THE CONVERSION OF CHILDREN.*
delivered on Monday, Dec. 16, 1850.
BY THE REV. C. G. FINNEY.
at the Tabernacle, Moorfields.
I have so many things to say to parents, that I hardly know where to begin. It is one of those subjects upon which so much needs to be said. The greatest influence in the whole government of God, exercised over the destinies of the world, is exercised in the family. The mother begins the work. The parents influence is no doubt the supreme influence. God designed it should be so. This was one object in establishing the family relation. It was not only to secure among human beings temporal blessings, the care and nurture of the young, but that they should have a spiritual influence, and exert it over their offspring; the great end God had in view was their spiritual well-being. This was one of his great designs, no doubt; but it is not kept in view by parents; and therefore the great object of the Almighty in establishing the family relation -- so far, at least as children are concerned, is defeated.
It should always be remembered, that this influence, whatever it may be, takes place in very early life, and is generally decisive, one way or the other; the after life is in most cases, little more than the development of what has been thus commenced. The mother as I have said begins the work; she heads the undertaking; and exerts more influence over the child at first than everything else; and if she understands what she is about -- if she is a pious woman -- if she avails herself of the facilities God has put into her hands she will be, under God, the greatest possible blessing to that child. Parents stand in such peculiar relations that their children naturally have more confidence in their father and mother than in anyone else. Their position gives them an influence over the youthful mind, for good or for evil, with which no other influence in the world can compare. Whatever is done, in this direction is done and will be done in very early life, and the results are only developing themselves ever after.
But to explain what I mean: -- parents have a mighty influence over little children, -- they lead them to their earliest thoughts, and give them most of their first ideas. The spirit of the parent teaches the child a great deal, even before his words can teach him. The example and influence of the parent is not confined to mere verbal teaching; everything he does has an influence over the child; every word the parent says before it can fully tell the meaning of words, has an influence over it; and when it comes to understand language, the little mind weighs all that it hears and thus the child is educated. Now if the parents' influence is of a worldly character -- if there is not that in the parent which early leads the child to think about its soul and God -- if it does not see in the parent a concern for his own soul, its education has begun in the wrong direction. If the parent neglects to let his child see in very early life, that he is concerned for its salvation -- if the idea of religion is not a prominent idea -- if the child does not see that the subject is working in the parents mind, if he does not see that the will of God is the parents' life, and that to glorify God is the parents' end -- if he does not see these things in the parents, but the contrary, the child will understand it, think of it, and it will have its influence over him much earlier than parents are in the habit of believing. I have known children, for instance, whose temperament was such, that when very young, they talked much about religion, and were constantly asking questions about it; so thoroughly indeed, were their little minds engrossed with the subject, that they scarcely seemed to know that there were any other places than those to which their parents were accustomed to resort for religious worship. Even when strangers have come in, they have been accustomed to ask, "is that person a Christian?"
The early conversion of children materially depends on the parents securing a lodgment for religious truth among the earliest thoughts which are developed in the mind. It is curious to see how children observe when parents pray and recognise God in all their ways. It is remarkable to see the effect of this on their infant minds; they get their little chairs, kneel down and try to pray. They see their parents pray. Their mother is in the habit of taking them and praying with them, from their very birth; and as soon as they can understand her, she leads them into her closet, reads the Bible to them, talks about the Saviour, and prays with them daily, -- sometimes several times a day and in consequence of this, you will see them get their little chairs, and have their little meetings, and go down on their knees and pray for themselves. One mother recently writing to me says: -- "Little Willy gets his chair, kneels down, and clasping his little hands, says, 'O Lor' (he could not articulate Lord)." Every little thing would begin to pray if he had such a mother. Now the tendency of all this is to keep the little one's thoughts awake; from the spirit and temper of the parent, he perceives that religion is something of supreme importance. God comes to be in all his little thoughts. He sees that religion is the great concern of the parents' life, and where this is the case, I do not believe that there is one case in a thousand, in which children are not very early converted -- that is of course, unless there be some error in the teaching or conception of the parent that gets in the way, and keeps this influence from producing its natural results. I have known pious parents who have said much to their children on the subject of religion, but who, from holding certain erroneous views, have laid stumbling blocks in their way; the parents taught them some things which were false, and which consequently proved hindrances to them.
