Christian Nurture

By Horace Bushnell

Part II. The Mode.

Chapter 7


But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them.--2 Timothy, ii. 14.

THIS exhortation of the apostle to his young friend Timothy, is the more remarkable that it relates to his training in the Old Testament scriptures, which were the only sacred writings known at the time of his childhood--"And that, from a child, thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus." His father was a Greek, (Acts xvi. 1,) and probably an unbeliever; but his mother was a woman of such piety, that she omitted nothing in the training of her son, and the apostle speaks of her, in the same epistle, even as having let down upon him a kind of piety by entail. But her faithful lessons--these are what he is now calling to mind; and it is affecting to notice that he not only charges it on him to remember what he has learned from the Scriptures, because they are God's word, but also to value the same things the more, "knowing of whom he has learned them;" that is, from his gracious and faithful mother. Under cover of this beautiful example, as it appears in all the parties concerned, the young minister and disciple, the godly mother and her instructions, the apostle and his congratulations, you will perceive that I am going to speak of--

The Christian teaching of children.

And I can not do better than to notice, in the beginning, three points which stand upon the face of the apostle's exhortation.

1. The very great importance of this teaching, when rightly dispensed. It is not indeed the first duty of the parent, for other duties go before, as we have already seen, preceding even the use of language. Neither is it, as a great many parents appear to assume, a matter in which their religious duties to their children are principally summed up. It is not every thing to teach, or verbally instruct their children, least of all to indoctrinate them in the formulas and theoretic principles of the faith. But how very great importance must there be in the teaching, when an apostle, setting his young friend in charge as a preacher of the gospel, bids him continue still in the teachings of his godly mother, and even to remember them for her sake. The New Testament preacher is exhorted still to be an Old Testament son, and is sent forth, in the power of the ancient Scripture, even after Christ has come. And just so it will ever be true of the ripest and tallest of God's saints, who were trained by His truth in their childhood, that however deep in their intelligence or high in spiritual attainments they have grown to be, the motherly and fatherly word is working in them still; and is, in fact, the core of all spiritual understanding in their character.

2. It is to be noted that the teaching of Timothy's mother was scriptural--"And that, from a child, thou hast known the Holy Scriptures." They had, as far as we have been able to learn, no catechisms in that day. The ten commandments and certain selected Psalms, were probably the scriptures in which they were most. exercised, and which probably Timothy had "learned," in the sense of having them stored in his memory. And there is this very great advantage in the scriptural teaching, or training, that it fills the mind with the word and light of the Spirit, and not with any mere wisdoms of opinion. And there is the less reason, now, for going out of the divine word to get lessons for the teaching of children, that our scripture roll is enlarged by the addition of the words and history of Christ himself. In a right use of the Scripture, thus amplified by the gospel, there is no end to the subjects of interest that may be raised. The words are simple, the facts are vital, the varieties of locality, dialogue, incident, character, and topic, endless.

I do not undertake to say that nothing shall be taught which is not in the words of the Scripture. But it must be obvious that very small children are more likely to be worried and drummed into apathy by dogmatic catechisms, than to get any profit from them. If exercised in them at all, it should be at a later period, when their intelligence is considerably advanced; that they may, at least, get some shadow of meaning in them, to repay the labor of committing them to memory. It is generally supposed, in the arguments urged for a training in catechism, that the real advantage to be gained is the fastening or anchoring of the child in some fixed faith. But the deplorable fact is, that what is called a fastening is really the shutting in, or encasing of the soul, in that particular shell of opinion--the training of the child to be a sectarian before he is a Christian. His anchorage in some Christian belief, which is certainly desirable, would be accomplished much more effectually, if he were trained, for example, to recite the Apostle's or the Nicene creed. Here he does not merely memorize, but he assents; and, what is more, does it by an act of practical homage, or worship--a confession. And then what he assents to is no matter of opinion, or speculative theology, but a recitation of the supernatural facts of the gospel, taken simply as facts. For these facts are intelligible even to a very young child, and will be recited always with the greater interest, that the recitation is itself a religious act, or confession.

