However great the benefits of reading the scriptures in schools have been, I cannot help remarking, that these benefits might be much greater, did schoolmasters take more pains to explain them to their scholars. Did they demonstrate the divine original of the Bible from the purity, consistency, and benevolence of its doctrines and precepts—did they explain the meaning of the Levitical institutions, and show their application to the numerous and successive gospel dispensations—did they inform their pupils that the gross and abominable vices of the Jews were recorded only as proofs of the depravity of human nature, and of the insufficiency of the law, to produce moral virtue and thereby to establish the necessity and perfection of the gospel system—and above all, did they often enforce the discourses of our Savior, as the best rule of life, and the surest guide to happiness, how great would be the influence of our schools upon the order and prosperity of our country!
Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) is rarely remembered as an American founder; his writings are ill-read. But like most of his contemporaries, he lived a rich life of correspondence. One letter is produced below. Thus far at American Reformer we have only republished seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century sermons as part of our resourcement project. Rush’s letter is the first to diversify our genre but will not be the last.
Rush graduated Princeton and then attended medical school at Edinburgh becoming fluent in several languages galivanting around Europe. Upon his return, he practiced medicine in Philadelphia and taught chemistry at what would be come University of Pennsylvania, and authored textbooks on multiple subjects. An active member of the Sons of Liberty, he was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Convention. He served as a field surgeon with the Philadelphia militia. After the war he stayed busy, founding, among other things, the Pennsylvania Bible Society, and was heavily involved with the American Sunday School Union. Public morality and education were central to his work.
Rush’s position on education and Christianity was like Noah Webster’s (1758-1843) who famously recorded in his Dictionary, “Education is useless without the Bible. The Bible was America’s basic textbook in all fields. God’s Word, contained in the Bible, has furnished all necessary rules to direct our conduct.” (See also Webster’s Value of the Bible and Excellence of the Christian Religion (1834)). Both Rush and Webster can, by all accounts, be rightly called Christian nationalists. Webster was a staunch Calvinist and Rush was a microcosm of all American Protestant denominations it seems. Both men saw education, its quality generally and use of the Bible particularly, as invariably dictating America’s future. They were right, on both counts.
In 1791, Rush wrote to the Congregationalist clergyman, Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798), presenting his case for why the Bible should be central to American curriculum. Education was socially and politically essential in a republic, Rush argued elsewhere. And if it was to be good education, then it must be religious. If it was to be religious then it must be true, that is, Christian. Rush’s arguments below are as potent today as they were then. Has his view not been demonstrated by converse occurrences? (More commentary on the substance of the letter will be provided in the Forum section.)
It is now several months, since I promised to give you my reasons for preferring the Bible as a schoolbook, to all other compositions. I shall not trouble you with an apology for my delaying so long to comply with my promise, but shall proceed immediately to the subject of my letter.
Before I state my arguments in favor of teaching children to read by means of the Bible, I shall assume the five following propositions.
1. That Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopt its principles, and obey its precepts, they will be wise, and happy.
2. That a better knowledge of this religion is to be acquired by reading the Bible, than in any other way.
3. That the Bible contains more knowledge necessary to man in his present state, than any other book in the world.
4. That knowledge is most durable, and religious instruction most useful, when imparted in early life,
5. That the bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life.
My arguments in favor of the use of the Bible as a schoolbook are founded, in the constitution of the human mind.
1. The memory is the first faculty which opens in the minds of children. Of how much consequence, then, must it be, to impress it with the great truths of Christianity, before it is pre-occupied with less interesting subjects! As all the liquors, which are poured into a cup, generally taste of that which first filled it, so all the knowledge, which is added to that which is treasured up in the memory from the Bible, generally receives an agreeable and useful tincture from it.
2. There is a peculiar aptitude in the minds of children for religious knowledge. I have constantly found them in the first six or seven years of their lives, more inquisitive upon religious subjects, than upon any others: and an ingenious instructor of youth has informed me, that he has found young children more capable of receiving just ideas upon the most difficult tenets of religion, than upon the most simple branches of human knowledge. It would be strange if it were otherwise; for God creates all his means to suit all his ends. There must of course be a fitness between the human mind, and the truths which are essential to its happiness.
3. The influence of prejudice is derived from the impressions, which are made upon the mind in early life; prejudices are of two kinds, true and false. In a world where false prejudices do so much mischief, it would discover great weakness not to oppose them, by such as are true.
I grant that many men have rejected the prejudices derived from the Bible: but I believe no man ever did so, without having been made wiser or better, by the early operation of these prejudices upon his mind. Every just principle that is to be found in the writings of Voltaire, is borrowed from the Bible: and the morality of the Deists, which has been so much admired and praised, is, I believe, in most cases, the effect of habits, produced by early instruction in the principles of Christianity.
