The Young Man's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character

by Harvey Newcomb, 1847


In one sense, very young people are apt to think too much of themselves—in another, not enough. When they think they know more than their parents and teachers, or other elderly people, and so set up to be bold and smart, then they think too much of themselves. It used to be said, when I was a boy, that "Young folks think old folks are fools; but old folks know young folks are fools." Although I would be very far indeed from calling you fools, because you have already acquired much knowledge, and have the capacity for acquiring much more, yet, with reference to such knowledge as is acquired by experience, and in comparison with what there is to be known, there is "more truth than poetry," in the old adage. But, when young people suppose it is of no consequence what they do, or how they behave, because they are young, then they do not think enough of themselves.

Should you see a man riding with a little stick for a whip, you would not think his stick worth your notice at all; but the biggest tree that ever I saw grew from a little willow stick that a man rode home with, and then planted in his garden. You have sat under the beautiful shade of a great elm-tree; and when you have looked upon its tall, majestic trunk, and its great and strong branches, with their ten thousand little limbs waving gracefully before the wind, you have been filled with admiration and delight. "What a mighty tree!" you say; "I wonder how long it has been growing." But the seed of that tree, when it was planted, many years ago, was no bigger than a mustard-seed; and if you had seen the little tiny sprout that your grandfather was tying up with so much care, when it was a few years old, you would have wondered that a man should think so much of such an insignificant twig. But, if he had let it grow up as it began, without any care, it never would have been the stately tree it is now. That was the most important period in its life, when it was a little twig. It began to lean over, and grow crooked and ugly. If it had not been trained up then, it would have continued to grow worse and worse; and, after it had grown to be a tree, it could not have been straightened at all. Now, you are, in some respects, like this little twig. You, too, have just begun to be; and now your character is pliable, like the young tree. But, unlike it, your being is to have no end. Instead of growing a few hundred years, like a great tree, you are to live forever. And everything that you do now must have an influence in forming your character for your whole being. In this latter sense, you cannot think too much of yourself; for you are the seed of an immortal being.

Did you ever stand by the shore of a placid lake or pond, in a calm, sunny day, and throw a little stone into its smooth, silvery waters? Did you observe how, first, a little ripple was formed around the place where it struck, and this was followed by a wave, and then, beyond, another, and another, until the whole surface of the water was disturbed? It was a very little thing that you did; and yet it agitated a great body of water. So it is with childhood and youth; the most insignificant action you perform, in its influence upon your character, will reach through the whole period of your existence.

It will not do for you to say, "It is no matter how I behave now; I shall do differently, when I am a man." "But would you have a little boy act like a man?" Not exactly. I would not have him pretend to be a man, and appear as though he thought himself a full-grown gentleman. I would not have him imitate the toad, which undertook to swell to the size of an ox, and in the operation burst open. But, I would have him manly in his childishness. I would have him courageous, to meet difficulties, noble and generous in his feelings and actions, and courteous in his manners, always, in all companies, and in all places, behaving in a manner fitting a person of his age. A well-bred boy, who knows what is fitting and proper, and carries it out in his behavior, is already a gentleman. But the mischievous, rude, unmannerly lad, who pays no regard to propriety of conduct, will never be a gentleman. And a boy who has the courage to face difficulties, and the energy and perseverance to accomplish what he undertakes, is already a man; while the indolent, cowardly, "I can't" boy, will never be a man. It is my desire, in this book, to lead you to the formation of a solid, energetic, manly character, combined with true gentility of manners; and then you will be both a man and a gentleman.

Very young people sometimes live in an ideal world. What they imagine in their plays seems real. They have a little fairy world in their minds, in which they live more, and take greater delight, than they do in what is real and true. To this I do not object, within certain bounds; but often it becomes a passion, so that they lose all relish for sober, every-day life. For such creatures of fancy real life is too dull, and what concerns realities, too grave. Perhaps they will not like my book, because it treats of things true and real. But I beg them to consider that, through the whole of their being, they are to be concerned chiefly with realities; and therefore, to do them substantial good, we must speak to them of things real, and not of those airy things that belong to the fairy land. But real things are, truly, more interesting than the creations of fancy. The things of fancy interest you more only because they appear new and less common. A person who has always lived in the country, and is used to sitting under the wide-spreading, shady tree, would be more pleased with the picture of a tree than with a tree itself. But one brought up in the city would cast away the picture, and hasten to enjoy the cool shade of the beautiful tree. A castle in the air may please the fancy; but you need a real house to live in.