Puritan Quotes on Childrearing

Reprinted by Sowers Seed Reprints

We must be responsible for the well being of children's souls as well as their earthly bodies or we will be like those "who are very, very careful for the shoe, and take no care for the foot." (John Norton, Abel Being Dead yet Speaketh, pg. 7)

In 1642 Massachusetts enacted a law that was amplified six years later to require parents to teach their children and apprentices to: read, and have a knowledge of the Ten Commandments, once a week at least catechize, and teach the principles of religion. The neglect of this was a penalty of a fine. (Massachusetts Laws of 1648, pg. 11) The grounds of these laws were to insure the religious welfare of their children.

In 1647 the General Court of Massachusetts provided for the establishment of reading schools, because "one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, is to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures. (Massachusetts Laws of 1648 pg 47)

John Cotton did not say "Learn them to read," but "Learn them to read the Scriptures." Benjamin Wadsworth said "If we are not able to Read, we should use all regular means, and imploy all opportunities for our learning; but if we can read, we should not (unless some extraordinary matter prevents) suffer one day to pass, without reading some portion of the Word of God."

Cotton Mather in Cares About the Nurseries (1702) said that "Every Grace enters into the Soul through the understanding." Increase Mather in his Discourse Concerning the Danger of Apostacy said "The Devotion of Ignorance, is but a Bastard sort of Devotion," and that "Ignorance is the Mother (not of Devotion but) of HERESY."

Samuel Willard in a Sermon to the members of the Old South Church said "1. they are all born in Ignorance Rom 3:17 without the knowledge and fear of God they must have it by doctrine and institution. 2ly this ignorance layeth them open to Satan to lead them whither he will. 3ly holdeth them under the Power and efficacy of sin a blind mind and dead conscience are companions. Hence they sin without shame; ignorance stops the activity of all the faculties. 4ly as long as they remain in their natural ignorance there is no hope of being freed from everlasting misery. If you have any Compassion for them take Pains that they may know God. 5ly Hardness of heart, alienation from God Springs from ignorance and 6ly they hence are inclined to fulfill their own evil will." (1679)

The reason for education was to prepare children for the work of the Holy Spirit in Conversion.

Peter Bulkeley in The Gospel Covenant: or the Covenant of Grace Opened, (London 1651) said "Holy bringing up of children is one special means of conveying the blessing of the Covenant unto them."

In A fruitfull and Usefull Discourse by Thomas Cobbett (1600's) he says "that the greatest love and faithfulness which Parents as Covenanters can shew to God, and to their Children, who in and with themselves, are joynt Covenanters with God, is so to educate them, that what in them lieth, the conditions of the Covenant may be attended by their Children, and so the whole Covenant fully effected, in the promised mercies of it also to them, and to their Children."

William Wadsworth in his Well-Ordered Family said "the children born in Our Families, are Born unto God, and a strict account will one day be Required of us...These Children, God Committeth unto us for Education, He doth (to speak with Reverence) Put them Out to us...being therefore thus Committed unto us, Account concerning them may Justly, and will Certainly, be Required Of us, in the Great Day."

Richard Mather in his Farewell Exhortation said as a warning to parents if they did not take their responsibility seriously "All this that we here suffer is through you: You should have taught us the things of God, and did not, you should have restrained us from Sin and corrected us, and you did not: You were the means of our Original Corruption and guiltiness, and yet you never shewed any competent care that we might de delivered from it, from you we did receive it, by your neglect we have continued in it, and now we are damned for it: Woe unto us that we had such Carnal and careless parents, and woe unto you that had no more Compassion and pitty to prevent the everlasting misery of your own Children."

Benjamin Wadsworth in his Nature of Early Piety, gave the picture of a child's nature due to their own depraved heart "Their Hearts naturally, are a mere nest, root, fountain of Sin, and wickedness; an evil Treasure from whence proceed evil things, viz. Evil thoughts, Murders, Adulteries, Etc. Indeed, as sharers in the guilt of Adam's first Sin, they're Children of Wrath by Nature, liable to Eternal Vengeance, the Unquenchable Flames of Hell. But besides this, their Hearts (as hath been said) are unspeakably wicked, estrang'd from God, enmity against Him, eagerly set in pursuing Vanities, on provoking God by actual Personal transgressions, whereby they merit and deserve greater measures of Wrath."

