11. THE CONVERSION OF CHILDREN

THE CONVERSION OF CHILDREN


(A lecture delivered by Charles G. Finney on December 16, 1850, at the Tabernacle, Moorfields.)

The family is, without question, the greatest influence in the whole government of God concerning the destinies of the world. The parents’ influence is no doubt the supreme influence. God designed it should be so; this was one reason for establishing the family relationship. It was not only to secure among human beings temporal blessings – the care and nurture of the young – but that parents should exert a spiritual influence over their offspring. The great end God had in view was their spiritual well-being. This was one of His great designs, no doubt; but it is not always kept in view by parents; therefore the great object of the Almighty in establishing the family relationship, at least as far as children are concerned, is defeated.

Remember that this influence, whatever it may be, occurs very early in the lives of children, and is generally decisive one way or the other. The decision that is made in later life, in most cases, is merely the development of what has been thus commenced. The mother begins the work. She heads the undertaking and exerts more influence over the child at first than anyone – or anything – else. If she understands her responsibility, if she is a pious woman, and if she avails herself of the facilities God has put into her hands, she will be, under God, the greatest possible blessing to her child. Children naturally have more confidence in their father and mother than in anyone else, and their position gives them an influence over the youthful mind – for good or for evil – with which no other influence in the world can compare. The results of this influence are formed very early in the child’s life, and continue to develop ever after.

Parents have a mighty influence over little children. They lead them to their earliest thoughts and give them most of their first ideas. The spirit of the parent teaches the child a great deal, even before his words can teach him. The example and influence of the parent is not confined to mere verbal teaching. Everything he does has an influence over the child; every word the parent says, even before the child can fully tell the meaning of words, has an influence over him or her. When the child comes to understand language, the little mind weighs all that it hears and thus the child is educated.

Now if the parents’ influence is of a worldly character, if there is nothing in the parent that early leads the child to think about its soul and God, and if that child does not see in the parent a concern for his own soul, the child’s education has begun in the wrong direction. If the parent neglects to let his child see his concern for that child’s salvation in very early life; if the child does not see that the Christian faith is prominent in the parents’ mind; if he does not see that finding and doing the will of God is the parents’ life, and that glorifying God is the parents’ chief end, the child will know the truth of it.

He will understand it, and this truth will have its influence over him, much earlier than parents are in the habit of believing. I have known children whose temperament was such that when very young they talked much about the Christian faith, and were constantly asking questions about it. So thoroughly were their little minds engrossed with the subject that they scarcely seemed to know that there were any other places than those to which their parents were accustomed to go for worship. Even when a stranger comes in, they ask, “Is that person a Christian?”

The early conversion of children depends upon the parents’ sowing Christian truth among the earliest thoughts developed in the minds of their children. Curiously, even the smallest children observe when parents pray and recognize God in all their ways. It is remarkable to see the effect of this on their young minds. As they see their parents pray, they get their little chairs, kneel down and try to pray as well. Their mother has been in the habit of taking them and praying with them from their very birth.

As soon as they can understand her, she leads them into her prayer closet, reads the Bible to them, talks about the Saviour, and prays with them daily. Sometimes several times a day. Consequently, you will see them get their little chairs, and have their little meetings, and go down on their knees and pray for themselves. One mother recently wrote to me: “Little Willy gets his chair, kneels down, and clasping his little hands, says, “Oh Lor’ (he could not articulate Lord).” Every little child would begin to pray if he had such a mother.

Now the tendency of all this is to keep the little one’s thoughts awake. He will perceive, from the spirit and example of the parents that Christianity is something of supreme importance. God comes to be in all his little thoughts. He sees that Christianity is the great concern of the parents’ life.

Where this is the case, unless there is some error in the teaching or conception of the parent that gets in the way and prevents this influence from producing its natural results, I do not believe there is one case in a thousand in which children are not very early converted. I have known pious parents who have trained their children on the subject of Christianity, but who, from holding certain erroneous views, have laid stumbling blocks in their way. The parents told them some things that were false, which consequently proved injurious to them.

