John L. Girardeau
Col. 3:18-21: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to anger lest they be discouraged."
Eph. 6:4: "Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord."
Acts 2:39: "For the promise is unto you and to your children."
Jer. 10:25: "Pour out thy fury upon the heathen that know thee not, and upon the families that call not on thy name."
NOTE.—This is really a discussion. The Charleston Presbytery, realizing the decline of family religion, and desiring to check the falling away in our Christian homes, appointed Dr. Girardeau to preach a sermon on the subject. As a result of this appointment the following carefully prepared sermon was preached in the First Presbyterian Church, Charleston, at the Spring meeting of the Presbytery in 1885.
The subject assigned for treatment on this occasion is Family Religion. In considering it I shall, first and by way of introduction, briefly contemplate the family in its relations, of difference and similarity, to other social organisms, and, secondly, more fully set forth its special and practical aspects as a separate religious institute.
I. There are, in the present order of things, three great social institutes, the Family, the State, and the Church; in the present order of things, for in a different conceivable constitution of human affairs, into which sin would not have entered as a factor, it may at least be doubted whether the same sharp and unavoidable distinctions would have obtained as now exist between the state and the church. Had the human race, as represented in its first progenitor and subjected to its probation in him, stood in innocence during the specified time of trial and been confirmed in holiness and happiness, its families, as they would have been multiplied, would probably have naturally passed into the condition of one great social organism. This might not have been a mere aggregate of families as units, but assumed the form of an organized institute of government. But it may be a question whether it would have been either logically or really divisible into the state and the church. The necessity for civil and political government arising out of the conflict of individual interests would not have existed, for as, according to the supposition, there would have been no sin, there could have been no conflict to be prevented or adjusted. It might have been requisite to affix to individual and municipal interests certain metes and bounds, but the great principles of truth, justice, and benevolence would have pervaded and regulated society and, as a consequence, these limitations would have been spontaneously respected, and no clash of contending claims could have emerged. It is certain that the penal element of retributive government would have been entirely absent; the sword never could have been as now the symbol and badge of rule, for there could have been no violation of law, and, therefore, no room for punishment. Crime would have been unknown.
These suppositions are rendered the more likely by what we know from revelation of heaven. It is the city of God, a polity of the redeemed, in which the distinctions of civil and ecclesiastical, of disciplinary and retributive government are impossible. There God’s state is his church, his church his state. We may fairly infer that as without sin the world would have been like heaven, the distinctions would have been wanting which at present actually obtain. Now, redemption proceeds upon the pre-supposition of sin. It recognizes the disjunction between the two institutes effected by man’s rebellion; but at the same time it proposes for its ultimate end to heal the unnatural schism, so far as God’s redeemed subjects are concerned, and restore our fallen and disrupted nature to its original and normal idea; and, moreover, to confer upon it the peculiar benefits resulting from its union with Christ the eternal and archetypal Son, and so to confirm it in a closer and tenderer union with God Himself. The church, as composed of God’s children, is destined to be one perfect, undivided family.
But taking human society as it is, as conditioned and modified by sin, we find it existing in three organic institutes which are distinct from each other. The State is in its origin natural, and although it is capable of being influenced, ought to be influenced, and in the Millennial period will be influenced by spiritual sanctions, yet it is designed in this world to operate in the natural sphere and to be conversant with the political and civil relations of men. The family is also in its origin natural, is susceptible under the moulding power of grace of becoming spiritual, but from the nature of the case, must ever in this world move in the natural sphere and be concerned about natural relations. The church is in its origin supernatural and spiritual, ought in its character to be spiritual, and is designed to operate in the spiritual sphere. It is composed, indeed, so far as it is a visible and external organization, of men in the flesh, and, therefore, has a temporal side and temporal functions, but even in these respects it is controlled by spiritual relations and spiritual ends. The rule of government is different in these respective institutes. That of the State, on the one hand, although it may incorporate into itself elements of God’s moral law, is still distinctively a political constitution and a civil and criminal code. On the other hand, the rule of government in the family and the church is the divine law as embodied in the Scriptures. The rulers are also different. In the State the ruler is the magistrate; in the family and the church, the father. They are, in fine, different kinds of government. The State , is mainly an instance of retributive government, proceeding by rewards and penalties; the family and the church are specimens of disciplinary government operating by rewards and chastisements. In the one case penal justice is prominent; in the other it is excluded. The family, like the church, is a disciplinary and not a penal institute.
Having glanced at some of the most important differences between these organisms, let us briefly consider the relation in which the family stands to the state and the church, and the principles which originating in it ought to pass into and influence them.
