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 Our Children: Some of the Difficulties it Presents.

by Mrs. P. H. Bagenal.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 351

In conversation with some of the members of our Parents' Union both here and in London, I have found that the religious teaching of our children is one which is exercising the minds of most of the thoughtful parents of the present day, and that it is a subject on which they are longing for help and guidance.

I think it will be useful to point out what seem to me some of our chief difficulties, why they are difficulties to us when they were not so to our parents and grandparents, and to consider whether some of them at least may not be cleared away and fresh light let in upon them when we face them steadily. We all recognise that the children must be taught, and for the first seven years of their lives, at least, it is their mothers who must teach them. If we, frightened at the difficulties, refuse the task, half do it, or (what seems to me even worse) leave it in the hands of irresponsible or incompetent people, are we not shirking and letting slip from us the highest duty of our lives and one which we can never afterwards recall?

The future of the race! the making or marring of the rising generation! It is all in the hands of the mothers, so wise men are very fond of telling us. The early religious teaching ought to be done at home, and ought to be better done than it is done. The mothers are responsible! they say. Well! I am wiling to admit that it is so, but I want the wise men also to admit that we have difficulties, that those difficulties are greater than they were, and I want them to try to help us to overcome them. I think it is a subject which merits the attention of the best and wisest teachers of the day, of all denominations. We want more books and better books than we have, we want text-books for our children written by experts.

I am not content that when it is a question of science or literature my boy should have his text-books thought out and written by the best authorities, while on the vastly more important subject of the earliest presentation of religious ideas to his mind, he should have nothing better than a catechism by Mrs. Gibbons, or such treatises as Peep of Day or Line upon Line [by Favell Lee Mortimer]. The latter, I was lately told, is still the only book in general use in all the Sunday Schools of Ipswich.

After all, what is religion? May it not be defined as the science of our relationship to the unseen, and of the recognition of what that relationship involves of duty, love and worship? Religion may in its essence remain the same through the centuries, but the presentation of religious truths to our minds must change as our modes of thought change, and if our religion is not capable of progression it will remain a dead thing and lose the power of a vital influence in our lives and that of our children.

"We cannot put the new wine into the old bottles, else the wine is spilled," and the wine is the important thing, the wine is what matters, that which is essential, permanent.

Now it is because I think we are all too careless of the danger of allowing the wine to be spilled, that I would urge you as parents to-day to face these questions for yourselves. I should like to read you here an extract from the current number of Mothers in Council, the organ, as you all know, of the Mothers' Union Society. It is by Rev. W. Warburton, Canon of Winchester. In a paper on the study of Holy Scripture, he says,

    "Looking out on our future, it seems to my mind that our difficulties, instead of lessening or disappearing, are accumulating for the next generation. They are no longer abstract speculative matters for a churchman to pass sicco pede ["dry foot"] along the edge of them, or, smiling, put the question by; they are daily becoming more and more the battle-field of discussion, not among scholars only, but among the more intelligent of the working classes, for whom such problems possess a peculiar attractiveness and who delight in debating political and social questions on grounds taken from Holy Scripture.

    "In dealing with these half-informed but often keen-witted and truth-loving sceptics, our aim, I take it, should be to make it clear that Christianity is not bound up with or committed to dogmatic theories on scientific or historical questions, or any infallible system of Biblical interpretation; and in all our teaching, and in that free discussion of all such matters, which I take to be now inevitable, to distinguish carefully between the permanent and the temporary elements of religious truth."

These last words of Canon Warburton's seem to me of great importance. We are in danger of losing "the permanent with the temporary." Mr. Bagenal was travelling lately in the train with two men who were discussing their children; one of them remarked, "My son has taken up geology very keenly and he came to me the other day and said, --'Father, do you believe that the 1st chapter in Genesis is literally true? because I don't.' " My own boy comes home from school and says, "Mother, you told me that most probably the earth was flung off from the sun a mass of heated vapour, but my little book at school says, the Bible says, the earth was made first and the sun and moon appeared two days afterwards." The boy's mind is confused, there is a difficulty and a danger created when there was no necessity for either, and the difficulty is entirely brought about by our mode of teaching.

