What are the facts?
1. The youth, as a class, are vitally important to the church and to the state. Our work as Christian teachers reaches beyond our own generation. We owe to the future the proper training of the men and women who are to mould its destinies. The present youth are the future leaders of church and state. How they shall lead them, depends very much upon us. These truths are self-evident.
2. They are exposed to peculiar dangers calling for special effort on their behalf.
Special efforts are being made to ruin them. The self-interest of vice is interested in this work; for to youth its appliances look chiefly for support. As one has happily expressed it, "Age has few passions to which profligacy can appeal; and the proselytism of decrepitude and years are enlistments of little value." The withdrawal of young men from the rolls of the intemperate and licentious, would leave two-thirds of the drinking saloons and brothels bankrupt. The passions to which these appliances appeal are such as are most active and dangerous in youth. They offer the freedom and license which youth loves. They throw off the shackles which youth hates. Our cities and villages swarm with traps set expressly for them. Thousands are freely expended to invest the bar room and the gambling hall with the cozy attractions of the parlor. The harlot's palace opens wide its doors. The public ball room displays its fascinations. Dissipation draws round itself the attractions of wealth and taste and fashion, and in its splendid club rooms secures for itself the pleasures which expediency forbids it to seek more publicly. Vice literally flaunts its banners in the face of the public. But a few days since I saw from my window a banner carried through the streets, blazoned with the name and attractions of one of the vilest fashionable groggeries in the city, and preceded by the music of a drum and fife. The snug retreat, known only to the initiated few, where licentiousness and drunkenness are secluded, and thousands lost and won, was never more popular than now. Practiced decoys lie in wait for the daughters of our families, and the whirl of general society in which so many of them, at a tender age, are madly revolving night after night, is no poor preparation for the fatal success of these wiles. Young girls, who come from quiet country homes to seek employment, cast adrift on these surging tides of life without a friend or an adviser, readily fall victims to the wiles of young seducers whose social position ensures their security. In a certain city, I was informed not long since, of one keeper of a fashionable brothel who had removed her trade, because it was too largely usurped by victims of this class to render it any longer profitable. Young men, too, are coming to the cities in crowds, to engage in business or study. They must have society and recreation; and the votaries of vice are sparing neither pains nor expense to give them abundance of both, fraught with ruin to soul and body.
Without going outside of our special sphere as pastors, viewing this subject solely with reference to the youth of our congregations, as, in common with others subjected to these and other temptations, what ought to be our influence in arresting and counteracting these evils?
It ought to be second to none but parental influence. If the name pastor mean anything, our position as the chosen religious teachers of congregations ought to give us free access to every household in our flocks, and the strongest influence over the youth whose moral training we directly or indirectly shape. We ought to be not only respected and reverenced, but so loved as to be the familiar advisers and confidants of the youth of our charges. Our word ought, next to the parents', to have weight in turning them from improper courses and associations, and in keeping them from such. Moreover, our influence ought not to be merely restrictive and admonitory. We should be sufficiently in sympathy with them, familiar enough with the demands of their age and with the best means of satisfying them, to be able to offer positive suggestions respecting their employments, recreations, society, reading, and the like. If we sustain proper relations to the youth of our charges, they will be as likely to refer such questions to us, as matters of theology or practical morality.
Now, the question of the amusements of our youth is as good a test question in this matter as we need ask. What, then, is the influence of the clergy at large in regulating the diversions of the youth?
I appeal to the experience of the mass of ministers, not with the few special friends and admirers, which most of them have among the young people of their congregations, but with the mass of the youth. I appeal to those judicious, farseeing Christians, who are wont to observe carefully the tendencies of society, if this influence is not a comparative nullity. In a question which, perhaps, as much as any other, concerns the welfare of our youth, which has the most vital relations to the attractions of home, which will enter, whether we may think it right or not, into the considerations which influence the choice or rejection of a religious life; at a point which the ministers of vice are fortifying most strongly, wresting the best diversions to themselves, striving to make them peculiarly their own, and to invest them permanently with associations which shall exclude them from Christian homes; here, I say, the Christian church, the appointed regulator and instructor in the ethics of amusement, is, to a great extent, at open issue with her own intelligent youth, and practically powerless to execute her own decrees.
