Charlotte Mason’s Theology: Orthodoxy or Innovation?

Charlotte Mason’s Theology: Orthodoxy or Innovation?

This essay is was first published in Essays on the Life and Work of Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, published by Riverbend Press. ©2014 by the Charlotte Mason Institute.

By Art Middlekauff

Innovation is normally seen as good. In our day of iPads and Kindles, innovation has become a requirement for commercial survival. But there is one field in which innovation is often regarded with suspicion:  Christian theology. It has been said, with good reason, “If it’s new, it’s not true.” The Apostle Paul wrote of “the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people” (Jude 1:3, NLT). If the faith of God is unchanging, then what room is there for innovation?

Charlotte Mason herself warned of the dangers of innovation. In the Parent’s Review magazine she wrote, “Conscientious mothers feel it is a duty to know and to try the last new thing; but let me entreat you and them to try the spirits whose they be; every new and promising theory that I have come across is of the flesh and not of the spirit” (as cited in Bernier, 2009, p. 179).  For Mason, “new” ideas are “of the flesh” – implying that they are not true. By contrast, true and trustworthy ideas come from “the spirit” of God “with whom there is no variation of shadow due to change” (James 1:17, RSV).

Mason’s original followers claimed that her ideas fell in the latter category. For example, Frances Chesterton (1923) wrote, “Miss Mason was gifted in many ways, but in none I think more than in her power of inspiring others with ideas, and ideas fundamentally so sound, that those who were able to work them out, felt that they must originate in truth — so often ideas are inspiring for a time, but having little actuality, little relation with facts — they do not live to bear fruit” (p. 84).

Today, however, many conservative Christians question whether Mason’s ideas do in fact “originate in truth.” For them this is no idle question. The premise of orthodoxy is that orthodoxy (“right teaching”) derives from God and leads to right practice. By contrast, error (“wrong teaching”) leads to bad practice. If Mason’s ideas are found to lie outside of the “right teaching” of God, then they should not be utilized in the care and education of our children.

To explore whether Mason’s theology should be classified under orthodoxy or innovation, I will attempt to answer two questions:

  1. What did Charlotte Mason say?
  2. Can similar teaching be found in established Christian tradition (whether or not it is her actual source)?

I will focus on aspects of theology that have the most bearing on her philosophy and method of education (her views on eschatology may be interesting, but probably have little relevance to the practice of education). I believe the most relevant aspects of her theology are personhood and personal development. If a precedent for her ideas in these areas can be found in the broad history of Christian doctrine, then we may safely classify her as orthodox.

For example, Mason taught that conscience is not an infallible guide (1989c, pp. 331-335). She wrote that the conscience must be instructed in order to operate properly. Can this idea be found in a recognized branch of Christian tradition? We find that both Pope Benedict XVI (2007, pp. 12-13) and John MacArthur (n.d.) taught the same idea. Clearly, Mason did not derive her idea from either Benedict or MacArthur. But given that the idea is found within Christian tradition, it may be thought of as orthodox rather than innovative.

Now the challenges that I have heard to Mason’s orthodoxy regarding personhood and personal development tend to focus on three specific areas. The first area is theological anthropology, which asks the question, what is the nature of a child? The second area is sanctification, which asks the question, how does a child grow in holiness? The final area is spiritual formation, which asks the question, how does a child grow into the fullness of Christ? Therefore I will focus on Mason’s theology in these three areas of personhood and personal development. To understand Mason’s theology, I will take her words at face value. I will not attempt to evaluate the process by which she developed these ideas, but rather to let her speak for herself about her beliefs.

Theological Anthropology

In my experience, the most common objection to Mason’s orthodoxy relates to her view of anthropology, the nature of the child. This objection was put forth forcibly by Aimee Natal:

Article One declares: “Children are born persons.” True enough; however, there is much more there than meets the eye, as will be seen after discussing Article Two: “They [children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil.”… The Bible clearly dispels this notion of the innocence of man, made popular again in Mason’s time by various men, such as Darwin, Rousseau and Goethe, all to whom she refers and quotes throughout her volumes. While Mason does not state outright, “Man is born good,” she at the same time does not state, teach or imply that man is born bad, or born in sin, or is naturally sinful. The Bible does. (1999, online)

Natal’s reference to the Bible seems to be related to New Testament passages such as:

  • “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:12, ESV)
  • “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” (Romans 7:18, ESV)

At first glance, Mason’s (1954) statement that children “are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil” (p. xxix) seems to contradict these verses.

