For the Knowledge of the Scriptures: Puritan Education in Colonial America

Home History For the Knowledge of the Scriptures: Puritan Education in Colonial America

Imagine a society where the citizens gather in church each Sunday to hear oratory so important that the speaker is the most educated person in the community, the children take meticulous notes, and attendance seems virtually mandatory. Such was life in the Puritan utopia of colonial New England. This society revolved around its Christian faith to such an extent that all activities required concurrence with the Bible. Consequently, the education of children, teens, and young adults adhered to this concept.

Massachusetts enacted a school law in 1647 intended to keep that “old deluder, Satan”[1] from using illiteracy to keep people from studying the scriptures. The Puritans, in their passion to build a “city on a hill,” sought education as a primary vehicle to bring their children up in the instruction of the Lord. Through rigorous training beginning at an early age in homes, schools, church, and institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Puritan society produced a literate body of believers.

Later generations incorrectly consider Puritans as preoccupied with the actions of everyone around them, but in reality, the Puritans concerned themselves with their own piety before looking at others. Seeking to live in accordance with scripture, to keep oneself unstained by the world, and to live a holy life required rigorous adherence to prayer, devotion, and knowledge of the scriptures. They had no New International Version Study Bible, but they did have the Geneva Bible with its explanatory notes. However, the real student of scripture knew the scriptures in the original Hebrew and Greek as well as a mastery of versions in Latin. The Puritans felt this knowledge especially important for children, because without the knowledge of the scriptures, their conversion would be all the more difficult.

Geneva Bible 1560 edition.


Therein lies the ultimate purpose of Puritan education; to bring about conversion through knowledge of the scriptures. Consequently, this knowledge helped avoid illiteracy, enabled piety, and established a person in the proper intellectual position worthy of the Post-Renaissance. Some historians have argued that the Puritan experiment in education is a child of the Renaissance as much as a child of the Protestant Reformation.[2] However, one should not confuse this as an influence of humanistic principles, for the Puritans served God and God alone, recognizing the condition of depravity from birth with no inherent good other than that dispensed by their Maker.

The methods of Puritan education appear to most as a single track heavy in languages but actually comprised much more. Whether at home or school, many Puritan children could parse verbs in Latin by age seven, analyze Greek from the Sunday sermon, and explain various aspects of mathematics and science. The preparation continued well into the college years where institutions such as Harvard had, as their mission, to train clergy. Standing as a reflection of Cambridge University in England, where many of the Puritans had trained, Harvard became the pinnacle of Puritan education in early New England. Their methods worked, and as colonial historian Samuel Eliot Morison phrased it, “these colonies well and honestly carried out the ambition of their founders to raise up a learned clergy and a lettered people.”[3]


As a City Upon a Hill

When many think of the beginnings of America, the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock comes to mind. However, a permanent colony began thirteen years earlier at Jamestown in 1607 to propagate the Christian religion, establish commerce, and discover a Northwest Passage. Over the next seventy years, thousands would venture to the New World, some from France, Spain, and England, but the Puritans represented the dominant group in Colonial New England. The Puritan name came from their desire to “purify” the Church of England. Although not wholly a group of separatists, they desired   establishment of colonies in the Americas that resembled a “city on a hill,” emblematic of true Christian community. To exhibit a community of visible saints, education would assume utmost importance as an agent for pursuing a cultural ideal.[4]

Through the ages, a child’s education occurred in a variety of ways with home education a standard in early Colonial New England. For those with financial means, a private tutor provided the majority of teaching. With the demands on the family ever increasing and a concern that children might not be receiving the proper education, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law in 1642 requiring parents to ensure their children had the ability to read and understand the “principles of religion and capital laws.”[5] Expanding the law in 1647, towns of fifty households had to appoint a teacher to instruct children, presumably in their homes, and towns of a hundred or more households had to establish a grammar school. By the 1670s, every New England Colony passed such a law.[6] The purpose of these laws, particularly the one in Massachusetts, appears somewhat evident in its more common name, “The Old Deluder Laws.”

The Puritans felt that the Old Deluder, i.e. Satan, used ignorance to keep men from the knowledge of the scriptures. Thus, education provided a primary vehicle to keep Satan at bay. However, the Puritans did not intend for knowledge of the scriptures as the end result, but the method by which the unconverted man would transform into the converted man. N. Ray Hiner writes, “This morphology of conversion epitomized the ultimate purpose of the Puritan educational system and served as its rigorous final examination.”[7] While no Christian can ever make his or her child reach salvation, the Puritans did everything possible to bring about salvation among those under their authority.

