Letters to Young Men
THE REASONABLENESS AND DESIRABLENESS OF RELIGION.
Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends!Coleridge.
Hath he not always treasures, always friends,
The great good man? Three treasures, love and light,
And calm thoughts, regular as infants’ breath ;
And three firm friends, more sure than day and night —
Himself, his maker, and the angel death?
YOUNG men, I hate cant, and I do not know exactly how to say what I wish to say in this letter; but I desire to talk to you rationally upon the subject of religion. Now don’t stop reading at the mention of this word, but read this letter through. The fact is, it is the most important letter I have undertaken to write to you. I know you, I think, very thoroughly. Life looks so good to you, and you are anticipating so much from it, that religion comes to you, and comes over you, like a shadow. You associate it with long faces, and prayer meetings, and psalm-singing, and dull sermons, and grave reproofs and stupidity. Your companions are gay, and so are you. Perhaps you make a jest of religion; but deep down in your heart of hearts you know that you are not treating religion fairly. You know perfectly well that there is something in it for you, and that you must have it. You know that the hour will come when you will specially need it. But you wish to put it off, and “enjoy life” first. This results very much from the kind of preaching you have always listened to. You have been taught that human life is a humbug, that these things which so greatly delight you are vain and sinful, that your great business in this world is to be saved, and that you are only to be saved by learning to despise things that you love, and to love things which you despise. You feel that this is unnatural and irrational. I think it is, myself. Now let me talk to you.
Go with me, if you please, to the next station-house, and look off upon that line of railroad. It is as straight as an arrow. Out run the iron lines, glittering in the sun, — out, as far as we can see, until, converging almost to a single thread, they pierce the sky. What were those rails laid in that way for? It is a road, is it? Try your cart or your coach there. The axletrees are too narrow, and you go bumping along upon the sleepers. Try a wheelbarrow. You cannot keep it on the tail. But that road was made for something. Now go with me to the locomotive shop. What is this? We are told it is a locomotive. What is a locomotive? Why, it is a carriage moved by steam. But it is very heavy. The wheels would sink into a common road to the axle. That locomotive can never run on a common road, and the man is a fool who built it. Strange that men will waste time and money in that way! But stop a moment. Why wouldn’t those wheels just fit those rails? We measure them, and then we go to the track and measure its gauge. That solves the difficulty. Those rails were intended for the locomotive, and the locomotive for the rails. They are good for nothing apart. The locomotive is not even safe anywhere else. If it should get off, after it is once on, it would run into rocks and stumps, and bury itself in sands or swamps beyond recovery.
Young man, you are a locomotive. You are a thing that goes by a power planted inside of you. You are made to go. In fact, considered as a machine, you are very far superior to a locomotive. The maker of the locomotive is man; your maker is man’s maker. You are as different from a horse, or an ox, or a camel, as a locomotive is different from a wheelbarrow, a cart, or a coach. Now do you suppose that the being who made you — manufactured your machine, and put into it the motive power — did not make a special road for you to ran upon? My idea of religion is that it is a railroad for a human locomotive, and that just so sure as it undertakes to run upon a road adapted only to animal power, will it bury its wheels in the sand, dash itself among rocks, and come to inevitable wreck. If you don’t believe this, try the other thing. Here are forty roads: suppose you choose one of them, and see where you come out. Here is the dram-shop road. Try it. Follow it, and see how long it will be before you come to a stump and a smash-up. Here is the road of sensual pleasure. You are just as sure to bury your wheels in the dirt as you try it. Your machine is too heavy for that track altogether. Here is the winding, uncertain path of frivolity. There are morasses on each side of it, and, with the headway that you are under, you will be sure, sooner or later, to pitch into one of them. Here is the road of philosophy, but it runs through a country from which the light of Heaven is shut out; and while you may be able to keep your machine right side up, it will only be by feeling your way along in a clumsy, comfortless kind of style, and with no certainty of ever arriving at the heayenly station house. Here is the road of scepticism. That is covered with fog, and a fence runs across it within ten rods. Don’t you see that your machine was never intended to run on those roads? Don’t you know that it never was, and don’t you know that the only track under heaven upon which it can run safely is the religious track? Don’t you know that just as long as you keep your wheels on that track, wreck is impossible? Don’t you know that it is the only track on which wreck is not certain? I know it, if you don’t; and I tell you that on that track which God has laid down expressly for your soul to run upon, your soul will find free play for all its wheels, and an unobstructed and happy progress. It is straight and narrow, but it is safe and solid, and furnishes the only direct route to the heavenly city. Now, if God made your soul, and made religion for it, you are a fool if you refuse to place yourself on the track. You cannot prosper anywhere else, and your machine will not run anywhere else.
I suppose that a nice casuist would say that I had thus far talked only of morality — only of obedience to law. But I was only dealing with the subject in the rough, and trying to show you how rational a thing religion is, and to bring to your comprehension your natural relation to it. I know that the rule of your life is selfishness. I know that you are sinful, polluted, wilful, and that you act from low motives. I know that the race to which you belong have all fallen from innocence, and that they have so thoroughly put out the light that God meant should light every man who comes into the world, that, supplementary to the natural moral system, He has, in great benevolence, devised a scheme of religion, embracing salvation. This is Christianity, and its purpose is to get you back upon the track where the race first started. It is a divine contrivance, or plan, for accomplishing this purpose.
