American Genesis: Education

            The type of conscience a person has forms over time, as a person learns through experience, observation, and upbringing. While today’s education may focus on the feelings, attitudes, and even the aptitude of students, America’s first educational institutions were founded as what John Adams called the “architects of the soul.” 

            Most intriguing in Maine’s Declaration of Rights is its first reference to education. It is found in the paragraph referring to religious liberties. Education’s great value was recognized and even received its own attention in Article 8, but it was first recognized as of spiritual consequence under Article 1, Paragraph 3 in a religious context. 

            Under several first state constitutions, religiously principled organizations held “exclusive rights” for their operations. This is an extremely important right of the people. Morality and religion, being inseparable, are imparted primarily through the education of the mind. Restricting the liberties of religiously based educational institutions can result in a mis-trained conscience—so the Founders believed. The lesson? Men’s rights come from God. In order to know and understand the responsibilities and limits of those rights, religious influence and instruction should not be hampered. Massachusetts had similar provisions as Maine, but much stronger as we shall see. 

What do you think is the primary purpose of education?

The Religious/Political Doctrines of Separation 

            Since 1962 the U.S. government, through the court system, and at times, the legislatures, have told the American public that church and state must be separated. This is a way of saying that religion should not have any influence on public policy or public life. Many Christian historians have long asserted that notion of separation to be incorrect. The Founders, they say, meant just the opposite. If the proponents of separation are correct, and America’s Founders wanted the church out of politics and government then it makes sense to assume they would have said so in plain terms in the constitution. It can be asserted, however, that they used plain language to say the contrary. The term “Separation of Church and State,” is not found in the Federal Constitution, but in an address by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association: 

            “I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”2 

            Historian David Barton notes that the reason for Jefferson’s address was a rumor circulating that one denomination was to be declared the American denomination or official state religion. Americans had already experienced the problems of a state church in England. President Jefferson, ensured them by his letter, that this would never happen. However, what the state governments recognize is quite different from the Federal government. 

            In 1780, Massachusetts Bay became, with the adoption of a state constitution, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Following the document’s preamble, Part I, Article I, Paragraph 2, stated in no uncertain terms that the state’s separation from religious principles was never the intent of the Massachusetts’ Founders: 

            “It is the right, as well as the duty, of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the Great Creator and Preserver of the Universe.”

In ancient Israel, Kings could make laws, but not alter the Old Testament laws on morality or religion. Heads of tribes acted as representatives of the tribes before the King. But they had no authority except for ceremony, and the ability to influence their people. Priests acted as Judges in civil and criminal cases and they were in charge of public health, and exempt from taxes. 

            As part of their form of government, they included, not a simple recognition of man’s desire to worship, not a recommendation to worship, not even a request to attend Christmas and Easter services, but a clear declaration that worship is the “duty” of “all men.” Interestingly, Massachusetts’s current constitution reads in Amendment 46: 

            “No law shall be passed prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”

            Why would Massachusetts’ framers originally make such a bold declaration about the “duty” of worship? Like Moses’ words to Israel in Deuteronomy 6, they thought it necessary for their society’s survival. Part I, Article I, Paragraph 3: 

            “As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused throughout the community, but by the institution of a public worship of God, and of public institutions of piety, religion, and morality; therefore, to promote their happiness, and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this Commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require…the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God…” 

            Not only did the elected representatives of Massachusetts see the need for worship, they insisted upon promoting worship within “bodies politic!” Nor should we miss the point that this government prescribed worship would involve some financial costs, and any government instituted public worship was to be paid for by government “at their own expense.” This is radically different from today’s practices!

            Massachusetts also recognized that order in society could not be maintained without “piety, religion, and morality.” So they set out from their very foundation to ensure that institutions (schools) taught such concepts. Also of interest is the change that might be little noticed between the old Massachusetts’s Constitution and the new. Part I, Article I, Paragraph 3 was replaced in 1833 with Amendment XI. 

            As the public worship of God and instructions in piety, religion, and morality promote happiness… 

            Most notably, the notion of “good order and preservation of civil government” was no longer tied to dependence on “religion and morality.”             The first framers of state constitutions, many of whom also framed the federal documents, acknowledged the total inability of governments to handle immoral and undisciplined citizens. Our modern government may recognize the significance religion and morality play in society, but unlike our Founders, it does not bow to its dependence.

Tomorrow: Fundamental Principles.


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