Early Religious Training

From my earliest recollection I used to be dressed on Sunday mornings in clothing that must be kept spotless and sent to the ordeal of church. Of the six years of weekly sermons that I heard before I was nine years old, some three hundred sermons in all, I recollect just one thing—a story about fishing poles. I remember not one other word of all Father’s sermons, because either my church going was premature, or because Father preached over my head, the net result being merely a confirmed habit of painful church attendance.

I was sent to Sunday school regularly, and we were taught to memorize and recite selected portions of Scripture. With a half dozen other restless little boys, I had for teacher harmless Deacon Benedict, whose services consisted in indulgently listening to each in succession while we stumbled through the six verses of Scripture, we were required to memorize each Sunday. The book chosen for the year was always one of the gospels, the lessons each of just six verses were taken in consecutive order, and our mothers were expected to make us commit these verses to memory. This was the task of Saturday evening, always approached with dread and often concluded with tears, a fitting introduction to our unhappy Sundays. I do not remember one of the hundreds of routine gospel verses I was required to commit to memory in those years. I never understood one of them. We had the very system of red, blue and green cards as rewards for verses that Mark Twain has immortalized in Tom Sawyer, and we used to traffic in them, just as Tom did. The singing was pleasing, but otherwise Sunday school was a bore, as was church. I remember well my weekly relief when it was over, and we could go home for dinner.

But Sunday was a punishment throughout. As it was the Lord’s Day, we could not love the Lord who made it or any of His ways. The Puritans had improved on the loose and negligent Moses for, while he had forbidden work on the Sabbath, they forbade play also. Not a plaything was permitted us on Sunday, either indoors or out, and so Sunday was a day of misery. I loved Monday best of all, because it would be six whole days before another Sunday, and my spirits fell a little with each succeeding morning as I awoke, because it brought Sunday that much nearer. To this hour the feelings of my boyhood cannot be wholly shaken off, and from Monday the days of the week follow on a descending scale.

We had family worship twice each day, morning and evening. Father read a chapter and followed it with prayer at which all knelt. At night on going to bed, we children knelt again and said:

“Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

The general effect of this rhyme was nothing, or at most slightly saddening. It was followed by relief with the consciousness of duty performed. Its chief merit was the ease with which it could be learned. Of course, the prayer did not express any longing that could exist in the heart of a child. If it taught anything, it taught us thus early that prayer is a mere empty form of words. Children should be taught to pray for what they crave, and always in their own words. Our early Sunday school songs were also false in sentiment. A favorite was:

“I want to be an angel
And with the angels stand,
A crown upon my forehead,
A harp within my hand.”

No healthy boy ever wanted to be an angel. Indeed, to be angels is the very last thing healthy children want. I was required to commit to memory my Uncle William’s little green, cloth-covered catechism, but I remember only the first question. “What is the chief end of man?” To me the only possible answer would have been the head end. To a boy of seven or eight the catechism was, of course, a mere torture of verbal memory, wholly meaningless.

