Christianity and American Education

In 1776, John Adams made a statement that perfectly described the close relationship between government and Christianity in the newly created nation. He said “Statesmen . . . may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”

First he stated simply that representatives elected by the people would create governments and make laws. They “plan and speculate” for a system that will allow men to live free. But, he added, only in religion could they find the all-important principles needed to provide the foundation for freedom. And to the founders, the term “religion” meant the collective denominations that comprise Christianity. They didn’t consider any belief system outside of Christianity, with the exception of Judaism, from which early Christians came.

And why would they? At the birth of the new nation more than 99 percent of the population identified as Christians. Only a fraction of 1 percent, virtually all other Americans, were Jewish. And these men, unencumbered by political correctness, were not afraid to point out that all other religions and religious philosophies were false. Thus they set about educating their young citizens in the principles laid out in the Christian Bible.

Beginning in about 1690, and for the next 150 years, the New England Primer was the primary textbook in colonial and early American schoolrooms. During many of those years it was the second best-selling book in the nation, surpassed only by the Bible. This small book used Biblical couplets to teach the alphabet and included prayers, stories and catechisms to instill in young minds the basic principles of God’s word as they learned to read.

Most of America’s early colleges and universities were founded to train ministers of the gospel. Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693), Yale (1701), Princeton (1746), Brown (1764), Rutgers (1766), and Dartmouth (1769) were all founded by Christian ministers and denominations, and instructed their students in the tenets of the faith. Law students also attended these institutions, attending the same classes under the same professors as the future ministers.

Harvard, founded by Puritan ministers, adopted “Rules and Precepts” that provide these guidelines for their students: “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 lay Christ at the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” On Harvard’s original seal, still visible on the walls of the campus today, are found these words: “Truth for Christ and the Church.”

Yale College was founded on the idea that “every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a godly, sober life.” The College of William and Mary was founded to supply Virginia with ministers of the gospel so that the “Christian faith may be propagated.” Princeton included in its founding statements “Cursed is all learning that is contrary to the Cross of Christ.”

In America today, is it any less important that our children and young adults learn the basic tenets of Christianity? It is, in fact, more important today, because our culture has become secularized and ignorant of these basic ideas, a condition early Americans could not have imagined. We in the church of Jesus Christ must ensure that our children know the truth and are encouraged to act on it. Otherwise we will surely cease to be a free nation, no longer able to hold to “the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”

By Jim Ludington