The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Religious Teaching of Children

by The Rev. H. J. Wotherspoon
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 481-494

[Henry Johnstone Wotherspoon, 1850-1930, was an active member of the Scoto-Catholic Scottish Church Society. He wrote prolifically.]

Your Secretary has been good enough to tell me that what I am wished specially to speak of is the duty of parents in this matter--of parents as distinguished from church or state or school. And I shall try to do so, so far as these points of view can be separated--as a matter of fact, they cannot be entirely separated, since parents are also actively citizens and members of the church.

Having undertaken the responsibility of bringing children into this difficult world, and of launching them on a life out of which the issues are eternal--human beings on whom the parents' own sins must, in the nature of things, be visited, and in whom his own infirmities and defects of character must in the nature of things live before his eyes and judge him before the time--one would fancy that the main burden and concern of life for a Christian man or woman would thenceforth be the spiritual care of the child; the hourly and constant personal anxiety be--neither for its bodily health, nor present happiness, nor secular equipment, nor prosperous launching upon the world--but itself and (I use the word in its widest and truest sense) for its salvation. And this not only for love's sake, nor for pity's sake, but also in mere dread of the eternal relation established with an immoral being--the possibility of relations to his offspring of eternal shame or eternal grief. One would expect to find this anxiety colouring home life manifestly, profoundly, forcing school life at any sacrifice to subserve its care, stamping itself broadly upon the arrangements of church order, and in the personal life absorbingly imperative. It is hard to see what duty approaches in its urgency upon common conscience to this duty owed to the soul and life, which act of ours has caused to exist. Does one, however, as a matter of fact, find parents give this supremacy to the consideration of the child-soul? That the good of their children is a supreme motive with parents is certain; but what good? The bodies of the children are cared for and their mental training is laboriously sought. Are they as carefully nourished, protected, and trained on the spiritual side of their being?

At the risk of seeming to forget that this is not a sermon, I am bound to place first the simple need that the parent be himself religious. If you ask how a child is to be taught religion, I can only ask how, for example, a child is taught to speak. If you ask how it is to grow Christian, I can only ask why it talks English and not Hindoo. It talks English because that is the language of its home--it has heard that and that always. It has probably never had a lesson in the art of speech or in the English grammar, yet it speaks, and speaks as you do. Or where, one might ask, does the gently born and gently nurtured child learn its gentleness? What instruction has given it refinement of voice, or control of emotion, or seemliness of gesture? Who has taught it the sense of personal honour or the custom of consideration for others? These are things of the atmosphere of development, or sympathetic imitation, of unconscious assimilation to surroundings. No doubt instruction and correction--those two--play their part. Environment does much more, and if that be gross, the two-pence extra for manners taught by rote will not secure the grace of demeanour or the loftiness of spirit which gentlefolk expect of each other.

Just as little can religious instruction serve instead of religion--religion in the persons with whom the child-life is in contact--as the main educative influence which is to teach the child to be religious. It is your faith which your child will learn, just as surely as it will catch your accent and absorb your ideas of conduct. It will learn your creed in matters of faith as it will learn it in matters of politics.

And this you cannot help. The home contact is too close for anything but reality to serve there. In the home, we all know each other, and none so well as the children, quick with instinct and stimulated by the habit of dependence to read the actual mind under the expressed precept. Be certain that they know you exactly--and can distinguish between what you say because it is the proper thing to be said and what you say because you really think it, what you wish them to believe and what you believe yourself, what you would have them to do and what is your own practice. Servants know a great deal, but children know everything. And the home influence is too constant to fail to be efficient. Instruction is powerless as against training; and "religious training" of one sort or another, positive or negative, religious or irreligious, in faith or unfaith, reverence or levity, love of God or love of the world, goes on unceasingly in every home; and it is religious or irreligious, according to that which the trainers really themselves are: not as they wish the training to be. Many parents who are not themselves devout would desire their little ones to grow up in faith and devotion. They are more anxious for the souls of their children than for their own. I do not wonder--they have reason. But they desire what is, I am afraid, beyond hope. A man cannot protect his children from himself; he cannot do his duty to them, except by being what he wishes them to be. Their first need is to have a good man for father and a good woman for mother. The parent must set before him his ambition for his child as the standard for himself. His first duty to them is to give them himself such as he desires them to become. Let him take the kingdom of heaven with violence, as the violent take it, by force if needs be, that he may lead his children in its paths; but to send them there, and go another way himself, he cannot. "I am not a good man myself, but I should like to do my duty by the children," is vain talk: a man's duty is to be what he would make others.

