Danville, Illinois and the Eschatology of a Five Year Old

If you happened to be alive in 1897, you might have spotted a New York Times headline that read: “Sentenced to Bible Reading: Peculiar Punishment Inflicted Upon Boys by a Danville Court.” Here’s the gist:

Police Magistrate W. R. Timmons who sentenced a woman to the rock-pile for thirty days, today imposed as a punishment on three boys, Harry Sidler, Carl Schmit, and Ed Calberg, an hour of the Bible each day at the police court.

What these boys did to deserve such a sentence isn’t disclosed in the brief, but the “unorthodox” reforming efforts of Police Magistrate Timmons caught the eye of the, no doubt, more enlightened and sophisticated New York newspaper.

That must have been some day, when Danville, Ill, the county-seat of Vermillion County, which today only inhabits around 30,000 people, made the big time. The New York Times. Wow! I wonder how many Danville escapists to New York sent home the cut-out of the article to their glowing parents. Never-mind that the article stopped just short of calling Bible-reading cruel and unusual.

I can’t help but wonder where the boys began reading. We’re not told, but maybe their sentence was to read the Bible an hour a day until they’ve read through the entire thing. And if so, what reading plan did they use?

The story leads me to consider the new peculiar (cruel and unusual?) practice we’ve started at our home, where our three children range from the age of just about 2 to 6— two girls and one boy. We are the normal, young reformed family that has jumped on the story book Bible craze. The steady diet of The Jesus Story Book Bible and The Big Picture Story Bible have brought much fruit and color to our family devotions. But I have to say, with some disappointment, that many of our lessons have never ended with questions. I don’t mean “discussion questions” usually included at the end of study guide chapters, but the curiosity of a four or five year old, who wonders, “Why would Jesus say that?” or, even, “What does circumcision mean?”

Our devotions usually ended with the attitude of, “That’s great, dad! Jesus sure is swell!” We didn’t always feel a sense of tension, confusion, or wonder. Now, don’t hear me wrongly, these story books are so helpful in putting the whole story of the Bible together for young children, in a way that just plugging through the Old and New Testament struggles to capture. We should read and re-read them.

But we’ve gone cold turkey for a while and have just stuck with the Bible. I’ve taken our two oldest and began reading through Matthew. There are obvious difficulties that come with just reading the Bible with no pictures. I’ll name a few, but just realize that the gains far outweigh the difficulties:

  1. The obvious is the problem of attention span. Some of this can be remedied by a more dramatic reading, but mostly, there will be good times and bad.
  2. Another obvious struggle is that there is some language and content in the Bible that is far beyond their understanding. This is a big benefit of the story book bibles. If you begin with Matthew, as I did, just be ready for chapters 24-25, especially the abomination of desolation. They will listen (maybe), but I’m not expecting a five year old to explain whether he has a post- or pre-millennial reading of this passage.

I’m sure there are more, but those are the most serious. But, friends, here are the benefits:

  1. They are engaging with the Word of God. There is power behind it. We aren’t trusting in a superstitious reading of God’s Word apart from real and supernatural enlightenment. But we are trusting that the real and supernatural enlightenment comes through the means in which God’s power is active. I am reading the words of God to my children, hoping and trusting that truth will begin to taste good to them.
  2. They hear and pick up on things in the Bible that story books never touch on. Why does Jesus warmly welcome young children, but abandon 5 virgins for not bringing extra oil? Why does Jesus have patience with some, but others he “cuts into pieces” (Matt. 24:51—by the way, when we finished reading chapter 24, my son jumped off the bed, landed into his best samurai stance, and repeated over and over, “He cuts him into pieces! He cuts him into pieces!”). But there are real tensions that little children pick up on. My kids never asked about hell, the devil, or why the Pharisees were so bad until we started reading the Bible.
  3. If we’re patient—and with three young kids, I have a tendency to not be—these questions and observations turn into really fruitful conversations. Very few will be life changing, but our explanations, whether about hell or Pharisees, can explain or clear confusion about the gospel and give way to repentance and faith unto life.

I once heard that sharing the gospel with children is like tossing stones upon a frozen pond. The more you throw, the more they pile up on the cold surface. But when the sun comes out and the ice melts, the stones will sink in. Lord willing, reading the Bible and answering questions will create gospel categories, so that when the Son comes to melt their hearts, they will receive it with joy.

  • Daniel

    I live in Danville, IL, and I almost fell out of my chair when I saw the title! Interesting article. Thanks for sharing. 

  • Bart

    I wonder whatever became of those boys?

  • Jmantonya

    Hi John, my name is Jerrod and I really enjoyed your post this morning. I have a deaf and hard of hearing step daughter that I’ve been raising since she was one. She’s now 11 and my struggle throughout raising her was “how do I do family devotions with her handicap and limited ability to talk?” I would often get frustrated because like you, there weren’t questions being asked at the end by her but a typical, “that’s nice.”  And much like you, I’ve had to completely fall on the grace of God and entrust her and commend her to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. We had to incorporate a lot of Jesus movies because she’s more of a visual learner than auditory.  In spite of the roadblocks I’m so proud to say that she’s read through a survey of the entire Bible and we have begun reading the Gospel of John. 

    My God continue to give us wisdom in raising our kids in the faith!

    • John Starke

      Hi Jerrod. Thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s encouraging to read about your faithfulness.
      Blessings.

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  • Mrs. David Hankins

    While I think the resources you mentioned are excellent and beneficial, I agree that nothing can replace the Word of God. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged
    sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of
    marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”(Hebrews 4:12).Other resources can be a means of grace, but God has preserved His own Words for us…what an incomparable gift! If we only read children’s story books to our children, how will they ever learn to regard and esteem God’s Word above all other books? They must see our passion for God’s Word from day 1. Timothy heard the Scriptures from infancy from his mother and grandmother and Paul commended them. We must do the same because faith comes from hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17).

    Thanks for an excellent, thought-provoking article!

  • Anonymous

    Nicely done.