A DEFENCE OF THE USE OF THE BIBLE AS A SCHOOL BOOK. ADDRESSED TO THE REV. JEREMY BELKNAP, OF BOSTON.
IT is now several months, since I promised to give you my reasons for preferring the bible as a school book, to all other compositions. I shall not trouble you with an apology for my delaying so long to comply with my promise, but shall proceed im|mediately to the subject of my letter.
Before I state my arguments in favour of teach|ing children to read by means of the bible, I shall assume the five following propositions.
I. That christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopt its principles, and obey its precepts, they will be wise, and happy.
II. That a better knowledge of this religion is to be acquired by reading the bible, than in any other way.
III That the bible contains more knowledge neces|sary to man in his present state, than any other book in the world.
Page 94IV. That knowledge is most durable, and religious instruction most useful, when imparted in early life,
V. That the bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life.
My arguments in favor of the use of the bible as a school book are founded, I. In the constitution of the human mind.
1. The memory is the first faculty which opens in the minds of children. Of how much consequence, then, must it be, to impress it with the great truths of christianity, before it is pre-occupied with less interest|ing subjects! As all the liquors, which are poured into a cup, generally taste of that which first filled it, so all the knowledge, which is added to that which is treasured up in the memory from the bible, generally receives an agreeable and useful tincture from it.
2. There is a peculiar aptitude in the minds of chil|dren for religious knowledge. I have constantly found them in the first six or seven years of their lives, more inquisitive upon religious subjects, than upon any others: and an ingenious instructor of youth has informed me, that he has found young children more capable of receiving just ideas upon the most difficult tenets of religion, than upon the most simple branches of human knowledge. It would be strange if it were otherwise; for God creates all his means to suit all his ends. There must of course be a fitness between the Page 95 human mind, and the truths which are essential to its happiness.
3. The influence of prejudice is derived from the im|pressions, which are made upon the mind in early life; prejudices are of two kinds, true and false. In a world where false prejudices do so much mischief, it would discover great weakness not to oppose them, by such as are true.
I grant that many men have rejected the prejudices derived from the bible: but I believe no man ever did so, without having been made wiser or better, by the early operation of these prejudices upon his mind. Every just principle that is to be found in the writings of Voltaire, is borrowed from the Bible: and the mo|rality of the Deists, which has been so much admired and praised, is, I believe, in most cases, the effect of habits, produced by early instruction in the principles of christianity.
4. We are subject, by a general law in our natures, to what is called habit. Now if the study of the scrip|tures be necessary to our happiness at any time of our lives, the sooner we begin to read them, the more we shall be attached to them; for it is peculiar to all the acts of habit, to become easy, strong and agreeable by repetition.
5. It is a law in our natures, that we remember longest the knowledge we acquire by the greatest number Page 96 of our senses. Now a knowledge of the contents of the bible, is acquired in school by the aid of the eyes and the ears; for children after getting their lessons, always say them to their masters in an audible voice; of course there is a presumption, that this knowledge will be retained much longer than if it had been acquir|ed in any other way.
6. The interesting events and characters, recorded and described in the Old and New Testaments, are accomodated above all others to seize upon all the faculties of the minds of children. The understand|ing, the memory, the imagination, the passions, and the moral powers, are all occasionally addressed by the various incidents which are contained in those divine books, insomuch that not to be delighted with them, is to be devoid of every principle of pleasure that exists in a sound mind.
7. There is a native love of truth in the human mind. Lord Shaftesbury says, that
VIII. There is a wonderful property in the memory, which enables it in old age, to recover the knowledge it had acquired in early life, after it had been appa|rently forgotten for forty or fifty years. Of how much consequence, then, must it be, to fill the mind with that species of knowledge, in childhood and youth, which, when recalled in the decline of life, will support the soul under the infirmities of age, and smooth the avenues of approaching death? The bible is the only book which is capable of affording this support to old age; and it is for this reason that we find it resorted to with so much diligence and pleasure by such old people as have read it in early life. I can recollect many instances of this kind in persons who discovered Page 98 no attachment to the bible, in the meridian of their lives, who have notwithstanding, spent the evening of them, in reading no other book. The late Sir John Pringle, Physician to the Queen of Great Britain, after passing a long life in camps and at court, closed it by studying the scriptures. So anxious was he to increase his knowledge in them, that he wrote to Dr. Michaelis, a learned professer of divinity in Germany, for an explanation of a difficult text of scripture, a short time before his death.