The Old Deluder Laws require not only parents to be responsible for a Christian education but masters as well. While one might assume this to be a reference to slave owners, in this context it is more likely the formal title used in English society to those in authority over a given group, such as employer-employee relations. While schooling opportunities increased for white children, Indian and black children seemed to fall through the cracks.[8] Christianity sought to bring about salvation to all peoples. The Puritans’ quest to ensure a Christian education for one race while denying it to another appears at odds with Christian teaching, for the Puritan child was to read and believe simultaneously.[9]

A Christian education used the Bible as its main text; however, Puritan schools used many other resources. The Puritans devoted themselves to the Renaissance model of education like any Anglican, where emphasis on ancient languages, especially Latin, contributed to the general knowledge required of a proper citizen.[10] This classical education avoided the “aversion to ignorance” that the Puritans feared. Certainly, the secular principles sprinkled within the Renaissance, and its successor the Age of Reason, caused concern among the Puritans, but they saw no reason to wholly dismiss the system. Languages, science, mathematics, art, and logic carried value in the well-rounded education system.

Puritanism and the Renaissance shared much in common, such as a desire to value the ancient texts and disapproval of medieval Catholicism.[11] One example is the Catholic Church’s propensity to keep its adherents dependent upon the church for dispensation of the scriptures, written only in Latin, which the commoner did not understand. The Puritans championed the Reformation that brought the scriptures to all people, and as long as they had this knowledge, the opportunities for salvation through understanding Christian doctrine increased.[12]


Biblical Education

A major tenet of Puritan thought required that all forms of Christian education reconcile with scripture, because obedience to God’s commands is tantamount. The Puritans read the Bible out of obedience, learned the doctrines, and received salvation through grace. Although many believe this bedrock of Puritan education is too religious and too narrow in its scope, they misunderstand the Puritans’ belief that it does not need to conflict with the study of numerous other subjects.[13] The Puritans harmonized every aspect of their life to strict obedience to the scriptures, with education no different. The typical colonial father considered the school an instrument to supplement in areas of civility and piety he taught at home, and more importantly, the church would supplement any exegesis of the scriptures.[14]

Although the schoolmaster and school dame were typically very well educated and required to be of utmost Christian character, the clergy represented the most highly educated person in many communities. Parents ensured their children received the education, the teachers taught them in the correct way, but the pastor had the daunting task of ensuring they fully understood the scriptures. The typical Puritan community expected every single person to play a role in the proper education of its citizenry. Parents saw their children as a stewardship for which they were accountable before God. In a second tier sense regarding this accountability, the pastor answered to the congregation, the teacher to the parent, and the parent to his or her neighbor. Understanding the process and methods involved in Puritan education is only visible in knowing the its purpose. Richard Allestree, in The Whole Duty of Man, states it well:

As soon therefore as children come to the use of reason, they are to be instructed, and that first in those things which concern their eternal well-being, they are by little and little to be taught all those things which God that commended them as their duty to perform; as also what glorious reward she hath provided for them, if they do it, and what grievous and eternal punishment if they do it no.[15]

From birth through adulthood, the Puritan experienced a method of education expecting specific results.

The old saying, “Education begins at home,” rang true in Colonial New England. Home education today, commonly called home schooling, is radical or countercultural in some circles, but normal for seventeenth and eighteenth-century America.[16] Although home education today is popular for many of the same reasons, the Puritans did it primarily out of necessity. Most new communities had no public schooling. Well into the twentieth century, one-room schoolhouses in America might only consist of the children from a few families, and this rural condition certainly existed for the early colonizers. With the ever-increasing burden on the parents to build and establish a household, the educational role of parents suffered, hence the need for education laws. Puritan parents never intended for the school to be a substitute for what they believed their ultimate responsibility—their child’s education, whether biblical, academic, or apprenticeship.[17]

Although the Bible became the main source for all educational instruction, not every family owned one. However, many households did own one and might have a library with other texts such as the New England Primer. The mother typically bore the role of teacher with older siblings sometimes helping. Students performed daily exercises of individual reading, responsive reading, and communal reading in colonial homes as a method to prepare them for the heavy emphasis on languages they would encounter in public school.[18] A typical five-year-old could read complex texts, and by seven could read some Latin and Greek. Not only did children seem advanced for their age compared with today’s children, they entered college at fourteen.[19] For the home with limited resources, a child may not have been as well versed in the classics or sciences but could nonetheless read and understand the scriptures, the essential necessity in Puritan education.