These institutes, although in themselves distinct, are in a certain sense related. They all have a common origin in the will of God, are organs through which His manifold government of the world is mediately administered, are accountable to Him for the manner in which their subordinate rule is exercised, and are, in the discharge of their legitimate functions, supported by the sanction of His authority. One common feature characterizes them all—they are ordinances of God. No association of personal beings in the universe has a right to be godless. In a future and more perfect condition of human society no organization, governmental or merely social, secular or sacred, will deny its relation to God or assume to act independently of religious sanctions. The more nearly society approaches to its original idea and its destined perfection, the farther will it recede from the atheistic claim to be irresponsible to God, and the more will it tend to that condition in which He will be confessed to be all in all, a condition in which His name will be impressed upon every corporation, company, and employment, when holiness to the Lord shall be written upon the bells of the horses. When? do you ask? When the star of the Millennial morn shall blaze on the dark and stormy horizon of human sin and strife. Sin has effected the monstrous schism betwixt man and God, and betwixt men and men. This fearful cleavage will be closed up, but closed up only so far as the predestinating purpose of God shall operate through the provisions of redemption. Neither at present is the scheme of optimism nor that of pessimism practically true. Heaven will realize the former, hell the latter. Human society is the preparation for one or the other, accordingly as it is or is not governed by the principles of the Bible. The acknowledgment of God will find its consummation in heaven, the denial of Him will reach its climax in hell. But whatever may be the actual facts in the development of our fallen race, the idea of human society was that it should conform to the divine will, and express the principles of the divine government. All men, whether regarded individually or collectively, are, by the conditions of their being, bound to acknowledge, obey and glorify God. There is no logical medium between this doctrine and Atheism. The Family, the State, and the Church are correlated institutes in God’s great plan of government—a plan by which He pleases ordinarily to administer rule, not immediately, but through the medium of human organisms, each intended to promote His glory and man’s good in its own prescribed sphere, and all contributing together to the accomplishment of these ends.
It is, furthermore, obvious to remark that of these institutes, the family is fundamental, radical, germinal. It is the primary point of unity to the others. It is the origin and propagator of the race, and it is the first organism from which the others started and received their development. Had not sin occurred, the terms human family would have had a significance which they do not and cannot now possess. All mankind would have been one family, not only as having expanded from a common centre, developed from a common stock, but as being allied by feelings the most tender and affectionate. They would have spoken the same language, obeyed the same law and worshipped at the same altar. Society would have been a perfect brotherhood. Wherever one human being would have been met by another in all the wide world, although personally a stranger, he would have experienced the welcome of a brother’s heart and the embrace of a brother’s arms. If there could have been a heaven without Jesus, the earth would have been heaven. At least, it would have been a universal paradise.
But, conditioned disastrously by sin as it actually is, the human race is not a heterogeneous collection of individual units, but a great aggregation of families; and through whatever of conservative influence still results from the laws impressed upon the family relation, that relation exercises a restraining and wholesome effect upon society. Were the population of the earth not thus composed of families, it would be a wild and ungovernable mob destitute of the first principles of law and order, of religion and morals, a promiscuous herd of human wild beasts,—nay, worse, for beasts of prey are not wont to rend their own species, and animals are controlled infallibly by the law of instinct beyond which they cannot pass. But when human beings transgress, as they do, the laws imposed upon their nature, the evil multiplies itself until the genius of license, misrule, and disorder riots in undisputed and unlimited sway, and sweeps its hapless victims, as if possessed of demons, onward to every social excess and agitation, communistic, socialistic, anarchistic, nihilistic—to universal revolution, amidst the terrific explosions of which all legitimate, time-honored and venerable institutions are in danger of being whelmed in one common and fearful ruin. In illustration of this, one need only cite the recent attempt to destroy the British parliament house and the tower of London.
The time allotted to these remarks will not allow more than a few passing words upon a theme tempting in itself and meriting serious consideration. I allude to the principles which, imbedded in the family constitution, make it a propaedeutic for every form of the social fabric; principles which were designed to be of far-reaching value, to diffuse themselves beyond the limits of the family, and to be incorporated into the State and the church. There is the principle of obedience to law and to divinely appointed authority, of veneration for age, wisdom and sanctity, of deference to all who have the right to be the superiors of others. The family is precisely the school in which this fundamental virtue ought to be fostered. The neglect to cultivate it there must tell injuriously upon the other relations of life, while the failure of the State and the church to insist upon it would bode nothing but evil to the future. Without it government would be impotent, except as enforced by the bayonet and the cannon. Society would perish at the top.
There is the principle of scrupulous respect for the refinement and purity of woman which finds a peculiar field for expression in the family circle, in the relation of the child to his mother, of the brother to his sister, of the husband to his wife, and which is entitled to be regarded as the palladium of social life. There is the principle of the headship of man, which divinely ordained to operate in the family is also divinely enjoined upon the church. It is also implied that woman was not intended by her Maker to enter as a public factor into political contests and open crusades for the melioration of moral evils,—to hurl herself into the fierce arena of gladiatorial strife. That would be to impair the beautiful quality of dependence and modesty which is the talisman of her power, as a rough touch of the hand irreparably brushes off the down from the petal of the flower. Were this to become the general custom—and may God preserve our Southern hind from such an inversion of her traditions!—the cry of the ancient pagan persecutors of Christians would, with the change of a single word, be transmuted into the scarcely less cruel shout of modern society: Women to the lions! Their proper influence would be gone. But were general success to attend this ill-starred effort to clothe them with an improper influence, the result must be that the Graces would be transformed into the Fates. The doom of society would be sealed. It is of vital interest to the State and the church that woman should exert her magical influence only in that sphere which God has assigned her, and in which she may wear the crown and wield the sceptre of a queen.
"There woman reigns, the mother, daughter, wife;
Strews with fresh flowers the narrow way of life;
Around her knees domestic virtues meet,
And fireside pleasures gambol at her feet."
