The Bible tells us that our whole existence here is a disciplinary one; that this whole physical system, by which our spirit is enclosed with all the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, and wants which form a part of it, are designed as an education to fit the soul for its immortality; and as worldly care forms the greater part of the staple of every human life, there must be some mode of viewing and meeting it, which converts it from an enemy of spirituality into a means of grace and spiritual advancement.
Why, then, do we so often hear the lamentation, "It seems to me as if I could advance to the higher stages of Christian life, if it were not for the pressure of my business and the multitude of my worldly cares"? Is it not God, O Christian, who, in ordering thy lot, has laid these cares upon thee, and who still holds them about thee, and permits no escape from them? And as his great, undivided object is thy spiritual improvement, is there not some misapprehension or wrong use of these cares, if they do not tend to advance it? Is it not even as if a scholar should say, I could advance in science were it not for all the time and care which lessons, and books, and lectures require?
How, then, shall earthly care become heavenly discipline? How shall the disposition of the weight be altered so as to press the spirit upward towards God, instead of downward and away? How shall the pillar of cloud which rises between us and him become one of fire, to reflect upon us constantly the light of his countenance, and to guide us over the sands of life's desert?
It appears to us that the great radical difficulty is an intellectual one, and lies in a wrong belief. There is not a genuine and real belief of the presence and agency of God in the minor events and details of life, which is necessary to change them from secular cares into spiritual blessings.
It is true there is much loose talk about an overruling Providence; and yet, if fairly stated, the belief of a great many Christians might be thus expressed: God has organized and set in operation certain general laws of matter and mind, which work out the particular results of life, and over these laws he exercises a general supervision and care, so that all the great affairs of the world are carried on after the counsel of his own will; and in a certain general sense, all things are working together for good to those that love God. But when some simple-minded, childlike Christian really proceeds to refer all the smaller events of life to God's immediate care and agency, there is a smile of incredulity, and it is thought that the good brother displays more Christian feeling than sound philosophy.
But as life for every individual is made up of fractions and minute atoms—as those things which go to affect habits and character are small and hourly recurring, it comes to pass that a belief in Providence so very wide and general, is altogether inefficient for consecrating and rendering sacred the great body of what comes in contact with the mind in the experience of life. Only once in years does the Christian with this kind of belief hear the voice of the Lord God speaking to him. When the hand of death is laid on his child, or the bolt strikes down the brother by his side, then, indeed, he feels that God is drawing near; he listens humbly for the inward voice that shall explain the meaning and need of this discipline. When by some unforeseen occurrence the whole of his earthly property is swept away,—he becomes a poor man,—this event, in his eyes, assumes sufficient magnitude to have come from God, and to have a design and meaning; but when smaller comforts are removed, smaller losses are encountered, and the petty, every-day vexations and annoyances of life press about him, he recognizes no God, and hears no voice, and sees no design. Hence John Newton says, "Many Christians, who bear the loss of a child, or the destruction of all their property, with the most heroic Christian fortitude, are entirely vanquished and overcome by the breaking of a dish, or the blunders of a servant, and show so unchristian a spirit, that we cannot but wonder at them."
So when the breath of slander, or the pressure of human injustice, comes so heavily on a man as really to threaten loss of character, and destruction of his temporal interests, he seems forced to recognize the hand and voice of God, through the veil of human agencies, and in time-honored words to say,—
"When men of spite against me join, They are the sword; the hand is thine."
But the smaller injustice and fault-finding which meet every one more or less in the daily intercourse of life, the overheard remark, the implied censure, too petty, perhaps, to be even spoken of, these daily recurring sources of disquietude and unhappiness are not referred to God's providence, nor considered as a part of his probation and discipline. Those thousand vexations which come upon us through the unreasonableness, the carelessness, the various constitutional failings, or ill-adaptedness of others to our peculiarities of character, form a very large item of the disquietudes of life; and yet how very few look beyond the human agent, and feel these are trials coming from God! Yet it is true, in many cases, that these so called minor vexations form the greater part, and in many cases the only discipline of life; and to those that do not view them as ordered individually by God, and coming upon them by specified design, "their affliction 'really' cometh of the dust, and their trouble springs out of the ground;" it is sanctified and relieved by no divine presence and aid, but borne alone and in a mere human spirit, and by mere human reliances, it acts on the mind as a constant diversion and hinderance, instead of a moral discipline.
Hence, too, come a coldness, and generality, and wandering of mind in prayer: the things that are on the heart, that are distracting the mind, that have filled the soul so full that there is no room for any thing else, are all considered too small and undignified to come within the pale of a prayer, and so, with a wandering mind and a distracted heart, the Christian offers up his prayer for things which he thinks he ought to want, and makes no mention of those which he does. He prays that God would pour out his spirit on the heathen, and convert the world, and build up his kingdom every where, when perhaps a whole set of little anxieties, and wants, and vexations are so distracting his thoughts, that he hardly knows what he has been saying: a faithless servant is wasting his property; a careless or blundering workman has spoiled a lot of goods; a child is vexatious or unruly; a friend has made promises and failed to keep them; an acquaintance has made unjust or satirical remarks; some new furniture has been damaged or ruined by carelessness in the household; but all this trouble forms no subject matter for prayer, though there it is, all the while lying like lead on the heart, and keeping it down, so that it has no power to expand and take in any thing else. But were God known and regarded as the soul's familiar friend, were every trouble of the heart as it rises, breathed into his bosom; were it felt that there is not one of the smallest of life's troubles that has not been permitted by him, and permitted for specific good purpose to the soul, how much more would these be in prayer! how constant, how daily might it become! how it might settle and clear the atmosphere of the soul! how it might so dispose and lay away many anxieties which now take up their place there, that there might be room for the higher themes and considerations of religion!
Many sensitive and fastidious natures are worn away by the constant friction of what are called little troubles. Without any great affliction, they feel that all the flower and sweetness of their life have faded; their eye grows dim, their cheek care-worn, and their spirit loses hope and elasticity, and becomes bowed with premature age; and in the midst of tangible and physical comfort, they are restless and unhappy. The constant under-current of little cares and vexations, which is slowly wearing on the finer springs of life, is seen by no one; scarce ever do they speak of these things to their nearest friends. Yet were there a friend of a spirit so discerning as to feel and sympathize in all these things, how much of this repressed electric restlessness would pass off through such a sympathizing mind.
Yet among human friends this is all but impossible, for minds are so diverse that what is a trial and a care to one is a matter of sport and amusement to another; and all the inner world breathed into a human ear only excites a surprised or contemptuous pity. Whom, then, shall the soul turn to? Who will feel that to be affliction which each spirit feels to be so? If the soul shut itself within itself, it becomes morbid; the fine chords of the mind and nerves by constant wear become jarring and discordant; hence fretfulness, discontent, and habitual irritability steal over the sincere Christian.
But to the Christian that really believes in the agency of God in the smallest events of life, that confides in his love, and makes his sympathy his refuge, the thousand minute cares and perplexities of life become each one a fine affiliating bond between the soul and its God. God is known, not by abstract definition, and by high-raised conceptions of the soul's aspiring hours, but known as a man knoweth his friend; he is known by the hourly wants he supplies; known by every care with which he momentarily sympathizes, every apprehension which he relieves, every temptation which he enables us to surmount. We learn to know God as the infant child learns to know its mother and its father, by all the helplessness and all the dependence which are incident to this commencement of our moral existence; and as we go on thus year by year, and find in every changing situation, in every reverse, in every trouble, from the lightest sorrow to those which wring our soul from its depths, that he is equally present, and that his gracious aid is equally adequate, our faith seems gradually almost to change to sight; and God's existence, his love and care, seem to us more real than any other source of reliance, and multiplied cares and trials are only new avenues of acquaintance between us and heaven.
Suppose, in some bright vision unfolding to our view, in tranquil evening or solemn midnight, the glorified form of some departed friend should appear to us with the announcement, "This year is to be to you one of especial probation and discipline, with reference to perfecting you for a heavenly state. Weigh well and consider every incident of your daily life, for not one shall fall out by accident, but each one is to be a finished and indispensable link in a bright chain that is to draw you upward to the skies!"