While all children received this level of education, boys typically received the opportunity for advancement in things such as writing, cyphering, and tradesmanship.[20] The girls, expected to learn domestic skills, might elevate to a more advanced skill such as midwifery. Boys would typically learn the trade of their father, such as farming, blacksmithing, tanning, or one of several other occupations available for young men not called into the ministry. As communities developed grammar schools, a child’s primary education transferred from the home to the public setting.

Although the establishment of one grammar school in a community seems like an easy task, the cost of defense from Indian attack, basic infrastructure, and food sometimes took precedence over the cost of a school. Even as late as the early eighteenth century, many courts heard cases of towns failing to employ a schoolmaster. Although schoolmasters abound, funds did not.[21] One might deduce that failure to establish a public school questions the zeal of the Puritans’ educational goal, but the realization of pure survival sometimes took precedence. Most towns made a reasonable effort to establish reading and writing schools in adherence to the law.[22] By 1650, at least a dozen schools provided Latin grammar under a master or dame.[23] Most established schools went beyond the teaching of languages, but not until language established its dominance.

After English grammar, teachers focused on Latin to deepen one’s understanding of the spoken and written word.[24] Current studies show that those with knowledge of a second language score much higher on grammar sections than their one-language counterparts. The Puritan emphasis in this has long since faded in America’s current educational system. Languages aside, the Puritans embraced a well- rounded liberal arts education. An ad in the Boston News-Letter in 1709 from Owen Harris seeks students for instruction in “Writing, Arithmetick in all its parts; And also Geometry, Trigonometry, Plain and Sphaerical, Surveying, Dialling, Guaging, Navigation, Astronomy’ The Projection of the Sphaere, and the use of Mathematical Instruments.”[25]

Children found a few elements essential to every Puritan classroom. Notwithstanding the Bible as the main text, the New England Primer played a major role in one’s early education with basic grammar related to scripture, Christian doctrine, creeds, and catechism such as “Q. Who made you? A. God. Q. Who redeemed you? A. Jesus Christ. Q. Who sanctifies and preserves you? A. The Holy Ghost.”[26] Another basic tool, the hornbook, consisted of a piece of wood with a paper tacked and covered by horn. Basic lessons might cover the alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer, or a poem teaching the doctrine of the Trinity. A typical day for a young Puritan student required heavy amounts of memorization, recitation, and reading with testing and review at the end of the week.[27] These tools, designed to heighten an understanding of Puritan doctrine as well as the teaching of the classics, effectively accomplished their goals.[28] In addition, schoolmasters might require a student to take notes during the Sunday sermon for later reporting, complete with emphasis on Greek terms used. One could argue that the culmination of the week’s learning had its test on Sunday in church.

“Miſs Campion” holding a hornbook, 1661. From Tuer’s History of the Horn-Book


A Learned Clergy

Horton Davies describes the view of the sermon for the New England Puritan as “nourishment of the soul, and as the iron rations of the serious pilgrim bound for eternity.”[29] Puritans considered missing church on Sunday anathema. While children received education at home or school, the common adult citizen attended church on Sunday to receive his or her continuing education. Here, the passages of scripture were read, parsed, exegeted, exposed, and applied with fervor, meekness, power, and tenderness. With the advent of printing in the early eighteenth-century, many sermons reached outlying communities in the form of pamphlets should they merit such favor. The Puritan father continued his family’s spiritual education after the sermon by questioning them at home and discussing the major tenets of the message.[30] In the view of the average Puritan, the strength of the sermon reflected the strength of the pastor.

