The Mother's Key

Mother and Child by Marianne Stokes, 1899
I am excited to share this post with you! This essay is included in the wonderful book Charlotte Mason and The Great Recognition, edited by Nicole Handfield. You can read about that book here.  To order a copy, please contact Nicole at handfieldshalom@gmail.com.

In the spring of 2014 I found myself in Ambleside, England sifting through boxes at the Armitt Museum which houses the archives of the legendary educationalist, Charlotte Mason. Handwritten notes, calling cards, books annotated with her handwriting, and hundreds of other long-forgotten documents passed by my gaze. One delicate brochure in particular caught my eye:  “Our Three-Fold Cord.” What was this? I took notes and pictures and looked forward to examining it later.

I seem to be drawn to things that Charlotte Mason gave to graduates of the House of Education, her teacher training college. The Cloud of Witness is a devotional book that she gave her graduates.  I thought it so valuable that I had it reprinted last year.  Before that, it was the lovely badge engraved with the saying “For the Children’s Sake,”  the motto of the graduates. And now, the leaflet “Our Three-Fold Cord” turns out to be another such item bestowed upon those completing the two-year course of study at Scale How.

The three-fold cord is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 4:12 (KJV) which states, “And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”  Thus, the three strands mentioned in this brochure would work together to remind, encourage, and strengthen each graduate with the sustaining principles found in each.  This is a heartening picture for those young women who were about to venture out alone to new teaching positions throughout the world. What were the three strands?

I. The House of Education Badge

II. The Educational Creed of “The House”

III. The House of Education Certificate

The House of Education badge is imprinted with the motto and a representation of the lowly rush, a humble plant that would remind students of the important posture of humility each of them should exemplify.  The House of Education certificate, designed by H. Wilson, Esq. is an allegorical depiction of education meant to be a “piece of pleasant decoration.” But it is the second strand, the educational creed of the House of Education, that has the most inspiring ideas and holds so much both spiritually and educationally. It is central to all of Charlotte Mason’s teachings. 

A creed is defined as “an idea or set of beliefs that guides the actions of a person or group.” Clearly, it is important  -foundational even-  to someone trying to apply a set of principles. Yet it is perhaps the least understood tenet of those venturing to implement Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education.  This creed, this critical strand of the cord, is often one of the last concepts we examine, understand, and accept. Why is that?

The brochure explains that this creed is The Great Recognition which is so beautifully and eloquently clarified in this lovely keepsake book.  It centers around the idea that all school subjects, all knowledge, and all wisdom come from the Holy Spirit. And the reality is that for all the illustrations and explanations found herein, I am still trying to understand what it all means, even after decades of practicing Mason’s philosophy.

Early on in my homeschooling, I was conversing with a relative who was bewildered about the path her artistic daughter was taking.  She, like so many other parents, wondered what her daughter’s art could have to do with her relationship with God and could not see how her path could be good or even profitable. From others I heard about how mathematics was really a secular subject, so why bother considering it part of a Christian education? What does my frustration with my child during a grammar lesson have to do with anything? Why read living books?

These concerns are answered in The Great Recognition. When Charlotte Mason stood in front of the fresco in Florence, it must have been thrilling and affirming to find something that so harmoniously illustrated the view of life and education that she championed. To have Ruskin’s thoughts from his book, Mornings in Florence, illuminate what she was seeing and to have her ideas confirmed by the zeitgeist of medieval Italy must have been rewarding. It was all so important to her that she prominently displayed a reproduction of the fresco at Scale How where students could see it daily. (Oh, to know where that picture is today!) Mason gave much consideration and thought to the seven Christian virtues depicted in the fresco, so much so that they are all featured in great detail in her fourth volume, Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies, a book written specifically for the moral education of students.