Speaking of training as distinguished from instruction, it is worth noticing how far that has proceeded before instruction becomes possible. The child has gone a long way before we begin to think of it as a subject for education. Professor [James] Sully (Fortnightly Review, November 1895) speaks of the "first all-decisive two or three years of human life," and of how the child consciousness "begins to expand and to form itself into a true human shape from the very beginning." In these years probably little or nothing is deliberately taught, but very much is learnt, very much that is strictly and properly education in religion. The same writer expresses a belief that "the growth of moral sentiment" and of "the feeling of reverence for duty" can only be understood by observation of "the mental activities of the first years"; and, one may imagine, if of reverence for duty, then certainly of reverence for other things in which the child-mind is much more readily interested. A moderate effort of self-recollection may assure most of us, upon the evidence of our own experience, that religious problems are among the first which attracts a child's attention. The habit which children have of posing their elders with questions of the most difficult kind is proverbial, and it is obvious that, in the first place, they must have been themselves posed by the thoughts which they describe. The deepest problems are, after all, those which experience does least to solve--they lie in their dreadful blankness on the surface of things--and the child is the very first to meet them; its want of experience does nothing to conceal them from it. Its mind has begun very early to traffic with the mysteries of the origin of evil, the moral responsibility of the Creator, the limits of Omnipotence, and the destiny of the soul. It has played with many ideas on these subjects, it has asked many questions, it has fallen into lines of belief with regard to them, before its deliberate and express "religious education" has by any means commenced. And for the most part, one may guess, the ideas which it assimilates on those tremendous subjects are those of the nursery-maid. I am almost afraid to seeming to descend to trivialities when I speak of this; but as a matter of fact, the theology, and especially the eschatology, of the nursery is mainly that of the nurse--who represents a highly religious class, of very decided but somewhat crudely conceived ideas of religion, ideas of religion in which reward and punishment are prominent. Of whatever the average person of that respectable calling be uncertain, she is generally clear to the point of absolute definiteness as to the conditions which follow death; and in her relations to her charge she finds abundant occasion to refer to the lot of bad and good children respectively in a future state. The parents of the child belong to a class, probably, which is more reticent on these subjects, and which refers to them in a more guarded way. The nursemaid's views have a crispness and certainty which exactly suits the child-mind, and it is she who stamps her modes of belief upon it, at an age when every impression is more or less permanent, when communicated thought seems afterwards intuitive, and remains in character with a certain authority of immemorial habit, which the mind has difficulty later in questioning. I confess that I do not see how this is to be helped, unless contact with parents can be made much more constant and habitual in the early years of life than at present is generally the case. At present, absurd as it may seem, I am afraid that the partial and sometimes harsh theology of a less educated class is a main influence in shaping the religious conceptions of children at the age when what is learnt cannot ever be forgotten. The instinctive type of current religion is shaped, I believe, in some of its lines less by the teaching of the Holy Catholic Church than by the tradition of the nursery.

I urge that parents ought to be themselves active in the religious teaching of their offspring--first in those early years, where the foundations of later thought are hidden out of sight deep in consciousness itself--and afterwards, when instruction can become more formal. As for time and opportunity, people have no right to have children, whose lives are so busy that they cannot care for their souls. There are twelve hours in the day, and few people are occupied compulsorily for the whole of them. We have time for this thing or for that, precisely as we reckon this or that the more important. We say "I cannot do this, because I must do that"--and of competing claims on time, it is simply a question of which we will account that it must be done.

For method, one can at least point out in some respects how not to do it.

A plain example of that is furnished by the conduct of the intelligent parent in a well-known and oft-quoted anecdote--who is said to have prevented all religious information from reaching his child until its eighth year (which, by the way, neither he nor another could do)--and then to have taken it to see the letters of its own name appearing in a garden bed, where he had sown seed in that form--asking the child whether he thought that by chance they had assumed such a form, and going on to urge upon the child the argument from design in Creation, and so to God as the Creator.

Apart from the fact that a child of eight has already inevitably gone through a long and active religious experience, guided or unguided, for better or worse,--it remains that a Christian child should learn of God, first in His Fatherhood, should know God first as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," and in Christ "our Father." By the things that are seen, we understand (and especially the child understands) the things that are not seen; and the hidden things by the revealed,--God by Christ. We are first aware of ourselves as in the Communion of the Holy Ghost--wrapped in the Church's life of faith and prayer; thereby we are brought to Jesus, Who is our life, and the cause and explanation of our life; and through Him to the Father. "No man" (nor even a little child) comes to the Father except by Him. This is the right and actual order of the child's discovery of God, if it be normal as in the Church of God. Its first consciousness must be of religion wrapping round its life; it perceives prayer, before it can perceive the Object of prayer;--our religion;--our faith. Its first curiosity should be "What mean ye by this service?" and its first answer, the Name that is above every name.

