In defining American Exceptionalism it would be impossible to ignore the immense importance of America’s early educational system. The reason for this is that we can see thus far the passionate attention the Founders paid to Christian principles and to the incorporating them into their private, public and political lives. Education is no different. The Bible was THE book of learning for all education from the 1600’s until the beginning of the twentieth century where it began to be set aside and then in the 1960’s completely illuminated from schools entirely.
Our Founders believed, and rightfully so, that the Bible was the source for knowledge. Today’s view that religion and schools should never cross paths is not what the Founders intended, it was the ‘opinion’ of the 1947 Supreme Court. When looked at even on the surface the schools have used the Bible for its main text since the pilgrims arrived in the early 1600’s. Then in 1947 a Supreme Court decides that for 347 years the law was being broken, even by those that wrote the law. This is arrogance on steroids.
There are many documented situations that refute the 1947 decision so I would like to discuss a few of them. From this we will see what the Pilgrims and the Founders believed to be the most important aspects of education. The first laws providing public education for all children were passed in 1642 in Massachusetts and in 1647 in Connecticut and it was called the “Old Deluder Satan Law”. These colonists believed that the proper protection from civil abuses could only be achieved by eliminating Bible illiteracy.
“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of 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.” 1 (emphasis added)
Note that they put a premium on the ability to understand the Word of God. Many American literacy laws were directed at the necessity of understanding the Bible. A Connecticut law in 1690 read:
“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.” 2 (emphasis added)
Please make note of the reason for education, people were unable to read the Word of God. Even the concerns of the higher education facilities of the day were directed to know Scripture as well as establishing their eternal destination. The 1636 rules for Harvard stated:
“Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies and 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 everyone seriously set himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein.” 3
Harvard was so dedicated to this goal that their two mottos were: “For the Glory of Christ” and “For Christ and the Church”. 4 Many reading this may not be aware that most of our colleges and universities were founded by ministers for the purpose of raising up ministers. They were specifically designed as a ‘seminary’ but they were quite able to produce a minister as easily as a scientist or businessman.
William and Mary was founded by Reverend James Blair in 1692. This is the same William and Mary that removed the Cross from the chapel because it was too controversial. This institution was founded so that:
“The youth may be piously educated in good letters and manners and that the Christian faith may be propagated . . . to the glory of Almighty God.” 5
Ten ministers teamed up in 1699 to form Yale. Their goal was to:
“To plant, and under Divine blessing, to propagate in this wilderness the blessed reformed Protestant religion” 6
In 1701 when classes began Yale set these standards:
“The Scriptures . . . morning and evening [are] to be read by the students at the times of prayer in school . . . studiously endeavoring in the education of said students to promote the power and purity of religion.” 7
The rules really didn’t change much in the first one hundred years for Yale. In 1787 the students were charged:
“All of 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.” 8 Notice the emphasis on living according to the Word of God. Yale, with its demand for high standards of Christian living produced many of the distinguished Founders and signers such as Lyman Hall, Lewis Morris, Oliver Wolcott, William Samuel Johnson, Philip Livingston and William Livingston.
Some of the ministers that were involved in America’s greatest revival, the Great Awakening, were President of Princeton University, Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr Sr., Samuel Finley, Samuel Davies, and Dr. John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was the President just prior to the Revolutionary War. These were some of the requirements during his term as 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. . . . Beside the public exercises or 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.” 9 This university also produced many prominent Founders such as Benjamin Rush, James Madison, Jonathan Dayton, and Gunning Bedford.
Dartmouth was founded in 1754 by Reverend Eleazar Wheelock. He was very specific as to the purpose for this college:
“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 the 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 will appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and Christianizing the children.” 10 (emphasis added)
When we look at the majority of the colleges and universities founded during this time frame we see that they all had the basic requirements of Christian principles to produce better Christians and/or propagate the Christian religion. The morals taught in the Bible were expected of all the students. Christianity’s righteousness was the goal of these places of higher learning. Before 1870 almost all places of higher learning were provided by denominations instead of the state. Of the two hundred and forty-six colleges founded by the close of 1860, seventeen were State institutions and but two or three others had any States connections. 11
George Washington always supported the Christian faith, even though many of the modern so-called historians say differently. There was a time when Chiefs of the Delaware Indian tribe brought him three Indian youths to be trained in the American schools. Washington assured then that “Congress will look upon them as their own children,”12 and then told the Chiefs 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.” 13
The evidence that Christianity was the basis of the education system during the founding era is unmistakable and irrefutable.
1) Code of 1650, pp. 92-93
2) Edward Kendall, Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States, (New York: I. Riley, 1809), Vol. I, pp. 270-271.
3) Benjamin Pierce, A History of Harvard University (Cambridge, MA: Brown, Shattuck, and Company, 1833), Appendix, p. 5.
4) The Harvard Graduates Magazine (Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co.) September 1933, p. 8, from the article “Harvard Seals and Arms” by Samuel Eliot Morison. English translation also confirmed to the author is an October 18, 1995, letter from a curatorial associate at the Harvard University Archives.
5) The Charter and Statues of the College of William and Mary in Virginia (Williamsburg, VA: William Parks, 1736), p. 3
6) Documentary History of Yale University, Franklin B. Dexter, editor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916), p. 27, November 11, 1701, Proceedings if the Trustees.
7) Documentary History of Yale University, Franklin B. Dexter, editor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916), p. 32
8) The Laws of Yale College in New Haven in Connecticut, (New Haven: Josiah Meigs, 1787), pp. 5-6, Chapter II, Article 1,4.
9) The Laws of the College of New-Jersey (Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1794), pp. 28-29.
10) The Charter of Dartmouth College (Dresden: Isaiah Thomas, 1779), pp. 1,4.
11) 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
12) George Washington, the Writings of Washington, John C, Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), Vil. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779.
13) George Washington, the Writings of Washington, John C, Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), Vil. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779.
Tags: American History Founding fathers Religious Freedom