This article is about John Knox and his view on education.

Source: Witness, 2009. 2 pages.

John Knox and education in Scotland

On the 27th April, 1560 ‘all the nobility, barons and gentlemen professing Christ Jesus in Scotland’ contracted  to  ‘set  forward  the  reformation  of religion according to God’s Word ... that the truth of God’s Word may have free passage within this realm’ and to recover their ‘ancient freedoms and liberties’. So wrote the great Scottish reformer, John Knox, in his celebrated History.

It was a historic moment in Scotland. Queen Elizabeth in England was sympathetic towards the Protestant struggle in Scotland. Mary of Lorraine had been ‘deprived’ of the Regency since November 1559. The Great Council of the Realm was now commissioning the ministers of Christ in Scotland to write down their formula for the reformation of religion. Amongst the proposals made by Knox and his fellow reformers were regulations for education. These ecclesiastical and educational proposals were written in what was called the First Book of Discipline and it was subscribed in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh on 27th January, 1561. John Knox and his brethren were setting out vital principles for the establishment of the Reformed Church of Scotland throughout the whole realm and educational provisions were regarded by these reformers as essential to their work. The relevant section of the reformers’ work is entitled For the Schooles.

The First Book of Discipline took the view that the government of the day or civil magistrate should be responsible for the education of the youth, but it was to be an education which was carefully defined by the reformers themselves. They say it is to be an educational system set up to promote ‘the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this realm’. They look to the future with a vision of succeeding generations of young people brought up in the Christian faith and able to help in church and state: ‘For as the youth must succeed to us so we ought to be careful that they have knowledge and erudition to profit and comfort that which ought to be most dear to us, to wit, the Kirk and spouse of our Lord Jesus’.

The provision stated that every Kirk was to have one schoolmaster appointed who could teach grammar and the Latin language. It was also envisaged that the first rudiments of the Catechism should also be taught to the young people. For this the Geneva Catechism of Calvin was translated into the English language. At a later age children were expected to attend a college. The ablest scholars would then proceed to one of the three universities. These were located in St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen. (The University of Edinburgh was established a few years later.)

It is of particular importance to notice that this education was to be obligatory on all the young men of the land. Fathers especially were to be compelled ‘to bring up their children in learning and virtue’. ‘The rich ... may not be permitted to suffer their children to spend their youth in vain idleness as heretofore they have done. But they must be exhorted and by the censure of the Kirk compelled to dedicate their sons by good exercises (studies) to the profit of the Kirk and Commonwealth...’ The rich were to pay for their own sons’ education but the children of the poor were to be ‘supported and sustained of (by) the charge of the Kirk’. In order to have standards maintained, ‘discreet, brave and learned men were to be appointed to visit schools for the trial (inspection) of their exercise, profit and continuance’. The provision stated that the minister and elders and other learned men in every town were to conduct this examination.

Secular subjects, of course, were to be studied in the school but the emphasis was upon gaining a knowledge of the Christian religion. It was expected that children should have a knowledge of God’s law and commandments, the chief Articles of the Faith, the correct way to pray to God, to understand the number and nature of the sacraments, and to appreciate who Christ is and how he exercises His offices as the Redeemer. Without such knowledge, they said, a man did not ‘deserve to be called a Christian neither ought to be admitted to the participation of the Lord’s Table’. The reformers were conscious that such reforms in education as they proposed in the First Book of Discipline would lead to great moral and spiritual benefits throughout the country. This is exactly what did happen throughout Scotland in the following years.

The above, in briefest possible form, summarises the vision which John Knox and the other Scottish reformers had at the time of the Reformation for raising educational standards throughout Scotland. It is no accident that in the four hundred and more years which have elapsed Scottish education has been proverbial for its excellence. Its influence has gone throughout the world.

One or two brief comments are in place here:

  1. It is clear that of first importance in education in the view of the reformers was the need to have young minds thoroughly taught in the doctrines of the Word of God. Bible study is essential but catechetical and doctrinal understanding of the Word of God is of fundamental importance.
  2. Financial provision for such a scheme of education should be according to the means of parents. The rich were to pay for the education of their own children either in whole or in part. The poor were to have their education mainly paid for out of the funds which were derived from the patrimony of the Church. In practice, this proved to be difficult as greedy barons wished to lay their own hands on these funds. Education can be expensive and it would be a great help today if Christian schools could either be fully supported by the state or else if wealthy Christian friends would place monies in a trust or fund to support the children of poor families.
  3. The vision in education was not for ‘secular’ service but for the service of God. This might well be in the ministry of the church but could also be in a civil capacity of some sort. The view of the reformers was that all work comes from the call of God, secular as well as spiritual. In all our work God is to be served.
  4. The scheme of education provided for education from the earliest years of childhood right up to the university. The schools and universities were to be open to persons of ability right the way through. In a system like this every encouragement was given to able students to make the best of their God-given talents and then to go out and serve God in society by devoting their lives to the good of their fellow men in their chosen profession.
  5. The foundation of all life must be built upon the Word of God. Therefore the reformers taught that a sound understanding of the Word of God is fundamental.

In conclusion we have to say that Knox and the Scottish reformers were entirely supportive of the view that education should be specifically Christian. The secular educational mentality which came in at the end of the nineteenth century in Scotland after the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 is something with which Knox and the reformers would have had no sympathy.

The society in which we live today reflects the classroom and the educational theory which lies behind it. It is piously to be hoped and prayed for that the principles of Knox and the reformers might be recovered for our school system in this country again. If this is not done then our society can only go farther and farther from the truth and from standards of decency. Christians everywhere in Britain must give careful attention to the whole subject of Christian schools and Christian education. It is surely now a top priority subject.

May God help parents and educators in our land to see again the vision of Knox and his brethren for educating the youth of Scotland. It would be a cheering prospect if the people of Scotland would begin to see the need to recover their Reformation heritage and to implement it in their educational provisions.

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