The Young Man's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character

by Harvey Newcomb, 1847


I have seen boys who would make incredible exertion to accomplish anything which they undertook for their own amusement; but who, when called upon to do anything useful, would demur and complain, put on sour looks, and conjure up a multitude of objections, making the thing to be done like lifting a mountain. Whenever any work is to be done, "there is a lion in the way;" and the objections they make, and the difficulties they interpose, make you feel as if you would rather do it a dozen times yourself, than to ask them to lift a little finger. The real difficulty is in the boy's own mind. He has no idea of being useful; no thought of doing anything but to seek his own pleasure; and he is base enough to look on and see his father and mother toil and wear themselves out to bring him up in idleness. Play, play, play—from morning until night—is all his ambition. Now, I do not object to his playing; but what I would find fault with is, that he should wish to play all the time. I would not have him work all the time, for "All work and no play—makes Jack a dull boy." Neither would I have him play all the time, for "All play and no work—makes Jack a mere toy." There is not a spark of manliness in such a boy; and he never will be a man, until he alters his notions.

There is another boy, who has more heart—a better disposition. When called to do anything, he is always ready and willing. His heart enlarges at the thought of helping his father or his mother—of being useful. He takes hold with alacrity.

The first boy is chicken-hearted. Instead of conquering his work, he allows his work to conquer him. He works briskly for a few minutes, and then he begins to flag. Instead of working away, with steady perseverance, he stops every minute or two, and looks at his work, and wishes it were done. But wishing is not working; and his work does not get done in this way. The more he gazes at it, the more like a mountain it appears. At length, he sits down to rest; and finally, after having suffered more from the dread of exertion than it would have cost him to do his work a dozen times, he gives it up, and goes to his father or mother, and in a desponding tone and with a sheepish look, he says, "I can't do it!" He is a coward. He has allowed himself to be conquered by a wood-pile which he was told to saw, or by a few weeds in the garden that he was required to dig up. He will never make a man, until he gets courage enough to face his work with resolution, and to finish it with a manly perseverance. "I can't," never made a man.

Here is another boy, who has got the notion into his head that he is going to live without work. His father is rich; or he intends to be a professional man, or a merchant; and he thinks it of no use for him to learn to work. He feels above labor. He means to be a gentleman. But he is very much mistaken as to what constitutes a gentleman. He has altogether erroneous and false views of things. Whatever may be his situation in life, labor is necessary to exercise and develop the muscular powers of his body. If he grows up in indolence, he will be weak and effeminate, never possessing the vigor of a man. And whatever sphere of life he may occupy hereafter, he will never possess independence and energy of character enough to accomplish anything. A man who does not know how to work, is not more than half a man. He is so dependent upon others, that he can accomplish nothing without help. Nor can wealth, or education, or professional knowledge, supply the deficiency. Wealth is very uncertain. "Riches take to themselves wings;" and they are especially liable to fly away from men who have been bred up in idle, do-nothing habits. And what will they do when their wealth is gone? They have never made any exertion, or depended on themselves. They have no energy of character. They have no knowledge of any useful employment. They cannot dig, and are ashamed beg. They either sink down, in utter discouragement, to the lowest depths of poverty, or else they resort to dishonest means of obtaining money. I have before me a letter, written to a gentleman in Boston, from a boy in the House of Correction, who got there by trying to live without work. After telling how bad he felt to be shut up in prison, and how bitter his reflections upon his past life were, he says, "I thought that as long as I could live without work, and get my living dishonestly, I would go ahead; but my high life was soon stopped." Here you perceive that his temptation to be dishonest arose from his dislike of work. But now, he says, he is convinced that the best way to get a living is by honest labor. And so you will find it. There is no one more exposed to temptation than the idle boy.

"Satan finds some mischief still
 For idle hands to do."

One who undertakes to get a living without work, will be very likely to fall into dishonest practices, and get shut up in prison.

Equally necessary is it for a man of learning, or a professional man—to know how to do with his own hands the most common things. If dependent on his own earnings for a support, he will not be able to hire everything to be done for him; or, if able, he will not always find anyone to do it. And as to the merchant, his life, from the very first, is a life of incessant toil and labor. The lazy boy, who goes into a store as a clerk, with such notions in his head about work, will be served as the working bees serve their drones—he will be dragged out of the hive.

The boy that despises work, sets himself against nature; and if he succeeds in making anything of himself, he will contradict the voice of all history. When man fell from his innocency, it was determined that he should eat his bread in the sweat of his brow. It is in vain for his posterity to attempt to evade this curse. If they refuse to toil, they will suffer a worse disaster, as the penalty of their disobedience. Disease, or poverty, or both—will follow the lazy track of the sluggard. This result, Solomon has described, in the most glowing terms: "I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and need like an armed man." (Proverbs 24:30-34)

Many of the ancient nations used to have a law requiring every young man to have a knowledge of some branch of labor. There appears to have been such a custom among the Jews. Paul, though belonging to a wealthy family, and bred a lawyer, in the highest school in the nation, was yet brought up to a trade. And when he came to devote himself to his Master's service, he found his tent-maker's trade of great use to him. And whatever occupation you design to follow, you will find use for all the practical knowledge of work, of handicraft, or of mechanical skill, you can acquire in early life.

