Over the years perhaps the most frequently asked question by conservative Christians about Charlotte Mason is, “Did Charlotte Mason reject the doctrine of original sin?” Many essays, articles, and chapters have been written about this question. Most of these compositions begin with an attempt to interpret Mason’s second principle. This article takes a different starting point. By identifying a set of simple facts that can be easily proven, we can more easily draw a conclusion and confidently answer whether Charlotte Mason rejected original sin.
Fact #1: The Church Catechism selected by Charlotte Mason for religious instruction affirmed the doctrine of original sin.
The Church Catechism in the Prayer Book of the Church of England in use in Charlotte Mason’s time (and in her personal library) says that baptism is “A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace” (emphasis added).
Charlotte Mason recommended that the Catechism be used for:
In fact, Mason wrote that “nowhere shall we find a more lucid and practical commentary on the moral law than is set forth in the Church Catechism” (volume 3, p. 130).
Nowhere in Mason’s writings did she issue a warning or disclaimer to indicate that the Church Catechism contained a doctrine that she rejected.
Fact #2: Charlotte Mason’s exposition of the second principle affirmed the doctrine of original sin.
Chapters 2 through 9 of Mason’s sixth volume are an exposition of her 20 principles of education. Chapters 2 through 6 have a one-to-one correlation with principles 1 through 5. Principle 2 reads, “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil” (volume 6, p. xxix).” The corresponding chapter in volume 6 is chapter 3. The chapter is entitled “The Good and Evil Nature of a Child” (emphasis added). The word nature implies a quality that someone is born with. The title of the chapter indicates that Mason believed that children were born with an evil nature. How else would this evil nature be explained except by the doctrine of original sin?
In the third paragraph of this chapter, Mason writes, “all possibilities for good are contained in his moral and intellectual outfit, hindered it may be by a corresponding tendency to evil for every such potentiality.” Thus Mason taught that every child is born with a corruption such that every potentiality for good is by nature hindered by a tendency to evil. This shows that the breadth of corruption is total, affecting every aspect of moral potentiality. This aligns closely with the definition of Original Sin in the Anglican Articles of Religion:
“Original sin … is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, … whereby man is … of his own nature inclined to evil, … and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.” (emphasis added)
Fact #3: Mason’s explicit teaching on human nature affirms the doctrine of original sin.
Charlotte Mason’s volume 4 was written to provide children with a “ground-plan of human nature” (volume 4, Preface). As such, it is the most reliable guide to Mason’s beliefs about human nature. On pages 179-180, Mason writes:
“There is in human nature an aversion to God. Whether it be, according to the Article, that ‘original sin which is the natural fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam,’ or whether it is that jerk of the shoulder from the hand of authority which belongs to freewill, we need not stop to inquire. Anyway, there is in human nature, as well as a deep-seated craving for God, a natural and obstinate aversion to Him.” (emphasis in the original)
This passage shows that:
1. “Original sin,” as taught by the “Article” of the Church of England.
2. “Freewill,” which (apparently) naturally resists authority.
By granting two possible explanations, she does not forfeit her own belief that one is correct. But she does insist that this aversion is accounted for by either the doctrine of original sin, or something just as pervasive and fundamental to human nature. Although she says “we need not stop to inquire” which explanation is the true one, her other writings show that she subscribes to the first.
Fact #4: Mason’s poetic writings explicitly affirm the doctrine of original sin.
Mason’s six-volume Saviour of the World, published from 1908-1914, is a collection of hundreds of original poems written by her. They contain many straightforward declarations of her theological beliefs. In the second poetry volume, on page 37, she asserts original sin as a truism:
“But who can judge that leprosy of heart,
Sin, name we it, wherein we all have part
If any way be open save His way
Wilful, we make our choice to disobey.
In ‘man’s first disobedience,’ share we all;
That little thing we’re bidden works our fall!”
The quoted phrase “man’s first disobedience” is an allusion to Paradise Lost, which goes on to say that it “brought death into the world, and all our woe.” Mason explicitly writes that we all “share” in this disobedience.
Later in the fourth poetry volume, Mason discusses the Fall itself:
“Alas, sweet souls, ye fell! but not so low,
Ah, not so low as we! Abashed are ye
Where God was all a separate self to see;
And, naked, conscious souls, ingenuous go
“To hide yourselves for shame! Your Fall’s worse woe-
Th’ inevitable “I”-inherit we:
Our child-souls quit their paradise to be
First in a fall’n state that day they know”
In this poem, Mason writes that we all “inherit” something from the Fall. Inevitably this inherited nature manifests itself and our souls leave paradise. We recapitulate the tragedy of our parents. This is closely aligned with St. Paul’s writings in the Epistle to the Romans: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man … so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”
Fact #5: The doctrine of original sin does NOT deny that children are born with inherent goodness.
Throughout the history of the church, many great theologians have affirmed the natural goodness of persons which endures and prevails despite the doctrine of original sin. For example, John Calvin writes:
“In every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life. For they have, by the very zeal of their honesty, given proof that there was some purity in their nature. These examples, accordingly, seem to warn us against judging man’s nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by its prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life.” (Institutes, Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter III)
Calvin asserts that there is “some purity” in the “nature” of children. In other words, for Calvin (and many others), children are born both good (“some purity”) and evil. This is exactly what Mason asserts in her second principle.
Fact #6: There is nothing inherently contradictory between Mason’s second principle and the doctrine of original sin.
On page 46 of volume 6, Mason provided a more verbose wording of her second principle: “children … are born … with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil.” Her second principle and the doctrine of original sin are not antithetical statements, but rather are complementary statements that overlap on a single point. This may be illustrated in a Venn diagram:
The left circle represents Mason’s second principle. The right circle represents the doctrine of the original sin. Both statements assert that children are born with tendencies towards evil. It is important to recognize that:
An analogy may be helpful. In a classroom, a teacher may make the following assertion:
A student in the class may make the following assertion:
The teacher’s statement and the student’s statement are not contradictory. The teacher said nothing about the mid-term exams and the student said nothing about graduation. The statements are complementary with overlap. The same situation occurs between Mason’s second principle and the doctrine of original sin.
Fact #7: Mason believed in building on the good inherent in children.
Mason wrote her second principle because she wanted to advance an educational system that was based on the natural goodness in children. This goodness persists despite original sin. Mason taught that this goodness endures due to the prevenient grace of Christ. Christ came as the second Adam to bring light to the entire world (John 1:9). Mason believed that this should inform how we educate our children:
“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.” (volume 2, page 65)
The above facts clearly demonstrate that Mason accepted the doctrine of original sin. However, she did not believe that a method of education should be built upon that doctrine in isolation. She founded her method of education upon not only that principle, but on other complementary principles that describe the full nature of the child.
© 2016 by Art Middlekauff