Christian Nurture

By Horace Bushnell

Part II. The Mode.

Chapter 4


"Fathers provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged."--Colossians, iii. 21.

DISCOURAGED, the apostle means, in good; that is, in worthy purposes and pious endeavors. Nothing will more certainly put a child in a discouraged feeling, than to be angered by a parent's ill-nature and abuse. The anger is, most certainly, far enough from being itself a state of discouragement; but anger is a passion that can not hold long and the after state into which it subsides, in the case of inferiors and dependants, is commonly a giving up to the bad, a passionless and low desperation, that is equivalent to a general surrender of all high aims and aspirations.

In this view, it would not be altogether amiss, and certainly no improper use of the apostle's words, if I were to offer under them a lecture to parents, on the provoking ways of treatment and government. But I have chosen them for a different purpose, and one that is more inclusive, viz: to introduce and give sanction to a discourse on--

The discouragement of piety in children; the ways in which it is discouraged, and the great care necessary to avoid a mistake so injurious.

I speak here, of course, to parents who really desire the spiritual welfare of their children. Nothing is farther off from their design, than to push their children away from Christ into a state of alienated and discouraged feeling. And yet they do it, very often, by faults of management not suspected, and never afterwards discovered; unless, possibly, after the injury is done, when it can no longer be repaired.

It becomes, in this view, a very serious and practically important question, how, or by what methods, Christian parents, unawares to themselves and contrary to their really good intentions, discourage piety in their children? Let us see if we can partially answer the question.

We begin, then, where the apostle begins with his remonstrance. His language is particularly addressed to fathers; for he seems to have in view the case of children, who are in the more advanced stages of childhood, or in what we call the period of youth. And yet the language is equally applicable to the case of mothers and very little children. It might not be wholly amiss for a half-grown lad, or youth, who has violated his father's feelings, by some really base act of crime, or disobedience, to see, by the smoke of his indignant passion, how deeply his right sensibility is revolted. That will never discourage him in any thing good. It might even rouse his moral nature, when nothing less violent would suffice. The father will really discourage good in his son, only when he stings him with a sense of injustice, and keeps him in a wounded feeling, by his own ungoverned, groundless passion. But in the case of the mother, dealing with her very young child, there is no place even for so much as a feeling of impatience. No crisis occurs that she has any right to carry by a storm. And yet there are many mothers who breed a climate of 5torms for their children to grow up in, even from the first. They make an element of pettishness and passion, and call it Christian nurture to maintain a kind of quarrel with their children, from infancy upward. We do not commonly conceive that the children are discouraged, thus, in the matter of piety; but the real fact is, that their better, higher nature, quite worn down by such treatment, sinks at last into a kind of atrophy, which is the essence of all discouragement. By the time they are passed through this first chapter of torment, their faces even have begun to take on a forlorn expression, as if their well-abused feeling had been quite choked off from every thing hopeful or good. Nothing is more beautiful than the God-ward affinities, and glad impulses to good, in a childish soul; but when it has once been kiln-dried in this hot furnace of motherly or fatherly passion, there is no more any putting forth after the divine. A kind of indifference, or sullen prejudice, sets off the heart from God, and the gentle affinities close up under the stupor of so great early abuse and discouragement.

Children are also discouraged and hardened to good by too much of prohibition. There is a monotony of continuous, ever sounding, prohibition, which is really awful. It does not stop with ten commandments, like the word of Sinai but it keeps the thunder up, from day to day, saying always thou shalt not do this, nor this, not this, till, in fact, there is really nothing left to be done. The whole enjoyment, use, benefit, of life is quite used up by the prohibitions. The child lives under a tilt-hammer of commandment, beaten to the ground as fast as he attempts to rise. All commandments, of course, in such a strain of injunction, come to sound very much alike, and one appears to be about as important as another. And the result is that, as they are all in the same emphasis, and are all equally annoying, the child learns to hate them all alike, and puts them all away. He could not think of heartily accepting them all, and it would even be a kind of irreverence to make a selection. Nothing so fatally worries a child, as this fault of over-commandment. The study should be rather to forbid as few things as possible, and then to soundly enforce what is forbidden. Such kind of prohibitions the child will even like, and will be al] the happier, that he has something good to observe. But nothing can be more impotent, in the way of authority, than the din of a continual prohibition. Even the commandments of God will, in such a case, be robbed of all just authority, by the custom of a general weariness and distaste; in which all highest man. dates are leveled to equality with the pettiest and most useless restraints.

