John Angell James, (1785—1859)
"I love those who love me; and those who seek me early shall find me." Proverbs 8:17
How fascinating is nature in the second quarter of the year. Spring, lovely, animating spring, then sheds its reviving and gladdening smiles upon us. It is always a season of beauty. "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds has come, and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in the land." Nature stands forth dressed in her garb of living green, decorated with the chaste colors and perfumed with the mild fragrance of the violet, the primrose, and the lily. It is a season of joy as well as beauty; recently recovered from the gloom of wintry months, the earth smiles and is vocal with delight. The feathered songsters of the grove blend their notes with the lowing of the herds and the bleating of the flocks; and the harmony is completed by the joyful sounds of the husbandman, and the gentle music of the breeze. But it is also a season of activity as well as of loveliness and delight, the torpor produced by short days and cold nights is succeeded by universal motion. The farmer is busy in his fields, the florist in his greenhouse, and the horticulturist in his garden—for full well is it known and felt, that a seedless spring must be followed by a fruitless autumn. Hope too adds radiance and delight to youthful spring scenes. The blade springing from the well-cultivated soil, and the blossom on the well-pruned tree, give the promise and prospect of the future crop.
And what is youth but the spring-time period of existence; it is the season of beauty and of joy, it should be the season of activity and of hope. It is then that the beauty of the human form is in all its untainted freshness, and the spirits of our physical nature are in all their unchecked vigor. And it is then that all the energies of the soul should be put forth in the way of self-improvement, to awaken the hopes—not only of their possessor, but of every observer. Do, my young friends, thus look abroad upon the field of nature; not only to poetize, but to moralize; not only to admire, but to imitate; not only to feel the throb of pleasure and the thrill of delight, but to learn lessons of wisdom, and collect motives for self-improvement.
You are, indeed you are, passing through the spring of your life; and as in nature, so in your existence, there can be but one spring; and in each case, it is the spring that will give the character to the seasons that follow it. It is then the seeds of intelligence, of prudence, of virtue, of piety, must be sown, or there will be no produce in the after periods of your history. A seedless spring must here also be followed by a fruitless autumn, and a destitute, dreary, and cheerless winter, and for this reason this chapter is devoted to the enforcement of early piety.
Your first concern, and deep indeed should that concern be, is, of course, to understand the nature of real religion. This is of momentous importance. No language can exaggerate it. There can be no hyperbole here. Upon a right understanding of this subject is suspended your happiness for eternity. Ponder that word eternity, and think of the millions of millions of ages, passing comprehension, it includes; all to be filled with torment or bliss, according as you understand and practice, or mistake the nature and neglect the claims of true religion. Should not this awaken solicitude of the deepest kind? What should increase the concern of your mind to intense solicitude, and almost to distress, is, that both our Lord and his apostles, by what they have said, lead us to believe that mistakes on this subject are very common and very destructive, as you may learn by consulting the following passages of Holy Scripture—Matt. 7:13-28; 1 Cor. 13; 2 Cor. 13:5-7; Gal. 4:11-18; 6:3-5.
To guard against mistakes, go to the right source of information; consult the only infallible oracle, the Word of God. You have the Bible in your hand; search that, search it yourselves for yourselves. Do not be satisfied with merely consulting men's works, but consult God's own Word. All churches, whatever they may boast, may err, have erred, and have no authority or ability to settle this matter for you. Creeds and catechisms, prayer-books and missals, formularies and confessions—none of them are pure truth—this is true only of the Bible. The Bible, the Bible alone, is the religion of Christians.
Not that I would have you reject the help of other things—but only their authority. An humble, docile mind will be thankful for human aid in the great business of religion. There is a medium between despising assistance and so depending upon it as to cast off all self-inquiry. The pert and flippant self-sufficiency which would lead a young woman to neglect, or even to despise, the judgment of those whose calling it is to teach the Word of God, and who have studied it more closely than it is possible she can have done, is no proof of that humility which is one of the brightest ornaments of her sex. I do not, therefore, teach young women to think lightly of the assistance rendered by ministers and books, in the momentous concerns of religion; but simply remind them of their duty to search for themselves the Scriptures, by whose authority all books and all ministers are to be tried.
Before I dwell on this source of information, as to the nature of religion, I may just remark that there are one or two things which must of necessity characterize religion. Since it has, first of all and chiefly, to do with God, and since God can and does regard, search, and judge the heart, its true seat must be the heart. It is not a mere outward thing, a round of ceremonies, or a course of unintelligent action. The soul must be religious; the whole inner self, the intellect, the will, the affections, the conscience, must be under the influence of piety. Mark this—there must be thought, choice, affection, and conscientiousness.
Again; whatever be true religion, it must primarily relate to God, and must of necessity be a right state of mind and heart towards him. It must also be to its possessor a very serious, solemn, important matter; it supposes great concern for it as an affair of salvation, eternity, heaven. It must produce a character very different from that of the person who is not living under its influence. It is too great a matter to leave no mark, to produce no impression, to form no peculiarity. So that we may be sure where it lives properly in the heart, it will develop itself visibly in the outward character.
