Whipping does not always conquer a child’s spirit, but I never have known a dash of ice water on his spine to fail

Posted by | July 7, 2017

The habits of these folk, as I remember them when I was a child, were generous and hospitable. There was much rivalry between women in household matters. Certain recipes in pastry and pickles and medicine were handed down in families from generation to generation. There were few formal dinners, but cover for the accidental guest was always laid on the supper table.

Everyday life then was merry and cordial, but it needed a wedding or a death to bring out the deeper current of friendly, tender feeling in these people. Death was then really an agreeable incident to look forward to, when one was sure to be lauded and mourned with such fervent zeal.

The belief in education as the chief good was as fervent and purblind as now. Every county had its small sectarian college: the boy, if he were poor, worked or taught in summer to push his way through.

But while the ordinary life of these people was thus wholesome and kindly, their religion, oddly enough, was a very different matter. The father of that day believed that his first duty toward his child was to save him from hell. The baby, no matter how sweet or fair, was held to be a vessel of wrath and a servant of the devil, unless he could be rescued.

To effect this rescue the father and mother prayed and labored unceasingly. The hill of Zion, up which they led the boy, was no path of roses. Above was an angry God; below was hell. They taught him to be honest, to be chaste and truthful in word and act, under penalty of the rod.

The rawhide hung over the fireplace ready for instant use in most respectable families. The father who spared it on his son felt that he was giving him over to damnation. Often the blows cut into his own heart deeper than into the child’s back, but he gave them with fiercer energy, believing that it was Satan who moved him to compassion.

As most pleasant things in life were then supposed to be temptations of the devil, they were forbidden to the young aspirant to Heaven. The theatre and the ballroom were denounced; cards, pretty dresses, and, in some sects, music and art, were purveyors of souls for the devil. To become a Christian meant to give up forever these carnal things.


Parents who were not members of any church also taught their children self-denial. Did a boy cut his finger, the first howl was silenced with: “Not a word! Close your mouth tight! A man never cries!” The same adjurations were given when the whip was being applied to his back.

A high-tempered child was held by many intelligent parents to be possessed with a kind of demon, which required strong measures for its expulsion.

“You must break his spirit and then he will obey you,” was the universal rule. In my childhood I once heard a bishop, who I am sure was a kindly, godly man, say: –
“Whipping does not always conquer a child’s spirit, but I never have known a dash of ice water on his spine to fail.”

It was believed that, once conquered, the child would yield implicit obedience to his parents and in that unreasoning, unquestioning obedience lay his one chance of safety. Had not God appointed them his guardians during the years when his brain and soul were immature?

Then there came to parents successive pauses of doubt, of inquiry. There were heard at first timorous suggestions of “moral suasion.” Was the soul really reached by a rawhide on the back? Why not appeal to the higher nature of the child? Why not give up thrashing and lure him to virtue by his reason? The child who was old enough to sin was old enough to be redeemed. Why not then bring about the awful change of soul called conversion, in infancy?

This theory, urged in practice by pious, zealous people, caused, half a century ago, a sudden outbreak of infant piety. I do not speak irreverently. There is nothing on earth so near akin to God as one of his little ones. Our Lord, when he would set before his apostles an example for their lives, placed a child, pure, humble, and innocent, in their midst. But he did not send that child out to preach the Gospel.

excerpt from Bits of Gossip, 1904 autobiography of Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), author & journalist raised in Wheeling, WV

One Response

  • Myra Richmond Henry says:

    Reading this excerpt from the eye of an 1830’s child helped to bring to memory my own childhood. As a child of the 1950’s I believe at times I too felt childrearing must be akin to ‘beating the devil out of them!’ It seemed that all punishment was to be accepted without a sound or a tear and that any and all things ‘fun’ were of the devil. Apparently, the only way to break a child of an unsuitable behavior was to beat it out of them. Reasoning with a child was unheard of, as most parents were only mimicking their own childhood punishments. It appears that 100 yrs. later things had not progressed as one could only have hoped. Now I want to read this book!!

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