There is also the principle of monogamy, the law by which marriage is legitimated only between one man and one woman, an ordinance enforced alike by God the Creator and God the Redeemer. Vital as its observance is to the peace and harmony of the family, it is of no less importance to the purity of the church and the welfare of the State. It is a matter for thanksgiving that no church and no Christian government theoretically tolerates the evil of polygamy. But its existence as a fact among the American people is a blot upon their civilization. It is at once a fret and a shame to the age. There is further the principle of the perpetuity, under limitations, of the marriage bond. That bond is designed to be, and ought to be, perpetual; but it is liable to dissolution by reason of sin. When it has been wickedly disrupted, the question arises in regard to the legitimacy of divorce. There are two vicious extremes into which human legislation actually runs—the one of legalizing divorce upon insufficient grounds, that is, grounds not warranted by the Divine Lawgiver; the other, of permitting it upon no grounds. God, in His word, recognizes one and but one ground of divorce—the dissolution of the bond of marriage, and specifies two ways in which that may occur; first, infidelity to the marriage covenant; and, secondly, causeless, wilful and irremediable desertion. Those States, therefore, which grant divorce upon other grounds than these are looser than the divine law, and those which refuse it upon these grounds are stricter than it. In either case, mischief must be the result. Would that legislators had the grace to regard themselves as neither wiser nor more merciful nor more careful of morality than God Himself!
II. I pass on now to the consideration of the special and practical aspects of the family as a separate religious organism.
Let us, first, contemplate the family as an Institute of Instruction.
It is not necessary to spend time in discussing the question of the natural obligation resting upon parents to teach their children. Whether they do or do not address themselves formally and methodically to the discharge of this parental function they are, from the nature of the case, teachers, and teachers exerting a prodigious influence upon their children. The school is one of nature’s construction, and not a product of conventional arrangement. The pupils are born into it, have no vacations, and never leave it until they arrive at an age when they are prepared to become teachers in a similar school with similar students. The near and tender relations involved, the almost god-like authority of the parent, the assimilating disposition of the child causing it with sponge-like facility to absorb the influence of the daily words, and acts and life of the father and mother,—all these considerations show that the family is necessarily a potent institute of instruction. This is obvious. But the duty resting upon the parent in a stricter and more formal sense to teach his children will also be generally conceded. As, however, in consequence of our weakness and imperfection we are liable to the neglect of even admitted duties, let us look at some of the reasons which bind us to the conscientious performance of this obligation.
The Scriptures are not silent in regard to this primal duty of religion. There can be no doubt that the first family which existed on earth was a school of religious indoctrination. The narrative in Genesis confirms the antecedent probabilities in the case. The pious Abel conformed his practice to the evangelical instructions of his parents when he offered in his worship an animal as significant of his faith in the Lamb of God, who should, in accordance with the purpose of redemption, render himself a propitiatory sacrifice for sin; and his wicked brother sinned against the gospel delivered to him by the same instructions, when he furnished the first and leading instance of will-worship in his infidel presentation of a bloodless offering. Through the Patriarchal dispensation believing parents handed down to their children, generation by generation, the first glorious promise of redemption; and even when the professed people of God had lapsed into an almost universal apostasy from the truth, there remained one family in which the torch was still kept burning that was kindled at the altar of Adam and Eve. The same sacred light shed its rays in the ark when shut in by God’s hand, and when borne upward by the swelling waters of a mighty deluge, with the corpses of a drowned world floating around it and heaved up against its sides. That family school, thus miraculously preserved, became the distributing centre of gospel truth to a new world, alas, so soon by the force of corruption to repeat the crime of its predecessor, and in the face of its doom to plunge into an idolatrous apostasy from God! Yet here and there in that desert of defection the truth of the gospel maintained its supremacy in some family seminary. The venerable patriarch of Uz taught his children the scheme of salvation in which all his personal hopes were grounded. Abraham, when called of God to be the founder of the church under new sanctions, became an exemplar of fidelity in the duty of parental instruction. By express and solemn statute, the Mosaic code constituted every family in Israel a school of religious training. "Only take heed to thyself and keep thy soul diligently lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them, thy sons and thy sons’ sons." "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." The illustrious captain who led the host of Israel across Jordan into the promised land, said in his last, affecting address to his countrymen: "Choose you this day whom ye will serve. . . . As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
The royal Psalmist declared that he would "walk within his house with a perfect heart," implying that he would in his family both inculcate by precept and exemplify in his conduct the principles of the religion he professed. His son, the wisest of men, who well knew from his own experience, the benefits of family tuition and the disastrous effects of its neglect, furnishes the salutary admonition: "Train up a child in the way he should go," and appends the promise that "when he is old he will not depart from it;" intimating that the habits engendered in the young by faithful parental instruction may ordinarily be expected to bear corresponding fruits in maturer life. The same great man, speaking by the Holy Ghost, also charmingly counsels the young: "My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother: bind them continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck. When thou goest it shall lead thee; when thou sleepest it shall keep thee; and when thou awakest it shall talk with thee. For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life." The evangelic prophet [Isaiah] records "the writing of Hezekiah, king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness," in which the restored monarch says: "The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day; the father to the children shall make known thy truth," as though he esteemed it one of the chief offices for which his life was prolonged to impress upon his children the ways of the Lord. It is worthy of notice that the last of the prophets, in the very closing words of the Old Testament Scriptures emphasizes the discharge or neglect of parental and filial obligations and the consent or disagreement of parents and children in supporting the true religion, as conditioning God’s blessing or His curse: "Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." The practice of the pious in training their children in the knowledge of the Scriptures, after the Old Testament canon was completed, is evinced by the case of Timothy, to whom Paul says: "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;" and he had previously intimated who Timothy’s instructors were when he alluded to the unfeigned faith which dwelt in his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice. The Spirit of New Testament teachings on this subject is expressed in Paul’s exhortation to parents to "bring up" their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord"; that is, to give them a Christian education—to train them in the school and for the service of Christ, their Savior and Lord.
