Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series of new essays by Dr. Benjamin E. Bernier which demonstrate that Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy can be characterized as a Christ-centered philosophy of education for Christian discipleship, a unique contribution in the history of Christian and educational thought.
© 2017 Benjamin Bernier
Have you read Robert Elsmere?
In our previous installment we established that the essential doctrines of the Christian faith defined the framework for the foundation and aim of Charlotte Mason’s educational efforts. We saw that she was driven in particular to answer the acute apologetic need generated by the religious crisis of Victorian England which grew during her own lifetime.
The preservation of the Christian faith for future generations was the challenge against which Mason found education to be a primary answer. The youth faced the urgent need to overcome the wave of unbelief which seemed to be ready to swipe away the treasure of Christianity, and parents found themselves bewildered as they tried to figure out what to do. Mason saw that part of her calling was to help. Over her years of devotion to the theory and practice of education, she had found certain gems which she believed were the key to helping Christian parents secure the desired end of handing down a strong faith to the next generation.
The key was not appeal to the emotions, but an appeal to the mind, which needed to be fed with strong food and clear conceptions which provided valid answers to the primary arguments of unbelief. In other words Mason recognized that ordinary parents had need of guidance and instruction in apologetics, as well as in the methodology of teaching and learning if they were going to help their children grow in the Christian faith against common obstacles.
From F.D. Maurice she had learned that ordinary people, and women in particular, were divinely inspired to accomplish the most essential task of raising children and that therefore, programs and institutions were not needed to provide that which was essential according to God’s design. This realization brought with it a revolutionary tendency away from traditional systems and a drive instead to find those principles which underlie the educational task when it is recognized as God-given and efficacious to accomplish that for which it was designed. Mason referred to these principles as the law of nature, or education according to nature. And in this context she viewed nature not as an independent rule in a deistic fashion, but rather as the ordering of the personal lawgiver who is invested in the outcome of his creation and the life of his creatures, especially little children.
Instead of following old tradition for its own sake or inventing a new theory or abstract system for how children should be educated, and then forcing the child into that system, traditional or new, she felt it was essential to start on the other end and observe the child as she or he is, as it is presented in Scripture and as discovered in reality. Then she proceeded to identify what principles guide the child’s formation, and then she built upon these principles a method, not a system. And because this method followed the ways set by Providence Himself, it was bound to bring the best fruits, since those ways were designed by God Himself in the first place.
We have two primary sources from Mason’s pen in which she openly expresses how she saw education as the answer to the crisis of faith. Both of these sources have remained out of sight for over a hundred years now, and they highlight the key arguments parents must know and master in order to instruct their children in order to protect them from the danger of unbelief.
The Spiritual History of Robert Elsmere
As is well known, the publication of Home education: A Course of Lectures to Ladies in 1886 unleashed a series of efforts during the years from 1887 to 1890 which led to two defining developments in Mason’s career: the foundation of the PNEU and the publication of the monthly organ for the society, The Parents’ Review.
During this time, Mason traveled across England and consulted with many of the prominent figures in the educational scene of England. We have a record of who she met with with this purpose in mind. But what is not generally known is what was Mason reading during those long train rides and what thoughts occupied her attention in response to them… until now.
Mason was a copious reader, of course, and she must have read much more than just one particular book. But there is a surviving record of Mason’s response to her reading of a novel published early in the year of 1888, which is particularly revealing concerning her view of the parents’ apologetic responsibility in light of the crisis of faith. This crisis of faith is clearly traced in this novel in the life of a fictitious character named Robert Elsmere. Mason suggested that this fictional life story should be examined and cracked as an “educational nut.”
The novel was Robert Elsmere by Humphry Ward, perhaps the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. It is hard to overestimate the stir caused by its publication. The story spans two volumes, the first of which develops in the Lake District of England, and so incidentally provides a good introduction to the kind of lifestyle Mason would enter into a few years later. The two volumes tell the romantic story of a young clergyman who eventually loses his faith when confronted with the notion that “miracles cannot happen.” He progressively abandons the simple faith of his youth and becomes a liberal clergyman committed merely to social reform. The novel is an excellent portrait of the crisis of faith experienced at the time.
Unfortunately Mason’s draft letter was never published. In the letter, Mason examines the novel as if she were a wife married to a doctor and the mother of several children. From this viewpoint, she explains how she and her “husband” would educate their children with definite apologetic aims and means in response to the “spiritual epidemics in the air.”
