(On the) Moral Education of Children

A Sermon Delivered at First Parish Church in Beverly Massachusetts in 1818 by Rev. Dr. Abiel Abbot

As the fifth pastor of our Church, Dr. Abbot served our Church from the end of 1803 until his death in 1828.  One of his great causes was the proper religious education of all the children in the Parish.  In 1818 the Beverly Union Sunday School, founded in 1810, lost the sponsorship of two of its founding Churches- Dane Street and First Baptist Church.  Dr. Abbot invited the School to be set up and run within the walls of the Church building.   This sermon was delivered at the time of its incorporation into our Church.  In many respects, his message rings true even today.

PROVERBS iv.  1, 2


Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know un­derstanding.  For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not ray law.


There is scarcely any subject, on which a minister can address his people of more eventful importance, than that of the moral and religious education of the young; and this is the reason why I address you more frequently on this topic, than any other.—Those of us, who have children, need to have our minds frequently incited to the important duty we owe to them.  The most diligent and faithful parent too often relaxes his watchfulness, and slumbers over his task; and while he sleeps, the enemy comes and sows tares in his field.  The exhortation in the text is addressed to children—Hear, ye children, the instruc­tion of a father, and attend to know understanding.—But the obligation of children, presupposes the advantage of careful instruction.  The exhortation to chil­dren, therefore, implies the duty of parents.

For several years I have preached on the subject of religious education, just as we were about to open the Sabbath School, that great and important means of improving the young, which all over the christian world is producing such happy results.  The success of the Sabbath school depends mainly on the co-operation of parents.  It is not, therefore, a substitute for parental instruction, but an auxiliary; it is not to relax their exertions, but to aid and encourage them, that it has been instituted and sustained.  In two important respects let parents afford their co-operation with the Sabbath School, this day to be opened—First, in se­curing the attendance of their children—and, secondly, in explaining to them the practical end of all their Sabbath lessons; that they are not words merely to be engraven on the memory, but instructions in what they must believe and do, in order to be happy.  If parents will, to the best of their ability, do this, great will be their reward.


But I pass to the particular object of this discourse; which is, to suggest a few important things, which should be kept constantly in the mind of the parent, in conducting his children from early childhood, to that time of life in which they must be resigned to the con­duct of themselves; a period of life perhaps the most important of all, as then the dispositions of the mind take their direction and bias, and the habits fix their root.  I shall not pretend to mention in clue discourse, everything which is important ; but urge the careful inculcation, in childhood and youth, of the following few dispositions and habits, as tending, with the bless­ing of God, to the moral perfection of character.  I mean the disposition and habits of modesty, of purity, and sincerity of speech—diligence, compassion, and pity—piety and devotion.

Let us consider the vast importance of each.