John Cotton said to children "be not deluded with a good affection to your own nature you are in, this is the state of all since the world began; they are all sprawling in wickedness, and there is such a league between the Devil and them, that unlesse the Lamb be slaughtered, we cannot be saved."

Betty Sewall burst into tears (1600's) when she feared she "was like Spira, not Elected" (age 5 or 6) (Sewall, Diary). Her father wept also, knowing that Original sin was not a fairy tale story with which to frighten little ones, it was an inescapable fact, and the sooner children understood its seriousness, the better.

"Use or custom is a second Nature," said Benjamin Wadsworth in his Exhortations to Early Piety, and also in the same work "If we have been us'd or accustomed to a course of outward scandalous wickedness, or inward impenitency, hardness of heart, and unbelief; it will be very hard when we come to break off from it."

Thomas Foxcroft in his Cleansing Our Way, said "...if we accustom ourselves to bear the Yoke in our Youth, it will afterwards fit more easy on our Necks, it will not gall and fret us: The Commands will not be grievous unto us. Custom will lighten the Burden and endear the Yoke."

Good habits alone will not save. Increase Mather in Some Important Truths About Conversion said "Religion is the mere Impression of a godly Education, without any special work of the Holy Spirit upon their Souls," and "that a Religious Education is a great mercy, yea, and to many of the Elect it is the great means of their Conversion." Good habits did not themselves save, but gave one of the main routes where grace could flow. The Puritans taught good habits, not because they would save them, but they knew that it was unlikely they would be saved without them.

Thomas Hooker in his Application of Redemption said "Lets bring our children as near to Heaven as we can,...It is in our power to restrain them, and reform them, and that we ought to do; for Restraining Grace is but common Grace, yet...by this means the work of conversion is more easy."

In Cotton Mather's Parentator Increase Mather attributed much of the responsibility for his conversion to the fact that his parents had restrained his evil nature: "The great Care of my Godly Parents, was to bring me up in the Nurture and the Admonition of the Lord; Whence I was kept from many Visible outbreakings of Sin, which else I had been Guilty of; and whence it was, that I had many good Impressions of the Spirit of God upon me; even from my Infancy." (Infancy being up to age six.)

Cotton Mather in his Corderius Americanus answered when we should begin to teach children by saying "BETIMES! BETIMES!" and John Cotton in his Practical Commentary upon John explained that "These Babes are flexible and easily bowed; it is far more easy to train them up to good things now, than in their youth and riper years."

Satan never hesitates to begin his assaults upon children so Samuel Williard in his Useful Instructions for a Professing People (1673) said "and therefore if you would prevent him, do not you delay, but by dropping in instruction as they are able, and as soon as they are able to understand anything." Benjamin Wadsworth in his Well-Ordered Family said "While you lay them in your bosoms, and dandle them on your knees, try by little and little to infuse good things, holy truths into them."

Cotton Mather felt "There have been Young Hypocrites, that have made Old Devils, and there have been young Sinners, that have made Old Devils; but Young Saints will make Old Angels; and, blessed be God, there are such Young Saints in the World." (Early Religion Urged)

Their method of instruction did not include individual initiative, because that in religion meant heresy. A child's new ideas about doctrine were likely to be heretical. He shoud memorize his catechism and leave other ideas to the devil. Simply learning it without understanding was idleness. Cotton Mather said in his Cares about the Nurseries to let "the children patter out by rote the words of the catechism, like Parrots; but be Inquisitive how far their Understandings do take in the Things of God." Samuel Torrey, in Sermons at Weymouth from the library of Massachusetts Historical Society, said that children should "not only say their Catechisms but to understand their Catechisms; and be well grounded in all the principles of religion; by a sound solid knowledge and belief of them, that so they not forget it; and be never the better for it."

In Benjamin Wadsworth's Well-Ordered Family he said "Tho' you should inculcate Divine things on them as soon as may be, yet when they are capable of more knowledge; you should indeavour that they may understand the true meaning of those things which are taught them."

