Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Mason’

Alfred North Whitehead Follow-Up

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I recently gave my take on Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education as presented in his Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Though Whitehead is not Christian and has as his basis a rather modern and godless philosophy, along the way he manages to say some insightful things and so I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the ideas I gleaned from his book.

As we saw last time, Whitehead, though often cited by classical educators, made classical education (or some derivative thereof) just a part of his approach to education. He added to this “literary education” both scientific and technical education (p. 48). It is the latter I particularly want to look at.

In the many books on education which I have read, there have been various ways of incorporating hands-on elements. Christian writers are quick to point out that man consists of both body and spirit and that our approach to education should somehow recognize and accommodate this fact. For my own part, I have tended to define education as the intellectual and to leave aside the physical, hands-on aspects. I am convicted by Whitehead that this is perhaps not quite the right tack.

Part of what had led me to this intellectually-based approach to education was a discomfort with the various ways in which the physical seemed to be artificially tacked on to education.  Whitehead also recognizes that a lot of what passes for the physical in education may be physical but is not really education:

” . . . in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies. This is exactly the mistake of the post-renaissance Platonic curriculum. But nature can be kept at bay by no pitchfork . . . being expelled from the classroom, she returned with a cap and bellsin the form of all-conquering athleticism.” (p. 50)

In other words, medieval classical education did not include or acknowledge the physical side of man which nonetheless refused to be excluded. People need to be kept active and so sports — what we now call physical education — came to take the place of something equally physical but more educative.

What should real “physical education” look like? Whitehead calls it technical education which perhaps gets a little closer to the idea though it also conjures up some false ideas based on the modern use of the term. For Whitehead, technical education, while hands-on is by no means un-intellectual. Though the hands may be engaged, the mind is still very involved. A technical education such as Whitehead proposes is more akin to what we would call craftsmanship. It is the sort of education which can produce master carpenters and plumbers, those who not only know how to cut a board and fix a leak but who can trouble shoot, who understand, almost on an intuitive level, the materials of their trade and can use and apply them, who can plan and execute complex projects.

If this technical education is excluded, Whitehead tells us, the intellectual will suffer as well:

“The disuse of hand-craft is a contributory cause to the brain-lethargy of aristocracies . . .  Great readers, who exclude other activities, are not distinguished by subtlety of brain.”(p. 51)

Though the two are spoken of as separate categories, “[t]here can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not technical” (p. 48).

Whitehead has a high view of work which, though he abandoned his Christian upbringing, seems quite biblical. It is at least in part from this view that his advocacy of technical education arises. He also, again quite biblically, recognizes that since the Fall man’s work is not always as easy or delightful as it should be (p. 44). One of my big criticisms of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy which has led me to try to devise my own approach to education is her underestimating the effects of the Fall. Here in a non-Christian author, I find some hint of what needs to be added to our approach to account for those effects. It is simply this: Kids aren’t always going to enjoy learning and they aren’t always going to be good at it. By God’s grace, there will be times when their little eyes light up with joy and understanding, but we must not be surprised when they struggle and when they resist us.

This is one of the biggest questions I hear in my local Charlotte Mason discussion group when moms actually get together and talk about the nitty-gritty of how we do this: Why doesn’t my child love the good books I am putting before him? Why isn’t this all clicking like Miss Mason said it should? There is a reason we are not unschoolers. Unschooling says that children will gravitate towards that they need to know, that they by nature will recognize and acquire what is best for them. It assumes a very positive view of human nature. Charlotte Mason does not go quite so far but she also does not do enough to account for the fallenness of man. Education is a lot like sharing one’s faith. We do so in the hope that God will act but we must also not be surprised when what we offer is rejected. That rejection also does not mean that we don’t try again the next day with the same enthusiasm.

These are the two big ideas I got from Whitehead’s work. There are a number of smaller ideas to be gleaned as well. In the interest of time, I will present them as bullet points:

  • “The curves of history are more vivid and more informing than the dry catalogues of names and dates . . .  ” (p. 8)
  • “But mankind is naturally specialist . . . I am certain that in education whenever you exclude specialism you destroy life” (p. 10).  Whitehead, like Mason, argues for a fairly broad education and for not allowing children to specialize (i.e. to concentrate almost exclusively on one subject area) until a fairly late age, and yet he makes this statement. We have all known those kids who are obsessed with one area or idea. It may end up being a life long obsession or they may move in and out of various obsessions. This quote makes me think that we may need to do more to accommodate these passions which still requiring that broad education.
  • We must not postpone harder subjects. The hardest things kids have to learn they learn first in life — understanding language and talking (p. 16).
  • Like Charlotte Mason, Whitehead argues that the thing most analogous to education is eating. To educate is nto to shove things in like packing a suitcase.  Education is like food which must be assimilated by the organism. “When you put your boots in a trunk, they will stay there until you take them out again; but this is not at all the case if you feed a child with the wrong food” (p. 33).
  • “The great English Universities, under whose direct authority school-children are examined in plays of Shakespeare, to the destruction of their enjoyment, should be prosecuted for soul murder.” (p. 57)

And finally this: “education is a difficult problem, to be solved by no one simple formula” (p. 36).



Book List: Bible and Theology

Dear Reader,

One goal for the summer is to get out a series of booklists with titles we have used over the years. I thought that I had at one point given a list of Bible and Theology books we have used but upon searching find that doesn’t appear to be true. For this topic, more than any other, I think it is important to know where I come from. My approach to education has been largely influenced by Charlotte Mason though I have my own philosophy of education. Most importantly, I am a Reformed Christian (aka Calvinist). If you come from a different theological perspective, this list may not fit your needs. I would recommend consulting your pastor or older (homeschooling) moms within your church for their suggestions.

You can find all my booklists here.

Bible and Theology Resources


This may seem obvious but one of the best books you can use to study the Bible and theology is . . . (wait for it) . . . the Bible. I myself am pretty comfortable with just opening up the Bible and reading and discussing  [1], but I realize others may not be there yet.

The Beginner’s Bible — I am not a huge fan of children’s Bibles. In general, my advice would be to try to move tour kids to the full Word of God as soon as you can. But little kids are little kids and sometimes a children’s Bible can be helpful. My husband in particular read stories from this one to our kids. I am less comfortable than I used to be with the depictions of Jesus in the New Testament. This one is at a picture book or preschool level.

The Child’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos —  Vos has another children’s Bible. This one is more at an elementary level. I tried to use Vos’ volume with my preschool Sunday school class thinking it would be easier and found that often the stories were actually longer because of the commentary interspersed in them. If you yourself are uncomfortable commenting on the text, then this might be a way to go as it provides some interpretation along with the text (though as it is written you might not know what is text and what is interpretation).

The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Study by Starr Meade — This is a workbook-y series for children which guides you through reading the Bible itself. Again for my tastes it was too workbook-y but we did it aloud and I didn’t have my kids fill in all the blanks (or any of them for that matter). I do like that it divides up the Bible into manageable chunks.

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola — This is a thinner volume that guides you through reading the epistles as well as sections from the book of Acts. Viola has his own slant — he is very pro-house church — but it gives some good background to the epistles and their contexts. I would use this one with older children (middle school +).

What’s in the Bible by R.C. Sproul — This is more of a reference book. It could be good to use yourself to get some background on a biblical book you plan to read (part of that getting more comfortable with that text yourself) or to give to an older child to aid their reading. Another similar book is How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Fee and Stuart.

The Life of Jesus Christ for the Young by Richard Newton — I ran across this two-volume series after my kids were beyond the age for it. I actually stumbled across Newton’s work because Simply Charlotte Mason uses quotes from him frequently in their copywork series. I don’t know a lot about Newton’s theology. He seems to have been an Anglican minister (which doesn’t narrow it down much, but they say Spurgeon recommended him. I’d say these are elementary level. A similar set which Charlotte Mason used but which I would not recommend are J. Paterson Smythe’s guides for teachers. You can read about why I don’t recommend them for reformed people here.

Herein is Love series by Nancy Ganz — Though I have not used them, I am including Nancy Ganz’s series of commentaries on the Pentateuch. I have heard very good things about them and Ganz is a member of my denomination. Elementary level again.

General Theology

Bible Doctrine for Younger Children by James Beeke — Beeke goes through basic doctrines at a child’s level. His take on things is not identical to mine. He is King James only (I edited the verses he gives as I read them) and his denomination uses the three forms of Unity which mine does not. But the basics of the theology here pretty solid. Topics covered include sin, the covenant of grace, Christ as mediator, etc. It is a bit workbook-y for my (Charlotte Mason-y) tastes but again I edited a but as I went. We did it all aloud as a family. There are also older children versions of these volumes which seem to cover the same material just at a higher level.

What is a Christian Worldview? by Philip Ryken — This is a thin book, practically a pamphlet. The title is a bit misleading. Basically, this is an explanation of the five points of Calvinism. I gave it to my kids in middle school. It’s a great volume to give to friends interested in what Calvinism is as well.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis — A classic on why one should believe in God. I had my kids read this one mainly because it is a classic and I felt that they should be familiar with it. Of course, Lewis has a number of other volumes that could be good as well.

31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God by Rick Stedman — This book is similar to Mere Christianity in some ways. It is fairly basic. I believe I had my children skip some chapters as it gets a bit repetitive. We used it in middle school.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by  Daniel Treier — I picked up this newer book recently and read through it. It is not designed to be read cover-to-cover, but I did so and decided I would have my two high schoolers read is, or selections from it, next school year. My plan is to have them read a couple of pages at a time and then to discuss it with them. This is an introductory book (as its title suggests) and does not go in-depth on any particular topic. Its strength is that it gives the lay of the land, outlining possible positions, on a number of issues. I will post our reading schedule when I have it typed up (likely in the fall). You can also see my review here.

Calvin’s Institutes — At some point we should all read the quintessential Calvin. I found it much more accessible than I had anticipated (for me) but it is not an easy book. This one is definitely high school level and probably upper high school (though if you have a range of kids as I do some may be getting it earlier than others). I read it aloud to my kids in short chunks over a three year period. I would read a day ahead of time. We skipped some sections and some whole chapters. Calvin often argues against the other opinions popular in his day and/or gives a number of biblical verses as evidence so I did find that there were bits we could skip.  Once you get the hang of how he constructs his arguments, it makes more sense. Don’t feel you need to read the whole thing in order. The last chapter on the Christian life is one of the most accessible and wouldn’t be a bad place to start. One project I have in mind is to arrange the Institutes much as Plutarch is laid out on Ambleside Online in short readings with some notes and questions so if that is something you would use please let me know.

Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof — Of course there are a lot of systematic theologies out there. I happen to own Berkhof’s and to find its concise style fairly accessible as a reference work when I want more information on a given topic. I wouldn’t read this one from cover to cover but it is nice to have such a resource on hand when questions arise.

Personally, I listen to a lot of podcasts and sometimes this can work better for children too. I had one high schooler do a series on theology/apologetics by listening to podcasts, the primary one being the Reformed Brotherhood. You can find the schedule for that here.

Christian Living and Encouragement

A Handful of Stars and other books by Frank Boreham — Boreham is one of my favorite authors. He was a pastor in the early 1900s (I believe) in Australia and New Zealand. His books are collections of short essays. He was not reformed but I still love a lot of what he wrote. He is more pastoral than theological, For kids, I’d recommend the volumes that give brief biographies and talk about the passages that influenced particular people’s lives. Many are available free or very cheap on Kindle.

A Little Book on the Christian Life and Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life by John Calvin — Though he is known for his in-depth theology, Calvin has a few volumes which are brief, pastoral, and very encouraging.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken — The story of a man’s spiritual journey after the loss of his wife. A tear-jerker.

