“To Know God Aright”: Puritans and the Gift of Education

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series “To Know God Aright”: Puritans and the Gift of Education

Part One: Who were the Puritans?

Historians differ considerably on their usage of the term “Puritan.”

Along with the growing popular appeal of Calvinism among twenty-first century evangelicals is a growing interest in Puritans. What used to denote a joyless legalistic form of Christianity is now often understood to be a gospel-focused, God-centered intensity of faith. As a Christian historian, therefore, I find trying to understand the Puritans a fascinating process. Moreover, as a Christian educator I have come to understand the Puritan philosophy of education to be one of their greatest gifts to posterity. We are all the benefactors of their love of learning.

The Puritans are as difficult for twenty and twenty-first-century scholars to understand as they were for their contemporaries. Some historians have seen the Puritans as radicals who overthrew the traditional structures of monarchy and episcopacy by means of revolution. In this way, they are the forerunners of the American, French and even Communist Revolutions.[i] Others have portrayed the Puritan movement and its work ethic as the seedbed for eighteenth and nineteenth-century capitalism.[ii] This interpretation is a far cry from Communist revolutionaries. A more common approach to Puritans presents them as overly pious zealots who squelched individual liberties for the dream of a holy society or Calvinist theocracy. Those from this perspective have even coined the adjective “puritanical” as a synonym for strict, rigid or authoritarian. Still, others believe the Puritans to be the founders of American democracy, the champions of religious liberty, and the reformers of the Church of England. If one word can mean all these things, then how can it mean anything?[iii] If one is to learn something from the Puritan approach to education, one must first understand who he is talking about when he talks about Puritans. This three-part series of essays seeks to define what Puritanism means, and then show how these men and women reformed education first in England and then in New England.

What the term meant in the seventeenth-century.

The problem with all of these competing understandings of Puritanism is that they place seventeenth-century people into modern terms. Rather than being concerned with revolution, capitalism or democracy, the Puritans were concerned with the issues of their time, the chief of which was the reformation of the English Church. The movement grew out of the larger movement of Protestant reforms sweeping Europe in the sixteenth century. England was brought to Protestantism by Henry VIII’s desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, led back to Catholicism by his daughter Mary Tudor, and brought to a somewhat peaceful Protestant compromise by Elizabeth I. It was this compromise of Protestant theology and Catholic influences that gave rise to the Puritan movement. In short, Puritans believed that Protestant England was much too Catholic. They opposed the liturgy, feast days, clerical vestments, and the episcopal organizational structure of the Church.

At this point, it is important to point out the original usage of the term. For the most part, “Puritan” was used in a derogatory sense. Elizabeth’s successor James I was particularly antagonistic toward the Puritans as they were particularly disapproving of his insistence on an episcopal church government. James categorized the Puritans as those who were “trusting the private spirit of Reformation” rather than accepting the authority of the Church.[iv] James’ usage of the term, in many ways, gets to the heart of Puritanism—a movement dedicated to the authority of Scripture over against any other considerations. It was a movement that despite its certainty in the doctrine of human depravity believed that the Bible was powerful enough to change any man. It must be read and understood by everyman.

While the Puritans sought reform of the Church, they also sought to reform society. They wanted to eradicate sins that brought England further from its role as a Protestant kingdom, such as Sabbath-breaking, swearing, adultery, and drunkenness. They even outlawed Christmas because of its pagan associations. In their desire to reform the church and society, they were influenced by the model of John Calvin’s Geneva. Eventually, the Puritans had the opportunity to implement their reforms. In England, after the defeat and execution of Charles I at the end of the Civil War in 1649, the Puritans established a short-lived republican government under Oliver Cromwell. In New England starting in 1620, they established colonies built on principles drawn from their belief in the righteousness of God, the wickedness of humanity, and the authority of the Bible.

The Puritans, however, were not a political party or a united group with central leadership. They were loosely organized and many times very diverse in their beliefs. Most were Calvinistic, some were not, many attempted to balance the extremes in various ways. One issue that illustrates this diversity is separation from the Church of England. Many historians reserve the term Puritan only for those that stayed within institutionalized church. Those that separated are labeled Separatists. This distinction, while sometimes helpful, is of little use when discussing Puritanism in New England where they all in a sense separated. Many of those Separatists who left the Church of England also left England. Since they are known as Puritans in New England, their fellow Separatists will also be seen as a Puritans. Separatism, therefore, is a branch of Puritanism. Admittedly, this definition may be broad, but it does provide a framework for a discussion of Puritan reforms in education.