Why should we let the boy's mind be confused between the allegorical and the historical parts of the Bible? Why should he be taught as historical and scientific truths, that which later on we shall tell him was never meant to be as such? The terrible danger is that with his faith in the scientific accuracy of the 1st chapter of Genesis, he should lose that which you want him never to lose, his belief in and his reverence for that book that you want him to revere more than any other book all his life long.

Children's minds are not fit to deal with such questions as the origin of the human race, and the first appearance of lawlessness in that race, and if you teach the allegorical tale as literally true, if they are taught these things in little books of question and answer like Line upon Line, are you not setting up in the child's mind an idea which will, when he gets older, connect itself with what is inaccurate and untrue, and will not that idea of fable and inaccuracy be associated with the important spiritual truths which you wish him "to grapple to his soul with hooks of steel."

Now I do not want to be misunderstood. I agree absolutely with the Bishop of Durham, when he says that "our Book of Origins furnishes the unchanging basis of our religious belief," but he goes on to say "the record of the Creation and of the Fall is first apprehended in its full significance when it is studied as a revelation of spiritual mysteries and not as a realistic narrative." Again, "the lessons given by this preface to all revelations are, in short, moral and spiritual, and not physical and historical."

Children's minds are hardly fit to deal with the moral and spiritual aspects of such questions. Later on (having carefully guarded those first chapters from misinterpretation) we may hope to see the great symbolical truths grasped in their fulness, the Incarnation itself foreshadowed before the Fall in the words of the 27th verse, "and God created man in his own image, in the image of God created He him," something of the mystery of lawlessness and the terrible power of the lower nature in the story of the Garden and the great disobedience.

I would read them these first chapters, explaining that they are allegorical and symbolic in just the same sense as the Book of Revelations is allegorical, that they deal with truths too great for their minds to apprehend, and for their first lessons in Bible history go on to the History of the Jews beginning with the call of Abraham.

The great fact we must never lose sight of is that the end and aim of all our religious instruction is to make our children grow up Christians, not in name only. We know that we live in difficult days; we see, in the words of one of our great teachers, "the old conception of nature and man, of the great universe and its history, breaking up, a new conception is making its way into the collective consciousness and becoming the regulative principle of all its thinking, with the inevitable result that religious beliefs, if they are to live at all, must undergo a corresponding transformation."

"Vast questions lying at the root of all religion are being called in doubt from day to day and press heavily upon a large body of the earnest laity of this country." Mr. Balfour's impassioned utterance in the House of Commons lately, finds an echo in every thoughtful mind.

We look around on educated Germany, France, America. We see secularism and agnosticism openly acknowledged by many of the most intelligent and thoughtful of the rising generation, and we feel that there is something wrong. We feel we must, if necessary, restate the old truths, the vital truths must be made to live with a new life for the younger generation. We must not be apathetic, cowardly, afraid to face the facts. "So far from being effete," Dean Stanley used to say, "Christianity is as yet undeveloped"; firm in that belief we must welcome all truths, historical or scientific, as the truth of God. We must study the Bible as a whole. The Old Testament as leading up to the New, the Jewish Ideal as meant to develop into the Christian. We should tell the children why the study of the Old Testament is important, and why the history of the Jews transcends for us in interest the history of any other nation. Shew them how the pure monotheistic idea, which it was their special privilege to guard, was fostered by the exclusiveness enjoined on the Jews by their special prophets and their ceremonial law, and by all the special circumstances of their history. How the gorgeous ritual of the Ark and Temple and the Sacrificial system (copied, as no doubt much of it was, from what Moses had seen in Egypt) was typical always of higher and deeper truth, and destined to lead up to it. So that the Bible may become to the children, as it were, God's great Object Lesson Book, where the higher truths are taught often in the form of parables, but where we are not intended either in the Old or New Testament to take the parables and teach them for historic fact.

