"Suffer the little children" - meaning?

You hear this quote from time to time, usually used as some sort of creepy sound bite (a-la the Stephen King short story of that name). What is the meaning of this phrase in its original context?

“Allow” the little children (to approach me). “Suffer” means “permit” in this context.

Edit: The New International Version has "When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” [Mark 10:14]

“And they brought young children to Him, that He should touch them: and His disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” - Mark 10:13-14

Jesus is telling his disciples to allow the children to come up to him. It’s only used in the other way because we rarely use “suffer” to mean “allow” these days.

That’s my understanding too.

The original context is the Bible, an incident that is recorded in Matthew chapter 19, Mark chapter 10, and Luke chapter 18.

The local Jews bring a bunch of little rugrats to see Jesus, and his Apostles try to run interference, figuring that the last thing the big boss wants is to deal with small tykes. After the kids crowd around him Jesus drops the moral of the story: “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

I hope that that helps. Waves at Zsofia on preview.

Straight Dope - awesome as usual! 3 solid answers in under 10 minutes. Thanks guys!

See meaning 4 of suffer.

Perhaps now the meaning of the women’s suffrage movement will make more sense to you.

The phrase “tenants at sufferance” comes to mind – ‘suffer’ in the sense of allow, permit is still a standard usage. A tenant at sufferance is simply someone who does not have a current lease, a person renting month to month. Our experience as renters has been that landlords offer the legally required lease for the first year, then continue to collect the rent without offering to renew the lease. This means that each month’s rent payment buys you the right to occupy your dwelling place (apartment, house, etc.) for that month – with no guarantees beyond that month except as provided by law. You’re occupying it at the sufferance of the landlord, that is, in exchange for rent he permits you to live there, without an explicit written contract, the conditions of the lease being presumed to hold over on a month-to-month basis until he or you chooses to change them – you can move out on proper notice, and owe him nothing (other than possible forfeiture of all or part of a damage security deposit); he can give you notice he’s raising the rent.

‘Suffer’ in this sense works a lot like ‘let’ – if you say, “Let’s go to the beach,” your meaning is, “I suggest we go to the beach if you agree”; it’s not instructions to someone to grant permission to go, even though it sounds like it.

Similarly, ‘suffer’ has traditionally carried the meaning of ‘permit, allow’ – the more common meaning of ‘be in pain’ derives from the idea that you, or the world in general, is permitting the person suffering (in this sense) to remain in pain, rather than acting to alleviate it.

Whereas ‘let’ used to mean ‘prohibit’, as in ‘without let or hindrance’ to mean ‘without any barriers’.

So “Let him suffer!” would have almost reversed in meaning over 300 years? :smiley:

On a tangential note, I read an Ann Landers column a decade or more ago in which the letter-writer bemoaned the decline in parenting skills among the hoi polloi these days. The letter ended with: “And suffer the children.”

What the writer meant, of course, was “and the children suffer.” Somehow the use of pseudo-classical rhetoric and genuine linguistic ignorance to stake out the moral high ground really rubbed me the wrong way, and I still can’t see the phrase “suffer the children” without wishing I’d written a crackpot letter about it. Not that it would have achieved anything, of course.

I believe that “suffrage” is unrelated to “suffering.”

I believe that Gary T’s point is that the “woman’s suffrage movement” refers to “allow women [the right to vote] movement”.


There are probably areas of the Bible belt where the King James version of the passage is cited in support of corporeal punishment in order to raise children to be God-fearin’ Christians. :rolleyes:

I don’t know why you’d think that and I’m not seeing any support for it. The people here who understood the accurate meaning were the people who were obviously familiar with the context of the verse. The people who use it conveying the wrong meaning are the ones who take it out of the Biblical context (Stephen King, presumably for intentional wordplay purposes, and Ann Landers, probably not among America’s leading exponents of the New Testament).

The passage in the Bible doesn’t make a bit of sense using the other meaning. “Punish the children to come unto to me?” Right after the disciples had been, well, trying to swat the kids away but he rebuked them? Nah.

Nice gratuitous dig at them dumb fundy hillbillies though.

Nitpick: it’s “corporal” punishment.

Yeah, but Corporal Punishment was promoted to Major Havoc and then General Mayhem! :stuck_out_tongue:

But Tom Tildrum was merely pointing out that the two words have almost nothing to do with each other in terms of origin. ‘Suffrage’ is from sub + fragor (under + ‘sound of approval’), and ‘suffer’ comes from sub + ferre (under + carry). ‘Suffrage’ as in right to vote can be attested to 1787.

Thanks for pointing that out, and my apologies to Tom Tildrum for not picking it up from his link. I had assumed, incorrectly, that the words came from the same root. You gentlemen have reduced my ignorance.