S. J. Curtis, in his History of Education in Great Britain tells us, ‘The important fact, so often forgotten in modern times when the State plays such a predominant part in education, is that the English schools were the offspring of the Church, which regarded them as one of its chief instruments in the Christianising and civilising of the people.’
When I have discussed Christian education with evangelical Christians, I am often surprised by an instinctive hostility to it. Sending one’s children to a state school is seen almost as an evangelistic duty. However, the same people would happily give money to support and maintain Christian schools in ‘missionary’ situations. In those situations, they can see the value of Christian schools as a vital part of a missionary strategy.
At the centre of any missionary base is its education and teaching institutions. The Reformation was associated with a revival of Christian popular education based on ordinary people being able to read the Bible.
Tyndale’s famous outburst expressed the reality of the great Reformation revival of biblical Christianity, ‘I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he doust.’
The Scottish Parliament passed its Act for Setting Schools in 1696. The Act stated, ‘Therefore, we judge it necessary that every several church have a schoolmaster appointed, such a one as is able, at least, to teach Grammar and the Latin tongue, if the town be of any reputation. If it be [rural] … then must either the Reader or the Minister there appointed take care over the children and youth of the parish, to instruct them in their first rudiments, and especially in the Catechism.’
Puritanism was a major force in extending educational facilities to spread Bible reading and biblical faith. The great movements of God’s Spirit in the 18th and 19th centuries were associated with a revival of educational vision. Robert Raikes is well known as the originator of the Sunday Schools. These were not a Sunday supplement of Christian education. They were the only schooling that was available to many children. The Bible was the textbook and children learned the catechism. It is estimated that by 1831 these schools were teaching about 25 percent of the children in England. It is these schools, originating in evangelicalism, that became the forerunners of the English state education system.
In Wales Thomas Charles, having heard of the Sunday Schools established by Robert Raikes, developed the Welsh Circulating schools, adopting the plan used previously by Griffith Jones. Mary Jones had been taught in one of these circulating schools and it was this teaching that resulted in her famous journey to Bala to buy her own Bible.
During the 19th century there was a battle for the control of schools. Nonconformists wanted the freedom to educate their children without the control of the state church. They argued for a fair share of the state funding of education to go to the nonconformist institutions.
Towards the end of the 19th century nonconformists felt that the local control by elected school boards would be a sufficient guard against the undue influence of the state church. Instead of focusing on schools over which they had definite control, they tried to create schools under government control, then sought to influence the government. This was all very well when non-conformity had considerable political influence, but we see the fruit of that strategy now that nonconformist influence has collapsed.
Tragically, our national education system is fast becoming a vast machine for the promotion of liberalism, atheism, agnosticism, and godlessness. Proverbs 22:6 – ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it’ – applies to both Christian and non-Christian education.
Andrew Rowell is Pastor of Grace Evangelical Church, Carlisle, and a director and online editor of ET.