I have spoken with many groups and individuals about this question and I often begin the discussion by saying that I will tackle the issue directly by presenting a most difficult quotation. I then share the following statement:

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.

I then ask the audience whether that statement is compatible with Scripture. Over the years, the vast majority of responders have said, “No” – most people tell me that statement is simply not orthodox.

Then when I ask who made the statement, most people reply, “Charlotte Mason.” But then I correct them and tell them that the source of the quotation is actually John Calvin (2006). Then I suggest that something is wrong with the common understanding of theological anthropology. If a statement by John Calvin (whose name is almost synonymous with total depravity) is seen as “innovation,” then what is going on?  Calvin (2006) said more on this topic:

The mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts… Even the pagan poets … confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws and all useful arts … Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.

Calvin clearly states that a person is born with both good tendencies and evil tendencies.

Modern conservative Christians have made similar assertions. For example, David Anderson (2008) wrote:

Atheists not only can, but must be (at least to some extent) good without believing in God. If they are really made in the image of God as the Bible teaches (Genesis 1:28), then that fact must have some results. If atheists were generally able to throw off all the shackles of morality and live their lives consistently with atheism, … it would put a serious question mark over the record given to us in Genesis. It would be evidence that maybe they weren’t creatures made by God after all, and that atheism might actually be true.

To sort this out, we need to look at what the doctrine of original sin really is. Natal (1999) stated it as follows:

Scripture teaches we are born in sin, and dead in our sin, and that our nature is not good, but evil.

By contrast, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563) formulate the doctrine as follows:

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.

Which formulation better accounts for the story of Cornelius in Acts 10:1-4 (RSV)?

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

The first formulation says that persons are born evil. The second formulation leaves room for some good in our nature, such as that found in Cornelius. However, the second formulation also states that whatever good man may be born with, it is insufficient to earn merit with God. Mason (1989a, Book II, p. 180) quotes the second formulation so she was obviously familiar with it.

According to Natal, however, Mason never asserts the doctrine of original sin. Natal (1999) writes, “While Mason does not state outright, “Man is born good,’ she at the same time does not state, teach or imply that man is born bad, or born in sin, or is naturally sinful.” That is quite simply not true. Mason (1908a) explicitly teaches that man is “naturally sinful”:

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! (, p. 37)

Furthermore Mason (1908a) warns of the disastrous consequences of “self left to itself”:

The Saviour of the World, in casual way,
Drops words of our Salvation, links of chain
Let down to draw us from that nether hell
Which is but our own self to itself left (, p. 6)

Mason (1910) also wrote a poem entitled “The Fall”:

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

Themselves for entities, with passions, parts:
Alack, the difference! Ye who did dwell
In th’ light of God see from what height ye fell,
And shun the recreant Self that filch’d your hearts:

No gracious shame’s in us; complacent thought,
Approving or contemning, ‘s Ego fraugtht! (, p. 173)

For Mason, total depravity (or original sin, the Fall) affects the full breadth of every child’s nature, but not its full depth. In other words, the Fall corrupts every dimension of the child, but does not eradicate the image of God within that child. The “totality” of breadth renders the child meritless before God, but the lingering image of God yields a potential for good. Mason (1954) explains the “totality of breadth” as follows: “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” (p. 47).  Similarly she writes, “There is in human nature an aversion to God … there is in human nature, as well as a deep-seated craving for God, a natural and obstinate aversion to Him” (Mason, 1989a, Book II, p. 180).

