LEADERSHIP OF LITTLE CHILDREN.
Almost people has had its dream of a golden age. In most of the ancient mythologies there is found a tradition of a better time, when the earth was the common property of man, and pro duced of itself whatever he needed. The land then flowed with milk and honey. Beasts of prey lived peaceably with other animals, and men were free from selfishness and pride and the other pas sions and vices which now mar their happiness. The Greeks and Romans placed this golden age under the rule of Saturn, and cherished the hope that it would some day return. There is a famous passage in one of the eclogues of Virgil, which may possibly have been suggested by that prophecy of Isaiah from which the text is taken, "Now, "he says, "the reign of Saturn begins again. Every where the earth pours forth her fruits without cul ture. The fields grow yellow with soft ears of corn. Blushing grapes hang on rude brambles, and hard oaks distill honey. The ground shall not endure the harrow, nor the vineyard the pruning-hook. The serpent also shall die, poisonous plants disap pear, and the Assyrian spikenard shall grow in every soil." A similar picture of the golden age that is to come is given in Pope's stately ode on the Messiah: On rifled rocks, the dragon's late abode, The green reed trembles and the bulrush nods; Waste sandy valleys, once perplexed with thorn, The spiry fir and shapely box adorn; To leafless shrubs the flowery palms succeed, And odorous myrtle to the noisome weed; The lambs with wolves shall graze the verdant mead, And boys in flowery bands the tiger lead; The steer and lion at one crib shall meet, And harmless serpents lick the pilgrim's feet; The smiling infant in his hand shall take The crested basilisk and speckled snake, Pleased the green lustre of the scales survey, And with their forked tongues shall innocently play.
But neither the Latin nor the English poet has equaled the simplicity and beauty of the ancient Hebrew prophecy by which the latter at least was certainly inspired:"The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed, their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." In this splendid language the blessedness of the reign of Messiah is foretold. It is to be an age of universal peace, when even wild beasts will lose their ferocity, and men hardly less savage will dwell together in harmony and love. The vision has not yet been fulfilled, But the forces which tend to accomplish it entered into human life with the com ing of the Lord Jesus to the earth, and day by day and year by year the world is steadily moving to ward it. The whole creation, according to the great thought of the apostle Paul, shares in the re demption which He came to work out, and the time is certainly approaching when the prophecy of the angels' song will be fulfilled, and there shall be peace on earth as there is glory and praise in heaven.
One part of the prophet's glowing picture is worthy to be separated from the rest and considered by itself."A little child shall lead them."It suggests as a topic which is peculiarly appropriate to the Christmas season, the Leadership of Little Children.
We do not commonly associate the idea of lead ership with childhood. It seems rather to require mental and moral as well as physical qualities which belong only to maturer years. To be a leader of men one must have what a child does not possess, a clear and trained intelligence, a strong and well regulated will, a firm but gentle hand. Leadership implies a certain large experience of life, or at all events a natural energy and a power of self-control, which are rare even in men, and are not to be looked for in children. And yet there are many senses in which children are really the leaders of those who fax surpass them in knowledge and in power. The fact is a sign that the kingdom of heaven has already come in some measure; it is a prophecy that it is yet to come completely and everywhere.
