Playful fathering: the burden and promise of Horace Bushnell’s Christian nurture

Playful fathering: the burden and promise of Horace Bushnell’s Christian nurture

David H. Jensen

Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture yields both oppressive and liberating strands for a contemporary interpretation of fatherhood. The work’s critique of American individualism, its thoroughly relational understanding of human beings, and description of the family as a web of organic connection offer promising lenses for a post-patriarchal understanding of fatherhood. At the same time, Bushnell’s relational anthropology is plagued by an understanding of the mother as protector of hearth and home that eventually proves oppressive to all members of the human family. Embedded within its pages, however, lies a potentially illuminating reflection on the significance of playing with children. This emphasis on play might prove helpful in expanding a view of fathering beyond duty and toward delight, grounded in the God of creation who delights in all God’s children.

Key Words: fatherhood, motherhood, children, theology, play


Horace Bushnell’s classic text, Christian Nurture, first published in 1847, continues to exert a profound influence on the American religious imagination. As a rich exposition of the spiritual lives of children, it fed the growth of the Sunday school movement and continues to lie at the heart of many popular conceptions of children’s growth and development. Heralded and lamented after its publication for its seating indictment of revivalism and American individualism, its developmental approach to Christian education, and its reconstruction of the doctrine of sin, Christian Nurture has generated a substantial body of secondary literature in the 150 years since its appearance. Most of this scholarship has focused on Bushnell’s reconstruction of orthodox Calvinist positions on sin and salvation, his preaching, or his contributions to religious education. Though a smaller body of work has grappled with Bushnell’s understanding of children, the family, and motherhood, no scholars, to my knowledge, have addressed directly his conception of fatherhood. (1) This is a conspicuous lack, since Christian Nurture, in the words of Blanche Jenson (1982), “was not written as a manual for … a Sunday School curriculum,” but as “a book for Christian parents” (p. 21). Since part of Bushnell’s motivation in writing this work was to address fathers, and to give voice to his own joy in parenting, further efforts at uncovering Bushnell’s understanding of fatherhood are critical if we are to give Christian Nurture a fair read. This essay represents one such attempt and claims that Bushnell’s organic conception of the human family yields ambiguous results for a contemporary interpretation of fatherhood. His thoroughly relational understanding of human beings–though promising in its recognition that the well-being of each member of the family (and society) is bound up with the well-being of others–is also plagued by interpretations of motherhood that prove oppressive to all members of the human family. Bushnell’s organicism, in other words, fuels the fire of 19th century patriarchy. From these ashes and the closing pages of Christian Nurture, however, emerges a potential post-patriarchal interpretation of fatherhood: a meditation on playing and laughing with children that expands a view of fathering beyond duty and toward delight, grounded in the God of creation who delights in us.

Though he is often celebrated as the American father of Protestant liberalism, Horace Bushnell’s biography and writing defy the categories of theological typology. Few of Bushnell’s treatises fit neatly into the contours of systematic theology. A gifted preacher, Bushnell falls into the American tradition of a public intellectual, speaking out on controversial themes, drawing on a wide range of theological streams and influences. Carrying out his vocation as pastor in a Congregationalist church in Hartford, Connecticut, Bushnell typifies in many respects both Yankee establishment and the emergence of the middle class in the mid-19th century United States. He writes chiefly to urban audiences of relatively stable means. In the pages of Christian Nurture, for example, he assumes that children are not laboring on the farm or in factories, but have sufficient time and space to play and rest in the safe confines of the family home. Margaret Bendroth (2000) describes Bushnell’s theory of Christian nurture as giving a “new, specifically Christian rationale to middle-class parents in search of their children’s salvation” (p. 502). Though he spent most of his life as pastor in Hartford, Bushnell did travel to Europe, traversing England and the Continent for nearly a year (July 1845-May 1846, just prior to publishing Christian Nurture). During this visit, he first came into contact with emerging trends in Protestant liberal theology connected with Friedrich Schleiermacher (Mullin, 2002). Bushnell’s biography, in other words, yields an audience much like himself–middleclass Northerners, content to let children “be children” at home, influenced by waves of Enlightenment and Romantic thought rippling across the Atlantic.

