The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825

An Address to Christian Parents

My Dear Friends—
It is a situation of tremendous responsibility to be a parent—for the manner in which you discharge the duties of this relation, you must give an account in that dreadful day when the secrets of all hearts shall be judged by Jesus Christ. With every babe that God entrusts to your care, he in effect sends the solemn injunction—"Take this child, and bring it up for me"—and at the final audit, will inquire in what manner you have obeyed the command. It will not then be sufficient to plead the strength of your affection, nor the ceaseless efforts to which it gave rise; for if these efforts were not directed to a right end, if all your solicitude was lavished upon inferior objects, you will receive the rebuke of Him that sits upon the throne.

It is of infinite importance that you should contemplate your children in their true character. They are animal beings, and therefore it is highly proper that you should use every effort to provide them with suitable food, clothing, habitations—and everything else that can conduce to the comfort of their present existence. They are social beings, and it is important that you should qualify them to enjoy the comforts, and discharge the duties of social life. They are rational beings, and it is your duty to furnish them with every possible advantage for the culture of their minds.

But if you look no further than this, you leave out of sight the grandest and most important relations in which they can be seen, and will of course neglect the most important of your duties towards them—for they are IMMORTAL beings—the stamp of eternity is upon them—everlasting ages are before them! They are like the rest of the human race—depraved, guilty, and condemned creatures; and consequently in danger of eternal misery. Yet are they, through the mercy of God, and the mediation of Christ, creatures capable of attaining to glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life. Looking upon them in this light (and this is the light in which you profess to contemplate them)—what should be your chief concern concerning them, and what your conduct towards them?

Recognizing in your children beings placed in this world in a state of probation, and hastening to eternal happiness or torment, will you be contented to seek for them anything short of eternal salvation? Even a Deist, who has any belief of a future state of reward and punishment, does not act consistently, unless he is supremely desirous of the everlasting welfare of his children. None but an avowed Atheist can, with the least propriety, fix his aim lower for his children than the possession of a happy immortality.

But, in the case of a Christian parent, it is in the highest degree inconsistent, absurd, cruel, and wicked ever to lose sight of this in the arrangements which he makes for his family, or in the manner of conducting himself towards them. Do you really believe in the ruin of the human race by sin—and their recovery by Christ? In the existence of such states as heaven and hell? In the necessity of a life of faith and holiness—in order to escape the one and secure the other? Then act up to these solemn convictions, not only in reference to your own salvation—but to the salvation of your children. Let a supreme concern for their immortal interests be at the bottom of all your conduct, and be interwoven with all your parental habits. Let them have, in the fullest sense of the term, a CHRISTIAN EDUCATION. Act so towards them and for them, as that you shall be able to say to them, however they may turn out—"I take you to record that I am clear of your blood."

But my principal object in this address is to point out what appear to me to be the most prevailing OBSTACLES to success in the religious education of children.

That, in many cases, the means employed by Christian parents for their children's spiritual welfare are unsuccessful, is a melancholy fact, established by abundant, and, I fear, accumulating evidence. I am not now speaking of those families (and are there indeed such?) where scarcely the semblance of domestic piety or instruction is to be found, where no family altar is seen, no family prayer is heard, no parental admonition is delivered! What! this cruel, wicked, ruinous neglect of their children's immortal interests in the families of professors! Monstrous inconsistency! shocking dereliction of principle! No wonder that their children go astray! This is easily accounted for. Some of the most profligate young people that I know, have issued from such households. Their prejudices against true religion, and their enmity to its forms, are greater than those of the children of avowed worldlings. Inconsistent, hypocritical, negligent professors of religion, frequently excite in their sons and daughters an unconquerable aversion and disgust against true piety, which seems to produce in them a determination to place themselves at the furthest possible remove from its influence.

But I am now speaking of the failure of a religious education, where it has been, in some measure, carried on; instances of which are by no means infrequent. Too often do we hear the echo of David's sorrowful complaint, uttered by the distressed and disappointed Christian father, "Although my house be not so with God." Too often do we see the child of many prayers and many hopes forgetting the instructions he has received, and running with the multitude to do evil. Far be it from me to add affliction to affliction, by saying that this is to be traced, in every case, to parental neglect. I would not thus, as it were, pour vinegar upon the bleeding wounds with which filial impiety has lacerated many a father's mind. I would not thus cause the wretched parent to exclaim—"Reproach has broken my heart, already half-broken by my child's misconduct." I know that in many cases no blame whatever could be thrown on the parent; and that it was the depravity of the child alone, which nothing could subdue but the power of the Holy Spirit, that led to the melancholy result. The best possible scheme of Christian education, most judiciously directed, and most perseveringly maintained, has, in some cases, totally failed. God is a sovereign, and He has mercy on whom He will have mercy. Still, however, there is in the 'use of means' a tendency in a religious education to secure the desired result; and God usually does bless, with His saving influence, such efforts. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." This is certainly true, as a general rule, though there are many exceptions to it.