Cotton Mather, (in his Cares about the Nurseries) left specific instructions to assist parents: "Let us Try and Help their Understandings, by breaking every Answer of the Catechism into little Parcels by Questions, whereto YES, or NO, or one word or two, shall be all the Answer. To Exemplify it. You know the first Answer of that Catechism, which the famous Dr. Usher prounounced, The best Extant in the World, is This: Man's chief End is to Glorify God, and Enjoy Him forever. Well, when the Child has Recited this, then ask him; What? Then is there something that every man should propound unto himself as his chief end? And, What should a man make his chief end? Only to seek himself, or make himself great? Or, to Enjoy the Riches or Pleasures of this world? Or, Must we propound it as our chief end to Glorify God, and Enjoy Him forever? And, if we do actively Glorify God, shall come to Enjoy Him forever? There needs but, YES or, NO, to be answered unto all these Explanatory Questions: And by the YES or NO, you'll perceive whether the Child have minded the Answer in the Catechism."

Cotton Mather went on to say..."Endeavour that the Children may not only receive the Catechism into their Understandings, but also have their Affections and Practices conformed to what they understand...When we are Catechising our Children, we are Delivering unto them a Form of Doctrine; and we should contrive all the Charms imaginable, that their Hearts and Lives may be Moulded into that Form. As now; when we Teach our Children, what the Catechism says, about their Sin, their Original Sin, their Actual Sin, and the Wages of their Sin, we may let fall some such Admonition upon them; And, My Child, Is it not a sad thing to be a Sinner? Should not you seek above all things to be saved from your Sins? When we teach our Children, what are the Offices, or the Benefits of the Lord Jesus Christ, we may let fall some such word as this upon them; And, Child, Would you gladly have this done for you? Or, Don't you want such a Favour as this, from the Lord Jesus Christ? When we Teach our Children, what is Forbidden and what is Required in the commandments, we may let fall some such word as this upon them; And, Child, Will you beg of God, that He would preserve you from this Evil, and assist you to this Good?"

The schools during the this time period were of a secular nature providing the children with "tools for acquiring religious knowledge" rather than knowledge itself. The texts which were used set forth religious doctrines and Christian morality. What they used they saw as inferior to but not in conflict with the greatest sourcebook, the Bible.

Children were taken to church as soon as they were old enough "so, as to be benefited themselves and the Congregation not disturbed by 'em," Joseph Belcher, Two Sermons Preached in Dedham (1710). The churches knew nothing of what we call church nurseries. "Bring them to Church, and help them to remember something, and tell them the meaning of it, and take a little in good part, and encourage them, and that will make them delight in it." John Cotton, Practical Commentary upon John. Theophilus Eaton, called his family together every Lord's Day evening "and in an obliging manner conferred with them about the things with which they had [learned] in the house of God, shutting up all with a prayer for the blessing of God upon them all." (Magnalia, by Cotton Mather)

"Precept without Patterns will do little good, you must lead them to Christ by Examples as well as Counsel; you must set your selves first, and speak by Lives as well as words; you must live Religion, as well as talk Religion...never so carefully, yet if you unteach them again by your vain conversation before them, its little the better." Eleazar Mather, A Serious Exhortation to the Present and Succeeding Generation in New England, 1671.

Doctrinal instruction nor parental example is enough, if children were merely ignorant, no further measures would be required, but inasmuch as they are also born innately depraved (with a wicked heart), forceful restraint is also necessary. We inherit corruption from our father Adam so "Doctrine and Example alone are insufficient; Discipline is an essential part of the nurture of the Lord." John Norton, Able Being Dead. Cotton Mather, in his Help for Distressed Parents 1695, said "Better whipt, than Damn'd." John Eliot in The Harmony of the Gospels said "The gentle rod of the mother, is a very gentle thing, it will break neither bone nor skin: yet by the blessing of God with it, and upon the wise application of it: it would break the bond that bindeth up corruption in the heart." On Nov. 6, 1692 Samuel Sewell corrected Joseph (who was future minister of the Old South Church), for throwing "a knop of brass and hit his sister Betty on the forehead so as to make it bleed and swell; upon which, and for his playing at Prayer-time, and eating when Return Thanks, I whipd him pretty smartly."

