Fact Check: Did Charlotte Mason Reject Original Sin?

Fact Check: Did Charlotte Mason Reject Original Sin?

Over the years perhaps the most frequently asked question by conservative Christians about Charlotte Mason is, “Did Charlotte Mason reject the doctrine of original sin?” Many essays, articles, and chapters have been written about this question. Most of these compositions begin with an attempt to interpret Mason’s second principle. This article takes a different starting point. By identifying a set of simple facts that can be easily proven, we can more easily draw a conclusion and confidently answer whether Charlotte Mason rejected original sin.

Fact #1: The Church Catechism selected by Charlotte Mason for religious instruction affirmed the doctrine of original sin.

The Church Catechism in the Prayer Book of the Church of England in use in Charlotte Mason’s time (and in her personal library) says that baptism is “A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace” (emphasis added).

Charlotte Mason recommended that the Catechism be used for:

  • The “summing-up of Christian teaching” (volume 6, p. 169)
  • Religious training (volume 3, p. 147)

In fact, Mason wrote that “nowhere shall we find a more lucid and practical commentary on the moral law than is set forth in the Church Catechism” (volume 3, p. 130).

Nowhere in Mason’s writings did she issue a warning or disclaimer to indicate that the Church Catechism contained a doctrine that she rejected.

Fact #2: Charlotte Mason’s exposition of the second principle affirmed the doctrine of original sin.

Chapters 2 through 9 of Mason’s sixth volume are an exposition of her 20 principles of education. Chapters 2 through 6 have a one-to-one correlation with principles 1 through 5. Principle 2 reads, “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil” (volume 6, p. xxix).” The corresponding chapter in volume 6 is chapter 3. The chapter is entitled “The Good and Evil Nature of a Child” (emphasis added). The word nature implies a quality that someone is born with. The title of the chapter indicates that Mason believed that children were born with an evil nature. How else would this evil nature be explained except by the doctrine of original sin?

In the third paragraph of this chapter, Mason writes, “all possibilities for good are contained in his moral and intellectual outfit, hindered it may be by a corresponding tendency to evil for every such potentiality.” Thus Mason taught that every child is born with a corruption such that every potentiality for good is by nature hindered by a tendency to evil. This shows that the breadth of corruption is total, affecting every aspect of moral potentiality. This aligns closely with the definition of Original Sin in the Anglican Articles of Religion:

“Original sin … is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, … whereby man is … of his own nature inclined to evil, … and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.” (emphasis added)

Fact #3: Mason’s explicit teaching on human nature affirms the doctrine of original sin.

Charlotte Mason’s volume 4 was written to provide children with a “ground-plan of human nature” (volume 4, Preface). As such, it is the most reliable guide to Mason’s beliefs about human nature. On pages 179-180, Mason writes:

“There is in human nature an aversion to God. Whether it be, according to the Article, that ‘original sin which is the natural fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam,’ or whether it is that jerk of the shoulder from the hand of authority which belongs to freewill, we need not stop to inquire. Anyway, there is in human nature, as well as a deep-seated craving for God, a natural and obstinate aversion to Him.” (emphasis in the original)

This passage shows that:

  • Human nature – the “common possession” of us all – has an obstinate aversion to God.
  • Mason grants that two possible explanations could exist for this inborn aversion:

1. “Original sin,” as taught by the “Article” of the Church of England.
2. “Freewill,” which (apparently) naturally resists authority.

By granting two possible explanations, she does not forfeit her own belief that one is correct. But she does insist that this aversion is accounted for by either the doctrine of original sin, or something just as pervasive and fundamental to human nature. Although she says “we need not stop to inquire” which explanation is the true one, her other writings show that she subscribes to the first.

Fact #4: Mason’s poetic writings explicitly affirm the doctrine of original sin.

Mason’s six-volume Saviour of the World, published from 1908-1914, is a collection of hundreds of original poems written by her. They contain many straightforward declarations of her theological beliefs. In the second poetry volume, on page 37, she asserts original sin as a truism:

But who can judge that leprosy of heart,
Sin, name we it, wherein we all have part
If any way be open save His way
Wilful, we make our choice to disobey.
In “man’s first disobedience,” share we all;
That little thing we’re bidden works our fall!

The quoted phrase “man’s first disobedience” is an allusion to Paradise Lost, which goes on to say that it “brought death into the world, and all our woe.” Mason explicitly writes that we all “share” in this disobedience.

