Charles Hodge on the Status and Nurture of the Church’s Children

Hodge argued that baptized covenant children ought to be nurtured and discipled as members of the church.

Hodge makes use of the distinction between the visible and invisible church to argue for a church that is both mixed (when viewed through the lenses of men) and regenerate (when viewed through the lenses of God, something that only He can do!) And since members of the visible church include both believers and their children, the children of the church, no less than the adults, ought to be considered as members.


In an article entitled “The Importance of Peculiar Attention on the Part of Ministers of the Gospel to the Children of their Charge,” Charles Hodge argues that covenant children, as the familiar maxim puts it, “are the hope of the church and state.”  The point of Hodge’s essay is that both parents and ministers of the gospel ought to devote themselves to the spiritual nurture of children in the church, a spiritual nurture which will, with God’s attendant blessing, pave the way for the fruits of repentance and faith.  To put it in contemporary terms, the nurture of covenant children is, by God’s grace, one of the primary “methods” of church growth and therefore ought to occupy the minister’s highest attention.

One question which emerges while reading Hodge’s essay with its strong emphasis upon the central role of what we might call “covenant nurture” in the life of the church, is “Why are children such an integral part of Hodge’s practical ecclesiology?”  In an age of profound theological transition in the American church, brought about by a new, more personal, voluntaristic, and pragmatic theology and practice, why does Hodge, writing to ministers of the gospel, go so far as to say that baptized covenant children are “the most precious and promising part of your charge, which calls for all your vigilance, skill, labour, and prayer”?

What we find is that Charles Hodge, because of his Reformed eccleisiology, along with the contemporary historical and theological influences which contributed to its formulation and defense, argued that baptized covenant children ought to be nurtured and discipled as members of the church.  Inseparable from this conviction is Hodge’s argument that covenant children are those whom the church is to regard as elect disciples to be nurtured and brought up in the faith.  While not an exhaustive explanation of Hodge’s doctrine of children in the covenant, one very important influence contributed to its formulation and defense:  the revivalism of both the first and second Great Awakenings and what Hodge perceived as the negative influence of the latter upon the 19th century ecclesiastical landscape.

The influence of 19th century revivalism has been felt far and wide and its pragmatic and unchurchly spirit continues on in those churches and ministries which value numbers, feelings, and quick results over the slow, gradual, and unglamorous work of baptism, prayer, and the ministry of the Word.  As Christians living in an impatient culture of instant results, marked by a spiritually exhausting pursuit of emotional fulfillment, we need Hodge’s forceful reminder that the Lord uses the nurture of covenant children to build and strengthen his church in this world.

While the forces leading up the emergence of the First Great Awakening are diverse and can be explored from a variety of angles (political, philosophical, historical, etc.), one particularly important theological and pastoral force which created such dramatic spiritual upheaval within the colonies was the ecclesiology of the Half Way Covenant and the formalism which, in the opinion of revivalist leaders, an unregenerate church membership created within the churches.

Such intense concern over the spiritual condition of the churches, together with what seemed to be an outpouring of God’s Spirit resulting in conviction of sin, greater concern for the soul, an awakening of vital piety, and a renewed emphasis upon conversion, led many Presbyterian clergymen to alter their overall approach toward the congregations committed to their charge.  The people of God were in a deep sleep and only “the terrors of the law” could awaken them to their dangerous condition.  What congregations, including covenant children, needed most of all was a conscious conversion experience preceded by a thorough work of the law upon their hearts.

This brand of piety reemerged during the Second Great Awakening with a different theological foundation and would go on to leave its mark upon broader evangelicalism for years to come.  But this 19th century revivalism, though similar in many respects to that of the First Great Awakening, was driven by an Arminian soteriology which emphasized the freedom of man’s will and was marked by a more democratic, populist, and unchurchly spirit.

Samuel Miller, the second professor to teach at Princeton Theological Seminary, lamented the rise of the “camp meeting” and the emotional manipulation and excesses which took place under the preaching of popular revivalist preachers:

I confess I deeply regret that the use of camp meetings should be resumed in our body.  To say nothing of the irregularities and abuses which it is difficult, if not impossible, in ordinary cases, wholly to avoid, on the skirts, and sometimes in the interior of such camps; they have always appeared to me adapted to make religion more an affair of display, of impulse, of noise, and of animal sympathy, than of the understanding, the conscience, and the heart” (Extract from a letter of Samuel Miller to Dr. W.B. Sprague.  Recorded in the appendix of the volume, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, by William B. Sprague, D.D. Packard and Van Benthuysen).

Miller sounded a note of caution that was taken up by Charles Hodge and used to highlight what was for Hodge one of the most pernicious and devastating effects of the revivalistic zeitgeist: the virtual abandonment of infant baptism and membership.  Hodge was not alone in this regard.  J.W. Alexander, son of Archibald Alexander, lamented the decline of baptism and Christian nurture in the 19th century and identified the culprit as a wrongheaded focus upon an experience of conversion:  But O how we neglect that ordinance!  Ought we not daily to say (in its spirit) to our children, ‘You are Christian children, you are Christ’s, you ought to think and feel and act as such!’  And on this plan carried out, might we not expect more early fruit of the grace than by keeping them always looking forward to a point of time at which they shall have new hearts and join the church?  I am distressed with long harbored misgivings on this point” (James Waddell Alexander, “Forty Years’ Familiar Letters,” II, 25).

