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The Founding of Education in America

The Bible is the source of public schools in America.

Also called "common schools," they arose from a desire to teach the Bible to everyone, not just to clergy and princes.

The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations says that as far back as 1384, Protestants were seeing the Bible as the source of liberty and ordered government, setting the stage for the demise of the myth of "the Divine Right of Kings."

"This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People."
General Prologue to Wycliffe's 1384 English translation of the Bible

It was Protestants who pushed for common schools to teach the Bible:

Protestants were known as "the Magisterial Reformers," because they relied on the civil magistrate to champion their ideals, as opposed to the Anabaptists, who were also Protestant Reformers, but opposed to state compulsion.

The common thread is that education was designed primarily to teach the Bible, and its religion and morality.

One of the first laws concerning public schools in America is known as "the Old Deluder Satan Act."

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with love and false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors. It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns. And it is further ordered, that when any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university, provided that if any town neglect the performance hereof above one year that every such town shall pay 5 pounds to the next school till they shall perform this order.

"Knowledge of the Scriptures" was the reason for public schools. The Bible was not just for church, but also for civil matters ("commonwealth").

America was a Protestant nation. It was therefore a Bible-based nation.

Sam Adams wrote to his cousin John:

Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity. . . and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country. . . . In short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.

Letter to John Adams, 1790, who wrote back: "You and I agree."
Four Letters: Being an Interesting Correspondence Between
Those Eminently Distinguished Characters, John Adams, Late President of the United States;
and Samuel Adams, Late Governor of Massachusetts. On the Important Subject of Government

(Boston: Adams and Rhoades, 1802) pp. 9-10

The following is excerpted from David Barton's Original Intent, pp. 80-85, published by Wallbuilders. Purchasing the book is highly recommended. Using the link at right helps this website stay online.

Many settlers to America had suffered persecution for their Christian beliefs at the hands of other “Christians” (many of the civil abuses of Europe inexcusably occurred under the banner of Christianity — the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc.). When Europe finally began to move away from such abuses, it did so because of the efforts of leaders like Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Huss, William Tyndale, and others. These individuals believed that it was the Biblical illiteracy of the people which had permitted so many civil abuses to occur; that is, since the common man was not permitted to read the Scriptures for himself, his knowledge of rights and wrongs was limited to what his civil leaders told him.

The American settlers, having been exposed to the Reformation teachings, believed that the proper protection from civil abuses in America could be achieved by eliminating Biblical illiteracy. In this way, the citizens themselves (rather than just their leaders) could measure the acts of their civil government compared to the teachings of the Bible. Consequently, one of the first laws providing public education for all children (the “Old Deluder Satan Law,” passed in Massachusetts in 1642 and in Connecticut in 1647) was a calculated attempt to prevent the abuse of power which can be imposed on a Biblically-illiterate people. That public school law explained not only why students needed an education but also how it was to be accomplished:

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former time.... It is therefore ordered . . . [that] after the Lord hath increased [the settlement] to the number of fifty householders, [they] shall then forthwith appoint one within their town, to teach all such children as shall resort to him, to write and read.... And it is further ordered, that where any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school... to instruct youths, so far as they may be fitted for the university.[24]

It was not uncommon for subsequent American literacy laws to stress the need to know the Scriptures. For example, the 1690 Connecticut law declared:

This [legislature] observing that... there are many persons unable to read the English tongue and thereby incapable to read the holy Word of God or the good laws of this colony... it is ordered that all parents and masters shall cause their respective children and servants, as they are capable, to be taught to read distinctly the English tongue.[25]

The concern that caused this educational law to be passed was that many were illiterate and thereby “incapable to read the holy Word of God ...”

The inseparability of Christianity from education, whether public or private, was evident at every level of American education. For example, the 1636 rules of Harvard declared:

Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17.3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of Him (Prov. 2, 3). Every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein.[26]

Those Harvard requirements changed little over subsequent years. For example, the 1790 rules required:

All persons of what degree soever residing at the College, and all undergraduates … shall constantly and seasonably attend the worship of God in the chapel, morning and evening. . . . All the scholars shall, at sunset in the evening preceding the Lord’s Day, lay aside all their diversions and. is enjoined upon every scholar carefully to apply himself to the duties of religion on said day.[27]

So firmly was Harvard dedicated to this goal that its two mottos were “For the Glory of Christ” and “For Christ and the Church.”[28] This school and its philosophy produced signers John Adams, John Hancock, Elbridge Gerry, John Pickering, William Williams, Rufus King, William Hooper, William Ellery, Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and numerous other illustrious Founders.

