As had been the case in Europe, schools in the American colonies were founded almost entirely by churches or other organizations. This is most obvious at the university level: Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Brown, all were founded as religious institutions.
But in addition to higher education, primary schools were also set up to teach the Bible. There were several reasons for this. As we have seen in earlier articles in this series, Christians have always believed in the importance of the life of the mind, and thus have always valued education. Especially in the wake of the Reformation, they also believed that studying the Bible was essential for active citizens in a republic. For example, in the New England colonies, public schools emphasized biblical studies because the colonists distrusted government. They wanted people to know the Bible well so that they could test any proposed laws against scriptural standards to prevent abuse of power by their leaders.
More broadly, Protestants maintained that developing a biblical worldview was essential to producing a prosperous and successful society. Though no one argued that the Bible was all anyone needed to study, they did believe that the Bible provided an essential framework for studying any discipline, and that its teachings about how to live were essential for civic and personal virtue.
These ideas continued to influence American society through the Revolution into the Early Republic, including the signers of the Declaration of Independence. One example is Benjamin Rush.
Rush was one of seven children born to John and Susanna Rush in the Township of Byberry outside of Philadelphia. His father died when he was five, and at eight he was sent to live with relatives. He studied at a school directed by Rev. Samuel Finley in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, and then at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at age 10. He completed his degree in 1760 at the age of 15.
Rush then began training with John Redman, a physician in Philadelphia. With Redman’s support, Rush moved to the University of Edinburgh, where he received his medical degree. After practicing medicine for a time in Britain, in 1769 he returned to the colonies. At the age of 24, he opened a medical practice in Philadelphia and was named chemistry professor at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). During this period he wrote the first textbook on chemistry published in America and produced several treatises on medical education.
Along with his medical work, Rush was an ardent patriot. He wrote numerous patriotic essays, and Thomas Paine even consulted with him when he wrote Common Sense, one of the most influential pro-independence pamphlets of the era. Rush was appointed to the Continental Congress and became a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Shortly thereafter, he became a surgeon-general in the Continental Army, though a year later he resigned due to conflicts with other physicians in the military. He also was not a fan of George Washington and called for his removal, an action which he later regretted. After the Revolution, Rush continued his work in politics, notably as part of the Pennsylvania convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution.
Rush continued his medical career after the war. He joined the staff of Pennsylvania Hospital and taught medical theory and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Over his career, he educated over 300 physicians. He also founded Dickinson College, a liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
One significant area of study for Rush was the treatment of mental illness. He argued that they shouldn’t be chained up in dungeons, but brought into normal hospital settings. He also believed that giving them productive work could aid in their recovery. Both of these proved to be successful strategies in treating many of his patients.
Along with his medical work, Rush was active in social reform. He was a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (the Pennsylvania Prison Society today). He was also an ardent abolitionist, writing pamphlets against the institution of slavery in 1773 and joining abolitionist societies. He very specifically argued on scientific grounds that blacks were in no way inferior to whites.
This is quite a resume, but it is important to realize that all of these activities were very directly informed by Rush’s faith. His stands on mental health, prisons, and slavery all came from his understanding that each person is made in the image of God and therefore deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. His observations on the importance of work for our well-being confirmed ideas contained within the biblical worldview.
His stand on abolition had been the historical position of the church and in his day was being advanced by evangelicals (among others) in Britain and America. He was so concerned with the well-being of the black population that he acted as an advisor to Richard Allen in the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and lent it his public support.
Rush’s views on politics were similarly drawn from the Christian tradition. His ideas on unalienable rights can be traced through John Locke all the way back to medieval scholastic theologians, and his ideas of liberty and tyranny likewise trace through Locke to Protestant resistance theory developed in response to persecution in the sixteenth century.
Even more, the entire spirit of the Gospel led Rush to his political views:
A Christian cannot fail of being a republican. The history of the creation of man, and of the relation of our species to each other by birth, which is recorded in the Old Testament, is the best refutation that can be given to the divine right of kings, and the strongest argument that can be used in favor of the original and natural equality of all mankind. A Christian, I say again, cannot fail of being a republican, for every precept of the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness, which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy and the pageantry of a court. A Christian cannot fail of being useful to the republic, for his religion teacheth him, that no man “liveth to himself.” And lastly, a Christian cannot fail of being wholly inoffensive, for his religion teacheth him, in all things to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him.
Rush was well aware of the sources of his thinking, which is why he championed education on all levels. Along with his work at the collegiate level, he is considered the father of American public education, and was a major supporter of the American Sunday School Union. For him, Christianity was essential for the proper functioning of society, and he firmly believed that it needed to be at the heart of education. As he put it, “Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.”
In particular, Rush argued that religious education was particularly important for republics:
“[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a Republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue, there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”
Although in this essay Rush argued that any religion was better than no religion for promoting virtue in society, he clearly believed in the superiority of Christianity and the importance specifically of the Bible:
“We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government; that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by means of the Bible; for this divine book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and all those sober and frugal virtues which constitute the soul of republicanism.”
So the Bible is necessary for the success of a republic. Even further, however, Rush believed that the qualities encouraged by the Bible spilled over into all of life. The “father of American public education” argued:
“… if the Bible did not convey a single direction for the attainment of future happiness, it should be read in our schools in preference to all other books from its containing the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public temporal happiness.”
This argument is the key to Rush’s views of the Bible and education. Rush believed education was vitally important to produce a virtuous society, but that education needed to be based in Scripture. In fact, teaching the Bible was not just about salvation, but contributed to both personal and societal well-being.
This is an attitude that can be found throughout church history: because the biblical worldview is true, understanding and following it produces good results for both the individual and society, and in the end also leads to Heaven. Christianity is thus not an otherworldly religion. Rather, it believes in the goodness of this world and works to repair what is wrong here, not just to prepare for Heaven. And that process begins with education.
 Letter to John Armstrong, 1783.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.