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Duty. A word that was full of meaning 200 years ago. Less so today. Can an author from 200 years ago tell us to do our duty? And tell it to today’s young Christians? Find out in today’s book review.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Every month I review a book from Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month and while waiting for the next free book I review a book of my choice. And my choice for today is “The Young Christian; Or a Familiar Illustration of the Principles of Christian Duty” by Jacob Abbott. Now I was looking for a book on Christian duty. I searched online for Christian duty or duty of a Christian, but I couldn’t find any promising books written in the last 100 years with that title. If I missed a book, you can let me know.
The Rise and Fall of Duty
According to Google. The word ‘duty’ was popular in the 1800s but its usage fell after the 1900s. Now, what happened in the 1800s? Well, there was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where Admiral Nelson sent a signal: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. And the British did do their duty and they won that day. 100 years later, nearly one million British men did their duty and died in World War I. The mood of the country is best captured by the Oxford Union’s motion stating, “This house will under no circumstances fight for its king and country”. There is no more talk of duty. And so we can chart the high point of duty in Nelson’s “England expects every man will do his duty” to fall in use with Oxford Union’s, “This house will under no circumstances fight for its king and country”. Do you see the high point and the low point?
And just like that Christians have lost a good word. Today we are losing many other good words like virginity, marriage and family. There was a time when these words were commonly understood and were aspirational, noble and good.
You see duty is not the same as responsibility. You can be responsible for evil, for a crime, but you cannot have a duty to do evil. Duty is a good thing that is expected of you from society, church or family. Now, that expectation, like any expectation, can be overbearing, but we manage the expectation not remove it completely.
The Multi-Talented Jacob Abbott
As I said, there was a time that duty was commonly understood and was aspirational, noble and good. Today let us go to those times, we go to the 1800s. Let me read from a biographical sketch on today’s author:
The man responsible for writing the first fictional series for children, for introducing many of the key types and techniques of series books, for popularizing the genre virtually single-handedly, and for writing some of the earliest American juveniles deserving of the term “children’s literature” was the multi-talented Jacob Abbott.
Now, in my research, Jacob Abbott was born in 1803, 2 years before the Battle of Trafalgar. he became a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy and later a pastor. He and his brother founded Mount Vernon School, a high school for girls. In his lifetime, he wrote more than 200 books, one of which is “The Young Christian; Or a Familiar Illustration of the Principles of Christian Duty”, which we now go to.
In the opening sentence of this book, it reads:
This book is intended to explain and illustrate, in a simple manner, the principles of Christian duty; and is intended, not for children, nor exclusively for the young, but for all who are just commencing a religious life, and who feel desirous of receiving a familiar explanation of the first principles of piety.
He then explains that it’s easier for someone to understand illustrations from their youth than it is to understand illustrations from their future which they have not experienced yet. So that’s why his illustrations are mostly on the youth side. Now, I want to remind you that this is a man who started high school and pioneered children’s literature, so when he offers a non-apology, like what I’m about to read, I just smiled. I quote:
I have made no effort to simplify the language. It is not necessary to do this even for children. They, will understand the language of maturity easily enough, if the logic and rhetoric are theirs.
Meaning: if they can think, you don’t have to baby talk them. All right, so let me quote again, he continues:
It is a great but a very common error, to suppose that merely to simplify diction, is the way to gain access to the young. Hence a sermon for children is seldom any thing more than a sermon for men, with easy words substituted for the hard ones. This goes on the supposition that the great difficulty is, to make children understand religious truth. Whereas there is no difficulty at all in this. The difficulty is in interesting them in it. They will understand readily enough, if they are interested in the form and manner in which the subject comes before them.
I read this and I was just hooked. Okay, you got me at this part because I teach the youth and I have been advised not to use hard theological words because it pushes the young people away. And my response is: when people need money, they can understand the word employment. Similarly, if people need God, they can understand atonement. If the country can teach the importance of vaccination, the church can teach the importance of sanctification, and if the school can teach genetics, we can teach apologetics. The young can understand. They really can. And like Abbott, I believe the difficulty is not in making them understand, the difficulty is making them interested in it. Because they understand many difficult things from school and in life.
