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How The Old Deluder Satan Act Made Sure Puritan Children Got Educated

In 1675, William Scant of Braintree, Mass., was brought before the court for breaking a law called the Old Deluder Satan Act: He had refused to educate his children. The court ordered Braintree’s selectmen to find another home for the Scant children.

In the Puritan town of Braintree and in every other, ignorance was considered barbaric. Puritans believed everyone should be able to read so they could study the Scriptures for themselves. William Bradford managed to own 400 books in the primitive colony of Plimoth Plantation.

The Puritans thought uneducated people were tricked by the ‘old deluder Satan’ into sinning.

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Education was designed to outwit Satan.  And it wasn’t an option in Puritan Massachusetts. In 1647, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, which required selectmen to make sure parents were educating their children.

More than a century later, John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution with a guarantee of public education for all citizens.

Prelude to the Old Deluder Satan Act

The Old Deluder Satan Act followed the first Massachusetts School Law of 1642, passed a mere 12 years after the first Puritans arrived in the howling wilderness of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The law stated that citizens should read the English language and know the laws of the land. It was aimed at negligent parents and apprentice masters. Selectmen to keep a vigilant eye on their neighbors to make sure they didn’t suffer ‘so much barbarism’ as not to teach them how to read.

Further, all parents and masters were to teach their children and apprentices in 'some honest lawful calling, labour or employment.’ If they failed, and the children became 'rude, stubborn & unrule,' the selectmen were to take children from their parents and place them with masters who would discipline them.

Old Deluder Act Passes

The 1642 law wasn't enforced, which probably inspired the Legislature to pass the Old Deluder Satan Act five years later.

‘One chief project of that old deluder, Satan,’ the law read, was to “keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.” The law required every town with more than 50 families to set up a reading school, known as dame schools. Towns with more than 100 families had to run a grammar school in addition to a reading school.

What Happened

Over the next four decades, similar laws to The Old Deluder Satan Act were passed in Plimoth Plantation, New Haven Colony, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

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Page from the New England Primer

Every town soon had a school, though few had prisons.  As a result of the Old Deluder Satan Act, Massachusetts children spent twice as much time in school as children in Virginia.

Children attended grammar school all year long for six days a week, except in the summer when they were needed to help on the farm. Most spent six or seven years in school.

They learned from a hornbook, a printed alphabet sheet attached to a paddle, and a primer. The most popular, The New England Primer, was published in the late 17th century. It included 26 couplets that taught the alphabet along with religious values.

Rhymes included

The Idle Fool
Is Whipped at school

Job feels the Rod
Yet blesses God

Schoolchildren were disciplined with whipping. Sometimes two young troublemakers were yoked together like oxen. The whispering stick was the penalty for talking out of turn; it was a stick stuck in the child’s mouth and secured with a string.

Some were very young when they began their formal education. Judge Samuel Sewall sent his son Joseph to a reading school when he was two years old.

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Boston Latin School.

In 1635, even before the Old Deluder Satan Act became law, the Puritans established North America’s first secondary school, Boston Latin. The school prepared children for Harvard, where they would learn to be ministers or magistrates. They mainly studied Greek and Latin.

Massachusetts asked every family to contribute a peck of grain every year to Harvard. Hundreds of New England families gave 'college corn' to support Harvard.

In 1638, Thomas Hooker set up a Latin school in Hartford, now Hartford Public High School. Yale College was founded in 1701.

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