A Theory of Education in the Gospels

A Theory of Education in the Gospels

In 1914, Mason’s close associate Agnes Drury wrote, “[Mason] has herself told us that she has drawn her philosophy from the Gospels, where we may study and note ‘the development of that consummate philosophy which meets every occasion of our lives, all demands of the intellect, every uneasiness of the soul.’” This testimony from a member of Mason’s inner circle is powerful and is to be taken seriously. It leads to an obvious question: what aspects of Mason’s theory of education come from the Gospels?

A survey of Mason’s writings reveals that Mason claims to have discovered at least three of the foundational concepts of her theory of education directly from the Holy Gospels. These core concepts are:

  1. The nature and rights of the child (principles 1, 2, and 4).
  2. The nature of authority and obedience (principle 3).
  3. The nature of learning as feeding on ideas (principles 8-10).

The Nature and Rights of the Child

Mason first unveiled her theory of education in a series of lectures in 1885. The first lecture began with an exposition of specific teachings of Christ. In that way, she began her method both chronologically and structurally on the teachings of Christ. These lectures are captured in volume 1 of the Home Education series. Pages 12-20 contain her exposition of the key Gospel passages that are foundational to her entire theory of education. She begins this exposition by saying that she has “discover[ed] … a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ.”

Mason summarizes this code in a single powerful statement: “Take heed that ye OFFEND not—DESPISE not—HINDER not—one of these little ones.” This statement is drawn from Matthew 18:6, Matthew 18:10, and  Matthew 19:14. Mason brought an innovative interpretation to these words of Christ. Dr. Benjamin Bernier states, “As far as I know, Mason was the first Christian educator to highlight these set of teachings of Christ as a code of law setting the boundaries for the education of children, shedding light upon the role of Mason’s Christian commitment in the formation and proper understanding of her key concepts.”

Mason explicitly links this “Code of Education in the Gospels” to her first principle (“Children are born persons”) in her paper entitled “Concerning Children as ‘Persons’,” first written in 1911. Evoking her 1885 proclamation, Mason writes:

We remember the divine warning, ‘See that ye despise not one of these little ones’; but the words convey little definite meaning to us. What we call ‘science’ is too much with us. We must either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings, who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offense.

For Mason, when one denies her first principle (that children are born persons), one violates Matthew 18:10.

And yet Mason does not envision herself as recovering an ancient or classical truth. Instead, in “Concerning Children as ‘Persons’,” she claims that her first principle is revolutionary:

I believe that the first article of a valid educational creed — ‘children are born persons’ — is of a revolutionary character; for what is a revolution but a complete reversal of attitude? And by the time, say, in another decade or two, that we have taken in this single idea, we shall find that we have turned round, reversed our attitude towards children not only in a few particulars, but completely.

For Mason, the first article of her educational creed is not found in tradition; rather, it is found in the Holy Gospels, ready to ignite a revolution in our hearts.

The Nature of Authority and Obedience

In Mason’s original 1885 lecture, she also first unveiled her distinctive concept about authority and obedience (principle 3). She writes,

Where is the beginning of this tangle, spoiling the lives of parent and child alike? In this: that the mother began with no sufficient sense of duty; she thought herself free to allow and disallow, to say and unsay, at pleasure, as if the child were hers to do what she liked with. The child has never discovered a background of must behind is mother’s decisions; he does not know that she must not let him break his sister’s playthings, gorge himself with cake, spoil the pleasure of other people, because these things are not right. Let the child perceive that his parents are law-compelled as well as he, that they simply cannot allow him to do the things which have been forbidden, and he submits with the sweet meekness which belongs to his age. To give reasons to a child is usually out of place, and is a sacrifice of parental dignity; but he is quick enough to read the ‘must’ and ‘ought’ which rule her, in his mother’s face and manner, and in the fact that she is not to be moved from a resolution on any question of right and wrong.

For Mason, the parent only has authority because he or she is also under authority. From where did Mason derive this truth? She provides the answer in 1897:

Autocracy is defined as independent or self-derived power. Authority, on the other hand, we may qualify as not being self-derived and not independent. The centurion in the Gospels says: ‘I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, “Go, and he goeth”; to another, “Come, and he Cometh” ; and to my servant, “Do this, and he doeth it.”’

Here we have the powers and the limitations of authority. The centurion is set under authority, or, as we say, authorised, and, for that reason, he is able to say to one, ‘go,’ to another, ‘come’ and to a third, ‘do this,  in the calm certainty that all will be done as he says, because he holds his position for this very purpose — to secure that such and such things shall be accomplished. He himself is a servant with definite tasks, though they are the tasks of authority. This, too, is the position that Our Lord assumes; He says: ‘I came not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me.’ That is His commission and the standing order of His life, and for this reason He spake as one having authority, knowing Himself to be commissioned and supported” (PR8:324-325).

