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TEXT: Ephesians 6:4

SUBJECT: Puritans #5: Children

Today, with God's blessing, we'll proceed in our monthly study of Puritan life. The Puritans-you remember-were English and American Christians who prospered from about 1550 to 1700. They were not perfect in their understanding of God's Word, of course, or its application to their lives, but they worked at it with an energy and a consistency few modern believers can match. Without following them on every point, we can learn from the Puritans. And ought to.

The book we've been using to guide us was written fifteen years ago by a Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College. It's called Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. If you like to read books, I highly recommend it; if you're interested in the Puritans at all, there's no better place to start.

Thus far, we've read them on work, sex, money, and marriage. Now, we'll move on to the Puritan view of children-especially the discipline and teaching of them.


When it comes to bringing up children, the Puritans proceeded on two assumptions.

The first is that children are born evil.

Puritanism was a branch of the Reformed Faith, which has always taught the doctrine of total depravity. Simplified, this means that everyone is born a sinner, and although some people are worse than others, everyone outside of Christ is alienated from God, unable to please Him, and liable to His judgment.

John Robinson said,

"There is in all children, though not alike, a

stubbornness and stoutness of mind arising

from natural pride.It is a natural corruption

and root of actual rebellion against God".

Another Puritan put it this way,

"The young child which lieth in the cradle is both

wayward and full of passions. And, although his

body be small, he hath a great heart,

that is altogether inclined to evil".

This is radically opposed to the sentimental view of children most people hold today-including many Christians. But, whether we like it or not, it's what the Bible teaches. Do you need the texts? Here they are, Psalm 58:3; Psalm 51:5,

"The wicked are estranged from the womb,

they come forth, as soon as they are born,

speaking lies".

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

and in sin my mother conceived me".

Note, the former verse says the wicked are sinful from birth. But, in the second verse, David says, I was too! That pretty well covers it! If the wicked are born wicked-and the good are born wicked, you tell me who isn't born wicked!

When I hear people say kids are innocent, I wonder if they have kids! Or, if they were ever kids themselves! There was a seminary student who loved Church History, especially the Church Fathers. He had a son whom he named, Athanasius Augustine (poor kid!). By the time the boy was two years old, the man said, "I should have named him Satan Beelzebub!" The child was more like a Satan than like a saint!

Children are born in sin. That's the first thing the Puritans assumed about them. The second grew out of it: Children cannot be left to themselves-they need both guidance and correction.

Three quotes,

"Children should not be left to themselves,

to a loose end, to do as they please".

"Natural corruption and actual rebellion

must be destroyed and in no way nourished.

Parents must keep down this stubbornness;

The children's willfulness must be restrained

And repressed".

"If the evil be suffered to increase, it will rage

and burn down the whole house. For we become

good, not by birth, but by training. Therefore,

parents must be wary and circumspect; they

must reprove and sharply reprove their children

for doing or saying ill".

This too is politically incorrect. Even serious Christians wince a little when they hear it. But, once again, it is precisely what the Bible teaches.

"Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child,

but the rod of correction will drive it from him".

"The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child

left to himself brings shame to his mother".

"My son, keep your father's commandment

and do not forsake the law of your mother".

".Bring them up in the nurture and the admonition

of the Lord".

The Puritans were serious about their kids. Serious enough to find out what they were and what they needed. We would do well to follow their example.


When it comes to guiding and disciplining your kids, the first thing the Puritans emphasized is this: start early.

John Cotton said,

"These babes are flexible and easily bowed; it is

far more easy to train them up to good things now,

than in their youth and riper years".

No parent can deny this. The longer you wait to teach your children, the harder it becomes to do it. Children learn obedience long before the learn the reasons for it. If your kids are little, don't worry about explaining things to them, just teach them to obey, to pray, and to be kind.

Samuel Willard adds,

"If you would prevent Satan from corrupting your

children, do not delay, but be dropping an instruction

as soon as they are able to understand anything".

If Satan were nice, he would start tempting our kids when they turned 18. But he isn't nice. The devil starts early! Parents should do everything we can to counter his work from the beginning! Would you let a big kid beat your toddler for five minutes before stopping him? If not, why would you allow Satan to beat your child for years before you do anything about it? Kids can be cruel, of course, but nothing like the devil!

Richard Baxter worried about the power of habit, and how hard it is to break a bad one once it's had time to develop,

"If we have been accustomed to outward wickedness,

inward impenitency, hardness of heart, and unbelief,

it will be very hard when we come to break off from it".

Note carefully what he says: It's not only actions we have to deal with, but attitudes. People often say, "You can't read hearts or judge motives". That may be true of strangers, but in your own kids? Sure you can! Not infallibly, of course, but if you pay attention, you can do it pretty well.

The longer you wait to break bad habits, the harder it will be to do it-and the more your kids will suffer because of it!

Start early. If you haven't done that, start now.


A second thing the Puritans called for is teaching. This starts, they said, with a holy example,

Eleazar Mather,

"Precept without pattern will do little good; you

must lead them to Christ by example as well as

counsel; you must set yourselves first, and speak

by lives as well as words; you must live religion

as well as talk religion".

Another one said,

"Be sure to set a good example before your children.

