CHARLES G. FINNEY
September 10, 1851
Address to the Graduating Classes of Oberlin College.
Delivered Sabbath, August 24, 1851
by Pres. C. G. Finney
(Reported by the Editor)
"Be thou strong therefore, and show thyself a man, and keep the charge of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and withersoever thou turnest thyself." --1 Kings 2:2-4
These are the words of David to Solomon, his son, just before his death. In applying them on the present occasion, I shall notice,
I. The strong points of distinction between man and the brute creation.
II. What is implied in showing one's self a man in the sense of our text.
III. What it is to keep the charge of the Lord thy God.
IV. Why this should be done.
I. Man as distinguished from the brute creation, has a moral nature. He has not only an animal nature in common with them, but a moral nature, which they have not. He is endowed with reason, and this reason imposes upon him obligation. Hence he must have some moral character, for it is inevitable that beings upon whom moral obligation rests, should either conform or not conform their voluntary action to this obligation; and to do either creates moral character. Man by virtue of his moral nature must be responsible. He must be held responsible by his Maker and by all other intelligent beings, and what is more, he must inevitably hold himself responsible. He has a conscience; and this faculty existing within him as an important element of his constitution, must forever distinguish him from the brute creation.
II. What is it to show yourself a man?
1. As distinguished from beasts, you are to show that you have a nobler nature and act under a higher law than they. They follow their instincts and appetites, knowing no other law than this. They have and can have no idea of a higher law than this; therefore for them to follow this law is no wrong. Let this be their peculiarity--this the law that governs their activities; but let it not be your law. It behooves you to show yourselves men; to show that you have nobler powers and act under a higher law than beasts. It behooves you to show that you were made in the image of God--like Him in the possession of a moral nature--like Him endowed with reason and with conscience, in the light of which you are to walk, controlling your own free actions by a law unknown to the brute creation, and common to yourselves and to your Maker. Hence you are by no means to follow your own impulses, appetites and passions, for this would be to show yourselves not men but beasts. On the contrary, you are to show yourselves men by living in obedience to the law of your reason and conscience, recognizing your own moral agency and meeting all those responsibilities which attach to your nobler powers.
2. To show yourself a man, you must recognize your relation to God as a sinner, redeemed by the blood of Christ.
The unintelligent beasts recognize not this relation, for the two-fold reason that they cannot, and that in their case it does not exist; but the brutish of mankind recognize it not because they will not, though in their case it does exist. Their self-debased minds love to grovel and sink; they choose to disown those precious obligation to gratitude and love which grow out of their relations to God as redeemed sinners. In this they show themselves to be anything else than real men. To put themselves voluntarily as near the state of beasts as they can, is no mark of genuine manhood. It does not go at all to show that they are men.
3. You are to show yourselves educated men. You are not therefore children, and you cannot be allowed to live and act as children. You have proceeded in your education so far as to have completed your academic and your collegiate courses. Consequently, you are now to enter upon new responsibilities. You embark upon a broader field of relations and duties. You owe more to society and more to God than you ever have before. You can never fall back to the position of uneducated men, bearing only their responsibilities and obligations.
4. You are to prove yourselves honorable men; men intelligently aware of your responsibilities and promptly ready to meet them all. You are not only educated, but educated in God's College--a College reared under God, and for God, by the faith, the prayers, the toils and the sacrifices of God's people. You cannot but know that it has been the sole purpose of the founders and patrons of this College to educate here men and women for God and for God's cause. Of course this fact imposes special obligations upon every young man and every young woman who comes here for education.
Now therefore, if you forget this as though it were not so; if you forget that you were educated in God's College--a College reared with more prayers and tears, amid more toils and opposition than perhaps any other--if you forget this, you cannot show yourselves men. To forget this, and live in disregard of its accruing obligations must disgrace you. It will show that you are anything else than honorable men. It will show that you are strangely forgetful of your responsibilities to the praying and toiling men, the fruit of whose labors you have been so freely enjoying. You know too much about the sacrifices and toils of the men who founded this College, and of the men who still bear the burden of its support and of its labors--too much to allow you without dishonor to cast off your obligation to meet those great ends for which they toil and have toiled so intensely. They have labored on this ground not for self, but for God--not because they could not get a living elsewhere, with more ease, but because they sought to do God's work--sought to raise up men for God who should fill their own places after they had gone. The men whose labors you have enjoyed here have been trained in the school of adversity. They have deeply learned Christ amid reproach, toils and self-denials. Now, therefore, when they freely pour out their sympathies and toils in your behalf, if you abuse it all, and use it for yourselves and not for God, how recreant are you to your high obligations! How very far indeed is this from showing yourselves men!
