Puritan Beginnings

       Next to religion the Puritans gave most importance to education.  Being literate was emphasized primarily because they believed all people should be able to read directly from the Scriptures for themselves.  American Puritans balanced studies among the classics of art, science, and culture unlike their English counterparts who began to separate themselves from theatre and the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe. The teachers in America were often divinity students or ministers.

       As New England grammar schools were most serious in getting their youth educated in the classics, their young boys were taught Latin grammar and literature, and some Greek.  Graduates were prepared to enter college at the age of fourteen to sixteen.  The Free Grammar School of Boston came into existence in 1636 and was attended by Cotton Mather in the 1670's.   Pupils studied hard with works such as the "New England Primer," "Aesop's Fables," Cicero, Erasmus, the catechism, and several complicated books and poems (eg, "The Day of Doom," by Michael Wigglesworth).

        In 1647 the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the "ye ould deluder Satan" Act, requiring a common school to be in every town or village of fifty families and a grammar school to be in each of the larger towns. The Puritans sought to create a literate population by law to ensure that illiteracy could not be used to "keepe men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures." 

    It being one chiefe project of ye old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures, as in former times by keeping him in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from ye use of tongues, yet so at least ye true since & meaning of ye original might be clouded by false glosses of saint seeming deceivers, yet learning may not be buried in ye grave of or fathers in ye church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting or endeavors,-

    It is therefore ordered, yet every township in this jurisdiction, after ye Lord hath increased your number to 50 householders, shall then forthwith appoint one with in their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write & read, whose wages shall be paid either by ye parents or masters of such children, or by ye inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as ye major part of those yet orderly prudentials ye twone shall appoint; provided, those yet send their children be not oppressed by paying much more ym they can have ym taught for in other towns; & it is further ordered, yet where any town shall increase to ye number of 100 families or householders, they shall set up a grammer school, ye mr thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they shall be fitted for ye university, provided, yet if any town neglect ye performance hereof above one year, yet every such town shall pay 5 pounds to ye next school till they shall perform this order.    Massachusetts Law of 1647

      It was required that all children be educated "especially of their ability to read & understand the principles of religion & the capitall lawes of this country."  They believed that personal knowledge of the Scriptures was an essential requirement for life on earth and eternal salvation.  A New Haven law read: "For the better training up of youth of this towne, that through God's Blessinge they may be fitted for publique service hereafter, either in church or commonweale."  In its first code of laws in 1650, Connecticut followed suit with the Massachusetts law, including its preamble almost verbatim; and Plymouth Colony also copied them in 1677.

Note:  All the settled territory of New England saw the wisdom in a system of compulsory education.  The exception was Rhode Island, Anne Hutchinson's colony of "religious liberty" and "intense individualism."  As Rhode Island had no system to help individuals in education, only one boy from that colony attended college at all during the entire seventeenth century.

     Within six years of settlement in 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed Harvard.  A couple of years later, clergyman John Harvard gave the institution part of his estate, and the college was named for him.  Reverend Harvard was known during his life as "a godly gentleman and lover of learning."  Cambridge-educated, he was not only trained in the Puritan ideology but also lived by their social order.  In keeping with his values, the institution was devoted in preserving the puritan way of life.

Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country. .........

It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which may not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country.
Noah Webster, On the Education of Youth in America, 1788

     The purpose of the college was "advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature Artes and Sciences," and "all other provisions that may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this Country in knowledge: and godliness."  For its first eighty years, the social rank of students was based solely on scholastic merit.  Education continued in the same approach as was practiced in the grammar schools in subjects of Greek, Hebrew, Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, ancient history, metaphysics, ethics, and natural sciences.  Greek texts included the New Testament, Homer, and Sophocles.  Although almost half of the students became ministers, the study of theology began only after the bachelor's degree.

     Pennsylvania's first school was begun in 1684.  Every Quaker community provided for the elementary teaching of its children.  More advanced subjects were offered at the Friends Public School (today's William Penn Charter School).  Though tuition was required from parents who could afford to pay, the school was free to the poor.

