MY DEAR SISTER,
Our minds are given us as talents to improve in the service of God. If we neglect the proper cultivation of them, we shall come under the condemnation of the servant who hid his talent in the earth. But there is a very great difference between mental cultivation and the mere reception of knowledge. So you will perceive that when I speak of the improvement of the mind, I do not mean reading only; but that discipline which calls into exercise the intellectual faculties, and enables us to employ them in the investigation of the truth. This discipline is a necessary preparation for profitable reading. It is a great mistake to suppose that mind is entirely original; or that only a few possess intellectual faculties capable of searching into the deep recesses of knowledge. It is true some possess talents of a superior order; but none, except idiots, are incapable of improvement; and many of the greatest minds have been formed upon a foundation which appeared to consist of little else than dullness and stupidity. The most crooked and unpromising twig may, by proper care and culture, become a great and beautiful tree. The object of all education is to prepare us for usefulness, either to ourselves or to others. We are not to disregard ourselves. The glory of God is as much concerned in our own spiritual growth, as in that of any other individual. But we are to love others as ourselves, and seek their good as our own. Although our heads may be filled with knowledge, yet if we have not the capacity of employing it for practical purposes, it will be of little benefit, either to ourselves or others. Many persons excuse themselves for neglecting to improve their minds, upon the ground that they are incapable of doing anything great or brilliant. But this arises from a foolish pride. If we have but a single talent, we are equally under obligation to improve it in the service of our Master as if we had ten. And it was upon this principle that the servant was condemned to whom but one was given.
The discipline of which I speak may be effected in many ways. But the method I shall propose is one that can be pursued without an instructor, while employed most of the time in active pursuits. The course already recommended, in relation to meditation and the study of the Scriptures, will be found a great assistance in the proper discipline of the mind. But this is not all that is necessary. I know of nothing which more effectually calls out the resources of the mind than writing. To a person unaccustomed to this exercise, it appears exceedingly difficult. But a little practice will make it a pleasing and delightful employment. The mind is far more richly feasted with ideas conceived and brought forth by itself, than by those produced by others, and communicated through the medium of the senses; and all the intellectual faculties are strengthened and improved by exertion.
I would, therefore, advise you to pursue a regular plan of written exercises. This will be very easy, if you only learn to think methodically. Select, chiefly, practical subjects; which your Sabbath-school lessons, your subjects of meditation, and your daily study of the Scriptures, will furnish in great abundance. The principal reason why young persons find this exercise so difficult is, that they usually select abstract subjects, which have scarce any relation to the common concerns of life. On this account, it will be greatly to your advantage to choose some Scripture truth as the subject of your exercise. The Bible is a practical book, and we have a personal interest in everything it contains. When you have selected your subject, carefully separate the different parts or propositions it contains, and arrange them under different heads. This you will find a great assistance in directing your thoughts. If you look at the whole subject at once, your ideas will he obscure, indefinite, and confused. But all this difficulty will be removed, by a judicious division of its parts. Set apart regular portions of time to be employed in writing. Let these seasons be as frequent as may consist with your other duties, and observe them strictly. Do not indulge the absurd notion that you can write only when you feel like it. Remember your object is to discipline the mind, and bring it under the control of the will. But, to suffer your mind to be controlled by your feelings, in the very act of discipline, is absurd. As well might a mother talk of governing her child, while she allows it to do as it pleases. Finish one division of your subject every time you sit down to this exercise, until the whole is completed. Then lay it aside till you have finished another. After this, review, correct, and copy the first one. The advantage of laying aside an exercise for some time, before correcting it, is, that you will be more likely to discover its defects than while your first thoughts upon the subject are fresh in your mind. But never commence a subject, and leave it unfinished. Such a course renders the mind fickle, and unfits it for close study and patient investigation. Finish what you begin, however difficult you may find it. Scarce any habit is of more practical importance than perseverance. Do not be discouraged, even if you should be able to bring forth but one idea under each division of your subject. You will improve with every exercise. I well recollect the first attempt I made at writing. With all the study of which I was capable, I could not produce more than five or six lines. Carefully preserve all your manuscripts. By referring to them occasionally, you will discover your progress in improvement. In these exercises you can make use of the knowledge you acquire in reading, whenever it applies to your subject. But, in everything, remember your dependence upon God, and seek the direction of his Holy Spirit.
Reading is also of great importance. By this we call in the aid of others' minds, with the experience of past ages. But, unless you observe some system in your reading, you will derive comparatively little benefit from it. I will endeavor to mark out a simple plan, which you may find useful. For this purpose I shall arrange the various kinds of reading, under four different heads, to each of which you may assign particular days of the week.