Again, it is a great discouragement to piety in children, when they are governed in a hard, unfeeling, way or in a manner of force and overbearing absolutism Any thing which puts the child aloof from the parent. or takes away the confidence of love and sympathy, will as certainly be a wall to shut him away from God. If his Christian father is felt only as a tyrant, he will seem to have a tyrant in God's name to bear; and that will be enough to create a sullen prejudice against all sacred things. Nor is the case at all better when the child is cowed under fear of such a parent, and reduced to a feeling of dread or abject submission. There is a beautiful courage in children as respects approach to God, when God is not presented as a bugbear; and this natural state of courage, is just that which makes the time of childhood so ingenuously open to religion. But if their courage, even toward their father, is already broken down into fear and servile submission, they will only think of God with as much greater fear, and shrink from all the claims of piety with a kind of abject recoil, as from a thing forbidden. No gentleness even of Christ will suffice, in such a case, to win, or reassure the broken courage of the soul. I recall a family in which the father, known as a man of condition and of no little repute for his Christian good works, brought up a large family of boys to be ruled at a distance. He addressed them in a kind of imperious, unfeeling way; not with any violence of manner, but with a stern-faced grin that seemed to say, "it is well that you fear me." And fear him they most certainly did--fear was the element in which they grew. And the result was that having no self-respect, and living under a law of mere suppression, they fell into base immoralities from their childhood, ant were never afterwards known, even one of them, to have so much as a thought of piety.

Another and even more common way of discouraging children ill matters of piety is by an over-exacting manner, or by an extreme difficulty of being pleased. Children love approbation, and are specially disappointed, when they fail of it in their meritorious endeavors. Their chagrin is nevermore complete, in fact, than when, having set themselves to any purpose of well-doing, they are still repulsed by a manner of fault-finding at the end, and blamed on account of some trivial defect which they did not know, and would really have tried to avoid. Some parents appear to think it a matter of true faithfulness, that they be not too easily pleased, lest their children should take up loose impressions of the strictness of duty. They do not consider how they would fare themselves, if God were to make a point of treating them in the same manner. His manner with them is exactly opposite. He perceives that he will only repel them, by making it a matter of difficulty to please him, and that he could never draw them on, if he did not yield them his smile under great faults and shortcomings, and did not give them the testimony that they please him, when they are a great way off from his own scale of perfection. In all which we may readily see how great discouragement is put upon children, in all their good attempts, when their parents will not allow themselves to be pleased with any thing they do. Possibly they are withheld by scruples of orthodoxy. If so, the mischief is only the greater. What can win a child to the attempt to please God, when his parents dare not suffer so much as a thought of the possibility in him, and, for the same reason, dare not so much as approve him themselves. Such kind of orthodoxy can not be too soon forsaken, or too earnestly repented of.

Closely akin to this, is the fault of holding displeasure too long, and yielding it with too great difficulty. It is right that children, doing wrong, should encounter some kind of treatment that indicates displeasure. But the displeasure should not take the manner of a grudge, and hold on after the wrong is visibly felt and repented of. On the contrary, there should even be a hastening toward the child, in glad recognitions and cordial greetings, when the tokens only of relenting begin to appear; even as the prodigal's father is represented, in the parable, as discovering him, in his return, when he is yet a great way off, and advancing to meet and embrace him. By this tender figure God is shown us, and the holy generosity of his fatherhood is represented. We see that he is only the more ready to be pleased, because of his magnanimity; holding no resentments, putting off the feeling of offense at the earliest moment, and the cheapest possible rate. Nay, He will even take our good by anticipation; accepting us for what we ask, before he can accept us for what we are. Well is it for those parents who think it incumbent on them, to hold their displeasure till the culprit is sufficiently scathed by it, if they do not hold it just a little too long; turning, thus, even his repentance into a sullen aversion, and setting it in his feeling, that there is the same heavy tariff of displeasure still to be paid, when he would forsake his sins and turn himself to God. When will it be learned that penance is no fit beginning of piety?

And here let me speak of the very great danger, after a time of discipline, that the parent may hold his displeasure too long; as he certainly will, if there is any ugly feeling, or wicked, natural resentment in him. Thus Jean Paul beautifully says:--"A punishment is scarcely of such importance to a child as the succeeding quarter of an hour, and the transition to forgiveness. After the storm, the seed finds the soil warm and softened; the terror and hatred of the punishment are now past, which before resisted and struggled against the word, and gentle instruction finds its way, and brings healing with it, as honey assuages the sting of bees, and oil the pain of a wound. In this hour we can say much, if we use the utmost gentleness of voice, and by the manifestation of our own pain, soothe that of the child. But every continuance of wintry anger is poisonous. Mothers easily fall into this prolongation of punishment. This continuance of anger; this would-be punishment of pretending a diminution of love, either fails to be comprehended by the child, because he is wholly immersed in the present and so misses its effect, or else he becomes satisfied with a deprivation of the signs of love, and learns to do without it; or else he is embittered by the continuance of punishment for a sin which he has already buried. Through this prolongation of harshness, we lose that beautiful and touching transition into forgiveness, which, by coming slowly and after a long period, only loses its power."17

