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A Christian America: Education and the Founders

Consider the following college mission statement: "Every one shall consider as the main End of his life and studies, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is Eternal life. John 17:3."

  • Roger Schultz,
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Consider the following college mission statement: "Every one shall consider as the main End of his life and studies, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is Eternal life. John 17:3."1 Match that statement with the correct school. The choices are: a) Liberty University, b) University of California Berkeley, c) Duke, d) Harvard. The correct answer is Harvard College, and the statement is taken from the college's first laws of 1646.

Did anyone guess Duke? In 1924, when James Duke transformed Trinity College into the university which bears his name, the bylaws of the act of endowment included the following mission statement: "The Aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God . . .."2 (That 1924 mission statement is still displayed on a monument in front of the beautiful Duke chapel.) As late as the 1920s, American higher education still formally stressed its Christian character.

Liberty University has an excellent doctrinal statement. It affirms the inerrancy of Scripture, a literal six-day creation, justification through faith alone, and the necessity of salvation through Christ. But the doctrinal fidelity that makes Liberty exceptional today was commonplace in early American institutions.

America has a great Christian heritage. Early American education, which was fundamentally Christian, is an excellent example of that heritage. Unfortunately, that commitment to Christ-centered education has been lost and needs to be recaptured.

The Puritans and Crummy Schools
The desire for godly education was a consuming passion for the Puritans. It was one of the reasons for their exodus from England. In his 1629 justification for leaving for New England, John Winthrop points (among other factors) to problems in the schools: "The fountains of learning and religion are so corrupted most children (even the best wits and fairest hopes) are perverted, corrupted, and utterly overthrown, by the multitude of evil examples and the licentious government of those seminaries, where men strain at gnats and swallow camels . . . but suffer all Ruffian-like fashion and disorder in manners to pass uncontrolled."3 It is worth noting that, in part, the Puritans fled England because of crummy schools!

Colonial higher education reflected this Puritan passion for Christian education. Harvard was chartered in 1636, primarily to train clergymen, and had as its motto "Christ and Church." Virtually all of the Ivy League schools shared this early commitment to a Christian education. Princeton, the Presbyterian college in the colonies, counted revivalists Samuel Davies and Jonathan Edwards among its earliest presidents.

The commitment to religious education in the colonial period started with the youngest students. The New England Primer was the Puritan book used to teach generations of Americans to read. The Primer taught the ABCs: each letter of the alphabet was associated with a Biblical character or a scriptural lesson, and a corresponding doctrinal truth was anchored in the mind with a rhyme. A was for Adam; there was a woodcut of Adam and Eve; then the rhyme, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." In addition to learning the alphabet children were instructed in sound Augustinian theology. C was for Christ, and with the saying, "Christ crucified for Sinners Dy'd," children were exposed to Biblical soteriology. There were many reminders of human mortality in the Primer. G was for Glass (Hourglass), and "As runs the Glass, Our life does pass."4 Y was for Youth — and then there is a woodcut of a skeleton nailing a little kid with an arrow — "Youth forward slips, Death soonest nips."

My favorite is U for Uriah (the Hittite). The slogan goes, "Uriah's beauteous wife made David seek his life." The attached picture shows King David leering down on the nubile Bathsheba, which was the precursor to his adultery and his conspiracy to murder Uriah.5 Sin, death, betrayal, adultery and murder — who needs TV? It is all in the Primer. It is saucy stuff — especially for those of us who grew up with the sanitized and conformist "Dick and Jane" readers. The Primer was profoundly philosophical as well. It included theological lessons, prayers, and catechisms. The first question of the Shorter Catechism, for instance, asks, "What is the chief end of man?" That is a heavy teleological question for a five-year old; it asks about purpose in life and the very reason for existence. The answer: "to glorify God and enjoy him forever."

In the nineteenth century the McGuffey's Readers largely replaced the New England Primer. Between 1836 and 1920, some 120 million copies of the Readers were sold, putting it in the class with the Bible and Webster's Dictionary.6 McGuffey (1800-1873) was a Presbyterian clergyman, a professor of ancient languages, president of Miami University, and, at the time of his death, the Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia. His Readers projected a specifically Christian and largely Calvinistic worldview, although later editions of the Readers were less theologically-inclined and more moralistic. The Readers included religious lessons (to say your prayers, to be thankful to God, etc.), stories about the natural world and historical figures, and strong endorsements of moral behavior. Children were taught the Golden Rule, the virtue of honesty, and respect for authority. Other stories warned about the cruelty of torturing animals, the evil of being mean to others, or the dangers of becoming a drunkard. (Temperance was an important issue for McGuffey.) These largely religious texts were widely used in public schools.