Hodge echoed the concerns raised by his forebears at Princeton.  Reading the many essays and reviews dedicated to this subject in his published writings, it is clear is that one of his lifelong concerns was to bring to the attention of his students and readers the significance and importance of infant baptism, infant church membership, and the spiritual nurture of the church’s children as one of the divinely appointed means of the church’s spiritual growth.  According to Hodge, “the church regards children – one or both of whose parents are professing Christians – as members of the visible church” (Charles Hodge, ‘The Doctrine of Baptisms’, Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 29, no. 1 (1857).

Therefore, the church’s children, “being members of the church, are within the covenant, and therefore ought to be baptized, in order that the blessings of the covenant be sealed to them in that ordinance.”  It is not the case, Hodge argues, that baptism makes a child a member of the church: “infants are not made members of the visible church by baptism, but are to be baptized because of their relation to the church.”

Such is the importance of infant church membership and its visible sign that they cannot be neglected without committing a great sin against God.  The failure to baptize children “is not only a rebellion against the authority of Christ, but it is a very great injustice done to the children whose baptism is neglected.”  The neglect of infant baptism, therefore, was such a serious sin against God, not only because God commanded that the sign of the covenant be administered to believers and their children, but because of the underlying spiritual reality which gave rise to this command, namely that children of one or two believing parents were members of Christ’s church.

Hodge rejected both Baptistic and All-Inclusive theories of church membership- two ecclesiastical extremes, the former of which was rising in popularity as revivalism pushed into the foreground the necessity of personal conversion, voluntary action, and individual responsibility.

Key to Hodge’s thinking about the church was the distinction between the visible and invisible church which, as he saw it, was not so much a distinction between the external and internal aspects of the church but between the church as viewed by God and the church as viewed by fallible creatures.  In the sight of God and viewed as those united to Jesus Christ and his body, the church consists of the regenerate. “No man can be a member of Christ’s body who is not a partaker of his life, and governed by his Spirit” (Charles Hodge, ‘The Church Membership of Infants,’ Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 30, no. 2 (1859): 349).

For Hodge, however, it does not follow, as the Baptist argues, that we are therefore not to recognize or treat as Christians those who have not been regenerated by God.  In fact, “we must recognize many as Christians who are not real Christians; we must regard and treat as Church members many who are not members of the body of Christ.”  This necessity arises from the fact that “it is a sheer impossibility to carry out the principle of treating men according to their state in the sight of God.”

While the church consists essentially of God’s true people, “God has not given to men the power to read the heart” and therefore “has not imposed on his people the obligation to sit in judgment on the regeneration of their fellow men.  Consequently, we not only are not required, but we are not allowed to demand evidence of regeneration satisfactory to ourselves, as the condition of church membership.”

If regeneration is not a requirement for membership in the visible church, what is required?  Hodge states that God “requires us to recognize as Christians all those who, having competent knowledge, profess their faith in him, and are free from scandal.”  The church of Jesus Christ, in the sight of man and in the judgment of the church, consists of “the professors of the true religion, together with their children.”  With advocates of the Half-Way Covenant, Hodge argues that the church is a mixed company including both regenerate and unregenerate.  With the revivalists of the First Great Awakening, Hodge argues that the true people of God are those who have been effectually called and regenerated by God.  Unlike the former, however, Hodge does not argue that we can identify the wheat and the chaff – that an unacceptable profession of conversion is a sure sign of an unrenewed heart.  And unlike the latter, Hodge does not argue that the church in the sight of men consists only of the regenerate; nor does he argue that an experience and account of conversion is necessary for visible church membership.

Rather, Hodge makes use of the distinction between the visible and invisible church to argue for a church that is both mixed (when viewed through the lenses of men) and regenerate (when viewed through the lenses of God, something that only He can do!) And since members of the visible church include both believers and their children, the children of the church, no less than the adults, ought to be considered as members:

When…we assert that the church membership of the infants of believing parents, we do not assert their regeneration, or that they are true members of Christ’s body; we only assert that they belong to the class of persons whom we are bound to regard and treat as members of Christ’s church.  This is the only sense in which even adults are members of Christ’s Church.

This does not mean, however, that children are to be presumed unconverted.  On the contrary, one of the arguments Hodge labors to make in his essay is that the identity of the invisible church and our judgment concerning church members are two distinct questions.  While a baptized infant may or may not be a member of the invisible church, we are bound to regard him as such, not by an infallible determination, but by a presumptive judgment:

The status, therefore, of baptized children is not a vague or uncertain one, according to the doctrine of the Reformed churches. They are members of the Church; they are professing Christians; they belong presumptively to the number of the elect.  These propositions are true of them in the same sense in which they are true of adult professing Christians.  Both are included in the general class of persons whom God requires his Church to regard and treat as within her pale and under her watch and care.” 

Jordan D. Harris is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, is a member of Eastern Pennsylvania Presbytery, and is laboring out of bounds in an Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Dickson City, Penn.