Parents should understand that there is only one of two courses open to them with regard to their children. They must either exert a worldly influence (which would give their little minds an entirely wrong direction), or a spiritual one (which will set them after Christian faith). If the proper spiritual influence is exerted, the child’s mind will early be caused to ferment on the subject of Christianity. His earliest thoughts will be about God the Father, faith and Jesus Christ. The earliest influences they can remember will be convictions of sin, heaven and hell, Christ and eternity. These thoughts will put their little minds into a state of effervescence. These influences commence before the child has left the lap of his loving mother.

Things Parents Should Avoid


Be sure you don’t stumble on the idea that “you can’t expect” the early conversion of your children. A worthy deacon from Birmingham called on me a few hours ago at Doctor Campbell’s. The members of his family have all been converted and united to the church. His youngest child is only about ten years of age. He told me that he had been introduced to the deacon on one of the city churches, who had a large family, not a single member of whom has been converted.

On being apprized of the happy condition of the Birmingham family, the second deacon said, “Well you know we cannot give grace to our children.”

“Oh, no,” replied the Birmingham brother, “but we can use the means in our possession to make them Christians.”

When the fact came out that the youngest child was only ten years old, the city deacon shook his head “Ah!” he said, “I don’t believe in forcing people into the church.”

“Nor do I,” was the response. “I did all I dare do, and said all I dare say. But what could anyone do or say, except let her profess her faith in Christ, as other people do?”

One of the greatest stumbling blocks is cast in the way of families by the idea that to expect the early conversion of children is unreasonable. “The idea of a ten-year-old child being converted! Why we cannot believe it!” But suppose I were to preach the funeral sermon of such a child and to say, “He is gone to hell, no doubt.”

“What makes you say so?” you would ask. “Why, surely you do not think that the child is a sinner at ten years of age?”

Indeed he is, and to think otherwise is the greatest and most dangerous error that can be entertained. If a child has intelligence enough to sin, has it not intelligence enough to be converted? If not, what becomes of children old enough to sin, but not old enough to be converted? The fact is, it is easier for the Holy Spirit to convert a child, than it is for Him to convert a man.

Now, what is in the way of the child’s conversion? When the child’s little conscience first wakes up, sin takes such a hold of it, that it goes into the greatest agony at the thought of it. This is natural. For the little conscience has not yet been trifled and tampered with. Now cannot the Spirit of God teach such children? Cannot those who understand the nature of faith in the parent understand the nature of faith in God? Cannot those who understand parental protection and love understand the protection and love of their heavenly Father? Cannot those who know so well how to depend on a parent depend on God?

They can surely do these things more easily then, than if they wait until they have learned to mistrust everybody and everything from contact with the world. Cannot they, whose tender hearts are so ready to trust, be taught to exercise faith in Christ? This is the most likely time in their lives. It is less likely they will be converted later, if you allow them to grow up and form bad habits. Bad habits are more easily corrected if you use the best and earliest means to prevent their formation at the start.

The fact is, the Spirit of God is always ready to cooperate with the judicious use of means – and just as ready to cooperate with children as with adults. But parents who do not believe this to be the case allow their children to grow up and escape from under their influence. I have observed that just as far as parents have intelligently used the best means in their power to secure the early conversion of their children, they have to that same extent been successful in their endeavours. But when the contrary has been the case, when no such influence has been exerted, I have not been surprised to find that the children have grown up to manhood and womanhood unconverted.

Sometimes I have asked parents if they ever made it a great pressing business to secure the early conversion of their children. “Oh, no; we never set ourselves to make it a pressing business to secure them for God.” “You don’t? Then is it any wonder that they are not converted?” Multitudes must admit that they never in good earnest set about promoting the conversion of their children and securing it under God. I could tell you of numbers of cases where such sons and daughters have turned out badly.

