The Bible in the Nursery
ONE need not go further than the nearest nursery to see the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, wielded with tremendous readiness and force.
The dragons of unbelief and the little foxes of curious inquiry rarely approach that sacred inclosure, but many a speculative philosopher and curious Christian has been put to rout by a child’s sturdy faith. No beguiling queries about the priority of manuscripts or the authority of “ various readings ” and the accuracy of translation have as yet shorn these canonical Samsons of their strength, and the stoutest of Philistines, and even of faithful Israelites, has quailed before the mere shake of a curly little head with its Thus saith the Lord.
One of our most distinguished savans was amusing himself, years ago, with that most fascinating and dangerous of all sports, that is, religious skirmishing with a child. His little niece bore and parried his attacks with admirable spirit, until at last the professor fell back upon first principles, and demanded, “ What are you made of, Kitty ?” “I am made of dust, — and so are you and auntie and everybody,” she replied, with orthodox promptness and simplicity. “ Oh, no, Kitty, we are all made of water ; ” and as she disdained response he went on to affirm that everybody also had a big furnace always burning within him. This provoked her to remark, “ Now I know you are n’t telling the truth ; for if we are made of water, it would put the fire right out.” But then, not satisfied, apparently, with even this momentary descent to his level, she looked up into the face of the wise man, himself a devout believer, with the heavens, so soon to hide her from us, shining in her eyes, and said simply, “You may be a philos-o-pher, uncle, but I shall have to believe my Bible !”
The Westminster divines were content to declare that “ the word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us,” etc., but it remained for a Yankee boy of these last days to make the memory of a single text not merely the “ rule ” of Christian living, but the absolute test of Christian being. The son of a certain high official of our most Puritan State had the dangerous habit of jumping into the back of a tipcart which frequently passed the house, and as the colored driver was of worse than doubtful character, very decided commands were issued that the offense should not be repeated. Doubtless the badness of the driver was more emphasized by the mother, in her prohibitions and threat, than was the peril to life and limb from the cart, for, to her amazement, she saw her child, the very next day, tumble himself over a “ tailboard,” and ride triumphantly down the street. When, at last, he returned, his mother met him with a grieved inquiry into his disobedience, preparatory to inflicting the threatened penalty, but found him not only clear in conscience, but able to argue his case irresistibly : “ Why, mamma, I did n’t disobey you at all! Don’t you know, you told me I must n’t ride on that cart with the wicked black man ; but this driver was a Christian white man.” “ How do you know that he was a Christian?” “Why, I asked him was he a Christian, and he said, ‘Yes;' and I said, ‘Repeat me a text; ’ and quick as a wink he said, ‘ HONOR THY FATHER AND MOTHER ; ’ and I tell you, the way I jumped into that cart of his was a caution ! ”
Literal interpretation is of course to be expected from children, and many alas, find that the letter killeth long before they are able to comprehend the Pauline antithesis, the Spirit giveth life. They often, also, “ animize the Bible ” (to use the very expressive phrase of the child of one of the committee of revision : “ My papa has gone to New York to animize the Bible ”) for their own purposes, with an ingenuity which is appalling when one considers what misconceptions of the simplest truths may be lurking in the soul of the most transparent nature in our households. This is one of the saddest and most inevitable facts of human existence. Who of us, remembering our own childish blunders, can feel sure that our most confiding child, whose clear eyes seem perfectly to reflect our own expression, as we tell the simplest Bible story, is not being warped for all time, if not for eternity, by some misapprehension of its meaning which the exchange of a few words would set right? Think of this possibility, overburdened mothers, when you are tempted to say, “ You talk too much ! ” or, “ Dou’t ask so many questions!” With all our watchfulness and painstaking, it must needs be that our best known child has an innermost heart hiding its own bitterness, and, let us hope, also, with some joy beyond our intermeddling, by way of compensation.
A favorite hymn with my father, versifying precious Scripture, always filled my childish soul with an unspeakable horror, which would seem absurd had it not been so real. As often as he stood in the old high pulpit and said, “ Let us unite in singing ” that fatal hymn, his loving face always turned toward his own little flock in the “minister’s pew” below, in special benediction, so that escape was hopeless. Yet there I sat month after month, never betraying by the least sign, either to the father gazing tenderly down upon me, or the loving mother at my side, the horror of great darkness within me, until long years had passed.
The hymn was about the Good Shepherd, and the harrowing passage was its tenderest, and the only one I can to-day recall: —
And in his bosom BEARS ” !