It is well for us as ministers, to look this fact squarely in the face, and to call things by their right names. How many pastors are in the confidence of their youth with respect to the amusements of the latter? Is not the fact rather that there is a tacit antagonism recognized between the youth and the clergy on this subject, an antagonism growing, too, every year less tacit and more avowed? Can it be denied that a very large proportion of our youth regard their ministers as the foes to recreation, and would sooner think of consulting them on any subject than on this? Is it not the fact that while presbyteries and conferences and conventions pass long and stringent resolutions on the subject of dancing and on the use of cards and billiards, multitudes of Christian families practice dancing; scores of them may be found playing whist at their own firesides, and scores more with their billiard rooms fitted up in their own houses? It will not answer to say that those who practice these things are backslidden in heart and worldly minded, and that, if they were truly Christ's children, they would neither practice nor desire them. This is begging the whole question at issue, and moreover is flatly contradicted by facts. Many of those who engage in these recreations are among the most devoted, enlightened, faithful members and even ministers of our churches. Is it not the fact, again, that the pastors of these individuals would be very much at a loss to administer discipline in such cases? Do they not know that any attempt at authoritative interference would be regarded as trenching upon individual rights of conscience, and would send scores of active and faithful members to other communions? The truth is, and there is no shirking it, that, in the cities especially, in the largest and most powerful churches, the clergy are practically brought to a stand in this matter. They do not and cannot control it. A vast mass of enlightened Christian sentiment is against their attempts to enforce the traditional church doctrines on this subject. Their people pay little or no heed to the official utterances of church assemblies. Many of them treat them with ridicule. There is no denying these facts. Hundreds of pastors are painfully impressed with them. The church's position in this matter is most humiliating.
What then is the course of the clergy?
Some of them are more than half persuaded that the more liberal view of their people is correct. They fully sympathize, perhaps, with that view, yet they remain silent. They cannot conscientiously reprove; they refuse to come boldly forward and define their position for fear of awakening prejudice, or for fear their views may be misunderstood or misconstrued. In short they think it is not safe. And yet, all the while, the initiated in the congregation know pretty well the general drift of their minister's sentiments; that, though he says little, he winks a tacit encouragement to many indulgences which far over-step the bounds of ancient orthodoxy. But is this safe? Is it safe or honorable for the church to be impotent to carry out her own dogmas? Is it safe for her to be under the charge of inconsistency from the world because her statute books and the practice of her members are at open variance? Is it safe for the views of an influential Christian teacher to be known only generally and vaguely, that his church and the world may draw undue license therefrom? If he is convinced that the church has been mistaken in this matter, and has in past years committed herself to undue stringency, is it safe to let the error remain untouched, and going on working its pernicious consequences? If the gospel teaches a larger liberty, a broader conception of Christian living and Christian enjoyment than the church has preached, has that minister who conscientiously believes the fact any right to withhold the truth because he deems it unsafe, and to let a falsehood (as he believes) gain currency and power, and forfeit moreover the attraction presented to a sinful world by his more cheering and liberal conception of Christ's teachings? Not safe! Will not God take care of his truth? Doubtless men will misconstrue it. Doubtless they will wrest the preaching of gospel liberty to the confirmation of worldly license. But the greater the danger of this, the more reason why the truth, the whole truth, should be proclaimed loudly, boldly, distinctly, frequently. When the water is first let into a reservoir, it is apt to be very muddy; but that is no reason why the reservoir should remain dry forever. The water will settle by and by, and the whole people be refreshed. If there is truth in these more liberal views of amusement, it is in vain for religious newspapers to shirk the discussion of the question. It is in vain for influential ministers to beg young men's Christian conventions not to raise it. It is in vain for the pulpit to preserve a discreet silence. The thing will out. The truth will stay swathed in no cave in the rock. The things that have been spoken in the ear in closets will be proclaimed upon the house tops. The Christian public will the sooner attain correct views on this subject through free discussion. If the thing be not of God, it will sooner come to nought through this process than through any other. But by their love for souls, and by their sworn loyalty to God and truth, let the clergy run the sword of the Spirit through and through this matter, that the world may know the truth and detect the falsehood.
It is confessed by some that they have given the subject no attention. They have accepted the traditions of the church as they found them, have preached and have tried to enforce them, or else have settled down upon the assumption that the matter is of minor importance. I simply ask if this is justifiable in view of the facts; in view of the contradictory position of the church on this subject; in view of the important part which amusements must play in the education of youth; in view of their great and patent abuses; in view of the point urged in these discourses that many of the popular diversions of the day may be wrested from the devil's hands and turned to good purpose in keeping the young from evil influences and associations?
Some positively refuse to consider the question under any new aspect. It is settled, once and for all. The books are balanced, shut and sealed. The wisdom of a past generation exhausted the question. Its dictum is to be received as gospel. Little needs to be said here. Such declarations demand the utmost stretch of Christian charity. They betray an ignorance which, in a popular teacher, is unpardonable, and a blind acquiescence in the conclusions of the past which is pitiable.