Many entertain ideas of God’s sovereignty that are a great stumbling block in the way of the early conversion of their children. The man who said, “We cannot give grace to our children,” doubtless had an idea that God’s sovereignty was connected with conversion in a way that he associates it with nothing else. Such beliefs are folly, but common nonetheless. In every other matter such people exert themselves as though there were some connection between means and ends in the government of God. But they assume that there is no connection between means and ends in the act of conversion, that God sets aside all the laws by which He invariably operates at other times, exercising a peculiar kind of sovereignty in conversion.

I have been very surprised to find that multitudes have such ideas of God’s sovereignty and agency that they can recognize His hand in nothing short of an absolute miracle. For example, when a person goes and talks to a child in such a manner as to make a deep impression on its young mind, the impression is made accordingly; the child awakens to a deep sense of sin and importance of faith in Jesus. But then the parent says, “Let him alone now, and we will see whether you have been merely playing upon the child’s feelings, or whether the Spirit has been cooperating.” The fact is, the child is talked to in the very way to produce the effect predicted.

If a preacher so discourses as to affect the minds of his audience in a certain way, and accordingly they are so affected, some say, “Ah! God has had nothing to do with it!” They suppose there can be no perceivable relation between the means and the ends in order to have God recognized. But, if there really is any natural and necessary connection between the means and the end, then why is not God recognized – unless He intervenes in such a manner so as to set aside this connection, and causing an effect entirely inconsistent with it?

For example, if you sit down and converse with a child about playing marbles, who could expect that such conversation would be followed by any religious result? And if a minister got into a pulpit and preached about politics, would you expect anybody to be converted? It seems therefore necessary that the subject of the discourse should have a Christian leaning in order to expect a Christian effect. A discourse concerning some historical facts that are in no way relevant to the sinner’s duty would not be expected to achieve the desired results. The preacher must press the matter home, till the sinner fully feels that he is virtually saying, “Thou art the man.” “Oh!” you say, “you have been playing upon his sympathies.”

So where are we to stop? The fact is you do not, you cannot, expect God to convert anyone when there is not sort of relevant means used. And if some relevancy, even according to your own ideas of divine sovereignty, is necessary in the means employed, pray how much relevancy is absolutely indispensable? When God works, He can never be expected to commit any infraction of the laws He had ordained for the government of the universe. If He operates according to His own laws, why should it be doubted that He is operating at all? For my part, I always expect to see God work in accordance with His own established laws, and I recognize Him all the more when I see how nicely He adapts the means to the end.

He created mind and established its relations to truth, and when He presents truth to the mind, and it is received in accordance with principles He has ordained, am I not to recognize the hand of God in them?

Parents do not seem to feel the necessity of applying themselves to secure the early conversion of their children with as much earnestness as they seek their recovery when sick. A little error in nursing will often have a most dangerous influence on the health of the patient, and a little error in instruction may induce a serious turn in the thoughts, and perhaps present a fatal stumbling block. If God allows things to take this course in the physical world, He will permit it in the moral world. If certain laws are violated in the physical world, and God allows the thing to take its natural course, why should He adopt a different policy toward the moral world? This is the very way in which God’s sovereignty really manifests itself.

If you look round on the natural world, you will see that God permits immense results to turn on the most trifling violation of natural laws. A ship will sink, though it be filled with devoted missionaries, if the natural law is neglected. In fact, if they have neglected to take compass or chart, or some such necessary precaution on the pretence of trusting the sovereignty of God, they have in reality been tempting God by not taking care to adjust themselves to His physical laws. And that ship, although it is filled with missionaries, will go to the bottom! And in such a case, perhaps, the salvation of thousands of souls might be suspended on that ship’s reaching its destination safely.

It is the same in the moral world, let mother or father make a mistake, either moral or physical; in one instance it is death to the body – and in the other, to the soul. This is the teaching of the Bible, and it is borne out by experience. People should know that they can as certainly ruin the soul, as they can kill the body.

