America’s Christian Heritage – The Purpose Of Early National Education

“To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace in society.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Attending school three hundred years ago, a young student would have listened to a passage read directly from the Bible, bowed his head in prayer with the rest of his classmates when led to, and afterwards open his McGuffey reader (heavily laced with Biblical references) to the appropriate page.

Starkly in contrast today, laws and court rulings have not only stripped the education system “God-free,” but have also suppressed Christian students and teachers from evangelizing and sharing their faith.  And the results are showing clearer each passing day.  Such a difference over time makes one wonder, what was the original purpose of education in that day?  Why did they teach what they did?  What has been the impact of those efforts?

In the 1640’s, the colony of Massachusetts passed the Massachusetts School Laws, which was legislation that many today consider as the first steps towards a government-instituted public education system.  One of the acts, known today as the “Old Deluder Act,” stated the purpose for doing so was because of the colony’s belief that Satan had used man’s illiteracy in the past to keep individuals from reading the Scriptures.  This lack of education made them both unaware and incapable of discernment in spiritual matters.

Present-day Ivy League universities’ founding statements lined up quite similarly with this goal.   Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have been specifically instituted for the teaching of ministers in Congregationalist and Puritan theology.  Columbia and The College of William & Mary were established to train students as clergymen in the Church of England, and Dartmouth was founded to educate Native Americans in English/colonial customs and Christianity.

The Continental Congress, both before and after the installment of the Constitution, also prioritized the continuity of education.  In addition to chartering the government for the Northwest Territory in 1787, the national legislature called for the establishment of a university as one of the conditions for its settlement and statehood.

Why was the government so concerned with 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.”  Our founding fathers realized that without the sustaining of Christian practices and principles, our laws (indeed even our Constitution) would be meaningless to a Godless society; being soon diluted over time or even possibly overthrown by anarchy and chaos.

John Adams articulated this sentiment quite simply, stating, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The cause of preserving such a means for education was fully justified before, during, and after the War for Independence in a remarkably interesting way.  John Witherspoon, the only active minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, was the president of Princeton University from 1768-1794.  A student under his tutelage went on to be highly influential in the ratification of both our Constitution and Bill of Rights, as well as state and federal legislator, secretary of state, and eventually the president of the United States.  His name – James Madison.

Besides the above example, The Ivy League schools have contributed greatly to our society by educating our presidents (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Theodore Roosevelt), justices (John Jay, Joseph Story, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch), and legislators (Daniel Webster, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton).  Additionally, it graduated a number of ministers and physicians so they might, as Cotton Mather said eloquently, “…serve the commonwealth with their capacities.”

As we look at the results of the original purpose of these still-esteemed institutions, there is no doubt that the fruit of their founders’ labors have had a great impact on us, even today.  With the rich heritage of Biblical principles as their foundations, and a drive to serve God in their many capacities, they demonstrated to us the importance of Christ-centered education by the success of their students throughout our nation’s history.

May we be inspired by these examples to continue to place God as the focal point of education in our homes and whatever academic establishments remain salvageable, so that our hunger and thirst for knowledge (both scholastic and spiritual) may be continually filled and in doing so continue to serve our Lord.


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