In 1692, through the efforts of the Rev. James Blair, the College of William & Mary was founded in Williamsburg, Virginia, so that:

[T]he youth may be piously enacted in good letters and manners and that the Christian faith may be propagated ... to the glory of Almighty God.[29]

A century later, William &. Mary was still pursuing this goal—as indi­cated by its 1792 requirements:

The students shall attend prayers in chapel at the time appointed and there demean themselves with that decorum which the sacred duty of public worship requires.[30]

In 1699, Yale was founded by ten ministers[31] in order:

[T]o plant, and under the Divine blessing, to propagate in this wilderness the blessed reformed Protestant religion.[32]

When classes began in 1701, Yale required:

[T]he Scriptures . . . morning and evening [are] to be read by the students at the times of prayer in the school . . . studiously endeavor[ing] in the education of said students to promote the power and purity of religion.[33]

In 1720 Yale charged its students:

Seeing God is the giver of all wisdom, every scholar, besides private or secret prayer, wherein all we are bound to ask wisdom, shall be present morning and evening at public prayer in the hall at the accustomed hour.[34]

Then in 1743, and again in 1755, Yale instructed its students:

Above all have an eye to the great end of all your studies, which is to obtain the clearest conceptions of Divine things and to lead you to a saving knowledge of God in his Son Jesus Christ.[35]

Its 1787 rules declared:

All the scholars are required to live a religious and blameless life according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the holy Scriptures, that fountain of Divine light and truth, and constantly attending all the duties of religion.... All the scholars are obliged to attend Divine worship in the College Chapel on the Lord’s Day and on Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving appointed by public Authority.[36]

It was this school and its philosophy which produced signers Oliver Wolcott, William Livingston, Lyman Hall, Lewis Morris, Jared Ingersoll, Philip Livingston, William Samuel Johnson, and numerous other distin­guished Founders.

In 1746, Princeton was founded by the Presbyterians with the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson as its first president. He was followed by a long line of illustrious ministers who served as presidents, including Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, and Samuel Finley (all of whom were involved in America’s greatest revival—the Great Awakening).[37] Its presi­dent immediately preceding the Revolution was the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a venerated leader among the patriots. Notice some of Princeton’s requirements while John Witherspoon was president:

Every student shall attend worship in the college hall morning and evening at the hours appointed and shall behave with gravity and reverence during the whole service. Every student shall attend public worship on the Sabbath.... Besides the public exercises of religious worship on the Sabbath, there shall be assigned to each class certain exercises for their religious instruction suited to the age and standing of the pupils. . . . and no student belonging to any class shall neglect them.[38]

Signers James Madison, Richard Stockton, Benjamin Rush, Gunning Bedford, Jonathan Dayton, and numerous other prominent Founders, graduated from Princeton (a seminary for the training of ministers).

In 1754, Dartmouth College of New Hampshire (made especially famous by alumnus Daniel Webster’s defense of its charter before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1819[39])was founded by the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock. Its charter was very succinct as to its purpose:

Whereas... the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock.... educated a number of the children of the Indian natives with a view to their carrying the Gospel in their own language and spreading the knowledge of the great Redeemer among their savage tribes. And ... the design became reputable among the Indians insomuch that a larger number desired the education of their children in said school.... [Therefore] Dartmouth-College [is established] for the education and instruction of youths ... in reading, writing and all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and Christianizing the children.[40]

That same year (1754), King’s College was founded in New York. Following the American Revolution, its name was changed to Columbia College; and in 1787, Constitution signer William Samuel Johnson was appointed its first president. Columbia’s admission requirements were straightforward:

No candidate shall be admitted into the College... unless he shall be able to render into English ... the Gospels from the Greek.... It is also expected that all students attend public worship on Sundays.[41]

Johnson’s commencement speech to the Columbia graduates further affirms the religious emphasis of American public education:

You this day, gentlemen, … have ... received a public education, the purpose whereof hath been to qualify you the better to serve your Creator and your country. . . .Your first great duties, you are sensible, are those you owe to Heaven, to your Creator and Redeemer. Let these be ever present to your minds and exemplified in your lives and conduct. Imprint deep upon your minds the principles of piety towards God and a reverence and fear of His holy name. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. . . . Remember, too, that you are the redeemed of the Lord, that you are bought with a price, even the inestimable price of the precious blood of the Son of God. . . . Love, fear, and serve Him as your Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Acquaint yourselves with Him in His Word and holy ordinances. Make Him your friend and protector and your felicity is secured both here and hereafter.[42]

