By Horace Bushnell
WHEN AND WHERE THE NURTURE BEGINS.
THIS faith of Timothy, which is but another name for the grace of life in his character, the apostle speaks of here, it will be seen, as a kind of personal hereditament, or heir-loom in the family. He does not mean to say, as I understand him, that it is literally such, or in what sense, and how far, it is such. He only recognizes a godly parentage, doing godly things in him and for him, for one, two, three, or he knows not how many, generations back. He regards his young friend as born of godliness, nurtured and trained by godliness, and indulges a certain pleasant conviction that his present, full developed faith in Jesus, was a seed somehow planted in him by the believing motherhoods of the past, and began to live and grow in him, thus, long before he knew it himself, or others observed it in him. So by a short method, which includes and covers all, the apostle calls it his heir-loom; complimenting his godly motherhood in the figure, and testifying the greater confidence in his piety, that it was so near to being the inborn nobility of his Christian stock.
I use the text, accordingly, not to draw some definite conclusion or truth, from the evidently well understood indefiniteness of the terms of it, but simply to head a discussion of the question, when and where, at what point, and how early, does the office of a genuine nurture begin?
Having settled our conceptions of the scheme, or doctrinal import, of Christian nurture, finding what place it has, and is to have, in the Christian plan, we are come now to a matter farther in advance, and, in one view, more practical, viz: to a consideration of the modes and means, by which the true idea of a godly nurture may be realized in the training of families. And here it becomes our first endeavor to rectify, or expel a whole set of false impressions, that have grown up round the gate of responsibility itself, turning off, and pushing aside all due concern, till the time of greatest facility and advantage is quite gone by. The very common impression is that nothing is to be done for the religious character of children, till they are old enough to form religious judgments, put forth religious choices, take the meaning of the Christian truths, and perceive what is in them as related to the wants of sin, consciously felt and reflected on. There could not be a more sad or, in fact, more desolating mistake, in any matter, either of duty or of privilege. And it is the more wonderful, the closer in appearance to real fatuity, that it holds its ground so firmly, where all the tenderest pressures of affection might be expected to force it aside, and clear the field of its really cruel usurpations.
In discussing the question proposed, I should not properly cover the whole ground of it, and could not really be said to answer it, if I did not--
1. Bring into view the very important, but rather delicate fact, suggested or distinctly alluded to in the apostle's words, that there is even a kind of ante-natal nurture which must be taken note of, as having much to do with the religious preparations or inductive mercies of childhood. We are physiologically connected and set forth in our beginnings, and it is a matter of immense consequence to our character, what the connection is. In our birth, we not only begin to breathe and circulate blood, but it is a question hugely significant whose the blood may be. For in this we have whole rivers of predispositions, good or bad, set running in us--as much more powerful to shape our future than all tuitional and regulative influences that come after, as they are earlier in their beginning, deeper in their insertion, and more constant in their operation. It is a great mistake to suppose that men and women, such as are to be fathers and mothers, are affected only in their souls by religious experience, and not in their bodies. On mere physiological principles it can not be true, for the mind must temper the body to its own states and changes. Living, therefore, in the peace and purity, holding the equilibrium, flowing in the liberty, reigning in the confidence, of a genuine sanctification, the subjects of such grace are penetrated bodily, all through, by the work of the Spirit in their life. Their appetite are more nearly in heaven's order, their passions more tempered by reason, their irritabilities more sweetened and calmed, and so far they are entered bodily into the condition of health. Where the constitution was poisoned originally by descent, or has since been broken down by excess and abuse, it may not be wholly restored in this life. I do not suppose that it will; but, since the soul is acting itself always into and through the body, when it becomes a temple of the Spirit the body must also, just as the Scriptures explicitly teach, be undergoing, with the soul, a remedial process in its tempers and humors, and prospering in heaven's order, even as the soul prospereth. This being true, it is impossible, on mere physiological principles, that the children of a truly sanctified parentage should not be advantaged by the grace out of which they are born. And, if the godly character has been kept up in a long line of ancestry, corrupted by no vicious or untoward intermarriages, the advantage must be still greater and more positive. Even temporary changes in the Christian state of character and attainment, will have their effect; how much more the godly keeping of a thoroughly and evenly sanctified life; how much more such a keeping of inbred grace and faith, in a long line of godly ancestors.