But according to Mason, man is not left alone under the weight of corruption. Rather, the grace of Christ touches all people. The Apostle John wrote, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9, NIV, 1984). Mason (1989b) envisions this light as redemption:

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. (p. 65)

It is only in a “redeemed word” that we can expect to see good tendencies emerge from a corrupted nature:

And perhaps it is not too beautiful a thing to believe in this redeemed world, that, as the babe turns to his mother though he has no power to say her name, as the flowers turn to the sun, so the hearts of the children turn to their Saviour and God with unconscious delight and trust. (Mason, 1989c, p. 20)

So when Mason says, children “are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil,” she is not denying the doctrine of original sin, but she is rather asserting that (a) children are created in the image of God and (b) we live in a redeemed world in which Christ gives a measure of light to all. For clarity, then, I like to restate Mason’s second principle as:

[Children] in this redeemed world are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.

How does this principle relate to orthodoxy? Earlier I referenced the strong statement of Scripture in Romans 7:18. The wider context is as follows:

18    For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

22    For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being. (ESV)

Bray (2006) described how the Church Fathers interpreted this passage of St. Paul:

Most of the Fathers believed that here Paul was adopting the persona of an unregenerate man, … Romans 7:22 would appear to create a difficulty for those who believe that Paul was describing the unregenerate person, but some of the Fathers resolved it by saying that the inmost self was the rational intellect. As far as they were concerned, any rational person would automatically take delight in the law of God because it is supremely rational. The difficulty comes in trying to move from theory to practice. The dilemma of unregenerate persons is insoluble apart from the grace of God given to us in Christ. This sets us free from the law of sin and death and allows us to serve the law of God as right reason dictates.

So according to Bray, the Fathers believed that (a) a remnant of good remains in the hearts of the unregenerate (enough to take delight in the law of God), and (b) only the grace of God frees us from sin. Both points align perfectly with Mason’s teaching.

The “dual nature” of the child has important implications for education. If children are “completely evil”, then the role of education is to eliminate the child’s nature and completely replace it with something new. But if the child retains the image of God, and has “a deep-seated craving for God,” then the role of education is more subtle. Mason assumes that the child innately possesses the ability to understand and relate to God. She writes (1989d):

We cannot make a child ‘good’; but, … we can lay paths for the good life in the very substance of his brain. We cannot make him hear the voice of God; but, again, we can make paths where the Lord God may walk in the cool of the evening. (p. 142)

So the teacher does not make the child good. Rather, the teacher brings the child to the place where God may be found. Once in that place, the teacher steps back and allows the child to walk directly with God, sans intermediary.


Natal (1999) continues her critique of Mason by evaluating her doctrine of sanctification. Natal includes an extensive quotation of Mason along with a commentary (the ellipses are from Natal’s online document):

Mason continues, ‘Ye must be born again, we are told; and we say, with a sense of superior knowledge of the laws of Nature, How can a man be born again? [A]t last, the miracle of conversion is made plain to our dull understanding. We perceive that conversion, however sudden, is no miracle at all… [W]e find that every man carries in his physical substance the gospel of perpetual, or always possible renovation; and we find how, from the beginning, Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace. Is conversion possible? we ask; and the answer is, that it is, so to speak, a function of which there is latent provision in our physical constitution, to be called forth by the touch of a potent idea. Truly His commandment is exceeding broad, and grows broader day by day with each new revelation of Science.”

While Mason’s emphasis on the formation of good habits may seem fine on the surface, once it is penetrated, one sees how Mason perceives that even man’s conversion, salvation, hinges upon or is the result of his forming good habits based upon good thoughts based upon good ideas. Mason’s hope for man’s salvation seems to be placed in Science (and Education), with little or no mention of Scripture, leaving one doubting her faith in God’s Word.

Natal draws a dichotomy between two models of sanctification. According to Natal, Mason’s model is that sanctification is primarily physical, driven by natural processes, and illuminated by science. Where as according to Natal, the orthodox Christian model is that sanctification is primarily spiritual, driven by supernatural processes, and illuminated by the Bible.

First, let us examine whether Mason ever asserts that sanctification is primarily spiritual, driven by supernatural processes, and illuminated by the Bible.