The truth, moreover, is not promoted, in any direction, by abusing those of more liberal views on this question. The man who conscientiously believes them wrong, and boldly says so, and does not simply declaim against them but opposes them by fair argument drawn from scripture, is to be honored. I would there were more such. But it will not in the least tend to conciliate favor for the more stringent aspect of the question, for its advocates to cast slurs upon the sincerity and piety of those who differ from them, to announce them as corrupters of youth, enemies of the church, underminers of pure religion, and the like. The day for this has gone by. The best men may differ even on this question, which some think so firmly settled; and the liberal view of this subject is supported by too many shining names in the Christian ministry, by too large a mass of Christian devotion and consistency and learning and intelligence, to entitle such assertions to any notice whatever. The want of Christian charity which leads one public teacher to asperse his brother's Christian consistency and purity of motive upon such grounds, is at least as reprehensible as the holding of liberal sentiments on dancing or billiards.
Once more. The pulpit, in some places, though alive to the importance of the subject, is holding sternly by its old, stringent views. It is laying down the law authoritatively, decrying as sinful all but a very limited allowance of amusements.
The results of this policy so long and so thoroughly tried, are before us. With all this preaching, the prevalence and variety of amusements steadily increases. Year after year such utterances of the pulpit fall with less weight. Year after year the character and standing of those who openly set them at defiance renders it more and more difficult to back them by discipline. The clergy are not gaining ground with the youth. Hundreds of the latter, repelled by this teaching, are tearing themselves away from the churches of their fathers, to unite with folds where a more liberal gospel is preached. A prominent merchant of the Methodist church, a man whose name is known in both hemispheres, wrote me, not more than a month ago, "the teachings of my own church on this subject have had the effect to drive nearly my whole family into the Protestant Episcopal church."
It is sometimes said: "Let them go. We are better without such. We do not want members who will not relinquish these suspected amusements. We do not want half way Christians, conformed to the world, trying to hold fast to pleasure and secure heaven at the same time." But such statements do not fairly represent the case. Again, the whole question is begged. Many of those who refuse to conform to the churches dicta on these subjects care nothing whatever for the amusements in question. The matter is entirely one of principle. They leave our churches, not because conscience is relaxed, but because it is acutely sensitive, and because they would keep it unsullied. The above method of putting the case assumes that all the conscience is on one side; that, while it operates strongly to condemn, it cannot possibly operate to approve. Many of these persons resort to other communions, because they are too honest to compromise with conscience; because they cannot see these questions in the light in which their own churches present them; and rather than go to God's altars with even an implied falsehood upon their consciences, or embrace the alternative of remaining outside of Christ's fold, they will sever life-long ties, entwined with some of their dearest and tenderest recollections, and go alone with their conscience and their God to altars where no such tests are imposed. And in these new associations they bear themselves with all Christian fidelity. They bring forth rich fruits of grace. They walk humbly and consistently with God. They are exemplary fathers and mothers. They are liberal in their gifts to the cause of Christ, and active in promoting schemes to advance it. Our churches have been driving away such men and women as these who would have been their ornaments and bulwarks, because they have sought unduly to constrain Christian conscience on these subjects.
Worse than this. This course is keeping youth away from all church communions; away from Christ. Few pastors have not received this answer, when urging young persons to come to the Savior. "If I become a Christian, I must be very solemn. I must repress my lightness of heart. I must relinquish all my cherished enjoyments." Admit that these views are greatly exaggerated, as doubtless they are, the question forces itself upon us, why do we meet such views so often? Why are they so generally prevalent among our youth? Why does the immense amount of preaching, forcible, eloquent preaching, on the comforts and joys of a Christian life produce, seemingly, so little impression upon them? Why is it that they persist in regarding Christian joy as a sickly, stunted thing, and religion as the enemy of all light and hilarity and taste and freedom?
Is all this result of native depravity? I cannot believe it. I cannot dissociate a large measure of this most lamentable result from the old teaching and practice of the church on the subject of recreation. It is of no use to preach to ardent, active youth, that Christianity is a religion of joy, unless they see some joy brought out of it besides mere smiles and a class of recreations which to them as a class are insipid. To them Christian cheerfulness appeals as being less cheerful than any other kind; as a sort of mild, repressed gayety, from which their quick sensibilities and stirring blood revolts. They feel that in the church they must be cheerful only in the way the church directs. Those ministers, they reason, can be very cheerful, and even laugh uproariously over a discussion on decrees; but what do I care for decrees? Those elderly Christians can be cheerful in a quiet conversation on politics or on the church. But if I want to be cheerful in a merry dance in proper society and at proper hours, if I want to go to my friend's billiard table and play a quiet game, if I want to make merry over a few hits of backgammon, or give my energy full vent in rolling ten-pins for an hour, I am a heathen and a publican and unfit for the society of Christians.