One should also be careful to avoid teaching a child to be a Unitarian first in order that it may be a Christian later. There is an occasional practice among the working classes of speaking to their children of our blessed and adorable Lord under the name of "The Good Man"; so that the little ones form an affectionate and reverent estimate of His humanity, but have His Divinity still to learn. I am not sure how far any corresponding tendency may exist among educated parents. Among them, I should be afraid of its existing, sometimes from a would-be intelligent and superior avoidance of "dogma" (as if a child could be anything but dogmatic),--partly from a mistaken condescension to the children's intellect; as though a child might better grasp our Lord's humanity than His Divinity. As a matter of fact, I believe that we may trust children to comprehend everything of Christianity which we can tell them in plain words. I venture for myself to believe that the Christian child has "an unction of the Holy One," and is taught of God; and, though but the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, partakes of the Divine endowment of that Kingdom and possesses capacity to receive these things, which, "hidden from the wise and prudent," can be revealed to babes.

Again one may note as a thing to be avoided, the use of the thought of God as a threat. I knew a good lady who for the protection of her cherries from the village children, hung among them a card, on which was legibly inscribed the text, "Thou God seest me." To Hagar in her desolation these were words of infinite consolation and supreme hope; and so the truth they embody should be made to the child. I have said that a child should learn religion by growing to consciousness in a religious atmosphere; and that, I think, is true. But it is not less true that the home religion requires expression which the child can recognise. I do not think it easy to overvalue the influence of the custom of family worship on the spiritual growth of children. Again, I have known a still deeper impression of the reality of religion produced in childhood by a mother's habit of gathering the children round her for prayer, at other times than those of stated worship. Yet again, I have known the habit of a most busy and laborious man (magistrate in a great jurisdiction), a man of the most unobtrusive piety,--whose invariable custom it was to take each of his children apart to his study for a moment's prayer, before he left the house for his daily duties; and whose first act on his daily return from the bench, was to lock himself alone into the same study--his children guessed that it was to lay the heavy responsibility of his day's judgments before the merciful judgment of God.

And again, I have known a man whose first childish sense of the reality of religion, for grown-up people as well as for children, was gained in this way: the child was supposed to be asleep, but was not, and listened while two adult relatives talked together, softly, of their dead.

High among the things which may be done by parents for children in the home, I set the regular and continuous reading of the Holy Scripture in large portions. Most of us will remember what Mr. [John] Ruskin has said in his "Praeterita" of his debt to his mother for holding him to that simple exercise. My own experience confirms what he says of his. We cannot measure the power of such reading, unless one keeps in mind that what is read early in life is never quite forgotten, and that what is read several times by a child is never forgotten at all; and also that continuous reading of the whole Bible is less practised when one reads for oneself; and that no later reading sinks deep in to the ears as the fresh reading of a young child does. There is a knowledge of Scripture, which if it is not gained in that way will never be gained at all.

II. Another duty of the parent seems to lie in relation to the religious atmosphere in the schools where his children are educated. It is a matter which the parent has in his own hands. He is the ratepayer, and the taxpayer, and he is the voter at every election. What he wills to have, that is what he shall have, if only he wills it strongly. And what of public affairs a man (who has children to be educated) is really to care about, if not this, I do not know. How certainly he can have facilities for this, if he wants them, though he be one of a very small minority, the existence of Church schools of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic denominations among us is enough to tell. They have them because they will have them.

I should be far from saying that religious instruction of children is dependent on the religious character of the schools. The home influence in the matter will always be the greater and preponderating influence: that is to say, that unless the atmosphere of the home be religious, the religious influence of even an ideal school will be comparatively powerless; while parental diligence may obviously avail abundantly, apart from the Christian tone of school life, and without its assistance to instruct.

It remains, however, that the Christian home plus the Christian school is a combination of extraordinary efficiency. The school may be an adjunct to parental efforts to impart religious knowledge and to impress Christian faith and character, of the most supreme value. To dispense with the help of religion in the school is deliberately to throw away an influence for good, of which for its purpose nothing can supply the place; it is to weaken religious training by almost half of its resources.