We had a large family Bible in pink leather with illustrations. On Sunday afternoons I was reduced for entertainment to these pictures. I presume they were all prints of celebrated old paintings. These pictures gave me my first deep impressions of religion. I remember many of them Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent in Eden, Adam and Eve slinking out of Paradise threatened by a fiery sword, Cain with a club, the dead Abel at his feet, the flood overwhelming the wicked with furious waves, while the Ark floated in the distance in majestic calm, the beautiful boy Joseph being sold into Egypt by his brutal and wicked brethren, Pharaoh and his hosts being overwhelmed in the Red Sea, the court of Belshazzar in revelry, while the magic finger writes on the wall “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin,” Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the lions standing around amiably, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego coolly promenading in the fiery furnace, David holding high the severed head of Goliath, the cutting off of Samson’s hair while he sleeps, Samson breaking the pillars of the Philistine house of revelry, and bringing it down on himself and the revelers, Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, the stoning of Stephen, and a series of terrible pictures in the Apocalypse, among them the Angel chaining the snarling beast for a thousand years, the white horse and the black horse with fiery nostrils thundering through the sky. These and other weird, tragic, and terrible pictures gave me my first ideas of the contents of the Bible and the nature of religion. These and other early impressions associated religion with tragedy, crime, terror, and death, with tiresome lessons, long and meaningless church services, a Sunday amounting almost to solitary confinement, a catechism of jaw breaking, meaningless words. There were also the long Wednesday evening prayer meetings, but these were somewhat relieved in our case by the interesting crescendo of Deacon Hall Richards’ weekly prayer. This began with low and distant mutterings, but it gradually increased in volume and rose in key until it became earsplitting at the climax, and at last died out in gurgles of physical exhaustion. And then there was the testimony of the “sisters” which (except Mother’s) was invariably pathetic and broke down at the end in convulsive sobs. Such was the Christian religion as it came down from the Puritans into my “totally depraved nature” in my earliest and most impressionable years—not religion at all, but a travesty of religion utterly false and ungenuine. The orthodoxy of Calvin and Knox runs athwart our best and noblest impulses and tends to suppress the natural instinct of right-minded persons to be friends with God, to serve society, and cheerfully and faithfully to discharge the duties of life. The redeeming feature of Calvinism was that, while professed, it was seldom obeyed or really believed. It was endured only.

The best that religion had to offer me as a boy was death and heaven, both of which were the very things I most dreaded, being a normal healthy boy. Children ought not to be looking forward to death, but to life. All my later life I have been trying to outline and erase my early religious training. I suppose the belligerence of my present revolt against orthodoxy—not the revolt, but the energy of it—which my children have often remarked, is to be traced mainly to the sufferings it inflicted on my childhood and youth, the ogres it set before me in the name of religion, its tendency to thwart and crush in the young the natural impulses of the being whom God made and pronounced good. As a child I did not rebel against it. Of course, I knew too little for that, and that is the pity of it. I was taught in helpless childhood to hold ignoble, unworthy, and false doctrines in awe. To me, orthodox Christianity and its exercises were a sort of necessary evil, inflicted by a stern and unbending Providence, to which a formal obedience must be yielded, but in itself it was opposed to every impulse of my “totally depraved” being. The religious instruction of my childhood, as it is now easy to see, presented Christianity to me in a way so false as to make the most gracious and beautiful thing in life an intense aversion.

God should always be pictured to the mind of a child as the most friendly and attractive of beings, more tender, more forgiving, more sympathetic than any mother, sharing the joys of children and well pleased with their innocent sports. The Bible pictures should illustrate only the sweetest Bible stories. Instruction in the Bible should consist at first wholly of selected stories in illustration of the noblest qualities of biblical heroes and heroines and should be supplemented by the stories of noble and heroic men and women in the later ages of civilization. Death and heaven should have no place in the religious instruction of a child. These themes are for the aged, not for children. In fine, God and all His works and ways should be so presented to children that they will be attracted to Him and feel that He is their best friend, instead of an object of dread and terror. Above all, the literature of piety should be thoroughly genuine. Ungenuine prayers taught to be “said,” ungenuine hymns to be sung, ungenuine longings to be expressed in prayer can tend only to create that unconscious hypocrisy in which was rooted the religion of yesterday. We have sought to avoid, in training our children, the errors of our Puritan ancestors. We have sought to make religion attractive from earliest infancy. Our children at the proper age have themselves desired to make a public profession of religion and join the church, knowing little or nothing of orthodoxy, and I do not observe that their consciences are less, but more quick and sensitive than those of their Puritan forebears. It is ideals lovingly cherished, not terrors, that educate the conscience and create character.

Blessed is the memory of that hamlet of Broome County with its dear people all long since vanished. If my training there was little, and ill directed, it was better, far better, than most boys of my years had at that time, and perhaps it has turned out not altogether ill, even in its defects. For it taught me much to avoid, as well as some things to encourage, in the training of my own children.

Next Section
Part One: The Early Years, “Spiritualism”