Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.
~ Proverbs 22:6 ~
III. – That the Bible contains more knowledge necessary to man in his present state than any other book in the world; IV. – That knowledge is most durable and religious instruction most useful when imparted in early life; and V. – That the Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life.
~ Benjamin Rush, A Defense of the Use of the Bible in Schools, 1791
While most schools will be closed this President’s Day, there is still learning to be done regarding our founders of education in America. Indeed, I think many of these founders, – early settlers, founding Fathers, and so on – would be shocked, and likely saddened, to know the state of our modern education system, not only for the way it is run but also for what is, or is not, taught. Many of these founders of Christian education foresaw a different future for education. They saw education as a means not to simply teach for teaching’s sake but to build up good, moral citizens that could benefit society and the world.
This dream began long before the men we call the Founding Fathers thought of it. In hopes of avoiding the abuses of power and abundance of depravity that had infected Europe, the early settlers in America began laying the foundation for education that was based on the Bible. In 1642, the “Old Deluder Satan Act” passed in Massachusetts, which stated,
“It being one cheife project of that old deluder, Sathan, to keepe men from the knowledge of the scriptures, as in former times, keeping them in an unknowne tongue, so in these later times by persuading them from the use of tongues,” there should be established a free school in each town in the province. (Becker 6)
Connecticut had a similar law on illiteracy and made it possible that children could be trained in the Word of God. These leaders wanted the Bible used so that they could both learn to read and know the Scriptures well enough to recognize if the legislature was not acting in accordance to God’s Word and correct them (Barton 18-19). These measures were more fully realized with books that either plainly taught the Bible, while also teaching reading and writing, or drew heavily from the Bible to teach moral truths. The New England Primer was one such book. It taught the “Rhyming Alphabet”:
A – In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.
B – Heaven to find, the Bible mind.
C – Christ crucified, for sinners died. (Barton 35)
In addition, the Primer taught “Alphabet Lessons” that basically took a letter and applied to it a Scripture verse that began with that same letter. The My ABC Bible Verses book for children is a decent modern book that accomplishes a similar goal. Much later, the author of the well-used McGuffey Readers wrote the following:
In making his selections … the author has drawn from the purest fountains of English literature and aimed to combine simplicity with sense, elegance with simplicity, and piety with both…. For the copious extracts made from the Sacred Scriptures, he makes no apology. Indeed, upon a review of the work, he is not sure but an apology may be due for his not having still more liberally transferred to its pages the chaste simplicity the thrilling pathos, the living descriptions, and the matchless sublimity of the Sacred Writings.
William Holmes McGuffey, ‘Preface’, Third Reader
Though not all of the Founding Fathers were the most devout Christians of their time, they were in many ways more devout than some who call themselves Christians today. Some people have attempted to skew or alter history by saying that almost none, or at least very few, of the Founding Fathers were Christian. This is simply not true, and in fact, the opposite may be the truth. These same men called atheist or deist are the same who studied the Scriptures and advocated for Them to be taught in all schools.
Before he published his Age of Reason, Thomas Paine sent his ideas to Benjamin Franklin. His friend was less than pleased with the work and cautioned Paine against publishing it, not only because he would receive much rebuke but because he was wrong to say that the country did not need religion and the Scriptures. Paine claimed that they would be better off without it since men were still wretched with religion. Franklin reminds Paine that since he was raised among these Christian values, he thinks he can be good on his own merit; the same is not true for those who have not had such an education.
And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. … If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it.
I believe that this fact of Judeo-Christian values even influencing atheists is true today. Additionally, Franklin and Adams were among those who aided in printing books that taught the morals and truths of Scripture, like the New England Primer, for the citizens of New England to read.
Thomas Jefferson, a man who is often wrongly called an unbeliever, told his friend Daniel Webster this fact on education:
I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.
A signer of the constitution, Gouverneur Morris, noted that teaching children religion in the schools was both good and “appropriate.”
Religion is the only solid basis of good morals therefore, education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God. (Barton 25)
George Washington, for whom this day was commemorated, plainly advocated the necessity of religion in education:
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. (Barton 19)
Additionally, Washington not only wanted American citizens to be educated and educated in the Scriptures, he wanted all the people in the land to have this opportunity. He told the Delaware Indian chiefs that, “Congress … will look upon them as their own children,” in that they would educate them as they would their own. Washington also noted the importance of the Delaware Indians having this education:
You do well to wish to learn our arts and way of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you already are.
