COUNSELS TO CHRISTIAN MOTHERS
Archibald Alexander (1772 -1851)
When I address myself to Christian mothers, I do not mean to intimate non-Christian mothers stand in no need of admonition. Alas! that in a Christian country there should be mothers who have nothing of the spirit of Christ! Young people often promise themselves that they will attend to true religion after they are married and settled in the world. How preposterous is this! It ought rather to be their resolution not to think of entering into a state involving such weighty responsibilities, and the exercise of so many virtues—until they have become the possessors of true religion! Without vital piety how is it possible for any woman rightly to fulfill the duties of a wife, and especially of a mother? I feel that no woman destitute of religion is fit to become a wife and mother. Only think of it—an impious mother! If it were not so common, the very expression would excite emotions similar to those which we experience when we hear of an impious minister.
I address Christian mothers, because from them alone can I expect a patient hearing. I address Christian mothers, because all mothers ought to be sincere Christians. Is there a person on earth, whose mind is so perverted by prejudice, as not to perceive a congruity between piety and this tender relation? It was formerly a current opinion, even among infidels that religion was an ornament and safeguard to a woman. I knew one distinguished man who had renounced all belief in the Christian religion himself, who encouraged it in his wife, and furnished her with all the necessary means of attending church; and when one of his friends complained to him, that his wife was becoming pious, which gave him great concern, he told him that he was a fool, for that nothing was more suitable and desirable than that a wife should be pious. Even infidels are constrained, like the demons of old, to give their testimony in favor of Christ. Many ungodly men desire to obtain wives of genuine piety, and few intelligent men in our country would be pleased with a female infidel. Such a character was so rare in Virginia forty years ago, when infidelity abounded among the higher classes of men, that when a certain lady was pointed out as the advocate of deistical opinions, it created a revulsion of feeling in almost every mind.
Here I take pleasure in saying that in no class of society anywhere have I found examples of more pure and elevated piety than among the ladies of Virginia. And I have reason to believe that these examples have rather been increased than diminished since I left my native State. It may, in an important sense, be said that the Commonwealth has been preserved from utter destruction by the prudence, purity and piety of Virginian mothers. They have been the salt which has arrested the progress of moral corruption in the mass of society. Accordingly there is no country in the world, perhaps, where mothers are so much respected by their children, and have so great an influence over them. Ask almost any young Virginian where he will look for the brightest examples of moral excellence, and his thoughts will turn at once to the character of pious females, and perhaps to his own mother, if she happens to be pious.
I recollect a young gentleman, who, although he had an uncommonly pious mother, broke over all the restraints of his education, and became a professed infidel and the advocate of licentiousness in its vilest forms; but a gracious God heard the unceasing prayers of his mother, and by means somewhat unusual he was converted from the error of his ways. In speaking of his former career—which he evidently did with shame and humility—he said, “I could get over all arguments in defense of religion but one, and that I never could eliminate, which was the pious example and life of my mother. When I had fortified myself against the truth by the aid of Bolingbroke, Hume, and Voltaire, yet, whenever I thought of my mother, I had the secret conviction which nothing could remove—that there was a reality in vital piety.”
I could soon fill my paper with salutary precepts for mothers; but this is not exactly what is needed. Knowledge as to maternal duty is widely diffused. The theory of education, as it falls under the direction of mothers, is perhaps sufficiently understood by most. What I aim at, is “to stir up their pure minds by way of remembrance”, (2 Pet 3:1) or in other words, to arouse them to the consideration of the importance of the station which they occupy, and to persuade them to exert that influence which they possess. I have often heard pious females complain that they had little or nothing in their power, and they felt as if they were almost useless members of society. This is an flagrant miscalculation. Their influence is silent and spreads imperceptibly—but it is real and effective.
