All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1993

Education in America

Susan Alder is co-author of Perot: The Populist Appeal of Strong-Man Politics.

Heirs of the Reformation, the first settlers came to America with a firm belief in the necessity and desirability of education. The necessity was rooted in their belief in the “priesthood of all believers.” The privilege of communion with and intimate access to God, which came through the reading of the Word and prayer, no longer remained the right of a priestly hierarchy but was open to all who believed. The responsibility of knowing God and thinking his thoughts after him required a thorough knowledge of his Holy Word, the Bible. This mandated that believers be literate; it also mandated that education be part of evangelism.

Parents bore the responsibility for seeing that children were literate, educated in the faith, and able to provide for themselves in society. This concept was rooted in the Biblical teaching that the family—not the church and not civil government—was created by God as the primary governing body in society. Well- governed families produced well-ordered societies. Thus, the family was the guardian of a society’s character and culture.

Pastors and elders in the church were to encourage parents in their work and supplement it as necessary by instructing the parents or by direct involvement with the children when, for example, the pastor fulfilled his catechizing responsibilities or the parents asked the pastor to tutor the child. Often when several parents wanted the pastor to tutor their children, the pastor would instruct the children in a group instead of individually, thus forming a type of “school.”

If parents were derelict in their duties, they opened themselves up to church—not civil—discipline, the goal of which would be that the parents fulfill their responsibilities as parents. Parents did not even consider that the civil government in any way had the responsibility or should assume the responsibility of providing for the education of children.

Even in the early years of the colonies, parents were able to choose from a variety of means to round out their children’s education—private tutors (usually a minister), private schools, church schools, and apprenticeships. Private colleges were founded to provide higher education. Academies sprang up in larger towns to prepare students for college.

A notable exception to parental education came in the Massachusetts colony. A law passed by the General Court of the Massachusetts colony in 1642 required civil authorities to see that families educate children, servants, and apprentices. In 1647, the Massachusetts colony enacted a School Code which required appointment of a teacher in every township of 50 households. The teacher’s salary was to be paid by parents or citizens of the community through a tax. Townships of 100 families were to set up grammar schools supported by the town.

Educator Samuel Blumenfeld says of these compulsory laws, “They were the ordinances of a religious community upholding the orthodoxy of its doctrines and providing for its future leadership. None of the other English colonies, with the exception of Connecticut which had been settled by Massachusetts Calvinists, enacted such education laws.”[1] Blumenfeld also points out that the Bible commonwealth, peculiar to the Massachusetts colony, “lasted no more than sixty years.”[2] With its demise and a relaxation of compliance with the old laws, private education boomed in the Massachusetts colony so that by 1720 private schools outnumbered public ones in Boston.

In 1636, John Cotton of Boston willed half of his property to establish a school for disadvantaged children and orphans. Thus the Boston Latin School became the first school established in America outside the home.[3] Educational endeavors in the colonies also included mission work. In 1649, the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England reported 101 Indian missions in New England.[4] There were other mission agencies and missionaries active at this time as well.

Education at this time was not only Christian in that it included instruction in articles of Christian faith, but also in that it saw all reality defined by precepts and principles laid out in the Bible. As historian Clinton Rossiter has said, “The colonial mind was thoroughly Christian in its approach to education, philosophy, and social theory . . . .”[5]


The Great Awakening

Religious revivals occurred sporadically in the American colonies in the early 1700s. These culminated in The Great Awakening, which spread from Nova Scotia to Georgia in the 1740s to the 1760s, touching the lives of the majority of colonists. The great preacher of the Awakening was George Whitefield. Prior to Whitefield’s coming, traveling pastors spoke to congregations only at the invitation of their pastors. Whitefield bypassed this convention and preached in the open air to anyone who would listen. He insisted on a personal experience of salvation, and urged the laity to become involved in personal service to God. He insisted on an equality among believers and encouraged his listeners to question leadership if their teaching did not measure up to the truths of Scripture.

Since the revival took place wherever listeners could be gathered, no particular church had a claim to the converts. In fact, this revival brought converts into every fold. People who had seen God’s hand at work apart from denominational affiliation became more accepting of each other—in spite of religious controversies that arose during this time. Historians have pointed to this time of revival as the beginning of a Protestant consensus among Americans.

