One beautiful spring afternoon four years ago, I came across a horrifying scene in my living room. One of my two-year-old sons was standing on the back of the couch with his legs spread and his arms outstretched. My other two-year-old son stood facing him with an imaginary hammer in his hand and a determined look on his face. He proceeded to pound imaginary nails into his twin brother’s hands and feet. He was crucifying his twin brother.
I had not yet told them the crucifixion story, so I don’t know how they knew to reenact it. Perhaps they had been told the story in Sunday School. Or maybe they noticed the crucifixes that hang in every classroom at the University of Notre Dame, where my wife and I were graduate students at the time.
Whatever the source, early American Puritans probably would have reacted differently than I did. As Catherine Brekus writes, ministers “did not believe in being ‘kind’ to children by sugarcoating the truth.” Even the youngest of children needed to be taught the concepts of original sin, heaven, and hell.
Accordingly, their catechisms were shockingly explicit. Consider Isaac Watts’s First Catechism (1730): “Question: And what if you do not fear God, nor love him, nor seek to please him? Answer: Then I shall be a wicked Child, and the great God will be very angry with me. Question: Why are you afraid of God’s Anger? Answer: Because he can kill my Body, and he can make my Soul miserable after my body is dead. . . .Question: What must become of you if you are wicked? Answer: If I am wicked I shall be sent down to everlasting Fire in Hell among wicked and miserable creatures.” This particularly catechism was designed for children who were three or four years old.”
In her tender and authoritative biography of Sarah Osborn, Brekus describes the child’s dread of God’s wrath. Sarah was very worried that she might commit the monstrous sin of going to sleep without first saying a prayer. “The sin appeared so monstrous that I durst not lie down without it, for I should have been afraid the devil would have fetched me if I had.” Young Sarah was not alone. David Brainerd, a missionary, likewise was “terrified at the thoughts of death” at the age of seven or eight. Reverend Aaron Burr, the future president of Princeton, was troubled by “great terrors and horrors from a guilty Conscience and the Fears of Hell.” Another minister remembered that his mother “took a Considerable Deal of pains” to warn all of her children that they were “Children of wrath and exposed to Hell fire.”
Plagued by original sin and perhaps headed to Hell, infants were considered to be only a small step above the beasts. Early Americans were disturbed by the sight of babies crawling on all fours, which made them look like small animals. Puritans tried really hard to make them stand, constructing special walking stools to prevent them from crawling. Parents laced girls into corsets to straighten their backs, which is why children look unnaturally rigid in many colonial paintings. Children were subjected to stiff discipline.
These views and practices softened through the eighteenth century and beyond. Jonathan Edwards who believed that it was “exceeding just, that God should take the soul of a new-born infant and cast it into eternal torments,” got pushback from many of his congregants during and after the Great Awakening. They and other ministers, according to Brekus, “imagined blissful children being gathered up into Christ’s loving arms. There was no anger as fierce as God’s anger, but no love as sweet, as pure, or as boundless.” Anti-Calvinists later claimed that Calvinists “once taught that hell was paved with infants’ bones.”
Even in Edwards’ own church, the conflict raged. Parishioners criticized Edwards for “frightening poor innocent children with talk of hell fire and eternal damnation.” In return, he accused them of being too indulgent (there really isn’t anything new under the sun—it turns out that church conflict and parenting wars are long-standing American traditions!). In the end, he sort of conceded, allowing for the conversion of children and welcoming some into full membership with the privileges of the Lord’s Supper.
But to truly convert children, Edwards would have thought it important to “fright” them. He would have insisted on a clear articulation of both human depravity and the cross. And so I imagine he would have appreciated my sons’ rehearsal of Good Friday, which managed to portray both at the same time.