“My Dear Children” – Words from the Hearts of Fathers

“My Dear Children” – Words from the Hearts of Fathers

Being a father can change a man’s life, as many Christians in the past have attested. One of the most touching poems by a father about a newborn son was penned by Samuel Davies (1723-1761), a Presbyterian minister who became a popular preacher during the First American Awakening. Filled with awe by the “little wond'rous miniature of man” who had just entered his life as a “little stranger,” he wondered what the boy’s future might hold: “Thou heir of worlds unknown, thou candidate / For an important everlasting state, / Where this young embryo shall its pow'rs expand, / Enlarging, rip'ning still, and never stand.”

Fatherly Apprehensions

With no illusions about the ease of human existence, Davies tell his newborn that life will be a war characterized by a severe strife, but in the end the price will be immense. This thought, however, led to some apprehension. Will the boy reach that price or forsake the faith? At the frightening thought of what the latter would entail, Davies ended the poem with a passionate prayer: “Maker of souls! Avert so dire a doom, or snatch her [his son’s soul] back to native nothing’s gloom!”[1]

            To various degrees, all Christian fathers experience this type of apprehension. Writing to his niece and adopted daughter Betsy at boarding school, the famous hymnographer and pastor John Newton (1725-1807) could hardly hide his eagerness to see her profess her faith: “I would not overdo you upon this subject; though the truth is, this is my chief desire for you, that you may know the Lord and love him; if not, though you were accomplished and admired beyond any of your age, and though you could live in all the splendor of a queen, I would weep over you!”

            His Reformed convictions brought him comfort: “I know that I cannot make you truly pious, nor can you make yourself so. It is the Lord's work, and I am daily praying him to bless you indeed. But he has a time; until then, I hope you will wait upon him according to your light, in the use of his appointed means, that you will make conscience of praying to him, and reading his Word, and hearing when you have opportunity.”[2]

            He also found comfort knowing that, though Betsy’s ship of life could shift into dangerous waters, God was at the elm. “My hopes are greater than my fears. I know there is an infallible Pilot, who has the winds and the waves at his command. There is hardly a day passes, in which I do not entreat him to take charge of you. Under his care I know you will be safe. He can guide you, unhurt, amidst the storms, and rocks, and dangers, by which you might otherwise suffer—and bring you, at last, to the haven of eternal rest!”[3]

            Newton’s faith as a father was sorely tested years later, when Betsy was 30 and had become for him a source of support. Afflicted by a long-term mental illness that generated uncontrollable fears (“I seldom leave her but she says I shall find her a corpse on my return”), she had to be admitted to a mental health institution where she was not allowed visitors. Relentless, Newton walked to the building at a fixed time every morning and waved in the direction of her window, waiting for her to wave her handkerchief back. Once again, he committed her life to God: “I believe only the help of him who made heaven and earth, and who raises the dead, can effectually relieve us,” he said. “I aim to commit her into his faithful hands, and I trust he will help me to abide by the surrender I have made, of myself and my all, to him.”[4]

            Thankfully, Betsy recovered, and she and her husband stayed with Newton until his death, caring for him as he aged.

Written Legacies

Like Newton, many Christian fathers wrote letters to their children. Isaac Watts Sr., for one, wrote a letter of comfort and instruction to his children (including the more famous Isaac Watts the hymnographer) in 1685, during one of his imprisonments under Charles II’s policies against nonconformists. Among other recommendations, Watts exhorted his children to understand religious persecution for what it was: “Do not entertain any hard thoughts of God, or of his ways, because his people are persecuted for them; for Jesus Christ himself was persecuted to death by wicked men, for preaching the truth and doing good; and the holy apostles and prophets were cruelly used for serving God in his own way. The wicked ones of the world are the seed of the serpent; and they will always hate the people of God, torment and seek to destroy them; and God suffers them to do so, not for want of love to his people, but to purge their sins by chastisement; to try their graces and fit them for heaven, till the wicked have filled up the measure of their iniquities, and for many other holy reasons: therefore, if you should come to live very poor, for the gospel's sake, be contented with it, and bless God for every mercy you receive; and know this, that poor ones are heirs of glory as well as rich ones.”[5]

