Christian Parenting: Wisdom and Perspectives from American History, David P. Setran. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.
Summary: A historical study of Christian parenting beliefs in two eras of American history, the Colonial and Victorian periods.
All conscientious and loving parents have wrestled with the question of how to raise their children. For Christians, there is the added concern of imparting their faith, seeing their children follow Christ, growing up as people characterized by faith, hope, and love.
What David P. Setran offers here is not a handbook but a history of parenting practices among Christians in what became the United States during the first three centuries of our history. Setran divides this history into two periods, the Colonial (1620-1770) and the Victorian (1830-1890), with the intervening years reflecting a transition. And what he finds is a distinctive shift from the former to the latter periods in the parental tasks, the nature of the home, the respective roles and strength of influence of fathers and mothers, and the assumptions about the spiritual nature of children and how, then, they ought to be formed in the faith.
While fathers and mothers both play an important role in both periods, the father’s role stands out in the Colonial period and the home was considered central in the spiritual lives of children. In this period sons often inherited property from fathers, heightening this tie, and much of life, economic and otherwise was centered in the home. Children were understood as unregenerate sinners who needed to be awakened to their own sinfulness and in need of the saving grace of God to impart new life in Christ to them. Thus one of the roles of fathers was evangelist. The home was also a center of worship, with the father as “priest” leading the family in worship. Part of their work was that of intercession for God’s saving work in the lives of their children. The home was also considered the school of faith, with parents instructing their children in both the catechism and the commands of scripture. Literacy was important to catechism and the reading of scripture. The aim of all of this was to provide children with the vocabulary of faith and parents were “prophets,” instructing children in the word of the Lord. Finally, every home was a little kingdom with parents as “kings,” exercising authority over their children, teaching children to honor parents, and exercising discipline in the form of admonition, restraint, and corporal punishment (“the rod”). Yet much of the literature emphasized moderation and not severity in discipline or instruction.
Setran traces a shift occurring from about 1830 on. Mothers play a much more important role as fathers work increasingly takes them out of the home except for Sundays. The home is increasingly seen as a loving and nurturing environment in which children’s faith and character is shaped less by instruction and ritual and more by the loving care and model of parents. There is also a shift from Calvinist belief in depravity to seeing children as malleable, or even as innocents. Instead of stressing the need of conversion, parents influenced the faith and character of children through the environment they created and the model of their own lives, especially early in the child’s life. Reflecting the shift to mothers, much of the literature focused on the mother’s role in Christian nurture. Motherly love was considered an irresistible force while fathers became playmates rather than pedagogues with their children. A critical function of the home was the creation of warm memories. Family worship, “the family altar,” continued to be stressed, less as father-led, and more dialogical. Discipline focused more around the love of parents, with the disobedient child removed from the parental circle through early versions of “time out. The focus on human love ran the danger of elevating it above the love of God and the ideal of home as heaven on earth ran the danger of de-emphasizing the priority of the church, although the church became increasingly the center of catechesis, rather than the home, even as education was being shifted to the schools.
This study offers perspective on how we have gotten to where we are in our Christian parenting practices, particularly the contemporary situation in which so many institutions outside the home are having a more profound influence. While not offering detailed parenting advice, he proposes that there are things that may be drawn from both of the periods, particularly the idea of catechesis and family worship woven into the daily life of families in a warm home environment. Drawing on James K.A. Smith, these “liturgies of the ordinary,” to borrow a phrase from Tish Harrison Warren, can be powerful in forming our children. He argues against an approach that polarizes the two models into either-or in conflict but draws on the best of both.
One question that is noted but not resolved has to do with our assumptions about the spiritual nature of children. Are they unregenerate sinners in need of conversion or malleable creatures or even spiritual innocents? How people answer this has shaped parenting advice and practices. The former view is often portrayed as unloving, harsh, or severe in terms of parenting practices as opposed to the loving home environment associated with the latter. But need it be, and is this even accurate? Setran’s account of the Colonial period refers to warnings about harshness in discipline, or overly taxing approaches to catechesis.
I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that original sin is the one doctrine of the Christian faith empirically verifiable. I’m also reminded that one of the first words children learn is “no.” This inclines me to the Colonial period’s assumptions and suggests that there are some valuable lessons we may learn from them in this work. The shift in assumptions in the Victorian period seems to me linked to Christian Smith’s “moral therapeutic deism” in which Christian faith is reduced to being nice, with God as the friend who is there when I need him and otherwise stays out of the way. While I do not disagree with the author’s conclusion that we draw from the values both periods, I do think the assumptions we make shape how we prioritize those values, and the character of the faith that results.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.