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[Believers] truly worship God by the righteousness they maintain within their society.—John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 12:7 (1558)

Since for the building up of the churches, the republic, and the welfare of the country it is especially important that the youth from childhood on be well instructed in the knowledge and fear of God, languages, and liberal arts.it is above all necessary that for our time good attention and oversight be given to [the schools, so that they] may be reformed together with the reformation of the churches in the clarity of the Gospel and may become fitting in spirit.—From the Church Order written by the National Synod of ‘s-Gravenhage, 1586

All consistories shall see to it that there are good schoolmasters who not only teach the children reading, writing, languages, and liberal arts, but also train them in godliness and in the catechism.—From the Church Order written by the Synod of ‘s-Gravenhage, 1586, and adapted verbatim by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-19 as article 21 of the Church Order

I Will Maintain.—Motto of the House of Orange-Nassau, the Royal Family of the Netherlands, leaders of the Dutch War of Independence, 1568-1648


John Calvin’s goal during his Genevan pastorate was to establish and maintain a holy church within a Christian state, a state in which pious citizens, living decently and in good order, would be led by godly rulers whose duties included the promotion and protection of the in­stituted church. Calvin insisted that the building of a faithful pew, pulpit, and government demanded educa­tion on every level.

With one eye on Geneva as the model for a Christian society, Dutch delegates to the Synod of Dordt swore faithfulness to the Belgic Confession, including Article 36 on the relationship between church and state. Based on the understanding of this article shared by the Re­formed churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the orthodox confessed that the responsibility for Christian education in schools belonged neither to the church nor to the home, but to the state.

The Dordt delegates were never as blunt as Luther, who once declared that parents lacked the heart to start schools, the money to maintain them, and the brains to run them. But Synod did not seek parochial or parental schools. Roman Catholics desired parochial schools, and Arminians might push for parental schools. But at the time of Dordt, the Reformed believed that Chris­tian education by means of a school was the duty of the state, to be administered through the church.

Local civil government exercised financial control and regulative oversight of the schools. Throughout Dordt’s discussion of education, whether it was cate­chism instruction in the school, or the teaching of read­ing, writing, languages, and the liberal arts; whether it was school staffing, teacher salaries, or the Formula of Subscription that teachers should sign, the delegates re­peatedly acknowledged that all their decisions were sub­ject to the will of the state, and could only be enacted through the good graces of the high and mighty rulers to whom all of Synod’s work was addressed. As we learn about Dordt’s deliberations regarding the schools, we must remember that the teacher was a salaried civil-servant working in a “public school with the Bible.” And since the Reformed Church was the privileged church of the Netherlands, the understanding of the Bible as taught by the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Cate­chism (as well as the Canons themselves) would form both the basis and the goal of instruction.

Dordt wanted such an understanding to form the heart of the professing church member. Although at this time parents who wished to have a child baptized in a Reformed church did not have to be confess­ing members, the state-run public schools with a Bible would have as their goals that which the delegates understood to be en­tailed in the baptismal vows, vows that Dordt itself had confirmed for the church. Those goals were Christian education (namely, catechism instruction), profession of faith, a godly life that witnessed to the world of one’s faith, and prayer, which included psalm singing.

Therefore, when the third question of the Baptism Form asked, “Whether you promise and intend to see these children…instructed in the aforesaid doctrine?” that “doctrine” meant the catechism, the psalms for singing, and the many set prayers then included with the Psalter. It bound the parents to nothing but catechism—not to reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, or history. Education in the Netherlands was not com­pulsory and would not be so for another three centu­ries. If a child could learn enough catechism to make profession of faith by memorization, never setting foot in a school, the baptismal vows were still fulfilled. (In one of the great orphanages in the Netherlands, where two teachers taught eight hundred students, one requirement for leaving the orphanage was profession of faith. If anyone left the orphanage without having made profession, the orphanage was fined 20 percent of an average workman’s yearly wage.)

Working within that limitation, Dordt sought a liter­ate church membership, capable not only of memorization but of understanding, of not only head knowledge, but of heart commitment to Reformed doctrine unto a godly witness in all areas of life. This was made clear in Dordt’s treatment of catechism instruction during its seventeenth session in November 1618. Here was set forth the triple obligation of school, church, and home to instruct children in the Heidelberg Catechism. What Dordt said about the attitudes, methods, and goals of catechism instruction applied to all instruction in the schools.

