In addition to religious series fiction, Julia A. Mathews also contributed poems and short pieces to Christian magazines. The essay below, published in 1875, is one of several pieces written for the Illustrated Christian Weekly. It builds on a Biblical passage and uses a story to illustrate its main idea, a concept Mathews had employed a decade earlier with her Golden Ladder series.
Mathews's writing reflects her background as the the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. "Little Children" also suggests an interest in missionary societies (and the mindset underlying it), an element that occasionally surfaces in her series books. Shortly before her death in 1881, Mathews apparently also agreed to become a "regular contributor" to Children's Work, a periodical published by the Women's Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church, and her last story was for that magazine.
Little Children, Keep Yourselves From Idols. 1 John 5:21
by Julia A. Mathews
If I were a painter, I should paint for you two little pictures which I should try to make so life-like that you would never forget them. But I do not know how to make a pretty picture with a brush and colors, so I must try to paint them in words. Here is the first.
A little girl, kneeling in a pleasant room, with her face toward the open window, through which the sweet sunlight falls all around her. Her hands like clasped together on the chair before her, her lips are moving slightly, and the face which is lifted toward the fair blue sky, looks very earnest, and very eager with some strong desire.
The picture is but poorly painted, yet you can tell me what it represents. It is a Christian child at prayer. Now look at the other picture.
Another little girl, also kneeling. But this one is in a dark mud hut, her face lifted toward a small ugly image formed out of a black clayey substance. The image has a frightful, distorted face, misshaped arms, and it sits cross-legged on a cushion. For a few moments, the child kneels before it, bowing her head, and making curious gestures with her arms. Then she moves away. But see how strangely she acts. She does not rise to her feet and walk, as you or I would do, but creeps along on her knees, which are bare, for the coarse cloth wrapped about her leaves them quite uncovered. She reaches the entrance to the hut, and yet she does not rise. On her knees still, she moves over the stony road. On and on, though the sharp stones cut the soft flesh to the bone, and the small face quivers with the cruel pain.
What is this second picture? It is a heathen child at prayer.
Both of these children are in need of help; each is asking it of one whom she thinks able to aid her. The difference is only this, one is praying to the true God, the other is praying to a god of stone. The worship of the one God is all love and peace and blessing; the worship of the other all pain and tears and grief. The Christian child has been taught that to gain the help she needs, she has but to kneel down anywhere and at any time, and tell the story of her wants to an every-ready and ever-loving Lord; the heathen child has been taught that her cruel god will not listen to her prayer until she has travelled for miles upon her poor little knees to his hideous temple.
But suppose each child does as she has been told to do, what then? Whose prayer is answered in love and mercy? Only one is answered at all. The little face which was lifted in faith to the far-away sky, turns back again to take up the duties and the pleasures of its happy life, bright with the peace and joy which only God can give. But look at the other young face. Damp with agony, convulsed with pain, its journey's end reached at last, it lifts itself to the ugly features of the enormous stone image, at whose feet it lies faint and exhausted. And that face stares down upon it with cold, unmoving eyes which cannot see its pain; and the cruel lips which look as if they were formed for cursing rather than blessing, never open in response to the pleading of the worshipper. Well might the "disciple whom Jesus loved," and who so longed to have that precious love bless every human heart, say, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."
But these terrible gods of wood and stone are not the only idols of which the old disciple wishes to warn us. We must take earnest heed, even in this Christian land, lest we make to ourselves idols. Not that we are likely to kneel down and pray to gods of wood and stone; but to worship idols it is not necessary that we should do that. An idol is anything which we love more than God.
Our Heavenly Father asks of us no hard and painful service such as is paid to heathen gods; but he does ask, and he must have the first, warmest, deepest love of our hearts. He will not take second place in our love. He says "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The thing which holds the first place in our hearts, which stands before God, there is an idol. It may be a thing good in itself perhaps, it may be even our father or our mother; yet if we love it more than God it becomes an idol.
Do you remember what our Lord said? "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." He would have us love father and mother very dearly, and obey them faithfully too; so much does he wish this that he promises long life to those who honor their parents; yet he will not permit even them to stand before him in our hearts' love. He must be first.
But suppose that having, as you think, given to God the first place in your hearts, you are required to give up some great pleasure for his sake?
A teacher in a Sunday-school was one day teaching her class a lesson on this very verse. When the school was dismissed, and the children were passing out of the class, one little girl paused close beside her, and looking up shyly in her face, said,
"I'm going to try to keep myself, ma'am," and slipped away before the teacher could ask her what she meant. The child ran home, and going straight to her mother, said,
"Mother, if I give my new hat to Janie, may I have the money it cost?"
"What do you want with the money?" asked the mother.
"I want to give it to Rachel Turner to buy shoes with. Her feet are bare."
"But your old hat is so shabby, and I cannot afford to buy you another if you give this one to Janie."
"I know it's shabby," said Mary, "but my teacher was talking to us about idols, and I could n't help looking at Rachel's cold feet, and thinking that if I loved Jesus as much as my pretty new hat, I'd wear the old one and let Rachel have the money to buy shoes. And so I began to think that my hat must be an idol. So I guess I'll wear the old one, for it is warm, if it is ugly and old; and Jesus will know I did n't want to make an idol. Do n't you think he will, mother?"
Jesus did know it full well; and as Sabbath after Sabbath, he looked down upon the child who sat contentedly beside her better-dressed classmates with her shabby hat upon her head, and then from her to Rachel's warmly clothed feet, he laid upon that young head a far more beautiful covering than the pretty new hat, for that covering was his own loving hand, laid on it in blessing.
The great idol which we have to fear is Self. Our own wishes, needs, and aims, push Christ into the background; and in thinking of ourselves, we forget him. Is not this making to ourselves idols? Yes, we love ourselves, and the tempter who is always on the watch makes use of this self-love for his own ends. His great desire is to make us love something, no matter what, more than we love God.
But, little children, you are not working alone against this strong enemy when you strive to "keep yourselves from idols." The God whom you love and try to follow does not look upon you with hard, unmeaning eyes; he watches you carefully, and his strong arm is ever stretched out to guide and help his little ones as they strive to do his will.
Illustrated Christian Weekly, 20 February 1875: 91.
Copyright 2009 by Deidre Johnson . Please do not reproduce without permission