Religious Foundations of Schools in Colonial Times

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  • 0:01 Colonial Education
  • 1:15 Puritans
  • 4:02 Quakers
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Though public schools and religion don't mix today, the foundations of education in colonial America were mostly religious. In this lesson, we'll take a look at two religious groups who influenced early education, the Puritans and the Quakers.

Colonial Education

How many times in your life have you complained that you didn't want to go to school? If you're like most people, there were probably many times in your school years that you wished you didn't have to be a student anymore.

In Colonial America, you might have gotten your wish. Colonial America, which is the term used to describe life in the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, had a very limited education system. In the beginning, education was only available for upper-class children, and even then, it often involved tutors and governesses, not going to school.

Poorer children didn't have it any better, though. Instead of going to school or studying with a tutor, children from the lower classes worked as an apprentice, gaining on-the-job training instead of learning reading, writing, and arithmetic in school.

But as the colonies became more and more populated, schools began to open up for wealthy and poor children. Most of the schools in Colonial America were founded by religious groups, and lessons often revolved around the Bible and other religious tracts.

Let's look at two religious groups that were very influential on early American education: the Puritans and the Quakers.


The Puritans were Christians who fled to America to avoid persecution in England. They were very concerned with education because they believed that it was important for everyone to learn how to read the Bible. But, like other colonialists, the Puritans were largely educated in their own homes by their parents or tutors.

Much of New England, particularly Massachusetts, was founded by the Puritans. They thrived there, free to pursue their religious and educational beliefs, unlike the situation they faced back in England. But in the mid-1600s, the Massachusetts Puritans became concerned about the non-Puritans that were living among them. A non-Puritan population boom meant that many of the people in Puritan areas didn't share their same values. Some of the non-Puritans weren't teaching their children to read at all!

The Puritans were concerned about this for two reasons: first, they worried that the non-Puritan children's illiteracy would keep them from reading the Bible and thus being saved. Second, they worried that illiteracy might keep people from understanding and following the laws of the colony.

To address the issue, the Puritans passed the Law of 1642, which required parents and masters of apprentices to educate their children or apprentices to basic literacy levels. In other words, if you were in charge of children, you had to make sure that they could read and write at a basic level so that they could read the Bible and understand the laws of the land. If not, the children could be taken away and put in a household where they would receive education.

Notice that the Law of 1642 didn't say anything about schools or public education. The Puritans still believed that education was a private matter that occurred in the home. But many of the non-Puritans didn't follow the law the way that the Puritans believed it should have been followed. As a result, a new law was passed. This one, the Law of 1647, also known as the Deluder Satan Act, required towns of a certain size to hire a schoolmaster to teach the local children. Generally, this meant that towns with at least 50 households would hire someone to come in and provide education.

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