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The Relation of Children to the Church
Circular Letter by J. Spanwick, 1880
Northamptonshire Baptist Association
      It will be in the memory of some of you, whose years of interest in this Association are not to be numbered by units but by tens, that we once addressed you on “The mutual relation and duties of the Church and the Sunday School;” and remembering that this year is the Centenary of the Sunday School institution, you will feel that there is something very appropriate in our now writing to you on “The Relation of Children to the Church.”

      When Robert Raikes, moved with pity and love, and following the instinct of a Christian heart, gathered together the unruly and illiterate children of Gloucester Streets on the Sabbath day, and taught them the elements of education, and transferred from, what was to them, a dead book, to their impressive minds the moral law of their Maker, he did not think of the mightiness of the idea to which he was giving birth, nor of the unmeasurable influence for good, which the development of that idea was to exert on the wide world; but to us who are at the other end of the century, it seems to have been the ushering in of one of the new eras which God has ordered for various periods of time, for the unfolding and perfecting of His great designs.

      But, dear friends, to day we write to you, not concerning the relation of a distinct organization with its chief and subordinate workers, and with its plans of working; or in other words, we do not write about Superintendents and Teachers, Treasurers and Secretaries, Librarians and Visitors, but about the souls of children and your relation to them! Now the very fact that you have asked us to write to you on this subject, implies that in some way you regard the relation of children as different from that of adults; it shows that you have Some misgivings as to the truth of your views, and it manifests your interest in the question. Truly there is cause for grave anxiety. The continual complaint of those whose special

department of Church work has been the care of the young, is that when they reach the age of fifteen or sixteen, they are unable to retain them in connection with any of the departments of the Church ; if, as is sometimes the case, the parents attend the place of worship, they too may attend, from a mere sense of propriety, while there is evidently lacking all spiritual interest; but too often, they regard neither the words of the teacher nor the example of the parent, but, following the inclinations of their own hearts, they drift into, and help to swell the stream of irreligion and worldliness! To all human appearance the labour of years has been in vain, and the strength has been spent for nought! Whatever the result of such labours might be in their after life, as children they are lost to us; as young men and women, and as fathers and mothers, they are against us: for by their unbelief and practice they are strengthening those forces, against which, as soldiers of Christ, we are actively hostile!

      Now, that you may become deeply impressed with this condition of things, and not, as perhaps you may have done in the past, find relief from the weight of responsibility in a deep drawn sigh, and throw off the momentary nightmare with the thought that it is irremediable, let us ask your patient attention to a few figures, which we quote from statistics gathered by Mr. Maunder, of Wolverhampton, bearing on this subject. Mr. Maunder is a Congregationalist, and his figures concern the Congregational Churches, but, as he rightly supposes, things are no better among the other denominations of the Free Churches. The information he sought, was the total number of members received into the Churches for the past seven years, and the number received during the same time from the Sunday School, these numbers being arranged in three divisions, viz.: under 14 years of age, between 14 and 18, and over 18 years of age. Now he was able to obtain an answer to these questions from 449 Churches only, and it was as follows: In every 163 members, there is only one under - 14 years of age; and in every 23 members, there is only one between 14 and 18 years of age Further, out of those 449 Churches, there - were 264 which did not contain one member under 14 years of age, and 184 Churches with not one member between 14 and 18 years of age: from this latter fact you will infer two things, first that it is by some few Churches that the majority of the young have been gathered in, and secondly, that in the Church as a whole, children have no place! Can it be, brethren, that this Church is the fold of that good Shepherd, who said “Suffer little children to come unto

me, and forbid them not: for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven?” Yes it is; but we fear that the disciples are still forbidding them to enter. Another sad view of this question, is the heart aches it gives to many Christian parents Are we not now writing to some such parents, whose heart beatings are often quickened at the sight of the once loving and obedient child, now, the young man and woman, walking after the course of this world, without a sign of interest in divine things? And alas! This is not the worst; how many do we see, who setting at nought all the counsels of the pious father and mother, live as if there were no God to fear nor hell to shun We have before us too, a picture of sorrow that most of you have seen, and many have felt. We refer to the poignant grief of those Christian parents whose dear child has been cut off early in its teens, or it may be, before it has entered them; it is suddenly stricken down, and before they realize that they are parting with their child, the Lord has taken it. Gone, without having spoken to it personally of its relation to God; gone, without one token that it was living in Christ! The uncertainty of the question, “where?" the hope struggling with the fear, the heart bursting with anxiety, and the hands wringing with despair, are sufficient to arouse all our faculties to the consideration of the subject: the relation of children to the Church.