1. History, two days;
2. Biography, one day;
3. Doctrinal, one day;
4. Miscellaneous, two days.
The advantages of this plan are, that the knowledge you acquire will be more complete than it would be if you were to pursue but one subject at a time; and the variety will add interest to the employment. But each of these different kinds of reading requires a separate notice.
(1.) History is divided into two kinds, sacred and profane. It is for this reason that I have assigned two days in the week for the reading of it. I would have one of these days devoted to the history of the church, and the other to the history of the world. Both these are highly necessary to every one who desires an enlarged view of the affairs of the world, and the dealings of God with mankind in general, and with his church in particular. In reading profane history, several things are to be kept distinctly in view.
1. The providence of God in directing the affairs of men. Observe the hand of God in everything; for he controls the actions even of wicked men, to accomplish his own purposes. The Bible is full of this great truth. Scarcely a page can be found where it is not recognized. |The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.| He calls the king of Assyria the |rod of his anger,| for chastising the hypocritical Jews; but adds, |Howbeit, he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few.| And, in a subsequent verse, he says, when he has performed his whole work, by this wicked king, he will punish his stout heart, and the glory of his high looks. But it is not in great matters alone, that the hand of the Lord is to be seen. He exercises a particular providence over the least as well as the greatest of his works. Even a single sparrow, says our Lord, shall not fall to the ground without our heavenly Father. And this is one of the brightest glories of the divine character. He who fills immensity with his presence, condescends to care for the minutest beings in the universe.
2. Observe the connection of the events recorded in history, with the fulfilment of prophecy. I do not, however, suppose you will be able to see this very clearly, without reading some authors who have made the prophecies their particular study. And this you will not be prepared to do with much profit, till you have the leading events of history fixed in your mind.
3. Observe the depravity of the human heart, and the evil nature of sin, as manifested in the conduct of wicked men, who have been left without restraint, and in the consequences resulting from such conduct.
4. See the hatred of God towards sin, as displayed in the miseries brought upon the world in consequence of it. In reading history, we find that individuals, whom God could have cut off by a single stroke of his hand, have been permitted to live for years, and spread devastation, misery, and death, everywhere around them. The infidel would pronounce this inconsistent with the character of a God of infinite benevolence. But the whole mystery is explained in the Bible. All this wretchedness is brought upon men for the punishment of their sins.
5. Observe what bearing the events recorded have upon the church of Christ. One of the great laws of God's moral government upon earth, appears to be, that he directs and overrules all things with particular reference to the kingdom of Christ. Often, events which seem, at first glance, to be altogether foreign to the interests of this kingdom, appear, upon a closer examination, to be intimately connected with it. Take, for example, the conquests of Alexander the Great. As the life of this extraordinary man stands out alone, unconnected with the subsequent history of the church, we see nothing but the wild career of mad ambition. But, in taking a more enlarged view of the subject, we discover that he was the instrument which God employed for spreading over a large portion of the world one common language; and so to prepare the way for the introduction of the gospel. Wherever the arms of Alexander extended, the Greek language was made known; and this was the language in which the books of the New Testament were written. And, no doubt, if we could discover it, every event of history has a bearing, equally direct, upon the interests of Christ's kingdom.
But, in order to keep all these things distinctly before your mind, you must maintain, in the midst of your reading, a constant spirit of prayer.
In reading church history, you will have occasion to observe the same things, because the history of the church is necessarily connected with the history of the world. But there are also some things to be noticed, wherein the history of the church differs from that of the world. The dealings of God with his own people differ from his dealings with his enemies. The afflictions which he brings upon the former are the wholesome corrections of a tender Father, and designed for their good; those he brings upon the latter are designed either to lead them to repentance, or they are just judgments, intended for the destruction of those who have filled up the measure of their iniquities. But be careful, in reading church history, that you do not lose sight of the true church of Christ. Most of the histories which have been written, are filled either with accounts of individuals, or of bodies of wicked men, who could lay no claim to the character of the church of Christ. A church consists of a society of people, professing the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, and practising them in their lives. Or, in other words, having both the form and power of godliness. Without these, no body of men have any right to be called the church of Christ. If you observe this, you will relieve yourself from much perplexity of mind, which the careless reader experiences from, supposing that all the evils described in any period of the history of the nominal church, do really exist in the true church. These very evils prove that it is not the true church of Christ.
