Calvinism in History: Calvinism and Education by Loraine Boettner

By April 2, 2011 April 12th, 2016 Church History

Again, history bears very clear testimony that Calvinism and education have been intimately associated. Wherever Calvinism has gone it has carried the school with it and has given a powerful impulse to popular education. It is a system which demands intellectual manhood. In fact, we may say that its very existence is tied up with the education of the people. Mental training is required to master the system and to trace out all that it involves. It makes the strongest possible appeal to the human reason and insists that man must love God not only with his whole heart but also with his whole mind. Calvin held that ‘a true faith must be an intelligent faith’; and experience has shown that piety without learning is in the long run about as dangerous as learning without piety. He saw clearly that the acceptance and diffusion of his scheme of doctrine was dependent not only upon the training of the men who were to expound it, but also upon the intelligence of the great masses of humanity who were to accept it. Calvin crowned his work in Geneva in the establishment of the Academy. Thousands of pilgrim pupils from Continental Europe and from the British Isles sat at his feet and then carried his doctrines into every corner of Christendom. Knox returned from Geneva fully convinced that the education of the masses was the strongest bulwark of Protestantism and the surest foundation of the State. ‘With Romanism goes the priest; with Calvinism goes the teacher,’ is an old saying, the truthfulness of which will not be denied by anyone who has examined the facts.

This Calvinistic love for learning, putting mind above money, has inspired countless numbers of Calvinistic families in Scotland, in England, in Holland, and in America, to pinch themselves to the bone in order to educate their children. The famous dictum of Carlyle, ‘That any being with capacity for knowledge should die ignorant, this I call a tragedy,’ expresses an idea which is Calvinistic to the core. Wherever Calvinism has gone, there knowledge and learning have been encouraged and there a sturdy race of thinkers has been trained. Calvinists have not been the builders of great cathedrals, but they have been the builders of schools, colleges, and universities. When the Puritans from England, the Covenanters from Scotland, and the Reformed from Holland and Germany, came to America they brought with them not only the Bible and the Westminster Confession but also the school. And that is why our American Calvinism never

‘Dreads the skeptic’s puny hands,
While near her school the church spire stands,
Nor fears the blinded bigot’s rule,
While near her church spire stands a school.’

Our three American universities of greatest historical importance, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, were originally founded by Calvinists, as strong Calvinistic schools, designed to give students a sound basis in theology as well as in other branches of learning. Harvard, established in 1636, was intended primarily to be a training school for ministers, and more than half of its first graduating classes went into the ministry. Yale, sometimes referred to as ‘the mother of Colleges,’ was for a considerable period a rigid Puritan institution. And Princeton, founded by the Scotch Presbyterians, had a thoroughly Calvinistic foundation.

‘We boast,’ says Bancroft, ‘of our common schools; Calvin was the father of popular education — the inventor of the system of free schools.’1 ‘Wherever Calvinism gained dominion,’ he says again, ‘it invoked intelligence for the people and in every parish planted the common school.’2

‘Our boasted common-school system,’ says Smith, ‘is indebted for its existence to that stream of influences which followed from the Geneva of Calvin, through Scotland and Holland to America; and, for the first two hundred years of our history almost every college and seminary of learning and almost every academy and common school was built and sustained by Calvinists.’3

The relationship which Calvinism bears to education has been well stated in the two following paragraphs by Prof. H. H. Meeter, of Calvin College: ‘Science and art were the gifts of God’s common grace, and were to be used and developed as such. Nature was looked upon as God’s handiwork, the embodiment of His ideas, in its pure form the reflection of His virtues. God was the unifying thought of all science, since all was the unfolding of His plan. But along with such theoretical reasons there are very practical reasons why the Calvinist has always been intense1y interested in education, and why grade schools for children as well as schools of higher learning sprang up side by side with Calvinistic churches, and why Calvinists were in so large measure the vanguard of the modern universal education movement. These practical reasons are closely associated with their religion. The Roman Catholics might conveniently do without the education of the masses. For them the clergy — in distinction from the laity — were the ones who were to decide upon matters of church government and doctrine. Hence these interests did not require the training of the masses. For salvation, all that the layman needed was an implied faith in what the church believed. It was not necessary to be able to give an intelligent account of the tenets of his faith. At the services not the sermon but the sacrament was the important conveyor of the blessings of salvation, the sermon was less needed. And this sacrament again did not require intelligence, since it operated ex opere operato.

‘For the Calvinist matters were just reversed. The government of the church was placed in the hands of the elders, laymen, and these had to decide upon the matters of church policy and the weighty matters of doctrine. Furthermore, the layman himself had the grave duty, without the intermediation of a sacerdotal order, to work out his own salvation, and could not suffice with an implied faith in what the church believed. He must read his Bible. He must know his creed. And it was a highly intellectual erred at that. Even for the Lutheran, education of the masses was not as urgent as for the Calvinist. It is true, the Lutheran also placed every man before the personal responsibility to work out his own salvation. But the laity were in the Lutheran circles excluded from the office of church government and hence also from the duty of deciding upon matters of doctrine. From these considerations it is evident why the Calvinist must be a staunch advocate of education. If on the one hand God was to be owned as sovereign in the field of science, and if the Calvinist’s very religious system required the education of the masses for its existence, it need not surprise us that the Calvinist pressed learning to the limit. Education is a question of to be or not to be for the Calvinist.’4

The traditionally high standards of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches for ministerial training are worthy of notice. While many other churches ordain men as ministers and missionaries and allow them to preach with very little education, the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches insist that the candidate for the ministry shall be a college graduate and that he shall have studied for at least two years under some approved professor of theology. (See Form of Government, Ch. XIV, sec. III & VI). As a result a larger proportion of these ministers have been capable of managing the affairs of the influential city churches. This may mean fewer ministers but it also means a better prepared and a better paid ministry.

Footnotes:

1Miscellanies, p. 406.
2Hist. of U.S., II., p. 463.
3The Creed of Presbyterians, p. 148.
4The Fundamental Principles of Calvinism, p. 96-99