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss — Another tear-jerker. This one is the spiritual journey of a young woman into adulthood and motherhood. Probably not for boys (not inappropriate, just girly). You (moms) should read it yourself if you haven’t.

Dangerous Duty of Delight by John Piper — This book is essentially an abridged version of Piper’s Desiring God. I have a few reservations about Piper’s view, called Christian hedonism, but I also like the encouragement this little volume gives to delight in God.

Specific Topics

The Hand of God and Satan Cast Out by Frederick Leahy — I believe Leahy was an Irish pastor. His work is solid and fairly accessible for middle school and up. The Hand of God is about God’s sovereignty and Satan Cast Out  is about, you guessed it, Satan. My kids really liked reading about Satan. I think it’s one of those subjects they have a natural curiosity about but aren’t likely to get a lot of preaching on.

Discovering God’s Will by Sinclair Ferguson — It’s been years since I read this book but Ferguson is a solid author and the topic is a very timely one for teenagers.

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker is Catholic but he is one of my favorite authors (you will see him a few times on this list). This volume is about how things from physics and chemistry to Shakespeare show the Creator.  High school level and up.

Worldview and Philosophy

God-Breathed by Rut Etheridge — This volume is written to teens and young adults who were raised in Christian homes but have become disillusioned or never really gotten what true Christian faith is. I was not crazy about this book but there are some good bits, particularly those in which Etheridge discusses philosophy. My full review is here.

The Deadliest Monster by J.F. Baldwin — I am not crazy about this book but there are some good parts. I appreciated his comparison of Frankenstein and Dracula and, if I am remembering the right book, the French and American revolutions.

How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer — This is the don’t-miss book for this section. We do both the book and video for this book to make sure my kids get it. Schaeffer traces western thought from Roman times to 1980 or so (when he lived) and shows how it played out in the arts as well.

Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner — I am not a huge fan of  the term “worldview” and how it is used in Christian circles. Even less so of “worldview education.” Yet if that is a thing, it should mean not just learning the “right” worldview but learning how to discern the worldview of others on their writing and art. Horner’s Meaning at the Movies is a good, short book for helping one learn how to discern the view behind a work of art. Movies are short, quick glimpses into another’s mind and kids like watching them. I have my high schoolers do one year of “movies as literature” using this book (see this post for some specifics).

On that note I also used Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone in middle school. The book is the story of their book club for kids. You could have high schoolers read it but it is better to read it yourself and then read the books they sued and discuss them. Along the way you will both hopefully learn something about delving into the ideas behind a book. I like that the Goldstone’s use fairly simple books. My opinion is that it is easier to start with books that are too easy for your kids. I have a number of posts that narrate out book studies based on Deconstructing. The first one is here.

My oldest son also did a year on political philosophy. You can find the full booklist for that here. A couple I would highlight that you might want to use and which come from a Christian perspective are Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read and The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul.


Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion by Benjamin Wiker — Another Wiker book. Very well done. High school level plus.

Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore — This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

Messiah the Prince by William Symington — This is the classic Reformed Presbyterian work on Christ’s Messianic Kingship. I usually have my kids skip some chpaters as they don’t really need to read about Christ’s rule over the church. There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited but I think it loses something.

Creation and Evolution

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker does a great job of showing how Darwin’s personality and beliefs affected his famous theory.

We usually cover this topic as part of high school biology. I have my kids read books on a couple of sides of the issue and then for their exam for the term write what the various views are and what they find most convincing. I also have a post on dinosaurs in the Bible here. 

Gender Related Issues

It is hard to avoid these subjects today and your kids will encounter them (of they haven’t already) when they go to college. My gender and marriage booklist is here. I have my teens read Rosaria Butterfield’s conversion story in her Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and the position papers of the RPCNA, The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (published by Crown and Covenant).


I have one child who is particularly interested in art and it is one of those subjects in which one needs to think a bit about how to do it Christianly. Two books I would recommend for that are:

Liberated Imagination by Leland Ryken (my review here)

The Christian, the Arts and Truth by Frank Gaebelein (my review here)

Church History

History Lives series by Mindy Withrow — A four volume set with manageable chunks on church history from the earlier times on. I did find it a little bit undiscriminating in who it calls a hero of the faith but overall it is very good. Begin reading it aloud in the elementary years.

Sketches from Church History by Houghton — There is also a student workbook which I would skip but the book itself is not badly written. Middle school level I believe.

Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken — A wonderful, fair book on Purtian life and belief. We included it in history but it could also be read with theology or church history.

Here I Stand by Roland Bainton — Classic life of Martin Luther.

The Reformation 500 Years Later by Benjamin Wiker — A Catholic writing on the Reformation = I don’t agree with everything here but it is a well-wrtten, easy to read book and may make you think. It does a good job of showing all the threads that played into the Reformation. I gave my kids specific questions to answer in place of straight narrations. You can find those here. My review is here.


[1] My degrees are in biblical Hebrew though I think that ultimately every Christian should be or get comfortable with their Bible, while acknowledging that we do not read it apart from our interpretive traditions.

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Dear Reader,

I am a Reformed Christian who has been reading and posting on issues relating to education, homeschooling, Charlotte Mason, and Reformed Theology for a number of years. Among other topics, I have written in the past on how Charlotte Mason’s thoughts line up with the Scriptures and why Charlotte Mason’s views are not reformed. Today I would like to take that last assertion a step further and argue that in addition to not being reformed, Charlotte Mason had Arminian tendencies. I am not willing to say that she was Arminian in terms of having a well worked out Arminian theology that she held to, but I do think that her underlying theology shows Arminian tendencies.

Setting the Stage

I am not an expert in Charlotte Mason, theology, or Anglicanism (my educational background is in Biblical Hebrew). I am a homeschool mom who has read and thought about these things for a number of years. I have read Charlotte Mason’s six-volume homeschool series cover to cover once through and with various other readings here and there I would guess I have read everything she has written in that series at least twice, some books or sections more than others. I have read a few other articles by Charlotte Mason when they have come up. I am just beginning to read her volume of poetry on the gospels because I feel I should in order to get a more accurate idea of her theology. My initial impression is that her poetic volumes are going to have little to contribute to our understanding of Mason’s theology. It is very hard to discern a theology from poetry with any confidence. I have heard it said that Wesley was an Arminian in his theology and a Calvinist in his hymns. Though I doubt I will find Calvinism in Mason’s gospel poetry, the point that more artistic expressions can betray a different theology that one might not adhere to if pressed is worth mentioning.

Charlotte Mason lived and worked in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was a member of the Church of England. These facts about her should already orient us somewhat as we begin to examine her theology. Within the broad realm of Christendom, they narrow things down a bit and begin to give us some expectations about what she believed. The Church of England is a fairly broad umbrella, however, so they don’t narrow things down too, too much, especially on the issues we will consider today.

I would point you particularly to this earlier post I did on Miss Mason’s Anglican foundations. There I very briefly reviewed Benjamin Bernier’s “Education for the Kingdom“. Bernier shows the Anglican roots and influences of Mason’s thought which, while “Christ-centered,” embodies a kind of “mere Christianity” that is not terribly specific theologically. The same may be said of Anglicanism in general. It rests not on a rigorous confession like that of Westminster but on the non-binding standards of the Thirty-Nine Articles and various later proceedings known as the Lambeth Conferences. [1] Thus knowing Mason’s Anglicanism tells us something about her beliefs but leaves a lot still undetermined. There is a range of things she could have believed and still been a good 19th-20th century Anglican.

It is always worth remembering as well that Charlotte Mason was not writing theology (though again we will come back to her gospel-based poetry in a future post). My contention has long been that education is an inherently theological enterprise but often we have to ferret out what those theologies are. Mason is more direct than some but her goal in the Home Education series is not to give us her theology but her philosophy of education. We often have to read between the lines to try to determine what she believed. My contention on this blog has been that the underlying ideas behind any approach to education will out themselves in the end and that we should be aware of what they are, even if the authors themselves do not know or acknowledge them. So I think it is worth our while to look more closely at Mason and to ask what her ideas were so that we can adapt her approach as need be and bring it better into alignment with our own views.

This is going to be one of my longer posts because I want to take some time to establish the background. We will begin by defining Arminianism. This is very important as it is a term that is used in many different ways. We will then look at the overall theological environment in which Mason lived in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Beginning to narrow in, we will look at the theology of J. Paterson Smythe whose works Mason used in her schools. Finally, we will turn to Mason’s own words from her six-volume Home Education series.

What is Arminianism?

“Arminian” is a label which gets thrown a lot around in reformed circles. Anyone we disagree with might be termed Arminian. But I want to be specific today about what that term entails and what it doesn’t.

Within the spectrum of possible theologies, Arminianism is not the opposite of Reformed theology. That award goes to Pelagianism. In between fall Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. For our purposes today we are going to look at two related issues: the nature of man (that is, his goodness or badness) and his role in his own salvation.

Reformed theology (aka Calvinism) says that man, after the Fall, is totally depraved, which is not to say that he is as evil as he could possibly be but that every aspect of his nature is fallen and corrupted by sin. Though it is a false dichotomy to say that Reformed theology champions divine sovereignty over human free will, man, apart from saving grace, is so bound by his own sinful nature that he can’t be said to be truly free to choose good. Because man is unable to contribute to his own salvation, his election must be unconditional, not dependent on his own character or actions. His salvation is entirely a work of God. Saving grace is essential, particular (bestowed on a particular people, the elect; not general), and irresistible (man cannot turn down God’s saving grace).

Pelagianism, at the other end of the spectrum, says that “humans can freely choose to obey God’s commands rather than sinning.” [2] Adam’s sin was not passed on to his descendants as such but men sin in imitation of Adam. They are free not to sin. Grace is general in Pelagianism, and saving grace can even be said to be unnecessary.

In between these two extremes fall Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. There is a fine line between these two. In Semi-Pelagianism the first step is taken by man; in Arminianism it is taken by God. [3] Semi-Pelagianism says that “initial faith is a free human act, only later increased . . . by divine grace.” [4]

Arminianism does not deny the effects of the Fall on man’s nature, even perhaps admitting total depravity, but it posits a kind of intervening grace which is general and enables man to have faith. [5] This preparing grace is called prevenient grace (or sometimes preventing grace). [6] There is some variety in belief here but usually it is considered to be general, i.e. to go out to all men, and to undo the effects of the fall to the extent that man is able to make a first step toward God.  Thus man in this state does have some real ability to choose good. His election is not unconditional but is dependent upon God’s foreknowledge. God looks ahead to see which will have faith. Because of prevenient grace, man is able to believe, an act which precedes saving grace.

To sum up, there are four basic positions (with many possible convolutions thereof):

  1. Pelagianism: Man does not inherit Adam’s sinful nature. Man is free to do good and makes the first steps toward salvation. Grace is all but irrelevant.
  2. Semi-Pelagianism:  Man makes the first step toward salvation and then God’s saving grace comes in.
  3. Arminianism: Man does inherit Adam’s sin and may even be totally depraved, but by a general act of grace (called prevenient or preventing grace), he is made able to take the first step toward God. Saving grace comes after this initial step.
  4. Reformed Theology: Man is totally depraved and unable to do or choose actual good or to take a step towards God. God’s saving grace, which is only for the elect, must act first. Man is unable to resist this grace.

The argument I am making is not that Charlotte Mason falls into categories 1 or 2, but that she falls into category 3, Arminianism, in that she believed that there is a kind of grace which enables all men to be able to choose good and to make that first step towards God. I am not saying that she did not believe in original sin or even possibly total depravity (though I am skeptical that she would have used that term).

What Might Charlotte Mason Have Believed?

