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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Letter from a Victorian Exvangelical

April 3rd, 2023 | 11 min read

By Guest Writer

From the Christian Observer, 1858, pp.251-256

Edited by Moses Bratrud

Difficulties of Young Men

It would be unfair, I think, not to give the “Christian Observer” credit for more candour than is to be found in many other publications of a religious character, and whose main office appears to be, I grieve to say, to chastise — some with whips, and some with scorpions — all who differ from them. But, in some cases, even the “Christian Observer” might, I think, without injury to itself or others, show a little more clemency. There is one class, for example, to which I myself belong, with whom it appears to me to deal a little harshly — I mean that not unimportant class of the community, young men. The particular portion of that body, however, for which I wish to plead, is not the profligate, or even the utterly thoughtless. Such persons I leave to vindicate themselves, if they can, from charges both in and out of Scripture, of, to say the least, a very serious character. But I refer especially to a class anything but rare in our schools and colleges, or even in the common walks of society — persons of thoughtful and even serious tastes and inclinations, strongly wishing to be right, but struggling under difficulties which, if they do not prove too heavy for them, at all events keep them in a state of suspense and doubt — anything but happy in themselves, and often very troublesome to those around them.

Will you allow me to tell you of a few of the difficulties which have often perplexed and obstructed my own mind? In the first place, then, I need scarcely speak of those perplexities which are more or less common to all minds — I mean, the perplexities which arise out of the deep workings of our corrupt nature. I am very ignorant of what may be called the metaphysics of religion — its workings within the mind; but not one of your correspondents is more familiar with the fact, that “when I would do good, evil is present with me.” I often seem to myself like a man who has two hearts — one impelling me to what is right, and one to what is wrong. Oh, the resolutions which I have made and broken! How many good starts have I made, but how poor a race! What bright mornings, but gloomy evenings! So that some around me, in my different moods, might find it difficult to recognise the same man. You may know little, in your deep-sailing vessel, of the whirlwind of passion — of the gusts and storms and strong tides, which toss and twist and drive about, in this direction and that, such little skiffs as mine. — But you will perhaps say, that find your own nature just as troublesome as mine; and I am not prepared to dispute the fact. Be that as it may, what I contend for is, that every one who is the inheritor of a fallen nature is, more or less, as it may happen, the inheritor of evil tendencies, passions, tempers, and is therefore a subject rather of pity than of anger or scorn. You do not scold the sick man on his bed of pain because he does not leap up and perform all the feats of the healthy. But you take care that he shall have first the proper food and medicine, that he shall hear the voice of encouragement, and feel the hand of tenderness; and then, when medicine, food, and kindness have done their office, you call upon him to take his station at the wheel of life. One class of my difficulties, then — and no slight one — springs out of the common nature with which the children of men are sent into the world.

Then, again, there are the large class of difficulties which spring out of scepticism, or the spirit of doubt and disbelief. You yourself may be a far better logician than myself, or may have been better taught, or may have had more light shed on you from above, or may have fallen in with better books, ministers, counsellors; and may, consequently, know little of my trials as to this particular point. I can scarcely tell you how severely I am tried by perplexities of this kind. Why, sometimes, when I am trying to pray, a great dark cloud seems to settle down over the whole of the Bible and the eternal world; sometimes the very words of Scripture seem only to suggest doubts; sometimes my imagination seems to stand, as it were, on the watch for difficulties, and I spring upon them like a bird on his prey.

And here, perhaps, I ought especially to advert to the state of the English Universities. “You gentlemen of England, who live at home at ease,” ah! little do you think upon the dangers of those seas of learning into which your sons are plunged. In Oxford especially — that prolific mother of philosophic and theological abortions — no young man, for the last twenty years, can have lived for the fixed period of his education, without having had innumerable provocations to doubt and infidelity suggested to him. Learned Professors of more than one school — philosophical and classical — have openly called in question the inspiration of Scripture; have laughed at the orthodox faith, as fit only for old women; have rejected many of what have been regarded as the fundamental truths of Christianity; have asserted the incompatibility of the Mosaic narrative with the discoveries of science; have treated the doctrine of the Atonement, not as a revelation from God, but as a fiction of Jewish converts; and, in short, have lopped off almost every branch which had been conceived to inhere in the tree of life. And what Professors or Tutors have taught, the students were sure to discuss; so that we may be assured that young men have had hard work to keep by the faith of their fathers; and it is a marvel indeed if they can have passed through those fires without the smell of burning resting on them. Now, here, again, I complain that we are often dealt hardly with. Not only are the doubts and questionings solemnly rebuked — of this none could complain, — but little is done to remove them. I by no means think, in my best moments, that there is not such evidence for the great truths of the Bible as ought to establish them in every reasonable mind.

