Shall We Send Our Children to Church?


AN appeal was published last winter calling on parents to send their children to church. American fathers and mothers were reproached for not bringing their children, as the appeal put it, to the ‘house of God.’ The committee, which included names distinguished in the religious world, deplored the growing neglect by parents of the habit of formal public worship. The younger generation was growing up, it was said, without the familiar and habitual religious contacts afforded by church services, and this was quite evidently regarded by the distinguished authors as reflecting a drifting away, passive rather than active — as an almost unconscious submergence of the sense of spiritual values. The world was too much with us.

It may be questioned whether the underlying assumption of the churches’ appeal is well founded. If one were to try to fix some past time in our history when the ethical appeal was more potent, when the men and women on whom leadership is cast were more responsive to appeals based on spiritual rather than material considerations, it would be extremely difficult to do it. It is doubtful whether at any past time so many of our ablest men have given themselves with anything like the devotion of our own age to the causes that make for truth and righteousness rather than for the rewards of a materialistic society. True, the reaction may be less emotional; it may be revealed in the steady and prosaic searching out of causes and conditions rather than in a vague emotional glow. Frequently it almost goes out of its way to avoid a too definite avowal even of a spiritual or idealistic purpose. It is part of the heritage of the Englishspeaking peoples that they should not wear their heart on their sleeve. Not everyone that sayeth ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven.

After we have allowed for all the worldliness, the silliness, the striving to be in the swim, the vogue of the great god Splurge — after we have allowed for all that, we have still the unquestionable potency, simply overwhelming on any fair perspective, of the sense of spiritual values, of the imponderables, of a dominating ethical concept that in greater and greater degree inspires men of light and leading and sooner or later is translated into action.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably true in the families of intelligent men and women, of those upon whom is thrust the responsibility of doing that part of the world’s work that has to be thought out, among our business and professional men, scientists, university professors, and in general the families of recognized intelligence and leadership, that the children are not being sent to church to anything like the extent that children in families of that sort were sent, say, a generation ago. The churches’ complaint is well founded on the facts.

It may be that this tendency is to be deplored. It is no part of my purpose to maintain that it is not. Even among those who find themselves not altogether in sympathy with the church’s pronouncements, it is a commonplace that nothing is at hand to take its place. Most of the men past middle life who are now carrying on the actual responsible work of their generation grew up in an atmosphere where long association, the most appealing traditions, and a veneration inspired in their most impressionable years united to inculcate an affectionate loyalty which will last throughout their life. But they do not, habitually and universally, send their children to church. Last winter’s organized appeal, altogether typical of appeals made constantly, reflects the obvious fact that for the younger generation the church does not march with the leadership and inspiration it had for that generation’s fathers.

It is not a question of numbers, nor is the truth of it impaired by the results of the recent rather doctrinal and theoretical questionnaire sent out under church auspices. The annual Thanksgiving proclamation follows the traditional form. Sessions of Congress and of the state legislatures are still opened with prayer. The church still asserts its authority to declare the sanctions of matrimony and of its dissolution. Lawmaking bodies still discuss, and occasionally enact, statutes forbidding the teaching in public schools of anything inconsistent with Genesis. In outward speech the recitals of submission to the pronouncements of the infallible book which Protestantism substituted for an infallible church continue almost unchanged. Nor, indeed, is it to be doubted that behind it rises a popular sentiment potent to a terrific degree. What in England they used to call the ‘nonconformist conscience’ is with us approximately represented by that congeries of emotions, mental reactions, traditions, convictions, and aspirations which, to take a familiar instance, functions vigorously in response to such appeals as that made by the late Mr. Bryan when he fought for his faith in Tennessee. It may well be that if we were to count heads we should find among our own people a clear numerical majority in sympathy with Mr. Bryan’s well-known theological views. It is not to this majority that the appeal to send its children to church is addressed.