Letter to the Delaware Indian Chiefs, June 12 1779 (Barton 31)
As mentioned before, books like the New England Primer were used to teach in these schools. Christian morals were taught in schools not to convert everyone who entered but simply to teach them the right way to live. The “father of public education” stated this:
That our public schools are not theological seminaries is admitted. That they are debarred by law from inculcating the peculiar and distinctive doctrines of any one religious denomination among us as claimed. And that they are also prohibited from ever teaching what they do teach is the whole of religion, or all that is essential to religion or salvation is certainly equal. But our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals. It founds its dogmas on the basis of religion. It welcomes the religion of the Bible, and in receiving the Bible it allows it to do what is allowed and no other system to speak for itself.
Schools were not to teach doctrine (such as Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, etc. doctrines). Schools could, however, teach morals, values, the ten commandments, Christ’s teachings, and other biblical guidelines for good living. In fact, some textbooks used were actually Bible study courses, some of which are still used today (Barton 22). Thus, when the Bible was taught, it was not dogmatic nor used in attempt of converting people. Instead, the schools taught what is good behavior for happy living and good citizenship.
There was also another Founding Father who had a strong hand in education by writing textbooks and, probably more notably, a dictionary. Indeed, Noah Webster not only complied his dictionary of the English language, standardized to “American English,” but wrote a History of the United States, the Blue Back Speller, and other various textbooks to be used in schools. All of these books were based on Scripture so that his philosophy became: “Who taught millions to read, not one to sin” (Barton 28-29). Webster was quite adamant on the Christian education of youth:
The Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed…. No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis for any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people. (Barton 28)
He also wrote,
[T]he moral principles and precepts contained in the Scriptures ought to form the basis of all of our civil constitutions and laws…. All of the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery and way, proceed from them despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible. (Barton 29)
Jedidiah Morse, another father of education, saw the need for religion in the schools in order to preserve our government and the unity of the people. It was to Christianity, he said, that we owe our freedoms and “social happiness.”
I hold this to be a truth confirmed by experience; and it follows that all efforts made to destroy the foundations of our Holy Religion ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness. Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government (and all the blessings which flow from them) must fall with them. (Barton 30)
This quote explains, in part, why these founders of education wanted to put Christian morals into education. They wanted the morals because it provided a foundation for people, beginning from the time they are children, that went beyond “what seems right to me” (e.g. the Book of Judges). The lack of these morals was a reason why many settlers first came to America. These self-evident truths were the basis for our government because it was in the hearts and minds of our founders. They wanted those same truths to be in the hearts and minds of future generations.
The uniqueness of the Christian code was that it worked from the heart. Christian morality is preventative. Thus, instead of trying to correct the behavior of adults, our founders decided it would be better to teach children with a foundation on the truth and morality of the Scriptures. Some noted that if they did not teach every new generation morality and truth, they would have to unteach them all of their vice when they were adults.
I lament that [if we remove the Bible from schools] we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes and take so little pains to prevent them…. For this Divine Book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues which constitute the soul of [our government].
Dr. Benjamin Rush (Barton 25)
To a man of liberal education,… with regard to the history contained in the Bible… “It is not so much praiseworthy to be acquainted with as it is shameful to be ignorant of it.”
John Quincy Adams (Barton 27)
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
This is why our founders cared about education. They cared about the future of this country, which was the children. Children are the future, and they take up what they are taught, whether good or ill. Our founders were a moral and religious people. They hoped that those same truths of the Scriptures would be taught in schools so that those children would grow to be mature, Christian adults who sought to better the world around them. The founders never intended that Scripture would be excluded. On this President’s Day, let’s remember what our Founding Fathers had in mind for the future and consider where we are at present. Perhaps we will see that Christianity was important to our Founding Fathers and hopefully understand why.
Blessings to you and yours,
Barton, David. Four Centuries of American Education. Aledo: Wallbuilder Press. 2004. Print.
Becker, Carl L. Cornell University: Founders and the Founding. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2010. Print.