And he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).*
The awareness that mothers exert mental and physical influence upon their unborn children is becoming an essential part of modern prenatal care.1
However, just over a century ago, Ellen G. White was practically alone in advocating the concept of parental influences upon the fetus. The book Health, or How to Live, describes the opposition experienced from the physicians and scientists of her day: “The irritabiltiy, nervousness and despondency, manifested by the mother, will mark the character of her child. . . . Many physicians deny the truths of these facts strongly, but no one who has taken the pains of observing the facts touching this matter will be found in that category, for facts are unconquerable things.”2
Then in 1954 Ashley Montagu would say, “There is now sufficient evidence from many sources to indicate that the unborn child can be variously affected by physical changes in the mother. . . . It is largely up to her, and to those surrounding her during her pregnancy, whether her infant will be born a happy, healthy, sweet-tempered individual or an ill-adjusted neurotic.”3
In 1881 Ellen White pointed out that the first few years of a child’s life set the life course: “Properly discipline . . . children during the first three years of their lives. Do not allow them to form their wishes and desires. . . . The first three years is the time in which to bend the tiny twig.”4 Ellen White is emphatic: “It is during the first years of a child’s life that his mind is most susceptible to impressions either good or evil. During these years decided progress is made in either a right direction or a wrong one.”5
In 1997 a White House panel presented “compelling new research showing that a child’s language, thinking and emotional health are largely formed before age 3.”6
Aside from the physiological prenatal effects upon children, Ellen White also placed much emphasis upon spiritual influences. According to White, mothers influence their children’s characters and minds even in the period of prenatal gestation: “Even before the birth of the child, the preparation should begin that will enable it to fight successfully the battle against evil.” And she notes that the mother “by whose lifeblood the child is nourished and its physical frame built up, imparts to it also mental and spiritual influences that tend to the shaping of mind and character.”7
Ellen White saw prenatal influence on character as one of the most overlooked topics in the church. “But heaven does not so regard it. . . . Many children have received as a birthright almost unconquerable tendencies to evil. But if the mother unswervingly adheres to right principles, if she is temperate and self-denying, if she is kind, gentle, and unselfish, she may give her child these same precious traits of character.”8
White was clearly concerned with the prenatal influence of mothers upon their offspring. She often warned against parents’ indulgence of their sinful natures, because this would shape the character of infants in the womb: “The sins of the parents will be visited upon their children, because the parents have given them the stamp of their own lustful propensities.”9
White was shown: “The enemy of souls understands this matter much better than do many parents.” He brings “temptations to bear upon the mother, knowing that if she does not resist him, he can through her affect her child.”10 Satan is active in the months of children’s prenatal formation and “seeks to debase the minds of those who unite in marriage, that he may stamp his own hateful image upon their children.
. . . He can mold their posterity much more readily than he could the parents, for he can so control the minds of the parents that through them he may give his own stamp of character to their children. Thus many children are born with the animal passions largely in the ascendancy, while the moral faculties are but feebly developed.”11
It is apparent, then, that the struggle between God and Satan to influence the mind of individuals begins in the womb. But this is no cause for despair. For if Satan can “mold their posterity” through his temptations to parents, God, the all-powerful Holy Spirit, can more effectively “mold” babies’ minds “from their earliest moments”: “The babe in its mother’s arms may dwell as under the shadow of the Almighty through the faith of the praying mother. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth. If we live in communion with God, we too may expect the divine Spirit to mold our little ones, even from their earliest moments.”12
Nor are fathers exempt from obligation to live lives surrendered to God during this period. “Both parents transmit their own characteristics, mental and physical, their dispositions and appetites, to their children.”13
Biblical evidence for prenatal sanctification is abundant. Ellen White often referred to the Scriptures when dealing with this principle. Besides commenting upon Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist—filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb—Ellen White also mentioned godly mothers such as Jochebed and Hannah, who exerted crucial influences upon the characters of their sons Moses and Samuel, and pointed to the story of Samson’s mother, who was instructed by the angel to exercise temperance during her pregnancy.14
God revealed to Jeremiah His prenatal care for him. He was set apart and ordained a prophet before he emerged from the womb (Jer. 1:5). David exulted concerning the grace God can bestow upon unborn children, saying: “I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly” (Ps. 22:10). And Psalm 71 also describes the relationship God desires to have with unborn children. David sings: “By thee have I been holden up from the womb: thou art he that took me out of my mother’s bowels: my praise shall be continually of thee” (Ps. 71:6). Psalm 139:13 is also instructive here: “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.”
By contrast with these Bible verses, the wicked are described as “estranged from the womb” on account of their parents’ sins and, having developed sinful propensities, “they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies” (Ps. 58:3).
More than 2,800 years ago Solomon advised parents: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). Evidently, early spiritual education is closely tied to one’s ultimate salvation: “The work of the mother becomes infinite through her connection with Christ. It is beyond understanding. Woman’s office is sacred. The presence of Jesus is needed in the home; for the mother’s ministries of love may shape the home into a Bethel. The husband and the wife are to cooperate. What a world we would have if all mothers would consecrate themselves on the altar of God, and would consecrate their offspring to God, both before and after its birth!”15
White affirms that the children of godly parents who die before the age of accountability will be saved; their characters would be shaped toward righteousness. The situation with unconverted parents is different: “The parents’ course of action is determining the future welfare of their children. If they allow them to be disobedient and passionate, they are allowing Satan to take them in charge and work through them as shall please his satanic majesty, and these children, never educated to obedience and to lovely traits of character, will not be taken to heaven, for the same temper and disposition would be revealed in them.”16 So great is the importance of parents’ formative influences that Ellen White spoke of “ignorance upon this subject, where so much is involved, [as] criminal.”17
It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of prenatal and early infant influence in the formation of character and the shaping of children’s powers of choice. God’s instruction to mothers has emphasized the importance of their behavior and practice before the birth, even before the conception, of their offspring. God “the divine spirit” desires to “mold our little ones, even from their earliest moments,” and He will do it if we give Him the chance; if youth considering marriage, and parents of preborn, newborn, and infant children, will give Him the freedom to bless them.
Like John the Baptist, Seventh-day Adventists are forerunners. Our task and privilege is to proclaim the everlasting gospel of Christ’s salvation, preparing people of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people on earth to be ready for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior of all humanity and Lord of all the universe. We surely need every spiritual resource that John needed. More than all else, we need the anointing power of God the Holy Spirit.
It is up to us to take advantage, and to give our children the advantage afforded the forerunner of Jesus Christ at His first coming to be “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from [their] mother’s womb.”
* Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the King James Version.