Primarily Spiritual

In several passages, Mason describes the fundamentally spiritual dimension of sanctification. First, she writes of negative spiritual forces that oppose sanctification:

We do not intend, will, or foresee these sudden falls; we become as persons possessed, and have no power in ourselves to struggle out of the flood of malice, pride, uncleanness, greed, envy, or whatever else of evil has overwhelmed us. The fact that we have not foreseen these falls, points to a cause outside ourselves – to those powers and principalities in high places, whose struggle for dominion over us the Bible reveals; and the revelation is confirmed by our own sad and familiar experience. (Mason, 1989a, Book II, pp. 115-116)

Then she writes of positive spiritual forces that encourage sanctification:

But, once we open the gates of our thought to let in the notion, why, we may conquer in the end, through the grace of Christ our Saviour, and after conflict, tears, and sore distress. But such a fight against temptation is a terror to the Christian soul. (Mason, 1989a, Book II, p. 118)

We just have to think of something else when an evil thought comes, something really interesting and nice, with a prayer in our hearts to God to help us to do so. (Mason, 1924, p. 23)

We have a Father who cares and knows. We have a Saviour who saves his people from their sins. We are not left to ourselves; we have a King who governs us, whose power upholds us, and whom we glorify by every little effort of ours not to enter into temptation. (Mason, 1989a, Book II, p. 119)

So for Mason, spiritual agents play a key role in facing and resolving temptation, which is at the heart of sanctification.

Driven by Supernatural Processes

Natural processes unfold according to natural laws within the realm of what is observable by our five senses. By contrast, supernatural processes are “above” nature and involve laws and systems that are not observable by our physical senses. Broadly speaking, supernatural processes are in the realm of the “miraculous.”  For Mason (1989b), supernatural processes are fundamental to Christianity itself: “Eliminate the ‘miraculous’ and the whole fabric of Christianity disappears” (p. 97).

Mason (2011) warns of the extreme danger of denying the existence of supernatural processes. If natural law is the highest law, then nature becomes for us a god:

There is no middle way between absolute faith in God which is able to receive any miracle consistent with the divine character and further unfolding this character to us, and the standpoint of the materialist to whom miracle, prayer, and spirit are alike meaningless. The very phrase ‘laws of nature,’ convenient and necessary as it is to the scientific student, lands us in an unexpected region of thought when it is used in a final sense. For if Nature have laws which she has presumably originated, if these be the only laws we know and obey, then is Nature sentient and we are in danger of reviving, under the august name of science the Nature worship of more primitive societies. (p. 159)

In fact, Mason (1989a) asserts that the daily experience of the Christian is essentially miraculous:

The Christian life is altogether of the nature of a miracle. That God should hold intercourse with man; that we may pray, knowing, with full assurance, that we are heard and shall be answered; that at our word the hearts of princes will surely be refrained; that the fit and right desires of our hearts will be fulfilled, though always in simple and seemingly natural ways – these things, which come to all of us as signs, are they not of the nature of miracles? Do they not imply the immediate and personal action of our God, not in your behalf or mine alone, but in behalf of each of the creatures of his infinite care? (Book II, p. 93)

So for Mason, supernatural processes are the heart of the Christian life and to deny them, as a materialist, is to revert to neo-paganism.

Illuminated by the Bible

Natal says that Mason makes “little or no mention of Scripture, leaving one doubting her faith in God’s Word.” But in fact Mason makes many references to Scripture, including explicit statements about the nature and role of Scripture itself. Rather than doubting Mason’s faith based on how often she quotes Scripture, we should accept her statements at face value. For example, consider the following definitive statement:

We have seen that there is but one source of illumination, the Bible itself. It is true that the divine Spirit is a light in every man’s soul; but if a lamp is to be kindled, there must be the lamp; and it would seem as if the process followed by the Holy Spirit were to teach us by an arresting illumination, from time to time, of some phrase written in the Bible. Hence, our business is, before all things, to make ourselves acquainted with the text. (Mason, 1989a, Book II, p. 83)

One can hardly doubt Mason’s faith in God’s Word when she said it is the “one source of illumination.”