With these ideas, which are at once obvious, instructive, and impressive, let us open the New Testament and see what descriptions of religion we find there; and I beg your very closest attention to them, as in the presence of God, and the prospect of eternity. The apostle Paul, in setting forth the subject and substance of his ministry, describes it thus, "Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." This then is true religion, repentance and faith. If we turn to the gospel by John, we read thus, "But as many as received him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to those who believe on his name—who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." This is also repeated, "Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." This is religion, a new spiritual birth; or in other words an entire spiritual renovation of our fallen and corrupt nature. Then again we may quote the apostle's words in that beautiful chapter on charity, "And now abides faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." These also constitute religion, faith, hope, and love. Similar to this is his language in his epistle to the Galatians, "For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which works by love." This is an immensely important passage, as showing that no outward ceremonial observance or church relationship constitute religion; but a true simple faith in Christ for salvation; producing love to God, to man, to holiness. This accords with what our Lord said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Then again, the apostle said, "For the grace of God that brings salvation, has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works."
Observe then from these passages what is religion, and its usual order. True conviction of sin; deep solicitude about pardon and salvation; confession of sin, without defense, excuse, or palliation; genuine repentance; self-renunciation; faith in Christ, or a simple reliance on him for salvation; the new birth, or an entire change of our corrupt nature; love to God, leading to obedience of his commands, and a holy life; a serious observance of all the ordinances of religion, including baptism and the Lord's supper. Are these things so? Is this the description of religion given us in the New Testament? Who will pretend to deny it? Search for yourselves! You will see at once how this answers to the general description of it previously given, as a thing of the heart, a right state of mind towards God, a matter of deep concern to the mind that possesses it, and making an obvious distinction between her who has it and her who has it not.
You are in danger, my young friends, from the female temperament, from your sensibility, susceptibility and imaginativeness, of having your minds led astray on the subject of religion, and of considering it rather as a matter of feeling than of principle, as belonging rather to the emotions than to the judgment and the will. You are liable to be seduced from the truth by appeals to the senses and the imagination, as the spurious religion of the present day abounds with them. But I again say, search the New Testament and judge for yourselves, and say what do you find there about tasteful architecture, gorgeous ceremonies, splendid dresses, sacerdotal power, sacred days, either of fasting or festivity, church authority, or even the prevalence of devotional observances over moral duties. What you find everywhere is faith, love, peace, hope, holiness—a religion of which devotion is indeed an element, but only one out of many; being ever associated with self-government, conscientiousness, social excellence, and charity.
Nor is the religion of the New Testament merely that state of mind which is moved by a pathetic sermon, which melts at the Lord's supper, or is excited by the appeals of a missionary meeting. Religion has to do, I know, with our whole nature, and therefore with its emotional part; but then, the degree of sensibility so much depends upon physical constitution, that a sense of excitement during religious ordinances is far less to be depended upon as a test of personal godliness, than rigid self-government, resolute will in the way of righteousness, and tender conscientiousness, exercised in obedience to the Divine authority, and under a constraining sense of the love of Christ. None are more in danger, therefore, of self-delusion on this subject, than yourselves!
I may now lay before you the obligations you are under to possess, and ever to cultivate and act under the influence of, such a religion as this. I say obligations. This word is stern and hard, but not too much so. The subject is pressed upon your judgment, heart, will, and conscience, by all the weight and power of a Divine authority. Religion is not one of those matters which are submitted to your option, for which if you have a taste, well—and if not, still well. Nor are you left to form your own religion, and to select for yourself the form in which you will please God and find your way to heaven. This is the dangerous delusion of many in the present day. It is all well enough, they think, to be religious after some fashion; but each must adopt his own way of serving God. Upon this principle of resolving it all into taste, the person of no religion if his taste be that way, is on nearly the same footing as he whose religion is simply according to his own liking.
The truth must be told, and told plainly too; that there is but one religion, and that is the religion of the Bible. To be pious at all, we must be pious in God's way. It would be a strange thing if, when a master had given strict and explicit written orders to a servant how he should be served, the servant should choose his own way of obedience, and set aside the directions he had received. In all honesty, therefore, I must tell you at once, as harsh as the declaration may seem, that without the religion of the Bible, you will perish everlastingly! There is no way to heaven but by the religion of the Bible. "He who believes on the Son has everlasting life—and he who believes not the Son shall not see life—but the wrath of God abides on him." These are dreadful words, they roll like thunder, and flash like lightning, not from Sinai, but from Calvary, and they should be pondered by all who hear or read them.
The obligations to a life of religion arise out of the relations in which you stand to God. He is your Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor—and you are his creatures, his dependents, and his beneficiaries. You feel, my young friends, your obligations to your parents, arising out of your relation to them. As a child, you feel bound to love, and serve, and please them. What, and not feel your relation to God, which is a thousand times more close than that of your connection with them? Yes, you sustain an individual relationship to God. Do you consider this? Have you considered it? Have you ever yet, in devout seriousness, said, "What, and where, is God my maker? What do I owe him, and how should I conduct myself towards him?" Is God the only relation you should leave out of consideration and forget? Did you ever yet in all your life devoutly ponder this relationship to God, and the claims which it brings? Why, if he had never commanded you to love and serve him, you ought to do so, on account of this relationship. But he has commanded it. Your Bible is his demand upon you. It is God's voice, enjoining you to be truly, and constantly, and consistently religious. It is his formal, explicit, frequently and solemnly repeated claim. Its injunctions command, its invitations allure, its promises encourage, its threatenings warn, its judgments alarm you, to be truly pious. It is given to teach you what religion is, how it is to be practiced, and how it will be rewarded.