With what new eyes should we now look on our daily lot! and if we found in it not a single change,—the same old cares, the same perplexities, the same uninteresting drudgeries still,—with what new meaning would every incident be invested! and with what other and sublimer spirit could we meet them? Yet, if announced by one rising from the dead with the visible glory of a spiritual world, this truth could be asserted no more clearly and distinctly than Jesus Christ has stated it already. Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without our Father. Not one of them is forgotten by him; and we are of more value than many sparrows; yea, even the hairs of our head are all numbered. Not till belief in these declarations, in their most literal sense, becomes the calm and settled habit of the soul, is life ever redeemed from drudgery and dreary emptiness, and made full of interest, meaning, and divine significance. Not till then do its grovelling wants, its wearing cares, its stinging vexations, become to us ministering spirits, each one, by a silent but certain agency, fitting us for a higher and perfect sphere.
CONVERSATION ON CONVERSATION.
"For every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment."
"A very solemn sermon," said Miss B., shaking her head impressively, as she sat down to table on Sunday noon; then giving a deep sigh, she added, "I am afraid that if an account is to be rendered for all our idle words, some people will have a great deal to answer for."
"Why, Cousin Anna," replied a sprightly young lady opposite, "what do you mean by idle words?"
"All words that have not a strictly useful tendency, Helen," replied Miss B.
"I don't know what is to become of me, then," answered Helen, "for I never can think of any thing useful to say. I sit and try sometimes, but it always stops my talking. I don't think any thing in the world is so doleful as a set of persons sitting round, all trying to say something useful, like a parcel of old clocks ticking at each other. I think one might as well take the vow of entire silence, like the monks of La Trappe."
"It is probable," said Miss B., "that a greater part of our ordinary conversation had better be dispensed with. 'In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin.' For my own part, my conscience often reproaches me with the sins of my tongue."
"I'm sure you don't sin much that way, I must say," said Helen; "but, cousin, I really think it is a freezing business sitting still and reflecting all the time when friends are together; and after all I can't bring myself to feel as if it were wrong to talk and chatter away a good part of the time, just for the sake of talking. For instance, if a friend comes in of a morning to make a call, I talk about the weather, my roses, my Canary birds, or any thing that comes uppermost."
"And about lace, and bonnet patterns, and the last fashions," added Miss B., sarcastically.
"Well, supposing we do; where's the harm?"
"Where's the good?" said Miss B.
"The good! why, it passes time agreeably, and makes us feel kindly towards each other."
"I think, Helen," said Miss B., "if you had a higher view of Christian responsibility, you would not be satisfied with merely passing time agreeably, or exciting agreeable feelings in others. Does not the very text we are speaking of show that we have an account to give in the day of judgment for all this trifling, useless conversation?"
"I don't know what that text does mean," replied Helen, looking seriously; "but if it means as you say, I think it is a very hard, strait rule."
"Well," replied Miss B., "is not duty always hard and strait? 'Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way,' you know."
"What do you think of this, Uncle C.?" she said, after some pause. The uncle of the two young ladies had been listening thus far in silence.
"I think," he replied, "that before people begin to discuss, they should be quite sure as to what they are talking about; and I am not exactly clear in this case. You say, Anna," said he, turning to Miss B., "that all conversation is idle which has not a directly useful tendency. Now, what do you mean by that? Are we never to say any thing that has not for its direct and specific object to benefit others or ourselves?"
"Yes," replied Miss B., "I suppose not."
"Well, then, when I say, 'Good morning, sir; 'tis a pleasant day,' I have no such object. Are these, then, idle words?"
"Why, no, not exactly," replied Miss B.; "in some cases it is necessary to say something, so as not to appear rude."
"Very well," replied her uncle. "You admit, then, that some things, which are not instructive in themselves considered, are to be said to keep up the intercourse of society."
"Certainly; some things," said Miss B.
"Well, now, in the case mentioned by Helen, when two or three people with whom you are in different degrees of intimacy call upon you, I think she is perfectly right, as she said, in talking of roses, and Canary birds, and even of bonnet patterns, and lace, or any thing of the kind, for the sake of making conversation. It amounts to the same thing as 'good morning,' and 'good evening,' and the other courtesies of society. This sort of small talk has nothing instructive in it, and yet it may be useful in its place. It makes people comfortable and easy, promotes kind and social feelings; and making people comfortable by any innocent means is certainly not a thing to be despised."
"But is there not great danger of becoming light and trifling if one allows this?" said Miss B., doubtfully.
"To be sure; there is always danger of running every innocent thing to excess. One might eat to excess, or drink to excess; yet eating and drinking are both useful in their way. Now, our lively young friend Helen, here, might perhaps be in some temptation of this sort; but as for you, Anna, I think you in more danger of another extreme."
"And what is that?"
"Of overstraining your mind by endeavoring to keep up a constant, fixed state of seriousness and solemnity, and not allowing yourself the relaxation necessary to preserve its healthy tone. In order to be healthy, every mind must have variety and amusement; and if you would sit down at least one hour a day, and join your friends in some amusing conversation, and indulge in a good laugh, I think, my dear, that you would not only be a happier person, but a better Christian."
"My dear uncle," said Miss B., "this is the very thing that I have been most on my guard against; I can never tell stories, or laugh and joke, without feeling condemned for it afterwards."
"But, my dear, you must do the thing in the testimony of a good conscience before you can do it to any purpose. You must make up your mind that cheerful and entertaining conversation—conversation whose first object is to amuse—is useful conversation in its place, and then your conscience will not be injured by joining in it."
"But what good does it do, uncle?"
"Do you not often complain of coldness and deadness in your religious feelings? of lifelessness and want of interest?"
"Well, this coldness and lifelessness is the result of forcing your mind to one set of thoughts and feelings. You become worn out—your feelings exhausted—deadness and depression ensues. Now, turn your mind off from these subjects—divert it by a cheerful and animated conversation, and you will find, after a while, that it will return to them with new life and energy."
"But are not foolish talking and jesting expressly forbidden?"
"That text, if you will look at the connections, does not forbid jesting in the abstract; but jesting on immodest subjects—which are often designated in the New Testament by the phraseology there employed. I should give the sense of it—neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor indelicate jests. The kind of sprightly and amusing conversation to which I referred, I should not denominate foolish, by any means, at proper times and places."
"Yet people often speak of gayety as inconsistent in Christians—even worldly people," said Miss B.
"Yes, because, in the first place, they often have wrong ideas as to what Christianity requires in this respect, and suppose Christians to be violating their own principles in indulging in it. In the second place, there are some, especially among young people, who never talk in any other way—with whom this kind of conversation is not an amusement, but a habit—giving the impression that they never think seriously at all. But I think, that if persons are really possessed by the tender, affectionate, benevolent spirit of Christianity—if they regulate their temper and their tongue by it, and in all their actions show an evident effort to conform to its precepts, they will not do harm by occasionally indulging in sprightly and amusing conversation—they will not make the impression that they are not sincerely Christians."
"Besides," said Helen, "are not people sometimes repelled from religion by a want of cheerfulness in its professors?"
"Certainly," replied her uncle, "and the difference is just this: if a person is habitually trifling and thoughtless, it is thought that they have no religion; if they are ascetic and gloomy, it is attributed to their religion; and you know what Miss E. Smith says—that 'to be good and disagreeable is high treason against virtue.' The more sincerely and earnestly religious a person is, the more important it is that they should be agreeable."
"But, uncle," said Helen, "what does that text mean that we began with? What are idle words?"
"My dear, if you will turn to the place where the passage is (Matt. xii.) and read the whole page, you will see the meaning of it. Christ was not reproving any body for trifling conversation at the time; but for a very serious slander. The Pharisees, in their bitterness, accused him of being in league with evil spirits. It seems, by what follows, that this was a charge which involved an unpardonable sin. They were not, indeed, conscious of its full guilt—they said it merely from the impulse of excited and envious feeling—but he warns them that in the day of judgment, God will hold them accountable for the full consequences of all such language, however little they may have thought of it at the time of uttering it. The sense of the passage I take to be, 'God will hold you responsible in the day of judgment for the consequences of all you have said in your most idle and thoughtless moments.'"