Other methods of instruction probably will not do

Much good, if you don't teach them by a godly example.

Don't think your children will mind the good rules you

Give them if you act contrary to those rules yourselves.

If your counsels are good and your examples are evil,

Will be more likely to be hurt by the latter than benefited

By the former".

What a discredit we bring on the Lord when we urge our children to love and obey Him, while we ourselves don't. We tell them to not waste time, while we veg out in front of the TV every night. We tell them to be kind, while we gossip about people. We command them to get along with their brothers and sisters, while we quarrel with our husbands or wives. We spank them for saying bad words while we watch movies full of them.

The best teacher your child will ever have is you-not "what you say", you yourself, what you are.

I read somewhere an interesting take on the teenage years. Everyone says it is a time for rebelling against parents. But the writer said he thought is was more a time of imitating parents! He may have overstated his case, but there's more truth in it than I care to admit.

Actions speak louder than words! What you do will teach your kids far more than what you say-even if you get it out of the Bible!


A good example is necessary, but it's not enough. The Puritans also said it is our duty to teach our children by word.

When reading this, the first thing I thought of was: Do we talk to our kids? Growing up with my family, it's incredible to me to find out that many families-including Christian families-hardly ever talk in a meaningful way. If you listened in to their homes, you might hear nagging or screaming or mumbling, but no real talking.

Don't think you can teach your kids if you don't talk to them. Family worship is good, but unless you talk to them at other times, they won't hear you then.

How, then do we teach them?

In four ways:

You start with telling them stories,

"I begin, early in their lives, to entertain them with stories,

especially Scriptural ones, and conclude with some

lesson in piety and bid them to learn that lesson from

the story".




From there, you go on to catechism. The word has more than one meaning. Most former Catholics recoil from it, as it reminds them of nuns cracking their hands for forgetting a word! But that's not the meaning here: It simply means teaching by question and answer-either something like the Westminster Shorter Catechism or one you make up yourself. The point is to get the child involved in his teaching and not just sitting while you do all the talking.

On this point, Ryken says,

"The technique that the Puritans found most effective was

catechizing. This question-answer format accorded

well both with their stress on the intellectual content

of the faith and their penchant to have matters clearly


If you teach the Catechism, you must emphasize-not just memorizing the words-but getting the doctrine into their minds. Cotton Mather,

"Let not the children patter out by rote the words

of the catechism like parrots; but be inquisitive

of how far their understandings take in the things

of God".

Family worship is another way of teaching the children. Speaking of it, Benjamin Wadsworth said,

"We should not suffer one day to pass without

reading some portion of the Word of God".

On the same topic, John Penry adds,

"Fathers are bound to bring children in

instruction and information to the Lord".

The fourth way of teaching your kids is to talk about the Sunday sermon. Cotton Mather,

"I find much benefit by a particular method of catechizing

the children about the public sermons".

He goes on to explain how he does it. But the point is: If you all go to church on Sunday, why not discuss the sermon afterward? Don't worry much about the depth of the discussion. Start with something easy like, "What book did he preach from?" Or, "What was the sermon about today?" Or, even, "Did you understand the sermon?" Or even, "Did you like it?"

I hope I'm not self-serving here, but whatever you do, don't be too critical of the sermon in front of your kids. You don't have to flatter the preacher, of course, or say you agree with things you don't, but be careful of being too fussy about it. It will teach your kids to pick it apart rather than receive the blessing they might get from it.


One more thing has to be talked about, and that's the Puritan view of spanking. Did they believe in it? Yes they did. Cotton Mather summed it up,

"Better whipped than damned".

But having said that, let's be very clear what role they gave to corporal punishment. It was not the only means of discipline.

Samuel Willard says spanking is a last resort,

"Know their natural dispositions and use

severity as a last means".

Cotton Mather says it should only be used for serious offenses,

"I would never give a child a blow except in cases

of obstinacy or some gross enormity".

Richard Greenham urged self-control on parents when spanking a child,

"They must chasten the mildest means

and with the least rigor".

Anne Bradstreet, who was a great Puritan poet and woman of grace, reminded us to not discipline every child alike, but to adapt the punishment to each child,

"Diverse children have different natures, those

parents are wise that can fit their nurture to their


This is what I hate about formulas! The five steps for achieving perfect children, or how to turn your devil into an angel in three easy lessons. Wrong! The Bible does not give detailed instructions on child discipline, but something else: principles to live by!

If your little boy is hard and stubborn, he may need a spanking. But if he's sensitive, he may go all to pieces under it. Know your kids and discipline wisely-not legalistically.


One last word: The Puritans said a lot about teaching and correcting children. They believed in both and thought of them as means of grace-or ways God might use to save their children.

But they didn't leave it there. They also prayed for them. Cotton Mather had many children. He said the most important part of his child rearing was this,

"I pour out continual prayers and cries to the God

of all grace for them, that He will be a Father to

my children, and bestow His Christ and grace upon

them, and guide them with His counsels and bring

them to glory. And in this action I mention them

distinctly, every one by name unto the Lord.that

the Spirit of Grace may fall upon them in this action,

and they may be seized by Him, and held as His

temples, through eternal ages".

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