Charlotte Mason and the Spirituality of Motherhood

Charlotte Mason and the Spirituality of Motherhood

A paper submitted to Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh in fulfillment of the requirements for the Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies from Regent College

April 2023

“My dear, my life does not matter… It is the work that matters and, I say it with all reverence, it will some day (not in my lifetime) be seen to be one of the greatest things that has happened in the world.” — Charlotte Mason[1]

In her own day, Charlotte Mason (1842–1923) was a well-known educator, disseminating her educational vision across England and the empire. She is now virtually unknown to the public, except amongst the ever-growing homeschool community.[2] She has been little studied in academia, and is interpreted in such wildly contradictory ways, as to boggle the imagination.[3] Benjamin Bernier attributes this confusion to divorcing Charlotte Mason from her historical and theological context; separated from her devout Anglican-Evangelical faith, her central principles become displaced by the more accessible topics of concrete practice.[4] However, if Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy is to be understood, never mind practiced, more than a historical-theological contextualizing is required; Mason must be understood as establishing, not primarily an educational philosophy, but a distinct Christian spirituality that, while grounded in a rich Anglican-Evangelical tradition, has a unique comprehensiveness and focus—the spirituality of mothers for the sake of their children. I argue that Mason’s spirituality grows out of her belief in God’s incarnation and personhood, and that these two principles shape the whole nature of reality. Couched in incarnation and personhood, reality is viewed as fundamentally unified and relational, resulting in a Christian life with an expanded scope of grace and responsibility. Further, Mason believed that the mother was uniquely responsible and capable to pass on this Christian life.

The Anglican tradition has long been characterized by a positive view of the world, believing that through it humanity can have real communion with God.[5] For Mason, Christ’s incarnation laid the ground for a radically unified world.[6] The principle of unification extended throughout her entire philosophy, abolishing life’s usual dualities; secular and sacred, material and spiritual, form and content.[7] This emphasis on unity led Mason to give particular weight to God’s “laws” written into the natural world; scientific discoveries that accorded with God’s Scriptural revelation implied real commands: “[God’s] commandment is exceeding broad; becomes broader year by year with every revelation of science.”[8] For Mason, parents were responsible to keep abreast of God’s broadening revelation and to raise their children in accordance with it. One scientific “revelation” was especially key to developing a unified vision of life and had significant impact on her views of raising children: Dr. William B. Carpenter was a British scientist whose research led him to believe that the materialist view of the person, popular in the 19th century, was unfounded. Rather, mind and matter both actively work on each other, with the will being the final determiner of actions.[9] Due to Carpenter’s “revelation,” Mason was able to develop a physiological basis of character development. Because one’s actions and choices are physically engrained in the brain to such a degree that they become habit, and habits eventually become character, one could harness one’s physiology to achieve the spiritual end of a character conformed to Christ. The world of the spirit—ideas, inspirations, affections—and the world of matter—art, science, nature, our bodies—completely intersected each other, making everything a possibility for good or evil.

In Christ, all of reality was united, and the extent of this unity had been scientifically verified by Carpenter. Another important unifying idea for Mason was that the Holy Spirit is the great communicator of all truth, whether secular or sacred.[10] Nothing, from farming to painting to doctrine—nothing that is true and good—comes apart from God. Nothing was unspiritual.

While the idea of a unified reality was not entirely novel, Mason believed the implications for child-rearing had never been attended to. Because the Christian life was a magnificently expansive unity, the only proper way to communicate it was through an expansive and unified life, and Mason knew of no better place than the home.

Mason saw the home as a unified space, encompassing work, play, worship, friends, and family. It was a space that could communicate “a conception of the divine relation which [would] embrace the whole of human life.”[11] Within the home, Mason believed the mother was the ideal and God-ordained teacher. [12] Her entire volume, Home Education, is addressed to mothers.[13] And while she addressed much of her work to teachers, she considered the mother to be the teacher par excellence.[14] Mason’s belief in the power of the mother cannot be overstated: “it is upon the mothers of the present that the future of the world depends, … because it is the mothers who have the sole direction of the children’s early, most impressible years.”[15] She regularly quoted Pestalozzi’s claim that, “The mother is qualified, and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child… Maternal love is the first agent in education.”[16] Further, her own school, significantly called the “House of Education,” was a manifestation of Mason’s own belief that the home was far more capable of communicating her vision of true life than a formal institution.[17] And Mason’s own role was far more akin to mother than teacher.[18]

If the home was the ideal location for this full life, and the mother the ideal teacher, how was the mother to act in view of the great unity of reality and knowledge?

