Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James, 1825
The invention of the art of printing, forms an era
in the history of mankind, next in importance to the promulgation of the
law, and the publication of the gospel. Until this splendid gift was
bestowed upon man, books, which were all in manuscript, were circulated
within a comparatively narrow sphere, and knowledge was in the possession of
only a privileged few. This invaluable art, however, rendered the fountains
of information accessible to all, and gave opportunity to the poorest of our
race, to slake their mental thirst at the deepest and purest streams of
truth. There was a time when ignorance was rather a misfortune than a
reproach; and when, indeed, a craving after information would, with many,
have been rather a calamity than a benefit—since the means of satisfying the
appetite were beyond their reach. The state of things is altered now, and
almost a whole circle of science may be purchased for a few shillings.
Education is also much improved and extended. Under these
circumstances, ignorance is a deep reproach; and a young person who can
allow days and weeks to pass without taking up a book, is a pitiable
spectacle of doltish insipidity. Cultivate, then, my children, a taste for
reading; and, in order to this, there must be a thirst after information.
"Knowledge," says Lord Bacon, "is power;" and if it were not power—it is
pleasure. Knowledge gives us weight of character, and procures for us
respect. Knowledge enables us to form an opinion with correctness, to state
it with clearness, to offer it with confidence, and to enforce it with
argument. It enlarges the sphere of our usefulness, by raising the degree of
our influence. Other things being equal, that man will be the most useful,
who has the greatest measure of information. Here I shall offer some
directions for your guidance in the selection of books.
The BIBLE of course occupies the supreme place, an
elevation exclusively its own. It is, as its title signifies, THE BOOK—the
standard of all right sentiments; the judge of all other works. Sir William
Jones, that prodigy of learning, wrote on the fly-leaf of his Bible these
remarks—"I have carefully and regularly perused these holy Scriptures, and
am of opinion that the volume, independently of its divine origin, contains
more sublimity, purer morality, more important history, and finer strains of
eloquence, than can be collected from all other books, in whatever language
they may have been written." Salmasius, the learned antagonist of Milton,
said on his death-bed, "That were he to begin life again, he would spend
much of his time in reading David's Psalms and Paul's Epistles." Whatever
books you neglect, then, my children, neglect not the Bible. Whatever books
you read, read this. Let not a day pass without perusing some portion of
holy writ. Read it devoutly; not from curiosity, nor with a view to
controversy—but to be made wise unto salvation. Read it with much prayer.
Read it with a determination to follow its guidance wheresoever it leads.
As to that class of books denominated novels, I
join with every other moral and religious writer in condemning, as the
vilest trash, the greater part of the productions, which, under this name,
have carried a turbid stream of vice over the morals of mankind. They
corrupt the taste, pollute the heart, debase the mind, demoralize the
conduct. They throw prostrate the understanding, sensualize the affections,
enervate the will, and bring all the high faculties of the soul into
subjection to an imagination which they have first made wild, insane, and
uncontrollable. They furnish no ideas, and generate a morbid, sickly
sentimentalism, instead of a just and lovely sensibility. A wise man should
despise them, and a godly man should abhor them.
As to religious novels, they are rarely worth your
attention. I would be sorry to see this species of writing become the
general reading of the Christian public. Symptoms of a craving appetite for
this species of mental food have been very apparent of late. These are far
more likely to lead young people of pious education to read other kinds of
novels, than they are to attract the readers of the latter to pious tales.
They have already, in many cases, formed a taste for works of fiction, which
is gratifying itself with far more exceptionable productions. They have
become the harbingers, in some families, of works, which, until they
entered, would have been forbidden to pass the threshold.
It is very evident that the taste of the present age is
strongly inclined for works of fiction. I am not unacquainted with the
arguments by which such productions are justified, nor am I by any means
prepared to pronounce a sweeping sentence of condemnation upon them all.
Genius is elicited and cherished by writing them; and taste is formed,
corrected, and gratified, by reading them. Provided they are totally free
from all unscriptural sentiments and immoral tendencies, they form a
recreation for the mind, and keep it from amusements of a worse character. I
am also aware that they may be, and have been, made the vehicle of much
instruction. Johnson tells us that this, among many other arts of
instruction, has been invented, that the reluctance against truth might be
overcome. And as medicine is given to children in confections, biblical
precepts have been hidden under a thousand appearances, that mankind may be
bribed by a pleasure to escape destruction.
Will not history and biography answer all the ends of
fiction, unattended with its injurious effects? Here all is life, variety,
and interest. Here is everything to amuse, to recreate. Here the finest
moral lessons are inculcated in the details of facts. Here are passions,
motives, actions—all forming the most exquisite delineations of character,
set home upon the heart with the aid of the powerful conviction that these
are facts. I am sure that none can have attended to the more secret and
subtle operations of their own minds, without perceiving that a display of
virtue or vice, embodied in fact, has inconceivably more power over the
mind, than the same character exhibited by the most extraordinary genius in
a fiction. While reading the latter, we may have been deeply affected, we
may have glowed with anger at the sight of vice, melted with pity at the
display of misery, or soared in rapture at the exhibition of excellence—but
when the book is laid down, and the mind recovers from the illusion, does
not the recollection, that all this was the creation of imagination, exert a
cold and chilling influence upon the heart, and go far to efface almost
every favorable impression, until, by a kind of revenge for the control
which a fiction has had over us, we determine to forget all we have felt. We
cannot do this in rising from a fact.
Fiction is generally overwrought. It is vice in
caricature, or virtue in enamel; the former is frequently too bad to be
dreaded as likely to happen to us; the latter too high to be an object of
expectation. All the attendant circumstances are too artificially contrived.
There is little that is like it in real life. Our passions are too much
excited, our hopes are too much raised. And when we come from this ideal
world into the every-day scenes of ordinary life, we feel a sense of
dullness, because everything looks tame and commonplace. The effect of such
works is great for the time—but it is not a useful effect—it is like the
influence of ardent spirits, which fit men for desperate adventures—but not
for the more steady and sober efforts of ordinary enterprise.
Observe then, although I do not totally condemn all works
of fiction, for then I would censure the practice of Him who spoke as never
man spoke, whose parables were fictitious representations; yet I advise a
sparing and cautious perusal of them, whether written in poetry or prose.
History, biography, travels, accounts of the manners and customs of nations,
will answer all the ends of fiction; they will amuse, and they will in the
most easy and pleasing way instruct. They will exhibit to us every possible
view of human nature, and every conceivable variety of character. They will
introduce us to a real world, and exhibit to us the feelings and the
excellences of men of like passions with ourselves; and who, according to
the complexion of their character, may be regarded as beacons to warn us, or
the polar star to guide us.
Again, and again, I say, cultivate, my children, a taste
for the acquisition of knowledge; thirst after information as the miser does
after wealth; treasure up ideas with the same eagerness as he does pieces of
gold. Let it not be said, that for you the greatest of human beings have
lived, and the most splendid of human minds have written—in vain. You live
in a world of books, and they contain worlds of thought. Devote all the time
that can lawfully be spared from business to reading. Lose not an hour. Ever
have some favorite author at hand, to the perusal of whose production, the
hours, and half-hours, which would otherwise be wasted, might be devoted.
Time is precious. Its fragments, like those of diamonds, are too valuable to
be lost. Let no day pass without your attempting to gain some new idea.
Your first object of existence, as I have already stated, should be the
salvation of your soul; the next, the benefit of your fellow-creatures; and
then comes the improvement of your mind.