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EARLY AMERICAN CHRISTIAN EDUCATION

March 29th, 2010

Classical Christian Education: A Look at Some History

by Ben House

[Editor’s note: This excellent article gives us a glimpse of early American Christian education]

The modern public education system has been weighed in many scales and found wanting. Critiques of the system in the form of books, articles, news stories, speeches, sermons, government reports, and test results have catalogued the numerous failings of state schools. Within public education, teachers, administrators, and students offer even more criticisms of the system. Whether one considers the arguments of the right or conservative end of the political spectrum, where the call is for a return to “the basics” and prayer, to the left or liberal wing of the political spectrum, where the call is for more government money, Outcome Based Education, and pluralism, the call is clearly for change.

State schools are expected to do everything: prepare students for college or vocational technical jobs, enable both brighter and slower students to excel at their respective levels, inculcate the “right” values, teach proper sexual behavior, teach students to think critically, raise the self-esteem of students, discipline children, prevent them from turning to drugs, alcohol, or suicide, teach a wide-ranging curriculum, create racial, sexual, and gender understanding and harmony, win ball games, and do all of these things in a manner that is pleasing to the students so they will not be bored or discouraged. In spite of these messianic expectations, [1] public schools are not sure what they are supposed to be doing. In the midst of a host of bugle commands, they are not sure which way to charge. There is no clear philosophy or direction.

In an age of cultural rootlessness, moral relativism, religious pluralism, social disintegration, and future uncertainty, how can we expect anything other than educational chaos? [2] Unstable times call for a return to theological foundations and historical forms. Many Christians mistakenly think that the cultural and social mores of the 1950s provide the answers. But the families, churches, and schools of the 1950s produced the 1960s. The rediscovery of theological foundations and historical forms must go further back in history.

The theological foundations must be established upon the Scriptures. In education, Christians have too often seen the Bible either as a book to be studied in a separate subject, i.e. Bible class, or as a devotional book. Christian education must teach not only Bible details, but biblical systematic theology. From that theology, Christians must develop a worldview that applies biblical concepts to every area of life. Thankfully, this has been done numerous times in the history of Christianity. The historic forms or examples can be found where Christians produced educated, biblically literate, discerning students. The historic form can be called Classical Christian Education.

Historian Christopher Dawson has described the beginnings of Classical Christian Education:

From the time of Plato the Hellenic paideia [system of instruction] was a humanism in search of a theology, and the religious traditions of Greek culture were neither deep nor wide enough to prepare the answer…..The new Christian culture was therefore built from the beginning on a double foundation. The old classical education in the liberal arts was maintained without any interruption, and since this education was inseparable from the study of classical authors, the old classical education continued to be studied. But alongside of–and above–all this, there was now a specifically Christian learning which was Biblical and theological and which produced its own prolific literature. [3]

Typically the schools in early American history were Classical Christian schools. The instructors were usually ministers whose training was a combination of classical languages and literature and Protestant theology. In other words, they studied the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, and they read Homer’s Iliad in Greek, Tacitus’ histories in Latin, as well as studying John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For example, Moses Waddell, a Southern Presbyterian preacher and teacher (1770-1840), began studying Latin at age eight, and after six years of school, he had finished courses in Greek, Latin, and mathematics. After his conversion and entrance into the ministry, Waddell established, in a log building, a school with an enrollment of as many as 180 students a year. In his book Southern Presbyterian Leaders, Dr. Henry Alexander White made these comments about Waddell’s school:

The food furnished to the students in Waddell’s log college was plain, for it was usually nothing more than cornbread and bacon. A blast from a ram’s horn called them all together from morning and evening prayers. When the weather was mild the students sat or lay beneath the trees to prepare their lessons. The sound of the horn told the class in Homer when to assemble, and all of the members rushed at once to the recitation hall in the main building. Then the horn called up, in regular order, the Cicero, the Horace, and the Virgil classes, as well as those engaged in the study of mathematics and English. [4]

The success of this school obviously did not come from expensive facilities and modern technology or even a good cafeteria. (This shows the fallacy of those who promote higher school taxes to improve education.) Jack Maddex, Jr. said, “Waddell’s students mastered the classical curriculum at an exacting pace, interspersing long study periods with recitations.” [5 ] Many of Waddell’s students achieved prominence in academic and civil affairs.