First, the mother must be convinced of her responsibility and ability to lead her children into this full life, because the laws of child-rearing had been revealed. Mason had no time for parents who prayed for God’s grace towards their children while ignoring God’s natural and moral law.[19] She believed in the Holy Spirit’s cooperation with every sincere, law-abiding effort, but that this effort was a precondition to his involvement.[20] Second, the mother must watch and think. Since knowledge comes from above and all aspects of life may provide vital knowledge, a mother must always be gathering knowledge through careful observation of her children and their surroundings. Mason describes a good mother as “always on the alert,” as having “watchfulness” and “vigilance,” eager to see what is influencing her child for good or ill, always attuned to the spiritual timbre of her child.[21] With this knowledge at her fingertips, the mother must then think. A very common phrase for Mason is the “thoughtful mother,” and she pressed upon mothers their responsibility to give “‘a thinking love’ to their Children.”[22] Third, the mother was responsible to harness all aspects of reality to lead her children into the full life; nothing was beneath her notice, thus nothing was beneath her responsibility.[23] Readers are often taken aback by Mason’s swings from high-level philosophical issues, to her dive into the most minute points, such as the importance of woolen garments for children.[24] But as the body was a vital part of the spiritual life, the mother could not overlook it. Similarly, Mason’s insistence that the mother make the nursery, “suitable,” “pleasing,” and of “good effect,” seems overly fastidious. But Mason believed that a truth was only complete, and only completely known, when it was beautiful. Beauty was not a matter of subjective taste. A thing was beautiful only as it aligned with its God-ordained nature, and one’s knowledge of a thing was only complete as one felt appropriately about it. Beauty thus revealed the unified nature of reality while simultaneously convincing the affections of its goodness.[25] Therefore, to raise children with an eye to beauty was to raise them with a deeper knowledge of God. Far from being overwhelmed at the spiritual significance that all reality played in the life of a child, Mason believed that it was a sign of God’s goodness. Certainly the responsibility of the mother had expanded, but God’s means of grace were also everywhere present.[26]

However, as all-encompassing as this principle of the unified life sounds, it is still insufficient to describe the spiritual inheritance mothers were to give their children. One might wonder how, considering Mason’s emphasis on the importance of respecting children’s rights as full persons (especially their right to freedom), she could insist so vehemently on children’s absolute obedience to their parents.[27] This contradiction can only be explained from the background of her most foundational principle.

Before God is understood as incarnate, before he is understood as the source of all truth, Mason understands God as a person—an infinitely personal person. If academics bother to discuss Mason’s theological grounds for her philosophy of education at all, they usually begin with her anthropology—specifically, her emphasis on the personhood of children.[28] This is understandable, as Mason’s first principle in her philosophy of education is “Children are born persons.”[29] More fundamental is the personhood of God: “The very essence of Christianity is personal loyalty, passionate loyalty to our adorable Chief.”[30] Faith, she described as “the Simple Trust of Persons in a Person.”[31] Righteousness was “a certain disposition of [a person’s] spirit to the Spirit of God; a disposition of trust, love, reverence, the disposition of a dutiful son to a good father.”[32] In all of these descriptions, relationship is primary.

Within this context, Mason’s seeming contradictions are clarified and set in order. The primary duty of the Christian, and thus the child, is not to know truth, but to interact appropriately with Truth himself. And what is our proper relation to him?—“Christ, our King… Let us save Christianity for our children by bringing them into allegiance to Christ, the King.”[33] Since God is fundamentally a person, and this person is our King, the fundamental error is not to misunderstand (an intellectual category), but to disobey, ignore, and treat him with indifference (a relational category). The mother disciples her children with this, her deepest principle, front and centre.