Before turning to Charlotte’s own words, I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at ideas that existed within her time and culture. [7] My goal here is to show what ideas were circulating in the culture. An article I have looked at previously summarizes an interview conducted in England in 1905 about the salvation of children. [8] Those interviewed for this survey were a low churchman (of the Church of England), a high churchman (ditto), two Presbyterians, a Wesleyan (Methodist), three Congregationalists, a Baptist, and a Unitarian. The first thing we can notice here is the variety of denominations represented.

The question particularly addressed is whether some children are capable of good and are, as it were, born into the Kingdom of God. The low churchman, the baptist, and one Presbyterian believed that all children must be born again.  The other Presbyterian and the three Congregationalists believed that children may be born saved. The Unitarian believed that all children are born into the Kingdom. The positions of the others are not specified in the summary article. The second point to notice, then, is the variety of beliefs represented and that within a given denomination (COE, Presbyterianism) there was not necessarily agreement.

Among those surveyed, there were four positions: 1) no children are born into the Kingdom of God (the position of the Baptist minister); 2) all children are born into the Kingdom (the Unitarian position); 3) children born to Christian parents are in the Kingdom; and 4) children born in a Christian nation are born into the Kingdom. [9] While we are not given the reasons behind these positions, I do not think it is too much of a stretch to think that some at least saw a kind of general grace at work, either inducting children into the Kingdom or preparing them for it.

The position of the Wesleyan Methodist minister is not specified but here we can make some fairly solid guesses. By my reckoning, around the year 1900 about 2.5% of the population of England would have been Methodist. [10] The theology of this English-born denomination is based in that of John and Charles Wesley (1700s) who themselves came out of the Church of England. Wesleyan theology is Arminian to its core. John Wesley “followed Arminius in holding that prevenient grace enables all humans to respond freely to the gospel. This universal work of the Spirit overcomes the dire effects of original sin.” [11] Prevenient grace is general; it is “a universal benefit of Christ’s crucifixion,” [12] general and universal in that it is applicable to all men, not just the elect.

The Church of England is, as I have said, a fairly broad umbrella. I have struggled to find a clear source to explain to me the Anglican take on prevenient grace. What I have found is this: Wesley based the Articles of Faith on which Methodism is founded upon the COE’s Thirty-Nine Articles.  In fact, he changed these articles very little. Of particular importance to us is Article X (Article VIII of the Methodist Articles of Religion) which reads:

“The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” The Thirty-Nine Articles X (= Articles of Religion VIII; emphasis added)

Note the word “preventing” which is used here. Prevenient grace, you may recall, can also be called preventing grace. Wesley and the Methodists take this Article to mean that prevenient grace enables man to have a good will. Is this how the COE understood the same words? Based on my research thus far, I am not clear on that. It is certainly a possible understanding of these words, however. The Gospel Coalition, in their article on Methodism, speaks of Wesley drawing on the Arminianism “implicit in the articles as they stand.” [13]

At least one Anglican of Charlotte’s day did take the Arminian understanding. Joseph Miller says that:

“Does not Holy Scripture throughout in its commands and admonitions proceed on the supposition that it is in the power of each to choose to hear the word of God and to yield oneself to its holy guidance, or on the contrary, to turn aside and resist the impulses of grace ? At least it is apparent, that man must refrain from wilful and obstinate resistance, if divine love is to work savingly. Take conversion, for example. Whilst it may be admitted to be mainly God’s act, a fruit of regeneration, must there not be in it a certain yieiding or movement on the part of the man himself ? Otherwise how is the necessity of irresistible grace in order to salvation and eternal life to be evaded ? Are not faith and repentance necessary conditions of regeneration in those of riper years ? And have the will and other natural powers no part in these acts? Observe that [The Thirty-Nine Articles, chapter IX] says, that ‘man is very far gone from original righteousness,’ not ‘altogether.’” [14] (emphasis added)

A few points to note: There is an explicit rejection of the doctrine of irresistible grace. The conclusion that man must be able to make some movement towards his own salvation is based on a rejection of that doctrine.

Summing up, what we see is that England circa 1900 was a diverse place both denominationally and theologically. The Arminian view that there is a kind of universal grace, called prevenient grace, which enables men to have a good will and thus to make the first step toward their own salvation, was evident. This view is implicit, but not explicit, in the COE’s Thirty-Nine Articles. Because the COE is a fairly broad umbrella, it is hard to say how Article X which seems to allude to this universal grace was interpreted at the time or how a particular Anglican (in this case Charlotte Mason) would have understood it, though there is evidence that some (as Joseph Miller) took an Arminian view. [15]

Narrowing in: The Theology of J. Paterson Smythe

J. Paterson Smythe was a clergyman in the Church of Ireland whose book The Bible for Home and School Charlotte Mason recommended and used in her schools. I have recently read two of Smythe’s books, volume 8 from the above work, which is on the Gospel of Mark, and On the Rim of the World, a book for adults which addresses what happens to those who die. I reviewed these and discussed the theology evident in them in this post and this one.

What we saw in those posts was that while Smythe holds to some widely accepted Christian tenets — the sinful nature of man, his need of a savior, and that Christ is that savior — he also takes a very clearly Arminian view. He makes quite clear that God’s will to save us is dependent upon our willingness to be saved. Specifically, Smythe speaks of man’s Will as the key deciding factor. That is, the first step that is required of man is that he must make a conscious and deliberate act of the Will to choose to align himself with God. In the absence of this act of the Will, his fate remains undecided. The default option seems to be neither condemnation nor salvation. Man must ultimately move one way or the other. If he does not clearly do so in this life, he will be given another chance in the next. This latter bit is not necessarily characteristic of Arminianism, but the idea that man must act and contribute to his salvation is and Smythe adds some specification: that what man contributes is that act of the Will.

Now Charlotte Mason, as we have said, recommended and used Smythe’s book for teachers. This does not imply that she adhered to all his theology, but it does point us in a certain direction. So next we must turn to Charlotte’s own words.

The Theology of Charlotte Mason

As we move to looking at what Charlotte herself said, I want to clarify again the questions we are asking. We are not asking if she believed men are sinful. Arminianism admits original sin and perhaps even total depravity. We are asking if there is a kind of general grace which affects all men and enables them to do any good. We are asking if they contribute in any way to their own salvation. And in light of Smythe’s writings, we are looking particularly at whether the Will might be that contributing factor.

In her six-volume Home Education series [16], Mason addresses issues of the Will and faith most directly in four places: chapter 6 of volume 1 (Home Education) which is on the Will; volume 2 (Parents and Children) beginning on p. 127 when she discusses a series of sermons by a Rev. Canon Beeching on faith; volume 4 (Ourselves), book 2, parts 2 and 3 on the Will and the Soul respectively; and book 1, chapter 6 of volume 6 (Towards a Philosophy of Education) which is again on the Will. Much of the material in the chapters on the Will in volumes 1, 4, and 6 is the same, sometimes word-for-word. I would say that volume 1 introduces a topic, already fairly fully formed, which becomes expanded in volume 4 and recapped in volume 6. It is interesting to note that while Mason wrote her series over quite a span of time — volume 1 was written in 1886 and volume 6 was published in 1923 — her ideas of the topics we will address seem to have changed very little.

In volume 1 and again in volume 4, Charlotte Mason offers us a kind of anthropology or psychology of the inner man. The inmost person, she says, consists of 3 chambers, a structure analogous to that of the Israelite temple (vol. 1, p. 317). The outermost is the Will (p. 317). Next is the Conscience (p. 330) and the “holy of holies,” the innermost chamber, is the Soul (p. 342).

If you have read much Mason, you know that she talks about what she calls the Way of the Will quite a bit. Charlotte herself says the Will is hard to define (vol. 1, p. 318). She seems often to speak of it in two ways. When she discusses the training of children, much of what she says of the Will will seem acceptable to us. Under this heading she speaks at length about the difference between being wilful and will-less and she notes that making use of one’s Will, while essential to true advancement in faith, is not a prerequisite of the Christian life (vol. 1, p. 322).  Much of what she says is good, practical parenting advice and I encourage you to read it. Yet, as we will see below, at other times she speaks of a certain act of the Will as the first step towards God. It is this latter use of “Will” that concerns us today. 

The Will is the executive, or commanding, power (vol 1, p. 317). The Will orders all the other human faculties — reason and the emotions among them (vol. 4, p. 127). There is an important distinction between the Will and what we commonly call being wilful. Those who are wilful actually do not exercise their Wills at all but are carried away by their own desires. Esau was a wilful man; he sacrificed his inheritance for an immediate appetite (vol. 4, p. 130). Jacob worked for a higher end though his methods were not always good (p. 131). Thus we see on one hand that some men, like Esau, never use their Wills, and, on the other, that the Will is not inherently good or bad. It is amoral and can be used in the service of either good or evil. Neither does using one’s Will inherently make one a great man nor does being great mean one makes use of his Will. Mason gives the example of Napoleon who was not a man of Will but was led by his desires and yet conquered most of Europe (vol. 4, p. 132). 

Though some men may neglect this ability, Mason says men are made to will as kings are made to reign (vol. 4, p. 140). The Will always has an object outside itself (vol. 4, p. 139). The ideal is a “simple, rectified Will, what our Lord calls ‘the single eye’”  (vol. 4, p. 138). I am not entirely sure what she means by this but my guess is that she is talking about having one, focused Will, being what the Bible calls whole-hearted. 

 “Choose ye this day,” is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives, and the business of the will is to choose” (vol. 6, p. 133). For Mason, the Will is a free agent, the only faculty of man that is free (vol. 4, p. 143).  According to her definition of Will, it cannot be anything but free (vol. 4, p. 173). Whenever the Will chooses one option, it inherently rejects another (vol. 4, p. 147). [17] Every choice is ultimately not a matter of one action or person versus another but of choosing between ideas (vol. 4, p 147). This use of the word “idea,” which runs throughout Mason’s work may seem a little odd to us. In the context of her discussion of the Will, one might think of ideals. Even seemingly simple choices, she tells us, as that between purchasing one suit versus another, may rest on deeper values (vol. 4, p.148). 

There are many choices one makes in life, but one is ultimate: the choice between serving God (and secondarily one’s fellow man) and the service of self (vol. 6, .p 135; cf. vol. 4, p. 172). Mason says that this choice is open to all but urges that one not wait to make it (vol. 4, pp. 150-51). Note that this choice too is presented as a choice man makes and as an act of Will. 

The next chamber Mason speaks of it that of the Conscience. According to Mason, each man is born with a conscience. He is born to love the good and hate the evil (vol. 1, p. 333). Yet a child’s conscience is immature and must be instructed (vol. 1, pp. 333-34). This is not an endless process. Maturity is possible: “The instructed conscience may claim to be, if not infallible, at any rate nearly always right” (vol. 1, p. 335). 

The innermost chamber is what Mason calls the Divine Life or the Soul. Only God can satisfy men’s souls and the Soul is made for God (vol. 1, p. 342; vol. 4, p. 175). Yet the Soul has its “disabilities” (vol. 4, p. 177). Mason speaks of the souls of some men as dead, but later contradicts this and says they are not dead but asleep (vol. 4, p.177). Elsewhere she uses the words “nascent,” “torpid” (vol.1, p. 343),  “lethargic” (vol. 4, p. 177), and “crippled” (vol. 4, p. 179). The child is not born with an awakened soul, but one that needs to be unfolded like a flower opening (vol.1, p. 343).

Though the human soul is made to love God and has that inclination yet it is also averse to God (vol. 4, p. 179). The initial aversion to God is not in itself sin. To deliberately reject God is sin, but one’s innate aversion is not sinful (vol. 4, p. 180).

The choice of which of these two inclinations to follow is a free one for Mason (vol. 4; bk 2, pt 3, ch 2). “[F]aith is the act of Will by which we choose Him whom we have learned to know” (vol. 4, p. 199). This freedom she views as a good: ” . . . if our hearts flew to God as inevitably as raindrops to the earth where would our election, our willing choice of God before all things, come in? Where would be the sense of victory in our allegiance?” (vol. 4, p. 180). Note the use of the word “election” here. Mason is not referring to God’s election of us but our election of Him. 

