Home Patterns in Religious Teachings
Angus H. MacLean
The heart of the church school is the home. The heart of our religious
education program is in the home. The church school end of it is a parents'
co-op. This is the simplest way in which I can put it. The responsibility should
always be primarily that of the parents. I never have liked the pattern of
people identified with church leadership, begging the parents to come in and
help. If anything, these people ought to be used, put to work, by the parents
who accept the work as their basic responsibility.
FOR so many years, we have regarded the home as
the greatest educational institution in our society. It is curious, therefore,
that many of us tend to act as though the Church School could care for the
spiritual nurture of children.
Church School leaders, knowing they cannot get very far without the parents,
have for years been sending out a string of appeals for their co-operation with
the Church School program. The most recent and possibly the best of such appeals
is a pamphlet being used among us at the present time by Lucile H. Lindberg and
Dorothy T. Spoerl, entitled, Am I a Good Church Parent? "Are you good
parents" in the natural setting of the parent in the home? This is a question
that needs to be asked and answered.
I began my work in Religious Education with the conviction and the hope that
the home is the central and most important agent in the spiritual nurture of the
young. I have no reason to alter or change my mind in the light of the findings
of psychiatric and character researchers since that day. I have long since
contended - and still do - that even if the home education is excellent, the
child still needs the Church School experience. If the home education is good,
the Church effort can be effective. If the values nurtured in the home are in
conflict with what we attempt to communicate in the Church School, the home
values will win out. Nine times out of ten, there are certain conditions under
which the individual breaks away from the conditioning and basic patterns of the
home. They are not always very happy ones. It is really not accurate, therefore,
to say that the home, as such, is the best educational institution in the world;
it is both the best and the worst. In other words, I think the truth is that the
home is the most powerful influence in a child's life. If its values, its
attitudes, its patterns of behavior and interests, and its loyalties are healthy
and good, they will take hold. If they are not, they will also take hold.
These convictions come to me not just from books, but from watching the life
patterns of people for a good many years, particularly young people as they
arrive at the colleges. The finest things about them, and also the worst, the
things which stand out immediately, are obviously traceable to and rooted in
early home relations. The sickness, the conflict, the ambivalence that disturbs
them so they are unable to be productive, are invariably and obviously rooted
there also. The home is powerful because of the intimacy with which people live
together in it. We have been in the habit of saying that there is no teacher
like the good example, and that children imitate their parents. There is some
truth in putting it this way, but I think it is a rather amateurish, inadequate
way of explaining it. Children do not imitate everything they see, thank heaven.
They would go crazy if they did. The significant fact is that they select from
the home environment what they shall imitate. The great question for us is to
find out why they make this particular kind of selection. If we do not make this
discovery, I do not think we do anything more than to just work in the dark.
My present hunch is that the effect is due to this: an ethical value is lived
between people. This is the only place that an ethical value has any existence,
in a kind of relationship set up between people. We may talk about values at
other times and write about them, but they have no existence except where people
live together. When one lives in a family, no matter what it is like, or in any
other closely-knit group, ethical values are immediately set in operation. A
child is loved to a degree, or not loved, and upon that fact hangs the
possibility of his learning to love or even to understand love. The kind and the
degree of honesty lived in the home is the kind with which he will begin life.
When a child is ill, he is attended in certain ways. In other words, he is an
object of value. The concerns of the family are immediately impressed upon him.
These are educative times. When he is involved in a quarrel with his peers, the
attitudes with which the parents respond to crises of this sort always disclose
their own particular patterns of values, and these are what the youngster
catches. Suppose he brings home money or something he says he picked up on the
street. What happens? What happens, tells the story of what the family really
likes, in other words, their values. When he faces bereavement, tremendous loss
of some sort, what happens? When he asks questions, perhaps involving religious
ideas, practices, how does the family respond? Is there a family interest in his
struggles to understand his off-hand, seemingly off-hand, curiosity about life?
These things make all the difference in the strength and effectiveness of what
What happens with the family's leisure time? We are inclined to think that
this is time off. Our leisure-time activities with our families are most
revealing and impressive as to family values.
There is no time when a family experiences the sense of togetherness, of
mutuality, of loyalty, of cooperation, and of love for each other than when on a
day off, when the members can be together, without the distractions of earning a
living, going to school and doing the housework.
What are the family attitudes toward civic responsibility? The youngster is
not yet interested in politics or in what happens in Washington, or Albany, or
Boston, or any other place. He doesn't seem to be interested, but he gets the
reactions of the family. They are unmistakable. He is likely to have deeply
imprinted upon him these attitudes toward the larger interests of life and
What are the attitudes of the family toward causes and charities? Does the
family fall into the category of the crowd we call the "status seekers"? When a
house is selected, when friends are invited, one may be almost unaware of the
factors that determine the selections, the youngster does not miss them. It does
not matter what you preach at him. The living values are the ones that go over.