IX. My second argument in favour of the use of the bible in schools, is founded upon an implied command of God, and upon the practice of several of the wisest nations of the world.—In the 6th chapter of Deu|teronomy, we find the following words, which are directly to my purpose,
It appears, moreover, from the history of the Jews, that they flourished as a nation, in proportion as they honoured and read the books of Moses, which contain|ed, a written revelation of the will of God, to the chil|dren Page 99 of men. The law was not only neglected, but lost during the general profligacy of manners which accom|panied the long and wicked reign of Manassah. But the discovery of it, in the rubbish of the temple, by Josiah, and its subsequent general use, were followed by a re|turn of national virtue and prosperity. We read further, of the wonderful effects which the reading of the law by Ezra, after his return from his captiviy in Babylon, had upon the Jews. They hung upon his lips with tears, and showed the sincerity of their re|pentance, by their general reformation.
The learning of the Jews, for many years consisted in nothing but a knowledge of the scriptures. These were the text books of all the instruction that was given in the schools of their prophets. It was by 〈◊〉 of this general knowledge of their law, that those Jews that wandered from Judea into our coun|tries, carried with them and propagated certain ideas of the true God among all the civilized nations upon the face of the earth. And it was from the attachment they retained to the old Testament, that they procured a translation of it into the Greek language, after they lost the Hebrew tongue, by their long absence from their native country. The utility of this translation, commonly called the septuagint, in facilitating the pro|gress of the gospel, is well known to all who are ac|quainted with the history of the first age of the christian church.
Page 100But the benefits of an early and general acquaintance with the bible, were not confined only to the Jewish nations. They have appeared in many countries in Europe, since the reformation. The industry, and habits of order, which distinguish many of the German nations, are derived from their early instruction in the principles of christianity, by means of the bible. The moral and enlightened character of the inhabitants of Scotland, and of the New England States, appears to be derived from the same cause. If we descend from nations to sects, we shall find them wise and prosperous in proportion as they become early acquainted with the scriptures. The bible is still used as a school book among the quakers. The morality of this sect of christians is universally acknowledged. Nor is this all, —their prudence in the management of their private affairs, is as much a mark of their society, as their sober manners.
I wish to be excused for repeating here, that if the bible did not convey a single direction for the attain|ment of future happiness, it should be read in our schools in preference to all other books, from its containing the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is cal|culated to produce private and publick temporal hap|piness.
We err not only in human affairs, but in religion likewise, only because "we do not know the scriptures." The opposite systems of the 〈◊〉 sects of christians Page 101 arise chiefly from their being more instructed in cate|chisms, creeds, and confessions of faith, than in the scriptures. Immense truths, I believe, are concealed in them. The time, I have no doubt, will come, when posterity will view and pity our ignorance of these truths, as much as we do the ignorance of the disciples of our Saviour, who knew nothing of the meaning of those plain passages in the old testament which were daily fulfilling before their eyes. Whenever that time shall arrive, those truths which have escaped our notice, or, if discovered, have been thought to be opposed to each other, or to be inconsistent with themselves, will then like the stones of Solomon's temple, be found so exactly to accord with each other, that they shall be cement|ed without noise or force, into one simple and sublime system of religion.
But further, we err, not only in religion but in phi|losophy likewise, because we
I shall now proceed to answer some of the objec|tions which have been made to the use of the bible as a school book.
I. We are told, that the familiar use of the bible in our schools, has a tendency to lessen a due reverence for it. This objection, by proving too much, proves nothing at all. If familiarity lessens respect for divine things, then all those precepts of our religion, which enjoin the daily or weekly worship of the Deity, are improper. The bible was not intended to represent a Jewish ark; and it is an antichristian idea, to suppose that it can be profaned, by being carried into a school house, or by being handled by children. But where will the bible be read by young people with more reverence than in a school? Not in most private families; for I believe there are few parents, who pre|serve Page 103 so much order in their houses, as is kept up in our common English schools.
II. We are told, that there are many passages in the old testament, that are improper to be read by children, and that the greatest part of it is no way in|teresting to mankind under the present dispensation of the gospel. There are I grant, several chapters, and many verses in the old testament, which in their present unfortunate translation, should be passed over by children. But I deny that any of the books of the old testament are not interesting to mankind, under the gospel dispensation. Most of the characters, events, and ceremonies, mentioned in them, are perso|nal, providential, or instituted types of the Messiah: All of which have been, or remain yet to be, fulfilled by him. It is from an ignorance or neglect of these types, that we have so many deists in christendom; for so irrefragably do they prove the truth of christianity, that I am sure a young man who had been regularly instructed in their meaning, could never doubt after|wards of the truth of any of its principles. If any ob|scurity appears in these principles, it is only (to use the words of the poet) because they are dark, with ex|cessive bright.
I know there is an objection among many Peo|ple to teach children doctrines of any kind, because they are liable to be controverted. But where will this objection lead us?— The being of a God, and the obligations of morality, have both been Page 104 controverted; and yet who has objected to our teach|ing these doctrines to our chilldren?