Having taken this hasty survey of Scripture teachings on this subject, let us also look at some of the considerations which exhibit the inexpressible importance of the family as a school, and the gigantic responsibilities of parents as its divinely appointed preceptors.
The most superficial attention to the matter must impress upon us the fact that the family school exerts an incalculable influence, because it is the very first in which human beings are trained for time and eternity. From the nature of the case, it takes chronological precedence of all others, secular or ecclesiastical. It is one into which the pupils enter at birth. Their first sense-perceptions are connected with the faces and the voices of their mothers and their fathers. From them they acquire, by absorption, their vernacular tongue with all the ideas which it symbolizes. Their first type of thinking is assimilated involuntarily from that of their parents. They know them before they know God, and derive their first knowledge of God Himself from them. They are in a school in which their teachers are their parents. Their parents are to them the first interpreters alike of nature and the Bible. The conditions of instruction are the most favorable that can be conceived. On the one hand, there is the forming and impressible state of childhood, its boundless credulity as yet unchecked by the experience of untruth and deception, its readiness to accept the testimony of all with whom it comes in contact; and on the other, the undisputed authority and influence of its parental instructors, founded in admittedly superior will and wielded in tenderness and love. No wonder it has passed into a proverb, that our earliest impressions are the strongest. Like the bottom inscriptions upon some old parchments, however overlaid and crossed, they remain clear when the later are obscured, or abide when they are obliterated. As the experienced Christian turns in the mysterious process of death to the happy time when first he knew the Lord, so it is an affecting natural fact that on the dying bed men reproduce, in imagination, the scenes of early life. Even the abandoned profligate who has gone through gulfs of impurity, and whose mind and conscience are defiled, reverts at last to the sweet associations of his boyhood’s home, and "babbles o’ green fields" over which he once roamed an uncontaminated child. Who can measure the influence of that first school in which we receive our earliest and profoundest impressions? A fragment of Scripture, a bit of a hymn, a scrap of a prayer, taught by a mother’s lips to the child lying in her lap or bowing at her knee, sometimes comes up to the consciousness of the despairing sinner in life’s last struggles, and leads to the clutch of faith upon the promise of salvation through the merits of Christ. And, on the contrary, the remembrance of wicked words and infidel expressions which fell from a parent’s lips upon the ready ear of the child, may arise into the latest consciousness of life to deepen unbelief and thicken the gloom of death.
This leads to the further remark, that the school of childhood is not only a source of enduring impressions, but a nursery of fundamental and regulative ideas. Is not this abundantly attested by facts? The child is almost sure, unless through the operation of some exceptional and revolutionary force, to adopt and maintain the doctrines, views and opinions of its parents. They are absorbed without difficulty and, almost as a matter of course, are incorporated into his intellectual being, and stamp the complexion of his future thinking. The child of the Pagan naturally becomes a Pagan; the child of a Mohammedan, a believer in the Koran. He who is so unfortunate as to be born of an Atheist naturally acts upon the testimony of his earthly father that he has no heavenly. John Stuart Mill, having been bred in a family school in which Atheism was taught, naturally became an Atheist. One who is taught by nominally Christian parents absorbs, in accordance with the same law, nominally Christian views; and it is a matter of the commonest observation that the sects and denominations into which nominal Christianity is divided, in the main perpetuate their existence by virtue of birth and education, rather than by the examination of evidence and judgment rendered upon it. It is true—and God be praised that it is!—that the almighty grace of the ever-blessed Spirit is not tied to the laws of a merely natural development, but sovereignly operates not only to the reversal of false regulative ideas and views which are derived from education, but to the destruction of the fundamental principle of inherent sin itself, from which all religious errors and all actual transgressions of the divine law proceed. It is left on record for our instruction that Saul, the persecuting inquisitor, was thus miraculously converted; and without this doctrine delivered to us clearly in God’s word, the whole cause of foreign missions would be a wild vagary. But while this is true, and must be insisted on, it must also be admitted that ordinarily the operations of God’s saving grace are concurrent with the line of family descent and family culture. The promise of salvation by Jesus Christ is indeed unto all that are afar off, even to as many as the Lord our God shall call, but it is chiefly and emphatically to those who profess the true religion and to their children.
It must also be remarked, by way of qualification, that the correct views and principles instilled by parental instruction into their children cannot be expected of themselves to preserve them in future life from the adoption of erroneous opinions or the formation of evil characters. That result might fairly be looked for if their development were unimpeded by antagonistic forces. But that development is counteracted and hindered by the all-conditioning law of inherent depravity, which can only be overcome by supernatural grace. Still, with all the limitations which justice requires to be imposed upon it, the position in the main is unquestionably true, that the doctrines, ideas and opinions which the parent inserts into the mind of the child are fundamental and regulative in their influence. Beyond doubt, they exercise a powerful influence upon the future career of the child. If right, they act as barriers in the way of the development of wickedness both in speculation and in practice; and they become the moulds to which a true religious system easily adjusts itself, the forms in which a true religious life finds its legitimate expression. If wrong, they fall in with the fatal tendency to sin, and hasten it to its consummation in open heresy or immorality.
