By John Angell James, 1846



"Be an example to all believers in what you teach, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity." 1 Timothy 4:12

My dear friends,
A subject of considerable interest and importance has often occurred to me, when meditating on the state of the Christian Church, and that is, the influence which the conduct of its senior members has over those who have lately commenced the divine life. It is obvious from all the principles of our nature, that this influence must be considerable—either for good or for evil—and that if it does not encourage and strengthen them in the way, it must enfeeble and dishearten them. It is so fearful a thing to cast stumbling-blocks in the path of a Christian brother, and to disturb his peace, much more to endanger his soul—that it behooves us all to take heed to our steps—both for his sake and our own!

You must be aware that those who are but lately converted to God, and have just assumed the Christian profession, look with attention and deference to others of long-standing in the church, and are apt to make them, their patterns and standards. In the army—the veteran soldiers have great influence in training the young recruits, in forming their character, and fitting them for service. In a company—the habits of the seasoned workmen have a considerable share in guiding those of the apprentices. And in a family—the younger children imitate the older ones. Thus it is in the church of God—the younger look up to those who are more advanced in age, or in experience.

It is very true that they have a perfect pattern in the word of God, which they ought to consult, and to which they ought to seek for grace to conform themselves, without considering what other and older believers do. Instead, however, of studying the nature, and claims, and extent of vital Christianity in its own inspired records, and thus imitating the divine original—they are but too apt to look at it, as it is to be seen in their fellow-professors, and thus by copying from a copy, and that but an imperfect one too, they go on multiplying the sadly defective exhibitions of practical religion, with which the church always abounds. It is not, however, until they have experienced considerable disappointment by their acquaintance with these imperfect patterns, that they are brought to leave them.

"It has not, I believe, infrequently occurred that young converts in the ardor of their first love, and while much unacquainted as yet, with what is called 'the religious world', have looked upon the church as a sacred enclosure, within which dwelt only a kind of heavenly inhabitants, as a sort of vestibule to the temple above, where as these blessed spirits were putting off their earthly affections, and preparing to enter into the presence of their divine Redeemer, they could think or speak of little else than the glory that awaited them; and by whom every addition to their number would be hailed with delight, and welcomed as an accession to the fervor of their piety. In such society, these novices expected soon to attain to the full maturity of the Christian character, and ripen into the greatest perfection attainable on earth. They anticipated the sweetest and holiest communion, an almost unearthly spirituality, and an uninterrupted strain of godly conversation in the communion of saints.

But alas! what a woeful disappointment did the reality produce; in the sacred enclosure they found worldly-minded professors, almost as intent upon things seen and temporal, as any they had left outside the gates! In the 'vestibule of heaven', they beheld men and women covered with the 'dust of the world', disordered with the anxieties, and given up to the enjoyment of earth. They saw little but the world in conduct, and heard little else in conversation. A cold chill fell upon their hearts, which seemed at once, like a frosty atmosphere acting upon a young plant—to check the ardor of their religious affections! Even they, who were lately so fervent—soon sunk and settled down into the lukewarmness of those among whom they had come to dwell!"

It is true they expected too much; they had formed a pattern for the church militant, too nearly approaching that of the church triumphant; but still, even people with a more correct knowledge of professing Christians, and with more sober expectations of what was to be derived from them, have upon coming among them, experienced much less of the benefits of fellowship than they expected. This should not be. Happily it is not always thus. In our churches are to be found some, who by their knowledge, piety, and experience—are nursing fathers and mothers of the young Christian, and who, by the blessing of God, breathe into him their own spirit."

Because of the influence of older, worldly-minded professors, that the church of God is kept down in its spiritual attainments, and does not make that advance to the higher degrees of knowledge, faith, and holiness, which might be expected, and which is so much to be desired. It is not necessary to prove that the church is not distinguished in our day by the eminence of its spirituality and heavenly-mindedness. It has much zeal, activity, and liberality, and in these things we cordially rejoice—but they are most fearfully mixed up with a prevailing worldliness in many of its aspects and operations! And it may be feared that the dazzling splendor of missionary movements, and the bustling scenes of zealous labor, have too much drawn away Christians from deep communion with their own hearts, and with the spirit of God.