The curiosity and capacities of young people for the mysteries of religion, awaken much sooner than is generally supposed. Of this we have two remarkable proofs in the old testament. The first is mentioned in the twelfth chapter of Exodus.
Page 105Let us not not be wiser than our Maker. If moral precepts alone could have reformed mankind, the mis|sion of the Son of God into our world, would have been unnecessary. He came to promulgate a system of doctrines, as well as a system of morals. The perfect morality of the gospel rests upon a doctrine, which, though often controverted, has never been refuted, I mean the vicarious life and death of the Son of God. This sublime and ineffable doctrine delivers us from the absurd hypotheses of modern philosophers, con|cerning the foundation of moral obligation, and fixes it upon the eternal and self moving principle of LOVE. It concentrates a whole system of ethics in a single text of scripture. "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you." By witholding the knowledge of this doctrine from children, we deprive ourselves of the best means of awakening moral sensibility in their minds. We do more, we furnish an argument, for witholding from them a knowledge of the morality of the gospel like|wise; for this, in many instances, is as supernatural, and therefore as liable to be controverted, as any of the doctrines or miracles which are mentioned in the new testament. The miraculous conception of the saviour of the world by a virgin, is not more opposed to the ordinary course of natural events, nor is the doctrine of the atonement more above human reason, than those moral precepts, which command us to love our enemies, or to die for our friends.
Page 106III. It has been said, that the division of the bible into chapters and verses, renders it more difficult to be read, by children than many other books.
By a little care in a master, this difficulty may be ob|viated, and even an advantage derived from it. It may serve to transfer the attention of the scholar to the sense of a subject; and no person will ever read well, who is guided by any thing else, in his stops, em|phasis, or accents. The division of the bible into chapters and verses, is not a greater obstacle to its be|ing read with ease, than the bad punctuation of most other books. I deliver this stricture upon other books, from the authority of Mr. Rice, the celebrated author of the art of speaking, whom I heard declare in a large company in London, that he had never seen a book properly pointed in the English Language. He exem|plified, notwithstanding, by reading to the same com|pany a passage from Milton, his perfect knowledge of the art of reading.
Some people, I know, have proposed to introduce extracts from the bible, into our schools, instead of the bible itself. Many excellent works of this kind, are in print, but if we admit any one of them, we shall have the same inundation of them that we have had of grammars, spelling books, and lessons for children, many of which are published for the benefit of the authors only, and all of them have tended greatly to in|crease the expence of education. Besides, these extracts Page 107 or abridgements of the bible, often contain the tenets of particular sects or persons, and therefore, may be im|proper for schools composed of the children of differ|ent sects of christians. The bible is a cheap book, and is to be had in every bookstore. It is, moreover, esteemed and prefered by all sects; because each finds its peculiar doctrines in it. It should therefore be used in preference to any abridgements of it, or histo|ries extracted from it.
I have heard it proposed that a portion of the bible should be read every day by the master, as a means of instructing children in it: But this is a poor substitute for obliging children to read it as a school book; for by this means we insensibly engrave, as it were, its con|tents upon their minds: and it has been remarked that children, instructed in this way in the scriptures, sel|dom forget any part of them. They have the same advantage over those persons, who have only heard the scriptures read by a master, that a man who has work|ed with the tools of a mechanical employment for seve|ral years, has over the man who has only stood a few hours in a work shop and seen the same business carri|ed on by other people.
In this defence of the use of the bible as a school book, I beg you would not think that I suppose the Bi|ble to contain the only revelation which God has made to man. I believe in an internal revelation, or a moral Page 108 principle, which God has implanted in the heart of every man, as the precursor of his final dominion over the whole human race. How much this internal reve|lation accords with the external, remains yet to be ex|plored by philosophers. I am disposed to believe, that most of the doctrines of christianity revealed in the bi|ble might be discovered by a close examination of all the principles of action in man: But who is equal to such an enquiry? It certainly does not suit the natural in|dolence, or laborious employments of a great majority of mankind. The internal revelation of the gospel may be compared to the straight line which is made through a wilderness by the assistance of a compass, to a distant country, which few are able to discover, while the bible resembles a public road to the same country, which is wide, plain, and easily found. "And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the way of holiness. The way faring men, though fools, shall not err therein."
Neither let me in this place exclude the Revelation which God has made of himself to man in the works of creation. I am far from wishing to lessen the in|fluence of this species of Revelation upon mankind. But the knowledge of God obtained from this source, is obscure and feeble in its operation, compared with that which is derived from the bible. The visible creation speaks of the Deity in hyeroglyphics, while the bible des|cribes all his attributes and perfections in such plain, Page 109 and familiar language that
How kindly has our maker dealt with his creatures, in providing three different cords to draw them to himself! But how weakly do some men act, who suspend their faith, and hopes upon only one of them! By laying hold of them all, they would approach more speedily and certainly to the centre of all hap|piness.