I am principally concerned here with the case of very young children, not with such as are farther advanced in age, or intelligence; and there is no room for doubt, in their case, whatever may be decided in respect to others, that the teaching of Timothy's mother, the scripture teaching, is to be preferred. The memorizing of the ten commandments and the Lord's prayer, followed by the Apostle's creed and the simplest Christian hymns, connected with scripture readings, conversations, and discussions, will compose a body of teaching specially adapted to a child, and most likely to make him wise unto salvation.

3. It is to be noted that the most genuine teaching, or only genuine teaching, will be that which interprets the truth to the child's feeling by living example, and makes him love the truth afterwards for the teacher's sake. It is a great thing for a child, in all the after life, to "know of whom" he learned these things, and to see a godly father, or a faithful mother, in them. No truth is really taught by words, or interpreted by intellectual and logical methods; truth must be lived into meaning, before it can be truly known. Examples are the only sufficient commentaries; living epistles the only fit expounders of written epistles. When the truly Christian father and mother teach as being taught of God, when their prayers go into their lives and their lives into their doctrine, when their goodness melts into the memory, and heaven, too, breathes into the associated thoughts and sentiments to make a kind of blessed memory for all they teach, then we see the beautiful office they are in, fulfilled. In this manner, Timothy was supposed to have a complete set of recollections from his mother woven into his very feeling of the truth itself It was more true because it had been taught him by her. There was even a sense of her loving personality in it, by which it always had been, and was always to be, endeared. On the other hand, it will always be found that every kind of teaching in religion, which adds no personal interest, or attraction to the truth, sheds no light upon it from a good and beautiful life, is nearly or quite worthless.. And here is the privilege of a genuinely Christian father and mother in their teaching, that they pass into the heart's feeling of their child, side by side with God's truth, to be forever identified with it, and to be, themselves, lived on and over with it, in the dear eternity it gives him.

But these are general considerations, which it is sufficient to have suggested without further dwelling upon them. There are yet a great many subordinate and particular points, of a more promiscuous character, to which also I must call your attention. And I deem it here a matter of consequence to make out, first of all, a somewhat extended roll of things, which are not to be taught; for so many things are taught which are not true for any body, and so many which are only theologically true for minds in full maturity--to all others meaningless and repulsive--that many a child is fatally stumbled in religion, just because of his teaching.

First of all, then, children are not to be taught that they were regenerated in their baptism. That will only convert the rite into a superstition, and put the child in a totally false position, where he will rest his Christian title on a mere outward transaction already past, and what is even worse, on a function of priestly magic. Furthermore, if the child should turn out, when he is fully grown, to be a totally reckless and profane person, having no pretense, or even semblance of religious character, it will now be discovered to him that his regeneration meant nothing, had no practical effect or value, and since there is no second baptismal regeneration, it will only be left him to have neither any care for the old, or hope of a new that is better. Indeed he must now be saved, for aught that appears, without regeneration; which makes a very awkward kind of gospel. If the child could be taught that his baptism signifies regeneration; supposing a pledge on God's part of the necessary grace, and so the fact presumptive, that the faith and careful training of his parents shall be so far issued in a gracious character, that his very first putting forth of good endeavor, (having been divinely prepared,) shall be crowned with Christian evidence, it would be well. But no young child can grasp such a conception evenly enough to hold it. The most that can be said to him, therefore, of his baptism, is that God gave it to his parents and to himself, as a pledge of the Holy Spirit, and all needed help, that he may grow up into good, as a regenerated man.

As little are young children to be taught that they are of course unregenerated. This, with many, is even a fixed point of orthodoxy, and of course they have no doubt of it. They put their children on the precise footing of heathens, and take it for granted that they are to be converted in the same manner. But they ought not to be in the same condition as heathens. Brought up in their society, under their example, baptized into their faith and upon the ground of it, and bosomed in their prayers, there ought to be seeds of gracious character already planted in them; so that no conversion is necessary, but only the development of a new life already begun Why should the parents cast away their privilege, and count their child an alien still from God's mercies?

Again, you are not to teach your children that they need, of course, to be regenerated, because they fail in obedience, show bad tempers, and display manifold other faults. Have you no faults yourselves? Do you then spring it as a conclusion against yourselves, that you are unregenerate persons, or do you take hold of God's help, with new earnestness and confidence, that you may get strength to overcome your faults and be clear of them? Shortcomings, faults, casual disinclinations of feeling, are bad signs, such as ought to waken distrust, but they are not, of course, conclusive evidences.