I might even state the case more strongly, bringing into the comparison a godly and a vicious parentage. Take a parentage that has in it all the dyspeptic woes of gluttony and self-indulgence, one that is stung and maddened by the fiery pains of intemperance, one that is poisoned and imbruted by the excesses of lust, one that is broken by domestic wrongs or exasperated by domestic quarrels, one that is fevered by ambitions, one that is soured by the morbid humors of envy and defeat--lengthen out the catalogue, take in all the sins, which, in some true sense, are also vices and have their effect on the body, how is it possible, on any principle of rational physiology, that the children who are sprung of this distempered heritage, should be as pure in their affinities, as close to the order of truth, as ready for the occupany of all good thoughts, as well governed before all government, as ductile in a word to God, as they that are born of a glorious lineage in faith and prayer and God's indwelling peace. Nothing could be more improbable antecedently, or farther off from the actual fact afterward. On the contrary, it is a most dismal and hard lot, as every one knows, to be in the succession of a bad, or vicious parentage. No heritage of wealth could repay, or more than a little soften, the bitterness of it.
It is somewhat difficult to investigate the facts of this subject, because of the complexities induced by unpropitious and exceptional marriages. But when such marriages are reduced by the more general, and finally universal, spread of Christian piety, and when the pitch of Christian sanctification is raised, as it will be, by the fuller inspiration from God, breaking into his saints all over the world, it will be found that children are born as much closer to God, and with predispositions that waft them as much more certainly into the ways of duty and piety. It will be as if the faith-power of the past were descending into the present, flowing on down the future, and the general account of the world will be, that, as it has been corrupted, so also it is in some equally true sense, regenerated from the womb. Precisely that which is named in Scripture, as the fact extraordinary, will become at last the ordinary and even the universal fact.
Here, then, is the real and true beginning of a godly nurture. The child is not to have the sad entail of any sensuality, or excess, or distempered passion upon him. The heritage of love, peace, order, continence and holy courage is to be his. He is not to be morally weakened beforehand, in the womb of folly, by the frivolous, worldly, ambitious expectations of parents-to-be, concentrating all their nonsense in him. His affinities are to be raised by the godly expectations, rather, and prayers that go before; by the steady and good aims of their industry, by the great impulse of their faith, by the brightness of their hope, by the sweet continence of their religiously pure love in Christ. Born, thus, of a parentage that is ordered in all righteousness, and maintains the right use of every thing, especially the right use of nature and marriage, the child will have just so much of heaven's life and order in him beforehand, as have become fixed properties in the type of his parentage; and by this ante-natal nurture, will be set off in a way of noblest advantage, as respects all safety and success, in the grand experiment he has come into the world to make.
Having called your attention to this very important but strangely disregarded chapter, in the economy of Christian nurture, I leave it to be more fully and circumstantially developed by your own thoughtful consideration; for it is a matter which will open itself readily, and prove itself by striking and continually recurring facts to such as have it in their hearts to watch for the truth and the duties it requires. We pass now--
2. To that which is the common field of inquiry, and here we raise again the question, where and how early does the work of nurture begin? here to set forth and maintain still another answer, which antedates the common impression, about as decidedly as the one just given. The true, and only true answer is, that the nurture of the soul and character is to begin just when the nurture of the body begins. It is first to be infantile nurture--as such, Christian; then to be a child's nurture; then to be a youth's nurture--advancing by imperceptible gradations, if possible, according to the gradations and stages of the growth, or progress toward maturity.
There is, of course, no absolute classification to be made here, because there are no absolute lines of distinction. A kind of proximate and partly ideal distinction may be made, and I make it simply to serve the convenience of my subject--otherwise impossible to be handled, so as to secure any right practical conviction respecting it. It is the distinction between the age of impressions and the age of tuitional influences; or between the age of existence in the will of the parent, and the age of will and personal choice in the child. If the distinction were laid, between the age previous to language and the age of language, it would amount to nearly the same thing; for the time of personal and responsible choice depends on the measure of intelligence attained to, and the measure of intelligence is well represented, outwardly, by the degree of development in language. Of course it will be understood that we speak, in this distinction, of that which is not sharply defined, and is passed at no precise date or age. The transition is gradual, and it will even be doubtful, when it is passed. No one can say just where a given child passes out of the field of mere impression into the field of responsible action. It will be doubtful, in about the same degree, when it can be said to have come into the power of language. We do not even know that there is not some infinitesimal development of will in the child's first cry, and some instinct of language struggling in that cry. Our object in the distinction is not to assume any thing in respect to such matters, but simply to accommodate our own ignorance, by raising a distribution that enables us to speak of times and characteristics truly enough to serve the conditions of general accuracy, and to assist, in that manner, the purposes of our discussion.
