The founders of the United States believed that useful education – that which produced liberty – must have its foundation in Christianity
by Stephen McDowell
THE FOUNDERS OF THE UNITED STATES were very much aware of the relation of education and liberty. They knew that a people cannot be ignorant and free. Jefferson said it this way:
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Benjamin Franklin said that ignorance results in bondage:
A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.
The founders of the United States believed that useful education — that which produced liberty – must have its foundation in Christianity.
Though many may not recognize his name today, Benjamin Rush played a very significant role in American history. Although Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, his contributions were not limited to governmental affairs. He was also a professor of medicine, a writer, a principal founder of Dickinson College, and a leader in education. In addition, he served on many Bible and medical societies, and societies for the abolition of slavery. He wrote in 1806:
In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican form of government, that is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible. For this divine book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism.1
Education in colonial America was primarily centered in the home and church, with the Bible being the focal point of all education. Schools were started to provide a Christian education to those who were not able to receive such training at home and to supplement home education. The first schools were started by the church. The first common schools originated with the school law of 1647 in Massachusetts, which stated:
It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.2
Our founders recognized that Satan wants to keep people ignorant. If he can keep them ignorant, he can keep them in bondage. This motivated them to not only start schools but also colleges.
Colleges and universities were started as seminaries to train a godly and literate clergy. In fact, 106 of the first 108 colleges were founded on the Christian faith. One of the original rules and precepts of Harvard College stated:
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.3
The father of the American Revolution, Samuel Adams, declared that education in the principles of the Christian religion is the means of renovating our age. He wrote in a letter on October 4, 1790, to John Adams, then vice president of the United States:
Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government, without which they never can act a wise part in the government of societies, great or small; in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.4
Knowledge apart from God and His truth is little better than complete ignorance, because the most important aspect of education is the imbuing of moral principles. All education is religious – it imparts a basic set of principles and ideals, a worldview. How the youth are educated today will determine the course a nation takes in the future.
Noah Webster understood this very well. He spent his entire adult life working to reform America and to provide a foundation of liberty, happiness, and prosperity for all citizens. Education from a Christian perspective was key. In 1839 he wrote:
Practical truths in religion, in morals, and in all civil and social concerns ought to be among the first and most prominent objects of instruction. Without a competent knowledge of legal and social rights and duties, persons are often liable to suffer in property or reputation, by neglect or mistakes. Without religious and moral principles deeply impressed on the mind, and controlling the whole conduct, science and literature will not make men what the laws of God require them to be; and without both kinds of knowledge, citizens cannot enjoy the blessings which they seek, and which a strict conformity to rules of duty will enable them to obtain.5
Numerous people in America today agree that a lack of moral values is the root of the country’s problems, yet without a standard of moral absolutes rooted in a sovereign God and His truth, and without these being taught and lived in the homes, in the schools, in the government, and in the media, America as a nation will not be able to impart these needed morals.
The people behind the French Revolution believed virtue was necessary for their efforts to succeed, but they thought they could be virtuous on their own apart from God. The founding fathers of the United States knew this could never be. George Washington in his Farewell Address specifically addressed this belief when he said:
And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion… ®eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.6
1 Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, by Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia, printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806, p. 113.
2 Significant Documents in United States History, Richard Morris, editor, Vol. 1, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1969, p. 15-16.
3 New England’s First Fruits, 1643, in Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History, by Rosalie Slater, San Francisco, Foundation for American Christian Education, 1980, p. vii.
4 The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, by William V. Wells, Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1865, Vol. III, p. 301.
5 A Manual of Useful Studies, by Noah Webster, New Haven, S. Babcock, 1839, p. 77-78.
6 George Washington’s Farewell Address, September 17, 1796, in A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, by James D. Richardson, Washington, Bureau of National Literature and Art, 1910, 1:205-216.
From Providential Perspective, June 1995. Reprinted with permission.
Stephen McDowell holds a B.S. degree in physics, an M.S. in geology, and is executive director of the Providence Foundation, a non-profit educational organization that studies the relationship between religion and public life. McDowell is a member of the board of directors of Churches Serving Internationals, which publishes The Mandate.
“The only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican form of government … is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible.”
- Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence
Students Pray Across the World
Youth in formerly communist nations join prayer rallies
Does your university have a flagpole? If so, don’t be surprised to see a large group of students standing around it early in the morning on September 20. They’ll be joining more than 2,000,000 other college and high school students from around the U.S. and in many foreign countries. Their purpose is to pray for their schools, their friends, and the nations.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the event, which is called “See You at the Pole.” (“Pole” is short for “flagpole.”) The event begins the night before with a rally in South Carolina. Guests will include U.S. Congressman Steve Largent, who is a Christian, and many U.S. college students who will share how committing their lives to Jesus Christ has brought them hope and joy. The rally will be broadcast live on nationwide radio throughout the United States.
“See You at the Pole” began in 1990 at a school in Dallas, Texas, when a few students gathered spontaneously for prayer. By 1991, it became a nationwide event, and has continued growing as more and more young people participate and pray for their schools, for fellow youth, and for their nations.
Based on surveys returned by participants, as many as 75 percent of the high schools in the U.S. had students involved last year. Students also met for prayer in other countries, including in every major city in the Philippines, in Moscow’s Red Square, and in Belgium, Canada, England Guatemala, Singapore, Saipan, Japan, and elsewhere.
In Romania, a nation that was once a communist atheist state, young people met last September in a public park in the city of Targu Mures at the statue of a freedom fighter and former king of their country. At a school in Taichung, Taiwan, a group of students met representing 23 different countries.
For more information, or to find out if students at your university plan to participate, contact National Network of Youth Ministries:
Telephone: (619) 592-9200 telephone
America Online: NNetworkYM@aol..com.