It is important that parents should understand, that there is only one of two courses open to them with regard to their children, they must either exert a worldly influence which would give their little minds an entirely wrong direction, -- or a spiritual one, which will set them after religion; the child's mind will be caused to ferment on the subject of religion; its earliest thoughts will be about religion; the earliest influences they can remember, will be convictions of sin; Heaven and Hell, Christ and Eternity, will put their little minds into a state of effervescence. These influences commence ere the child has left the lap of its loving mother.
For the few moments I can spend in addressing you, I shall turn your attention to a few things which parents must avoid, if they would secure the salvation of their children.
First. Be sure you don't stumble yourself by the idea that "you can't expect" the early conversion of your children. A worthy deacon from Birmingham called on me a few hours ago at Dr. Campbell's. His family were all converted and united to the church; his youngest child was only about ten years of age. He told me that he had been introduced to the deacon of one of the City churches, who had a large family, not one of whom were converted, and who on being apprized of the happy condition of the Birmingham family, said "Well you know we cannot give grace to our children." "O no" said the Birmingham brother, "but we can use the means in our possession to make them Christians." When the fact came out that the youngest child was only ten years' old, the City deacon shook his head. "Ah!" said he "I don't believe in forcing people into the church." "Nor do I" was the response, "I did all I dare do, and said all I dare say, but what could anyone do or say, but let her profess her faith in Christ as other people do?"
I know that one of the greatest stumbling blocks is cast in the way of families by the idea, that to expect the early conversion of children, is to say the least, rather enthusiastic "the idea of a child of ten years of age being converted! why we cannot believe it!" But suppose I were to preach the funeral sermon of such a child and to say, "it is gone to hell no doubt." "What makes you say so?" you would say. Why, you do not pretend that the child is not a sinner at ten years of age? This is the greatest error that can be entertained. If a child has intelligence enough to sin, has it not intelligence enough to be converted? If not, what becomes of children old enough to sin, but not old enough to be converted? The fact is that it is easier, so to speak, for the Holy Spirit to convert a child, than it is for him to convert a man. Now do let me ask, what is in the way of the child's conversion? When its little conscience first wakes up, sin takes such a twinging hold of it, that it goes into the greatest agony at the thought of it. This is natural; for the little conscience has not yet been trifled and tampered with. Now cannot the Spirit of God teach such children? What? Cannot those who understand the nature of faith in the parent, understand the nature of faith in God? Cannot those who understand parently protection and love, understand the protection and love of their heavenly father? Cannot those who know so well how to depend on a parent, depend on God? They can surely do it more easily then, than if they wait until they have learned, from contact with the world, to mistrust everybody and everything. Cannot they, whose tender hearts are so ready to trust, be taught to exercise faith in Christ? Why, this is the most likely time in their lives. It is much more likely then, that they will be converted than it is that if you allow them to grow up and form bad habits, those habits will be more easily corrected, than if you had used the best and earliest means to prevent their formation. The fact is the Spirit of God is always ready to cooperate with the judicious use of means -- just as ready to cooperate with children as with adults. But parents allow children to grow up and escape from under their influence, with the false impression, that such is not the case. I have observed that, just so far as parents have intelligently used the best means in their power to secure the early conversion of their children, just so far have they been successful in their endeavors. But when the contrary has been the case, I have not been surprised to find that the children have grown up to manhood and womanhood unconverted.
