Conversations with Children on the Gospels
by A. Bronson Alcott
edited by Alice O. Howell
Foreword by Stephen Mitchell
There are many things to admire in this fascinating book, and I am grateful to Mrs. Howell for rescuing it from oblivion. Who would have thought that we already had, as part of our American heritage, such a practical demonstration of Jesus' advice to become like little children? The book might be sub-subtitled News from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Bronson Alcott was obviously a fine teacher. At first that seems improbable, given his extreme Platonism. He is the classic Luftmensch, walking with his head in the stratosphere and constantly tumbling into the ditches of what he called the material world. But in these conversations we can feel his authority. The students recognize him as one of those rare adults, perhaps the only one, who speaks to them with complete sincerity and respect, not as mere children, but as equals.
The most fascinating element in the book, though, isn't Alcott's teaching, it is the children's responses. "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength." I don't want to comment on them, just to point. Here are my favorite passages:
MR. ALCOTT. Now, does your spirit differ in any sense from God's spirit? Each may answer.
CHARLES. (10-12 years old). God made our spirits.
MR. ALC0TT. They differ from His then in being derived?
GEORGE K (7-10). They are not so good.
WILLIAM B. (10- 12). They have not so much power.
AUGUSTINE (7-10). 1 don't think our spirit does differ much.
CHARLES. God is spirit, we are spirit and body.
JOSIAH (5 years old). He differs from us, as a king's body differs from ours. A king's body is arrayed with more goodness than ours.
EDWARD B. (10- 12). God's spirit is a million times larger than ours, and we come out of him as the drops of the ocean.
MR. ALCOTT. Jesus said he was the son - the child of God. Are we also God's sons?
WILLIAM B. Oh! before I was born - I think I was a part of God himself.
MR. ALCOTT. Who thinks his own spirit is the child of God? (All held up hands). Now, is God your Father in the same sense that he is the Father of Jesus? (Most held up hands).
MR. ALCOTT. Does Father and Son mean God and Jesus? cHARLEs. No; it means God and any man.
MR. ALCOTT. Do you think that were you to use all that is in your spirit, you might also be prophets?
SEVERAL. If we had faith enough.
WILLIAM B. If we had love enough.
CHARLES. A prophet first has a little love, and that gives the impulse to more, and so on, until he becomes so full of love, he knows everything.
MR. ALCOTT Why did the angel say to Mary, "The Lord is with thee"?
GEORGE K I don't know. The Lord is always with us.
ARNOLD (?). The Lord is with us when we are good.
AUGUSTINE. The Lord is with us when we are bad, or we could not live.
ELLEN (10-12). [mentions "Judgment Day"]
MR. ALCOTT What do you mean by Judgment Day?
ELLEN. The last day, the day when the world is to be destroyed.
CHARLES. The day ofJudgment is not any more at the end of the world than now. It is the Judgment of conscience at every Moment.
MR. ALCOTT. Where did Jesus get his knowledge?
MARTHA (7-10). He went into his own soul.
AUGUSTINE. Heaven is in our spirits - in God. It is in no particular place. It is not above the sky. It is not material. It is wherever people are good.
CHARLES. Heaven is everywhere - Eternity. It stops when there is anything bad. It means peace and love. High and white are emblems of it.
ANDREW (7-10). Heaven is like a cloud, and God and Jesus and the angels sit on it.
MR. ALCOTT. Where is it?
ANDREW. Everywhere. Every person that is good, God looks at and takes care of.
FREDERIC (10-12). Wherever there is good.
SAMUEL R. (10- 12) But in no place.
FRANKLIN (10-12). Heaven is the spirit's truth and goodness. It is in everybody; but mostly in the good.
MR. ALCOTT, Can you say to yourself, I can remove this mountain?
[Now comes an astonishing rhapsody by the five-year-old Josiah Quincy.]