The type of student Classical Christian education produced is astounding to modern readers. The difficulty and rigor of education made it a prized commodity. The compulsory and egalitarian education system of today has debased the value of the commodity. While academic degrees are expected in many fields today, they are rarely seen as indicators of academic or intellectual ability. By contrast, education in the past was equated with book knowledge, and that knowledge was acquired only by hard work. Young Moses Hoge was noted for fastening a book to his plow as he worked the fields. He would plow a furrow, stop and read a page, and then ponder the contents as he plowed the next furrow. [6] David Caldwell, as a student, would sit near an open window and study into the late hours of the night. Then he would fold his arms on the table, lay his head down, and sleep until morning. [7] James Henley Thornwell, who was given to studying fourteen hours a day, commented on his own need to improve his speaking and writing skills:

Language was my great difficulty in early life. I had no natural command of words. I undertook to remedy the defect by committing to memory large portions of the New Testament, the Psalms, and much of the Prophets, also whole dramas of Shakespeare, and a great part of Milton’s Paradise Lost; so that you might start me at any line in any drama or book, and I would go through to the end. [8]

As a young teacher, Thornwell continued his study habits:

I have commenced regularly with Xenophon’s works, and intend to read them carefully. I shall then take up Thucydides, Herodotus, and Demosthenes. After mastering these I shall pass on to the philosophers and poets. In Latin I am going regularly through Cicero’s writings. I read them by double translations; that is, I first translate them into English and then retranslate them into Latin. In German I am perusing Goethe’s works. My life, you can plainly see, is not a life of idleness. [9]

After Thornwell committed his life to Christ, he entered the ministry and became one of the greatest Presbyterian ministers and theologians ever produced in America.

Professor Clyde Wilson has described the curriculum and its purposes in the University of North Carolina in the middle of the 1800s. He said:

The college curriculum consisted chiefly of Latin, Greek, and pure mathematics, with smaller amounts of modern languages, chemistry, geology, physics, botany, zoology, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, political economy, and constitutional and international law. More than half of a student’s time in four years was spent in languages ancient and modern; three-fifths in the languages and pure mathematics together. The intent of these studies was to develop the powers of reason, analysis, and perspective, and by familiarity with the classical republics to inspire an understanding and love of American institutions. The curriculum also reflected a highly verbal and personalized society in which fixed status and institutional rigidity had not robbed words of their power to persuade and move. [10]

This ability to use reason, analysis, and perspective comes from reading. Neil Postman said, “From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one’s habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the ‘analytical management of knowledge.'”11 In Classical Christian education, this intellectual ability is cultivated in order to understand and implement the Scriptures. Susan Alder has stated that education in Colonial America was Christian not only in teaching the doctrines of the Christian faith, but in defining all reality by precepts and principles laid out in the Bible. As historian Clinton Rossiter has said, “The colonial mind was thoroughly Christian in its approach to education, philosophy, and social theory….” [12]

The importance of the Bible in education can be seen in an ironically prophetic defense of the use of the Bible in public schools given by Benjamin Rush in 1786. Rush said:

I do not mean to exclude books of history, poetry, or even fables from our schools. They may and should be read frequently by our young people, but if the Bible is made to give way to them altogether, I foresee that it will be read in a short time only in churches and in a few years will probably be found only in the offices of magistrates and in courts of justice. [13]

Many other examples could be given of the nature of Classical Christian education as it existed in America from our colonial beginnings to about the 1900s. Very obviously, the academic standards were high, the worldview was Christian, and the results were amazing. But what is the message for us? Some would object to this discussion and point out that not all Americans received the level of education described above and that not all American students were James Henley Thornwells in inclination and ability. This is true; likewise, not all basketball players today are Michael Jordans, but that should not cause us to lower the basketball goals to five feet high. The example of educated men of the 1700s and 1800s is daunting. How can we teach in such a way to achieve this when the teachers today do not have the Classical Christian training of the past? The answer is that we cannot achieve the same results….in one generation. We must be future oriented, and we must begin with what we have.

We have the Bible, so we can teach theology. We have books–centuries’ accumulation of books at affordable prices. While we may begin with language restrictions, since few are trained in Latin and Greek today, we can master the great works of literature, history, and theology either written or translated into English.

Another objection might be: Why this type of education? Why not something more relevant, more modern, more accommodating to a non-literate, non-theological age? Classical Christian education is not designed to fit the student for our times. It is designed to transform the student to God’s times (Romans 12:2). It is designed to produce an student with the mental discipline and ability to read an in-depth book (even one with more than one hundred pages), write discerning, thoughtful essays on the book, present lectures or debates on the contents of the book, and evaluate its contents in light of the Christian worldview. “Paces,” multiple choice questions, computer games, and entertaining films cannot accomplish these results. Classical Christian education is “word-oriented.” It can and has produced workmen who can rightly divide the Word of God and who do not need to be ashamed to confront and unmask the idols of our age.

