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Parents of the past

BOOKS | A history of American Christians raising children


Parents of the past
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What did Puritan Cotton Mather, child psychologist James Dobson, 19th-century theologian Horace Bushnell, and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe have in common? Not a lot, but they were all parents, and they all read the Bible.

In one book on parenting, Christian Parenting: Wisdom and Perspectives from American History, author David Setran manages to connect these diverse American voices. Setran has done deep research into their wisdom and understanding about parenting, and he shows the common ground they share as well as their ­differing uses of the Bible.

He adds to that mix some key texts such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Bay Psalm Book, McGuffey’s Readers, and many other resources that help parents apply the Bible to being a mom or dad. Parenting is a huge challenge now, but it was not easy for the Puritans or the Victorians, either.

The book is not easy to read but well worth the effort. The author, a Wheaton College professor, presumes that a reader already knows American Puritan history as well as some 19th-century Christian history, such as the ­theological differences between Horace Bushnell and Charles Hodge.

Setran adopts an impartial approach to the question of how Christians of different eras have tried to bring children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Readers will see the contrast between the Colonial period (1620-1770) and the Victorian era (1830-1890) in matters of conversion, family worship, discipline, and catechism.

The changes were rooted in larger cultural and theological shifts, including the Enlightenment influence crowding out older Scriptural principles. Yet in both eras Christian parents were reading the same Bible, just with different emphases and priorities.

The result is a fascinating slice of American history. The current value is that parents today, as in all previous eras, need all the wisdom they can find on how to raise their children. Deuteronomy 6:5-9 is hard to carry out in any century, and Setran offers the ­wisdom of earlier eras in much depth.


Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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