Bushnell returned to the United States in the summer of 1846 to a frontier culture clenched in the fist of revivalism, convicting all (including children) of sin, and demanding a singular, emotional conversion experience. In an overt challenge to the revivalists, Bushnell (1908) urged his readers “that the child is to grow up a Christian, and never know himself as being otherwise” (p. 10). Likening the revivalist understanding of parenting to “ostrich nurture,” which excludes children from the central acts of worship, indoctrinates them only in their need for conversion, and renders “the loving gospel of Jesus a most galling chain upon the neck of childhood” (p. 74), Bushnell claimed that revivalism leaves children to hatch on their own, bereft of the bonds of human family. His alternative was nothing less than a rejection of revivalist practice: children’s introduction to the faith was to be gradual, nourished within the seemingly mundane sphere of hearth and home. (2)

To a culture basking in its own “conquest” of the Western frontier, celebrating the rugged individualists who obliterated anything and anyone who resisted, Bushnell (1908) wrote of interconnection and the well-being of the self-with-others. “The Scriptures … maintain a marked contrast with the extreme individualism of our modern philosophy. They do not always regard the individual as an isolated unit, but they often look upon men as they exist, in families and in races, under organic laws” (p. 39). For Bushnell, true human being is being-with, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between parent and child. He writes:

If we … examine the relation of parent and child, we shall not

Fail to discover something like a law of organic connection, as

Regards character, subsisting between them…. The character of

one is actually included in that of the other, as a seed is formed

in the capsule; and being there matured, by a nutriment derived

from the stem, is gradually separated from it. (pp. 26-27)

This theme of “organicism” permeates every page of Christian Nurture, and fosters not the dissolving of individuality in the family, but the nurturing of difference within it. Parenting is thus characterized less by an imposition of character on children than it is by planting a seed in the fertile soil of familial love and guidance, thus allowing a child’s unique character to emerge with others. In the earliest stages of childhood, however, a parent’s bond to the child is so intimate that it goes beyond the realm of influence and resembles an “absolute force.” According to Bushnell (1908), prior to the age of reason and choice, the child absorbs the parent’s character willy-nilly (p. 93).

One revolutionary implication of Christian Nurture is its hallowing of the Christian home, its transferal of the primary means of grace from church to family (Bendroth, 2001). In passages that bear traces of a bourgeoning middle class and its cult of domesticity, Bushnell (1908) extols families as “little churches” and refuges of “quiet hearth and table, away from the great public world and its strifes, with a priest of their own to lead them” (pp. 405-406). (3) As Margaret Bendroth (2000) has observed, the era of Bushnell marked a significant shift in societal attitudes toward children and the home. Once liberated from the labor force, children of the growing middle classes served little economic purpose, and could now frolic under mother’s watchful eye. In Bendroth’s words, “Home became the antithesis of the workplace, a private spot where middle-class Victorians sought rest and leisure” (p. 500). Bushnell thus offered for his budding audience a brand of domestic theology (Bendroth, 2000) that valorized the home and the mother who protected her brood from the corrupting and malicious impositions of the workaday world in which the father found himself. Though excluded from all forms of official church leadership, the Christian mother, in Bushnell’s eyes, became the primary agent of spiritual formation in her children. We need hardly rehearse the damage wrought within the human family by this bourgeois theological typecasting.

