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Let your speech be always with grace seasoned with salt.
COL. iv. 6.
MY DEAR YOUNG FRIEND:- To be able to introduce the great subject of religion, in an easy, seasonable, and acceptable manner, in the daily intercourse of society, is a most precious talent, the uses of which are more various, more rich, more numerous, and more important, than almost any that can be mentioned.
That this ability, when it exists in a high degree, is, in part, a natural talent, cannot be doubted. The physical temperament of some men is much more favourable to the ready and unconstrained performance of the duty in question, than that of many others. More stress, however, I apprehend, has been sometimes laid on this fact, than there ought to have been. Not a few allege that they have “no gift” of this kind, and, therefore, content themselves in the habitual neglect of the duty. At any rate, they rarely attempt it, and think that they cannot perform it, even tolerably. But it would be just as reasonable to plead, because an easy, pleasant, and attractive elocution is natural, in a peculiar degree, to some, that therefore others who cannot attain equal excellence in this re
spect, ought not to attempt to speak at all. The fact is, the power of introducing and maintaining religious conversation well, though to a certain extent a natural gift, is yet capable of great improvement, nay, it may be said, of unlimited improvement; and the true reason, no doubt, why some persons of plain talents, and with even striking disadvantages of physical temperament, yet excel in this happy art, is that they have taken pains to cultivate a talent so peculiarly precious to the pious mind, and so manifestly useful in all the intercourse of life. To what appear to me some of the best means of carrying on this cultivation, I shall advert before closing the present letter.
My first object shall be to point out some errors, in relation to this subject, which appear to me to be prevalent; and this will prepare the way for a few general counsels for conducting religious conversation, and also for cultivating a happy talent for the discharge of this part of Christian and ministerial duty.
1. It is an error to suppose that religious conversation must be introduced on all occasions, and in all companies, indiscriminately, whether the time, the character of the persons present, and the circumstances, favour it or not. No doubt many who have but little taste for such conversation, omit to introduce it, under the plea that there is no good opportunity,” when it is really otherwise. But there can be as little doubt, that there are many occasions, in which no suitable opening for it is presented. On such occasions, to drag forward the subject, in a formal manner, and, as it were, “by main force," is never judicious, and often very revolting. It frequently has the appearance of being done as a kind of official
task, which is never likely to do good. Be always on the watch for opportunities of saying something for the honour of your Master, and for the welfare of the souls of men; but do not think it your duty to compel people to listen to you on this most sacred, important and delicate of all subjects, when their character, their situation and their employment evidently close up every suitable avenue of approach.
2. It is an error to imagine that the same methods of introducing and maintaining religious conversation, are equally adapted to all persons, and all occasions. If I am not deceived, many adopt the notion that the very same plan of approach will answer in all cases, for the rich and the poor, the learned and the illiterate, the occupant of high office, and the most unpretending, obscure citizen. This is to set at nought all the principles of human nature, and to forget that the circumstances of men have much effect in modifying their feelings and character. If we open the Bible, we shall see ample warrant for addressing some persons on this subject unceremoniously and directly; and others in a more cautious and circuitous manner. In this sense, we ought, with the apostle, to “become all things to all men, that we may gain some;" not by flattering their prejudices, or countenancing their corruptions; but by endeavouring skilfully to adapt our instructions and exhortations to their several habits, attainments, circumstances, and tastes. Those who are most intelligent, and whose pride would be most apt to be offended by an abrupt address, might be approached, and perhaps won, in an indirect and gradual manner. There are thousands to whom I might safely say, “Pray, sir, do you cherish the hope that you are a real Christian ?”. But there are many others, to whom if I were to address such a question, I should expect to be shut out from all opportunity of approaching or benefiting them afterwards. Yet the very same people might, by a little address, be insensibly drawn into a free conversation on the same subject, and to answer that very question without the least offence. This is one of the many cases in which some knowledge of human nature and of the world is essential to a wise discharge of duty. Nor is it a valid objection to this counsel to say, that, if we follow it, we may be tempted to defer too much to human rank, and corrupt refinement. There is, no doubt, danger on this quarter, against which we ought to guard. But the abuse of a thing is not a legitimate argument against its use. Counterfeits do not prove that there is no true money, but rather the reverse.
3. Another very common error in religious conversation, is to say too much. A man may be “ too full of talk” on this, as well as on any other subject. That
may talk so much and so long, as to become “ weariness” even to his pious hearers, and much more to those who are not pious. This is far from being a rare occurrence; and it becomes especially an evil, when the pious sentiments uttered, are all of the most common-place sort; and, not only so, but dealt out in that common-place, task-like manner, which very seldom makes a favourable impression among discerning people. Guard, then, against excessive talkativeness, even here. Let what you say on this subject be a real “conversation." Let one object of your address be, to induce others to talk, and disclose their sentiments and feelings, that you may know how to
answer them. Let your part of the discussion be as lively, pointed, and short as you can make it. Never allow it to degenerate into formal, tedious preaching, or rather prosing.
4. Once more, it is the error of some to imagine that religious conversation is to be carried on with a tone of voice, and an aspect of countenance, peculiar to itself. Hence, while these persons converse on all other subjects in a simple, easy, natural manner, the moment they pass to the subject of religion, their whole manner is changed. It becomes formal and artificial; so that you would scarcely know them to be the same persons who had been a few minutes before conversing on ordinary subjects. This is a fault as unreasonable as it is repulsive. Why should men cease to speak naturally, when they come to speak on a subject the most interesting and delightful in the world ? Shun this fault with the utmost care. Do not, indeed, allow yourself to fall into the opposite extreme; I mean talking on the subject of religion with levity. But, at the same time, let all grimace, all sanctimoniousness of manner, all affected solemnity, all lofty dictation, be carefully avoided. The more simple, affable, and entirely inartificial your manner, the more you will gratify all classes; nor is this all; the more easy will you always find it to slide insensibly into religious conversation, without alarming the fears of the most thoughtless; and the more easy to recur to it again, after a little interruption from other topics.
But, to guard against these errors, is not all that is incumbent upon you in privately conversing with men on their eternal interests. My next object, then, shall