such light reading as is useful in its place, but injurious when indulged to excess. The following remarks of Mrs. More deserve serious attention, in this connection: "I venture to remark, that real knowledge and real piety, though they may have gained in many instances, have suffered in others, from that profusion of little, amusing, sentimental books, with which the youthful library overflows. Abundance has its dangers, as well as scarcity. In the first place, may not the multiplicity of these alluring little works increase the natural reluctance to those more dry and uninteresting studies, of which, after all, the rudiments of every part of learning must consist? And, secondly, is there not some danger (though there are many honorable exceptions) that some of those engaging narratives may serve to infuse into the youthful heart a sort of spurious goodness, a confidence of personal virtues? and that the benevolent actions, with the recital of which they abound, when they are not made to flow from any source but feeling, may tend to inspire a self-delight, a self-gratulation, a 'Stand aside, for I am holier than you'? May not the success with which the good deeds of the little heroes are uniformly crowned, the invariable reward which is made the instant attendant of well-doing, furnish the young reader with false views of the condition of life, and the nature of the divine dealings with men? May they not help to suggest a false standard of morals, to infuse a love of popularity, and a concern for praise, in the place of that simple and unostentatious rule of doing whatever good we do—because it is the will of God"?
It is not my purpose, however, to condemn all works of fiction, nor to censure the judicious cultivation of the imagination and the taste. Fictions of the allegorical and parabolical kind, have their place in the illustration of truth, and are sanctioned by Scripture. Those of another class, which give just representations of life, without the accompaniment of a love story, may, to a limited extent, be allowed. You may, also, devote some time, pleasantly and profitably, to the best English classics, both in poetry and prose, which, for the lack of a better term, I shall include under the head of belles lettres, for the purpose of cultivating the imagination, improving the taste, and enriching your style. These should be selected with great discrimination and care, with reference both to their style and their moral tendency. Poetry, to a limited extent, tends to elevate the mind, nourish the finer sensibilities of the heart, and refine the taste.
But, if you cannot obtain books which furnish you a profitable employment for your hours of leisure, devote them to the study of the Bible. This you always have with you, and you will find it a never-failing treasure. The more you study it, the more delight it will afford. You may find new beauties in it, and "still increasing light," as long as you live; and, after death, the unfolding of its glorious mysteries will furnish employment for a never-ending eternity!
The selection of books to be read depends so much on the peculiar circumstances of each individual, that it is not an easy matter to recommend a general list which will meet the needs of all. I would advise you, by all means, to consult your pastor in making your selection. If you are able, it is better to purchase than to borrow the books which you read. You will not be able to keep borrowed books long enough to read them thoroughly, especially if you attempt to carry along together the various kinds, in due proportions, as is desirable; and you can make much more of your reading, if you possess your books, so as to be able to refer to them again.
In order to read with profit, you must adopt some plan which will secure a suitable variety. To assist you in forming your plan, I shall arrange my remarks on the various kinds of reading, under the heads of History, Biography, Doctrine, and Miscellany; and you should so regulate your reading as to keep along a suitable proportion of each. Either give to each kind particular days of the week; or, if this does not suit your circumstances, read through one work on one of these branches, and then take a work on another, and so on, until you have read something on each; and then begin again upon the branch where you commenced. But, if you have the books and the time at your command, I should recommend that you keep on hand something on each of these departments of knowledge, devoting stated times to each. Yet do not suffer your inability to carry out any definite plan which may be recommended, or which you may form, to prevent your attempting a systematic course of reading. Your plans must conform to your circumstances; and you will never be able to accomplish all that you purpose. But never permit yourself to yield to discouragement. With these remarks, I proceed to speak of the several kinds of reading which I have mentioned, each by itself.