The only foundation for useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion.

 Thomas Jefferson

     The Scots-Irish were also devoted to the education of their community.  They went out of their way to attract learned ministers to their settlements.

     As there were no social or economic benefits for the average person to go to an institution of higher learning, the formation and maintenance of colonial colleges resulted primarily because of religious convictions.  Until the middle of the eighteenth century, mainline churches were responsible for higher education in America.  Although colleges were controlled by religious factions, students were not required to belong to any particular denomination as a condition of admittance.  Near the end of the century, the College of William and Mary was established in Virginia by the Anglicans.  The founders of the New Haven colony, like those of Massachusetts Bay, valued the establishment of a college to help cement their ideal of a Christian state of which religion and education should be the basis.  Yale (the Collegiate School of Connecticut), founded in 1701, was the second Congregational college in New England.

     In the eighteenth century, colonial life became more settled, prosperous, and socialized and yet more autonomic.  America was becoming its own entity separate from Europe's control.  Americans became more aware of themselves and became class conscious amongst each other.  As frontiersmen, the new settlers had prided themselves on being rugged, natural, and unsophisticated about worldly affairs.  As their standard of living improved, they became concerned about their social graces and cultural worth.  As a whole, Americans desired respectability and education.  The Baptists, in particular, wanted their ministers to learn letters and be dignified in manners.

     The religious awakening of the eighteenth century brought new ideas into the churches.  The established churches and their formal doctrines were challenged by a new mystical or faith-inspired religion.  The Baptists had grown rapidly under the new direction of uplifting and spiritual songs which reached the inner soul.  New colleges with new outlooks started emerging.  For examples, Princeton (known then as College of New Jersey) was founded in 1746 by Revivalist Presbyterians, and Brown University was founded by the Philadelphia Association of Baptists in Rhode Island.

*Seven colleges before Revolution:  Harvard, l636, William and Mary,1693; Yale,1701; Princeton,1743; University of Pennsylvania,1749; King's (Columbia),1754; and Brown University,1764."   From: McMaster, Vol. I, p.29

College Charter Dates

Harvard University—October 28, 1636

College of William and Mary—February 8, 1693

Yale University—October 16, 1701

Princeton (College of NJ)—October 22, 1746

Columbia University—October 31, 1754

U of Pennsylvania—June 16, 1755

Brown University—October 24, 1765

Rutgers (Queen's College)—November 10, 1766

Dartmouth—December 13, 1769

Washington College—May 24, 1782

Henry William Elson, "History of the United States of America," The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter X

In Benjamin Franklin's 1749 plan of education for public schools in Pennsylvania, he insisted that schools teach "the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern."

In 1787 when Franklin helped found Benjamin Franklin University, it was dedicated as "a nursery of religion and learning, built on Christ, the Cornerstone."

Below is from a 1791 pamphlet titled A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a Schoolbook by Dr. Benjamin Rush.

        It is now several months since I promised to give you my reasons for preferring the Bible as a schoolbook to all other compositions.  Before I state my arguments, I shall assume the five following propositions:

   1.  That Christianity is the only true and perfect religion; and that in proportion as mankind adopts its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy.

   2.  That a better knowledge of this religion is to be acquired by reading the Bible than in any other way.

   3.  That the Bible contains more knowledge necessary to man in his present state than any other book in the world.

   4.  That knowledge is most durable, and religious instruction most useful, when imparted in early life.

   5.  That the Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life....


I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes and take so little pains to prevent them…we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government; that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by means of the Bible; for this Divine Book, above all others, constitutes the soul of republicanism.....By withholding the knowledge of [the Scriptures] from children, we deprive ourselves of the best means of awakening moral sensibility in their minds.