Hasty and false accusations again are a great discouragement to piety in children. Their good feeling, or intention, appears to be rated low by their parents, when they are put under the ban of dishonor, by false and groundless imputations; and they are very likely, as the next thing, to show that they are no better than they were taken to be. On this account, a wise parent will be religiously careful of all volunteer and random charges of blame, lest he may discourage fatally all pious or ingenuous aspirations by them; for to batter self-respect, or insult the sense of character, thus gratuitously, is the surest way possible to break every natural charm of virtue and religion. The effect is scarcely better where acknowledged faults are exaggerated, and set off in colors of derision. It will do for a parent to be just, severely just; for, by that means, he will best impress the sacred severity of principle. God is just in all his charges and reproofs; but there is no manner of excess or spirit of exaggeration in them. And exactly this it is which makes his kindness so beautiful, so inspiring to our courage, so attractive to our love. But harsh justice, exaggerated justice, is injustice. When a child, therefore, is persecuted by railing words, cauterized by satire, blamed without reason or measure for faults not easily corrected, the severity is really unprincipled as well as unfriendly, and is only the more dreadfully mischievous, that it takes on airs of piety, and bears the Christian name. How can he be drawn by that which has no grace of allowance, and yields no sympathy to the struggles of his infirmity? How many poor children are beaten out of all their natural affinities for good, by just this kind of cruelty! They had parents who, in fault of the better evidences of love and patience, thought to make up the deficit in being at least severe enough to be Christian; which, though it was an easy grace for them--the only grace at their command--was, alas! fearfully hard on the subjects.

We bring into view a different class of discouraging causes, when we speak of that anxiousness, or always miserable concern, for children, by which some parents keep them in a continual torment of suppression. We have really no right to allow a properly anxious feeling any where. Anxiety is a word of unbelief, or unreasoning dread. Full faith in God puts it at rest; any solid conviction of necessity and right is chloroform to the pain of it. And we have the less right to be anxious, that it is a feeling which destroys the comfort of others whenever and wheresoever it appears. Only to be in a room with an anxious person, though a stranger, is enough to make one positively unhappy; for the manner, the nervous unsteadiness, and worry, and shift, are so irresistibly expressive, that no effort of silence, or suppression, is able to conceal the torment. To go a journey thus with an anxious person, is about the worst kind of pilgrimage. What then is the woe put upon a hapless little one or child, who is shut up day by day and year by year, to the always fearing look and deprecating whine, the questioning, protesting, super-cautionary keeping of a nervously anxious mother. If the child catches the infection himself, he will never come to any thing; never dare any great purpose that belongs to a man, or a Christian. And if he does not catch it, which is more probable, then he will pitch himself into a campaign of will and passion with all that kind of control, a good deal less rational, probably, than the control itself. Simply to enter the house will raise a breeze in his feeling, and he will be worried and fretted, till he has somehow made his escape. Nothing is more opposite to the hopeful and free spirit of childhood, and nothing will so dreadfully overcast the sky of childhood, as the sad kind of weather it is always making. It worries the child in every putting forth and play, lest he should somehow be hurt; takes him away, or would, from every contact with the great world's occasions, that would give fit schooling to his manhood. And then, since the child will most certainly learn, at last, how little reason there was in the eternal distress of so many fears and imaginations of harm, he is sure to be issued finally, in a feeling of confirmed disrespect, which is the end of all good influence or advice. And then it will be so much the worse, if the anxiety whose bagpipe melody has been the torment of his early days, has shown itself in the same unregulated way in matters of religion. Nothing will set a child farther off from religion, or make him more utterly incapable of sympathy with it, than to have had it put upon him in a whining and misgiving way, in all his moods and occasions. No! there must be a certain courage in maternity and the religion of it. The child must be wisely trusted to danger, and shown how to conquer it. A pleasure must be taken in giving him a certain range of adventure; and he must see that his courage and capacity are confided in. And then it must be seen, in the same way, that his truth, fidelity, piety, are as much expected as his manhood. In a certain good sense, the mother may be anxious for him, burdened in her prayers in his behalf, but she must take on hope and confidence nevertheless, and show that courage in him, as regards all good endeavor, is met and supported by courage in herself.