Later in the fourth poetry volume, Mason discusses the Fall itself:

Alas, sweet souls, ye fell! but not so low,
Ah, not so low as we! Abashed are ye
Where God was all a separate self to see;
And, naked, conscious souls, ingenuous go

To hide yourselves for shame! Your Fall’s worse woe-
Th’ inevitable “I”-inherit we:
Our child-souls quit their paradise to be
First in a fall’n state that day they know

In this poem, Mason writes that we all “inherit” something from the Fall. Inevitably this inherited nature manifests itself and our souls leave paradise. We recapitulate the tragedy of our parents. This is closely aligned with St. Paul’s writings in the Epistle to the Romans: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man … so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”

Fact #5: The doctrine of original sin does NOT deny that children are born with inherent goodness.

Throughout the history of the church, many great theologians have affirmed the natural goodness of persons which endures and prevails despite the doctrine of original sin. For example, John Calvin writes:

“In every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life. For they have, by the very zeal of their honesty, given proof that there was some purity in their nature. These examples, accordingly, seem to warn us against judging man’s nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by its prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life.” (Institutes, Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter III)

Calvin asserts that there is “some purity” in the “nature” of children. In other words, for Calvin (and many others), children are born both good (“some purity”) and evil. This is exactly what Mason asserts in her second principle.

Fact #6: There is nothing inherently contradictory between Mason’s second principle and the doctrine of original sin.

On page 46 of volume 6, Mason provided a more verbose wording of her second principle: “children … are born … with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil.” Her second principle and the doctrine of original sin are not antithetical statements, but rather are complementary statements that overlap on a single point. This may be illustrated in a Venn diagram:

 

The left circle represents Mason’s second principle. The right circle represents the doctrine of the original sin. Both statements assert that children are born with tendencies towards evil. It is important to recognize that:

  • The doctrine of original sin does not deny that children are born with coexisting tendencies for good.
  • Mason’s second principle does not deny that children are born deserving of God’s wrath.

An analogy may be helpful. In a classroom, a teacher may make the following assertion:

  1. Everyone in the class failed the final exam.
  2. No one in the class will graduate.

A student in the class may make the following assertion:

  1. Everyone in the class did well on the mid-term exams.
  2. Everyone in the class failed the final exams.

The teacher’s statement and the student’s statement are not contradictory. The teacher said nothing about the mid-term exams and the student said nothing about graduation. The statements are complementary with overlap. The same situation occurs between Mason’s second principle and the doctrine of original sin.

Fact #7: Mason believed in building on the good inherent in children.

Mason wrote her second principle because she wanted to advance an educational system that was based on the natural goodness in children. This goodness persists despite original sin. Mason taught that this goodness endures due to the prevenient grace of Christ. Christ came as the second Adam to bring light to the entire world (John 1:9). Mason believed that this should inform how we educate our children:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (volume 2, page 65)

Conclusion:

The above facts clearly demonstrate that Mason accepted the doctrine of original sin. However, she did not believe that a method of education should be built upon that doctrine in isolation. She founded her method of education upon not only that principle, but on other complementary principles that describe the full nature of the child.

9 Replies to “Fact Check: Did Charlotte Mason Reject Original Sin?”

  1. There are so many things that appeal to me about CM’s methods, but I really struggle with trying to understand her whole approach to character formation. While I don’t deny that she believed in original sin I struggle to reconcile a belief in sin with some of the way she writes in Formation of Character. In the introduction she writes:

    We may not make character our conscious objective. Provide a child with what he needs in the way of instruction, opportunity, and wholesome occupation, and his character will take care of itself: for normal children are persons of good will, with honest desires toward right thinking and right living.

    Her examples in the book seem terribly simplistic to me. I struggle to believe that the child who throws tantrums is just doing them out of habit which can be broken in a matter of weeks, rather than because he is sinful and wants his way and no amount of distraction about working in the garden with Papa will distract him from his desire to have his way.

    I really want to believe in CM’s whole method, but much of this just doesn’t seem to match with the reality of my experience of wrong behavior either on my part or my childrens’. Can someone help me see this in a different way?

    1. Nancy,

      Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to provide feedback. I am curious, have you read Charlotte Mason’s fourth volume, entitled Ourselves? Also, when you say that the examples in the book seem terribly simplistic, are you referring to the book Formation of Character? Could you give me an idea of a particular example that you found especially simplistic?