Source: Classical Christian Education: A Look at Some History by Ben House; Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics at http://goo.gl/Yc6i

FOOTNOTES

*Ben House is a pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Texarkana, AR and the administrator of Veritas School.

1 Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, (Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1963)

2 See Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994).

3 Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1989) pp. 8-9.

4 Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders, (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1911) pp. 59-60. [Soon to be reprinted.]

5 Jack P. Maddex, Jr., “Waddell, Moses,” Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, edited by Samuel S. Hill (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1984) p. 819.

6 White, Ibid. p. 193.

7 Ibid. p. 96.

8 Ibid. pp. 309-310.

9 Ibid.

10 Clyd N. Wilson, Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Times of James Johnson Pettigrew, (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1990), p. 15.

11 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 15.

12 Susan Alder, “Education in America,” in Public Education and Indoctrination (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1993). Alder quoted Rossiter from Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953), p. 119.

13 Benjamin Rush. “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic” from American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760-1805, Volume 1, p. 684, edited by Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983) Certainly, Rush would be shocked at the exclusion of the Scriptures from modern courts of justice!

HIRAM RHODES REVELS

February 28th, 2010

Reverend Hiram Rhodes Revels

In this blog we are going to consider Hiram Rhodes Revels, born in 1827 and died in 1901. Although he was not among our country’s founders and his time represents a much later period in our country, he is the fruit of a continuing Christian influence in our nation. Although his name is not familiar to most, he was a man of high honor, fighting for his people and this nation.

Revels was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was a free man of African-American and American Indian descent. In his pursuit to gain an education, he left North Carolina and first attended the Union County Quaker Seminary in Liberty, Indiana, and from 1856–57, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He also studied at a black seminary in Ohio. Revels was ordained a minister. As a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels preached in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and Maryland in the 1850s. “At times, I met with a great deal of opposition,” he later recalled. “I was imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence.” In 1845 he became a minister in Baltimore, Maryland and set up a private school.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Revels helped raise two African-American Union regiments from Maryland. He then moved to Missouri where continued recruiting of African-Americans for the Union Army. He was then selected to be Union Army Chaplain for a regiment of African-Americans from Mississippi. He, at one point, was the provost marshall at Vicksburg, where he took part in one the bloodiest and most prolonged sieges along the Mississippi River.

After the war and in 1865, Revels returned to his ministry and was assigned briefly to AME churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1866, he was given a permanent pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi, where he settled with his wife and five daughters, continued his ministerial work, and founded schools for black children.

During Reconstruction, Revels was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868, and he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate in 1869. As John R. Lynch reports, “so far as known he [Revels] had never voted, had never attended a political meeting, and of course, had never made a political speech. But he was a colored man, and presumed to be a Republican, and believed to be a man of ability and considerably above the average in point of intelligence.” [Lynch 1913] In January 1870, Revels presented a remarkable opening prayer in the state legislature. As Lynch says, “That prayer—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the [Mississippi] Senate Chamber—made Revels a United States Senator. He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments.”

Mississippi, being readmitted to the Union, had an open Senate seat that was last held by Jefferson Davis who had resigned to become President of the Confederate States of America. At the time, the state legislature elected US senators. Revels was elected by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi State Senate to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the US Senate left vacant since the Civil War. The seat had once been held by Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the US Senate in 1861.

The election of Revels was met with opposition from Southern conservative Democrats who cited the Dred Scott Decision which was considered by many to have been a central cause of the American Civil War. They argued that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Because election to the Senate required nine years’ prior citizenship, opponents of Revels claimed he could not be seated, having been a citizen by law for only two years. Supporters of Revels countered by stating that the Dred Scott decision applied only to those blacks who were of pure African blood. Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry, and therefore exempt, they said, and had been a citizen all his life. This argument prevailed, and on February 25, 1870, Revels, by a vote of 48 to 8, became the first black man to be seated in the United States Senate. Revels was praised in the newspapers for his oratorical abilities. His conduct in the Senate, along with that of the other African Americans who had been seated in the House of Representatives, also prompted a white contemporary, James G. Blaine, to say, “The colored men who took their seats in both Senate and House were as a rule studious, earnest, ambitious men, whose public conduct would be honorable to any race.”