A little child is not a safe leader in matters which require wise judgment and a varied ex perience. Obvious however as this is, it is very often lost sight of, in this country especially, and at the present day. It is sometimes said with some truth that we are reversing the ancient command, and are reading it thus: Parents, obey your chil dren. Some of us at least imagine that we discern both in our own children and in those of other people a spirit of self-confidence, self-will and independence of authority, which is not altogether prophetic of good. It may be, perhaps, in the eager American blood. It may be strengthened and stimulated by the keen American air. It is, at all events, fostered by certain usages and influences that are prominent in American life. Not a few parents in our day are not merely led but ruled by their children. And children sometimes have a way of putting forward their opinions, of delivering their judgments, of insisting that their tastes shall be gratified and their will be obeyed, which is, to say the least, a wide departure from the practice of former times. There is no doubt a tendency in elderly people to resent and resist what appears to them to be the intrusion of the younger generation upon the stage of life, where they themselves have hitherto played the leading parts. But not old people alone, all thoughtful observers remark in our American life a certain uppishness and forwardness, a rude self assertion, on the part of the young, which is hardly in keeping with the fitness of things, and which does not tend to elevate the tone of society. The ancient form of the command was much better. It is more in accord with the constitution of society, as that was ordained by its divine Author, and both parents and children are likely to be happier if it is left as it was written by the finger of God on the tables of stone and on human nature as well. There is great beauty, certainly, in the eager enthusiasm of childhood and youth, in its dash and its fire, its self-confidence and its energy. And yet, after all, experience too is worth something in the practical conduct of life. There are certain lessons to be learned from the past which childhood has not yet had time to gather up, and the mature and practiced judgment is a safer guide than an active but undisciplined brain and a fervid but ungoverned temper. It is better to place a pyramid on its base than on its apex. A ship is more likely to come safely into port if it is under the con trol of experienced sailors than of novices who are going to sea for the first time. Raw recruits have their place and their value in an army, but the battle is more likely to be won if they have trained and tried officers over them. Life is not altogether an experiment. Men have been living a long time. Some things have been found out. Some principles are settled. And life is most likely to be successful when these principles govern it, and when it is shaped in accordance with the wisdom of the past. If there is to be law, authority, obedience, it seems natural that the sources of it should be at the top and not at the bottom. If the judgment of the aged comes into collision with that of the young, it would seem to be proper that the young should give way. The simple fact is that children need guid ance, and are not competent to be the guides of those who are older and wiser than they. It is no infringement of their rights, no restriction of their independence, that they should follow while others lead. The duty of patient forbearance on the part of the parent ought not to need insisting upon. Not only the rights but the weaknesses of childhood are to be taken into account."I do not beat my child, "said a wise man once, "the world will beat him fast enough."Children are more easily led than driven. And yet the child that has never learned to submit to authority and yield to control, is likely never to learn to govern and control him self. The world will not be better managed than it is at present, if the authority which hitherto has belonged to the parent is usurped by the child. The precept of the apostle Paul, "Children, obey your parents, "is still sound, though somewhat old fashioned.
But that leadership of children of which I would especially speak is not a deliberate but an uncon scious leadership. They lead us, for one thing, into a deeper knowledge of love. We do not, indeed, get from them our first lessons in love, for we bring great capacities of loving with us into the world, and these find their objects very early in life. The first thing almost which we learn is to love. Our power to love grows stronger as the years advance. We love our friends, we love our homes, we love our country, we love the natural world around us, we love God and truth and virtue, without perhaps any distinct help from our children. And there is a love which binds human hearts together, though they may have long lived as strangers to each other, in a relation which is the most intimate and sacred in life. And yet every little child brings to its parents a new revelation of the nature and depth and power of love. There is certainly a difference between parental love and any other. There are in it elements of unselfish ness, of patience, of watchful care, of hope and fear, of pride and grief, for which we look else where in vain. No other form of human affection is so pure. No other is so utterly incomprehensible to one who has not felt it. The little child, whose presence awakens it, is utterly ignorant of its in tensity, and often holds it in slight esteem. It is a love which asks for very little,' but which cannot possibly give too much; a love which seeks the highest welfare of its object, and is as free from jealousy as it is from self-seeking. It is of all sentiments the most generous and elastic, giving itself forth to each one of many children as if that were the only child. And so it is the best earthly type of the unmeasured love of God. The Saviour Himself could find no better image than that of a father under which to reveal to us the great Being who had sent Him, and He even appealed, in His instruction, to our love for our children as a proof of God's love for us."If ye then, "He said, "being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father in heaven give you everything you need."It is certainly a most striking thought which the late Professor Drummond has so brilliantly urged, that the whole progress of the creation, from the first appearance of life on earth, has tended toward the development of love. He has pointed out to us in the slow evolutions of the past not merely a struggle for life, but a struggle for the life of others, which culminates at last in the affection of a mother for her child."The idea of mothers, "he says, "has from the beginning been in Nature's mind, and she has always been trying to draw closer and closer the bonds which unite the children of men."If it is love which gives to the world the little child, the child amply repays the debt by the love which it awakens in the heart of the parent; and as there is nothing in us which is nobler than this parental affection, our highest development is, in a sense, in the hands of our children. It is theirs to lead us to heights of experience from which we obtain the clearest visions, and on which we breathe the purest airs.