First, instruction had to be age and ability appropri­ate. Dutch primary schooling was generally for children aged six to twelve. Students met usually in a single classroom (often the teacher’s home), separated into groups first by ability, then by age, then in some cases, gender. Dordt took care to outline what should be included in the catechism instruction of each of the three age groups it described, and the schoolmaster had to spend two days a week teaching catechism.

For the youngest group, this meant preparing them for the (Heidelberg) Catechism by memorizing the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. The next age group would be taught one of the shortened forms of the Catechism approved by Synod. For the oldest students there was instruction in the full Catechism, tied in with the Lord’s Day scheduled for the Catechism sermon in church on the next Sabbath. Schoolmasters were to teach with compassion and in accordance with each child’s ability, asking good ques­tions to make sure each child understood what he was learning. And finally, it would be the schoolmaster who led the oldest students to church on the Sabbath. There, they would answer questions about the Lord’s Day un­der consideration. In front of the entire congregation, students would give account of themselves, and, by im­plication, of their teacher. A lax or unorthodox teacher was in for a rough time of it.

To help insure orthodoxy, Article 54 of the original Church Order declared that schoolmasters sign a Formula of Subscription, swearing faithfulness to the Belgic Confession, the Catechism, and the articles of Dordt itself. This signed Formula and attestations from others as to personal godliness were the only teacher qualifi­cations for teaching in a primary school. There was no such thing as teacher education, and the state pay and oversight of teachers were scandalous. As a result of starvation wages, applicants for teaching positions were always few and often appalling, so that in many places the magistrates waived the signing of the Formula and reduced the qualifications for the job to mere sobriety. Despite the repeated pleas of consistories to the magistrates to find qualified men and to pay them a living wage as Dordt had requested, the quality of teaching throughout the United Republic was at best uneven, at worst the stuff of nightmare. Never would the adage, “Pay peanuts, get monkeys,” prove so true.

But the diligent schoolmaster took care that Scrip­ture verses were memorized, pious poems were learned, and that there was much singing at every level. Students memorized prayers and psalms for the beginning, mid­dle, and end of the school day. They practiced for sing­ing at church as well. Psalm singing played a significant role in Christian education from the start of the Refor­mation in the Netherlands. The first Reformed synod, at Wesel in 1568, insisted that all schoolmasters be able to lead school and congregational psalm singing. One modern scholar of Reformed worship has remarked with admiration that generations of Hollanders knew almost the entire Psalter by heart. If Dordt had left no other learning legacy for us than this, the debt we owe would still be inestimable.

The consistory was to be deeply involved in the school. Dordt directed that the local minister with an elder, and, “if needed,” a local magistrate, should visit the schools frequently, ensuring that all was done de­cently and in good order, confirming that lessons unto godly citizenship were given, and questioning students in the Catechism. Dordt urged these visitors to treat all students kindly, but to be especially mindful of the youngest, and encouraged these visitors to hand out lit­tle prizes for those students who gave of themselves a good report. After four hundred years, the tender con­cern that the learned delegates of Dordt sought from all who instructed the children and young people still warms and informs the heart.

Dordt’s austere company of pastors and professors, themselves the product of some of the sternest education available in Europe, knew well how to win the hearts of children. And though corporal punishment in the form of spanking was expected, the Dutch delegates showed in their advice to schoolmasters that they were in full agreement with the Dutch proverb that warned, “A child who fears punishment and pain / Is broken in body and in brain.” Discipline unto godliness was not a course of daily beatings and cruel whippings—the staple of schooling throughout much of Europe at the time—but a patient, loving admonition given with cor­poral encouragement when needed. This idea of school discipline is another debt we owe, in part, to Dordt.

The deacons also had their role in education. Article 41 of Dordt’s Church Order pointedly asked if deacons took care of the poor and the schools. At this time, the state money given to the church was distributed by the diaconate for all the purposes a church might have. It was up to the deacons to make sure that sufficient money was kept aside for school use, including the teacher’s salary. Were they being diligent in this?

Part of this due diligence was augmenting the teach­er’s meager salary by providing church work and pay for the teacher. Thus, many teachers were also song leaders, Scripture readers, church janitors, comforters of the sick, catechism teachers, and as circumstance de­manded, fill-in sermonizers. It is no surprise that thirty years after Dordt, one quarter of Dutch pastors had first been schoolmasters, and this despite Dordt’s explicit discouragement of that career change.

