My college course was at last finished satisfactorily to my mother and friends. What joy there is to be got in college honors was mine. I studied faithfully and graduated with the valedictory.

Nevertheless I came back home again a sadder if not a wiser man than I went. In fact a tendency to fits of despondency and dejection had been growing upon me in these last two years of my college life.

With all the self-confidence and conceit that is usually attributed to young men, and of which they have their share undoubtedly, they still have their times of walking through troubled waters, and sinking in deep mire where there is no standing.

During my last year, the question "What are you good for?" had often borne down like a nightmare upon me. When I entered college all was distant, golden, indefinite, and I was sure that I was good for almost anything that could be named. Nothing that ever had been attained by man looked to me impossible. Riches, honor, fame, any thing that any other man unassisted had wrought out for himself with his own right arm, I could work out also.

But as I measured myself with real tasks, and as I rubbed and grated against other minds and whirled round and round in the various experiences of college life, I grew smaller and smaller in my own esteem, and oftener and oftener in my lonely hours it seemed as if some evil genius delighted to lord it over me and sitting at my bed-side or fire-side to say "What are you good for, to what purpose all the pains and money that have been thrown away on you? You'll never be anything; you'll only mortify your poor mother that has set her heart on you, and make your Uncle Jacob ashamed of you." Can any anguish equal the depths of those blues in which a man's whole self hangs in suspense before his own eyes, and he doubts whether he himself, with his entire outfit and apparatus, body, soul, and spirit, isn't to be, after all, a complete failure? Better, he thinks never to have been born, than to be born to no purpose. Then first he wrestles with the question, What is life for, and what am I to do or seek in it? It seems to be not without purpose, that the active life-work of the great representative Man of Men was ushered in by a forty days dreary wandering in the wilderness hungry, faint, and tempted of the Devil; for certainly, after education has pretty thoroughly waked up all there is in a man, and the time is at hand that he is to make the decision what to do with it, there often comes a wandering, darkened, unsettled, tempted passage in his life. In Christ's temptations we may see all that besets the young man.

The daily bread question, or how to get a living,—the ambitious heavings, or the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, all to be got by some yielding to Satan,—the ostentatious impulse to come down on the world with a rush and a sensation,—these are mirrored in a young man's smaller life just as they were in that great life. The whole Heavens can be reflected in the little pool as in the broad ocean!

All these elements of unrest had been boiling in my mind during the last year. Who wants to be nothing in the great world? No young man at this time of his course. The wisdom of becoming nothing that he may possess all things is too high for this stage of immaturity.

I came into college as simple, and contented, and satisfied, as a huckleberry bush in a sweet-fern pasture. I felt rich enough for all I wanted to do, and my path of life lay before me defined with great simplicity.

But my intimacy with Miss Ellery, her marriage and all that pertained to it, had brought before my eyes the world of wealth and fashion, a world which a young collegian may try to despise, and about which he may write the most disparaging moral reflections, but which has, after all, its power to trouble his soul. The consciousness of being gloveless, and threadbare in toilet, comes over one in certain atmospheres, as the consciousness of nakedness to Adam and Eve. It is true that in the institution where I attended, as in many other rural colleges in New England, I was backed up by a majority of healthy-minded, hardy men, of real mark and worth, children of honest toil and self-respecting poverty, who were bravely working their way up through education to the prizes and attainments of life. Simple economies were therefore well understood and respected in the college.

Nevertheless there is something not altogether vulgar in the attractions which wealth enables one to throw around himself. I was a social favorite in college, and took a stand among my fellows as a writer and speaker, and so had a considerable share of that sincere sort of flattery which college boys lavish on each other. I was invited and made much of by some whose means were ample, whose apartments were luxuriously and tastefully furnished, but who were none the less good scholars and high-minded gentlemanly fellows.

In their vacations I had been invited to their houses, and had seen all the refinement, the repose, the ease and the quietude that comes from the possession of wealth in the hands of those who know how to use it. Wealth in such hands gives opportunities of the broadest culture, ability to live in the wisest manner, freedom to choose the healthiest surroundings both for mind and body, not restricted by considerations of expense; and how could I think it anything else than an object ardently to be sought?

It is true, my rich friends seemed equally to enjoy the vacations in my little, plain, mountain home. People generally are insensible to advantages they have always enjoyed, and have an appetite for something new; so the homely rusticity of our house, the perfect freedom from conventionalities, the wild, mountain scenery, the wholesome detail of farm life, the barn with its sweet stores of hay, and its nooks and corners and hiding places, the gathering in of our apples, and the making of cider, the corn-huskings and Thanksgiving frolics, seemed to have their interest and delights to them, and they often told me I was a lucky fellow to be born to such pleasant surroundings. But I thought within myself, It is easy to say this when you feel the control of thousands in your pocket, when if you are tired you can go to any land or country of the earth for change of scene.

In fact we see in history that the crusade of St. Francis in favor of Poverty was not begun by a poor man, but by a young nobleman who had known nothing hitherto but wealth and luxury. It is from the rich, if from any, that our grasping age must learn renunciation and simplicity. It is easier to renounce a good which one has tried and of which one knows all the attendant thorns and stings than to renounce one that has been only painted by the imagination, and whose want has been keenly felt. When I came to the College I came from the controlling power of home influences. At an early age I had felt the strength of that sphere of spirituality that encircled the lives of my parents, and, being very receptive and sympathetic, had reflected in my childish nature all their feelings.

I had renounced the world before I knew what the world was. I had joined my father's church and was looked upon as one destined in time to take up my father's work of the ministry.

Four years had passed and I came back to my mother, weakened and doubting, indisposed to take up the holy work to which in my early days I looked forward with enthusiasm, yet with all the sadness which comes from indecision as to one's life-object.