The first national act to endow public education was the Ordinance of 1785, dealing with western lands. One section (section 16) in every township — that is, one square mile in every 36 square miles of territory, or roughly 3% of all western land — was set aside to support public schools. The rationale for this endowment was important: "religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."7 Let it be noted that the first national educational endowment was specifically to encourage religion and morality.

In the nineteenth century, almost all of the nation's colleges had religious roots and denominational affiliations. Many of those colleges sprang from evangelical bodies that had arisen during the great religious awakenings. In southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, for instance, with which I am most familiar, the first colleges had strong ecclesiastical ties. Virginia Intermont College, for example, got its start when Reverend Harrison traveled through southwest Virginia with John the Baptist (the name of his horse) sharing his vision of a Baptist institution of higher education.8 But he certainly wasn't unique in combining a passion for education with the Christian faith.

The Loss of Spiritual Vision
Before the twentieth century, Christianity had a natural and critically important role in American education. But then something happened. Schools and colleges lost the spiritual vision and religious commitment which characterized early generations.

What happened? In The Soul of the American University, George Marsden points to the sweeping trends of secularization. And he poses this historical question: "Why were the fledgling universities of the late nineteenth century, despite their founders' expressed commitments to Christianity, designed in a way that would virtually guarantee that they would become subversive of the Christian heritage of learning?"9 A good question indeed.

Cultural historian Daniel Boorstin argues that pragmatism and raw economics diluted the religious focus of American colleges. Struggling Christian institutions, to remain solvent, were forced to appeal to the community and attract a broader constituency, a process that muted their theological distinctives. "To make their colleges appeal to everybody," Boorstin continues, "to people who believe anything or nothing, the denominations themselves became powerful breeders of 'Nothingarianism,' which some observers said was the truly dominant American sect."10

The nineteenth century Princetonians offered a sharper criticism of the direction of American education. In his 1886 Evangelical Theology, A. A. Hodge writes "[I]f every party in the state has the right of excluding from the public school whatever he does not believe to be true, then he that believes the most must give way to him that believes least, and then he that believes least must give way to him that believes absolutely nothing." He furtherwarns that the proposed scheme of national public education would be "the most efficient and wide instrument for the propagation of atheism which the world has ever seen." Hodge concludes with this frightfully accurate prediction: "I am as sure as I am of Christ's reign that a compulsory and centralized system of national education, separated from religion. . .will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social, and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen."11

Rushdoony notes that education has become a "messianic and utopian movement." It is an inherently religious part of a statist worldview. "The state has become the saving institution," he argues, "and the function of the school has been to proclaim a new gospel of salvation."12

Education always reflects our core values, base convictions, and our true religion. The statist education of our age represents a radically new religious vision. Evangelical Christians should flee the "disorderly" and "licentious" educational innovations of their day. And like their Puritan ancestors, they should be committed to establishing Bible-based and Christ-centered institutions of education — for the glory of Christ and His Church.


1. Quoted in George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford, 1994), 41.

2. Ibid, 322.

3. John Winthrop, "Reasons to be Considered for Justifying the Plantation in New England," in Settlements to Society, 1607-1763, Ed. Jack Greene (N.Y.: Norton, 1975), 63. Spelling modernized.

4. Woodcuts and lessons varied with the editions of the Primer. Examples used here come from The New England Primer (Boston: 1777; Reprint edition; Aledo, Texas: Wallbuilder Press, 1991.)

5. Jerome Reich, Colonial America, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1989), 225.

6. John Westerhoff. McGuffey and His Readers (Milford, Michigan: Mott Media, 1982), 14.

7. Malcolm Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1978), 48. The purpose statement was added to the 1787 version of the Ordinance.

8. Hendrika Schuster, "When John the Baptist Traveled Our Roads: A Tale of Virginia Intermont College," Bulletin of the Historical Society of Washington County, Virginia, Series II (1998) 35:1-6.

9. Marsden, Soul of the American University, 31.

10. Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Vintage, 1965), 154.

12. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Nutley, N.J.: The Craig Press, 1979), 4.

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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