As already observed, these views are doubtless greatly exaggerated by the young. Yet does not the state of the case warrant us in asking carefully and prayerfully if there is no connection between the stringent dogmas of the church on the subject of recreation, and the general suspicion of religion which characterizes the mass of unconverted youth?
Be this as it may, the case is narrowed down to this. Of all the subjects naturally under the church's supervision, there is not one in which her influence is less than in this. She neither represses nor regulates. One of two courses she must pursue if she would escape the stigma of impotency. Either she must reassert her old dogmas, and back them by the severest discipline, or she must modify them, and openly commit herself to a larger liberty. Is she prepared for the first of these courses? Is she prepared, first of all, to defend it from God's Word. Every other defense is worthless here. Is she ready to cut off remorselessly the man or the woman, the youth or the maid who dances, however properly and modestly? Is she ready to expel or suspend every minister who shall roll a ten-pin ball, or while away an hour with chess or backgammon? Is she ready to lay violent hands upon every member who fingers a card or handles a cue, or strikes a croquet ball? If so, I tremble for the results of the experiment. She will pause before she undertakes this course. Or will she openly confess to undue stringency in the past, and write a new motto upon her banners -- "More abundant life?" Here what seems a formidable objection is often preferred with great confidence. Grant that these more liberal views are correct, still public sentiment is not yet such as to make it safe to promulgate them. The argument, both in its character and result, very strongly resembles that which used to be such a favorite with the advocates of slavery. The is not fit for freedom. It recoiled on those who advanced it. Who made the unfit for freedom but those who held him in bondage until his imbruted nature ceased to prize or to desire liberty? Similarly I say, if there is such a state of public sentiment, why is it so? How came this thing there? Who is responsible for a state of sentiment in the church which makes it inexpedient to declare the plain teachings of Christ on any subject? There can be but one answer. The responsibility lies between the church and the world, and the world surely has not done it. The church herself has made this sentiment, has created the factitious conscience, has awakened the morbid sensibility, by preaching on this subject a theory which shrivels at the touch of Christ, and which she has clearly shown her inability to carry into practice. And the fact that such a sentiment exists, so far from calling for silence, is the strongest of all reasons why the church should speak out with a voice of thunder, and set herself right with the vast mass of conscience which she so powerfully influences.
Would you then, says one, free this matter entirely from the restraints of the church? By no means. On the contrary, I am calling upon the church to regain influence which she has forfeited. I am pleading for a regulation of these things by the church which does not now exist. Indulgence is going too far in the church itself. But from her present stand-point on this question, the church is, from the very nature of the case, almost powerless to regulate. Assuming that the recreations in question are evil and only evil, she must not regulate. That would be compromising. She must crush. Hence the matter resolves itself into a war of extermination on both sides. Either these forms of amusement must be exterminated from the church, or they must get the upper hand of the church's statutes, in which case the church has no law for them. She has only provided for destroying them; and failing in this, must stand and see them run riot in her very courts.
I would not have the church compromise one hair's-breadth with sin. Better that she should err in excessive stringency. But I would have her gain a new vantage ground by being simply true, and not proclaiming unmixed evil, where evil and good are blended in liberal proportions. By not undertaking the task of extermination, where her duty is that of discrimination. The moment she begins upon the principle of analyzing these mixed elements, casting only the bad away, and using, developing and enjoying the good, that moment she mounts to a point from which she can regulate any matter which falls under her jurisdiction. And to be thus true, she must go direct to Christ. His word and example are conclusive, and we may safely preach what we find there. Do we find any such principle of repression as the church has preached for years past? No; we find abuse condemned, and use allowed and approved. The Savior is at the hilarious merry-making of the marriage, contributing to the festivity. His own parable is on record, bidding men put the gospel into all the forms and developments of life, to refine and fit them for human enjoyment. The long list of exceptions with which men are forbidden to bring the gospel leaven into contact has been added by men, not by Christ. He was condemned for the very same reason for which hundreds condemn a so called liberal Christian to-day; because he used the world which other men used, and thought it not necessary to abstain from use because others abused. These teachings are there if anything is there. They are for all time. The conditions of no age can justify Christians in refusing to preach and to apply them just as they stand. Nine-tenths of the really sinful indulgence over which the church is mourning to-day, is simply because of the failure to do this faithfully. Because good men have been startled by the magnitude and power of evil, and have been too timid to meet it with methods which seemed so slow, and which even gave room for the charge of compromise. In being wiser than her Lord, the church has drawn the reins too tightly, and the results speak for themselves. Much is said about expediency; and Paul's words about meat offending his brother, have been saddled with more burdens than any ten other passages of scripture; but after all, the result proves simply this, that it is always most expedient to follow Christ implicitly.