To the arguments I have mentioned in favour of the use of the bible as a school book, I shall add a few reflections.
The present fashionable practice of rejecting the bible from our schools, I suspect has originated with the deists. They discover great ingenuity in this new mode of attacking christianity. If they proceed in it, they will do more in half a century, in extirpating our religion, than Bolingbroke or Voltaire could have ef|fected in a thousand years. I am not writing to this class of people. I despair of changing the opinions of any of them. I wish only to alter the opinions and con|duct of those lukewarm, or superstitious christians, who have been misled by the deists upon this subject. On the ground of the good old custom, of using the bible as a school book, it becomes us to entrench our religion. It is the last bulwark the deists have left it; for they have rendered instruction in the principles Page 110 of christianity by the pulpit and the press, so unfashiona|ble, that little good for many years seems to have been done by either of them.
The effects of the disuse of the bible, as a school book have appeared of late in the neglect and even contempt with which scripture names are treated by many peo|ple. It is because parents have not been early taught to know or respect the characters and exploits of the old and new testament worthies, that their names are exchanged for those of the modern kings of Europe, or of the principal characters in novels and romances. I conceive there may be some advantage in bearing scrip|ture names. It may lead the persons who bear them, to study that part of the scriptures, in which their names are mentioned, with uncommon attention, and perhaps it may excite a desire in them to possess the talents or vir|tues of their ancient namesakes. This remark first occur|red to me, upon hearing a pious woman whose name was Mary, say, that the first passages of the bible, which made a serious impression on her mind, were those in|teresting chapters and verses in which the name of Mary is mentioned in the New Testament.
It is a singular fact, that while the names of the kings and emperors of Rome, are now given chiefly to horses and dogs scripture names have hitherto been con|fined only to the human species. Let the enemies and contemners of those names take care, lest the names of Page 111 more modern kings be given hereafter only to the same animals, and lest the names of the modern heroines of romances be given to animals of an inferior species.
It is with great pleasure, that I have observed the bi|ble to be the only book read in the Sunday schools in England. We have adopted the same practice in the Sunday schools, lately established in this city. This will give our religion (humanly speaking) the chance of a longer life in our country. We hear much of the persons educated in free schools in England, turning out well in the various walks of life. I have enquired into the cause of it, and have satisfied myself, that it is wholly to be ascribed to the general use of the bible in those schools, for it seems the children of poor people are of too little consequence to be guarded from the supposed evils of reading the scriptures in early life, or in an unconsecrated school house.
However great the benefits of reading the scriptures in schools have been, I cannot help remarking, that these benefits might be much greater, did schoolmasters take more pains to explain them to their scholars. Did they demonstrate the divine original of the bible from the purity, consistency, and benevolence of its doctrines and precepts—did they explain the meaning of the levitical institutions, and show their application to the numerous and sucessive gospel dispensations—did they inform their pupils that the gross and abominable vices Page 112 of the Jews were recorded only as proofs of the depravi|ty of human nature, and of the insufficiency of the law, to produce moral virtue and thereby to establish the necessity and perfection of the gospel system—and above all, did they often enforce the discourses of our Saviour, as the best rule of life, and the surest guide to hap|piness, how great would be the influence of our schools upon the order and prosperity of our country! Such a mode of instructing children in the christian religion, would convey knowledge into their understandings, and would therefore be preferable to teaching them creeds, and catechisms, which too often convey, not know|ledge, but words only, into their memories. I think I am not too sanguine in believing, that education, con|ducted in this manner, would, in the course of two generations, eradicate infidelity from among us, and render civil government scarcely necessary in our coun|try.
In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament, that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and per|petuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of christianity, by means of the bible; for this divine book, above all others, favours that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and all those sober Page 113 and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of repub|licanism.
I have now only to apologize for havging addressed this letter to you, after having been assured by you, that your opinion, respecting the use of the bible as a school book, coincided with mine. My excuse for what I have done is, that I knew you were qualified by your knowledge, and disposed by your zeal in the cause of truth, to correct all the errors you would dis|cover in my letter. Perhaps a further apology may be necessary for my having presumed to write upon a subject so much above my ordinary studies. My excuse for it is, that I thought a single mite from a member of a profession, which has been frequently charged with scepticism in religion, might attract the notice of persons who had often overlooked the more ample contributions upon this subject, of gentlemen of other professions. With great respect, I am, dear sir, your sincere friend.
Philadelphia,March 10, 1791.