In the same volume (1989a), Mason makes additional succinct statements about the nature and role of Scripture:

Where shall we find our material? – for we can only think as we are supplied with the material for thought. First and last, in the Bible; for the knowledge of God comes by revelation. We can only know Him as he declares and manifests Himself to us…

The Bible is unique as containing original revelations of God…

… the Bible, the one way of approach to the knowledge of God… (Book II, p. 81)

Since sanctification is a spiritual and supernatural process, Mason insists that we must learn about it through the revelation of God’s Word.

The Dichotomy

The challenge is that Natal quoted Mason as saying that sanctification is primarily physical, driven by nature processes, and illuminated by science. But other quotations have been furnished which show that Mason sees sanctification is primarily spiritual, driven by supernatural processes, and illuminated by the Bible. How to we resolve this tension? Possibly, Mason did not realize that she was contradicting herself. Alternatively, perhaps Mason’s views changed over time. However, neither option is satisfying or accounts for the data. Instead, I propose that Mason resolved the tension herself by asserting that the two models of sanctification are complementary rather than contradictory.

Charlotte Mason was in fact aware of the tendency to assume a dichotomy between these two models of sanctification. She addressed it explicitly (1908b):

That, when thou hear’st it, know the voice of the Spirit;
But think not thou to measure what He doth
By rule that metes out things of sight and touch;
There be two kingdoms with two several laws,
Both of the Father, governed by His word;
But law of the one ruleth not things of the other.

All thoughts revolve round that engrossing thought;
The tissues of his mortal brain take shape
From thought that run among them, none know how;
Behold, a new man, new thoughts, new hopes, desires

So God hath made us, that for every man
Are many chances of being born anew
Into a life still higher than the first (p. 136)

In this passage, Mason asserts that there are “two kingdoms” – one physical (“sight and touch”) and another spiritual (“the Spirit”). But these kingdoms are not at variance with each other. Rather, both are created by God (“of the Father”), and both remain under God’s authority (“governed by His word”). Since God created and ordered both kingdoms, it is not surprising that sanctification could involve both things material (“tissues”) and spiritual (“thought”).


In suggesting that matter and spirit work together, is Mason innovating, or do her ideas find a precedent in Christian theology? To search for an answer, let us start with St. John of Damascus (675-749), the last of the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He wrote (1980), “I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter … Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with his grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me.”

John of Damascus pointed out that salvation itself was worked out through the incarnation, when God (who is Spirit – John 4:24) became flesh (matter). Furthermore, the atonement was achieved when Christ’s physical death occurred. If salvation was won through an event that had both spiritual and physical dimensions, then surely other processes in the Christian life may also have both spiritual and physical dimensions.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, this mysterious relationship between the physical and the spiritual is explored in sacramental theology. Anglicans define a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (Book of Common Prayer, 1662, Catechism). Thus a sacrament is a single event that contains both physical (“outward and visible”) and spiritual (“inward and spiritual”) dimensions. Sacraments occur in the intersection between Mason’s “two kingdoms”. In Western theology, sacraments are commonly understood to be a fixed set of well-defined rites such as baptism and communion. However, in the Eastern tradition, the word “sacrament” is applied more broadly. For example, Alexander Schmemann (1973) writes, “The world was created as the ‘matter,’ the material of the one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament” (p. 15).

Schmemann (1973) unfolds the manner in which all of creation participates in a cosmic sacrament:

The world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence, and power. In other words, it … truly “speaks” of Him and is in itself an essential means both of knowledge of God and communion with Him… Thus the very notion of worship is based on an intuition and experience of the world as an “epiphany’ of God, thus the world – in worship – is revealed in its true nature and vocation as “sacrament.” (p. 120)

For Schmemann, nature participates in a sacrament that reveals God and facilitates communion with Him. The sacramental mystery that unfolds contains both physical and spiritual dimensions.

Mason (2011) describe nature in terms that are strikingly similar to Schmemann’s:

But perhaps we fail to realize … that nature teems with teaching of the things of God, that every leaf on every tree is inscribed with the divine Name, that the myriad sounds of summer are articulate voices, that 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… (p. 61)

For Mason too, nature participates in a sacrament that involves the revelation of God. Indeed, Mason (2011) goes on to describe the entire Christian life as sacramental:

All the life we have, of whatsoever sort, is the life of Christ and in proportion as we realize that which is least we shall perceive, however dimly, that which is greatest, and every eating of bread and drinking of wine will become to us in a lesser degree sacramental. (p. 165)

Since “all the life we have” is in some degree sacramental, it is to be expected that Mason thought of sanctification in sacramental terms.