I would, moreover, that the church in dealing with this question, would consent to meddle less with its details, and leave them more where they properly belong, with the individual conscience. No one man can decide these things for another. No man has a right to insist that his standard of expediency shall be his brother's. Where God's law is explicit, both are bound alike. When it throws a decision upon conscience, neither has a right to complain if the paths diverge. Both paths may not be right, but to his own Master shall each traveler stand or fall.
The church, indeed, can do better than to busy herself with such details, or, to speak more correctly, she can deal with them much more successfully by shifting her point of power from the circumference to the centre. Her duty in this case will be very much simplified and lightened, if she will give more attention to the springs of Christian life, to the conformity of the heart to the mind and will of Christ, to fostering an enthusiastic devotion to him. Then these details and distinctions will mostly take care of themselves. The church has lacked faith in the regulative power of this principle, and has sought to supply its assumed defects by innumerable special provisions; and the consequent tendency of this course has been to fetter Christian individuality, and to insist that love to Christ should express itself only in such modes as the church might prescribe. Hence the sentiment often expressed, a true Christian will have no taste for these things. But here again the whole question is begged. You do not know, you cannot know what affinities a Christian life may develop. All that you can with any confidence assert is the general fact that he will love all that is good, acceptable, perfect, and hate all that is essentially evil. As to other matters, things whose moral value arises entirely from circumstances, a love to Christ as sincere and as ardent as yours, may lead him in a direction the very opposite of yours. Therefore it will be more in the interest of a true Christian individuality, of a higher and more generous Christian manhood, for the church to throw the soul more on its love to Christ as the great regulative principle. Let her probe the hearts committed to her, deeply for this. Let her strengthen this sentiment by every possible safeguard. Let her urge her members earnestly to higher attainments in this, and her difficulties in the regulation of the amusement question, and of every similar question will, in a great degree, disappear. Her courts will be full of the richest developments of grace, the most varied activities, the most glorious examples of that wondrous unity in diversity which Christianity alone displays.
Might not the church, moreover, profitably ask herself if there be not a positive duty toward these much abused things, as well as a privilege of letting them alone? If a thing has good in it, does Christ teach that our duty to it is discharged in letting it alone for the sake of the evil mixed with it? That is the easier way, I know. It is a good deal easier to throw overboard good and evil together, than to separate them carefully and to develop the good into a power. But if easier, is it better? I cannot avoid quoting just here the exquisite words of Trench on the Marriage at Cana, as bringing out clearly our Savior's example on this point: "We need not wonder to find the Lord of life at that festival; for he came to sanctify all life, its times of joy, as its times of sorrow; and all experience tells us that it is times of gladness, such as this was now, which especially need such a sanctifying power, such a presence of the Lord. In times of sorrow the sense of God's presence comes most naturally out; in these it is in danger to be forgotten. He was there, and by his presence struck the key-note to the whole future tenor of his ministry. He should not be as another Baptist, to withdraw himself from the common paths of men, a preacher in the wilderness; but his should be at once a harder and a higher task, to mingle with and purify the common life of men, to witness for and bring out the glory which was hidden in its every relation." To the same purpose are the pertinent words of Alford: "To endeavor to evade the work which he has appointed for each man, by refusing the bounty to save the trouble of seeking the grace, is an attempt which must ever end in degradation of the individual motives and in social demoralization, whatever present apparent effects may follow its first promulgation."
"A terrible responsibility you are taking on yourself," say some to the writer. "Youth are going to perdition on your authority, pleading your word and example as a Christian minister." I have only to say I fear not to meet such before the highest of all tribunals. If any man shall, after carefully reading these four discourses, say that they give his worldly heart full license to indulge its will, I tell him to his face, he is either a fool or a hypocrite. Not proudly, I trust, but in humble reliance upon him for whose sake every line has been penned, I bow my shoulders to every morsel of responsibility which the utterance of these truths involves. No youth will go to perdition on their authority. If he shall infer the right to abuse from a plea for moderate Christian use, his perdition be on his own head. The truth I have uttered shall condemn him. If I err, God will bring this thing to nought: and I, who have erred in good faith, and with an honest conscience, shall be dealt with by a tender Savior as lovingly and leniently as I believe he will deal with those who, with equal sincerity and zeal, may possibly have erred in so presenting to youth a gospel of light and joy and freedom, as to make some of them prefer the risk of perdition to embracing it.