The Christian Professor

John Angell James, 1837


"So that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world." (Philippians 2:15)

Saving religion is not merely an occasional act—but a permanent habit, resulting from an internal principle. Saving religion is a principle so fixed as to constitute a new moral nature, and so steadily operative, as to form an unchanging character. A real Christian is a Christian always, everywhere, and in all companies. He carries his piety with him wherever he goes, as an integral part of himself. It is not like his clothes which may be continually altered, or varied to suit his situation, occupation, and company. He needs his piety everywhere, he loves it everywhere, and is commanded to let it be seen everywhere.

But among most professors of Christianity, there is too much of a chameleon kind of religion, which takes its hue from surrounding objects. This is seen most conspicuously in the conduct of professors when away from home. They have a flexible, yielding, easy-going kind of piety—which accommodates itself to circumstances, by little sacrifices of principle and consistency.

While in the midst of their connections, they cannot go far astray without its being noticed; and indeed, the temptations to wander from the line of strict propriety, are there neither numerous nor strong; the eyes of their religious friends and of their pastor are upon them; they would be missed from the house of God—and seen, by those who know them, in the company of the mirthful, and in the amusements of the fashionable. Hence they are not so much in danger in these circumstances, as when removed by any cause from beneath the notice of those, who, by office, relationship, or affection—are called to watch over them. Temptations in various ways assail them when away from home, from which they are sheltered at home.

Sometimes professors are visiting in mirthful and worldly families; in such a situation they require great caution and courage, neither to conceal nor compromise their principles. Such visits are undesirable, and are not to be chosen—but submitted to merely as matter of necessity. There is nothing in such a situation, which is congenial with the spirit of piety; and they can rarely maintain their consistency, and at the same time give or receive pleasure. Still, however, they cannot always avoid such company, and when they are under some kind of necessity to enter into it, they should be well aware of their difficulties, and pray for grace to be carried through them with honor and a good conscience.

They should recollect that they will be both watched as to their consistency, and tried as to their steadfastness—and will need much firmness and discretion. It is demanded of them by their allegiance to Christ, that while all the rules of politeness and good manners are observed, there be no concealment of their profession, no joining in amusements from which they conscientiously abstain at home, and no attendance upon heretical worship out of compliment to the host. But on the contrary, an inflexible, dignified and courteous maintenance of their separation from the world, their Christian habits, and religious observances. This is one of their opportunities for confessing Christ.

I once spent a few days in a family, in which there was visiting at the same time a young lady, who belongs to a society of Christians that hold it unlawful to associate in any act of worship, either public or domestic, with those who differ from them in ever so comparatively slight a matter. I was struck with the unyielding firmness and unvarying consistency, with which she maintained her unbiblical and exclusive creed. When we assembled for family prayer, she withdrew to her chamber; when we rose to give thanks at our meals, she kept her seat, and gave plain indication that even in that short act of domestic piety, she took no part. I ought to observe, that there was nothing of obtrusiveness, contempt, or sullenness in her deportment; but certainly an unbroken consistency in which she is worthy of imitation, by all who profess a more biblical system of thought.

It requires, I allow, great moral courage, when receiving the rites of hospitality, to separate ourselves in some things which they consider quite harmless, from those who are aiming to contribute to our gratification. And when called to exercise this act of self-denial, we should do it with due regard to all the laws of courtesy, and with such gentle conscientiousness, as will not give offence to any really polite person.

Professors may sometimes be thrown for awhile, by the ever-varying circumstances of life, into a town, or village, where there are none like-minded with themselves in religious sentiment and feeling—and where they are surrounded only by worldly people. Of course such a situation should never be chosen, except it be to carry the gospel into it. But it may be, in some cases, the result of circumstances which are beyond our control. In such a scene of moral darkness, a Christian, instead of extinguishing the light of his profession, or putting it under a bushel, should cause it, if possible, to shine with a clearer and more public brightness. He should let it be seen at once, that he fears God, and that, however he may be disposed to exchange the civilities of life, and the courtesies of neighborhood—he can do nothing contrary to the strictness of his religion. He must be content to be regarded as precise, narrow-minded, and unfashionable, and never defend himself against the sneers of the worldling, by putting aside a single practice which his conscience dictates. Nay, he must go farther, and endeavor, I repeat, to introduce those means of grace, which he does not find in the place of his residence. He must carry his light with him, not only to display it by consistent piety—but to diffuse it by holy zeal. In such ways as prudence shall dictate, and opportunity shall allow, he must be "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