Since this state salary and church pay were so small, parents had to pay out-of-pocket for all subjects taught beyond catechism. There was a fee charged for instruc­tion in each subject: so much for reading, a bit more for writing, still more for arithmetic, and so on. This tui­tion had to be collected personally by the teacher, week­ly or monthly as the market would bear. But parental tuition even when added to other sources of income was insufficient to provide the teacher with a living wage. So local governments, in addition to providing side jobs for the teacher (such as dike monitor, toll-bridge oper­ator, inspector of weights and measures) supplemented teacher pay through a system of use-taxes: so much on tobacco, so much on alcohol, so much on heating and cooking fuel, and so on. Thus, each parent paid taxes for the school in addition to the tuition for each subject taught to his child. But since the needy purchased little, they paid little in taxes, and they could afford the tui­tion fees not at all. What then of the poor?

Enter again the deacons. Dordt demanded that the poor have opportunity to be educated, but at the same time, had forbidden the church itself to add a single penny directly to the teacher’s salary. The solution was this: the diaconate could, on behalf of poor parents, make a payment to the teacher for a child’s education that would not be counted as official salary, but as the poor parents’ tuition and tax costs. Some diaconates believed that education was so important that receiving diaconal aid for any reason meant one was henceforth required to enroll his children in school. No schooling, no aid.

Lastly, there is that article in Dordt’s Church Order regarding the schools with which we are most familiar, Article 21. The original article read:

All consistories shall see to it that there are good schoolmasters who not only teach the children reading, writing, languages, and liberal arts, but also train them in godliness and in the catechism.

This did not mean that the churches were in ulti­mate charge of hiring teachers. It meant consistories had to petition the local government to hire qualified, Reformed people for the job. If these civic bodies were composed of godly men, things might go well. But sometimes these local boards refused to comply with the requests of consistories. Some saw such petitions as efforts to seize from the state its rightful control. Oth­ers, unfriendly toward the Calvinism of Dordt, put in place men of their own beliefs. Only seven years after the Synod, an Arminian became headmaster of the most prestigious preparatory school in Amsterdam.

Such preparatory schools readied students for the university training needed to be government administrators, lawyers, professors, and ministers. Article 21 addressed these schools explicitly, although we modern readers might miss the reference. The original Article 21 covered two side-by-side school systems. The first system was called the primary school, of which we have already spoken. These were the schools for most of the population and were the schools meant by the words “teach the children reading, writing.”

The other schools comprised what we would call the “college-prep” system and were covered by the words, “languages and the liberal arts.” The languages meant were Latin and Greek, and the liberal arts meant clear writing, logical thinking, and convincing argumenta­tion. A young man might study in such a school from the ages of eight through eighteen after which he was eligible for university studies. Such learning was reserved only for those thought to be of university and ministerial material. Consistories and classes were told to seek out talented youth from all economic classes and to help pay for this education. The directives of Dordt helped promote a steady growth in both primary and preparatory schools, but especially in the growth of the prep schools. Nevertheless, one generation after Dordt, only about 1,500 young men nationwide were enrolled in such schools. Leadership and ministerial candidates would always be few.

All told, Dordt had a lasting effect on education in the Netherlands and wherever the Dutch settled throughout the world. At the time of the Synod, the seven provinces of the United Republic boasted the most print-centered culture in Europe. Dordt’s decisions regarding educa­tion reinforced that tradition of literacy. But Dordt’s great achievement was anchoring Christian education to the doctrine of infant baptism, and thus, to the cove­nant. The next four centuries would see great upheav­als of thought and deed in the world, great and overrid­ing providences that brought changes in the relationship of church and state as well as in the responsibilities of church, home, and school regarding Christian educa­tion. These changes included developments in the doc­trine of the covenant, as well as in what constituted a truly Reformed, Christian education. Finally, despite persecution from without and indifference from with­in, a portion of the Reformed community would come to confess that establishing and maintaining good, Re- formed-Christian schools was the responsibility of the believing parents.

The struggle for Reformed educational principles and practices and the success of Christian education as we cherish it today form a story that belongs to the years after Dordt. It is the story of women and men working under different providences, in times and places and ways that the fathers of Dordt could not have imagined. But Dordt laid the foundation and set the mark for all Reformed education that would follow. Dordt hung the plumb line that all those who name themselves Reformed must meet—the simple rule of “baptize and teach.” Truly, the lines have fallen unto us in pleas­ant places. Praise God, our lines still run straight. Pray God, we will maintain.


Note: Due to space limitations, the bibliography for this article could not be included. If you desire a copy, please contact Mr. G. VanDerSchaaf.