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How to Read a Soul-Improving Book

Category Articles
Date June 20, 2024

The following, which appeared in Issues 611–612 of the Banner of Truth Magazine (Aug–Sep 2014) is from John Angell James, Pastoral Addresses, Series I (1840). We are grateful to Mr Martyn Jolly for bringing this extract to our attention and supplying the text.

It may seem strange to some persons, that I should give directions for the performance of an act so well understood as the perusal of a book; and especially the perusal of a book of so simple and elementary a kind as this. But the fact is, that multitudes either do not know, or do not remember at the time, how to read to advantage; and, therefore, profit but little by what they read. Besides, simple and elementary as is this treatise, it is on a subject of infinite and eternal importance, and is perused in the most critical season of a man’s everlasting history; when, in a very peculiar sense, every means of grace, and this among the rest, will be either ‘a savour of death unto death, or of life unto life,’ to the reader. Tremendous idea! But strictly true.

Reader, whosoever thou art, it is no presumptuous thought of the author to believe that thou wilt remember the contents of this small treatise, either with pleasure and gratitude in heaven, or with remorse and despair in hell. Can it then be an impertinently officious act to remind thee how to read with advantage what I have written?

1. Take it with you into your closet

I mean your place of retirement for prayer; for, of course, you have such a place. Prayer is the very soul of all religion, and privacy is the very life of prayer itself. This is a book to be read when you are alone; when none is near but God and your conscience; when you are not hindered by the presence of a fellow-creature from the utmost freedom of manner, thought, and feeling; when, unobserved by any human eye, you could lay down the book, and meditate, or weep, or fall upon your knees to pray, or give vent to your feelings in short and sudden petitions to God.

I charge you then to reserve the volume for your private seasons of devotion and thoughtfulness: look not into it in company, except it be the company of a poor trembling and anxious inquirer, like yourself.

2. Read it with deep seriousness

Remember, it speaks to you of God, of eternity, of salvation, of heaven, and of hell. Take it up with something of the awe ‘that warns you how you touch a holy thing.’ It meets you in your solicitude about your soul’s welfare; it meets you fleeing from destruction, escaping for your life, crying out, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ and proffers its assistance to guide you for refuge to ‘the hope set before you in the gospel.’ It is itself serious; its author is serious; it is on a serious subject; and demands to be read in a most devout and serious mood. Take it not up lightly, nor read it lightly. If your spirit be not as solemn as usual, do not touch it; and when you do touch it, command away every other subject, and endeavour to realize the idea that God, salvation, and eternity are before you; and that you are actually collecting the ingredients of the cup of salvation, or the wormwood and gall to imbitter the cup of damnation.

3. Read it with earnest prayer

It can do you no good, without God’s blessing: nothing short of Divine grace can render it the means of instructing your mind, or impressing your heart. It will convey no experimental knowledge, relieve no anxiety, dissipate no doubts, afford neither peace nor sanctification, if God do not give his Holy Spirit: and if you would have the Spirit, you must ask for his influence. If, therefore, you wish it to benefit you, do not read another page, till you have most fervently, as well as sincerely, prayed to God for his blessing to accompany the perusal. I have earnestly prayed to God to enable me to write it, and if you as earnestly pray to him to enable you to read it, there is thanksgiving in store for us both; for usually what is begun in prayer, ends in praise.

4. Do not read too much at a time

Books that are intended to instruct and impress should be read slowly. Most persons read too much at a time. Your object is not merely to read this treatise through, but to read it so as to profit by it. Food cannot be digested well, if too much be eaten at a time; so neither can knowledge.

5. Meditate on what you read

Meditation bears the same office in the mental constitution as digestion does in our corporeal system. The first mental exercise is attention, the next is reflection. If we would gain a correct notion of an object, we must not only see it, but look at it; and so, also, if we would gain knowledge from books, we must not only see the matters treated of, but look steadily at them. Nothing but meditation can enable us to understand or feel. In reading the Scriptures and religious books, we are, or should be, reading for eternity. Salvation depends on knowledge, and knowledge on meditation. At almost every step of our progress through a book which is intended to guide us to salvation, we should pause and ask, ‘Do I understand this?’ Our profiting depends not on the quantity we read, but the quantity we understand. One verse in Scripture, if understood and meditated upon, will do us more good than a chapter, or even a book, read through in haste, and without reflection.

6. Read regularly through in order

Do not wander about from one part to another, and in your eagerness to gain relief, pick and cull particular portions, on account of their supposed suitableness to your case. It is all suitable; and will be found most so by being taken together and as a whole. A rambling method of reading, whether it be the Scriptures or other books, is not to edification: it often arises from levity of mind, and sometimes from impatience; both of which are states very unfriendly to improvement. Remember it is salvation you are in quest of; an object of such transcendent importance, as to be a check upon volatility; and of such value, as to encourage the most exemplary patience.

7. Read calmly

You are anxious to obtain eternal life: you are eagerly asking, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ But still, you must not allow your solicitude so far to agitate your mind, as to prevent you from listening calmly and coolly for the answer. In circumstances of great anxiety, men are sometimes so much under the power of excited feelings, that the judgment is bewildered, and thus they are not only prevented from finding out what is best to be done, but from seeing it when it is laid down by another.

This anxious and hurried state of mind is very common in those who are just awakened to a concern about salvation; they are restless and eager to gain relief, but are defeated in their object by their very solicitude to obtain it. The Scriptures are read, sermons are heard, advice of friends is received, in a confused state of mind. Now you must guard against this, and endeavour so far to control your thoughts, and calm your perturbation, as to attend to the counsels and cautions which are here suggested.

8. I very earnestly recommend the perusal of all those passages of Scripture and chapters which I have quoted, and which, for the sake of brevity, I have only referred to, without quoting the words.

I lay great stress upon this. Read this book with the Bible at your elbow, and do not think much of the trouble of turning to the passages quoted. If, unhappily, you should consider me, or my little volume, as a substitute for the Bible, instead of a guide to it, I shall have done you an injury, or rather you will have done yourself an injury by thus employing it. ‘As new-born babes,’ says the apostle, ‘desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby’ (1 Pet. 2:2). And as those infants thrive best who are fed from the breast of their mother, so those converts grow most in grace, who are most devoted to a spiritual perusal of the Scriptures. If, therefore, I stand between you and the word of God, I do you great disservice; but if I should persuade you to read the Scriptures, I shall greatly help you in your religious course. Perhaps, in the present state of your mind, it is not desirable to begin and read regularly the word of God, but to go through those passages which I have selected and recommended.

And now may God, of his great goodness and sovereign grace, deign to bless the perusal of this book to many immortal souls, by making it, however humble the production, the means of conducting them into the path of life!


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