The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Religious Education of Young People

by The Rev. Prebendary Eyton.
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 561-566

[Robert Eyton, 1845-1908, was an Anglican priest. At the time of this writing, he was a prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral. In 1899 he resigned suddenly, allegedly over some scandal, and went to Australia, where he died after accidentally taking liniment instead of cough syrup.]

Notes of an Address given to the Belgravia Branch of the Parents' National Educational Union.

I do not consider that I have any special mission to speak on the religious education of young people as I have not been called upon to bring my own principles and views into practice. But I will give you a few fragmentary thoughts that have come to me, while apologising for any lack or perspicuity in them.

To begin with, I must ask you to take a great deal for granted. There are a great many things about religious education which everybody takes for granted, and I propose now only to answer a few questions which appear difficult. There are two sides to religious education. The first and most important of the two is the one that is too often overlooked in thinking roughly on subjects of this sort. I mean the inevitable education of a religious influence. The other side is the teaching of the mind, and this is quite secondary. All attempts to do away with religious influence, and to substitute for it any amount of careful mental training and dogmatic teaching is certain to end in failure. It is hard to speak about religious influence, and it is harder still to analyse it, but it is the most real thing in the world, without which no one can hope to produce any sort of result.

Children are far more moved towards good and evil by what we are, and what we are not, than by what we teach them; and what we say or do is equally secondary.

We are always seeing that character is more telling than knowledge, or beauty, or anything else. Character is the only thing that lasts, and the only one that we shall carry away with us when we die. Character grows, and remains, and is what tells, especially upon plastic beings such as children; therefore, as regards religious influence, the question we must put to ourselves is, "Am I living a life which I wish them to copy?" If I am not, if I say to them, "Here are virtues which I do not practise but which I strongly recommend you to aim at," then failure is inevitable. As far as they are concerned failure is not always the result, but as far as we ourselves are concerned we have failed to do our part. We ought to be able to take St. Paul's words as a sort of text for our lives, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ."

The warning that is sometimes given by people who are aware of their own deficiencies, "Don't do as I do, but do as I say," however strongly recommended and emphasised, is never fruitful. That sort of negative experience is useless for producing a lasting impression. The murderer on the scaffold endeavours by earnest self-depreciation to prevent others from following in his steps, but it is of no use saying, "Do not be like me, do not do as I do."

The only useful experience is that which people get for themselves. You cannot pack up your experience in a parcel and hand it to somebody else; if you do, it does not make it really theirs, you cannot make your experience part of their lives. And so we come to this that the great responsibility of a parent is not perhaps to say in words, "Be as I am," but so to order his or her life as to be able to wish the children to follow it. No one of us has any business to be living such a life that he would not like others to imitate. The great test of life is, are we living the sort of life that we should like others to live? For the effect of your life comes out in all sorts of ways, not only out of what you do, and of what you say, but out of the sort of man or woman you are; it is this that gives your words and actions their real effect.

In nature the strongest forces are the unseen forces, and in the education of children the real effect comes from a kind of spiritual magnetism produced by character.

Bible stories and Scripture instruction are admirable in their place and at the right time, but they cannot take the place of, or compare with, a religious influence. Many men say that the only real religious influence ever exerted on them was the influence of early years of the character of their father or mother. In schools religious influence is very often the one thing that is left out, and the way that religion is taught there makes it both stale and wearisome.

Then as to religious teaching, we must teach children definite religion, and the great thing is to keep great truths and great principles before them. The growth of a child's spiritual nature is a most gradual thing; and of all things the most fatal to it (far more fatal than the stimulating bodily growth, if that were possible) is the attempt to force this spiritual growth. The way to teach children to be religious is to give them the society of some one who is religious. It is useless merely to say, "Do this," or "Do that," "Go to church," or "Say your prayers," &c. You must point to our Lord and say, "This is what God is like, and that is what you ought to be like, and what we all have to be like." We all have an example in our Lord, and every man, woman, and child has to make out his or her own way of following Him. It is for us to point to Him, and to try to translate to the children what Christ was like, and what He did, and how the great principles of His life which He laid down, such as the love of God for all mankind, and for the animal kind too, have been the true music of the civilised world right up to the present day. It is absurd to teach religion by teaching duties divorced from their principles, and postures divorced from the motives which alone give these postures meaning. No good can result from such a system.

