Young Children May Be Truly Pious, by William Swan Plumer

Young Children May be Truly Pious.

By Rev. Dr. William S. Plumer.


             The revivals of modern times are full of interest. They are working out and bringing into prominence many great truths. Among them has been the appearance of a general and increased confident in the possibility and reality of very early piety. Is it not true that many good men of former days doubted whether any child could be truly pious? And has not public sentiment, of late years, undergone a desirable change?

It is a general truth that when the church regards the conversion of any class as hopeless, vigorous efforts to that end are not likely to be put forth. For some years during the early ministry of the Rev. Dr. Herron, in Pittsburgh, there were no young people in his church. The fashion was to stay out of the communion of the church until settled in life. A very great change has taken place in forty years. Almost everywhere the majority of church-members become such under twenty-two years of age. I indulge the hope that ere long we may find the great mass of our young people giving good evidence of piety at a much earlier age. Why should our children run through a round of worldliness, vanity, and irreligion, before they come to the Saviour? How much better that they should give to God their whole intelligent childhood.

The late Dr. Spencer tells us of some minister who expressed doubts respecting the early piety of Jeremiah and of John the Baptist; but I do not remember to have met with any writer who doubted that they were both sanctified from the womb. Such has long been the general belief of Christians. Look, too, at the remarkable record respecting good king Josiah: “Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty and one years in Jerusalem. And he mother’s name was Jedidah, the daughter of Adiah of Boscath. And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left.” No wonder English reformers styled Edward VI. The British Josiah.

We are all familiar with the character and martyrdom of Polycarp. But how many overlook the fact of his very early piety. When about to be crowned with martyrdom, the pagan official called on him to reproach Christ, and his life should be spared. He was not ninety-five years old. He answered, “Eighty and six years I have served him, and he hath never done me wrong; and how can I blaspheme my King who hath saved me?” So that this martyr regarded himself as having been a Christian at nine years of age. Was not this better than to have stained his mind and defiled his conscience till he was twenty-nine or nineteen, and then have turned to the Lord?

The Rev. Moses Hoge, D. D., of Virginia, was a man greatly revered and beloved in his day. John Randolph of Roanoke pronounced him the most eloquent speaker he ever heard. He was the father of three eminent ministers of the gospel, one of whom, Rev. James Hoge, D. D., of Columbus, Ohio, still lives to preach Christ. He also has several grandsons in the ministry. This venerable man, who died in 1822, often said to his friends, that he could not remember the time when he did not love the Lord Jesus Christ. Was not this much better than to be able to remember the time when he hated the Saviour, and despised his blood and righteousness?

It requires no more intellect to love than to hate Christ, to please than to displease him, to serve than to disobey him. When Samuel J. Mills was yet a child, he was so overcome by a sense of his responsibilities, that he said, “O my mother, I wish I had never been born.” His mother did not dare to relieve his mind by any false view and said, “My son, you are born.” It would have required no more mind to have said with Halyburton, “O blessed be God, that ever I was born.”

The first and one of the happiest deaths I ever witnessed was that of a full-grown young man who was preparing for the ministry. I learned from reliable sources the history of his religious character. Among other things I remember that when he was not four years old, he set down a cup of bread and milk, and burst into tears. When his mother asked the cause, he answered, “I am afraid I shall die and not live any more.” Surely this child had then intellect enough to receive Christ as he is offered in the gospel.

More than twenty-five years ago, I attended the meeting of a Presbytery in the South. There was preaching for several days. On Sabbath the Lord’s supper was administered, and some persons were added to the church. Among them was a small boy. I had never seen so youthful a communicant. I was interested to know his subsequent history. The Monday after joining the church, he went to school as usual. At play-time he went with the rest to engage in their usual exercises. But the old controversy between Cain and Abel revived with virulence. A number of the boys surrounded him, crying in bitter scorn, “Oh, here is a little Christian!” But God was with his young servant, and enabled him to bear with meekness all these taunts. He held on his way, and is now at the head of one of the colleges of our country and a successful preacher of righteousness.

