The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

On the Education of Children in True Religion and Worship.

by Mabel C. Batterham.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 8-20

[This paper, read by my wife at a meeting of the Hastings and St. Leonards Branch of the P.N.E.U. in April last, was the expansion of an address given by her to a Mothers' Guild at Eastbourne a short time before. She felt that a paper so formed needed a thorough revision to fit it for publication in the Parents' Review--the more so as it was written during a time of ill-health in the brief and infrequent intervals of leisure afforded by a busy life. The opportunity for its revision was not given her. Her words as I now read them, for the first time, come to me as a precious message from the grave. To re-write the paper as she would have done is a task I dare not undertake. I am therefore content to let it appear, with this apology, in its unrevised condition. --J. W. B.]

The child of today is taught in his catechism that his duty towards God is "to worship Him and give Him thanks." Do Christian parents give as much thought to their child's duties towards God, as they do to his duties towards his neighbour? That scheme of education is sadly lacking which only prepares a child for the short span of life he can hope to pass on this earth, and fails to prepare him for his real life of which this is such an infinitesimal part. We know very little of that life, but we do know it will be a life of worship. Does modern child-training, in the first place, train a child's character for that worship? Since we cannot worship a God whom we don't know, I preface my remarks on children's worship with a few suggestions on early religious training--education in the knowledge of God.

It has often struck me as strange that this subject does not receive more attention from the educated mothers of today. Not long ago this was brought home to me very forcibly. I asked a mother of some experience when she would begin to teach a child of ordinary intelligence the Apostles' Creed. She answered, "I never thought about it." Though I feel, in attempting to put together my ideas on this great subject, that I am exercising myself in matters that are far "too high for me," I can claim to have thought about it.

We must recognize clearly two forms of religious training.
        I. That in which the child learns directly from his teachers.
        II. That in which he is taught indirectly by what he sees and experiences.

In reference to the former, let me first say that the parent is responsible for all dogma that her child is taught. If religious instruction is given by a teacher, the mother should be quite certain what that instruction is. I feel sure that all mothers agree with me that they alone should teach the child his faith. We cannot begin too early to teach our child his relationship to God. Never let him remember a time when he did not say his prayers.

        "Prayer is the simplest form of speech
                That infant lips can try,
        Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
                The Majesty on high."

Those prayers are, from the first, our best opportunity and greatest responsibility.

I want in this part of my paper to treat chiefly of the religious training of the intellect. The child's prayers must be made intelligible to him or they will be unreal. They must be relevant or they will be unreal. They must from the very first include all that constitutes prayer, viz., praise and thanksgiving, intercession, personal petitions.

To teach a child to express his gratitude will help to create the feeling, and if we can teach him to be unselfish in his prayers, we are starting him on a royal road which some of us have found hard to discover in later years. It is perfectly natural for children to pray for those they know. Others, outside their family circle, for whom they are bound to pray, only need suggesting to them, e.g., their parish priests, the schools or crêche of the parish, any neighbours who are ill. A child's prayers are much more real to him if in them he remembers the events of the day--a journey, a new arrival in the home. Prayer, then, is the first means of educating a child in his intercourse with Almighty God. Next to their prayers, children's hymns deserve more attention than they often get. So much can be taught by them. That beautiful hymn, such a favorite with us, might be taught at an early age--"My God! how wonderful Thou art"; also "Praise to the Holiest in the height." Those which portray religious emotions far above their ken should be carefully avoided. They are the fore-runners of insincerity and hypocrisy. As we are careful that really good pieces of poetry from our best authors are selected for children's recitation, so we should choose those hymns which our children ought to love. Let them learn "Our blest Redeemer," "Through the day Thy love hath spared us," "There is a land of pure delight," "The Head that once was crowned with thorns."

As soon as a child takes intelligent interest in pictures, his religious instruction may begin. Here let me say (I know it will be much questioned) that all Bible reading should be from the Bible and not from the watered-down children's versions of it. I suppose that no mother would, if she could help it, entrust to a stranger the unspeakable privilege of handing down to her child those truths which are her most prized possession. Mothers--mothers alone, can give the child real religious teaching. In the first years of childhood this needs very little learning, but it will always require a great deal of prayer and self-denial. Many mothers, I believe, leave dogma tremblingly alone. Now, if a child requires clear definite instruction in secular subjects, how much more does he in religious? In these, as in those, he must have the best instruction that can be got. "Undenominational" teaching can never become part of a child's self. Religious generalities are worse than useless. Do not think, however, that I advocate teaching a child the Athanasian Creed at the age of three! By presenting a truth to a child before he is able in any way to grasp it, we are damaging that true for him in the future. It is the way in which children are taught that makes the difference. Those truths which are intelligently and reverently taught to a child by a person whom he implicitly believes are the truths which will stick. Children are so naturally reverent, have such ready imagination and such a thirst for knowledge of this kind, that the task is more blessed than difficult. However careful the early teaching, we must not expect that the child will never go through a dark day of doubt, but that through it all he will believe--