To be a minister is to embrace a life of poverty, of toil, of self-denial. To do this, not only with cheerfulness but with an enthusiasm which shall bear down all before it, which shall elevate it into the region of moral poetry and ideality, requires a fervid, unshaken faith. The man must feel the power of an endless life, be lifted above things material and temporal to things sublime and eternal.

Now it is one peculiarity of the professors of the Christian religion that they have not, at least of late years, arranged their system of education with any wise adaptation to having their young men come out of it Christians. In this they differ from many other religionists. The Brahmins educate their sons so that they shall infallibly become Brahmins; the Jews so that they shall infallibly be Jews; the Mohammedans so that they shall be Mohammedans; but the Christians educate their sons so that nearly half of them turn out unbelievers—professors of no religion at all.

There is a book which the Christian world unite in declaring to be an infallible revelation from Heaven. It has been the judgment of critics that the various writings in this volume excel other writings in point of mere literary merit as much as they do in purity and elevation of the moral sentiment. Yet it is remarkable that the critical study of these sacred writings in their original tongues is not in most of our Christian colleges considered as an essential part of the education of a Christian gentleman, while the heathen literature of Greece and Rome is treated as something indispensable, and to be gained at all hazards.

It is a fact that from the time that the boy begins to fit for college, his mind is so driven and pressed with the effort to acquire the classical literature, that there is no time to acquire the literature of the Bible, neither is it associated in his mind with the dignity and respect of a classical attainment. He must be familiar with Horace and Ovid, with Cicero and Plato, Æschylus and Homer in their original tongues, but the majestic poetry of the Old Testament, and its sages and seers and prophets, become with every advancing year more unintelligible to him. A thoroughly educated graduate of most of our colleges is unprepared to read intelligently many parts of Isaiah or Ezekiel or Paul's epistles. The scripture lessons of the church service often strike on his ear as a strange quaint babble of peculiar sounds, without rhyme or reason. Uncultured and uneducated in all that should enable him to understand them, he is only preserved by a sort of educational awe from regarding them as the jargon of barbarians.

Meanwhile, this literature of the Bible, strange, weird, sibylline, and full of unfulfilled needs and requirements of study, is being assailed in detail through all the courses of a boy's college life. The objections to it as a divine revelation relate to critical questions in languages of which he is ignorant, and yet they are everywhere; they are in the air he breathes, they permeate all literature, they enter into modern science, they disintegrate and wear away, bit by bit, his reverence and his confidence.

This work had been going on insensibly in my head during my college life, notwithstanding the loyalty of my heart. During those years I had learned to associate the Bible with the most sacred memories of home, with the dearest loves of home life. It was woven with remembrances of daily gatherings around the family altar, with scenes of deepest emotion when I had seen my father and mother fly to its shelter and rest upon its promises. There were passages that never recurred to me except with the sound of my father's vibrating voice, penetrating their words with a never dying power. The Bible was to me like a father and a mother, and the doubts, and queries, the respectful suggestions of incredulity, the mildly suggestive abatements of its authority, which met me, now here and now there, in all the course of my readings and studies, were as painful to me as reflections cast on my father's probity or my mother's honor.

I would not listen to them, I would not give them voice, I smothered them in the deepest recesses of my heart, while meantime the daily pressure that came on me in the studies and requirements of college life left me neither leisure nor inclination to pursue the researches that should clear them up.

To be sure, nothing is so important as the soul—nothing is of so much moment as religion, and the question "Is this God's book or is it not?" is the question of questions. It underlies all things, and he who is wise would drop all other things and undergo any toil and make any studies that should fit him to judge understandingly on this point. But I speak from experience when I say that the course of study in christian America is so arranged that a boy, from the grammar school upward till he graduates, is so fully pressed and overladen with all other studies that there is no probability that he will find the time or the inclination for such investigation.

In most cases he will do just what I did, throw himself upon the studies proposed to him, work enough to meet the demands of the hour, and put off the acquisition of that more important knowledge to an indefinite future, and sigh, and go backward in his faith.

But without faith or with a faith trembling and uncertain, how is a man to turn his back on the world that is before him—the world that he can see, hear, touch and taste—to work for the world that is unseen and eternal?

I will not repeat the flattering words that often fell on my ear and said to me, "You can make your way anywhere; you can be anything you please." And then there were voices that said in my heart, "I may have wealth, and with it means of power, of culture, of taste, of luxury. If I only set out for that, I may get it." And then, in contrast, came that life I had seen my father live, in its grand simplicity, in its enthusiastic sincerity, in its exulting sense of joy in what he was doing, down to the last mortal moment, and I wished, oh, how fervently! that I could believe as he did. But to be a minister merely from a sense of duty—to bear the burden of poverty with no perception of the unspeakable riches which Christ hath placed therein—who would not shrink from a life so grating and so cold? To choose the ministry as a pedestal for oratory and self-display and poetic religious sentiment, and thus to attain distinction and easy position, and the command of fashionable luxury, seemed to me a temptation to desecration still more terrible, and I dreaded the hour which should close my college life and make a decision inevitable.

It was with a sober and sad heart that I closed my college course and parted from class-mates—jolly fellows with whom had rolled away the four best years of my life—years that as one goes on afterwards in age look brighter and brighter in the distance. It was a lonesome and pokerish operation to dismantle the room that had long been my home, to bargain away my furniture, pack my books, and bid a final farewell to all the old quiddities and oddities that I had grown attached to in the quaint little village. The parting from Alma Mater is a second leaving of home—and this time for the great world. There is no staving off the battle of life now—the tents are struck, the camp-fires put out, and one must be on the march.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook