Many American's think that the Enlightenment was the only significant force for change in early modern Western history. Yet some of the ideas of that movement already existed. And more importantly such ideas of education, liberty and democracy already existed and were promulgated by the Reformers and Puritans alike.
Part one of this series gave quotes about the historical importance of the Reformation in the formation of the West; this second part will focus on the educational impact of the Reformation.
If history has any lessons for modern Americans, certainly the success of the Reformation ought to be one of them.
The idea of teaching each and every citizen of a nation has probably existed in the isolated corners of history. The Greek states and Rome never had universal education, reserving any serious formal education for the wealthy (almost always the male) and certainly not for the slaves.
Christianity changed all that.
Already in the centuries after the resurrection of Christ, catechetical schools were established to teach rudimentary skills and doctrines to prepare for church membership. And such education included both sexes. The local pastors would tutor as well. Some of these catechetical schools were virtual colleges in their own right.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was left for Christianity to hold together the remnants of civilization. So alongside homeschooling, other schools were created, expanding in type and number during the Middle Ages: monasteries, city-schools, cathedral schools, guild schools and the famous grammar (Latin) schools. From the 800s onward more and more universities were formally established, expanding the source of knowledge while preserving past wisdom.
In many ways, the Reformation was an educational endeavor so deep in its impact that Americans still feel its reverberations today. The Bible that the Middle Ages had little access to was written in Latin. The Reformation changed that. It was now translated into the local languages. The Bible now became central once more in the life of the church, families and society.
Martin Luther and other Lutheran leaders pushed for the erection of more schools to help the poor peasant families. Some of the Lutheran states even made literacy a mandatory requirement for full church membership. Likewise, Calvin and other Reformed leaders in Scotland and the Continent promoted formal education by establishing catechetical classes (religious training) and local schools for boys and girls. The Reformed Moravian Bishop, Comenius, is considered by many the father of modern education.
As strange as it may sound to modern ears, preaching and the weekly lectures were educational events in the lives of many Protestants because the minister was typically the most educated man among them (being university trained). It was these university-trained preaches, the Puritans in particular, that influenced our modern educational system both in Britain and America. While depending on home-based literacy, they pushed for wide-spread literacy and basic theological training for everyone.
Early American Education
"We boast of our common schools; Calvin was the father of popular education, the inventor of the system of free schools." George Bancroft, Historian, Founder of Annapolis
The Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 in Massachusetts decreed the erection of schools in various towns. Such an attitude toward education was embedded in early America:
"Through the Puritans who settled in New England, and later through the Huguenots in the Carolinas, the Scotch Presbyterians in the central colonies, and the Dutch in New York, Calvinism was carried to America, was for long the dominant religious belief, and profoundly colored all early American education." (Cubberley, 299)
Even the curriculum reflected Reformed beliefs. The New England Primer, with its "In Adam's fall/we sinned all", included the Westminster Shorter Catechism (question and answer format). It was the most popular school book for over 100 years. It was a common practice for minister to teach in school or tutor in private. All the while these leaders promoted schooling.
Many of the first state constitutions before 1800 included some form of provision for education: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Georgia. Other states, such as New York, similarly provided for wide-spread education even without a constitutional mandate. In the spirit of Puritanism, the famous Northwest Ordinance of 1887 of the US Congress declared: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
What It All Means
"In the countries where Calvinism became dominant the leaders included general education in their scheme of religious, political, and social reform." (Cubberley, 330)
The historical irony is clear: the contemporary detractors of Christianity were educated in a system historically rooted in and propagated by Christianity and the Reformation in particular. October 31st is the birthday of Protestantism. This short series is designed to bring to light the lost history of the revolution of 1517 and how it substantially created most of the West as we know it today.