Unconsciously also do little children lead us to realize the charm and beauty of certain traits of personal character. We do not, of course, look to them as examples of qualities which are the product of training and experience, which, if not originated, are developed and made prominent by collision with the world, and by the responsibility and suffering of which this is the cause. We fre quently speak of the character of a child as un formed, and so in one sense it is. It is not ham mered into shape by the influences of society, nor hardened by habit into unalterable forms. It is still docile and pliant, waiting to be moulded, as it may be, by wise training on the one hand, or by the accidental influence of circumstances on the other. But just for this reason it shows us what human nature is in its essence and at its best. It has a freshness, a purity, which may afterward be lost, like that of the early morning air before it is clouded and stained by volumes of smoke from factory chimneys. As Dr. Guthrie says, "The morning, with every flower glistening in dews, the fresh air loaded with perfumes, the hills bathed in golden light, the skies ringing with the song of larks, is beautiful; and beautiful as the morning of day is that of life." There is in childhood a sweet simplicity, for ex ample, which has an infinite charm for one who turns to it from the artificiality and deceitfulness of later life. Concealment and cunning are the vices at once of the lowest and of the highest civiliza tion. The savage exhibits them at one extreme, the highly trained man of affairs at the other. To hide what we do not want to have known, to put the best possible appearance upon what we do, to try to make other people think that we are a little richer, wiser or better than we are, how common all this is among us! How rare is absolute hon esty, truthfulness, sincerity, in word and deed But this, in its absolute perfection, is shown by the little child, whose nature is as transparent as the waters of a mountain lake, or as the cloudless sum mer sky. Every thought and feeling is instantly expressed in word and look, with a frankness that is as free from suspicion as from fear. The child does not feel the need of concealment, until driven to it, perhaps, by unkindness or injustice, and all pretence is foreign to its nature. Herein is the secret of its singular power even over coarse and hardened minds; and few things are sadder than to see the frank simplicity of childhood giving place to the reserve and caution, perhaps the cun ning and hypocrisy, which are so early learned from contact with the world. As long as it lasts, it not only attracts and fascinates others, but it tends to make them also genuine and true. But once lost, it can seldom be recovered, except as sometimes, at the other extreme of life, the truth and the Spirit of God may develop in old age a simplicity of character which is like that of child hood.