Interestingly, when Natal quoted Mason, she put ellipses in the place of key explanatory elements. Here is the quotation from Mason (1989b), with Natal’s ellipses replaced by Mason’s original text in italics:

Ye must be born again, we are told; and we say, with a sense of superior knowledge of the laws of Nature, How can a man be born again? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born? This would be a miracle, and we have satisfied ourselves that ‘miracles do not happen.’

     Conversion no Miracle – And now, at last, the miracle of conversion is made plain to our dull understanding. We perceive that conversion, however sudden, is no miracle at all – using the word miracle to describe that which takes place in opposition to natural law. On the contrary, we find that every man carries in his physical substance the gospel of perpetual, or always possible renovation; and we find how, from the beginning, Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace. (pp. 160-161)

In the first omitted passage, Mason says ironically, “we have satisfied ourselves that ‘miracles do not happen.’” As in all uses of irony, her point is the opposite – miracles do happen! In the second omitted passage, she clarifies what she means when she says that conversion is “no miracle” – she says it is not a miracle only in the sense that it is in opposition to natural law.

Of course, we know from Mason’s “two kingdoms” passage that miracles can never be in opposition to natural law. “Both” are “of the Father”; both are “governed by His word.” The implication is that conversion is in fact a miracle which is in harmony with natural law. It is one of those everyday miracles that are the sine qua non of the Christian life. (Recall her statement, “The Christian life is altogether of the nature of a miracle.”) (1989a, Book II, p. 93)

Seen in this light, the last clause in the quotation is revealed to be a sacramental statement. Mason’s statement, “Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace,” is highly similar to remarks by Schmemann. In describing the blessing of the water for baptism, Schmemann (1973) writes:

On the other hand, the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true “nature” and “destiny” of water, and thus of the world – it may be the epiphany and the fulfillment of their “sacramentality.” By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the ‘holy water’ is revealed as the true full adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God. (p. 132)

For Schmemann, water was prepared from the beginning to meet the demands of grace in the sacrament of baptism. So Mason’s statement – “Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace” – is far from being an incidental detail; it is actually key to understanding her sacramental understanding of sanctification.

As with any sacrament, the sacrament of sanctification must be entered into by faith. It is not a mechanical or magical formula. This dimension of the sacrament of sanctification is highlighted by Mason (1989b):

Here, indeed, more than anywhere, ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour but in vain that build it’; but surely intelligent co-operation in this divine work is our bounden duty and service. The … development of the divine life in the child … [is] carried on simultaneously with this training in the habits of a good life; and these last will carry the child safely …. until he is able to take, under direction from above, the conduct of his life… into his own hands. (p. 90)

It is worth noting that my interpretation of Mason along these lines is not, itself, an innovation. Although I developed this interpretation on my own, some time later I discovered that a Mason scholar had reached strikingly similar conclusions independently. Benjamin Bernier (2009) wrote, “[Mason] did not interpret the possibility of the modification of character by the formation of habit as an educational way of salvation independent of the need for grace but as a new revelation of science which provided a further understanding of some of the means by which the grace of God is communicated to all his creatures” (p. 60).

Although it seems to me that the role of habit in sanctification is not merely a new revelation of science. I think the concept can be found in the Bible:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Romans 6:16-19, ESV)

Once someone has become a “slave of righteousness” in a particular area, he no longer struggles with every minor moral choice in that area. I think the mechanics of this concept can be found in the notion of habit, which I like to call “the sacrament of habit.” Mason’s (1989b) comments illustrate this idea, “And this is so, because it is graciously and mercifully ordered that there shall be a physical record and adaptation as the result of our educational efforts, and that the enormous strain of moral endeavour shall come upon us only occasionally” (p. 124).


