A well-furnished memory is only second to a matured understanding. Knowledge is the raw material of wisdom ; and other things being equal, he who knows most may have the largest amount of wisdom. Lessons are not the chief channel by which the memory is supplied with information, but they are an important auxiliary which should not be neglected, especially in a religious education. The texts of the Bible are the most solemn words we can employ in admonition, the most powerful in instruction, the most tender as promises, and the most soothing in consolation ; they are the most devout words we can use in addressing our Maker, the first that spring to a Christian's lips in warning a sinner, and the softest. he can whisper into the ear of the saint as he takes his flight to heaven. We know not if the songs of angels can be much sweeter than some passages of the Bible.
The best season for committing Scripture to memory is in youth. Very few will ever become intimately acquainted with the texts of the Bible whose memories have not been stored with them at an early period. Many eminent Christians have had reason all their lives to regret their neglect of a vigorous and persevering effort to commit portions of the Bible to memory when they were young, a neglect for which no subsequent diligence could atone.
We do not think that the passages of the Bible which are committed to memory are always very judiciously selected. We have known some who have attempted to learn off the whole Bible, beginning at Genesis. In a number of schools the historical books of the New Testament are prescribed as tasks to be repeated. We think there is a great want of judgment in all such lessons. What advantage is it to a child that he can repeat the words, "After these things, Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias"? All the precepts, promises, and weighty moral and religious sentiments of Scripture ought to be committed to memory before learning to repeat a verse like the following; "And as they spake unto the people, the priest, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them."
The portions of the Bible most suitable to be committed to memory, are portions of the Psalms and the book of Proverbs, a number of chapters in the Prophecies, and large portions of the discourses of Christ, and of the epistles. There are also proofs of doctrine—precepts— promises—admonitions—and an almost infinite number of exquisitely beautiful texts expressive of every pure emotion, and of all the relations man bears to his God, to eternity, or to his fellow-creatures.
We recommend teachers, as far as possible, to make the children remember the book, chapter, and verse, from which the different passages are taken. The hymns which children commit to memory should be carefully selected; all babyish verses should be excluded; the distinction between childish and childlike hymns is very great. It is not enough that the hymn pleases at the moment; it should have enough of meaning to make it worth preserving in all future time. Such hymns as, "Around the throne of God in heaven," "Sweet spices they brought on their star-lighted way," and "I'm but a stranger here," possess undying interest.
Many sacred poems unfit for singing may be committed to memory, such as Montgomery's poem on Prayer.
Although we cannot easily over-estimate the importance of an extensive acquaintance with the words of Holy Writ and religious poetry, we do not think that much of the time of a teacher ought to be occupied with hearing children repeat their tasks. For want of due care, some teachers do little else; they allow the scholars to bring as many texts as they are able to learn off, on any subject they choose; or they give each child his own separate task; or they hear every one repeat the whole of the lesson committed.
Now, it must be recollected that the principal exercise of the Sabbath-school is direct conversational instruction by the teacher, and that the chief reason why the teacher hears his children repeat their lessons is, to secure their learning them at home. A mere task-hearer is a very inferior order of teacher. Whatever plans can he devised by which the labour of the teacher may be abridged, and yet the tasks thoroughly learned, should be employed.
Both of these objects may be gained by giving every scholar in the class the same task, and by hearing them repeat the verses of the chapter or hymn committed alternately. It is a great waste of time to hear every child repeat all he has learned. If care be taken not to allow the children to know what parts of the lesson each will have to say, they will learn the whole as thoroughly as if each one had to say it all.
Long lessons are objectionable, as they are seldom well learned. It is of no use to give a child a whole chapter to repeat, which he blunders through by the help of the whispers of his companions, and the aid of the teacher. Let the hymn or texts assigned be such as can be learned without any great effort, and then let there be an imperative command that what is given shall be thoroughly prepared. We have known scholars repeatedly absent themselves from school from their inability to learn off the tasks appointed.
It will be found a great ease to the children to explain the lesson which they are to commit before prescribing it: the judgment is a great help to the memory. It is best to shew a child the importance of a passage first, and then to say to him, This is worth keeping. We never think of preserving anything till we know something of its value.
This principle is particularly applicable to catechisms. Instead of making a child repeat a difficult question, and then explaining its meaning, we should explain the meaning first. By this plan, the committing of a catechism to memory would be a much less laborious task than it is at present.
Where children are unable to read, or are only able to read imperfectly, they may be taught with considerable ease to repeat a number of texts by oral teaching. Thus, John vi. 35, "I am the bread of life; he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." Here we should, first repeat the whole verse, and then ask the children to say the first clause, "I am the bread of life." When they have repeated this clause two or three times, we may then give them the second; after that, the two clauses; then the third; and, last of all, the whole verse. One or two texts may be taught in this way every Sabbath to very young children; so that, before they are able to read, they may have a great many texts in their memory. They have also been drilled by this plan into the practice of applying their minds to instruction.
A proper enunciation must be enforced in the repetition of lessons. Instead of allowing the children to hurry through their tasks, or drawl them out in a sing-song tone, they should be taught to repeat them slowly, seriously, and with due regard to the stops and meaning. If the teacher will read the lessons aloud in a proper manner the preceding Sabbath, making the children read them after him, it will teach them a good mode of recitation.
"Be particular to make the scholars always repeat such words as Jesus Christ, God, the Lord, the Holy Ghost, with great solemnity."
Above all, be careful to make the children commit their lessons to memory very thoroughly. This rule is very much neglected. Perhaps a few verses of a hymn have been given as an exercise, of which the children can repeat the first verse very well; the second they stammer through; and the remainder they cannot say at all. Now, let us see the evils resulting from such careless teaching. In the first place, the teacher accustoms his class to habitual disobedience. He has prescribed a certain task to be learned; it is not learned; and yet the neglect is passed with perhaps scarcely a word of comment. When the children are taught disobedience in one thing, they will not be slow to apply the principle to everything else.
Then, again, the scholars, from such ill-prepared lessons being accepted, set up for themselves a very low standard of excellence. When such imperfect repetition is allowed to pass unchallenged, their minds fall into a dull, listless mood, which turns with something like indignation from any attempt to enforce a higher style of execution. When we accustom a class to such, a low standard of merit, we do them a great injury, and doom them in a manner to mediocrity.
And, moreover, we are wasting our own and our children's time; the verses they learn are not engraven on the tablet of their memories; they are written in sand, to be swept away, like the traveller's footprints in the desert, by the passing wind.
Now, what ought to be done, and done with consistency and perseverance, is, in the first place, to require no more than what the children can learn; and then, secondly, to exact the most perfect attention to what we do prescribe. Some teachers, by using energetic means, have taught their scholars to go over their whole lesson without a blunder. No stopping and stammering should be allowed; no laborious straining for the catchword of the question, or the rhyme of the Psalms. What is learned must be learned thoroughly, or not at all. It is better to give one solitary verse, which shall be perfectly remembered, than any number of which the vague impression dies away with the lesson.