      Perhaps, dear friends, you would like us to say what that relation is, as a matter of fact, doctrinally, regarding the Church as those who are accepted of God through the Lord Jesus Christ; this we will do in as few words as possible, for our purpose is rather to account for such a state of things as we have just depicted, and to say something, which by the blessing of God, may help to remove them. In the case of those dear children who are only permitted to bud and die, we believe, that through the merits of the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, they are found in full bloom in the paradise of God. As to such as stay with us till years of responsibility are reached, we believe that they must be made children of God through the regeneration of the Holy Ghost. We say emphatically, it is not possible for any human influence, however potent, to make a child a Christian, apart from the Spirit of God. And with equal emphasis we say, we do not believe that a child of Christian parents inherits any spiritual blessing from the parent, through the flesh: “Born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God;" nor do we believe that the ceremony known by the name of “Christening," performed on an unconscious babe, in the name of

Christ, secures for it any of the blessings of Christ: “Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Teach and baptize, this is our Church order.

      But, brethren, we want to get at the causes of that unhappy state of things, regarding our children, which we have referred to, and to judge those things by such evidence as shall be thought admissible. The first, and almost the last cause, at any rate the chief cause, is the prevailing disbelief in the conversion of children. This unbelief is founded, partly on misconceptions, and partly on our own lukewarmness and negligence. These mutually strengthen each other. Judging from personal experience rather than, “Thus saith the Lord," do we not think that children must have a deep conviction of their personal sin before they can appreciate the salvation of Christ? Because we do not see many children brought to a knowledge of the truth, pardon us for suggesting, through our half-hearted labours, do we not think, although we should not like to formulate the thought, because there is all the time an inward conviction that we are wrong, we ask, do we not think, that God does not intend to save children, as such, but that all work among them must be a casting of bread upon the waters to be found after many days : Again, do you not think another mistake we make, is that of supposing that children have not the mental capacity to understand what salvation is One of the ministers of our Association is accustomed to narrate the following incident, we give it in his own words, he says, “When I was a resident in the city of Bristol, it was my privilege to pay a monthly visit to two little girls in Mr. Muller's orphanage, whom I called my little pensioners. It came to my knowledge that there was a wonderful work of revival going on among the children, so I was interested to know if my little friends were among the blessed. I must tell you that they were named Eliza and Ellen, and were aged respectively about twelve and eight, the latter was called by her teachers Lenie. For the reason mentioned, I said to Eliza on one of my visits, “Have you given your heart to God?” to which she replied in the affirmative; and stooping down I said to the little one, “ and do you love Jesus, Lenie "A nod of the head said “yes.” I then asked how long she had loved him, and she replied “ever since I heard of Him." Eliza then enquired if many of the children in the infant wing, for Lenie was still among the infants, had trusted in Christ, the answer to which was a shake of the head, meaning “no;” when the child

drew herself up, and said with an air of pity “poor little things they can't understand it.” We ask you, dear Christian friends, is not that little sister in Christ of twelve years, a type of the Christians of to-day? They do not believe that a child can understand all that is needful to a Christian life. Remembering that we belong to a kingdom, the rule of progress in which is “according to your faith be it unto you:” can we expect things to be other than they are, when we do not believe?

      Do you not think there is another false notion among us which harbours this incredulity, namely, that the spirit of childhood is not in harmony with the dignity and seriousness of the Christian life? Understanding by the spirit of childhood, an exuberance of animal spirits, a love of play, a natural want of seriousness, and an instability of mind? We do not say that there are no difficulties peculiar to childhood, but we do not think they are greater, if so great, as those peculiar to age ; and certainly he who said, “Except ye become as little children, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” implied that childhood, with its childishness, and not childhood out of which all mirth had departed, not childhood with the heads and years of manhood, not the childhood only of the type set forth in Janeway's tokens, from which kind of books, whatever their merits, children are apt to get the notion that good children must die, as a matter of course, soon after they become good, and so are repelled from becoming Christians for fear they should die, for you will not find in the nature of children an unnatural love of death, but childhood, laughing, romping, merry childhood, the future men and women of the Church militant, is congenial to the reception of the new life. If this last opinion is entertained, it is a very short step to the conclusion, that children who are converted are very liable to backslide, and so harden their own hearts and bring disgrace on the Christian Church

      Before leaving the causes of our failure among the young, may we mention a misgiving that the inconsistency of Christian parents in the home may account for much of it? That want of harmony between the profession in God's house and the practice in your own strikes the children as the harshest discord. Again, is it right, that parents should manifest such activity in Christian life, or in attending to the souls of other families, while there is an impassable barrier which prevents them from lovingly talking to their own children of

things which concern their souls? We having a lasting monument in the history of Eli's family, of the consequence of keeping the vineyards of others and not attending to our own!

