Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835

Self-Government


Perhaps there is nothing in which true religion displays a more heavenly triumph, than in the power which she gives us of controlling ourselves. The shock of "the fall" has given a wrong direction to the moral principles of our nature; and all the power which reason and conscience can exert, without the influence of true religion is insufficient to subdue and control our native sinful propensities. Practical Christianity, however, is powerful enough to deliver us from this unhappy thraldom. It is by her omnipotent and all-pervading influence, that . . .
the thoughts are disciplined to flow in a holy channel,
the passions and appetites subjected to the control of reason,
and the tongue bridled against sinful levity and unhallowed speech.

But inasmuch as true religion regards you as a rational and accountable being, she accomplishes this not by any magical or arbitrary process but by subjecting you to laws which are altogether fitted to your moral nature. If then you will escape from the dominion of unhallowed thoughts and tempers . . .
you must surrender yourself to the practical influence of the gospel;
you must resolutely break away from the enchanted ground of temptation;
you must be daily be filled with that almighty power, which alone can arm you for a conflict with yourself;
you must learn to detect the deceitful and wandering imagination, and station a vigilant sentinel at every watchtower of your heart.

To think of acquiring a habit of self-government independently of the influence of true religion would be as wild as to think of assuaging the weather by a word, when it is wrought up to the fury of a tempest.

The most important part of self-government, respects the thoughts. It is a delusion into which we easily fall, that if our external deportment is correct and exemplary that it matters little what the secret operations of the mind are. The thoughts, because they are invisible are regarded as being beyond our control. And no doubt many a mind finds an excuse for habitual and sinful wanderings, in a sort of indefinite conviction that the imagination was made to have its own way and therefore it is in vain to attempt to restrain it. So long as the tongue is kept from giving utterance to the evil thoughts which occupy the mind it is most unwarrantably concluded, that they may be indulged without injury!

But the thoughts, let it be remembered, are among the primary elements of moral action. If they are habitually wrong, the feelings will be so also. The thoughts and feelings together constitute, in the view of God the whole moral character. The moment you yield to the conviction that no restraint is needed here, you resolve on a course which must make you odious in the sight of God and nothing but the well-sustained and undetected character of a hypocrite, can save you from being odious in the view of the world!

I acknowledge that the duty to which I am urging you that of exercising a suitable control over your thoughts is one of the most difficult to which you can be called; and it were in vain to think of discharging it without severe effort. You should endeavor habitually to realize that you are as truly responsible to God for the indulgence of a vain imagination as you would be if every evil thought that rises in your heart, were embodied in the form of a palpable action! You should guard against the beginning of such an evil habit; for if it were once firmly established there is scarcely any other habit which might not with less difficulty, be broken up. And for this reason especially that this is invisible, and of course not to be affected by any considerations drawn from external circumstances. You should guard against all those scenes and occasions which may be likely to throw you into the power of these invisible tyrants, or to lead you even in the smallest degree, to relax your circumspection.

You should especially guard the senses for these are the principal avenues through which vain thoughts find their way into the soul. But let the effort necessary to the government of the thoughts be as severe as it may let nothing tempt you to neglect it. For you may rest assured that it constitutes, in an important sense, the keystone to a virtuous character!

But you must not only look well to the government of the thoughts but also of the passions and affections. This especially is the department of the soul, in which motives operate, and where are fixed all the springs of human accountability. It is indeed at the torch of the imagination that the passions are usually kindled; and this is a reason why the imagination should be kept with all diligence. But the passions will never be held in subjection, unless there is employed in reference to this object, a great amount of direct effort. So active and powerful are they, that they will often plead their own cause, not only eloquently but successfully, against reason, conscience and character! And many an individual has sacrificed at the shrine of passion everything dear on earth, and everything glorious in eternity!

As there is a great variety in the human constitution, the different passions will be found to exist, in different individuals with very unequal degrees of strength; insomuch that what constitutes the ruling passion of one may operate with comparatively little strength in another. It becomes therefore a matter of great importance to each individual to apply the most active restraint where it is most demanded. We should not indeed to be negligent in respect to any of the passions but to be specially armed for a conflict with those which are the most formidable.

Guard against the indulgence of ANGER. The evil of giving way to hasty and violent tempers is always great, and sometimes irretrievable! You thereby deprive yourself for the time, of the power of regulating your own conduct, while yet you must be responsible for all its consequences; for neither common sense nor conscience, the law of God, nor the law of man excuses a bad action, because it has been performed in a fit of passion.

You may, by a single word, spoken at such a moment leave a sting in the heart of a friend, which no acts of subsequent kindness may be able fully to extract! A friend too, it may be, for whom, in an hour of reflection you would have done or suffered anything.

Or you may needlessly subject yourself to the ridicule and sneers of others of those who are upon the look-out for your foibles, and stand ready to make the most of them. Nay, you may bring yourself into sad disrepute with all around you, and may greatly cloud your worldly prospects, and prepare for yourself a scene of mortification and disgrace, which will last while you live, and then be entailed upon your memory. In short, if you exercise little or no self-control in this respect you can have no security for your comfort no security for your character.

If I were to prescribe one of the best remedies for an angry spirit, I would say accustom yourself to be silent under provocation. It is a maxim with some, that the best way of encountering insult is to speak out whatever is in the heart, and thus let an angry spirit exhaust itself in a torrent of reproach. Precisely the opposite of this is the course which I would recommend. If you begin to talk while you are in a passion, the effect will almost certainly be that your feelings will become more and more excited; for while there is a tendency to such, a result in the very act of uttering your feelings you will be in danger of saying things which will bring back upon you still heavier provocation. If, on the contrary, when you feel the first risings of resentment, you make it a rule to pause and reflect on the evil consequences of such a spirit, and on the guilt as well as the folly of indulging it you will probably have occasion to pause but a moment before reason will assume her dominion and you can converse with composure and moderation.

