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Did You Know that Education in America Was Once Very Christian?

  • Os Hillman President, Marketplace Leaders
  • Published Jun 26, 2013
Did You Know that Education in America Was Once Very Christian?

Did you know that America’s education system was established by reading the Bible?

Education in America in 1690

The New England Primer was first published between 1688 and 1690 by English printer Benjamin Harris, who had come to Boston in 1686 to escape the brief Catholic ascendancy under James II. Based largely upon his earlier The Protestant Tutor, The New England Primer was the first reading primer designed for the American colonies. It became the most successful educational textbook published in the colonial and early days of United States history. It was used in what would be our first grade for two hundred years. While the selections in The New England Primer varied somewhat across time, there was standard content for beginning reading instruction. Each lesson had questions about the Bible and the Ten Commandments. In fact, most of the entire book taught Bible verses at the same time it taught students how to read.

The ninety-page work contained selections from the King James Bible as well as other original selections. It embodied the dominant Puritan attitude and worldview of the day. Among the topics discussed were respect for parental figures, sin, and salvation. Some versions contained the Westminster Shorter Catechism, others contained John Cotton’s shorter catechism, known as Milk for Babes, and some contained both. The primer remained in print well into the nineteenth century and was even used until the twentieth. A reported two million copies were sold in the 1700s. No copies of editions before 1727 are known to have survived; earlier editions are known only from publishers’ and booksellers’ advertisements.

Supreme Court Challenge

Using Bible verses to teach English and morality in public schools was challenged in 1844. There were three different cases that upheld the use of the Bible for that specific use in public schools, one being a Supreme Court case of 1844, Vidal v. Gerard, where a Philadelphia school wanted to teach morals without using the Bible. The Court said, “Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the college; its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained, and its glorious principles of morality inculcated?”

The court concluded that any book teaching good morality would certainly be teaching what the New Testament teaches, so why not use the original source that doesn’t change. Noah Webster, writing in the History of the United States (1832), stated, “The moral principles and precepts contained in the Scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and law....All the miseries and evils which man suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.”

Daniel Webster, in his July 4, 1800, Oration at Hanover, New Jersey: “To preserve the government we must also preserve morals. Morality rests on religion; if you destroy the foundation, the superstructure must fall. When the public mind becomes vitiated and corrupt, laws are a nullity and constitutions are waste paper.”

National Education Association (NEA)

The National Education Association (NEA) began in 1857 when forty-three educators from eight states and the District of Columbia attended the first meeting of the National Teachers Association (NTA). In 1870 the NTA changed its name to National Education Association (NEA) and merged with three smaller organizations.

The National Education Association is the largest professional organization and other support personnel, faculty and staffers at colleges and universities, retired educators, and college students preparing to become teachers. The NEA has 3.1 million members and is headquartered in Washington DC.

With affiliate organizations in every state and in more than fourteen thousand communities across the nation, the NEA has a permanent, paid, full-time staff of at least eighteen hundred United Service (UniServ) employees. According to its 2007 financial report, the NEA’s total receipts for the year were $352,958,087.12 NEA is incorporated as a professional association in a few states and as a labor union in most states (but it is not a member of the AFL-CIO or other trade union federations). On its website the NEA describes itself as a “professional employee organization.” However, it is often categorized as a labor union with strong leftist and liberal leanings, particularly by critics. Today, the NEA is one of the most liberal organizations in existence.

The Moral Decline in Education

There is a direct correlation between the removal of Christianity from public education and the decline in moral behavior among students. Following is a comparison of the top disciplinary problems of 1940 compared to 1990.

     1940                                                                            1990

Talking out of turn                                                     Drug abuse
Chewing gum                                                            Alcohol abuse
Making noise                                                             Pregnancy
Running in the halls                                                 Suicide
Cutting in line                                                             Rape
Dress code infractions                                             Robbery
Littering                                                                        Assault

Our First Universities

The motto that Harvard University adopted in 1692 was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, which translated from Latin means “Truth for Christ and the Church.” It was later changed to simply say: “Truth (Veritas).” Certainly they have removed the true source of truth.

Harvard was first established in America by the Puritans. Early documents reveal such statements: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore lay Christ at the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” Princeton was founded in 1746. Its founding president, Jonathan Dickinson, stated, “‘Cursed is all learning that is contrary to the Cross of Christ.”


In April 2011 I spoke at a conference hosted by students from the Harvard Extension Service & Leadership Society (HESLS). The theme of the conference, which was held on the campus of Harvard, was “Social Transformation by the Power of God.” Many of the students attending were greatly impacted by the conference, including a Wiccan, who, when asked why she attended a Christian conference, answered, “Curiosity. I wanted to hear what all the fuss was about. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt totally welcomed. I even had someone pray for me. I was amazed at how ‘in touch’ these people were that were praying. They ‘hear’ a lot better than we do.”

The students who hosted this conference have a vision to restore Harvard to its Christian roots. One of the objectives for the conference was: “To facilitate a shift in the spiritual atmosphere over Harvard that will assist in reestablishing the foundations of faith upon which this university was built.” A lofty goal, for sure, given where the school is today. But we must begin somewhere. We need educators and “Joshua” students who see themselves as change agents if we are going to reclaim the education mountain.

Columbia University

Columbia University was founded in 1754 as King’s College by royal charter of King George II of England. The motto of the university is, “In lumine Tuo videbimus lument,” which means, “By Your light we shall see light” (based on Psalm 36:9). It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the United States. Controversy preceded the founding of the college, with various groups competing to determine its location and religious affiliation. Advocates of New York City met with success on the first point, while the Anglicans prevailed on the latter. However, all constituencies agreed to commit themselves to principles of religious liberty in establishing the policies of the college.

The American Revolution brought the growth of the college to a halt, forcing a suspension of instruction in 1776 that lasted for eight years. However, the institution continued to exert a significant influence on American life through the people associated with it. Among the earliest students and trustees of King’s College were John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States; Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury; Gouverneur Morris, the author of the final draft of the US Constitution; and Robert R. Livingston, a member of the five-man committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. The college reopened in 1784 with a new name—Columbia—that embodied the patriotic fervor that had inspired the nation’s quest for independence.

Gouverneur Morris was widely credited as the author of the Constitution’s Preamble. Morris enrolled at King’s College (now Columbia University) at age twelve. He graduated in 1768 and received a master’s degree in 1771. He is credited with saying: “Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man towards God.” He was also one of the most prominent speakers in the Constitutional Convention.

Supreme Court, June 25, 1962—Engel v. Vitale

The Engel v Vitale Supreme Court case of 1962 was the landmark case that removed prayer from the public schools. The 1963 World Book Encyclopedia refers to this case as the first time that we had separation of religious principles from public education. The amazing thing is that it was done without citing any precedent from other cases, as is the normal procedure. There were no quotes from previous legal cases. Instead, it was a brand-new doctrine, which, according to all the previous legal decisions, was in violation of the Constitution. Nevertheless it took precedent over all the previous interpretations of the Constitution.

John Dewey, regarded as the architect of modern education, instigated early changes to move away from God in education, which led to promoting a belief in no absolute truth: “...faith in the prayer-hearing God is an unproved and outmoded faith. There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there is no need for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.”

So, now you understand why we have less Christian influence in our Education today.

This article was adapted from Os Hillman’s book, Change Agent: Engaging Your Passion to Be the One Who Makes a Difference. 

Os Hillman is president of Marketplace Leaders and author of Change Agent and TGIF Today God Is First free daily email devotional. 

Publication date: June 26, 2013