The Classical Education of the Puritans - Memoria Press

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Cothran-&-Lowe-BioIf colonial America was suffused with classicism, what of Puritan New England?

Was the pervasive influence of the classics and classical languages seen as a hindrance—or as a help—to those who labored in the Lord’s vineyard to establish a Christian government and culture in early America? It is an easy question to answer. Not only were the majority of Puritans not threatened by the classical emphasis in the education of the time, but they were positively enthusiastic about it. In fact, much of the classical education of the colonies was the direct result of its promotion by Puritan leaders.

Although the “shot heard ’round the world” is generally considered to refer to the first gun shots fired in the War for Independence, there was another event in early America that made history: the Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642 and 1647. In many respects, these were as revolutionary as the war itself. The product of the concern for education in Puritan New England, these laws constitute the first time in history that an organized state had mandated universal education. The Puritans had the creation of a Godly society as their chief end, and this, they thought, was best accomplished by educated citizens. But what is interesting about the Puritans is the kind of education they sought.

When the Massachusetts General Court passed the School Laws, they did it with the purpose in mind to further knowledge of the Bible by promoting literacy. The law not only required that every town of 50 homes or more have an elementary school teacher, but that every town of 100 or more have a grammar school. The grammar schools of the time emphasized Latin and, secondarily, Greek and Hebrew. They were designed to prepare students for college and, ultimately, for the ministry, the law, and sometimes medicine. They strove to prepare them to read all the classical authors in their original tongues.

How the Puritans Were Educated

Latin grammar was taught from one of the numerous revisions of Lily, supplemented by texts like John Amos Comenius’ Orbis pictus, John Brinsley’s Latin Accidence, and Charles Hoole’s The Common Rudiments of Latin Grammar; the students then parsed and construed from the Sententiae puriles, Cato’s DistichsAesop’s Fables, and the Colloquies of Erasmus and Corderius; and from these introductory materials they went on to selected works by Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal. Greek grammar was usually studied out of Camden, with scholars going on to Homer, Hesiod, Isocrates, and the Greek New Testament. When Hebrew was included, it was mostly taught from the grammars of William Schickard or John Buxtorf; though, since the language was not required for entrance into Harvard, it was probably not begun in earnest until the freshman year, during which it was vigorously stressed owing to the Biblical interests of the Puritans and the scholarly interests of Henry Dunster and Charles Chauncy.

A “grammar school” was what came to be known also as a “Latin school.” The oldest continuously operating school in the United States is Boston Latin School, which was founded in 1635. It produced many famous Americans, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Benjamin Franklin, William Hooper, Robert Treat Paine, Josiah Quincy, John Winthrop, and Cotton Mather, five of whom signed the Declaration of Independence.

Boston Latin was a “grammar-school,” which emphasized instruction in classical languages, primarily Latin and Greek. “By the time a pupil reached his seventh year at the Boston Latin School,” says Richard Gummere in his seminal book, The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition, “he was reading Cicero’s orations, Justinian, the Latin and Greek Testaments, Isocrates, Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, and dialogues from the topics in Godwin’s Roman Antiquities, as well as turning the Psalms into Latin verse!”

The classical program in Boston schools became even more classical in the 18th century. “I entered Lovell’s [John Lovell, headmaster of Boston’s South Latin School] in 1776 at seven years,” said Jonathan Homer, pastor of First Church in Newton, Massachusetts, “and studied Latin from 8 o’clock to 11, and from 1 till dark. I entered college at the age of fourteen, and was equal in Latin and Greek to the best in the Senior class.”

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Education of Cotton Mather

But it is in Cotton Mather, the quintessential New England Puritan, that we see the most accomplished, yet representative, example of the work of classical education in the Puritan colonies. He was the grandson, on his mother’s side, of John Cotton, one of the founders of Boston Latin School, who entered Cambridge (Emmanuel College) when he was thirteen. He was also the son of Increase Mather, another prominent New England Puritan scholar. Increase was a graduate of the school his father-in-law helped found, and, after graduating from Harvard, he went on to obtain his M. A. from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. An “austere Puritan divine” like his own father, Richard, Increase was also the President of Harvard for 16 years, during which time he continued to fill the pulpit of North Church in Boston, an activity he engaged in until his death in 1723. He spent 16 hours a day in his study, “emerging only for meals and family prayers.” “He loved his study,” said one contemporary, “to a kind of excess.”

