Webster was a teacher, founder of several schools, education reformer, political activist, lawyer, judge, founder of two newspapers and a magazine, and author of more than 30 books. His Sketches of American Policy was one of the major influences in the call for the Constitutional Convention that produced the U.S. Constitution. He was a member of the Massachusetts General Assembly and legislature for 12 terms and helped found Amherst College. He was responsible for the copyright and patent protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. He founded an antislavery group called the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom. His compassionate interest in providing a “safety-net” for workers led to the establishment of one of the first workmen’s compensation insurance programs.
Noah Webster’s own influence on America is incalculable. For more than 100 years, his Bible-packed books taught Americans to read, spell, pronounce, and define words. His philosophy was prominent in American education until far into the 19th century. His writings had a significant impact on the formation of the U.S. Constitution and continue to have an influence in the homeschooling movement.
Noah’s great-great-great grandfather, John Webster, came to America from England in 1636 and was one of the founding settlers of the Colony of Connecticut under the leadership of Thomas Hooker. Connecticut’s 1639 constitution, known as the Fundamental Orders, was the first complete written constitution in known history. New England’s first democratic republic, Connecticut was a system of self-government based on biblical principles. It featured elections by secret ballot, representative government, term limits, consent of the governed, rule of law, trial by jury, prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, limited powers of government, and many other things that became part of the U.S. Constitution 150 years later. John Webster was one of the early governors of the colony (Mark Baker, Connecticut Families of the Revolution).
Noah’s parents, humble farmers, were pious Congregationalists. His father was a deacon. They longed to see their children know Christ in salvation. In December 1792, when Noah was 24, his father wrote as follows:
“I wish to have you serve your generation and do good in the world and be useful and may so behave as to gain the esteem of all virtuous people that are acquainted with you and gain a comfortable subsistence, BUT ESPECIALLY that you may so live as to obtain the favor of almighty God and his grace in this world and a saving interest in the merits of Jesus Christ, without which no man can be happy... Your Affectionate Parents.”
Noah Webster came to years during the American Revolution. He was a student at Yale College in 1775 when George Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. When Washington and Major General Charles Lee came through New Haven, Connecticut, on April 28, the Yale student militia put on a marching display. The next morning, the militia accompanied the regular troops out of the town with Webster at their head piping “Yankee Doodle” on his flute.
Five months later, Yale graduate Nathan Hale (class of 1773) was executed by the British as a spy, and before dying he uttered the memorable words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
The First Great Awakening was in progress when Webster was at Yale, but the effects of the revival were quenched by its President, Thomas Clap. “He called the Great Awakening Satan’s effort to undermine authority and discipline. ... he set out to crush student dissent. He expelled New Light students, banned all New Light preaching on campus, and imposed a cruel and complex system of regulations, with stiff fines for violators” (Harlow Unger, Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot).
Webster later admitted that at Yale he “fell into vicious company” and “contracted a habit of using profane language.” In the years afterward, he adopted Enlightenment “Common Sense” principles that exalted human reason as the highest authority. He used the Bible, cited it in his writings, expressed respect toward the God of the Bible, and continued to attend church and lead the choir, but he did not believe the Bible’s account of the creation and fall of man. He was strongly influenced by rationalistic philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He rejected the dictum “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and “embraced the Lockean concept of tabula rasa--an infant is born innocent, free of sin, and with a ‘clean slate’ on which to inscribe knowledge” (Unger, Noah Webster).
In those days, Webster even called for the Bible not to be the main textbook of the American educational system. “In place of the Bible, Webster envisioned new types of reading materials and literature prepared especially for American children” (Unger).
At age 31, Noah married Rebecca Greenleaf of Boston, eight years his junior, after a two-year courtship. By all accounts, they had a loving relationship. He called her Becca throughout their 54 years of marriage, and they had eight surviving children (six girls and two boys, one son dying in infancy) and many grandchildren. When Noah’s children were adults, he carried on extensive correspondence with them.
Webster had a major role in the formation of the American union with a strong federal government and the creation of the U.S. Constitution. In 1785, he published a series of essays that were subsequently combined as Sketches of American Policy. These were probably “the first distinct proposal, made through the medium of the press, for a new constitution of the United States.”
“Virtually every educated man in America who participated in the affairs of government read Webster’s Sketches, and the framers of the Constitution incorporated almost all its principles in the framework they created for the new American government. Although ignored by most historians, Webster’s Sketches preceded by two and a half years the publication of the Federalist essays, which appeared in 1787-88, and both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison borrowed almost all of Webster’s concepts for their essays” (Harlow Unger, Noah Webster).
The two major points that were rejected from Webster’s principles were compulsory education and the abolition of slavery. These had been scrapped “as part of a compromise to win the support of Southern states for ratification.”
Webster built the foundation of governmental power on the will of the people. “... all power is vested in the people. That this is their natural and unalienable right, is a position that will not be disputed.”
But by the spring of 1787, when the Constitutional committee began meeting in Philadelphia, Webster had changed his opinion about the “power of the people” to maintain a good government. He saw the need to limit their power and even expressed his opinion that a king was better than an unruly democracy. He warned about “the ignorance and passions of the multitude.”
