What can the past teach us about what it means to be a “good” Christian parent today?
Today’s parenting guidance can sometimes feel timeless and inviolable—especially when it comes to the spiritual formation of children in Christian households. But even in the recent past, parenting philosophies have differed widely among Christians in ways that reflect the contexts from which they emerged.
In this illuminating historical study, David Setran catalogs the varying ways American Protestants envisioned the task of childrearing in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Comparing two main historical time periods—the colonial era and the Victorian era—Setran uncovers common threads, opposing viewpoints, and the cultural and religious influences behind the dominant parenting “postures” of each era. The implications of his findings matter for today’s big questions about parenting:
- Should children be viewed as basically good, in need of protection from corruption, or as fundamentally sinful, in need of moral correction?
- How should parents address misbehavior?
- Should a parent’s primary role be that of teacher, disciplinarian, or nurturer?
- What importance should be attributed to devotions and prayer, church involvement, Sabbath-keeping, home decorating, and fun family activities?
- What consideration should be given to gender? Should boys and girls be raised differently? Do mothers and fathers have essentially different responsibilities?
As he surveys these historical perspectives, Setran reflects on the legacy and future of Christian parenting, concluding that the Protestant heritage encourages the importance of intentional devotional practices, the development of close parent-child bonds, and the creation of godly household environments. In the end, he argues that all of these historical values are critical to the full expression of Christian parental love. This is a love that teaches because it wants to help children understand true goodness; that admonishes and restrains because it wants to protect children from whatever keeps them from true pleasure and joy; that fosters strong relationships so children might experience the lavishness of God’s love; that models Christlike sacrifice and guides children into the arms of their Creator.
Table of Contents
Introduction: In Search of the “Good” Christian Parent
Part I: Colonial Christian Parenting: 1620–1770
1. The Parent as Evangelist: Raising Up a Godly Seed
2. The Parent as Priest: Leading Children into God’s Presence
3. The Parent as Prophet: Feeding on God’s Truth
4. The Parent as King: Marking the Boundaries of Authority
Part II: Victorian Christian Parenting: 1830–1890
5. The Parent as Architect: Crafting a Home Environment to Shape the Child’s Soul
6. The Parent as Mother: The Maternal Turn in American Christian Parenting
7. The Parent as Memory-Maker: Fashioning the Tight-Knit Christian Family
Conclusion: The Legacy and Future of Protestant Christian Parenting
“It goes without saying that ours is a challenging day for parenting. What a boon this book is, then. To be sure, it offers no ‘ready-made’ guide to parenting per se; but it provides something much better, something that good history always does. It forces the reader to recognize that what he or she deems to be carved-in-stone principles of parenting may well be culturally derived and simply particular to their specific age. Yet, this is more than an analysis of the history of Protestant parenting in America. Along the way, and especially at the close, wisdom garnered from the study of this history is presented in a way that makes this book a rich resource for our day. I wish I had it at hand when my children were at home. Warmly recommended.”
— Michael A. G. Haykin
professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“With the perennial concern and discussion about Christian parenting practices and ways of nurturing our children’s faith, it is both helpful and refreshing to take a step back and remember that we are not the first to be asking these questions or considering how to go about this task. David Setran invites us to look at how others who have come before us have understood their parenting task, the goals of their efforts, and the ways it was pursued. Parenting matters deeply, and it helps to read about how our spiritual ancestors, Puritans and evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, understood and approached this important aspect of family life. Reading this book challenges our assumptions, opens up our blind spots, and helps us begin to recognize other priorities than the ones we have settled for in our time. I love good historical storytelling, and David Setran has a gift for helping us enter into the experiences of others. In so doing, we may begin to see ourselves more clearly.”
— Kevin E. Lawson
professor of educational studies at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology
editor of Understanding Children’s Spirituality: Theology, Research, and Practice
“This highly readable book seamlessly integrates history, contemporary social science research on religious parenting, and thoughtful theological reflection. Setran brings Christian parents of the colonial and Victorian eras alive. We see them as both foreign and familiar in ways that challenge our presuppositions about parenting and encourage us to become better parents. Historians, family ministry leaders, and parents will all benefit from reading this book.”
— Thomas E. Bergler
professor of Christian thought and practice at Huntington University
author of The Juvenilization of American Christianity