Page images




[WRITTEN IN 1821.1

Of all the species of literary composition, perhaps biography is the most delightful. The attention concentrated on one individual gives a unity to the materials of which it is composed, which is wanting in general history. The train of incidents through which it conducts the reader suggests to his imagination a multitude of analogies and comparisons; and, while he is following the course of events which mark the life of him who is the subject of the narrative, he is insensibly compelled to take a retrospect of his own. In no other species of writing are we permitted to scrutinize the character so exactly, or to form so just and accurate an estimate of the excellencies and defects, the lights and shades, the blemishes and beauties, of an individual mind.

The progress of a human being, in his passage through time to eternity, only requires to be exhibited with fidelity, in order to become an interesting object to a contemplative mind; whatever

may have been the moral or intellectual qualities of the individual, and however degraded by vice, or exalted by piety and virtue. Conquests achieved, or objects attained,-conscience cowering under the tyranny of the passions, or asserting her dignity by subjecting them to her sway, are equally instructive; providing the reader is informed by what steps virtuous or vicious habits were superinduced, by what stratagems temptation prevailed, or by what efforts and expedients it was repelled. The moral warfare which every rational and accountable creature has to sustain, pregnant with consequences which reach to eternity, possesses an intrinsic and essential importance, totally independent of the magnitude of the events, or the publicity and splendour of the scenes to which it is attached. The moral history of a beggar, which faithfully revealed the interior movements of his mind, and laid open the secret causes which contributed to form and determine his character, might enlarge and enlighten the views of a philosopher. Whatever tends to render our acquaintance with any portion of our species more accurate and profound, is an accession to the most valuable part of our knowledge; and, though to know ourselves has ever been deemed of the most consequence, it may be doubtful whether the power of self-examination is ever exerted with so much vigour as when it is called into action by the exhibition of individual character. The improvement derived from narrative, in this view, will be proportional to the degree

in which the objects described, and the incidents related, bear a resemblance to those with which the reader is conversant; and, for this reason, the biography of private persons, though less dazzling, is more instructive to the majority of readers, than that of such as are distinguished by the elevation of their rank and the splendour of their achievements. Few require to be taught the arts by which the favour of princes is conciliated, or the machinations of rival candidates for power defeated; few need to be warned against the errors and mistakes which have produced the loss of battles or the failure of negociations. Events of this order may fill the imagination, and diffuse their dignity and pathos over the page of history; but they afford little useful instruction to the bulk of mankind. But, when a character selected from the ordinary ranks of life is faithfully and minutely delineated, no effort is requisite to enable us to place ourselves in the same situation we accompany the subject of the narrative with an interest undiminished by distance, unimpaired by dissimilarity of circumstances; and, from the efforts by which he surmounted difficulties and vanquished temptations, we derive the most useful practical lessons.

He who desires to strengthen his virtue and purify his principles will always prefer the solid to the specious; will be more disposed to contemplate an example of the unostentatious piety and goodness which all men may obtain, than of those

extraordinary achievements to which few can aspire nor is it the mark of a superior, but rather of a vulgar and superficial taste, to consider nothing as great or excellent, but that which glitters with titles or is elevated by rank.

The biography of such as have been eminent for piety has ever been a favourite species of reading with those who possess a devotional spirit. "As face answers to face in a glass, so does the heart of man to man." To trace the steps by which a piety feeble in its rudiments has attained to maturity,to observe the holy arts by which devout habits were strengthened and temptations defeated,-to discern the power of truth in purifying and transforming the minds of such as have attained to high degrees of sanctity,-is equally delightful and edifying. To the real christian, experimental religion opens a new world, replete with objects, emotions, and prospects, of which none but those who are taught of God can form any just or adequate conception; and the joys and sorrows, the elevations and depressions, the dangers and escapes, incident to the spiritual warfare, produce in congenial breasts a lively sympathy.

Publications of this nature have accordingly met for the most part with a welcome reception, and have become one of the most popular and powerful instruments of piety. The religious public have long learned to form a just estimate of the Diary of Mr. Williams, of Kidderminster, an industrious and opulent manufacturer, who demonstrated the

possibility of combining a prudent attention to commercial pursuits with a splendid exhibition of the christian graces. The masculine sense, the

fervent piety, the active benevolence of that most excellent man, will long contribute to enlighten and to animate christians in a private rank, and to shed a lustre on the religious profession. A more perfect example perhaps was never exhibited to the imitation of active tradesmen. A devotion fervent but rational, zeal tempered by the exactest discretion, and a benevolence invariably regulated by the dictates of prudence and justice,-a transparent candour without weakness, and a wisdom without art,-combine to form a living picture of exalted yet attainable excellence.

The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, missionary to the American Indians, exhibits a perfect pattern of the qualities which should distinguish the instructor of rude and barbarous tribes; the most invincible patience and self-denial, the profoundest humility, exquisite prudence, indefatigable industry, and such a devotedness to God, or rather such an absorption of the whole soul in zeal for the divine glory and the salvation of men, as is scarcely to be paralleled since the age of the apostles. Such was the intense ardour of his mind, that it seems to have diffused the spirit of a martyr over the most common incidents of his life. His constitutional melancholy, though it must be regarded as a physical imperfection, imparts an additional interest and pathos to the

« PreviousContinue »