Cotton Mather (Corderius Americanus) wrote in his diary: "The first Chastisment, which I inflict for an ordinary Fault, is, to let the Child see and hear me in an Astonishment, and hardly able to believe that the Child could do so base a Thing, but believing that they will never do it again...To be chased for a while out of my Presence, I would make to be look'd upon, as the sorest Punishment in the Family...The slavish way of Education, carried on with raving and kicking and scourging 'tis abominable; and a dreadful Judgment of God upon the World." Obstinancy was not overlooked, Sarah Edwards (1700's) watched very carefully for the first signs of willfulness and immediately disciplined it.

Children should be taught to respect and reverence their parents. "Parents in regard to their Children, do bear a singular image of God, as he is the Creatour, Sustainer, and Governour." William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (1643). "Present your Parents so to your minds, as bearing the Image of God's Father-hood, and that also will help on your filial awe and Reverence to them." Filial reverence is one of a holy respect and fear of parents and their words; a reverent child was ashamed of his fault before his parent, he feared to lose his favor, feared to cross his interests, or to grieve him or fall short of his expectations. Children stood up when the parents entered into the same room. They stopped speaking when their parents came into the same room. They waited until they were addressed before speaking. They listened long and spoke short. "It stands not with Parents' Honour, for children to sit and speak, but rather they should stand up when they speak to Parents...due distance, fondness and familarity breeds and causeth contempt and irreverence in children." Thomas Cobbett, Fruitfull Discourse. Parents are a representation to their children of their Heavenly Father. There should then be mixed love and fear shown and expected, in their duties towards them.

Jane the daughter of Benjamin Colman, wrote a letter of appology to her father for being too familiar and his response was "You ask me to forgive the Flow of your Affections, which run with so swift a Current of filial Duty as may carry you beyond yourself sometimes, and make you wanting in that respect which you aim at expressing. It is true my Dear, that a young fond and musical Genius is easily carry'd away thus; and never more than when it runs into the Praises of what it loves; and I would have you therefore careful against this Error, even when you say your Thoughts of Reverence and Esteem to your Father, or to a Spouse, if ever you should live to have one. It is easy to be lavish and run into foolish Flatteries. I think you have done well to correct yourself for some of your Excursions of this kind toward me." Memoirs of the Life and Death of the Pious and Ingenious Mrs. Jane Turell 1741.

Discipline is a simpler matter if a child acts with the proper combination of fear and love towards his parents. Each child needs be studied for the wisdom to proceed in the proper manner. "Diverse children have their different natures; some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction; some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar: those parents are wise that can fit their nurture according to their nature." Anne Bradstreet. Samuel Willard said "Know their natural inclinations." Cotton Mather told schoolmasters that they should "prudently study the Tempers of the children, they have to deal withal." "When Parents by wise observations do perceive the bent, and bias of their Children, now let them carry it towards them accordingly. If they be strongly bent to some vice more than others, as Lying...admonish them betimes in the evil of it, represent to them what God speaketh, in especial wise against it, what sad examples and sequels, in Scripture and otherwise, both in point of sin, and in point in judgements, are found, thereof: after which course taken, then watch them the more narrowly, and spare them not for it, if they fall into lying again." Cotton Mather. And then..."if Children, either by common, or saving influences of the Spirit, are more ingenuous spirits, and of better and more hopeful dispositions, Oh let parents, as they discern the same, incourage the same, all the prudent and pious ways that may be..." Thomas Cobett, Fruitfull Discourse.

In today's world we are excusing behaviour in our children that should be corrected as merely being a child. We do not understand the sinful heart and therefore are ignorantly disobeying the commands of God. Sin is an evil thing, it is like a snake. If we were to perceive a snake wrapped around our child, how very hard we would work to free it of that deadly creature. We should open our eyes to the dreadfulness of sin and in attentive action methodically train them up in God's ways. This takes self-denial, alertness, perseverance, patience, longsuffering, and many a prayerful and tearful time with the Lord.

