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Cotton Mather on Raising Children

Category Articles
Date November 26, 2019

The responsibilities of Christian parents are great. They are commanded to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4). This has never been an easy task — least of all today, when so much of the atmosphere in which our offspring must live is diametrically opposed to God and his gospel.

Unless believers pursue their responsibility to train their children with serious forethought and persistent zeal, it may not be long before the pervasive atmosphere of modern humanistic liberalism has damaged, if not permanently captured, the hearts and minds of their children. But most of us find, when we become parents, that being regenerate (great as that is) does not in itself guarantee that we will be wise teachers and judicious examples. Being a godly parent is not automatic for the believer. It takes much thought, faith, and work. Above all we go to ‘the law and to the testimony’ to draw out its principles for rearing children to the glory of God. One must study, think, pray, repent, and apply those principles. The experience and writings of the saints throughout the ages can help us here both in understanding and applying biblical principles for family discipline.

One of the few Puritan treatises written specifically on this subject is Cares About the Nursery, by the eminent New England divine, Cotton Mather (1702). It contains practical counsel to help parents ‘train up their child in the way he should go.’

The first thing Mather stresses is the absolute necessity of a definite body of knowledge. He is in the line of the Westminster Assembly which so clearly taught that ‘truth is in order to goodness.’ This needs to be re-emphasised in a day when influential education theories in the state schools question the value of content in favour of various combinations of self-expression and psychological and sociological conditioning. While content or knowledge does not (as Socrates thought) in itself assure virtue, nevertheless it is essential to virtue. Mather says: ‘Though every man be not good that hath knowledge, yet a man cannot be good without knowledge. An ignorant soul will be a vicious one. The devotion of ignorance is a bastard sort of devotion. Every grace enters into the soul through the understanding. They that have their understanding darkened (Eph 4:18) will be alienated from the life of God. Your children can have no faith in their souls if they do not know the worth of a Christ and their want of a Christ and the way of closing with a Christ. It was said, “They that know thy name will put their trust in Thee.” They won’t if they don’t’ (p. 34). Mather adds: ‘It was said of some (Rom 1:14), “Ye are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge.” But your children will be full of all badness, if not filled with knowledge’ (p. 35).

Parents then are to teach (or have taught to) their children ‘as much good knowledge as possible.’ In the broadest sense this means says Mather — a liberal education (for which, he adds, parents are ‘to pinch themselves’ if necessary to provide it), a profitable vocation, and good breeding. The burden of his book, however, is how a believing parent is specifically to impart to his offspring the body of Christian doctrine (which God often pleases to accompany with his regenerating power).

To guide parents in fulfilling their duty, the author deals with content, method, and motive. The content which believers are to instill in their little ones is nothing less than orthodox, scriptural Christianity. Cotton Mather (following John Calvin, Institutes, III) refers it to two heads: the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God. This twofold knowledge is rooted in the biblical, Reformation doctrines of the Trinity, Decrees of God, Creation, Fall, Redemption, to mention some of the main ones.

Three channels for pouring this ‘doctrine according to godliness’ into the souls of the children are, he suggests, Bible Stories, good Reformed Catechisms, and regular public sermons and worship. It is with the two latter that Mather is most largely concerned. . . Here we feel are several suggestions that modern parents would do well to heed.

Once you have chosen a good catechism, what is an effective way to teach it? He makes it clear that children are to memorize the content verbatim. This should be enforced by rewards and punishments (which he leaves to the reader’s own imagination to devise). There should be a set time each week for catechism. It is, he says, ‘a Sabbath-work’, and a Sunday afternoon may be appropriate. One point he brings out that has sadly disappeared from the reformed tradition is that this catechising should be a solemn occasion when the whole family is assembled, and in this way shows both seriousness and fervency. (Here indeed we could learn from the modern Hasidic Jews in New York City, who devote many hours of family life each week to such teaching assemblies. Apparently for the Hasidim these experiences of studying and inculcating the law are attended with the deepest fervency and overflowing joy. See National Geographic Magazine, August, 1975, pp. 276-298). If we think this time together is trifling or a bother, so will the children. If we value it as a time when ‘the entrance of thy words giveth light’, so will they.

Mather insists that children are to repeat the answer exactly even if they do not understand it entirely. He is surely right when he says that ‘mere repetition is an introduction and preparation for deeper reverence of God.’ And yet, in a well-balanced way, he adds: ‘Be not satisfied with mere rote — but enquire if they understand, as Christ did in Mt. 13:51.’