But it seems to me that religious men, and even the “Christian Observer,” while they are ready enough to rebuke and condemn us, are by no means sufficiently anxious to place before us the whole strength of this evidence. It is impossible to say what poor arguments will satisfy those who are already convinced; — and, satisfied themselves, many good men are content to leave us alone with our perplexities. Accordingly, the old dishes of proof and evidence — often of the most unsatisfactory character — are hashed up again and again, and served at our tables, as though they would completely satisfy our appetite. Will your friends be so good as to consider this,— that bad arguments are worse than none to honest minds? Nothing can more effectually weaken my own faith in a proposition, than when I find a man maintaining it by an argument which he must know to be false. I repeat the declaration, that, in my best moments, I believe Christianity to stand on the soundest foundation; but certainly some of its advocates appear to me to be more disposed to build it on the sand than on the rock, when I listen to the defence they set up for it. One of the strongest complaints which I have to urge under this head, is the too common mode of dealing with the all-important subject of “Inspiration.”

No doubt this is the Thermopylæ of the day. There the opposite parties of truth and error take their stand. There the great bulk of those who desire to destroy the power of Revelation, and drive it from its fortress in the human heart, draw out their forces for the battle. Most dishonest, to my mind, are many of the impugners of Inspiration. I have no taste for what are called the Broad School. The broadest of them, at least, appear to me to have the one damning testimony against them, that they eat the bread of the Church of which they repudiate the doctrines. But, then, what is said and done on the opposite side ? One and all of their antagonists are denounced as monsters in creation. All are lumped in the same corrupt mass. Any excellences which any of them may have are kept out of sight; and thus, if the one class is proved to be wholly wanting in “faith,” some of their antagonists prove to be at least as much wanting in “hope” and “charity;” and, therefore instructors, ill-calculated to influence young and generous minds. And then, when the inspiration of Scripture is maintained, in what spirit and after what mode is the argument often conducted? Sometimes perhaps, by affirming that every syllable, even of an imperfect translation, is as much divinely dictated as the original; sometimes by affirming that every letter of the Old and New Testament is as much the subject of Divine dictation as another.

Now, is no allowance to be made for young minds, called to be spectators of such a conflict? Your faith may be settled; and happy is it for you if this is the case. Many minds are tempest-tossed to a degree I should be sorry to confess, except to Him who knows all our infirmities, and remembers that we are but dust. Then, again, is sufficiently large allowance apt to be made for our position in a difficult and dangerous world? On the whole, I believe — but then it is of course on the testimony of others, I being an absolute stranger to it that the service of the world is a hard and unhappy one.

Colonel Gardiner said, that when he was regarded by all the worldlings around him as a happy man, he often envied the very dog that ran across the floor. But still the power of the world is great. I have read of some ancient courtier, who replied to a charge brought against him, of too great flexibility, by saying, that he was “è salice non ex quercu ortus,” had more in him of the willow than the oak. And if all of us cannot be so described, yet I believe that the moral texture of many is nothing to boast of, and that most of us would have been more put out by the flouting of Michal than David was, and might shrink from the den of lions or the heated furnace a good deal more than Daniel and his noble companions. I do not plead this as a sufficient excuse for wrongdoing, or hesitation in taking the right part; but it is surely a sufficient reason for dealing gently with us.