This becomes still more evident when we consider the implicit faith of the child in the authority of the parent as a teacher. Not yet arrived at that period of mental growth when he becomes individually responsible for his beliefs and opinions in consequence of his ability to investigate evidence and his obligation to follow it, he looks up to his parent as being to him the vicar and representative of God. He has not the right to question the parent’s authority. To him his father is infallible. There is no appeal possible to any higher human authority, for there is to him no higher human authority. If the father should teach his young child that the Bible does not deliver the doctrine of the deity of Christ, or of an expiatory atonement, or of the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit, or of the eternal punishment of the wicked, how, in his immature condition, could the child possibly know the incorrectness of these instructions? Would they not be the Bible’s teachings to him? Is not his father the unerring expounder of truth to him? No scholars are so ready to imbibe the views of teachers as are the young members of the family school those of their parents. They listen to them as they would to God.
This implicit faith is moreover enhanced immensely by the love and veneration which the youthful learner cherishes for his parent. And as he grows there naturally springs up a partisan feeling of prodigious power which leads him to maintain and vindicate the ideas and opinions received from so dear and so venerable a source. The tendency, even when started by conviction, to depart from them is held in check by the almost irresistible feeling that injustice would be done to his parents and duty to them would be infringed by a breach with their instructions; a sentiment which is heightened if they be dead, and can no more speak for themselves. Their graves are seals of their instructions, and the monuments above them are protests against their abandonment. He who in mature life embraces truth in opposition to error taught by a parent’s lips, pays as striking a tribute as can well be furnished on earth to the majestic authority of evidence, and the imperious force of conviction. It will readily be conceded by us who profess to be Christians, that our little children are bound by filial dependence and obligation to accept the Bible at our hands, and to receive those interpretations of its meaning which we put upon it. But if we take a broad view of the subject, we must also allow that the general rule holds in regard to the religious instruction of all children by their parents. The child of the Mohammedan, in his tender and unthinking years, is bound to comply with the authority of his father which delivers to him the Koran as his directory of faith and duty. The rule holds in the various special applications of which it is capable. The mere child has no right to affirm independence of his father’s instructions. It may be questioned whether he has the right to adopt opinions from any human quarter which contradict those of his parents. Indeed, from the nature of the case, it is difficult to see how he could. The conditions do not exist, for an intelligent comparison of opinions and tenets. He is the helpless receiver of his father’s faith. His religion is determined by the nod of his father’s head. If this be true, it is seen that the responsibility of the parental teacher is nothing less than tremendous. His magisterial authority may, no doubt often does, project his child into a path of development, the logical result of which is hell. Oh, how urgent is the necessity for the parent to settle the views which he impresses upon the plastic mind of his child upon candid and patient examination of the truth, with humble dependence upon God and earnest supplication for His guidance! He cannot, if wrong, plead the authority of his own parents. That plea will vanish into smoke at the touch of the last fire. The religious beliefs of the adult man are not evolved, like the instincts of animals, by a law of imminent necessity operating along the line of parental propagation. A point is inevitably reached in the progress of every human individual when his own personal responsibility emerges for the kind of religion which he adopts.
But, when that point has been reached, the question presses, What value ought to be attached to the religious ideas which have been derived from parental instruction? I venture to answer that they ought not to be held as settled and ultimate conclusions in accordance with which one’s personal faith and practice must be determined. Nor, on the other hand, ought they to be treated as possessed of no value. They are venerable presumptions which must, on solid grounds of evidence, be rebutted before they can be legitimately discarded. They are tentative, working hypotheses which are to be tested by comparison with facts, and sustained or rejected in view of the whole evidence which is accessible to the inquirer after truth. The mind ought to hold the position of neutrality, of indifference—not to the truth, for that, as the very end of the inquiry, is of supreme consequence—but of indifference as to what shall prove to be the truth amidst the rival claims of conflicting opinions after an unprejudiced and sober, a painstaking and prayerful examination. Even when these conditions are complied with—as complied with they certainly ought to be—the inquirer starts out with the weight of presumption vastly preponderating in favor of opinions sanctioned and, as it were, consecrated by parental authority and by filial obedience and love. Here again we cannot fail to be struck by the responsibility of the parent. But it is a fact that in the great majority of instances no such investigation is instituted. The man is content with the views which as a child he received from the lips of his father and mother, lips, perhaps, mute in the grave, and he goes on treading the path beaten by the generations which preceded him. Like herds of cattle following other herds of cattle, the mass of men tramp on until the light of eternity blazes upon them and reveals, when too late, their suicidal folly and guilt. In this view of the subject no language can exaggerate the awful accountability resting upon parents for the instruction they communicate to their children.
In connection with this strain of remark we cannot but be impressed by the thought that in the family school, more by far than in any other, the force is peculiarly felt of teaching by example. Allusion is not here made to the concurrence of example with didactic precept, though that is worthy of serious reflection, but to the powerful teaching of example itself. The child is imitative, and very naturally copies the example of the parent. It is to this law Paul adverts when he exhorts Christians to be "imitators of God as dear children." The life of his parents is a daily study to the child. It is ever before him. The words spoken, the acts done by the father and the mother in the unrestrained freedom of the family circle are like a steady rain falling, not upon the rock, but upon the thirsty earth. They are drunk in and appropriated by the imitative and assimilating powers of the child. This aspect of the subject might be copiously illustrated, but time would fail, and it is so plain to the barest observation as to render expansion almost needless.
I cannot dismiss this special topic without calling attention to the enormous diffusive and traditional influence of the family as an institute of instruction. Each family tends to diffuse its influence by ramifying its connections through intermarriage, until a congeries of circles is formed intersecting one another and widening out, who can calculate whither? The ideas and doctrines asserted in one family may in this way receive a dissemination which will reach to the ends of the earth.