Despite the obvious flaws of his domestic theology, some strands of Bushnell’s interpretation of parenting merit continued attention. For him, the primary role of the parent is not disciplinarian, teacher, or even example; rather, the parent, as caregiver, enables the growth of each child’s unique spiritual personality. In the seemingly mundane acts of bathing, feeding, caressing, and attending, the parent introduces a child to God’s world. The child’s understanding of God and world, accordingly, is formed by the degree of attention (or lack of attention) that child is shown. Acts of physical and emotional care thus become both windows to transcendence and means of grace. Bushnell, in other words, is an early voice that considers infant care to be nurture of the spirit. Indeed, reading Christian Nurture side-by-side with reports from the Children’s Defense Fund (2001, pp. 45-60), one catches remarkably similar emphases, both in terms of the theological dimensions of childcare and the damage wrought when such care is neglected. Bushnell (1908) writes that more “is done, or lost by neglect of doing, on a child’s immorality, in the first three years of his life, than in all his years of discipline afterwards” (p. 248). Christian Nurture cloaks parenthood with considerable urgency and is uncompromising in message: parents cannot make up for time and attention lost during infancy and toddlerhood.

Even if Bushnell frames parental tasks with urgency, the basic activities of parenthood are far from harried. In a manner that seems attuned to present sensibilities about the body, Bushnell claims that physical nurture of children is their initiation into the Christian faith. Feeding, bathing, and sustaining children’s bodies are themselves religious acts. He writes, “So intimate is this connection of mind and body, so very close to real oneness are they, that no one can, by any possibility, be a Christian in his mind, and not be in some sense a Christian in his body” (p. 272). Parenthood is sacred not because of a spiritual extraordinariness that we impart to our children, but in the ordinary acts of care that all children need. In a gloss on the word made flesh, Bushnell reminds his audience that the word cares for the flesh.

The strands that provide much of the impetus for Bushnell’s domestic theology eventually cause it to collapse: his rigid configuration of parental roles that mothers are the chief caretakers of the flesh while fathers supply a discipline of the word. Bushnell’s valorization of motherhood evokes a sentimental Protestant Mariology, devoid of the toughness and humanity of most Catholic versions: “The mother has us, at her bosom, as a kind of nursing Providence. Perused by touch and by the eyes, her soul of maternity, watching for that look and bending ever to it, raises the initial sense of a divine something in the world; and when she begins to speak her soft imperative, putting a little decision into the tones of her love, she makes the first and gentlest possible beginning of authority”(1908, p. 317). While the mother envelopes her children with the soothing balm of domesticity, the father–more connected to the rough-and-tumble world–supplies a stereotypically male form of discipline: “Then the stiffer tension of the masculine word, connected with the wider, rougher providence of a father’s masculine force, follows in a stouter mode of authority … The parents are to fill, in this manner, an office strictly religious; personating God in the child’s feeling and conscience …” (p. 317). God’s work in the world blends into the softness of a mother’s touch and the firmness of a father’s voice. Calling maternity a station endowed with “semi-divine proportions” (p. 237), Bushnell’s understanding of the family exhibits nothing less than “faith in the near salvific power of a godly mother” (Bendroth, 2001, p. 358), who casts the character of her children’s future. Mothers thus become yoked to their children’s spiritual welfare, and are to never betray the slightest trace of impatience or anxiousness (Bushnell, 1908). Locking mothers in a cottage of domesticity, Bushnell leaves fathers to deal with the supposedly hostile forces of the world on their own. In effect, his gender typecasting distances fathers from the organic web of relationships stressed in the early sections of the book and traps mothers within them. (4)

If Bushnell’s configuration of the family translates poorly into a contemporary understanding of parenting, his landmark work closes on a promising note. In one of the concluding chapters, Bushnell offers something unique in 19th century American theology: a theological exploration of play. Within this chapter, one senses Bushnell’s celebration of the joys of parenting, an emphasis that contains, perhaps, the seeds of patriarchy’s own dethronement.

