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 Training of Children.

by Rev. The Hon. J. S. Northcote,
Vicar of St. Andrew, Westminster.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 401-409

[John Stafford Northcote, 1850-1920, was married to Hilda Farrar Northcote. At this writing, their five children were aged 3 to 21. He was Honorary Chaplain to HM Queen Victoria and HM King Edward VII.]

If, as Matthew Arnold said, religion is three-fourths of life, the religious training of our children must be the most important of our parental duties. It is something more than teaching the truths that are dear to us, for its object is to develop, to guide, to strengthen, and to guard the noblest part of our children's nature, to form their character and to build up their life. It may therefore well be called our greatest responsibility. And yet it is a limited responsibility: we are responsible to do the very best we can for our children, but we cannot make them faithful Christians any more than we can make them strong, or wise, or handsome, or add one cubit to their stature.

The main influences that ultimately form character lie within the child's nature. He will grow as the plant grows according to the spirit that God has given him. And each soul is ultimately responsible to God for his own conduct. But we can do much to help, as alas! we can do much to mar, or hinder, the natural development of our children. Let me note in passing that the recognition of this responsibility to God for the children committed to our care brings a blessing to ourselves, for we become aware that our influence for good depends mainly on the way our own lives illustrate the religion we teach, and therefore the religious training of our children becomes our great incentive to live a godly and a Christian life.

The foundation of religion is the fact that we are the children of God, and in training our children we must realise that they belong to God, are created in His image, and inherit from Him divine life. God has entrusted their nurture to us, but He claims them as His own; as the prophet Ezekiel says in God's name, "Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine."

Our task, then, is to educate the godly qualities, to quicken the spiritual life, to train the divine nature of our children, to lead them to their Heavenly Father by the way of faith and hope and love, and to teach them that He is the God of righteousness. Now it is a broad fact that all men live by faith in a God. As St. Paul said, "The just shall live by faith" -- meaning, by faith in the God of righteousness -- we may add, "and the covetous shall live by faith in mammon." The gods men worship are many, most of them are created by our passions, for (as I read the other day) we do not now carve idols with our hands, but with our hearts, and it may be said that these gods reward their worshippers according to their zeal and faith, for the man who gives his whole soul to money-getting gets money, and the gambler finds immense delight in the excitement of gambling, and the drunkard enjoys getting drunk. Our object, therefore, is to lead our children to the God of righteousness, and encourage them to develop the faith that is natural to their real being and to their early innocence.

Now faith grows out of love. It is through love for our little ones that we learn to believe in their divine nature and so become capable to train their highest life; and they, through love for God, learn to believe in Him. So Jesus taught, "The first commandment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." But how can we teach or train children to love God? That is the great difficulty, all the greater because it is so easy to pretend to love God, and to fancy a devotion to Him that is quite unreal. Pretence is natural to children, it lies at the root of almost all their games, and therefore creeps naturally into their religion. If you tell your child to love God he will pretend to love Him and deceive himself with the supposition that his love is true.

I remember that in my own childhood, I used to fancy I loved God, and I remember how miserable I was when I grew up and found I did not. We should try to make our children's love for God grow naturally out of their love for what is good and right. Set before your child noble ideals, and excite his admiration for good men and women, who let their light shine before us that we may glorify our Father in heaven. Tell the true stories of Christ's heroes, who have lived and suffered for Christ's cause, and so lead your child to the knowledge of Jesus Christ Himself.

In teaching about Jesus, try to present Him to your child as naturally as possible, -- just as He made Himself known to His disciples at first, -- a man full of virtue, love and holiness, a man who preached the love of God and proved His words by deeds of mercy, a man who prayed and suffered pain, had many difficulties to encounter, who failed in His endeavour to win His own people, the Jews, to their Father in heaven, and who was put to death by His enemies. Let your children hear the story first, without any doctrines or explanations, and so let them come to the supreme fact that Jesus rose from the dead. It was on the fact of the Resurrection that the Apostles built the Christian faith. They were dimly conscious of Christ's divinity before, but when God raised Him, or, when He rose from the dead, they went forth to preach the truth which God had thus proved true. We cannot do better than follow the order of the development of their faith.

With regard to instruction in doctrine, the Church makes ample provision in the Catechism. All children should learn the Catechism by heart, and should often be made to repeat it in order that it may become a permanent possession of the mind throughout life and a constant foundation of belief. Parents should explain the words of the Catechism and illustrate its practical lessons, especially the "Duty to my neighbor," and they may compare the words of the promise with the actual promises made in the service of Holy Baptism; but further explanation need not generally be given before the child is prepared for Confirmation, and until then parents ought not to delegate to the clergy their own duty to teach religion to their children. Father and mother are the best religious teachers if they are inspired by a true affection for their children; and they have an invaluable textbook in the Bible, which should be used in the simplest possible way. Its lessons are plain to children, its difficulties do not occur to them, and, if suggested by companions, can without much trouble be set aside, for a child is not really troubled by doubts. Parts of the Old Testament are even more useful at first than the New Testament; there is no first lesson in religion like the story of Adam and Eve; and the history of Israel is easily made full of meaning to a child.

