The Means to be used by Ministers for Giving the Young Adequate Views of the Nature and Importance of True Christianity
James Flint, Bridgewater, MA
Berry St. Lecture, 1823
Read before the ministers assembled in Berry Street
May 28, 1823
The subject assigned for our consideration this morning is, "the means to be used by ministers for giving the young adequate views of the nature and importance of true Christianity.”
These means present themselves to our consideration under two general classes; first, those of which a pastor may avail himself for the instruction of the young of his immediate charge, and secondly, those by which such views of religion, as we believe to be just and important, may, with the best hope of success, be communicated to the young throughout the community at large. The first class may be sub-divided into those, by which the pastor may act directly upon the minds of the youth, who statedly attend upon his ministry; and those, again, by which he may act indirectly through the agency and instruction of parents and other instructors of children and youth, in our common schools, over which, in most parishes, the minister is expected and appointed to exercise a certain degree of care and supervision.
I. In respect to the first division of the first class of means, there are several that are very obvious, and, I presume, only estimated and occasionally employed by all of us in the customary discharge of our pastoral duties. I need not name to my brethren the ordinary means of instructing the young in the essential doctrines and duties of true Christianity from the pulpit. Every faithful minister will regard this portion of his charge with peculiar interest; and will feel himself impelled to sow, with no sparing hand, the good seed of Christian instruction upon ‘the good ground,’ which the uncorrupted and unprejudiced minds of the young of his charge present for its reception, and which, for the most part, are disposed to receive his instructions with docility, and to repay his labours with much fruit. Discourses addressed particularly to the young, naturally engage their particular attention, and often, without doubt, produce the most salutary and durable impressions upon their mind and heart, and contribute essentially to form and regulate their principles and conduct in after life. In these discourses a minister has opportunity for inculcating such views of Christian doctrines and duties, as he may wish should be believed and practiced by the youth of his charge. He may, with great propriety and with great benefit, we conceive, address the young in a series of discourses, treating systematically the subjects, upon which he is especially desirous that they may be fully and definitely informed. The spirit of inquiry, which is so generally awake at the present day, in our congregations, is not confined to the mature in years. It pervades the young, and is rendered more keen and ardent in them by the curiosity natural at their period of life, and by their exemption from the prejudices and prepossessions of their elders, who, having formed their opinions upon religion, regard any additional information and more enlightened views upon the subject, as tending rather to bring their faith into jeopardy, than to improve and strengthen it. In this way the elementary principles of natural and revealed religion, as understood and explained by Unitarians, may be stated with great plainness and simplicity, professedly to meet the understanding of the young; while, at the same time, many of our elder hearers may be equally edified by these simple and perspicuous statements.
Much may, without doubt, be done in this way towards instructing the young of our charge in the true nature and importance ofrational, practical Christianity. Such a course of systematic instruction from the pulpit, addressed to the young, might be rendered much more interesting and efficacious than the desultory and miscellaneous and occasional manner, in which the subjects of rational Christianity are usually presented to our hearers. We should, however, studiously avoid presenting it in a controversial form. This is an evil, which cannot be altogether avoided, when we would inculcate more enlightened views upon those of our hearers, whose opinions are already formed. We must combat their prejudices and expose their errors, in order to prepare the way for the reception of the better sentiments, which we wish them to embrace. No such obstacles existing in the minds of the young, they need not be apprised that any other views have been received as constituting a part of Christianity, than those in which we would instruct them and upon which we would assist them to rear the superstructure of personal righteousness, of genuine Christian piety and holiness. We have the example of eminent divines for pursuing this method of inculcating from the pulpit just views of religion and of practical piety upon the young in the series of discourses addressed to the young by Dr. Mayhew, by Zolikoffer and others.
But perhaps the mature in years, in many of our congregations, might not be prepared to hear with candour, or to receive with profit, all that we might wish to impart to the young. What might be equally acceptable and useful to the young, might be offensive and even injurious to their elders. Besides this, the demand for occasional discourses, which so frequently arises from the events of providence and the varying circumstances of our people, might not permit us to deliver a connected series of discourses of such a character, as we might wish to address to the young. Where, for these or other reasons, it might not be deemed expedient to pursue the course above suggested, the method recommended and practiced by Dr. Priestly may be adopted, as possessing all the advantages of systematic instruction from the pulpit, with many others, without being liable to the inconveniences of the other. ‘I would advice,’ says he, ‘a minister to form the young men of his congregation,’ of a suitable age, ‘into an academical class, and take the very same methods to teach them the elements of religion, that he would do to teach them the rudiments of any branch of natural knowledge.’ Meeting thus with the young apart by themselves, ‘the minister,’ he observes, ‘may converse with them familiarly’ upon the subjects on which he would have them duly instructed; ‘he may say the same things over and over again, and change his form of expression in order to make himself perfectly understood, he may also illustrate what he advances by familiar instances and examples, and set every thing of importance in a great variety of lights. Moreover,’ continues he, ‘if they will submit to it, (which it will be greatly to their advantage to do) he may examine them on the subjects upon which he has discoursed, so as to satisfy himself, whether they have perfectly understood him, whether they retain in memory the facts and reasonings which he has advanced, and be sufficiently grounded in one thing, before he proceeded to another. This method will also give him an opportunity of removing any difficulties, or answering any objections which may have occurred to them, or which may have been thrown in their way by other persons.’