The first great implication of God’s kingship is that the mother is not primarily a teacher of information, but a revealer of God’s nature. Mason is very explicit on this point: “It is as revealers of God to their children that parents touch their highest limitations; perhaps it is only as they succeed in this part of their work that they fulfil the Divine intention in giving them children to bring up—in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”[34] Parents are “personally appointed deputies of the Almighty King, the sole Ruler of men; … his parents are as God to the little child; and, yet more constraining thought, God is to him what his parents are.[35] Thus, the primary duty of parents to children is to secure obedience, exercising their authority not arbitrarily, but as ones also under authority.[36] Mason had much to say to the mother who did not train her children in the “sacred duty of … instant obedience.”[37] The mother who allowed herself to be wheedled, bribed, and bullied by her children destroyed their moral understanding and put barriers between them and God.[38] Similarly, a mother who justified her commands through reasons was not honouring the personhood of her child, but obscuring the fact that we obey God, not primarily because we understand why, but because his character demands it.[39] For, “[young people] only perceive their obligations to Almighty God in proportion as they know what they owe to their human parents.”[40] Far from viewing absolute obedience to parents as oppressive to children, Mason believed that the gift of obedience prevented children from becoming “the most pitiable of all slaves, the slave of chance desires.”[41]

Obedience was the first, but certainly not the only implication of how the mother was to raise her child in light of God’s personhood. Another was that the mother must communicate what Mason called the “objective principle.”[42] In essence, because God is a person and our duty is to obey and love him, life was fundamentally objective in orientation.[43] Since all reality is taken up in Christ and all knowledge is from the Holy Spirit, it follows that all of existence should be interacted with objectively, since all reality should lead outward and upward to God: “this free and joyous development, whether of intellect or heart, is recognized as a Godward movement.”[44] This objective principle was to be ever-present to mothers. For example, a mother was to teach a child to ignore his own sensations; a child’s senses were for enjoying God’s beautiful reality, not for making him aware of himself. [45] Mason believed self-awareness to be the fundamental “fall” of a child.[46] Life was not about self-expression, but worship: “Simplicity, happiness and expansion come from the outpouring of a human heart upon that which is altogether worthy.”[47] With this aim, the mother was to put her child in contact with all of God’s good gifts—the best books, the beauty of nature, the joy of music and movement, the best minds, and most of all, the person Jesus Christ.

While the principle of unity meant the mother was to be a thinking mother, the principle of relationship meant the mother was to be a meditative mother. Mason had a high view of knowledge, but since knowledge is fundamentally relational, it is most truly known relationally.[48] If the mother was to put her children in contact with the person of Christ, she herself needed living, spiritual contact with him. She required “a seed of sympathy with the Divine thought sown in the heart.”[49] Only then could the living reality existing within her be naturally implanted in her children, in moments as simple as looking at flowers or through her daily Bible reading with the children. Such profound, living knowledge could only be properly achieved through “reflective contemplation which we name meditation.”[50] Mason was so insistent on this point that she said, “this duty of devout meditation seems to me the most important part of the preparation of the mother.”[51] The most appropriate object of meditation was the Scriptures, but especially the person of Christ in the gospels.[52] Mason’s most treasured project was not her six-volume series on education, but her unfinished multi-volume work of poetry that explored all four gospels verse by verse. Her goal was to lead others to meditate on the “whole conception of Christ’s life.”[53] Mason’s vision of meditation is beautifully captured in one of her poems:

So Mary sat and heard, with ear intent,
Upgathering words that from the Master fell
For day-long ponderings, intelligent.[54]

Mason had great faith that such meditation would be always profitable, confident that “Nothing can be more obvious … than that the Father of spirits should graciously keep open such intimate access to, and converse with, the spirits of men.”[55] No other activity was so sure of opening to a mother’s heart true spiritual insight.

“‘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.”[56] This, indeed, is the fundamental question guiding Mason’s spirituality. Christ incarnate, the unifier. Christ the king, the object of our love and loyalty. He was the reality that Mason urged mothers to give their children. While she filled pages with how the mother accomplished this great task, her confidence to do so came from her deep contact with the God who delighted her with his boundless gifts and staggered her with his desire for intimacy. United to such a God, a mother would surely “come thoroughly furnished to her work.”[57]

Laura Teeple is a piano teacher and homemaker. She recently completed her Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies from Regent College, garnering the Board of Governors’ Prize for Proficiency. While she enjoys theological reading, she finds her most important theological insights come from Tolkien, Lewis, and Austen. Laura lives in Cold Lake, Alberta where her husband, Nathanael, is stationed as a fighter pilot.

©2023 Laura Teeple


[1] Benjamin E. Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom: An Exploration of the Religious Foundation of Charlotte Mason’s Educational Philosophy” (PhD diss., 2009), 44.

[2] Simply Charlotte Mason, Ambleside Online, Charlotte Mason Poetry. These are only some of the most popular Charlotte Mason organizations, but there are many more.