5. You have been consecrated to God, both by the prayers of God's people clustered here, and by the prayers of multitudes scattered abroad over all the land. Here, as you know, are gathered many of God's people, who came for the purpose of nursing this College, and sustaining its spiritual interests by their prayers, and their labors. Abroad are thousands whose tearful eyes are towards this College and towards the precious youth who are here receiving their education; for their hope and their prayer is that these youth will show themselves men of God and women of God in their generation. You cannot but know therefore that you have been educated for God. Will you not therefore show yourselves men--men who shall honorably meet their responsibilities?
6. You have been educated as God's cadets, to be leaders in his "sacramental host." You know the Government educates your men at West Point, taking from them a solemn pledge to devote themselves to their country at her call. They are taught and trained at great expense, but their country has the pledge of their service in the field of war wherever and whenever she needs it. So God has a war against sin and hell--a mighty conflict--a conflict actually waged in fierce and fiery strife to-day. You must therefore stand to your post. The summons is not to be waited for; it has actually come, and you are needed as the trained cadets in the service of your King.
Now therefore, as honorable men and women, you are to stand firm on Zion's sake. As honorable men you must recognize all these facts and promptly meet their resulting obligations. In the spirit of men of honor you must admit their force, and shrink not a moment from assuming and discharging all your obligations to your Lord and Master.
For, these facts are not mere theories;--God forbid! Mere theories! Nay never, in my case--never in the case of the devoted men who have prayed and toiled for God and their generations on this sacred ground. Which of all these facts can you deny? Not one. But you will not be so dishonorable! Surely you will not. Having had God's servants to teach and to train you, and to provide this College for your education, how can you prove yourselves recreant to your augmented obligations? Surely you will show that you have a conscience. Are you not men and women of principle? We trust you are. Can we not trust you to act honorably on principles which you know to be founded on rectitude and truth? O, if you prove selfish and show that neither God or man can trust you--how dreadful?
Let it never slip from your minds that you are now to show yourselves educated men and women, of intelligence and knowledge, who have spent years in study, and have disciplined your minds to real and to useful thinking. You should be men of piety also; men who recognize honorably your relations not to men only, but to God. You graduate from a College sacred to God and not to man, and you will surely consider that you of right belong to God and not to this world or to yourselves.
Finally, show yourselves to be men of principle in these trying times when the question is gravely raised whether the law of God is above the law of man, whether human institutions and laws are to set aside the authority of God. Under these searching questions, where will you be found? Will you be so conservative as to turn recreant to every principle of right, and evade every question that calls you in the face of persecution and even of death, to establish the right and rebuke the wrong? My dear pupils, when Conventions are called to assert the right, to stand up for the oppressed--when in ecclesiastical Conventions or bodies your opinion shall be demanded, shall it, or shall it not be said of you that you are men of principle, that you are found on the right side, neither afraid nor ashamed to rebuke iniquity in high places or low places, in Church or in State? If there ever was a time since this nation existed when educated men, and especially ministers of the gospel were emphatically called upon to show themselves to be men of God, men of right principles, fearless, God-honoring men, this is the time. Yes, this is the time and these the circumstances to try men's souls; and in these days of trial, will you quail before the enemy? Will you abandon the right? Will you shuffle, and apologize for sin, yea, even for slavery, and the fugitive slave bill, for I cannot call it law? I trust you will not. If you do, surely you will show yourselves to be anything but pious, God-fearing men.