        "It is but for a time; I press God's lamp
        Close to my breast; its splendour, soon or late,
        Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day."
                        [Robert Browning]

Let your aim be to plant some real ideas so deep, and to water them so well with your own influence, that, in after life, the thought of yourself shall be so bound up with God and the Bible that nothing can part them. If, too we love our country we must feel that we are doing a work, even above that of statesmen and generals, in doing what we can to enable the rising generation to save their country from materialism and undenominationalism. In this sense it may indeed by true, that "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

I have no time to make more than a few suggestions on the keeping of Sunday, though I feel that it is a subject of the utmost importance, and one that all mothers have to face. It need not be a difficult one. Those children who have been taught how to spend their week days, will find their Sunday duties and pleasures fall into their right places. We can but teach them that it is first of all a day of worship, and secondly, a day of rest. That all things are lawful, though all are not expedient. That the liberty of the children of God must not prove a stumbling-block to weaker brethren. Of one thing, I am certain; we must be quite clear ourselves what we are going to teach our children on this subject, as on all others, if we are to really help them.

I now pass to the consideration of the indirect religious teaching of the child conveyed to him by observation and experience. A child's spiritual nature is so greatly influenced by the tone, as well as the teaching, of his home, that I feel I cannot approach this subject without saying some of the things which have burnt themselves into my brain, after what I have witnessed in the homes of some of our children. Before children are anything else, they are imitative--at first, of course, unconsciously. Even infants, I believe, will think as we think. For instance, when they have done anything that grieves us, they see the look on our faces, and feel themselves in the wrong, thinking, in a sense, of their transgression as we think of it. Infants' religion is taught by object lesson, as all their teaching should be. It is by our reverence at the mention of Holy things that they first become conscious of a Something above and beyond them, and are reverent too. Thus in earliest infancy the mother has a never-failing attitude of mind to appeal to--the child's imitativeness. It is a natural God-given instinct, and the mother cannot overestimate its value. It will be among her strongest agents for good all through child-life. I often wonder whether some mothers ever realize its existence! If they did, they would surely give more serious consideration to the choice of guardians, governesses, and nurses for their children.

But it is to his mother that the child looks for his ideal, and, however awful and humiliating the thought, we have no right to try to get away from it.

Children's unconscious imitation greatly affects their habits of reverence. I believe children to be naturally reverent, and that every child is born into the world with a natural religion in his soul, and a natural reverence for an Unseen Presence. Parents either foster or hinder that God-given instinct.

Professor Sully says in his book on Psychology--"The religious feeling takes its rise in close connection with moral discipline," but Volkmann, the German psychologist, thinks that "The religious emotion is distinct from the moral in its origin and early development." All seem to feel it a subject which is not to be made clear by any amount of reasoning.

Most mothers will probably agree that the instinct is manifested at a very early age, even though they do not believe it to be inherent in the child, and that if this instinct is never appealed to, it may remain dormant any number of years.

If, in our scheme of education, we allow this religious instinct to remain dormant, we are, to regard it from another standpoint, educating our child as though he lived in some prehistoric age before the evolution of man's religious faculty.

Surely no parent would do that! But do the majority of Christian parents even take pains to train that faculty pari passu ["equal footing"] with the other faculties of the child's mind?

If it is easy to quicken this Divine instinct in infancy, it is equally as easy to stifle it merely by neglecting to foster it as the child grows. Here I should like to quote from a well-known book by the Rev. the Hon. E. [Edward] Lyttelton. He says--"One of the most powerful solvents of a child's early superstitions must be the growing conviction that none of his elders share them." [from "Mothers and Sons"] If, in short, he sees that his mother has no living belief in the Unseen, if nothing she says or does in his presence recalls those truths of which he has been told, then, surely, his belief in God will share the fate of his belief in fairies. And if, on the other hand, the mother's looks, words and actions, as well as his other surroundings, remind him of those truths, can anyone say that his belief in them would not have a good chance of surviving?

