A Christian Call for State Education

Who can guess where this extended quote comes from? (no googling!) After listing a number of biblical and classical admonitions to train and educate children, the mystery author continues:

“Ah,” you say, “but all that is addressed to parents; what business is it of councilmen and magistrates?” Very true: but if the parents neglect it, who is to see to it? Shall it on that account remain undone and the children be neglected? In that case, how will magistrates and councilmen excuse themselves by saying it is no business of theirs? There are various reasons why parents neglect their duty.

In the first place, there are those who lack the piety and decency, even if they had the ability, to do it. … Secondly, the great majority of parents are, alas! unfitted for this work and do not know how children are to be trained and taught, for they themselves have learned nothing but how to provide for the belly; whereas it takes persons of exceptional ability to teach and train children aright. Thirdly, even if parents were able and willing to do it themselves, they have neither the time nor the opportunity for it, what with their other duties and housework. Necessity compels us, therefore, to engage public schoolteachers for the children, unless everyone were willing to engage an instructor of his own. But that would be too heavy a burden upon the common man, and many a promising boy would be neglected on account of poverty. Besides, many parents die and leave orphans, and if we do not know by experience how these are cared for by their guardians, God Himself tells us by calling Himself the Father of the orphans, as of those who are neglected by everyone else. Moreover, there are some who have no children of their own, and who for that reason take no interest in the training of children.

It therefore becomes the business of councilmen and magistrates to devote the greatest care and attention to the young. …

It is not necessary here to state that the temporal government is a divine order; I have elsewhere so fully treated this subject that I trust no one has any doubt about it. The question is rather, how to get good and skilled persons into the government. In this we are challenged and put to shame by the heathen, who in former times, especially in Rome and Greece, without knowing whether this estate was pleasing to God or not, were so earnest and diligent in educating and fitting their boys and girls for it that when I think of this I blush for us Christians. …

If then there were no soul, as I have said, and if there were no need at all of schools and languages for the sake of the Scriptures and of God, this one consideration should suffice to establish everywhere the very best schools for both boys and girls, namely, that in order outwardly to maintain its temporal estate, the world must have good and skilled men and women, so that the former may rule well over land and people and the latter may keep house and train children and servants aright.  …

Now you say, “But who can spare his children for so long a time, and train them all to be young gentlemen? There is work for them to do at home, etc.” I reply: … My idea is to let boys go to such a school for one or two hours a day, and spend the remainder of the time working at home, learning a trade or doing whatever their parents desired; so that both study and work might go hand in hand while they were young and able to do both. They spend at least ten times as much time with their pea-shooters or playing ball or racing and tussling. In like manner, a girl can surely find time enough to go to school one hour a day and still attend to all her duties at home; she sleeps, dances, and plays away more time than that. There is only one thing lacking, and that is the earnest desire to train the young people and to benefit and serve the world with well-bred men and women. The devil very much prefers coarse blockheads and ne’er-do-wells, lest men live to comfortably on earth.

[Update] As guessed in the comment thread, the author of this quote is Martin Luther, in his 1524 Letter “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.”

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21 Responses to A Christian Call for State Education

  1. sean says:

    Abraham Kuyper

  2. RubeRad says:

    No, but thanks for playing!

  3. Zrim says:

    This sounded a lot like someone. So I looked it up. I was right. And that’s all that matters.

  4. RubeRad says:

    Good job then!

  5. Carter says:

    Hm. I don’t really know, but what the heck. Jonathan Edwards.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Magistrate and councilman would tell me that it might be in the time of the reformation or shortly thereafter. The person also sounds like a moralist- I will go with Jacob Arminius.

  7. John Yeazel says:

    That was me not anonymous

  8. RubeRad says:

    Nope. Edwards is closer in time to the right answer, Kuyper is closer in space (although neither one is super close)

  9. RubeRad says:

    You are heading in the right direction wrt reformation timeframe. But not Arminius (and not even a moralist!)

  10. Todd says:


  11. RubeRad says:


    Todd gets 100% credit for guessing the author, and Z gets 0% credit for not having the stones to guess the author out loud (or 100% credit for guessing right, and letting others have a turn)

    See the update at the end of the post for accreditation and linkage…

  12. RubeRad says:

    One thing that struck me is this sentence near the end: “There is only one thing lacking, and that is the earnest desire to train the young people and to benefit and serve the world with well-bred men and women.”

