The Theological Significance of Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle

The Theological Significance of Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle

Charlotte Mason’s second principle is that “[children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil” (VI: p. xxix). Since this is a statement by a Christian writer about good and evil, we must assume the author is making a theological statement. In fact, Mason’s exposition of her second principle in chapter 3 of A Philosophy of Education (entitled “The Good and Evil Nature of a Child”) focuses on theology. The key to understanding Mason’s statement is to recognize that Mason is not trying counter the notion that “some children are born good and other children are born bad.” Rather, Mason is trying to counter the twin errors that “all children are born all good” and “all children are born all bad”:

“A well-known educationalist has brought heavy charges against us all on the score that we bring up children as ‘children of wrath.’ He probably exaggerates the effect of any such teaching, and the ‘little angel’ theory is fully as mischievous.” (VI:46)

Mason asserts that all children, regardless of heredity, culture, or socioeconomic status, have an inborn tendency to “impurity”: “in every child there are tendencies to greediness, restlessness, sloth, impurity” (VI:48). However, this inborn tendency is not the end of the story. The theology of Mason’s second principle is expressed by an early advocate of Mason’s writings. The Ven. Richard Frederick Lefevre Blunt (1890) wrote in The Parents’ Review:

“There are two methods of training children in the things of God, two lines of thought to support these methods, perhaps two classes of Christians who sympathize exclusively with one or the other. Each represents one side of the truth; our danger is lest we exaggerate the one and pass by the other. There is the tendency in some minds to overstate the effects of the Fall, in others to overlook the Fall in the Redemption. Some teachers ignore altogether the intuitive impulses of the child towards good; others exaggerate them. Some would ‘esteem it the height of enthusiasm to look for any religion except as the result of direct teaching,’ others would trust entirely to what has been called ‘the devout intuition of the human mind,’ and would only preserve the child from moral taint. The one class read the Lord’s command as if he said, ‘Make little children like yourselves,’ forgetting that he really said, ‘Become yourselves like little children’; while the other would forget that we are bidden to ‘train up a child in the way he should go,’ and the principle which underlies it, that Divine grace is no substitute for human action. The representative of the former is to be found in Locke; of the latter in Wordsworth. In a word, the one class believe exclusively in tuition, the other in intuition.

Now the course of wisdom lies here, as elsewhere, not in a safe via media, but in a due recognition of both truths. If ‘grace is not tied to means,’ God’s work cannot be limited by ours. With our aid, or without our aid, He is always seeking to form in each of His children His Divine image. It is His work apart from us that we are to further, as well as His work through us which we are to accomplish. In fact, we are not to treat a child as if he were a block of marble which we are to hew into a statue, but as a plant of God’s planting which we are to nourish and develop. So He bids us work and bids us pray, filled with reverence for Him and love for His little ones.” (PR1:723-724)

Archdeacon Blunt has captured the intention behind Mason’s second principle. Mason is not emphasizing the Fall at the expense of Redemption, or the Redemption at the expense of the Fall, or a safe “via media.” Instead, Mason shows that by asserting the complete truth that all children are born with both good and bad elements, we can build a more healthy view of education:

“We are no longer solely occupied in what an Irish woman called ‘saving yer dirty sowl.’ Our religion is becoming more magnanimous and more responsible and it is time that a like change should take place in our educational thought.” (VI:46)

Since Mason’s second principle is a theological statement, the implications are also theological. Thus, her application of the second principle to her theory of education in chapter 3 of A Philosophy of Educationis filled with theological language:

“There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion. The community, the nation, the race, are now taking their due place in our religious thought.” (p. 46)

Mason invites us to the journey articulated by Archdeacon Blunt: “So [God] bids us work and bids us pray, filled with reverence for Him and love for His little ones.” As Christian educators, we may only do this if we “put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion.”

2 Replies to “The Theological Significance of Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle”

  1. Does Charlotte Mason (or, to frame the question more broadly: Do any of the others associated with her) speak in this connection about infant baptism?