"For example," said Helen, "if one makes unguarded and unfounded assertions about the Bible, which excite doubt and prejudice."
"There are many instances," said her uncle, "that are quite in point. Suppose in conversation, either under the influence of envy or ill will, or merely from love of talking, you make remarks and statements about another person which may be true or may not,—you do not stop to inquire,—your unguarded words set reports in motion, and unhappiness, and hard feeling, and loss of character are the result. You spoke idly, it is true, but nevertheless you are held responsible by God for all the consequences of your words. So professors of religion often make unguarded remarks about each other, which lead observers to doubt the truth of all religion; and they are responsible for every such doubt they excite. Parents and guardians often allow themselves to speak of the faults and weaknesses of their ministers in the presence of children and younger people—they do it thoughtlessly—but in so doing they destroy an influence which might otherwise have saved the souls of their children; they are responsible for it. People of cultivated minds and fastidious taste often allow themselves to come home from church, and criticize a sermon, and unfold all its weak points in the presence of others on whom it may have made a very serious impression. While the critic is holding up the bad arrangement, and setting in a ludicrous point of view the lame figures, perhaps the servant behind his chair, who was almost persuaded to be a Christian by that very discourse, gives up his purposes, in losing his respect for the sermon; this was thoughtless—but the evil is done, and the man who did it is responsible for it."
"I think," said Helen, "that a great deal of evil is done to children in this way, by our not thinking of what we are saying."
"It seems to me," said Miss B., "that this view of the subject will reduce us to silence almost as much as the other. How is one ever to estimate the consequences of their words, people are affected in so many different ways by the same thing?"
"I suppose," said her uncle, "we are only responsible for such results as by carefulness and reflection we might have foreseen. It is not for ill-judged words, but for idle words, that we are to be judged—words uttered without any consideration at all, and producing bad results. If a person really anxious to do right misjudges as to the probable effect of what he is about to say on others, it is quite another thing."
"But, uncle, will not such carefulness destroy all freedom in conversation?" said Helen.
"If you are talking with a beloved friend, Helen, do you not use an instinctive care to avoid all that might pain that friend?"
"And do you find this effort a restraint on your enjoyment?"
"And you, from your own feelings, avoid what is indelicate and impure in conversation, and yet feel it no restraint?"
"Well, I suppose the object of Christian effort should be so to realize the character of our Savior, and conform our tastes and sympathies to his, that we shall instinctively avoid all in our conversation that would be displeasing to him. A person habitually indulging jealous, angry, or revengeful feeling—a person habitually worldly in his spirit—a person allowing himself in sceptical and unsettled habits of thought, cannot talk without doing harm. This is our Savior's account of the matter in the verses immediately before the passage we were speaking of—'How can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth evil things.' The highest flow of animal spirits would never hurry a pure-minded person to say any thing indelicate or gross; and in the same manner, if a person is habitually Christian in all his habits of thought and feeling, he will be able without irksome watchfulness to avoid what may be injurious even in the most unrestrained conversation."
HOW DO WE KNOW?
It was a splendid room. Rich curtains swept down to the floor in graceful folds, half excluding the light, and shedding it in soft hues over the fine old paintings on the walls, and over the broad mirrors that reflect all that taste can accomplish by the hand of wealth. Books, the rarest and most costly, were around, in every form of gorgeous binding and gilding, and among them, glittering in ornament, lay a magnificent Bible—a Bible too beautiful in its appointments, too showy, too ornamental, ever to have been meant to be read—a Bible which every visitor should take up and exclaim, "What a beautiful edition! what superb bindings!" and then lay it down again.
And the master of the house was lounging on a sofa, looking over a late review—for he was a man of leisure, taste, and reading—but, then, as to reading the Bible!—that forms, we suppose, no part of the pretensions of a man of letters. The Bible—certainly he considered it a very respectable book—a fine specimen of ancient literature—an admirable book of moral precepts; but, then, as to its divine origin, he had not exactly made up his mind: some parts appeared strange and inconsistent to his reason—others were revolting to his taste: true, he had never studied it very attentively, yet such was his general impression about it; but, on the whole, he thought it well enough to keep an elegant copy of it on his drawing room table.
So much for one picture. Now for another.
Come with us into this little dark alley, and up a flight of ruinous stairs. It is a bitter night, and the wind and snow might drive through the crevices of the poor room, were it not that careful hands have stopped them with paper or cloth. But for all this carefulness, the room is bitter cold—cold even with those few decaying brands on the hearth, which that sorrowful woman is trying to kindle with her breath. Do you see that pale, little, thin girl, with large, bright eyes, who is crouching so near her mother?—hark!—how she coughs! Now listen.
"Mary, my dear child," says the mother, "do keep that shawl close about you; you are cold, I know," and the woman shivers as she speaks.
"No, mother, not very," replies the child, again relapsing into that hollow, ominous cough. "I wish you wouldn't make me always wear your shawl when it is cold, mother."
"Dear child, you need it most. How you cough to-night!" replies the mother; "it really don't seem right for me to send you up that long, cold street; now your shoes have grown so poor, too; I must go myself after this."
"O mother, you must stay with the baby—what if he should have one of those dreadful fits while you are gone! No, I can go very well; I have got used to the cold now."
"But, mother, I'm cold," says a little voice from the scanty bed in the corner; "mayn't I get up and come to the fire?"
"Dear child, it would not warm you; it is very cold here, and I can't make any more fire to-night."
"Why can't you, mother? There are four whole sticks of wood in the box; do put one on, and let's get warm once."
"No, my dear little Henry," says the mother, soothingly, "that is all the wood mother has, and I haven't any money to get more."
And now wakens the sick baby in the cradle, and mother and daughter are both for some time busy in attempting to supply its little wants, and lulling it again to sleep.
And now look you well at that mother. Six months ago she had a husband, whose earnings procured for her both the necessaries and comforts of life; her children were clothed, fed, and schooled, without thoughts of hers. But husband-less, friendless, and alone in the heart of a great, busy city, with feeble health, and only the precarious resource of her needle, she has gone down from comfort to extreme poverty. Look at her now, as she is to-night. She knows full well that the pale, bright-eyed girl, whose hollow cough constantly rings in her ears, is far from well. She knows that cold, and hunger, and exposure of every kind, are daily and surely wearing away her life. And yet what can she do? Poor soul! how many times has she calculated all her little resources, to see if she could pay a doctor and get medicine for Mary—yet all in vain. She knows that timely medicine, ease, fresh air, and warmth might save her; but she knows that all these things are out of the question for her. She feels, too, as a mother would feel, when she sees her once rosy, happy little boy becoming pale, and anxious, and fretful; and even when he teases her most, she only stops her work a moment, and strokes his little thin cheeks, and thinks what a laughing, happy little fellow he once was, till she has not a heart to reprove him. And all this day she has toiled with a sick and fretful baby in her lap, and her little shivering, hungry boy at her side, whom Mary's patient artifices cannot always keep quiet; she has toiled over the last piece of work which she can procure from the shop, for the man has told her that after this he can furnish no more; and the little money that is to come from this is already portioned out in her own mind, and after that she has no human prospect of support.
But yet that woman's face is patient, quiet, firm. Nay, you may even see in her suffering eye something like peace. And whence comes it? I will tell you.
There is a Bible in that room, as well as in the rich man's apartment. Not splendidly bound, to be sure, but faithfully read—a plain, homely, much-worn book.
Hearken now while she says to her children, "Listen to me, dear children, and I will read you something out of this book. 'Let not your heart be troubled; in my Father's house are many mansions.' So you see, my children, we shall not always live in this little, cold, dark room. Jesus Christ has promised to take us to a better home."
"Shall we be warm there all day?" says the little boy, earnestly; "and shall we have enough to eat?"