            In the 19th century, Samuel Miller (1769-1850), co-founder of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote 22 letters to his sons in college and compiled them into one book for the sake of other students who might find themselves in the same “interesting and responsible situation” and for the sake of their parents, hoping that each “may, perhaps, learn from [this book] to estimate more justly his power, though afar off, to contribute toward averting the dangers, and promoting the improvement of one unspeakably dear to him.”[6]

            In his Introduction, Miller told his sons what motivated him to write was the recollection of his own days in college – both the advantages, “protection and guidance with which I was favoured by a merciful Providence,” and “the recollection of my mistakes, my failures, my incorrect estimate of the value of some of my prescribed studies and pursuits, my loss of opportunities and my false steps at that critical period of my life.”[7]

            “Can you wonder then, my dear sons, that I am deeply anxious for your welfare and improvement in the new situation in which I have thought it my duty to place you? And can you doubt that I am ardently desirous of imparting to you a portion of my early experience? Some of that experience was dearly bought. ... Listen, then, to a father who loves you most sincerely; who will never willingly give you a delusive counsel; who prays that you may be inspired with heavenly wisdom; and who can have no greater pleasure than to see you pursuing a course adapted to render you in the highest degree useful, beloved and happy in this world, and forever blessed in that more important world which is to come.”[8]

            Another compilation of letters from a father to his children was published more recently by Herbert F. Brokering (1926-2009), one of the best-known Lutheran hymnographers of the 20th century. Like Miller, he published it for the sake of others – “all who have fathers, are fathers, will be fathers – for all who raise the children of the world.”

            In his Introduction, Brokering confessed his faults: “I was not a perfect father. I did not always listen or look with fatherly care at what you’d done, or offer you good choices, or feel your hurts, or model faith.”

            But he asked his children not to dwell on his failings, for their own sake. “My father was not perfect either. But I am not a victim of his failures. ... I hope you will do the same with the shortcomings and hurts from your childhood. Do not stay a victim of a father’s failures. Ride the world, keep your passion, believe God, and have fun along the way.”

            Happy Father’s Day to all the imperfect, loving fathers out there![9]

[1] Samuel Davies, “On the birth of John Rodgers Davies, the author’s third son,” in Sermons by the Rev. Samuel Davies, A. M., President of the College of New Jersey, vol. 3, ed. by William B. Sprague, Verlag, 2022, 656, 657. See also Simonetta Carr, “Samuel Davies, Preacher, Father, and Poet,” Cloud of Witnesses, Place for Truth, Jun 16, 2020, https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/samuel-davies-preacher-father-and-poet

[2] John Newton, Works, Vol. 4, Nathan Whiting, New Haven, 1824, p. 397; see also John Newton, “Twenty-one letters to his adopted daughter,” https://www.gracegems.org/Newton/119.htm; see also Simonetta Carr, “John Newton as Father – Through Joys and Pains,” Cloud of Witnesses, Place for Truth, Mar 20, 2018, https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/john-newton-father-%E2%80%93-through-joys-and-pains

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Newton, Letters, ed. Josiah Bull, Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Coffin, The Religious Tract Society, London, p. 396; see also Simonetta Carr, “John Newton as Father – Through Joys and Pains,” Cloud of Witnesses, Place for Truth, Mar 20, 2018 https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/john-newton-father-%E2%80%93-through-...

[5] Isaac Watts, The Poetic Interpretation of the Psalms, with a Biography of Watts (St. Louis: Miracle Press, 1974), quoted in https://www.wholesomewords.org/family/wattstochld.html

[6] Samuel Miller, Letters from a Father to His Sons in College, Philadelphia: Grigg & Elliott, 1843, I, as published online by Log College Press, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/590be125ff7c502a07752a5b/t/5a49c9d00852291b768b5f97/1514785249124/Miller%2C+Letters+from+a+Father+to+Sons+in+College+-+edited.pdf

[7] Ibid., 13-14

[8] Ibid., 14-15.

[9] For a previous compilation of quotes and annectodes from fathers, see Simonetta Carr, “From Gardens to Shoes – Being a Father During the Reformation,” Cloud of Witnesses, Place of Truth, June 16, 2017, https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/gardens-shoes-%E2%80%93-being-father-...


Simonetta Carr