Charlotte Mason and the Puritans on Education

Dear Reader,

As I have mentioned before, I am reading a book in the Puritans and their beliefs on various topics. I have just finished the chapter on education and I am struck once again by how much their views remind my of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. Now Charlotte was not a Puritan; she was Church of England. But she comes later than the Puritans and so I assume that her views, as she picked them up from her society, were influenced by those earlier writers.

Everything I have to say about the Puritans will be based on the book Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986). Mr. Ryken does not appear to be an uninterested observer (if there ever is such a thing). He clearly favors the Puritan view on most if not all topics, but I am choosing to take him at his word as an accurate reporter of what the Puritans themselves thought.

So without further ado, here is what the Puritans have to say about education.

Mr. Ryken begins the chapter by quoting T.S. Eliot who said “‘we must derive out theory of education from our philosophy of life'” (p.157). I like this quote. I firmly believe that how we educate should reflect our larger beliefs, particularly those about human nature. This is why I did a whole long series on the different approaches to education, because even if we are not consciously aware of it, there is more behind our educational philosophy than we know.

Mr. Ryken goes on to talk about how very important education was to the Puritans and how they always felt they had to battle anti-intellectual parties around them (at one point banishing them to the wilds of Rhode Island; trust me it’s funny if you live where I do). Education, in the Puritan view, is not something that is separate from our spiritual life. Rather, it is an aid to it. Ryken quotes Richard Baxter:

“‘Education is God’s ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace and ought no more to be set in opposition to the Spirit than the preaching of the Word.'” (p.159)

This appeals to my reformed sensibilities. If anything, we tend too far towards the intellectual knowledge at the expense of real feelings. But I do find for myself that my walk with God is usually going better if I am reading books that really make me think about Him. I also believe that all parts of our nature are fallen so it makes sense to me that in sanctification all parts, including the intellect, would be used and redeemed.

I think in our own culture, we are perhaps moving slightly away from the opposition between faith and reason. I am not very into what is happening in modern Christian culture, but my sense is that we have shifted from saying things like “we don’t care what science says; this is what our faith tells us” to saying things like “faith and science need not be in opposition; this is how our science reconciles with our faith.” Though in the latter case it sometimes seems to be a particularly Christian science with which other scholars may not agree. I am not sure how the Puritans would have felt about this kind of Christian science which is not widely accepted by the rest of the scholarly world, but at least it is a move in the right direction.

The Puritans, coming from a religious standpoint, said that intellectual pursuits are of value, that they need not be divorced from spiritual pursuits. Charlotte Mason, coming from an educational philosophy, said that faith need not be put by the wayside but that learning is also the work of God. In both cases, they end up at the same conclusion, that the spiritual and the intellectual work together and that we cannot point to one and say secular and to the other and say sacred. Ryken says in the beginning of his chapter that if we listened to the Puritans our views of education would be different. I wish he had expanded on that more than he does. But one thing I see is that many Christian curricula seek to make themselves Christian by constantly inserting Bible verses or biblical situations (eg. word problems about animals on the ark) into their curricula. I think both Charlotte and the Puritans would say that this is unnecessary because intellectual pursuits are in themselves spiritual, or rather the spiritual extends through all of life. There is no dichotomy because God’s presence is pervasive through all aspects of our lives. (See this earlier post on the sacred and secular in a Charlotte Mason education.)

The goal of education, for the Puritans, was also a religious one. Ryken says, “Their primary goal was Christian nurture and growth” (p. 161). Indeed, they saw an educated, Bible-reading populace as a foil to Satan himself. Though they established many schools, Ryken says that they viewed education as the responsibility of the parents. Our modern public schools which take responsibility away from the parents and which remove all trace of religion from education would not have been acceptable to the Puritans.

But we must be careful not to think that Puritan education was only for the purposes of Bible-reading. Their education was comprehensive in that it included a wide range of subjects, and its goal also a broad one. Ryken refers to Milton a lot in this area. Milton, he says, was less interested in how much a person knows than in who they were becoming. Later he says, “We customarily limit sanctification to moral and spiritual progress; for Milton, becoming like God can mean coming to share God’s love of truth and beauty as well as his holiness” (p.163). At this level, education need not have any practical applications. It is about the development of the person. But the Puritans were also interested in practical uses. They desired their education to prepare a person to be fit for anything God might call him to. This included not just a good job for the sake of earning money but also fitness for the other spheres of life, church membership and leadership, parenthood, citizenship, and even friendship. Ryken says that the question they would have asked is “‘What can a Christian liberal arts education do with and for me as a person?'” (p.170).