Now the very common assumption is that, in what we have called the age of impressions, there is really nothing done, or to be done, for the religious character. The lack of all genuine apprehensions, in respect to this matter, among people otherwise intelligent and awake, is really wonderful; it amounts even to a kind of coarseness. Full of all fondness, and all highest expectation respecting their children, and having also many Christian desires for their welfare, they seem never to have brought their minds down close enough to the soul of infancy, to imagine that any thing of consequence is going on with it. What can they do, till they can speak to it? what can it do, till it speaks? As if there were no process going on to bring it forward into language; or as if that process had itself nothing to do with the bringing on of intelligence, and no deep, seminal working toward a character, unfolding and to be unfolded in it. The child, in other words, is to come into intelligence through perfect unintelligence! to get the power of words out of words themselves, and without any experience whereby their meaning is developed! to be taught responsibility under moral and religious ideas, when the experience has unfolded no such ideas! In this first stage, therefore, which I have called the stage of impressions, how very commonly will it be found that the parents, even Christian parents, discharge themselves, in the most innocently unthinking way possible, of so much as a conception of responsibility. The child can not talk, what then can it know? So they dress it in all fineries, practice it in shows and swells and all the petty airs of foppery and brave assumption, act it into looks and manners not fit to be acted anywhere, provoking the repetition of its bad tricks by laughing at them, indulging freely every sort of temper towards it, or, it may be, filling the house with a din of scolding between the parents--all this in simple security, as if their child were only a thing, or an ape! What hurt can the simple creature get from any thing done before it, toward it, or upon it, when it can talk of nothing, and will not so much as remember any thing it has seen or heard? Doubtless there is a wise care to be had of it, when it is old enough to be taught and commanded, but till then there is nothing to be done, but simply to foster the plaything kindly, enjoy it freely, or abuse it pettishly, at pleasure!
Just contrary to this, I suspect, and I think it can also be shown by sufficient evidence, that more is done to affect, or fix, the moral and religious character of children, before the age of language than after; that the age of impressions, when parents are commonly waiting, in idle security, or trifling away their time in mischievous indiscretions, or giving up their children to the chance of such keeping as nurses and attendants may exercise, is in fact their golden opportunity; when more is likely to be done for their advantage or damage, than in all the instruction and discipline of their minority afterward.
And something like this I think we should augur beforehand, from the peculiar, full-born intensity of the maternal affection, at the moment when it first embraces the newly arrived object. It scarcely appears to grow, never to grow tender and self-sacrificing in its care. It turns itself to its charge, with a love that is boundless and fathomless, at the first. As if just then and there, some highest and most sacred office of motherhood were required to begin. Is it only that the child demands her physical nurture and carefulness? That is not the answer of her consciousness. Her maternity scorns all comparison with that of the mere animals. Her love, as she herself feels, looks through the body into the inborn personality of her child,--the man or woman to be. Nay, more than that, if she could sound her consciousness deeply enough, she would find a certain religiousness in it, measurable by no scale of mere earthly and temporal love. Here springs the secret of her maternity, and its semi-divine proportions. It is the call and equipment of God, for a work on the impressional and plastic age of a soul. Christianized as it should be, and wrought in by the grace of the Spirit, the minuteness of its care, its gentleness, its patience, its almost divine faithfulness, are prepared for the shaping of a soul's immortality. And, to make the work a sure one, the intrusted soul is allowed to have no will as yet of its own, that this motherhood may more certainly plant the angel in the man, uniting him to all heavenly goodness by predispositions from itself, before he is united, as he will be, by choices of his own. Nothing but this explains and measures the wonderful proportions of maternity.
It will be seen at once, and will readily be taken as a confirmation of the transcendent importance of what is done, or possible to be done, for children, in their impressional and plastic age, that whatever is impressed or inserted here, at this early point, must be profoundly seminal, as regards all the future developments of the character. And though it can not, by the supposition. amount to character, in the responsible sense of that term, it may be the seed, in some very important sense, of all the future character to be unfolded; just as we familiarly think of sin itself, as a character in blame when the will is ripe, though prepared, in still another view, by the seminal damages and misaffections derived from sinning ancestors. So when a child, during the whole period of impressions, or passive recipiencies, previous to the development of his responsible will, lives in the life and feeling of his parents, and they in the molds of the Spirit, they will, of course, be shaping themselves in him, or him in themselves, and the effects wrought in him will be preparations of what he will by-and-by do from himself; seeds, in that manner possibly, even of a regenerate life and character.
