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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Religion of Childhood

page 278

The Religion of Childhood.

There is something very deplorable, when we reflect upon it, in the way in which mankind in all ages have sought to take by violence that kingdom of heaven whose golden gates are ever open to him who knocks thereat in filial entreaty. From lands and times when they tortured the body to days like our own in England (and elsewhere,) when they only strive to wrench the affections and distort the judgment, the same all-pervading error may be traced. Naturally men who have thus acted in the case of their own souls have no scruple to act so in their children's behalf; and to drill a young mind to religion is conceived of from first to last as a difficult task, to be achieved only by constant coercion of the spontaneous sentiments and the enforcement of a duty naturally distasteful. It is an immense evidence of the readiness of the human heart to love the Divine Father, that, with the training usually given in this Christian land so many are still found to resist its natural consequences and to love God in spite of their education.

If a mother wished to make her boy grow up full of affection and respect for a father in India or Australia, how would she set about it? Would she first start with the notion that it would be a very hard thing to do, and contrary to the child's nature? Would she insist on it morning, noon, and night as his severe duty? Would she talk of the absent parent in a conventional voice, and make addressing by letter, or doing anything for him a sterner task than any other? Lastly, would she perpetually tell the child that when the father came home, if he had not been obedient and was not affectionate to him, the father would turn him out of the house and bury him alive? Are these the methods by which a wife and mother's instincts would lead her to act? Surely we have only to imagine the reverse of these—the popular processes of religious instruction—to find the true method for guiding children's hearts to love their Father in heaven. A child must not think it a hard thing, a task of fear and awe, a notion to be dragged into its lessons and its play to make them more irksome and less joyous, that it ought to be feeling what it does not feel.

Above all things the idea that such a thing is possible as ultimate and final rejection by God ought never so much as to be presented to the mind of a child. A child can very well understand punishment; nor does it at all love the less, but rather the more, those who punish it justly and for its good. But punishment extending into infinity beyond justice—punishment whose aim and result is the evil and not the good of the sufferer—this is an idea utterly opposed to all the instincts of childhood. Of course the poor little mind takes in the shocking doctrine, presented to it like poison from its mother's hand. But the results are fatal. In one it is indifference; in another dislike; in another an atrophy of the religious nature; in a fourth a fever of terror from which the escape is only by casting off all belief. Even when the most fortunate end is reached and the man throws away in adult life the doctrine taught him in childhood, even then for long years the shadow remains over him. We return to early fears as well as early loves many a time before we relinquish them for ever. The parent who would give his child a truly religious education must make it his care to ensure him (as he would ensure him against listening to far lesser blasphemies) from ever even hearing of an Eternal Hell. This done, we firmly believe that, if he himself love God he will find it the easiest of lessons to teach his child to love Him likewise. We must remember this : God's voice speaks in the heart of a child as in the heart of a man—nay, far more clearly than in the heart of a disobedient and world-encrusted man. To teach a child whose voice that is, to make him identify it with the Giver of all good, the Creator of this world (so fresh and lovely in his young eyes!)—to do this is to give him religion. And the religion thus given will grow into fuller, maturer life, till it rises to the reality of prayer, the full blessedness of Divine communion.—F. P. Cobbe.