And it is worthy of remark, that while such recourse will exert the happiest influence upon yourself it will, more than anything else, disarm others of a spirit of provocation, and thus secure you from insults and injuries. Mark it as often as you will, and you will find that the individual who is most calm and patient in the reception of injuries is the very one who has the fewest injuries to endure!

In connection with a spirit of anger, I may mention a kindred passion that of REVENGE; for experience proves that revenge sometimes deforms and blackens even the female character.

Anger is most commonly the exercise of a rash and hasty spirit; and it often happens that, though it may be followed by the most lasting evils yet it passes away in an hour or even in a moment.

Revenge is more thoughtful, more deliberate; its purposes are indeed usually conceived in anger; but often executed with coolness, and sometimes even in the dark! Whatever injuries you may receive never allow yourself for a moment to meditate a purpose of retaliation. You are not indeed required tamely to surrender your rights to everyone who may choose wantonly to invade them; for that would be little less than to court injuries; but you are never, under any circumstances of provocation, to depart from the golden rule, "So in everything do to others what you would have them do to you!"

You are never to form a design, nor even to harbor a wish to return evil for evil. Nothing is more noble than to be able to forgive an injury instead of inflicting injury back. You remember that most beautiful and touching instance in which the Savior, in the very act of death, commended his enemies and murderers, to the forgiveness of his Father. Who ever contemplated this incident in his life, without a deep impression of reverence and moral sublimity? Who ever doubted that the imitation of such an example, would not confer true dignity of character?

There is ENVY too one of the basest of all the passions, and yet it too often gets a strong lodgment in the heart. You mistake, if you imagine that this is confined chiefly to people in the lower walks of life; it is, for anything I know just as common among the more elevated as the more obscure; and there is nothing in external circumstances which can prevent its operation. It is alike offensive in the sight of God, and of man.

If the object towards which it is exercised is wealth, or splendor, or anything connected with the pride and circumstance of life it is unreasonable, because nothing of all this, is essential to human happiness. And if God in his providence places these temporal possessions beyond our reach we ought to conclude that it is best that they should be withheld from us.

If the object be intellectual strength or culture this passion is unreasonable still; for it implies either a dissatisfaction with the abilities and opportunities which God has given us or else an unwillingness to use the exertion necessary for making the best of them.

And even if the object of envy is moral excellence the unreasonableness of indulging this feeling is not at all diminished. For whatever is elevated in moral or Christian character every individual is commanded to attain and to each one God is ready to give the necessary helps for doing so.

Envy is not only an unreasonable, but a foul malignant spirit! It looks with an eye of hatred upon a brother, for no other reason than because he is, or is supposed to be a special favorite of God's Providence. If this hateful passion ever rises in your heart banish it as one of the worst enemies of your happiness, your character, and your soul!

I would rather say: cultivate such a habit of feeling as shall be an effectual security against it. Think how many reasons there are why you should delight in the happiness of your fellow creatures; and let those considerations operate not only to keep you from being envious but to make you grateful, when those around you are in any way the special objects of the divine goodness.

The various BODILY APPETITES ought also to be kept in rigid subjection. These physical appetites were given us for important purposes; but who does not know that in a multitude of instances, instead of accomplishing the end for which they were designed they actually become the ministers of death? Many, even of your own gender, and those too, the circumstances of whose birth and education might have been expected most effectually to shield them from such a calamity have resigned themselves to a habit of intemperance, and have ultimately sunk to the lowest point of degradation! Once they would have been startled with horror by the thought of their present condition; but the almost imperceptible indulgence with which they began, gradually increased until they plunged into gross dissipation, and exiled themselves not only from decent society but from the affections of their own kindred. What young girl can contemplate examples like these, and quietly repose in the conviction that she is beyond the reach of danger?

I must not omit to speak here of the government of the TONGUE. If your thoughts, and passions, and appetites, are kept in due subjection the proper regulation of the tongue will be a matter of course; for "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks."

There is the deceitful tongue which deals in misrepresentation and falsehood. There is the loquacious tongue which monopolizes the conversation of every circle, and tires by its perpetual garrulity. There is the vulgar tongue which throws out indecent allusions, and finds its element in groveling subjects. There is the inflamed tongue which busies itself in the propagation of scandal, and loves to array friends against each other, and keep neighborhoods in commotion. And there is the flattering tongue which would pour into your ears the sweetest strains of applause, and would make you think that you are better than you are, and are as lovely and beautiful as an angel.

Take heed that your tongue is never prostituted to any of these unworthy purposes!

And recollect that while the thoughts, and passions, and appetites, control the movements of the tongue the tongue in its turn exerts an influence upon them either for good or evil. If you cherish a habitual impression of the presence of God, and in all that you say endeavor to keep yourself subject to the dictates of an enlightened and wakeful conscience then your tongue will indeed be the glory of your frame, and a source of blessing to yourself and others. But if not, take heed lest it should prove a world of iniquity and should be the instrument of bringing upon you a fearfully aggravated condemnation.

In respect to the importance of self-government, I surely need not enlarge. You cannot fail to perceive that it is essential to all true dignity of character, and to all that enjoyment which is worthy of your rational and immortal nature. Without it, you may imagine yourself free but you are really in the most degrading vassalage. Without it, you may consider yourself respectable but all virtuous people will regard your character with pity and abhorrence. With it, you will rise up to the true dignity of a rational being, and act in consistency with your immortal hopes.