A related issue to address is the question of regeneration. Someone may grant the idea of sanctification involving both a physical and spiritual dimension. But that person may still insist that this privilege is reserved for the regenerate. If Mason is saying otherwise, then perhaps there is a danger. What is the point in developing good habits when the real need is for “the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, RSV)?

To answer this question one must first understand that Mason, as an Anglican, believed in the rite of infant baptism, and also saw a regenerative element in baptism. Regarding the timing of baptism, she wrote (1989b):

Nothing should do more to strengthen the bonds of family life than that the children should learn religion at the lips of their parents; and to grow up in a Church which takes constant heed of you from baptism or infancy, until, we will not say confirmation, but through manhood and womanhood, until the end, should give the right tone to corporate life. (p. 94)

And regarding the regenerative element of baptism, she wrote (2011):

What a thought of joy at the baptismal font, of consolation throughout life amid the tossing of the waves of this troublesome world, is this of the Divine Spirit coming to us, also, in the likeness of a dove. (p. 62)

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. (p. 104)

The second quotation especially shows that for Mason, Christian baptism is not merely a declaration or profession. Rather, it is a moment in which the Spirit of God enters a person by faith.

Mason assumed that she was teaching baptized Christian children, and her remarks must be understood in this context. I believe that Mason’s comments about the role of habit and nature in sanctification are to be understood in the context of children who are baptized Christians and are fully participating in the life of the Church. She is not eliminating the need for regeneration. Rather, she is giving guidance on how the fruit of regeneration is to be cultivated, developed, and matured.

Spiritual Formation

In the Cmason Yahoo! group, a discussion was begun around the following quotation from Mason (1905):

We hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord the Holy Spirit is the Supreme Educator of mankind, and that the culmination of all education (which may, at the same time, be reached by a little child) is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God… (p. 95)

One respondent to the group shared her reaction to this idea (Murray, 2011):

“All education is divine…” This is a[n] … expression of humanism. God’s Word is divine, NOT education! Education is an act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character, or physical ability of an individual… The only thing that is divine is His Word, not any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character or physical ability! Also, there has never been a time when education was divine…

“The Lord the Holy Spirit is the Supreme Educator of mankind…” The Holy Spirit is for believers, He is not available and does not educate non-believers and yet, non-believers can still be educated.

“The culmination of all education is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God.” The highest point of all education is to glorify God but personal knowledge of God and intimacy comes from praying, meditating on Scripture and fellowship with His saints…

This individual’s strong reaction is reminiscent of many who would divide education into two categories:

  1. Sacred education: where we through Bible study and prayer, and theological study and fellowship, we grow in Christ.
  2. Secular education: where through math, science, writing, and foreign language, we learn a vocation.

In this view, spiritual formation takes place in the context of (#1). By contrast, all people, Christian or otherwise, approach (#2) in the same manner: in a purely natural acquisition of knowledge, facts, and skills.

Mason strongly resists this idea. She states (1905) that “[we] take a very distinct stand upon this point. We do not merely give a religious education, because that would seem to imply the possibility of some other education, a secular education, for example” (p. 95) Mason insists that the subject areas normally thought of as secular (#2) are actually essential for spiritual formation. She writes (1954):

This education of the feelings, moral education, is too delicate and personal a matter for a teacher to undertake trusting to his own resources. Children are not to be fed morally like young pigeons with predigested food. They must pick and eat for themselves and they do so from the conduct of others which they hear of or perceive. But they want a great quantity of the sort of food whose issue is conduct, and that is why poetry, history, romance, geography, travel, biography, science and sums must all be pressed into service. No one can tell what particular morsel a child will select for his sustenance. (p. 59)

Mason surveys various subject areas and discusses how each one is vital for spiritual formation. For example, of nature study, she writes (1989a):

[Nature] gives us certain dispositions of mind which we can get from no other source, and it is through these right dispositions that we get life into focus, as it were; learn to distinguish between small matters and great, to see that we ourselves are not of very great importance, that the world is wide, that things are sweet, that people are sweet, too; that, indeed, we are compassed about by an atmosphere of sweetness, airs of heaven coming from our God. Of all this we become aware in ‘the silence and the calm of mute, insensate things.’ Our hearts are inclined to love and worship; and we become prepared by the quiet schooling of Nature to walk softly and do our duty towards man and towards God. (Book II, p. 98)