Letter written (1790’s) in Defense of the Bible in all schools in America   Benjamin Rush

Northwest Ordinance
    In 1787 Congress considered the issue of religion in the new western territories and passed the Northwest Ordinance. Article 3 of the Ordinance contained the following language: "Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged."  
See: An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, 1787 Broadside, Continental Congress, 1787  Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (118)

Northwest Ordinance July 13, 1787

The Northwest Ordinance established principles under which territories northwest of the Ohio River could be settled as part of the United States.  Excerpted below:

SECTION 14. It is hereby ordained and declared by the authority aforesaid, that the following articles shall be considered as articles of compact, between the original states and the people and states of the said territory, and forever remain unalienable, unless by common consent, to wit:

ARTICLE I. No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments in the said territory...
Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.


We regard it [public instruction] as a wise and liberal system of police by which property and life and the peace of society are secured.  We seek to prevent in some measure the extension of the penal code by inspiring a salutary and conservative principle of virtue and of knowledge.  Works of Daniel Webster (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1853) vol I, pp 41-42, Dec 22., 1820.

[However, t]he attainment of knowledge does not comprise all which is contained in the larger term of education.  The feelings are to be disciplined; the passions are to be restrained; true and worthy motives are to be inspired; a profound religious feeling is to be instilled, and pure morality inculcated.  (Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court would agree that this could only be done by having the government teach the Bible.) vol II, pp 107-108, Oct 5: 1840 - Works of Daniel Webster

The cultivation of the religious sentiment represses licentiousness . . . inspires respect for law and order, and gives strength to the whole social fabric. vol II, p 615, July 4, 1851 - Works of Daniel Webster


Congress resolved that public lands be available for religious purposes.

    Responding to Bishop John Ettwein (1721-1802), Congress voted that 10,000 acres on the Muskingum River in the present state of Ohio "be set apart and the property thereof be vested in the Moravian Brethren . . . or a society of the said Brethren for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity."  The Delaware Indians were the intended beneficiaries of this Congressional resolution. See: Records of the Continental Congress in the Constitutional Convention, July 27, 1787  National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (119)

See: Delaware Indian and English Spelling Book for the Schools of the Mission of the United Brethren  David Zeisberger  Philadelphia: Mary Cist, 1806 Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

    Education without religion is in danger of substituting wild theories for the simple common sense rules of Christianity.   

Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph

        And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.     George Washington

 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, inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity… and leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.

   Samuel Adams, October 4, 1790

Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705), Puritan minister and poet, was born in England and came to America at the age of seven.           

         He studied theology and graduated from Harvard in 1651 where he then became a tutor for the following two years.  In 1655 he began to preach but ill health soon prevented him from officiating in the pulpit for many years.  Once he was well enough, he resumed his duties as a preacher and began practice as a physician as well.  He was known as a cheerful philanthropist, "a man of the beatitudes, ministering not alone to the spiritual but to the physical needs of his flock, having studied medicine for that purpose."   

         His Day of Doom, published in 1662, was a bestseller in early New England within the year, selling eighteen hundred copies.  It became a classic found in most American households for the next century. As late as 1828 it was found that many aged persons had memorized it in school and could still repeat it. 


About Day of Doom    

       The magnificent poem uses verses from the Bible to unfold events to show what it may be like when God unexpectedly comes to Earth.  It starts out serenely on earth prior to God's intervention: "Still was the night, serene and bright, when all Men sleeping lay; Calm was the season, and carnal reason thought so 'twould last for ay."   Much as described in the days of Noah, sinners are living the high life while wallowing in sin.  The most vile of people are feeling arrogant and secure.  Suddenly they are surprised as the poem depicts the appearance of God as a bright light and thundering voice.  Men are quickly shocked and begin to cower in fear.    There is no place for them to run.  Their hearts fail them.

        God rejects their pleas for mercy and sends them to the eternal lake of fire.  The tortures endured are described:: "Their pain and grief have no relief, their anguish never endeth.  There they must lie and never die though dying every day."   In contrast, we are reminded of Heaven as the place for the righteous.  Those who love God will rejoice to meet Him and experience the glory of His love: "O glorious place! Where face to face  Jehovah may be seen  For God above in arms of love doth dearly them embrace."

