MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
My dear brother,
If I were to send you ten dollars to spend as you choose, after you had purchased such things as you needówhat would you do with the remainder? I am sure you would take much more pleasure in giving it to some poor, starving family, than in laying it out upon toys and treats. The satisfaction would last much longer. When the miserable sufferers thanked you, it would give you delight; your own conscience would tell you that you had done right; and whenever you thought of it afterwards, it would be with pleasure. But besides all this, there is satisfaction in the very act of doing good. There is something delightful in the very feeling of love.
I wish you to think a little about this. The feeling of which I have just written is called benevolence, or good-will. It is the disposition to do goodóto make others happy. It is what the Bible calls charity. And it always gives pleasure, for we cannot love anyone sincerely without feeling a degree of happiness. Just think of the times when you have felt most affectionate towards your dear parents. Was it not a delightful feeling? And when a kind mother presses her infant to her bosom, does she not enjoy this more than if someone did a favor to her? It is always so. And, therefore, the more benevolent you are, the more happiness you will have. If you wish to be peaceful in your mind, do as much good as you can.
This is a great part of true religion. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." And wherever this love or benevolence is in anyone's heart, it will make him do good. He will try to be useful, and to make everyone happy around him. True religion begins in the heartóbut it does not end there. It leads people to act.
People may talk about religion, and tell how many good feelings they have; but if they never do good, if they are not active, there is reason to fear that they have no religion at all. And therefore the Scripture always makes this a mark of true piety. The apostle James says, "Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world." Is it not a contradiction to speak of a pious man who does no good? You see at once that it is. An idle Christian is no true Christian. We are all sent into the world to honor God, and we do this whenever we perform what is good.
Young people ought to begin as soon as possible to put this into practice. There is such a thing as learning to do good, and forming a habit of doing good; and we cannot begin too soon. Perhaps you will say that you do not know where to begin. I will tell you. Begin with the very next person you meet; with those who are around you now; with your relatives and your companions. Try to make everyone happy to the utmost of your power. Avoid everything, in your actions, your words, and your very looks, which could give unnecessary pain. Keep this up at all times. Thus you will constantly be cherishing a benevolent temper. If you are kind and affectionate in small matters, I am sure you will be so in those which are more important.
There is an old saying about money matters which you may have heardóTake care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves. The meaning of this is, that people lose more by neglecting small sums of money, than by losing larger ones. Almost any man will take care of a hundred dollar bill. He will carry it in his wallet for months, without losing it. But during the same time, he will perhaps squander away as muchólittle by little. If he had taken good care of these small sums, he might have saved a good deal. So it is with respect to benevolence. Almost any man will be benevolent when there is any dreadful suffering which he can relieve, or any great act of charity which he can do. But perhaps this very same man will all the time be unkind and irritable with his family, and will make everyone near him feel unpleasantly. But if you begin with these little things, which are occurring every day and every hour, you will preserve a benevolent disposition the whole time, and will be more ready to do some greater act of charity when it is called for.
There have been some men so benevolent, that they have spent almost all their lives in trying to relieve the distressed. One of the most remarkable of these was John Howard, who for this reason is usually called the philanthropist, that is, the "lover of mankind." Howard was born at Clayton, in England, in the year 1727. His father left him a large estateóbut his health was so infirm during his youth, that he did not engage in much active business. He was a man of a kind and tender heart, and was always seeking to do good. When the dreadful earthquake took place which overwhelmed the city of Lisbon, he was so touched with pity that he undertook a voyage to Portugal, in 1755, to see if he could give any relief to the inhabitants. But he was taken captive by a French ship, and carried into France, where he remained some months as a prisoner. Here he began to learn firsthand how many distresses were suffered by those who are confined in jails, and his benevolent spirit longed to relieve them. When he returned to England he made many inquiries on this subject, and began to examine all the prisons in England, in order to reform them. He wrote books about this, and procured new laws to be passed by the parliament.
But Howard was not contented with lessening the sufferings of prisoners in England. He knew that their case was even worse in other countries, and he determined to visit the continent of Europe. In this work he spent twelve years. Between 1775 and 1787 he went four times to Germany, five times to Holland, twice to Italy, besides visiting Spain, Portugal, Turkey and the north of Europe. He often traveled night and day, visiting all the principal hospitals and prisons. He did not regard expense or danger, for his whole soul was taken up with the desire to do good. At Valladolid, in Spain, he became a prisoner himself for a month, in order to know the real truth of the conditions. And when he returned home, he published a large work, in which he gave an account of what he had seen. And in this way he did more than was ever done before, to render the condition of prisoners less miserable.
But his benevolent heart was not satisfied with this. The plague was raging in many parts of Europe. This dreadful illness is worse than the yellow fever, and often destroyed thousands in a few weeks. Howard resolved to learn all about it, and find out how it might be cured. He had studied medicine in his youth, and he traveled, as a physician, through various countries. In 1785 he went to Marseilles. Then he visited the hospitals in Italy and Turkey, exposing himself to the greatest dangers. Whenever it was possible, he gave relief. In 1789 he published another work, giving an account of the plague. The same year he set out upon another journey to the eastern countriesóbut was seized with a fever in the Crimea, and died in 179O.
Now, is not this a noble example? How much more does Howard deserve the name of a great manóthan Alexander, Caesar, or Bonaparte! I wish you to think of these things, and earnestly to pray that you may be disposed to irritate such a course of life.
Your affectionate brother,