Of picture study, she writes (1989a):

There are always those present with us whom God whispers in the ear, through whom He sends a direct message to the rest. Among these messengers are the great painters who interpret to us some of the meanings of life. To read their messages aright is a thing due from us…

The artist – ‘Reaching that heaven might so replenish him, Above and through his art,’ has indispensable lessons to give us, whether he convey them through the brush of the painter, the vast parables of the architect or through such another cathedral built of sound as “Abt Vogler” produced:  the outward and visible sign is of less moment than the inward and spiritual grace. (Book II, p. 102)

Note how she uses wording from the Anglican definition of a sacrament – outward and visible sign, inward and visible grace. Of science, she writes (1989a):

However little work we do in this kind, we gain by it some of the power to appreciate, not merely beauty, but fitness, adaptation, processes. Reverence and awe grow upon us, and we are brought into a truer relation with the Almighty Worker. (Book II, p. 102)

Of poetry, she writes (1908a):

Poetry is, perhaps, the most searching and intimate of our teachers… Poetry, too, supplies us with tools for the modeling of our lives… As we ‘inwardly digest,’ reverence comes to us unawares… This is one of the ‘lessons never learned in schools’… Let us mark as we read, let us learn and inwardly digest… What we digest we assimilate, take into ourselves, so that it is part and parcel of us, and no longer separable. (Book II, pp. 71-72)

In speaking of poetry, she evokes a collect in the Book of Common Prayer (1662, Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent) which reads, “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” In other words, some poetry is so valuable for spiritual growth that we should approach it with the same meditative techniques (“read, mark, learn, digest”) that we apply in the study of Scripture.

Is this view an innovation? Mason herself claims that it is not. She asserts (1905) that this spiritual conception of education may be found in the medieval church:

A Medieval Conception of Education – This idea of all education springing from and resting upon our relation to Almighty God is one which we have ever laboured to enforce… We hold, in fact, that great conception of education held by the medieval Church, as pictured upon the walls of the Spanish chapel in Florence. Here we have represented the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Twelve, and directly under them, fully under the Illuminating rays, are the noble figures of the seven liberal arts, Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Music, Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic, and under these again the men who received and expressed, so far as the artist knew, the initial idea in each of these subjects; such men as Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Euclid, whom we might call pagans, but whom the earlier Church recognised as divinely taught and illuminated. (pp. 95-96)

In this passage she refers to the fresco known as “Triumph of the Catholic Doctrine”, by Andrea Buonaiuto, in the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. The fresco was painted from 1365-1367.

The idea that God the Holy Spirit is “the Supreme Educator of mankind” may also be found in Scripture. In particular, Isaiah 28:24-29) teaches that God teaches even the farmer the vocation knowledge of agriculture:

Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cummin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and spelt as the border? For he is instructed aright; his God teaches him.

Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin; but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cummin with a rod. Does one crush bread grain? No, he does not thresh it for ever; when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it. This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom. (RSV)

One may object that this concept that “all education is divine” may lead to a kind of “salvation by education” where the school takes the place of the church in the spiritual formation of children. But Mason did not see the redemptive element of education functioning in a mechanical or magical way. Like all sacraments, it must be received by faith. When taken out of the context of theological instruction and devotional practices, the spiritual benefit of the so-called “secular subjects” is lost. Mason (1954) clarified that when she wrote that redemptive elements of education are activated “on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion” (p. 46).


For the three areas of theology discussed, we have found a deep precedent in the broad history of church doctrine. Since Mason is teaching ideas that have been part of elements of the church for many generations, her ideas rest within orthodoxy rather than innovation.

For each of the three areas of theology, we have also seen a direct application to education. In the light of theological anthropology, the teacher should lead the child to the place (“atmosphere”) where God may be found. In order to facilitate sanctification, the teacher should employ the practice (“discipline”) of habit formation. And since God employs all branches of education for spiritual formation, the teacher should include the full range of living ideas (“life”) in the curriculum.

And so we see that education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.


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