Charlotte Mason Principles – Secular or Christian

By Michelle and Jo

Charlotte Mason Principles include a focus on the knowledge of God but can you apply the Charlotte Mason method in a secular way?

We often get enquiries from parents asking, “are Charlotte Mason principles secular or Christian?” These enquiries come from people with a number of worldviews and they are wondering if homeschooling using the Charlotte Mason Method is only for Christians.

Let’s start by looking at the Charlotte Mason principles laid out in her book A Philosophy of Education.

Charlotte Mason Principles

Applying Charlotte Mason Principles

Can people from other religions or secular homeschoolers use Charlotte Mason principles? The short answer to the question is yes and no. Let me explain it in a little more detail how Charlotte Mason Method approaches education and faith, so you understand it a little more.

A Full and Generous Feast For All

“As educators, we cannot know exactly which ideas will catch hold of the mind of each child, and that is why our task is simply to spread a generous feast that will include something for everyone.” Karen Glass

I love that quote..

Here at My Homeschool we often speak about the full and generous feast we can provide for our children, which is why you will find homeschool resources on art appreciation, living books, history resources, Shakespeare, Plutarch for the high schoolers, handicrafts, music appreciation, nature study, science, and much, much more.

Alongside this rich feast of subjects and big ideas, we also want children to be encouraged and nurtured in their faith because, as Karen notes, we cannot know which ideas will catch in their minds.

Secular Charlotte Mason Principles and Faith

As parents we have a privileged role in supporting and encouraging our children in all aspects of their lives, including their faith.  Over the years many parents who are Christians have asked for advice on how they can best support their children in their faith and likewise, parents not professing to the Christian faith themselves also ask for advice on how to approach this with their children. They want to know whether as non-Christians the Charlotte Mason method of homeschooling is for them.

A number of non-Christians use our curriculum and many want their children to have a better knowledge of God and Christianity than they themselves may have been given, wanting to share this rich feast that they may not have partaken in.

So, let’s explore some aspects of faith that are unique to the Charlotte Mason method of education, starting by looking at Charlotte herself.

Was Charlotte Mason a Christian?

Charlotte Mason was a Christian and she was Anglican, attending the Church of England, and this did influence her worldview and her approach to education.

Charlotte Mason saw the benefit of all children having a knowledge of God, regardless of their own professing faith and had a number of Jewish children using her program.

She also used a number of clearly secular titles in her extensive booklist and read alouds, always at the cutting edge of education, she taught the current scientific theory of her day – Charles Darwin – for which she received criticism. Clearly too, some of her comments suggest she didn’t agree with others in relation to geological time-frames, but her faith was her foundation and this was reflected in her method.

Charlotte Mason Principles – Knowledge of God

Charlotte Mason categorised all of the subjects that formed part of this generous feast of a program into three different parts of the curriculum:

  • Knowledge of God
  • Knowledge of Man
  • Knowledge of the Universe

Of these three different parts, she considered the knowledge of God of primary importance, while recognising that a relationship with God went far beyond the scope of a school classroom, and very specifically noted the role of mothers in supporting their children to develop their own faith:

Mothers are on the whole more successful in communicating this knowledge than are teachers” (Philosophy of Education, page 158)

As parents we are acutely aware of our influence and role in shaping our children.  We understand that that our role in teaching them, being their first teacher, is crucial and such a blessing, a gift.

We also know that while this includes teaching them how to do their maths and how to read, speak politely and be kind to others, about our world and aspects of history, but that teaching and supporting our children in their knowledge and understanding of God is also a fundamental role for us.

Given that knowledge of God was one of the three parts of Charlotte Mason’s approach to education, let’s explore how Charlotte supported this knowledge in her method so we can see how we can do this too.

Charlotte Mason Principles – How Is The Bible Taught?

A look through the programs used by families and schools using Charlotte Mason principles shows that studying the Bible was generally the first order of the day. Charlotte hoped that a child going through her curriculum would read through the Old Testament two or three times during their time at school and the first three Gospels of the New Testament (the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts were scheduled for high schoolers).

Now, before you stop to wonder why she didn’t encourage and expect them to read all of the New Testament, remember that this is Knowledge of God included as a school subject, not offered to children as a form of a devotional. It was included regardless of whether families professed to have a Christian faith or not, determined to be a valuable subject to study for all students for the sake of knowledge. The object was to have a broad knowledge of the way that God deals with people.

The Bible Is A Living Book

The Bible is treated as The Living Book and studied in school in the same way other living books were studied. Students were given a full excerpt of the Bible of an appropriate length for their age, a full story for them to understand what was happening in the story.

This is the same approach used when studying other living books: an appropriate length passage of the book is read (making any omissions as necessary given young ears and minds) and then the child is to narrate the passage. In this way, younger children started out by reading favourite Bible stories, moving onto reading Genesis and Matthew, then to other specific books of the Bible to give them an ordered approach to reading the Bible and gaining an understanding of it.

Older children then embarked on reading the Bible in a chronological approach, building on that strong understanding of the key stories and events of the Bible.