The number of lay ministries increased. Many were formed by people from different denominational backgrounds who found they could work together in a common cause without a common theology. Among the ministries were schools for Indians, Negroes, and children of indentured servants.[6] Likewise, more colleges were formed to handle the swell of young men going into the ministry as a result of the revival. Presbyterians were especially active at this time, establishing schools like William Tennent’s “Log College” (1727).[7]

According to one historian, “After 1750, a real flourishing of independent educational efforts seems to have swept through the colonies. New secondary academies, a proliferation of freelance teachers in the towns, often young ministers, sometimes formerly indentured and without congregations, began to spread a new educational ethos.”[8]

The number of schools continued to grow in pre-revolutionary America. By far, the majority were maintained by the churches and either provided educational opportunities for children of the church or for the poor. The number of charity schools increased in proportion to the influx of immigrants. Consequently, charity schools were more numerous in the northern colonies.

Education in the South was completely private until 1730, and by 1776, only five public schools existed in the South.[9] Educational opportunities were provided for poor children through apprenticeship programs. Tutors were popular among wealthy planters. Plantation schoolhouses were common where children, not only of the owner, but neighborhood children came to learn.

In 1783, Noah Webster wrote his “Blue-backed Speller” which taught principles of religion and morals in addition to language. Authors Beliles and McDowell comment that the “Blue-backed Speller,” which sold over 100 million copies in a century, “did more for American education than any other single book, except the Bible.”[10]

Secondary schools designed especially to prepare young men for college dotted the colonies. However, tutors were often used in private homes to prepare the college bound. Nine colleges were in service on the eve of the American Revolution: Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, King’s at New York, the College of New Jersey at Princeton, the College of Philadelphia, Rhode Island College, Queen’s, and Dartmouth.[11]

Literacy abounded in the colonies prior to and after the Revolution. The Frenchman Pierre Du Pont de Nemours described what he saw in America in a book written at the request of Vice President Thomas Jefferson, entitled National Education in the United States of America. Having surveyed education in America, De Nemours wrote:

The United States are more advanced in their educational facilities than most countries.

They have a large number of primary schools; and as their paternal affection protects young children from working in the fields, it is possible to send them to the schoolmaster—a condition which does not prevail in Europe.

Most young Americans, therefore, can read, write and cipher. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly—even neatly; while in Spain, Portugal, Italy, only a sixth of the population can read; in Germany, even in France, not more than a third; in Poland, about two men in a hundred; and in Russia not one in two hundred.

England, Holland, the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland, more nearly approach the standard of the United States, because in those countries the Bible is read; and in that form of religion the sermons and liturgy in the language of the people tend to increase and formulate ideas of responsibility. Controversy, also, has developed argumentation and has thus given room for the exercise of logic.

In America, a great number of people read the Bible, and all the people read a newspaper. The fathers read aloud to their children while breakfast is being prepared—a task which occupies the mothers for three-quarters of an hour every morning. And as the newspapers of the United States are filled with all sorts of narratives—comments on matters political, physical, philosophic; information on agriculture, the arts, travel, navigation; and also extracts from all the best books in America and Europe—they disseminate an enormous amount of information, some of which is helpful to the young people, especially when they arrive at an age when the father resigns his place as reader in favor of the child who can best succeed him.

It is because of this kind of education that the Americans of the United States, without having more great men than other countries, have the great advantage of having a larger proportion of moderately well informed men; although their education may seem less perfect, it is nevertheless better and more equally distributed.[12]


After the Revolution

The victory of the Revolution and the great freedoms guaranteed by the new Constitution were made possible in part by the consensus of thought and purpose which emerged from America’s first national event—the Great Awakening. After the Revolution, Americans thought their Republic could be maintained only by continuing with the same national solidarity.

America’s first challenge to its new national solidarity came in the nineteenth century with the westward expansion, the growth of industrialized cities, and the influx of immigrants. Many feared those moving west would return to barbaric ways in the wilderness. The quick expansion resulted in several states being added to the union, thus shifting the balance of political power away from the East.