And then this is all addressed to you, while you are young. Religion is not merely the concern of the middle-aged and the old, but of the young; not of the other sex only, but of yours. Indeed it has ever flourished more among people of your sex and age than among any other class. To imagine it is only the business of old age and a death-bed, is an insult both to it and God. Ought he not to have the first and the best of our days? Should he be put off with the dregs of life? Will you dare entertain such an idea as offering those dying remains of existence, that are of no service for anything else, the refuse of sin, Satan, and the world? Does not your fear tremble at such a thought, and your generosity scorn it, and your sense of gratitude recoil from it?
Seriously attend to the following motives by which early piety may be enforced upon you. Alas, that you should need them! Think of its being told to the angels in heaven, that mortals upon earth need to be urged by inducements to love, serve, and glorify that God, whose service is felt to be their bliss, their honor, and their reward. However, you do need these inducements, and they are at hand.
There are motives which apply to you in common with the other sex. Such, for instance, as the nature of religion itself. What for dignity, for happiness, for honor, can be compared with it? What constituted the glory of unfallen woman in Paradise? Religion. It was her piety towards God that invested Eve, before she had spoiled the beauty of her soul, with her brightest charms. Conceive of her, bending in lowly reverence, in ardent affection, and with inexpressible gratitude, before the throne of God; passing with holy dread and averted eye the tree of knowledge, to feed upon the fruit which grew upon the tree of life, and to hold communion with her husband in that sacramental type and pledge of immortality. Not a thought, feeling, or volition, was then in opposition to God. She heard his voice in the garden, and hastened to meet him. Now religion is intended to bring you back as near to that state as our fallen nature in this sinful world will admit of. Yes, religion was the repose of her happy and holy spirit, of which the fall deprived her; and which it is the design of the whole scheme of redemption to restore to her daughters as well as to her sons. True, your religion must have some ingredients which hers before her lapse had not—but in so far as it consists in the service of God, it is the same in substance.
Look up into heaven, and what constitutes the felicity and glory of the blessed inhabitants of that happy world? Is not religion the beauty of every spirit made perfect, the ephod in which every seraph ministers before the throne of the Eternal? But to judge of the real dignity, honor, and felicity, of true religion, hear what our Divine Lord said on one occasion, "As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out—Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you." And who does not admit the justice of addressing this congratulation to that distinguished woman, to whom was granted the honor of being the mother of the Savior of the world? What woman on earth would not have esteemed such an honor infinitely higher than to have been the queen of the whole earth? And yet what was the reply of Christ? "But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice." Yes, she is to be congratulated—but still higher is the honor of being a child of God by true piety, than the honor of being the mother of Christ without it."
Beautiful is the language of Quesnel on this passage, "The Holy Virgin is not blessed in having borne Christ, on any other account; but only because he, being much more holy than the holiest of saints, made her worthy to be his mother, by sanctifying her. Christ does not blame the woman for praising his mother, but he completes it by intimating that her blessedness proceeded from her having borne the Son of God in her heart, even before she bare him in her womb." In other words he declares her honor as a woman would have been of no account to her, but for her religion as a saint. (Could any language of our Lord have tended more effectually to rebuke the preposterous and blasphemous honors which are paid to the Virgin by the Papists? It would seem that, foreseeing all that the church of Rome has accumulated of error and impiety in this way, he had determined in the most effectual and impressive manner to furnish the antidote and refutation in this impressive language. Let any one study the spirit of this reply of Christ to the congratulation of the woman that blessed his mother, and say if it is not the most convincing answer which could be given to the dreadful system of Mariolatry, which prevails so extensively in that corrupt and apostate church.)
Is it possible, my young female friends, to find a richer, loftier commendation of the dignity and felicity of true religion than this, which places those who possess it above the honor of giving birth to the humanity of Christ? I ask you most intently to ponder this passage of the gospel history.
In common with the other sex, you also are liable to the stroke of death, and therefore youth may be the only time given you to attend to this high concern; so that if neglected then, it may be neglected forever. In the touching and poetical language of Job it is said, "Man comes forth like a flower and is cut down." How impressive this figure of the frailty of humanity. Man is not like the cedar of Lebanon, or the oak of the forest, which defies and outlives the storms of centuries; no, nor the shrub of the mountain side; or even the flower, watched by the gardener's care and protected by the green-house from the frost and hail, the storm and rain—but the flower exposed to the force of the elements, and the vicissitudes of the weather, soon and easily destroyed by adverse influences. Such is humanity—tender, frail, and fragile.