School is a fact of enormous significance to the school-child, of great bulk in its life. School is the child's world. It is to the child what the business and life-pursuit is to the adult. It is the place of facts, the sphere of actualities, of reality and work. School to the child means things in earnest. Apart from what may be gained by positive instruction in religion, it is of the last importance in forming the child's attitude of mind to religious affairs, that it be trained to find them prominent there--placed by you, and by those all-powerful persons, their teachers, among real things, things that cannot be left on one side--more important than even those class studies, which school life represents, as the business of existence. The greater part of your child's day is spent in school, or in touch with its tone; is it nothing whether that be a tone of religion or not? Next to your own, the school influence is out and away the chief influence in shaping your child's consciousness and character; one would think that an ordinarily merciful parent it would be a matter of life or death to secure that its influence be directly and consistently Christian.

It is absolutely necessary also to recognize the absorbing nature of the demand made by the school upon the time and attention of the child in these days: it is pushed, in most cases, to the verge of the impossible. When that is satisfied the child has neither time nor attention for more. If it had, more work would be at once imposed by an addition to the school curriculum. It is only by securing a place for religious instruction in the school, and the school programme, that it can be made available for the child. If it is not there, there will be no time or strength or thought for it. Leave it out of the school list of subjects, and it will practically be left out of the child's day.

For the religious instruction which is given in our public schools we must be entirely thankful: its mere presence there as "religious instruction" is itself an educative fact of very great worth. I do not care to mention the subject without a word of gratitude to our public school teachers, who in a great majority of instances throw themselves into this unpaid and unpraised part of their work in an admirable spirit. The country is deeply in their debt for this. Possibly no more than exists could be had in schools controlled by popularly elected Boards. From the point of view of the supporters of voluntary schools across the Border, our position is apparently enviable.

For what we have we must, therefore, be grateful, although we must face the fact that the public school gives instruction in the material with which religion deals, rather than in religion; and that it is instruction only, not training. I do not pretend to think that this reaches the ideal of the Christian school. I incline to believe in the supreme value of that "atmosphere of religion" on which the "Christian Brothers" in their schools insist so strongly. It is a great deal, however, to have secured so much under a Government department, and through School Boards. The really marvelous thing is that with our jealousy of socialistic legislation, and the actual unpopularity of socialism, the most radically socialistic of all claims should have been admitted to prevail in Scotland--the assertion, namely, of the right of the state to assume the charge of the child. I believe it to be a claim of a hazardous kind, and that we have yet to see it in its logical result. The present religious element in our public schools is not likely to remain long unassailed. But most of you are, probably, more personally concerned in the education in the secondary schools. How far is that religious? How much have our High Schools and Grammar Schools to do with religion? I speak without adequate knowledge of the details of arrangement in the public secondary schools over the country--only extensive and careful enquiry would enable one so to speak--and only venture to express my own impression that, generally speaking, the religious instruction there given is extremely limited, and is not enough in any appreciable degree to colour the school life. In privately managed residentiary secondary schools, I believe that the religious discipline is careful and the instruction in religious matters excellent. The public secondary schools are those, however, which mainly affect the tone of the country, and they are not framed on a system which would make it possible for them to assume the character of religious institutions. No responsibility in the matter, and certainly no degree of blame, can be supposed to rest with the staff of these schools. The method of the schools admits of no more than that each master give instruction in his own subject.

But one may be permitted to regret that this particular method should have grown up and should prevail in the country. One may wonder that the Scottish Church, which has always taken so profound and fruitful an interest in primary education and in the children of the working classes, should have exhibited an equally profound indifference to the spiritual care of the children of the wealthier and upper class. It is a stupidity and a neglect of duty for which obviously she has paid and is paying dearly.

My point, however, is to ask you to observe how entirely and absolutely children who attend such schools as do not pretend to care for children in their spiritual relations, are thrown upon their own parents for religious instruction, and how complete is the responsibility of their parents to see that, in the home, such instruction is given and received to profit.

It is extremely difficult to speak with exact knowledge in such a matter, which involves the domestic practice of innumerable households, and, again, I can only express my own impression that in very many cases the children of the working class--who attend the Board Schools with their systematic religious instruction, and who on Sunday are at Sunday-school--may be in such matters much better off than children of a higher rank, whose school life consists in attendance on a series of classes on distinct secular subjects, and who generally do not attend Sunday-school. All then depends on the parents. Now modern social arrangements do not favour quiet evening intercourse of parents with their children: the children are fully occupied with their school tasks; their leisure is nowadays claimed by games and amusements in a way hitherto unprecedented. One wonders when and how, in some cases, the religious instruction comes in, and where the children under such circumstances are supposed to get it.