I. HISTORY.This is usually considered under three divisions, namely, sacred, ecclesiastical, and profane. The first of these terms is applied to the BIBLE histories; the second, to the history of the church since the canon of Scripture was completed; and the third, to the histories of the world, written by uninspired men. But, as I have already treated of the first, I shall now speak only of the others; both of which are highly necessary to everyone who desires an enlarged view of the affairs of the world, and the dealings of God with mankind in general, and with his church in particular. In reading PROFANE history, observe—
1. The providence of God in directing the affairs of men. Look for the hand of God in everything; for he controls the actions even of wicked men, to accomplish his own purposes. The Bible is full of this great truth. Scarcely a page can be found where it is not recognized. "The Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whoever he will." He calls the king of Assyria the "rod of his anger," for chastising the hypocritical Jews; but adds, "Howbeit, he means not so, neither does his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few." And, in a subsequent verse, he says, when he has performed his whole work by this wicked king, he will punish his stout heart, and the glory of his high looks. But it is not in great matters alone that the hand of the Lord is to be seen. He exercises a particular providence over the least, as well as the greatest, of his works. Even a single sparrow, says our Lord, shall not fall to the ground without our heavenly Father. And this is one of the brightest glories of the divine character. He who fills immensity with his presence, condescends to care for the minutest beings in the universe.
2. Observe the connection of the events recorded in history with the fulfilment of prophecy. I do not, however, suppose you will be able to see this very clearly, without reading some authors who have made the prophecies their particular study. And this you will not be prepared to do with much profit, until you have the leading events of history fixed in your mind.
3. Observe the depravity of the human heart, and the evil nature of sin, as manifested in the conduct of wicked men, who have been left without restraint, and in the consequences resulting from such conduct.
4. See the hatred of God towards sin, as displayed in the miseries brought upon the world in consequence of it. In reading history, we find that individuals, whom God could have cut off by a single stroke of his hand, have been permitted to live for years, and spread devastation, misery, and death, everywhere around them. The infidel would pronounce this inconsistent with the character of a God of infinite benevolence. But the whole mystery is explained in the Bible: all this wretchedness is brought upon men for the punishment of their sins.
5. Observe the bearing of the events recorded on the church of Christ. One great principle in the divine administration appears to be, that the Lord overrules the affairs of men with reference to the kingdom of Christ. Often, events which seem, at first glance, to be foreign to the interests of his kingdom, appear, upon a closer examination, to be intimately connected with it. Instance the conquests of Alexander the Great. As the life of this extraordinary man stands out alone, unconnected with the subsequent history of the church, we see nothing but the wild career of mad ambition. But, on a more enlarged view of the subject, we discover that he was the instrument which God employed for spreading over a large portion of the world one common language, and so to prepare the way for the introduction of the gospel. Wherever the arms of Alexander extended, the Greek language and Greek literature were made known; thus preparing the way for the universal reception of the gospel, which was first published in that language. Who knows but every event of history has a bearing, equally direct, on the interests of Christ's kingdom?
But, in order to keep all these things before your mind, you must maintain, in the midst of your reading, a constant spirit of prayer.
In readingCHURCH history, you will have occasion to observe the same things, because the history of the church is necessarily connected with the history of the world. But there are some things to be noticed, wherein the history of the church differs from that of the world. The dealings of God with his own people differ from his dealings with his enemies. The afflictions which he brings upon the former are the wholesome corrections of a tender father, and designed for their good; those he brings upon the ungodly, are either designed to lead them to repentance, or they are just judgments, intended for the destruction of those who have filled up the measure of their iniquities. But be careful, in reading church history, that you do not lose sight of the true church of Christ. Many of the histories which have been written are filled either with accounts of individuals, or of bodies of wicked men who could lay no claim to the character of the church of Christ.
A church consists of a society of people professing the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, and practicing them in their lives; or, in other words, having both the form and power of godliness. Without these, no body of men have any right to be called the church of Christ. If you observe this, you will relieve yourself from much perplexity of mind, which the careless reader experiences, from supposing that all the evils described in any period of the history of the nominal church do really exist in the true church. For, during many ages, of which church history treats, the true church appears to have been confined chiefly to small bodies of poor and persecuted people, who were regarded as heretics; while the nominal church had departed from both the faith and practice of the true gospel. I do not mean to say that there may not be many evils, and some wicked men, in the true church; but, when the body generally is corrupt, it cannot be acknowledged as the church of Christ. The church is compared to the human body; and, if the whole body is corrupt, all the limbs must be; though there may be some withered or decaying limbs, while the body is sound.