What a flexible and accommodating morality has infected our business transactions! What an acrimonious and uncharitable spirit has soured the disposition of the various denominations toward each other! What a languid faith, and feeble fluttering hope, characterize the hearts of the bulk of professors! As if the missionary ardor might be accepted as a compromise for all deficiencies in the more laborious, painful, and self-denying exertions of the Christian life. External action and doing, has with many, become a substitute for heart-watchfulness, the subduing of sin, and holy communion with the Holy Spirit. And to whom are these deficiencies to be attributed but to the older professors of religion? Were they generally as eminent as they should be; were they patterns of that elevated, consistent, experimental religion, which might justly be looked for from the growth of twenty, thirty, or forty years; were they free from the inconsistencies, which mar the beauty, and diminish the power of the Christian profession; were they shining as lights in the world, reflecting the beauties of holiness, breathing the spirit of devotion, and abounding in the fruits of righteousness unto the glory of God; then the younger brethren and sisters, as they were born into the family of God, would be likely to partake of their spirit, to follow their conduct, and imitate their character—and a succession of eminent and devoted professors would be maintained.

I do not mean to say, or to insinuate, that the senior members of the church under my care are more deficient than those of other churches. Certainly not! There are not a few of you who are "my joy and hope," and will be, I trust, "my crown of rejoicing in the presence of our Lord, at his coming." I write for others who are not the subjects of my pastoral oversight, as well as for you, and am laying down general principles, for universal application.

May I then, my dear friends, solicit your serious and prayerful attention to the subject of this address. I refer to those, who have, in age and standing, already attained to the character of fathers and mothers in Israel, or who are advancing to it. Do not dismiss the matter as of no importance, nor let your modesty or your indifference lead you to imagine that your influence is less than I have stated, and that therefore the subject is not worth your consideration. Do not refuse to examine—and weigh it well. You are either doing good or harm, to younger Christians. They will consider your conduct, whether you wish it or not. Their eyes are open to what you do, and their ears to what you say—when you little think of it! You cannot retire from observation, nor dwell in seclusion so deep as to elude all scrutiny. You must be influential—either for doing good or harm.

You ought not to wish, or attempt to be negative. You are a candle lighted to be put, not under a bushel, but in a candlestick, to give light to all who are in the house. Younger professors are continually coming around you, both in the transactions of business, and in the communion of friendship—and are imbibing an influence from you—whether you intentionally exert it or not. Their character is forming imperceptibly by you, unconsciously to themselves, under the power of your example. There is no need of your saying, "Act as I do!" Nor of their replying, "I will." The influence goes on without such formalities. Their tone of piety rises or falls to the key-note you strike—their zeal cools or grows warm by yours—moral principles fasten or loosen their roots in their hearts, as yours appear to be fixed or fluctuating.

I am aware that this influence has limitations, and that many new converts to God, set out on the life and walk of faith, with such a decision of character, such a strong faith, and such an ardent love—as to resist the unholy example—and condemn the worldly-mindedness of many of those who have been long in the way of godliness. They retain their spirituality and devotional feeling amid much that is calculated to repress them—but to do so, they find it necessary to retire from the friendship of many older professors of religion.

If you are not aware of the importance of this subject—the pastors of the churches are. They know, and some of them bitterly lament, the influence of their elder members. They see amid all their zeal and solicitude to raise the tone of piety in their churches, a counteracting power exerted by many who ought to be foremost in lending their help to forward so desirable an object. I know many evangelical ministers, to whom this is a sore grievance. The pastors will labor to a considerable extent in vain, in endeavoring publicly to promote the spirituality of their flocks—if the more influential members of the church do not sustain their efforts in private.