Again, it will be found that piety is very commonly discouraged in children, by giving them tests of character that are inappropriate to their age. There is an immense cruelty put upon children here, by parents who have really no design but simply to be faithful. Their child, for example, loses his temper in some matter in which he is crossed; and the conclusion is forthwith sprung upon him that he has a bad heart, and is certainly no Christian child. Whereupon he ceases to pray; or, if he is put to it as a form, does it with an averted and reluctant feeling, as if the wrong were conclusive against his prayers. It is only necessary to ask how the father, how the mother would themselves fare, tested by the same rule? If irritation, passion, any loss of temper, is conclusive against the little being who has scarcely begun to be practiced in self-government, how is it with them who ought by this time to be immovably fixed in their serenity? So if the child has played, or shown some eagerness for play on Sunday, has not the father, or the mother, who indeed has outgrown all such care for play, been delving still, even in the church worship itself, and at the table of communion, in schemes, and projects, and works, that thrust out, for the time, even these most sacred things from any due place in their attention? If sometimes a mere child is carried away by exuberant life and playfulness, is that worse than to be cankered by the love of gain, or by the severe and sober sins of a grasping, eager, worldly manhood? The sins of children are ingenuous and open, and on just that account are to be less severely judged. The sins of manhood are sins of gravity, prudence, self-seeking, always contriving to wear some plausible aspect of sobriety and dignity; but they ale not any the more consistent with piety on that account. We do not judge that any one is of course without piety, or is no Christian, because he has faults, or failings, or even because he is overtaken by sins; why then should a child be condemned, as having no true evidence of piety, just because he is only a little less under the power of evil than his Christian father and mother? God, I am certain, judges children's faults in no such manner, and therefore it is never to be assumed by us that they are without piety, because they falter in some things. If they only falter, seeming still to love what is good, and struggle ingenuously after it, there is just as good reason to hope that their hearts have been touched by the Spirit of God, as there is that the hearts of older persons have been, when they are groping always in the seventh chapter of the Romans, having a mind to serve God, but always failing in the service. The child must be judged or tested in the same general way as the adult. If he is wholly perverse, has no spirit of duty, turns away from all religious things, it will not discourage any thing good in him to tell him that he is without piety; but if he loves religious things, wants to be in them, tries after a good and obedient life, he is to be shown how tenderly God regards him, how ready he is to forgive him; and when he stumbles or falls, how kindly he will raise him up, how graciously help him to stand. Nor does it make any difference that no time is remembered, when he seemed to be brought unto God, by a great change of experience, such as adult persons are often the subjects of. He ought not to be the subject of any such change; and if he is properly trained, will not be. As regards the testing of his condition or character, nothing at all depends on that. It will even be a good sign for him that he has always seemed to love Christ; and it will be no proper evidence to the contrary, that he sometimes falters. Children are very ingenuous, and they may even show some disinclination, for a time, to all religious duties, without creating any such evidence. Adults often suffer such disinclination, when they do not allow it to appear. The sum of all I would say here is, let children be judged as children, and let them not be cruelly discouraged in all thoughts of love to God, because they falter, as older people do; only in a different manner.

I must also speak of another and more general mode of discouragement, in what may be called the holding back, or holding aloof system, by which children are denied an early recognition of their membership in the church, and an admission to the Lord's table. I have spoken of this membership already, in another place, and shall also speak, hereafter, of the supper in its more positive uses. What I now refer to, more especially, is the negatively bad or discouraging effect thrown upon their piety, by these methods of detention, or exclusion. The child giving evidence, however beautiful, of his piety, is still kept back from the fellowship and table of Christ, for the simple defect of years. As if years were one of the Scripture evidences of grace. Sometimes the difficulty is that he can speak of no experience, or change, such as we call conversion; and sometimes, if he can, that he is yet too young to be confided in. And so it turns out, after all that is said of the membership initiated in baptism, that nothing is practically made of it, or allowed to be made of it. The membership it creates is only a disjunctive conjunction; words for a show, answered by no conditions or consequences of fact. The poor child still is virtually counted or assumed to be an alien, required to be converted in just the same fashion as all heathens are, and to show the fact by the same kind of evidences. The little, saintly daughter, for example, of a venerable Presbyterian minister, aching for a place at the Lord's table, goes to her father, after being several times postponed by him and by the session, asking--"father, when shall I be old enough to be a Christian?" He and his session, alas! did not believe that of such is the kingdom of heaven. Had the dear child gone to Jesus, she would most certainly have gotten a different answer. True, the religious experience of children is of course small--only not as small, or unreliable, by any means, as the experience commonly is of an adult convert only a few weeks old. Besides, what is the use of a fold, if the lambs are to be kept outside till it is seen whether they can stand the weather?