The churches were challenged on two fronts—proclamation of the Gospel to a rapidly expanding audience and education of the newly converted. Voluntary societies were formed to help meet these needs. Some were involved in providing missionaries to preach the word, some supplied teachers, some helped publish and supply books and tracts for the new converts; others were involved in humanitarian activities.

Books and tracts became important items for traveling pastors; they provided a continuing education in the absence of the pastor. Voluntary societies were formed to supply these. Most notable among the agencies formed at this time were the American Bible Society in 1816 and the American Tract Society in 1825.

Missionary and educational societies were formed to establish churches and train ministers. After the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 set aside land in every township for the maintenance of public grammar schools, ministers served as schoolmasters until the schools could be made operational. In 1824, the American Sunday School Union began teaching the “Three R’s” in addition to Bible lessons to children who might not otherwise attend school. Churches, in particular Presbyterian and Congregationalist, were very active in founding academies and colleges for higher education.

Textbooks relied on a Biblical understanding of reality and a Protestant understanding of history. Webster’s famous dictionary of the American language, published in 1828, was the first American dictionary and defined words from a Biblical perspective using Scriptural references. Webster’s “Blue-backed Speller” continued to be used. In 1836, William Holmes McGuffey published his McGuffey Readers. One hundred twenty-two million copies were sold in 75 years. Like Webster, McGuffey undergirded the content of his books with Biblical concepts and morality.


The Lure of State Schools

With the variety in educational options in early America, tax-financed schools did not receive widespread support. The Massachusetts Colony’s early attempt at this type of public school failed. For years afterward, Massachusetts communities disobeyed legislative directives to establish schools, choosing instead to educate their children through private means.

Although some of the early statesmen, including Washington and Jefferson, had spoken in favor of some type of national education, there was little interest among the general public.[13] In 1789, Massachusetts passed a law regarding establishment of tax-supported schools. Connecticut and New Hampshire passed similar laws. In 1796, Virginia enacted a state law establishing a state school system. Since the legislation was noncompulsory, Virginians neither taxed themselves for, nor established, tax-supported schools.

Although it theoretically left educational opportunities up to the states, the federal government in the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 set aside land (one square mile) in every township. The income from the use of this land was to be earmarked for the maintenance of public grammar schools. Samuel Blumenfeld pointed out, “While the purpose of the land grants was to provide incentives to those who wished to establish communities in sparsely settled areas, the net effect was to encourage state governments to become involved in subsidizing education.”[14]

None of the legislation passed in these years was compulsory. Therefore, parents continued to educate their children at home, with tutors, or in private or church schools. Many local governments paid tuition for poor students to attend the schools of their choice. Many missionary agencies built and maintained schools for the poor in the large cities.

For years, it appeared the only strong advocates of state schools in America were the Unitarians of Boston, who denied Christian doctrines and accepted Rousseau’s philosophy that negative behavior in society was a result of miseducation—not man’s fallen nature. The Unitarians felt that man, who was essentially good, could be saved from the evils of society if he were properly educated. Samuel Blumenfeld has documented the Unitarian success in its press toward compulsory, government controlled, tax-supported state schools in his book Is Public Education Necessary?


The Nineteenth Century

Christian efforts to evangelize, educate, and minister to the rapidly growing population continued to be successful. As America approached the 1830s, educational opportunities abounded. Anyone who truly wanted an education could have one. Although common schools were in existence at this time in various places, most parents (even those paying taxes to support the common schools) continued to send their children to private institutions. In December 1832, H. D. Robinson bemoaned the prevalence of Christianity in the culture of the day: “Christian newspapers are numerous and well supported, Christian prayer meetings, Christian Sunday Schools, Christian public and private academies and universities, and various other mighty engines of Christian influence, are planted like the artillery of Heaven against the ramparts of reason and truth.”[15]

The educational system which was in place was obviously working very well. The majority of Americans were not interested in replacing it.