      Now, brethren, is there any ground for these opinions, or are they, as we have termed them, misconceptions? Our testimony shall be from three sources: reason, experience, and the word of God.

      First, then, can it be in the reason of things that children cannot be Christians? As far as the child's mental capacity is concerned, the thing is easily measured. Whatever view man has of the relation of God to himself, it is the likeness of relationships, which exist in the world; and the first ideas, which dawn on the mind of a child are sufficient to teach it its relation to God. In the loving smile and tender caress of the parent, it has the alphabet by which it learns of the love of God; in its bad temper, waywardness, and disobedience, which call forth the parental frown, it has the mental power to grasp that its Father in Heaven is grieved when we sin; in the embrace and kiss of the parent, on the child returning to a more amiable and tractable state, it has the ideas by which it learns the divine lesson : “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and of great mercy!” What would you have more than this? Should it know the catechism and the moral law, the 39 articles and the creed? Remember it is possible to know these by memory, and to be an entire stranger to their meaning; and salvation ever depends more upon the state of the heart than upon the capacity of the mind; and possibly, if many Christians, of ripe years and undoubted piety, were asked for the ground of their hope, their truest and safest answer would be, “This I know, that whereas I was once blind now I see.” Again, what reason can you have for thinking that the spirit of childhood is out of harmony with the Christian life? Have you an idea that all physical desires are sinful, and he who yields to them contracts guilt Nay, dear friends, there is no physical appetite but what is good, and is intended to bring pleasure and good to man. Sin is the transgression of the law, whether it be the moral, the natural, or the spiritual. Eve did not sin in partaking of fruit but of forbidden fruit, and so to-day, man sins when he abuses nature or yields to his appetites in forbidden ways. Thank God, the disposition of childhood is laughter, play, fun-making it the brightest passage in life's journey; and just as you, dear friends, have to watch, lest you should become too engrossed with your business and pleasures, so the dear children have to be cautioned against temptations peculiar to them.

Then we ask with one, now in glory, can it be, can it be, that the Kingdom of Heaven is open to receive publicans and harlots, and yet is closed against little children, as lovely in their innocence as in their guileless faces! Oh friends, can it be, that God would have the child wallow in the mire of iniquity, before He would receive him into the Kingdom of Heaven It cannot be We entreat you to sweep away those cobwebs, those fictitious reasons, and to run, catch the dear children in your arms and bring them to Jesus!

      Well, now, are we setting before you something new, some untried plan, or have we any proof that these things can be done; not a case here and there which may be the exception to prove the contrary rule; but have we any examples of children having been converted when special attention has been paid to them? Abundance! In the statistics which we have already quoted, the majority of the children, there mentioned, as being in the Church, are from a very few Churches, proving that any attention paid to the young, meets with a good reward. All down the ages of the Church's history this has been the case: many of the most beautiful, luxuriant, and fruitful trees of the Lord's garden, have grown up trees of the Lord's own right hand planting; and many of the pillars of the Church, admired alike for their strength of character and their ornate beauty, have been fashioned early in life by the divine sculptor: Polycarp was converted at nine, Matthew Henry at the same age; the sweet singer of modern Israel, Dr. Watts, was no older when first his heart answered in melodious music the breath of the Holy Spirit; President Edwards was only seven when he felt the power of saving grace; Bishop Hall was only eleven when he first contemplated the oneness of God and man in Christ; our own Robert Hall was a child of twelve when his wondrous power of speech found utterance at the throne of grace, praising and blessing God! That beautiful hymn we sing so often at our baptismal services: “Jesus, and shall it ever be, a mortal man ashamed of thee " had for its heading, when it was first published, these words, “Shame of Jesus conquered by love, by a youth of ten years!" The Rev. Dr. Rees, of Swansea, tells us that 8o per cent. of all the Church members of Wales are the children of religious parents. The Rev. Jos. Evans, of Carmarthen, Secretary of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Association says, “Children usually claim full possession of all the privileges of membership at from twelve to sixteen years of age. The Church under my care may be taken as a specimen. I have been its Pastor for fifteen years, and I