Piety is like light which cannot be hidden. The more it seeks concealment, and retires from public notice, the more brightly it shines. Female influence only ceases, or operates unfavorably, when women depart from their own proper sphere; or when they endeavor to obtrude themselves upon the notice and admiration of the public. As we are shocked with infidelity in a female, so female ambition is odious. Let the devoted mother exert herself in her own proper sphere, which is in the retirement of the domestic circle, and in constant and devout attendance on the worship of God. Let her look well to the affairs of her household. Let her manifest her graciousness and forbearance in the steady government of her children. Let her set an example of order, neatness, industry, and hospitality, and she will have enough to do. Every hour, and almost every minute, will furnish opportunity for the exercise of some virtue; and that Eye which goes everywhere will graciously notice, and bring to light too, those acts which are cheerfully and conscientiously performed. A mother cannot be placed in a more interesting field of labor than in the midst of a large circle of children. Here is her appropriate sphere of action. Here she has work enough to occupy her heart and hands.
But some will be ready to think this is a narrow field in which to labor. They wish to act on a larger scale, and do something which will impact on the destinies of men—something more intimately connected with the conversion of the world. Some few women, by the possession of peculiar talents, and by being placed in peculiar circumstances, have been able to accomplish so much, that the world has been filled with their fame. Such was the brilliant course of Mrs. Hannah More, who by her benevolent exertions, and by her writings, became the benefactress of the human race. And such is now the luminous orbit in which Mrs. Fry moves. But it falls to the lot of very few of either gender to do good on what may be called a national scale. And if all should aim at such achievements, very little would be done. Much the larger part of the female gender must be contented to cultivate the small garden which providence has committed to them.
But as the mothers in ancient Israel were solicitous to bear sons, in hope that they might enjoy the honor and unspeakable pleasure of giving birth to the promised Messiah, so mothers now may cherish the pleasing hope that of the first fruit of their womb, God will raise up men of renown, eminent ministers, devoted missionaries, distinguished philanthropists, wise statesmen, or even men of humble, exemplary piety in retired life. Hannah waited upon God for her Samuel; and no doubt before the child was born, she consecrated him to God from whom she received him; and when she embraced him in her arms, and nursed him at her bosom, she continually darted up petitions for God’s blessing upon His own precious gift. And O! how richly was she rewarded!
I have read or heard that someone asked an uncommonly devout woman how it happened that all her children became pious at an age so early. The good woman modestly disclaimed all merit or agency in the affair—but said she, “as many children as I have nursed, I never took one of them to my bosom to afford it the necessary nourishment—but at the same time I lifted up my heart in prayer to God for His blessing on the dear little infant.” Would not this be a good rule for mothers universally to observe? Who can tell what the effect would be on the next generation?
The question is often asked, “By whom shall Jacob arise?” (Amos 7:2,5) One answers one thing, and one another; but if I may be permitted to give a partial answer, though I believe a true one, I would say, by pious mothers. Yes, as a woman had the unspeakable blessing of being the mother of our Lord and Savior, so woman, collectively, shall be the mother of the church. Ten thousand Timothys on the knee, and with sweet and persuasive speech, instilling into their opening minds the words of those “Holy Scriptures, which are able to make them wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 3:15)
A genuine and thorough reformation must commence in the family—which is the foundation of all social institutions, civil and religious. Here is the root whence springs the whole tree with all its spreading and towering branches. And if true religion, to be general, must begin in the domestic circle, to whom will belong the chief agency and the most distinguished honor? Undoubtedly to pious mothers. Theirs must be the hands which plant the precious seed; theirs the prayers and tears which water the growing plant; theirs the kind, seasonable, and well-adapted instructions which distill into the tender, susceptible mind like the gentle rain on the tender grass, or the more imperceptible dew upon the thirsty plant. Those are not the most important lectures which are, with solemn pomp, delivered in the schools and pulpits—but those which flow sweetly from the affectionate lips of mothers to their docile and interested group of little ones, gathered around their knees. No eloquence equals that of a sensible and pious mother, because no impressions made by human speech are so deep and indelible. These lessons, whether she knows it or not, she is engraving on tablets of human hearts—from which the inscription can never wholly be obliterated. Impression after impression may be made on the same—but these have the advantage of being first and deepest; and when all the others are gone, these will be left.