And should not the place be quite destitute of the means of grace, and the people of God—but contain a few poor disciples of Christ, and some lowly gathering of genuine piety, instead of being ashamed of these humble manifestations of the kingdom of the Lord, he must follow the Savior, though it be as the shepherds did at the nativity, or as the disciples did after the ascension, into an attic. To forsake the cause of evangelical religion, because it is seen in its primitive poverty, and to associate only with the ungodly, because they are rich and fashionable, is to abandon the church and follow the world.

How often and how forcibly has it been submitted to those rich Christians, and to others of moderate wealth, who are retiring from the cares of trade, to the calm seclusion of private life, whether it is not their duty in the selection of the place of their retreat and repose, to be guided by a view to usefulness, rather than a desire of gratification. One of the first objects thought of by such people generally is, a popular preacher, and a genteel congregation; a situation where their Sabbath days shall be delightfully occupied by the good sermons of the former, and their week days by the fellowship of the latter.

I know that it is a strong temptation to those who can command the gratification, to place themselves within the magic circle of some eminent preacher's ministerial labors, and the elegantly pious society which he has drawn around him—but how noble, how heroic, how Christ-like, is the spirit which causes a man in such circumstances to say, "God has blessed my industry, and raised me to an independence of the toils and anxieties of business, and I am now retiring to spend the remainder of my days in unmolested quiet. Where shall I choose my residence, and pitch my tent? Shall I select some paradisaic spot, where beautiful scenery shall perpetually feast my senses? Shall I repair to some resort of the mirthful and the fashionable? Shall I follow the music of some eloquent preacher, and regale myself continually with the display of sacred genius? No! I will forego all this, and settle where I can best serve that God who has blessed me with all things richly to enjoy. I will glorify that blessed Savior, who has bought me with his blood, and whose I am, with all I have. He is my Lord, and I am his servant, and I must settle where I can best serve him. I will go, therefore, where his cause is weak, that I might be the honored instrument of strengthening it. True it is, this will require self-denial, for I cannot expect to hear a distinguished preacher, or find a numerous and genteel congregation in a small country town; but am I not a disciple of him, who prescribed the cross as the condition of receiving me among the number of his followers? What an honor and a happiness will it be, with which to gild the evening of my days, if I should be the instrument of supporting and encouraging some faithful minister of Christ, and building up some low and needy church of the living God. I follow the cloud, therefore, to the scene of usefulness."

O give me that man's reward in the day of account, the smile, and the "well done, good and faithful servant," which he will then receive from his Lord, and I would resign all the gratification to be derived from listening for ages, if it were possible, to the sermons of the greatest of all preachers. And why is there not more of this self-denial? Why do not wealthy Christians act more upon such principles as these? Have they not nominally at least consecrated themselves and their wealth to God? Is zeal for the cause of Christ, compassion for immortal souls, no part of their duty? You unemployed Christians, who have thrown off the shackles of trade, "the world is all before you where to choose," make Providence your guide, and follow the cry of souls that are perishing for lack of knowledge.