The traditional power of the family is equally incalculable. The sacrifice offered by Noah in the bosom of his family on Mount Ararat has by this power impressed itself upon the nations, and continues to affect their religious views and rites to the present hour. The usages of Abraham’s family are observed by the Jews to this day. The ideas and doctrines once taught in the family school are handed down from father to son to distant generations. Those, my brethren, which we deliver to our families will project themselves into the future, and will affect the immortal destinies of souls. The stream of traditional influence, running through successive family lines, will not cease until it ripples against the judgment throne; nor will it be arrested there, but rolling around it, it will flow on forever, either mingling with the waters of the river of life proceeding from the blest seat of God and the Lamb or with the Styx and the Acheron of hell.
Let us next consider the Family as an Institute of Government.
The word of God speaks expressly upon this subject. It clearly conveys the right to the parent, and enjoins upon him the duty to exercise government over his children, and enforces upon children the obligation to honor and obey their parents. God, in Genesis, says: "For I know him [Abraham] that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him." Of so great consequence did He esteem this primal duty of all religion that He gave it a formal and permanent enforcement in the Ten Commandments: "Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." It is an acknowledged principle in accordance with which the Commandments are expounded, that an eminent instance of a class of relations, with their corresponding obligations, is singled out and emphasized as representative and inclusive of the whole class. Here the class is inferiors; superiors, and equals. It challenges notice that God signalized the special relation of parents and children as the highest and most important of the whole class. This furnishes us the divine estimate of the relative duties of parents and children.
Can I, just at this point, do better than simply to cite the felicitous, impressive and exhaustive statement of the duties enjoined by this Commandment, given in the Westminster Larger Catechism, substituting for the general words inferiors and superiors where they occur in that venerable formulary the special terms children and parents?
"The honor which children owe to their parents is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defence and maintenance of their persons and authority . . . bearing with their infirmities and covering them in love, so that they may be an honor to them and their government."
"The sins of children against their parents are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against their persons . . . in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government."
"It is required of parents . . . to love, pray for and bless their children; to instruct, counsel and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body; and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honor to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them."
"The sins of parents are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of children to perform; counselling, encouraging or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation and danger; provoking them to wrath; or in any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior." And to this it must be added that God has annexed a special and explicit promise of long life and prosperity, as far as it shall serve for his glory and their own good, to all such as keep this Commandment—a promise repeated in the New Testament, to which children should pay peculiar heed, if they would enjoy God’s blessing in the preservation and success of their lives. Like the pillar which protected and guided ancient Israel, it has as well a face of threatening darkness as of cheering light, and impliedly denounces the signal displeasure of God upon those who dishonor and disobey their parents. It may be that many a young, hopeful life has been blighted and many an early grave been filled in consequence of the transgression of this divine command.
The woful case of Eli, the venerable priest, furnishes a solemn and affecting warning to parents who neglect the duties of family government. The record is: "And the Lord said to Samuel, Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle. In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken against his house: when I begin I will also make an end. For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not. And, therefore, I have sworn unto the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering forever." The awful judgment did not tarry. The army of Israel was routed by the Philistines with great slaughter, the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas were slain. The alarming tidings borne hastily to the poor old man brought his life to a sudden and tragic termination.
The duties of family government are clearly enjoined in the New Testament. Not only are parents commanded to exercise towards their children that sort of discipline suggested by the words "nurture of the Lord"—a discipline by which the growth of their faculties and the increase of their knowledge is secured, but also that which is supposed in the words, "admonition of the Lord"—a discipline of warning and censure, of restraint and government.
After what has been quoted from the Westminster Standards, there is no need, and there would be no time, to enter into a detailed specification of the duties and offences connected with the government of households. But I cannot forbear indicating a few thoughts bearing upon the inexpressible responsibilities of parents in relation to that divinely appointed office. The reflection ought solemnly to arrest their attention, that the family is peculiarly an institute in which habits are daily forming which must tend to stamp the whole complexion of their children’s lives. We all know, who have encountered the duties and conflicts of life, what the force of early habit is, from our own happy or bitter experience. How often have we thanked God for habits induced in our youth—that of daily prayer, for example—under the training of pious and perhaps departed parents! How often groaned in anguish of soul over vicious and injurious habits established in that period now irrevocably gone, or the failure to form better when the favorable opportunity was ours! Alas, the silken thread which was then easily bent has now hardened into a rigid band of iron! What different mental power, what different attainments, what different characters we might have had if our early habits had been rightly moulded! The chance is gone, and no lamentations can bring it back. Especially is this true of the particular habit of obedience. It is one which it is emphatically the province of family government to form. The will of the child ought to conform to the superior will of the parent, and the season to accomplish this is when that of the former is the most flexible. There nearly always comes a time when an issue occurs between these two wills which must be settled or the supremacy of the parent is abdicated; and once lost, it is seldom recovered. So at the origin of the race the will of our first parents was confronted with the naked will of God unsupported by any ostensible reason other than that of divine authority. Such was the test of obedience to which they, and we represented by them, were subjected. They refused compliance with their Maker’s will, and the temper of universal disobedience was infused like a virus into the race. It is to be feared that the neglect of parents to insist upon this habit of obedience in their children may more and more engender a spirit of lawless insubordination which even now threatens to be the dynamite of social order, an explosive force under the foundations of all regulated government, ecclesiastical and secular. The true cure of this fell tendency would be most effectually sought in the proper government of the young.