JOSIAH (burst out). Yes, Mr. Alcott! I do not mean that with my body I can lift up a mountain - with my hand; but I can feel; and I know that my conscience is greater than the mountain, for it can feel and do; and the mountain cannot. There is the mountain, there! It was made, and that is all. But my conscience can grow. It is the same kind of spirit as made the mountain be, in the first place. I do not know what it may be and do. The body is a mountain, and the spirit says, be moved, and it is moved into another place. Mr. Alcott, we think too much about clay. We should think of spirit. I think we should love spirit, not clay. I should think a mother now would love her baby's spirit; and suppose it should die, that is only the spirit bursting away out of the body. It is alive; it is perfectly happy; I really do not know why people mourn when their friends die. I should think it would be a matter of rejoicing. For instance, now, if we should go into the street and find a box, an old dusty box, and should put into it some very fine pearls, and bye and bye the box should grow old and break, why, we should not even think about the box; but if the pearls were safe, we should think of them and nothing else. So it is with the soul and body. I cannot see why people mourn for bodies.
MR. ALCOTT. Yes, Josiah; that is all true, and we are glad to hear it. Shall someone eke now speak beside you?
[But Josiah's eloquence is like a mighty river; its momentum is such that he can barely restrain himself, and he is quiet only on condition.]
JOSIAH. Oh, Mr. Alcott! then I will stay in at recess and talk.
How interesting it would have been to stay in during that recess and listen to this five-year-old. (The great ninth-century Zen Master Chao-chou said, "If I meet a hundred-year-old man and I have something to teach him, I will teach; if I meet an eight-year-old boy and he has something to teach me, I will team. ")
It comes as no surprise when, at the end of one class, a student says to Alcott, "Every lesson is more interesting than the last!" Nor are we surprised at the following short exchange, which could serve as the epigraph for this book:
MR. ALCOTT. Do you think these conversations are of any use to you?
CHARLES. Yes; they teach us a great deal.
MR. ALCOTT. What do they teach you?
GEORGE K. To know ourselves.
MR. ALCOTT. Have any of you ever thought that Faith alone, without any means of a material kind, would cure diseases?
MOST. No; but that it would help.
(Lucia, Ellen, Susan, George B. held up hands, as thinking that faith alone cured.)
MR. ALCOTT. Did you think so?
ELLEN. No; but I thought you did.
MR. ALCOTT. Do you remember what was said about the little infant?
And after these things he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. And as he passed by from thence, he saw a man, a publican, named Levi, named Matthew, the son of Alpheus, sitting at the receipt of custom. And he said unto him, follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. (Matt. 9:9, Mark 2:13-14, Luke 5:27-28.)
(He asked who expected to be interested, and to talk?)
EMMA. I shall be interested; but I do not like to talk, because I never seem to have said anything when I do speak - I cannot get words for my thoughts.
MR. ALCOTT. Who prefer to hear others talk to talking themselves?
(All held up hands, except Josiah. )
JOSIAH. I prefer to talk myself generally.
JOSIAH. Because I do not think the others always say what is true.
MR. ALCOTT But when they do say what is true, how is it?
JOSIAH. Oh! Then I like to hear them talk.
GEORGE K. and MARTHA. Others think more interesting things than I do.
GEORGE B. I never have any thing to say.
JOSIAH. Mr. Alcott, I do not know why Jesus went upon the seaside, unless it was very pleasant there, and it was hot, and he wanted to cool himself
FRANKLIN. I think he went there because he liked to see the waves and Nature.
MR. ALCOTT. Why did he wish to see nature?
FRANKLIN. I cannot express it.
GEORGE K. Because he liked to have room enough, and perhaps there might be boats there, and if the multitude pressed upon him, he could get in and teach.
ANDREW I think he went there to see the little fishes.
MR. ALCOTT. Why did he want to see them?
ANDREW Because he liked to see them swimming.
MR. ALCOTT. Why did he like to look at them then?
ANDREW Because they had such pretty skins.
ELLEN. I think he liked to go by the sea, because I like to go there.
