This letter was written to the younger Manly at about the same time that Basil Manly, Jr. returned for his second stint at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Learn more about SBTS founder Basil Manly Jr.
As I look back upon it [his life] it seems to me a great catalogue of short-comings. Much that I had planned, I have never attempted—much that I attempted has only partially succeeded. With dying Grotius, I feel much like exclaiming—“Eheu, vitam perdidi laborious, nihil agenda” (I have spent my life laboriously doing nothing). As far as I can, I would like to guard you against my mistakes.
One of my besetting sins has been procrastination. This has not been purely a result of indolence, but often of indecision, and like many other faults, it has connected itself with a virtue, or at least assumed its semblance, i.e., the prudence which does nothing rashly, and decides nothing before time. Hence, often while hesitating, new information has come to me, which turned the scale of decision, and without which I might have decided wrongly. But on the other hand, sometimes while hesitating the golden moment for action has passed, and I have found myself like the dilatory rustic, who is just too late for the train, gazing at the departing opportunity, open mouthed and astonished.—I have decided to fix for myself the rule always to do the day’s work in a day; and when my work is of a sort that it can be measured off, and ascertained to be done, I can observe the rule pretty well. But much of my work is of a sort which knows no limit or completion. . . . The right apportionment of time, when either one of half dozen things that claim one’s attention is sufficient to absorb it all—is often a problem of no small difficulty.—
This suggests another evil, which has led me astray often. It is that of so multiplying the objects of my pursuit, as not to have adequate concentration and unity of aim to attain the greatest success. I have labored at many things, rather than much at any of them. From a sort of general facility at doing almost anything that came up, and partly from a disposition to be obliging, this habit has gained too much dominion over me. Yet, I doubt it not, this versatility of talent and readiness turn my hand to anything that came up, has been one of the elements of which usefulness I have achieved. While other professors neglected or refused I looked after—what nobody else could be got to do. . . and thus I have been all my life a stopper of gaps, a bearer of cast off or neglected burdens of other men, uncomplainingly useful in the tasks that were unconspicuous, or even mere drudgery, but absolutely necessary. I think, however, that I might have accomplished more, on the whole, if I had been a man of one work, of one idea, if I had selected my mode of labor wisely, and then stuck to it. I have been preacher, teacher, editor, agent, financier, lawyer, farmer, doctor—all by turns as occasion seemed to demand, and sometimes several of them at once.
In my reading I was too omnivorous. I claimed and sought to possess all the varied fields of literature for my own. I do not mean that I could excel in all; but I sought to know that I could excel in all; but I sought to know something of it all. I separated myself and sought to “intermeddle with all knowledge.” While this gave me rather a wider range of information than is usually attained, it prevented me form the thoroughness and completeness in any one branch which I might perhaps have acquired. For example, I believe I taught, at one time or another, almost every branch at the Theological Seminary during some part of my connection with it, except Church Government, and I presume I could have done as well as some of the others, if it had been desirable for me to try it. –Yet there was no branch in which I attained a marked and indisputable excellence. I was fair in all, superior in none. So, in college and in the Female Institute I have taught some of almost every Department in the whole curriculum, and possibly have done it not discreditably, but I have been brilliantly or conspicuously successful in none. The things I know about few; there is nothing I know all about.
I feel that one of my great weaknesses and the source not only of discomfort but of failure has been the lack of prayer. Prayer has not been with me a mockery, a mere form. But it has been grievously defective both in amount and in earnestness. I have not prayed enough. I have not studied the common English Bible enough. While God has been waiting to talk with me, through the lips of David, Isaiah, Paul—I have been listening to some trifling talker, absorbed in some trifling newspaper, or interested in some exciting word. If I had my life to go over again, I would give more time to daily secret prayer and to the reading of the English Scriptures, in the common and revised versions—using the marginal references to compare parallel passages and thus to interpret the Scripture by Scripture.
Most of all, dear George, watch your heart—not with a brooding, morose, remorseful disgust, that discourages rather than corrects or guards;—but with a honest cheerful desire to avoid the occasions of evils which have ensnared you, and to fight manfully against the impulses, which you have found to draw you downward and away from God. —To me a theological course was not a temptation by a spiritual experience—especially after I went to Princeton. I think I grew in grace by it. God grant it may be so with you.
Basil Manly, Jr. “Letter of Basil Manly to George Manly, September 28, 1878, LCB, X. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary removed from Greenville, S. C. to Louisvillle, KY., in the fall of 1877.” Quoted in: Joseph Powhatan Cox, “A Study of the Life and Work of Basil Manly, Jr.” (Ph. D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1954), 275-277.