It is also a consideration that should deeply impress the minds of parents, that their government of the family makes it a court, the decisions of which constitute a body of precedents tending to determine the judgments and conduct of children in their subsequent lives. These decisions form a code of unwritten law to which it is natural that children should refer. Is it not to be presumed by them that these decisions of the family court were right? And would not every sentiment of veneration and affection lead the filial subjects of this rule to regulate by them their personal decisions of the actual cases which arise in their own experience? And to heighten the force of this thought, it is only necessary to remember that the parent combines in his single person, in this little sphere of government, all the functions which on a larger field are usually distributed among different officers. He is at the same time clothed with legislative, judicial and executive powers. He gives the law, he expounds, applies and executes it. Whenever a case comes up for trial and decision in this unique parental court, he is both judge and jury; he decides questions both of law and of fact. It is true that in enlightened civil governments the father’s sovereignty is limited by the law of the land; he is not invested with the power of life and death. But in all ordinary cases his will is supreme, his decisions ultimate. There is no appeal competent to the child. Whatever hardship or injustice his natural sense of right may lead him to conceive that he has suffered, naught is left him but implicitly to submit. He must bear the blows under which he writhes and weep in secret over his wrongs. The parent may be choleric, hasty and extreme in administering chastisement; the poor urchin has no redress. He must content himself with squirming under the birch and perhaps making rash and unredeemable promises in order to abridge the suffering; as was said to have been the case with the sweet singer of the British Calvinistic churches who, when a child, was peremptorily forbidden by his father to make any more verses. While smarting under the correction inflicted for his violation of the command, he piteously cried:
"Pray, father, do some pity take,
And I will no more verses make."
Mighty little supreme court! Powerful little empire! Only the ferule may be its sceptre and the darkened chamber its dungeon; but its autocracy is as potent as that of the Caesars; its sanctions well-nigh as formidable as those which are wielded over his vassals by the Czar of all the Russians. Is it not easy to see how such a government, so manifold, so nearly unlimited in its power, so strongly seconded by the natural affections, exercised during the forming period of childhood, must impress itself, and impress itself almost determinatively, upon the future career of its youthful subjects? Callous must be the sensibilities, inhuman the heart of the parent who is not affected by the responsibilities which this view of the subject thrusts upon his mind. There is a tribunal before which he must stand at last to give an account of the manner in which on earth he discharged the momentous trusts reposed in his hands. Tremendous Bar of God! Who of us shall appear before Thee with consciences guiltless in this thing? Who of us shall dare to confront Thee without a hope in the mercy of a heavenly Father and the blood of an Elder Brother?
Let us, in the last place, view the Family as an Institute of Worship.
We would be disappointed were we to look in the Scriptures for many express inculcations of the duty of family worship. The reason is plain. That duty is enforced by the most obvious dictates of nature itself; it is one of the elements of natural religion which the Bible, as a supernatural revelation, of necessity presupposes. Its very silence, so far as the formal injunction of the duty is concerned, is exceedingly significant. For a like reason no doubt it is that Scripture nowhere presents an elaborate argument for the existence of God or even for the Trinity. These were fundamental doctrines of the religion of nature, and are treated as great presuppositions to be universally and unhesitatingly assumed. Yet the awful imprecation, "Pour out Thy fury upon the heathen that know Thee not, and upon the families that call not on Thy name," while it furnishes support to the view just expressed, also enforces, under sanctions of the most dreadful character, the duty of family worship. It is like a flash of lightning on a dark night that at once lights up the whole face of a landscape. They who neglect this obligation are classed with heathen, and are threatened with the fury of the Almighty poured upon them like a storm. It is not worth while to argue the case. He who theoretically denies this obligation, subverts religion and cannot decently appropriate to himself the Christian name. But we are apt; through weakness, to neglect acknowledged duties, and a few things may appropriately be said concerning the reasons for the discharge of this office and the motives which incite to its performance.
The parent is by the appointment of nature, and in conformity with the feelings implanted by nature, the minister of worship for his family. He is not only God’s representative of them, but their representative to God. The congregation for which he officiates is the beloved little flock, every one of whom is tied to him by the tenderest bonds—is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. His function it is to read to them the blessed word of God, and expound it for their understanding. His function it is to collect their praises and their prayers, and bowing with them at their own household altar, to present their joint worship to his Father and their Father, to his Redeemer and theirs. What moving considerations impel him to its discharge! How can he refuse to lead them in offering thanksgiving to the Father of mercies for perpetually recurring benefits, new every morning and fresh, every evening; for daily bread, for the comforts of life, for the preservation of health, for protection against a thousand dangers, for deliverance from innumerable calamities which are ever impending, and, above all, for the unspeakable blessings of redemption? Will he, by omitting so plain a duty, teach them, through his example, to trample down the feeling of dependence on their God and Saviour, and indoctrinate them in the dark crime of ingratitude? The perils at birth, the contingencies environing the cradle, the stormy exigencies of life, the prospect of the bed of death, of the family gathering in anguish and tears around some dying member of the beloved little circle, of the sad funeral procession following the dust of the departed to the devouring grave; the temptations incident to childhood and youth, the need of atoning blood to cleanse from guilt, and of the grace of the Holy Ghost to convert, and sanctify, to strengthen and console,—all, all urge him to erect and maintain the altar of worship in his house, and to render there his morning and his evening incense of adoration, thanksgiving and prayer.