The dormant soul, whether of a child or an adult, is awakened when it is confronted with the idea of God (vol. 4, p. 178). Remember that it is ideas, for Mason, that the Will must choose between. For her to say that children must be presented with the idea of God is as much as to say they must be presented with God.  For children it is their parents who are to present this idea to them, though they cannot control whether the child accepts the idea (vol.1, pp. 343-44). She also speaks of the necessity of God’s written Word as the means by which we know Him (vol. 4, pp. 184-85). These both, then, the witness of the Bible and of other people, are tools used by God Himself to present the one most needful idea to our Souls. 

There seems to be some initial action on the part of God in this. It is He who reaches out to the Soul (vol.1, p. 322, 344; vol. 4, p. 177). But our response is by no means inevitable; the Will must choose and the Soul must respond. 

“But, fit and necessary as it is to us to know our God, it is by no means inevitable . . . We must begin with an act of steadfast will, a deliberate choice . . .” (vol. 4, p. 186)

This issue of God’s role versus ours is key to the question we have before us today. If we neglect the means of grace given to us, Mason says, “I do not see much ground for hoping that divine grace will step in as a substitute for any and every power we choose to leave unused or misdirected” (vol. 1, p. 331). Quite often Mason speaks as if God’s effort depends upon our own:

“It is even so; in every department of life, physical or spiritual, human effort appears to be the condition of the Divine energizing; there must be a stretching forth of the withered arm before it receives strength; and we have every reason to believe that the instructed conscience, being faithfully followed, is divinely illuminated.” (vol. 1, pp. 340-41; empahsis original)

“But there is one great, perfect and satisfying Intimacy open to us all . . . We are abashed when we think of the promotion open to every poor human soul . . . and this knowledge, this exalted intimacy, is open to us all, on one condition only––if we choose . . . it is startling to know that this supreme friendship is to be had by each of us if he will, because every human soul has capacity for the knowledge of God” (vol. 4, p. 183; emphasis original)

In her discussion of Canon Beeching’s sermons, Mason speaks clearly of the human ability to turn to God:

“ . . . just that measure of moral light and leading which a man lays himself open to receive is freely given to him.” (vol. 2, p. 135)

And again:

 “‘ . . . He is so far from declaring that men can do no good thing, that He assumes always that man in his proper state of dependence upon God has the power to do righteousness. ‘Whosoever shall do the will of My Father, which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother.’” (vol. 2, pp. 139-40; emphasis added)

Elsewhere, she says that “faith is itself no self-originated impulsebut (quoting Beeching) “‘the springing up of a man’s heart in response to the encircling pressure of the ‘Everlasting Arms”” (vol. 2, p. 137). There is some ambiguity, then, in Mason’s thought as to which comes first, God’s grace or our faith.

To conjecture that Mason adhered to something like the prevenient grace of the Arminians seems to resolve this discrepancy. This doctrine, you will recall, says that there is a grace which enables all men to have faith if they will. God then responds to this faith with saving grace. Because grace which ultimately leads to salvation enters into the process at two points, one can both say that grace precedes faith and that grace is a response to human faith. 

In defense of such a supposition, I would point to Mason’s use of the phrase “redeemed world” [18]. She speaks of our “redeemed world” as a lovely place in which children turn naturally to their Savior as flowers turn toward the sun:

“And perhaps it is not too beautiful a thing to believe in this redeemed world, that, as the babe turns to his mother though he has no power to say her name, as the flowers turn to the sun, so the hearts of the children turn to their Saviour and God with unconscious delight and trust.” (vol. 1, p. 20; emphasis added; cf. p. 331)

Once she uses the phrase “redeemed human race”:

“… believing that there is such ‘progress in character and virtue’ possible to the redeemed human race as has not yet been realised or even imagined.” (vol. 2, p. 248; emphasis added)

And finally, this most revealing quote:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (vol. 2, p. 65; emphasis added)

Note what she is saying here: all children born into this redeemed world have been delivered from the Kingdom of Nature to that of Grace. I conclude from such quotes, and from the other statements that we have seen Mason makes about human ability, that she does believe in a kind of prevenient grace which, since the work of Christ, enables all men to have faith if they will, that is, if they make a conscious act of the Will.


We have seen that the Arminian position, that there is a kind of prevenient grace which precedes saving grace and allows men to be able to have faith and choose God, was extant in Charlotte Mason’s society. This position would have been well within the realm of belief in her own denomination at the time and was that of J. Paterson Smythe, a source she used and recommended.

Looking at Mason’s own words, we have seen that she too speaks of the Will as the faculty by which men choose and that she attributes faith to an act of the Will. Though she clearly acknowledges human sinfulness, she speaks of the ability of all men to make this choice for God. God’s grace is at times said to precede human action but just as often, if not more so, to be dependent upon human action. Though Mason herself does to use words like “prevenient grace,” she does speak of us living in a redeemed world and she relates this concept to our innate ability to have faith. In my reading, Mason’s theology seems to be quite clearly Arminian.

Though we have not dwelt on all these points, for those of us who are Reformed it may be helpful to hold up Mason’s theology to the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. She does believe in man’s sinfulness, though she might not use the term “total depravity.”  There is some difference from the reformed understanding of sin in that she does not count our natural aversion to God as in itself sinful. Mason does not speak of our election but once at least speaks of us electing (i.e. choosing) God. Perhaps due to the initial working of a kind of prevenient, or preparing, grace, she sees salvation as being open to all men. The workings of grace and the effect of Christ’s work are then nor limited and particular for her but general or universal. She occasionally speaks as if grace were irresistible, but when she does so she seems to be talking of universal salvation. [19] God’s saving grace is made dependent on human action. It is again not clear if she expects men, once having chosen God and received saving grace, to remain always in that state, but she does seem to tend in this direction. As we saw with Smythe, one’s path is determined by a number of small actions and choices in one direction to the other. So for Mason, it seems that once one is on the path towards God, there is not much opportunity to get going back the other direction. [20]

If we are Reformed and Charlotte Mason is not, this does not mean that there is nothing  good in her philosophy of education that we can make use of. I have spent quite a long time working out my own philosophy of education and I have found myself back quite close to Mason in many, many ways. But I do think we need to be realistic about what she said and to take her at her words. It does neither her nor us any good to pretend she believed things she did not. We need ultimately to be discerning and to recognize that no one person is going to get everything right. We need to come at Mason with clear eyes, taking the good but being alert for things she may have got wrong, and we need to be willing to see that because her theology differs from ours, there may also be aspects of her philosophy of education to which we need to take exception.


[1] Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019) p. 263. Because I have been reading it recently, I am relying heavily on Treier’s recent and comprehensive work for various theological definitions and concepts. I don’t believe any of these are particularly controversial ideas, however.

[2] Treier, p. 228.

[3] John Hendryx, “Differences between Semi-Pelagianism and Arminian Beliefs,” Monergism (accessed 4/10/2020).

[4] Treier, p. 228.

[5] Treier, p. 241.

[6] It is important to note that prevenient grace is not the same as the Reformed doctrine of common grace. The latter has no power to save. In the life of the unbeliever, common grace ultimately serves only to further condemn (see this earlier post). For a good discussion of prevenient grace and the similarities and differences between Arminianism and Reformed theology, see John Hendryx, “A Short Response to the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace . . .,” Monergism (accessed 4/13/2020).

[7] See this earlier post for a more general survey of Christian beliefs on the effects of the Fall.

[8] “The Child and Religion,” Crown Theological Library (1905). Available from Forgotten Books here or from here. See also this earlier post for a discussion of this article.

[9] This latter category may be a little foreign to us in the modern political environment in which we live. This is not a category we tend to think of, but they lived in a different time, one in which England could be said to be a Christian nation in that it had one majority religion, not to mention a state church.

[10] According to Wikipedia [“Demography of England,” (accessed 4/13/2020)] the population of England was approximately 30,000,000 in 1901 and 33,000,000 in 1911. “Methodism in Numbers” (July 2018) tells us that in 1906 there were upwards of 800,000 Methodists in England. By my calculations this means that in 1906, roughly 2.5% of the population was Methodist. For the sake of comparison, in 1901 England was 4.8% Roman Catholic [“Catholic Church in England and Wales,” Wikipedia (accessed 4/14/2020)].

[11] Treier, p. 268.

[12] Treier, p. 230.

[13] Thomas Nettles, “Methodist Theology,” The Gospel Coalition (accessed 4/14/2020).

[14] Joseph Miller, The Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, a historical and speculative exposition( 1885) pp. 25-26.

[15] Still in the 2000s the question of whether The Thirty-Nine Articles present a reformed position is up for debate. J.I. Packer has argued they are reformed as opposed to Lutheran, but Martin Davie takes a contrary position. He argues that the Articles do not fall into either of these categories, nor would the writers have thought in terms of these categories, but that they present a more eclectic theology [Martin Davie, The Inheritance of Our Faith (Gilead Boks, 2013)].

[16] There are a number of editions of the series available today. Because it is free and easily accessible, I will refer to the page numbers in Ambleside Online’s online editions in my citations.

[17] Note that this, for Mason, does not mean rejection of authority,  whether ecclesiastical or civil; to submit to authority is also an act of the Will (vol. 4, p. 145).

[18] I have previously discussed one of these in my post The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought. 

[19] This is not a point we got into, but Mason does at times speak as if she expects all men to be saved: “He will draw all men, because it is not possible for any human soul to resist the divine loveliness once it is fairly and fully presented to his vision” (vol. 2, p. 138). I suspect that this is not as much a doctrine she has worked out clearly for herself as an inclination she has. 

[20] “ . . . when we see that, in desiring God, we have set before us a great aim, requiring all our courage and constancy, then the Will rises, chooses, ranks itself steadfastly on the side of God; and, though there be many failings away and repentings after this one great act of Will, yet, we may venture to hope, the Soul has chosen its side for good and all.” (vol. 4, p. 182)

The Theology of J Paterson Smythe (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

Last time we looked at the theology of J. Paterson Smythe as evidenced in his  The Bible for Home and School, a book you might consider using if you are a Charlotte Mason homeschooler. My object in writing these posts is two-fold. First, to elucidate Smythe’s theology so you can make a wise decision about whether to sue his book in your homeschool. There is not going to be one answer to this question. Your decision will depend on your own theology and how it lines up with Smythe’s. My second purpose is to look at the theology of someone whom Charlotte herself read and recommended to get a better idea of her own theology. We will not get into Mason’s theology today but I am in the midst of quite a long post on that for which this one will provide some of the background material. 

When we looked at Smythe on Mark (and Acts), we found that his basic theology is quite orthodox: man has a sinful nature, he needs a Savior who is Christ, but that he does have a particular bent. He seems to believe that saving grace is available to all men and that their salvation rests largely in their own hands, so much so that they can thwart the will of God to save them. God Himself is portrayed as loving and self-sacrificial to a fault, forced by man’s evil into occasionally punishing him. Self-sacrifice is held as the highest good. The Kingdom of God is looked for both in the world to come and in the present age.

Today we will look at another book by Smythe, On the Rim of the World, which will give us a more full view of his theology, particularly who is saved and how. On the Rim of the World was written soon after WWI (or perhaps near its end). The Great War, as it was called, really threw European society for a loop. So many of the educational philosophies we have looked at arose as a result of WWI as people struggled with questions about man’s evil to his fellow man. Smythe deals here not with the atrocities of war but with its death toll. He writes to those who have lost loved ones and are fearful for their eternal fates.