As Mather expounds the necessity of this diligent enquiry as to under­standing, one is reminded of Richard Baxter in The Reformed Pastor where he says that pastoral visitation and personal work is necessary even in the finest preaching ministry. For in his own experience at Kidder­minster many who had continually sat under his great preaching, when questioned at home by their minister displayed complete ignorance of the most basic doctrines that were proclaimed weekly from the pulpit. So it may be with children who memorize the ‘form of sound words’, unless they are questioned and helped as to the meaning of those words.

Mather suggests that the meaning of an answer may be more readily explained if one breaks up the answer into ‘little parcels’ to which the child may say simply ‘yes or no.’ For instance on Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism he divides the answer into five or six ‘little parcels’, and concludes them thus: ‘And if we do actively glorify God, shall we come to enjoy him forever? — Yes.’ (For several examples of this kind of question, see p. 21, Cares About the Nursery).

A Christian parent is not really satisfied unless the catechetical teaching goes deeper than the mere intellect (though it must begin there). One is to do all one can to reach the child’s affections with the truth of God. ‘We should contrive all the charms imaginable, that their hearts and lives may be moulded into that form. For example when teaching on sin, one may say: “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?”‘ (We will say more on the relationship of truth to the affections when we discuss the conversion of the child under Mather’s Third major heading on Motive).

This weekly session of catechetical training is of course to be immersed in prayer, so that ‘whoever may plant, or water, God will give the increase.’

The other channel for imparting Christian doctrine to young children will perhaps come as a surprise to those who send their children out to Sunday School before sermon. As a seasoned minister, Cotton Mather appreciated the difficulties involved in having small children sit through long services. He admits that many children are restless, and some indeed are rude during the meeting. He makes the interesting observation that if parents were to let their children know that they would be thoroughly examined at home concerning what they learned from the sermon, much restlessness would cease, even in small children. This examination after sermon can be made a beautiful means of grace. ‘When asking children what they remember of the public sermon, before dismissing them, ask “Well, child, what have you now to pray for?” When they have told us, then lay the charge of God upon them; “I charge you now, to go alone and make that prayer before the Lord” (p. 24).

Yet a mere mechanical knowledge of various methods of training the young in Christian truth will amount to little unless we have an overall vision of what godly family discipline can mean. Mather speaks encouragingly on this point in his final section on ‘Motive’. The supreme motive, of course, is the glory of God in the conversion of our children in order that they may finally be conformed to the image of the blessed Son of God. All else is subservient to that. Nothing in this passing world can remotely be compared to that eternal glory. Woe to the parent who wants anything less than this for his own flesh and blood.

One of the most helpful insights of Mather is that the actual conversion of the children of believers very often takes place right here in the context of the regular teaching in the family circle. ‘When teaching on the New Covenant, now will be an opportunity to amplify upon every article of the covenant, and very distinctly to ask the consent of their souls to every article. It may be God will help them to give it, even with floods of tears before him. And if they really do it, from that moment they are converted unto God, and united unto the Lord Jesus Christ; and they are infallibly and infrustrably made sure of everlasting blessedness; they are blessed throughout Eternal Ages. Thus, 0 parents, you may become twice parents. Your children may be brought home to the Lord by your means, and be born again by your happy hands; there may be not so much as one of them left for your ministers to do any more than to carry on the work whereof you have laid the foundation in them’ (pp. 25, 26). Here again we see the power that the truth has to go down into the affections. Also he adds: ‘You make men of them, and how can you tell, but that you may make saints of them too? While you are teaching your children, and causing your doctrine to distil as the small rain upon the tender herbs, it may be the Spirit of God will fall upon them, to make them the children of God’ (p. 38).

How much we need to hear these encouraging words!

Biblical teaching and exemplary living that issues in conversion and Christian character will have lovely and far-reaching effects. It will strengthen family life and be a blessing to both community and church. ‘And I will add this one small consideration unto the rest; you will certainly find your families the more tractable and orderly and obedient for your catechising of them. The more you do your duty to them, the more dutiful they will be to you. By your catechising of them, you will maintain your authority over them. Yea, the people of God in the neighbourhood will have the good of it’ (p. 41).

While bringing up children in the faith is not easy, it is nonetheless bright with hope. At the beginning of Cares About the Nursery, Mather writes (commenting on Prov. 4:3, 4): ‘If we teach good things, it is hopeful that they will be learned. If our lives exemplify virtue, it is hopeful that they will be imitated.’ And a greater one than Cotton Mather assures us: ‘Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 15:58).


This article was first published in the July 1976 Banner of Truth Magazine.

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