‘In order to make this business the easier to the instructor and the more advantageous to his pupils, it will be rather advisable, that he give his lectures from a short text or system, written, or rather printed, that they may have an opportunity of perusing it, and of studying it, when they are by themselves, and thereby the better prepare themselves for examination.’
The doctor adds, ‘I do not give this advice at random, or from theory only; for I have carried the scheme, which I am now recommending, into execution; and can assure my friends in the ministry, that as far as my own experience is a guide, they may promise themselves much pleasure, and their pupils much advantage from the exercise.’
Every minister must judge for himself, whether his particular circumstances, and those of the society with which he is connected, will permit him to make the experiment of this mode of instructing the young of his charge in those principles and views of Christianity, which we regard as exhibiting most clearly and faithfully its true character and importance. For a text book, it might be well to make use of Dr. Priestley’s ‘Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion,’ retrenching, adding, or altering the matter, as such instructor might, in his own case, deem expedient. A brief abstract of his ‘History of the Corruptions of Christianity,’ might also furnish useful matter for these lectures, or conferences with the young. These meetings might be held monthly, or at such intervals as should best accommodate pastor and pupils. A class of young females might be formed and instructed, with equal advantage, in the same manner.
The once almost universal custom in New England, of catechizing the children of the congregation, may be employed as an efficient means of imparting to this interesting portion of our charge, as they are able to receive them, just views of the nature and importance of true Christianity. This custom, where it has been discontinued, might be resumed with great advantage. Suitable catechisms, or brief manuals, may be easily obtained or prepared, containing the elementary principles of the Christian doctrines and duties, presented in the form, and breathing the spirit, with which we wish them to be first associated in the infant mind. This, I conceive to be a point of the greatest interest and importance, to which the friends of pure and uncorrupted Christianity have not be sufficiently attentive. Our brethren of the five points have understood and appreciated this matter rightly. They have shown themselves fully aware of the advantage to be derived to the cause of orthodoxy from pre-occupying the minds of children with the dogmas of Calvinism contained in the ‘Westminster Assembly’s Catechism.’ Hence the origin and moving spring of that mighty engine for preserving and propagating the peculiarities of their creed, I mean the Sunday school system. By the operation of this system they are sowing upon every patch of our master’s vineyard, that yet remains under their exclusive culture, together with the good seed of the word of life, the tares of human speculation and traditionary error. Be it ours, my brethren, to avail ourselves, as far as may be deemed by each of us expedient, of the same means of planting those portions of our Master’s vineyard, the earliest culture of which is assigned to us, with the good seed, carefully separated from what appears to us to be tares.
We cannot perform a more acceptable service to the great Shepherd of the sheep and of the lambs, than thus to impress the tender and susceptible minds of the ‘little children’ of our charge with those simple, sublime, yet most intelligible truths, which he has left us in the uncorrupted gospels, with which to feed both his sheep and his lambs, as he has so tenderly enjoined it upon his ministers to do. At the same time, we can hardly name a more efficient means of providing for the prevalence and future progress of what we deem correct views of our religion, than that of early imbuing the minds of the generation, that is rising up under our ministry, with these views, at once the most simple and rational, as well as the most interesting, affecting and grateful to the young and uncorrupted mind.
II. Besides these and other means, by which ministers may act directly upon the minds of the young of their charge, there are others, by which they may act indirectly, through the agency and influence of parents and others, to whom the early culture and formation of the infant and youthful mind are committed. While we inculcate upon parents, as our office requires of us, the duty of instructing their children in the religion of the gospel, we may suggest to them the best methods of performing this duty with success—with interest and profit to their children. We may point out and recommend to them the most approved manuals or compendiums of Christian doctrines and duties, from which they may teach their children ‘the first principles of the oracles of God.’ Many parents omit this duty, it is probably, solely for the want of this encouragement and aid from their pastor, and which it is so easy for him to render. An occasional appeal upon this subject, from the pulpit, to the tender affection and solicitude of mothers for the moral welfare of their offspring, might be made, we conceive, with great propriety and with powerful effect.
The gratuitous distribution of catechisms, of moral and religious tracts, containing just and interesting views and illustrations of Christian doctrines and duties, is another means, by which the object before us may be successfully promoted. We may put these catechisms and tracts into the hands of schoolmasters and mistresses, and engage their cooperation in distributing them among their pupils, and in assigning lessons to be learned from them, and to be recited at school, upon certain specified days.
