Machen on Protecting Freedom of Thought and Christian Education

“The children are the future” the saying goes. There is a certain sense in which this statement is accurate. Because of this, the importance of Christian training for children from birth onward cannot be overstated. Many of the Reformers and post-Reformation pastors and theologians have been strong advocates of thorough biblical education for children. They have consistently argued that this education should be comprehensive, learning the doctrines of the faith through catechesis but also learning these doctrines within the framework of an entire worldview of life. We might be surprised, however, at the variety of ways that they did this. John Calvin instituted schools for this purpose in Geneva. John Knox advocated compulsory public school system for this reason in Scotland. This was in addition the widespread usage of catechetical classes in which a member of the congregation would be designated to teach the children on Sundays. At the same time, the responsibility of the Christian family was always kept front and center as the primary way in which young people were made into disciples of Christ.

There is much insight to be gained by a closer look at these pastors and their methods with their flocks but that will have to be saved for another time. I also want to point out that in the more contemporary American scene, the situation is much different. As the situation was changing due to increased Federal involvement in public education, J. Gresham Machen was one of several of the professors at Westminster Theological Seminary who offered some helpful analysis of the situation.  

J. Gresham Machen, Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, and founder of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, appeared before a Joint Committee of Congress in 1926 to testify in opposition to a federal Department of Education. His foresight, and his defense of Christian schools, is more needed today than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. These essays and speeches offer a solid defense of Christian education.

It seems to me that Machen’s perspective was well-nuanced and worth considering. To give you a bit more perspective on Machen’s view, consider this quote from his classic work, Christianity and Liberalism:

“A public-school system, in itself, is indeed of enormous benefit to the race. But it is of benefit only if it is kept healthy at every moment by the absolutely free possibility of the competition of private schools. A public-school system, if it means the providing of free education for those who desire it, is a noteworthy and beneficent achievement of modern times; but once it becomes monopolistic it is the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has been devised. Freedom of thought in the middle ages was combated by the Inquisition, but the modern method is far more effective. Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist. Such a tyranny, supported as it is by a perverse technique used as the instrument in destroying human souls, is certainly far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past, which despite their weapons of fire and sword permitted thought at least to be free.”

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