That appeal goes out to professional men, to the leaders in industry, to engineers, to university professors, to the better educated and more intelligent. Again marking our group by a characteristic instance, we might identify it as including those of the community who would find inspiration in Eliot’s Religion of the Future rather than in Bryan’s defense of the anti-evolution law of Tennessee. The immediate problem is not the attitude and approach of which group are in closer accord with truth or radiate higher spiritual values. It is rather to answer the question of why it is that among the former, among intelligent men and women whom one could hardly accuse of failing to lead lives of inspiration and service to their time, there is a growing disinclination to bring up their children in intimate and sympathetic contact with the rites and services of the church.

For suppose the ministers and the evangelical alliances and the committees for reviving church attendance have erred in their diagnosis? Suppose the disinclination on the part of these parents to send their children to church reflects not an unwillingness to have them attend the ‘house of God,’ but a profound doubt whether the church may always fairly be described as the house of God or the pulpit deliverances as utterances inspired by God? Then indeed should we have a quite different problem; one that might perhaps call for a searching of heart on the part of the church rather than a more dutiful submission on the part of the parents the faces of whose children are missed from the congregation. And that such searching of the heart is plainly enough in progress illustrates perhaps the enduring vitality of the church. The ministry is full of men fired with the spirit of devotion and sacrifice, eager at all times to learn wherein the church may more vitally and efficiently minister to the needs of humanity.


It is a far cry from the fierce disputes of science and theology of the seventies. The voices of Huxley and the embattled divines have long been hushed. But the instinct of Gladstone and his bishops, of the men who fought so valiantly against the new science, was a sound instinct. The methods of science were devastating to Christian theology. I know il is altogether the fashion to say otherwise, but the very currency of the polite phrase that between science and revealed religion there is no conflict is but an illustration of the overpowering potency, in the folk ways of the race, exercised by the priests and spokesmen of a dominant religion.

There is nothing to be gained by obscuring the issue. To a generation grown up under the influence of the scientific spirit, one that has seen the whole content of the interpretation of phenomena transformed almost beneath its eyes and has rewritten human history in terms of spiritual values, there is one prime virtue demanded of those who would expound the meaning of the universe. That virtue is intellectual integrity, and that virtue, one must with reluctance aud disappointment confess, is precisely the virtue for which the methods and traditions of a church claiming authority, or expounding writings claimed to be authoritative, are not a favoring environment.

Parents sympathetic by personal association and tradition with the church are, it is complained, nevertheless not strongly moved to take their children regularly and habitually to its services. To answer that in many cases one reason for this indifference is not blindness to spiritual values, but rather an uncomfortable realization that in its authoritative pronouncements the church frequently flouts the obligations of intellectual integrity, is indeed not the pleasantest kind of answer to have to make, but it is far better that we should declare it frankly. The overwhelming majority of intelligent men are sympathetic with the church, but they have little confidence that it will appeal to their children as it has done to them unless it thoroughly and whole-heartedly makes its formal pronouncements square with the requirements of reason and intelligence.

It is not only in such matters of dogmatic theology as the reiteration of the historicity of the virgin birth, of the miracles as a whole, of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, that offending is evident. The formal declarations on such things are bad enough. If, for example, one chooses to believe in the virgin birth because it is a dogma of the church, he has manifestly already accepted the major premise that all dogmas of the church are to be believed. But that major premise no longer finds easy acceptance; so from the pulpit we hear curious defenses of the historic accuracy of the story of the virgin birth — arguments so preposterous, so tenuous and pitiful, so childish in method, as to be beneath contempt. What can we say for the intellectual integrity of the preacher who seriously cites as a prophecy of the virgin birth the familiar passage from Isaiah, a passage which in private conversation any educated clergyman will agree had, as indeed the context plainly shows, a purely local and temporal reference, one whose subject was fully exhausted within a few months from the time the words were spoken? The question is not of the importance of the historicity of the virgin birth. The disquieting feature is that men who by intensive education should be best qualified to speak with authority should pervert their office to presentation of arguments unworthy of a schoolboy.