I have sometimes asked parents, if they ever made it a great pressing business to secure the early conversion of their children "O no; we never set ourselves to make it a pressing business to secure them for God." You don't eh? Then is it any wonder that they are not converted? There are multitudes of persons who are obliged to admit, that they never in good earnest, set about promoting the conversion of their children and securing it under God. I wish I had time, I could tell you of numbers of cases, where such sons and daughters have turned out badly. Oh! What stories have I listened to, of the awful results of the neglect of parents with regard to this matter!
Secondly. Many persons entertain ideas of God's sovereignty which are a great stumbling block in the way of the early conversion of their children.
The man who said, "We cannot give grace to our children" had doubtless an idea that God's sovereignty was, in some way, peculiarly connected with the act. Such persons associate God's sovereignty with conversion in a way that they associate it with nothing else. In every other matter they exert themselves, as though there were some connexion between means and ends in the government of God but with respect to conversion. They seem to take it for granted that there is no connexion between means and ends in the act of conversion, -- that God sets aside, in the conversion of men, all the laws by which he invariably operates at other times -- and that he exercises a peculiar kind of sovereignty in that particular instance. I have been not a little surprised to find that multitudes of persons have such ideas of God's sovereignty and agency, that they can recognize his hand in nothing short of an absolute miracle. For example; a person goes and talks to a child in such a manner as to make a deep impression on its infant mind, and the impression is made accordingly; the child awakes to a deep sense of sin and importance of religion. But what does the parent say? "Let it alone now, and we will see whether you have been merely playing upon the child's feelings, or whether the spirit has been cooperating." The fact is the child is talked to in the very way to produce the effect predicted. If a preacher so discourses as to affect the minds of his audience in a certain way, and accordingly they are so affected. Ah? then God has nothing to do with it? So I suppose, in your idea, it must be something in which there can be no perceivable relation between the means and the ends, in order to have God recognized? But, if there really is any natural and necessary connection between the means and the end, why then is not God recognized, unless in an act in which he is supposed to set aside this connection, and act in a manner entirely inconsistent with it? But when persons talk in this way, why are they not consistent in carrying the matter right out? Now if you sit down and converse with a child about playing marbles, who could expect that such conversation would be followed by any religious result? And if a minister got into a pulpit and preached about politics, would you expect anybody to be converted? It seems therefore to be necessary that the subject of the discourse should have a religious leaning in order to expect a religious effect. It must not be some historical facts in no way connected with what the sinner has to do -- you could not expect that to have the desired results; he must press the matter home, till the sinner fully feels that he is virtually saying, "Thou art the man." Ah! and now what is this? "Oh!" you say, "you have been playing upon his sympathies." But if you reason so where are we to stop? The fact is you do not -- you cannot expect God to convert any one when there is no sort of relevancy, in the means used; and if some relevancy, even according to your own ideas of divine sovereignty, is necessary in the means employed, pray how much relevancy is absolutely indispensable? When God works, he can never be expected to commit any infraction of the laws which he himself has ordained for the government of the universe; and if he does operate according to his own laws, why should it be doubted that he is operating at all? For my part, I am always expecting to see God work in accordance with his own established laws, and I recognise him all the more, when I see how nicely he adapts the means to the end.
He created mind and established its relations to truth, and when he presents truth to the mind, and it is received in accordance with principles he has ordained, am I not to recognise the hand of God in them?
Parents do not seem to feel the necessity of their applying themselves to secure the early conversion of their children, with as much earnestness as they seek their recovery when sick. A little error in nursing will often have a most dangerous influence on the health of the patient, and a little error in instruction may induce a serious turn in the thoughts, and perhaps, present a fatal stumbling block. If God allows things to take this course in the physical world, he will permit it in the moral world. Why not? If certain laws are violated in the physical world, God allows the thing to take its natural course, why should he adopt a different policy towards the moral world? This is the very way in which God's sovereignty really manifests itself. If you look round on the natural world, you will see that God permits immense results to turn on the most trifling violation of natural laws. A ship would sink though filled with devoted missionaries, if the natural law is neglected. In fact -- if they have neglected to take compass or chart, or some such necessary precaution on the pretence of trusting to the sovereignty of God, they have in reality been tempting God, by not taking care to adjust themselves to his physical laws; and that ship, although, as I have said, it is filled with missionaries, must go to the bottom! And in such a case, perhaps, the salvation of thousands of souls might be suspended on that ship's reaching its destination in safety. It is the same in the moral world, let mother or father make a mistake, either moral or physical; in one instance it is death to the body -- in the other to the soul. This is the teaching of the Bible, and it is borne out by experience. Men should know that they can as certainly ruin the soul, as they can kill the body.
