Christian Discipline

In our twelve turbulent years of trying to raise just one strong-willed, energetic child, we have frequently faced the troubling issue of Christian discipline. Conflicting advice pours in from all sides. From some we hear that any form of spanking or whipping is morally wrong and possibly criminal child abuse, while from others we hear just the opposite: there are powerful Biblical injunctions against withholding physical discipline. The clearest of these says:

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. — Proverbs 23: 13-14.

These disagreements are not abstract and academic, because they touch on matters close to the heart of every family.

Writing in Spare The Child (Vintage Books, 1992), Christian historian Philip Greven avoids this super-heated moral debate by simply inquiring into the consequences of vigorously laying on the rod, as seen in the lives of famous Christians of the past four centuries. The roster of men and women that populate this book is truly impressive. Contemporary figures include Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Tammy Bakker, Jack Hyles, Ingmar Bergman, T. E. Lawrence, and B. F. Skinner. Even Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (Sr.) make brief appearances.

Among the Christian writers and thinkers of previous centuries, Greven includes Martin Luther, the troubled founder of Lutheranism, John and Charles Wesley (founders of Methodism), whose mother Susanna wrote in detail about her disciplinary practices, the Puritans Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, whose grandson left a remarkable memoir of life in their family, revivalist Dwight Moody, the prophet Frank Sandford, who encouraged daily whippings in his apocalyptic cult community known as The Kingdom, Michael Wigglesworth, Puritan author of the apocalyptic poem, Day of Doom, physicist Isaac Newton, and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rouseau.

In his analysis of the consequences of the many ways in which children are disciplined with the rod, Greven begins with the natural feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, and hate that arise in the feelings of children when first subjected to the rod, and the apathy and passivity of children whose wills have been broken by thorough and repeated beatings. This much has never been controversial, even among the strongest proponents of corporal punishment.

Then he begins to document the extraordinary prevalence of melancholy and depression in the emotional lives of Puritans, Calvinists, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals. His conclusion is stark:

Some of the most compelling historical evidence we possess concerning the nature and history of depression comes from the religious tradition associated most directly with Calvinism and Protestantism over the past four centuries. — Philip Greven

Greven uses the lives and writings of Isaac Newton, Cotton Mather, Michael Wigglesworth, and George Whitefield to illustrate the contradictory feelings of love and hate experienced by children who are struck by parents who profess to love them, and the progression of these feelings over time into full-scale obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behavior.

For example, the evangelical Reverend George Whitefield, an ardent advocate of breaking children's wills early in childhood, was described by a contemporary as "very exact to the time appointed for his stated meals; a few minutes delay would be considered a great fault. Not a paper must be out of place, or put up irregularly. Each part of the furniture must be likewise in its place before Whitefield could sleep." Greven attributes this obsessive-compulsive pattern to the discipline that Whitfield suffered as a child.

Even more troubling is the tendency of battered children to protect their Christian parents from their own intensely ambivalent feelings of rage and hate. These feelings are seldom expressed directly to the parent, and are often emphatically denied, but they surface clearly and obviously in symbolic form in their writings.

Cotton Mather, like many a whipped Christian before him, "projected a personal anger into visions of a world consumed, and hopes for personal vindication into sights of Christ returned to punish the wicked and avenge the virtuous."

Martin Luther, at least, was quite clear about his ambivalence and the torment it gave him. As he himself wrote:

My mother caned me for stealing a nut until the blood came. Such strict discipline drove me to a monastery although she meant it well. — Martin Luther

Despite the vividness of these Christian testimonials to the personal conflicts that arise from severe corporal punishment, they constitute just the bare beginning of Philip Greven's painful story. The consequences, as he finds them in historical documents, frequently extend much deeper into the dark and troubled realm of extreme damage to mind and soul.

Dissociation, the process by which prisoners of war detach from their experience of torture by "leaving the body," is an art learned by many children who cannot escape brutal and prolonged punishment. Greven notes that dissociation from corporal punishment is powerfully shown in the Bergman film Fanny and Alexander, which centers on the calm, deliberate, and harsh beating of a ten-year-old boy by his stepfather, a Protestant bishop. Ingmar Bergman, himself the son of a violent Protestant minister, clearly understands dissociation from intense personal experience.

Another Christian testimonial to the use of dissociation to escape intolerable pain comes from Edmund Gosse, the son of two intensely apocalyptic parents (Plymouth Brethren), who wrote in his 1907 autobiography that he

... found a companion and a confidant within myself. There was a secret in this world and it belonged to me and to a somebody who lived in the same body with me. There were two of us, and we could talk with one another. — Edmund Gosse

Psychologists today might diagnose this as a case of multiple personalities, and some Christians might call it possession. Whatever it was, it saved his life.

Surely the ugliest consequence of extreme Christian discipline in Greven's book is illustrated by the life of T. E. Lawrence, the subject of the film Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was raised in an intensely evangelical Protestant household, the second of five sons. His mother singled him out for severe and humiliating punishment, concentrating on his buttocks. Throughout his adult life, T. E. Lawrence was obsessed with issues associated with the will, obedience, authority, self-denial, and pain. In the Turkish campaign he was captured, tortured and repeatedly raped. In the midst of pain so intense that he thought he might die, he experienced an erotic pleasure that confounded and tantalized him. For the rest of his short life he required sadomasochistic beatings with a metal whip, concentrating on the buttocks, sufficient to produce total humiliation of the self.

Greven notes that the breaking of the will through pain is a primary aim of sadomasochism, just as it the goal for several forms of Christian discipline. By way of illustration, he quotes at length the testimony of Rouseau, the famous French philosopher. Rousseau wrote of the potent mixture of pain and sexual pleasure that he experienced as a boy when subjected to the beatings and subjugation inflicted upon him by the wife of his Calvinist minister, into whose care he had been given:

I had found in the pain, even in the disgrace, a mixture of sensuality which had left me less afraid than desirous of experiencing it again from the same hand. No doubt some precocious sexual instinct was mingled with this feeling, for the same chastisement inflicted by her brother would not have seemed to me at all pleasant.Jean-Jacques Rouseau

This is a powerful book. It may be too strong for those who most need to hear its message, but for every parent who has wondered about corporal punishment it will be an eye-opener. In Greven's inspired hands the stories of battered Christians through the ages come to life in a never-ending tale of appalling woe. That all this pain was delivered to children in the name of God and with the apparent sanction of holy scripture makes it all the more poignant, almost unbearable in its awful human tragedy.

Loren & Bonnie Cobb

Corrales, New Mexico, 1994.

An earlier version of this book review appeared in the Corrales Comment, Corrales, NM.