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THE GOOD FEW REQUIRE BUT A NARROW ROAD.
MATTHEW v. 16. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and
glorify your Father which is in heaven. To all his disciples throughout all ages and countries, did our blessed master deliver this inimitable sermon, from whence the words, repeated to you, are taken. If this particular precept was more especially intended for the future preachers of the gospel (as yet there were none such appointed) the same may be said of all his other general precepts, wherein the hearers are not expressly distinguished from their teachers. All are ‘to repent, to bring forth fruit meet for repentance, to believe, to have charity, to be poor in spirit, to be meek and merciful, to be peace-makers, to be pure in heart, to hunger and thirst after righteousness;' but the clergy more than others. It is true of all Christians, that they are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world;' but it is, no doubt, with reason expected, that they, from whom this salt and light are to be received by others, should be higher seasoned, and more thoroughly illuminated, than the generality of those they preach to.
The same, in a great measure, is to be expected from all those, who, though not called to the ministry, have had the advantage of a liberal education, have been entrusted with
a the distinguished talents of much knowledge, large fortunes, and high stations in the world; and by Providence, the proprietor of all these, called to be his stewards, and the governors, leaders, and patterns of mankind. Nay, the precept extends itself down to the lowest ranks of Christians, to the master who works on a loom, to the father who labours with a spade, to every the poorest and most illiterate Christian, on whom the light of the gospel hath shone, although through the darkest cloud; for even these may let an unbeliever see, how much more may be done hy a little faith, than by all the vain philosophy of this world.
As to the sense of the precept, it is plainly this. Let all your discourses, conversations, writings, carry with them a portion of the light you have received. Let them be seasoned by the spirit, enlivened by the warmth, and brightened by the beams, of Christ who is your light.' Do not ostentatiously set off this light, but give it leave to sparkle, as through a heart of purest crystal in the eyes of all your acquaintances, that by it they may see what you are within, and comparing your outward actions or works, with the light or doctrine, that breaks forth with so much lustre from your well-instructed mind, may perceive a close conformity between them. The effect of this will be, that
, pleased with a heart so purified, so refined by the Spirit of God; and edified by a life so justly regulated according to his holy will, they must love you, adore your heavenly Father, who hath begotten you in his own likeness, and resolve to follow you, both in principle and practice, to that glorious sun, whose rays you drink in and transfuse into flowers of a ravishing scent and hue, and fruits of a most delicious taste, fruits from the tree of life.
You see now in the sense of this incomparable precept, what good you may do to mankind, what service and glory you may render to God, without stepping a hair's breadth out of your own way, or so much as intending any thing but your duty, and the pursuit of your own happiness.
Great as the force or beauty of such an example is in itself, it will be doubled, when compared with that of him • who walketh in darkness,' whose life, at best, is given up to folly, but generally to so even a mixture of that and wickedness, as makes it impossible to judge, whether he calculates worse for time or eternity, and whether he is more to be pitied for a mad self-murder of his own unhappy soul, or abhorred for the havock, he makes every where about him among the miserable partners of his crimes, and the despicable copiers of his excesses. He so spreads his darkness before, and over other men, that they cannot see his bad works, or if they do, see them only in such a disguise, as procures an imitation, and serves to please and glorify their common father which is in hell. Foul as this original is, it
is oftener copied, than the fairer one of piety and virtue, because every clumsy bungler can daub a likeness of vice, which is in itself a caricatura; but to hit off a just resemblance to the beauty of holiness, as exemplified in the life of a genuine Christian, a judicious and steady execution is required. As a good and bad life are built on very different foundations, this on a corrupt nature, and that, on principles of true religion; so they work, by way of example, with most power on minds of a like turn to those from whence they are originally displayed. Where principle hath taken place, good examples; where corruption prevails, bad ones, strike in with almost irresistible force. Their efficacy, however, is not inconsiderable, when exerted the contrary way. Good examples, if sufficiently numerous and illustrious, frequently make converts among the most degenerate slaves to vice; and bad examples still more frequently overpower the principles of religion in good minds, and seduce them first to a desire of tasting the forbidden fruit, and then of making a meal on it every day.
