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George Whitfield: Spanking with Figs

by TM Robinson


Noah Webster said, "Children are often ruined by a neglect of government in parents.”[i]  According to Scripture, parents are the governing authorities in family government.  The biblical examples for raising and disciplining children originate in the Old Testament.  Punishment to wayward children in the Old Testament included firm words, applying the rod of correction, verbal rebuke coupled with spitting in the face as a sign of abhorrence, the act of disinheritance, and stoning as a form of public execution for disobedience.  The style and severity of discipline depended upon the age of the child and the offense.  Although parents may deputize individuals to enact disciplinary measures, the ultimate responsibility and accountability resides within the parental authority.  Socrates once said that if he could get to the highest hill in Athens, he would lift his voice and ask the citizens why they were turning every stone to scrape wealth together yet taking so little care of their children to whom they must one day relinquish all. 

Biblical writers recognized shirking away from risks, the desire not to rock the boat or hurt people’s feelings, and the temptation to discard God’s law in the name of love.  Proverbs addresses the parental issue between sentimental love and biblical love:  "Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Pro 19:18).   Also in Proverbs, God contrasted biblical hate against worldly love, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Pro 13:24).[ii]  The injunction to spank disobedient children verses the tendency to shirk responsibility was also a topic among preachers over 250 years ago.  For example, an obstinate four-year-old boy challenged George Whitfield a man credited with major revivals in early American history.  Whitfield wrote the following in his famous journal on Friday, March 31, 1738:

Upon this, I bid the child kneel down before me, but he would not till I took hold of his two feet and forced him down.  I then bid him say the Lord's Prayer (being informed by his mother he could say it if he would); but he obstinately refused, till at last, after I had given him several blows, he said his prayer as well as could be expected, and I gave him some figs for a reward.  And this same child, though not above four years of age, came tonight on deck, and when the other children came to say their prayers to my friend Habersham, he burst out into tears, and would not go away till he had said his too.  I mention this as a proof of the necessity of early correction.  Children are sensible of it sooner than parents imagine.  And if they would but have resolution to break their wills thoroughly when young, the work of conversion would be much easier, and they would not be so troubled with perverse children when they are old.[iii]

 Today, some parents endure feelings of fear from the State over obeying God in disciplining their minors.  It is their fear that through obeying God in child rearing, the State will take their child away.  Such parents should be reminded of the faith of Moses' parents:  they hid Moses for three months and were not afraid of the king's commandment: Hebrews 11:23 (Moses' parents exercised prudence by not being overt about their disobedience to the king).  Parents can also learn from Jacob: 

God taught Jacob not to fear Esau  but to fear God.  Esau could be appeased, and his face seen without hurt.  God must be met with, and the crafty man must struggle with him.  Jacob left Peniel with a new name and a new walk.  No longer was it the walk of self-confident Jacob but the limp of humbled Israel who saw God face to face and lived.  Fear not the face of man, but learn to fear the face of God.[iv] 

Biblical love always operates within the confines of biblical law, but when God's Word is cast aside, the resulting sentimentalism may masquerade as love or compassion but is in fact rebellion.  The parent  ignoring biblical teaching of applying correction [spanking or otherwise] ignores not only the Scripture, but also the One that inspired the Scripture.  In effect, the parents who rebel against biblical laws of God become idolatrous by idolizing their feelings over God's Word.  Such idolatry brought God's perpetual judgment on the house of Eli the priest; and it would not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever because he did not discipline his sons when they made themselves to be vile (1 Samuel 3:13,14).   

When parents lay down ground rules and indicate that breaking those rules will cause punitive action, the parents should then enforce discipline measures when the child breaks the rules.  When the rules have been broken, showing partiality or softness will undermine the proper training of the child.   Proper training doesn't start or end with a spanking, though a spanking may occur somewhere in the middle.  As it is written, "and thou shalt teach them [God's commands] diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:7?9, cf. Deu 11:9)

 [i] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, MA:  George and Charles Merriam, 1854), p. 513.

 [ii] Chasteneth him betimes:  betimes means early.  Do not procrastinate with chastening, but let it be dispensed soon. 

 [iii] George Whitfield, George Whitfield’s Journals (Carlisle, PA:  Banner of Truth, 1989), p. 146.

 [iv] Jim Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot (Old Tappan, NJ:  Fleming H. Revell Co., 1978), p. 17.