It is easy enough, once one has thought out the subject, to deal first with the simple historical parts of the Bible. I have found my children delight in the history of the Jews, beginning with the call of Abraham. It is easy to make Ur of the Chaldees a most interesting town to their imaginations, if we tell them a little of it history and of its people, of its reigning family with which Abraham was very closely connected, of the worship of the great moon God of the Chaldeans, whose temples and elaborate ritual did not satisfy the awakened soul of the chieftain longing for a purer worship and a freer atmosphere of thought. Professor [Archibald] Sayce's books I have found the most helpful, as far as I have gone with my own children, for the early history of the Hebrews and of Egypt. They love to hear all we can tell them of those early times, of Abraham's military skill and prowess. His conquest of the great king of Elam. His rescue of Lot by force of arms, as he afterwards rescued him from Sodom by prayer and intercession. Such history leads us up quite naturally to the spiritual and symbolic teaching, just as Abraham's return from his conquest led him up to Jerusalem and to that important meeting with Melchizedek, King of Jerusalem, which the author of the epistle to the Hebrews uses as the foundation of all his deepest teaching on the meaning of the law of sacrifice and the Cross.

Children love to hear all you can tell them of the ancient races of Palestine, the Amorites, and the Hittites. You can make them nearly as eager over the skull of a Hittite as it is reported that Mr. Gladstone became in the latter years of his life. Those same daughters of Heth, that were so troublesome to Rebekah that her life became a burden to her, and that were most likely the unconscious cause of much of the subsequent history of both Esau and Jacob. I can still remember, that as a child I considered the reiterated names of the Amorites and Hittites, &c., in the Bible reading as tiresome and absolutely without meaning, but it need not be so; they may be connected in the child's mind with curious Egyptian pictures of red-haired men and women with blue eyes and fair faces that they will never forget, and with walled towns, and giants, and tales of conquest, and early civilization, which, by becoming real, helps to make the Bible a reality.

The Bible is so true to nature that we often have to look deep for the moral teaching, but you will find the children are always eager for the moral.

My boy of seven said to me the other day, "Mother, I wonder Jacob was not punished more severely for his bad conduct to his brother." I have to shew him how Jacob's whole subsequent history was a long punishment drawn out. How he suffered from the same faults of duplicity and cunning in all his dealings with Laban and even with his own children reproducing the sin of their father, till the discipline of life had done its work and his character (tried and purified by suffering) became worthy of the high rank he holds in Bible history.

The New Testament, I think, we may teach on just the same lines, clearing our own mind first, and giving the children the historic setting for the Bible pictures. The state of the known world when our Lord came under the vast dominating influence of the Roman Empire. When we come to the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul, we must read Professor [William Mitchell] Ramsay on Paul the Traveller and Citizen of Rome. I have not arrived at St. Paul yet with my children, and I feel as if I had a great deal to read and think about before I do.

I suppose, that to many minds, there may be great difficulties connected with the teaching of the New Testament, but we do not meet with them at the early stages, and later on I cannot help thinking that the whole attitude of the child's mind towards a unique revelation will be affected by the way he has been taught from the beginning. Reverence is the great thing, reverence fostered from the start, reverence for the Divine revelation in nature, leading up to reverence for the Divine revelation in human nature.

"The personal and Divine union of the Godhead and Humanity," is what we bear in mind and what we want the children to realise. Individually, socially, they must come to see, that as members of that Divine Humanity, their dignity is immense, their obligations infinite. "Sons of God," we want their minds to grasp that fact, not as an empty formula, not as depending only on an outward ordinance or an inward experience, but as including both and as the root fact of creation -- that fact of which the Bible is full, from end to end, the fact which finds its fullest development, its true significance, in the Incarnation. And yet, how difficult it is. The teaching of natural science, of geology and astronomy, present problems to our minds to-day which were unknown to our forefathers.