Be very careful, then, not to throw stumbling-blocks in a brother's way, even in little things. There are two ways in which you may do this–

1. By doing what is positively wrong, or of doubtful propriety. I do not now allude to immoralities and vice. Such things, I am happy to say, rarely, very rarely, occur among us. But I refer to the lesser violations of Christian propriety; such for instance, as the indulgence of bad dispositions; offences against love, gratitude, and humility; the practice of those dishonorable artifices which are so common in the modern system of trade; conformity to the world in spirit, entertainments, dress, and amusements; and covetousness, hard-heartedness, and indifference to the cause of Christ in the world. Fathers and mothers in Israel, I beseech you, for the sake of the "young men," and the "little children," that you abstain from such things! Do not give the 'sanction of your example', the 'aid of your influence'—to the spread of a diseased religious profession, in which such leprous spots as these are continually breaking out!

And should there happen to be anything of doubtful propriety, a mere matter of taste and gratification; a matter about which the Christian world are somewhat divided; a matter condemned by the more spiritual part of the church; a matter seemingly, though not in reality—at best half way between good and evil—resting on the very line of demarcation between right and wrong, partly on one territory and partly on the other; in such a case, the better instructed and more experienced members, should abstain from these appearances of evil. Should not they be the first to set the example, and to give out a pattern of self-denial? Should not they be the leaders of the cross-bearing company? Should not their younger brethren and sisters see how far advanced they are in the virtues of forbearance, temperance, and separation from the world? Should not they lend their aid in training the new converts to that hardy, enduring, self-denying religion, which is implied in the Christian profession?

Observe the example of the apostle Paul. Speaking of eating meats offered to idols, he says, "Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours becomes a stumbling-block to those who are weak. And through your knowledge shall your weak brother perish, for whom Christ died. But when you sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat is going to make another Christian sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don't want to make another Christian stumble." The general sentiment contained in this beautiful and unselfish passage, is an affectionate solicitude on the part of older, and better instructed, and stronger professors, not to enjoy any gratification, or to do anything, which would have the tendency to pervert the principles, mislead the conscience, perplex the reasonings, or grieve the minds of such as are weaker or younger in the faith. What arguments and motives does the passage contain! By misleading such people, we sin against the brethren, wound weak consciences, endanger immortal souls, sin against Christ! Aged professors read this! Ponder it! Tremble! And decide!

It is also to be remembered that it is not merely the whole course of a Christian's conduct that has this influence, but perhaps some one single incident, different from the one I have just supposed, which is regarded as a sort of test-act by younger converts. There is some one decision which he is to make, some single instance which he is to exhibit, some isolated position which he is to occupy, upon the manner of conducting himself in which, many will form an opinion—not simply of his character—but of the rule which they are to prescribe to themselves. His conduct in that one incident, will perhaps, send out an extensive and permanent influence over the whole character of many!

If he has grace to act well in that instance, they will be led at once, in imitation of his example, to adopt a high standard, a lofty model of Christian profession; they will depart with a high notion of what is required in a follower of Christ, and with a fixed and determined purpose to follow whatever things are lovely and of good report. On the other hand, if unhappily he fails, and exhibits a flexibility of principle, and a spirit of compromise, they, from that hour, obtain in his bad conduct, an excuse and justification for their bad conduct; and a quietus to their conscience, for an unspiritual, worldly-minded, and inconsistent profession.

2. You may put stumbling-blocks in the way of younger Christians, not only by doing what is wrong, but by not doing what is RIGHT—by a deficiency for instance, in seriousness, devoutness, diligence, and spirituality. There is a radical defect in the religion of many professors, not in morality—but in spirituality. They are not earnest Christians. Their character and conduct do not bear and exhibit with sufficient distinctness, the impress of the cross; the image of God; the seal of the Holy Spirit; the stamp of eternity; the likeness of heaven. A Christian is, or should be, a man who takes not only the form, but the tone of his character from the Bible; and that tone should be a hue of heavenly color. Now where this to a considerable extent is lacking in older professors, its influence on younger ones must be sad indeed. If they hear little of devout conversation from your lips, they cannot of course attach any great value to spirituality of mind. If they see you habitually absent from the prayer-meetings, they cannot entertain any ideas of the importance of social prayer. If they do not see you at the weekday sermon, they are not likely to feel it of any importance to take an hour from business or pleasure, to be there themselves. If they hear you murmuring and discontented, impatient and rebellious; or even if they see you gloomy, cheerless, and disconsolate in trouble and sickness, how it must tend to diminish their sense of the power and value of religion, and to discourage them in the prospect of affliction, which may be coming upon themselves. O my beloved friends, do consider these things—and may the Lord give you understanding and grace.