Bushnell (1908) describes the beginning of life as a “joyous gambol,” which religion too readily suppresses by “needless austerity” (p. 339). The problem with religious instruction, in his eyes, is the same problem with parenting: it dismisses play as irrelevant to the life and thought of mature human being. Rather than seeing play as something confined to the fancies of childhood, Bushnell would extend its laughter to all generations and all facets of human existence. “Play is the symbol and interpreter of … Christian liberty…. God has purposely set the beginning of the natural life in a mood that foreshadows the last and highest chapter of immortal character…. As play is the forerunner of religion, so religion is to be the friend of play” (pp. 339-341). In refreshing counterpoint to the legions of “how to parent” books that have been written in the decades since Bushnell, his advice to parents is simple: play with your kids. “Sometimes, too, the parent, having a hearty interest in the plays of his children, will drop out for the time in the sense of his years, and go into the frolic of their mood with them. They will enjoy no other play-time so much as that …” (1908, p. 341). As Bushnell closes his classic work, the reader hears not the stern admonitions of the Sunday school teacher, but the echoes of parents laughing and running with their children across the grass. And, perhaps, we even catch a glimpse of Bushnell himself tumbling with his own children on the Hartford town green.

Indeed, this rollicking image of Bushnell as a father resonates strongly with the anecdotes we have about Bushnell’s family life. Bushnell and his wife Mary had five children: a daughter who died in infancy, a son who died before age two, and three daughters whose playfulness contributed to the writing of Christian Nurture. The reminiscences of his daughter, Mary Bushnell Cheney, are striking in the detail that describes a family at play:

First among my recollections of my father are the daily,

after-dinner romps, not lasting long, but most vigorous and hearty

at the moment. No summit has ever seemed so commanding as his

shoulder, where we rode proudly, though sometimes carried about

at what seemed a dangerous pace. Thanksgiving-day was always a

day of special and rare frolic. After the sermon had been given,

and the turkey and pumpkin-pie were disposed of, father and

children joined in a unique and joyous celebration, whose main

feature was the grand dance, in the course of which my father would

occasionally electrify the children by taking a flying leap over

their heads. (Bushnell, 1880, pp. 452-453)

Cheney’s recollections are filled with other episodes that depict a man who enjoyed fatherhood robustly: a dad who took time, paid attention, played, and was open to being changed by his children. She suggests that

it was while watching the play of his own children with a graceful

kitten he conceived the idea which animates his Work and Play;

and in the same manner he drew from his own home experience

the child-loving chapter on “Plays and Pastimes,” in his Christian

Nurture.” (1880, p. 453)

Another practice striking for its time was the way in which some of the after-dinner conversations were driven by children’s questions. Cheney (1880) writes,

One summer it became a custom for the household of friends

assembled under the Deacon’s roof to spend the sunset hour of

Sunday on the grass-plot close to the house, in conversation and

discussion upon religious subjects…. We took up the practice of

dropping each our written question into my father’s hat. From

these he would pick out a few of the most suggestive, and start

them for our discussion. (p. 461)

Bushnell played with his children and took their questions seriously; their play and questions, in turn, became theological resources as he wrote about the lives of parents and children together.

In Bushnell’s eyes, children’s play is sacred and subversive. It resists the impositions of oppressive adult responsibilities and refuses to accept the dogmatism of inflated adult religiosity. Bushnell (1908) described childhood as “the paradise of nature behind us,” which, when we recollect it or when we play with our children, anticipates “the paradise of grace before us” (p. 340). To reconnect with the play of childhood, Bushnell would argue, is one of the many blessings of parenthood.