I believe, then, that one of the most potent hindrances to growth of the religious instinct in children is the worldliness of mothers. There are mothers (whom we all know) of whom we so often think "The last person who should have been a mother!"--the flippant and worldly mothers. How can they expect their children to grow up good men and women? A mother's task requires, in the first place, unworldliness. Your child is learning from your words, gestures and expression either that you are living in view of an Unseen Presence and for a life beyond the grave, or that, though you talk about such things sometimes, your keenest interest and your deepest emotions are stirred by things which are altogether on this side of the grave, and strikingly mundane in comparison with your professions.

What so simplifies our work is that, for a child, the unseen things are the real things. His soul has just come from the Hand that put the stars in their places--"the Maker of all things, visible and invisible," and, as the child has no knowledge of the things which form the earth-born clouds of maturer minds, he drinks in, as his natural spiritual food, all that we can tell him of the unseen world, feeling instinctively that it is true.

Unless we, by our attitude of mind, make nature, beauty, love, art, etc., "of the earth, earthy," they are to him part of God's world, and therefore, to be learned about, spoken of, and treated with reverence.

"Earth's crammed with Heaven and every common bush alive with God." [Elizabeth Barrett Browning] So in quite his earliest years we may help him to adjust his interests, his faculties, in short, his whole nature, "body, soul and spirit," in that perfect balance which alone constitutes true holiness.

        "All that meets the bodily sense, deem symbolical--one
        Mighty Alphabet for infant minds! and, we on this low world,
        Placed with our back to bright Reality
        That we may learn with young unwonted ken
                        The Substance from the Shadow."
        [from Destiny of Nations, by Coleridge]

Emerson says--"We grope after the Spiritual by describing it as invisible. The true meaning of Spiritual is Real." [from Self-Reliance]

We must so train our children that this attitude--the continual recognition of the presence of God, will be habitual when they are men and women.

How little, in these days, is there of reverence! And what is life without it? Reverence for God--for God's laws--for the soul in man. Parents want their children to be clever, to be successful and smart. Are they equally anxious that they should be reverent? Reverent to parents, to all in authority, to old age, to goodness and excellent wherever they find it!

Without reverence can be no real life, no love, no religion. We mothers can beware of beginnings. Is not one of the present-day hindrances to reverence the spirit of criticism? We meet it on all sides in quite young people. It is nothing short of appalling to hear young persons still "in their 'teens" criticizing not only their parents and elders, but also the most saintly and gifted of men and women with a degree of assurance that makes us sad. It is worthwhile to do all we can to save our children from this fashionable sin.

        "Let knowledge grow from more to more,
                But more of reverence in us dwell;
                That mind and soul, according well
        May make one music as before,
        But vaster."
        [from In Memoriam, by Tennyson]

Another hindrance to reverence is haste. Later life must be strain. Youth should be spent in leisurely and wholesome growth if our children are to be spiritually and intellectually thoughtful. There must be time for silence in the heart, for thought to do her work. Cannot we teach our children something of the spirit of recollectedness, that they may not find themselves strangers to it when they feel its need in later life?

There is another certain way in which we hinder our children's spiritual growth, viz., by lack of enthusiasm. The youth of today is so sadly lacking in this quality. It is not the fashion to be enthusiastic. Yet, if by irresponsive coolness towards our children's everyday interests we can build walls between them and their hopes and ambitions, how much more will we influence them thereby in matters of religion? We are enthusiastic enough about secular education. Do we not, in our anxiety to make our children good citizens, sometimes forget that they are members of a Divine society, to which they owe reverence, obedience, love, and fidelity? It is by our enthusiasm, as members of the Catholic Church, for the truths of our Creed that we may inspire our children to live for those truths and, if need be, to die for them. What mighty miracles could we not work by it! It is greatly owing to the lukewarmness of their mothers that so few men now take Holy Orders, and that still fewer volunteer for foreign missionary work. Ought not their whole early training to have prepared their souls for that vocation--if God should call them to it?

In training the body we aim at making its activities capable fo the highest achievements. We want our child to be so educated as to have a living relationship with the present, its science, literature, art, and social needs. If we want him also to have a living relationship with God we must teach him all we know of true worship. Do we do this? It has often appeared to me that (perhaps out of reverence for it) we leave too much alone the spiritual side of the child's nature. Yet we have only to speak to a child of God, Heaven and angels to see how eagerly he drinks in all that we can tell him. Among the many influences which surround the young and may help to nourish religious principles and raise a child's mind into a permanently higher atmosphere, we must place art and literature. Children love the highest when they see it, but we have to show it to them. I suppose that the mother of narrow and mistaken religious proclivities, who wishes her child to sacrifice the divinely-implanted aesthetic affinities of his nature, is a rare being nowadays. I hope so.