Smythe works his way into his subject by first talking about those who are “spiritual” and try to contact the dead. This is somewhat interesting as we see a rise of such things again in our own day. I don’t actually like where Smythe goes with this bit, but it is not the main point we want to get at today.

Smythe divides humanity into two classes: those who die in the fear of the Lord and those for whom we are afraid (p. 48). He makes some allusion to those who we are pretty sure are headed for damnation but this is not a major category he discusses and one gets the impression it would be a pretty small category for him. (He lived before Hitler but one assumes this category would be reserved for the Hitlers of the world in his mind.)

Moving into the chapter on those who as far as we can tell have died in the Lord, we begin to see some controversial points. Smythe talks of those in heaven seeing ur sorrow and praying for us (p. 66) and says that we should pray for them (p. 69). He also says that those who have died are still imperfect, though forgiven and beyond pain (p. 70). I found this comment a bit enigmatic; how can they be forgiven and presumably no longer able to sin yet still imperfect? The next chapter will begin to explain what Smythe is thinking.

Of real interest is the chapter on those for whom we fear. These people, Smythe says, are mixtures of good and evil who have not “consciously and definitely chosen for Christ” (p. 72). Most people fall into this category, and, again, Smythe is thinking largely of the war dead who have died fighting for their country. Smythe says that this life is man’s probation. If one hasn’t accepted Christ in this life, he gets another chance (p. 73).  He mentions children and idiots who, he says, would not have been able to make a profession of faith in this life. He also includes those in “heathen lands” and those who through their poor circumstances “never had a fair chance” (p. 74). In his discussion of the latter category, he implies that salvation comes through good circumstances and earthly benefits. Or rather that one trapped in lowly poor circumstances never has a real opportunity to know God. These people, he says, did not reject Christ because they didn’t really have the chance to know Him (p. 75). It is clear that for Smythe one is not condemned by not actively accepting Christ. To be condemned eternally, one must actively reject Him. To make no clear choice leaves the door open. And here is a key point for Smythe: man’s salvation depends on a conscious decision of his Will. 

“It is on man’s WILL, not on his knowledge or ignorance, that destiny depends.” (p. 75)

Yet a man’s destiny does depend in a very real way on the probationary period (p. 76). It is in this life that he forms on earth the moral bent of his future life (p. 77). If one willfully and deliberately rejects Christ in this life, he will continue to do so in the next life (p. 78) and makes himself incapable of receiving the light forever. It is not that after death God gives no place for repentance; He would still accept repentance if anyone had it but they reject Him (p. 79). 

The word Will is key in all of this. It is by an act of his Will that a man is saved. It is the first step which he contributes to his own salvation. In this man’s will trumps God’s will —

“We dread not God’s will, but the man’s will.” (p.79)

Men thus have free will but through their repeated rejection of God and of the call of their consciences grow incapable of good (p. 80). Smythe is able to say that “no one will be lost whom it is possible for God to save” (pp. 81-82) but he makes God’s ability to save dependent on man’s Will. 

Though it was less clearly stated there, this is the same theology we saw in Smythe’s commentary on Mark — God’s saving power depends upon some work of man. It is not that Smythe denies man’s sinfulness or his need of a savior or that Jesus is that savior. But for Smythe man does have an ability to contribute to his own salvation. Indeed, his contribution is vital and it takes the form of an act of the Will. This once having been accomplished, God is then able to save him. In the absence of a clear act of the Will for or against Christ in this life, one is able still to obtain salvation in the next life. Smythe does not talk of Purgatory and I would be surprised if he believed in that place (he seems quite anti-Catholic in some passages) yet what he describes seems to be Purgatory-like in that man is not immediately sanctified or condemned upon death but continues to move in one direction or the other, either towards or away from God. The ideal for Smythe is a conscious decision of the Will to follow Christ in this life. That guarantees one’s salvation. But second best is to just have generally moved in the right direction. One’s cumulative good acts, or even perhaps lack of truly bad acts, will also get one going the right way. In this scenario, one’s salvation becomes quite dependent on one’s own works. It is not clear where saving grace comes in at all. 

I said at the beginning of this post that we had two goals. The first is to give you an idea of Smythe’s theology so that you can make an informed decision about whether to use his materials in your homeschool. In On the Rim of the World I think he makes quite clear what that theology is. I will say that the whole of his soteriology (his theology of salvation) is not clear in his commentary on Mark so one might use that book even if one doesn’t completely agree with him. If you are reformed in your theology as I am, I would say that there is really no reason you need to use these resources. They are very much not reformed and there are better resources out there. If you are unsure what your theology is or whether you should use Smythe’s materials, talk to your pastor.

The second goal of these posts was to give us some background before moving into an examination of Charlotte Mason’s theology. That we will do next time.

Until then




The Theology of J Paterson Smythe (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

Who is J. Paterson Smythe and why should we care about his theology? The answer to the first question is that he was a minister in the Church of Ireland in the early 1900s. The answer to the second is that if you are not a fan of the Charlotte Mason approach to education, you probably have no reason to care. But if you do try to follow Charlotte’s principles, you may want to consider Smythe. Mason recommended Smythe’s The Bible for Home and School to be used in her schools. More and more I see those trying to use her methods today turning to the actual books she used, including Smythe, so I thought it would be worthwhile to try to find out who this fellow is and what he believed.  

A quick internet search turned up Smythe’s writings but little about the man himself or his theology. In addition to the book for teachers which Charlotte used, Smythe also wrote some volumes for adults, a number on the Bible itself [1] and some others of a more pastoral nature. To date I have read two of Symthe’s books, volume 8 of The Bible for Home and School which is on St. Mark’s gospel and also includes a good chunk of the Book of Acts, and On the Rim of the World which addresses death and salvation specifically. While Smythe has many more volumes, these seemed like two good, representative samples which get at the heart of his theology.

Smythe on Mark

Because it is the book I read first and the one you might consider using in your homeschool (as being intended for teachers) I will begin today with Smythe’s notes on St. Mark’s Gospel. His “On the Rim of the World” will be covered in part 2. I say “notes” because really this is an aid for the teacher and is not meant to be read by the student. Smythe correlates what he gives you with the biblical text but his comments are fairly brief and often take the form of ways to guide the discussion and questions to ask the students. His language is often terse.

It is a little hard to discern a whole theology from notes for the teaching of children (but we will get to that when we look at his other book). There are a number of passages here which could be taken multiple ways.  As a reformed Christian, I often found myself thinking that while I might not put something a particular way it was not technically incorrect. A small example — when Jesus answers His accuser and says “I AM,” Smythe comments: “How grand, how God-like the answer!” (Lesson 14, section 1). Now saying “I AM” in the biblical context is not God-like; it is an identification with God Himself as He revealed Himself to Moses. It is not wrong to call it “God-like” and Smythe very soon after makes clear he knows that Jesus is God, but I just find it a very odd comment to make.

Smythe makes clear that “[a]ll mankind is fallen” and that even children are not sinless and need a Savior (Lesson 10).  Yet God hates sin “with an awful hatred” (Lesson 21). But Jesus “was the Divine Sin-bearer, bearing the world’s sin” and that the punishment He bore was to be abandoned by God (the Father; Lesson 15). In order to be saved, Smythe says, one must: “First repent–be sorry. Then believe in the love and forgiveness of Christ. Then come forward and be baptized . . .  and thus join the ranks of the Kingdom of God.” (Lesson 2, section 3). Thus far I would say we are on fairly solid, orthodox theological ground.

There are other points, however, which may prove more controversial. Many times Smythe urges readers to do what they can to do good. “Get the strength for the Kingdom’s work,” he says (Lesson, 2, section 6). And again:

All this time the poor man waiting with his dead arm by his side. What next? Could he stretch it forth? Was it not dead? Yes; but when Christ told him, the poor fellow tried to do it, and with the effort to obey came the power. So with us–weak, powerless–can’t love God; can’t conquer sin, can’t be truly faithful. But let us say, “Lord, I can’t love you much; I can’t serve as I should; I can’t be good as I ought; but, Lord, I’ll try!” and with the effort to obey will come the power.” (Lesson 3)

Now one could argue that Smythe is talking to children and that there may be an assumption as well that these are believers, that he is not talking about coming to faith but about how we continue. These things are certainly true. Still there is strong emphasis here on our ability to do good and our responsibility to do so which may not sit well with us reformed folk.

There is some idea as well that Christ’s power is limited. He is hindered by our unbelief:

“What a wonderful fact–that Christ so wanted to be trusted. His power seems hindered by doubt and distrust. To be trusted is such a help to Him.” (Lesson 9)

He was unable to save the Sadducees:

“Did he convert them? No–too obstinate and bigoted. We never hear of a Sadducee being converted.” (Lesson 20)

And regarding Judas Smythe says:

“Why did Christ, who knew his heart, let him in amongst the Apostles? Perhaps because of His love, that “hopeth all things,” and hoped he might repent. Why did Christ, knowing his weakness, let him have the bag? Perhaps to give him the opportunity of great loss. Which would be better for Judas’s character–to take away the temptation, or to let him conquer it?” (Lesson 12, section 2)

Despite all this, I will say in Smythe’s defense that he also says at one point that “God’s eternal purposes cannot be defeated by men’s opposition” (Lesson 22, section 4).

Our salvation, according to Smythe, seems to depend, at least in part on our own actions:

“What, then, does God want? The will to trust in Him. The will only is in our own power . . . Many a poor doubter has had to cry out eagerly like this man: “Lord, I believe; I want to believe, help my unbelief!” And this is real faith, and God accepts it and strengthens it. If one says, “I can’t believe in God,” the answer should be: “Have you prayed in deep earnest–as for dear life–for light and faith?” If not, the doubt is your own fault.” (Lesson 9)

At least once God is portrayed as a loving God who is forced into justice by our poor behavior:

“ Sometimes sinners force Him to be stern; and, dearly though He loves poor sinners, He hates sin with an awful hatred. If terrible punishment is necessary to prevent terrible evil, He will inflict it.” (Lesson 21)

Smythe is clearly not Reformed. He believes in human sin and the need for salvation through Christ, but he rejects irresistible grace (that God can save whomever He wills) and election. He sees some good within man which enables him to accept Christ. As a reformed person myself, I was particularly disturbed by this quote:

“”You call me good. Why? Is it that you believe I am God? God only is entirely good; entirely able to satisfy your desire for good.”” (Lesson 11; emphasis added)

Note the word I have put in bold: “entirely.” This word is not in the biblical text. That God alone is good is used to support the doctrine of total depravity and man’s inability to contribute to his own salvation. Smythe has added “entirely,” changing the meaning of the passage.

There are two concepts which rise to the surface in Smythe’s commentary on Mark. They are the Kingdom of God and self-sacrifice.

Smythe speaks often of the Kingdom of God which he sees as not just an eventual reality but a present concept. He seems to be a post-millennialist, not an uncommon thing in the time he lived. Many, both reformed and not, were post-millennial at the time. The basic belief is that Christ’s Kingdom will be manifested on earth before He comes again.

“Understand our Lord’s beautiful ideal for that Kingdom. Get class to see that the object of the Church is the realizing that ideal on earth. If Christians forget that object, they forget the purpose for which Christ wants them in His Church.” 