We may also exert an indirect and important influence upon the expanding minds and forming sentiments of the young, by the selection and recommendation of suitable books to be used in schools. The contents of these books, so often read and daily reviewed as they are, by the pupils, must make the most deep and lasting impressions upon their memory; and according to the character of the matter, will be productive of good or ill effects in the formation of their moral and religious principles and habits, so far as these are effected,--and they are in no inconsiderable degree,--by the books with which they are most familiar. We may excite and assist in the young a spirit of inquiry upon the subject of religion, by our conversation; and when this spirit is awakened, we may recommend and lend to them the books, which contain the best views and reasonings upon the subjects, with which we may deem it most desirable, that they should obtain an early and familiar acquaintance. These are some of the most obvious and practicable ‘means to be used by ministers for communicating to the young of their charge, just views of the nature and importance of true Christianity.’ There are, doubtless, other means of accomplishing this object, which the more mature reflection of my brethren may suggest, and which the experience of my seniors in the ministry may already have tested and approved. None of us, it is probable, will find it expedient to avail ourselves of all the means, that have been suggested; but we may all avail ourselves of some of them, and many of us of most of them.
III. There are other means of promoting the object before us in respect to the youth of the community at large, which it may become us to employ, as a class of men to whom the friends of pure and liberal Christianity look for the provisions and aids, which may most effectually contribute to form the religious principles and moral character of the generation, that is to succeed us, according to the pure faith and practical views, which we and they earnestly wish may prevail, and which we believe must ultimately prevail. Some of these means are already, and have been for some time past in operation. I beg leave to direct the particular attention of my brethren to ‘the Publishing Fund,’ the object of which is to print and furnish, at the lowest possible cost, tracts and books, containing such views and illustrations of the doctrines, precepts and spirit of our religion, as are suited to inform the understanding and to regulate the heart and life of the common people, and particularly the young. Such of us, as may feel ourselves competent to contribute to this object either money or the labours of the pen, will not be backward, I am persuaded, to render either or both, as we may be able, in aid of this good work. And such of us, as may feel ourselves excused by our circumstances from contributing either the contents of our purses or our minds, may at least lend our aid in promoting the circulation of the tracts and books furnished to our hands. Much good has been done, and much more may be done in this way. Besides that of the Publishing Fund, there are other associations, as is well known to my brethren, whose publications are of a similar character, and have in view the promotion of the same general object. The more numerous publications of the kind become, and the more widely and generally they are diffused, and the more rational and instructive and interesting their contents, the sooner will they succeed, we may hope, in consigning to neglect and oblivion the sectarian tracts and treatises, with which the world has been well nigh filled by the multiplied and multiplying orthodox societies and their zealous, indefatigable agents.
In addition to these occasional publications, may it not be expedient, by and by, to try the experiment of a periodical paper, devoted exclusively to the instruction of the young, containing matter of a religious and moral character, and in a form suited to attract the attention to inform the understanding, and to mould the dispositions of its youthful readers to the genuine temper and spirit of the gospel?
But the means which, I conceive, would prove the most effectual of any that has yet been tried or named, and which it is most desirable that measures should be taken to provide, as soon as may be, is a faithful translation of the New Testament from the corrected text of Griesbach, accompanied with notes and a commentary giving a clear and concise explanation of all difficult or obscure passages, according to the most approved interpretations of the most able, enlightened and judicious critics of the age. Such a work, furnished in a cheap and, as far as may be consistent with accuracy and completeness, popular form would contribute more to promote, both in the young and mature, "adequate views of the nature and importance of true Christianity” than all that has yet been delivered from the pulpit, or sent abroad from the press. Lucid and rational exposition of the meaning of the christen records—of every chapter and phrase, which needs such exposition, is precisely the thing, that is wanted to counteract the effect of Scott’s Family Bible, which is breeding up young Calvinists in every family, in which it is daily read, morning and evening throughout our country; and in many families it is read, only because of another of the description to which I refer, is not to be obtained. Until such a publication is provided and is attainable by all, who wish to understand what they read in the Christian scriptures, it seems to me, we are prosecuting our work at great disadvantage. The cause, which we have at heard, demands such a work of its friends. If we deem it an object of paramount importance to refute and reject the erroneous interpretations, which have been so long fastened upon the sacred records of our faith and hopes by ignorance, imposture, or bigotry, it becomes us to supply their place with such as are rational, consistent, and true. Let us not expose ourselves to the charge of having attempted to demolish a venerable pile, which, however dark and gloomy and uncomfortable, has served for shelter to many generations, without having provided another instead of it, which, at the same time that it is better lighted, more cheerful, or more majestic grandeur and simplicity, of more beautiful proportion and symmetry, is erected upon a surer foundation, and will afford equal security and shelter to all, who shall flee to it for refuge. According to the opportunities, the ability and the grace that may be given to each of us, let us, my brethren, faithfully contribute our proportion of thought and exertion, of providence, and cooperation to promote in the generation, that is coming forward to take our place, a pure faith, an enlightened piety, enlarged views, a catholic spirit, unspotted manners, a life of active virtue, of practical godliness. And however limited the effect of our labours may be, let it appear, when we are gone, that what we did effect was in aid and not in hindrance of the best of causes—the advancement of Christian knowledge and piety, the promotion of human improvement and salvation.