The typical colonial pastor, if not educated locally, likely graduated from Cambridge or Oxford College in England. He was a male of utmost character, and fully confident in his salvation and call to the gospel ministry. In the early days of Colonial New England, a town might not have a schoolmaster, but they did have a pastor. Lawrence Cremin describes him this way: “He served some two to three hundred of his fellow men as religious leader, moral overseer, civic administrator, legal counselor, medical advisor, and purveyor of news.”[31] Indeed, the days before the American Revolution saw numerous pastors preaching the perils of tyranny from across the Atlantic, spreading and fueling the passion for revolution. The pastor provided the primary conveyance of information in the colonial town. One can see how they guided and influenced various aspects of educational matters; for Puritan education was Christian education. The culmination of colonial education, where many of these pastors trained, can be found in one institution.

Harvard, founded in 1636 just twenty-nine years after Jamestown, became the pinnacle in educational achievement during colonial times, with a specific charter to train ministers. The unofficial role of this institution provided training to replace the eventual lack of graduates coming from Oxford and Cambridge, for they feared an uneducated clergy in the pulpit.[32] Officially, the Puritans founded Harvard to advance piety, civility, and learning. Half of its early graduates went into occupations of medicine, public service, business, teaching, or the management of land holdings rather than pulpit ministry.[33] Nonetheless, those graduates all adhered to the same rigorous standards.

Aside from academic requirements to enter Harvard, such as the ability to read Latin and Greek, school administrators required strenuous spiritual requirements. One should not only “know God and Jesus Christ” but should “seriously by prayer in secret, seeke wisdome of him” and “exercise himselfe in reading the scriptures twice a day.”[34] This was in addition to numerous aspects of character development done around an academic workload that would dwarf the average workload of today’s American college student.

For the main text of theology, aside from scripture, Harvard used Medulla Thelogica (The Marrow of Theology) by William Ames to enhance the students in spiritual and academic pursuits such as refutation of error, information of the truth, correction of manners, exhortation, and instruction in righteousness.[35] As discussed earlier with primary schools, Harvard maintained a thorough liberal arts curriculum with courses in mathematics, astronomy, physics, botany, chemistry, philosophy, poetry, history, and medicine, all tempered with a strong foundation in languages and Bible.[36] Students endured long and demanding days. Most, sponsored by parents or their community, did not have to work. For a short time, Harvard even created a special “Indian School” section with the intended result to have educated Indians return to their home and propagate the Gospel. Although Harvard stood alone for several years, other institutions soon joined it.

Early view of Harvard titled, “A Westerly View of the Colledges in Cambridge New England,” engraved by Paul Revere around 1767. 


William and Mary (founded in 1693) and Yale (founded in 1701), specifically provided ministerial training in their beginnings with a charter to support churches in their area. These two colleges, along with Harvard, stood alone until 1745 when various denominations, concerned with the teaching of certain types of doctrine, sought to build their own institutions of higher learning. Some examples of these were the New Side Presbyterians’ founding of Princeton, revivalist Baptists’ founding of Brown, and Dutch Reformed Revivalists’ founding of Rutgers.[37] Although somewhat varied in doctrine, almost all of these institutions keep the same ideal; to send learned clergy to America’s pulpits for the advancement of the gospel and bring all citizens to the knowledge of the scriptures.

These colleges, varied in some elements of doctrine, shared one element crucial to Puritan theology; the Bible as the source of all truth in every educational subject, and indeed every decision or action one makes must be fully reconciled to scripture. One might consider the visual image of a funnel where various aspects of life, such as education, fall into to the top. Secular or humanistic principles might fall into the top of the funnel, but the Puritan educational model required that only truth come out of the bottom, thus keeping Satan on the run. Through this model, the Puritan child learned obedience and the knowledge needed for salvation, not in a sense that the knowledge saved them, but that the knowledge gave them the truth needed to understand the grace that saved them, and as they became older, they worked toward sanctification.

At Harvard, mission statements such as “to know God and Jesus Christ” or to understand Jesus as “the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning,” cause some historians to label this educational model as too religious.[38] However, the average Puritan child and certainly the Harvard graduate would have ranked among the intellectual elite of their English counterparts. Early faculty, Oxford and Cambridge trained, reflected numerous aspects of Renaissance teaching. The Puritans considered it extremely important that the local minister complete the highest of educational training, for he was the overseer of that community’s Christian education. A highly literate clergy reflected a highly literate church body.

One might consider a scenario compared to parents today hoping their child grows up to become a doctor or lawyer and just maybe President of the United States. The Puritan twist on this scenario reflected the parents’ wish that their child become a minister in a thriving community so influential that their sermons are printed on pamphlets and distributed for all to read, not for their fame but for the glory of God.