      1. Of modesty. This is a disposition thought to be natural to children; and that parents have little more to do than carefully to preserve it.  But what is modesty? I may define it to be a fear of shame or disgrace.  If it be not properly a virtue, it is a great preservative from vice.  Those children are generally regarded most promising, who have the quickest sense of shame after the commission of wrong.  There is but little hope of a child who has worn out this dispos­ition, and who not only conducts himself indecently and wickedly, but is willing and proud to have it known.  Parents, therefore, cannot with too much care and watchfulness preserve this temper in their children.  To do this requires judgment and delicacy.  It is not by crying shame to the child upon the commission of a little fault; the child may not be able to see any in­decency in the behaviour reprehended; and may be hardened by a disproportioned rebuke.  Of small faults, a gentle notice only should be taken, and rebuke should be reserved for something alarming and palpa­ble, in order to preserve modesty, or the sensibility to shame.  This lovely disposition, carefully preserved, will greatly assist the parent in preserving in his children,
      2. Purity and sincerity of speech. By purity of speech, I would be understood to mean a freedom from unchaste and profane words.  How corrupt must be the fountain which can send forth such streams!  It surely cannot be necessary to exhort parents to use ex­treme caution to preserve their children from words and expressions, which must disgust every person of delicacy, and shock every person of pious feeling. In­decent language in childhood is a mark of great coarse­ness of mind, and almost a certain omen of profligacy in after life.  Childhood is the age of modesty, and proper care in precept and example, would purify the language of the young.  A parent, who has a modest child, to preserve him such, must withhold him as much as possible from the sight and hearing of all such rude companions, as glory in their shame.  A familiarity with them will soon check the rising blush of delicacy, till it shall cease to rise: and modesty in the child shall be converted into that shamefulness, which in youth, must be expected to appear in a very criminal and disgusting form.  Children should be kept from companions indecent in their language, because such are commonly profane also.  When persons have ceased to regard man, it is no wonder if they have also escaped from the fear of God.  The habit of profaneness is acquired wholly from example.  It cannot, I think, be otherwise.  For there is no temptation to this impious vice from any passion or appetite within.  This being the case, how careful should parents be to preserve their children from the dreadful influence of such examples!  Let me now remark farther, that parents should in­culcate not only purity of speech, but also sincerity and truth.  They cannot too easily prepossess the young mind with the conviction of the baseness of a lie.  On all occasions, when a child is tempted to utter a falsehood through fear of shame or correction, he should be en­couraged to frankness and sincerity.  There is so much virtue in sincerity that on many such occasions it should procure the forgiveness of the fault, which the child disdained to conceal by a falsehood.  If this in­genuous disposition is not encouraged; if honest confession is always followed by chastisement, instead of a gentle rebuke and forgiveness, the child will be strongly tempted to resort to deceit and falsehood to screen himself from punishment.  It is most important to be remembered, that if a parent would have his children sincere, he must give them an invariable example of truth in speaking; he must never, on great occasions, or on small, in jest, or in earnest, deceive them.  One example of falsehood in the parent will cleave to their memories with a fatal influence.  If their own exam­ple be religiously correct in this respect, it will give weight to their precepts on the subject, which should be frequent and solemn.  Some heathen nations have numbered prevarication and breach of faith among the most odious of crimes, and cannot the rules of christianity be rendered as effectual in this respect as the light of nature or the lessons of experience?  But I proceed,
      3. To mention another virtue, which parents should encourage in their children, as a capital safeguard against almost all the follies of childhood; I mean em­ployment, diligent employment. They should be al­ways engaged in some useful, at least innocent occupation.  For “those who are permitted to be idle, are put upon a kind of necessity of being vicious for want of something better to do” It has been ob­served of idleness[1], that it is the bane of children; it is the unbending of their spirits, the rust of their facul­ties, and as it were the leaving of their minds unpre­pared and vacant; not as husbandmen do their lands, that they may acquire new heart and strength, but to impair and lose that which they possess.  Children that are bred up in idleness, are almost necessarily bad, because they cannot take pains to be good; and they cannot take pains, because they have never been ac­customed to it.  Nothing valuable in property, knowl­edge, or religion can be gained without exertion.  “The hand of the diligent maketh rich, while the soul of the sluggard desireth and hath nothing.”  What is thus true of outward wealth, is not less true of vital relig­ion; it can neither be acquired, nor maintained, nor enjoyed without activity and diligence.  The virtues of the Christian soon languish, and his graces lose their lustre, unless sustained with labour and vigilance.  The untrimmed lamp soon grows dim.  It is a serious fact, of which too few are duly sensible, that there can be neither excellence, nor happiness, without a disposition to be employed, and the habit of diligence.  We are made to be happy in action, not in indolence.  It is true, that the happiness of the blessed is sometimes in scripture represented by the term rest.  But what is the nature of that rest?  Certainly not a state of stu­por; for of this the soul is incapable, being in its very nature most active, and never more at rest, than when it is intently engaged in the most agreeable course of action.  These remarks are sufficient to show, how de­fective is that character, in which well-directed dili­gence is wanting; and how essentially defective is that plan of educating children, in which they are not allur­ed to diligence in the earliest stages of life.  The ad­vantages of this virtue are many and obvious.  It is a security from almost every kind of temptation, and is a means of almost every excellence.  While idleness not only clothes a man with rags, but ministers to him constant opportunity and temptation to folly and sin.  It is important for me to remark,
      4. That parents should cultivate in their children a tenderness of disposition, an aptness to pity and com­passion. Such a disposition, prudently fostered in child­hood, till it becomes a habit, will prove of excellent use in later life to preserve from injustice and oppression, and every species of unkindness.  A disposition of this amiable nature will be a constant prompter to deeds of mercy.  Now the disposition of a child is early influ­enced and fixed, and circumstances often overlooked or thought unimportant, stamp the temper for life as cruel and unmerciful, or kind and compassionate.—Spectacles of cruelty have great effect.  That nation, whose name has become a proverb for cruelty, delights in savage and bloody sports.  Children should be dis­countenanced in every kind of barbarous usage of ani­mals in their power.  If they are allowed to be cruel to animals, great or small, it will so harden the heart, that they will be prepared to inflict similar sufferings, if they dare, on their fellow-creatures; at least they will be little disposed to the most ordinary duties of compassion to the poor and miserable.  Let me ob­serve farther, to show the importance of this disposi­tion, that it is the very spirit which breathes through­out the Gospel; the sweet temper which it labors to form in the hearts of Christians.  “Be kind one to another, tender hearted,” saith the Apostle, “Remem­ber them that are in bonds, as bound with them, and them that suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.”  The disposition, so often inculcated by precept, was most beautifully enforced by the example of Christ.  His life was a continual exhibition of this most amiable temper.  Friends, strangers, enemies, shared in the fruits of it.  When he made his last entry into Jerusalem, that city, which had murdered the pro­phets, and stoned them who were sent unto her, and were just ready to fill up the measure of their iniqui­ties by his crucifixion, “when we was come near, be­held the city, and wept over it.”  He seemed to lose sight of their wickedness in commiseration of their coming sufferings.  A disposition which appears so amiable, which is so full of good fruits, which makes so es­sential a part of true religion, and assimilates us to God himself, cannot with too much care and solicitude be fostered in children, and confirmed into habit.  Let them commit to memory passages of scripture, which show the nature and importance of it—as, “He shall have judgment without mercy who hath showed no mercy.”  Let the sentiment of the 25th of Matthew be kept fresh in their minds, as the most effectual excite­ment to the disposition and deeds of charity.  For there our final Judge reveals the rule, by which he will try men in the great day, assuring us, that accordingly as this disposition shall be found to have been exercised or neglected, and his brethren, by whom he means the afflicted, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the pris­oner, have been relieved and comforted, or neglected, so shall men receive a welcome into his joy, or banish­ment into outer darkness, where is weeping and wail­ing forever.