That we may conceive this matter more adequately and exactly, consider, a moment, that whole contour of dispositions, affections, tempers, affinities, aspirations, which come into power in a soul after the will is set fast in a life of duty and devotion. These things, we conceive, follow in a sense the will, and then become in turn a new element about the will--a new heart, as we say, prompting to new acts and a continued life of new obedience. Now what I would affirm is, that just this same contour of dispositions and affinities may be prepared under, and come after, the will of the parents, when the child is living in their will, and be ready as a new element, or new heart, to prompt the child's will, or put it forward in the choice of all duty, whenever it is so matured as to choose for itself. Of course these regenerated dispositions and affinities, this general disposedness to good, which we call a new heart, supposes a work of the Spirit; and, if the parents live in the Spirit as they ought, they will have the Spirit for the child as truly as for themselves, and the child will be grown, so to speak, in the molds of the Spirit, even from his infancy.
This will be yet more probable, if we glance at some of the particular facts and conditions involved. Thus if we speak of impressions, or the age of impressions, and of that as an age prior to language, what kind of religious impressions can be raised in a soul, it may be asked, when the child is not far enough developed in language to be taught any thing about God, or Christ, or itself, that belongs to intelligence? And the sufficient answer must be, that language itself has no meaning till rudimental impressions are first begotten in the life of experience, to give it a meaning. Words are useful to propagate meanings, or to farther develop and combine meanings, but a child would never know the meaning of any word in a language, just by hearing the sound of it in his ears. He must learn to put the meaning into it, by having found that meaning in his impressions, and then the word becomes significant. And it requires a certain wakefulness and capacity of intelligent apprehension, to receive or take up such impressions. Thus a dog would never get hold of any religious impression at the family prayers, all his lifetime: but a child will be fast gathering up, out of his little life and experience, impressional states and associations, that give meanings to the words of prayer, as they, in turn, give meanings to the facts of his experience. All language supposes impressions first made. The word light does not signify any thing, till the eye has taken the impression of light. The word love is unmeaning, to one who has not loved and received love. The word God, raises no conception of God, till the idea of such a being has been somehow generated and associated with that particular sound. How far off is it then from all sound apprehensions of fact, to imagine that nothing religious can be done for a child till after he is far enough developed in language to be taught; when in fact he could not be thus developed in language at all, if the meanings of language were not somehow started in him by the impressions derived from his experience.
Observe, again, how very quick the child's eye is, in the passive age of infancy, to catch impressions, and receive the meaning of looks, voices, and motions. It peruses all faces, and colors, and sounds. Every sentiment that looks into its eyes, looks back out of its eyes, and plays in miniature on its countenance. The tear that steals down the cheek of a mother's suppressed grief, gathers the little infantile face into a responsive sob. With a kind of wondering silence, which is next thing to adoration, it studies the mother in her prayer, and looks up piously with her, in that exploring watch, that signifies unspoken prayer. If the child is handled fretfully, scolded, jerked or simply laid aside unaffectionately, in no warmth of motherly gentleness, it feels the sting of just that which is felt towards it; and so it is angered by anger, irritated by irritation, fretted by fretfulness; having thus impressed, just that kind of impatience or ill-nature, which is felt towards it, and growing faithfully into the bad mold offered, as by a fixed law. There is great importance, in this manner, even in the handling of infancy. If it is unchristian, it will beget unchristian states, or impressions. If it is gentle, even, patient and loving, it prepares a mood and temper like its own. There is scarcely room. to doubt, that all most crabbed, hateful, resentful, passionate, ill-natured characters; all most even, lovely, firm and true, are prepared, in a great degree, by the handling of the nursery. To these and all such modes of feeling and treatment as make up the element of the infant's life, it is passive as wax to the seal. So that if we consider how small a speck, falling into the nucleus of a crystal, may disturb its form; or, how even a mote of foreign matter present in the quickening egg, will suffice to produce a deformity; considering, also, on the other hand, what nice conditions of repose, in one case, and what accurately modulated supplies of heat in the other, are necessary to a perfect product; then only do we begin to imagine what work is going on, in the soul of a child, in this first chapter of life, the age of impressions.