(2.) RELIGIOUS BIOGRAPHY, or the lives of individuals of eminent piety, is perhaps the best kind of practical reading. It is in many respects very profitable. It furnishes testimony to the reality and value of the religion of Jesus, by the exemplification of the truths of Revelation in the lives of its followers. It also points out the difficulties which beset the Christian's path, and the means by which they can be surmounted. Suppose a traveller just entering a dreary wilderness. The path which leads through it is exceedingly narrow and difficult to be kept. On each side, it is beset with thorns, and briers, and miry pits. Would he not rejoice to find a book containing the experience of former travellers who had passed that way; in which every difficult spot is marked; all their contests with wild beasts and serpents, and all their falls described; and a beacon, or guide-board, set up, wherever a beaten track turns aside from the true way? All this you may find in religious biographies. There, the difficulties, trials, temptations, falls, and deliverances of God's people are described. You may profit from their examples. But, one caution is necessary. Bring every religious experience described in these works to the test of the Holy Scriptures. If you find anything contrary to this unerring standard, reject it. Satan is ever busy, and may deceive even good men with false experiences. I would advise you, so far as practicable, to keep always the biography of some eminent person in a course of reading, and devote to it what time you can spare from your ordinary pursuits, one day in the week.
(3.) In relation to doctrinal reading, I have already given general directions. If you devote to it the spare time of one day in the week, regularly, you will keep alive your interest in the investigation of truth, and yet avoid becoming so much absorbed in abstract speculation as to overlook present duty.
(4.) Under the head of miscellaneous reading, I shall comprehend the following: Works on the prophecies, to be read in connection with history; practical works on Christian character, experience and duty; on the instruction of the young; illustrations of Scripture; on the natural sciences; on health: to these you may add, occasionally, an interesting book which may fall in your way, on subjects not included in this enumeration. Keep in a course of reading a book on some one of the above topics, and devote to it the leisure of one day in the week. The other day, which I have recommended to be devoted to miscellaneous reading, I would have you employ in reading newspapers and periodical publications. If you find one day insufficient for this, you can keep by you a newspaper, to fill up little broken intervals of time, which cannot well be employed in regular study. Do not, however, read everything you find in the newspapers, nor suffer yourself to acquire such a morbid appetite for the exciting subjects discussed in them, as to tempt you to break in upon your systematic course of reading. Newspapers and periodicals contain much trash; and you may fritter away all your leisure upon them, to the great injury of your mind and heart. Your chief object in reading them should be, to preserve in your mind the history of your own times; and to understand the subjects which interest the public mind; as well as to observe the signs of the times, in relation to the progress of Christ's kingdom.
I have sketched the above plan, hoping you may find it a useful guide in the acquisition of knowledge. The work here laid out may seem so great, at first sight, as to discourage you from making the attempt. But a little calculation will remove every difficulty. If you read but twenty pages in a day, at the close of the year you will have read a thousand pages, under each of the above divisions; more than six thousand pages in all. This would be equal to twenty volumes, of three hundred pages each. Pursue this plan for ten years, and you will have read two hundred volumes, containing sixty thousand pages. You can read twenty pages in an hour, at least; and I think you will not say it is impossible to spare this portion of time every day, for the purpose of acquiring useful knowledge. Think what a vast amount may thus be treasured up in the course of a few years! But you may not always be able to obtain books, and keep them a sufficient length of time to pursue the above plan strictly.[K] In such case, you can vary it to suit your circumstances and convenience. But always have a regular system. You will find it very profitable to take notes in writing of such thoughts as occur to your own mind, in the course of your reading; and particularly of the several points to be noted in history, and of the practical lesson which you learn from biography. And you ought always to give sufficient time to your reading to enable you to understand it thoroughly.
[Footnote K: In the Appendix will be found a list of books, suitable for the course here recommended.]
As you have never manifested a taste for what is commonly called light reading, it is hardly necessary for me to say anything on the subject. I cannot see how a Christian, who has had a taste of |angel's food| can relish the miserable trash contained in novels. The tendency of novel reading is most pernicious. It enervates the mental powers, and unfits them for close study and serious contemplation. It dissipates the mind, and creates a diseased imagination. It promotes a sickly sensibility, and renders its votaries unfit for the pursuits of real life. It is a great waste of time, and on this account alone may be regarded as sinful. But I would not advise you to read any books, merely because you can get nothing else; nor because there is nothing bad in them. There are many books which contain nothing particularly objectionable, which, nevertheless, are not the best that can be obtained. There are so many good books, that there is no necessity for wasting your precious time upon crude, ill-digested, or unprofitable works. You may, however, devote some time pleasantly and profitably, to reading the best English classics, both in poetry and prose; which, for the want of a better term, I shall include under the head of Literary, for the purpose of cultivating the imagination, improving the taste, and enriching your style. These should be selected with great discrimination and care, with reference both to their style and their moral tendency. Poetry, to a limited extent, tends to elevate the mind, cherish the finer sensibilities of the heart, and refine the taste.
If you cannot obtain books which furnish you a profitable employment for your hours of leisure, devote them wholly to the study of the Bible. This you always have with you; and you will find it a never-failing treasure. The more you study it, the more delight it will afford. You may find new beauties in it, and |still increasing light,| as long as you live; and after death, the unfolding of its glorious mysteries will furnish employment for a never-ending eternity.
Your affectionate Brother.