The Beginning of Duty
Now, if you were to write a book to explain Christian duty to the young, how would you begin that book? Would you start with God? With goodness, his grace and mercy? Or would you start with the spiritual disciplines? Like reading the bible, praying or you know, songs and worship to God? Or would you start with young Samuel, David or Daniel. Then from their good examples gently lead the reader to how a young Christian is to live today.
One of the best things about reading all old books is that their minds work differently from ours: The words they use, the way they structure their sentences and also their ideas. Abbott begins with a chapter on confession.
In this chapter, the first chapter, he tells a story of two brothers and their father. The brothers wanted to go ice skating with their friends. The father said, “Yes, but you must not go past the bend for the ice might crack beyond the bend.” The brothers said yes and they went. After some time, their friends wanted to explore beyond the bend.
The brothers hesitated, remembering their father’s instruction, but they thought there would be no harm to follow their friends up to the bend. There was unfortunately no line to show where the band starts or ends. So before long the brothers realized they were past the bend and they just went off with their friends, forgetting their father’s instruction.
At this point in the story, I thought the ice would crack. They would fall in, their father would rescue them and the boys would learn an important lesson. But no. The boys had their fun. They returned safely. They returned home on time. The family did not suspect anything. They asked how was the fun day? And the boys were evasive. They could not sleep at night. The guilt of disobeying their father was heavy in their heart.
Soon in the story, the younger brother confessed to his father how he disobeyed, and the father said, “I saw you were troubled, but I thought best to leave you to ponder.” So the father was sensitive to the conscience that has been pricked. After confessing, the boy’s conscience was clear. And the rest of the chapter developed the need for confession, exploring what happened in that story that he just told.
Now reading this, I thought this was a very quaint idea and today do children feel bad for this obeying their parents? They should, shouldn’t they? Would they feel bad until they cannot sleep and they must confess to unburden their guilt. You see, I don’t think handling confession is something that is taught in today’s parenting class. The modern parenting approach does a very good job telling parents that we are not gods, but they don’t tell us that parents are appointed by God. This book is written with that view. The parents in this book, the fathers and the mothers are not overbearing. There are positive role models. They are not know-at-alls. Even this view is refreshing.
Consider the movies you watch. How often is the father absent or messed up or a bumbling clown while the children get him out of trouble? Where is the father figure? The wiseman, compassionate, strong, a father that the children can look up to. This book is kind to both children and parents.
There are 12 chapters and let me list them first. Then later I’ll explain what those chapters contain. First is what we have just read is the Confession. Next is the Friend. Then prayer, consequences of neglecting duty, Almost a Christian, difficulties in religion and evidences of Christianity. Then you have the practical aspects of Christian duty which is a study of the bible, the Sabbath, trial and discipline and personal improvement. Then the whole book closes with a conclusion.
The Jesus He Writes, We Love
So in the chapter on the Friend, there are a lot of goodies in each chapter, but I because of time, I can only describe parts briefly. In the second chapter he describes Jesus and he writes:
Inquirers after the path of piety are very slow to learn that the Savior is the friend of sinners. They will not learn that he comes to help us while we are in our trials and difficulties, not after we get out of them. How many say in their hearts, I must overcome this sin, or free myself from that temptation, and then I will come to the Savior. I must have clearer views of my own sins, or deeper penitence, or awaken true love to God in my heart, and then, but not till then, can I expect Christ to be my friend. What! do you suppose that it is the office of Jesus Christ to stand aloof from the struggling sinner until he has, by his own unaided strength, and, without assistance or sympathy, finished the contest, and then only to come and offer his congratulations after the victory is won? Is this such a Savior as you imagine the Bible to describe?
There is more but I just want to tell you that you will love the Jesus, whom Abbott describes here, who would be a great comfort and assurance to all.