How often have we seen some lovely flower in our garden, prepared by nature to live in full-blown beauty through a long summer, suddenly pierced by the arrows of frost, just when its bud was bursting and opening its beauties to the sun and the eyes of the beholder, and then drooping its head upon its stalk, and gradually withering away. So also have we often seen an amiable girl, apparently destined to live long upon earth, smitten by consumption, at a time when all her powers of body and of mind were developing into womanhood, and then wasting away by incurable disease, until death closed the scene and left us weeping over the lovely flower cut down in spring. What multitudes of such faded, withering flowers do we see every year. Could we from some high place in the air look down into all the chambers of sickness only of one town, how many estimable young women would we see sinking under disease, amid the tears of parents sorrowfully beholding their pride and hope thus incurably diseased; and others amid the anguish of heart-stricken lovers thus witnessing the flower cut down just when they expected to transplant it into their own garden of domestic delights. Oh painful reverse, to sigh out the last adieu at such a time and under such circumstances; to put on the shroud instead of the bridal attire; to go down to the tomb instead of taking possession of the elegantly furnished house; and be gathered to the "congregation of the dead," instead of going into the gay circle of the living!
Does this never happen? Alas, you mourners, your sighs and tears answer in the affirmative. Yes, and you, my young friends, may add to the number. Would you die without saving religion? No! you answer, not for a thousand worlds. Then why live another hour without it? To have it in a dying hour, you must seek it in living ones. Few find it on the bed of death. With religion shedding its luster on the tomb, and pouring its consolations into your bosom; with the attractions of heaven drawing up your soul to its glories; with a hope full of immortality surveying the mansions of the just men made perfect; you will be able to turn away from earth when it is holding out its brightest scenes to your view, and scarcely cast one longing lingering look behind.
But should you live, as most likely you will, still if you neglect true religion in youth—you will most likely neglect it forever. There is nothing more likely to perpetuate itself than neglect, in every case and in reference to everything. Procrastination grows, like other things, with indulgence. Nothing in all the world requires prompt decision so much as true religion. Nothing is more likely to be postponed forever, if postponed from the present moment. I have no doubt you intend to be pious. You would shudder at the idea of deliberately purposing and determining to abandon religion forever. It would appear to you the height of impiety, a species of blasphemy, to say, "I will never become a Christian." Yes, and it is thus that Satan would cheat you out of your salvation. He will allow you to be as solemn, and serious, and even sincere, in your intentions, as you please, to be religious at some future time—if he can persuade you to put it off from the present moment "to a more convenient season."
But you must be told that not one in a thousand of those who go through the period of youth amid evangelical advantages of religion, and with a deliberate postponement of the matter to futurity, ever fulfill their purposes. Those who come to womanhood, and collect around them the cares and anxieties of a wife, a mother, and a manager of the household, without religion, rarely ever find leisure or inclination for it in such circumstances.
But I now go on to dwell on some motives and persuasives to early piety, which appertain with greater force to your sex than to the other; or at any rate to a large proportion of it. Consider then your natural temperament. There can be no doubt that though religion is not exclusively, nor principally—it is partially, a matter of emotion. In many affairs of human conduct we are moved to action partly by our feelings, even before the decisions of the judgment are made and deliberated upon. The head should always move and lead the heart, but oftentimes the heart rouses and moves the head. The feelings are excited even when the judgment is only half-awake and informed. This is no doubt the case in religion. Your quick sensibility, your soft nature, your tender heart, your great imaginativeness, render you naturally susceptible of pious impressions. Religion contains not only much that is stern, bold, sublime—much that is truly logical, and truly philosophical, which addresses itself to the judgment; but much that is pathetic, tender, and touching—which appeals to the heart.
You are easily moved to fear, and therefore the terrors of the Divine law have greater power to cause you to tremble. You are readily excited to pity, sorrow, and love; and therefore the gospel, that wondrous mixture of suffering, grief, and mercy, powerfully stirs up your tender emotions and calls into exercise your gentle affections. I do not forget that you partake of the common corruption of our nature, and that you also need the grace of the Holy Spirit for your conversion—but still I contend, that so far as natural advantages are to be taken into consideration, the very temperament of your minds is in your favor. Hence it is that so many more women are truly pious than men. It is not that the gospel is unworthy the more robust nature of the other sex; but that it falls in more with the softer nature of yours. In most things the God of grace seems to follow the order established by the God of nature.
I may mention in reference to many of you, your sheltered condition at home, and the protection you there enjoy. Your brothers must go out into the world, encounter its temptations, and be exposed to its moral dangers. While they are in peril of making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience on the troubled ocean of human life; you are in the quiet haven of a pleasant domicile. Or, to change the metaphor, you are nestling under cover of a mother's wing; while they are left in all their inexperience and moral feebleness to the attacks of birds of prey.
Besides this, at home you enjoy, if the children of godly parents, many religious advantages. There, you are called to join in offering the morning and evening sacrifice at the altar of family devotion. There, you regularly accompany your parents to the house of God; and enjoy the ordinances of public worship. There you are guarded from the withering influence of evil companionship. How favorable is all this to the cultivation of piety! Should your heart be inclined to serve the Lord, you have not to encounter the jeers of scoffing associates, the poisoned arrows of infidel wit, or the sharp spear of profane humour. No heroic or martyr-like moral courage is requisite to enable you to persevere in a religious course, as is sometimes the case with your brothers; on the contrary, every advantage will be afforded you—every stone will be gathered out of your path.