CHARLES. He wanted to have the sea put mightiness into his words.
MR. ALCOTT. He wanted, you think, to take advantage of the influences of Nature on the Imagination?
NATHAN. He wanted to have other people learn to admire Nature.
JOSIAH. I thought Jesus looked very hot, and he went down by the sea; and you could just see the other side of the sea. And he and his disciples were together; and the multitude was on the other side of the bank, and his hand was up, teaching. (He gave the attitude.)
MR. ALCOTT. And what was his hand up for?
JOSIAH. Because it looked pretty. In ancient times they always did so, but they don't do so now; and they all had white robes on.
MR. ALCOTT. Why white robes?
JOSIAH. It was the fashion. And there was a bridge, not for carriages but for foot passengers, that went over the lake. Jesus and his disciples were on that at first; and when he had done teaching,
he went on till he came to Matthew; and he called him, and Matthew rose up and followed him.
LEMUEL. I thought Jesus was in a boat, very near the shore, preaching; and the people were on the shore; and when he had done, he called Matthew, who was sitting there, and he went into the boat; and they sailed across, talking about spiritual things, such as God, and
JOSIAH. He went so willingly to see him perform miracles. MR. ALCOTT. What kind of miracles?
JOSIAH. Spiritual and material.
MR. ALCOTT. What is the difference?
JOSIAH. To change water into wine is a material miracle, but to overcome any appetite is a spiritual miracle.
MR. ALCOTT. How was curing the leper?
JOSIAH. Material, mostly.
MR. ALCOTT. What was material in it?
JOSIAH. Why, the touching was material, and the faith was the spiritual part.
MR. ALCOTT. How was it with the Paralytic?
JOSIAH. Wholly spiritual - "thy sins be forgiven thee" yes, spiritual.
MR. ALCOTT. If you saw seed as it sprouted in the ground the acorn out of which the oak was opening as large as the elm on the Common, should you call that a miracle?
JOSIAH. Yes; partly material.
MR. ALCOTT. And suppose you should see an egg move, then see the shell break, and a little chick come out - would that be material?
JOSIAH. Yes; partly.
MR. ALCOTT. Suppose you saw a baby dying.
JOSIAH. That would be spiritual.
MR. ALCOTT. Suppose you saw a baby being born.
JOSIAH. That is wholly spiritual - being born.
MR. ALCOTT. Did you ever see a spiritual miracle?
JOSIAH. No; spiritual miracles cannot be seen, because they are spiritual.
MR. ALCOTT. Did you ever feel a spiritual miracle?
JOSIAH. Oh yes.
MR. ALCOTT Did you ever see a material miracle?
JOSIAH. No; there were none only when Jesus Christ was on earth.
MR. ALCOTT. But you said that a seed opening out into a tree was partly a material miracle.
JOSIAH. You asked for material miracles, and that is partly spiritual, and so was the chicken and the dying baby; but the dead baby is material.
MR. ALCOTT. Lay your hands on your hearts. (They did so, and there was silent listening for a moment.) Is breathing a miracle?
(Immediately almost all raised hands.)
CHARLES. I think it is miraculous, because you breathe without knowing it.
(A few thought breathing was not miraculous, because they could explain some of the phenomena and their immediate causes; but all found, on analysis, that they at last came to a link of the chain which was lost in the supernatural.)
MR. ALCOTT. Feel your pulses. (They did so. Mr. Alcott expressed in so many words, that breathing and birth were among the greatest of miracles. They analyzed growth in an egg - an acorn - and found that everything led up to the Supernatural.) Which of your faculties feels the outward miracle, and which the inward?
JOSIAH. The eyes see the outward and the Spirit the inward miracle.
MR. ALCOTT. What is it to follow Christ?
FRANKLIN. He meant to follow him, to try to be good like him, and to go with him too. (Many agreed.)
CHARLES. He meant to follow his spiritual path, and his material path. (Many.)
JOSIAH. Mr. Alcott, what was done with the table Matthew left?