It has often been said that as a child grows to maturity his development corresponds to the development corresponds to the development of the race, and that he passes through stages of mental growth which represent the full attainment of less civilized peoples. This is eminently true in the development of the spiritual, or, religious life, and perhaps the way our children understand religion is our best illustration of the belief and worship of Israel. Like the Israelites our children readily feel that God takes a direct, personal interest in their conduct and welfare. They are not surprised at miracles and in their prayers naturally ask God to work little miracles for them.

A child's conscience is very alert; he knows that he ought to be good and readily prays God to make him so. His repentance is sincere while it lasts, his admiration for noble deeds is strong. The child, like the Israelite, is by nature a hero-worshipper, and I think that the best way to train children in religious feeling is by hero-worship. For the heroes of the world bear open witness to their God, and we all find the true God in the lives of good men.

The Church of Rome has wisely seized upon this truth and nourishes the faith of her children on stories of the saints. But the errors of Rome in this respect are a most valuable warning to us; in the first place to avoid the marvelous legends which the child has in later years to unlearn and, secondly, to include in our category of great men and women not only the faithful Catholics, but a great many who have sought and found God in ways unknown to any priest, and who have borne faithful witness to the true God of righteousness without being able to repeat a creed at all.

Let us bring up our children on the stories of Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, and Elijah -- of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Paul, and of the great line of Christian saints who followed them.

But let us not forget the heroes of other religions -- Hector of Troy, Ulysses, the heroes of ancient Rome, King Arthur with his knights; and from later times and the pages of more certain history let us gather a company of men and women from every land who have done great deeds, or suffered bravely in a noble cause, to show how in varied ways the Spirit of God sanctifies the characters of His children and enables them to serve their fellow-men. But inasmuch as only One, -- the King of the Universal Kingdom of good me, -- was perfect, let us be careful to show our children the failings as well as the virtues of the rest.

The peculiar value of Bible biographies is that they tell quite plainly the faults of their heroes. You see at once how the godly Jacob was a liar, how the upright Joseph began as a conceited child, how Moses the greatest of the Old Testament saints was hot tempered, and so on.

Perhaps our chief difficulty in teaching the Bible stories lies in the continual interference of the divine power with the course of nature. Whatever we may believe about those miracles we must be careful to explain that they are never repeated now, and to make it quite clear that the good often suffer for their goodness, while the bad may be happy and successful.

It is a hard but most important lesson that the reward of virtue is the growing love of virtue, a closer communion with God, a stronger faith in Jesus Christ. As our children grow in knowledge and understanding they will find this lesson in many beautiful passages of the Old Testament, especially where the Psalmist speaks of his thirst for God, his intense desire to be freed from his sin that he may the more earnestly serve his God, his misery at the separation of his soul from his God. Do not try to teach religion without the Bible, or without the Old Testament.

Though Israel did not understand better than other ancient nations the influence of God upon outward things, upon the fortunes of war or upon the course or origin of a disease, they felt the presence of God, and they have interpreted their sense of His presence in their history and literature. It must be our constant endeavour to strengthen our children's natural sense of God's nearness, to help them to recognize His presence and in their consciences to hearken His voice.

The late Dean Farrar, in one of his school sermons, gives the following passage from the autobiography of Theodore Parker (see In the days of thy youth, page 155): --

"When I was a little boy of four years old, one fine day in spring my father led me by the hand to a distant part of the farm, but soon sent me home alone. One the way I had to pass a little pond, then spreading its waters wide; a rhodora in full bloom, a rare flower, which grew only in that locality, attracted my attention and drew me to the spot. I saw a little tortoise sunning himself in the shallow water at the root of the flaming shrub. I lifted the stick I had in my hand to strike the harmless reptile, for though I had never killed any creature yet, I had seen other boys out of sport destroy birds and squirrels and the like, and I felt a desire to follow their wicked example. But all at once something checked my little arm, and a voice within me said loud and clear, 'It is wrong!' I held my uplifted stick in wonder at the new emotion, the consciousness of an involuntary but inward check upon my actions, till the tortoise and the rhodora both vanished from my sight. I hastened home and told the tale to my mother, and asked what it was that told me, 'It was wrong.' She wiped a tear from her eye, and taking me in her arms said, 'Some men call it conscience, but I prefer to call it the voice of God in the soul of man. If you listen and obey it, then it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right; but if you turn a deaf ear, or disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you in the dark without a friend. Your life depends on heeding that little voice.'" "She went her way," he adds, "'careful and troubled about many things, and doubtless pondered them in her motherly heart, while I went off to ponder and think of it in my poor childish way. But I am sure no event in my life has made so deep and lasting an impression on me."