In visiting a family belonging to my charge in Philadelphia, I observed a very brisk but old woman bringing chips into the house in her apron. I asked the lady of the house who it was. “It is my mother,” said she, “but she no longer knows me.” Upon inquiry, I found that she had forgotten everything except what had occurred in her early life. And though she had left Switzerland when a girl of fourteen, and had not spoken the German language since that time, yet she now repeats her German prayers aloud every night.
It would be difficult to draw a definite line of distinction between a good mother and a good wife. The character of the latter must have an important bearing on that of the former. For a woman to perform her part well when united with a worthy and affectionate husband is comparatively easy; but when a pious woman of refined and susceptible feelings is connected with a man whose true character and temper have been destroyed by habits of intoxication—when she is treated with brutal tyranny, and even cruelty, to preserve equanimity, and to perform the duties of an obedient, respectful wife, requires the exercise of much self-denial. Such a situation is one peculiarly painful and trying to a pious mother—but it is one to which many excellent women, in our day, have been subjected. But the greater the trial, the more grace is needed, and the brighter the character which is enabled with meekness and fortitude to bear up under such a burden. If such a calamity should come on a woman of refined feelings at once, it would be overwhelming; but she is gradually prepared for the worst, and learns to discipline her passions, so as to exhibit no temper unsuitable to her station, and the tender relation of a wife. She avoids reproaches, and in her mouth there are no harsh reproofs. Some change in her appearance, and occasional spells of bitter weeping, when alone, will not escape the jealous eye of a drunkard; and it is not improbable that such symptoms of deep distress as these will only serve to provoke his ire, and cause him to rage more furiously, when under the influence of his inebriating cups. And what can she say to her children as they become capable of observation? She never mentions the subject to them, if it can be avoided; and when necessary, with no remarks which would tend to lessen their respect for an unworthy parent. She conceals from his children the faults and ill-treatment of the father as much as possible. And to all other people, however intimate their mutual friendship, her lips are sealed. This is the difficulty of patiently bearing this heavy burden, that it must be borne alone, in silence, without the usual relief derived from venting our sorrows into the bosom of a faithful, sympathizing friend.
I know of no condition in human life, free from guilt, which is more deplorable than that of a lady of education, piety, and refined sensibility, tied to a brutal husband who is seldom in his right mind; or who, though for a season he may refrain, yet has his paroxysms of the worst species of insanity to which our race is subject.
This leads me to remark, that the very best view which a wife can take of such a case is to consider it a real madness, and to feel and act just as if it was the effect of some physical cause. However difficult the practice of duty may be in such circumstances, I have observed not a few examples of such consummate prudence, Christian fortitude, and meek forbearance, as excited my admiration. As gold is purified by the fire of the furnace, so it is probable that some women, under the pressure of such afflictions, rise to an eminence of piety, to which in other circumstances they never could have attained.
But I must not indulge myself in speaking in a strain too laudatory of Christian mothers. Some have great weaknesses, the effects of which upon the character and destinies of their children are very unhappy. I recollect to have once been acquainted with a Virginian planter of the best old stamp. He was rich, hospitable, kindhearted, and better than all, truly pious. When he heard the Gospel, his whole soul seemed to be laid open to the impression of the truth; and so susceptible was he, that often while the man of God described the love of a Savior, the large, and not unmanly tear would trickle down his cheek. He was a man without deceit; and you always might know where to find him. But I was grieved and surprised to find that his sons were all profligates. By drinking and gambling and other vices, they soon ruined their reputation, wasted their estates, injured their health, and shortened their lives.
In searching for the cause of this wide departure from the example of a good and affectionate father, I traced it to the injudicious indulgence of a fond mother. Not that she wished her sons to become dissipated; but when they did wrong, she carefully concealed their conduct from their father, connived at their vices, and afforded them facilities of gratifying their corrupt propensities by plentifully supplying them with money. And with such care were their vices concealed from the unsuspecting father, that the first knowledge which he obtained was when his sons’ ruin was completed, and their habits so fixed, that all regard to decorum was laid aside, and even the displeasure of a father could be braved.