As little are you to teach them that they are certainly unregenerate, or without piety, because they are light in many of their demonstrations, full of play, abounding in frolicsome gayeties. Which is worse and farthest from God, these innocent exuberances of life, or the covetous, overcaring overworking, enviously plotting, sobriety of their parents?

Again you are never to teach your very young children that they are too young to be good, or to be really Christian. Never allow them to see that you expect them to be pious only at some future day, when they are older. What you despair of, or assume to be no possibility for them, they certainly will not attempt and the discouragement of good, thus thrown upon them, may be even fatal to their future character. Draw them rather into your own exercises, taking always for granted, that they will be with you. Promise them a common part with you in God's friendship, and as your love to God makes you good to them, careful of them, tender toward them, show them how it will make them good to one another and to you, and all good and happy together.

Again, do not teach them that they can never pray, or do any thing acceptable to God, till after they are converted or regenerated. This, with many, is a great point of orthodoxy, and I would not speak of it with severity, because it is a very natural mistake and yet it is one of the most hurtful delusions, short of real infidelity, that can be put into language. It is not only not true for children, but it is not true for any body, and is, in fact, a kind of barricade before the heavenly gate for every body, still outside. It is very true that no one can pray, or do any thing acceptably, to God, as being and remaining unconverted, unregenerated; but that is a very different thing from showing that no one can pray, or do any thing acceptably till after they are converted, or regenerated. The difference is just as wide as between all good possibility and none whatever. God is ready to hear every child's prayer, every man's prayer, calls him to come and be heard for all he wants, only let him pray as coming to be converted, or born of the Spirit, in his prayer. If the prayers of the wicked are an abomination, as they certainly are, let them come to cease being wicked, and be made right with God. Can not a wicked man become right? and at what time and where, better than when God is hearing and helping his prayer? His very prayer will be a praying out of wickedness into right. But when he can not think, work, pray; can not do any thing acceptably, till after he is born of the Spirit, that word after fences him back; shuts him up in his sin, there to bide his time. What multitudes of children have been shut away from the kingdom of God, by this one misconception of piously intended orthodoxy.

The mistake of teaching is scarcely less fatal, when the child is put to the doing of good works, and the making up of a character in the self-regulating way. That kind of duty is so legal and painful, and the poor child will be so often floored by his failures in it, that he will not continue long. A kind of despair will come upon him in a short time, and religion itself will take on a hard impossible look, that is even repulsive. Nothing will draw the child onward in ways of piety, but the sense of forgivenesses, helps, felt sympathies of grace and love. Salvation by faith, is the only kind of religion that a child can support. If there is no ladder to heaven but a ladder of will-works and observances, he will not be climbing it long. Where Luther fell off and lay groaning infant steps will not persist.

It is a great mistake, too, and a great Christian wrong. under salvation by faith, to be always showing children what a hard, dry service the Christian life must be. A great many parents do this unthinkingly, because it is just so to them. Where there is a real living faith. and children believe most easily, cheerfulness, brightness, liberty, joy, are the element of life itself. But if the parent is down in the lowest grades of possible devotion, worried and not blessed by his piety, galled and not comforted; if the children hear him mourning always in his prayer, and confessing shortcomings and defeats and poverty enough to ungospel all the gospel promises, it should not be wonderful that they are not particularly drawn to that kind of piety.

These, now, are some of the things which are not to be taught, but carefully avoided in the training of children. There are a great many other things which are not to be taught, for the reason that they can not be sufficiently apprehended, and will only confound the understanding instead of giving it light. These are to be taught, not formally or theologically, but implicitly, in a kind of child's version, which the confessions commonly do not give. Thus depravity in Adam, the fall of the race, the atonement by Christ in any view that makes it a ground of forgiveness, regeneration itself as a metaphysically defined change in character--none of these can be taught as a doctrine for young children. And yet they can all be taught implicitly. Thus we may represent to children that we are all sinners, and that God is displeased with us whenever we do or think what is wrong; that we want a better auld a clean heart, so that we shall love to do what is right, and that Christ came down into the world to give it to us; that when we feel sorry for wrong he loves to forgive us, and that when we feel weak and are much tempted he will help us, hearing our prayer, and coming to us by his Spirit, to give us strength. Meantime we must not omit teaching that Jesus had a most dear love to children, took them in his arms, blessed them, loved them even the more tenderly because of the bad world into which they are come; and that breathing his own love into them, he was able to say that of such is the kingdom of heaven. Proceeding in this manner, let the call be to the child to become good, and to be always trusting Christ to make him so, and he will get the force, implicitly, of a whole gospel, in this very simple and summary version.