Thirdly. Care should be taken not to cause the child to stumble through bad government, or no government at all.
Some govern their families too much -- others not at all. Now I should like to write a book on such a question as this, instead of talking to you for half an hour. It is really dreadful to see; ofttimes the spirit of the whole family government is such as to make a false impression; it is not a Christian government -- a government of love; it is not the firm spirit of God's government; it is either despotism on the one hand, or on the other hand, no government at all. In other cases, there is one half the time too much rigour, and the other half too much laxity.
Let me say again. All the impressions thus made affect the children in connection with religion. If the general impression of your deportment should give them to understand that you are "in God's stead" to them, you cannot conceive the importance of thus early seizing their little minds and will, and bringing them under proper control. Oh! that little will! If unsubdued, what will it cost that child to be converted, if it ever is converted! When parents permit the will to pass unsubdued, their little ones get into such a habit of self-will, as to render it extremely doubtful whether they will ever bow either to God or man -- to say the least, it will render it far more difficult for them to do so, than it would have been had a contrary course been pursued. When I see children affected to an agony at their position, and still unable fully to yield and come into the kingdom, I always suspect they have never been properly taught to yield to parental authority in their childhood. It is of the utmost importance to take hold of this will, as soon as it develops itself, and hold it as the representative of the Almighty, to exert the first moral influence under God's moral government. Take hold of that little will kindly, and hold it as a sacred trust under God. Hold it by parental authority and love -- so kindly and firmly, that it is, as it were, lost in your will, and controlled by it. Even a look, or a motion of the hand, when understood, should be immediately and willingly obeyed; and by and bye, when it can understand about God, give the whole weight of your will to lead the child's will to submit to God. Did you ever think what a powerful influence you poss? Where the little will from the first has been held under control, and the child is old enough to be talked to about God, bring all your powers to bear upon it, to induce it to yield itself up to God, and you will find yourself, as it were, almost handing it over to God. I could tell you some extraordinary things of the amazing power of parents in this position, and how God uses this influence to accomplish his purposes. You are not to suppose that because your influence is used as a means, that God has nothing to do with it; he has placed you where you are in order to use you. He has stationed you there to watch over the development of that little will, and kindly to control it, so that in due season you may be prepared to hand it over to God through the teaching of the Holy Ghost.
This is the great work which you are sent to do, Fathers! Let your parental heart draw the little one close to it, and let your mind draw the little mind into close connection with it, and let the little will be as far as possible subject to, and guided by your will. Do it with prayer before God, and you need not fear a failure. As soon as the little will can be influenced by religious truth, pour it in with all the weight of your parental authority, and carry that will to God.
A Christian lady once informed me, that she had found her daughter under conviction of sin. "I have so trained her," she said, "from her infancy, that she regards my will as her law; a look from me is enough. I did not at first understand properly my relations to her with reference to her conversion; but as soon as the thought came before my mind, that I could exert a direct and powerful influence in the matter, and that the Spirit of God would use that influence, I took the child with me to my closet, and prayed with her. I there showed her what it was her duty to do with regard to yielding up herself to Christ; I talked and prayed with her, and urged the matter in this light -- 'Now, my child, you never hesitate to obey your mother in other things, and I want you now at once to renounce yourself, and give yourself fully up to Christ." Before they left the closet, she said she had reason to believe that her child had really given herself up to God. Said she, "Never before had I any idea that the Spirit of God would so use this influence." Now mark; this was not any such authority as would threaten to whip the child! but that proper parental influence which can carry the little mind with an amazing power; and when the whole weight of this parental influence is concentrated upon the single question of "my child give your heart this moment to Christ," what human influence can be more powerful? And this, of course, is backed up by the word of God, and seconded by the Spirit of God -- all this in addition to that will to which the child has always been accustomed to yield. I have seen the infinite importance of this not only in my own, but in many other families.