Another class of mothers, happily not numerous, injure their children by a too rigorous discipline. They expect by external restraints and confinements to preserve them from temptation. The general principle is good—but may be pushed too far. A gradual exposure to such temptations as must be encountered in the world, is safer than for a son to be suddenly subjected to the whole influence of the world at once. If children dislike the severity of the discipline under which they are placed, they will be ingenious in finding opportunities of evading a yoke which they do not like to bear. And when they get free from parental restraint, they will be apt to run to greater excess than others.
While sober, consistent piety in mothers has a powerful and lasting effect on children, fanaticism has a contrary tendency. The children of parents who indulge in extravagant expressions of religious feeling, and whose religion comes on in violent paroxysms, are, in most cases, devoid of reverence for sacred things, and often show a disregard of moral principle.
It is exceedingly important in the education and discipline of children, not to confound their notions of right and wrong by treating little matters with the same seriousness and severity as great. Our instructions and conduct towards children should be such as to present to their minds virtues and vices, according to a just graduation. If we pursue a peccadillo with as much severity as a great crime, the danger is that a great crime will be committed with as little sense of its evil as a fault of the minor class. It is also dangerous to proclaim a crusade against some one vice, and magnify its evil beyond all comparison, while other vices equally or more malignant pass unnoticed. So one virtue or duty may be held up so continually, and placed in such importance, that other virtues, equally important and valuable, are left concealed in the background. As in the Christian character, symmetry or a due proportion of every grace, is essential to perfection; so in teaching morality, a strict regard should be had to the magnitude and proportion of every part of the system. Let all VICE be treated as vice—but let not all vices be treated as equal. Let every VIRTUE occupy its proper place, and fill its due space.
It is a good rule, even in the government of children, not to legislate too much. Vex them not with trivial and unnecessary rules. Train them to govern themselves as much as possible. That child who is obedient only when the eye of the parent is on it, has not been properly managed. Allow children liberty in such things as are innocent, and to which they are inclined by the instinct of nature. It is a poor, short-sighted plan to keep children moping all day over their books; they learn far more that is valuable while sporting in the fields, than we can teach them by such a process in the house. It is amazing how much they learn without effort, both of words and things.
We may even goo too far, by inculcating piety upon their tender minds too incessantly. Mothers should watch the favorable moment for instilling religious instruction. One sentence at the favorable moment is better than a long lecture at an unseasonable time. Holiness cannot be rendered pleasing to the natural heart—but pious instruction may be made interesting.
Indirect methods of reaching the conscience are often better than the more direct. Occasional remarks not seeming to be intended for them, are often noticed and remembered; especially conversation with godly visitors in their presence has a wonderful effect. Let your children come early into company, that they may hear—that is, if the conversation be edifying. By eliciting remarks on certain subjects from ministers and other pious people in the hearing of children, you will be likely to produce greater effect than if the same things were addressed directly to them by their parents.
Family slander is an evil against which mothers cannot too sedulously guard. There are some families who are extremely cautious about speaking evil of their neighbors outside of their own homes; but when at home, they feel privileged, and in the presence of their children, allow themselves great liberties in traducing the characters of those with whom they are living, ostensibly, in the habits of friendly fellowship. This is not only an evil habit, and readily contracted by children—but it is the most effectual method of teaching them to play the hypocrite, by constantly assuming the appearance of friendship, and using the language of kindness—when a contrary feeling is habitually cherished. It is impossible to entertain sentiments of true friendship towards those whom we are in the practice of maligning every day. O mothers, guard your children against this common vice, so freely indulged, and so little censured by many.