I shall now lay before you the principal obstacles to the success of religious education, as they strike my mind.

First—It is frequently too negligently and capriciously maintained, even where it is not totally omitted.

It is obvious, that, if at all attended to, it should be attended to with anxious EARNESTNESS, systematic ORDER, and perpetual REGULARITY. It should not be maintained as a dull form, an unpleasant drudgery—but as a matter of deep and delightful interest. The heart of the parent should be entirely and obviously engaged. A part of every returning Sabbath should be spent by him in the instruction of his filial charge; and his concern should be embodied, more or less, with the whole habit of parental conduct. The father may lead the usual devotions at the family altar; the mother may join with him in teaching their children catechism, hymns, and scripture; but, if this be unattended by serious admonition, visible anxiety, and strenuous effort to lead their children to think seriously on true religion, as a matter of infinite importance—little good can be expected. A cold, formal, capricious system of religious instruction, is rather likely to create prejudice against true religion—than bias in its favor.

Then again, a religious education should be CONSISTENT—it should extend to everything that is likely to assist in the formation of character. It should not be merely instruction—but a complete whole. It should select the schools, the companions, the amusements, the books of youth; for if it does nothing more than merely teach a form of sound words to the understanding and to the memory—while the impression of the heart and the formation of the character are neglected—very little is to be expected from such efforts. A handful of seed, scattered now and then upon the ground, without order or perseverance, might as rationally be expected to produce a good crop—as that a mere lukewarm, capricious, religious education, should be followed by true piety. If the parent be not visibly in earnest, it cannot be expected that the child will be so.

True religion, by every Christian parent, is theoretically acknowledged to be the most important thing in the world; but if in practice the father appears a thousand times more anxious for the son to be a good scholar than a real Christian, and the mother more solicitous for the daughter to be a good dancer or musician than a child of God, they may teach what they like in the way of good doctrine—but they are not to look for genuine piety as the result. Genuine piety can only be expected where it is really taught and inculcated, as the one thing needful.

Secondly—The relaxation of domestic discipline is another obstacle in the way of a successful religious education.

A parent is invested by God with a degree of authority over his children, which he cannot neglect to use, without being guilty of trampling under foot the institutions of heaven. Every family is a community, the government of which is strictly authoritarian—though not tyrannical. Every father is a sovereign—though not an oppressor. He is a law giver—and not merely a counselor. And his will should be law—not merely advice. He is to command, to restrain, to punish—and children are required to obey. He is, if necessary, to threaten, to rebuke, to chastise—and they are to submit with reverence. He is to decide what books shall be read, what companions invited, what engagements formed, and how time is to be spent. If he sees anything wrong, he is not to interpose merely with the timid, feeble, ineffectual protest of Eli—"Why do you thus, my sons?" but with the firm though mild prohibition. He must rule his own house—and by the whole of his conduct make his children feel that obedience is his due and his demand.

The lack of discipline, wherever it exists—is followed by confusion and domestic anarchy. Everything goes wrong in the absence of this. A gardener may sow the choicest seeds; but if he neglects to pluck up weeds, and prune wild overgrowth, he must not expect to see his flowers grow, or his garden flourish. And so a parent may deliver the best instructions; but if he does not, by discipline, eradicate evil tempers, correct bad habits, repress wicked corruptions, nothing excellent can be looked for. He may be a good prophet and a good priest; but if he be not also a good KING—all else is vain! When once a man breaks his scepter—or lends it to his children as a plaything—he may give up his hopes of success from a religious education.

I have seen the evil resulting from a lack of discipline in innumerable families, both among my brethren in the ministry and others. Frightful instances of disorder and immorality are now present to my mind, which I could almost wish to forget. The misfortune, in many families is, that discipline is unsteady and capricious—sometimes carried even to tyranny itself—at others relaxed into a total suspension of law; so that the children are at one time trembling like slaves—at others revolting like rebels; at one time groaning beneath an iron yoke—at others rioting in a state of lawlessness. This is a most mischievous system, and its effects are generally, just what might be expected.

In some cases discipline commences too late—in others it ceases too early. A father's magisterial office is coexistent with his parental relation. A child, as soon as he can reason, should be made to feel that obedience is due to parents; for if he grows up to boyhood before he is subject to the mild rule of paternal authority, he will, very probably, like an untamed bullock, resist the yoke. On the other hand—as long as children continue beneath the parental roof, they are to be subject to the rules of domestic discipline. Many parents greatly err in abdicating the throne in favor of a son or daughter, because the child is becoming a man or a woman. It is truly pitiable to see a boy or girl of fifteen, just returned from school, allowed to sow the seeds of revolt in the domestic community, and to act in opposition to parental authority, until the too compliant father gives the reins of government into the children's hands—or else by his conduct declares his children to be in a state of independence.