Any educated clergyman will say freely enough in the seclusion of his study that the Hexateuch is blended of the Elohistic and Jahvistic writings, with large additions of a Deuteronomic author and a portion known as the Priestly Law, that these were not gathered together until long after the time of the earlier Jewish kings, and that they are largely legendary; but if he talks too much of this from his pulpit he knows that he is quite likely to get into trouble. So, too, no educated clergyman thinks of the Synoptic Gospels as narratives of eyewitnesses; neither is he ignorant of the vast time that elapsed before the author of the Fourth Gospel began to write down his strange, mystical interpretation of the Jesus who had lived generations before. He is acquainted with the profound gulf that separates the actual life and work of Jesus of Nazareth from the involved Pauline theology that succeeded it. All these things have long been thoroughly comprehended in the highest places of the church; nor, one may safely believe, does the most obscurant theological seminary fail to make its students acquainted with them. And the more intelligent of the clergy would not dream of disputing at least the more striking and elementary of the conclusions reached in the historical searching of sources that has been part of recognized Biblical scholarship for the past fifty or seventy-five years.

Let us be quite frank about it. The church has not been fair with its own people. Its spokesmen have not on the whole given its own people a fair or comprehensive picture of the very subject matter of the gospel it was preaching.

They must have known better, for example, than to declare that, if the results of research in geology and biology did not square with the creation legends set down in Genesis, they should be rejected. Yet one does not have to be very old to remember how bitter were the fulminations directed against Darwin and Huxley and Tyndall; how terribly the bishops thundered in the seventies. That seems a long time ago; but it was that tradition, that way of looking at new facts, at research, from which survive the fierce resentments, the angry intolerance, the implacable fixed ideas that find voice in such laws as the Tennessee statute under which it was forbidden to teach in the public schools anything in biology or geology not in accord with Genesis.

That, let us thankfully assume, may be a belated survival, the defiant gesture of entrenched ignorance, not truly representative of the church. But the trouble is not with this detail or that. The church may have been laughed out of its insistence that the Babylonian myths preserved in the Jahvistic and Elohistic writings from which the Hebrew Scriptures were derived are to be taken as authentic history. The trouble is not with the particular conclusion reached; it is with the whole method and approach. The disquieting fact that troubles the parents is that in investigating and interpreting the facts of the universe the method and approach are often not consistent with intellectual integrity.

‘Ah, but the church is not, and never was, the organ or instrument in the search for truth in the scientific field! Its world is the spiritual world. It is spiritual values that it seeks out and holds before us. It is in ethics, in conduct, in the spiritual interpretation of the universe, that it speaks with authoritative voice. There its light is the illumination of divine truth.’ Such is the consoling reconciliation so much in fashion. ‘There is no conflict between science and revealed religion. Each has its own sphere.’

The church was in the wrong when it condemned the men who said there were antipodes. It was wrong when it condemned Galileo and Copernicus. It was wrong when it declared that any deliverances of palæontology or biology contrary to the scriptural records of special creation were to be spewed from men’s mouths as unholy and impious. Men have suffered ostracism, exile, torture, and death for opposing in these things the church’s pronouncement of a divine mandate. How are we to know that its methods and processes come with more authentic inspiration when we pass into the field of ethics, of morals, of conduct, and the whole plan of spiritual things?


It may well be that in the eager and reverent study of the life of Jesus of Nazareth our children will find a living gospel potent with spiritual values ample for the making over of the world. By our earliest and most powerful associations, by tradition and the living force of the most appealing ideals and aspirations of Western civilization, we parents are for the most part willing that the Christian church should be, if it will, the chief instrument for organizing the spiritual life of the younger generation. But how can we look with hope, or indeed with anything but dread of sorrowful disillusion, to a propaganda whose methods conflict with intellectual integrity and whose most definitely organized and formal arguments and pronouncements are so frequently beneath contempt?

For we should not lay the flattering unction to our souls that there is the remotest chance of our children working into their spiritual life the mystical heritage of theological concepts that no longer have correspondence with any reality we know. Even in the Episcopal Church, in whose tradition there has always been a powerful protest against the submergence of reason, we begin our service with the servile declaration that we are all miserable offenders and that there is no health in us. Were our children to begin their weekday tasks with any such whining of a morbid defeatism we should realize that they needed an instant change of environment.