So I think we must honestly ask ourselves, if the lure of the "big deal" and the
"fast buck" - so-called - have captured our home and to what degree?
What is it that is disclosed when Dad, close to the deadline, works on his
income tax report? What happens - maybe in an off-hand way - to disclose an
attitude when notice comes around that the pledge to the church has still to be
paid? Does this immediately release any indication of very real appreciation of
what the Church is? Does it reveal real joy in participating in its support? -
or something else? What attention is given to religion and to the Church in this
constructive, forthright, positive way? The answers to. these questions are
important to us. We cannot keep from a child what is of most worth to us, what
is indifferent to us, nor what we negate or avoid, even though we never talk
about them. The power of the home is everywhere acknowledged in the area of
emotional health and it is no less powerful in the area of moral growth and
I am not in entire agreement with most people on what we ought to do with
adolescents. I think that I am a little bit off the general track here. I have
thought a great deal about the nature of freedom. I try to understand what it
is, because liberals should know what it is they teach. I suspect that half the
time people talk about freedom as though it were something that exists apart
from education. I maintain that it does not, and it cannot possibly, exist when
a person is not involved in human relations. Freedom in this social, cultural
sense is learned. It is of great concern that we should teach this. I do not
believe that any little youngster can choose the philosophy with which he is
going to live consciously and deliberately, or the values by which he lives.
These are absorbed in the subtleties of family life. I still think that when he
reaches adolescence, he needs our ideas and our attitudes - even our political
affiliations - to give him identity and a sense of security as he faces the
world. He may still differ with you. He may argue with you. This you have to
keep alive. What you firmly believe and live by is still his strength and will
be for some time. The important thing in making free people is that this
conditioning includes the values that have always tended to make men free. You
cannot make people free in any other way.
The home cannot pass the buck - to put it simply - to the Church School or to
the Scouts or the public school or anything else. The task it faces is
particularly difficult in a day in which the morals of society are under rapid
In a recent article in Look Magazine, there is a good deal said about
our culture under the question, "Have our moral standards been destroyed by the
pursuit of the dollar?" I know the temptation to read an article and lay it
aside as the magazine that has had a nice feature article. This one deserves
attention. It is based on a nationwide survey made by a dozen rather keen
reporters. They show that the market-place value, the good old horse-trading
game, is not new, but is getting more into our visceras, more into our homes,
more into the intimacies of our lives. The idea is that I put the highest
possible value on my horse, disguise all his faults and all his weaknesses,
cover up his spavins, and try to hide the fact that he is old and decrepit. I
rub him with linseed oil, or something else. I came from the horse and buggy
days; I know how to do this. The other fellow assumes that he is the worst
possible horse from the beginning, the trade goes back and forth; then a happy
medium is struck and we think it a grand joke and a nice way to do business. In
many ways it is. It may be the best way, for all I know. But there are attitudes
and values here that we had better scrutinize a little more closely;
particularly when this game is played on a world-wide scale with nations and the
lives of thousands at stake. This is not a matter of trading horses in the
The advertising lies that come through TV programs are just a little item,
but they symbolize what is happening all the time. I am not referring to such
innocent lies as representing Hemlock Lake as something like a roaring torrent
that might better be associated with Niagara Falls. I am referring to the
obvious distorting of the truth in order to try to persuade us to make a
purchase. Let's not deceive ourselves by thinking that this does not reach our
young people. It is very interesting to me that in this article on Payola, and
so on, the young people were much more ready to accept the idea than were their
What I am driving at is that in our homes, in the church or by whatever
means, we have as human beings, to keep our hearts and our minds above the level
of our market-place value. This has always been so. A human being to be really
human has a transcendent element in him, he has a future, and he works for the
world in which he has a future. When he ceases to have this element in his
make-up, he really has lost the most significant part of his humanity.
I know that our culture has made tremendous progress and I could specify to
you a great deal of progress. We cannot hang onto the old. I sometimes get
nostalgic about the old community in which I was born. It was the back-wash of
civilization and yet I think it was a thousand years ahead of our civilization.
There were no policemen. I was in high school when I first saw one. There were
no jails. There were no poorhouses, there were no orphanages. There was nobody
on the street. It was a simple way of living, but we could not go back to that.
We have to achieve a human sense of mutual responsibility on a new level in
terms of new ways of life which we cannot avoid.
