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TEXT: I Peter 1:13
SUBJECT: Puritans #9: Education
This afternoon, with the Lord's help, we'll continue our monthly study of The Puritan View of Life. The Puritans-you know-were Reformed Christians who flourished in England and America from about 1550 to 1700.
The book we're using to guide is Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. The author is Leland Ryken; the date is 1986. I cannot recommend the book too highly. If the Puritans both interest you-and scare the dickens out of you-this is the place to meet them. The chapters are short, full, and easy to understand.
Thus far, we've studied them on work, marriage, kids, money, preaching, church, worship, and the Bible. Now, we move on to the Puritan view of education.
If I wanted to cut the lecture short, I could sum up their view in half-a-minute. When it comes to education, the Puritans were for it. They were radically, universally, and consistently committed to learning. They talked about it. But that's not all they did: They also worked at it and were willing to pay for it.
Surveys say most Americans care deeply about education. But I wonder if we do. Very few students are willing to work for one; very few schools are willing to provide one; and very few parents are willing to pay for one.
It's easy to favor education-as long as it doesn't demand anything of us-like reading a book or turning off the TV. What's not so easy is get one for ourselves and give one to our children.
WHAT THEY DID ABOUT IT
But the Puritans did, first in England, then in America.
The first name to mention is Oliver Cromwell. He led the Puritan party in its debate-and later in its war-with King Charles I. After the king's execution, Cromwell ruled the nation from 1653 until his death five years later. These were hard times for England. The Civil War had killed good men on both sides and disrupted the economy. Yet during these chaotic years, the number of grammar schools in England doubled. When the monarchy was restored, the number of schools went way down again.
Cromwell not only presided over the growth of schools, but he founded the University of Durham with his own money.
The English Puritans not only insisted on more schools, but also on better schools. Cromwell sent commissioners all over the country to insure the students were receiving a solid education. About this period, a modern historian says,
"In several respects, the Commonwealth
was a period when university studies
reached a peak".
Some of England's finest-and most learned men-were the products of the Puritan schools. John Milton is one of the four greatest poets who ever lived-and he was a Puritan. This is even more true when it comes to theologians, commentators, and preachers.
Matthew Henry died almost 300 years ago, yet his commentary on the whole Bible remains the best one in the world. John Owen was a theologian for the ages. And as for preachers? The Puritans were-far and away-the finest preachers England ever produced. Charles Spurgeon said he was a pygmy next to the Puritans.
If the English Puritans excelled at learning, their American cousins did even better. For example:
When the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay they opened a college within six years. It's still there; you may have heard of it-Harvard. Just imagine how much they thought of learning. They sailed to a new land that was uncultivated, overgrown, freezing, and full of dangerous Indians. Yet, after putting up their makeshift houses and churches, they went to work on a school of higher learning!
John Cotton was a leading American Puritan. He said of the college,
"It was the best thing that New England ever
John Eliot was a missionary to the Indians. At a Synod meeting in Boston, he prayed,
"Lord, for schools everywhere among us!
Oh, that our schools may flourish!
That every member of this assembly may
Go home and procure a good school in
The town where he lives".
A few years later, both Massachusetts and Connecticut state laws ordered schools to be opened in every town. The New Haven Code of 1655 required
"All parents and masters to provide means
for teaching their children and apprentices"
Underline the word, "apprentices". In those days, most boys learned a trade from a master of it. If my dad were a farmer, and my brother would inherit the farm, then I would be sent off to a tradesman of some kind-maybe a carpenter or a cobbler or a blacksmith. To the authorities' way of thinking that man had to do more than teach me how to build cabinets or make shoes. He also had to teach me to read, write, and do math.
Note also the democratic nature of the learning. Not everyone was equally apt, of course-they never have been and never will be! Thus, the Puritans did not require everyone to go to college or master Latin, but everyone had to learn!
Learning in those days was no easier than it is today. Ryken says,
"To say that the Puritans treasured an educated
mind is not to say that they found the ideal easy
to attain. The obstacles were the same to it
then as now: mental laziness, the complacency
and snobbery of ignorance, the pressures of
time and the temptations to amass money
instead of paying for an education".
Most of us are guilty of some of these faults-or even all of them! But natural laziness and the love of money weren't the only things to hinder learning in Puritan England and America.
There were also men who advocated ignorance. What is worst about them is that they did it in the name of Jesus Christ! In England they were called "Sectaries"; in America, they went by the name, "Antinomians".
These people attacked reason and learning, preferring what they called piety and the leading of the Holy Spirit. One man said,
"I would rather hear one speak from the mere
motion of the Spirit, without any study at all,
than one of your learned scholars, although
he may be fuller of Scripture".
Look at the contrast he's making: Spirit v. learning. Now, if the Puritans were learned heretics or wicked men with college degrees, then of course, the man was right! A stumbling sermon from an ignorant believer is far better than a learned discourse from a wicked heretic!
But were the Puritans against godliness? Were they indifferent to it? No they weren't. They demanded personal devotion to Jesus Christ. Their ideal of a minister was never a scholar only; it was a godly scholar they wanted.
The Puritans rejected this kind of thinking root and branch! Richard Baxter said
"We must use our best reason to rightly expound
the Scriptures, to expound the text, to translate
it truly, to gather just and certain inferences
from the Scripture assertions.
.to apply general rules to particular
cases, in matters of doctrine, worship,
discipline, and ordinary practice".
The Puritans did not despise uneducated men. What they despised was the pride of stupidity! Or ignorance masquerading as holiness.