Who has not found the difficulty of answering such a question as this:"Mother, you tell me that God is Love and God is everywhere present in nature. How can the animals be so cruel to each other? Why does the lion eat the deer, the cat the mouse?" There is no answer, at least no answer that will satisfy the child's mind, and at the same time approve itself to our minds as genuine (whatever else we are in our religious teaching, let us be genuine). When he is older, he may come to see that if there be a solution, it lies deep within that mystery of the law of sacrifice at work all through creation, which is the underlying truth of Christianity. Then I am sure we must not teach religion as if it was a thing apart from our every-day life and thought. Miss Charlotte Mason says, "In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical every-day life, his God doth instruct him, and doth teach him." "We must remember," she says, "that here, as elsewhere, the infinite and almighty spirit of God works under limitations. Our co-operation appears to be the indispensable condition of all the divine workings. Grammar, for example, may be taught in such a way as to invite and obtain the co-operation of the Divine Teacher, or in such a way as to exclude His illuminating presence from the schoolroom. This great recognition resolves that discord in our lives of which most of us are more or less aware. We must think, we must know, we must rejoice in and create the beautiful, and if all the burning thoughts that stir in the minds of men, all the beautiful conceptions they give birth to, are things apart from God, then we too must have a separate life, a life apart from God, a division of ourselves into secular and religious discord and unrest." She goes on to say, "We believe that this is a fertile source of the unfaith of the day, especially in young and ardent minds. The claims of intellect are urgent, the intellectual life is a necessity not to be foregone at any hazard. It is impossible for them to recognise in themselves a dual nature, a dual spirituality so to speak, and if there are claims which definitely oppose themselves to the claims of intellect, these other claims must go to the wall, and the young man or woman full of promise and power, becomes a freethinker, an agnostic, what you will."

I would plead, then, for more intelligent thought on these questions, for more intelligent teaching of religion.

Is it the child's fault that "he understandeth not," and that the enemy comes and "snatches away the work of the kingdom"? How can he understand, when the Bible is taught in a way in which we should never dream of teaching any other book? Look at the piecemeal Scripture lessons given in our schools. "Take this book home" was said to a little boy I know the other day, "and read six pages in the life of Gideon," or a few days afterwards, "read six pages in Genesis or Joshua." There is no connection made, no explanation given, the whole thing is futile and useless, and the child gains a glib familiarity with the words of the Bible, while they have no intelligent meaning for him, and instead of inspiration, joy and insight, which it is the mother's aim to produce, you have nothing but weariness, oppression and distaste.

There are many minor difficulties on which we mothers would be very grateful for more light and for thoughtful discussion. Such is the question of the spending of Sunday. How to avoid both the puritanic and the merely secular view. Sunday ought to be bright and happy, and yet be capable of deepening and elevating the life, not a mere holiday, yet full of rest and true recreation. People's ideas of what constitute rest and recreation vary so much, and there is no strong principle involved. The Master's words, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath," guard against all such amusements as require or entail the forced labour of others, but lays down no stringent rule.

I suppose I am old-fashioned, but I confess I do not like to see the tennis-ground or the croquet balls in use on Sunday, and I often wonder, when my children are older and perhaps anxious for these amusements, what arguments I can employ to prevent their appearance or to justify my view.

Church-going for children, again. Is it advisable to take young children to church, to make them attend regularly? Is it a good thing to form this habit when they are young? I think it must be so, but I wish our services could be a little shorter or that it could be arranged for the children to leave the church before the sermon.

These and other subjects merit discussion and the thoughtful consideration, not only of the members of our Parents' Union, but of all those concerned in the great question of the presentation of religious truth to the minds of the children.

[Philip Henry Bagenal, 1850-1927, of Wimbledon, was General Inspector of the Local Government Board. He wrote "The Priest in Politics," "The American Irish and Their Influence on Irish Politics" and other books. His wife Hariot Jocelyn wrote this article.]

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