Our lot is cast in a world full of snares and pitfalls to a young mind. The fear of it, and the love of it, stand like two giants across our path. Older men may have had power given them to subdue it.’ Some have fought and conquered its temptations. Some may have lost their earlier taste for them. But to the young all is comparatively new. Its pleasures may be, like the apples of Sodom, gilt without, and rottenness within; but we have not ascertained this by experiment. Its ridicule and censure may be perfectly harmless and contemptible, but we have not as yet learned to set at naught human opinion — so that, here again, I think we have every right to ask for pity and sympathy at your hands.

Once more: I hope you will not be angry if I venture to urge among my pleas for forbearance and pity the painful aspect under which religion is often presented to us. If every religious man was a Samuel or Paul or Timothy, or even a Wilberforce, a Havelock, or Sir H. or J. Lawrence, we could hardly reject the Gospel, when approaching us with such followers or allies. But what contrary exhibitions of religion are too often presented to us! — in some cases, men with the highest principles and the most corrupt practice — fraudulent professing bankers and merchants — intemperate clergymen — scolding, lying, trifling, worldly disciples of Him who was in the highest sense holy, harmless, undefiled. We are sometimes tempted to say, If this is Christianity, I should wish to have nothing to do with it? The Bible speaks of such men “as causing God’s enemies to blaspheme.” I am sure of this, that they awaken a thousand doubts and difficulties in the minds of the young and weak. Let some allowance also be made for this fact.

The school we are placed in is not a “school of the Prophets,” where it is to be hoped that only Saints and Martyrs were to be found; but it is the school of the wide world, in which most certainly some of the professors of religion are apt to do little honour to the high principles they profess, and perhaps, in a certain sense, hold. While touching on this part of my argument, I may perhaps be permitted to say, that one strong hinderance to the young is raised by the stronghold which selfishness appears often to maintain, even in the case of those who make high professions of religion. How softly and indulgently many of them live! How apt to administer and how ready to welcome what is happily termed “soft sawder !” What shabby contributors to undeniably good objects! If religion is everything to the soul, why so few large sacrifices to build schools and places of worship — to send out Bibles and Missionaries? I may be mistaken in myself, but it seems to me that if I were a religious man in a high sense of that word, I should be ready to part with almost everything in order to make others religious. But our Clergyman tells me that he sometimes finds a professing heart as tough and close as any other; and that while every real Christian gives freely, these Christians of straw never more surely discover their hypocrisy than when the test of bounty is applied to them. Have you no pity for us, who may happen perhaps to be cast in the way of such close-handed and stony-hearted professors?

A great deal more might be said on these and kindred topics, much more than your readers would, perhaps, have patience to read. — But you may reply to it all, — “Much of this is true; but how is the “Christian Observer” to mend it ?” Well, Mr. Observer, I do not expect you to turn the world upside down. You have neither the fulcrum nor the lever for such mighty purposes. But you can do this — show a little more pity to the weak, and ask for a little more consistency from the professedly strong: And suffer me to say one thing more before we part. Religious ministers and men appear to me sometimes to err in dividing congregations and masses of men into only two classes, — the godly and the utterly godless — the converted and the wholly unconverted. Now, you may rely upon it, that there are a good many persons in the congregation and in society who stand between these two parties — persons neither as good as the one nor as bad as the other.

There are many wishing to be good, who are yet very far, I fear, from being all that you desire to have them. They are not “lords of the eagle eye and lion heart,” for they, as yet, want both better eyesight and stouter hearts; but then they heartily wish for both. And what I ask for them is, encouragement, pity, sympathy, — a little watering for the tender plant — a little shelter for the young bird. I am a very poor divine; but I often think that Scripture interpreters put a wrong interpretation on the text, “The bruised reed will he not break, and the smoking flax will he not quench.” They often explain the latter clause as though the “smoking flax” meant the religion which is just going out. Does it not rather mean the religion which is just coming in — the smoke, not after the flame, but before it? If so, here is a strong lesson for ministers and men. Let them deal with us, not as hardened outcasts, but as returning prodigals; not shut a father’s door against us, but on the contrary, throw it as wide open as, I believe, was intended by the Great and Good Master of the House.

May I beg, Sir, that one of your first acts of forbearance and compassion may be the dealing gently with me for having thus intruded myself upon your attention and occupied your time?