"Yes, dear child," says the mother; "listen to what the Bible says: 'They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; for the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them; and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.'"
"I am glad of that," said little Mary, "for, mother, I never can bear to see you cry."
"But, mother," says little Henry, "won't God send us something to eat to-morrow?"
"See," says the mother, "what the Bible says: 'Seek ye not what ye shall eat, nor what ye shall drink, neither be of anxious mind. For your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.'"
"But, mother," says little Mary, "if God is our Father, and loves us, what does he let us be so poor for?"
"Nay," says the mother, "our dear Lord Jesus Christ was as poor as we are, and God certainly loved him."
"Was he, mother?"
"Yes, children; you remember how he said, 'The Son of man hath not where to lay his head.' And it tells us more than once that Jesus was hungry when there was none to give him food."
"O mother, what should we do without the Bible?" says Mary.
Now, if the rich man, who had not yet made up his mind what to think of the Bible, should visit this poor woman, and ask her on what she grounded her belief of its truth, what could she answer? Could she give the arguments from miracles and prophecy? Could she account for all the changes which might have taken place in it through translators and copyists, and prove that we have a genuine and uncorrupted version? Not she! But how, then, does she know that it is true? How, say you? How does she know that she has warm life blood in her heart? How does she know that there is such a thing as air and sunshine? She does not believe these things—she knows them; and in like manner, with a deep heart consciousness, she is certain that the words of her Bible are truth and life. Is it by reasoning that the frightened child, bewildered in the dark, knows its mother's voice? No! Nor is it only by reasoning that the forlorn and distressed human heart knows the voice of its Savior, and is still.
WHICH IS THE LIBERAL MAN?
It was a beaming and beautiful summer morning, and the little town of V. was alive with all the hurry and motion of a college commencement. Rows of carriages lined the rural streets, and groups of well-dressed auditors were thronging to the hall of exhibition. All was gayety and animation.
And among them all what heart beat higher with hope and gratified ambition than that of James Stanton? Young, buoyant, prepossessing in person and manners, he was this day, in the presence of all the world, to carry off the highest palm of scholarship in his institution, and to receive, on the threshold of the great world, the utmost that youthful ambition can ask before it enters the arena of actual life. Did not his pulse flutter, and his heart beat thick, when he heard himself announced in the crowded house as the valedictorian of the day? when he saw aged men, and fair, youthful faces, ruddy childhood, and sober, calculating manhood alike bending in hushed and eager curiosity, to listen to his words? Nay, did not his heart rise in his throat as he caught the gleam of his father's eye, while, bending forward on his staff, with white, reverend locks falling about his face, he listened to the voice of his pride—his first born? And did he not see the glistening tears in his mother's eye, as with rapt ear she hung upon his every word? Ah, the young man's first triumph! When, full of confidence and hope, he enters the field of life, all his white glistening as yet unsoiled by the dust of the combat, the unproved world turning towards him with flatteries and promises in both hands, what other triumph does life give so fresh, so full, so replete with hope and joy? So felt James Stanton this day, when he heard his father congratulated on having a son of such promise; when old men, revered for talents and worth, shook hands with him, and bade him warmly God speed in the course of life; when bright eyes cast glances of favor, and from among the fairest were overheard whispers of admiration.
"Your son is designed for the bar, I trust," said the venerable Judge L. to the father of James, at the commencement dinner. "I have seldom seen a turn of mind better fitted for success in the legal profession. And then his voice! his manner! let him go to the bar, sir, and I prophesy that he will yet outdo us all."
And this was said in James's hearing, and by one whose commendation was not often so warmly called forth. It was not in any young heart not to beat quicker at such prospects. Honor, station, wealth, political ambition, all seemed to offer themselves to his grasp; but long ere this, in the solitude of retirement, in the stillness of prayer and self-examination, the young graduate had vowed himself to a different destiny; and if we may listen to a conversation, a few evenings after commencement, with a classmate, we shall learn more of the secret workings of his mind.
"And so, Stanton," said George Lennox to him, as they sat by their evening fireside, "you have not yet decided whether to accept Judge L.'s offer or not."
"I have decided that matter long ago," said James.
"So, then, you choose the ministry."
"Well, for my part," replied George Lennox, "I choose the law. There must be Christians, you know, in every vocation; the law seems to suit my turn of mind. I trust it will be my effort to live as becomes a Christian, whatever be my calling."
"I trust so," replied James.
"But really, Stanton," added the other, after some thought, "it seems a pity to cast away such prospects as open before you. You know your tuition is offered gratis; and then the patronage of Judge L., and such influences as he can command to secure your success—pray, do not these things seem to you like a providential indication that the law is to be your profession? Besides, here in these New England States, the ministry is overflowed already—ministers enough, and too many, if one may judge by the number of applicants for every unoccupied place."
"Nay," replied James, "my place is not here. I know, if all accounts are true, that my profession is not overflowed in our Western States, and there I mean to go."
"And is it possible that you can contemplate such an entire sacrifice of your talents, your manners, your literary and scientific tastes, your capabilities for refined society, as to bury yourself in a log cabin in one of our new states? You will never be appreciated there; your privations and sacrifices will be entirely disregarded, and you placed on a level with the coarsest and most uneducated sectaries. I really do not think you are called to this."
"Who, then, is called?" replied James.
"Why, men with much less of all these good things—men with real coarse, substantial, backwoods furniture in their minds, who will not appreciate, and of course not feel, the want of all the refinements and comforts which you must sacrifice."
"And are there enough such men ready to meet the emergencies in our western world, so that no others need be called upon?" replied James. "Men of the class you speak of may do better than I; but, if after all their efforts I still am needed, and can work well, ought I not to go? Must those only be drafted for religious enterprises to whom they involve no sacrifice?"
"Well, for my part," replied the other, "I trust I am willing to do any thing that is my duty; yet I never could feel it to be my duty to bury myself in a new state, among stumps and log cabins. My mind would rust itself out; and, missing the stimulus of such society as I have been accustomed to, I should run down completely, and be useless in body and in mind."
"If you feel so, it would be so," replied James. "If the work there to be done would not be stimulus and excitement enough to compensate for the absence of all other stimulus,—if the business of the ministry, the saving of human souls, is not the one all-absorbing purpose, and desire, and impulse of the whole being,—then woe to the man who goes to preach the gospel where there is nothing but human souls to be gained by it."
"Well, Stanton," replied the other, after a pause of some seriousness, "I cannot say that I have attained to this yet. I don't know but I might be brought to it; but at present I must confess it is not so. We ought not to rush into a state and employment which we have not the moral fortitude to sustain well. In short, for myself, I may make a respectable, and, I trust, not useless man in the law, when I could do nothing in the circumstances which you choose. However, I respect your feelings, and heartily wish that I could share them myself."
A few days after this conversation the young friends parted for their several destinations—the one to a law school, the other to a theological seminary.
