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

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series “To Know God Aright”: Puritans and the Gift of Education

Part 2: The Puritan Philosophy of Education

In 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War, leaders of the Scottish Presbyterian Church and the English Congregationalist Churches produced what could be considered the most profound philosophical statement ever written by mere mortals. It was the opening statement of a catechism, or a question and answer tool used to educate young people in religion. These men were Puritans and they famously asked: “What is the chief end of man?” Their Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[i] While the Westminster Assembly of Divines said and wrote much more than these words, this concise statement describing the purpose of human existence is the summit of Puritan thought. In many ways, it was the great gift of the Puritan movement to future generations. In many ways, it describes not only their theology but also their philosophy of life, including their view of education.

The printing presses of 17th century England proliferated new Primers, catechisms, or books on educational philosophy. Education was a hot topic in the bustling streets of early modern England. This was especially true among the Puritans who, as we saw in Part One, were already a more educated lot. Like all things the Puritans did, their education reforms were guided by their desire to better know God, glorify him more, and enjoy him forever.

Milton advocated a God-centered educational curriculum.

While many Puritan tract writers sought to reform education, John Milton’s On Education serves as a representative work of Puritan education reforms.[ii] Although he is more famous for his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton began his career writing Puritan tractates and running a small school. In this book, Milton challenges many medieval assumptions about education and advocates a Christian Renaissance style curriculum.

The first thing one notices about On Education is that his reforms in education are theologically guided. Milton establishes the purpose of education stating, “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents [Adam and Eve] by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which united to the heavenly grace of faith, makes up the highest perfection.”[iii] In Milton’s view, education is to help humans out of their depravity by giving them tools by which they can know God.

At this point, one wonders if Milton believed that education was something humans could do to bring one closer to salvation. Could educating one’s self be seen as a work toward salvation? This certainly seems to conflict with the Calvinism so dominant in Puritan thought. Although Milton was not as Calvinistic (or even orthodox) as many of his contemporaries, this dichotomy between human responsibility to gain an education to further one’s knowledge of God and human inability to know God without divine grace is not unique to him. Historian Edmond Morgan notes that in the society of Puritan New England, “The ultimate purpose of education, then, was salvation.”[iv] Yet, this society never could fully reconcile their nearly sacramental view of education with their Calvinist theology.[v] It appears that Milton, like most Puritans, lived with this tension.

While this tension remained the theological foundation for education was still clearly communicated and implemented by the Puritan faithful. To know God, one must know his word. This is, of course, a call for biblical literacy and theological training through catechesis, but it is also a mandate for moral instruction. Milton called for a “true virtue” which was a product of knowing God’s Word.[vi] At its core, therefore, the purpose of education was theological and moral.

Milton proposed a liberal arts education curriculum.

A second key aspect of Milton’s program of educational reform is that it is to be broad or liberal. In this way, his program is a variation of Renaissance humanism. Students are first to learn grammar (English, Greek, and Latin), then to read and learn to love the Greek and Latin classics.[vii] Undoubtedly influenced by Renaissance Humanists like Erasmus and Castiglione, as well as the Protestant Reformers, Milton called for “a complete and generous education, that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.”[viii] An educated man was to be a Renaissance man, not a mere specialist. This was because a man with a liberal education was a liberated man.

Aside from the theological and moral foundation and humanist curriculum, On Education called for education to be practical. While Milton was no utilitarian in his philosophy, he believed that students should put in practice what they learn as soon as they are able to.[ix] He also argued that students should study practical subjects such as geometry, sailing, and warfare.[x] Milton’s approach was both a traditional humanist approach and a modern one. Like other Puritans, he believed in the importance of ancient languages, classical literature, and biblical training. Also like other Puritans, he made room for practical subjects and experimental science.[xi]

Many often fail to realize how practical Puritan education really was. After a solid foundation, an adolescent Puritan in England or New England would typically be apprenticed in a trade. He would often live with another family and learn from the master of the house his trade. This was most certainly part of the educational process for most Puritan families. While apprenticeships were common in all of Europe, Puritan families strove to ensure that their young men did not study a trade before they could read and understand the Scripture.[xii]

The Puritan philosophy of education was not puritanical.