The chilling, desolating effect of this very unnatural and cruel practice, will be understood without difficulty. No plan could be devised for the discouragement of piety in children, that would be more certain of its object. They are only mocked and tantalized by their baptism itself. They are thrust away and kept aloof from the communion of Christ, for reasons that make it impossible for them to be reliably Christian. And so their courage is broken down, and all their religious longings are crippled, just when they most want grace and sympathy to draw them on.

The remedy is plain. In the first place, there ought to be some exercise or service in every church, to which the baptized children may be called, in common with the adult members, there to be recognized in a begun relationship. They should be formally addressed and prayed with. But the chief exercise, in which they can as heartily partake as any, should be the singing of simple hymns to Christ, such as are used by the Moravian brethren for this purpose. In this manner, too, they will quite as much edify, as be edified, by the adult brethren. Their childish sympathies will, in this manner, be laid hold of at the earliest moment. They will perceive that so much, at least, of worship and religion is open to them as to others, and will begin to feel themselves at home among the brethren.

In the next place, there should be some arrangement, in which it is understood that children, piously disposed, though not confirmed or accepted formally as members on their own account, may be allowed, either on consultation with the pastor or without, to come to the Lord's table for the time, on the score of their initial membership in baptism, and their hopefully gracious character. In this manner, some confidence will be shown that they are going to claim their place, in full church relations, as soon as they are better matured in character and evidences; and this kind of confidence will have great power with them, to encourage and support their struggles, and help them forward into an established Christian life.

And then, once more, no child should ever be kept back from a complete and formal, or formally professed, membership in the body of Christ, simply because of his age. Some children will give more reliable evidence of Christian character at seven years of age than others at fourteen. Were every thing as it should be, and as the most genuine ideas of baptism and Christian nurture suppose, nearly all the subjects would be found in the church, as brethren accepted, by the time they are twelve years old, and the greater part of them before they are ten years old.

While the church cooperates, in this manner, cherishing the baptized children as her own, it is understood, of course, that parents are to be engaged in putting forward their children and preparing them to bear the Christian profession. They are not to assume that the matter of true prudence here is all on one side, the side of detention; as if there were nothing to be sure of, but that their children do not get on too fast. If that were all, it were the easiest thing in the world to settle every question, by the argument of delay; which negative grace, alas! is about the only kind of function some parents are equal to. No, this grip of detention is not any so easy and safe kind of duty. It may put the child by his time for life. It may fatally discourage all his beginnings of godliness, and may so far choke his growth in good that he will never be recovered.

The matters which I have gathered up in this discourse, it is not to be denied, my brethren, make a melancholy picture. When we discover in how many ways even Christian parents themselves discourage the piety of their children, it ceases to be any wonder that they so often turn out badly, and come to a sad figure in their life. There are very few children brought up in Christian families, who do not, at some time, show a particular openness and tenderness to the calls of religion. These flowering times of piety, ought to be all setting times of fruit, and 1 verily believe that thee would be, if the flowers were not broken off by some rough handling, or discouraging treatment. And it should scarcely be any wonder that so many children of Christian parents come forward into life, in a dulled, uncaring mood; as if their conscience were under some paralysis, or as if they had somehow fallen out of all sense and sentiment of religion. The reason is, how often, that all their religious affinities have been battered by parental discouragement. They think of religion, if they think of it at all, only as a kind of forbidden fruit; and since it has never been for them, why should it ever be?

Here, too, is the solution of, alas! how many cases, where Christian parents speak, with great sadness, of a time when this or that child, now utterly submerged under the world, or the world's vices, was greatly exercised in matters of religion, fond of prayer, wanting even to be admitted to Christ's table. How many children have been discouraged, kept back, with just the same effect! Treated as if their piety was impossible, how could it become a fact? O, if they had been wisely and skillfully encouraged, assisted, led along, how different probably the state and character in which they would now be found!

A heavy shade is here thrown, too, upon all those sorrowful regrets in which Christian parents bewail what they call the mystery of their lot, in having children grown up to a prayerless and godless maturity. Alas! it is too easy, in most cases, to account for this mystery. When we see in how many ways children may be thrown off from the courses of holy obedience, or discouraged in them, we have a strong ground of presumption that the mystery deplored by their parents is not as deep as they suppose. For myself, when I look over this field of misuse, misconception, misdirection, seeing in how many and subtle ways children are turned off from Christ, when they might be and ought to be drawn to his fold, it is no longer a wonder that they go astray; it would only be a greater wonder if they met the call of Christ more faithfully, and stood in a character more answerable to the privilege he gives them.


[17] Levana iii. 65.