In addition to the dispositions and habits already in­sisted upon, I mention further,

        1. The disposition and habit of christian piety in all its branches, as essential to be blended with the char­acter of children. To form and cherish this in their children, parents must be always anxious and devoted.  The simple principles of the gospel must be instilled into their minds in their infant state.  As soon as pos­sible, they must be instructed to believe, that they are always in the presence, and under the eye of a great and holy Being, who loves the good, and is displeased with the bad.  And that they may love as well as fear him, they should be often told, that his unseen hand bestows all their comforts, protects, and feeds, and clothes them, and that he gave his son to die for them.  These are great, but very simple truths.  Children can receive them among the first ideas of reflection; and their tender minds will not fail to be greatly affected by them.  If impressions of this kind can be made on their minds, it will then be easy to show their duty to such a Bene­factor.  “Is he so great a Being, the parent may say, and does he continually look upon you and observe you?  How careful then should you be to fear and hon­or him?  Do you receive from him everything which you enjoy?  Then every day you should thank him for his   Do you depend upon him for everything you hope in this world or the next?  Ask and you shall receive; for he giveth liberally and upbraideth not.—Pray to God, and he will grant you all the reasonable de­sires of your hearts.  Pray to him, and if he should not make you so rich as some, he will make you good and happy, which is more than riches can do.”  In simple conversations of this kind with little children, the princi­ples of piety, with the divine blessing, may be early in­stilled, and habits of devotion early fixed.  The thoughts and expressions can scarcely be too simple.  Milk is for babes.  And while they are taught the du­ty of private devotion, they should have a daily exam­ple of it in the family, and be taught to attend constant­ly upon public worship, and to keep their minds intent­ly engaged in every part of it.  If children be thus influenced to piety and devotion by precept and example, there is every probability, with the blessing of God that, being thus trained in the way in which they should go, when they are old they will not depart from it.