II. CHRISTIAN BIOGRAPHYis, perhaps, the best kind of practical reading. It is, in many respects, very profitable. It furnishes testimony to the reality and value of the religion of Jesus, by the exemplification of the truths of revelation in the lives of its followers. It also points out the difficulties which beset the Christian's path, and the means by which they can be surmounted. Suppose a traveler just entering a dreary wilderness. The path which leads through it is exceedingly narrow, and difficult to be kept. On each side it is beset with thorns, and briers, and miry pits. Would he not rejoice to find a book containing the experience of former travelers who had passed that way, in which every difficult spot is marked, all their contests with wild beasts and serpents, and all their falls, described, and a warning sign set up wherever a beaten track turns aside from the true way? All this you may find in Christian biographies. There the difficulties, trials, temptations, falls, and deliverances, of God's people are described. You may profit from their examples.
Yet even these works must be read with some caution. Bear in mind that you are reading the history of fallible men, whose example and experience are to be followed no farther than they agree with the word of God. If you find anything contrary to this unerring standard, reject it. Satan is ever busy, and may deceive even good men with false experiences. Besides, there is, in everyone's religious experience, a great mixture of human infirmity. It is seldom, and perhaps never, the case that these experiences are, in all respects, what they ought to be. Some, whose lives have been written, dwell too much on the dark side of their characters, and others too much on the bright side; some are tinged with melancholy, and others may not show as much as they ought the depths of the human heart. Others are greatly marred by defective views of truth. They will be very profitable to you, if read with judgment and discrimination, and carefully compared with the Scriptures; but, if you take for granted that all their experiences were right, and therefore attempt to imitate them, they may lead you astray. You will find it profitable generally to keep on hand a volume of biography, and read a few pages at your daily seasons of devotion.
III.In relation to DOCTRINAL READING, I have already given general directions. I will only remark, in this place, that you must give it a prominent place in your systematic course of reading.
IV. MISCELLANEOUS READING. You may profitably keep on hand some approved practical work on Christian character, experience, or duty, to be read alternately with religious biography, as part of the devotional exercises of the closet. Illustrations of Scripture you will need in connection with the study of your Sabbath school lessons; and the lighter works, here recommended, you can take up as a relaxation from severe mental effort. You will need, likewise, to read newspapers and periodical publications sufficiently to keep in your mind the history of your own times, and to understand the subjects which interest the public mind, as well as to observe the signs of the times in relation to the progress of Christ's kingdom. But, if you are careful of your shreds of time, you may accomplish this at intervals when you could not sit down to a book. But do not allow yourself to acquire an unhealthy appetite for this kind of reading, and by no means attempt to read everything contained in these publications; but cast your eye over them, with the swiftness, dexterity, and skill, with which the bee lights on the flower; and in imitation of his industry and prudence, do not tarry where you find no honey.
Newspapers and periodicals contain much trash; and you may easily fritter away all your leisure time upon them—to the great injury of your mind and heart! Endeavor to acquire the habit of reading them rapidly, and of passing over at a glance what is not worth reading. But especially beware of the popular tales with which many of these publications abound. All the objections against novels lie equally against them; and if you begin to indulge in reading them, you know not where it will end. Religious papers, and periodicals containing missionary intelligence, are, however, generally worthy of an attentive perusal.
The work laid out in the foregoing pages may seem so great, at first sight, as to discourage you from making the attempt. But a little calculation will remove every difficulty. If you read but twenty pages in a day, at the close of the year you will have read more than six thousand; which would be equal to twenty volumes of three hundred pages each. Pursue this plan for ten years, and you will have read two hundred volumes, containing sixty thousand pages. You can, at least, read twenty pages in an hour; and I think you will not say it is impossible to spare this portion of time every day, for the purpose of acquiring useful knowledge. Think what a vast amount may thus be treasured up in the course of a few years.
You will find it a profitable exercise to keep a journal, and at the close of every day, or some time the next day, write the substance of what you have read briefly from memory, together with such reflections as occur to your mind while reading, particularly the several points to be noted in history, and the lessons which you learn from biography and other practical writings. But, to do this, or, indeed, to profit much by reading—you must take sufficient time thoroughly to understand what you read.
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