The fictional letter survived in the form of a draft manuscript in Mason’s handwriting, sadly missing some pages. I came across it when I was doing research on Mason’s unpublished manuscripts in the Armitt archive. It was written in the form of a personal letter from a married woman to her childhood friend. The letter is signed with the pseudonym May Haliday, but it is without doubt Mason’s original composition. In it Mason presents in detail her thoughts concerning why this novel was so important, and she reveals the need to strengthen the education of children in order to overcome the danger of unbelief hanging in the air.
The manuscript touches on such subjects as:
- A “thousand difficulties in Bible reading”
- The origin of life
- The relationship between science and religion
- Creation in seven days
- The problem of authority
- The tendency of youth to follow the crowd
- How parents are to conduct the education of children to prevent them from falling away—or at least how to prepare them for a future in which their faith will be challenged and in need of solid defense
In Mason’s own words:
I begin to suspect that all this is by way of preface, and now for the real object of this letter, Have you read ‘Robert Elsmere’? Of course you have. All this year everybody has been asking everybody that one question. We have just read ‘Robert Elsmere’ for the second time. It has done us much good, and made us look at many difficulties in the face, I truly think it will help us in the bringing up of the children…
I think I hear you exclaim, ‘why Robert Elsmere has already been talked to death.’ So it has: but have patience with me: I can’t remember that the story has been cracked as an educational nut, … but to return to the book. You know what a lovely Christ-like life the young clergyman leads and how heavenly-minded—even if a little narrow—is the woman he marries. The first volume is delightful—a story of kingdom come; pure earthly love, ever waiting at the head waters of love, for inspiration direction and loves of service: Though you already feel there is a leak somewhere, and the enemy may any day come in as a flood. Then, all at once with little to lead up to it, comes the catastrophe, a spiritual one. Elsmere is bowled over, with hardly a struggle to keep his feet by so stale an argument as that “miracles do not happen!” Then follows a kind of land-slip bearing down all the bulwarks of Christianity. Miracles do not happen; therefore the Resurrection has not happened, therefore the Christian king is discrowned; God has not spoken to man and there is no revelation. What is left? A forlorn hope that there is a God, and that if it be, He may be gracious. Even so, what certainty of anything beyond the grave? The one certainty left is—our Brother: he the wretched brother, is at any rate, a fact—often an ugly one. Wherefore, let a man make himself the saviour of some others; let him gain so much salvage from the wreck of life. Here is the sum of the whole matter. So far as man has this means of knowing. There may be more; but, who knows?
It is more than a story; it is a remarkable study of the rise and progress of unfaith; and is, I should think a most true picture of what is going on today in many an ardent nature. This is why Edward and I have set ourselves to analyse it as carefully as if it professed to be the true story of a real man. For don’t you think that every now and then there are spiritual epidemics in the air as catching as measles and that it is the business of parents to keep their eyes open and take measures to preserve their children from infection? You will say, perhaps that it is better the young people should ask crucial questions at any cost. Than that they should sit at their ease, believing with a lip deep faith, all they are told, because they care for none of these things? I daresay it is; but then, when they come to ask these searching questions, I think we should be ready to give them not the formulae of our youth, but the fresh living thought of the day, as it supports the truth we hold. Let me tell you the three or four practical conclusions we have come to anent the spiritual history of Robert Elsmere. (Mason, 1888)
Then Mason proceeds to offer her conclusions, including among other things, that parents should instruct their children with a certain degree of healthy skepticism towards all human authority, and even renouncing for themselves the place of an “infallible pope”:
Its the nature of us to crave a pope who will save us the trouble of thinking. We have popes many, political, social, literary, scientific, religious, and woe to the excomunicate who presume to think their own thoughts in their own lines. (Mason, 1888)
Instead wise parents should endeavor to provide their children with the guiding principle that the truth of Scripture stands upon a ground so sure that unbelieving science cannot assault it and doubt cannot undermine it. What is that sure ground? None other than the fidelity and reliability of the person of Christ Himself:
If a fair and honest explanation of the difficulty offers, well, if not, we must admit that it is a difficulty, that we do not see the way out of it; also, that many good people find in such difficulties reasons for doubting the truth of the Bible. This seems to us important for no argument has such weight with the young as the discovery that it is not profane persons and evil livers only who assail the Scriptures with their doubts. To come across a righteous large minded man, who casts the Bible aside while he still holds to a large if vague faith in God, is terribly staggering to the immature mind.
