Public schooling and the early church

The question whether a Christian could become a teacher is so characteristic of the general difficulty that it deserves fuller examination. The emphatic negative of Tertullian and his school did not, we imagine, commend itself to many, though inscriptions, it is true, give us the names of but few Christian schoolmasters. Inasmuch as Tertullian did not counsel the withdrawal of Christian children from the schools, “studying literature is allowable, but not teaching,” his advice would simply have led to the depriving the little ones of all teachers whose example and silent influence might have done something to counteract the secular and pagan education. The Canons of Hippolytus, of the same age probably as Tertullian, are more practical in allowing the convert to continue to act as schoolmaster, on condition of reciting a sentence of his creed before the lessons, ‘Non est deus nisi Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus.’

They urge, also, that the Christian teacher should use his influence, if possible, to win over some of his heathen pupils to the faith in Christ. No doubt the difficulties confronting a Christian grammarian were considerable. In a chapter of his Confessions Augustine declaims against the hellish torrent of use and custom which sweeps away the sons of Eve into that vast and stormy sea which scarcely they who have embarked upon the tree (i.e. the cross) can pass in safety.’ He is speaking of the school lessons, the shower of gold in the lap of Danae, and the like, ‘the wine of error held to our lips by drunken teachers!’

Nor were the heathen text-books and the constant declamations on mythological topics the sole trouble. Holidays and payment were alike associated with heathen rites and deities. The first fee was the due of Minerva; at the feast of Flora the schoolroom must be adorned with garlands. The necessary aloofness of the Christian teacher from most of his boys both in the social and religious life would not make matters easier. Of all this we have an illustration, extreme, perhaps, and yet to some extent characteristic, in the case of the martyred schoolmaster Cassian of Imola (Forum Cornelii). This man, who was, it must be confessed, somewhat of a martinet, as in fact were most schoolmasters in those days, was arrested in the midst of his work. On refusing to sacrifice, he was handed over to his lads. They bound his hands and stabbed him to death with their sharp pens (acutis stylus).

That the Church made no attempt to provide schools of its own for children will not excite surprise. This would have led to the very identification which the more part were anxious to avoid. The school system of the Empire was too well established and endowed for the attempt to succeed, unless supported by larger resources than the Church could command.

–From Persecution in the Early Church by Herbert B. Workman, 172-175.

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