These, remarks apply, of course, with peculiar force to such of you as are PARENTS—and who have children in your own household. What patterns of godliness should such young Christians expect to see in us! And what expectations of a godly example, have they a right to entertain? Have we any reason to be astonished, or to complain of their low degrees of piety—if ours are not high? Let me remind you that it is not the unconverted branches of our families, that should excite our solicitude, and engage our care—but the professedly converted. While we should be anxious to bring the former under the influence of religion, we should also be no less so, to carry on the others to higher degrees of personal piety. Let us ask if our conduct at home is of such a nature, as is calculated to make the piety of home flourish around us. Is there that consistency, that spirituality, that amiableness, that regularity in private prayer, and that fervor at the family altar, which shall encourage, instruct, confirm, and assist the young disciples who sit at our table?

How emphatically does this subject speak to the DEACONS of our Churches! They, as office-bearers, are, next to the pastor, the most prominent members of the community of saints. "What kind of people ought they to be in all holy conversation and godliness." They, like the pastor, should be "examples to the flock." In the original directions given by the apostle to the mother-church at Jerusalem, for the choice of these officers, its members were to look out for "men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit, and wisdom." And they chose Stephen, and others, "full of faith and the Holy Spirit." How solemn, how holy, how responsible, and in some respects, how fearful a thing is it to bear office in the church of Christ—in that church which he has purchased with his blood, which he died on the cross to redeem—and which he lives to govern as a priest upon his throne. What men should our Deacons be, as well as our pastors! How holy, how spiritual, how sympathizing, how diligent, how devoted to the welfare of the church!

As they live amid the members, with what reverence and affection should they be beheld, as men of unblemished reputation, and of eminent piety! What sacrifices of time, taste, and gratification—what self-denial, and labor—should they not be prepared to make for the benefit of the members? Wisdom in council, skill in managing the secular affairs of the church, tact in business, are not the only qualifications required in them, who are placed so near the ark—but the spirit of faith, prayer, and eminent piety! As they minister in the church, it should be as clad in the garments of holiness—and bearing the image of Christ! Whoever is deficient in piety, it should not be the church leaders! Whoever casts stumbling-blocks in the way of the brethren, it should not be the church leaders! If the spirit of godliness were about to depart from the church, the church leaders should stand in the gap, and prevent the glory from leaving the temple.

This subject however does not appertain exclusively to any one class of our older professors—but belongs to every Christian. The apostle takes it for granted that a Christian's attainments and usefulness should be in proportion to the date of his profession, "By this time, you ought to be teachers," was his language to the believing Hebrews. What then ought to be the extent of your knowledge, the maturity of your graces, the depth of your experience, the perfection of your example, the power of your influence, and the measure of your usefulness—who have been planted so many years in the garden of the Lord?

What a beautiful record is it in sacred history of Aquila and Priscilla, that this holy pair employed their riper knowledge and their richer grace, in instructing the young and eloquent Apollos, in the way of the Lord more perfectly. And you know a preacher and a pastor, who is not ashamed to declare his obligations to a poor and godly couple, long since gone to their rest, who by their simple piety, consistent conduct, friendly disposition, and mature experience, nurtured the seed of godliness in his heart, and helped to train the young disciple for usefulness in the church of God. They watched him with the solicitude of a father and mother in Israel, instructed him in their lowly cottage, in the principles of the gospel, relieved his perplexities, gathered out the stones from his path, and helped to establish him in the paths of righteousness and peace.