Should not the Bible regain the place it once held as a schoolbook? Its morals are pure, its examples are captivating and noble....In no Book is there so good English, so pure and so elegant, and by teaching all the same they will speak alike, and the Bible will justly remain the standard of language as well as of faith.

  Fisher Ames, Author of the First Amendment

The Law given from Sinai [The Ten Commandments] was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code.
John Quincy Adams. Letters to his son.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Savage

In my view, 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 of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

Noah Webster, Father of public education in America



        "God's Word, contained in the Bible, has furnished all necessary rules to direct our conduct."

    In 1832, Noah Webster published his History of the United States, in which he wrote: The brief exposition of the constitution of the United States, will unfold to young persons the principles of republican government; and it is the sincere desire of the writer that our citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament or the Christian religion.

The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free Constitutions of Government.

When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers just men who will rule in the fear of God. The preservation of a republican government depends on the faithful discharge of this duty;

If the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made not for the public good so much as for the selfish or local purposes;
Corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizens will be violated or disregarded.

If a republican government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the divine commands, and elect bad men to make and administer the laws.

An Alphabet of Lessons for Youth.

A Wise son maketh a glad father, but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.

BEtter is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure & trouble therewith.

COme unto Christ all ye that labor and are heavy laden and he will give you rest.

DO not the abominable thing which I hate saith the Lord.

EXcept a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

FOolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

GODLINESS is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and that which is to come.

HOLINESS becomes GOD's house for ever.

IT is good for me to draw near unto GOD.

KEEP thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.

LIARS shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone.

MANY are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivereth them out of them all.

NOW is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.

OUT of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.

PRAY to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which sees in secret shall reward thee openly.

QUIT you like men, be strong, stand fast in the faith.

REMEMBER thy Creator in the days of thy youth.

SEest thou a man wise in his own conceit, there is more hope of a fool than of him.

TRUST in God at all times, ye people, pour out your hearts before him.

UPON the wicked, God shall rain an horrible tempest.

WO to the wicked, it shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him.

EXHORT one another daily while it is called to day, lest any of you be hardened thro' the deceitfulness of sin.

YOUNG men ye have overcome the wicked one.

ZEal hath consumed me, because thy enemies have forgotten the word of God.


Above from New England Primer, standard American school book in 16th and 17th centuries.



DAR Timeline Grand Old Flag Military Role of Religion Education States Represented Sources Consulted


The cultivation of literature will greatly promote the public welfare.  In every community, while provision is made that all should be taught to read the Scriptures, and the very useful parts of common education, a good proportion should be carried through the higher branches of literature.  Effectual measures should be taken for preserving and diffusing knowledge among a people.

Ezra Stiles

 It has been the error of the schools to teach astronomy, and all the other sciences, and subjects of natural philosophy, as accomplishments only; whereas they should be taught theologically, or with reference to the Being who is the author of them: for all the principles of science are of divine origin. Man cannot make, or invent, or contrive principles: he can only discover them; and he ought to look through the discovery to the Author.   Thomas Paine

 The evil that has resulted from the error of the schools, in teaching natural philosophy as an accomplishment only, has been that of generating in the pupils a species of atheism.  Instead of looking through the works of creation to the Creator himself, they stop short, and employ the knowledge they acquire to create doubts of his existence. They labour with studied ingenuity to ascribe every thing they behold to innate properties of matter, and jump over all the rest by saying, that matter is eternal.

“The Existence of God--1810”    Thomas Paine





Pretexts and Commandments

1. Thou shalt have no more gods but me

2. Before no idol bend thy knee

3. Take not the name of God in vain

4. Dare not the Sabbath day profane

5. Give both thy parents honor due

6. Take heed that thou no murder do

7. Abstain from words and deeds unclean

8. Steal not, though thou be poor and mean

9. Make not a willful lie, nor love it

10. What is thy neighbor's, dare not covet.

                1843 Poem for school children