cannot call to mind the case of a single girl during the period, who has not come forward at the ordinary age of from twelve to sixteen to claim full membership. A few boys passed beyond that age, and I am not aware that one of them subsequently became a member of the Church.” Is not this evidence enough, from experience, and is it not sufficient to remove all prejudice and misconception But some may say, do they stand? If 8o per cent. of the Church members of Wales are children of Christian parents, then doubtless they stand. And to quote the words of our greatly beloved brother Mr. Spurgeon, in writing to Mr. Hammond, of America, “My conviction is that our conversions from among children are the very best we have. I should judge them to have been more numerously genuine than any other class, more constant, and in the long run more solid; and I speak of those who are tried and kept under the wing of the Church." But let us come in our evidence to the law and the testimony. What saith the scriptures? We need not dwell upon the words of Jesus, which in rythmical form we have sung from our first getting an idea of tune: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven:" and yet, we feel that if you will dwell a little on these, you will see enough to exclude the necessity of any other reference. It teaches that nature will lead you better than bad theology; that they were little children, so little that they had to be brought; and as disciples we ought to bring them; “For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” What does this mean, if not that children ought to be in the Church and grow up in the fear of the Lord Mark tells us that Jesus was displeased to see his disciples forbid their approach ; We ask you, dear friends, have you ever brought a frown upon the face of the loving Jesus, whose smile you value above rubies, by not believing, and by ordering your conduct according to that unbelief, that Jesus has a blessing for the young But further, the epistles were written to the Churches of Christ, and there must have been child members, or Paul would not have written to children in his letter to the Churches at Ephesus and Colosse. He saw, from what he knew of the nature of children, that they were liable to sin by disobeying their parents, so he puts a line in for the little children of the Church, saying, “ Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right,” “Honour thy father and mother;” and when he spoke to the fathers of their duty to their children he told them to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” With all this before us, is it not evident what relation the children hold to the Church?
We feel that, by the time you have read thus far, you will be pausing to count the number of pages to the end, and so in as few words as possible we will allow our letter to give place to meditation. It is an all important question, What is the Church? We are afraid that you, dear friends, may fall into the mistake, that we are writing concerning the relation of children to some undefinable thing that is associated with places of worship. But, brethren, we speak to you individually, and say thou art the Church You cannot have a family apart from the members of it; cut off those members, and the family is gone; you can't have a Church apart from the individual believers in Christ, therefore we lay the responsibility of this important subject on every one of you who believes in Jesus! But we do not deny the fact, that when a number of believers unite together they are called a Church, and we are fully alive first, to the responsibility of the Church commonly so called; inasmuch as unity gives to them a strength which the individual does not possess, and the avowed object of the Church is not only defence, but aggression 1 and secondly, we understand the seriousness of Church purity, and of receiving none into fellowship but such as we have every reason to believe are Christians; and it is a question with some, ought the children to come into the Church Now, as to the responsibility of the Church. We ask that the individual conviction of the claims of children on the Church may be brought into the assembly of the faithful, and when all are of one heart and one mind on this question, you will see that the forces of the united Church shall be so directed, as best to secure that which you believe is the will of God. We presume that in four directions you will look for this improvement. To each of these we will endeavour to say a word. First, the parental influence. We know that it is the desire of your hearts, dear Christian parents, that your children should be one with you, by ties stronger than flesh and blood. Now there is nothing that stands in the way of this most desirable object, except your own failings. Do you not feel for the first few years of the child's life that it is too young, and then all at once it seems to spring out of childhood and you say “It is too old I can't speak to it.” Believe us, when we say, it is never too young. The first thing you should do on receiving a child from the Lord, is to thank Him for His gift and favour, and then lay it upon his altar, and so seek its consecration from the womb. Baxter tells us, that for a long time, it was to him a matter of great anxiety that he could not remember experiencing what is known as conversion, but afterward he blessed