“Try to bring home to children the nearness of Christ, His longing after His ideal Kingdom of God on the earth, the way in which each can help that ideal in common daily life.” (Lesson 17)

Self-sacrifice is Smythe’s highest ideal:

“He [Jesus] thought self-sacrifice for others’ sake the noblest of all things.” (Lesson 8, section 1)

The following quote, more than any other, seems to sum up Smythe’s view, incorporating the key ideas of the Kingdom and self-sacrifice, as well as the emphasis on our effort to do good:

“What a delightful world in the great Hereafter, where all is love, and nobleness, and self-sacrifice; where no selfish thought could exist . . . Think of that same unselfishness as the glory of the earthly life. Only one perfectly unselfish life ever on earth. He lived the heavenly life here. He wore Himself out trying to help, and teach, and comfort men, and then set His face steadfastly towards Calvary, to be despised, and rejected, and tortured to death for the sake of the very people who hated and murdered Him. Then He said to all who would follow Him that they, too, must live the life of self-sacrifice, the life of the “Kingdom of God.” Shall we not all try?” (Lesson 8, section 1)

Lastly, on this book, there are a few places where Smythe’s denominational views come out (which may be a concern if you do not share them). He is for infant baptism (Lesson 10). He touts the structure of the Church of Ireland, with its three offices (deacon, priest, and bishop) as the biblical one (Lesson 22, section 3). But he argues strongly against having a pope (Lesson 23, section 2). He argues as well for a Book of Common Prayer (Lesson 19), even giving historical evidence for it. (This is not a non-controversial point; the Scottish Covenanters strongly resisted the Book of Common Prayer.) He also argues for regular Communion, presumably weekly or close to it, and against having many small sects.

Wrapping up this section, we can say that though Smythe’s basic theology (man’s sinful nature, the need for a Savior who is Christ) is certainly orthodox, he does have a particular bent. He seems to believe that saving grace is available to all men and that their salvation rests largely in their own hands, so much so that they can thwart the will of God to save them. God Himself is portrayed as loving and self-sacrificial to a fault, forced by man’s evil into occasionally punishing him. Self-sacrifice is held as the highest good. The Kingdom of God is looked for both in the world to come and in the present age. And some of Smythe’s own denominational based views slip in as well.

My goal here is not to judge whether these views are right or wrong (though I have my own ideas) but to say: This is what Smythe believes and teaches. Based on your own theology, you should make the determination whether it is appropriate to read his work and to teach it to your children. If his views do not line up with your own, perhaps it would be wiser to find other resources.


[1] The Documentary Hypothesis, a theory about how our Bible came to be, was fairly new in Smythe’s day. I haven’t actually read what he wrote on it (yet) but I wouldn’t recommend anyone rush into reading these writings. I suspect what is there is fairly dated as scholarship has moved on over the years.

Specialty CM Curricula: Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Secular

Dear Reader,

I have a few posts now looking at the various Charlotte Mason (here) and Charlotte Mason-inspired (here and here) curricula out there. My goal in all of this is just to provide you with resources for narrowing down your choices. Personally, I tend to put together my own thing and while I do have some opinions, I don’t have a horse in this race.

If you have found your way here, you probably already know a little bit about Charlotte Mason and her philosophy of education.  (If you’d like to read way more on her than you’ll ever need, check out this page which lists all my CM-related posts.) My own belief is that any philosophy of education is inherently theological — it must ask and answer questions about the nature of man and of knowing. It is not irrelevant to CM’s approach, then, that she was Anglican (see this post on Anglicanism in CM).  If you are not Anglican, or even Protestant, this does not mean that you cannot use CM’s ideas, but it does mean that you should put a little more thought into how you might want to adapt and apply them.  It may be that there are particular resources others use that you want to avoid; it may be that there are whole areas you want to change.

As the CM world expands, there are more and more resources out there that adapt CM to other religious traditions. My goal today is to give you a fly-over look at these. Many of these curricula I have looked at previously (but one is entirely new to me).

Specialty CM Curricula 

Roman Catholic

What’s out there? The Catholic CM curriculum is Mater Amabilis (find the chart I did on it preciously here).

What’s included? It is a free curriculum and covers K-8. As with a lot of the CM resources out there, it is still a work-in-progress so more material is being added. Book and material suggestions are given; lesson plans are for some subjects. Math is not included. There is a prep level for 4-6-year-olds.

How CM is it? In the spectrum of CM-ness, this one strives to be fairly purely CM though it also says it can be used in a more “CM-inspired” way.

What’s Catholic about it? There is an extensive religion section including subjects like Bible, catechism, the saints, and the liturgical year.

Latter Day Saints

What’s out there? The Good and the Beautiful (TGTB) is LDS (aka Mormon)-owned though it does not bill itself as a specifically Mormon curriculum (see this earlier post).

What’s included? It seems to be a fairly comprehensive curriculum for k-8 and is designed to be “open and go.” The high school curriculum goes under the name Greenleaf High School and is still in-progress.

How CM is it? TGTB emphasizes literature, nature, and beauty as well as short lessons.  It doesn’t push curriculum in early grades. Its read-aloud books are often good, living book choices. In other areas it combines subjects and borders on Unit Studies (which CM rejected). In language arts, it uses some non-CM methods and it tends to use readers rather than whole, living books.

What’s LDS about it?  The curriculum itself does not seem to be distinctly Mormon. It emphasizes family, values, and a general Christian deism.


What’s out there? Wayfarers (from Barefoot Meandering)  and Build Your Library (BYL; see this post) and Wildwood (see this chart) bill themselves as secular CM resources.

What’s included? Wildwood is free. It seems to include form I (through age 9) and family studies for all ages; I do not see materials for ages 10+ (yet). It seems to consist mostly of booklists and often refers one to outside resources. BYL refers you to other publishers for some resources (like science) but does offer laid-out lesson plans.

How CM is it? Of the three, Wildwood is most purely CM while Wayfarers and BYL are CM-inspired. Wayfarers does emphasize literature and sticks with living books and not textbooks for high school science. It also borrows from the classical tradition, however, and adds materials for language arts and makes heavy use of notebooking. BYL also uses literature and narration but mixes things up with narration notecards. It has some eclectic elements as well and adds on unit studies.

What’s secular about it? Wildwood aims to be “as nonreligious as we can make the curriculum.” Science is evolution-based. Its intent is to be religion-neutral. Wayfarers and BYL also aim to be non-religious but not anti-religious.

EDITED 1/15/2020:

I have learned that there is another secular CM-inspired curriculum out there: Ursa Minor.

What’s included? Ursa Minor starts with year 7. Unlike most CM curricula, the later years are available rather than the early ones. It seems to be mainly lists of books with notes like “keep a book of centuries” but not a lot of explanation. Those new to CM may need to read up to understand what is expected of them.

How CM is it? Ursa Minor bills itself as CM-inspired and acknowledges that it is not CM but includes aspects of classical as well as Montessori and Reggio Emilia. One added element from classical (as an example) is a logic curriculum. despite their disclaimer, much of what I see looks actually quite CM to me with nature journaling, composer study, etc.

What’s secular about it? A primary goal seems to be to provide a scientific curriculum which they define as one that “uses the scientific method to discover facts about the world.”  Books may discuss religion but they avoid books that are designed to convince or indoctrinate (their words).


What’s out there? One of my very helpful readers has recently let me know that there is a Jewish CM curriculum. It is Ani-ve-Ami (which translates to “me and my people”).

What’s included? At the moment it seems to be mainly booklists. They mention you may need to add more literature. A planning guide is in the works. Consultations are available. The curriculum guide seems to include history, literature and the arts, but not science and math. Lists of other resources are provided for those.

How CM is it? Ani-ve-Ami bills itself as a living CM curriculum. It includes mapwork, copywork, and living books and seems to merit the CM label.

What’s Jewish about it? Judaic studies are included in the curriculum. You can choose how much Hebrew you want to incorporate. Time periods are divided according to Jewish history. History and literature are both divided into Jewish and secular sections.


What’s out there? Our Muslim Homeschool (OMH) offers an Islamic CM curriculum. Middle Way Mom (MWM)also posts on her CM, Islamic curriculum choices.

What’s included? The main products sold by OMH seem to be those which focus on Muslim distinctives (see below). Life of Fred is offered for math. There are lists of what curriculum the creator has used in the blog portion but I found it hard to navigate. You can see one such post here. MWM seems to just have lists of what the author has used.

How CM is it? The creator of OMH says she is guided by CM principles. When she lists what she has used for a given year (see link above), it does seem to be pretty CM. It is not clear to me to what degree CM’s philosophy influences her original curriculum offerings (all of which seem to focus on Islamic subjects). MWM seems to make good CM choices as well.

What’s Muslim about it? Arabic, Quran, and Islamic studies are included and are the main unique offering in OMH. MWM also includes Islamic studies, Quran, and Arabic in her lists.


Those are the “specialty” Charlotte Mason curricula that have come to my attention. There are always new resources out there, so if you know of others, feel free to comment below and give me a heads-up to them.


Let’s Play “Is It CM?” (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

This is my second post giving quick surveys of Charlotte Mason-inspired curricula. You can find the first one here. I also have charts on the various “pure” Charlotte Mason curricula (see this post). There is a lot out there that claims to be CM or that is used and discussed by folks who are CM. My goal with these posts is to give you a quick snapshot so you can make informed decisions. The next couple of “how to” paragraphs are taken right from part 1 so if you’ve already been there you can skip right to the reviews —

A few caveats before we begin: This is going to come off as inherently negative because a lot of what I need to say is how each curriculum falls short of the CM ideal. This doesn’t necessariyl mean it’s a bad curriculum or that you can’t use it and still be CM.  At a homeschool conference I once attended, the keynote speaker said “I never give curricuum recommendations. I could tell you what my family uses but I would also have to tell you how we use it.” Which is to say, it’s not just what you use but how you use it. There may be good reasons to choose any of the resources below. You may use a little from here and a little from there. You may buy a curriculum but adapt it and use it in your own way.  I am supplying this information because I think it is useful to know where a given resource lines up with CM’s thought and where it doesn’t. I also think it is fine to deliberately choose to diverge from CM’s thought and methods (I actually consider myself post-CM and have my own philosophy of education though I really like her epistemology).

Finally, a note on methodology: My goal here is not to analyze the philosophy behind each resource but simply to look at its methods (though the two are always going to be related). The sorts of things I am looking for are pretty basic: Does it use living books? Does it use narration and if so, is it CM-style narration? Does it make use of non-CM methods like worksheets? How does it approach language arts? Does it use copywork and dictation or other methods like spelling tests? Because there have not been a lot of CM math resources out there till recently, I am not going to spend much time analyzing the math component of these resources. Many refer you to other companies’ math curricula any way.

So, without further ado, let’s play once again: Is it CM?

Build Your Library

Build Your Library (BYL) is a secular curriculum that I’ve seen recommend more and more in the past year or so. According to the website it it “literaure based” and “Charlotte Mason inspired.”

What’s CM about it?

BYL uses real literarutre and narration. They have narration cards to mix it up a bit but seem to stick pretty well to narration as CM would have liked it. They also include a Book of Centuries. It is history-based and incorporates art study and copywork.

What isn’t CM?

They offer unit studies though these seem to be shorter supplements to the main curriculum (if you are unsure how unit studies fit with CM, see my brief rant when I discussed them in relation to The Good and The Beautiful in part 1). There are a lot of great books here but some I am less enamored with or don’t know the living-ness of. I have never been a huge fan of Joy Hakim’s books which are used for history (though others love them so that may just be me). Science tends to use more comprehensive spines from other publishers (in addition to living books). I am not familiar with all of these so I can’t evaluate them.

Quick Take Summary:

Though the creator makes clear that BYL is only CM-inspired and has some ecclectic elements, this is actually among the more CM curricula I am looking at.  There is little here that you would need to tweak. Lesson plans are laid out for you so if that it what you are looking for in a curriculum or if what you want is something secular, this could be a good choice for you.

Heart of Dakota

Heart of Dakota (HoD) has been around a while. It’s main claim is to be Christ-centered and to address the child’s heart. Under philosophy, the creators do say that they are heavily influenced by CM but they stop short of claiming to be a CM curriculum.

What’s CM about it?

HoD emphasizes the habit of attention and short lessons. It also makes use of copywork, dictation, and narration and uses living books.