      Thanks,
      Art

  2. Thanks for getting back to me. I have not yet read Ourselves, I started with Formation of Character, because this particular aspect of CM’s philosophy has in the past been represented to me as a sort of behaviorism — if you just follow these methods your children will always be attentive, honest, etc etc. which I do not think is either biblical or (in my experience realistic). This is the biggest sticking point for me in getting “all in” on CM’s educational ideas, because I know that the academic side of her philosophy is not meant to be separate from the character/habit part of it. So I am trying to read Formation of Character for myself rather than accept the representations of her ideas which I have heard.
    The whole first section of volume 4 seems kind of simplistic to me: examples of a child who has ONE outstanding character flaw that repeats itself in a predictable way that can be anticipated and re-directed. For instance in the first chapter (Guy who throws tantrums) she seems to indicate the habit of throwing tantrums could be cured in 6 weeks if the nurse just distracts him every time he is about to have a tantrum. I have an 11 year old who can throw an angry tantrum when things don’t go his way and my assumption is that it is not a bad habit that can be cured in a matter of months or weeks, but a life-long process of learning to die to self, consider others more important, etc etc, and as his heart is changed to reflect God’s values more and more he will be less prone to fly into a rage when he does not get our way. Even were it possible to always distract him when he is frustrated I do not think that is the real answer because ultimately he needs to change his heart.
    I really appreciate you taking the time to interact with my thoughts because I really, really want to be all in on CM, but until I have this issue of habit/character/virtue resolved in my mind I don’t think that I can fully embrace her ideas.

    1. Nancy,

      Thank you for sharing this additional information. First, there are many things I would like to commend you for:

      1. You are approaching Charlotte Mason’s method as a whole rather than separating the academic side from the habit side. That shows a respect for the integrity of Mason’s ideas which I think is admirable.

      2. You are reading Mason’s writings for yourself rather than limiting yourself to secondary sources. Again, I think that is admirable.

      3. You want to be all in on Charlotte Mason, which I think is great!

      I would like to share a few ideas that may help you get across this final hurdle:

      1. Mason’s ideas on habit and sanctification are actually quite complex. One reason her ideas are so complex is that she treats both the spiritual and physical dimension of character and habit. If only one dimension is examined in isolation, it might seem simplistic. But it is important to consider carefully Mason’s full counsel on the subject. For an overview of the dual aspect of habit, please take a look at my article entitled “Flesh and Blood.”

      You’ll see from there why I recommend volume 4 (Ourselves). In that volume we find more of Mason’s perspective on the spiritual and theological dimension of sanctification and habit.

      2. For a non-simplistic story or testimony, there is a fascinating account in the second volume of The Parents’ Review. I strongly encourage you to read it. It is entitled “The Cure of a Mental Habit” and can be found in the Charlotte Mason archive.

      3. Another very helpful chapter to read outside of volumes 4 and 5 is chapter 15 of volume 2. If you read it carefully, you will note that while it focuses mostly on the physical dimension of habit, it also alludes to the spiritual dimension.

      4. Modern brain research has largely confirmed Mason’s ideas on formation of character. For one contemporary example, I recommend Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior by Richard O’Connor, published in 2014.

      I believe that if you continue your diligent study, you will find satisfying answers to your remaining questions. Please check out some of these additional resources and let me know if any have been helpful to you!

      Blessings,
      Art

  3. Thank you thank you for sharing so much knowledge with me. I will start in on those new suggestions. Can I infer from the fact that you are NOT pointing me toward CM’s Vol. 4 that that particular volume is maybe more time-bound or less applicable/accessible to modern Christian parents on these issues?

    1. Not at all! I think volume 4 is essential to piecing this all together. In fact, I think in some ways Ourselves is the Rosetta Stone for interpreting Mason’s writings. Note that the volume is split into two books. Mason wrote that Book I “is designed for boys and girls under sixteen” but Book II “should, perhaps, appeal to young people of any age.” But recall that even The Pilgrim’s Progress can be enjoyed by boys and girls under sixteen, and yet it communicates profound truths. I strongly commend the volume — both books — to young as well as old.

    1. Oh, I recommend volume 5 too! The only reason I didn’t mention it is because you said you were already reading it. The article in The Parents’ Review that I mentioned talks about “Dorothy Elmore’s Achievement”. There is a lot of really good material in Formation of Character. Blessings to you!

  4. Since I am struggling a bit with Vol. 5, maybe I will read Vol. 4 first and see if that sheds more light on her ideas of habit/character/sancitification. Thanks for the ideas!

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