Each day during this past month I have read through Chapter 25 of Parents and Children,     “The Great Recognition Required of Parents”  and every day I see something different and understand a bit more. But if this is all new to you, I suggest you begin with what Mason (1896/1989a) called “the mother’s key,” an idea that helps explain the big picture of the Great Recognition.  She states:

In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother's key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigable Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils. We do not sufficiently rejoice in the wealth that the infinite nature of our God brings to each of us. (p. 273, emphasis mine)

That God does the instructing and teaching of each individual child is one of those concepts with layers and layers of meaning.  It is one of the ideas in The Great Recognition that needs to be…well…recognized!  And Mason takes the time to emphasize that here the Holy Spirit is not working in collective nouns but with each precious individual human being. We know He cares for each child, right down to the hairs on his head (Luke 12:7, KJV). The fact that He is infinite has implications, too; He is never tired and He gives unlimited attention to each child.  We need to “sufficiently rejoice” in this “mother’s key” that God surely does teach each child.

The Great Recognition holds so many great ideas, so many truths, so many exhortations and I wonder if this is not the stumbling block for many educators – it feels like too much to decipher.  But if you start with the “mother’s key”– the idea that the infinite Holy Spirit gives each of our children infinite attention in every learning situation, it becomes more manageable.  And just like that powerful, layered statement “a child is a person”, this “mother’s key” will keep you focused and thinking about what it could all mean in your own home.

Thankfully, Mason (1896/1989a) also shows how our role can enhance or exclude this infinite attention and teaching from the Holy Spirit in this example about a grammar lesson:

Our co-operation appears to be the indispensable condition of all the divine workings. We do not mean that spiritual virtues may be exhibited by the teacher, and encouraged in the child in the course of a grammar lesson; this is no doubt true, and is to be remembered; but perhaps the immediate point is that the teaching of grammar by its guiding ideas and simple principles, the true, direct, and humble teaching of grammar; without pedantry and without verbiage, is, we may venture to believe, accompanied by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, of whom is all knowledge. (p. 274)

So the teacher’s role is more than just acting properly and exhibiting virtues.  It is sticking to the simple, living ideas and principles in our lessons. Mason goes on to explain how the opposite is also true. If our teaching includes too much talking and explaining, living ideas are lost in the shuffle for want of time and space.

This Great Recognition, this strand of “Our Three-Fold Cord “ that was the creed of the House of Education, is something so integral and  important to understanding education and life that I encourage you to examine and digest it and consider what implications it might have for you.  You might begin with the “mother’s key” and venture out from there by either examining the fresco or reading over Mason’s chapter.

I will close with a beautiful prayer written by Christina Rossetti (1892) that I think reflects what our posture should be as we approach this holy task of teaching children.

Lord Jesus, merciful and patient, grant us grace, I beseech thee, ever to teach in a teachable spirit; learning along with those we teach, and learning from them whenever thou so pleasest. Word of God, speak to us, what thou wilt. Wisdom of God, instruct us, instruct by us, if and whom thou wilt. Eternal truth, reveal thyself to us, reveal thyself by us, in whatever measure thou wilt; that we and they may all be taught by God. Amen.

Creed. (n.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/creed

Mason, C.M.(1989a). Parents and children: The role of the parent in the education of the child. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1896)

Rossetti, C. G. (1892). The face of the deep devotional commentary on the Apocalypse. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. 

Wix, Helen. Our Three-Fold Cord. Retrieved from Armitt Museum, Cumbria, England. (Charlotte Mason collection)


  1. This post is a great reminder of the blessing of raising and educating my children which God has so generously bestowed on me. This quote sums it up well: "We do not sufficiently rejoice in the wealth that the infinite nature of our God brings to each of us. " Amen, Charlotte. O that He would open my eyes more each day to see the wealth He has given.

    1. Thank you, Amanda. The quote you selected is stunning and convicting and I am praying that prayer along with you.

  2. Nancy,
    Thank you for this "golden nugget"! I love that she used the word "indefatigable" to describe the "Teacher" with a capital 'T' because fatigue is no doubt the universal experience of all "teachers" with a lower-case 't'. I also love her showing that THE WAY in which we teach what WE would have them know shows whether we are trusting the Holy Spirit (by using "guiding ideas and simple principles") to be their Teacher or relying on our own "pedantry and verbiage" to ensure the conveyance of the matter. I'm interested in making this more explicit to teachers with perhaps some examples of subject matter treated in both ways so as to allow them to experience the contrast.

    1. Amen! And I think that's a fabulous idea, Lisa! I look forward to hearing what you come up with and how it goes.