Nor is this all, for independently of parental vigilance and home-protection, your sex is less exposed to the assaults of those temptations which, assailing young men, and conquering the virtue of so many, harden their hearts against the impressions of religion. A keen sense of female decorum has thrown a covering over you. By common consent, an immoral woman is a more immoral character than a profligate man, and hence is a more rare one. The prodigal son is, alas, no unfrequent character—but the profligate daughter does not often occur. A tenth part of the criminality which some men commit and yet retain their place in society, would banish a woman from it forever. It is the high sense of female honor, the moral delicacy, the fastidious modesty, which are at once your glory and your protection. But then this very circumstance increases your responsibility. You are not hardened by crime into insensibility; nor confirmed in guilty habits by repeated acts of sin; nor petrified by infidelity into a stone-like indifference to religious impressions. Your moral susceptibilities are not so blunted by long continued wicked courses as to leave no avenue to your hearts open for the voice of warning.
And then consider one thing more, your leisure time. I now speak of women living at home with their parents, and not necessitated to earn their own support by their own labor. Your time, except that which is put under requisition by a judicious mother, for her assistance in household matters, is all your own. Your brothers, whether at home or abroad, must of necessity be much engaged in business. Their time is scarcely at their own command—and too often this is felt, or at any rate pleaded, as an excuse for neglecting the claims of religion and the salvation of the soul. You have no such excuse. Your time is so much at command that you can walk, or read, or work, or visit at will. You have so much leisure, that to get rid of time, which sometimes hangs heavy on your hand, some of you I fear squander hours every day upon useless labors of pleasure and taste. You, of all people in our world, can with the least truth say you have no time to think of eternity, no opportunity to seek for salvation. Is it possible you should overlook your present happy freedom from solicitude of almost every kind?
You will perhaps at once think of the apostle's words—"There is a difference between a wife and a virgin—the unmarried woman cares for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit—but she that is married cares for the things of the world, how she may please her husband." How much of instruction, warning, and advice, is there in these few words. The apostle did not intend to say that all unmarried women actually do, alas, we know that too many of them do not, care to please the Lord—but his meaning is that in the absence of all the concerns of a wife, a mother, and the manager of a house, they have most opportunity to attend to the things that belong to the soul.
Ah, young women, you can perhaps form some idea of what awaits you by seeing what has come upon the head, the heart, and the hands of your mother. With the most judicious domestic arrangements and a mind happily freed from excessive care and troublous thoughts, how incessant are her cares, how exhausting of time, strength, and spirits—are her duties! She has no resting hours, no holiday seasons, no leisure time—but care, incessant care, is often her lot. Is this the time, and are these the circumstances to which you would postpone the consideration of the high concern of religion? Is it amid such distractions of thought, and such perturbation of feeling, and such occupancy of time, you would begin the momentous pursuit of salvation, and the sacred duties of religion? Why the real, yes the established and eminent Christian woman, finds it as much as she can do to keep alive her piety amid so many perplexities and demands. And will you begin it then?
These remarks apply to all, even to those who have servants at command, but especially to those who have no such help. Females of the laboring class, how with a mother's duties will you be able to commence a religious life, with your unshared and unalleviated anxieties? Oh, let me say with an emphasis borrowed from what I have witnessed myself, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth." Halcyon season, did you but know it! Improve it while it lasts!
Dwell, my female friends, upon the rich advantages placed by the order of Providence within your reach. Their practical value and tendency are evident in their results. How else shall we account for it, that so much larger a number of the disciples of Christ is found among your sex than among the other? In addition to the circumstances mentioned above to account for the prevalence of piety among your sex, I might remark that it would seem as if God had intended it for the greater humiliation of Satan, that as he triumphed over man by woman, so God would triumph over him by woman; that as she was the instrument of his infernal success in the fall, she should be the instrument of his humiliation in redemption; that she who was the first to come under his yoke should be the most eager to throw it off, and thus his trophy be snatched from his hand, and his boast be rendered empty, by the power of Him who came to bruise the serpent's head, and to destroy the works of the devil.
But there is another mark of the wisdom of God in this arrangement, which is, that as religion is so momentous to the interests of society and the welfare of immortal souls, that sex should be most inclined to it to, which is consigned the first formation of the human character.
I will now set before youthe BENEFITS which will accrue to you from early piety.
Are the blessings of religion itself nothing? Recollect, piety is not merely the performance of duties—but also the enjoyment of benefits. This is too much forgotten, and the whole business of a holy life is regarded by many in something of the light of penance; or at any rate of a service somewhat rigid and severe. If it were so, it would still be our wisdom to attend to it, since it is the only thing that can prepare us for heaven and eternity. That it is service, is very true; but it is also a state of privilege. It is the service, not of a slave, but of a child; and with the duties of a child, it brings also the privileges of a child. Dwell upon that one thought, a child of God! Can you conceive of anything higher, greater, nobler? Does an angel stand in any higher relation to God? To be able to say in the fullest, richest sense of the language, "Our Father who is in heaven," to be an object of the love, care, interest, of the one Infinite Being—to be savingly interested in all the privileges of the divine, redeemed, and heavenly family! O, my young friends, is this nothing? Is it not everything? Many of you are orphans, and is it not blissful to say, "When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up?" Is it not a blessed thing to have Him for the guide of your youth? Hear what God says, "Therefore, come out from among them, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and my daughters, says the Lord Almighty." O, hear his voice, accept his invitation, and come into his family. Hence it is we propose religion to you, not simply in the shape of duty—but of bliss! Yes! Saving religion is another name for happiness—and can you be happy too soon? You want to be happy. You are made for happiness, and are capable of it; and where will you find it? Pleasure says, "It is not in me;" and knowledge says, "It is not in me." Rank, fashion, and wealth affirm, "We have heard the fame thereof with our ears." But true religion says, "Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the fountain and take of the water of life freely!"