Wise mother! Happy son!

The peculiar value of religious education as compared with other education is that it gives to life its highest motive.

While the ordinary motive of school work is to achieve success or to gain reward, the motive of religion is duty. This was the motive of Christ, for He came to do the will of God, and this is the motive of the Christian calling, so admirably set forth in the Catechism. There we are plainly taught that in our infancy we are made members of Christ, the children of God and inheritors of the Kingdom of heaven, that from the beginning we have the life of Christ, the love of God and an assurance of eternal life, and that therefore we ought to renounce what is wrong, to believe in God and to serve Him.

Christian morality rests on the great principle, "I am," therefore, "I ought." It is in the home that this principle can most readily be taught, for it is the true motive of home life. Where love prevails duty rules the conduct.

In the affairs of life, the spirit of emulation, the desire for gain, for pleasure, or renown, or simply to escape poverty and distress, continually present to us the lower motives of self-interest; only religion teaches duty. Let your boys and girls go out into life really believing that they ought to do right and not to do wrong, and you will have fulfilled your highest duty as a parent.

It is with this principle of duty in our minds that we should approach the subject of prayer. I am, I ought, then, if I can I will. I can if God will help me -- and so we kneel to pray. The mere habit of kneeling down before God every night and morning is of unspeakable value. If a child has tried to shut the door against his conscience during the day, it will burst open when he says his prayers.

But the great question is, how shall we teach our children to pray? What shall be their prayers?

Now let us clearly understand what prayer is, and what it is not. Prayer is our endeavour to dedicate ourselves to God. It is seeking to know God's will, and to gain strength to do it. It is seeking to know God's will, and to gain strength to do it. It is not asking for the things we want. It is not trying to persuade God to make our lives pleasant. Our Saviour's lessons about prayer are the most valuable of all His lessons. He says quite plainly that we are not to pray like the Gentiles for the good things of the world, because God is our loving Father and He knows what we need, but we are to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. And in the Lord's Prayer He shows us how God has committed to His children the honour of His Name, the progress of His Kingdom, the carrying out of His will. These are the purposes, the responsibilities, the duties of our lives -- for these we must pray -- and in order that we may be able to live according to our prayer we are to ask God for all things necessary both for our souls and bodies, for the forgiveness of our sins, for guidance in temptation and for deliverance from the evil one.

Let us then be very careful to not give our children false ideas of prayer. I dare say you all saw a quaint little story by Sonia Cross, called The Theology of Sally. It appeared in the Parents' Review, in March, 1903. Sally prayed that her rose tree might have buds and believed with all her heart her prayer would be granted, but when no bud appeared, she stood looking up into the blue sky and said, "It's not true about God. The blue goes on for ever and ever, and there's nothing beyond it. I've never got what I wanted by praying; so I shan't say any more prayers; if God had been there I must have found my bud." The tale illustrates exactly what happens to many boys who have been badly taught to pray.

Never allow your children to pray God to minister to their pleasures, or to give them the pleasant things of this world. Think how plainly Jesus taught us to leave earthly benefits to be given or withheld according to our Heavenly Father's will. As soon as your child begins to know right from wrong, teach it to pray, "God help me to be good," and, in order to give reality to the prayer, teach that praying and trying must always go together.

Prayer is not the expression of pious wishes, it is the desire of the soul for what is truly good, and entails the endeavour to attain it. A prayer that is neither accompanied nor followed by effort is a vain prayer, a foolish waste of breath, and an insult to God. "Help me to be a good boy," must go with trying to be a good boy.

It is well to keep this thought always in our minds, and to apply it to every kind of prayer, For example, when we pray God to bless our children, we quickly realise that He grants the petition when He guides and strengthens our efforts to be wise and good parents. So also, when we teach our children to say, "God bless father and mother," let us remind them that the blessing must come through their being good children.

For Christian prayer is not begging God for special favours, or asking Him to change His mind toward us, or towards other people; it is the effort of our souls to devote our whole selves to God's service and to win the spiritual blessings of His Grace. Every petition that we offer should find its inspiration in the greatest prayer of all, "Hallowed be Thy Name," every request should accord with the great requests, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done."

I cannot but feel how inadequate is this lecture on a subject of so great importance and difficulty, but I have tried to set before you the principles that have guided myself both in my own family and in the education of other children, and I offer them as thoughts which may be of use, even if they only suggest to your judgment conclusions very different to my own.

Every parent is bound to teach his children the truth as he sees it and to lead them to what he conceives to be the highest life. This duty is laid upon him by God, and while he rightly seeks counsel from the Church he may not delegate to anyone his supreme responsibility, and therefore I will only ask you to give to this subject your most serious consideration, to seek the guidance of God in prayer and to follow the light He gives.

Typed by Mariel, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023