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

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

Part 3: Puritan Education in New England

Historian Richard Greaves called the Puritan dream of “a universally enlightened society” a “heritage” left to future generations.[i] This idea of universal literacy was slow to develop in England and Europe, but had its most immediate fruits in the Puritan colonies of New England. It was in the New England colonies in the 17th century that Puritan ideas were given the freedom to shape a society like never before. While Puritan ideals certainly impacted societal moral standards and church life, it could be argued that they had their greatest impact on education and literacy in the colonies.

Puritan New England had remarkably high literacy.

Perhaps calling Puritan New England a “universally enlightened society” is an overstatement. However, when one compares the literacy rates of colonial New England to old England and Virginia, the differences are striking. Historians that have quantitatively researched literacy rates in England, New England, and Virginia have shown this difference. By the time of the American Revolution, New England boasted a male literacy rate of about 85 percent and of nearly 100 percent in the city of Boston.[ii] While female literacy was considerably lower (about 60 percent), these numbers are still remarkable when compared to England and Virginia.[iii] In England and Virginia male literacy was still at 60 percent by 1790 and female literacy much lower.[iv] With nearly every man and the majority of women being able to read, Puritan New England achieved something no other society had ever found possible.

How did the New England Puritans achieve a literate society? A partial answer to this question is that they did it through legislation. As early as 1642, Massachusetts passed a law calling for parents to educate their children. More famously, in 1647, the colony famously passed what became knows as the “Old Deluder Satan Act.” This law called for all towns and communities of at least 50 people to establish schools and provide teachers for those schools so that Satan would not be able to “keep men from knowledge of the Scriptures.”[v] Again, one sees the theological purpose behind Puritan education. In the Puritan view, literacy and knowledge of the Bible and theology were foundational to Christian living. Unlike in England where this knowledge was limited to a literate faction, New England established it for all.

Puritans prioritized education for all levels.

It follows, therefore, that education began young and in the home. While schools were established according to the law, good Puritan families did not wait for the school to educate their children. Children needed to learn to read the Scripture, to know God’s word. In Puritan New England, families sought to teach their children to read and write and to memorize their catechism as early as possible (usually five or six). There was a sense of urgency embraced by the Puritan community in New England. Early death was a regular occurrence. Children, because of original sin, were sinners by nature. They must learn to read and learn of God as young as possible. As Cotton Mather said when asked when children should learn to read, “BETIMES! BETIMES! Let the Children have the Early Knowledge of the Holy Scripture.”[vi]

Sometimes historical dates seem like arbitrary numbers malevolent teachers force their victims students to memorize. In this case, dates tell the story. In 1620, the first group of Puritans arrived in New England aboard the famous Mayflower. In 1630, Puritan immigrants from England founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1636, the theocratic government of Massachusetts founded Harvard College to train its ministers, doctors, and lawyers. Within 16 years of any settlement and with 6 years of founding Massachusetts, the Puritans had erected an institution of higher learning. While they were still taming the wilderness and erecting their modest homes, education—specifically religious education—was a priority. This is perhaps even more remarkable when compared to the foundation of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Founded in 1693, William and Mary was established 86 years after the first settlers arrived in Jamestown colony.

The New England Primer gives us insight into the Puritan classroom.

As they established community grammar schools and Harvard College, New England Puritans began to publish educational curricula that better fit their perspective. The most popular of these materials was the New England Primer. First published around 1687, the Primer was the chief tool used in the American colonies for students to learn the alphabet.

The Primer used pictures and poetic couplets to teach both the alphabet and biblical lessons. It begins, “In Adam’s fall, We sinned all” and continues to teach about biblical figures such as Job, Peter, Esther, and David, as well as lessons about cats, dogs, eagles, lions, and the King.[vii] This section is followed by a series of statements that every child was to commit to memory. After twelve sentences on the child’s duty, the Primer adds another “Alphabet Lesson for Youth,” this time using Scripture verses to illustrate every letter of the alphabet.[viii] Some editions of the Primer conclude with the Story of John Roger, a Marian martyr and example of Christian virtue.

The New England Primer may show the overwhelming importance of theological instruction in the education of youth, but Puritan education in New England was by no means limited to the study of Scripture. Rather than limiting themselves, New England Puritans, much like Milton and other English Puritans, saw biblical instruction as the foundation of a good education. Education in New England, especially the higher education offered by Harvard College, was very receptive to experimental science.[ix]

Puritan Education was broad in content but strict in discipline.