Jesus Christ saw the whole mass of human machinery off the track, and going to irremediable ruin just so truly as he did not interfere to prevent it. He came and told us all how to get back, through repentance, faith, reformation, the surrender of will, the abnegation of self, and the devotion of the heart in love to God and good will to men. He placed himself upon the track and ran over it, not only showing us how to get there ourselves, but showing us how to run when there. In other words, he exhibited to us a true human life. Then, when he had cleared away all the rubbish from the track, shown us how to get upon it again, how to run when we get there, how to avoid and repair accidents by the way, — when he had done all this, and set his agents at work in carrying out his plans, he went back to Heaven, and now looks down to see how the work goes on. Young men, I believe this, I know it is true, and I know, and God knows that this plan which he has devised to save you and make it possible for you to lead a true human life, which shall ultimate in life’s highest issues, is the only one which can save you. I know that you can never be happy until you have heartily and practically accepted this religion ; and for you to go on, year after year, carelessly, thoughtlessly, spoiling yourself, growing harder, meaner, more polluted, with no love to God and outgushing benevolence to men, is an insult to Jesus Christ and a brutal wrong to that which he came to save. The fact is that sin is the most unmanly thing in God’s world. You never were made for sin and selfishness. You were made for love and obedience. If you think it is manly to reject religion, and the noble obligations it imposes upon you, it only shows how strong a hold the devil has upon you. It shows how degraded you are; how the beast that is in you domineers over the soul that is in you.
Young man, your personal value depends entirely upon your possession of religion. You are worth to yourself what you are capable of enjoying; you are worth to society the happiness you are capable of imparting. To yourself, without religion, you are worth very little. A man whose aims are low, whose motives are selfish, who has in his heart no adoration for the great God, and no love of his Christ, whose will is not subordinate to the Supreme will — gladly and gratefully — who has no faith, no tenable hope of a happy immortality, no strong-armed trust that with his soul it shall be well in all the future, cannot be worth very much to himself. Neither can such a man be worth very much to society, because he has not that to bestow which society most needs for its prosperity and its happiness. A locomotive off the track is worth nothing to its owner or the public so long as it is off the track. The conditions of its legitimate and highest value are not complied with. It cannot be operated satisfactorily to the owner, or usefully to the public, because it is not where it was intended to run by the man who made it.
Just look at the real object of religion, and see how rational it is, It is the placing of your souls in harmony with God and his laws. God is the perfect, supreme soul, and your souls are the natural offspring of that soul. Your souls are made in the image of his, and, like all created things, are subject to certain immutable laws. The transgression of these laws damages your souls, warps them, stunts their growth, outrages them. Do you not see that you can only be manly and attain a manly growth by preserving your true relations and likeness to the father soul, and a strict obedience to the laws of your being? God has given you appetites, and he meant you should indulge them, and that they should be sources of happiness to you; but always in a way which shall not interfere with your spiritual growth and development. He gave you passions, and they are just as sacred as any part of you, but they are to be under the strict control of your reason and your conscience. He gave you desires for earthly happiness, He planted in you the love of human praise, delight in society, the faculty to enjoy all his works. He gave you his works to enjoy, but you can only enjoy them truly when you regard them as blessings from the great Giver, to feed and not starve your higher natures. There is not a true joy in life which you are required to deprive yourself of, in being faithful to him and his laws. Without obedience to law, your souls cannot be healthful, and it is only to a healthful soul that pleasure comes with its natural — its divine aroma. Is a nose stuffed with drugs capable of perceiving the delicate fragrance of the rose? Is the soul that intensifies its pleasures as an object of life capable of a healthful appreciation of even purely sensual pleasures? The idea of a man’s enjoying life without religion is absurd.
I have been thus particular upon this point, because I love you, and because I know that without it, or independent of it, all my previous talk has very little significance. I have reasoned the thing to you on its merits, and I urge it upon your immediate attention, as a matter of duty and policy. The matter of duty you understand. I do not need to talk to you about that. Now about the policy. It will not be five years, probably, before every one of you will be involved, head and ears, in business. Some of you are thus involved already. You grow hard as you grow older. You get habits of thought and life which incrust you. You become surrounded with associations which hold you, so that the longer you live without religion the worse it will be for you, and the less probable will be your adoption of a religious life. If you expect to be a man, you must begin now. It is so easy, comparatively, to do it now!
With this paragraph I cease to direct my words particularly to you. What I have said to you, I have said heartily and conscientiously. I shall see you some time. We are none of us to live very long, but if we all act the manly part we were sent here to act, and are true to God and ourselves, we shall be gathered into a great kingdom, whose throne will be occupied by the founder of our religion. During some golden hour of that cloudless day, sitting or straying upon some heavenly hill, watching upon the far-stretching plains the tented hosts of God’s redeemed, or marking the shadow of an angel’s flight across the bright mirror of the river of life, I shall say something about these letters to you. I shall look you in the face as I say it, to see if you are moved to an emotion of gratitude or of gratification; and if you should happen to tell me that they made you better, that they led you to a higher development, that they directed you to a manly and a godly life, I should press your hand, and if I should keep from weeping it would be more than I can do now.