Old Fashion Prayer in a Storm
The next chapter is on prayer. And let me give you the problem scenario that I think I face, and many Christians face. If someone is sick, and if I pray, “God let your will be done.” Someone might say that I have no faith that I should pray more confidence that God will heal the person. But if I pray, “I proclaim God’s healing on you.” Someone might say I’m being presumptuous of God’s will because it may not be God’s will for him to be healed. Abbott gives an illustrative prayer from a ship caught in a storm. It is a long prayer. I’m going to quote it at length. This is a prayer from 200 years ago, which I think is very instructive. I quote:
Grant, Holy Spirit, that all of us who are now present, exposed to this danger, may come with our whole hearts to thee. When in health and safety we break thy commands and neglect our duty, and then when danger comes, and no arm but thine can help, we are ashamed and afraid to come to thee. But O, our Father, let not one of us hesitate now. We thank thee for teaching us, by so irresistible a proof, how dependent we are upon thee. May we all be willing to learn the lesson, and may we bow humbly before thee now, even if we have never bowed before. “We come to ask that thou wilt protect us in this danger, and bring us safely to our homes. Thou canst protect from greater dangers than these. Wilt thou protect us. Save us from finding our watery grave here in the deep, and save our beloved parents and brothers, and sisters, at home, from the anxiety they must even now feel, and from the anguish such tidings of our destruction must give. Almighty Father, save us, we pray thee.
It doesn’t end here. He continues:
Nevertheless, not our will but thine be done. We see but a part, and thou seest the whole. If thou seest it to be best that we should go down here to a watery grave, we would acquiesce in thy will. We have solemnly given ourselves to thee, and chosen thee for our portion. We have, if we love thee at all, committed ourselves to thy care and to thy disposal. We have rejoiced in this dependence upon thee when we have been in health and safety, and we will not shrink from our covenant to be thine, now we are in danger. Do with us as good in thy sight, only give to us all a calm and happy acquiescence in thy will. Pardon our sins, so that we may be at peace with thee; and whether we are to live or die, may our hearts be thine, through Christ, our Redeemer. Amen.
That was a lovely prayer.
Turn to God, Without Delay
The next chapter is the Consequences of Neglecting Duty. And he writes:
Reader, is your name on the sad catalogue of those who read religious books and listen to religious instruction merely to bring the question of duty again and again before your minds, only to decide that you will not do it?
The whole book always asks this question. Do you hear but not obey? Do you hear the duty but you still reject it? And what follows in the consequences of neglecting duty is a retelling of Louisa. A true story. Also a horror story. I don’t want to reveal the ending or the story itself because it ruins the reading. But knowing that many will not read this book, I will convey the warning.
Don’t think you can repent anytime you want. Knowing the truth of God does not mean you can repent and come to God repent when you can. Now and turn to God. Now. Don’t delay. The moment may pass and never return.
And in the next chapter, he follows up on the warning, he describes a young man who decides he wants God but finds it difficult to change his circumstances, his friends and his habits. So this young man decides that he will be religious once he enters college. But at college he finds there’s so much work and so he vows to be religious when he returns home for the holidays. And this goes on. He never becomes religious. Abbott pinpoints one reason why a man is almost a Christian. That’s the title of this chapter. Almost a Christian. And one reason is because the man is never willing to say, “I am willing to be a Christian now.” In this same chapter he describes two other reasons why a man is almost a Christian: a love of the world and a fear of the world. Almost a Christian, a very terrible and scary phrase.
The Enquiring Mind
The next chapter is dealing with the difficulties in religion. And I’m going to read another long quote because it’s so relevant not just to religious questions, but also every other question that faces us today. And Abbott here offers much needed wisdom. He writes:
It is characteristic of the human mind not to be willing to wait long in suspense, on any question presented to it for decision. When any new question or new subject comes before us, we grasp hastily at the little information in regard to it within our immediate reach, and then hurry to a decision. We are not often willing to wait to consider whether the subject is fairly within the grasp of our powers, and whether all the facts which are important to a proper consideration of it are before us. We decide at once. It is not pleasant to be in suspense. Suspense implies ignorance, and to admit ignorance, is humiliating.