How might Bushnell’s meditation on play result in a post-patriarchal understanding of fathering and parenting? First, unlike many other forms of human activity, play is strangely resistant to structures of domination and control. To play with someone, by definition, is not to control, but to let be. What is really enjoyable about playing with children is not the activity that one has structured, but the surprise that comes in the midst of it: not the goal of eluding “it” in the game of tag, but the tumble in the grass as the child tries to escape daddy’s clutches; not the game itself, but the unexpected turns that come within the game. Play is subversive of structure, particularly those structures that exclude, dominate, and oppress. As Bushnell (1908) notes, “Play wants no motive but play” (p. 340). Its joy is found not in reaching some kind of goal, but in the delight of the others with whom we play. To play with one’s children is to let them be themselves, to nourish them into fuller becoming, to delight in the inexplicable otherness and connectedness that makes them our children. To glimpse parenting within the purview of play, I would argue, is to gradually dismantle those interpretations of fatherhood that regard the father as head of the household; to disrupt, however playfully, those expectations that inhibit men from developing the vulnerable connections between self and other that make them human. Play, in itself, is subversive of patriarchy and of men who have no time for play.

When the manacles of middle-class typecasting begin to loosen their grip on the ways that fathers envision themselves, fathers might recognize with renewed attention their interconnectedness with their sons and daughters. By playing with our children, we recognize our undeniable need for each other, because we cannot play with ourselves alone. To play with one’s child, to laugh with the one who, in Bushnell’s words, is “organically” connected to me, is to introduce a much-needed aesthetic perspective to an understanding of fathering, recognizing the beauty of a child at play, rejoicing in the mystery that the child is.

One pitfall in applying Bushnell’s reflections to a contemporary understanding of fatherhood, however, is that playing–and even more specifically, sports–tends to be the one (and only) area of child care where many fathers feel competent. Whether evidenced in the overabundance of “Little League Fathers,” who compensate for past athletic shortcomings by instilling competitive drives in sons and daughters, or in escapist fathers who play with children because they can do nothing else, playfulness itself does not lead necessarily to a post-patriarchal read of fatherhood. The focus of Bushnell’s exploration, however, points to a broader understanding of play than is typically present among many popular images of men at play. First, Bushnell’s understanding of play is decidedly non-competitive. Play resists the Little League syndrome because it is characterized by a freedom extended to all generations of the human family. Fathers and children do not play to win, but simply because of the free delight of play itself.

Second, Bushnell avoids parental escapism because play is a form of paying attention to children. Fathers do not play with their children to avoid responsibility, but to be opened anew to children and even guided by them. As Bushnell reflects on play, the child leads and the parent follows. If we take seriously Mary Bushnell’s Cheney’s remark that Bushnell gathered inspiration for Christian Nurture by observing his children at play, then his own experience of playfulness was a distinct mode of attentiveness. (5) Indeed, the closer one reads Bushnell, it becomes increasingly clear that the nurture of children is at the same time the nurture of parent, when we attend to our children and play with them, fathers, too are changed. To play is not to escape fatherhood, but to pay close attention to children and be nurtured by them.

An aesthetic or playful approach to fathering does not result in the eclipsing of ethical responsibilities toward one’s children. Obviously, there is much about fatherhood that is not playful: from the daily tasks of setting behavioral limits to the more complex obligations we have of introducing our children to the world’s injustice and suffering. The interpretation that I am offering, with the aid of Bushnell, relinquishes few of the duties that most classical theological interpretations of parenting have generally stressed. Where it differs, however, is in the framing of those duties–within the context of a parenting relationship that delights in the otherness of one’s child, and that nourishes the wonder within the child of the otherness of his/her parent. Play enriches and sustains the multiple dimensions of fatherhood and the innumerable responsibilities that fathers have toward their children. Playing with our children is simply one means of cultivating that wonder and fulfilling those responsibilities. As M. Darrol Bryant (1989) has written: “Parenting is … simultaneously a fully human and fully divine activity. Here both parent and child come to recognize a presence beyond themselves in which their lives as parent and child unfold” (p. 85). Unless the work of parenting is connected in some way to the wider realm of relationships of the self with others, the earth, and God, the play of childhood disappears.