But the Unitarians would not be stopped. Eventually the resolve of the majority began to dissolve as the push for state education continued. Three factors became crucial in convincing Americans to reject the educational freedom that had built the greatest nation on earth. First, those interested in state education enlisted the support of teachers and clergy—even conservative clergy. While instilling doubt about the system that was successfully working, these spokesmen were effective lobbyists who won approval for their ideals in state legislatures before they were accepted by the citizens.

Second, approximately 35 million immigrants came to America in the nineteenth century. Unlike the first colonists, these were mostly poor and uneducated. Few, except the Irish, spoke English; many were Roman Catholic—whom many citizens thought presented a threat not only to American Protestantism, but the American way of life. Many wondered how these people would learn to participate not only in the American way of life, but the American system of government. Questions arose about the national loyalty of the Roman Catholics since they were served by priests whose allegiance was to Rome.[16]

Third, a move away from the religious principles of the colonists not only left the majority unprepared to refute the rationale behind the state school movement, but made them particularly receptive to it during times of stress. Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, “Public education as it was in the late nineteenth century, and is now, had not grown from seventeenth-century seeds; it was a new and unexpected genus whose ultimate character could not have been predicted and whose emergence had troubled well-disposed, high-minded people.”

In spite of the success that had accompanied individual, missionary, and church educational endeavors, many Christians, encouraged by the Unitarians, began to look longingly toward the state school. Legislation forming these schools and taxes for funding them were considered a small price to pay to control the new elements threatening their “Christian culture.”

Many Christians were persuaded that the state schools were the true savior of their society. Bible reading was incorporated into the new state schools—albeit in a “nonsectarian” way. Prayer was also a daily activity. Because the schools were to reflect Protestant plurality, denominational differences were not discussed. The burgeoning Sunday School movement, it was thought, gave the denominations the opportunity to see that children were taught the finer points of denominationalism.

The preservation of “Christian” America was a fundamental reason why Christians supported the state school movement in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many Christian parents were comfortable sending their children to the state schools, because they believed they would receive instruction in religious and moral values that matched their own. But in looking to the state schools, Christians made two costly mistakes: They turned from persuasion to coercion, from evangelism to state education for the preservation of their society. They also abandoned their own parental responsibilities.



One of the first groups to feel left out of the new state school system was the Catholics. The exclusive use of the King James Bible and the anti-Catholic references in religious practice and history classes forced Catholics to establish parochial schools to preserve their religious distinctives. As early as 1829 bishops urged establishment of Catholic schools. In 1884, instead of simply urging, the bishops commanded their formation. Thus the Catholic parochial school system came into being. Thomas F. Sullivan has pointed out, “In many places it was customary that when new parishes were founded, the first building to be erected was the school. Construction of the church, rectory, and convent could all wait until the school was operating and its debt at least partially retired.”[17]

Other religious groups protested the rising public school movement and continued to provide educational opportunities for their children. Among them were the Amish, Episcopalian, Quaker, Mennonite, Mora-vian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian. Those groups of the Anabaptist tradition (Amish, Mennonite, Brethren) were most consistent in insisting upon and providing for distinctive educational opportunities for their children. They understood it to be the only way they could hope to preserve their societal structure in the oceans of diversity that were sweeping across the country.

One hundred forty-two Swedish Lutheran congregations maintained 56 parochial schools in 1870; however, preservation of the Swedish language appeared to be the main goal of these efforts. Norwegian Lutheran clergy seeking to preserve their distinctives clashed with church members who wanted to become part of the New World. For the most part Lutherans tended to favor state schools. The debate was eased when Luther’s writings were interpreted to show that church and state had separate functions and mandates from Scripture—the state receiving the educational mandate. More pressure was put on Lutheran schools, and the anti-German sentiment during World War I forced the closing of many of their schools. It became necessary to show loyalty to the American way of life.[18]

Presbyterians historically had been strong advocates of Christian education. Their activity after the Great Awakening resulted in the establishment of primary and mission schools as well as colleges. Not only did they provide educational opportunities for children in their congregations, they used education as a means of mission activity. But when interest in the common schools arose, certain clergy were strong supporters of the state schools. These pastors, like many others, thought the Sunday School system was sufficient to counteract the non-denominational instruction of the religious education in the state schools.

However, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1847 received a report on parochial schools which concluded, “our State schools, in their best estate, can teach no higher morals or religion, than what may be called the average of public morals and religion. So long as the majority do not receive the truths of grace, State schools, their creature, can never teach the Gospel. In some States, it is already a matter of debate whether the word of God shall be admitted, and even if this were settled to our wishes, it needs scarcely be said our necessities demand something far higher than the bare reading of the Bible. In our State schools—Bible or no Bible—we have every assurance that Christ, and grace, and Gospel liberty, cannot, by authority, be so much as named; and without these there can be no Christian education.”[19]

This General Assembly resolved to circulate copies of this report to its churches and expressed its firm conviction that every congregation “establish within its bounds one or more primary schools, under the care of the Session of the Church, in which together with the usual branches of secular learning, the truths and duties of our holy religion shall be assiduously inculcated.”

In spite of this plea, the Presbyterian parochial movement of 1846-1870 was very disappointing, decimated by the rise of common schools, the division of the church into Northern and Southern branches, the Civil War, and theological disunity.

Northern Baptist efforts to establish academies in the late nineteenth century also met with failure. This failure was attributed to competition from state schools as well as a denominational ambivalence to the state school system.[20]

The final victory for state schools came as the states began to enact laws of compulsory attendance. Prior to the Civil War, only Massachusetts had such laws. After the Civil War other states began enacting them. By 1900, 31 states had some form of compulsory education law. As these laws became more coercive, parents lost more control over their children’s education to the point that they had no say in which state school they could attend.


The Twentieth Century

Catholic Schools. Over the years, Catholic schools grew in number and enrollment until the 1970s when many families moved from the cities to suburbia. Unfortunately, the high costs of building and maintaining schools resulted in fewer being built to care for the newly placed suburbanites. Schools in the cities began to close because of lack of enrollment and funds to keep the schools open.

Today, many Catholic schools in the cities have received a new lease on life due to enrollments of inner city children who are not Catholic. Many of these children are from poor families who sacrifice to send their children to the parochial school where they can receive a quality education in a safe environment.

Protestant Day Schools. The Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 which removed prayer and Bible reading from state schools woke many Christian parents from their slumber. They began evaluating the state schools and found them wanting—religiously, morally, and intellectually. The American Protestantism of the nineteenth century had been replaced with the secular humanism of the twentieth. Parents began to seek educational alternatives for their children.

Once again, small private and church operated schools began to adorn the American educational landscape. James C. Carper has said of private Christian schools, “Not only do these institutions currently constitute the most rapidly expanding segment of formal education in the United States, but they also represent the first widespread secession from the public school pattern since the establishment of Catholic schools in the nineteenth century.”[21]

Although these Christian schools are diverse and are supported by a wide variety of churches, they share two key factors: They profess the centrality of Christ as the Son of God and a personal Savior, and they profess their dependence on the Bible in their educational endeavors.

A wealth of Christian curricula has been developed which teaches subjects from a Biblical perspective. Science is based on a creationist perspective. History is viewed as the record of God’s interaction with man. The “Three R’s” receive much emphasis. Reading is usually taught by the phonetic method. McGuffey’s Readers and Webster’s original dictionary have been reprinted as these schools look for texts with a strong Christian influence. Bible study and worship are part of the curriculum. Many topics which receive much attention in the state schools—such as sex education—are left to the parents. Thus, more of the school day is devoted to learning content. Overall, the academic achievements of students attending these schools is at least equal to, and more often higher than, the academic achievements of students in state schools.

Many parents and churches consider their involvement in the modern Christian school movement to be reclaiming what was lost in the last century. They try, as much as possible, to keep themselves free from government interference. Many refuse to report enrollment figures to state or federal education agencies on religious grounds. Thus, it is difficult to get a precise count of the exact number of these new schools and the number of students attending them. However, a 1987-88 Schools and Staffing Survey done by the National Center for Educational Statistics for the U.S. Department of Education estimated there were 9,527 Catholic schools and 12,133 “Other Religious schools” in America at the time of the survey.