What isn’t CM?

Though HoD uses copywork, it also adds spelling lists and grammar instruction. Especially in the early years, science is coordinated with history in a way that smacks of unit studies. It includes hands-on activities in the early years. Though narration is used so are notebooking and questions. There is no mention of nature study.

Quick Take Summary:

HoD has a solid basis in living books with narration. I find that there is a bit much added for my tastes including lots of fiddly projects, overly much guidance for narrations, and spelling and grammar lessons. There is some tendency toward unit studies, and though it does seem to use some good books, I am not sure it uses enough good, living books. I also have some concerns about the emphasis on appealing to the heart. There seems to be an overemphasis on limiting exposure to “bad” things and on discussing and drawing moral conclusions for and with kids though I am not sure how this plays out on a  day-to-day basis.

Winter Promise

Winter Promise claims to be CM-inspired but also includes “classical principles,” “themed resources” (read: unit studies), and real-life experiences.

What’s CM about it?

Winter Promise uses “good books” and emphasizes nature study. History and science books are touted as the backbone of the curriculum.

What isn’t CM?

Winter Promise uses a unit studies approach. It also uses worksheets. Though narration is mentioned, notebooking is the main way to process information in Winter Promise and is cited as a narration method. It deliberately adds “the experience approach” to CM which practically speaking means a lot of added hands-on activities.

Quick Take Summary:

Again, as I have said for many of these curricula, there may be good books used but not a lot of them. Winter Promise uses Mystery of History (among other resources) which may be fine (I have never looked at it extensively) but I would rather see a curriculum that uses a wider variety of living books. Though it touts narration, I didn’t see anything that explains what CM style narration is. Notebooking seems to substitute for narration almost entirely.

Train Up a Child

Train Up a Child claims to be CM-inspired and to use living books.

What’s CM about it?

Train Up a Child uses living books and narration. Its book choices seem good and it also incorporates nature study.

What isn’t CM?

Spelling and grammar instruction are added in though I am unable to see what these look like to know if they use worksheets or how they are done. Copywork is used but it seems to be copying of sentences about what one is learning not sentences taken from good literature.

Quick Take Summary:

Train Up a Child goes thorugh all of history every year. I am not sure if this is technically un-CM but it seems rushed to me and to not fit the spirit of CM. I like the books they use and the narration. I wouldn’t call it CM but I think it would be one of the more easily adaptable curricula. There seem to be two options, the unit programs or the daily lesson plans. The latter seems to lay things out more and the former to be more flexible. The unit programs would be easier to adapt.

Wayfarers (from Barefoot Meandering)

Their self-description is “Homeschool curricula with a classical education, Charlotte Mason, twaddle-free flair.” Like Build Your Library, this is a secular (non-religious, but not areligious) curriculum. It touts living books, copywork, and narrations and rejects textbooks and busywork. .

What’s CM about it?

Wayfarers emphasizes literature as the most important element. In older years it uses a commonplace book. It also uses daily oral and written narration. I particularly like that they stick with living books and not textbooks for high school science. The arts are included.

What isn’t CM?

Wayfarers uses notebooking pages which as I have said before are not strictly CM. It also adds language arts curricula and the creator makes clear that she views it as ideal to teach grammar concepts in the earlier years when children memorize easily (a classical concept). Hands-on activites are optional extras. From the classical tradition, Wayfarers takes the division into logic, dialectic, and rhetoric stages and a 4-year history cycle. It also uses the progymnasmata approach to writing.

Quick Take Summary:

There is a lot here that is CM and I like that the added bits are largely included as optional extras. Its book choices seem solid and it relies heavily on narration (though it is unclear to me if every book id narrated). I also like that the creator is clear on her theory and seems to know which bits she gets from CM and which from classical.

A Mind in the Light

A Mind in the Light is a CM-inspired curriculum with elements from classical.

What’s CM about it?

A Mind in the Light uses living books, narration, art and music studies, and nature study as well as copywork and dictation.

What isn’t CM?

Grammar is added though how it is done is not clear to me.

Quick Take Summary:

The website seems to be under construction as I write this and I can’t see many particulars as to how subjects are done. From what I can see this is a quite CM curriculum. Its book choices seem very good.

Wrapping Up

Having looked now at 11 different CM-inspired or CM-adaptable curricula, I feel I can make some general conclusions:

  • Trying to devise an all-in-one sort of curriculum for parents seems to come with a trade-off in the quality of the living books. Because it is presumably hard for parents or curriculum developers to gather a large number of living books, there is a temptation to create readers which either aggregate selections from materials already existing or to use other publisher’s pre-existing curricula.  The result is something that is a little less living. These books may be relatively engaging and be written in a narrative style but they have some drawbacks. Selections are taken out of their literary context. Books and series that are used as a “spine,” possibly even over multiple years, give one point of view and one literary voice to the exclusion of others. These books all tend to be newer meaning older, quality books are missed. Though Sonlight (which does tend to use good books) may require too may books in a year thus rushing the reading, many of the these other curricula require too few. They don’t give a good variety and breadth of reading.
  • The science books offered tend to be of even poorer quality than history books. Nature study is often neglected.
  • It is really, really hard to get away from the worksheet mindset (see this post on worksheets, their history and why they are bad). The core thought may be “CM isn’t enough” or it may be “just in case, let’s add …” but either way one ends up with a lot of fiddly extra work which serves to detract from what a CM education should be. There is probably a tipping point here– one worksheet a week will likely not derail a CM education but twenty might undercut what one is trying to do.
  • Narration is often either absent or rare. Where it is touted, it is often misunderstood. It may be replaced by notebooking and the like or it may become something that is guided or which looks for particular outcomes.
  • Unit studies are quite popular. Unfortunately, they are not CM and Charlotte herself specifically argues against them in her rejection of Herbart (whose philosophy was something more comprhensive than unit studies but amounted to largely the same thing). The central problem with unit studies is that they aggregate material for students and end up spoon-feeding them. They do not allow the student to form his own relationship with the material or to see the connections between the subjects for himself.

I am not at this point planning another of these posts but if there are other resources you’d like me to look at, feel free to contact me to to comment below.


Let’s Play “Is It CM?” (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

I have in the past shared some charts which compare the various Charlotte Mason curriucla out there (see this post). I chose to limit what I included to those that fit the bill “strictly Charlotte Mason” but the truth is there is a lot more out there can either claims to use the Charlotte Mason approach or to be CM-inspired. [1] In the various online forums I belong to (and some I help moderate) many of these “inspired” materials get discussed and so I thought it would be useful to try to give a quick summary of each with a particular eye to saying how faithful it is to Charlotte Mason’s own ideas and approach.

A few caveats before we begin: This is going to come off as inherently negative because a lot of what I need to say is how each curriculum falls short of the CM ideal. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad curriculum or that you can’t use it and still be CM.  At a homeschool conference I once attended, the keynote speaker said “I never give curricuum recommendations. I could tell you what my family uses but I would also have to tell you how we use it.” Which is to say, it’s not just what you use but how you use it. There may be good reasons to choose any of the resources below. You may use a little from here and a little from there. You may buy a curriculum but adapt it and use it in your own way.  I am supplying this information because I think it is useful to know where a given resource lines up with CM’s thought and where it doesn’t. I also think it is fine to deliberately choose to diverge from CM’s thought and methods (I actually consider myself post-CM and have my own philosophy of education though I really like her epistemology).

Finally, a note on methodology: My goal here is not to analyze the philosophy behind each resource but simply to look at its methods (though the two are always going to be related). The sorts of things I am looking for are pretty basic: Does it use living books? Does it use narration and if so, is it CM-style narration? Does it make use of non-CM methods like worksheets? How does it approach language arts? Does it use copywork and dictation or other methods like spelling tests? Because there have not been a lot of CM math resources out there till recently, I am not going to spend much time analyzing the math component of these resources. Many refer you to other companies’ math curricula any way.

Because there is so much out there, I am going to begin with six of the biggest names. I will likely get to others in a “part 2” so if you have particular resources you’d like me to review, feel free to comment below.

So, without further ado, let’s play: Is it CM?


Sonlight is a long-term resident in the homeschooling world. I don’t see as many people these days asking if it is CM but I do see a fair number who say, “I have been using Sonlight but now want to move to a more CM approach. Can I adapt what I already have?” The short answer to this is yes, you can adapt it. The question is what needs adapting so let’s look at what in Sonlight fits the CM approach well and what might need changed.

What’s CM about it?

Sonlight starts with history as the core of the curriculum and rejects textbooks in favor of living books. It also rejects worksheets (though uses “activity pages”) and uses some copywork and dictation.

What isn’t CM?

Sonlight encourages parent-teachers to make connections for students. Though it uses many good, living books, it uses a lot of them in one year whereas CM favored a slow approach that allows children to better digest what they read. It uses reading comprehension questions instead of narration.  Though it says it doesn’t use worksheets, it does use “activity sheets” for language arts and science. I like the idea that one learns to write well from good writing, but in practice it seems quite worksheet-heavy.  Sonlight’s science is fairly traditional, involving books on various science-y subjects and hands-on activities.  It does not seem to include nature study. Its Timeline is similar to but not the same as CM’s Book of Centuries. Sonlight uses notebooking (I believe) which, while perhaps CM-adaptable, is not an inherently CM concept.

Quick Take Summary:

I wouldn’t buy Sonlight if you are looking for a CM curriculum (and it doesn’t claim to be one). It can be a good resource if you are looking for books on a particiular time period. Many of its history books are good, living ones (I am less impressed by the science choices). If you already own Sonlight and are looking to get more CM, you can certainly use what you have. My suggestion would be to begin by reading the books (though perhaps more slowly) while introducing narration which will help your children digest what they read for themselves and will also begin to build language arts and writing skills.

The Good and the Beautiful

The Good and the Beautiful (TGTB) tends to cause a lot of controversy because it is a Mormon-owned curriculum. Whether that is a good thing or not is beyond the scope of this post. I will say that though I believe Charlotte Mason herself was a solid Christian (though I have some theological differences with her; see for instance, this post), her philosophy of education is somewhat deist in that it assumes a God but does not assume a lot of specifics about Him. I think it is quite possible to use her practices to good effect whether you are Protestant or Catholic or Muslim or Mormon or a-religious.

What’s CM about it?

TGTB emphasizes literature, nature, and beauty as well as short lessons.  It doesn’t push curriculum in early grades. Its read-aloud books are often good, living book choices.

What isn’t CM?

TGTB combines subjects like language arts and art. I find that this is always a bit of a fine line. There is a point at which simply selecting things from the same time period devolves into unit studies. Though CM does not speak about unit studies by name, she rejects Herbartianism, a philosophy of her day which was very similar. The main problen with such things is that they make connections for kids, often artificial connections.  Though TGTB uses dictation-like exercises for spelling, overall the langauge arts approach does not rely on copywork, narration, and dictation but on worksheets and little exercises. Most reading seems to be in the form of readers which take selections out of their living book context. It also uses a unit study approach to science and doesn’t seem to include time for nature study.

Quick Take Summary:

TGTB claims to use many philosophies but to “pull mainly” from CM. Some of the read alouds it uses are good, living books but beyond that I see little that I would call CM.

Easy Peasy

The appeal of Easy Peasy seems to be that it is a) free online and b) all laid out for you. I don’t believe it claims to be CM but it is often cited as being CM-adapatable.

What’s CM about it?

Easy Peasy says it takes a lot of its books from Ambleside Online, an old standby in the CM world (as well as from the Robinson curriculum; I never reviewed this approach but have some bullet points on it here). It also keeps lessons short and allows for free time in the day. After doing readings, children are asked to repsond in some way. Occasionally this takes the form of “tell someone about what you read” which is essentially narration though it is not done always or even often.