This ante-millennial admixture of the types of innocence and cruelty was more than I could endure, though my beloved father and the Good Shepherd himself stood sponsors for their good behavior. That I was one of the lovingly-embraced “ lambs ” I of course understood thoroughly, but the too neighborly and terrible “ bears ” made even the “ goats ” attractive to my scared little spirit.
A volume of definitions honestly compiled from the authoritative utterances of our nurseries would, I venture to say, he as novel and incredible in its way as is that hitherto unique book, The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English.
One of our friends, who, after the custom of American fathers, was wont to devote the leisure of his Sundays to the summary dispatch of all the domestic duties of the round year, was putting his youngest through more pages of her “reader” than she quite liked for the day of rest. But the father knew his duty, and not only prolonged the reading, but bethought him that it would be well to make sure that his patient was benefiting by her privileges. The tale with which they happened to be wrestling at the moment was a thrilling snake story ; but the reptile, it was stated, “ escaped ” before it could be killed. “ Do you understand that, Jennie ? ” asked papa. “ What does ‘ escape ’ mean ? ” “ Escape ? Escape ? Lemmesee ; ” and after rolling her eyes about the room, in vain search of light, she threw her head back for a good refreshing yawn, and luckily caught sight of the chandelier, and exclaimed delightedly, “ Oh, yes ! Escape — gas escapes — smells bad — pah ! Escape means ' smells bad,’ papa.”
It was from her catechism lesson that another little friend returned home and announced, “ Oh, mamma, I did feel so sorry for Julia Jones, to-day, in Sunday-school ! I should have thought that Miss Brewster would have skipped it.” “ Why so ? ” “ Why, the lesson was about ‘ pomps,’ ” — sinking her voice to a curdling whisper, — “you know.” “Yes; but what has poor Julia Jones to do with ‘ pomps and vanities ’ more than the rest of you ? ” “ Why, mamma ! how stupid of you ! Why, POMPS, you know—and her father drinks awfully ! ” “ But my dear child, what does ‘ pomps ’ mean ? ” “ Why, get drunk, of course! ”
I have just heard of a young literalist who had at last found courage openly to protest against what he declared he had always felt to be rank injustice (“real mean in the Bible ” was his exact phraseology) toward those who had every reason to expect better things. “ I can’t see, mamma, what they did treat the prophets so awfully for, in the Bible, if they were such good men as it tells about! ” “ Why, what can the child mean?” “But they hung them all, you know, — every one of ’em ! Why, we read it this very morning at prayers : On this commandment hang all the law and the prophets.”
“Grandmamma, aunt Maria has n’t taken her india rubbers with her ! ” cried a child, after her aunt’s departure for Boston. “ Well, she didn’t intend to take them; she wore her stout boots instead.” “ Yes, grandmamma,” persisted the little girl, already careful and troubled about many things, — “ yes, but what if she should die, while she is gone ? ” “ What has that to do with wearing india rubbers ? ” asked the puzzled old lady. “ Why, grandmamma, have you forgotten about it ? She 'll have to have her rubbers in heaven, you know. She couldn’t get around there without them, because the Bible says the Lord always reigns [rains] there ! ”
A little kinswoman of our own, living on the shores of a beautiful lake, was found, one day, after listening to a perhaps too specific exposition of the ten commandments, crouching in a corner of the nursery, in an agony of fear and misery. After long petting and entreaty her mother succeeded in getting possession of her slate, which she was clutching frantically, and which seemed to be in some way accountable for her panic. The dots and scratches which covered it were without form, and void of meaning to the mother’s eyes, until little Katie explained between her sobs, “ Why — don’t you see — mamma ? I 'Ve — I 'Ve — drawed the lake ! ” Fortunately, her natural outspokenness and happy circumstances saved the child from long remorse over the broken commandment, and her mother speedily assured her that her graven image and likeness of the waters under the earth was neither in kind nor degree a breach of the Mosaic law.
It was Sir Isaac Newton, was it not? who, in his childhood, having been promised vaguely “ a few apples,” provided he learned his task speedily, proceeded to claim the reward in this wise: “I’ll take those eight apples now, if you please, father.” When his father demurred at this unexpectedly ready reckoning, the boy seemed confounded by his ignorance, and said, “ Why, that’s the way the Bible counts, any way.” And turning to St. Peter’s first epistle he read out triumphantly, “ ' While the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is eight, souls were saved ; ’ ” and of course there was no appeal against apostolic arithmetic.
