In this post I want to continue to the exploration of children in church. In my last post I offered quotes from an article on the practice paedocommunion (communion administered to babies) in the early church to 1500 that demonstrated children’s presence in the worship service. The practice of keeping children in the worship service is continued by most Catholics in mass to this day. However, in 1517 a new era in church history began through the Protestant Reformation. I, and my church, cling tightly to much of what the reformers believed and taught and so it seems good to understand their views on children and the subsequent history of children in church.
The Protestant Reformation
As stated before, information on the history of children’s involvement in church is not easy to find. However, Karen E. Spierling has written a small essay that gives insight into the thinking the early reformers thought about children. She says:
“Both the delay of confirmation, in the case of Luther and Calvin, and the delay of baptism, in the case of the Anabaptists, made the proper education of children imperative. A main premise of the Protestant Reformation was that individual Christians could communicate directly with God through prayer and study of the Scripture. The reformers sought to foster this relationship by providing catechisms and establishing schools to teach both boys and girls to read. Luther and Calvin each, in their efforts to aid in the training of children, produced catechisms that could be used by parents and ministers to teach children and adults in need of religious instruction.”1
She goes on to say:
“Another change that occurred with the Protestant Reformation was the delay of Confirmation until adolescence. While confirmation was no longer understood to be a sacrament, Protestant churches still marked a child’s profession of faith and official entrance into the church with some ceremony. In medieval Catholicism, children received confirmation sometime between the moment of baptism and age seven. The reformers held that such an act required that the child have achieved some level of spiritual maturity, which they generally believed coincided approximately with physical maturity. In delaying confirmation until adolescence (in the most extreme cases until the age of eighteen), the reformers were pushing back the age of discretion, thereby extending the time during which children were not held fully responsible for their actions.”2
These two statements offer us a glimpse into the early reformers thoughts about children and provide for us two connections to the topic at hand. First, they viewed their spiritual education as paramount. This is a good thing and something that can be seen today in most protestant churches. How does this connect to children’s participation in the worship service? To this question I can only offer my own speculation. The emphasis on education, while a good thing, causes protestants (even 500 years later) to be more focused on education and less focused on participation. [bra_blockquote align=’right’]The emphasis on education, while a good thing, causes protestants (even 500 years later) to be more focused on education and less focused on participation.[/bra_blockquote]When I bring up the topic of children staying in the church service, one of the most common arguments people offer me is that kids won’t understand what they are hearing and doing. This line of thinking seems to have some of its foundation in the early reformers. The second connection between the thinking of the early reformers and our topic is that they altered the landscape of belief about how early a child can be fully connected to the church. In his article, Where The Reformation Was Wrong on Worship, James F. White, professor of Liturgy at Notre Dame University, writes, “The Reformation compounded this disaster by transforming confirmation into a graduation exercise. These demands to think of Christianity in conceptual terms naturally excommunicated children from the Lord’s table.”3 The stoppage of children’s taking of the Lord’s Supper (the most important practice in church gatherings for the majority of church history) may be seen as a first step in their removal from the church gathering as a whole.4
The thinking of the early reformers can be seen in our modern protestant mindset towards children in church. However, I have found no evidence showing that children ceased to be involved in the worship gathering. In a similar vein, I would offer that another, later movement also had a profound impact on children’s participation in church. This movement is the rise of Sunday School.
The beginnings of the Sunday School movement is interesting and worth mentioning. When the first Sunday School began, in the mid 1780’s, the Industrial Revolution had resulted in children working all week long in the factories. There were no child labor laws until 1802 when legislation made it so that a child could no longer work more than 12 hours a day. Christians wanted to help other children become literate and so they started school on Sundays – the only available day of the week for learning.[bra_blockquote align=”]There were no child labor laws until 1802 when legislation made it so that a child could no longer work more than 12 hours a day. Christians wanted to help other children become literate and so they started school on Sundays[/bra_blockquote]
“The English Anglican evangelical Robert Raikes (1725-1811) was the key promoter of the movement. It soon spread to America as well. Denominations and non-denominational organizations caught the vision and energetically began to create Sunday schools. Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular. By the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood. Even parents who did not regularly attend church themselves generally insisted that their children go to Sunday school. Working-class families were grateful for this opportunity to receive an education. Religious education was, of course, always also a core component. The Bible was the textbook used for learning to read. Likewise, many children learned to write by copying out passages from the Scriptures. A basic catechism was also taught, as were spiritual practices such as prayer and hymn-singing.”5
The evangelist results of Sunday School have been enormous for the church. By the 1800’s 80% of all new members in American churches had been introduced to their church through Sunday School.6 Over time, Sunday School became less about evangelism and more about Christian maturity (for children and adults). This shift allowed for a transition from Sunday School to children’s church in many churches. One blogger, relaying the information of Jim Wideman, says, “The ’70s was an absolutely explosive decade for [children’s ministry]. Virtually all Protestant churches shifted from a “Sunday School” model to “Kids Church”. Let me magnify this shift. The typical adult, church service has the following elements in some order, at some time: worship songs, offering, communion, sermon, and prayer. Sunday school, for our discussion, is an age-appropriate educational format (“class”) that kids attend in lieu of the (adult) “sermon”…”7 Before this transition “[children’s ministry] itself consisted of kids sitting with their parents during church. As Jim and many others have confirmed, the usual sentiment was, crassly put, “Sit down and shut up.”8
While the Protestant Reformation and Sunday School movement laid foundations for the removal of children from the worship service; however, take note that it wasn’t until the 1970’s (less than fifty years ago) that this removal happened widely across the church. This is important because it helps us understand why we think the way we do about children in church today and shows us that the historical practice of both Catholics and Protestants has been to keep kids in the church worship gathering.[bra_border_divider top=’20’ bottom=’20’]
1. Karen E. Spierling (http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Pa-Re/Protestant-Reformation.html)
3. James F. White, Where the Reformation Was Wrong (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1348)
4. As stated in my last post, I do not agree with the practice of paedocommunion. I quote White here to show the affects of the Protestant Reformation on the participation of children in worship and not to endorse the truth of his article or teachings.
5. Timothy Larsen, When Did Sunday School Start (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/whendidsundayschoolstart.html, 2008)
6. Wikipedia, “Sunday School” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday_school)
7. Peter Bierma, #3 – History of Children’s Ministry – Jim Wideman & the ’70s (http://kidsministryleaders.blogspot.com/2011/07/3-history-of-childrens-ministry-jim.html)