That Old Deluder Satan: Puritan Emphasis on Compulsory Education

May 15, 2020

By Ruaidhrí Crofton

woodcut of children and teacher sitting around a table

Woodcut of a schoolroom

By the mid 18th century, Boston had established itself as a significant port within Britain’s North American colonies. As the town’s population reached nearly 15,000, the community boasted a number of meeting houses for worship, wharves and marketplaces to accommodate transcontinental trade, and courts and other colonial government buildings from which to maintain law and order. Perhaps more significantly, Boston was also home to the first public school in North America. By the time a young Paul Revere grew up in the North End, there were at least five public schools which housed approximately 500 students within the town.[1] Revere attended the North Writing School between the ages of seven and thirteen before transitioning into an apprenticeship at his father’s goldsmith shop. The fact that Massachusetts had developed a relatively extensive system of public education early in its history can largely be attributed to the colony’s predominantly Puritan roots and the emphasis this population placed on education as a means for maintaining a society of laws and faith. The Puritans had relocated to North America from England in 1630 in order to “create a utopia for the godly.”[2] As they saw it, Massachusetts would become a colony where Puritans could live according to their notion of God’s will and serve as a model, a “shining city upon a hill,” for the rest of the world to follow.[3] Education would become a key part of that plan.

According to Puritan beliefs, “the only source of authority was sacred scripture itself, which all people had to read for themselves in their own language.”[4] Similarly, it was believed that all nations existed under God’s covenant, and it was therefore the government’s responsibility to ensure that his wishes were followed.[5] As a result, scripture would serve as the ultimate source of moral and spiritual guidelines for all citizens in Massachusetts Bay Colony, while laws set forward by the colonial government were shaped to reinforce the scriptural teachings. In theory, this system would ensure the Puritan goals of establishing the godly society they desired. To meet this goal, the need for education quickly became apparent. Without basic instruction in reading the English language, many would be unable comprehend the very scripture and laws that were intended to not only allow them to lead a godly life on Earth, but to also aid in achieving God’s favor to secure their afterlife in Heaven. Similarly, the perceived ever-present threat of ‘that old deluder Satan’ meant that those without an education were less well-informed and thus more likely to be tricked into sinning by the Devil.

The colonial government’s first attempt at ensuring compulsory public education was the passage of the Massachusetts School Law of 1642, which called for all citizens to “indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes [sic].”[6] It also played a role in ensuring the education of citizens in a trade by requiring “parents and masters do breed & bring up their children & apprentices in some honest lawful calling, labour or employment, either in husbandry, or some other trade profitable for themselves, and the Common-wealth.”[7] Community selectmen would enforce the measures by making routine visits to ensure the law was being followed. Should any violations be found, the violators were subject to a fine for minor infractions, or if deemed necessary, the complete removal of their children or apprentices to another master to ensure their proper instruction.[8]

Though the first law was an important step, it was not widely enforced, leading to the passage of a second and perhaps more well-known school law: the Massachusetts General School Law of 1647. Dubbed “The Old Deluder Satan Law” as a result of its first line detailing Satan’s threat to those who lacked an education, the law would ensure that any community with fifty or more households would “forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children.”[9] Any town exceeding one hundred households would be required to establish a grammar school “to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university.”[10] With the passage of this law, and the subsequent Massachusetts School Law of 1648, the compulsory education of the colony’s youth would be more stringently enforced. By mandating education as a means to ensure that colonial citizens were able to form their own relationship with scripture, the Puritan community broke with several of the religious denominations that they felt did not correctly follow God’s word.[11]

Before the school laws, Boston had actually founded the first public school in North America, Boston Latin School, in 1635. However, it was not widely accessible to the many children who lived outside of the town, not to mention the fact that it existed mostly as a preparatory school to further boys’ chances of attending Harvard College. With the Massachusetts School Laws, education became more widely available both geographically and socially. Most communities established a new school and both girls and boys from lower classes gained access to schooling and were expected to take advantage of it. Children typically spent six days per week in school, with the exception of summers, for up to seven years.[12]

The implementation of school laws also set a standard for governments to be responsible for the education of all children within its boundaries, a task that had previously been left to the church or private agencies.[13] The benefits of government-mandated public schooling were soon recognized by neighboring colonies, such as Plymouth and New Haven, which adopted similar legislation to Massachusetts Bay.[14] In many ways, the passage of the School Laws, though different in their reasoning, was the first step in the establishment of universal, mandatory basic schooling that is seen throughout the United States today. Though no longer required solely as a means to understand an individual’s relationship with God, the influence of the Massachusetts School Laws can still be seen in the work of public schools to create knowledgeable citizens and rid the world of “that old deluder Satan’s” favorite vulnerability: ignorance.


[1] Teaford, John. “The Transformation of Massachusetts Education, 1670-1780.” History of Education, 1970.

[2] Richter, Daniel. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[3] Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. New York, NY: Pearson Press, 2006.

[4] Richter, Before the Revolution.

[5] Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma.

[6] Massachusetts School Law of 1642, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1642.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bremner, Robert. Children and Youth in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

[9] Massachusetts School Law of 1647, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1647.

[10] Massachusetts School Law of 1647, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1647.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “How The Old Deluder Satan Act Made Sure Puritan Children Got Educated.” New England Historical Society. September 05, 2018.

[13] Jernegan, Marcus W. “Compulsory Education in the American Colonies: I. New England.” The School Review. 1918.

[14] “How The Old Deluder Satan Act Made Sure Puritan Children Got Educated.” New England Historical Society.

Ruaidhrí Crofton is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House