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A Primer on Life (and Death)

The other night I was reading through Crawford Gribben’s forthcoming title called An Introduction to John Owen. The death of John Owen’s three children during the 1640s perhaps occasioned much of his earlier writings about the nurture of Christian children. Gribben observes that,

Owen became acutely aware of the brevity of childhood and the responsibility of parents and churches to prepare their young people for the present life as well as the life to come.

Thus, in 1652, Owen published The Primer, or An Easie Way to Teach Children the True Reading of English: With Necessary Catechisme, to Instruct Youth in the Grounds of Children Religion. Also Choice Places of Scripture for that Purpose.

If you’re a homeschooling parent, you’ve probably heard of a primer. A primer is a small book for teaching children how to read. One such teaching tool is the New England Primer. It came about somewhere between 1687 and 1690, and it was made for children in American colonies.

Both John Owen and the American colonists wanted their children to be taught reading alongside Scripture. The children learned how to read C A T in one page, and gave an answer to their catechisms in another. What is noteworthy is that these Puritans have never shied away from teaching and training children about death and dying. You see, it was all around them. Life was short. Death was inevitable. And their children uttered this prayer from the New England Primer for bedtime:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake,

I pray thee, Lord, my soul, to take.

It made me realize how much different the world we live in is today. Unlike the Puritans, we may have been desensitized from the idea of looming death. The advent of scientific discoveries and life-saving vaccines have made us all too comfortable. The Puritans, on the other hand, acknowledged the impending deaths of their children and wasted no time in teaching them how to live and how to die well.

Maybe the reason we don’t teach our children about the things of God is because we do not sense the urgency of death. Perhaps we think we can delay and only start talking about God the day after tomorrow. Or maybe the rising death tolls from the coronavirus pandemic has caused us to think about death in more ways than one in the last couple of months. But we anchor our hopes in endless washing and bathing to rid ourselves of any trace of the disease.

Death, however, is always knocking at the door. Death makes us all restless and crippled — restless to find sustenance or security because we are crippled by disease and disaster. But we are all part of the problem. We want to live our best life without realizing that there is more to the here and the now. We pay big money for life-coaching and fail to recognize that we, too, need to be taught about death as well.

The Puritans were right about choosing their path to literacy. Their primers were proof that we should not only prepare our children to live well, but to die just as well. However, we are not able to prepare to die well if we do not concede that we are all dead men walking. And the only way to apprehend that is for our eyes to be opened and to see ourselves in our true nature, sinners needing saving from the One who died in our stead. Thus, all our educational efforts should be a primer for life in this world and in the world to come. Only then can we and our children faithfully resound the words of the Heidelberg Catechism,

What is your only comfort in life and death?

That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

I have created FREE printables for teaching children from both the New England Primer and the Heidelberg Catechism.



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