III. But I am next to enquire what is implied in keeping the charge of the Lord in the sense of our text. In this passage, David charges his son to "keep the charge of the Lord, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes and his commandments." All this is most apposite to your case. Like Solomon you are now going forth upon the stage of a yet more responsible life; you will traverse the world and fill your various spheres as God may appoint them; now therefore, you must understand God's charge and know what it is. God represents Himself as having charged you. You have heard and responded to the charge. What? Have you not all given to God your pledge that you will not live for yourselves? Has not God solemnly charged you on this point, that you are to live not unto yourself but unto Him and his cause? Has He not charged you to look after the welfare of the uneducated? Surely they too are of God's great family, and would He not have them also educated? And if so, does He not call you into his service in part for this end? Consider, are you educated for yourself alone, or for God and for the good of his world? Can you suppose that you have been educated for the purpose of enabling you the better to circumvent and over-reach your brother? Nay verily, God educated no man for such a purpose. By all the sympathies of his infinite heart He charges you to care for the oppressed in bonds, to feel for them as if yourself were bound with them and to do your utmost to burst their bonds in sunder and send them forth free.
And not for these only has God educated you and charged you to care. A world lying in darkness and death awakens his sympathies, and should awaken yours. He charges you to care for those who sit in darkness and death-shade, and lay out your strength for their enlightenment and salvation. And will you turn aside to serve yourself? Alas, how many after being educated to serve their generation according to the will of God, have turned aside to serve themselves! Some have gone to California, and some to Oregon; some this way and some that, for pleasure or for gold, but not for the good of their race and not for the glory of their Redeemer! And now "will ye also go away?"--away for such ends and on such a mission?
IV. But let us consider some of the reasons why you should keep the charge of the Lord.
David says to Solomon--"Keep the charge of the Lord thy God to walk in his ways, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and withersoever thou turnest thyself." Now you know very well that if you go abroad and hold true to the principles which you have been taught, you will prosper withersoever you turn yourself. And is not this a good reason why you should adhere to the service of God?
As you have approached this eventful period of your lives, you have had many solicitudes as to your success and whether God would be with you. Sometimes you have had great anxieties, and so have your parents for you, and your teachers also, and your pious friends. They have been anxious to see whether the Lord would be with you in all your goings, and prosper you withersoever you might turn yourself. You are soon going your various ways, in different, perhaps opposite directions. In a few months you will be scattered far asunder. Mountains may rear their cliffs and seas may roll their waves between you, but if everywhere, on sea or land, amid friends or foes, in circumstances prosperous or adverse, you show yourselves true to your responsibilities, you need not fear that God will prove false to his promises. If you deal honorably with Him, He will deal no less so with you.
I cannot tell you how much I was affected at the late Christian Anti-slavery Convention at Chicago. I had never met elsewhere so many of our students who have gone abroad to bear their testimony for God. It was not to me a matter of pride, but of devout thanksgiving to God. There I saw more than I had ever seen before what those men are doing who have gone forth from these halls of study and prayer. I saw how they are struggling to sustain every good cause, and with what zeal and self-denial they are spending and being spent in God's work. One young man returning homeward with me on the cars, sought out my seat in the darkness of the night, and with tears confessed how little he had appreciated his responsibilities while here at school, and how grateful he felt now for those instructions. I also could not but feel grateful to God for the privilege of laboring for God in training such young men for his work on earth.
And now, young men, what shall we hear of you when a few more rapid years shall have given you time and space to show yourselves men, and to show whether you will keep the charge of the Lord your God?
Dearly beloved, I say none of these things from distrust of you, but from a full heart and an overflowing soul. You cannot know how your teachers feel for you till you yourselves come to be teachers of others. We are upon a great work, and you never can realize our feelings till you come to bear our responsibilities, and stand on the high vantage ground of those who come after us. O, if you do not follow on in this great work, manfully bearing your part, how ill you deny your manhood, deny your piety, deny your Christianity! If you prove unfaithful, will you not greatly grieve Jesus Christ? What do you think Jesus Christ expects of you? Do you ever ask--What does thou expect of me? Do you ever say--O, Jesus, Savior of sinners, since thou hast died for me and bought me with thy blood, what dost thou expect of me, and what wouldest thou have me do? Do you not hear Him say--Shall those dear youth prostitute their educated minds to the service of Satan? Is it possible that they shall prove recreant to all their sacred obligations?
Moreover, proving faithless to your high calling, you will greatly grieve your pious parents. Most of you have at least one pious parent--many of you have both parents pious. It matters not whether they are living or dead; if living, they watch over you with deep solicitude, and not less, we must suppose, if they are dead. They have Christian feelings. I know many of them, and I know how Christian parents must feel in view of the course their sons or daughters shall take in respect to serving God, or themselves. Now when you go forth from this College, how cruelly will you grieve their hearts if you turn aside and do not keep the charge of the Lord your God. And remember, they will feel this most deeply, whether they themselves are in earth or heaven.