Here Mason cites the account of the centurion in Luke 7:8 as her source for this concept. Again, as Drury claimed, Mason drew “her philosophy from the Gospels.”

The Nature of Learning as Feeding on Ideas

Principles 8-10 of Mason’s theory of education center on one of her most distinctive notions, which is that the learning process is best described as a spiritual organism feeding on ideas. Mason unabashedly claims this notion to be one of the great discoveries of the twentieth century:

We have left until the last that instrument of education implied in the phrase ‘Education is a life’; ‘implied’ because life is no more self-existing than it is self-supporting; it requires sustenance, regular, ordered and fitting. This is fully recognised as regards bodily life and, possibly, the great discovery of the twentieth century will be that mind too requires its ordered rations and perishes when these fail. (Vol 6, p. 104)

From where did Mason derive this concept? Surely not from the classical tradition, if it is a “discovery of the twentieth century.” Mason cites her source in her educational catechism, published in volume 2 (page 246):

Does this doctrine of ideas as the spiritual food needful to sustain the immaterial life throw any light on the doctrines of the Christian religion?

Yes; the Bread of Life [John 6:35, John 6:48], the Water of Life [Revelation 22:17], the Word by which man lives [Matthew 4:4], the ‘meat to eat which ye know not of’ [John 4:32], and much more, cease to be figurative expressions, except that we must use the same words to name the corporeal and the incorporeal sustenance of man. We understand, moreover, how ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence, are the spiritual meat and drink of His believing people. We find it no longer a ‘hard saying,’ [John 6:60] nor a dark saying, that we must sustain our spiritual selves upon Him, even as our bodies upon bread.

This concept of the Bread of Life as the heart of education was so important to Mason that she wrote an entire book of poetry about the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. She published these poems across approximately 70 pages of volume 4 of The Saviour of the World. Mason later directed her readers to the foundational importance of these poetic reflections on the Gospels. In the Parent’s Review (volume 25), she included a press cutting about a volume of the series, and wrote:

The following press cutting will indicate more fully the character of a work which the author would gladly see in familiar use in P.N.E.U. households, as it goes to the root of that which we commonly describe as ‘P.N.E.U. thought’…

In saying this, she indicates that the Gospels serve as a primary source of her theory of education, which she sometimes refers to as “P.N.E.U. thought.”


Margaret Coombs describes Mason’s theory of education as “the scientific physiology of habit training within an evangelical religious framework.” This expression captures the essence of Mason’s theory: a blending of new (science) and old (Gospel). Mason acknowledges this religious framework when she writes that “. . . our readers are aware that our whole superstructure rests upon a religious, or more precisely upon a Christian basis . . .” (PR4:662)

Mason said that the ultimate source of the progressive and transformative power of her theory of education is found in a “profound Christianity” which is based on a direct and unalloyed reception of Christ’s teaching. She writes:

We of the P.N.E.U., if we be minded to advance in our thousands with one heart and one purpose, are strong enough to bring about a Twentieth Century Renascence, more glorious and permanent than that of the Middle Age, because its ultimate source shall be a profound Christianity, in lieu of the poisoned springs of Paganism. We have the one thing to offer which the whole world wants, an absolutely effective system of education covering the whole nature of a child, the whole life of man. (PR23:811)

Mason’s “profound Christianity” is a vision of education based on a Code of Education in the Gospels, and a “discovery of the twentieth century,” that “ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence, are the spiritual meat and drink of His believing people.”

4 Replies to “A Theory of Education in the Gospels”

  1. As I understand it, children are instinctively believing. Therefore, if we do not offend or hinder these little ones, they will come to Jesus. When I came upon this gospel reference made by Charlotte Mason in “Home Education” not only did I consider it a marvelous principle of education, but I began to cling to it (in my young motherhood) also as being a Christian doctrine – a possible promise.This possible promise, together with our view of the child, of neither reverencing him or despising him, linked with our position of authority under God, the feeding on life-sustaining ideas (especially those found in the gospels) is a beautiful congenial combination. I can hear it hum and swirl together like a rotary engine (an illustration so unlike one that Miss Mason would have used, but alas, one with gears and fuel that fits my meaning of work.) For, this philosophy is one meant to be devotedly worked out and lovingly lived out. Thank you for this clear and inspiring article. Karen A.

    1. In your Charlotte Mason Companion, you wrote, “The desire for children to know God personally is in the heart of every Christian educator.” It is encouraging to hear how Mason’s words gave you hope, guidance, and comfort as a young parent. May her words continue to give hope and guidance to parents of many generations to come.

  2. In Mason’s day, the New Education had hit its height and many voices were crying out for ascendency as to which educational “model” was most appropriate to children, especially the working class. From the scientific Herbartians, to the Little Commonwealth of Homer Lane, these approaches thought they had THE answer to Britain’s problematic education problems. And yet, not one of them had the “ring of truth” as a foundational principle. Only Mason, with her living education set upon the Rock had the Biblical/theological center that would ultimately hold true.

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