It sometimes happens, that the members of our churches leave home in the capacity of female servants, apprentices, and shopmen; and are placed in families, and surrounded by companions that make no profession of religion. Such a situation, presents one of the most trying and severe ordeals, through which a professor in modern times is called to pass. All the countenance, and watchfulness, and assistance they had been accustomed to receive from parents, companions, or minister, perhaps from all these together, is suddenly withdrawn, and in all the feebleness and timidity of a young Christian, they are exposed to the curious gaze, the ignorant astonishment, the unconcealed sneer, or the embittered enmity of those who are not only strangers to true religion—but enemies too. In such a situation, there is not a single individual but what is silently or openly opposed to this young disciple of Christ; who, cut off from some of the means of grace, and nearly if not quite the whole of ministerial supervision, has to sustain almost daily, the rude assault, or subtle attack upon his principles. He is like a lamb in the midst of wolves; an alien surrounded by those who are evil affected towards both his country and his sovereign. O, how much grace does he need to keep him faithful? What but omnipotence can preserve him? Where it can be avoided, young Christians should not go, or be sent in such situations. But servants and shopmen cannot always, though in many cases they can, choose their situation; and where no alternative is open to them, and they must go into temptation, let them watch unto prayer, and, for their encouragement, let them recollect that he who kept LOT pure even in Sodom, can uphold their integrity where there is everything to pull it down.

Consider your situation; there you are the representative of real religion, of Christ, of God himself, in one sense, in a place where they are not known. Make no secret of your piety—but let it be seen in all its purity, power, and consistency. Be firm, yield nothing to the rage or ridicule of those around you. Be consistent, and let it be seen that you act from conscience and not from caprice. Be good-natured, kind, obliging, and thus conciliate to yourself, that affection which you cannot win to your piety—and then your piety will be borne with, for the sake of the loveliness with which it is associated. Pray for divine help, and tremble lest you should do anything to excite, as many have done, a prejudice against the religion which you profess. "Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life, that fades not away."

Travelers have sometimes a difficult part to act, and are exposed to great temptation; especially such as are regularly employed in a way of business, and who are a great part of their time away from home. The company they meet with at inns, their usual places of sojourn, is generally such as puts their consistency to a test. It is true, there is some improvement in the habits of those who are of this class, inasmuch as education has, in some measure, refined men's taste, and subdued the grossness of vice; but with every abatement of this kind, it will be admitted by all who are acquainted with the facts of the case, that a traveler's room is not the place where piety often finds anything congenial with itself.

The drinking, and card playing; the filthy discourse, and the angry debating which are but too often found there, require, on the part of a professor of religion, much moral courage, and well-fixed principles, sustained by divine grace, to escape the snare. To some young men, who once bade fair to be respectable, the situation has proved an occasion of ruin for both worlds; and even to those who have been long and deeply rooted in their profession, it has been a severe and painful trial of their principles; where it has not destroyed their consistency, it has been a constant affliction to their minds.

How watchful and circumspect ought a Christian to be in such a situation, in his table habits, in his general conversation, in his whole conduct; how careful to avoid the irritation of debate on the subject of politics, or when the question is of trade; how unwilling to provoke, or to be provoked; how firm, yet how gentle; how pious, yet how courteous and gentlemanly; how observant of the Sabbath; how bold, and fearless, and unconcealed in his profession of reverence for true religion in all its institutes, and all its requirements! Such a man, maintaining his consistency with kindness, calmness, and dignity; bearing, with unruffled serenity of temper, the taunts and sneers of the witling and scoffer, will soon silence the tongues of the scorner, even where he does not subdue his heart to the obedience of faith.

It would be well for such people to make themselves well acquainted with the evidences of Christianity, and also the arguments and the cavils of infidels, that, on suitable occasions, they may be prepared to meet and vanquish objections to revelation. I believe there is much flippant and shallow skepticism often to be found in a traveler's room. A Christian, whose occupation calls him into such company, should always carry about with him a volume on the evidences of his faith, that he may be qualified to instruct the ignorant, stop the mouths of gainsayers, and relieve the perplexed; and thus aim to do good on his journeys. This he should also endeavor to effect in other ways, as opportunity may present itself, by persuading, for instance, his companions to accompany him to the house of God. But, O! how much grace is needful for such arduous and often self-denying consistency!

