The Law of 1642, the Old Deluder Satan Act, & U.S. Public Education

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  • 0:02 Public Education
  • 1:10 Law of 1642
  • 3:07 Deluder Satan Act
  • 4:55 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.

Every American citizen has the right to an education, but school wasn't always a part of the fabric of American life. In this lesson, we'll look at two early laws that influenced today's education: the Law of 1642 and the Deluder Satan Act.

Public Education

Think about how many times you've heard a child whine, 'I don't want to go to school! I wish I never had to go to school!' You've probably even said something like that at some point in your life.

Today, Americans almost take it for granted that school is necessary for children, and that the government will provide some sort of schooling for every child. But public education as we know it did not always exist. In colonial America, that is, America in the 17th and 18th centuries, children were not required to go to school, and communities were not required to provide school for children.

Instead, children were usually taught by their parents or by tutors, or they entered apprenticeships, where they learned on-the-job training. But Massachusetts in the mid-17th century changed all that. Driven by powerful Puritans, the colony enacted a series of laws that became the driving force behind the modern American educational system.

Let's look closely at two important Massachusetts laws that broke ground in the educational field: the Law of 1642 and the Deluder Satan Act.

Law of 1642

In the 1640s, Massachusetts was changing. Founded by Puritans, a religious group who fled England to avoid persecution, Massachusetts in the mid-17th century was growing in population. A boom of non-Puritans made some of those in power worried. Could the colony maintain its character and rule of law, even as non-Puritans made it their home?

One of the issues that faced the Puritans was their deep belief in literacy. To Puritans, it was very important that people knew how to read the Bible and the laws of the land. Being able to read and understand these things meant that they would be good people, the Puritans believed.

Like most people in colonial America, the Puritans educated their children at home. Those who could afford tutors got them, but most Puritans taught their children themselves. But the non-Puritans didn't necessarily share the belief that it was important to teach children to read and write, and many didn't teach their children.

So, in an effort to create good citizens who could understand and obey the laws of the colony, and to create good people through the reading of the Bible, the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts colony passed the Law of 1642, which required parents (or masters of apprentices) to provide the children under their care with a basic education, including literacy and numeracy. If children were not educated, the government could remove them and place them in a home where they could get a good education.

The law of 1642 was groundbreaking. It was the first American law that required children to be educated. Today in the United States, there are laws requiring attendance up to a certain age, and truancy laws to keep children from skipping out on school. These are the direct descendants of the law of 1642 in Massachusetts.

Deluder Satan Act

But the law of 1642 didn't solve all the problems. In fact, very quickly, the government of Massachusetts began to figure out the problems with the law. Some people just didn't educate their children, and even though the government could remove the children, they had to figure out what to do with them once they did remove them.

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