As Christians resumed their responsibilities for educating their children, they found the state reluctant to give up control. In 1978, the State of Nebraska threatened to take children away from parents who chose to educate them at the Calvary Academy; eventually 22 Christian schools were caught up in a seven-year conflict with the state. In 1983, in Louisville, Nebraska, seven fathers spent 93 days in jail because they sent their children to a Christian school. In other places, Christian schools have been harassed by state officials because their teachers were not state certified—even though many teachers in Christian schools feel that to be state certified would be a sin. Zoning restrictions have been applied to stop churches from beginning Christian schools. In addition to government harassment, Christian schools have had to cope with allegations of racism, inferior instruction, as well as religious fanaticism. Nevertheless, the schools continue to grow.

Many support agencies for Christian schools have developed over the years. These groups provide a wide range of services including providing accreditation services, curriculum, placement services, and legislative warnings and updates. They also inform parents and schools of measures they can take which will make them less susceptible to litigation and stand by them when they are threatened. In addition to these agencies dealing with Christian school issues, there are many dealing with religious freedom on a broader level—such as family and parental rights—s well as Christian legal associations ready to defend Christians whose religious rights are threatened.

Dr. John Holmes, Director for Government Affairs for the Association of Christian Schools International, said forced federal mandates present the newest threat to Christian schools, in particular, mandates which deal with sexual non-discrimination. Last year, his organization alerted ACSI schools in 22 states about sexual non- discrimination bills. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has begun to step in to defend workers in Christian schools who feel the school has violated their religious rights. Six cases ended up in court last year. Dr. Holmes said that the very fact that the EEOC accepts these cases is significant because Christian schools, which historically operate on very tight budgets, can be destroyed by legal fees.

It is estimated that approximately 12 percent of American children are in private schools, 80 percent of which are of some religious affiliation, the remaining 20 percent non-religious. It is estimated that approximately 630,000 children are being educated through home-schooling. These figures represent only those who have already opted for alternatives. A 1992 Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of Americans support choice in education. Christian parents have been the vanguard of the educational choice and parental fights movement. Perhaps many more will learn the lesson that school and state should be separate, just as church and state are separate.

  1. Samuel Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary? (Greenwich, Coon.: The Devin-Adair Company, 1981), p. 18.
  2. Blumenfeld, p. 19.
  3. Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, America’s Providential History (Charlottesville: Providence Foundation, 1989), p. 103.
  4. Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society: Needs and Opportunities for Study (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), p. 69.
  5. Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), p. 119.
  6. Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), p. 77.
  7. Hudson, p. 77.
  8. Seymour W. Itzkoff, “Religious Pluralism and Public Education” in Thomas C. Hunt and Marilyn M. Maxon, editors, Religion and Morality in American Schooling (Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 19ill), p. 166.
  9. Itzkoff, p. 105.
  10. Beliles and McDowell, p. 106.
  11. Evarts Boutell Greene, The Revolutionary Generation 1763-1790 (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1945), p. 123.
  12. Pierre Du Pont de Nemours, National Education in the United States of America, translated from the second French edition of 1812 and with an Introduction by B. G. Du Pont (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1923), pp. 3-4.
  13. Bailyn, pp. 11, 113.
  14. Blumenfeld, p. 27.
  15. H. D. Robinson, The Free Enquirer, December 1832.
  16. Harvey G. Neufeldt, “Religion, Morality and Schooling: Forging the Nineteenth Century Protestant Consensus,” in Hunt and Maxon, pp. 13-14.
  17. Thomas F. Sullivan, “Catholic Schools in a Changing Church,” in Hunt and Maxon, p. 57.
  18. Thomas C. Hunt, .lames C. Carper, Charles R. Kniker, Religious Schools in America, A Selected Bibliography (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1986), p. 211.
  19. Samuel J. Baird, Acts, Deliverance, and Testimonies of the Supreme Indicatory of the Presbyterian Church From Its Origins to the Present Time (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1856), Section 169, p. 387.
  20. Religious Schools in America, pp. 77-78.
  21. James C. Carper, “The Christian Day School in the American Social Order, 1960-1980,” in Religious Schools in America, p. 80.