Christian Education - Part I

Early American education and the Christian faith were inseparable. If Noah Webster was alive today, he would not recognize how word definitions have been modified or changed from their original meaning. For example, in Webster’s original dictionary published in 1828, his definition was: “Education—The bringing up, as a child, instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.”

Webster stated, “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.”

One can clearly see Webster’s true intent and purpose for education. In comparison to today, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language defines education as: “1. the process of educating especially by formal schooling; teaching; training. 2. knowledge, ability, etc. thus developed. 3. a) formal schooling. b) a kind or stage of this: as, a medical education. 4. systematic study of the methods and theories of teaching and learning.”

In Noah Webster’s United States History book, he has a chapter on the U. S. Constitution. There is a section with the heading, Origin of Civil Liberty, which contains this, “Almost all the civil liberty now enjoyed in the world owes its origin to the principles of 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.”

Early Education in America
At the time of the American Revolution, almost every child in America was educated. The literacy level was virtually 100 percent. Even on the frontier, it was greater than 70 percent. John Adams said that to find someone who couldn’t read was as rare as a comet. When tutors were hired, they were most often ministers, and those that went to college were instructed by ministers.

Early Public Schools
The first school in New England was the Boston Latin School. It was started in 1636 by Rev. John Cotton to provide education for those who were not able to receive it at home. The first public schools, also known as common schools, were thoroughly Christian. In 1642, the General Court enacted legislation requiring each town to see that children were taught, especially to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of this country. By 1720, Boston had far more private schools than public ones, and by the close of the American Revolution, many towns had no public, common schools at all. There were no public schools in the southern colonies until 1730, and there were only five by 1776. Education in religion was central to our founders. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “… the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

The type of education that shaped our founders’ character and ideas was thoroughly Christian. It imparted Christian character and produced honest, industrious, compassionate, respectful, and law-abiding men. It imparted a biblical worldview and produced people who were principled thinkers.

The Bible was truly the first textbook for education. Another example of this is found in The New Haven Code of 1655. It required that children be made “able duly to read the Scriptures … and in some competent measure to understand the main grounds and principles of Christian religion necessary to salvation.” By now you can see that our nation was founded on Christian principles that were taught in every venue of education. Let’s look at some of the early books that were used in public and private education besides the Bible.

Hornbooks were brought to America from Europe by the colonists and were common from the 1500s to the 1700s. A hornbook was a flat piece of wood with a handle, upon which a sheet of printed paper was attached and covered with transparent animal horn to protect it. A typical hornbook had the alphabet, the vowels, a list of syllables, the invocation of the Trinity, and the Lord’s Prayer. There were also over 500 different catechisms used in early education; the Westminster Catechism became the most prominent one. The New England Primer was the most prominent schoolbook for about 100 years and was used through the 1800s. It sold more than three million copies in 150 years. Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller was first published in 1783 and sold over 100 million copies. It was one of the most influential textbooks and was based on God’s Word. The McGuffey Readers, written by university professor William Holmes McGuffey, was maybe the most significant force in the framing of our national morals and values other than the Bible.

American Colleges
One hundred and six of the first 108 colleges were started on the Christian faith. By the close of 1860, there were 246 colleges in America. Seventeen of these were state institutions. Almost every other one was founded by Christian denominations or by individuals who avowed a religious purpose. There were many colleges that were started before America’s independence, such as, Columbia, founded in 1754, called King’s College up until 1784; Dartmouth, 1770; Brown started by the Baptists in 1764; Rutgers in 1766, started by the Dutch Reformed Church; Washington and Lee, 1749; and Hampton-Sydney in 1776, started by the Presbyterians.

The large Ivy League colleges were also formed for the Christian student to excel in education and the knowledge of God. Harvard College, formed in 1636, stated an Original Rule: “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.”

Yale University was started by Congregational ministers in 1701, “… for the liberal and religious education of suitable youth … to propagate in this wilderness, the blessed reformed Protestant religion…”

Princeton was associated with the Great Awakening. It was founded by the Presbyterians in 1746. Rev. Jonathan Dickinson became its first president, declaring, “Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.” Wow! How far have our citadels of learning fallen?

Over the last year, my articles have been about false doctrine and error that has come into the church through philosophy and education. The question we will address next month will be: How did our learning institutions become so corrupted from the truth of the gospel and God’s Word?


You can get in touch with
Frances & Friends by mail at:

Frances & Friends
P.O. Box 262550
Baton Rouge,
LA 70826

OR by Email