    I would say that among all the usual camps in the Christian schooling debate, that one thing is still lacking. Everybody is concerned about how Christian/home schooling can advance the Kingdom of God, and how public schooling attacks the Kingdom of God. I’m looking forward to my next chance to surprise somebody by saying “I’m paying a lot of money for private (Christian) schooling, because I want my boys to advance the Kingdom of Man.”

  13. RubeRad says:

    Also, I wonder whether today’s situation invalidates some of Luther’s arguments. There are enough free/cheap homeschooling resources out there that it’s really not that hard to homeschool — especially for elementary/middle school. And (after a few decades of doubt) consensus now seems pretty universal that homeschooled kids are much better educated than their public-schooled peers (maybe also their Christian-schooled peers).

    Or maybe that’s only because of a statistical “self-selection bias”, i.e. the population of homeschooled kids is heavily biased toward families that are good at homeschooling (parents that are “alas! unfitted for this work” self-select out of the homeschooling population). I know the reason we are no longer homeschooling is that we went to the open house at our school, and immediately thought, “Wow, we can’t do that!”

  14. RubeRad says:

    Now that the guessing game is over, what tipped you off?

  15. Zrim says:


    Exactly. If someone wants to ding public education for something they should ding it for whether it delivers quality education or not. Education is a facet of creation, not redemption.

    Imagine dinging a secular hospital, not for whether it delivers quality health care, but for not advancing/attacking the kingdom of God and making that the grounds for why one only goes to First Presbyterian instead of Metropolitan General.

  16. John Yeazel says:

    Bad on me for calling Luther a moralist, although I do find it curious that many call Luther and Lutherans antinomians. They obviously have not read much of Luther’s writings. That was an interesting quote- I read it over a few times and see what he was saying better now. I was geared in my thinking to think it was someone Rube would not agree with in his education beliefs. That turned out to be wrong too. Luther did go through my mind but some of it did sound a bit moralistic- when I read it through a couple more times I was mistaken in my judgment.

    “They spend at least ten times as much time with their pea-shooters or playing ball or racing and tussling.” I had to laugh at this sentence.

  17. John Yeazel says:

    Has anyone read the whole letter Luther wrote to the councilman and magistrates of all the cities in Germany? This is quite a telling letter and he is mostly making a case for educating the poor and neglected kids in Germany who were not being trained properly for the betterment of the German state. He compares neglecting the kids and their education in the languages with violating a virgin. With the latter being a sin that can be atoned for. The adults were more worried about filling their bellies and collecting the natural resources that were flowing into
    Germany then beating the devil at his game of keeping people from the truth of the Gospel. His emphasis was on teaching and learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew in order that the scriptures might be interpreted properly. There is a lot that could be discussed in that letter- especially in how the Church and State related with each other. Times are definitely different today then they were back then. I could say more but will stop.

  18. John Yeazel says:

    I think it is also interesting what books and what types of books Luther would preserve in his libraries and how disgusted he was with the type of education he received- the stuff of value being what he learned on his own.

  19. John Yeazel says:

    There is a lot of good stuff in that letter Luther wrote to the magistrates and councilmen: Here’s one quote- “Therefore, though the faith and the Gospel may be proclaimed by simple preachers without the languages, such preaching is flat and tame, men grow at last wearied and disgusted and it falls to the ground. But when the preacher is versed in the languages, his discourse has freshness and force, the whole of scripture is treated, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and works.”

  20. RubeRad says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the whole letter. I read most of it, as excerpted in another book I’m reading. It is quite interesting reading. I liked this part also that talks about how Germany has become a laughing-stock because of their ignorance of the riches of classical wisdom. Good thing that could never be said of any Christian ghetto today…

  21. John Yeazel says:

    Thanks for posting that Rube- I have read it through a couple of times now and keep picking good things from it. He also talks about the Anabaptist’s and their penchant for the pentecostal. Luther has some scathing things to say about them which is pertinent for today’s “New Calvinists” who want to emphasize the charismata.

    I also found it interesting how Luther related to the State and the section on the “body” is good Two-Kingdom fodder.

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