The picture of our task places a terrific responsibility upon parents. There
is no question about that. But, and I think there is a very important "but," the
forces that serve to promote sickness of soul, immorality, and the
impoverishment of spirit, do not need to control them. There are other values,
with which our culture and our people are richly endowed, that can take a ruling
place around the hearth and in the church.
It is not too difficult a task for some parents to keep children from
succumbing to the market-place values. I have seen it happen too often, not to
believe this. Very simple people can do this because they live the proper
values. People of moral and spiritual worth live above their culture and judge
it in terms of the greatest values and hopes that humanity has ever thought or
put into print. The word "ought" is still a living thing in their attitudes, and
it finds expression in everything they do. It is not whether we have a TV or not
but the way we read the daily news, the way we respond to TV programs, or to
social problems, and serve institutions for social advancement, which makes the
difference between a child who will dedicate himself to high standards in public
service and one who goes in for the "big deal and the fast buck." We are really
not so helpless as we feel. I once heard a sociologist from Bucknell say that
the home could inoculate children against the less desirable values of the
community. I still think there is enough truth in that to give us more than a
fighting chance as parents.
I am supposed to be suggesting patterns of religious education in the home. I
did not intend to tell you what these patterns are, but to express the hope that
we develop them. I am going to make just a few suggestions. First, I would like
to start a movement of self-study. I am dropping my present job, and I intend to
work in a church next year. One of my responsibilities will be to work with
parents and teachers. I have been thinking a great deal about this parent
problem. One of the first things I would like to attempt is to start a program
of home-self study, with a selected group of parents, conducted by the parents,
to find out what the formative powerful patterns of values are in the particular
homes under study. I think a little observation, courageous honesty, and a
pencil and paper could disclose a great deal.
This is a point at which helps for parents in. the way of forms and
suggestions as to where to look and what to look for would be tremendously
helpful. Even nothing more than a hunch as to how the values emerge would tell
us a great deal. The churches could certainly be of assistance in helping the
parents do this kind of study. In facing such questions, for example as "Is the
family knit by an unquestionable love, and loyalty to one another?"
I am not suggesting anything sissy here. I was brought up in a family of nine
and we fought at the drop of a hat, any old time, for any old reason, and so did
my father and mother. But there was never, never anything that threatened our
loyal love for one another. Let anybody else try to interfere, and you'd find
out! Most of us are still living, and to this day, we see each other whenever we
can. I am in correspondence with every one of them regularly; and I think this
is rare. It is natural for families to have quarrels and conflicts, but do we
have the kind of love, loyalty, and easy communication which prevents the
development of distrust, hostility, sulky suspicion, chronic tensions and fears?
What is the emotional pattern in the home? It can be superficially nice when
it's far from good, and it can be rough and tumble when it's very good. That
doesn't mean that you can't reverse these. What, following day's routine, are
the things that seem to matter the most in the home atmosphere? Love and good
fellowship? Is it the feeling that having one another, enjoying one another, is
the most precious thing? Is there a great deal of value placed upon personal
integrity? Is this something that really strikes home in the family atmosphere?
I owe my family a great deal. Nobody could play games in that family and get
away with it. You know the kind of games I have in mind. Saying one thing,
feeling another. Honesty was so pronounced that it was natural.
My second suggestion is this: that some homes, at least experimentally,
should undertake some formal address to religion which suits the particular
family. This is necessary, not only because home is the effective educator, but
because there are things that the church, especially the free church, cannot
attempt to do anyway. Furthermore, we are not grown up when we have merely
absorbed good attitudes and fine feelings in our family. We're really not grown
up and mature until these blossom into consciousness and they become concepts,
principles by which we discipline ourselves. Remember Gordon Allport's little
book on The Individual and His Religion, where he describes the
development of religious sentiment. It's a very interesting thing that while it
is rooted in the very basic desires, physical and psychological needs of the
youngster, the religious sentiment acquires its own autonomy and stands in
judgment and control of the very drives that produce it.
If this is true, the articulation of the faith, the thinking end of it, is
significant to any person reaching maturity. This kind of attention to religion
I think is a necessary part of the family life. Some of our people in our free
churches would like our children to have more Bible in the curriculum, and to
have it earlier. Others would have none of it if they could have their way. This
is to be expected.' We are going to have this condition as long as we have
people. Some would like children to have experiences with prayer. They have been
taught to pray. They may be praying people themselves. They think that children
should learn to pray. There are others, full of Freudian suspicions who regard
as a real danger the great "boogieman" of the universe, the Father image, that
always pops up when somebody prays. My question is, "How can church people serve
these conflicting interests without starting schisms, and quarrels of all
sorts?" They cannot unless you bulldoze and push them on with such pressure that
from the whole metropolitan area you select people who agree with you, and
banish others. It can be done in this way, but it is really not a good liberal
way to do it.