There are also travelers for pleasure, as well as for business; and they too have their temptations; temptations which they have not always the courage and virtue to resist. Excursions for pleasure have now become so common, even where they do not extend beyond the United Kingdom, and, when made under the most favorable circumstances, are not usually found to be very conducive to spiritual improvement. The constant succession and survey of beautiful scenery and new objects of interest, do not always lead the mind, "through nature—up to nature's God," nor produce that pious frame of mind, which led the Psalmist to say in holy rapture, as he gazed on the beauties of creation, "My meditation of YOU shall be sweet." The excitation of the mind often prevents, instead of aiding, reflection; and the curiosity kept on the full stretch of expectation or gratification, too often represses the tranquil exercises of faith and hope; while the hurry and fatigue of each day's travel, leave but little leisure or inclination for the duties of the closet. The senses are so luxuriously occupied with the things that are seen and temporal, as to flatten the desires of the soul after communion with God, and to suspend her fellowship with things unseen and eternal.

Thus many a Christian has returned from a journey of pleasure, rather carnalized than spiritualized by what he has seen. This, I am aware, is rather the abuse of traveling, than its necessary effect, and does not always happen; and even where it does, the injurious influence is generally only temporary. Be it so; but let us ever be anxious to guard our souls against the snare—the best way of doing this, is to make it matter of prayer before we set out, that we may be kept from evil, and then most conscientiously to seek as we wander from place to place, that we may not be permitted to wander from God.

A Christian should get good from everything, and if his mind were as spiritual as it should be, his excursions would be among the all things that work together for this. And as he ought to seek to get good, so ought he seek to do it. That tour will be a subject of delightful reminiscence in heaven, and a source of gratitude through eternity, on which we can look back, as the means of saving a soul from death, and converting a sinner from the error of his ways. This may be sought by various methods; some have been converted by the conversation of a fellow-traveler in a stage-coach, or steam-boat; others by means of a religious tract given to them; and others by means still more casual.

One day as Felix Neff was walking in a street in the city of Lausanne, he saw, at a distance, a man whom he took for one of his friends. He ran up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder before looking in his face, and asked him, "What is the state of your soul, my friend?" The stranger turned; Neff, perceived his error, apologized, and went his way. About three or four years afterwards, a person came to Neff, and addressed him, saying, he was indebted to him for his inestimable kindness. Neff did not recognize the man, and begged he would explain. The stranger replied, "Have you forgotten an unknown person, whose shoulder you touched in a street in Lausanne, asking him, 'How do you find your soul?' It was I! Your question led me to serious reflection, and now I find it is well with my soul." This proves what apparently small means may be blessed of God for the conversion of sinners, and how many opportunities for doing good we are all continually letting slip, and which thus pass irrecoverably beyond our reach.

One of the questions which every Christian should propose to himself on setting out upon a journey is, "What opportunities shall I have to do good?" And one of the points on which he should examine himself on his return, is, "What opportunities have I lost?" No one should go from home without a good stock of evangelistic tracts; and it would, in many cases, be proper for those who are in the habit of conducting family worship at home, and who have courage and an easy command of language, to invite the residents of the inns where they pass the night, to join them in an act of solemn worship.

Foreign excursions require still more watchfulness and care, not to fall into temptation. Those who travel on the continent of Europe, a practice becoming exceedingly common, had need look well to the state of their hearts, and to their outward conduct. Cut off perhaps, in many instances from public worship, either because they do not understand the language, or because they find nothing but Popery, they are exposed to the dangers of misspending the Sabbath, or, at any rate, of losing the quickening influence of public ordinances; and that in circumstances in which they most need it. Nor is this all. Wishing to see the country which they have taken so much trouble to visit, in all its phases, they frequent places which they would not venture to approach at home. Have not American professors been seen at our horse-races and theaters? And have not both English and American Christians been seen at the operas in Paris, and at Versailles on the Sabbath, to see the gardens and the waterworks of the palace? If these travelers were to keep a journal of all they see and do, away from home, would it do to be read at home, for the edification of their Christian brethren?

But what shall be said of the conduct of some professing Christians vacationing at our resorts? It has become almost one of the necessaries of life to Englishmen, to pay a summer or autumnal visit to the coast, or to one of our inland places of resort. To say that this is wrong in those who can afford to pay for it, is certainly not my intention. Tradesmen, and even Christian tradesmen too, have ruined themselves, and plunged their families into poverty and distress, by habits of expense and idleness, acquired by this annual excursion to the sea. The taste of the age is for luxurious gratification, and it is certainly one of these luxuries to while away a month amidst the beauties of the coast, or the mirthful throng of a fashionable lounging place. But to do this without ample means of paying for it, is to act dishonestly as a man, and most disgracefully as a Christian.

