History of Education: 1500-1800

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently looking at the history of Christian thought on education using D. Bruce Lockerbie’s A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994). Thus far we have looked at biblical times, the early church, the Middle Ages, and the rise of humanism and the Protestant Reformation. Today we look at the beginnings of the modern era which Lockerbie dates to 1500-1800. I am going to include in this section early American eduaction as well. Lockerbie devotes an independent chapter to the beginnings of education in America but it too falls within this time period.

As we saw last time, the Protestant Reformation led to an interest in state-sponsored education for all, rich and poor, boys and even sometimes girls.  In England at least the first step was often the establishment of Sunday schools which taught reading and writing. These church-sponsored schools gradually spread, taking over other days of the week and offering instruction in more subjects. Once common schools were established, new, practical disputes began to arise. For instance, how much should a teacher be able to beat his students and should instruction be in Latin or in the vernacular?

In the Netherlands the Canons of Dordt addressed education. (As we have seen in our study of Donald Oppewal’s book, the Dutch Reformed still have a lot to say on the topic.) The focus of the Canons was still on religious instruction in which they saw the parents, schools, and churches sharing. Reading through the selection Lockerbie provides, the words “catechize” and “exhort” stand out again and again which I think gives a taste of what they had in mind without much more being said.

The major thinker of the era was John Amos Comenius, a Brethren pastor from Moravia (1592-1670). He saw parents as the first teachers but also favored universal schooling. Like the Canons of Dordt, Comenius paints a picture in which the family, school, and church work together. Education serves a religious purpose but the language he uses seems to point to a more comprehensive and modern-sounding goal. Today we would talk about fulfilling one’s vocation:

“Hence parents must see that their children are exercised not only in faith and godliness but also in the moral sciences, the liberal arts, and in other necessary things. Thereby, when grown up, children may become truly men wisely managing their own affairs in the various functions of life, religious or political, civil or social, that God wills them to fulfill. Thus having wisely and righteously passed through this life they may with greater joy migrate to heaven.” (The School of Infancy, chapter 1, as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 180)

Practically speaking, Comenius emphasized understanding over rote memorization and speaks of “the power of the eye to teach the mind” (p. 177). Education he depicts as a labor-intensive process of molding, just as one might train a horse, prop up a young sapling, or even plane a piece of wood. He says that:

“Indeed, man himself must be trained in such bodily actions as eating, drinking, running, speaking, seizing with the hand, and laboring. How then, I pray, can those duties higher and more remote from the sense such as faith, virtue, wisdom, and knowledge come spontaneously to any one?” (The School of Infancy, chapter 3, as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 181)

I have to say I find this quote utterly bizarre. I am tempted to think Comenius was being facetious in all of this — from his comparison of children to lumber to his assertion that they must be talk to grasp. I have four children and while they are all adept at eating, drinking, running, speaking, and seizing, I taught them none of these things. With regard to seizing in particular, I can furnish biblical and historical evidence that this comes quite naturally to children and that they don’t need to be taught — Jacob was born grasping his brother’s heel and my daughter tells me Genghis Khan was born holding a blood clot.

Lockerbie’s next thinker is John Milton who wrote a brief letter on education. I have covered that here so I will not revisit it.

John Locke whose name is almost synonymous with the Enlightenment also had a bit to say on education. Lockerbie spends some time arguing that Locke was indeed a Christian. I really can’t comment on that. Two interesting ideas can be seen in Locke, experimentation and delaying education. In earlier thinkers there was talk about learning through memorization or through argument but the idea of experiments being a way to gain knowledge is rather modern and new. We take it for granted in these days of the scientific method, but this was not an ancient idea. Locke also speaks of an idea close to the hearts of many homeschoolers —  delaying education so as to not kill the love of learning:

“‘Tis better it be a Year later before he can read than that he should this way get an aversion to Learning.” (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, par. 153 as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 191)

Turning to the new world, we find that education was a high priority in colonial New England. Though in the first years children were taught at home, the colonists fairly quickly moved toward founding and even requiring schools. The religious motivation was again at the forefront. On the elementary level, children must learn to read Scripture so grammar schools were founded. On the other end of the spectrum, colleges were established so there might be an educated clergy. There were also in time mission schools and education became tied to the Great Commission.

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

Before the United States was even the United States, a kind of anti-intellectualism developed. Though the first settlers had valued an educated clergy enough to establish Harvard College early on, a new suspiscion of education arose. There was a misguided theological principle at work here. To prepare a sermon was seen as not allowing the Spirit to work. A specifically uneducated clergy was now the ideal. A man named Gilbert Tennent taught that “education devitalized faith” (p. 224). Lockerbie tells us that “opposition to formal learning pervaded life throughout rural and frontier America” (pp. 224-25).

Onto this scene came Jonathan Edwards. While it is not clear that he did much to influence the education of children, his preaching ignited a revival known as the Great Awakening and he did much to help establish Princeton as a new university for the education of orthodox, Presbyterian clergy. The selection Lockerbie gives us from Edwards is from a sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” Though he does not touch on education directly, Edwards here presents an epistemology, a theory of knowing, which has implications for education.

Edwards primary argument is that there is a kind of knowing which goes beyond the facts. He tells us, “there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace” (from “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 228). The same may be said of more mundane objects. Edwards gives the example of honey. One may know intellectually that it is sweet but it is quite a different thing to have tasted it and to have a sense of its sweetness.

Scripture tells is that wisdom and knowledge come from God. Edwards presents a logical argument that, as these things are so intimately tied to God, as they are so very important, that God gives them to us directly and would not use a secondary means to convey them:

“It is rational to suppose that God would reserve that wisdom and knowledge . . . that it should not be left in the power of second causes . . . It is also immensely the most important of all divine gifts; it is that wherein man’s happiness consists, and on which his everlasting welfare depends.” (p. 230)

Note also that Edwards sees knowledge as a source of joy for men. He says again later:

“Men have a great deal of pleasure in human knowledge, in studies of natural things . . .” (p. 232)

Since he has defined wisdom as something beyond mere facts, Edwards is able to argue that this true knowledge is not merely rational. The sweetness of honey, the holiness of God are not things that the rational mind perceives. “Reason’s work,” he tells us, “is to perceive truth and not excellency” (p. 231).  Because this is so, “babes are as capable of knowing these things, as the wise and prudent” (p. 231).

The Reformation taught the value of learning. In this early modern period, education was still a handmaid to faith, but we also see new ideas being advanced. Though I have some serious doubts about some of what Comenius has to say, we see in him the idea of vocation. Education allows us to do what God calls us to, even in non-religious spheres. In Locke we see experimentation as a means of gaining knowledge. In the Americas, education was initially highly valued and though this, sadly, was undercut by an anti-intellectual trend, we find in Jonathan Edwards an intriguing theory of knowledge. Edwards seems to have been a man who truly valued knowledge in its own right as a source of happiness to men.


4 responses to this post.

  1. […] « History of Education: 1500-1800 […]


  2. […] of pleasure in human knowledge, in studies of natural things . . .’” [Jonathan Edwards, in A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education by Bruce Lockerbie (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994), p. […]


  3. […] should be a source of delight. (John Edwards, History of Education:1500-1800;  John Milton on Education; The Christian […]


  4. […] John Amos Comenius (see also this earlier post on the history of Christian education) […]


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