But if the child be prepared, if he have known these things from his youth up, Then, we think, that chivalry of youth will be in arms for the defense of truth. And all the more so because it is attacked on many sides. The title of defender of the Faith should still be an honourable distinction in the eyes of our young people. At the same time, you will understand that we would not have them grow up jealous with a distrustful jealousy from the mere letter of the word. It is not in such points as the six natural days for the creation of the world we would have them take their stand. But we hope to make them see that the truth of the Bible rests upon other ground altogether; and that all these assaults; the tireless brandishing of, here, obscurity, there, seeming contradiction, elsewhere the account of apparently impossible occurrence,—is but as sea spray dashing against the face of a cliff. For in the Bible, we have God, in the Bible, we have Christ, and in the Bible, we have man; and it is in its revelations of these that the Bible is impregnable. (Mason, 1888)
This is a fascinating and revealing letter which brings to light once more the foundational principle that Mason saw in the person and revelation of Christ Himself the center piece of education, and it reveals the purpose of all her educational endeavors, centered upon apologetic aims.
Another relatively unnoticed work by Mason from these early years helps to confirm the same notion, and adds even more emphasis to this central idea, along with additional apologetic insights. As we saw in our previous installment, the early editions of Home Education contained a final lecture on “young maidenhood,” which concerned the education of girls at home. In this lecture, Mason exhorted Christian mothers to preserve their daughters from the dreadful danger and “black offense of unbelief.” If you had the second or third edition of Home Education, you would find an extra appendix after this lecture. This appendix contained a three-part sermon series translated from the French … by Mason herself!
The Imperative Demand
This three-part series was preached by a pastor of the Reformed Church of France named Eugène Bersier (1831-1889). Mason not only took upon herself to obtain permission to translate this series of sermons, but she also did everything she could to bring these sermons to the attention of Christian parents. She saw in these sermons the work of a writer who could instruct parents with sound arguments by which they would be enabled to fulfill their apologetic role in raising up their children as believers in an age of increasing unbelief. Mason also felt that these sermons offered the apologetic key demanded by the times which is to focus all our attention upon Christ Himself.
It is important to emphasize that Mason endorsed Bersier’s arguments without any reservation or qualification. Therefore, these apologetic sermons add to our understanding of Mason’s apologetic position and its importance for the education and raising of Christian children.
The three-part sermon series is fairly long and we do not have the space here to examine it in detail, but I encourage anyone interested in understanding Mason’s views to study these arguments which she thought were so important to place in the hands of Christian parents.
Mason’s introductory statements commend the work of Bersier as of the highest importance, a commendation which she reissued every time her translation was published in The Parents’ Review. Mason’s introduction and the sermon series itself were first published in The Parents’ Review in 1891. She then added them as an appendix to Home Education. Finally, Mason published them yet again during the Great War in The Parents’ Review, from February to May, 1915.
In her introduction Mason explains the reason she commends the arguments developed in these sermons to parents concerned with the spiritual formation of their children, as a way to prepare them to answer the challenge to faith of their times:
We live in an age when many serious souls are liberating themselves from the bonds of recognised religion. So far as external, formal religion goes, their protest against that is at an end; they bow the knee and worship, and say it is fit that they should; but they decline to have their beliefs bound by the dogmas, their ideas inspired by the teachings, of the ancient creed. This attitude of many thoughtful minds need not fill us, to whom He is all-in-all, with despair for the cause of Christ. Above all, we need not keep a dark closet where in lies, perdu, the possibility of “Doubt.” If we do this, if we go about with a secret unnameable dread lest, if we open our eyes to all that is to be known, we, too, may pass over to the ranks of the Unbeliever, why, perhaps we may “save our own souls” if we care about it, but we have sold birthright and blessing, we have nothing to pass on to our children of the golden heritage of Christian hope. No man can give what he has not got; and this is true, above all, of the certainties of the faith. But we are in the dark hour before dawn; such a Christianity is coming upon us as neither the world nor the Church has ever dreamed of; even now we begin to see our way out of the darkness, because we begin to see why it has fallen upon us. To use the language of philosophy, “religion,” as we know it, is subjective, not objective; that is our religious idea is directly opposed to the genius of Christianity. Oh, the appalling egoism of “Christian” literature! While, of that name,
“Which whoso preacheth
Speaks like music to the ear,”
Of that enthralling Personality which is capable of ever-fresh unfoldings to meet the needs of all the ages, we hear, only, as it is subservient to our poor uses. “Form me” is the key-note of one great school of religious thought; “By me” that of another; but how seldom is Christ Himself, for Himself—not for what He is for us, or has done for us, or worketh in us—placed in the foreground of religious thought!
