How Christianity Transformed the World: Biblical Christianity’s Impact on Education

The latest issue of Affinity’s Social Issues Bulletin is out now. It is free to download, as are all previous editions. In the current edition we have the fifth and final essay by Sharon James on how Christianity has been a benefit to the wider world. This time she looks at the area of education.

This article is the fifth of five papers under the general heading of ‘How Christianity Changed the World’. They are adapted from a series of talks given by the author at Word Alive in April 2019. She has given us permission to publish all five in successive issues of the Bulletin. Sharon’s book on this theme is published by Christian Focus.

This series of articles offers some snapshots from history to demonstrate that the world has been changed immeasurably for the better because of the life and witness of Christ’s followers. In this fifth article we see that Christians have been passionate providers of universal education from early times.  

The Divine Mandate to Study

The Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi (b. 1949) converted to Christianity when he investigated the Christian holy book and realised that the thread running throughout is God’s desire to bless all nations. As he investigated the impact of the Bible on his own nation of India and the world, he found that ‘The Bible created the modern world of science and learning because it gave us the Creator’s vision of what reality is all about.’

We are able to study because the cosmos is ordered

It can be investigated, discovered and explored, because it is created by God who is characterised by Order, Truth, Reason, Beauty, Love and Justice. As John Calvin wrote, ‘Not only the natural, but also the human social world is a dazzling theatre of God’s glory.’ The Creator has provided an astonishing array of natural resources to be developed. He gave people the God-like capacity to develop those resources by means of reason, creativity, intelligence and hard work.

We are able to study because we are made in the image of the Triune God

We reason, observe, experiment, deduce, speak, infer, argue, communicate, love and relate because God created us in his image. God has endowed every human being with the capacity to reason. That should be developed; it is criminal not to educate every child. Every child’s unique gifts and capacities should be nurtured and developed. It is also criminal not to go on learning all through our lives, developing the mind that God has given us.

God has endowed every human being with the capacity to know, enjoy and serve him. How do we know God? Through his Word. So all people need to be able to read the Bible, and have access to the Bible in their own language. Hence Christians have been at the forefront of literacy provision worldwide.

God has also given all human beings the divine mandate to manage the natural world:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ (Genesis 1:27-28)

The biblical term ‘subdue’, or rule, or exercise ‘dominion’, simply means to steward and manage the earth on behalf of the great King. To do that we need to study and understand the creation. This is often called ‘general revelation’ because understanding it is accessible to all people whether or not they are Christians: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’ (Psalm 19:1)

Christian Commitment to Education

Science represents our effort to understand God’s handiwork. The Bible teaches that a rational being created and sustains the natural world. Human beings, as rational beings, can, in turn, discover the laws of nature, and then act on nature, effectively and rationally. This was the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them the rise of science.

The Bible places a high premium on knowledge. But this does not come via mystical experience or mere devotion and meditation. It comes from study and hard work, investigating the natural world, and building on the work of others. That is why we need education.

Historically, it has always been Christians who have been passionately committed to education for all, and in many countries of the world they have been the first to seek to provide schools, colleges and universities.

Jesus Christ told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that he had commanded. The early church took this seriously. At an early date catechetical schools were established where they taught Christian doctrine, but increasingly mathematics and medicine as well.[1]Alvin J Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 172. That is why, by the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) said that Christian women were better informed in divine matters than pagan male philosophers.[2]Ibid., 172.

Augustine himself, a North African bishop, was one of the greatest intellects in history. He reflected deeply on the fact that all humans are created in the image of God: Whether or not they are Christians, they are not only rational but also truth-seeking. He wrote:

Has not the genius of man invented and applied countless astonishing arts, partly the result of necessity, partly the result of exuberant invention, so that this vigour of mind… betokens an inexhaustible wealth in the human nature which can invent, learn, or employ such arts. What wonderful – one might say stupefying – advances has human industry made in the arts of weaving and building, or agriculture and navigation! What skill has been attained in measures and numbers! With what sagacity have the movements and connections of the stars been discovered! [And all this is due to the] unspeakable blessing that God has conferred upon his creation – a rational nature. [3]Quoted in Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005), 9-10.

Augustine believed that Christians can and should benefit from all the learning known to pagan philosophers, so they should be taught languages, history, grammar, logic and sciences. He wrote a comprehensive text book of all the various branches of learning to date which became the standard text for European universities through the Middle Ages. Augustine used his mighty intellect to formulate theology and philosophy, the impact of which has echoed down through the centuries.

As the Western Roman world disintegrated, Christian monasteries preserved the literary remains of ancient Rome. In the east, it was a Christian civilization that united the intellectual cultures of the Greek, Egyptian and Syrian worlds, and that preserved Hellenic wisdom in academies and libraries in Greece, Syria and Asia Minor. During the Middle Ages, Christian monasteries and cathedral schools developed into the earliest universities, in places such as Bologna, Padua, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge.

The Great medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century (1225-1274). He also was confident that Christians can learn from unbelievers because the rational Creator God has placed his natural law on their hearts: All truth is God’s truth. We can be confident as we study that God’s general revelation (nature) never contradicts and always harmonises with his special revelation (Scripture).

