the fruits of harsh parenting

john muir


The story is told of the amazing conservationist and naturalist, John Muir. Raised in the home of a harsh and strict Presbyterian pastor who immigrated to the Unites States from Scotland, young John was forced to memorize Scripture and the catechisms each day, his father beating him with a belt in order to accomplish these tasks. By the time he was an adult, he had committed the entire New Testament and three quarters of the Old Testament to memory. During his young adult years, Muir traveled throughout the United States, eventually settling in California where he worked with President Teddy Roosevelt to see Yosemite established as the first national park. As an adult, Muir rejected Christianity and embraced a form of pantheism, seeing God in the nature he had grown to love and worship. I wonder how much of his rejection of his Christian roots can be attributed to the abuse he endured as a child in the name of “godly” parenting?

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  1. Granddad says

    Be careful where this leads. It can easily degenerate into, “it’s your fault I rejected the gospel” which contradicts the first 2+ chapters of Romans.

    I certainly understand the point that you’re trying to make, but my salvation is not dependent upon what my parents did or what they didn’t do. That being said, what you described with John Muir seems to suggest that his father did not understand the gospel and the grace of God as expressed in the Cross.

  2. says

    Such a sad story, but we can use it as a reminder of how we present GOD to our children. “Train up a child in the way he should go….” “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, but bring them up in the admonition of the Lord.” It says to bring them up in the “admonition” not by beating the Word into them. Yes, GOD is righteous and just, and HE is even angry(at sin), but the most important thing our children need to understand is that HE is LOVE – HE loved us enough to send HIS ONLY begotten SON to die for us. Why is that we show so little mercy and grace toward our children and turn around and thank GOD for the mercy and grace HE shows us? We are the first glimpse of The Father, so we need to take that seriously.

    That said, Granddad is right. We can’t allow the parenting skills (or lack thereof) to be an excuse for anyone who chooses death over life. Everyone reaches an age of accountability and will have to stand before GOD for their decision. However, as a parent, we are also going to stand before GOD and give an accounting for how we raised these children HE has given us to “babysit”. I use the word “babysit” because in all reality, they are HIS, not ours. HE has given them to us for a time, and HE was even kind enough to give us an instruction manual for the time we have them. Let’s use it with the same amount of love, grace, and mercy HE uses with us.

  3. says

    “He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

    The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”” ~Luke 17:1-5

  4. Anthea says

    “John was forced to memorize Scripture and the catechisms each day, his father beating him with a belt in order to accomplish these tasks. By the time he was an adult, he had committed the entire New Testament and three quarters of the Old Testament to memory”

    See, this is where I’m going wrong. We do one verse in about 10 days, and I have the children on a tough, relentless programme : 20p if you can say the verse, and after every 5th verse a special reward — so far we have been to a milkshake bar, won some funky stationery, and had bonus payments. For the 25th verse, they are getting electric toothbrushes.

    In comparison with John, they ain’t learning many verses. We are having some fun,though. Do you think that being achievement-focused, rather than process-focused, is a trap into which we can easily fall? Is it not tempting for home educating mothers to be pushing our kids so that we can brag on them and “prove” to the world that home edding “works”? I have to remind myself about why we want our children to learn certain things, so that I don’t force the pace of work or communicate a sense of being panicked. This is the grade-obsessed, sausage-factory education which we rejected in the first place. So should I be introducing it into our home?

    I think that harshness can slip in as a result of our own anxiety and competitive spirit. Thankfully, I am married to a hippy husband who does not care about “keeping up” or “getting ahead”.

  5. says

    This is such a sad story about Muir. Luke 17 came to my mind also. I don’t think this is about letting anyone “off the hook” for their own life choices as much as a sobering reminder of the importance of appropriately representing the character of God to our children. My goal is to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ and aid them in developing their own relationship with Him.

    Anthea, (the autocorrect on my phone keeps trying to change your name to Anthrax!), I really appreciate your comment above. I struggle with the concept of making my children memorize scripture. On the one hand, I want them to know as much of it as possible (for me, not so much as an achievement but because of the life it brings to me personally). But on the other hand, I don’t want it reduced to another “school” subject, another goal to be met along with memorizing times tables to get a reward. Also, it seems preferable to know the particular verses within their own context, from which single verse memorization often distracts.
    I’d love to hear how you and other parents and seasoned homeschoolers navigate this area.

  6. Laura (old OR vintage) says

    The point was made that we have to be careful not to blame our sin , or whether or not we are saved, on the bad things that others did to us. And I think that is true, but not the whole truth.

    This is just my opinion, but it seems to me that although we are individually accountable to Christ, that others-particularly persons who had control over us in some way- will most certainly be held accountable as well.

    I see it as this: We want to blame one or the other. God sees the whole picture , we don’t. I am distressed at the mantra I hear in Christian circles that no matter what is done to us, we are 100% at fault for our bad choices. Don’t get me wrong- this IS true, but again- not the whole truth. People hurt and wound and damage other people, and not everyone is able to come out of harsh or abusive situations having it all together. It’s like the marriage classes that I have sat through that teach over and over that if your spouse is awful to you, it’s a response to how awful you have been to them. Maybe, and maybe not! People damage other people, and many of us bear scars in this life. Only God can know what is truly in our hearts.

    Thank God that He is a God of compassion, and that His love covers a multitude of sins!

  7. says

    Interesting story. You might be right although reading the Bible as just a story (and no life) in that amount of detail can also lead to agnosticism. The Bible is dark at times, and without a relationship with God, I’d given it up too.

  8. Ric says

    – but do we have clues as to why he chose a different religion, beyond speculation of cause and effect?

  9. Ric says

    – I realize the question was rendered in the blog note, but this seems to be a strawman. Some have replied, rightly, that scripture is valid regardless. Others, rightly too, have suggested we parents have an obligation to not exasperate our children. I would expect that Muir wrote some things about his painful upbringing. Maybe he directly related the impact of that parenting to his appreciation of God who would allow it? But, vice speculation, can anything like that be found?

  10. says

    Actually Muir himself is the source of the information about the abuse. Will look for the exact quote. It is interesting too because it mirrors then testimony of many counselors today. I have been reading Ross Campbell’s How to Love Your Child and his accounts are the same. Highly recommending the book, bw.

  11. says

    ““I have seen the results of this approach. Children who were passive, compliant, very quiet, withdrawn, and very easily controlled when they were young, lacked a strong, healthy love-attachment to their parents as adolescents and gradually became defiant, resentful, difficult to control, self-centered, non-giving, nonaffectionate, insensitive, nonforgivng, noncompassionate, resistant to authority, and unkind.” ~ Ross Campbell

  12. Ric says

    thank you, I look forward to the Muir quotes. I wonder too, if those things happened more in those days and beyond due to the roughness of life, in general. But I’m also reminded that sin is sin.

  13. Ally says

    I agree with Ross. I was harsh Christian m and all of my children exhibits those characteristics. I have apologized to them over and over again. My kids are unmotivated, defiant and got in trouble with the law. I don’t know what to do. I am truly sorry and I am carrying so much guilt.

  14. says

    Ally, I want to encourage you to not give up on your children! It isn’t over until it is over. Keep praying for the Lord to intervene in their lives and to give them hearts that are soft toward you.

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