Puritans were more educated than average.

In attempting to define Puritans and discuss Puritan education, the educational background of the Puritans must be taken into consideration. Protestantism in general and Puritanism, in particular, had a special appeal to the literate lay people in towns and cities. In studying Reformation-era Germany and Switzerland, historian Steven Ozment demonstrated successfully that the message of the Reformers appealed primarily to this demographic.[v] Who else would read the tracts and sermons of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin?

Similarly, Puritanism grew among the more literate city and town folk. One historian points out that: “Though Puritanism appealed to men and women of every walk of life, it flourished in towns especially among the ‘industrious sort’ – those who had succeeded by effort which they attributed to grace.”[vi] In less secular and caustic terms, the Puritan message appealed to the successful, the middle class, and the professional people of London and other urban areas. It appealed to the already literate. These men and women regularly read tracts, owned Bibles, and thought their way through lengthy sermons. These were not typical Englishmen of the late 16th and 17th centuries; they highly valued education for themselves and their posterity.

When it comes to literacy and education the colonies established by Puritans were also not typical English colonies. They certainly weren’t typical of Spanish, French, or Portuguese colonies. As we will see in Part Three, the literacy rate in New England around the time of the 1776 Revolution was higher than any other place in the world!

Puritans wanted to radically change their society for the better.

While Puritanism was born out of dissatisfaction with the Elizabethan Settlement and the reign of James I, it began to prosper during the reign of Charles I. Many scholars have called this time the Puritan Revolution (1641-1660), the time where Puritans came to power in Parliament and used the New Model Army to defeat Charles I, execute him for treason, and establish a Puritan government under Parliament and Oliver Cromwell. War is a time of turmoil, even for those on the winning side. This period was also one of change and new ideas. In this context, the Puritans saw an opportunity for reshaping society, an opportunity to establish a holy republic.

In building a new society, they thought it a priority to reform education. As historian Richard Greaves points out, “No Puritan of any kind could envisage a Holy Commonwealth without a reformed church and piously oriented schools.”[vii] While much is known about Puritan attempts to reform the church, their emphasis on education is underappreciated. The Puritan Revolution was a time of new government, new ideas, and new opportunities. The Puritans saw it as a time for educational reform. These ideas on education will be examined in Part Two.

Were the Puritans really puritanical? Is the reputation for joyless and thoughtless authoritarianism zeal deserved? The answer depends much more on the presuppositions of the one answering the question than on the historical record. Certainly, the Puritans had high moral standards and desired to implement their beliefs in society that makes most modern people bristle. Of course, they went too far in outlawing Christmas. The Puritans were, however, a people committed to one consuming idea—the knowledge and worship of God through the Holy Scriptures. Because of the need to read the Bible, this consuming idea led to the greatest educational reforms the world had yet seen.


[i] For an example see the works of Marxist historian Christopher Hill. Especially The World Turned Upside Down (London: Penguin Books, 1972).

[ii] For an example of this view see that classic work by Max Webber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1930).

[iii]Commenting on contradictory meanings of Puritan, Raymond Stearns writes, “The Puritan was a jealous bigot but he somehow gave us religious freedom; he was a gloomy snob but he gave us democracy; he was a tight-fisted, hard-working Calvinist with a feudal background but he developed the capitalists system!” in Raymond Stearns, “Assessing the New England Mind,” Church History 10 (1941): 246.

[iv] King James I, Meditation upon the Lord’s Prayer quoted in Keith Durso, No Armor for the Back: Baptist Prison Writings 1600s-1700s (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007), 46.

[v] Steven Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities: The Appeal of Protestantism to sixteenth-century Germany and Switzerland (Hartford: Yale University Press, 1980).

[vi] Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 31.

[vii] Richard L. Greaves, The Puritan Revolution and Educational Thought: Background for Reform (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 6.

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David Lytle

Current history teacher, former missionary and youth pastor, grieving widower, father of the three cutest faces in creation, and giddy husband of a radiant bride. I also sang "I'm too sexy" for karaoke once. There was a crowd. My only comfort is that phones didn't make videos back then.

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