04 February 2012

Puritan Education--The Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647

This evening, I was preparing a couple of lectures for my section of US History to 1877.  The second of these lectures related to colonial intellectual life, broadly defined to include education, the Enlightenment, and the Great Awakening.  The latter two events occurred nearly simultaneously and they both left an important mark in what America would become.  In some ways, however, both movements were indebted to the educational practices set up by the earliest Puritan settlers.

The Puritans were a very word-based group.  They believed that every man was responsible to understand the revelation of God as given in the Bible.  After the Antinomian Controversy that Roger Williams (one of my favorite figures in early colonial history) and Anne Hutchinson aroused, the Puritans in Massachusetts decided they would start a college that would train ministers to stay on the straight and narrow.  For this reason, Harvard College became the first institution of higher learning in what would become British North America. (Jones et al., Created Equal, 50) 

One of the more interesting pieces of legislation that the Massachusetts Bay colony passed was the "Old Deluder Satan Act" (1647), which argued that "It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures," schools should be set up in the colony to teach children to read the Scriptures.  Every town that had 50 families was supposed to hire a teacher to teach children to read the Bible so that they could avoid the problems that the Old Deluder would bring with an ignorance of God's revelation.  Furthermore, every town with 100 families had to set up a "grammar school" (a school that taught Latin) so that the boys in the town would be prepared for a university education, presumably at Harvard (the only college in the colonies at that time) or back in the mother country.

One of the more interesting points of this legislation was the funding mechanism.  There were two possible methods of funding: 1) charge the parents of the students, and 2) public funding from all of the citizens.  Some people argue that calls for public funding of education in American society are rather new.  That's not exactly the case, as this act declared.  Individual schooling was more common in the southern colonies because there were few towns, and only the children of the wealthy planters were expected to get educated.  New England became the more diverse economy, while the South languished behind for much of US history.  Perhaps this little tidbit from American church history gives a good reason why this was the case.


  1. How did Harvard become one of The Old Deluder's best weapons against the Bible?

  2. Thanks for the question, Gary. I think I can give a one word answer. Unitarianism. Yale was actually founded in 1701 because Harvard was going too liberal, although not yet Unitarian.