After finishing her term in the United States Senate, Revels was named President of Alcorn College, the first college for African-Americans in Mississippi. Revels remained active in his ministry. For a time, he served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and taught theology at Shaw College (now Rust College), founded in 1866 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Revels and his family made their home. Hiram Revels died on January 16, 1901, while attending a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

It was by prayer that Revels was elevated to the United States Senate. It was by faith that he fought for justice for his people and mercy in reconciliation with the former Confederate states. His life was an expression of self-sacrifice and dedication to the spiritual and educational advancement of African-Americans.

Compiled from these sources:
1. U.S. Senate: Art & History Home; Photo Exhibit at www.senate.gov
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiram_Rhodes_Revels
3. On This Day, Dr. Paul E. Barkey, self-published 2009

JOHN ELIOT – APOSTLE

January 21st, 2010

By the early 1630s it was nearly impossible for anyone with Puritan convictions to receive a pastoral position in the Church of England. For that reason, many left for the New World, including a pastor named John Eliot. Born in 1604, Eliot had received his education at Jesus College, Cambridge, and although he had taken orders in the Church of England, his sympathies were with the Puritan Party. For a period of time after his graduation from Cambridge, he had assisted Thomas Hooker (later the founder of Connecticut) at Chelmsford in Essex but even there the long arm of Laud exerted its influence by threatening him with suspension.

In 1631 Eliot decided to emigrate to the New World. He arrived at Massachusetts Bay Colony in July of that year on the same ship that brought the family of John Winthrop, the Colony’s first governor. He was invited to preach for several months at the First Church of Boston while their minister John Wilson was in England. Eliot’s preaching was so well received that he was offered the position of Teacher of the church, which he declined in favor of a similar offer from the church at Roxbury. He was settled in Roxbury as Teacher in October 1632 and remained there for fifty-seven years until his death in 1690.

When the Puritans came to the New World they had two goals. One was to form a pure church by separating themselves from the perceived corruptions of the English Church. The other was to bring the Gospel to the native inhabitants. On the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the figure of a Native American ringed by the words “Come over and help us” (Acts 16:9). Thus from its very foundation the Massachusetts Bay Colony articulated the desire to meet the spiritual needs of the native inhabitants of the New World, and there is no doubt that Eliot possessed the desire to carry out this objective. [1]

What is outstanding about the Reverend John Eliot is he truly was an Apostle. An Apostle is considered to be a missionary, but there is more depth to the work of an Apostle. They are responsible for building the church, its government and order. As such, Apostles are planters of the church and John Eliot was called “Apostle of the Indians” because of the fruit of his work. His influence became a major force of change and was far reaching. Consider these achievements:

  • Establishing the Company for Propagating the Gospel in New England, the first missionary organization in our country;
  • Eliot’s methods set the pattern of subsequent “Indian missions” for almost two centuries;
  • By 1674 there were 14 villages with 4,000 converts among the Indians;
  • His converts were gathered into Christian towns, governed by a biblical code of laws;
  • He established schools and encouraged others to establish schools;
  • He translated the Bible in the Algonquin Indian Language and published it in 1663 – it was the first Bible printed in the United States
  • He was influential in the founding of Harvard College (University) and became one of its Governors;
  • John Harvard (1607-1638), a disciple of John Eliot, and a Puritan minister, gave the unorganized college one-half of his estate (Cambridge, MA) and library; then it was named Harvard College in his honor in 1639;
  • Founded The Roxbury Latin School that is the oldest school in continuous operation in North America;
  • He wrote The Christian Commonwealth: or, The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ. [2]

The Christian Commonwealth was a document intended as a plan of government for the Natick Indian community. John Eliot strongly believed government is to be founded on God’s word. Here is an excerpt:

[It is not for man] to search humane Polities and Platformes of Government, contrived by the wisdom of man, but as the Lord hath carried on their works for them, so they ought to go unto the Lord, and enquire at the Word of his mouth, what Platforme of Government he hath therein commanded; and humble themselves to embrace that as the best … [The] written Word of God is the perfect System or Frame of Laws, to guide all the Moral actions of man, either towards God or man.” [3]

John Eliot’s plan for the political organization based on the word of God has far reaching ramifications. Our constitutional liberties are a direct result of our founders’ moral and religious convictions which were based on a belief in a God who created heaven and earth as well as on the fixed and unchanging absolutes of God’s Word.

[1] Sola Scriptura, John Eliot and America’s First Bible
[2] Compiled from various historical accounts
[3] The Christian Commonwealth: or, The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ, John Eliot, London, (written in 1649, published in 1659)