Possibly it is for this that many consciences are in revolt against religion as it is taught. “What think ye of Christ?” is the question that is searching all hearts, and it is only as we are able to ring out our answer in the clear glad tones of passionate conviction, that we have any sure and certain hope to communicate to the children.
It is for this reason that parents are profoundly indebted to a prophet who is able to lift the veil and give us any living thought of Christ; such thoughts, for example, as are scattered “few, faint, and feeble” it may be, through the pages of The Christian Year; such simple image as of—in the words of another poet—
“Jesus sitting by Samarian well,
Or teaching some few fishers on the shore,”
is very precious to us. If any teacher is able to measure the surging shallow thought of our day, and show us how Christ still sitteth above the water floods, a king for ever, he does an unspeakable service to parents, many of whom are suffering under an anxious sense that they are the conservators of Christianity for their children, and that they hold their treasure with uncertain grasp. How to communicate the treasure is not the question. Give them the idea, and none in the world knows so well as parents how to convey it to the minds and hearts of the little ones.
We think we have found such a teacher as our times demand in the late Eugène Bersier, pastor of the Reformed Church of France. His important works demand more than a brief notice; and we propose to introduce any of our readers to whom his teaching is not familiar to the incisive thought of one who has set himself to the solution of the anxious question of the age with profound insight and triumphant faith. Let us hear him, first, on “The Royalty of Jesus Christ,” bearing in mind how much his nervous and eloquent language loses by translation… (Mason, 1891a, pp. 481-483)
In the introductory remark to the second sermon, Mason encouraged parents to study these sermons “to make these arguments their own” and to use them as “the bases of a careful study of the Gospels”:
The parents of little children can hardly do a better thing for their children than to make these arguments their own, become imbued with like passionate conviction and read the Gospel history (with a note-book) in order to establish every point, with many examples. All of us who have to do with children should be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and such a reason as will satisfy the keen and critical young mind. Where only little children are concerned, it may be enough to fill ourselves with convictions which will inevitably flow from the full heart in the most simple talks about Christ the King, which the little ones can understand. But where parents have young people growing up about them, would it not be well to make these articles the bases of a careful study of the Gospels? A young person fortified with this kind of teaching, having such arguments by heart (in the best sense), will not be carried away by every wind of doctrine. The shame of having nothing to say for the faith they profess is the real cause of the falling away of many an ardent young soul. We absolutely must face the questions that are in the air. However much we elders choose to shut our eyes and say we see no danger, it is certain that no young person of education and intelligence will long escape the necessity of having to contend for or deny the faith. Surely education should make some provision for this exigency. (Mason, 1891b, p. 572)
It is no coincidence that the introduction to Mason’s poetry volumes on the life of Christ, The Saviour of the World, quotes some of the same verses to develop the same idea highlighted here first in her introduction to these sermons. Mason’s recommendation that parents and the young do a careful reading of the Gospel with a “notebook at hand” ultimately becomes the solution to religious instruction fostered by the PNEU. The unequivocal method for Mason is to make the person of Christ Himself for Himself, as revealed in the gospel, the foundation, answer, and goal of the best possible education.
In light of these primary sources it is possible for us to recognize how from the beginning, the PNEU, The Parents’ Review, and Home education were all developed with a clear commitment to the essentials of the Christian Faith and with an underlying apologetic design centered around the person and teaching of Christ Himself for Himself. There was never any other foundation and there was never any other aim.
I want to thank you for staying with me up to this point. In the next part of this series we will follow the development of this same emphasis through the first decade of existence of the PNEU and the life of the House of Education in Ambleside.
Mason, C. (1888). Draft Letter—May Haliday. Unpublished Manuscripts. Box CM3, Charlotte Mason Archive, Armitt Library, Ambleside, UK.
Mason, C. (1891a). The imperative demand. The sermons of Eugène Bersier. In The Parents’ Review, volume 2 (pp. 481-490). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1891b). The imperative demand. The sermons of Eugène Bersier. II. In The Parents’ Review, volume 2 (pp. 572-582). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1891c). The imperative demand. The sermons of Eugène Bersier. III. In The Parents’ Review, volume 2 (pp. 723-731). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.