While the whole teaching centers at this point, the mind of the child will not be wearied, of course, by a continual reiteration of the same very simple matter, but it will be led about, into free ranges and excursions, among the facts and very dramatic incidents of the Scripture history. Little debates will be raised about duties in common matters; characters will be held up for approbation, or to be condemned. The matters of creation, from the sky downward, will come into notice, and be used to show God's wisdom and greatness. And so there will be a rotary movement of inquiry and teaching, all round the great central point of being good, and the readiness of Christ to help us in it.

Due care will be taken also not to thrust religious subjects on the child, when he is excited by other things, in a manner to make it unwelcome. His times of thought and appetite must be watched. Play with him when he wants to play, teach him when he wants to be taught. Untimely intrusions of religion will only make it odious--the child can not be crammed with doctrine.

Children often break upon their parents with very tough questions, and questions that wear a considerable looking towards infidelity. It requires, in fact, but a simple child to ask questions that no philosopher can answer. Parents are not to be hurried or flurried in such cases, and make up extempore answers that are only meant to confuse the child, and consciously have no real verity. It is equally bad, if the child is scolded for his freedom; for what respect can he have for the truth, when he may not so much as question where it is? Still worse, if the child's question is taken for an evidence of his superlative smartness, and repeated with evident pride in his hearing. In all such cases, a quiet answer should be given to the child's question where it can easily be done, and where it can not, some delay should be taken; wherein it will be confessed that not even his parents know every thing. Or, sometimes, if the question is one that plainly can not be answered by any body, occasion should be taken to show the child how little we know, and how many things God knows which are too deep for us--how reverently, therefore, we are to submit our mind to his, and let him teach us when he will, what is true. It is a very great thing for a child, to have had the busy infidel lurking in his questions, early instructed in regard to the necessary limits of knowledge, and accustomed to a simple faith in God's requirement, where his knowledge fails.

Observe also, at just this point, the immense advantage that a Christian parent has in Jesus Christ, as regards the religious teaching of his children. I speak here of the fact that all truth finds in him the concrete form Truth is not less really incarnate in him, than God. Indeed he testifies, himself, that he is the truth. And he is so, not merely in the sense that he parabolizes the truth, and gets it thus into human conditions or analogies, but that his own person also and life are the eternal form of truth; that he lives it, acts it forth, groans it in his Gethsemane, sheds it from his veins in the bleeding of his cross. You may take your children along therefore, through his childhood, into his ministries of healing, on to his death-scene itself, and it will be as if you led them through a gallery, where all divinest, most life-giving truth is pictured. No abstractions will be wanted, no difficult reaches of comprehension required; you have nothing to do but to show them Jesus as he is, and the Great Teaching will be in them--all that is needed as the vital bread of their intelligence, and heart, and character. The blessed child's doctrine of the world is Christ. Have it then as your privilege to be always unfolding your child's understanding, and spiritual nature, by that which will be life and healing to both; even Jesus Christ, the Word of the Father's glory. Converse much of him and about him, make him familiar, and it will be strange if you do not find that both your conversation and theirs is in heaven, where he sitteth at the right hand of God.

And of this you will be the more certain if you teach Christ not by words only, but by so living as to make your own life the interpreter of his. There is no feebler and more unpractical conception, than that children are faithfully taught, when they are abundantly lectured. If you will put in Christ, you must put him on. There is no such gospel for them, as that which flavors your own conduct, and fills your personal atmosphere with the Christly aroma.

At the same time it should be the constant endeavor with children, to make the subject of religion an open subject, and keep it so, never to be otherwise. Nothing is wider of dignity, or more mischievous in its effects, than the remarkable shyness of religious conversation in most Christian families. It argues either some great neglect of the parents, in which they have let the subject fall out of range as a subject not to be named, or else it shows that, in trying to make it an open subject, so much of cant or untimely exhortation has been mixed with it, as to make it unwelcome. Rightly conceived, there is no subject of so great interest and such inexhaustible freshness, as that which pertains to the soul and the future life. Good conversation, too, upon it, in the house, is better than sermons. Why then should a Christian family, where every other subject is welcome, taboo this, requiring it to pass in silence, as if it were in fact the forbidden fruit of their intelligence?