The last visit paid me by Rev. Dr. Archibald Alexander was for the purpose of preaching several days to my newly formed church in Baltimore. One of his sermons was on love to Christ, and was founded on I Cor. 16:22. He began his sermon by saying, “I am in favor of early taking children to the house of God. When I was not more than four years old, I heard a minister preach on this text. From the time he began his sermon I was interested to know the meaning of Anathema, Maranatha – words which I had never heard before – and I watched till he gave the usual explanation, and I never forgot it.” Children know more than we are apt to think. I remember, too, that the excellent John Brown of Haddington says, “About the eighth year of my age, I happened in a crowd to push into the church at Abernethy on a sacrament Sabbath. Then it was common for all but intended communicants to be excluded. Before I was excluded, I heard one or two tables served by a minister who spoke much to the commendation of Christ. This in a sweet and delightful manner captivated my young affections, and has since made me think that children should never be kept out of the church on such occasions.”

Is not the general scope of these thoughts sustained by Scripture? What mean these words in the eighth Psalm? “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightiest still the enemy and the avenger.” We are not in doubt as to the import of this verse. Our Saviour explained it. “When the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David, they were sore displeased, and said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” We may rest assured that when Christ shall take to himself his great power and rule over all nations, young children will everywhere cry, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Nor will there then be found any Pharisees to complain of their songs and shoutings. “He shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.”

Tradition says our Saviour never laughed, though he often wept. And the evangelists tells us of his tears. Yet they do also tell us of his once being filled gladness. What was the occasion? Luke thus informs us: “In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.”

Let us not go beyond Scriptures. But let us not fall short of them. Let us, to the youngest who can know any thing, tell of God and of Christ, and call on them to love the Saviour. We often and properly continue our efforts to save the aged sinner. Sometimes we are successful. Yet how much greater the discouragements with such than with young children. Barzillai spoke mournful truth of the aged when he said, “I am this day fourscore years old; and can I discern between good and evil? can thy servant taste what I ear, or what I drink? can I hear any more the voice of singing men, or singing women? Let thy servant, I pray thee, turn back again, that I may die in mine own city, and be buried in the grave of my father and of my mother.”

Let us begin early. Let us call young sinners to repentance. Let us commend Christ to their tender affections. Let us tell them they must hate sin and love Christ. “Feed my sheep” is no more a binding a command than “Feed my lambs.”

Surely little children greatly need not only the comforts which a mother can give, but also those which the Saviour gives. I know not how it was with others, but I can safely say that I never needed the supports and consolations of true religion more than in my childhood, though I had the kindest of parents. Perhaps my feeble health and excited nerves subjected me to unusual sadness. However this may be, I find no persons in the word more ready to confess their need of special comfort than children. The gospel has a balm for every wound, a cordial for every aching heart. Children need the sympathy of Jesus. If they ask for it, they get it as readily as their parents. Every child has sorrows which require the help of God, and are quite beyond the power of man to relieve. I believe the following statement is correct, and insert it as quite to my purpose.

“What do you do without a mother to tell all your troubles to?” asked a child who had a mother, of one who had not, for her mother was dead.

“Mother told me whom to go to before she died,” answered the little orphan; “I go to the Lord Jesus; he was mother’s friend, and he is mine.”

“Jesus Christ is up in the sky; he is away off, and has a great many things to attend to in heaven. It is not likely he can stop to mind you.”

“I do not know any thing about that,” said the orphan; “all I know is, he says he will, and that’s enough for me.

The little orphan was right. Jesus Christ was once a little child. He remembers and knows how to minister to the sorrows of childhood as well as those of riper years. It is not six months since a little child, not three years old, when dying, said to its parents, “Papa, mamma, don’t cry; I am going home.” Who can doubt that Christ is with such little sufferers? Why should it be thought a thing incredible that the great Shepherd should be very tender and peculiarly near to his dear lambs?

With what bitterness did Job exclaim, “Thou makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth.” David also prays, Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions.” How greatly is the life of many good men imbittered by the remembrance of sins and follies, from which very early piety would have saved them. One of the American missionaries in India has long been noted for his pious cheerfulness. Many think it is owing, in good part, to his not having defiled his garments as most have done. He was a member of the church at twelve years of age.

It is sometimes said that the piety of children is apt to be very deficient in just views of the holiness of God. This may be so. But is not this a want in the piety of many adults? Where is the score of professors, taken promiscuously in any church, whose piety did not, from the first, need great improvement in this respect? Read the account of Phebe Bartlett, given by the elder President Edwards, and where can you find an account of a first conversion, in which God, in all his excellent character, had greater prominence? I know not of any.