What isn’t CM?

Language arts is pretty much worksheet-based and science seems to include a lot as well. It also makes use of online components which seems to be a grey area. Of course CM could not possibly have addressed this issue but my inclination is that she would have limited such things.

Quick Take Summary:

Easy Peasy makes no claims to be CM. There are some good books in use here and some exercises are narration-like but there is little that is truly CM about this curriculum.


Like Easy Peasy, MasterBooks seems to be used by those new to CM or hovering on its edges. It is another easy, relatively cheap resource. It is a distinctly Christian site but uses resources from different authors or sources (i.e. math from one supplier and history from another) so its CM-ness varies. Many of its components claim a “CM flavor.”

What’s CM about it?

MasterBooks uses Math Lessons for a Living Education at the elementary level. There are not a lot of CM math resources out there and were even fewer when my kids were little so I feel less equipped to judge their CM-ness. It also uses morning baskets which, while not purely CM, are popular in CM circles. It’s history component claims to be CM and the book it uses does seem to be written in an engaging, living style and asks for periodic narrations.

What isn’t CM?

Though the history has some CM elements, it also includes activity sheets and gives expectations for what kids will narrate which tends to udercut what narration should be (i.e. it should be about what they get out of it, not whether they get what we thnk is important). Though the history books are decent, they use their own books and don’tt make use of  the many other wonderful living books out there. For science I found the text very busy, with lots of boxes with different blurbs of material. Again, worksheets are used for review. Langauge arts uses various resoucres. For example, at the junior high level it uses Writing Strands which, though I have heard it mentioned in CM circles, does not seem particularly CM. At the elementary level, Language Lessons for  Living Education is used (among other resources). This again is touted as a CM resource and it does urge oral narrations but also uses worksheets and the like.

Quick Take Summary:

MasterBooks uses resources from many different educators/writers. Many of its components claim a “CM flavor” and I would say that is about what they have, a vague flavor. More than the other resources we have looked at above, there is an empahsis on narration but there are also a lot of worksheets and not a lot of living books.

Five in a Row

Five in a Row (FIAR) and its early education version, Before Five in a Row (BFIAR), maintain some populatrity, especially among those who are looking for more structure for themsleves (not necessarily for their children) in the early years. Charlotte Mason doesn’t advoacte formal learning before age 7 or so, but often this is just not enough. It may be your mother-in-law is nagging you or that our state requires something more but for whatever reason, BFIAR is a place people turn for a gentle, CM-friendly resource for the early years. FIAR is not a full curriculum but suggests you supplement with math and phonics and later spelling and grammar.

What’s CM about it?

FIAR and BFIAR use good, living books

What isn’t CM?

The gimmick behind FIAR is that one reads the same story five days in a row (hence its name) each time doing various activities which highlight different elements from the story.  For example when you read The Story of Ping you learn about ducks and about China. This violates CM’s principle of one good reading and building the habit of attention. It is also essentially a unit studies approach which she also rejects (see my comments on TGTB above).

Quick Take Summary:

The books used are good, but the approach is really not CM.

My Father’s World

Like FIAR, My Father’s World (MFW) is also popular with those seeking some structure in the early years though it also includes higher grades. It claims to combine “the best of Charlotte Mason’s ideas, classical education, and unit studies.”

What’s CM about it?

From the CM world, MFW takes living books and nature walks. It rejects twaddle and worksheets and favors narration. Many of the books it uses do indeed seem to be good, quality living books. Its language arts curriculum has some good elements including picture study and poetry and some narration.

What isn’t CM?

As MFW acknowledges, aspects of CM are combined with unit studies and classical. The part of classical present here seems to be the division into three priods of learning as the child ages (though I am not sure how this playes out in what they do). The writing curriculum seems very twaddly and scripted.

Quick Take Summary:

A number of the books used, especially history books, are good ones. The worksheets seem to be fairly benign as such things go, less twaddly than most. I am not clear from looking at the samples how much narration is done. One is meant to add on language artas and math so though they are ercommended they are not part of the core curriculum.

Wrapping Up

If I had to sum up all of the above curricula, I would say that many use good or at least decent books for history. It is harder to find one with quality books for science. Most use worksheets and if they use narration at all, it tends to be sporadic.

Again, there are many more CM-ish curriculum choices out there. If there are particular ones you’d like to see included pelase do let me know.


[1] I am indebted in all this to Ambling Along Together’s Resource List which divides what is out there into groups based on their level of CM-ness.

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Jaarsma Revisited, Or Uniting the Heart and Mind

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here. I am returning today to my a series-within-a-series on reformed thinkers on education, The introductory post to this mini-series is here.

I recently finished reading Cornelius Jaarsma’s Fundamentals in Christian Education  (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953). Though we have discussed Jaarsma previously, I wanted to revisit his thought to bring out one more idea. 

Many of the reformed thinkers we have looked at speak of educating the whole child. What they mean by this is that we humans, though consisting of heart, mind, body, and spirit, are unified wholes. Our various parts are so connected that, though we speak of them separately, they do not truly operate that way. When we educate, we educate the whole person. This has been applied in various ways. It is common, for instance, to argue that since the body is not separate that there must always be a hands-on element to education or that there must always be a practical application. While I agree that the biblical conception of man is that he is a whole, I am not sure that science experiments and service projects are the natural outcome of this belief.

In “Improvement of the Curriculum,” Jaarsma offers another option. He speaks of love as the guiding principle of education and the heart as primary. “[I]t is the heart,” he tells us “which gives both wisdom and power” (p. 250). He quotes W. H. Kilpatrick who says that:

“‘Nothing is really learned until one accepts it in his heart. “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.” The word may be in the head, but sin will still run uncontrolled in life. But in the heart it accomplishes its purpose. Nothign is really learned in school until a child comes to accept it in his heart. This is the scriptural view of learning . . . Learning is heart acceptance.'” (p. 253)

What does it mean to accept something in one’s heart? It means that a connection is made, a relationship is formed:

“No learner comes to accept in his heart what appears to him unrelated to life.” (p. 257)

I am not entirely sure if Jaarsma means by this the same thing that I take from it, but I see here again Charlotte Mason’s idea that “education is the science of relations.” We do not truly know unless we form a relationship, unless we begin to care.

I have defined education as the sanctification of the mind, but I am beginning to see that it is not quite so simple. The heart cannot be excluded for, as Jaarsma says, we do not truly know unless the heart is involved.


Theology and Methodology in Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I realize that in our discussion of education I have largely been staying on the theoretical plane, but I am also a homeschooling mom and I know that on Monday morning you need to know what to do with your children/students. All this stuff about the nature of man and what it means to know — what does all this have to do with actually educating our kids? The answer is – quite a lot. Theology is not separate from methodology. Or, to put it the other way, our methodology says a lot about what we believe.

In his book A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal argues just this point. He says that “a teaching methodology is no more philosophically neutral than an epistemology” (p. 147) [1]. We must therefore be careful what methods we use:

“The adoption of a classroom methodology proposed by others, whether it arises out of Platonic idealism, Deweyan pragmatism, or realism, is fraught with the danger of inviting the Trojan horse into the City of God.” (p. 147)

Take, for instance, the Socratic method, otherwise known as dialectic. This using of questions and answers as a process to uncover knowledge is the hallmark of classical Greek education (for a fuller explanation of classical classical education, as opposed to its modern reincarnation, see this post). This methodology rests on a belief: that knowledge has been planted within man by the divine and that the goal of education is to discover knowledge within ourselves. The question and answer technique is designed to do just this, to help the learner find the knowledge that is within him. The problem with this, from a Christian perspective, is that knowledge does not reside within us. All wisdom and knowledge belong to God. They are external to us.

Since the late 1800s, much of public education has been dominated by the ideas of John Dewey, known as pragmatism.  Dewey was heavily influenced by evolutionary ideas. His philosophy is materialistic, denying the existence of the spiritual. His methodology reflects this. Very simply put, just as the theory of evolution says that creatures have changed and adapted in response to forces in their environment, so too Dewey’s approach to education says that students must be confronted with conflicts and resolve them in order to learn and advance.

Oppewal offers his own methodolgy which he calls the discovery method (see this earlier post) which “requires active participation of the learner. He or she is not simply accepting, but constructing explanations for what they see. They are respected as a participant in finding, and not simply treated as a receiver of, knowledge” (p. 220). The theological principles behind his method Oppewal identifies as “the doctrine of the image of God, the priesthood of the individual believer, and the cultural mandate” (p. 220).

There is a lot here I like. In terms of specific applications, I would go a different way, but Oppewal is right on target with the idea that we need to construct a methodology that recognizes the unique personhood of the child and his standing before his God. The Bible teaches that children are fully human persons. While they need education (or we wouldn’t be here having this discussion), we need an approach to eduaction which recognizes: 1) that each children is a complete person, unified and yet composed of rational, emotional, physical, and spiritual elements; 2) that each is a unique person created by God; 3) that the child is a fallen creature; and 4) that he has a standing before God; that he is both able to sin and to be saved.

Practically speaking, this means a few things —

Children are not vessels to be filled, lumps of clay to be molded, or plants to be coddled in a hot-house. It is not us that shapes and trains them but God and we need to be very careful not to overstep our proper boundaries by manipulating the child, playing upon his feelings and desire for acceptance, etc.  This is an idea which Charlotte Mason made much of, and, while I disagree with her theology, I think on methodology she has a lot to contribute.

Contrary to the belief of Rousseau and of the modern unschooling movement, children are not inherently good. They will not gravitate towards what is best for them so we do need to exercise some oversight and to teach them discernment. There is a place for the teacher to determine a suitable curriculum.

We believe in absolute truth which exists outside of us. But we also believe in the uniqueness of each person. We need to recognize that not every child needs to or is going to learn the same things. Related to this is the idea that the child has his own relationship with his Creator. God works in the lives of each one and we need to allow Him to do so. Because the Holy Spirit is the giver of wisdom, we will not be able to control outcomes and we need to be willing to allow Him to work  — or not work — as He wills. Again, I think Charlotte Mason was on the right track in how she balanced the common core of a curriculum versus the unique abilities and personality of each student. See this earlier post.

While I personally have defined education as the transforming of the mind, this is not meant to operate in isolation from the other aspects of the person because we are not separable into mind versus heart versus body versus spirit but all parts work together. Balancing all of these in a school environment which doesn’t also usurp the ultimate authority of the parents over their child’s training is very, very hard to do. I think this is actually one good argument for homeschooling. How this principle of unity in the person plays out practically speaking for education is something I am still mulling over. I am not convinced, as some are, that there must always be a physical action to accompany the intellectual work of learning, but we do need to be aware that the child needs transformation in all aspects of his being and that to address one area and neglect the others will lead to a kind of warping.

That the child has a standing before his God also means that he needs to be able to interact directly with the things of God. It is these things — God’s general revelation — which we place before the child when we educate him. I agree with Oppewal that the child needs to be able to actively participate. I am not sure that agree with him on what this participation looks like. “Actively,” again, does not need to mean there is a physical action involved, creating a diorama or doing a service project for instance. Instead it is intellectual activity we seek. Once more I return to Charlotte Mason — she believed that students need to digest material for themselves. Worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, short answer questions all ask for regurgitation of material. Narration is a process which requires the student to process the material for himself. He does not merely extract facts pre-determined by the teacher but his mind is actively involved in understanding the material, selecting and extracting relevant information, making connections, putting his thoughts into words, and so on.

This has been an introduction to how we begin to construct a methodology and I realize it has been somewhat scattered. I’d like to return in the not to distant future to fleshing out a methodology that fits our reformed theology.


[1] Epistemology is the field which answers questions about knowing, i.e. what is knowledge and how do we know something. See this earlier post, also on Oppewal.

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