    Mason herself was Anglican and working in a largely Anglican context, a context therefore in which most Christian children would have been baptized — and hence a context markedly different in its view of children than that of a church culture in which children are regarded as unbelievers until, at some point later in life and maybe even as late as the teenage years, a conversion experience occurs.

    It seems to me that this difference in baptismal theology and practice might also result in a different approach to children, not least in a different approach to their education.

    1. John,

      Yes, some people associated with Charlotte Mason did speak in this connection about infant baptism. A notable example is Mary L. G. Petrie, who wrote an article entitled “Whose Child?” for the Parents’ Review in 1891. She wrote:

      “In short, you tell [the boy or girl] that he is already a child of God, on one of two grounds. First, because he is a human being. St. Paul, by quoting the words of Aratus and Clenches to that effect, has shrined them as a truth to us for ever (Acts xvii. 28, 29). But if we dwell overmuch upon this aspect of our sonship, we may lose sight of ‘the fault and corruption of our nature,’ which Scripture teaches, and all history and experience confirms in so mournful and humbling a way. Our child, while we talk loosely of God’s mercy, may never gain an adequate notion of sin, or an adequate appreciation of salvation. Secondly, because he is baptized and so brought into the household of God, solemnly dedicated to God, placed under definite instruction about God, and unless the united prayer made for him at the font was neither heard nor answered, he is nearer to God than the unbaptized. But if we dwell overmuch upon this aspect of our sonship, we may be led to an extravagant appreciation of the mere ceremony…” (PR2, p. 626)

      Mason could not accept that “the united prayer made for him at the font was neither heard nor answered.” Rather, she held Christian baptism in high regard. She wrote:

      “Now the baptism of John was, we know, that of ‘repentance for the remission of sins.’ There was nothing mysterious or divine in it. It meant no more than ‘I am sorry I have done amiss and will turn over a new leaf.’ But this sacramental Baptism with hidden meanings, out of which a man came a new creature, because the Spirit of God came upon his spirit, this was different.” (PR19, p. 711)

      I think you have a point when you say that Mason operated in a “context markedly different in its view of children than that of a church culture in which children are regarded as unbelievers until, at some point later in life and maybe even as late as the teenage years, a conversion experience occurs.” That being said, even in a credo-baptist context there is room for viewing the children of believers in a special way. (For example, see 1 Corinthians 7:14. Also, when the children of believers participate in the lifestyle of a Christian family, they are following Christ.) Nevertheless, Dr. Benjamin Bernier wrote on the point you made in his doctoral dissertation:

      “Blunt’s article was promptly reproduced in the Parents’ Review, December 1890. The difference between Mason’s new ‘P.N.E.U.’ teaching and Blunt’s presentation is that he spells out openly what Mason and her P.N.E.U. audience usually presupposed in regard to their understanding of the ‘average Christian child’. These presuppositions only come to the forefront as necessary, and therefore can be easily missed by contemporary readers of Mason’s work. The ‘average Christian child’ was an English child, baptized in the Church of England under the care of conscientious church going parents. These baptized children, as they prepare for confirmation, being well trained, should become worthy bearers of their inheritance as English churchmen and citizens within the British kingdom.

      “Blunts’ exposition helps to illuminate the underlying Anglican presuppositions of Mason’s educational thought, which combined in one, religious and civic duties, reflecting the influence of the theological interpretation of Christianity and Anglicanism proposed by F.D. Maurice, in his emphasis upon, the Fatherhood of God, the incarnation and redemption, and the notion of a Universal Kingdom resulting from it, as the focal points of the Gospel in light of which the rest must be understood.” (Education for the Kingdom, p. 110)

      Your comment highlights a broader concern: when Mason is divorced from her historical and religious context, then her writings are subject to misinterpretation. Of course, we need not be Anglicans to benefit from her theory of education. But we do need to understand something about Anglicanism if we are to properly interpret it.

      Respectfully,
      Art

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