Charlotte Mason also framed the goal of education as a question. She said we should ask not what the student knows but how much he cares and how many things he has formed relationships with. In neither case is the main concern for getting a good job. In both cases there is an interest in who the student is becoming and an appreciation for truth and beauty in their own right, or rather as extensions of God’s truth and beauty.

In furthering these goals, both Charlotte Mason and the Puritans favored a broad education. For Charlotte this broadness directly furthers the goal of having as many relationships as possible. Making connections between different works or areas is also a large part of a Charlotte Mason education. For the Puritans, the Bible is of course primary but sciences, math, and the classics are also emphasized. This also furthered their goal of enabling the individual to be fit for anything. A Puritan education was a liberal arts education. Ryken tells us that  a Harvard thesis (Harvard was founded by Puritans only a few years after they first settled in this country) showed the liberal arts as a “‘circle of seven sections of which the center is God'” (p.167).

This idea of God at the center of the fields of knowledge also lead us to another belief which ties the two educational approaches together. As Ryken states: “All truth is God’s truth” (p.167). Charlotte also believed that God the Holy Spirit was the Great Educator and that all wisdom and knowledge comes from Him. This to the Puritans is part of the doctrine of common grace by which even non-believers are given good things and kept from being as wicked as they could be. Since all truth belongs to God, the Puritans also saw all truth as interrelated, bringing us back again to Charlotte’s thinking and her emphasis on making connections between different areas of study.

So to sum up since this has been a long post, here are the key points I see in the Puritan view of education:

1. Education reflects our larger beliefs (or worldview if you will).

2. Education is an ordinary means God uses to convey His grace and to sanctify the individual.

3. There is no opposition between faith and reason.

4. There is no distinction between sacred and secular because all of life is held captive to God.

5. Education serves a religious purpose and even combats evil.

6. The goal of education is to prepare the individual for anything and everything God might call him to.

7. Education should be broadly based. It begins with the Bible but it extends into many other areas as well.

8. All truth is God’s truth.


13 responses to this post.

  1. This is the perspective that my Christian school education was based on and I’m very thankful for it. It is also what I strived for as a teacher.


  2. […] Really Were by Leland Ryken. I have blogged on different aspects of this book three times before (here, here and here), but I thought I would give a more comprehensive review of […]


  3. Hi,

    I am writing a blog series on current homeschooling options and resources for a not for profit called The Motherhood Collective. I am interested in gaining some personal experience stories of people who choose Charlotte Mason as an approach. Would you be willing to answer a short questionnaire about your personal experience, as well as any of your readers? I am desperately searching for Charlotte Mason users, and having a difficult time locating them locally.



  4. […] are or in what happens to us as in who we are becoming. He is interested in our sanctification. And if the Puritans are to be believed, then our sanctification is also accomplished through our intellect. Which makes sense to me […]


  5. […] of the Puritans and includes a chapter on their view of education. I blogged on that specifically here. The conclusions I came to at the time are that the Puritans […]


  6. […] Charlotte Mason and the Puritans on Education | Letters from Nebby Amen: “Since all truth belongs to God, the Puritans also saw all truth as interrelated, bringing us back again to Charlotte’s thinking and her emphasis on making connections between different areas of study.” […]


  7. […] was she alone in this belief. In an earlier post on Puritan education I included this quote from Richard […]


  8. […] idea is a very Puritan one. Though Charlotte Mason was a member of the Church of England, she and the Puritans seem to have had some overlap in their understanding of the role of education. Education was so important to the Puritans that they demanded and educated clergy and early on […]


  9. […] the thinking of the reformers (eg. Luther, Calvin; I have written a little on CM and the Puritans here). I hope to blog on the specifics as I get further […]


  10. […] [For more on the Puritan view of education, I also recommend Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints. See also this earlier post.] […]


  11. […]  In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. When God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done, they are transformed. This transformation is an element of what we call sanctification.  (Education and Sanctification; Education and the Covenant Child; Lockerbie; also CM and the Puritans on Education) […]


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