In 1766, Rutgers University was founded through the efforts of the Rev. Theodore Frelinghuysen. Its official motto, “Sun of Righteousness, Shine upon the West Also,” was an extension of the Netherlands’ University of Utrecht motto: “Sun of Righteousness, Shine upon Us.”[43]

Examination of other colleges and universities of the day reveals that the examples mentioned above were neither aberrations nor isolated selections— they represented the norm:

[H]igher education in the United States before 1870 was provided very largely in the tuitional colleges of the different religious denominations, rather than by the State. Of the two hundred and forty-six colleges founded by the close of the year 1860 . . . seventeen were State institutions and but two or three others had any State connections.[44]

Perhaps George Washington, “The Father of the Country,” provided the most succinct description of America’s educational philosophy when Chiefs from the Delaware Indian tribe brought him three Indian youths to be trained in American schools. Washington first assured the chiefs that “Congress . . . will look upon them as their own children,”[45] and then commended the Chiefs for their decision, telling them that:

You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention.[46]

By George Washington’s own words, what youths learned in America’s schools “above all” was “the religion of Jesus Christ.”

[24] The Code of 1650, Being a Compilation of the Earliest Laws and Orders of the General Court of Connecticut (Hartford: Silus Andrus, 1822), pp. 92-93. See also Holy Trinity at 467.

[25] Edward Kendall, Kendall’s Travels (New York: I. Riley, 1809), Vol. I, pp. 270-271.

[26] Benjamin Pierce, A History of Harvard University (Cambridge, MA: Brown, Shattuck, and Company, 1833), Appendix, p. 5.

[27] The Laws of Harvard College (Boston: Samuel Hall, 1790), pp. 7-8

[28] The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine (Manesh, WI: George Barna Publishing Co.), September 1933, p. 8, from the article “Harvard Seals and Arms” by Samuel Eliot Morison. English translation also confirmed to the author in an October 18, 1995, letter from curatorial associate at the Harvard University Archives.

[29] The Charter and Statutes of the College of William and Mary in Virginia (Williamsburg, VA: William Parks, 1736), p. 3.

[30] William & Mary Rules (Richmond: Augustine Davis, 1792), p. 6

[31] Noah Webster, Letters to a Young Gentleman Commencing His Education (New Haven: Howe & Spalding, 1823), p. 237.

[32] Documentary History of Yale University, Franklin B. Dexter, editor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916), p. 27, November 11, 1701, Proceedings of the Trustees.

[33] Documentary History of Yale University, Franklin B. Dexter, editor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916), p. 32, November11, 1701, Proceedings of the Trustees.

[34] Daniel Dorchester, Christianity in the United States (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1890), p. 245.

[35] The Catalogue of the Library of Yale College in New Haven (New London: T. Green, 1743), prefatory remarks. See also The Catalogue of the Library of Yale College in New Haven (New Haven: James Parker, 1755), prefatory remarks.

[36] The Laws of Yale College in New Haven in Connecticut (New Haven: Josiah Meigs, 1787), pp. 5-6, Chapter II, Article 1, 4.

[37] Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, editors (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), s. v. “Aaron Burr,” “Timothy Edwards/Jonathan Edwards,” “Samuel Davies,” and “Samuel Finley.”

[38] The Laws of the College of New-Jersey (Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1794), pp. 28-29.

[39] See, for example, Rufus Choate, A Discourse Delivered Before The Faculty, Students, and Alumni of Dartmouth College (Boston: James Monroe and Company, 1853), p. 33, where he declares that Daniel Webster’s arguments in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U. S. 518 (1819), “established the inviolability of the charter of Dartmouth College.”

[40] The Charter of Dartmouth College (Dresden: Isaiah Thomas, 1779), pp. 1, 4

[41] Columbia Rules (New York: Samuel Loudon, 1785), pp. 5-8.

[42] Edwards Beardsley, Life and Times of William Samuel Johnson (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), pp. 141-142.

[43] Rutgers’ Fact Book of 1965 (New Jersey: Rutgers University, 1965), p.2. (The motto was based on the Bible verses of Malachi 4:2 and Matthew 13:43.)

[44] E. P. Cubberley, Public Education in the United States (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1919), p. 204. See also Luther A. Weigle, The Pageant of America: American Idealism, Ralph Henry Gabriel, editor (Yale University Press, 1928), Vol. X, p. 315.

[45] George Washington, The Writings of Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1932), Vol. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779.

[46] Idem.