It must also greatly affect our judgments on this point, to observe that, when this first age of impressions is gone by, there is, after that, no such thing any more as a possibility of absolute control. Thus far the child has been more a candidate for personality than a person. He has been as a seed forming in the capsule of the parent-stem, getting every thing from that stem, and fashioned, in its kind, by the fashioning kind of that. But now, having been gradually and imperceptibly ripened, as the seed separates and falls off, to be another and complete form of life in itself, so the child comes out, in his own power, a complete person, able to choose responsibly for himself. Now he is no more in the power of the parent, as before; the dominion of the older life is supplanted, by the self-asserting competency of the younger; what can the old stalk do upon the seed that is already ripe? The transition here is very gradual, it is true, covering even a space of years; and something may be done for the child's character by instruction, by the skillful management of motives, and the tender solicitudes of parental watching and prayer; but less and less, of course, the older the child becomes, and the more completely his personal responsibility is developed. But how very fearful the change, and how much it means, that the child, once plastic and passive to the will of the parent, has gotten by the point of absolute disposability, and is never again to be properly in that will! The perilous power of self-care and self-assertion has come, and what is to be the result? And how much does it signify to the parent, when he feels his power to be thus growing difficult, weak, doubtful, or finally quite ended! What a conception it is, that he once had his child in absolute direction, and the fashioning of his own superior will, to dress, to feed, to handle, to play himself into his sentiments, be the disposition of his dispositions, the temper of his tempers. Was there not something great to be done then, when the advantage was so great--now to be done no more? It will be difficult to shake off that impression; impossible to a really thoughtful Christian soul. And if the will, now matured and gone over into complete self-assertion, rushes into all wildness and profligacy, unrestrained and unrestrainable, the recollection of a time when it was restrainable and could have been molded, even as wax itself, will return with inevitable certainty upon the parents, and taunt, O how bitterly, the neglectfulness and lightness, by which they cast their opportunity away!
I bring into view accordingly, just here, a consideration that goes farther to establish the position I am asserting, than any other, and one that is naturally suggested by the topic just adverted to. We call this first chapter of life the age of impressions; we speak of the child as being in a sense passive and plastic, living in the will of the parents, having no will developed for responsible action. It might be imagined from the use of such terms, that the infant or very young child has no will at all. But that is not any true conception. It has no responsible will, because it is not acquainted, as yet, with those laws and limits and conditions of choice that make it responsible. Nevertheless it has will, blind will, as strongly developed as any other faculty, and sometimes even most strongly of all. The manifestations of it are sometimes even frightful. And precisely this it is which makes the age of impressions, the age prior to language and responsible choice, most profoundly critical in its importance. It is the age in which the will-power of the soul is to be tamed or subordinated to a higher control; that of obedience to parents, that of duty and religion. And, in this view, it is that every thing most important to the religious character turns just here. Is this infant child to fill the universe with his complete and total self-assertion, owning no superior, or is he to learn the self-submission of allegiance, obedience, duty to God? Is he to become a demon let loose in God's eternity, or an angel and free prince of the realm?
That he may be this, he is now given, will and all, as wax, to the wise molding-power of control. Beginning, then, to lift his will in mutiny, and swell in self-asserting obstinacy, refusing to go or come, or stand, or withhold in this or that, let there be no fight begun, or issue made with him, as if it were the true thing now to break his will, or drive him out of it by mere terrors and pains. This willfulness, or obstinacy, is not so purely bad, or evil, as it seems. It is partly his feeling of himself and you, in which he is getting hold of the conditions of authority, and feeling out his limitations. No, this breaking of a child's will to which many well-meaning parents set themselves, with such instant, almost passionate resolution, is the way they take to make him a coward, or a thief, or a hypocrite, or a mean-spirited and driveling sycophant-nothing in fact is more dreadful to thought than this breaking of a will, when it breaks, as it often does, the personality itself, and all highest, noblest firmness of manhood. The true problem is different; it is not to break, but to bend rather, to draw the will down, or away from self assertion toward self-devotion, to teach it the way of submitting to wise limitations, and raise it into the great and glorious liberties of a state of loyalty to God. See then how it is to be done. The child has no force however stout he is in his will. Take him up then, when the fit is upon him, carry him, stand him on his feet, set him here or there, do just that in him which he refuses to do in himself--all this gently and kindly, as if he were capable of maintaining no issue at all. Do it again and again, as often as may be necessary. By and by, he will begin to perceive that his obstinacy is but the bluster of his weakness; till finally, as the sense of limitation comes up into a sense of law and duty, he will be found to have learned, even beforehand, the folly of mere self-assertion. And when he has reached this point of felt obligation to obedience, it will no longer break him down to enforce his compliance, but it will even exalt into greater dignity and capacity, that sublime power of self-government, by which his manhood is to be most distinguished.