Universal experience attests that pure and full satisfaction is not to be found for the soul of man in any of the possessions of this world; and if they were satisfying, they are all uncertain—mere unsubstantial shadows, which flit before us, and are lost. You have perhaps formed totally wrong conceptions of religion. "Happiness," you say, "in religion! We can conceive of it as duty, somewhat severe, though incumbent duty; but to speak of religion yielding pleasure, is like supposing the entrance of a violent lunatic would increase the delights of a ball-room!" Yes, I know it is in the imagination, of some of you at least, a spectral form, muffled, sullen, and gloomy; frightening the young by its dreadful look, petrifying them by its icy touch, and casting over them its gloomy shadow. But you mistake it! It is on the contrary—a seraph from the presence of God, lighting on our orb, clad in robes of celestial beauty, radiant with beams of glory, shedding smiles of joy on this dark scene, and echoing the angels' song, "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace and good-will to men." True religion meets you, my female friends, just setting out in life, offers to be your guide, protector, and comforter, through all your perilous journey to eternity. Hear her voice as she beckons you to follow her. "If you are in danger I will shield you; if you are desolate I will befriend you; if you are poor I will enrich you; if you are sorrowful I will comfort you; if you are sick I will visit you; in the dangerous walks of life I will protect you; in the agonies of death I will sustain you—and when your spirit flees its clay tabernacle, I will conduct you into the presence of God, where there is fullness of joy, and place you at his right hand, where there are pleasures for evermore."
And will you refuse such a friend? Will you turn away from such bliss? Religion—gloom and melancholy? Yes—if Eden was a gloomy place. Yes—if heaven be a region of sighs and tears. Yes, if saints made perfect and holy angels are clad in sackcloth, and the song of the seraphim is changed into the groan of despair! Oh no! "Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." Her duties are pleasant, her very sorrows are mixed with joys, to say nothing of her privileges.
To exhort you, therefore, to be pious, is only in other words to invite you to true pleasure. A pleasure high, rational, holy, angelical—a pleasure accompanied by no envenomed sting, no subsequent loathing, no remorseful recollections, no bitter farewells—such a pleasure as being honey in the mouth, which never turns to gall in the stomach. A pleasure made for the soul and the soul for it, adapted to its nature, because suited to its spirituality; adequate to its capacities, because the enjoyment of an infinite good; and lasting as its duration, because itself eternal. Such a pleasure as grows fresher, instead of becoming wearisome, by enjoyment. A pleasure which a man may truly call his own, because seated in his heart, and carried with him into all places and all circumstances; and therefore neither liable to accident nor exposed to injury. It is the foretaste of heaven and the pledge of eternity. In a word, beginning in grace, it passes into glory and immortality—and those joys which neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.
Perhaps I may suggest, without at all intending to utter a suspicion of your regard to virtue, or a reflection upon your firm attachment to its rules, that you may need religion in youth to protect you from the moral dangers to which even women are exposed. An immoral woman, I have already admitted, is a much rarer character than an immoral man; but still it sometimes occurs. What instances could not the records of some institutions reveal? How many victims of the tempter's wiles could there be found, who would have been preserved from degradation and misery, had they been found under the protecting influence of true religion when the assault was made upon their purity or honesty! I know that multitudes are kept strictly chaste and upright without religion; but I know that of the numbers which have fallen, not one would have lapsed if they had been living in the fear of God. After Eve's fall from perfect innocence in Paradise, no woman should feel offended by the admonition to be cautious and vigilant—nor suppose that her circumstances, feelings, or principles, place her so far beyond the reach of temptation that her safety is guaranteed with absolute certainty. "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." To many a once high-minded woman, proud of her reputation, the taunt has been uttered by the victims of frailty, "Have you also become weak as us?" "Be not high-minded, then, but fear."
But you need religion for your consolation amid the sorrows of your lot. If it be truly said of man, that he "is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards," it may with greater emphasis be so said of woman. As if in the way of righteous retribution—she who mixed the bitter cup of human woe, is called to drink the deepest of its dregs. Sorrows are apportioned to her sex in common with ours, and there is scarcely an affliction to which humanity is incident to which she is not herself exposed. In addition, how many has she peculiar to herself! The weaker vessel, she is liable to be oppressed by the stronger; and to what an extent is this oppression carried on! How is she trodden down, not only in countries where the protective influence of Christianity is not known, but in this country also! To how much greater bodily infirmity is her more delicately wrought and more sensitive frame subjected, than ours! Dwell upon her dependence, and her helplessness in many cases. To me some single friendless women are the very types of desolation.
Then think of her privations, her sufferings, cares, and labors as a mother! I admire the patience, contentment, and submission, which enable her to say, "I am a woman," without repining or complaining of the hardness of her lot; for certain it is, that her groans are the loudest in creation. Do not think, my young friends, I am scaring you into religion by filling your minds with these gloomy forebodings. By no means; but I am anxious to prepare you by its sweet, soothing, tranquilizing, and alleviating power, to meet a woman's trials with a woman's piety.