There is always a probability of using your own personal love with advantage. A child gets his idea of God from his father and mother. The reason that some children have no good idea of God is because their parents have not given them any ideal. I trust it is always open to any one to use their personal affection in that way and say, "If I can love you so much, how much more does God love you?" In this manner the strongest and most enduring sense of the love of God takes possession of the child. It is easier to argue in that way from what you do know, to what you don't know but can imagine; if this were done we should perhaps hear less of the desire of some parents to tell the odd things their children say about religion, which stories must sometimes reflect the odd way in which they are taught about religion. Of course, sometimes children will say things for the sake of talking, childish sayings thrown off, as it were, and better unnoticed, though even these may act as suggestions to the parent, giving an idea of what ought to have been done in the way of previous explanation.

As to the order of teaching, we should teach the greatest things first, and other things afterwards. Never mind the children of Israel and Judah, or the details of the Old Testament, they are not so important as to know about God. A child constructs from what it learns in its earliest years its ideas about God, and the greatest and most important thing is to help to impart to it a great idea of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.

Do not let yourself think, "I must get a book in order to teach." You cannot teach a child anything out of a book. You must know a thing quite well yourself before you can teach it, and you must know it so well that you can, as it were, boil it down, till you get to what a child's nature can take in. I believe in that species of occultism which may be termed electric sympathy, but a parent cannot impart it till he knows what he is speaking about. The tendency is to begin with Bible studies out of the Old Testament as the easiest way to attract a child's attention; but this is to go back to a state of things that has passed away altogether. You are going behind what you really know, which is the most unreasonable thing to do in the world. You are giving the child the idea that the Old Testament teaches religion in its present state, and this is making the Old Testament positively mischievous. It is not meant to be taught without the Christian idea of God being taught at the same time. The Old Testament of itself will not bring people to Christ, it is not the teacher, the Teacher is Christ. It only teaches us to look forward to Christ. We should not wander away among those old preparatory stories before we teach the child about Christ. The Old Testament is a preparatory book and is far behind the New Testament in the development of its moral teaching. What the children need to be taught is about Christ, and if we want stories we must go to Him and to His parables. I do not undervalue the story method of tuition, only I would urge using it to teach the New Testament as well as the Old Testament.

To what extent, you will ask me, is it right to teach children dogmatically? My answer is that you can no more teach them any other way than you can teach them arithmetic, algebra, and Euclid, without rules. But there are two ways of teaching children dogmatically. One way, which is, of course, the wrong way, is to send them out of the nursery and school-room with a prejudice against dogmatic religion, which they would never think of having against Euclid or arithmetic. Dogmatic truths should be taught to children in such a way that they will fit in with their knowledge in after life. You might in time teach them arithmetic without the multiplication table, but at a great expense of trouble and labour to yourself and your pupil. And in teaching dogma, you must, in the first instance, instruct the child to accept it on your own authority. Though the methods of education change as life goes on, the process is still the same. In early life it comes from the channel of trust, in later years from a personal conviction. Some people say, "When the child is old enough it can choose for itself, and I will not give it any dogma." The child may not understand the Creed at first, but it is a preparation for that attitude of personal conviction which comes afterwards, and if we leave it without this trust and let it wait for personal conviction, we mangle life. If we say, "We will keep this child in the leading strings of traditional religion," then we mangle life in another way. As an instance of what I have been saying about the two ways of "teaching" dogma, I will suppose the child to be taught the doctrine of the Trinity. It may be hard to teach this to a child, it may be done in such a hard way that the child cannot understand it, and only learns it by rote, and gabbles the explanation like a parrot. Or it may be taught this doctrine of the Trinity in a practical way, as a something to live by, the Doctrine of the Father who loves us, the Doctrine of the Divine Saviour who came down to be our Example and to die for our sakes, and the Doctrine of the Holy Ghost who lives and dwells in us. If you teach this dogma in an abstract way it all fades from the memory, if you teach it as a matter of hard speculation nothing comes out of it, but teach it practically and it brings forth much fruit. I would impress upon you the necessity of keeping clear of religious differences as much as you can. There is a disposition in us all to take advantage of the different constructions which may be put on some passages of the Bible in order to escape an obvious duty, and more especially is this the case if any one can be found to uphold some other view. You must try to be wide in your doctrine, keep the Life and the Teaching, and the Words, and the Love of Christ before the children, so that they should not think of being of this religion, or that religion, but of being of Christ's religion.

The present generation of children are much better educated than we were in our youthful days; and one great difficulty that people have at this time is to accommodate themselves to this fact. But it is the wisest thing to accept the situation, and if your children will not learn from you, to try to find some one from whom they will learn.

In these days children come earlier to face the questions which, sooner or later, come to everybody. It needs a great deal of love and commonsense, and a great deal of sympathy, to consent to let children think for themselves at an earlier age than our grandmothers did. I hope I have not spoken too strongly or dogmatically on the few points of this subject which I have discussed. I can only assure you that it has been far from my intention to do so.

Proofread by LNL, August, 2023