In the first place I must explain that there is a great difference between the methods and circumstances of religious instruction now and those which surrounded the youth of the maturer generation. When people of the age of your parents were young, the habits of family life were such that religious observances held a place of first importance. All household affairs were arranged with reference to morning and evening worship, which consisted of singing, reading the Bible, and prayer. No matter how much work was to be done, the family must rise in time to allow for the performance of this service. Children heard so much about God, and heaven, and the life beyond death, that often a morbid and unnatural frame of mind was induced. Parents and instructors often forgot to make allowance for the fact that youth naturally and rightly loves and enjoys this life, and rightly and naturally dreads death. So much was said about the other world that it seemed almost a sin to think about or plan much for this. God and heaven were imagined as close above in the sky? the judgment day was ever held threateningly before us; and pictures of a literal lake of fire and brimstone, into which wicked people would be cast, were painted for the imagination of children, till, as the experience of hundreds testifies, even the most conscientious of them feared to close their eyes in sleep at night lest they should awake in that terrible place of torment.
From this doubtless too severe and harsh religious regime, a reaction has taken place which has thrown the customs of family life and the religious education of the young people of to-day far into the opposite extreme. The hurry and railroad rush of modern social and commercial life have shortened or even cut off entirely the hours for family worship. In the modern effort to emphasize the fact that God is love, the other fact that sin deserves and receives punishment has been thrown too far into the background, or is ignored altogether. Regular reading of the Bible has become as rare as it formerly was universal. Irreverence and skepticism in regard to its truths and teachings permeate a large portion of society, and the general influence of the social life of young people is opposed to the cultivation or expression of the religious spirit or aspiration. All this involves the loss of a most valuable mental and spiritual discipline, and earnest parents of to-day are at a loss how to supply it.
I will press upon your attention only one argument for the culture of a religious spirit, and that is the argument of experience. What is the universal testimony of those whose lives are really governed by the fear and love of a divine Creator? It is that in the consciousness of a desire to obey God and live in harmony with His laws they find their highest happiness.
To everyone who lives beyond the earliest period of childhood, comes at some time or other sorrow, disappointment, sickness, loss, bereavement. The great fact of death looms up at the end of every pathway, however bright and happy. The universal testimony of the human race, from the earliest records of human experience to the present time, is that only faith and hope in a beneficent God ruling over all events can sustain and comfort the human heart through all the changes and vicissitudes of life, and reconcile to the thought of death.
Early youth is naturally happy, gay, care-free, and indifferent to sorrows and fears of which it knows nothing. But there comes a time to every sensible and earnest young heart when it realizes the transitoriness of all earthly things, and longs for something on which the heart can take hold and rest. I do not believe any young person fails of this experience sooner or later. It is a hunger of the heart which nothing but the love of God can fill, and if, when it is first felt, the heart only humbly and earnestly turns to God with high and firm resolve to seek a knowledge of Him and His laws, to bring all actions and plans of life into harmony with His revealed will, the foundation of an enduring happiness is laid for this life, and doubtless for the life to come.
But this desire and effort after a knowledge of God and obedience to His will do not come without a struggle. We are strange and mysterious creatures, having within us a nature that is most susceptible to temptations, to do evil. Every one of us is conscious of a struggle constantly going on in our hearts and lives between evil and good. The temptations to selfishness, greed, unkindness, untruthfulness, irreverence, indolence, are constant and severe until we have by long conflict and repeated victory habituated our hearts to choosing the right. Yet every victory over self and temptation helps us toward that spiritual attainment which will in time enable us to say, with the sweet psalmist of Israel: "The Lord is the portion of my soul; the Lord is the strength of my heart; the Lord is my light and my salvation."
Most usually the heart first turns toward God with deep earnestness through sorrow. There are many griefs and burdens of life which cannot be alleviated or lightened in any way except by spiritual comfort and help. And this spiritual comfort and help are among the deepest realities of life. There is a strength, a happiness, a peace and a support in sorrow which the world can neither give nor take away. How priceless a blessing to possess! The saddest, darkest, most suffering life can be irradiated and uplifted and enriched by this spiritual blessing. The most fortunately circumstanced life may be made poor by its absence. Dean Stanley tells us of a sister who for perhaps forty years was a constant sufferer from spinal disease, and during that period almost constantly confined to her couch. Yet her countenance was irradiated with cheerfulness, and she seemed to inspire everyone who came near her with comfort, and with ardor and enthusiasm for goodness. Such examples are not rare. Every community knows some person or persons sustained in deep affliction, though long continued trial and sorrow and loss, by this unseen spiritual power. On the other hand, experience and observation show us constantly recurring examples of discontent, peevishness, unhappiness, on the part of those who appear to be specially favored in the possession of the comforts and riches of this life. Lord Chesterfield said that, having seen and experienced all the pomps and pleasures of life, he was disgusted with and hated them all, and only desired, like a weary traveler, to be allowed "to sleep in the carriage" until the end came. But Paul the apostle, contemplating the close of his eventful life of sorrow and suffering, said: "I have fought the good fight? I have finished the course? I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness."
So it seems only a reasonable appeal to every young heart, as soon as it is mature enough to understand and make choice among the realities and verities of life, to choose this better part; to keep the heart receptive to and expectant of this divine comfort and help; to seek to know and obey the will of this God of all consolation. But this choice is a purely individual matter. No one can make another person good any more than he can make him happy. All that anyone, all that the wisest and best teachers and parents can do, is to present the arguments for and urge the choice of the better part.
But if it is chosen, or if there is a desire to be enabled to choose it, what a help and stimulus comes from the reading and study of the Bible, especially of the Psalms and the New Testament! Therein are recorded every phase of the spiritual experiences of humanity in its aspiration after a knowledge of God. Therein are recorded the words and precepts of "the Great Teacher sent from God," who said that he and the Father were one, and that he was sent of God to seek and save the lost. Here are the records of the compassionate expressions that fell from his lips as he proclaimed his message as the Son of God. Whatever other opinion men may have of Christ, all must confess that in his words to and about sinning and sorrowing and suffering men and women, he displayed a love and sympathy such as earth had never known before, and such as it has known since, in kind, only in the devoted followers of Christ. To have the memory stored with these expressions or teachings, or with the prayers and aspirations of the psalms and the prophecies, is to have a fountain of comfort and consolation for the heart, that passes all understanding. But this fact of human experience you must accept on the testimony of those who have experienced it, until you have experienced it for yourself.
And thus, my daughter, while I wish for you the possession of all the graces and adornments of person and character that pertain to and are possible for the life that now is, how infinitely more do I desire for you that you may know God and the comforts and consolations of His word and spirit. To know that you had sought and found for yourself this knowledge, that you knew and sought the help of the divine spirit in resisting temptation to do wrong, that in disappointment your heart would turn to God for comfort, that in sorrow you would seek consolation in communion with God, would be to feel that your future happiness was absolutely assured. In this seeking after God, all things would be yours. And even though you had made but a small and weak beginning to follow on and know the Lord, I should rejoice in the assurance that the good work, having been begun, would be completed unto the end. And so I close these letters with the same summing up of all advice, all instruction, which more than four thousand years ago a prophet of God gave to his reflections upon the vicissitudes of human life: "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man."