By a different treatment at the point or crisis just named, that is by raising an issue to be driven straight through by terror and storm, one of two results almost equally bad were likely to follow; the child would either have been quite broken down by fear, the lowest of all possible motives when separated from moral convictions, or else would have been made a hundred fold more obstinate by his triumph. Nature provided for his easy subjugation, by putting him in the hands of a superior strength, which could manage him without any fight of enforcement--to have him schooled and tempered to a customary self-surrender which takes nothing from his natural force and manliness. And so is accomplished what, in one view, is the great problem of life; that on which all duty and allegiance to Gods in the state even of conversion, depends.
It only remains to add that we are not to assume the comparative unimportance of what is done upon a child, in his age of impressions, because there is really no character of virtue or vice, of blame or praise, developed in that age. Be it so--it is so by the supposition. But the power, the root, the seed, is implanted nevertheless, in most cases, of what he will be. Not in every case, but often, the seed of a regenerate life is implanted--that which makes the child a Christian in God's view, as certainly as if he were already out in the testimony and formal profession of his faith. I was just now speaking of the dreadful power of will or willfulness, some times manifested even in this first age, that we have called the age of impressions, and of the ways in which, by one kind of mismanagement or another, the character may be turned to vices that are as opposite, as the vices of meanness and the crimes of violence and blood. So it will be found that almost every sort of mismanagement, or neglect, plants some seed of vice and misery that grows out afterwards into a character in its own kind. Thus the child by a continual worry of his little life, under abusive words, and harsh, flashy tempers, grows to be a bed of nettles in all his personal tempers, and will so be prepared to break out, in the age of choice, into almost any vice of ill-nature. A child can be pampered in feeding, so as to become, in a sense, all body; so that, when he comes into choice and responsible action, he is already a confirmed sensualist, showing it in the lines of his face, even before it appears in his tastes, habits and vices. Thus we have a way of wondering that the children of this or that family should turn out so poorly, but the real fact is, probably, if we knew it, that what we call their turning out, is only their growing out, in just that which was first grown in, by the mismanagement of their infancy and childhood. What they took in as impression, or contagion, is developed by choice--not at once, perhaps, but finally, after the poison has had time to work. And in just the same way, doubtless, it may be true, in multitudes of Christian conversions, that what appear to be such to others, and also to the subjects themselves, are only the restored activity and more fully developed results of some predispositional state, or initially sanctified property, in the tempers and subtle affinities of their childhood. They are now born into that by the assent of their own will, which they were in before, without their will. What they do not remember still remembers them, and now claims a right in them. What was before unconscious, flames out into consciousness, and they break forth into praise and thanksgiving, in that which, long ago, took them initially, and touched them softly without thanks. For there is such a thing as a seed of character in religion, preceding all religious development. Even as Calvin, speaking of the regenerative grace there may be in the heart of infancy itself, testifies--"the work of God is not yet without existence, because it is not observed and understood by us."
By these and many other considerations that might be named, it is made clear, I think, to any judicious and thoughtful person, that the most important age of Christian nurture is the first; that which we have called the age of impressions, just that age, in which the duties and cares of a really Christian nurture are so commonly postponed, or assumed to have not yet arrived. I have no scales to measure quantities of effect in this matter of early training, but I may be allowed to express my solemn conviction, that more, as a general fact, is done, or lost by neglect of doing, on a child's immortality, in the first three years of his life, than in all his years of discipline afterwards. And I name this particular time, or date, that I may not be supposed to lay the chief stress of duty and care on the latter part of what l have called the age of impressions; which, as it is a matter somewhat indefinite, may be taken to cover the space of three or four times this number of years; the development of language, and of moral ideas being only partially accomplished, in most cases, for so long a time. Let every Christian father and mother understand, when their child is three years old, that they have done more than half of all they will ever do for his character. What can be more strangely wide of all just apprehension, than the immense efficacy, imputed by most parents to the Christian ministry, compared with what they take to be the almost insignificant power conferred on them in their parental charge and duties. Why, if all preachers of Christ could have their hearers, for whole months and years, in their own will, as parents do their children, so as to move them by a look, a motion, a smile, a frown, and act their own sentiments and emotions over in them at pleasure; if, also, a little farther on, they had them in authority to command, direct, tell them whither to go, what to learn, what to do, regulate their hours, their books, their pleasures, their company, and call them to prayer over their own knees every night and morning, who could think it impossible, in the use of such a power, to produce almost any result? Should not such a ministry be expected to fashion all who come under it to newness of life? Let no parent, shifting off his duties to his children, in this manner, think to have his defects made up, and the consequent damages mended afterwards, when they have come to their maturity, by the comparatively slender, always doubtful, efficacy of preaching and pulpit harangue.