Care should be taken not to cause the child to stumble through bad government or no government at all. Some govern their families too much. Others not at all. Often the spirit of the whole family government is such as to make a false impression. It is not the firm spirit of God’s government. It is either despotic, or not government at all. In other cases, there is one half the time too much rigor and the other half too much laxity.

All such impressions affect there children in connection with Christianity. If the general impression of your deportment should suggest that you are “in God’s stead” to them, you cannot underestimate the importance of early seizing their little minds and wills, bringing them under proper control. Oh! That little will! If unsubdued, what will it cost that child to be converted, if it ever is converted! When parents permit the will to pass unsubdued, their little ones get into such a habit of self-will, as to render it extremely doubtful whether they will ever bow either to God or man. At the least, it will render it far more difficult for them to do so than it would have been had a contrary course been pursued.

When I see children agonize at their position, unable fully to yield and come into the kingdom, I always suspect they have never been properly taught to yield to parental authority in their childhood. It is of the utmost importance that parents take hold of this will as soon as it develops itself, and to exert the first moral influence on it under God’s moral government, as a representative of the Almighty. Take hold of that little will as a sacred trust under God, holding it by parental authority and love so kindly and firmly that it is lost in your will and controlled by it. Even a look or a motion of the hand, when understood, should be immediately and willingly obeyed.

When the time comes that the child can understand about God, give the whole weight of your will to lead the child’s will to submit to God. Did you ever think what a powerful influence you possess? Where the little will from the first has been held under control, and the child is old enough to be talked to about God, bring all your powers to bear upon it to induce it to yield itself up to God, and you will find yourself, as it were, almost handing your child over to God.

You are not to suppose that because your influence is used as a means, that God has nothing to do with it. He has placed you where you are in order to use you. He has stationed you there to watch over the development of that little will, and kindly to control it so that in due season you may hand it over to God through the teaching of the Holy Spirit.

This is the great work you are sent to do, Fathers! Let your parental heart draw the little one close, and let your mind draw the little mind into close connection with yours, and let the little will be as far as possible subject to and guided by your will. Do it prayerfully before God, and you need not fear failure. As soon as the little will can be influenced by Christian truth, pour it in with all the weight of your parental authority and carry that will to God.

A Christian lady once informed me that she had found her daughter under conviction of sin. “I have so trained her,” she said, “from her infancy, that she regards my will as her law; a look from me is enough. I did not at first understand properly my relation to her with reference to her conversion; but as soon as the thought came before my mind that I could exert a direct and powerful influence in the matter, and that the Spirit of God would use that influence, I took the child with me to my closet and prayed with her. I there showed her that it was her duty to yield up herself to Christ. I talked and prayed with her, and urged the matter in this light: ‘No w, my child, you never hesitate to obey your mother in other things, and I want you now at once to renounce yourself, and give yourself fully up to Christ.”

Before they left the closet, she said she had reason to believe that her child had really given herself up to God. She said, “Never before had I any idea that the Spirit of God would so use this influence.”

Now observe; this was not any such authority as would threaten to whip the child! – that is neither prudent nor necessary here; proper parental influence can carry the little mind with amazing power. When the whole weight of this parental influence is concentrated upon the single issue: “”My child, give your heart this moment to Christ,” what human influence can be more powerful? And this, of course, is backed up by the work of God, and seconded by the Spirit of God – in addition to that will to which the child has always been accustomed to yield. I have seen the infinite importance of this not only in my own but in many other families.

Parents are very apt to stumble their children by their temper. A temper destroys the confidence of the child in their parent’s piety, and causes him to doubt their sincerity; and thus the parent loses all hold on him. Few things more surely and speedily destroy the influence of a parent than to scold them peevishly, or even to speak to them snappishly, and call them hard names. Anything that savours of ill temper has a dreadfully powerful influence in leading the child away from Christ and counteracting well meant endeavours.