4. We are subject, by a general law in our natures, to what is called habit. Now if the study of the scriptures be necessary to our happiness at any time of our lives, the sooner we begin to read them, the more we shall be attached to them; for it is peculiar to all the acts of habit, to become easy, strong and agreeable by repetition.
5. It is a law in our natures, that we remember longest the knowledge we acquire by the greatest number of our senses. Now a knowledge of the contents of the Bible, is acquired in school by the aid of the eyes and the ears; for children after getting their lessons, always say them to their masters in an audible voice; of course there is a presumption, that this knowledge will be retained much longer than if it had been acquired in any other way.
6. The interesting events and characters, recorded and described in the Old and New Testaments, are accommodated above all others to seize upon all the faculties of the minds of children. The understanding, the memory, the imagination, the passions, and the moral powers, are all occasionally addressed by the various incidents which are contained in those divine books, insomuch that not to be delighted with them, is to be devoid of every principle of pleasure that exists in a sound mind.
7. There is a native love of truth in the human mind. Lord Shaftesbury says, that truth is so congenial to our minds, that we love ever the shadow of it: and Horace, in his rules for composing an epic poem, establishes the same law in our natures, by advising the “fictions in poetry to resemble truth.” Now the Bible contains more truths than any other book in the world: so true is the testimony that it bears of God in his works of creation, providence, and redemption, that it is called truth itself, by way of preeminence above things that are only simply true. How forcibly are we struck with the evidences of truth, in the history of the Jews, above what we discover in the history of other nations? Where do we find a hero, or an historian record his own faults or vices except in the Old Testament? Indeed, my friend, from some accounts which I have read of the American revolution, I begin to grow skeptical to all history except to that which is contained in the Bible. Now if this book be known to contain nothing but what is materially true, the mind will naturally acquire a love for it from this circumstance: and from this affection for the truths of the Bible, it will acquire a discernment of truth in other books, and a preference of it in all the transactions of life.
8. There is a wonderful property in the memory, which enables it in old age, to recover the knowledge it had acquired in early life, after it had been apparently forgotten for forty or fifty years. Of how much consequence, then, must it be, to fill the mind with that species of knowledge, in childhood and youth, which, when recalled in the decline of life, will support the soul under the infirmities of age, and smooth the avenues of approaching death? The Bible is the only book which is capable of affording this support to old age; and it is for this reason that we find it resorted to with so much diligence and pleasure by such old people as have read it in early life. I can recollect many instances of this kind in persons who discovered no attachment to the Bible, in the meridian of their lives, who have notwithstanding, spent the evening of them, in reading no other book. The late Sir John Pringle [1707-1782], Physician to the Queen of Great Britain, after passing a long life in camps and at court, closed it by studying the scriptures. So anxious was he to increase his knowledge in them, that he wrote to Dr. [Johann David] Michaelis [1717-1791], a learned professor of divinity in Germany [i.e., University of Halle], for an explanation of a difficult text of scripture, a short time before his death.
My second argument in favor of the use of the Bible in schools, is founded upon an implied command of God, and upon the practice of several of the wisest nations of the world. —In the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, we find the following words, which are directly to my purpose,
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart. And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
It appears, moreover, from the history of the Jews, that they flourished as a nation, in proportion as they honored and read the books of Moses, which contained, a written revelation of the will of God, to the children of men. The law was not only neglected, but lost during the general profligacy of manners which accompanied the long and wicked reign of Manasseh. But the discovery of it, in the rubbish of the temple, by Josiah, and its subsequent general use, were followed by a return of national virtue and prosperity. We read further, of the wonderful effects which the reading of the law by Ezra, after his return from his captivity in Babylon, had upon the Jews. They hung upon his lips with tears, and showed the sincerity of their repentance, by their general reformation.
The learning of the Jews, for many years consisted in nothing but a knowledge of the scriptures. These were the textbooks of all the instruction that was given in the schools of their prophets. It was by […] of this general knowledge of their law, that those Jews that wandered from Judea into our countries, carried with them and propagated certain ideas of the true God among all the civilized nations upon the face of the earth. And it was from the attachment they retained to the Old Testament, that they procured a translation of it into the Greek language, after they lost the Hebrew tongue, by their long absence from their native country. The utility of this translation, commonly called the Septuagint, in facilitating the progress of the gospel, is well known to all who are acquainted with the history of the first age of the Christian church.
But the benefits of an early and general acquaintance with the Bible, were not confined only to the Jewish nations. They have appeared in many countries in Europe, since the reformation. The industry, and habits of order, which distinguish many of the German nations, are derived from their early instruction in the principles of Christianity, by means of the Bible. The moral and enlightened character of the inhabitants of Scotland, and of the New England States, appears to be derived from the same cause. If we descend from nations to sects, we shall find them wise and prosperous in proportion as they become early acquainted with the scriptures. The Bible is still used as a schoolbook among the quakers. The morality of this sect of Christians is universally acknowledged. Nor is this all, —their prudence in the management of their private affairs, is as much a mark of their society, as their sober manners.