If now I am right in the view I have been trying to establish, it will readily occur to you that irreparable damage may be and must often be done by the self-indulgence of those parents, who place their children mostly in the charge of nurses and attendants fur just those years of their life, in which the greatest and most absolute effects are to be wrought in their character. The lightness that prevails, on this point, is really astonishing. Many parents do not even take pains to know any thing about the tempers, the truthfulness, the character generally, of the nurses to whom their children are thus confidingly trusted. No matter--the child is too young to be poisoned, or at all hurt, by their influence. And so they give over, to these faithless and often cruelly false hirelings of the nursery, to be always with them, under their power, associated with their persons, handled by their roughness, and imprinted, day and night, by the coarse, bad sentiments of their voices and faces, these helpless, hapless beings whom they call their children, and think they are really making much of, in the instituting of a nursery for them and their keeping. Such a mother ought to see that she is making much more of herself than of her child. This whole scheme of nurture is a scheme of self-indulgence. Now is the time when her little one most needs to see her face, and hear her voice, and feel her gentle hand. Now is the time when her child's eternity pleads most entreatingly for the benefit of her motherly charge and presence. What mother would not be dismayed by the thought of having her family grow up into the sentiments of her nurse, and come forward into life as being in the succession to her character! And yet how often is this most exactly what she has provided for.
Again, it is very clear that, in this early kind of nurture, faithfully maintained, there is a call for the greatest personal holiness in the parents, and that just those conditions are added, which will make true holiness closest to nature, and most beautifully attractive--saving it from all the repulsive appearances of severity and sanctimony. In this charge and nurture of infant children, nothing is to be done by an artificial, lecturing process; nothing, or little by what can be called government. We are to get our effects chiefly by just being what we ought, and making a right presence of love and life to our children. They are in a plastic age that is receiving its type, not from our words, but from our spirit, and whose character is shaping in the molds of ours. Living under this conviction, we are held to a sound verity and reality in every thing. The defect of our character is not to be made up here, by the sanctity of our words; we must be all that we would have our children feel and receive. Thus, if a man were to be set before a mirror, with the feeling that the exact image of what he is, for the day, is there to be produced and left as a permanent and fixed image forever, to what carefulness, what delicate sincerity of spirit would he be moved. And will he be less moved to the same, when that mirror is the soul of his child?
Inducted, thus, into a more profoundly real holiness, He shall, at the same time, grow more natural in it. The family quality of our piety, living itself into our children, will moisten the dry individualism we suffer, relieve the eccentricities we display, set purity in the place of bustle and presumption, growth in the place of conquest, sound health in the place of spasmodic exaltations; for when a conviction is felt in Christian families, that living is to be a means of grace, and as God will suffer it, a regenerating power, then will our piety be come a domestic spirit, and as much more tender, as it is closer to the life of childhood. Now, we have a kind of piety that contains, practically speaking, only adults, or those who are old enough to reflect and act for themselves, and it is as if we lived in an adult world, where every one is for himself. If we could abolish also distinctions of age, and sex, and office, we should only make up a style of religion somewhat drier and farther off from nature than we now have. We can never come into the true mode of living that God has appointed for us, until we regard each generation as hovering over the next, acting itself into the next, and casting thus a type of character in the nexi, before it comes to act for itself. Then we shall have gentle cares and feelings; then the families will become bonds of spiritual life; example, education and government, being Christian powers, will be regulated by a Christian spirit; the rigidities of religious principle will be softened by the tender affections of nature twining among them, and the common life of the house dignified by the sober and momentous cares of the life to come. And thus Christian piety, being oftener a habit in the soul than a conquest over it, will be as much more respectable and consistent as it is earlier in the birth and closer to nature.