Then, for another thing, little children are the world's best teachers of faith. It is perfectly nat ural to a child to believe. It undoubtingly accepts what is told it as the truth, and it relies with a con fidence which sometimes makes one tremble, on the power, wisdom and love of older people. Doubt and distrust come later, casting their icy chill upon the heart. The child believes not only everything but everybody. It has, of course, to learn that not every statement is true, not every man or woman worthy of confidence, but the sweet and simple trustfulness of little children not only touches the heart of every one who observes it, but tends to make those toward whom it is shown worthy of the confidence which is thus reposed in them. Few things reveal a brutal and vicious na ture more clearly than willingness to deceive a little child. No one in this world is wise or strong or good enough to be worthy of such implicit trust, but there is One above us on whom we can thus rely with an absolute faith. And this surely must have been one of the things which the Lord had in mind, when He said that except we become as little children we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
Another element in the beauty of childhood is its still unsullied purity. It is hard to look into the face of a child and retain one's faith in original sin. Of course, there are in all children capaci ties of evil and tendencies toward it, which will not be slow in revealing themselves, as there are forces of destruction slumbering in the softest sum mer air. But, as a lover of little children has said, "Fallen though we are, there remains a purity, modesty, ingenuousness, and tenderness of con science about childhood, that looks as if the glory of Eden yet lingered over it, like the light of even on the hilltops when the sun is down."Innocent,
at all events, a little child still is, of the evil which is around it in the world. Alas, that it must ever come to know how great and how dark it is! What a responsibility rests upon a parent for keep ing, so far as human power can, the mind and soul of a child from contact with what is base and vile! What a responsibility rests upon society at large, for the preservation, not merely of the physical, but of the moral health of children! It is not only one of the most sacred things on earth, it is also a purifying influence in the sphere of life in which it is observed. It tends to keep those around it pure. How many a man has been restrained by it from evil deeds that he was tempted to commit! There is a sentence in Juvenal which expresses a thought which was rare in antiquity, but is com mon enough now."The greatest reverence, "he says, "is due to a boy. If you are making ready for anything base, do not despise the years of the child, but let your infant son stand in the way of the sin about to be committed."The purity of children not only hinders the commission of sin, it has a thousand times led to the reformation of those already hardened by it. Thankful indeed ought we to be for the moral influence which they unconsciously exert."God sends them to us, "says Mary Howitt, for another purpose than merely to keep up the race. He sends them to en large our hearts, to make us unselfish and full of kindly affections and sympathies, to give our souls higher aims, to call out all our faculties, to extend enterprise and exertion, to bring around our fire sides bright faces and happy smiles and loving, tender hearts. My soul praises the great Father every day that He has gladdened the earth with little children." These last words remind us, for another thing, that it is the little child who leads the household and who makes the home. There are, indeed, beautiful homes which are not brightened by the presence of children. Yet there is truth in the quaint sentence of Southey, who says house is never perfectly furnished for enjoyment unless there is a child in it rising three years old, and a kitten rising three weeks."" Tell me not, "says another writer, "of the trim, precisely ar ranged homes, where there are no children, where, as the Germans say, the fly-traps always hang straight on the wall.' Tell me not of the never disturbed nights and days, of the tranquil, un anxious hearts where children are not."These are not the homes in which the truest happiness is found. It is a simple matter of history that houses were first built for the shelter of children. Men and women can bear exposure and hardship which would be fatal to a child. But the tender child-life makes necessary the but in which the savage lives, and out of which has grown, by natural evolution, every building that man has erected on the earth. Palaces, castles, stately and splendid cathedrals are but later developments of the thought which found its first expression in a roof of boughs and a wall of mud. The necessities of childhood have thus led to all the various architecture of the world. But it is true also that morally even more than physically, it is the little child who makes the home. In him the home-life centres. It is ad justed to his physical and intellectual wants, to his protection and care, and to his preparation for the activities of future years. The little life which cannot provide for itself, which cannot prepare it self for the career which is before it, not merely awakens love, but compels and directs the activity of those to whose loving care it is entrusted. And all this directly affects and even determines the character of the parent as well as that of the child. It is not merely true, as Lord Bacon says, that"he that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune"; but the various needs and claims of our children determine in great measure what we shall do, and so decide what we shall be. It is the little child that leads the household.