* * * * *
It was many years after this that a middle-aged man, of somewhat threadbare appearance and restricted travelling conveniences, was seen carefully tying his horse at the outer enclosure of an elegant mansion in the town of ——, in one of our Western States; which being done, he eyed the house rather inquisitively, as people sometimes do when they are doubtful as to the question of entering or not entering. The house belonged to George Lennox, Esq., a lawyer reputed to be doing a more extensive business than any other in the state, and the threadbare gentleman who plies the knocker at the front door is the Reverend Mr. Stanton, a name widely spread in the ecclesiastical circles of the land. The door opens, and the old college acquaintances meet with a cordial grasp of the hand, and Mr. Stanton soon finds himself pressed to the most comfortable accommodations in the warm parlor of his friend; and even the slight uneasiness which the wisest are not always exempt from, when conscious of a little shabbiness in exterior, was entirely dissipated by the evident cordiality of his reception. Since the conversation we have alluded to, the two friends pursued their separate courses with but few opportunities of personal intercourse. In the true zeal of the missionary, James Stanton had thrown himself into the field, where it seemed hardest and darkest, and where labor seemed most needed. In neighborhoods without churches, without school houses, without settled roads, among a population of disorganized and heterogeneous material, he had exhorted from house to house, labored individually with one after another, till he had, in place after place, brought together the elements of a Christian church. Far from all ordinances, means of grace, or Christian brotherhood, or cooeperation, he had seemed to himself to be merely the lonely, solitary "voice of one crying in the wilderness," as unassisted, and, to human view, as powerless. With poverty, and cold, and physical fatigue he had daily been familiar; and where no vehicle could penetrate the miry depths of the forest, where it was impracticable even to guide a horse, he had walked miles and miles, through mud and rain, to preach. With a wife in delicate health, and a young and growing family, he had more than once seen the year when fifty dollars was the whole amount of money that had passed through his hands; and the whole of the rest of his support had come in disconnected contributions from one and another of his people. He had lived without books, without newspapers, except as he had found them by chance snatches here and there, and felt, as one so circumstanced only can feel, the difficulty of maintaining intellectual vigor and energy in default of all those stimulants to which cultivated minds in more favorable circumstances are so much indebted. At the time that he is now introduced to the reader, he had been recently made pastor in one of the most important settlements in the state, and among those who, so far as worldly circumstances were concerned, were able to afford him a competent support. But among communities like those at the west, settled for expressly money-making purposes, and by those who have for years been taught the lesson to save, and have scarcely begun to feel the duty to give, a minister, however laborious, however eloquent and successful, may often feel the most serious embarrassments of poverty. Too often is his salary regarded as a charity which may be given or retrenched to suit every emergency of the times, and his family expenditures watched with a jealous and censorious eye.
[Footnote 1: Those particulars the writer heard stated personally as a part of the experience of one of the most devoted ministers of Ohio.]
On the other hand, George Lennox, the lawyer, had by his talents and efficiency placed himself at the head of his profession, and was realizing an income which brought all the comforts and elegances of life within his reach. He was a member of the Christian church in the place where he lived, irreproachable in life and conduct. From natural generosity of disposition, seconded by principle, he was a liberal contributor to all religious and benevolent enterprises, and was often quoted and referred to as an example in good works. Surrounded by an affectionate and growing family, with ample means for providing in the best manner both for their physical and mental development, he justly regarded himself as a happy man, and was well satisfied with the world he lived in.
Now, there is nothing more trying to the Christianity or the philosophy which teaches the vanity of riches than a few hours' domestication in a family where wealth is employed, not for purposes of ostentation, but for the perfecting of home comfort and the gratification of refined intellectual tastes; and as Mr. Stanton leaned back, slippered and gowned, in one of the easiest of chairs, and began to look over periodicals and valuable new books from which he had long been excluded, he might be forgiven for giving a half sigh to the reflection that he could never be a rich man. "Have you read this review?" said his companion, handing him one of the leading periodicals of the day across the table.
"I seldom see reviews," said Mr. Stanton, taking it.
"You lose a great deal," replied the other, "if you have not seen those by this author—altogether the ablest series of literary efforts in our time. You clerical gentlemen ought not to sacrifice your literary tastes entirely to your professional cares. A moderate attention to current literature liberalizes the mind, and gives influence that you could not otherwise acquire."
"Literary taste is an expensive thing to a minister," said Mr. Stanton, smiling: "for the mind, as well as the body, we must forego all luxuries, and confine ourselves simply to necessaries."
"I would always indulge myself with books and periodicals, even if I had to scrimp elsewhere," said Mr. Lennox; and he spoke of scrimping with all the serious good faith with which people of two or three thousand a year usually speak of these matters.
Mr. Stanton smiled, and waived the subject, wondering mentally where his friend would find an elsewhere to scrimp, if he had the management of his concerns. The conversation gradually flowed back to college days and scenes, and the friends amused themselves with tracing the history of their various classmates.
"And so Alsop is in the Senate," said Mr. Stanton. "Strange! We did not at all expect it of him. But do you know any thing of George Bush?"
"O, yes," replied the other; "he went into mercantile life, and the last I heard he had turned a speculation worth thirty thousand—a shrewd fellow. I always knew he would make his way in the world."
"But what has become of Langdon?"
"O, he is doing well; he is professor of languages in —— College, and I hear he has lately issued a Latin Grammar that promises to have quite a run."
"Smithson has an office at Washington, and was there living in great style the last time I saw him."
It may be questioned whether the minister sank to sleep that night, amid the many comfortable provisions of his friend's guest chamber, without rebuking in his heart a certain rising of regret that he had turned his back on all the honors, and distinctions, and comforts which lay around the path of others, who had not, in the opening of the race, half the advantages of himself. "See," said the insidious voice—"what have you gained? See your early friends surrounded by riches and comfort, while you are pinched and harassed by poverty. Have they not, many of them, as good a hope of heaven as you have, and all this besides? Could you not have lived easier, and been a good man after all?" The reflection was only silenced by remembering that the only Being who ever had the perfect power of choosing his worldly condition, chose, of his own accord, a poverty deeper than that of any of his servants. Had Christ consented to be rich, what check could there have been to the desire of it among his followers? But he chose to stoop so low that none could be lower; and that in extremest want none could ever say, "I am poorer than was my Savior and God."
The friends at parting the next morning shook hands warmly, and promised a frequent renewal of their resumed intercourse. Nor was the bill for twenty dollars, which the minister found in his hand, at all an unacceptable addition to the pleasures of his visit; and though the November wind whistled keenly through a dull, comfortless sky, he turned his horse's head homeward with a lightened heart.
* * * * *
"Mother's sick, and I'm a-keeping house!" said a little flaxen-headed girl, in all the importance of seven years, as her father entered the dwelling.
"Your mother sick! what's the matter?" inquired Mr. Stanton.
"She caught cold washing, yesterday, while you were gone;" and when the minister stood by the bedside of his sick wife, saw her flushed face, and felt her feverish pulse, he felt seriously alarmed. She had scarcely recovered from a dangerous fever when he left home, and with reason he dreaded a relapse.
"My dear, why have you done so?" was the first expostulation; "why did you not send for old Agnes to do your washing, as I told you."
"I felt so well, I thought I was quite able," was the reply; "and you know it will take all the money we have now in hand to get the children's shoes before cold weather comes, and nobody knows when we shall have any more."
"Well, Mary, comfort your heart as to that. I have had a present to-day of twenty dollars—that will last us some time. God always provides when need is greatest." And so, after administering a little to the comfort of his wife, the minister addressed himself to the business of cooking something for dinner for himself and his little hungry flock.
"There is no bread in the house," he exclaimed, after a survey of the ways and means at his disposal.
"I must try and sit up long enough to make some," said his wife faintly.
"You must try to be quiet," replied the husband. "We can do very well on potatoes. But yet," he added, "I think if I bring the things to your bedside, and you show me how to mix them, I could make some bread."
A burst of laughter from the young fry chorused his proposal; nevertheless, as Mr. Stanton was a man of decided genius, by help of much showing, and of strong arms and good will, the feat was at length accomplished in no unworkmanlike manner; and while the bread was put down to the fire to rise, and the potatoes were baking in the oven, Mr. Stanton having enjoined silence on his noisy troop, sat down, pencil in hand, by his wife's bed, to prepare a sermon.
We would that those ministers who feel that they cannot compose without a study, and that the airiest and pleasantest room in the house, where the floor is guarded by the thick carpet, the light carefully relieved by curtains, where papers are filed and arranged neatly in conveniences purposely adjusted, with books of reference standing invitingly around, could once figure to themselves the process of composing a sermon in circumstances such as we have painted. Mr. Stanton had written his text, and jotted down something of an introduction, when a circumstance occurred which is almost inevitable in situations where a person has any thing else to attend to—the baby woke. The little interloper was to be tied into a chair, while the flaxen-headed young housekeeper was now installed into the office of waiter in ordinary to her majesty, and by shaking a newspaper before her face, plying a rattle, or other arts known only to the initiate, to prevent her from indulging in any unpleasant demonstrations, while Mr. Stanton proceeded with his train of thought.