[3] Perhaps the most shocking example of contradictory interpretations is Benjamin Bernier’s and Hilary Cooper’s. Bernier asserts that Mason’s philosophy is grounded in a “Christ-centred objective religion” (Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 114). Cooper describes Mason’s philosophy as “preced[ing] … the early constructivists” (Hillary Cooper, “Charlotte Mason, history and outdoor education and her relevance today,” Education 3–13, 51, no. 2 (2023): 192).

[4] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 35.

[5] “John Donne,” in Love’s redeeming work: the Anglican quest for holiness, ed. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth E. Stevenson, and Rowan Williams, 146: “And he loves himself, who by seeing God in the theater of the world, and in the glass of the creature…” This idea is echoed by Mason: “all nature is symbolic, or as has been better said, is sacramental. Realizing the close correspondence and inter-dependence between things natural and things spiritual, that God nowhere leaves Himself without a witness, and that every beauteous form and sweet sound is charged with teaching for us, had we eyes to see and ears to hear, we shall better understand any single emblem.” (Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 164.)

[6] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 66–67.

[7] Charlotte M. Mason, Home Education, 129–131.

[8] Charlotte M. Mason, Parents and Children, 21.

[9] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 59.

[10] Stephen Kaufmann, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Educational Thought and Practice of Charlotte Mason,” Journal of Education & Christian Belief 9, no. 2 (2005): 110.

[11] Mason, Parents and Children, 130.

[12] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 15.

[13] Mason, Home Education, xviii.

[14] Mason, Home Education, 178.

[15] Mason, Home Education, 2.

[16] Mason, Home Education, 2.

[17] Grace Mooney, “Applying Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy to Early Childhood Education: A Qualitative Study of Four Teachers’ Experiences,” (PhD diss., University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2015), 22.

[18] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 129.

[19] Mason, Home Education, 40.

[20] Mason, Parents and Children, 48.

[21] Mason, Home Education, 118, 122, 141, 167.

[22] Mason, Parents and Children, 171, 180, 181, 200. Mason, Home Education, 2.

[23] “Nothing is trivial that concerns a child.” Mason, Home Education, 5.

[24] Mason, Home Education, 36.

[25] “Feelings, [Charlotte Mason] believed, are the [dominant] force in our moral thinking.” J. Carroll Smith, “Charlotte Mason: An Introductory Analysis of Her Educational Theories and Practices” (PhD diss., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2000), 101.

[26] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 65.

[27] Charlotte M. Mason, “Children Are Born Persons: Liberty versus various forms of tyranny,” The Parents’ Review 22 (1911): para 10.

[28] Pedro Lara Astiaso, Susana Miró López, Susana Sendra Ramos. ““Take heed that ye offend not—despise not—hinder not—one of these little ones”: Charlotte Mason and her educational proposal,” International Journal of Christianity & Education 26 no. 2 (2022): 164–165.

[29] Charlotte M. Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, xxix.

[30] Mason, Home Education, 350.

[31] Mason, Parents and Children, 134.

[32] Mason, Parents and Children, 140.

[33] Mason, Home Education, 350–351 (emphasis original).

[34] Mason, Parents and Children, 41.

[35] Mason, Parents and Children, 14 (emphasis original).

[36] Mason, Home Education, 161.

[37] Mason, Home Education, 162.

[38] Mason, Home Education, 163–164.

[39] “To give reasons to a child is usually out of place, and is a sacrifice of parental dignity.” Mason, Home Education, 15–16.

[40] Charlotte M. Mason, Formation of Character, 197.

[41] Mason, “Children Are Born Persons,” para 10.

[42] Mason, Parents and Children, 285.

[43] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 113–114.

[44] Mason, Parents and Children, 275.

[45] Mason, Parents and Children, 180, 192.

[46] Mason, “Children Are Born Persons,” para 14.

[47] Mason, Parents and Children, 285.

[48] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 159.

[49] Mason, Home Education, 80.

[50] Charlotte M. Mason, “Meditation,” The Parents’ Review (1906): 707.

[51] Mason, “Meditation,” 709.

[52] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 155.

[53] Charlotte M. Mason, Saviour of the World, vol. 1 (New York: Routledge, 2015), xi (emphasis original).

[54] Charlotte M. Mason, Saviour of the World, vol. 6 (New York: Routledge, 2018), 55.

[55] Mason, Parents and Children, 132.

[56] Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom,” 114.

[57] Mason, Home Education, 3.

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