God, that He had saved him so young that he never knew the time of his change. Have you ever met with the following incident? There was a married lady in this country whose husband was called by duty to India, and she was left with one infant child in England. As soon as the child could distinguish one person from another, the mother began, as was natural, to talk of the child's father in India, and to show him his likeness, and give him the love and kisses which the absent parent sent. One day the father, all unexpectedly, returned home; the little boy was at play in the hall, and as soon as the father opened the door he ran up to him, having recognized him instantly, and said, “oh my father I'm so glad to see you!” And don't you think that you, dear parents, could tell your children about their Father in Heaven, so often and in such a way, that they should grow up with such a love for Him as not to know when the change took place Oh if you love God yourself very much, and plead with the Holy Spirit, He will shed abroad his light, and the divine image shall be photographed on your child's soul! This has been our mistake; first too young, and then old enough to detect our faults, and, because we have not the courage and power to own our imperfections, we feel that we cannot speak to them, and so as children they are lost to Christ. We entreat you parents to win your children to Christ You have the first influence over them, if you do not use it, then satan standeth at the door, and he will enter uninvited. The second agency you will set to work with a more fixed purpose will be the Sunday school. Dear teachers, your work now, is not to teach the children to read the word of God, it is to teach them obedience thereto; it is not to tell them there is a God, it is to make them know Him in the person of Christ. They are your charges, and it is possible for you to rejoice in their salvation Men may forbid, but Christ says “come,” and He is your Master. You may pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” but it will never be, until you save the young ! The Devil is gaining, we are not keeping pace with the birth of immortal souls, and we never shall so long as we act on the principle that they must grow into sin before they can be saved from it. The principle we must work upon is, that as soon as they are responsible, so soon are they able to understand and embrace the benefits secured for them by the death of Christ! We may grieve over the want of young men to fill the places of our veteran missionaries, who are falling in the strife, but how can it be otherwise when our youth are not giving their childhood to God! We may grieve over the want of consistency, and that adornment of the gospel
which is of great price, in our church members; but how can it be otherwise, when the majority of them are reclaimed, after having spent the growing time of character in the ways of sin, and after having acquired habits which make their old nature doubly strong? Teachers aim at nothing less than this, bringing the children into the way in which they should go, and then training them up in that way, so shall they be bright and shining lights! The third power is the pulpit, you must learn unselfishness there; you always like the ministers to say things that shall bless you; but we should think that if we always get our dish, there must be some who never enjoy a dinner, and you may be sure our children's taste and yours are not at all alike; so forgive us, if we sometimes talk in nursery rhymes and appear simple, for remember that it is by the “foolishness of preaching” that men are to be saved And only think, how much you would give, if you could have been brought to Christ as a child, and so have escaped those sins which as often as they recur to you fill you with sorrow! Now, is it not a fact that, for all practical purposes, children are outside the sphere of pulpit ministration They belong to the teachers and not to the minister, they are not old enough to come under his charge! Oh! is it not worth an angel's time and influence to save a soul from death, and especially to save it at the threshold of life? Is there not a complaint, often heard, that the congregation is poor, whereas the largest and most fruitful part of the vineyard, viz: the young, is left uncultivated. Brethren, let us secure the young and we shall soon have a congregation of adults' We have been writing to you, as if all depended on human effort, but we must not forget, that if this effort is successful it must be the spirit who must move the children of whatever age, and it must be the spirit which on their behalf shall make intercession within you, with unutterable yearnings. It will not be the stereotyped prayers “bless our sabbath school,” it will be the supplicating, heart-burning, soul-wrestling cry, Lord save our children! But there is the second part of this question, when children give signs of repentance and faith, what shall we do with them: Why receive them into the Church, but not to doubtful disputations. Don't look at them coldly, don't judge them suspiciously; but receive them as receiving Him who says “He that receiveth a little child in my name receiveth Me.” But these little ones will require special attention, and indeed we think that none of our converts receive that attention they require; but children would require something akin to the class meeting of the Wesleyans; they
want nursing! Are there not in our Churches nursing fathers and mothers who are not as happy as they should be, because they have nothing to nurse: Here is your sphere. Take the little ones and nurse them for Christ. Now, dear friends, forgive us for trespassing so long on your attention. We pray, that you may all know the joy of having many little ones in your fellowship during the coming year.
     We are, yours by everlasting bonds,
     J. SPANSWICK, Moderator.

[From the Northamptonshire Baptist Association Minutes, 1880, pp. 3-14. Document from Google Books On-line. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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