The rich ruler came to Christ "from a desire of instruction; and, accordingly, both by words and by kneeling, he testifies his reverence for Christ as a faithful teacher...Thus, in our own day, we find some who are not ill disposed, but who, under the influence of I know not what shadowy holiness, hardly relish the doctrine of the Gospel...He had already felt some disposition to obey; but Christ wishes him to rise higher, that he may hear God speaking...This passage sets aside all the inventions which the Papists have contrived in order to obtain salvation. For not only are they mistaken in wishing to lay God under obligation to them by their good works, to bestow salvation as a debt; but when they apply themselves to do what is right, they leave out of view the doctrine of the law, and attend chiefly to their pretended devotions, as they call them, not that they openly reject the law of God, but that they greatly prefer human traditions. But what does Christ say? That the only worship of which God approves is that which he has prescribed; because obedience is better to him than all sacrifices, (I Sam. 15:22). So then, while the Papists are employed in frivolous traditions, let every man who endeavours to regulate his life by obedience to Christ direct his whole attention to keep the commandments of the law...Piety towards God holds, no doubt, a higher rank; but as the observation of the first table is often feigned by hypocrites, the second table is better adapted for making a scrutiny. Let us know, therefore, that Christ selected those commandments in which is contained a proof of true righteousness...The law must have been dead to him (the rich ruler), when he vainly imagined that he was so righteous; for if he had not flattered himself through hypocrisy, it was an excellent advice to him to learn humility, to contemplate his spots and blemishes in the mirror of the law. But, intoxicated with foolish confidence, he fearlessly boasts that he has discharged his duty properly from his childhood. Paul acknowledges that the same thing happened to himself, that, as long as the power of the law was unknown to him, he believed that he was alive; but that, after he knew what the law could do, a deadly wound was inflicted on him, (Rom. 7:9). So the reply of Christ, which follows, was suited to the man's disposition. And yet Christ does not demand any thing beyond the commandments of the law, but, as the bare recital had not affected him, Christ employed other words for detecting the hidden disease of avarice. I confess that we are nowhere commanded in the law to sell all; but as the design of the law is, to bring men to self-denial, and as it expressly condemns covetousness, we see that Christ had no other object in view than to correct the false conviction of the young man. For if he had known himself thoroughly, as soon as he heard the mention of the law, he would have acknowledged that he was liable to the judgment of God; but now, when the bare words of the law do not sufficiently convince him of his guilt, the inward meaning is expressed by other words...Christ does not mean that the young man wanted one thing beyond the keeping of the law, but in the very keeping of the law. For though the law nowhere obliges us to sell all, yet as it represses all sinful desires, and teaches us to bear the cross, as it bids us be prepared for hunger and poverty, the young man is very far from keeping it fully, so long as he is attached to his riches, and burns with covetousness...It ought also to be observed, that he does not only enjoin him to see, but likewise to give to the poor; for to part with riches would not be in itself a virtue, but rather a vain ambition...The mortification of the flesh is still more strongly urged by Christ, when he says, Follow me. For he enjoins him not only to become His disciple, but to submit his shoulders to bear the cross, as Mark expressly states. And it was necessary that such an excitement should be applied; for, having been accustomed to the ease, and leisure, and conveniences, of home, he had never experienced, in the smallest degree, what it was to crucify the old man, and to subdue the desires of the flesh...First, it is easy to infer, that Christ does not command all without exception to sell all that they have; for the husbandman, who has been accustomed to live by his labour, and to support his children, would do wrong in selling his possession, if he were not constrained to it by any necessity. To keep what God has put in our power, provided that, by maintaining ourselves and our family in a sober and frugal manner, we bestow some portion on the poor, is a greater virtue than to squander all...The result at length (he went away sorrowful) showed how widely distant the young man was from that perfection to which Christ had called him; for how comes it that he withdraws from the school of Christ, but because he finds it uneasy to be stripped of his riches? But if we are not prepared to endure poverty, it is manifest that covetousness reigns in us...For the more deeply a man is tainted by this or that other vice, the more strikingly will it be dragged forth to light by being reproved. We are reminded also by this example, that if we would persevere steadily in the school of Christ, we must renounce the flesh. This young man, who had brought both a desire to learn and modesty, withdrew from Christ, because it was hard to part with a darling vice. The same thing will happen to us, unless the sweetness of the grace of Christ render all the allurements of the flesh distasteful to us...his covetousness [not willing to examine what sin is and mortify his own will] kept him back from making any proficiency."

The poet Southey has seized the true spirit of the passage:

The camel and the needle,

Is that then in your mind? Even so.

The text Is gospel wisdom.

I would ride the camel,

Yea leap him flying,

Through the needle's eye,

As easily as such a pampered soul

Could pass the narrow gate."

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