In an age that is still festering from the wounds of patriarchy, fathers have been constrained most by theological interpretations of parenting that emphasize authority, hierarchy, and domination. Though Bushnell never sought to overturn the domestic assumptions of the 19th century, middle-class American family, his emphasis on play near the end of his landmark work may contain some resources for a post-patriarchal articulation of fatherhood. The father who plays with his child is also the dad who suspends the structures of authority and domination that continue to haunt many human relationships. The father who plays with his child is also the dad who is open to the delight, surprise, and mystery of his child. To play with one’s child is to be changed by him/her forever. To introduce play as a dimension of fatherhood is to offer a more comprehensive understanding of humanity as the imago Dei, persons who reflect not an authoritarian heavenly Father who sacrifices his Son, but a creative God who delights in the wonder of God’s children, the God who “saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31a).


(1.) My own research yielded nearly 150 secondary sources on Bushnell, relatively few of which focus on a theological understanding of parenting. Notable exceptions include Bendroth (2001, 2000), Fishburn (1983), Miller (1979), and Taves (1987). None of these materials, however, offers an explicit theological understanding of fatherhood.

(2.) One way of reading Bushnell’s attack on revivalism is as not-so-subtly disguised Yankee elitism. The camp meetings of nineteenth century revival tended to lurk on the fringes of the northern urban establishment and surfaced more frequently in areas west and south of New England. An urban, northern audience might more readily dismiss the emotionalism of American revival as a vestige of a more unrefined time, now found primarily in places other than Hartford and Boston.

(3.) The reference to “priest” here is ambiguous. Bushnell does not specify who serves as “priest” in the home, father or mother. In many sections of Christian Nurture, it seems fair to assume that mothers–as the primary agents of nurture and spiritual formation in children–serve as priests; in others, Bushnell assumes that fathers serve as “heads of the household” and hold this office.

(4.) Bushnell’s arguments against women’s suffrage might also be seen in this light. In a strangely constructed treatise, Bushnell claims that women, by nature, are less suited to the wickedness of the public sphere and are more adept at maintaining the domestic. “Women’s participation in political life was for Bushnell a clear contradiction of their natural role. The political world was an arena of vulgarity, corruption, and force” (Mullin, 2002, p. 244). Here is yet another example of destructive aspects of Bushnell’s organicism that merely reinforce existing societal oppressions (Bushnell, 1869, pp. 49-72).

(5.) Cheney also recalls that her father was enormously attentive to the natural world: “He saw twice as much as most people do out-of-doors, took a mental survey of all land surfaces, and kept in his head a complete map of the physical geography of every place with which he was acquainted. He knew the leaf and bark of every tree and shrub that grows in New England …” (Bushnell, 1880, p. 456).


Bendroth, M. (2000). Children of Adam, children of God: Christian nurture in early nineteenth-century America. Theology Today, 56, 495-505.

Bendroth, M. (2001). Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture. In M. Bunge (Ed.), The child in Christian thought (pp. 350-364). Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s.

Bryant, M.D. (1989). Parenting, nurture, and mission. The Journal of Religious Thought, 46, 83-93.

Bushnell, H. (1869). Women’s suffrage: Reform against nature. New York: Charles Scribner & Co.

Bushnell, H. (1880). The life and letters of Horace Bushnell (Edited by Mary Bushnell Cheney). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Bushnell, H. (1908). Christian nurture. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Children’s Defense Fund. (2001). The state of America’s children 2001. Washington, DC: Children’s Defense Fund.

Fishburn, J.F. (1983). The family as a means of grace in American theology. Religious Education, 78, 90-102.

Jenson, B. (1982). The emancipation of the child. Dialog, 21, 19-24.

Miller, R.C. (1979). Bushnell, the family and children. Religious Education, 74, 254-262.

Mullin, R.B. (2002). The Puritan as Yankee: A life of Horace Bushnell. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s.

Taves, A. (1987). Mothers and children and the legacy of mid-nineteenth century American Christianity. Journal of Religion, 67, 203-219.


Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David H. Jansen, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 100 E. 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705. Electronic mail:

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