Others have thought that the piety of children was apt to be very deficient in a sense of the evil of sin. But read the Life of James Laing, written by McCheyne, and tell me what man or woman ever seemed more truly to loathe sin in the inmost soul.

Others suggest that children are very liable to self-deception respecting their own exercises of mind. This is true of persons of every age, and is a good reason for caution and discrimination in all cases, but cannot justify a discouraging course of procedure towards the early religious impressions of children.

Nor does it seem to me that more is to be made of the appearance of a desire in pious children to be free from needless and unreasonable restraints. In an important sense a pious child is to be regarded and treated still as a child, but it should not be placed under a system of espionage or surveillance. Indeed, no child should be dealt with unreasonably.

In fine, I can sympathize with McCheyne when he says, “Jesus has reason to complain of us, that he can do mighty work in our Sabbath schools, because of our unbelief.” Let us pray for the children. Let us labor for the children. Let us hope for the children.

I trust a better day is dawning. Our excellent and judicious brother of the Reformed Presbyterian church, a few months since, received forty children into full communion on a profession of their faith. I trust others will have good cause for doing similar acts of love.

It seems to me that a sober discussion of the subject of early piety cannot fail to be useful. It is interesting to almost every family that is not wholly given to worldliness. Let me add a few things, known to me on good authority to be strictly true. Jennie —– died when a small child. She was recently and suddenly called out of time. One who knew her well, says, “Her brief little life was radiant with heavenly light. The last words I ever heard from her lips were her reading Psalm 139 touching solemnity, and expressing her love for that portion of God’s word. The little book called “The Peep of Day” was the first she ever read, and seemed to be the means of the first day on saving light in her soul. From that day till her death the light shone brighter and brighter.

A gentleman of high standing in one of the churches of New York writes thus: “During the past year, our church has been greatly blessed by the presence with us, as we believe, of the Holy Spirit. More than a hundred have been hopefully converted, of whom a goodly number were children, and considerably more than half members of the Sunday school and Bible classes. I think we have had some beautiful cases of early piety, which have afforded us examples of deep conviction of sin, and implicit trust in the simple word of God, such as are not often seen in older people.

“I asked a child, ‘How do you know that the Lord Jesus will receive you, if you have truly repented of sin and are trusting in Him alone for salvation?’ ‘Why, because he says so,’ was the reply. I asked a boy who was speaking to the session of the delight he took in prayer, why he found it necessary to pray now, seeing he hoped his sins were forgiven, and he had resolved henceforth to be the Lord’s. He looked up with a sorrowful expression, burst into tears, and said, ‘Oh, I am so wicked, I could not get along at all without prayer.’

“Some of these children, by faithful and most judicious efforts in behalf of others, have been instrumental of much good. I may safely say to you that the most satisfactory cases, so far at lease as their appearance on examination for the communion is concerned, have been those of children and quite young persons.”

I believe the following statement is correct, though I cannot at present vouch for it. A little girl was not well; she said she was in pain. Her mother told her, “I will give you some medicine, my dear, which will make you quite well to-morrow.” Her brother was present, and said, “Oh no, mamma, medicine alone will not make her well. When I was ill I took a great deal, but it did me no good until I prayed to God to make me well, and then I was better the very next morning, when I thanked God for making me better; and now I am quite well, and so will Ann be, if she prays to God.” Though this boy had not learned to limit the efficacy of prayer to things agreeable to God’s will – and the recovery of sick children is not always so – yet he practically and firmly believed in the insufficiency of means without the divine blessing.

On the whole, so far as we have light on this subject, let us walk by it. Let us remember that out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, God in every generation ordains strength. Let us exhort our offspring, and earnestly pray to God that to him they give the dew of their youth. “Instead of the fathers shall be the children.” “The child shall die a hundred years old.”

Who can doubt that as the millennium approaches, much more when it shall actually come, the lambs will know the voice of the Good Shepherd, and will not follow a stranger.

Should any pervert these thoughts to purposes of fanaticism, or any thing inconsistent with the sobriety of the gospel, the fault will be his own.

Let us all pray and labor for the early conversion of children.


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