History

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As I continue thinking about how religion impacted Springfield, Illinois, when Abraham Lincoln lived there, I am reminded of the religious foundations of education in nineteenth-century America. Certainly churches were places of worship and important social institutions, but religion affected so much more of American culture, especially following the proliferation of Protestant evangelical revivals of the Second Great Awakening. In regard to education, religion provided the means by which so many Americans learned to read and to think critically about  authority. The Protestant emphasis on the individual’s ability to access directly the word of the Christian god was a powerful impetus for American Christians to gain literacy. In addition, the diversity of religious opinions circulating in the young nation meant that conscientious believers needed the ability to critically assess religious claims and articulate their own beliefs. An educated mind became a requirement of piety for many Americans.

Of course, religion was not the only motive for learning to read, write, figure, and to think for oneself in nineteenth-century America. It is true that virtually every institution of higher learning in the early American republic had been founded for religious purposes; for the most part, colleges were for training clergy, or at least for producing morally upstanding Christian citizens. (The founding of the University of Virginia is a notable exception, as Thomas Jefferson’s desire for a university “on the most extensive and liberal scale” came in part from his frustration with the religious emphasis of his alma mater, the College of William and Mary.)  But learning to read the Bible also opened up other worlds that literacy enabled. Abraham Lincoln’s education began with the Bible, which offered perspectives for criticizing the evangelical Christians he observed in Indiana and Illinois. It also led him to studying law, and, as they say, the rest is history. ♨

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