This dissertation explores the relationship between the history of education and the history of religion in early America with a particular focus on primary school learning. In the eighteenth century, Christian principles continued to infuse early education, but Enlightenment pedagogical concepts became increasingly influential. This dissertation studies changes in primary schooling through the examination of textbooks and schools before and after the American Revolution. How much did Enlightenment ideas change American education and did they necessitate secularization? Did the American Revolution spark important educational change?
Through a thorough examination of British America’s most printed textbook, The New England Primer, this dissertation reevaluates how the Calvinist tradition hoped to mold young minds and gauge the influence of Enlightenment ideas of pedagogy on established methods of education. Additionally, this dissertation examines the importance of theology, pedagogy, and identity in German language primers, Mohawk language primers, and English primers and spelling books. John Locke’s epistemological and pedagogical ideas influenced the number of pictures and positive examples given, but religious ideas remained central to reading textbooks before and after the Revolution.
The diversity of early American schooling can be seen quite well in the multi-ethnic, multi-denominational population of Berks County, Pennsylvania. This dissertation provides a case study of the impetus for colonial rural school establishment, and concludes that denominational competition, rather than Atlantic World pedagogical or philosophical trends, encouraged Moravians, German Lutheran and Reformed, Catholics, Anglicans, and Quakers to support rural schools. The Anglican-run German Charity Schools failed partly because the trustees discounted this motivation.
The Revolution did little to change the pattern of denominational schooling, but prompted American intellectuals like Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson to think about who should be taught, what they should be taught, and how to provide schools. Entrants to the American Philosophical Society’s essay contest and contemporary essayists were especially concerned with educating the republic’s poor children. Overall, however, Enlightenment ideas and early national patriotism did not supplant Christian doctrines and desires for denominational identities in textbooks and schools, but rather supplemented them.