[Note: this was a review that was published in Modern Reformation in the November/December 2002 issue. I still am surprised that few people know about this book; Peggy Bendroth is a wonderful scholar and the story she tells (I believe) demonstrates the difficulties of the Bushnellian approach to Christian nurture.]
In Growing Up Protestant, Margaret Lamberts Bendorth offered a fascinating account of northern mainline Protestant attitudes about families and children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bendroth, professor of history at Calvin College, began her account with the domestication of the family in the North in the mid-nineteenth century. As programs of catechesis were replaced by Sunday school programs influenced by Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nature and the later educational insights of John Dewey, mainline Protestants shifted their attention from training their children in the doctrines of the faith to developing their personalities to meet the demands of modern life.
Concomitant with this shift in religious training goals was the Protestant exaltation of the family as the chief institution ordained by God for the salvation of children, which in turn led to the denigration of the church and its ministry of Word and sacrament as means of grace. By the 1930s, however, ecclesiastical experts influenced by social science and psychology became convinced that parental nurture would not achieve the goal of psychological adjustment to modernity; in response, denominational elites developed a plethora of educational programs, light on doctrine but heavy on moralism, designed to replaced family nurture as the chief influence in the child’s “salvation.” But parents failed to heed the denominational bureaucrats—instead, they increasingly allowed their children to abandon the church in the 1950s and 1960s, following the dictates of pop psychologists rather than the instructions of the denominational experts. The net result was the increasing absence of theological awareness in the mainline church as well as the rapid decline of attendance over the past thirty years.
Though she did not draw out the moral of the story, Bendroth’s account pointed to the mainline church’s failure to prioritize doctrinal understanding and ecclesiastical centrality as the chief culprits for its decline. As a result, this book raises several issues for contemporary reflection, especially for Reformed evangelicals seeking to pass on the faith to their children.
First, what is the relation of the household to the church? While some evangelicals are drawn to a home-based mentality where the household is school and church as well as family, Bendroth’s work suggests that evangelicals need to be careful here. While the visible church is certainly made up of household heads and their children, still the church does have a disciplinary role in the life of the family; elders work with and through household heads in order to discipline non-communing members. In short, while the family is the basic integer of the church, the church still has priority over the family because Christ has given the keys of the kingdom as well as the administration of Word and sacrament to the church, not to individual families.
A second question is, how should Christian parents nurture their children and pass on the faith to them? Bendroth’s work should give encouragement to the recent revival of catechesis, represented in the recent publication of books such as Starr Meade’s Training Hearts, Teaching Minds (P&R, 2000), Donald Van Dyken’s Rediscovering Catechism (P&R, 2000), and Tom J. Nettles’s Teaching Truth, Training Hearts (Calvary Press, 1998). If the downfall of the mainline was due to lack of the doctrinal instruction of the young, then contemporary Reformed evangelicals should heed the lesson and ensure that their church’s educational programs emphasize not simply biblical knowledge, but theological knowledge as well—mental furniture that will help young minds conceptualize the depths of their sinfulness and the wonders of the Redeemer and his salvation.
In all, Growing Up Protestant is an intellectually satisfying and compelling book. Full of insight and nuance, Bendroth both demonstrates the failures of past reflection on family worship and subtlely urges contemporary believers toward the recovery of older ways of raising their children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.”