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Religion; Education; Medicine

In tracing the growth of the several colonies we have had frequent occasion to notice the religious life of the people, but a few additional words are necessary here. In the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland the Church of England was recognized by law as the State Church; and in Maryland, which had passed through Catholic and Puritan hands, this church was supported by general taxation.1 Many of the clergy were men of doubtful morals, men who were foremost at the horse races, and who were seldom outdone in drinking, betting, and gambling. The Established Church had little footing in the North, outside of New York, where it was rapidly gaining. In Pennsylvania and Rhode Island alone were all religions free.

In New England, except Rhode Island, the Puritan or Congregational Church was practically the State Church. In no other part of America had religion taken such a powerful hold on the people as here. The minister was held in the highest esteem and reverence by the people, who considered it a privilege to sit on the hard seats and listen to his three-hour sermon as he dilated on the special providences of God, on some metaphysical abstraction, or on the tortures of the lost soul. The New England ministers were men of profound learning. Many of them could read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, the New in the original Greek, and expound them in classic Latin. We may grow weary of the pedantry, the metaphysics, and the narrowness of the Puritan ministers, but it cannot be denied that they were sincere, honest men. The greatest of the New England ministers was Jonathan Edwards, whose work on the "Freedom of the Will" is one of the very few colonial productions that still live in American literature.

Next to religion the Puritans valued education, and they had scarcely become established in their new home when they turned their attention to the education of their children. In 1636 it was voted to found a college at Newtown, now Cambridge, three miles west of Boston. Two years later, John Harvard, a young clergyman, gave the institution a portion of his estate, amounting to about $4000, -- a large sum in those days, -- and it was called after his name. In 1647 the General Court of Massachusetts ordered that a common school be established in every township of fifty families, and a grammar school in each of the larger towns. From this crude beginning has developed the public school systems of the United States. The school term in New England was seldom more than four months in the year; the teacher was often a youthful divinity student, and sometimes the minister of the parish, or even the innkeeper. The pupils pondered for long, weary hours over the "New England Primer," the catechism, and various cumbrous text-books of the time.

In New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania commendable effort was made to educate the young, but the schools fell below those of New England, and seldom at this period was a school to be found outside the towns and viflages. In the South the education of the masses was almost wholly neglected, except for some feeble efforts in Maryland and Virginia. The rich employed private tutors, the minister, or sometimes an indented servant, while a few of the most opulent sent their sons to England or the North to be educated. There was no public school system in Virginia before the Revolution,2 yet this colony could boast the second college in America in point of the time of its founding. The efforts to educate the young in many of the colonies was most praiseworthy, but outside of New England and New York there was no public school system till after the Revolution, all efforts to educate the young in other colonies being private.

The practice of medicine in the colonies was in a cruder state even than were the educational facilities. The village doctor was indeed an important personage, quite equal to the schoolmaster or the innkeeper, and not much inferior to the minister. He was at home in every family, and was highly respected by all classes. He was present at every birth and every funeral; he sat with the minister at the bed of death, and put his name with that of the lawyer to every will.3 His medical education was usually meager, and often consisted only of a short apprenticeship with some noted physician. No medical college existed in the colonies before the Revolution. The practice of bloodletting for almost any disease was universal; and if the physician was not at hand, this was done by the barber, the clergyman, or any medical amateur.4 The drugs used were few, and their rightful use was little known. St. John's-wort was taken as a cure for many ills, for madness, and to drive away devils. A popular medicine was composed of toads burned to a crisp and powdered, then taken in small doses for diseases of the blood.5 There was a great deal of mystery in connection with the practice of medicine. In addition to the regular physicians there were many quacks who hawked their Indian medicines and special cures about the country; but these were not peculiar to colonial times -- we have them still.


1This had been done at times in Virginia and the Carolinas. [return]

2The seven colleges founded before the Revolution were: Harvard, l636, William and Mary, 1693; Yale, 1701; Princeton, 1743; University of Pennsylvania, 1749; King's (Columbia), 1754; and Brown University, 1764. 3McMaster, Vol. I, p.29. [return]

4Eggleston's "Transit of Civilization," p. 53 [return]

5Ibid., p. 58. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter X p. 206-208. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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