A child notices the beautiful in his surroundings. The earth, the sea and sky are to him a treasure-house of glorious visions. We must be careful not to thrust upon him anything to mar their suggestiveness. Nor is it enough that a world of beauty is always within reach. We must see that the sense of beauty is kept on the alert. Charles Kingsley, speaking of the life of the Spirit, says, "That inborn delight of the young in all that is marvellous and fantastic--has that a merely evil root? No, surely! it is a most pure part of their spiritual nature, a part of the heaven which lies about us in our infancy." Angel-wings with which the free child leaps the prison walls of sense and custom, and the drudgery of earthly life. It is a God-appointed means for keeping alive what Wordsworth calls those "obstinate questionings, blank misgivings of a creature moving about in worlds not realized." It is told of William Blake that he said, "I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation. What? it will be questioned, when the sun rises do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea? Oh no! no! I see an immense company of the Heavenly Host crying, 'Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord God Almighty.' I look through my eye, not with it."

A child loves pictures, and in these days, by reproductions, copies and photographs of the masterpieces of art, we can, if we will, educate a child's taste as well as satisfy his soul. In art, as in his religious and other acquirements, the child can only go one step at a time. We must limit his early pictures to such as have subjects easily within his range of intelligence. Pictures with angels in them appeal to children who have been taught the guardianship of those holy beings. Pictures of the Madonna and Child delight children of still earlier years. So from the first we many help them to "lift up their eyes to the hills." Plato says--"Whenever anyone, beginning from things here below, through a right practice of love ascending, begins to discern that other beauty, he will almost have reached an end. For this, in truth, is the right method of proceeding toward the doctrine of love, or of being conducted therein by another--beginning from these beautiful objects here below, ever to be going up higher, with that other end in view, using them as steps of a ladder, mounting from the love of one fair person to that of two, and from the love of two to the love of all, and from the love of beautiful persons to the love of beautiful kinds of knowledge, till he passes from degrees of knowledge to that knowledge which is the knowledge of nothing else save the Absolute Beauty itself, and knows it at length as in itself it really is." [Walter Pater's quote from Plato's Symposium]

A child's mind is nearer heaven than ours, and there is no reading a child loves more than sacred allegories (I suppose all mothers know those of [Rev. William] Adams and [Edward] Monro). In reading these to our child we create an atmosphere in which the child feels that he can speak of things as he could not at any other time. It would be easier for our children to realize the being and deity of God, and the worship which is His due if we, earlier perhaps than is usual, read them the vision of St. John the divine, and the song of the Cherubim and Seraphim.

        "Help us each hour with steadier eye
                To search the deepening mystery,
        The wonders of Thy sea and sky,
                The blessed angels look and long
        To praise Thee with a worthier song,
                And yet our silence does Thee wrong."

We may also stimulate the child's hero-worship, by reading the lives of the saints. What is our ideal for our child? That his spiritual manhood should be stronger than the natural, that the natural should be overtaken, occupied and inspired by a complete spiritual life, that the child's whole life should be lived in the consciousness of the presence of God. To attain this ideal we must strive to make his surroundings work for and to this end. In the hurry and persistent pressure of modern life, with all its claims, we must keep in view this ideal for our child--however far from it we may be ourselves. It is only by first spiritualizing the atmosphere, if I may so express what is difficult to explain, that we can bring true worship within the range of a child's comprehension. We can teach him that every attempt of his to do right will show him more the way to do right, and the need of spiritual help to follow it. We must not let him undervalue the material, but must teach him to look beyond it to the spiritual, so that true worship may be the natural outcome of his life. We know that the angels of God worship Him continually. May we so train our children that they, though a little lower in the scale of creation, will of their free will delight in His worship!

For many years we may make their prayer-time an inspiration and a help, in spite of all our mistakes, to bend the tree in the way we seek to train it. We cannot, as I have said before, be too careful to make their prayers intelligible to them. Children should be natural in their petitions; they should know the Doxology and the spirit of it. For their evening devotions, part of the hymn, "Glory to Thee, my God, this night," may be used. It is true we cannot teach another person what we do not know ourselves. It is equally true that we can teach a child a great deal, because we believe it ourselves, which would otherwise be beyond his reach. If we really "believe in the Communion of the Saints," we shall as naturally teach our children to pray for all their dear ones in paradise as for those on earth.

