Yes, That’s The Book for Me

Commentary on Benjamin Rush’s Defense of the Use of the Bible as a Schoolbook

We used to be a proper county. It may seem quaint today but our founders—you know, those deist authors of the godless constitution—used to insist that the Bible supplied the basis for primary school education. Even the slightly heterodox and all-around quirky founders, like Benjamin Rush, employed their pens in defense of this standard. Rush, in particular, was second only to the father of American education, Noah Webster, for his passion for producing an educated citizenry worthy of a constitutional, mixed government republic. You will recall that in the first book of Aristotle’s Politics, such an arrangement requires some level of equality in its participants. Education was thought, by Rush and others, to be productive of functional socio-political equality, at least at a scale sufficient for governance. Aristocracy is not ruled out here. I referenced Baltzell earlier today and will do so again here. Indiscriminate egalitarianism is destabilizing to authority structures. Where an elite (performance) and upper class (birth) are well-defined and established, but also appropriately responsive, threats of tyranny and malaise of bureaucracy are minimized. The upper class flows from the elite. After a generation or two, the families of high performers gain upper class, ruling status. To be deserving of the position, virtue and ability, as well as ambition and assumption of leadership, are required. This must, at least partially, be acquired via education—consider the term broadly and holistically.

That education, in some sense, must not only inculcate qualities requisite for leadership (and authority), but also, in my view, conform the character and consciousness of leaders to the national character and consciousness. By national, I mean historically. As James Davison Hunter discerns in his not-yet-outdated book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, at the center of political conflict—those our leaders must navigate—is the moral-historical narrative of the country. What America was dictates what it is and, by extension, should be. In other words, true leaders must possess an historic vision, past, present, and future. In view especially, in this regard, is the religious character of America.

Education begins by, consciously or not to its pupils, casting that vision through narrative and virtue, whether true or false, good or bad. These things cannot be neglected. Few leaders today possess a coherent and faithful vision of this kind. It helps, then, as an exercise in that seemingly insignificant first step of recovery, to revisit old standards—the ones that produced the first and nationally formative generations. Hence, Benjamin Rush’s Defense of the Use of the Bible as a Schoolbook, a 1791 letter to Jeremy Belknap, but functionally a treatise.

Notice Rush’s stated assumptions at the beginning, viz., the exclusivity of Christianity as the true religion, that Scripture is the best and most reliable source for knowledge of true religion, and that it must be “imparted in early life” for it to affect later, adult action.

At a young age, appropriate moral prejudice or moral habit is developed. Non-Christians may possess these but they are, says Rush, borrowed capital if unacknowledged: “Every just principle that is to be found in the writings of Voltaire, is borrowed from the Bible: and the morality 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.” Memory, deep memory, is a curious thing. If imbedded in people young, moral presumptions, moral habits are rarely shed even as other things are layered on top. We are never as original or independent as we think.

As I have written before—on Rush’s other education writings—contra the predominate jargon (even in conservative circles) which casts the essence of education as free and balanced inquiry, the training ground for the marketplace of ideas, education is indoctrination. The only question is the choice of dogma. Education—again, broadly conceived—is how you condition a people, especially the leadership class. It is, in part, how you facilitate homogeneity of commitment and opinion, of morality and religion. This is why the curriculum wars are so hot. Daily, whether at home or the schoolhouse, moral habits and prejudices are being forged. In circular fashion, what is morally fashionable, and desirable is set by the ruling class even as their progeny are informed by it. The quality of leadership flows directly from whatever habits and prejudices are being instilled.

Speaking of circular, observe too that Rush grounds his second argument in the testimony of Scripture itself, a very Protestant move.

“[A]n implied command of God, and upon the practice of several of the wisest nations of the world… It appears, moreover, from the history of the Jews, that they flourished as a nation, in proportion as they honored and read the books of Moses, which contained, a written revelation of the will of God, to the children of men. The law was not only neglected, but lost during the general profligacy of manners which accompanied the long and wicked reign of Manasseh. But the discovery of it, in the rubbish of the temple, by Josiah, and its subsequent general use, were followed by a return of national virtue and prosperity.”

A proponent of teaching the whole counsel of God (against old and new, theological, and political Marcionites), Rush:

“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 personal, 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.”

Rush goes on to make clear that the inculcation of mere morality is insufficient. It must be Christian morality, i.e., it must recognize and adhere to the miraculous incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Taught rightly, and in its fullness, the Bible will lead students—in whom the sensus divinitatis is awakened earlier than most perceive—naturally to the embrace of these doctrines.

But, again, Rush saw the necessity of ingraining the text in children such that its moral suppositions and vocabulary would become inescapable. Does not the political career, however heterodox and noncommittal, of Abraham Lincoln demonstrate this effect. Some historians speculate that the only books Oliver Cromwell read cover-to-cover in his life were accounts of the new world by Walter Raleigh and the King James Bible. This is an unfair speculation, in my view, given Cromwell’s time at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, but the illustrate point stands.

Rush, of course, does not deny natural revelation. But as Jonathan Edwards once suggested in his Miscellanies, the extent to which natural truths—which are prepatory for reception of the Gospel—are obvious to a people corresponds to the extent to which their world is Christianized.

Teaching the Bible to children, says Rush, is the last avenue to Christianization when the pulpit is culturally disfavored and the press is antagonistic to Christianity. (And he was only dealing with pesky deists back then.)

“On the ground of the good old custom, of using the bible as a schoolbook, 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 of Christianity by the pulpit and the press, so unfashionable, that little good for many years seems to have been done by either of them.”

Want to renew Christendom? Teach your kids the Bible, all of it. If you require inspiration, start with Rush’s Defense and remember that, in the literal sense, we used to be a proper country. We can be one again.

Image Credit: Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Reading the bible, 1755 (Wikimedia Commons).

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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