The church school can really do effective work in the areas in which there is
considerable consensus of agreement among its parents. Way back in 1920, when I
started this business, I remember speaking at a Unitarian church in Elizabeth,
N. J. The first thing I said was, "The heart of the church school is the home."
The heart of our religious education program is in the home. The church school
end of it is a parents' co-op. This is the simplest way in which I can put it.
The responsibility should always be primarily that of the parents. I have never
liked the pattern of people identified with church leadership, begging the
parents to come in and help. If anything, these people ought to be used, put to
work, by the parents, who accept the work as their basic responsibility.
Personally I don't think the issue is whether or not you use Bible or prayers.
In any case, people learn and grow from what they now regard as good and
valuable, whether it be one or the other. So if I as a parent think my children
should have more Bible, or to grow up with considerable knowledge of the Bible,
I should not only be encouraged to go ahead and do this, but I should be asked
to do it myself and to be helped at doing it well. This is a point at which the
church could be of tremendous assistance to me as a parent. It could be its
responsibility to show me how Bible material relates to the various levels of
maturity in children. It could indicate to me where I can find what reliable
scholars think about documents found in the Bible, and the possible ill-effects
of Biblical material on immature children. It could help me see the great and
living values that somehow or other some people always seem to find who devote
themselves to this book. What are the values by which we select portions of it
and drop out others?
If I undertake to teach my children prayers, I must know children well enough
so that I can anticipate and face the possible frustrations or agony that
children may have with prayers, and frequently have had. We cannot dodge this,
it's a fact. I am sure it is something about which we need to be very careful. I
know of one person who started examining what was happening in his children's
prayers. He used to teach the old pattern of "Now I Lay Me"; and he began to
question whether or not this approach scared the children half to death because
of its suggestion that they did not know whether they would last until morning.
Then, he began to talk about goodness, good things, life and its meaning. The
main point, as he saw it, was to make the children happy at the end of the day,
all quarrels forgiven, everybody loving each other, and relaxed to go to sleep,
reassured in spite of the unfortunate accidents and incidents of the day. This
is spirituality of a high order. Perhaps you have discovered how to do this.
Perhaps some of the people who bear the stamp of Sigmund Freud on this business
will discover some psychiatrists are beginning to indicate that even a Father
figure, when it's associated with the cosmos, may release a child from the
dominance of Papa in the home. I wouldn't enter an argument with anyone on that.
Some families might do a very good job with little formal address to
religion. I know that my wife and I never used much of formal address to
religion. We used to sing Grace at the evening meal; it became a habit -
everybody enjoyed it - we did it spontaneously. We did so last Christmas when
the youngsters came home to the old house for the last time. It was spontaneous,
natural, but it was a recognition of religion. Of course, there was the simple
fact that we were always at church - took church for granted, and had endless
discussions about what went on in Sunday School and church. We made prodigious
use of encyc1opededias and other books when the parents didn't know the answers.
I had a neighbor at that time, who is now a Unitarian minister in Philadelphia,
a great big, hearty scholar and a wonderful person. He had a real liking for the
Bible. I remember being in his house and hearing him, upstairs with his boys,
roaring with laughter and having a tremendous time reading Bible stories. This
fellow could point out with great ease and artistry the stupidity of some of the
old stories, the historic differentiated from the unhistoric, the great
spiritual principles differentiated from the crudities and primitive elements.
It was as if he were examining life, in an interesting, objective way. His
youngsters know their Bible as very few do. They had a wonderful companionship
with their father and a mighty good course in ethics. In liberal churches, we
cannot do everything that everybody wants, but we can encourage people to follow
their own natural patterns, and encourage their home patterns. The church ought
to help them in doing this.
I think there ought to be a formal pattern of religion somewhere in the home
life. Its extent and emphasis should be a family choice. Even if religion is
regarded as a process of ethical or aesthetic culture, it will call for no less
planning. In fact, I think it might call for greater and more careful planning.