Moving onto the Reformation, Martin Luther said it was a crime for parents not to ensure the education of every child. So, during the Reformation in Europe, there was a surge in the building of girls’ schools in Protestant areas.

The great reformed theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) was clear about the terrible effects of sin. He was equally clear that in common (or everyday) grace God has endowed all human beings with reason. He said that we should be humble and willing to admire and learn from the wisdom of the past – including from unbelievers; but wherever we find wisdom we must give God the glory.

Anna Maria Van Schurman (1607-1678) was a skilled linguist, with knowledge of thirteen languages. Brought up in the Dutch Reformed Church, in 1638 she published a treatise on the need for women to be educated. ‘Ignorance is not fitting for a Christian woman’, she wrote.

A famous Protestant educationalist was John Comenius (1592-1670) of Moravia. He started schools for poor children, both girls and boys. He wanted everyone made in God’s image to learn of God, man and nature. Because of his Reformed convictions, he spent much of his life as a religious refugee in poverty. He still managed to write around 90 books on education. His advice was sought at the highest level in England, Sweden, the Netherlands and Austria. His conviction was that education should be a happy experience for children, that all learning should be carefully adapted to the stage of development of each child, and that children should learn by inquiry, not just having information dumped on them.

In 1658 he produced and published The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures.[4] (accessed 11 December, 2019). Many believe this to be the first children’s picture book. It started with several pages of pictures of animals, then pictures showing everyday activities like tending gardens and brewing beer. The book went on to cover theology, anatomy, biology and astronomy. It was aiming to teach about the whole world via the senses. This visual approach was a breakthrough, as was Comenius’ decision to publish both a German (i.e., vernacular) edition as well as one in Latin. At one point it was the most used textbook in Europe for elementary education, and was translated into most European, and some oriental, languages.

Coming back to Britain, Isaac Watts (1675-1748) is best known as being one of the greatest hymn-writers of all time (‘Jesus shall reign where’er the sun’; ‘Joy to the World’; ‘Alas, and did my Savour bleed’, ‘Our God our help in ages past’ and ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ are just some of his best-known hymns). He was a gifted pastor and preacher as well as a hymn-writer. He also spent several years as a tutor. He was passionate about the importance of teaching children well from the earliest age, and equally passionate about the responsibility to go on learning all our lives. Isaac Watts regarded teaching as one of the noblest occupations:

How beautiful to see a teacher bearing patiently with those who are slow of understanding, and taking time and diligence and pains to help the learner understand without rebuking them for being slow! [5]David Fountain, Isaac Watts Remembered, (Gospel Standard Trust, 1974) 36-7.

His text book on educating children, entitled A Discourse on the Education of Children and Youth was enormously popular; it conveys his passion. Because God has given everyone a rational nature and a soul that will never die, he stressed the need to give girls as well as boys an excellent education. He believed that teachers do not just convey information; they teach by the way that they live. Teachers must be kind and teach children to be kind; they must be cheerful and encourage children to be cheerful. They must avoid being boring at all costs: they should use plenty of visual aids, diagrams, maps and different colours. Lessons must be based on observation, not just instruction. Youngsters must be encouraged to be curious and to think for themselves; and to think clearly and logically. They should be taken out on trips; as much travel as possible should be encouraged. They should be trained to be diligent and to read widely. They are to be inspired to regard improvement of the mind and of the character as a life-long project. Above all they are to be pointed to their Creator. And as knowing God brings joy, teachers must demonstrate that joy. As a line in one of his hymns states: ‘Religion never was designed to make our pleasures less’.[6]‘Come we that love the Lord’.

Isaac Watts wrote text books on a range of subjects: language, logic, mathematics, science. And they were used in Britain and internationally up to university level.

He also cared about teaching little toddlers. His best-selling work was Divine songs attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children published in 1715. It went through over 1,000 editions, and sold more than 7 million copies in various countries (the population of Britain in Watt’s lifetime was about 6 million). One of the most well-known poems for children was entitled ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’ which begins:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour

This was so universally known by children in the nineteenth century that Lewis Carroll was famously able to parody it in Alice in Wonderland, knowing that everyone would understand what he was doing:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail

Also very popular was Isaac Watts’ work on The Improvement of the Mind, a text book on ways to continue to increase in wisdom, godliness and usefulness throughout life. It contains practical instructions on study skills, wise reading, useful conversation and ways to make social occasions edifying.

In the eighteenth century, those who could not in conscience conform to the rites and ceremonies of the Established Church (Dissenters) were not allowed to go to university. They developed their own Academies which played a significant role in educational provision. Watts’ text books and resources were hugely popular in these institutions.

One of the most humbling aspects of looking back at these eighteenth-century Dissenters was their voracious thirst for learning. So many of those who had to leave school at an early age applied themselves diligently to education in their spare time, many learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other languages. Famously William Carey, who came from a pitifully poor background, taught himself Latin at age twelve, and later mastered Greek, Hebrew, French and Dutch; as a missionary in India he learned dozens of languages and dialects.