In the early 20th Century, there was a professor at Princeton Seminary named B.B. Warfield. Sneering at Warfield's great learning, a man said to him,
"I'd rather hear a man who's been on his knees
for ten minutes than a man who's been studying
his books for ten hours!"
The good professor said,
"I'd rather hear a man who's been on his knees
for ten hours--studying his books!"
Though Professor Warfield was not a Puritan, his quip captures the Puritan way of thinking. They saw no contradiction between a warm heart and a full head.
Why did the Puritans put such an emphasis on learning?
It was not to make money! If you go to Cal or Stanford or the State Universities in the Bay Area, you'll find that the most popular majors lead to the highest paying jobs! The Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering, and Computer Science schools will be packed with students while things like Religious Studies or Anthropology or English schools won't be.
There's nothing wrong with business or engineering, of course! But the fact remains that American Higher Education is aimed at making big money! In other words, it is a high-powered vocational training.
The Puritan view was far different. Cotton Mather warned parents,
"If your main concern be to get the riches of this
world for your children, and leave a belly full
of this world unto them, it looks very suspiciously
as if you yourselves are people of this world,
whose portion is only in this life".
As he was about to graduate from University, John Milton wrote his father a moving letter,
"Father, you did not enjoin me to go where
money slides more easily into the hand.
desiring rather that my mind be cultivated
and enriched.What greater wealth could
a father have given, though he had given
all things except heaven?"
If education was not for becoming rich, what was it for? Two things, the Puritans found:
First, to make you a better person. John Milton,
"I call, therefore, a complete and generous
education that which fits a man to perform
justly, skillfully, and magnanimously,
all the offices, both private and public, of
peace and war".
"Education in our day often focuses on a single
public role, that of a job or a vocation, which
is increasingly defined in economic terms only.
Milton's phrase, `public offices' covers much more
Than that, however. It includes both a good
Church member and a positive contributor to
The community. It includes being a good
Friend, roommate, spouse, or parent-and
It includes the inner world of the mind and
The imagination. One of the best tests of whether
A person is educated is what he does with his
Leisure time. In short, we should not first
Ask, `What can I do with an education, but
What can an education do for me?'"
The second motive for educating themselves and their children was also the higher one: Knowing God! Cotton Mather,
"Before all and above all, it is the knowledge of
the Christian religion that parents are to teach
their children. The knowledge of other things-
be they ever so good-our children may arrive
at eternal happiness without. But the knowledge
of the godly doctrine in the words of the Lord
Jesus Christ is a million times more necessary
In the first handbook at Harvard College, the students read,
"Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly
pressed to consider well the main end of his life and
studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is.
eternal life, and therefore, to lay Christ in the
bottom, as the only foundation of all sound
The Puritans weren't monks begging and mooching off working people, they themselves were working people-farmers, ship owners, businessmen, and so on. Yet because they did not worship money, they did not make getting money the goal of their schooling.
THE BIBLE AND THE SCHOOL
Because the goals of education were holiness and knowing God, then, of course, the Bible was central to their education. One preacher said,
"Above all, the foremost reading for everybody,
both in the universities and in the schools,
should be Holy Scripture.I would advise
no one to send his child where the Holy
Scriptures are not supreme".
But is that all they studied? Were the Puritan schools and universities something like Bible Colleges? No, they weren't. The Puritans studied everything-mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, foreign languages, history, and the classics of pagan learning.
But how did they justify this? If Aristotle was an idolater, why would they read him? They had an answer for that: All truth is God's truth.
They said God has Two Books-the Bible and Nature. Psalm 19, Romans 1, and many other places teach that. Thus, there is no danger at all in studying science or other secular topics-because the truth about them cannot contradict God's Word. This doesn't mean theories about them can't contradict the Word, but the truth about them never does!
Thus they studied everything in light of God's Word. And they were right to do so,
"The entrance of Your Word gives light,
it gives understanding to the simple".
"In Your light, we see light".
They understood the danger of secular studies; but they could be pursued as long as the students kept them in their place. Richard Sibbes,
"Truth comes from God, wherever we find it,
and it is ours, it is the Church's.We must not
make an idol of these things, but truth, wherever
we find it is the Church's: Therefore, with a good
conscience we may make use of any human author".
The Puritans set quite an example for us. But it's one-for the most part-that we haven't followed. Most of us haven't hit the books very hard because we're lazy or we prefer some silly TV show to solid learning. Others haven't studied much because they couldn't see what's in it for them-in other words, no money. Others shut their minds off because they don't believe they could both think and be a Christian.
What we're guilty of ourselves, we're passing on to our children. By our own example, we're teaching them that reading is dull, that listening to good music is boring, and that thinking about things like Truth, Goodness, and Beauty will make them sissies, bookworms, or nerds.
But most of all, we're not willing to pay for their education. And here, I don't mean money only, but also involvement, effort, and patience.
It's hard for me to think about these things without feeling ashamed of myself. Maybe you feel that way too. But if you do, we can still do something about it. Even if we're fifty years old or our kids are nearly grown.
A good friend of my wife's graduated from high school at.81! A friend of mine started seminary at forty. My dad reads 5 books a week at 83!
Let me close with two verses-one from each Testament,
"Wisdom is the principal thing;
therefore, get wisdom, and in
all of your getting, get understanding".
"Gird up the loins of your mind".
When it comes to education-not college degrees, but education-the Puritans set a fine example. Now, what are we going to do with it?
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