My third suggestion is that the family program of religious nurture can be
greatly enhanced by the relations of the home to the church and the church
school. I think that we have been a bit obtuse about the significance of the
church in the life of a family. I would like to refer to a story about a boy in
a book called Psychiatry and Religious Experience, by Dr.'s Lynn and
Schwartz. A teacher asked her public school class members to identify themselves
religiously. The children proudly got up and said they were Presbyterian,
Methodist, Baptist and so on. One boy got up and hesitated. Finally he stammered
that he guessed his parents were Jewish, but he wasn't sure. In a rather
embarrassed way he finally said, "Well, I guess I'm just an American." The
children laughed at him, and he was under considerable censure. The unkind
kidding of his schoolmates drew wonderings on his own part. As a result, the
teacher and the parents and the rabbi met. The family went back to the
Synagogue, for a good reason - because the child needed identity in terms of
religion. I think we liberals would get over much of this problem of what jenny
and Johnny will do when the Catholic asks them so and so or insists on this and
that. I doubt if it is theological "know-how" they need quite as much of as
church orientation and identity. In any case, I'm sure that it counts.
Certainly, it seems to me church and home owe something more to a youngster than
the feeling that he is an American. I still believe that the function of
religion is to give us a transcendent vision - something bigger than America or
any other country.
The church is perhaps the only agent that publicly recognizes that neither
the world nor any of its people are good enough, and which directs us to
devotion to the unrealized and the hoped for. It is an expression in community
terms of the transcendent element in humanity. For this reason, I think the home
needs to identify itself with it. The values of the home need nurturing in a
community center because the home is in a community and the children live in the
community as well as in the home. The loyalties, responsibilities and
mutualities of the home have a better chance of becoming world-wide in their
reference in the child's mind and spirit, if he has this kind of experience. I
once heard a very young child tell her friends as they filed into the church
school, "I like this church, because it is our home together." She was talking
about her playmates. In the church, they had experienced a widening of their
family relationship, one which included friends and adults. It was a home in the
town. I need hardly mention the value to parents of discussing their children's
needs with teachers who work with them when they are with their peers in the
church school. Parents and teachers can also co-operate in the matter of
curriculum so that there are no duplications of study. Sometimes, for example, a
youngster takes a book home, reads it the first night and digests it as bright
children do, and then goes to Sunday School for two months and has the same
thing stretched out that length of time. You just do not feed a youngster's mind
fast enough when that happens. The only way you can correct it, in this very
rich field, is to do some little planning between the home and the church
I hope you see the pertinence of Miss Lindberg's question, "Are you a good
church parent?" I hope that someday she will follow it with one directed to
church school teachers, entitled "Are you a good home teacher?"
I would like to mention at least one more thing. There comes a time when the
best of us as parents have to wish our children well, trust them, and let them
go. As Max Kapp always says about the boys in theological school "Loose them and
let them go." That time arrives and it is a tough time. If we are wise, we start
doing this when they are little toddlers. They acquire their maturity gradually
and when they leave us, we are not afraid, because they have everything we think
is worth while and maybe something in addition. There comes the time when they
will seek advice, want advice, and need advice from people other than you, and
me. This happens in the best of homes. To whom have we made it possible for them
to go when this time comes?
We are living in a decade when man is deeply troubled in his soul. It was not
so when I went to graduate school. We took the soul for granted in those days.
We never even talked about it. We were interested in setting society in order,
and in patching it up. We had a set of standards, obviously, as to how a man
should live. They were vague, and we didn't know what problems were being
raised, but we were trying to set society right. Today, everybody is digging
into much more fundamental questions. It is not only the theologs, the
professors and the preachers, but every thoughtful person on earth -
businessmen, artists, poets, dramatists, fiction writers - who are speaking out
of the troubled heart of humanity. They are wondering why they are alive,
wondering what worth they can associate with life. Humanity is driven to this
point on a very high intellectual level in our day and it finds less erudite and
formal expression among unsophisticated people. Largely this is so, because the
disorders of the world, our commercial values in part, the hot and cold wars,
the horrors that have occurred in the last generation have robbed us of a
future. We cannot dream about humanity the way we did years ago. We have been,
to a great degree, robbed of our future. And man must have a future! We need
keep alive this feeling for overreaching ourselves, transcending ourselves, the
vision of a better world, the image of a better me, as well as a better society.
These things are at the very heart of religion. They must be kept alive and it
takes a home and a church to do it.
Let me conclude with a story I picked up in a letter to the Saturday Evening
Post a few years ago. The father tells about his little boy who helped him pack
and get ready for a family picnic. They were going on an outing; a real bang-up
holiday. They worked hard and when it came bedtime the bags were all packed -
duffle bags, blanket rolls, everything - and the boy was told to go off to bed.
He went. Then he came back to his father and said, "Thanks, Dad, for tomorrow."
I think it is very important for us to earn that kind of a "Thank You."
From the Universalist Leader - May, 1960 - for the Division of
Education, Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian) Inc., Boston,
Released through the Division of Education, Council of Liberal Churches
(Universalist-Unitarian) Inc., 25 Beacon Street, Boston 8, Massachusetts.