It deserves, moreover, to be remarked, that in conducting family worship, the parent enjoys the special and eminent advantage of pleading before God his peculiar promise to his people and their seed, of throwing himself and them upon the provisions of that eternal covenant which is ordered in all things and sure. It is true that this may be done, and ought continually to be done, in his own private approaches to the throne of grace. But there is a singular propriety in his pressing in the midst of his children their common relation with him to God’s covenant and its promises. Besides the answer which might, by faith, be expected to be returned to these joint petitions, in itself no small consideration, these desirable results would be also secured,—God’s covenant would be recognized and honored by the concerted worship of the whole family, the instructions touching its blessed provisions and promises didactically impressed upon the children would receive additional and affecting enforcement by praise and prayer; their own connection with the covenant would be daily brought to their attention, and so be inworked into their habits of thought and feeling; and it might be fairly hoped that they, following the example of their parents, would themselves be led to plead with the God of the covenant their own interest in his promise of salvation.
In conclusion, suffer me, brethren and friends, to address to those of you who are parents, a few plain, practical counsels suggested by this subject.
In the first place, I entreat you to remember that the obligation resting upon you to teach your children the religion you profess is divinely appointed, indestructible and inalienable. It is God who says: Bring up your children. That in which you are to bring them up is the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The relation of these beloved pupils to you ordinarily terminates only at death. It is you who are enjoined to do this duty: "Ye fathers, bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." Consequently you cannot, without guilt, transfer this office to others. Every institute and means of instruction has its own allotted place. Yours is the family. However useful in its way [you suppose] the Sabbath School may be, its teachers are not the parents of your children. You cannot roll off upon them the function your Lord assigns to you. I need not say, Teach your children the word of God and the Gospel of your salvation. But I counsel you to tread in the steps of those who have gone before you to glory, and see to it that they commit to memory and recite the Shorter Catechism. Cause them also to memorize some choice Psalms and Hymns, containing the essential features of the plan of salvation. Verse is more easily retained than prose, and it is a well known fact that the sweet songs of Zion linger upon the lips of the dying and sustain and refresh them in their departing moments.
In the second place, rule your children in the fear of the Lord. Do not, like poor old Eli, allow them to make themselves vile because you restrain them not. Suffer the word of plainness. If they have grown beyond the reach of parental correction, use authoritative command, plead with them, pray with them. Restrain them from all sin that comes under your eye, especially from open and presumptuous transgression. Restrain them from pleasure promenades, and from riding and boating excursions on God's holy day. Restrain them within your doors when the shades of night allure the wicked to prowl. Restrain them from unchristian companionship; from godless clubs and drinking parties; from the theatre, the race course, and the circus; from the gambling saloon, the dancing hall, and the skating rink. Restrain them from the dancing school. Say not, Is it not a little one? Yes, but, like little Zoar, it is too near to Sodom. It is a nursery of greater evils. Grace of body—what is it in comparison of the grace of God, which adorns and saves the soul? Your children belong to Christ and His church; train them not by your parental government as subjects of the devil and votaries of the world. Bring them up in the admonition of the Lord Jesus Christ. God forbid that I should assume the harsh tone of the censor! Oh, no. I come short in all things, and am less than the least of all saints; but this has always been my testimony, and this is my testimony now. This is narrow, it may be said. Yea, but not narrower than that straight gate and that narrow way through which a few enter into life. One would not wish to be broader than Jesus. Whatever may be the case in the sphere of doctrine, in the sphere of life, the church of the present day is in danger of defection and apostasy because of her compliance with the practices of the world. O Christian fathers and mothers, it is largely in your hands to arrest the fatal tendency.
In the third place, maintain family worship. Like Noah on Ararat, building his altar, and in the midst of his family offering praise for their great deliverance, erect your altar, and in the bosom of your household render thanksgivings to God for the greater redemption effected by His Son. Like Job, invoke upon the children of your loins the sprinkling of atoning blood. Do this while you live, and when the offices of piety on earth are drawing to a close, like the dying Jacob, lean upon the staff of your pilgrimage and in the midst of your children pay your last homage to your covenant God and Saviour. Will you plead that you are ashamed to pray with your family? What! When you remember the shame to which your incarnate God went down for you? Will you plead timidity? What! Would you not, in defence of your family, face an armed and ferocious mob? Afraid? Then ask your wives to officiate for you. Will you plead poverty of language? What! Were you dumb, would it not be your duty to kneel in the midst of your family and lift your eyes and hands to heaven and groan? As for those quack remedies for bashfulness—books of forms—it is enough to say that they are neither suggested by nature nor prescribed in our divine dispensatory. Will you plead the want of time? What! When you think of the death-bed, the meeting at the bar of judgment, and the unending ages of eternity? Let those of us who have from whatever cause neglected this great duty overcome our difficulties and address ourselves to its discharge. God will help those who make the effort. The grace of the Lord Jesus will be sufficient for them, and His strength will be made perfect in their weakness. Thus treating our families as institutes of religious instruction, government and worship, we shall make our homes on earth preparatory schools for our glorious home in heaven. Our Father’s house! There Himself will preside at the table He shall spread, and our Elder Brother will serve at the banquet of an ineffable communion. There glorified parents and children will together recount the mercies of their earthly pilgrimage, together unravel the mysteries of their afflictions below, and deriving from the review ever fresh reasons for gratitude shall blend their praises at the throne of God and of the Lamb.