Thus have I endeavored to excite a solicitude in parents to inculcate upon children, and to form in them the dispositions and habits of modesty, of pure and sin­cere speech, of diligence, of compassion and pity, of piety and devotion.  And the scriptures give the great­est encouragement to hope, that if these be wrought into the minds and tempers of children, they will grow with their growth, and strengthen with their strength through life; and not only so, but will naturally branch out into all the christian graces and virtues.  The pos­sibility of a failure should not damp, but increase the ar­dor of the anxious parent.

In closing this discourse, let me say to parents, that there is no subject on which I could address them, which more deeply concerns the interests of religion and society, than that of the moral and religious edu­cation of their children.  The dearest interests of their children in both worlds are involved in it.  The neg­lect of this duty, on their part, almost ensures their chil­dren to become vicious and miserable.  I would hope there are none, who neglect this duty altogether.  I fear there are few, who render to it the attention its un­speakable importance demands.  Shall I not say, that this education of your children, by your personal atten­tion, is not to be considered as a work for leisure time, that it should not be deferred for a day.  It must not give place to any other business, for nothing is so im­portant.  To this greatest and noblest work, then, let me exhort parents to devote themselves.  You are wil­ling to compass sea and land to provide a subsistence and inheritance for them, and this zeal for them is amiable—but those things are perishable.  A far great­er service will you do them, by inculcating, with cease­less solicitude and care, the dispositions and habits men­tioned in this discourse.  If you succeed, these will be to them an imperishable inheritance, and the joy of your hearts while you live.  There is no greater joy than to see children walking in the truth. The task before you is plain, but cannot be discharged without patient exertion.  The object is great, and is worth all your care.  Instruct them in familiar dialogues; teach them the principles, and form them to the prac­tice of the gospel.  If you feel unequal to do this in language of your own, helps are at hand for you.  Im­pressing on the minds of your children these truths and duties, you will revive and deepen the same on your own.  Let me entreat every parent of my charge, to engage with zeal in this great duty.  And particularly at this time, when the Sabbath school will afford you its important aid.  Two things parents can do of the ut­most importance to their children; to see that they attend the Sabbath school; and at home to see that they carefully and correctly commit to memory their sacred lessons.  For several seasons, great has been the success of this interesting school, therefore, great is the benefit of it.  This benefit let not one child, or youth fail to enjoy, nor one parent withhold his personal at­tention to secure it to his children.


* * * * * * *


If parents are not wanting in resolution to send their children, and in care to assist them at home, we may indulge the hope to see, through the blessing of God, the rising generation enlightened, virtuous, and pious.  And let me add, that parents may the more confidently hope that this will be the case, if to their care and in­struction they add the influence of a spotless example.  Without this, indeed, other means will have but little effect.  “For even children, as a wise observer of hu­man nature remarks, have so much sense and sagaci­ty as to understand, that actions are more real than words, and a more certain indication of what a man doth truly and inwardly believe. With what reason, con­tinues he, canst thou expect that thy children should follow thy good instructions, when thou thyself givest them an ill example?  Thou dost but, as it were, beck­on with thy head and show them the way to heaven by thy good counsel; but thou takest them by the hand and leadest them in the way to ruin by thy example.  You weaken the authority of your commands, and lose all reverence and obedience by contradicting your own precepts.”

But I must hasten abruptly to a conclusion of this im­portant subject.  May God in infinite mercy grant to every parent grace, wisdom, and patience to do ‘his duty to his children, and the happiest fruits of having done it, in seeing them walking according to the truth.


[1] Tillotson.

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