"Papa, papa! the teakettle! only look!" cried all the younger ones, just as he was again beginning to abstract his mind.
Mr. Stanton rose, and adapting part of his sermon paper to the handle of the teakettle, poured the boiling water on some herb drink for his wife, and then recommenced.
"I sha'n't have much of a sermon!" he soliloquized, as his youngest but one, with the ingenuity common to children of her standing, had contrived to tip herself over in her chair, and cut her under lip, which for the time being threw the whole settlement into commotion; and this conviction was strengthened by finding that it was now time to give the children their dinner.
"I fear Mrs. Stanton is imprudent in exerting herself," said the medical man to the husband, as he examined her symptoms.
"I know she is," replied her husband, "but I cannot keep her from it."
"It is absolutely indispensable that she should rest and keep her mind easy," said the doctor.
"Rest and keep easy"—how easily the words are said! yet how they fall on the ear of a mother, who knows that her whole flock have not yet a garment prepared for winter, that hiring assistance is out of the question, and that the work must all be done by herself—who sees that while she is sick her husband is perplexed, and kept from his appropriate duties, and her children, despite his well-meant efforts, suffering for the want of those attentions that only a mother can give. Will not any mother, so tried, rise from her sick bed before she feels able, to be again prostrated by over-exertion, until the vigor of the constitution year by year declines, and she sinks into an early grave? Yet this is the true history of many a wife and mother, who, in consenting to share the privations of a western minister, has as truly sacrificed her life as did ever martyr on heathen shores. The graves of Harriet Newell and Mrs. Judson are hallowed as the shrines of saints, and their memory made as a watchword among Christians; yet the western valley is full of green and nameless graves, where patient, long-enduring wives and mothers have lain down, worn out by the privations of as severe a missionary field, and "no man knoweth the place of their sepulchre."
The crisp air of a November evening was enlivened by the fire that blazed merrily in the bar room of the tavern in L., while a more than usual number crowded about the hearth, owing to the session of the county court in that place.
"Mr. Lennox is a pretty smart lawyer," began an old gentleman, who sat in one of the corners, in the half interrogative tone which indicated a wish to start conversation.
"Yes, sir, no mistake about that," was the reply; "does the largest business in the state—very smart man, sir, and honest—a church member too, and one of the tallest kinds of Christians they say—gives more money for building meeting houses, and all sorts of religious concerns, than any man around."
"Well, he can afford it," said a man with a thin, care-taking visage, and a nervous, anxious twitch of the hand, as if it were his constant effort to hold on to something—"he can afford it, for he makes money hand over hand. It is not every body can afford to do as he does."
A sly look of intelligence pervaded the company; for the speaker, one of the most substantial householders in the settlement, was always taken with distressing symptoms of poverty and destitution when any allusion to public or religious charity was made.
"Mr. C. is thinking about parish matters," said a wicked wag of the company; "you see, sir, our minister urged pretty hard last Sunday to have his salary paid up. He has had sickness in his family, and nothing on hand for winter expenses."
"I don't think Mr. Stanton is judicious in making such public statements," said the former speaker, nervously; "he ought to consult his friends privately, and not bring temporalities into the pulpit."
"That is to say, starve decently, and make no fuss," replied the other.
"Nonsense! Who talks of starving, when provision is as plenty as blackberries? I tell you I understand this matter, and know how little a man can get along with. I've tried it myself. When I first set out in life, my wife and I had not a pair of andirons or a shovel and tongs for two or three years, and we never thought of complaining. The times are hard. We are all losing, and must get along as we can; and Mr. Stanton must bear some rubs as well as the rest of us."
"It appears to me, Mr. C," said the waggish gentleman aforesaid, "that if you'd put Mr. Stanton into your good brick house, and give him your furniture and income, he would be well satisfied to rub along as you do."
"Mr. Stanton isn't so careful in his expenses as he might be," said Mr. C., petulantly, disregarding the idea started by his neighbor; "he buys things I should not think of buying. Now, I was in his house the other day, and he had just given three dollars for a single book."
"Perhaps it was a book he needed in his studies," suggested the old gentleman who began the conversation.
"What's the use of book larnin' to a minister, if he's got the real spirit in him?" chimed in a rough-looking man in the farthest corner; "only wish you could have heard Elder North give it off—there was a real genuine preacher for you, couldn't even read his text in the Bible; yet, sir, he would get up and reel it off as smooth and fast as the best of them, that come out of the colleges. My notion is, it's the spirit that's the thing, after all."
Several of the auditors seemed inclined to express their approbation of this doctrine, though some remarked that Mr. Stanton was a smarter preacher than Elder North, for all his book larnin'.
Some of the more intelligent of the circle here exchanged smiles, but declined entering the lists in favor of "larnin'."
"O, for my part," resumed Mr. C., "I am for having a minister study, and have books and all that, if he can afford it; but in hard times like these, books are neither meat, drink, nor fire; and I know I can't afford them. Now, I'm as willing to contribute my part to the minister's salary, and every other charity, as any body, when I can get money to do it; but in these times I can't get it."
The elderly gentleman here interrupted the conversation by saying, abruptly, "I am a townsman of Mr. Stanton's, and it is my opinion that he has impoverished himself by giving in religious charity."
"Giving in charity!" exclaimed several voices; "where did he ever get any thing to give?"
"Yet I think I speak within bounds," said the old gentleman, "when I say that he has given more than the amount of two thousand dollars yearly to the support of the gospel in this state; and I think I can show it to be so."
The eyes of the auditors were now enlarged to their utmost limits, while the old gentleman, after the fashion of shrewd old gentlemen generally, screwed up his mouth in a very dry twist, and looked in the fire without saying a word.
"Come now, pray tell us how this is," said several of the company.
"Well, sir," said the old man, addressing himself to Mr. C., "you are a man of business, and will perhaps understand the case as I view it. You were speaking this evening of lawyer Lennox. He and your minister were both from my native place, and both there and in college your minister was always reckoned the smartest of the two, and went ahead in every thing they undertook. Now, you see Mr. Lennox, out of his talents and education, makes say three thousand a year. Mr. Stanton had more talent, and more education, and might have made even more; but by devoting himself to the work of the ministry in your state, he gains, we will say, about four hundred dollars. Does he not, therefore, in fact, give all the difference between four hundred and three thousand to the cause of religion in this state? If, during the business season of the year, you, Mr. C., should devote your whole time to some benevolent enterprise, would you not feel that you had virtually given to that enterprise all the money you would otherwise have made? Instead, therefore, of calling it a charity for you to subscribe to your minister's support, you ought to consider it a very expensive charity for him to devote his existence in preaching to you. To bring the gospel to your state, he has given up a reasonable prospect of an income of two or three thousand, and contents himself with the least sum which will keep soul and body together, without the possibility of laying up a cent for his family in case of his sickness and death. This, sir, is what I call giving in charity."
THE ELDER'S FEAST.
A TRADITION OF LAODICEA.
At a certain time in the earlier ages there lived in the city of Laodicea a Christian elder of some repute, named Onesiphorus. The world had smiled on him, and though a Christian, he was rich and full of honors. All men, even the heathen, spoke well of him, for he was a man courteous of speech and mild of manner.
His wife, a fair Ionian lady but half reclaimed from idolatry, though baptized and accredited as a member of the Christian church, still lingered lovingly on the confines of old heathenism, and if she did not believe, still cherished with pleasure the poetic legends of Apollo and Venus, of Jove and Diana.
A large and fair family of sons and daughters had risen around these parents; but their education had been much after the rudiments of this world, and not after Christ. Though, according to the customs of the church, they were brought to the font of baptism, and sealed in the name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Ghost, and although daily, instead of libations to the Penates, or flower offerings to Diana and Juno, the name of Jesus was invoked, yet the spirit of Jesus was wanting. The chosen associates of all these children, as they grew older, were among the heathen; and daily they urged their parents, by their entreaties, to conform, in one thing after another, to heathen usage. "Why should we be singular, mother?" said the dark-eyed Myrrah, as she bound her hair and arranged her dress after the fashion of the girls in the temple of Venus. "Why may we not wear the golden ornaments and images which have been consecrated to heathen goddesses?" said the sprightly Thalia; "surely none others are to be bought, and are we to do altogether without?" "And why may we not be at feasts where libations are made to Apollo or Jupiter?" said the sons; "so long as we do not consent to it or believe in it, will our faith be shaken thereby?" "How are we ever to reclaim the heathen, if we do not mingle among them?" said another son; "did not our Master eat with publicans and sinners?"
