The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
How to Give Religious Instruction

by Miss Agnes Mason
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 41-44

[Agnes Mason, 1849-1941, "was a British nun, notable as the founder of a religious order of the Anglican Communion." (Wikipedia) Her brother Arthur James Mason became a Cambridge professor, her sister Harriet was a botanical illustrator, and her brother George Edward was rector at Whitwell in Derbyshire.]

I am going to speak today, of religious instruction, not of religious influence, which is what we are in ourselves; and not of what to teach, but of how to teach. This last limitation will, I think, keep us clear of the difficulties of Biblical criticism.

In giving religious instruction to children up to the age of twelve years, three conditions are necessary, if the teaching is to be of any permanent value.

It must be interesting, definite, and spiritual.

The Jesuits, who are such good teachers, recognize in their schools the difficulty and importance of teaching very young children; and it is said that their teachers are promoted downwards, that the least experienced master is given an advanced and disciplined class, and when he is able to manage and instruct it, he is promoted to a class where the children are less orderly and advanced, and so on downwards until he is at the top of his profession, teaching the youngest class. And they say, I believe, that if they can have a child to teach till he is seven years old, they do not care who has him afterwards, for all the most important lasting work is done.

But if we recognize that it is difficult to teach little children, we are on the way to success.

All of us have not, of course, a "gift of teaching", which is as real a thing as a "gift of preaching." But any one who tries in the right way can become a fairly successful teacher. Though no rules for teaching can be given, yet it does help us when we grasp and apply true principles of teaching; and those who can make the history of the Greeks and Romans a delight to their children can, if they try, make the history of the Jews equally attractive. But let us consider our first principle.

(1) Teaching must be interesting.

We shall not find it so hard to fulfill if we remember that a child is inferior to a full-grown man, not so much in intelligence as in knowledge; and when we impart knowledge to him, we must proceed from inside his mind, linking on our instruction to what he already knows and takes an interest in. He will then be interested by it, and will understand it as a natural sequence to what he has learn before. This is one reason why our Lord taught His disciples by parables. He led them on, and so should we lead our children to apprehend the unknown through the known.

An ideal lesson is a work of art, and, like all works of art, it must have unity in variety; but how can we who are not artists make it interesting? Certainly in our teaching there should be no flippancy nor puerilities. We may take comfort in thinking that if we teach on right principles we shall really make the lesson interesting; for definiteness will give it variety, and spirituality will give it unity.

(2) Teaching must be definite.

We should always be definite in telling a story. A child is so anxious to hear every detail--they are so interesting to him that he remembers them. A pin must have something to pull against if it is to stick; and details give his mind something to pull against. Details also have value of their own as facts; and they cultivate in a child the habit of accuracy.

In teaching right matter we inevitably gain right manner! In doctrine the same principle holds good. We must teach positive details so far as we can. For instance, in the story of the Creation, if we teach that "God created the world out of nothing," the child's mind is left blank. But if we can teach that God created it out of His thoughts, and because He is Love eternally "before the world was made," and show how love is always going out of itself, the strongest creative power that we know, that is akin to something that the child knows; he can understand something of it; a little teaching is definite and is remembered.

Thirty years ago the importance of laying stress on definite teaching was not so great. Rather the contrary; there was too little tolerance and allowance made for other people's views. But in these days we are afraid to trust what we do know, for fear of what we do not know; we are terrified and oppressed by the thought that others think differently from ourselves.

The difficulty now is to train children to face this current when they are older. We want to make them feel the value of positive knowledge, of belief in truth, whether what I am teaching is true or not.

But what if we are indefinite ourselves?

To some minds, certainly, dogma is nonsense.

But humility is not wasted on children, and we may legitimately teach as true a doctrine which has come down to us from of old, permanently commending itself to the Christian conscience, though saying frankly, "I do not understand it myself." So I hope we should teach, not only in religion, but in every other matter. This, though it may be called a teaching of dogma, yet is by no means a dogmatic method, and we do not deprive the child of his belief in truth, and allow our teaching to consist of generalities about "being good," and "all good children going to heaven," which leads to nothing. The question of authority is in no way peculiar to religion, and will confront the child in every region of knowledge.

And we must never be shocked at a child's questions; many children have an inner life carefully hidden, and a question may be the child's attempt to let light into the secret.

(3) Religious instruction must be spiritual. We should draw out of the details the true generalities--spiritual truths--that is to say, eternal practical relations.

For instance, the writers of the Old Testament are continually saying, "God did" this and that, sometimes without further explanation; sometimes saying how, sometimes saying also that a man did it. That is to say, God is present to the whole of their history. There are not "special providences," but not a sparrow falls to the ground without God. So it is now. And the chief value of teaching Old Testament history seems to me to consist in bringing out this eternal practical fact.

But if we are doubtful how to teach any part of the Bible, we need not begin by teaching that particular part. We should teach children of three or four what is suited to their age, and go on to teach them what is suited to children of six or seven, and so on. We need never be at a loss for something to teach when we have all the Bible to choose from; and although all the Bible is valuable, just as every star has its own glory, yet none of us would count it all of equal value, chapter for chapter. There are some parts, we need not hesitate to admit, which, for various reasons, cannot be profitably taught to children.

The New Testament stands on rather a different footing. We might believe in Providence, even if we knew nothing of the Old Testament. But in the New Testament the fact is history, and is only the other side of the spiritual relation.

Indeed, the second part of the Creed is nothing but a recitation of historical facts about Jesus Christ; and it would be impossible to leave them out, and yet to teach a child that he was a member of Christ, a spiritual truth which is certainly eternal and practical. We teach a child that he is a member of such and such a family, and these relations have a practical value. They are what a child is, and we expect what he does to follow from them. So with that greater relation. The child is a member of Christ, and what he does should follow in just the same matter-of-fact, practical way. Only this is a far deeper relation, touching not only a part of the child's self, but the whole--it is eternal.

We ought never, I think, to teach a Bible story without bringing out the spiritual truth which it teaches; not necessarily putting the moral in words in cut-and-dry fashion, but letting the child feel it, which we can only do by really having it present to our own minds. And we ought never to teach a doctrine, an eternal truth, without likewise showing its practical side. Each story or doctrine otherwise taught has done the child not good, but harm, teaching half-truths, so that they are no better than falsehoods. And I think we should be less afraid of teaching definite spiritual truth, if we remembered that all theology is nothing but an expansion of the text, "God is Love."

Proofread by LNL, July, 2023