In some measure also it leads the state. We all know in what manner the ancient state regarded and treated the child; how it placed in the hands of the parent absolute power of life and death; how it ruthlessly exposed the sickly and deformed; how it left the others to be educated among slaves, and to adopt the ideas and manners and vices of slaves; how it regarded even their death as a mat ter of unconcern. Contrast with all this the pro visions made in modern communities for the wel fare of the little child. Think of the care which the state gives to its mental training as well as its physical life; how it protects the child by strin gent laws against cruelty and neglect on the part of the parent; how it provides asylums for the desti tute and the orphan, and hospitals for the care of children exclusively, from the very earliest mo ments of life. Of course the power which has wrought this immense change in the temper and attitude of the state toward the child is chiefly the Christian religion; and if that religion had ac complished nothing else in the world, it would for this alone deserve our honor and gratitude."In stitutions of beneficence, "as Dr. Storrs has said, "for the shelter and nurture of children, such as had not been known in the world till the power of Christianity began to be felt, are now common in the countries which Christianity has blessed; while the Church, inspired by the words and the action of Him whom it accepts as Master, regulates its worship, constructs its buildings, invents or ap plies new forms of art, creates a new literature, to minister to children."The ancient prophecy is thus again fulfilled, and the little child leads the state as well as the household. And all this is done not merely from motives of self-preservation. The state is prompted by a more humane and a more spiritual purpose, in thus assuming and ex tending the office of the parent. One of the high est functions which modern governments exercise is that of opening to every child within their limits the avenues of knowledge and of that power which knowledge gives.
These thoughts spring naturally and freshly to mind at each recurring Christmas season. For the influence of childhood on the thought and life of the world is largely due to the teachings of Jesus. He was, as has been justly said, "the first great teacher of men who showed a genuine sympathy for childhood. He was perhaps the only teacher of antiquity who cared for childhood, as such. Plato treats of children and their games, but he treats them as elements not to be left out in con structing society. They are not to be neglected because they will inevitably come to be men and women. But Jesus was the first who loved child hood for the sake of childhood. The ancients es teemed it their first duty to put away childish things, but Jesus in seeking to bring about a new and higher development of character, perceived that there were elements of character in childhood which were to be preserved in the highest man hood. He saw that a man must indeed set back again toward the simplicity and innocence of child hood, if he would be truly a man. Until Jesus Christ, the world had little place for childhood in its thoughts. When He said, 'Of such is the kingdom of heaven,' it was a revelation." And yet it is not merely in this general way that Isaiah's prophecy has been fulfilled. There has been on earth one little child toward whom the thoughts of the world turn as they do not to any other, and who has led it to the highest and most precious things which it has yet attained. It is a fact as glorious as it is full of mystery, that God, becoming in carnate in the world, should have entered human life in the person of the Babe of Bethlehem, and the Boy of Nazareth. That little child around whose rude bed the shepherds gathered, while over it the angels sang their Christmas hymn, leads us at once to new thoughts of God. How wonderful was His condescension, in thus taking upon Him our nature, not in its greatness but in its weakness, not in the maturity of its powers but in the utter helplessness of infancy! How thoroughly did He thus identify Himself with humanity, passing through all the stages of human growth and expe rience, from infancy to manhood, from the manger to the cross! What consecration is given to all our homes by the presence of the Son of God in the humble home of the Nazarene carpenter! What a supreme benediction has come upon mother hood from her to whom this priceless gift of God was sent! How all infancy is set hereafter in a sacredness, which makes forever impossible the in difference and cruelty which were shown toward it in the centuries which preceded the advent of Christ: If the Lord had come from heaven to earth in a chariot of cloud or fire, and had first ap peared as a man moving about among men, He would not have so glorified our human nature, as when He assumed it in the unconsciousness and helplessness of infancy, and carried it forward through childhood to youth, and through youth to manhood, coming thus into closest relation with every successive period of life. The old church father Irenaeus shows that the spirit of Christmas day was not unknown even in the second century, when he says of the Lord that"He sanctified every age by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all by means of Himself, - all, I say, who through Him are born again to God, - infants and children, and boys, and young men and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infancy; a child for chil dren, thus sanctifying this age; being at the same time made to all an example of piety, righteous ness and submission." And so, for another thing, the childhood of Jesus leads us to see what childhood should always be. We have indeed no record of the boyhood and youth that were passed in the rude and perhaps squalid village among the mountains of Galilee, where Jesus grew up. And yet we are hardly more sure of what His manhood was, than of what His childhood must have been. It must have been pure, it must have been gentle, it must have been loving and helpful. It cannot have been lacking in courage. It was certainly marked by filial obe dience. There was in it the same firm resistance of evil which was manifest in later years. It did not disdain or shirk the humblest duties belonging to a life of toil. It won the love of brothers and sisters, of neighbors and friends; and with the growing sense of the great career appointed for Him by His Father in heaven, for thirty years this young man of Nazareth was willing to be known only as the carpenter's son. All beautiful traits of boyhood and youth were certainly collected and embodied in Him. And so the silent years of ob scurity and of growth become not less suggestive to us than the years of public activity which fol lowed them. He who has given to the world its only type of a perfect manhood, has reminded us as well of what childhood may be.