It was, however, to be remarked, that no conversions of the heathen to Christianity ever took place through the means of these complying sons and daughters, or any of the number who followed their example. Instead of withdrawing any from the confines of heathenism, they themselves were drawn so nearly over, that in certain situations and circumstances they would undoubtedly have been ranked among them by any but a most scrutinizing observer. If any in the city of Laodicea were ever led to unite themselves with Jesus, it was by means of a few who observed the full simplicity of the ancient faith, and who, though honest, tender, and courteous in all their dealings with the heathen, still went not a step with them in conformity to any of their customs.
In time, though the family we speak of never broke off from the Christian church, yet if you had been in it, you might have heard much warm and earnest conversation about things that took place at the baths, or in feasts to various divinities; but if any one spoke of Jesus, there was immediately a cold silence, a decorous, chilling, respectful pause, after which the conversation, with a bound, flew back into the old channel again.
* * * * *
It was now night; and the house of Onesiphorus the Elder was blazing with torches, alive with music, and all the hurry and stir of a sumptuous banquet. All the wealth and fashion of Laodicea were there, Christian and heathen; and all that the classic voluptuousness of Oriental Greece could give to shed enchantment over the scene was there. In ancient times the festivals of Christians in Laodicea had been regulated in the spirit of the command of Jesus, as recorded by Luke, whose classical Greek had made his the established version in Asia Minor. "And thou, when thou makest a feast, call not thy friends and thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors, lest they also bid thee, and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, and the maimed, and the lame, and the blind, and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee, but thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just."
That very day, before the entertainment, had this passage been quoted in the ears of the family by Cleon, the youngest son, who, different from all his family, had cherished in his bosom the simplicity of the old belief.
"How ridiculous! how absurd!" had been the reply of the more thoughtless members of the family, when Cleon cited the above passage as in point to the evening's entertainment. The dark-eyed mother looked reproof on the levity of the younger children, and decorously applauded the passage, which she said had no application to the matter in hand.
"But, mother, even if the passage be not literally taken, it must mean something. What did the Lord Jesus intend by it? If we Christians may make entertainments with all the parade and expense of our heathen neighbors, and thus spend the money that might be devoted to charity, what does this passage mean?"
"Your father gives in charity as handsomely as any Christian in Laodicea," said his mother warmly.
"Nay, mother, that may be; but I bethink me now of two or three times when means have been wanting for the relieving of the poor, and the ransoming of captives, and the support of apostles, when we have said that we could give no more."
"My son," said his mother, "you do not understand the ways of the world."
"Nay, how should he?" said Thalia, "shut up day and night with that old papyrus of St. Luke and Paul's Epistles. One may have too much of a good thing."
"But does not the holy Paul say, 'Be not conformed to this world'?"
"Certainly," said the elder; "that means that we should be baptized, and not worship in the heathen temples."
"My dear son," said his mother, "you intend well, doubtless; but you have not sufficient knowledge of life to estimate our relations to society. Entertainments of this sort are absolutely necessary to sustain our position in the world. If we accept, we must return them."
But not to dwell on this conversation, let us suppose ourselves in the rooms now glittering with lights, and gay with every costly luxury of wealth and taste. Here were statues to Diana and Apollo, and to the household Juno—not meant for worship—of course not—but simply to conform to the general usages of good society; and so far had this complaisance been carried, that the shrine of a peerless Venus was adorned with garlands and votive offerings, and an exquisitely wrought silver censer diffused its perfume on the marble altar in front. This complaisance on the part of some of the younger members of the family drew from the elder a gentle remonstrance, as having an unseemly appearance for those bearing the Christian name; but they readily answered, "Has not Paul said, 'We know that an idol is nothing'? Where is the harm of an elegant statue, considered merely as a consummate work of art? As for the flowers, are they not simply the most appropriate ornament? And where is the harm of burning exquisite perfume? And is it worse to burn it in one place than another?"
"Upon my sword," said one of the heathen guests, as he wandered through the gay scene, "how liberal and accommodating these Christians are becoming! Except in a few small matters in the temple, they seem to be with us entirely."
"Ah," said another, "it was not so years back. Nothing was heard among them, then, but prayers, and alms, and visits to the poor and sick; and when they met together in their feasts, there was so much of their talk of Christ, and such singing of hymns and prayer, that one of us found himself quite out of place."
"Yes," said an old man present, "in those days I quite bethought me of being some day a Christian; but look you, they are grown so near like us now, it is scarce worth one's while to change. A little matter of ceremony in the temple, and offering incense to Jesus, instead of Jupiter, when all else is the same, can make small odds in a man."
But now, the ancient legend goes on to say, that in the midst of that gay and brilliant evening, a stranger of remarkable appearance and manners was noticed among the throng. None knew him, or whence he came. He mingled not in the mirth, and seemed to recognize no one present, though he regarded all that was passing with a peculiar air of still and earnest attention; and wherever he moved, his calm, penetrating gaze seemed to diffuse a singular uneasiness about him. Now his eye was fixed with a quiet scrutiny on the idolatrous statues, with their votive adornments—now it followed earnestly the young forms that were wreathing in the graceful waves of the dance; and then he turned towards the tables, loaded with every luxury and sparkling with wines, where the devotion to Bacchus became more than poetic fiction; and as he gazed, a high, indignant sorrow seemed to overshadow the calmness of his majestic face. When, in thoughtless merriment, some of the gay company sought to address him, they found themselves shrinking involuntarily from the soft, piercing eye, and trembling at the low, sweet tones in which he replied. What he spoke was brief; but there was a gravity and tender wisdom in it that strangely contrasted with the frivolous scene, and awakened unwonted ideas of heavenly purity even in thoughtless and dissipated minds.
The only one of the company who seemed to seek his society was the youngest, the fair little child Isa. She seemed as strangely attracted towards him as others were repelled; and when, unsolicited, in the frank confidence of childhood she pressed to his side, and placed her little hand in his, the look of radiant compassion and tenderness which beamed down from those eyes was indeed glorious to behold. Yet here and there, as he glided among the crowd, he spoke in the ear of some Christian words which, though soft and low, seemed to have a mysterious and startling power; for one after another, pensive, abashed, and confounded, they drew aside from the gay scene, and seemed lost in thought. That stranger—who was he? Who? The inquiry passed from mouth to mouth, and one and another, who had listened to his low, earnest tones, looked on each other with a troubled air. Ere long he had glided hither and thither in the crowd; he had spoken in the ear of every Christian—and suddenly again he was gone, and they saw him no more. Each had felt the heart thrill within—each spirit had vibrated as if the finger of its Creator had touched it, and shrunk conscious as if an omniscient eye were upon it. Each heart was stirred from its depths. Vain sophistries, worldly maxims, making the false look true, all appeared to rise and clear away like a mist; and at once each one seemed to see, as God sees, the true state of the inner world, the true motive and reason of action, and in the instinctive pause that passed through the company, the banquet was broken up and deserted.
"And what if their God were present?" said one of the heathen members of the company, next day. "Why did they all look so blank? A most favorable omen, we should call it, to have one's patron divinity at a feast."
"Besides," said another, "these Christians hold that their God is always every where present; so, at most, they have but had their eyes opened to see Him who is always there!"
* * * * *
What is practically the meaning of the precept, "Be not conformed to the world?" In its every-day results, it presents many problems difficult of solution. There are so many shades and blendings of situation and circumstances, so many things, innocent and graceful in themselves, which, like flowers and incense on a heathen altar, become unchristian only through position and circumstances, that the most honest and well-intentioned are often perplexed.