MR. ALCOTT. Perhaps he did not leave it immediately.
JOSIAH. Why yes; he rose up, immediately, "and he left all and followed him." I have a picture of it in my mind. I think Matthew had a table before him, with a white cloth over it; and he had all his money counted out in piles, the dollars in one place, and the cents in another, and the bills in another.
MR. ALCOTT. It was rather an early age for dollars and bills.
JOSIAH. And when Jesus called him he arose up immediately and left all. He never thought of staying one moment after Jesus called him.
MR. ALCOTT. Do the rest of you think Matthew went as soon as he was called? (All held up their hands.)
JOSIAH. Oh! Mr. Alcott, I have another thought now. I think that Matthew was expecting to be called at first, as soon as he saw Jesus coming, and might have gathered up all his money to go as soon as he spoke.
MR. ALCOTT. Why did he think Jesus was going to call him?
JOSIAH. Why, when they set out, Peter and the rest of them did not know where Matthew was gone, and that was the reason he was not among them now, and Matthew knew that Jesus would call him as soon as he saw him.
SAMUEL R. I think Matthew was not already a disciple - this was the first time he was called; but he had already gathered up his bags and money, and was preparing to go home when Jesus called him. (Several held up hands in assent.)
JOSIAH. It is all the same thing, even if he did not go that minute - he began to prepare to go perhaps, and did not actually go, till Jesus had passed some time.
MR. ALCOTT. No; it was of very little consequence. Now tell me what it is to follow Jesus, how can you follow him?
NATHAN. I must be good and mind his example.
MR. ALCOTT. But I want a real action - something that you can live, today.
CHARLES. To be temperate when I eat my dinner today.
ELLEN. To be patient, as Jesus was with people, when my little sister troubles me.
MR. ALCOTT. Do you trouble her ever?
ELLEN. Yes; I know I do; but she troubles me when I am getting her to steep; sometimes she will not go to steep, and she often cries when I take care of her. I must be patient and kind.
GEORGE K. When my brother plagues me and strikes me, instead of striking back again, I must forbear.
LEMUEL. When my mother asks me to go an errand - to go down to a shop and get some cloth, because the man is engaged, and I am at play, I must go willingly, I must obey her cheerfully.
SUSAN. I must bear with Frank.
LUCIA. I must bear with my little brother, when I put him to bed - very often he cries and will not be good.
MR. ALCOTT. Are you kind to him when he cries?
LUCIA. Yes; yet he will cry, and not do as I want him to; then I must be patient.
JOSIAH. I think that Jesus meant that Matthew should follow him and hear him preach; and when he was crucified, that he should follow his example and preach, and should tell others about it, so that when he died they should preach, and then those persons should preach, and so on till now.
ALFRED. I think like Josiah, and that Jesus wanted Matthew to follow him till he died, and then be an apostle till he was himself crucified, or something else, like Jesus.
MR. ALCOTT. Josiah, did you ever follow Christ yourself?
JOSIAH. Yes; I did today. My little sister this morning had a withered flower, which she seemed to think a great deal of, and my mother asked me to put the faded leaves, that had fallen off, into the fire; and when I did, my little sister cried excessively, and I went up to her and told her a story, which seemed to please her very much, so that she forgot the disappointment about the withered flower and its faded leaves.
MR. ALCOTT. Have all been interested today?
MANY. Very much interested.
JOSIAH. I have been interested, because I have had a chance to talk so much.
MR. ALCOTT Do you think some others were not interested, because they had no chance to talk?
JOSIAH. The next time I will not speak till recess.
MR. ALCOTT. We wish to have you talk, Josiah, and all others, when you have thoughts of your own to give. We want your own thoughts and feelings. We want you to tell what goes on in your mind while we are reading, and while you are conversing one with the other. That is one way by which we can understand what good the conversations do you. Put your thoughts into words, and then we know what you are, and what you intend. By words and actions we judge of all intentions.
Back to the bookstore