III. There remains the duty of the parent to the religious education of his child in relation to the church. There, again, what has been said of the state is true also of the church: parents are the chief element in the membership of the church, and if the arrangements of the church life are not framed with a view to the spiritual nurture of the children, they have themselves to thank. It is absurd to suppose that a demand from them would be without effect.

I am perfectly clear that children should be trained in constant attendance upon stated worship. To say that children do not understand the sermon is not to the purpose. They understand the act of worship, in which the sermon is an incident. One must grant that consideration for the children has had little to do in shaping the expression of Christianity which we have evolved, for ourselves, certainly not for them. In this respect, the Scottish child is, of all children, most miserable. Rightly or wrongly, we address the intellect always, the eye and the imagination not all. We exclude what peculiarly speaks to the child--the symbolic. We refuse every help to excite in their minds the question-the child's own question--"What mean ye? What mean ye by this service?" This may be exactly as it should be, but it is unfortunate for the child. Yet they are probably quite one half of the flock. The other half, however, has matters in its own hands, and has considered itself only. And again, the Scottish child is unfortunate in our almost entire want of institutions, of incidents and occasions and acts, round which the habit of religion can crystallize, and the associations of piety be clustered. The old sacramental weeks are gone, and are un-replaced. The year in these days has for the Scottish child, one religious festival, and it is not, I am afraid, from the point of view of children, religious. It is to them a time of pantomimes and presents and children's parties. The absence of the children from our few Christmas services is one of the most depressing incidents of a season, of all others perhaps the most depressing to the Christian soul, vexed by jealousy for the name of our Lord. Our present Christmas observance--being a Christian thing thoroughly secularised and possessed by the world--is for our children a poor piece of "religious instruction." Yet that, and such things, might be so powerful to them for good. We have, then, little in our church life that can reach or impress the children. Thus again, the greater burden remains with the Scottish parent.

I do not think that I need speak of the Sunday-school as adaptable to larger usefulness than it at present serves, and that usefulness is not great for the class represented here.

And still less of what are called children's services, which seem to me to embody a false idea of worship, of the relations of the church of God to the children, and of the Christian family, and so to be at the best but a makeshift. For worship, the parent and the child should be together before God, and the worship should be such as a child can so far understand. For instruction of children, we have need to revive the proper provision for the children by the Church, namely, the practice of catechising by the clergy. We require to put that ministry in the place which it holds in Continental practice. We clergy have need to learn its method, and to put it high among the necessary functions of our pastorate. Sunday by Sunday the Church should be filled--between the hours of Morning and Evening Prayer--by the whole children of the congregation, without distinction of class or rank--at one time the younger, at another the older--for systematic and careful instruction by the clergy themselves, in the contents of the Holy Scriptures, the doctrine of the faith, and the practices of the religious life. How laborious, how exhaustive, how diligent and systematic, and how fruitful such catechetic pastorate may be, one may learn from such handbooks as Bishop [Felix] Dupanloup's "Ministry of Catechising" or the "Methode de St. Sulprice."

The present obstacle to such work is twofold. As for the Sunday, ministers cannot do more than they are doing on Sundays (at least in town charges). It is impossible for any one man to do more than carry out the present scheme of duty. The catechetic work of a large congregation would demand the gifts and strength of an able man, wholly devoted to it for the day, with abundant and laborious preparation on the preceding days, and with all the help he can get from trained workers of the laity. Our churches are under-manned: there is no provision for the pastorate of the children and for their teaching; and will our people make better staffing possible? It all lies with the parents.

On week-days, again, when a clergyman might very well have time for catechising, can he get the children to catechise? I wish that I knew the hour, morning or evening, when that could be attempted, without the invariable answer--"They have so many lessons"; "They need every spare moment for exercise and recreation." And so they do, poor things. But, possibly, room should be made for their spiritual training as well, even at the sacrifice of Sanscrit or dancing. It all rests with the parents and their judgment of what is the really indispensable. I am far from minimising the responsibility of the clergy, but I am not here to speak of that. I am far from saying that their responsibility is discharged; but honestly, I do not know how, under present conditions, they can discharge it. There are only twelve hours in the day. And we do not always find our efforts to do something for the children taken so seriously as we could wish.

"Like as a father pitieth his children." There is great room for pity towards the little ones, who are so absolutely at the mercy of the older people, and have to grow up just what we make them. God help us to be good ourselves, for to be with good men and to learn their thoughts is a chief thing, without which no instruction will serve. But God help parents, too, to consider that instruction also is needed, and that their children have souls to be fed, as well as bodies to nourished.

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