How few of the older disciples of the Lord, are thus disposed to open their doors to the young inquirers after truth and salvation, and to act the part of nursing fathers and nursing mothers, to the new-born babes in Christ.

How useful might be the older female members of the churches, in employing those seasons of communion which are continually occurring with their younger friends—to nourish in their minds the spirit of faith, prayer, and holiness. Instead of this, is not too much of the time spent in useless gossip, frivolous chit-chat, and vain discourse on fashion, dress, and news? O you matronly professors, consider how important is the right formation of the female character. Recollect that those young women who frequent your house, listen to your conversation, and are looking up to you as examples; will perhaps, be one day placed at the heads of the families like you, and will exert some influence upon the world, through their husbands and their children. And recollect also, that they will be likely to take the tone of their religion, and the pattern of their womanly piety—from you!

Endeavor, then, to breathe into their souls the spirit of ardent and consistent godliness! Repress the disposition to vanity, mold them to sobriety of judgment, and train them, as you have opportunity, to elevated sentiments of usefulness. Blessed is that woman, she is indeed a mother in Israel, who, by her amiable, cheerful disposition, united with good sense and engaging manners, attracts the younger females to her friendship; and who, when they are gathered round her, exerts her influence to render them blessings, both to the church and to the world. It is an ill sign for a middle-aged female professor of religion—when the more frivolous of the young are the fondest for her friendship—and the more spiritual Christians flee from her.

Perhaps some will reply, "We ought to exhibit religion to young people with a cheerful demeanor." Certainly you ought. I wish you to appear ever happy in their presence—the very description of peace—carrying, in the sunshine of your countenances, the evidence of a mind at rest, and a proof that you are the children of light, walking in light! But this is different from froth, and merriment, and levity. The cheerfulness of a Christian should be joy and peace in believing; rejoicing in the Lord—a serious joy, a joyful seriousness.

"Similarly, teach the older women to live in a way that is appropriate for someone serving the Lord. These older women must train the younger women to love their husbands and their children, to live wisely and be pure, to take care of their homes, to do good, and to be submissive to their husbands. Then they will not bring shame on the word of God." Titus 2.

Let all, then, whether male or female, solemnly inquire, whether they have ever yet sufficiently estimated the importance of their example upon others. Let them recollect what their own ideas and expectations were of older Christians, when they entered the church—and what surprise and disappointment they experienced in the poor examples of the older Christians. Let them consider in what light it may be supposed they now appear, to those younger believers who have lately become acquainted with them—and ask themselves if no surprise has been felt, at seeing them no more distinguished for spiritual attainment. Let them look around, and see if some are not growing in godliness—because of their example. Let them especially remember, how responsible is their situation, and how fearful a thing it is to be the means of lowering in young believers, the ideas of the solemnity and spirituality of the Christian profession—and of spreading lukewarmness through the Christian church!

Young believers, I would conclude with a few hints to you. Do not expect to find any church composed of spotless characters. Do not allow yourselves to be staggered, almost to halting, by the imperfections you observe in older professors. You will see in the the church, some things that will perplex you. Still, however, remember that if there be more sin among professors than you expected—there is also more holiness than you see or know. Multitudes of eminent Christians are unknown to you, and it is perhaps the most inconsistent ones that you happen to know best. Guard against a censorious, suspicious, and arraigning disposition. Cultivate the spirit of charity, so beautifully described in 1 Cor. 13 and be as candid toward the imperfections of others, as a regard to the claims of truth and holiness will allow—and no more. Especially remember to guard against the insidious influence of the defects and inconsistencies of older professors. Adopt as your standard the Word of God. Take up your opinion of what religion is, by looking at this—not at the conduct of older Christians—or any Christians. He who would form a correct idea of the glory of the sun, must see the luminary as he shines from a cloudless sky, and not as he is reflected, in a distorted form, from the troubled surface of the turbid lake! If you want to know what Christianity should be—look at Christ!