New England Puritans were also known to be students of ancient languages, pagan literature, and philosophy. They placed a high importance on reason and on logical thought. While this emphasis is a product of Renaissance humanism, it was also theologically guided. One scholar notes, “New England humanism had a moral and a theological purpose: men studied the ancient classics in order to become familiar with the ancient tongues, and men needed a knowledge of the ancient tongues in order to interpret the ancient text of the Scriptures.”[x] While they held the classics in high esteem, they saw that the purpose of education was not just to gain knowledge, but mostly to gain knowledge of God. It is clear that English Puritan educational theorists, like Milton, had a profound impact on Puritan society in New England.

It is certainly well established that discipline in Puritan education was strict and corporal. The New England Primer even says: “An idol fool, is whipped at school.”[xi] Cotton Mather’s famous dictum to parents “Better whipt than dam’d” is often seen as the essence of Puritan education.[xii] As we have seen, this is clearly not the whole story. In his extensive study of Puritan families and their education, Historian Edmond Morgan concluded: “Puritan education was intelligently planned, and the relationship between parent and child that it envisaged was not one of harshness and severity but of tenderness and sympathy.”[xiii]

The Puritans desired a society of lay intellectualism, a society where everyday people could read and think not necessarily for themselves, but the way God intended them to think. In New England, they built that society. They read more than any society that preceded them. More of them read than in the majority of countries to this day. They read the Bible, but not only the Bible. They read Homer and Plato, and their own authors like Milton and Bunyan. They studied both the supernatural deity that they believed gave them salvation, as well as the natural world He had made. Their philosophy of education was broad, not rigid and narrow like many believe. While it was broad, it was also focused. It had a unifying theme, a core value, and a purpose behind it—the knowledge of God.

[i] Richard L. Greaves, The Puritan Revolution and Educational Thought: Background for Reform (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 146.

[ii] David D. Hall, “Education and the Social Order in Colonial America.” Reviews in American History 3 (1975): 179; Gloria Main, “An Inquiry into When and Why Women Learned to Write in Colonial New England” in Journal of Social History 24 (1991): 585.

[iii] Main, 581.

[iv] Hall, 179.

[v] Joel Spring, The American School, 1642-1985 (New York: Longman, 1986), 3.

[vi] Quoted in Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth Century New England, 2nd edition (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 96.

[vii] The New England Primer in Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer, eds. The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 294.

[viii] Ibid., 295.

[ix] Raymond Stearns, “Assessing the New England Mind,” Church History 10 (1941): 257.

[x] Ibid., 258.

[xi] New England Primer, 294.

[xii] Quoted in Morgan, The Puritan Family, 103.

[xiii] Ibid., 108.

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

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.

5 thoughts on ““To Know God Aright”: Puritans and the Gift of Education III

  • August 29, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    I’m a bit behind on this series as I was on vacation when the first part came out. But I’ll catch up. This is fascinating and edifying to me. Erasmus has long been labeled a “Christian humanist” and I think he was a trailblazer of sorts in that way. It is much needed. The apostles being “unlearned” men was different to me because they were with Jesus for 3 years. Many people (not all) need to be taking this way of life to heart. As I’ve read more biographies this year than ever, I’ve been blown away by how people (mainly Christians) in every century knew things like Latin and Greek, to read things to be educated.

  • August 29, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    Also, I recall when I was very new at Welch College in the late 90’s, Dr. Darrell Holley spoke in chapel one day about reading voraciously and not just the Bible. I scoffed at that with all of my 19 years of human wisdom. Boy was I wrong. I am thankful for students there like Charles and Joel, my fellow church members in Chicago today and also REO today for helping me want to read more.

  • August 30, 2018 at 10:03 am

    I have enjoyed the articles, Dave, especially this last one. You write the way I think a historian ought to write; informing, in a balanced, nuanced way, to stress your viewpoint or philosphy, true, but also to encourage seeking truth. Thank you.

  • August 30, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    Dave, I have immensely enjoyed this series. Extremely informative and very interesting. Hope to see more historical articles from you in the future.

  • August 31, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for the support. I am wanting to explore this sort of thing a little more in the future, especially among Baptists of the 17th century, but it takes a lot of time for a high school teacher to have time to do good scholarly research.


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