I think that describes a lot of people on Twitter and everywhere else. With that background, he addresses questions like: Why suffering? What about human accountability? What caused God and so on?
But he makes this very wise point. He looks past these questions and points out that the inquirer is sometimes not sincere. After describing how a person tries to find a loophole in the Bible instead of dutifully loving and serving God, Abbott writes:
You strive to perplex your minister, or your Sabbath school teacher, or your parent, and thus find a momentary respite from the reproaches of a wounded spirit by carrying the war away from your own conscience, which is the proper field, into your pastor’s or your parent’s intellect. While the argument is going on here, your sense of guilt subsides, conscience is seared, and you fall back to coldness and hardness of heart.
I love that sentence. It’s long. I understand it’s long. But it says that sometimes people ask questions because they don’t want to deal with the heart problem, the conviction of sin and so on. Instead they want to ask about evolution. They want to ask about homosexuality. They want to ask about about contradictions, apparent contradictions in the Bible. So bringing the war out from the heart and into the minds of the pastor, into the minds of the parent. I think this is a very keen observation, very good observation here.
Now the next one is again trying to deal with the mind. The title is evidences of Christianity to convince the reader that Christianity is valid, there is proof for it. And this is the worst chapter of the book. This book is 400 pages long and this chapter is nearly 100 pages. As I read through this chapter, I nearly gave up because today you have better written, more up to date books to present the evidence of Christianity. I recommend Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”. Other popular books are Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” and J. Warner Wallace’s “Cold case Christianity”. So I’d just recommended three books and I would say that you could skip this chapter. It is a long and difficult chapter. Abbott makes a good point though that everyone should pay attention. Young Christians need to know the evidences of Christianity. It’s not just about doing good or having lots of Bible knowledge, you also need to be able to defend the faith. I think that is true 200 years ago and true I think more so today.
So in the last part you have four chapters on the study of the bible, the Sabbath, trial and discipline and personal improvement. This is all very practical. They’re very good. They’re very useful. He gives examples after examples so that the young person can actually follow and do. And he gives reasons.
For example, on the Sabbath, a person may ask why do the Sabbath, how do I do the Sabbath? Is there flexibility? And he explains why it’s unreasonable to insist on strict starting and ending time. He explains that what happens to the sea captain? How does he do the Sabbath? He departs from the UK for example in one time zone but ends in the US, in another time zone. Which time zone does he follow? So he makes very good arguments of this type of form. Very practical. Not very theoretical, abstract sort of thing, but just like how are we going to practice the suburbs when we are in two different time zones as we travel?
Yet he also gives very pastoral type of advice. He also says that a flexible understanding of when the Sabbath starts and ends should not be a license to break the Sabbath in the local church. So very biblical, very practical, very well explained. I think these four chapters is all like that and I have learned new things as well from the way he describes these disciplines.
Appeal to the Young and Parents
In the conclusion, he writes this:
I shall say nothing; in these few concluding paragraphs, to those who have read without coming in heart to the Savior. If they have not been persuaded ere this to do it, they would not be persuaded by any thing which I have time and space now to say. I have however, before ending this volume, a few parting words for those who have accompanied me thus far, with at least some attempt at self-application—some desire to cherish the feelings which I have endeavored to portray—some penitence for sin, and resolutions to perform the duties which I have from time to time pressed upon them.
So he ends his book by appealing once more for for the reader to do their duty. He ends the book with a plea to the reader and with some emotion, a plea to parents. He writes:
Your religious influence over your children will depend far more on your example, than upon your efforts to procure for them good religious instruction.
So saying to parents, don’t just buy books and tell them to read. You have to be an example, do your duty O Parent!
A Product of It’s Time
Now there are some criticisms for this whole book.
One, many of you guys will not read it because the typesetting is awful. I don’t know whether there is a better copy in Amazon, but I can tell you that the one I have, the headings are inserted in the middle of paragraphs, hyperlinks are wrong, words are misspelled because they scan it and some words cannot be recognized. So sometimes some words you have to guess. Okay, so type setting is absolutely awful.
