Book Review: ‘Christian Nurture’ by Horace Bushnell
Part of Bushnell’s thesis is that parents are responsible for the spiritual development of their children; he argues that Christian nurture begins in the home.
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Christian Nurture. By Horace Bushnell. Reprint, Memphis, TN: General Books LLC, 2009, 182 pp., $26.71.
“And this is the very idea of Christian education, that it begins with nurture or cultivation” (12). “Multitudes of parents who assume the Christian name, have yet the practical sense of the intensely religious character of the house, or the domestic and family state” (150). “They want their children to shine, or be honorable, or rich, or brave, or fashionable” (151). These statements were published in 1847, yet seem quite relevant for many Christian families today.
Part of Bushnell’s thesis is that parents are responsible for the spiritual development of their children; he argues that Christian nurture begins in the home. Thus far, contemporary evangelicals would agree. Bushnell’s rationale for his argument, however, is problematic. Despite attending Yale Divinity School at the same time as Nathaniel W. Taylor, Bushnell was a leading proponent of liberal theology and denounced not only the older New England Calvinism but also Taylor’s New Haven theology.
According to Bushnell, children are born with God’s grace and primarily need Christian nurture to live as Christians. Hence, he emphasizes the power of a godly home and godly parents (55). The “organic power of character in the parent” awakens the child’s realization of the Spirit of God (13). Throughout the book, Bushnell bases the power of parents’ influence on his “organic” view of the family. Differing with the individualism of the modern philosophy in his time, he views children as having an organic connection with their parents (18).
In many ways, Bushnell’s exhortation to parents seems refreshingly applicable to Christian parents today. Bushnell’s work, however, misleads parents to believe that faithful Christian parenting somehow ensures faithful Christian children. God commands parents to be faithful nurturers and uses them in the lives of children, but he alone saves. Faithful parents should be honored but God receives the glory in salvation. Bushnell’s theological leanings blind him to the need for personal conversion-from his perspective, a child’s Christian faith needs merely to be nourished and nurtured, not animated and recreated like a corpse being brought from death to life.
In the second half of the book, Bushnell devotes more sections to practical matters of Christian nurture. Section 15, for example, is full of helpful parenting tips (e.g., parents as spiritual examples; husbands and wives honoring each other; children obeying at an early age). Still, the book as a whole will be a ponderous read for contemporary persons. While heartily agreeing with Bushnell’s emphasis on the role of parents, it is crucial to recognize how his theological liberalism moves his foundations far afield.