Cotton Mather was descended, said one writer, “in right of both parents, from what was deemed the aristocracy of New England, when clergymen were the nobles of the religious dynasty, which our fathers sought to establish in the new world.” With such a pedigree, it is hard to imagine that Cotton Mather himself could have become anything but what he became. In fact, the distinction of the Mather family seemed only to become more pronounced as generation succeeded generation. “The family of Mathers was remarkable for the retentive memory and studious inclinations that seemed to be constitutional with its members; qualities that appeared rather to increase than diminish,” and which seemed to culminate in Cotton. An epitaph to his grandfather, Richard, reportedly read:

Under this stone lies Richard Mather,
Who had a son greater than his father,
And eke a grandson greater than either.

“Thus happily born,” said David Hall, “and possessing such favorable capacities, it was set down as a matter of course, that Cotton Mather must make a great man.” And he did. ”Prophetically ushered into life,” as one writer put it, he not only became one of the most influential American exponents of Christianity, but one of the best educated and most learned minds of his age.

Cotton, the oldest of numerous children in what one biographer calls a “bookish, hothouse religious atmosphere,” attended Boston Latin School during the headmastership of Ezekiel Cheever, the greatest and most famous of that school’s headmasters, who “brought the dead languages to life while teaching Mather to love Christ above the classics.” The school emphasized the classics, and “[b]y the age of 11,” says Jennifer Monaghan, “he was so fluent in Latin that he would take notes in Latin on sermons as they were delivered in English.” He entered Harvard at the age of 11, when he was examined by the President of Harvard himself, Leonard Hoar, who determined the boy’s knowledge of Greek and Latin exceeded that required to enter the college, and graduated at the age of 15. Despite his age, said biographer Kenneth Silverman, “he seems to have breezed through.” In fact, he was the youngest student Harvard ever had. He began to assist in his father’s ministry in 1680, was ordained in 1685, and served the church for the rest of his life.

“Cotton Mather and his father Increase Mather,” says Gummere, “are the high-water mark of the ancient learning as applied to the conversion of souls in the Puritan hierarchy.” Mather devoted the rest of his life to scholarship and the writing of books, of which he produced some 382. His books display a wide diversity of interest and concern. Many of his writings dealt with the educational responsibilities of teachers, ministers, pastors, and parents.

The Purpose of Puritan Education

For Mather, the chief purpose of education was theological: “All the learning the many have,” he said, “serves only as a bag of gold about a drowning man; it sinks them the deeper into the scalding floods of the lake that burns with fiery brimstone: But the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ is a saving thing.” While learning might speed a man to Hell, he thought, it could also help transport him to heaven—if used rightly and for the right purpose. Mather’s works, reflecting the larger colonial culture, illustrate his facility and his passion for Latin, logic, and rhetoric, the three subjects in the classical trivium, as well as the mathematical subjects in the quadrivium.

Mather Combines the Classical and the Christian

His writings display the characteristic style of academic and theological writing of the time, which was to express thoughts by using expressions culled both from the Bible and classical authors. Everything, it seemed, had some Biblical or classical precedent, some analog in ancient history or literature. It was a common technique, especially among the Church fathers, to allegorize the writings of the pagans and see their lives and their literature as a foreshadowing of the Christian revelation. Echoing the argument of St. Augustine, Mather argued, “in our valuable citations from them that are strangers to Christianity, [we] should seize upon the sentences as containing our truths, detained in the hands of unjust possessors.” “Once this was established,” said Gustaaf Van Crumphout, Mather “did not scruple to elucidate Christian mysteries with phrases from Euripides’ Bacchae or to describe the Gospel as a new song of Orpheus or the mount of God as the true Cithaeron.” In fact, Mather was criticized for many things, but few more severely than the stylistic results of the over-profusion of classical quotations in his writings.