Next point is the author is a product of his time. Jacob Abbott is overly optimistic of the Christian redeeming society. There is one section, lengthy section on him on the story of bringing bibles and religious teachings to the prisons and he writes with such great hope of what this will do that I find it tragic reading this misplaced optimism 200 years later.
Also Jacob Abbott, as a product of his time, he uses words that might get him in trouble, not might, he will get in trouble today. For example, he describes efforts by Christians to make savages civilized. I just want to say savages as understood then and as should be understood today is not referring to race or religion but behaviour. Every so-called advanced civilization, whether Greek or Chinese has a word to describe savages and whites can be savages too as so famously shown in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” or the TV series “Walking Dead”. I can say more but I’m not going to say more. If you’re sensitive to words like savages as understood by people of earlier times, then please don’t read this book. I don’t want this book to get banned.
Another criticism is that the target audience, the youth will not appreciate this 400 page book. It takes a bit of effort to read the long sentences and sometimes overly long illustrations. I really hope that a publisher will modernize and reprint because this book, “The Young Christian” can be a good gateway book for many Christians as they journey through, maybe eventually through the Puritans: Spurgeon, Bunyan and maybe even Calvin or Luther because this is a very nice easy way to go into that time and culture and way of thinking.
Vigorous Effort to Obtain Good From It
And if there is a reprint I would gladly buy this and pass it off to my children and to my friends’ children because it is, it can be a very good book. The youth should recognize and appreciate the honesty on the religious instruction. Let me just quote some more things from Abbott. He describes a useless way of reading, I quote:
She reads the chapter on confession, and understands what I mean by full confession of all sins to God, and forms the vague and indefinite resolution to confess her sins more minutely than she has done; but she does not, in the spirit of that chapter, explore fully all her heart, and scrutinize with an impartial eye all her conduct, that every thing which is wrong may be brought to light, and frankly confessed and abandoned.
In the whole book he says he wants us to do, not just read. And he continues in the conclusion chapter:
Now there is no question that many Young Christians will read this book in the manner I have above described; that is, they throw themselves as it were passively before it, allowing it to exert all the influence it will by its own power, but doing very little in the way of vigorous effort to obtain good from it. They seem to satisfy themselves by giving the book an opportunity to do’them good, but do little to draw from it, by their own efforts, the advantages which it might afford.
Now, isn’t that a problem with many of us readers? We read many books and do very little of the instructions. So he makes a very good observation there.
I have hope in the young that I think that maybe some of the young will enjoy this book because they want truth boldly told and this book, if you can overcome the typesetting can help you.
As for parents, you will find a sympathetic and encouraging tone in this book. The modern parenting movement, as I said, is very good at telling us that we are not gods, that our children are individuals with have their own journey to walk and moral compasses to navigate. Well, this book from 200 years ago will tell you that parents are appointed by God to help the young learn what is their Christian duty before God.
And may we all do our Christian duty before God.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “The Young Christian; Or a Familiar Illustration of the Principles of Christian Duty” by Jacob Abbott.
England expects that every man will do his duty. Can I say, podcasters expects that every listener will do his or her duty to subscribe, share and review? No, I think that’s stretching the word duty too much. So let me just make that as a request.
And another request is if you have read any of Jacob Abbott’s books, can you get in touch with me? I am curious to know how did you come across his books and what do you think of his writings? Any of it, not just this particular one, but any of Jacob Abbott’s books. And maybe you can make a recommendation to me to read and to introduce to my children. And if anyone has thoughts on the book, my review, or on the Christian duty, please email me. My contact details are at www.reading andreaders.com. That’s www.readingandreaders.com. Thank you for listening
Book List and References
“The Young Christian; Or a Familiar Illustration of the Principles of Christian Duty” by Jacob Abbott. Amazon.
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. Amazon.
Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell. Amazon.
Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace. Amazon.
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