[This is the second article of a series of edited excerpts from the 1995 pamphlet Family and Government in Puritan New England. It appeared in issue number 16 of the newsletter Covenant Family.]
The Puritans differed from most Presbyterians in that family government was considered to be a means for carrying out civil purposes. Indeed, properly ordered family life was considered to be essential to a properly ordered commonwealth. All residents were expected to be part of a family (Francis J. Bremer, The Puritan Experiment, p. 177.).
The Puritans understood that unregenerate people did not desire to carry out God's commands. However, they believed that external compliance could be attained through civil law. Therefore, the government began to pass laws aimed at enforcing on the unregenerate practices which only those with a new heart yearn to carry out, including Bible instruction in the home. Thus at this stage the state, under the control of Christians, still acknowledged the prerogatives of the family in religious education, but only so long as the family was a means to civil objectives.
Catechisms were prepared to aid the householder in this task. In 1641 the General Court of Massachusetts requested the church to "make a Catechism for the instruction of youth in the grounds of religion" (Sandford Fleming, Puritanism and Children, p. 110). By 1642 Massachusetts enacted a law holding family heads responsible for teaching their children and apprentices to read. They also were charged with providing instruction on civil matters in an amplified version of the law six years later (Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family, pp. 87-88).
In 1650 the Connecticut River colony passed legislation on household instruction similar to that of the Massachusetts Bay. The New Haven colony followed their example in 1655, as did the Plymouth colony in 1671 (Fleming, pp. 104-105).
New England Puritans in particular hoped household instruction would be a means of reaching the large servant and apprentice population who were not necessarily from Puritan families. The great majority of the servant population was not originally Puritan. Their numbers increased with the growth of the economy. Indeed, there was a constant demand for importing new servants, even children without parents, as the period of service ended and former servants moved into the ranks of free laborers (Darrett Rutman, "Winthrop’s Boston," Puritanism in Early America, ed. George M. Waller, pp. 110-111).
Despite efforts to restrict the entry of non-Puritans into the colonies, very soon the proportion of church members in the colonies began to decline. Household instruction was a means to reach those servants in Puritan families, but its inadequacy to convert the growing number of the unconverted became evident when even heads of households could be counted among those who did not join the Congregational church.
These demands by the civil government placed great pressures on the head of the household to carry out responsibilities well beyond the family Bible reading of the founders of the colonies. It was soon apparent that these more general educational objectives were not being met by many families.
Other means were at the disposal of the magistrates. In 1647 the Massachusetts General Court passed another law which ordered a township with at least 50 households to "appoint one within the town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to read and write." Towns with 150 or more families were required to establish a grammar school.
The public school system was Christian from its inception (Fleming, p. 105). Christian ministers were the school masters in most cases (Thomas Welde, An Answer to W. R. (London, 1644). Cited in Morgan, p. 175). Cotton Mather’s grandfather, Richard Mather, served as a school master, as well as a preacher (Morgan, p. 104). Therefore it is not surprising that very early public school teachers assumed roles properly exercised by the family and the congregation. In Connecticut school masters were instructed "to examine [their students] every Monday on the preceding day’s sermon and to catechize every Saturday from one to three in the afternoon" (Bremer, p. 182). With the founding of Harvard as a Christian college in 1636, a steady supply of qualified teachers seemed assured.
The rise of Christian public education was accompanied by arguments that strayed from Biblical views of election. Leading Puritans went beyond the Biblical understanding of family instruction as a means of obedience by the father to the commandment to bring up his children in the training and admonition of the Lord. Instead it was argued that the failure to carry out this instruction properly would determine the eternal destiny of the child.
School master Richard Mather was one of the first to put forward this notion in an imagined denunciation of their parents by children in hell: "All this that we here suffer is through you: You should have taught us the things of God, and did not, you should have restrained us from Sin and corrected us, and you did not: You were the means of our Original Corruption and guiltiness, and yet you never showed any competent care that we might be delivered from it... and now we are damned for it: Woe unto us that we had such Carnal and careless parents, and woe unto you that had no more Compassion and pity to prevent the everlasting misery of your own Children" (Richard Mather, A Farewel-Exhortation To the Church and People of Dorchester (1657). Cited in Emory Elliott, Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England, pp. 48-49).
However, as the public school system grew, the benefits of Christian education did not "Christianize" more young people. Instead commentators began to complain of the problems of the entire generation rising to take the place of the founders of the Bible commonwealths.
On September 10, 1679 the “Reforming Synod” convened at Boston. Despite the synod’s statement that “Most of the evils that abound amongst us, proceed from defects as to family government,” that assembly focused on the expansion of public education as a means of reformation (Mather, Vol. II., p. 323). The synod document "The Necessity of Reformation" desperately sought a Scriptural basis for this emphasis:
"As an expedient for reformation, it is good that effectual care should be taken respecting schools of learning. The interests of religion and good literature have been wont to rise and fall together. We read in Scripture of masters and scholars, and of schools and colleges, (1 Chron. xxv. 8; Mal. ii. 12; Acts xix. 9, and xxii. 3) ...Was not Samuel (that great reformer) president of the college at Nayoth, (1 Sam. x. 18, 19, [should be ixx. 20.] ) and is thought to be one of the first founders of colleges? Did not Elijah and Elisha restore the schools erected in the land of Israel? And Josiah (another great reformer) shewed respect to the college at Jerusalem, (2 Kings xxii. 14.) Ecclesiastical story informs that great care was taken by the apostles and their immediate successors for the settling of schools in all places where the gospel had been preached, that so the interest of religion might be preserved, and the truth propagated to succeeding generations. It is mentioned as one of the greatest mercies that ever God bestowed upon his people Israel, that he raised up their sons for prophets, (Amos ii. 11,) which hath respect to their education in schools of learning. ... Wherefore, as we desire that reformation and religion should flourish, it concerns us to endeavour that both the college and all other schools of learning in every place be duly inspected and encouraged" (Mather, Vol. II., pp.330-331).
The exegesis which finds references to colleges in all of the verses cited above is highly questionable. However, the document reflects very well the "messianic" view of education which emerged among the Puritans at the end of the 17th century. Uriah Oakes, the president of Harvard, was the co-moderator of the synod.
The hope that education would recover the rising generation soon grew dim. The Mathers and other like-minded people were worried about Harvard's lapse from Puritan orthodoxy before the end of the 17th century (Bremer, p. 183). Since Harvard College was supposed to train the teachers for the Christian public schools, that college’s rapid decline poisoned the wishing well of salvation through education.
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