Turning aside, you will also greatly grieve your teachers. You cannot but know that it is for your usefulness and welfare that they have toiled and endured. Elsewhere than here, they might have had labor enough, honor enough, pay and emolument enough; but they have had your usefulness, your honor, and your best interests at heart. They love you, you know they do; and you love them. They cannot doubt this. But will they not deem you to have acted most dishonorably if you turn aside from the work for which God calls you?
I might say the same of the Trustees, and of all the patrons of this College. Methinks if Bro. Shipherd could come up from his grave and tell you on what principles he founded this Institution, and with what toils and tears he struggled to rear up its walls, his sepulchral voice would rebuke every recreant pupil who should selfishly turn aside, and fail to keep the charge of his God. And here too is father Keep, yet with us, in his old age--a Trustee from the very founding of this Institution. You know he had labored for this College both in this country and in England; and what ought he to say in faithful rebuke of every student who shall prove untrue to his high responsibilities? I might say similar things of all the Trustees, some of whom have come in the discharge of their official duties from Boston, some from Rochester, not sparing either time or money to aid in this great work. You know they are a class of consecrated men who feel an intense interest in you because they deem you consecrated to the cause they love.
So of the people settled here around the College. I can see many who were here when I came. I know that they have passed through many scenes of sore trial. Some of you do not know all their struggles--that they mortgaged their estates to sustain the Institution in its days of poverty and want, and that often these mothers in Israel gathered around the altar to bear before the Lord the case of the College, and seek help from on high when all other help seemed to have utterly failed. Now let me tell you, when you get away upon the broad battle-ground of the Christian life, you must not forget how many hearts are tremblingly alive to your course, grieved exceedingly if you recede from duty or falter in any wise in the conflicts of the day. Hear those who are now far away. Listen to their confessions. While here they may perhaps have failed to appreciate their privilege and obligations; but now, looking back, they say, "Oberlin, with all thy faults I love thee still!" Some of them are here to-day. They have come up to see you graduate, and they hope soon to see you by their side hand in hand in the toils of the Christian life; but if they see you turn aside, how will they complain against you before God, saying, Alas, alas, that those young men whom Thou hast bought with blood, and educated at so much sacrifice of thy servants, should prove recreant to their obligations of both God and man!
But if you do keep the charge of the Lord your God, rest assured, He will make your ways prosper, and not one humble effort of your hand shall be in vain. Remember, that this is a promise. Meet its conditions and God will prosper you in all you do for Him and his cause. Withersoever you turn yourself, the Lord will be at your right hand, and you shall not fear. You need not be afraid to go among the Indians of the forest, to the Islands of the great sea, among the slaves of the South, or the African tribes on their own soil; the Lord will lead you and give his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways. So keeping the charge of the Lord your God, follow on through life and many at last will rise up and call you blessed. I know that it is enough for any soul to have the smile of the Lord, and this only; but I also know that it is a rich gratification to see many rise up and call you blessed, and to hear them testify that through grace, you were God's instrument in imparting to their souls the choicest blessings heaven could bestow.
But once more let me say--God is greatly interested in you. He has been at great expense to train you thus far, and hence cannot but be solicitous and watchful for the result. Your teachers, you know, after having studied and toiled many years for your improvement and usefulness, feel a growing interest in your success, and think that they have reward enough for all their toil if they may learn that you are upright men, standing up firmly for the right, and never faltering in the ways of the Lord. Even so and far more does God feel an interest--far more deep, in you; and shall He look for good fruit in vain? I trust not. Will you not say--here, ere you leave these halls--As God liveth, and as my soul liveth, I will prove myself a man and a Christian! I will so conduct myself that I shall not be ashamed and need not blush to meet my teachers and my parents, and the Trustees of the College; nay, more, I will strive to live so that I shall not be ashamed to meet Him who has bought me with his own blood. How can you say less than this, beloved youth? and how can you do less than this in a cause so great and under responsibilities so pressing and so momentous?
I have a great many things to say to you, my children; but my heart is to full to say more.
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