Children often “ animize ” the Bible, with startling effect upon their audiences ; but rarely so felicitously as when a little Binghamton girl, rehearsing her Sunday - school lesson to her pretty, grown - up sister, who happened to be attired in the distracting glory of a new costume, introduced into her recitation of the Sermon on the Mount this “ various reading ” (all the happier from its entire innocence of purpose), “ For where your dressing-room, is, there will your heart be also.”
One of my own first Bible scholars (who were committed to my guidance the moment I had attained the ripe wisdom and spiritual depth of fifteen years) electrified not only our special class, but the entire Sunday-school, when, having wrought us and herself up by her very realistic rendering of the parable of the vineyard, as she reached the point where the heir himself comes to the rebellious dressers, only to be rejected, with flaming face and clenched hands, she piped out the climax at the top of her shrill voice: “ And they took him and — and — s-h-o-o-k him ! ” — probably the most violent mode of punishment within her range of experience.
A young friend often delights me with the report of her perilous escapes from utter discomfiture at the hands of one of her Sunday-school babes, whose sharpness and agility keep her perpetually on the gui vive. Nobody a whit less clever and magnetic in personal attraction than she could stand for one Sunday against this enfant terrible.
The latest bulletin related to the results of a critical cross-examination instituted by her in reference to the parable of the ungrateful lepers. She had found it unusually difficult to fix the boy’s attention, and when he had answered several questions without meeting her eye she remonstrated, saying, “You should always look at me when I am talking to you.”
“ I hear every word you say, Miss Susie.”
“ Possibly ; but it is rude not to look at one who addresses you.”
“ But I’ve been told it was very rude to stare.”
This casuistry being disposed of satisfactorily, she returned to the lepers, and asked, “ Don’t you suppose that Christ expected all the ten would come back and thank him for having cured them?”
“ Oh, no, of course not. He knew all about what they 'd do beforehand.”
Pretty Susie could only indorse the orthodoxy of this apt scholar. “ That is true; but don’t you think he must have been very much grieved that only one of them all was willing to thank him for what he had done ? ”
“ Oh, no, indeed! ” — this with a crushingly superior air, — “ no, indeed ! The Bible says you must n’t do things to be thanked for ’em, you know.”
It was noticed at the outset that doubts of scriptural infallibility rarely invade the nursery, but, alas, rarely is not never.
A clergyman once related to me a childish experience of his own, which involved a total eclipse of faith and an inevitable hour of great darkness following, from which he emerged in later life only by a miracle as great as that which he had vainly attempted, to his own undoing.
His family were of the church of the old Broadway Tabernacle in New York, and were returning home one Sunday from service, having heard one of the lamented Dr. Thompson’s most impressive discourses. The subject had been the Omnipotence of Faith, founded upon and frequently quoting the text, Verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place ; and it shall remove ; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
As my informant, then “ a babe of grace” of but a half dozen years’ growth, was capering homeward, before, behind, or between his parents, as his fancy guided, his beloved pastor’s fervid eloquence still rung in his ears and stirred his believing heart to its depths. Their way led through business streets, which looked strangely unfamiliar in their stillness, with great warehouses stretching themselves out in the welcome abandon of their long Sunday nap, and it suddenly occurred to our little Christian that then and there was a favorable opportunity for the exercise of his magical powers. It was not at all by way of experiment, for no shadow of doubt existed; it was simply a little private entertainment that he proposed. To be sure, there was no “ mountain ” at hand, but that was the poor city’s infirmity, and he was no literalist to limit the true significance of the delightful Scripture; and, indeed, what could be more mountainous, to all needful intents and purposes, than these monstrous warehouses? Accordingly, stopping short on the pavement until his unsuspecting parents had gone on so far in advance of him as not to be endangered by the undoubted catastrophe he was about to achieve, he then fixed his faithful eyes upon the biggest block on the opposite side of the street, and solemnly waved his little paw at it, with the simple command, “ Remove, and stand upside down on your chimneys! ”
The issue, so far as the “ mountain ” was concerned, it is needless to state; but the poor little believer, after continuing his exhortation all the way home through a rapidly diminishing scale of weights and measures down to a final and crucial trial on the corporeal substance of a small dog on the very doorstep, which also declined to “remove” at his faith’s behest (until backed by sundry “works ” of his indignant foot), entered into his house a desperate skeptic.
Mrs. Edward Ashley Walker.