Instruction of children in public worship is more difficult. It is well to teach them that our churches are for their use, that the church is God's house, and, therefore, their home, whither they may go at any time on any day. I believe this to be a very practical way of making children realize that week-days should be leveled up to Sundays--not the reverse. In these days of shortened services, children fortunately do not dislike going to church, as many must have done some thirty years ago. The meaning of the different parts of the service should be explained to them, and if we want our children to worship with their bodies as well as with their souls, it is well to explain to them the symbolical meaning of the different parts and "ornaments" of the church. Wandering looks may thus be turned to good account. Children might be allowed to be present at the service of the Holy Baptism much oftener than they are. It is a service in which they show an interest, one that teaches them much and helps them to remember their own baptism and all it means for them.

But all our teaching and training will, if we are true to our faith, be centered in our Church's highest act of worship--the Holy Eucharist. I think it natural that we should approach this subject with fear and trembling, but we have to encourage us the thought that those "things which are hidden from the wise and prudent are revealed unto babes." We mothers cannot be too thankful that we live in an age when we can bring our children to that service so soon as we feel they can attend it with reverence. No two children are the same in their nature and development; what would be right treatment for one would perhaps be imprudent to adopt in the case of another child of the same age. When a child has had the service explained both from Bible and Prayer-book, has had every prayer reverently read and thought about, and is duly impressed by the solemnity of the service, we need not fear that he will be irreverent, or that familiarity will breed contempt. Personally, I think that the attendance should be regarded, at any rate for some time, as an exceptional treat to be given, say, once a month or on high festivals. Where a children's Eucharist is possible it is to be preferred to the longer High Celebration. Many admirable books, most devout, yet most simple, are now published for children's use at this service.

What holier work than this? To teach our children that in this service their worship is joined to that of "Angels and Archangels in all the Company of Heaven."

        "There is a sight from man concealed,
        That sight--the Face of God revealed
        Shall bless the pure in heart."

In this, as in all our teaching, we can only give as much as we possess. "That only which we have within can we see without."

I hope that in these few remarks on the training of the spiritual instinct in children, I have made it clear that I do not mean the training merely of their emotions. I believe that great harm is done by using up, as it were, their emotions too early in life. Experienced teachers have told us that the result is invariably disastrous. A child's religion must be an objective one; he must be taught that it does not depend on what he feels--that it is something outside himself.

The difficulties of this training will readily suggest themselves to all mothers. But the results are in other hands.

        "We'll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect,
        Although our woman hands should shake and fail."

It is only mothers who can light the torch which shall illumine the things of God, the things of the soul, the whole life from infancy to manhood, and she must light it from her own. Whittier has these beautiful words:--

        "I have no answer for myself or thee
        Save that I learned beside my mother's knee--
        'All is of God that is--and is to be--and God is good,'
        Let that suffice us still,
        Resting in childlike trust upon His Will;
        Who moves to His great ends, unthwarted by the ill."
        [from Trust, by John Greenleaf Whittier]

If we would have our children, though in the world yet not of it--using it without abusing it; if we would have God's Presence and its hallowing influence over their homes, sanctifying and sweetening all their intercourse with their fellow-men, we must teach them the true meaning of worship. Taking them to church will not suffice. That alone will not prepare their souls for the Beatific Vision hereafter. We must so train their spiritual sight, that they "may see in all around us holy signs of Thee." We cannot ensure them realizing their ideal, but we can teach them to idealize the real.

        "Still through our paltry stir and strife
                Flows down the wished ideal,
        And longing, moulds in clay what life
                Carves in the marble real!
        To let the new life in--we know
                Desire must ope the portal,
        Perhaps the longing to be so
                Helps make the soul immortal."
                        [from Longing, by James Russell Lowell]

It may sound high-flown and impracticable, but I do believe that it is possible to do more than we do to help our children in their spiritual life. In the first place by our prayers.

        "Who has aught to love, and loves aright,
        Will never in the darkest strait despair.
        For out of love exhales a living light,
        A light that speaks, a light whose breath is prayer."
                   [from The Fourth Birthday, by Hartley Coleridge, son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

Then, too, in this great work for those nearest and dearest to us, we need much faith. So much of our work seems to be in the dark; yet "Feeble hands and helpless, groping blindly in the darkness, touch God's right hand in that darkness." [from Hiawatha, Longfellow] Finally we need simplicity. Let me here quote Macdonald's beautiful words:--

        "For at the heart of womanhood
                The child's great heart doth lie;
        At childhood's heart, the germ of good,
                Lies God's simplicity;
        So, sister, be thy womanhood
                A baptism on thy brow,
        For something dimly understood,
                And which thou art not now;
        But which, within thee all the time,
                Maketh thee what thou art,
        Maketh thee long and strive and climb--
                The God-life at thy heart."
                        [from To My Sister, by George Macdonald]

Typed by Blossom Barden, Feb, 2023; Proofread by BLNL, June, 2023