But I must speak, in closing, of what appears to be a somewhat general misconception, as respects the aim of Christian teaching in the case of very young children. According to the view I am here maintaining, it is not their conversion, in the sense commonly given to that term. That is a notion which belongs to the scheme that makes nothing of baptism and the organic unity of the house; that looks upon the children as being heathens, or aliens, requiring, of course, to be converted. But according to the scheme here presented, they are not heathens, or aliens; but they are in and of the household of faith, and their growing up is to be in the same. Parents therefore, in the religious teaching of their children, are not to have it as a point of fidelity to press them into some crisis of high experience, called conversion. Their teaching is to be that which feeds a growth, not that which stirs a revolution. It is to be nurture, presuming on a grace already and always given, and, for just that reason, jealously careful to raise no thought of some high climax to be passed. For precisely here is the special advantage of a true sacramental nurture in the promise, that it does not put the child on passing a crisis, where he is thrown out of balance not unlikely, and becomes artificially conscious of himself, but it leaves him to be always increasing his faith, and reaching forward, in the simplest and most dutiful manner, to become what God in helping him to be. On this point Dr. Tiersch says, with very great insight, both of the gospel and of children--

"It is certainly not difficult to bring a child into a condition of emotion and anxiety, by representations of natural corruption, of the judgment, and of the influence of the enemy; and to fill him with doubts of his own salvation, thereby moving him to any thing that may be desired. It is possible that by these means, deep experiences of the communion of the soul have been brought to light. But these are consequences that should rather be objects of our fear than of our rejoicing. For here comes in the worst of all dangers, the early wasting of such impressions and experiences, and a creeping in of untruth, whilst the power vanishes and the forms of speech remain. For both the most delicate and the most solemn experiences become, after this method, objects of continual reflection and conversation, under which, at last, solemn earnestness, as well as all delicacy, is destroyed, and there remains either a continual self-deception, with the semblance of the reality of godliness, or a gnawing consciousness of an increasing untruthfulness, and of an inner unfruitfulness beneath a mass of phrases."20

It is a delicate matter for children to navigate in this rough sea of conversional tossings, where the stormy wind lifteth up the waves, and they go up to the heaven, and go down again to the depth, and their soul is melted because of trouble. There is, for the little ones, a more quiet way of induction. Show them how to be good, and then, when they fail, how God will help them if they ask him and trust in him for help. In this manner they will be passing little conversion-like crises all the time. Rejoice with them and for them as they do, only do not put them on the consciousness, in themselves, of what you seem to see. Let them be accustomed to it as a fact of experience that they are happy when they are right, and are right when God helps them to be, and that he always helps them to be when they put their trust in him. The Spirit of God is nowhere so dovelike as he is in his gentle visitations and hoverings of mercy over little children.

What is wanted is, to train them by a corresponding gentleness, and keep them in the molds of the Spirit. No spiritual tornado is wanted that will finish up the parental duties in a day; but there is to be a most tender and wise attention, watching always for them, and, at every turn or stage of advance, contributing what is wanted; enjoying their bright and happy times of goodness and peace with them, helping their weak times, drawing them out of their discouragements, and smoothing away their moods of recoil and bitterness; contriving always to supply the kind of power that is wanted, at the time when it is wanted. Very young children religiously educated, it will be remembered by almost every grown up person, have many times of great religious tenderness, when they are drawn apart in thoughtfulness and prayer. The effort should be to make these little, silent pentecosts and gentle openings God-ward scaling-times of the Spirit, and have the family always in such keeping, as to be a congenial element for such times; and to suffer no possible hindrance, or opposing influence, even should they come and go unobserved Under such kind of keeping and teaching, God, who is faithful to all his opportunities, as men are not, will be putting his laws into the mind and writing them in the heart, and the prophet's idea will be fulfilled to the letter; it will not be necessary to go calling the children to Christ, and saying, know the Lord; for they will know him, every one, the least as the greatest, and the greatest as the least, each by a knowledge proper to his age.  

[20] Christian Family, p. 133.