Do our children believe, as they are told a few moments later, that God hath given power to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins, and that such absolution is limited to those who ‘unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel’? What is their reaction to the dreadful comminution in the Catechism, where, in defining the nature and effect of infant baptism, it is said of baptized children that ‘being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath,’ they are thereby ‘made the children of grace’?

Have we any expectation that our children will take these things seriously, or believe them ? Are we content that they should take them seriously, or believe them?

But, it is said, we need not trouble with dogma. For the millions reared in the traditional faith the historic doctrines of the church have been sources, not only of inspiration and righteousness of life, but of abiding strength and serenity of spirit. It is by their fruits that we shall know them. True, and none realize this more profoundly than these same parents to whom the appeal of the churches comes. It is because of this that their attitude is in no way antagonistic. They would have the church live and flourish. Nor is it merely the church as a social institution with which they would gladly see their children united in close and vital fellowship. They have traditionally looked to the church for spiritual leadership, but they can have but faint hope of the enduring spiritual leadership of those who, week in and week out with monotonous iteration, ring the changes on formularies so utterly divorced from reality that their denunciations no longer terrify and their promises no longer allure.

The fundamental appeal of Christianity is as a way of life. It is the spiritual interpretation of the universe in the light of a great personality. The perpetual freshness and vitality of its appeal have survived the incrustation of creeds and dogmas that men have erected about it. Why then do we fear that after all these centuries attendance upon its established rites and services will alienate from it the younger generation, or at least dull their ears to its appeal? We fear it because until very modern times indeed there has been no sharp cleavage between the content of our knowledge of the universe and the authoritative deliverances of the church. More or less — never altogether, never quite with complete frankness, but more or less — the church has in past generations been in part the spokesman of what there was of scholarship, of patient research, of searching for the truth of the universe. In the method, approach, and deliverances of the spokesmen of revealed religion there was nothing hopelessly and irreconcilably in conflict with reason or abhorrent to truth so far as truth had been learned of men. Now there is, and that’s the pity of it.

The virgin birth is not inherently important. Miracles are not inherently important. The legends of the fall, the diagnosis of the divine decrees of the supralapsarian Trinitarians, the involutions of the Pauline theology, the metamorphosis of the radiant figure of the Synoptics into the mystical theologian of the Fourth Gospel, are perhaps not inherently important. But when the priests and spokesmen of a powerful institution, the men chosen to represent its judgment and scholarship, maintain these things by unsound and hopelessly discredited formulas of evaluation and the perversion of rational judgments, it is exceedingly important.

Do these things awaken the spiritual consciousness of the children? Do they, indeed, arouse their interest? Do they stimulate in the house of God more than a drowsy fuddling of the mental and spiritual powers of the attendants? Are we quite sure that these somnolent stirrings of the children’s spiritual nature, these rituals of formularies discarded by reason, impotent to interest the children or vitalize their faculties, are altogether an appealing offering to the Almighty? Should not the churches try to make their services potent to arouse the interest of the children, to awaken their noblest intellectual and spiritual reactions, rather than ask us to run the risk of forcing on the Lord an unwilling and unintelligent worship?

To come back to our fundamental complaint, in too many places in the church its spokesmen do not meet us with intellectual integrity. We should be shocked to have our children follow along their path. Down that path we cannot discern a clear light.

Whether Protestantism can so interpret the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth as to restore the radiance of a personality that it is not hard to think of as yet potent to transform and save the world — this is the momentous question that our churches have at their door. Is there hope of it in dogma, in the reverent repetition of manuscripts, however sacred, in the traditional prayerful recitals of thanksgiving and avowals of utter unworthiness, in the ecstasy of assurance of personal salvation by acceptance of a vicarious sacrifice — is there hope of it in these, or indeed is there hope that these will appreciably impress the spiritual consciousness of our children? Frankly, we should not like to see our children led or inspired by them.

Yet here are the children, waiting outside the church door. Impelled by the most powerful of traditions and the affections of a lifetime, most of us, perhaps, too old now to be eager to break the ancient ties, send our children within the door. How long will they stay there?