Early piety is at once the most secure basis, and the most complete finish, of all female excellence. Look over what is said in a previous chapter on "Woman's Mission," and the virtues and tenderness that qualify her to fulfill it, and think what a support to all these is furnished by sincere piety. The surest basis of all moral excellence will be found in it. What is so productive of humility, of meekness and gentleness, of contentment and submission, and of self-denial and fortitude? In what soil will these mild and yet heroic dispositions grow and flourish so luxuriantly as in that of piety? We have stated that woman is created to love and be loved. To love is natural to her—and what cherishes this state of mind like religion, which, both in its doctrines and duties, is one bright and glorious manifestation of love to the universe? To all these varied excellences religion adds the firmness and consistency of principle, and the power and government of conscience, and takes them out of the region of mere taste.
And what a holy and ineffable loveliness does true religion throw over the female character? Beauty is woman's attribute, and her form is the most perfect type of exquisite symmetry to be found in the whole material universe. And if woman's form be the finest specimen of material beauty, woman's piety is the most attractive instance of moral beauty. Who can look upon any well-executed pictorial representation of it without admiration? Where does woman look so altogether lovely as when seen lifting the eye of devotion to heaven; that eye which expresses the mingled emotions of faith, hope, and love? The Church of Rome has known the power of this, and has maintained its dominion in some measure over its votaries, by the power of the painter's art in depicting female beauty associated with female piety. In a religious female, the beauty of heaven and earth combines—the graces of the seraph and those of the daughters of Adam are united.
Yet, notwithstanding all this, many of you are not pious. Do consider what a chasm in excellence remains to be filled up, what a deficiency to be supplied, while religion is lacking in the female character. There are few men, however irreligious, but would shrink from impiety in a woman—it involves a coldness and hardness of character offensive both to taste and feeling. "Even when infidelity was more in vogue than at present, when it had almost monopolized talent, and identified itself with enlightened sentiment, the few women who volunteered under its banner were treated with the contempt they deserved. The female Quixote broke her lance in vindicating the 'Rights of Woman;' and no one sympathized with her in her defeat. And depend upon it, whatever other female follows Mary Wolstencroft, and essays the emancipation of her sex from the obligations of piety, will, like her, be consigned to abhorrence by the verdict of society. The mere suspicion of irreligion lowers a woman in general esteem. Religion is indeed woman's armor, and no one who wishes her happiness would divest her of it; no one who appreciates her virtues, would weaken their best security."("Woman, in her Social and Domestic Character", by Mrs. Sandford.)
What is it, then, that prevents your giving to the subject of religion that attention which its infinite and eternal importance demands and deserves? Let me ask you with a beseeching importunity, as the apostle did the Galatians, "Who (or what) hindered you, that you should not obey the truth?" Ah! what? Let me speak to you of theHINDRANCES that are in the way of your obtaining life eternal. Hindrances! Should anything but absolute impossibilities prevent you? It is not infidelity? No. You are not infidels. You shudder at the idea. A female infidel is a character as rare as it is odious. Nor is it that you are absolutely against religion—but that of 'no religion' that we have most to complain of. Not of direct opposition to its claims, but the neglect of them for other things. It is a guilty apathy to the most momentous subject in the universe; a careless indifference to the most valuable interests of time and eternity; a fatal oblivion of all that belongs to the eternal world, which we regret; a contentment with things seen and temporal, without any concern about things unseen and eternal, which we deplore. Your minds are preoccupied. You are taken up with other things, and say to religion when it appeals to you, "Go your way for this time, and when I have a convenient season I will call for you."
There is, I know, a repugnance to true, spiritual, vital, earnest piety, which is the natural working of an unrenewed heart. You can observe the outer forms of religion, by attending the house of God; but even this is more from custom than from choice, a kind of weekly compromise with piety, that you may for so much Sabbath occupation, be left to yourselves and other pursuits all the rest of the week. Your religion is nothing more than a Sunday dress, worn for the place and the season. But this is not saving religion, but merely a substitute and an apology for it.
Some of you are bent upon present worldly enjoyment. The apostle has described your taste and your pursuits where he says, "Lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God." Ponder that description. Does it not startle you; horrify you? Lovers of parties, of the dance and the song, of the gay scene and frivolous chat, more than God! Just look at this thought in all its naked deformity. A ball, a concert, a festivity, a party—loved more than God! Not to love God at all for higher objects than these; for science, literature, fame, rank, wealth, is a dreadful state of mind; but to neglect and despise God for scenes of frivolity, mirth, and pleasure—is it not shocking? Did you ever yet seriously reflect thus? "What a dreadful heart I must have, which can love pleasure, but cannot love God!" Consider what this desire for pleasure will do for you in the hour of sickness, in the scenes of poverty, in the season of calamity, in the agonies of death, and in the bottomless pit?
In the case of some of those who possess a more than ordinary degree of personal beauty, the consciousness of beauty fills the mind with self-delight, and constant thirst for the admiration and attention of others. No really elegant woman can be ignorant of her natural accomplishments—and too rarely is a beautiful mind the lovely tenant of a beautiful body. What an odious spectacle is presented when mind and body are thus exhibited in contrast. "Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion." What beauty can be compared with that of the soul, and what beauty of the soul can be compared with holiness? This is the beauty of angels, yes, of God himself. How foolish is it to be vain of that which a disease may soon turn into loathsome deformity, and which, if sickness does not destroy it at once—advancing age must obliterate, and the grave consume. Many a woman, even in this world, has had to rue the possession of a captivating face or form, and to deplore it forever in the world to come. Beauty has lost body and soul, character and happiness, in thousands of instances!