Teaching Through Narration

“The method of such lessons is very simple. Read aloud to the children a few verses covering if possible, an episode. Read reverently, carefully, and with just expression. Then require the children to narrate what they have listened to as nearly as possible in the words of the Bible.” (Home Education, page 251)

In addition to studying the Bible within the school programs, both the Old and New Testament were taught to children through reading and narrating passages from the Bible. Students were encouraged to use words as close to those they had read in the Bible as possible, something that wasn’t stipulated when narrating other texts. It was the simple method of narration we see in other subjects. Charlotte’s premise was that children should become so familiar with the actual words of the Bible:

“He should not be able to recall a time before the sweet stories of old filled his imagination; he should have heard the voice of the Lord God in the garden in the cool of the evening; should have been an awed spectator where the angels ascended and descended upon Jacob’s stony pillow; should have followed Christ through the cornfield on the Sabbath-day, and sat in the rows of the hungry multitudes––so long ago that such sacred scenes form the unconscious background of his thoughts.” (Parents and Children, pages 108-109)

The intention behind this method of teaching is that gentle discussions and applications of the principles learned is ideal, not strong sermonizing. As parents, we can guide our child in making good choices by reading and appreciating what is learned by others.

Bible Commentaries

The Charlotte Mason approach was to encourage the use of Bible commentaries to provide a “background for their thoughts” and ensure that children had an accurate understanding of the historical timeframe and geographical location of key aspects of the Bible.

This is what is captured within the history lessons at My Homeschool, ensuring your child understands the chronology and places of Bible stories within their history studies. Bible commentaries written by well-regarded theologians help our children by explaining and interpreting the text of the Bible. Knowing more about the authors, themes, history and the setting of the different books of the Bible helps us to better understand the nuances that may be missed otherwise.

“First and chiefest is the knowledge of God, to be got at most directly through the Bible” (A Philosophy of Education, page 254).

Charlotte knew how important it was for children to be put in touch with the big ideas directly, which is why she advocated children reading from the Bible directly, but she also knew that they would require support and scaffolding to do so, which is where Bible commentaries were used. These aren’t to be a crutch for the child, so encourage your child to try to work out the meaning for themselves first and then check it against a good Bible commentary.

Poetry Inspired by Bible Stories

For higher grades, students studied poetry that Charlotte herself wrote, inspired by the Bible and based on The Gospel History. Saviour of the World includes six volumes of Charlotte’s poetry which formed part of the Scripture studies for high school students. High school students would study a portion of the Gospels and narrate it, then compare it to how other Gospels may have portrayed the same event or occurrence, and then they would read the poem that Charlotte wrote inspired by that section of Scripture.  It was intended to guide the older students to a more in-depth study, drawing on the knowledge they already had gained through the younger years and using poetry as a way to highlight aspects of the Scripture read.

Charlotte Mason Principles On Meditation

In addition to penning poetry, one year Charlotte gave talks each Sunday to her students and these were also sent out to subscribers. Her talks focused on John’s Gospel, giving a commentary on it, and these are available today presented as her “Scale How Meditations”. These reflect Charlotte’s belief that education is a divine matter of the Spirit and that there was no difference between Christian and secular education but rather that true education should be the same for all, with all children entitled to receive nourishing ideas, including knowledge of God.

She supported that parents and teachers have time to meditate on these things so they could search, digest and order information and their own thoughts, opinions and beliefs in the same way that she felt children needed to be given this time too.

Charlotte Mason Principles On Memorising Scripture

“It is a delightful thing to have the memory stored with beautiful, comforting, and inspiring passages, and we cannot tell when and how this manner of seed may spring up, grow, and bear fruit” (Home Education, page 253).

Charlotte Mason’s programs included various passages that children of all ages and grades were required to memorise. Sometimes these were long and sometimes these were short but all grades spent time committing the chosen passages to memory and each ages and grade included memorising Scripture.

How Our Family Organise Memorisation

In our family we use plastic sleeved display folders for keeping the passages being memorised.  Each child has a display folder and in the front are all the copies of passages they are currently working on, while in the back are those they have learned (it is good to go back over them periodically to ensure they haven’t forgotten them).

Each student’s folder is likely to include Scripture, poetry, great speeches, and snippets of Shakespeare too. There are many different ways to approach this and here is how Michelle applied this in her home using pictorial narrations, bible readings and devotions.

How My Homeschool Applies Charlotte Mason Principles

At My Homeschool we do have a Christian worldview and follow the method and many of the ideas of Charlotte Mason. If you want to read more on the My Homeschool philosophy and homeschool resources look here. We are often asked whether My Homeschool Programs can be used by families who aren’t Christian.  It can be and it is.

A number of  secular Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, and families not professing to the Christian faith use My Homeschool courses and enjoy our curriculum.  Some adapt aspects to better align with their family’s beliefs and values and see the value of teaching their children about God as a part of their broad educational feast. Our Charlotte Mason Australian curriculum is to help you give your children a rich and generous education.

However, if you want to substitute some of the resources to better fit the needs of your family you can. The Charlotte Mason method is a great approach to homeschooling and is used by people of many different faiths.  Here is how one Muslim mum uses the Charlotte Mason method in her homeschool.

For example, in our programs we allocate time for families to make time for devotions. However, we don’t specify what you should use.  You will know what suits your family best. A number of families include mindfulness practices in that time and appreciate having that in their daily rhythm. We use some secular book titles in our courses because we like them.  Charlotte did the same.  Living books are chosen because they are well written and offer a great ideas and content for students to read and enjoy.

So, are Charlotte Mason Principles Only for Christians?

To tie up this question of whether Charlotte Mason homeschooling is only for Christians let me finish by noting her guiding principle on educating children. Charlotte saw no reason to distinguish between Christian and secular content because she felt that all children deserved to have a full education, having the hearts, minds and hands nourished.  She felt that this should include Bible study and encouraging all students to have a knowledge of God. Because of this, across the world, many families use the Charlotte Mason method to educate their children and one unifying comment that is so often heard from these families is how much they appreciate the rich feast their children receive and how beautiful that is.

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