There need not be any contest for power—for where a child has been accustomed to obey, even from an infant, the yoke of obedience will generally be light and easy. If not, and a rebellious temper begins to show itself early, a judicious father should be on his guard, and allow no encroachments on his authority; while, at the same time, the increased power of his authority, like the increased pressure of the atmosphere, should be felt without being seen—and this will make it irresistible.

Thirdly—undue severity, in the other extreme, is as injurious as unlimited indulgence.

If injudicious fondness has slain its tens of thousands—unnecessary harshness has destroyed its thousands! By an authority which cannot err, we are told that the cords of love are the bands of a man. There is an irresistible power in love. The human mind is so constituted as to yield readily to the influence of kindness. Men are more easily led to their duty—than driven to it. A child, says an eastern proverb, may lead the elephant by a single hair.

Love seems so essential an element of parental character that there is something shockingly revolting—not only in a cruel—not only in an unkind or severe—but even in a cold-hearted father. Study the parental character as it is exhibited in that most exquisitely touching moral picture—the parable of the Prodigal Son. When a father governs entirely by cold, bare, harsh authority—by mere commands, prohibitions and threats—by frowns, untempered with smiles; when the 'friend' is never blended with the 'law-giver', nor authority modified with love; when his conduct produces only a servile fear in the hearts of his children, instead of a spontaneous affection; when he is served from a dread of the effects of disobedience rather than from a sense of the pleasure of obedience; when he is rather dreaded in the family circle as a frowning spectre, than hailed as the guardian angel of its joys; when even accidents raise a storm, or faults produce a hurricane of passion in his bosom; when offenders are driven to equivocation or lying, with the hope of averting by concealment those severe corrections which disclosure always entails; when unnecessary interruptions are made to innocent enjoyments; when, in fact, nothing of the 'father'—but everything of the 'tyrant' is seen—can we expect true religion to grow in such a soil as this? We may as rationally as we may look for the tenderest hot-house plant to thrive amid the rigors of an arctic frost!

It is useless for such a father to teach true religion; he chills the soul of his pupils; he hardens their hearts against impression; he prepares them to rush with eager haste to their ruin as soon as they have thrown off the yoke of his bondage; and to employ their liberty, as affording the means of unbridled gratification. Like a company of African slaves, they are at first tortured by their thraldom, and by that very bondage, trained up to convert their sudden emancipation into a means of destruction.

Let parents, then, in all their conduct, blend the 'law-giver' and the 'friend'—temper authority with kindness—and realize in their measure that representation of Deity which Dr. Watts has given us, where he says, "Sweet majesty and dreadful love—sit smiling on his brow."

In short, let them so act, that their children shall be convinced that their law is holy, and their commandment is holy, and just, and good—and that to be so governed is to be blessed.

Fourthly—The inconsistent conduct of parents themselves, is a frequent and powerful obstacle to success in religious education.

Example has been affirmed to be omnipotent, and its power, like that of gravitation, to be in proportion to the nearness of the attracting body. What, then, must be the influence of parental example? Now, as I am speaking of pious parents, it is of course assumed that they do exhibit, in some measure, the reality of true religion; but may not the reality often be seen, where much of the beauty of true godliness is obscured, just as the sun is beheld when his effulgence is quenched in a mist; or as a lovely prospect is seen through the haze, which veils the beauty of the scene, though it does not altogether conceal its extent.

True religion may be seen in dim outline by the children, in their parents' conduct—but it may be attended with so many minor inconsistencies, such a mist of imperfections, that it presents little to conciliate their regard, or raise their esteem. There is so much worldly-mindedness, so much conformity to fashionable follies, so much irregularity of domestic piety, such frequent sallies of unchristian temper, such inconsolable grief and querulous complaint under the trials of life, such frequent animosities towards their fellow Christians, observable in the conduct of some Christians—that their children see true religion to the greatest possible disadvantage, and the consequence is, that it either lowers their standard of piety, or inspires a disgust towards it altogether.