Akin to this—but less malignant, is the practice of ridiculing the foibles, and caricaturing the imperfections or personal defects of our friends. In some whole families there exists a talent for mimicry: they can so exactly imitate the tones, gestures, attitudes and manners of others, that the exercise of this faculty becomes a source of much amusement at the expense of their neighbors; especially when the quality or action imitated is a little exaggerated or distorted. This propensity should be carefully and resolutely repressed in young people. It is very apt to occasion a separation or alienation of affection among friends: for who among us is willing to be laughed at for the entertainment of others?
There is no one thing on which mothers should insist more uniformly and peremptorily, than that their children should tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Lying above all other things may be said to be the vice of children. “We go astray from the womb, speaking lies.” (Psalm 58:3) Children soon learn that others cannot look into their hearts: they will often therefore say what they know is not true, from the confidence that they cannot be detected. Keep a vigilant eye on this matter, and pass not slightly over an offence of this kind. Many worthy parents, I have observed, seem to know little or care little about the habit of fibbing in their children. Manifest by every proper means your utter detestation of lying, in all its kinds and degrees.
I would also caution mothers against the foolish ambition of trying to make prodigies of their children, and against the vanity of so exaggerating their smart speeches and exploits as to make them appear to be prodigies. I would not be so rigid as to prohibit mothers from speaking of their own dear offspring, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak—but I may advise you not to make your children the everlasting theme of your conversation, morning, noon, and night. Rest assured that other people do not take as much interest in the subject as you do. And while I would commend those mothers who are diligent in the instruction of their children, I would respectfully say, be thankful that they are not idiots, nor deformed, nor destitute of the common sense of human nature; but be not anxious that they should be thought prodigies. Children may be so trained as to perform wonders—but what good can come of it? Do we not see pigs trained in the same way?
Exercise a salutary discipline towards your children, even with the rod, when it is necessary—but let this species of discipline be the last resort, and used rather seldom. It is far better than isolating them in a dark room, or depriving them of necessary food—or anything which keeps the child a long time in a bad humor. But carefully avoid chastisement in the heat of passion, for this will do your children more harm than good.
Keep your children as long as you can in your own house. Domestic feeling is a sacred tie which should be preserved fresh and strong—as long as possible. Often, mothers lose all their influence over sons by their being sent abroad to school. Have as much of your children’s education, therefore, conducted at home, as is practicable. Be assured that no place is so favorable to the good feelings and morals of the young as the family circle, unless the family be destitute of religion and virtue; and for such I do not now write.
Boarding schools for girls may be useful—but I would advise you to keep your daughters at home, under your own eye, and when they go to school in the day, let them come home by night. You may possibly find a better school by sending them abroad—but the sacrifice is too great, and the risk of evil habits and evil sentiments is not small. And as to your sons, if they must go abroad, place them in the family of some pious man, and under the maternal care of some pious woman, where they may find a substitute for parental attention. While absent, let them return home as frequently as they can, that what I have called the “domestic” feeling may be preserved. If your sons must be put to a trade, or become clerks in a store or counting-house, be very particular as to the character and conscientious fidelity of their master. It is lamentable to see how youth in these circumstances are neglected; and how they are exposed to temptations from which it is hardly possible they can escape without guilt and contamination.
I would earnestly recommend it to mothers to keep up a correspondence, by letter, with their children when removed from the domestic roof: a single word of admonition and warning from a mother might be the means of reclaiming a beloved son from the verge of a precipice. But whatever else you neglect, omit not to follow your children, when absent, with your daily prayers. Very often, this is the only thing which is left to mothers. Their children are either removed far from them, or, if near, they have lost their influence over them. But there is One, who is near to them, and who can influence them. O mothers! plead for your dear offspring at the throne of grace; travail in birth for them a second time. God is gracious. God will regard the fervent, importunate cry of Christian mothers. Get friends to unite with you in social prayer. This leads me to speak of those societies called “Maternal Associations”. If prudently and humbly conducted, they are calculated to be eminently useful. Let all parade and ostentation be avoided, and mothers may meet and pray for their dear children as often as they are disposed.