In the empire of China, labor is held in such esteem, that the emperor, on the day of his coronation, is required to plough a furrow with his own hand. And if you look over the page of history, both ancient and modern, you will find that many of the greatest men that ever lived, were accustomed to follow some laborious occupation. David, the poet king, the sweet singer of Israel, whose name has been embalmed in the hearts of the pious in all ages, when a boy, was occupied in keeping his father's sheep. Dr. Franklin was the son of a mechanic in Boston, and was bred a printer. Washington, the father of his country, was a farmer. And the blessed Savior himself has set an example of industry and love of labor, which should put to shame every pseudo-gentleman who despises the labor of the hands. His apostles, also, were called from laborious occupations to preach the gospel; and many of the most eminent of his ministers and missionaries of the present day have been called from the plough or the workshop; and some of them have worked their way through a long course of study, bearing the expenses of their education with the labor of their hands.

We may safely conclude, then, that, whoever despises labor is a fool; for he despises the only thing that can make him A MAN.

But industry is not only necessary to make you a man; it is necessary to make you happy. Some boys have such an aversion to labor, that they would think themselves perfectly happy if they had nothing to do. But they are greatly mistaken. They might like such a life a day or two; but they would soon get tired of it. The children at the Sandwich Islands have nothing to do. Their parents have no employment for them. They grow up in idleness. A missionary, writing to the children of this country, says, "Now, does anyone say, Happy, happy children, inhabiting these sunny islands! Absolutely nothing to do, but to seek their own gratification, without fear or restraint! Happy? No. The goats which graze the sides of their mountains may be happy; or the kitten which gambols on your kitchen hearth may be happy; but these children are not happy." They often go hungry. Their parents were brought up in idleness, also; and now they will not work if they can help it. They receive no assistance from their children, and often have no food to give them. The children frequently live upon roots, which they dig in the mountains, or upon sugar-cane, which they find in the fields. After spending the day in idleness, they often have to go supperless to bed.

In many parts of the islands, also, the children, who have no disposition to labor and obtain clothing, suffer much from cold. They go almost naked; and when night comes, they lie down on a bare mat, with the dogs and fleas. Would the children of America exchange their warm beds and sweet sleep, for the leisure and hard fare of these young Sandwich Islanders?

But in sickness, their sufferings are much greater. They are destitute of nearly every comfort; they have no physician; and they receive very little attention from their parents and friends. No kind mother watches over their couch at night. If they suffer, they suffer alone; if they die, they die unattended.

Idleness, also, makes these children wicked. Having nothing useful to do, they are always ready for every evil work. They tempt each other to sin. They rush together the downward road; and if spared to become men, they are poor and degraded, diseased and miserable.

But perhaps you will say, "These Sandwich Islanders are uncivilized heathen; and this is what makes them so wretched." But you need not go to heathen lands, to see the bad effects of the lack of useful employment, upon boys and young men. In the Southern States, all the labor is done by slaves. It is esteemed disgraceful for a white man to work. The consequence is, that the boys grow up in idleness and vice. They learn everything that is bad. They grow up with strong and fiery passions, and wicked inclinations unsubdued. Among the young men, gambling, horse-racing, and other social vices, generally prevail. But many of them become poor; and then they are as wretched as the poor Sandwich Islanders. There is, perhaps, no class of people, in this country, more degraded than the poor whites in the slave states. And their poverty and wretchedness may be traced to the fact, that it is disgraceful, among them, for white men to labor.

There is no country on earth where there is less of squalid poverty, and where the people generally enjoy more comfort and happiness, than in New England. And what is the reason? There is, probably, no other country in the world where the people are so industrious—where all the people are engaged in some useful employment. In New England, boys are set to work as soon as they are old enough to handle a hoe, an axe, or a spade. Every child has something to do, which adds something to the family's comfort. And where, in the wide world, will you find so many smiling, happy faces as among the children of New England? This is the true reason why they are so much happier than the children of the Sandwich Islands. The Yankee boy may sometimes get tired of his work; but if he had nothing to do, he would be absolutely miserable. It is not in the nature of a son of New England to be happy without employment. And, where you find one of them educated, and rising to eminence in professional life, if you trace back his history, in most cases, you will learn that, when a boy, he worked on his father's farm, or in his father's shop. And if you could now see him seeking relaxation and amusement, you would often find him engaged in the same kind of labor that he used to perform when a boy.

When one of the convicts in the state prison has committed an offence, they punish him by shutting him up in his cell alone, and giving him nothing to do. For a little while he is glad to be relieved from his work; but very soon, he begs for it again. Nothing is so hard for him to bear as doing nothing.

If, then, you would be virtuous and happy—if you would be qualified to brave the storms of life's troubled ocean—cultivate the love of useful labor. This will give you independence of character. It will give you the ability to take care of yourself. It will make you despise the fawning sluggard, who would sell his birthright for a piece of bread. It will save you from the temptation to surrender your independence, or commit any act of baseness or dishonesty for the sake of a living.