Another thing which instantly follows from this, as a practical lesson of the childhood of Jesus, is that no little child is too young to be a Christian. It may perhaps seem to those of you who are children, as if you could not copy the example of the great Teacher and Prophet, who wrought so many miracles and said so many wonderful things. But think of Him as He was in the home of Joseph and Mary; a little child, a growing boy, a youth engaged in His earthly father's business, as well as in that of His Father in heaven; diligent, truthful, loving and faithful; pure in thought and feeling and purpose; and remember that He was once at precisely the same age at which you now are, and if you follow the child Jesus, you too will deserve to be called His disciple. Put yourself, as it were, even now in His company; grow up with Him as the years add themselves to one another in your life, and it may be that you will never know when you became a Christian, because you will always have been His companion and friend.
Another thing which is suggested to us by this train of reflection, and which each return of the Christmas time should impress on us anew, is the duty of looking after and saving the children. The work that we do, or try to do, for the moral and spiritual reformation of men and women around us, is often discouraging and apparently fruitless; but work done for the young never fails of its reward. And here is our hope, our one hope, of reforming society and bringing the world under the power of Christian truth. An impression for good or for evil made on the mind of a little child, is never effaced."In our great museums, "as a well-known English writer says, "you see stone slabs with the marks of rain that fell hundreds of years before Adam lived, and the footprint of some wild bird that passed over the beach in those old, old times. The passing shower and the light foot left their prints on the soft sediment. Then ages went on and it has hardened into stone. And there they remain and will remain forevermore. That is like a man's spirit; in the childish days so soft, so susceptible to all impressions, so joyous to receive new ideas, treasuring them up, gathering them all into itself, retaining them all forever. And then as years go on, habit, the growth of the soul into steadiness and power, and many other reasons be side, gradually make us less and less capable of being profoundly and permanently influenced by anything outside of us, so that the process from childhood to manhood is a process of getting less impressible."" There is little hope, "says an old writer, "of children who are educated wickedly.
If the dye have been in the wool, it is hard to get it out of the cloth."This lesson is certainly too obvious to be mistaken. If we are to extend the kingdom of the Master in the world, we must seek first of all to bring the children under its light and power.
And finally, there comes to us from the manger at Bethlehem and from the home at Nazareth, the clearest possible revelation of the true spirit of the Christian religion. It seems as if Jesus Himself had become a little child in order to give emphasis to His own later teaching concerning the absolute necessity of the childlike spirit in those who would become members of His kingdom. He came at an age in the life of the world which appears in some respects childish in comparison with that in which we live. But His words and His influence were not for that day only, they were for all time. Now, as of old, he who would see the kingdom of God, must be born again and enter it as a little child. He who would do the work of God in the world, must do it with the singleness of faith and of purpose which are characteristic of childhood. The highest attainment which can be made in Christian charac ter on earth, under the training of God's truth and His Spirit, is the recovery, as life draws near its end, of the purity which marked its beginning. And when we enter the kingdom overhead, if we ever do enter it, it will be as when a little child is born into an earthly home. It will be the entrance upon a life full of wonder and mystery, a life of growth, a life of ever-advancing knowledge, a life unfolding beneath the Father's eye, in the safe and loving shelter of the Father's house.