For the purposes of this article, the noun will be used to refer to the years of a person's life from birth to the so-called age of accountability or responsibility or discretion. This is a theological definition to be tested by biblical, psychological, and sociological data. It was a conception especially proposed by the 16th-century Anabaptist dissenters, who, on this issue, were reacting to the Augustinian view of original sin. The Augustinian view was that the sin of Adam and Eve was transmitted from one generation to another and that children without the regenerational efficacy of the baptismal sacrament are lost. Although the Zürich Reformer Ulrich Zwingli first denied the necessity of baptism for salvation, he vehemently opposed the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism, fearing that these radicals would abandon the proper Christian education of their children and regard their children as infidels prior to the alleged age of accountability. In response to the latter charge, Conrad Grebel wrote that "all children who have not attained the knowledge to discern between good and evil and have not eaten of the tree of knowledge are surely saved through the suffering of Christ, the new Adam," a view further explicated by Balthasar Hubmaier, Sebastian Franck, Dirk Philips, Menno Simons, Pilgram Marpeck, Ulrich Stadler, Peter Riedemann, Peter Walpot, Klaus Felbinger, and other Anabaptists.
Zwingli and the Anabaptists substantially agreed that children in biblical perspective were surely included in the covenant people of God (Genesis 12:1-4; 17:9-27; Exodus 24:7; Deuteronomy 1:34-39; Deuteronomy 6:5-8, 20-25; Deuteronomy 31:12; Matthew 14:21; Mark 10:13-16; Acts 16:30-33; 2 Timothy 1:5; etc.). Some of the same texts from the two Testaments cited by Zwingli to prove that infant baptism superseded circumcision were used by the Anabaptists to prove that children were covered by Christ's universal atonement whether baptized or not. The latter celebrated this affirmation in a rite of child dedication, for which Marpeck included some suggestions in his confession of 1531 (CRR 2: 147).
For Marpeck, however, this was not a naive insistence on the moral impotence of children, who are nevertheless affected by the consequences of the fall of Adam and Eve and can express harmful self-will from an early age. Yet, until they are fully responsible for their behavior, original sin is not imputed unto them damnation. Thus, before the use of their reason children have no sin but only the proclivity to sin.
Support for this view can be found in modern theories of child development (e.g., Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Eric Erikson, etc.). Some of their implications are the following: Children cannot be expected to behave or think at a level beyond their stage of development. Children perceive God first by experiencing a parent-figure and particularly by observing how adult mentors relate to God affectively. Children think concretely in relation to the immediate experience, and only at a later stage of development can they generalize from the immediate experience to the human predicament. Moral reasoning also develops by stages from what Kohlberg called the premoral to the principled levels, with the implication that free voluntary obedience to the laws of God motivated by a love from within is a more mature response than an externally motivated obedience based on the fear of God and divine punishment.
Among the various surviving Anabaptist groups, the Hutterian Brethren, with their communal type of living, have seemed to understand best the nature of child development. Peter Riedemann's Rechenschaft (1545) and Peter Walpot's Schulordnung (1578) reveal a deep sense of responsibility for child nurture and outline relatively advanced methods whereby children were to be trained with kindness and firmness according to their respective abilities. For instance, the teachers were supposed to teach the art of prayer to boys and girls in their teens and "not to occupy the time of the children with long preaching since much reading and many quotations cannot be understood and grasped by them" (Schulordnung). Again, the teachers were admonished not to be harsh with little children "but rather to be sympathetic and longsuffering with them on account of their innocence and lack of understanding."
Following the harsher realism of Menno and Marpeck, the less-communal-type Anabaptist and Mennonite groups expressed more concern for programming a conversion experience marking the age of accountability in a child's maturation. In the 1980s, in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ circles, about 80 percent of the members experienced an identifiable occasion or period in life when Christ was accepted as Savior and a personal commitment to following him as Lord was made. The median age at which this commitment was made was 13.8 years for five contemporary groups, all of which have published statements on the conversion phenomenon in question. For instance, the statement on "The Nurture and Evangelism of Children" adopted by the Mennonite Church General Assembly (MC) in 1955 stated: "When the age of accountability arrives, a totally new spiritual situation arises. The individual now has a new sense of restlessness and guilt. He recognizes himself as a sinner. He stands in need of repentance, faith, and the new birth. As the Holy Spirit convicts, he may either yield to Christ or reject Him. Those receiving Christ are born again. Those rejecting Him lose their former saved status and are lost persons spiritually."
In sociological perspective, children tend to have the type of "conversion experience" for which they have been prepared and conditioned, and they tend to have this experience at the time this "rite of passage" is conventionally expected. With considerably more sensitivity to individual differences than the sociological perspective implies the Anabaptist-oriented "Foundation Series" Sunday school curriculum (1977) emphasized the nurture and instruction of children from preschool to adulthood in the constant and continuing context of the ongoing life of the congregation, to the end that "the children individually and corporately will freely respond to Jesus Christ in love, in faith, and in obedience, to the full extent of their ability."
Jeschke, Marlin. Believers Baptism for Children of the Church. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1983.
Klassen, William. "The Role of the Child in Anabaptism," in Mennonite Images, ed. Harry Loewen. Winnipeg: Hyperion, 1980: 17-32.
Kropf, Marlene, Bertha Harder and Linea Geiser. Upon These Doorposts: how Children Grow in Faith. Newton, 1980.
Lehn, Cornelia. "The Education and Conversion of Children" [pamphlet]. Newton, n.d.
Martin, Maurice. Identity and Faith: Youth in a Believers' Church. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981.
Yoder, Gideon G. The Nurture and Evangelism of Children. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1959.
Yoder, Marvin K. What We Believe about Children. Scottdale, 1984.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 139-140. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Harder, Bertha Fast and Leland D. Harder. "Children." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C46083ME.html.
APA style: Harder, Bertha Fast and Leland D. Harder. (1989). Children. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C46083ME.html.