Parents, as you would wish your instructions and admonitions to your family to be successful—enforce them by the power of a holy example. It is not enough for you to be generally pious—but you should be wholly pious; not only to be real disciples—but eminent ones; not only sincere Christians—but consistent ones. Your standard of true religion should be very high. To some parents I would give this advice, "Say less about religion to your children—or else manifest more of its influence. Leave off family prayer—or else leave off family sins." Beware how you act—for all your actions are seen at home. Never talk of true religion but with reverence. Do not be forward to speak of the faults of your fellow Christians, and when the subject is introduced, let it be in a spirit of charity towards the offender, and of decided abhorrence of the fault. Many parents have done irreparable injury to their children's minds by a proneness to find out, to talk of, and almost to rejoice over the inconsistencies of professing Christians. Never cavil at, nor find fault with the religious exercises of the minister you attend; but rather commend his discourses, in order that your children may listen to them with greater attention. Direct their views to the most eminent Christians, and point out to them the loveliness of exemplary piety. In short, seeing that your example may be expected so much to aid or to frustrate your efforts for the conversion of your children, consider "what manner of people ought you to be in all holy conversation and godliness."

Fifthly—Another obstacle to the success of religious instruction is sometimes found in the wild conduct of an elder branch of the family, especially in the case of a dissipated son.

The elder branches of a family are found, in general, to have considerable influence over the rest, and oftentimes to give the tone of morals to the others; they are looked up to by their younger brothers and sisters; they bring companions, books, amusements into the house; and thus form the character of their juniors. It is of great consequence therefore that parents should pay particular attention to their elder children; and if unhappily the habits of these should be decidedly unfriendly to the religious improvement of the rest, they should be removed, if possible, from the family. One profligate son may lead all his brothers astray. I have seen this, in some cases, most painfully verified. A parent may feel unwilling to send from home a wicked child, under the apprehension that he will grow worse and worse; but kindness to him in this way is cruelty to the others. Wickedness is contagious, especially when the diseased person is a brother.

Sixthly—Bad companions out of the house counteract all the influence of religious instruction delivered at home.

A Christian parent should ever be on the alert to watch the associations which his children are inclined to form. On this subject I have said much to the young themselves in the following work; but it is a subject which equally concerns the parent. One ill-chosen friend of your child, may undo all the good you are the means of doing at home. It is impossible for you to be sufficiently vigilant on this point. From their very infancy encourage them to look up to you as the selectors of their companions; impress them with the necessity of this, and form in them a habit of consulting you at all times. Never encourage an association which is not likely to have a decidedly friendly influence on their religious character. This caution was never more necessary than in the present age. Young people are brought very much together by the religious institutions which are now formed, and altogether there is a great probability that in such a circle, suitable companions will be found, yet it is too much even for charity to believe that all the active young friends of Sunday Schools, Juvenile Missionary Societies, etc., are fit companions for our sons and our daughters.

Seventhly—The schisms which sometimes arise in our churches, and embitter the minds of Christians against each other, have a very unfriendly influence upon the minds of the young.

They see so much that is opposite to the spirit and genius of Christianity in both parties, and enter so deeply into the views and feelings of one of them, that either their attention is drawn off from the essentials of true religion—or their prejudices raised against them. I look upon this as one of the most painful and mischievous consequences of ecclesiastical contentions.

Eighthly—The neglect of young people by our churches and their pastors, is another impediment to the success of domestic religious instruction.

This, however, does not so much appertain to parents in their separate capacity, as in their relation as members of a Christian society, and even in this relation it belongs less to them, than to their pastors. There is a blank yet to be filled up in reference to the treatment of the young who are not in church communion. We need something that shall recognize the young, interest them, attract them, guard them.

Ninthly—The spirit of filial independence, which is sanctioned by the habits, if not by the opinions of the age, is another hindrance, and the last which I shall mention, to the good effect contemplated and desired by a religious education.

The disposition, which is but too apparent in this age to enlarge the privileges of the children by diminishing the prerogative of their parents, is neither for the comfort of the latter, nor for the well-being of the former. Rebellion against parental authority can never be in any case a blessing, and all wise parents, together with all wise youth, will unite in supporting that just parental authority, which, however the precocious manhood of some might feel it to be an oppression, the more natural and slowly approaching maturity of others will acknowledge to be a blessing. Children who find the parental yoke a burden, are not very likely to look upon the yoke of Christ as a benefit.

Such, my dear friends, as they appear to my mind, are the principal obstacles to the success of those efforts which are carried on by many for the religious education of their children. Seriously consider them; and, having looked at them, endeavor to avoid them. Survey them as the mariner does the flame of the lighthouse, for the purpose of avoiding the rock on which it is placed. Recognize your children, as every Christian parent should do, not only as animal, rational, social beings—but as immortal creatures, lost sinners—being invited to eternal life through the mediation of Christ. And while you neglect not any one means that can promote their comfort, reputation, and usefulness in this world—concentrate your chief solicitude, and employ your noblest energies, in a scriptural, judicious, persevering scheme of true religious education. "You fathers, provoke not your children to wrath—but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord."