Bible Education and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787

September 7, 2018

Students in Riley Township, Ohio, 1950 (Toledo Blade).  The Northwest Ordinance promoted the building of schools in the northwestern territories annexed by the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

Founding-era Americans of the 1700s, like the early Puritans, strongly encouraged education and the teaching of the Bible in schools.  Early Americans believed education–Bible education, in particular–was essential in a free republic such as the United States.  Teaching the Bible was, they thought, an effective means to encourage religion and morality—and, ultimately, self-government—among the people.  In fact, schools had originally been formed by the Puritans in the 1600s to teach children to read and learn the Bible.  Later, in the new nation, the Founders continued to encourage the teaching of religion and morality in schools through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Many founding-era Americans articulated their support for education and the teaching of religion and morality in schools.  Founder and President John Adams, for example, wrote of the need for education in a free society:  “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people….”  Founder Benjamin Rush, a proponent of public education, supported the teaching of the Bible in schools for its moral importance.  He asserted that Bible education among youth is “the best means of awakening moral sensibility in their minds” and that all youth should be “carefully instructed in the principles and obligations of the Christian religion” as “the most essential part of education.”  Rush affirmed the civic and social benefits of teaching morality and religion, namely Christianity, in schools.  He considers, …

Bible education was important, early Americans thought, to prepare citizens for their civic responsibilities and self-governance, to perpetuate the American republic.  Knowledge and practice of the moral principles of the Bible prepared citizens to govern themselves and their country wisely and virtuously.  Moreover, it was important that citizens understood that the rights, freedoms, and laws of the new republic were founded on God-given unalienable rights, the Law of Nature, and a Bible-based philosophy and worldview.  As such, the Founders intended for education, religion, and morality to work together among the people to guarantee good government and liberty.  Without such virtue and knowledge among the people, a free nation, they believed, could not successfully endure.  They therefore saw the Bible as essential to education and lamented what would happen if it was neglected.

Cutler Hall at Ohio University in Athens, drawing by Henry Howe, 1846.  The founding of the university was promoted by the Northwest Ordinance.

During the ratification of the U. S. Constitution, many founding-era Americans wanted the new government to encourage morals and values and thus self-governance.  One Massachusetts delegate Charles Turner urged Congress to adopt a bill to promote Bible and moral education.  He stressed the importance of such education so that people could develop their natural, moral conscience or the “law unto themselves” of Romans 2:14-15: … 

After the Revolutionary War, when the United States acquired new western territory, the Confederation Congress was concerned about immorality and corruption in the new territories and stressed the importance of teaching the Bible, morality, and religion in these regions.  They thus enacted a law that encouraged education for the teaching of religion and morality in schools, known as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.  This ordinance required all new states to build schools.  Article III of the ordinance stated:

Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

The Confederation Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance during the same period that the U. S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and First Amendment were drafted and adopted.  (The ordinance was reapproved in 1789 by the first U. S. Congress under President George Washington.)  Since Congress adopted both this ordinance and the First Amendment, they did not view government encouragement of moral education as a violation of the First Amendment’s No Establishment Clause.  The No Establishment Clause permitted the national government’s encouragement of the teaching of religion and morality in schools.  Indeed, early Americans naturally identified education with the teaching of the Bible and morals, observes A. James Reichley in his Religion in American Public Life, “almost as a matter of course.”

Founding-era Americans enacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in the new nation of the United States because they highly valued education and the teaching of morality and the Bible in schools to young people.  For they knew that such education was important for the development of virtuous citizens who could exercise self-governance in their lives and who could sustain a free, just society.  They also knew that virtue is best instilled through religion.  Clearly, early Americans strongly supported the presence and principles of virtuous religion and morality in all aspects of American life and society.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.


Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Svoboda, Sandra.  “State’s Commitment to Education Dates to 1785 Land Ordinance.”  Toledo, OH:  The Toledo Blade, 2003.

Related blogs/videos:
1.  Why and how did schools begin in the United States?
2.  How the Great Awakening Effected Church and Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, & the Gospel
3.  The Coming Crisis of Citizenship:  Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions
4.  Civic Knowledge:  Americans’ Increasing Ignorance of American History  & Government Can No Longer Be Ignored
5.  The Need and Legal Right to Teach Religious History in Public Schools
6.  American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl (AHWCCB)

Poster:  Declaration of Independence


Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 8, Part 3, Activity 5:  Encouraging Moral and Religious Education in America Today, p. 309, 390-391.  MS-HS.

Encouraging Moral and Religious Education in America Today

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the American Founders’ belief in and emphasis on the need for a moral, virtuous citizenry in order for the nation’s self-governing republic to succeed.  Students examine the Founders’ aims and means to encourage morality and virtue among citizens including moral education, Bible literacy, churches, and religion in society, and the free exercise of religion.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 8 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections Introduction to 8.2, 8.5, 8.8-8.10, 8.12-8.13, 8.17-8.20, & pp. 288-296.
2)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Think Aloud:
Have students read passages related to the central ideas of this part of the unit.  Use a think-aloud strategy to encourage students to address questions related to the issue of moral education in America.  Have students note their responses and questions as they share ideas.  Teachers may use the think-aloud rubric listed in the online resources section at to assess student understanding as they think aloud and respond to their own and others’ questions about the ideas presented.  See primary source quotes from chapter.  See also “Miracle of America Primary and Secondary Source Quotes” handout in “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, pp. 390-391.

1.  What does the Northwest Ordinance say about moral and religious education?  What role does the government have, if any, on this issue?
2.  Does government (national, state, and/or local) today play a role in encouraging (not in  enforcing or regulating) moral and religious education in society?  Do you think it should/should not perform this role?  What did the American Founders and early Americans think?
3.  Do you think moral, religious, and/or Bible-based education is necessary today?  Why or why not?  Can our nation be strong without virtuous citizens?  Why or why not?  What did the American Founders and early Americans think?


To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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