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    Educational Philosophy

    Myth: Charlotte Mason was a godless evolutionist.

    October 25, 2014 by Brandy Vencel


    It is not a myth that Charlotte Mason believed in evolution. She did. Our modern thinkers on both sides of the issue tend to equate a belief in evolution with atheism, and to pit them against Christianity and a belief in a Creator on the other side, with no concept that there could be a middle ground.

    But this is not how evolution was introduced to the world — as a godless matter of blind chance. The theory of physical evolution was introduced as a process that might have occurred thus, without any direct consideration of first causes. It opened the door to a natural explanation of the existence of the universe without God, but it also allowed for the possibility that evolution was God’s mechanism for creating the world.

    However much we might disagree, this was the time and place in which Charlotte Mason lived. The theologians of England largely accepted the science of evolution, and made it their business to understand how to reconcile the Genesis account of creation with the “evidence” that science had revealed. They did not accept evolution as a matter of chance, but rather as the work of God’s hand. The idea of guided evolution, directed by an intelligent designer, is called “teleological evolution,” and it has been discussed at length for many years. Books have been written about it, and it is too large a topic for a blog post.

    For the sake of this series, we will focus on Charlotte Mason’s approach to the topic. She read widely, and was well-informed on the latest topics of interest in her day. But she also thought deeply and brought everything to bear on her own subject, the education of children.

    Her starting point for the existence of children and their relation to their parents comes from her understanding of the Bible, not science.

    It is as revealers of God to their children that parents touch their highest limitations; perhaps it is only as they succeed in this part of their work that they fulfil the Divine intention in giving them children to bring up — in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

    Parents and Children, p. 41

    To acknowledge “divine intention” in any thing is to reject the idea of chance and happenstance. Charlotte Mason’s starting point is that children are a gift from God to their parents, and that parents have a responsibility before God to accomplish certain things, most importantly to introduce them to God himself.

    But she knew that the question of evolution could raise doubts and undermine faith, and her concern lay on the side of preserving faith.

    How to fortify the children against the doubts of which the air is full, is an anxious question.

    Parents and Children, p. 41

    She suggests that there are three possible approaches.

    First, to ignore the issue of discrepancy between the Bible and science, and let them meet it and deal with it when it arises. She considers this an unfair approach, although it was what happened to many of her own generation.

    Second, to painstakingly anticipate every doubt and deal with them individually and so arm them against attack. Charlotte Mason found this way to undermine the authority of the Bible. If we must have evidence to “prove” that the Bible is true, we are giving those evidences more weight than the Bible itself. Archeological evidence might illustrate that the Bible records are true, but they are not “proof.”

    She suggests a third way, which is to cultivate a way of thinking that reverences God’s Word as the source of all truth, and maintains a humble, patient understanding of all new scientific discoveries.

    The notion that any contemporary authority is infallible may be steadily undermined from infancy onwards, though at some sacrifice of ease and glory to the parents. ‘I don’t know’ must take the place of the vague wise-sounding answer, the random shot which children pertinacious questionings too often provoke. And ‘I don’t know’ should be followed by the effort to know, the search necessary to find out. Even then, the possibility of error in a ‘printed book’ must occasionally be faced. The results of this kind of training in the way of mental balance and repose are invaluable.

    Parents and Children, p. 43-44

    So Charlotte Mason suggests that on one hand, children should be taught to reverence the Bible as an authority, and on the other hand to be familiar with new scientific discoveries, but to remember that such discoveries are part of an ongoing process which had by no means uncovered all possible knowledge or reached final, absolute conclusions and that

    the teaching of to-day may be the error of to-morrow because new light may lead to new conclusions even from the facts already known.

    Parents and Children, p. 45-46

    Whatever our present beliefs on the subject of evolution, it would be a matter of great arrogance to suppose that we would have held those same beliefs with the same conviction if we had lived in the time and place that Charlotte Mason lived. She was a woman of well-grounded faith who had no reason not to believe in evolution, as it was accepted by the majority of preachers and theologians of her day. We find some of the most conservative theologians, such as F.B. Meyer, marveling at evolution as a work of God.

    In spite of her acceptance of evolution as a mechanism of creation, however, Charlotte was aware that it was dangerous ground and opened the door to doubts. She was a wise and balanced thinker, and her concern, from an educational perspective, was to give children the foundation of a solid faith and a patient wait-and-see attitude toward science. She suggests that

    it would seem to be the part of wisdom to wait half a century before fitting the discovery of to-day into the general scheme of things.

    Parents and Children, p. 44

    Charlotte Mason hoped that this approach to matters of faith and science would:

    … give children such hold upon vital truth, and at the same time such an outlook upon current thought, that they shall be landed on the safe side of the controversies of their day, open to truth, in however new a light presented, and safeguarded against mortal error.

    Parents and Children, p. 41

    Charlotte Mason certainly believed in the process of evolution, but few of today’s atheistic evolutionists would sympathize with her perspective. She believed in a Creator, and her faith in his word was unshaken by any apparent conflicts with scientific discoveries. When she felt it necessary, she did not hesitate to contradict.

    One of her most vehement differences with some schools of science touches on the existence of the spirit, or non-material existence of a person.

    The physical evolution of man admits of no doubt; the psychical evolution, on the other hand, is not only not proven, but the whole weight of existing evidence appears to go into the opposite scale.”

    Parents and Children, p. 257

    She shows us where her ultimate allegiance lies when she follows that statement with:

    It is curious how the philosophy of the Bible is always well in advance of our latest thought.

    Parents and Children, p. 258

    Yes, Charlotte Mason believed that the process of physical evolution had taken place, but she did not let that perspective alter her trust in the ultimate truth of God’s Word.

    Karen Glass is part of the Advisory of AmblesideOnline. She has homeschooled her four children according to Charlotte Mason’s methods since 1994. She is also the author of Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, released in October 2014.

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  • Reply Johanna Ray July 27, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    Hello Karen, could I have permission to translate this into Spanish?

  • Reply ChristianVictorianLiterature January 8, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    I think this is a fair analysis of a 19th century Christian view of evolution but my concern, and what I never find discussed, is the utter centrality of evolution to her method of education. I’m currently reading Parents and Children and her entire philosophy of education is built upon the foundation of evolution, that habits become ingrained in the very physical substance of our bodies, thereby changing us. She even goes so far as to say that evolution is the physical component of spiritual conversion. I wish there was more written on this.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 8, 2020 at 3:59 pm

      Her view of evolution is quite different by Volume 6 (when she was in her mid-80s … it was actually published posthumously). She sees that the Germans applied evolutionary theory to the classroom and that this was probably the cause of WWI — and caused huge moral failures in their graduates. While she never repents of her belief, she definitely backs off of her glowing remarks seen in her earlier work.

      I’m interested in what you say here about habit. There is now a lot of scientific evidence that our habits DO actually change the physical substance of our brains. I’m curious why you view this as an evolutionary view? Can you explain this more?

    • Reply KB October 15, 2020 at 2:20 pm

      The word evolution means a continuous changing. We evolve from children to adults. Context matters. Evolution has come to mean primarily an scientific theory, but it is also just a word that was often used to describe the process of slow incremental change that occurs in anything. I don’t believe her intent was to link habit training to natural selection or secular humanism-we accomplish on our own power.

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