Four hundred years ago in early October 1620, the Mayflower was about half-way on its journey across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England. Its passengers, the Pilgrims, hoped they would step off in Virginia. Instead, storms at sea blew the ship off course. After sixty-six days, it landed near what is now Provincetown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It’s part of a story every American should know but there’s one largely forgotten aspect of it that deserves to be dusted off.
Like the Puritans of the later Massachusetts Bay colony, the Pilgrims who eventually established the colony of Plymouth fled England because of religious persecution by the Anglican (Church of England) establishment. Unlike the Puritans, however, the Pilgrims were Separatists who gave up on trying to reform the Church of England from within.
Recently I watched an episode of Dan Snow’s History Hit television program. More than anything else in the show, the comments of Anna Scott caught my attention.
Scott, an officer of the Mayflower 400 commemoration group in Britain, addressed the many forms of religious persecution that prompted the Pilgrims to set sail for freedom in America. She zeroed in on one that struck me as eerily similar to how public education is delivered today:
Back then, everybody had to go to church. It was the law. And you had to go to your local church. You weren’t allowed to go to a different church. You weren’t allowed to go to a different church perhaps in a different village. That was called “gadding about.”
You could be fined for not going to church, going to the wrong church, or preaching in a church if you didn’t have permission to do that. You had to have the right kind of training and education to be able to speak to people about God.
Courageous English people who didn’t like being indoctrinated by the official church began holding their own services secretly in their own homes. I would call that “home churching.”
In America today, government schooling works much like the state religion did in early seventeenth century England. Children are assigned to government schools according to where they live. If their parents want a better education for them elsewhere, they usually are penalised by paying twice—once in taxes for the school they’re trying to escape, and then again in tuition for the better private or even public school they prefer.
Like the state-allied churches of old England, today’s government schools demand your money even if they can’t get your kids. In fact, they make you pay not just during the time your kids are in school; you’re required to cough up the money for your entire lifetime, even if you never put a single child into a government school for a single day. That’s very expensive education. At the same time, no amount of failure in government schooling, especially in our inner cities, prevents the government from insisting that it certify who can teach.
Fortunately, the school choice and home school movements that began to grow in the 1980s have scored some successes. In many parts of America, it’s easier these days than it was forty years ago to opt for a better public school outside your district boundaries, or send your children to a charter school, or school them at home with minimal interference from the authorities. But every inch of that progress was fought hard for, and entrenched interests like school bureaucrats and teacher unions are hell-bent to undo it.
Back in 1600, English church bureaucrats and bishops took the same view of so-called “dissenters.” Hellfire and brimstone fell upon anyone who suggested, “Hey, let’s just give people their money back and let them choose where they want to go to church.”
Mandatory church attendance in England dates back to the Act of Uniformity, passed by Parliament in 1559 under the reign of Elizabeth I. If you didn’t go to church once a week, you could be fined twelve pence. That’s roughly equivalent to fifteen US dollars today. For England’s poor, nonconformity carried a steep price. If you tried to separate entirely from the Church of England monopoly, you might even be expelled or executed.
After Oliver Cromwell’s republican Commonwealth of England beheaded Charles I in 1649, Parliament passed the “Act for the Repeal of Several Clauses in Statutes Imposing Penalties for Not Coming to Church.” But that was nullified when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Not until the dawn of the nineteenth century did church attendance become a matter of free choice. And nobody in his right mind today would even think of restoring the system of 1600.
I suspect that eventually, Americans will come to see education in similar fashion. They will insist on free choice and competing options, perhaps both public and private. And when someone speaks up to say, “Can you believe we used to do education like James I of England did religion?” Americans will shake their heads in sadness and astonishment.