This hope began at home where children learned to read as early as four or five. Latin and Greek, introduced shortly after attending public school, started the well-rounded liberal arts education including math and science with the heaviest influence on reading the classics. All of their weekly studies culminated with a church sermon firmly planted in the word of God.

These early Americans came to believe that a college in their community completed the goal to infuse the population with learned men filling the role of minister first, but also lawyers, doctors, merchants, and political leaders.[39] The establishment of Harvard at such an early time in the colonies’ development speaks volumes toward the Puritans’ commitment to education. Leland Ryken states the Puritan theory of education as “a wonderfully unified and integrated whole” and that it “included both piety and knowledge, both becoming like God and preparing to do all things well in daily life in the world.”[40]

Understanding the spirit of the Puritans’ perseverance through ocean travel, starvation, disease, death, loneliness, and Indian attack is found in the Calvinistic principle of God’s sovereignty. The Puritans, convinced of God’s plan for them, dealt with these trials and tribulations through a deep understanding of God’s word and faith in his plan for their life. Therefore, it was for the knowledge of the scriptures that the Puritans held up education as a bedrock for their society.





[1] Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, M.D., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Vol. II. 1642-1649. (Boston: From the Press of William White, 1853), 203. While the original written record is available to be read under glass in Massachusetts, the current microfiche is unreadable, hence the sourcing by Shurtleff.

[2] Paul Leicester Ford, “The New England Primer: Classics in Education, No. 13.” History of Education Quarterly 4, no. 1 (Mar., 1964): 72.

[3] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England 2d ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956), 108.

[4] Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607-1783. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 17.

[5] Shurtleff, Records of the Governor, 203.

[6] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. (New York: HarperSanFranciso, 2007), 69.

[7] N. Ray Hiner, “The Cry of Sodom Enquired into: Educational Analysis in Seventeenth-Century New England.” History of Education Quarterly 13, no. 1 (Spring, 1973): 5.

[8] Cremin, American Education, 194.

[9] Ford, “The New England Primer,” 73.

[10] Jon Teaford, “The Transformation of Massachusetts Education, 1670-1780.” History of Education Quarterly 10, no. 3 (Autumn, 1970): 289.

[11] Ryken, Wordly Saints, 165-66.

[12] Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in    Seventeenth-Century New England. New ed. (NY: Harper & Row, 1966), 89.

[13]Irving G. Hendrick, “A Reappraisal of Colonial New Hampshire’s Effort in Public Education.” History of Education Quarterly  6, no. 2 (Summer, 1966), 43.

[14] Cremin, American Education, 78-79.

[15] Ibid, 50.

[16] Prothero, Religious Literacy, 65.

[17] Ryken, Worldly Saints, 162.

[18] Cremin, American Education, 128.

[19] John D. Hannah, “HT102: The Church in the Modern Era.” Unpublished Class Notes in HT102: The Church in the Modern Era, (Dallas Theological Seminary, Spring, 2006), 19.

[20] Laurel Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, 1st ed., (NY: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1982), 43.

[21] Teaford, “The Transformation of Massachusetts Education,” 291.

[22] Hendrick, “A Reappraisal of Colonial New Hampshire’s Effort,” 58.

[23] Cremin, American Education,182.

[24] Teaford, “The Transformation of Massachusetts Education,” 298.

[25] Ibid, 300. Eighteenth-Century spelling used.

[26]The Internet Sacred Text Archive, “The New England Primer,” John Bruno Hare, (accessed November 3, 2007).

[27] Cremin, American Education, 175.

[28] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 102.

[29] Horton Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 1999), 116.

[30] Hiner, “The Cry of Sodom,” 13.

[31] Cremin, Ameican Education, 147.

[32] Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, 31.

[33] Cremin, American Education, 220.

[34] Laws and Statues of Harvard College, “Harvard College Lawes of 1642 from New England’s First Fruits,” The American Colonist’s Library: A Treasury of Primary Documents, (accessed November 3, 2007). Original spelling used.

[35] Davies, The Worship of American Puritans, 90.

[36] Ryken, Worldly Saints, 164-65.

[37] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, (London: Vintage, 1964), 179.

[38] Prothero, Religious Literacy, 84.

[39] Boorstin, The Americans, 181.

[40] Ryken, Worldly Saints, 170.