Even a cursory reading of Milton’s tract shows that his Puritan philosophy of education is in direct contradiction to the stereotype of Puritans as rigid, overly-pious, authoritarian men who studied the Bible and Calvinist theology to the exclusion of all other subjects. In his work The Puritan Revolution and Education Though, historian Richard Greaves argues against such an understanding of the Puritans. He states, “For the Puritans theology was superior though not contradictory to the other and subordinate areas of knowledge.”[xiii] He goes on to argue that the Puritans maintained the “supremacy of theology without altogether neglecting the remaining arts and sciences which, with theology, comprised the all-encompassing body of knowledge, divine and human.”[xiv] The Puritan philosophy of education was, therefore, theologically founded and theologically guided, but was also liberal in its scope and was to be practical in its execution.

Greaves also makes important observations when it comes to the Puritan’s goal of education in society. Focusing specifically on the sectaries or Separatists in Puritan England, he discusses their hatred of religious professionalism or dependence on clerical instruction for knowledge of the Bible. Greaves states: “What the sectaries [Puritans and Separatists] wanted was not professionalism but lay intellectualism. They rejected the idea of a society where a select group of monopolistic specialists victimized men through theology, law, and medicine.”[xv] While this view may me more anti-clerical than that of most Puritans, it has much the same ethos. The Puritans were driven by the idea that Scripture was to be read, studied, and followed by each individual. A large part of their solution to social problems and spiritual decay was a to produce a more educated population.

The Puritan emphasis on the salvation of the individual through knowledge of the Word of God is a logical corollary to the desire for lay intellectualism. Greaves reiterates this argument: “[The] ultimate goal was not a society dependent on professionals for knowledge of particular subjects, but a society of enlightened, knowledgeable laymen. Their dream of a universally enlightened society is our heritage.”[xvi] It is this dream that the Puritans brought to the New World. As we will see in Part 3, it was in this New World context that this dream was made a reality.

The Puritans sought education for their children primarily so that they could know their Creator through reading the Scripture. They hoped this method would produce both salvation and moral excellence, or at least help them along in the process. They would not stop there, however. They wanted vocationally educated and economically competent heirs. They sought the most liberal education for their children that their society could afford. They desired to produce holy renaissance men who were not utterly dependent on elites for knowledge. They wanted much more out of education than any society had ever offered. For the most part, they achieved it.

[i] Westminster Shorter Catechism, https://reformed.org/documents/wsc/index.html?_top=https://reformed.org/documents/WSC.html

[ii] Identifying Milton as a Puritan is a subject of much debate. As I have defined Puritans broadly, Milton, especially in his early years, is certainly in this vein. Moreover, On Education is considered by many to be representatively Puritan on this subject. Richard L. Greaves, The Puritan Revolution and Educational Thought: Background for Reform (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 41.

[iii] John Milton, On Education in Richard M. Gamble, ed. The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 469.

[iv] Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth Century New England, 2nd edition (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 92.

[v] Ibid, 94.

[vi] Milton, 469.

[vii] Ibid., 471.

[viii] Ibid., 470.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid., 475.

[xi] Greaves, 41.

[xii] See Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family.

[xiii] Ibid., 38.

[xiv] Ibid., 39.

[xv] Ibid., 137.

[xvi] Ibid., 146.

Series Navigation<< “To Know God Aright”: Puritans and the Gift of Education“To Know God Aright”: Puritans and the Gift of Education III >>

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.

One thought on ““To Know God Aright”: Puritans and the Gift of Education II

  • August 29, 2018 at 8:27 am

    “The Puritans were driven by the idea that Scripture was to be read, studied, and followed by each individual.”

    Was this unique to the Puritans? What were others doing at that time?


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