I will suppose, however, that there is no lack of wealth, and that the professor can command the gratification, without putting other people's property in jeopardy; still, are not his spendings for this enjoyment, out of all due proportion with his donations to the cause of Christ? When did he ever give, in one amount, to any religious object, what he gives, in one amount, for his treat to his family to a resort? Nay, put together all that he gives to the cause of the Lord for a whole year, and does it equal what he spends upon one vacation? How often does he turn away a claimant, sent to him in the name of Jesus, with the excuse that he has nothing to spare? Perhaps he says this, just after he has been lavishing hundreds—or thousands, in riding into the country, or sailing on the sea, and luxuriating in other ways on the shore. When a world is perishing, and immortal souls are sinking daily in crowds to perdition, a Christian should look, with grudging eye, on almost every dollar he spends in luxury.

But let it be granted, that professors are liberal in the use of their wealth for the cause of humanity and religion, and that they can, in all consistency, spend a small sum each year in recreation, a case that often occurs—still, are there no perils for piety in a vacation resort? Temptations abound everywhere, entering like a poisoned atmosphere into every place—but surely no one acquainted with the subject will deny, that they are found in greater number and force in those places, which fashion has set apart for relaxation and amusement. The sudden transition from employment to idleness, is rarely friendly to habits of devotion. It might indeed be supposed, that the Christian, finding himself released from the demands of business, and obtaining thus a respite from the urgent cares of secular pursuits, would hail with delight, a season for meditation and prayer, and convert his absence into one long, sweet Sabbath for his soul, to enjoy communion with his God. But does experience prove that the expectation is well founded? Perhaps "the soft dominion of perfect idleness," and the opportunity for luxurious repose, are more unfriendly to the cultivation of piety, than even the ceaseless round of worldly occupations. We then lounge away our time, without either glorifying God, or benefitting our fellow-creatures. "If a moralist were justified in saying, that but few individuals know how to take a walk, the Christian preacher is certainly warranted in affirming, that but few, even among consistent Christians, know how to spend a month from home." The mixed society to be found in such haunts of pleasure, the amusements which are resorted to, and the general air of wastefulness which pervades the whole scene, are all uncongenial with the spirit of piety, which flourishes best in silence and solitude.

If, in the crowded city, men appear as if they lived to get wealth by labor, at a resort they look as if it were the object of existence to spend it in pleasure; in either case, religion seems to be banished from their minds. "At a fashionable resort," says a competent witness on such a subject, "the incentive to a blameless deportment, arising from the observation of their religious connections at home, is entirely lacking; and multitudes, I am sorry to believe, take advantage of its absence. Indulging a hope that they are unknown, or unregarded, they make religion bow to custom, while every solicitation of pleasure assumes an imperative character, and is obeyed, though, at the same moment, the sanctuary of God invites, and conscience remonstrates. They seem studiously to avoid all fellowship with those who belong to their own, or any other religious persuasion. Thus they lay themselves open to associates of another description. Not choosing to be recognized as the self-denying, humble followers of the Savior, they place themselves outside the pale of the green pastures, which he, as the Good Shepherd, has provided for his own flock. The world considers them as its own, and they appear infinitely careful to prevent a detection of the mistake. The facilities of communication with all sorts of people, are, in such places, likewise numerous and great. Formal introductions are seldom necessary, and acquaintances are made for the season, which, however respectable, as to their situation in life, are so far from making a profession of religion themselves, that they cordially despise it in others. ("The Temptations of a Resort," a Sermon preached in 1835, at Brighton, by Dr. Styles, who was then resident there. This is a most valuable discourse, and ought to be kept constantly in print, and widely circulated, as a Tract which might be of great service to many professors of religion. Dr. Styles, and all other ministers located at Resorts, could tell us strange tales.)