It is in this last light, that example should be considered, as a matter of the utmost consequence. Did example go no farther, than to make good men better, and bad men worse, this alone would be enough to give it a very high degree of importance. But when its power is found to be so great, as to change the natures, or stifle the principles of men, it must surely merit the closest attention of every thinking mind, especially as every one is more or less exemplary, whether he intends it or not, and therefore more accountable by far for what others shall think of him, than most men are willing to conceive. All men are naturally weak, and stand perpetually in need either of forbearance or assistance from other men.
Each therefore is answerable for all the good he might have done to others, and did not; and for all the mischief he hath done them, when it was in his power to avoid it, whether he intended them any injury or not. Now, if a man may do a great deal of good or hurt to others by his example, which experience shews us he may, as well as by his tongue or hands; so far as the opinions conceived of him by his neighbours are founded on his real conduct, so far is he accountable for those opinions. If a man is weak in giving way to a bad example, so is he likewise in not
having a skin tough and hard enough to defend him from the push of a sword, or the impression of a bullet; and he that carelessly shoots him might as well blame him for being vulnerable, as he that seduces him by a bad example, for not being proof against its infection. Nay, he who does not encourage the virtue of his neighbours by a good example, should be classed with him who refuses them a little food, without which he knows they must starve.
None, but such as are unacquainted with human nature in regard to its surprising proneness to imitation, will think I overstrain the importance of an example, either as to his duty who sets, or his virtue who is affected by it. 'Imitation, in many instances, perhaps in all, to a certain degree, is mechanical and involuntary, as may appear by the propagation of a yawn, by the effects of imagination in pregnant women, by the similitude of faces observable in people of the same nation, and by the likeness we insensibly contract to those we live and converse much with, in looks, gestures, and accents. There are not a few of us, who like the mimick bird, that, without any note of its own, sings or chatters only what it hears from others, seem to have scarcely any peculiar properties, but, as it were, to borrow themselves from those of one knows not how many contributors. These breathing pictures, or walking statues, would be saints if they conversed with saints; and would deserve nothing but the gallows, were they to spend their days with profligates. If there is in our nature so strong an inclination to mimickry, when we do not at all intend it, that inclination must, no doubt, work with double force, as often as, through vanity or a desire of excelling, we set ourselves to copy what we admire in others.
But whether our disposition to imitation is merely mechanical, as it is in that awkwardness we cannot help contracting in a long acquaintance and familiarity with people of no breeding; or intended, as in that genteel and easy carriage, which we endeavour to learn by accommodating ourselves to the air and manner of the polite, it is certain, all imitation begins in the mind, and works with the greatest force, when a morally good or evil action is copied, because, in this case, either the infinite motive of religion on the one side, or the most violent of our passions on the other, lend
their strength, as that of so many additional springs, to the power of imitation.
The habits of individuals, and the customs or fashions that prevail in, and characterise whole nations, are all the effect of example, be it wisdom or folly, virtue or vice, design or whim, that gave birth to that example in the first setters. A man hath, in a manner, his whole conduct prescribed to him by precedents set him, either in bis former actions, or in those of his acquaintances, especially the most eminent. Perhaps I might safely say, the world is not so much governed by religion, laws, kings, and other magistrates, as by the universal correspondence kept up between the examples of the great, which soon grow into fashions among the many, and the imitative disposition, so deeply rooted in all. Hence arises that distinction between the inhabitants of two different countries in the same climate ; the one frugal, the other luxurious; the one polite, the other barbarous; the one brave, the other dastardly; which is called the national character. We are members one of another in a civil, as well as in a religious sense; so that, like blood, the produce of our food in the natural body, custom the effect of examples, circulates through all the parts of the spiritual and political, imparting the qualities of the whole to each limb, and of each limb to the whole; till all is assimilated and settled into one general habit, either sound or distempered, according to the tendency of the examples that prevail.
Though example is generally on the side of folly and vice, yet in its own nature it is indifferent, and may be attached to wisdom and virtue.
Since then we are capable of doing one another so much good or hurt by our examples, we should be exceedingly watchful over all parts of our behaviour, not only as men prudently attentive to our own happiness; but as men also who mean not to surrender all pretensions to humanity, to the love of our country, and to Christian charity, which, all of them, call aloud on us for the countenance of good examples, to support the piety of the church, the virtue of the state, and of course, the strength of the one in this, and the happiness of the other, in both worlds.
If we consider what are the effects of our conduct among