Fourthly. Parents are very apt to stumble their children by their temper.
It destroys the confidence of the child in their piety, and causes him to doubt their sincerity; and thus the parent loses all hold on him. Few things more surely and speedily destroy the influence of a parent than to scold them peevishly, or even to speak to them snappishly, and call them hard names. Anything that savours of ill temper has a dreadfully powerful influence in leading the child away from Christ, and counteracting well-meant endeavors.
Fifthly. Parents must be careful to feel and manifest concern for their spiritual welfare; for if they do not, a child at that age cannot be expected to feel a concern for himself.
Suppose a parent felt truly concerned to keep a child out of bad company, he would keep this before the mind of the child -- if concerned for his health he would keep that before the little one, and teach him how to take care of it. It is just the same with anything else of this kind. Now the parent ought to feel and manifest a supreme interest in the child's salvation. Let all your conversation plainly indicate that it is so. Let your children see that health, worldly prospects and everything else must be subordinate to religion. Do these things, and you are beginning right; and by a natural law you can hardly fail to see their early conversion.
Sixthly. Parents often manifest great error, in not seeing to it that their children are punctual and regular at public worship.
I have been in a great many churches, and have known the history of a great many families. Sometimes I have found households, the children of which were both punctual and regular. At chapel you would see, in the pews where some families sat, all the children able to come out always there. Where their parents were there were they. They felt that they were no more expected to absent themselves from chapel when their parents went, than from the dinner table. It was a thing of course; they were not suffered to wander about and absent themselves, their parents not knowing where they went; for where this is suffered parents have little or no religious influence over them. Parents must also guard against laxity with reference to the due observance of the Lord's Day. It is not right to throw up everything into the hands of the sovereignty of God, assuming that that alone will convert them, whatever influence may be brought to bear upon them, than which there is not a greater falsehood; a more damning error never entered the world. It is true other influences may possibly convert the child, and as other influences may save the child in sickness, but no thanks to the parents in either case.
There is another fault of parents which I must notice. They do not take sufficient pains to render home happy; and the children not finding friendship and sympathy at home, run about elsewhere in search of it. Their home is not a happy one, and they consequently rove about, and come under bad influences. Now a happy home is one of the principal things at which a parent should aim. The home should be rendered so pleasant that the child would rather remain there than go about. Dear parents! are you aware how often a child's life is embittered by the neglect of this? They must be made happy, and have something to love at home, or they will naturally seek company and happiness somewhere else. Oh! that parents would see the necessity of using this and every other means they can devise to secure and retain their proper influence over the little minds! They ought to feel towards you so that they would sooner tell you than anybody else their little thoughts. Fathers are more apt to neglect this than mothers; children often seem afraid of their fathers, so that they cannot tell him the workings of their little minds. He treats them with a kind of despotism, manifests no interest in their little concerns; and as he does not sympathize with them, they turn to someone else. Thus those whose hearts ought always to run in sympathy with them have shut them out; and what do they do? They turn away and fall under some other influence, and they are gone! How many parents who have had to lament the evil conduct of their children, who, if they could look back might attribute it largely to this! The father has been sharp, has not kept his influence over their little hearts. Oh! how often religious people, and even ministers, have been so busy with other matters, that they have neglected their children in this respect, and have so shut them out, as it were from their hearts, that they have fallen into other hands, and under evil influences.