It is indeed to be feared that some professing Christians, when they set out on their summer's vacation, leave their religion at home in order that nothing may interrupt their pursuit or enjoyment of pleasure. It is true they do not turn away from the house of God on the Sabbath—but where are they at the time of the weekly sermon or prayer-meeting? "A weekly sermon or prayer-meeting, indeed!" they are ready to exclaim, "at a resort! Why, who ever thinks of such a thing? Surely it is enough to attend to those things at home." Is this a question for a professor to ask? Does he in such a situation less need the influence of such means? No, perhaps, it will be said—but he is not much disposed for them. Very true, he is not—and a plain proof it is of the dissipating tendency of such scenes, and the pernicious influence they exert in disturbing the habits and diminishing the power of personal godliness.

Some of our more fashionable professors, doubtless, would feel a little ashamed to be seen by some of the mirthful acquaintances they have lately made, coming from the lowly place "where prayer is accustomed to be made," or from the still lowlier company of those who make it. It might be asked, if some are not more frequently seen at the Sunday evening promenade or on the cliffs, than at the week-day services. And yet, perhaps, these people are very regular at home—but have not strength of principle enough to withstand the current of temptation abroad. Many have gone to places of fashionable resort to have their profession lastingly injured; and some to lose it altogether. They commenced a retrograde course in religion from that day when they went joyfully and thoughtlessly to the coast in search of recreation. Surely, surely, then, it cannot be thought unseasonable or unnecessary to raise a warning voice, and to make it loud and strong when it is becoming increasingly prevalent among professors, to seek in this species of gratification, a temporary release from the dull cares of home, and the plodding pursuits of business.

I cannot close this chapter to more advantage than by a quotation from Dr. Styles' Sermon.

"The man who fears God, while he sees others idle, worldly, and selfish, will consider how he may actively be employed in promoting the divine glory. Every place, he will say, shall be the better for my presence. I will be the same character everywhere, and in all circumstances—I must act as ever in my great Father's eye. He beholds me. I cannot flee from his presence, and if I would, how ungrateful, how sinful would be the attempt! That presence has been my solace in affliction, my support in difficulty, my defense in danger. Why should I wish to escape from it now? I am a stranger, and unknown—but my 'light is to shine before men.' Let me choose for my companions the righteous, who are the excellent of the earth. Let me inquire what benevolent and religious institutions already exist, that I may forward them to the best of my ability. Can I not suggest others that may easily be established, and thus live to the glory of God, and the good of my fellow-creatures? Let me countenance the ministers of Christ, and assist them by my prayers and example, to stem the torrent of abounding iniquity, and as far as I can, to check the subtle operation of a worldly temper in a situation so full of danger. O! if our professedly religious visitors, and our residents of the same description, were influenced by such a spirit, what a solemn glory would beam from the sanctuary! What a stream of holy light would shed its influence around, carrying irresistible evidence of the truth of religion, illustrating its unrivaled excellence, and proclaiming its infinite importance! A strong line of distinction would thus be drawn between the world and the church. The inconsistencies of Christians would no longer be the jest of the libertine, the scoff of the vain, and the text of the infidel. Ministers, surrounded with a numerous audience, would not have to mourn the inefficiency of their labors, nor to weep in secret that all their efforts are frustrated, by the captivations and the follies of a world that passes away. That all this may be prevented, let those who 'name the name of Christ,' both visitors and stated inhabitants, ponder well the peculiar temptations and snares, which it is their duty, and will be their happiness, to avoid. If they are disposed to think of them lightly, to imagine that they offer only innocent gratifications, and that to view them as dangerous, and to condemn there as sinful, is neither justified by reason, nor required by Scripture; such people have yet to imbibe the spirit of Christianity. They have yet to learn the nature of holiness. It is evident, that however they may be versed in the doctrines and precepts of the sacred volume, there is one important passage which describes the essence and pronounces the eulogy of vital religion, to which they are utter strangers, and which they have not at present the moral capacity to understand, namely, 'Blessed is the man that fears always.'"