Vanity displays itself also in attention to personal decoration, even where there is no pretension to beauty, and not infrequently attempts to supply the lack of it. How many are a thousand times more concerned about jewelry than religion, the pearl of great price; and about fine clothing, than about the robe of righteousness and the garments of salvation. A love of fine dress is not only a foible and a fault, but almost a sin, and in innumerable cases has led to confirmed vice. Is it not lamentable to conceive of a rational and immortal being spending her time and exhausting her solicitude in adorning her body, and caring nothing about her soul—thinking only how she shall appear in the eyes of man, and caring nothing how she shall appear in the sight of God!
With this is too often associated a levity and a frivolity of disposition which are the very opposite to that seriousness and sobriety of mind, which a real regard to spiritual religion requires. There is no sin in cheerfulness—nor piety in gloom. Religion is the happiest thing in the world, for it is in fact the beginning of heaven upon earth. Religion gives a peace that passes all understanding, and yields a joy that is unspeakable and full of glory; so that I wish you to understand, my young friends, I do not require you in becoming Christians to put on the veil, cut off your hair, put aside every elegant dress, part with your smiles, and clothe yourself like a spectre in the gloom, and sullen silence of the convent. But saving religion is still a serious thing—a thing that deals with God, salvation, heaven, eternity. And surely the frivolity and the levity that can do nothing but laugh, and rattle, and court attention by studied airs, empty talkativeness, and personal display, are utterly incompatible with that dignified and chastened (yet by no means formal, much less gloomy), sobriety of mind which religion requires.
Friendships hinder many from giving their attention to this momentous subject. They are surrounded by associates who have no taste for religion—and they have perhaps formed a still closer friendship with some who unhappily do not conceal their distaste for this high and holy concern. From the spell of such a circle, it is difficult indeed to break away. It has been thought and said by some, that the influence of companionship both for good and for evil, is greater with women than with men; on the ground that there is less of robust independence and of self-reliance in woman than in man. If so, how much does it behoove every female to take care what companions she selects!
How difficult it is to oppose the spirit and conduct of those with whom we associate! Generally speaking, we must conform to them—or give up their friendship. Even if a solicitude about religion is in some degree awakened, it will soon be checked and extinguished in the society of those who have no sympathy with such concerns. Shall the dearest friends you have on earth keep you from salvation? Will you sacrifice your soul, your immortal soul, at the shrine of friendship? Will you refuse to go to heaven because others will not accompany you—and will you go with them to perdition rather than part company on earth? Will you carry your friendship so far as to be willing to be friends even in the bottomless pit?
You are perhaps prejudiced against religion by the conduct of some of its professors. And it may be that some of your own age and sex are included in the number. I am sorry there is any ground for this. I admit that much you see in many of them has but little in it to recommend religion to your favor. But all this was foretold by Christ, and must be expected because of the sinfulness of human nature—and ought not to be allowed to prejudice your minds against piety. If you saw a number of people under a course of medical treatment which required them to observe a particular regimen, but which they constantly violated, and were of course no better for the medicines they took, you would not reject the system because it did not cure them.
Just so it is with religion. These people, though they profess to be under it, are constantly violating its rules, and are no better than those who do not profess it. But is this a valid reason for rejecting the system? You are to test Christianity by its own nature, as set forth in the Bible—and not by the conduct of its professors. If your soul should be lost, it will be no excuse before the judgement of God, nor any comfort to yourselves in the world of despair, that you allowed your mind to be prejudiced against religion by the misconduct of some who professed it.
And now, in conclusion of this chapter, let me, young women, conjure you at the outset of life to consider the great end and purpose for which, as regards yourselves, your great Creator placed you in this world. Do not think too highly of yourselves, for you are sinners as well as others, and need, and may obtain, the salvation that is in Jesus Christ, and along with it, eternal glory. Do not think too basely of yourselves, for you are immortal creatures, and may inherit everlasting life. Rise to the true dignity of your nature by rising into the region of true religion. Do not consume your life in pursuits, innocent it may be, but frivolous and unworthy of your powers, your destiny, and your duty! With a clear and right understanding of your mission as regards this world, connect as clear a perception of your mission as regards the world to come. Behold an existence opening before you, which you may fill with the sanctity, bliss, and honor of a Christian, as well as with all the virtues of a woman. Withdraw your heart from vanity—and consecrate it to piety. Give the morning of your day to God, and then whether it be long or short, whether it be passed in wedded or in single life, whether it be bright with the sun of prosperity, or dark with the clouds, and stormy with the winds, of adversity; if it shall close suddenly by one of those visitations to which your sex is peculiarly exposed; or if it shall include a long and gloomy evening, it shall usher in for your happy spirit, delivered from the burden of the flesh—that cloudless and eternal morning to which there shall be no night. Then shall it be found that the chief end of woman, as well as man, was to glorify God and enjoy him forever!