Parents must be careful to feel and manifest concern for their children’s spiritual welfare; if they do not, a young child cannot be expected to feel a concern for himself. Suppose a parent felt truly concerned to keep a child out of bad company, he would remind the child often, keeping it always before the mind of that child. If concerned for his health, he would keep that before the little one, and teach him how to take care of himself. It is just the same with anything else of this kind. Now the parent ought to feel and manifest a supreme interest in the child’s salvation.

Let all your conversation plainly indicate that it is so. Let your children see that health, worldly prospects, and everything else must be subordinate to Christian faith. Do these things, and you are beginning right; and by a natural law you can hardly fail to see their early conversion.

Parents often manifest great error in not seeing to it that their children are punctual and regular at public worship. I have been in a great many churches, and have known the history of a great many families. Sometimes I have found households in which the children were both punctual and regular. At chapel pews where some families sat, you would see that all the children, able to come out, were always no more expected to absent themselves from chapel when their parents went, than from the dinner table. They were not allowed to wander about, their parents not knowing where they went. Where this is allowed parents have little or no Christian influence over them.

Parents must also guard against laxity with reference to the due observance of the Lord’s Day. It is not right to throw everything into the hands of the sovereignty of God, assuming that that alone will convert them, whatever influence may be brought to bear upon them; a more damning error never entered the world. Truly, other influences may possibly convert the child, and as other influences may save the child in sickness, but no thanks to the parents in either case.

There is another fault of parents I must notice. They do not take sufficient pains to provide a happy home; the children, not finding friendship and sympathy at home, run about elsewhere in search of it. Their home is not a happy one, and they consequently rove about and come under bad influences. Now a happy home is one of the principal things at which a parent should aim. The home should be rendered so pleasant that the child would rather remain there than go about.

Dear parents! Are you aware how often a child’s life is embittered by the neglect of this? They must be made happy, and have something to love at home, or they will naturally seek company and happiness somewhere else. Oh! That parents would see the necessity of using this and every other means they can devise to secure and retain their proper influence over the little minds! They ought to feel toward you so that they would sooner tell you than anybody else their little thoughts.

Fathers are more apt to neglect this than mothers. Children often seem afraid of their fathers, so that they cannot tell him the workings of their little minds. He treats them with a kind of tolerance, and manifest no interest in their little concerns; and as he does not sympathize with them, they therefore turn to someone else, fall under some other influence, and are gone! How many parents who have had to lament the evil conduct of their children, could look back and attribute their children’s behaviour largely to this! The father has been sharp and has not kept his influence over their little hearts.

Oh! How often Christian people, and even ministers, have been so busy with other matters that they have neglected their own children in this respect, shutting them out from their hearts, so they have fallen into other hands, and under evil influences.

Now, dear parents, one of the first things God wishes you to do is to secure and retain the affections and confidence of your children, and to use your influence over them for Him. In order to keep their hearts open to you, let yours be open to them. You will surely secure your end if you do so. But, on the contrary, if they are afraid to approach you because you keep them at such a distance, then, if they are not ruined, it is no thanks to you.

Instead of telling you all the temptations and trials they fall into – all their plans, and the books they read – instead of feeling that in you they have advisers who can and will sympathize with them, they will manifest the same reserve to you on these matters that you have displayed to them and you have, therefore, failed in a vital point.

Another point I wish to notice is the evil practice of allowing children to wander about where they will in the evening. As I have said, if you would make the home what it should be, they would never want to do this. They would rather be with you than anywhere. But if you allow them to go out and keep late hours, they are sure to go in the way of temptation.

I have often seen the injurious influence of holidays being too numerous and long; parents make a great deal of difference at such times with regard to their control over their children. They are allowed to do things then, because it is a holiday, which you would not permit at other times, and this leads them astray. The holidays are near; what will be your influence over them during that period? Parents! Think of this.
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