One result of the social impact of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century revivals in Britain and beyond was that the voluntary efforts of Christians led to an extraordinary expansion of education for all children, including the very poorest. One well-known pioneer was Robert Raikes (1735-1811), the crusading editor of the Gloucester Journal. Shocked at the conditions in the local prison, he became convinced that ‘vice could be better prevented than cured’ – education would be the best prevention. He discussed this with a neighbouring vicar, and they came up with idea of schools that could be run by volunteers on Sundays. (This was the only day that the poorest children would be able to attend as they were sent out to work on the other six days.) The teaching would include not just the Bible but basic literacy as well.

One Sunday afternoon in July 1780 a Christian woman called Mrs Meredith welcomed poor children into her own home in Sooty Alley, Gloucester – the first Sunday school! The idea took off; by 1831 about 25% of England’s 1.25 million children were going to Sunday schools. This depended on the voluntary efforts of tens of thousands of Christians.

Another pioneer of education for all was Hannah More (1745-1833). She was a successful and hugely popular writer whose works at one time outsold Jane Austen’s by ten to one. One of the stars on the London social scene, she was converted through reading a book by the evangelical John Newton (author of ‘Amazing Grace’). After her conversion she poured her writing ability into the cause of the gospel and doing good to the poor.

Modern feminists always praise Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who argued that women should receive education like men; they rarely mention Hannah More. But More, like Wollstonecraft, wanted to see girls educated and wrote the best-selling Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education in 1799. But, unlike Wollstonecraft, Hannah More put her words into action. After her conversion to evangelical Christianity, she gave generously and sacrificially of her own time and resources to establish schools for poor girls as well as boys. She established schools for the poor in the face of strong opposition.

The work of schools founded and run by Christians had a huge impact. During the nineteenth century, some children were so destitute they felt ashamed to go to Sunday School. Many Christians responded by opening what became known as ‘Ragged Schools’ which not only gave free teaching, but food and clothes as well. Again, these were staffed by thousands of Christian volunteers. Many could be named as pioneers of these establishments, but one was a Christian called John Pounds, a Portsmouth cobbler, known as ‘the crippled cobbler’. He taught children reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as skills such as carpentry, cooking and shoe-making. Other schools were set up on what was called the Lancaster-Bell or ‘monitorial’ principle, where older pupils helped to teach the younger ones.

Aside from all this, many Christians just got on with meeting the needs that faced them in their own communities. During the 1840s, for example, Richard Dawes became vicar of a village called King’s Somborne in Hampshire. Finding that there was no school there, he used £500 of his own funds to start one; he ran it himself and taught 158 pupils. Like John Comenius and Isaac Watts, Dawes wanted to make education pleasurable and relevant. He emphasised nature observation, conducting experiments, and taking the children out on trips.[7]James Bartholomew, The Welfare State We’re In (Politico’s, 2006) 154-6.

Largely because of this huge and often voluntary devotion to education of so many Christian people in Britain, most of the working class achieved a basic level of literacy during this time. It was a remarkable achievement given the long working hours for children as well as their parents, and the absence of any government provision.

Internationally, Christian commitment to education for all has played, and continues to play, a major role. Ann Judson (1789-1826) was a pioneer of female education in Asia. Following her conversion at around the age of sixteen in 1805, she soon started teaching in school as she had great desire to impart the knowledge of God and his world to others. Aged twenty-one, she and her husband Adoniram left family, friends and all they knew in New England and started a Christian mission in Burma where Ann started schools for girls. She was only one of many Christians to promote female education in cultures where it was strictly forbidden.

Vishal Mangalwadi writes, ‘Western missions… birthed, financed, and nurtured hundreds of universities, thousands of colleges and tens of thousands of schools. They educated millions and transformed nations.’[8]Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made your World, (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson) 207-8. So, for example, in 1999 Mizoram, India’s most Christian state (98%) had the highest literacy rate in that nation at 95%. Kerala, the oldest Christian community in India, had a literacy rate of 93%.[9]Ibid., 213.

God made us in his image; he has endowed all human beings with reason, and with the capacity to know him. He has called all human beings to develop and manage his world on his behalf. That is why Christians through history have taken a lead in educating boys and girls, men and women. We want all to be educated, so that they are equipped to obey God by fulfilling the creation mandate. But supremely we want all, whatever their sex, status or race, to be able to read God’s Word so that they can know and honour him. We want all to be saved, and to bring God praise by playing their part in obeying Christ’s Great Commission.

Sharon James is Social Policy Analyst for the Christian Institute.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for July 2021. The whole edition can be found at

1 Alvin J Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 172.
2 Ibid., 172.
3 Quoted in Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005), 9-10.
4 (accessed 11 December, 2019).
5 David Fountain, Isaac Watts Remembered, (Gospel Standard Trust, 1974) 36-7.
6 ‘Come we that love the Lord’.
7 James Bartholomew, The Welfare State We’re In (Politico’s, 2006) 154-6.
8 Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made your World, (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson) 207-8.
9 Ibid., 213.