Now, dear parents, one of the first things God wishes you to do, is to secure and retain the affections and confidence of your children, and to use your influence over them for him. In order to keep their hearts open to you, let yours be open to them. Let them know that if there is any burden on their minds, you will be the very first to sympathize with them. You will surely secure your end if you do so. But, on the contrary, if they are afraid to approach you because you keep them at such a distance, then, if they are not ruined, no thanks to you; and instead of telling you all the temptations and trials they fall into, all their plans, the books they read, -- instead of feeling that in you they have advisers who can and will sympathize with them -- they will manifest the same reserve to you on these matters that you have displayed to them, and you have, therefore, failed in a vital point. I would that time did not so press, for I have ten times more than this to say, but I must pass rapidly on.
Another point I wish to notice is, the evil practice of allowing children to wander about where they will in the evening. Now, if, as I have said, you would make the home what it should be, they would never want to do this; they would rather be with you than anywhere; but if you suffer them to go out and keep late hours, they are sure to go in the way of temptation. I have often seen too, the injurious influence of holidays being so numerous and protracted, and of the difference parents make at such times with regard to their controul over the children. They are allowed to do things then, because it is a holiday, which you would not permit at other times, and this leads them astray. But I cannot enlarge upon this point just now, time forbids; but the holidays are near, and what will be your influence over them during that period? Parents! think of this.
Once more. Parents should always be wide awake to secure the conversion of their children during revivals of religion. If I had time, I could tell you many remarkable things, which have come under my own observation, connected with families, who have allowed revivals to take place and pass away without endeavoring to turn them to account in this direction. Sometimes the parents themselves will not enter into these revivals, although they are professors of religion; on the contrary, many speak against them, or cast a slight on something connected with the movement; and thus, as far as their influence is concerned, they shut the children out from blessings they might otherwise probably have received. Other persons, although they do not actually speak against it, yet refrain from entering into the work. They come and go again and again, and while multitudes are blessed they seem never to have taken up the subject, as if they had any personal concern in it. They have never endeavoured to secure a blessing for themselves and their households. They never seem to say, "Oh, is not Christ to visit our family?" They pass it by, and let it go. It is, in fact, just tantamount to this: Christ comes into the neighbourhood, and passes along, but they never invite him into their house, and they, with their households, are passed by and remain unblessed. I have inquired into some of these cases, and it has become a matter of remark, that the children often turn out badly; this is true, I believe in eight cases out of ten. I have now before my mind a case in point. Some years back, I spent a short time in Philadelphia, and knew a family that did this. The husband and wife were both professors, but she was a worldly-minded woman. He felt considerably for his children, and I talked with him on the subject several times. He very delicately hinted to me that his wife did not sympathise with the movement, and that the daughters were under her influence, and like-minded with herself, and regarded her opinion in preference to his. Now, mark: I inquired about this family some years after, and what had become of them? One of the daughters had married, and after a year or two eloped from her husband with another man. Some time after the others went in the same direction -- all turned out in a wretched manner. And this is only a specimen of a multitude of cases, which have actually come under my own observation.
It is therefore of the utmost moment that children should be immediately brought to Christ. The parents should say, "Now, Lord Jesus, thou art passing by; do thou have mercy on my children!" If you have hitherto exerted an improper influence, try at once to repair the evil done as well as you can. Do all that lies in your power; set your heart fully on securing the conversion of your children, and do it now! Begin at once with all your children, and especially those that have reached an intelligent age; and oh! I beseech you, do not let the Spirit manifest itself in this church and congregation, and you remain at a distance from the work! what do you think the Almighty will say about your family? What do you think he will say if you have not taken precautions to preserve yourselves in the visit of the destroying angel, by sprinkling the blood on the lintels and posts of your doors? Do every thing according to the rule which God has laid down; if you do not, when the destroying angel passes by, what will become of you and your family?
But I cannot continue these remarks to-night. There are thousands of things I might say, but I must reserve them for a future opportunity.
* The first of two Addresses to Christian Parents on their duties and responsibilities in relation to the early conversion of their children.