This tendency to fuse together the Biblical and the classical was not merely ornamentation, but a product of the deep-seated thinking of Christian intellectuals soaked and steeped in both traditions. Their goal was not merely spiritual and not merely educational, but was directed at melding the two traditions into one, all the while reminding their readers that as wonderful and useful as are the classics, it is through their conscription into the service of Christ that they gained their greatest glory. It was, according to Robert Middlekauf, to “fuse piety and intellect, to pursue ideas with the heart as well as with the mind, and to bring their thinking constantly to bear on their love of God.” So deeply was Mather immersed in both Biblical and classical literature that the two traditions seemed inseparable. “It often seems,” said Cromphout, “as if [Mather] needed to draw upon both traditions, the Judaeo-Christian and the classical, in order to complete a thought.”

Although Mather gave great credence to what he found in the ancient authors, he did so not because they were oldPuritans-First-Latin-School, but because he found in them what seemed to coincide with reason. Their literary value was also a logical one. In the contest that was later in the French Revolution to pit reason against authority, Mather saw not a contest, but a correspondence. He approved of the rules of Aristotle and Horace because “they were logical and based on reason or nature,” says Cromphout, “not because they had the sanctity of authority.” The wisdom of the ancients derived its authority from reason, and it found its expression even in the pagans because the “Power and Process of Reason is Natural,” Mather said, “to the Soul of Man,” a very part of the image of God.

Classical Rhetoric and Principled Persuasion

As always, Mather notes that the principles the student would find articulated by the classical authors found their greatest expression in the Bible itself, telling his readers, “That there is nowhere to be found any such Rhetoric, as there is in our Sacred Scriptures.” It is yet another refrain of his theme that classical learning, far from being at odds with Christianity, is to be seen as a fulfillment of what the pagans had only imperfectly grasped. The pagan discoveries of the principles of persuasion did not make these principles pagan in themselves; rather the principles were the products of the divinely instituted order of the world the pagans had only happened upon and put to use. And the Word of God not only did not repudiate these principles, but in fact served as their most glorious exemplars—a fact, he asserts, that even the pagans recognized: “Even the pagan Longinus himself,” Mather pointed out, “will confess, The Sublime, shining in them.”

A “mighty and wondrous incentive to religion”

Mather’s interest in and mastery of the trivium of Latin, logic, and rhetoric was accompanied by an equal preoccupation with the quadrivium—the scientific learning of the time. In fact, his book, The Christian Philosopher, although intended primarily to be a work of natural theology, was, according to Solberg, “the first comprehensive treatise on all the science known at the time to be written by an American.” It was a book in which he “ransacked the learning of the ages” to make the argument that God had revealed himself not only in Scripture, but, as the Apostle Paul argues, in nature itself. He wrote it to demonstrate that “Philosophy is no enemy, but a mighty and wondrous incentive to religion.” “The whole world is indeed a temple of God, built and fitted by that Almighty Architect.” Mather saw no clear distinction between the secular and the theological. For him, everything was part of what one of his commentators called the “divinely organized universe of correspondences.” “Mather’s writing aims at nothing less than the perfecta summaque sapientia—the perfection and summation of wisdom—through a comprehensive accumulation and organization of all the knowledge stored up in the textual memory of the contemporary academic discourses.”

Mather never worshiped the classical learning he expounded, but rather pressed that learning into the service of the One he did worship. “His God remained,” said Cromphout, “like Pascal’s, the ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’ and never became ‘the God of the philosophers and savants.’” Mather’s manual for the training of ministers was just one indication of the essential role the classics were seen to have in a complete Christian education. Not only was classical education conducted largely by ordained Christian ministers (or aspiring ones), but education in the classics was considered an essential element in the education of a Christian cleric. Not only did they think a classical education was consistent with a Christian vocation; they considered it absolutely essential.

Mather was only the most prominent of the many Puritan divines who saw classical education as an essential preparation for the Christian life of learning. Not only did the Puritans ensure as much as possible that their children receive such an education, but they were the acknowledged leaders of the educational institutions of the time. In fact, Harvard itself, a thoroughly classical institution up until fairly recent times, was founded by Puritans. Those of the founding fathers who had a formal education were themselves classically educated. It is widely known that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are the most startling examples of men who knew the classics in Latin and Greek. What is less widely known is that we have the Puritans to thank for it.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2011 edition.

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