That we must conform in some things, is conceded; yet the whole tenor of the New Testament shows that this conformity must have its limits—that Christians are to be transformed, so as to exhibit to the world a higher and more complete style of life, and thus "prove what is the good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God."
But in many particulars as to style of living and modes of social intercourse, there can be no definite rules laid down, and no Christian can venture to judge another by his standard.
One Christian condemns dress adornment, and the whole application of taste to the usages of life, as a sinful waste of time and money. Another, perceiving in every work of God a love and appreciation of the beautiful, believes that there is a sphere in which he is pleased to see the same trait in his children, if the indulgence do not become excessive, and thus interfere with higher duties.
One condemns all time and expense laid out in social visiting as so much waste. Another remembers that Jesus, when just entering on the most vast and absorbing work, turned aside to attend a wedding feast, and wrought his first miracle to enhance its social enjoyment. Again, there are others who, because some indulgence of taste and some exercise for the social powers are admissible, go all lengths in extravagance, and in company, dress, and the externals of life.
In the same manner, with regard to style of life and social entertainment—most of the items which go to constitute what is called style of living, or the style of particular parties, may be in themselves innocent, and yet they may be so interwoven and combined with evils, that the whole effect shall be felt to be decidedly unchristian, both by Christians and the world. How, then, shall the well-disposed person know where to stop, and how to strike the just medium?
We know of but one safe rule: read the life of Jesus with attention—study it—inquire earnestly with yourself, "What sort of a person, in thought, in feeling, in action, was my Savior?"—live in constant sympathy and communion with him—and there will be within a kind of instinctive rule by which to try all things. A young man, who was to be exposed to the temptations of one of the most dissipated European capitals, carried with him his father's picture, and hung it in his apartment. Before going out to any of the numerous resorts of the city, he was accustomed to contemplate this picture, and say to himself, "Would my father wish to see me in the place to which I am going?" and thus was he saved from many a temptation. In like manner the Christian, who has always by his side the beautiful ideal of his Savior, finds it a holy charm, by which he is gently restrained from all that is unsuitable to his profession. He has but to inquire of any scene or employment, "Should I be well pleased to meet my Savior there? Would the trains of thought I should there fall into, the state of mind that would there be induced, be such as would harmonize with an interview with him?" Thus protected and defended, social enjoyment might be like that of Mary and John, and the disciples, when, under the mild, approving eye of the Son of God, they shared the festivities of Cana.
LITTLE FRED, THE CANAL BOY.
In the outskirts of the little town of Toledo, in Ohio, might be seen a small, one-story cottage, whose external architecture no way distinguished it from dozens of other residences of the poor, by which it was surrounded. But over this dwelling, a presiding air of sanctity and neatness, of quiet and repose, marked it out as different from every other.
The little patch before the door, instead of being a loafing ground for swine, and a receptacle of litter and filth, was trimly set with flowers, weeded, watered, and fenced with dainty care. The scarlet bignonia clambered over the mouldering logs of the sides, shrouding their roughness in its gorgeous mantle of green and crimson, and the good old-fashioned morning glory, laced across the window, unfolded, every day, tints whose beauty, though cheap and common, the finest French milliner might in vain seek to rival.
When, in travelling the western country, you meet such a dwelling, do you not instinctively know what you shall see inside of it? Do you not seem to see the trimly-sanded floor, the well-kept furniture, the snowy muslin curtain? Are you not sure that on a neat stand you shall see, as on an altar, the dear old family Bible, brought, like the ancient ark of the covenant, into the far wilderness, and ever overshadowed, as a bright cloud, with remembered prayers and counsels of father and mother, in a far off New England home?
And in this cottage there was such a Bible, brought from the wild hills of New Hampshire, and its middle page recorded the marriage of James Sandford to Mary Irving; and alas! after it another record, traced in a trembling hand—the death of James Sandford, at Toledo. And this fair, thin woman, in the black dress, with soft brown hair parted over a pale forehead, with calm, patient blue eyes, and fading cheek, is the once energetic, buoyant, light-hearted New Hampshire girl, who has brought with her the strongest religious faith, the active practical knowledge, the skilful, well-trained hand and clear head, with which cold New England portions her daughters. She had left all, and come to the western wilds with no other capital than her husband's manly heart and active brain—he young, strong, full of hope, prompt, energetic, and skilled to acquire—she careful, prudent, steady, no less skilled to save; and between the two no better firm for acquisition and prospective success could be desired. Every body prophesied that James Sandford would succeed, and Mary heard these praises with a quiet exultation. But alas! that whole capital of hers—that one strong, young heart, that ready, helpful hand—two weeks of the country's fever sufficed to lay them cold and low forever.
And Mary yet lived, with her babe in her arms, and one bright little boy by her side; and this boy is our little brown-eyed Fred—the hero of our story. But few years had rolled over his curly head, when he first looked, weeping and wondering, on the face of death. Ah, one look on that awful face adds years at once to the age of the heart; and little Fred felt manly thoughts aroused in him by the cold stillness of his father, and the deep, calm anguish of his mother.
"O mamma, don't cry so, don't," said the little fellow. "I am alive, and I can take care of you. Dear mamma, I pray for you every day." And Mary was comforted even in her tears and thought, as she looked into those clear, loving brown eyes, that her little intercessor would not plead in vain; for saith Jesus, "Their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven."
In a few days she learned to look her sorrows calmly in the face, like a brave, true woman, as she was. She was a widow, and out of the sudden wreck of her husband's plans but a pittance remained to her, and she cast about, with busy hand and head, for some means to eke it out. She took in sewing—she took in washing and ironing; and happy did the young exquisite deem himself, whose shirts came with such faultless plaits, such snowy freshness, from the slender hands of Mary. With that matchless gift which old Yankee housewives call faculty, Mary kept together all the ends of her ravelled skein of life, and began to make them wind smoothly. Her baby was the neatest of all babies, as it was assuredly the prettiest, and her little Fred the handiest and most universal genius of all boys. It was Fred that could wring out all the stockings, and hang out all the small clothes, that tended the baby by night and by day, that made her a wagon out of an old soap box, in which he drew her in triumph; and at their meals he stood reverently in his father's place, and with folded hands repeated, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his mercies;" and his mother's heart responded amen to the simple prayer. Then he learned, with manifold puffing and much haggling, to saw wood quite decently, and to swing an axe almost as big as himself in wood splitting; and he ran of errands, and did business with an air of bustling importance that was edifying to see; he knew the prices of lard, butter, and dried apples, as well as any man about, and, as the store-keeper approvingly told him, was a smart chap at a bargain. Fred grew three inches higher the moment he heard it.
In the evenings after the baby was asleep, Fred sat by his mother with slate and book, deep in the mysteries of reading, writing, and ciphering; and then the mother and son talked over their little plans, and hallowed their nightly rest by prayer; and when, before retiring, his mother knelt with him by his little bed and prayed, the child often sobbed with a strange emotion, for which he could give no reason. Something there is in the voice of real prayer that thrills a child's heart, even before he understands it; the holy tones are a kind of heavenly music, and far off in distant years, the callous and worldly man, often thrills to his heart's core, when some turn of life recalls to him his mother's prayer.
So passed the first years of the life of Fred. Meanwhile his little sister had come to toddle about the cottage floor, full of insatiable and immeasurable schemes of mischief. It was she that upset the clothes basket, and pulled over the molasses pitcher on to her own astonished head, and with incredible labor upset every pail of water that by momentary thoughtlessness was put within reach. It was she that was found stuffing poor, solemn old pussy head first into the water jar, that wiped up the floor with her mother's freshly-ironed clothes, and jabbered meanwhile, in most unexampled Babylonish dialect, her own vindications and explanations of these misdemeanors. Every day her mother declared that she must begin to get that child into some kind of order; but still the merry little curly pate contemned law and order, and laughed at all ideas of retributive justice, and Fred and his mother laughed and deplored, in the same invariable succession, the various direful results of her activity and enterprise.