Fifty years later, in 1837, when the country was split into sharp, hateful political divisions, the economy had collapsed because of greed and speculation, and there were riots in the streets, Webster issued an essay that warned of “people’s power” in even stronger terms. It was published under the pseudonym “Sidney.”
“Now I appeal to history for the fact that there has never yet been a democratic government, that is, a government in which the whole populace have exercised the whole power of making laws and of choosing executive officers, which has been a free government. On the other hand, the annals of history show beyond contradiction, that such governments have ever been furious and implacable despotisms.
“Our writers have uniformly charged the tyranny of civil government to Kings, and true it is that Kings have often been tyrants. But it seems never to have occurred to such writers that the people, so called, are just as bad as Kings. By nature, all men have the same passions as Kings--they are all selfish--all ambitious--all, from the king or President down to the corporal of a militia company, aspiring to power, and striving for superiority over their fellow men. Give the people the power, and they are even more tyrannical; as they are less restrained by sense of propriety or by principles of honor; more under the control of violent passions, exasperated by envy and hatred of the rich; stimulated to action by numbers; and subject to no responsibility. ...
“These outrages were foreseen and distinctly foretold by our ablest statesmen forty and fifty years ago. The whole sin of the old Washington federalists [Webster is writing sarcastically here] consisted in attempting to incorporate our government, or establish by law, some power which should effectively control or prevent such popular violence. It was perfectly well foreseen that, without some provision of this kind, the people would, whenever they please, break over the constitution and laws, and trample them under their feet. In what has taken place, nothing strange or unexpected by sound statesmen has taken place. Such scenes have characterized democratic governments in every country where they have existed. They proceed from the universal depravity of man, and they will be repeated whenever occasions of excitement occur” (“A Voice of Wisdom,” New York Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 29, 1837).
Webster’s understanding of the corruption of human nature and the rejection of his former belief that human nature is a blank slate, came through a spiritual conversion he experienced in early 1808 during the Second Great Awakening.
It occurred at an evangelistic meeting and dramatically changed his life and thinking. He described it as follows in a letter on December 20, 1808: “About a year ago, an unusual revival of religion took place in New Haven ... and I was led by a spontaneous impulse of repentance, prayer, and entire submission of myself to my Maker and Redeemer. In the month of April last, I made a profession of faith.”
His testimony of salvation was described further by his son-in-law, Chauncey Goodrich, in the introduction to the 1849 edition of his dictionary:
“He felt that salvation must be wholly of grace. He felt constrained, as he afterward told a friend, to cast himself down before God, confess his sins, implore pardon through the merits of the Redeemer, and there to make his vows of entire obedience to the commands and devotion to the service of his Maker. With his characteristic promptitude, he instantly made known to his family the feelings which he entertained.”
Noah Webster became a thorough-going Bible believer, including the Bible’s teaching on creation, the fall, the global Flood, the Tower of Babel, and redemption through the blood of Christ.
The rest of his life was motivated by a passion for Bible-based education in America. He was convinced that a free republic could only exist if the citizens were righteous and wise, and he believed that only the Bible has the power to produce such citizens.
Webster was particularly interested in the type of education that would produce godly American citizens. He has been called “the Schoolmaster of the Republic.”
He published a speller in 1783 (Grammatical Institute of the English Language), which was popularly known as the “Blue-Back Speller” and “Old Blue Back” from the color of its covers. It was extremely influential, doing much to standardize spelling and pronunciation in the new nation’s first century. An estimated 70 to 100 million copies were sold, and it continued to be popular until the end of the 19th century. Benjamin Franklin used Webster’s speller to teach his granddaughter to read.
“His speller alone not only changed the course of education in the United States, it eventually changed the English language as no other book had or ever would. It made every previous speller obsolete and gained a virtual monopoly in American classrooms for more than a century. No book other than the Bible would ever reach as many Americans. It created a new language for a new nation and ensured that all Americans would speak alike” (Unger, Noah Webster).
The speller was combined with a grammar and a reader. Webster’s reader included a call for the abolition of slavery by Thomas Day, who argued that this was in accordance with the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Day warned Americans that consistency required that they either acknowledge the rights of the Negroes or surrender their own.
In 1807, Webster began work on a definitive American dictionary that would standardize American English and help unify the American nation. The American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828, when Webster was 70, and it defined about 70,000 words (12,000 of which had never before appeared in a dictionary). The American Dictionary is packed with about 6,000 quotations from the Bible, and this is one of the many ways that the American people of that time were steeped in Scripture.
It was the product of prodigious labor. Webster worked for 20 years, entirely alone, searching out definitions and etymological origins. At the beginning of the project, he brushed up on his Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, and German, then he added about 15 more languages to his linguistic repertoire (including Chaldea, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Celtic, Swedish, Danish, and Prussian). He traveled to England and France in search of the meaning and etymology of words.
The Webster dictionary is a product of spiritual revival. The Second Great Awakening was at its zenith when Webster was preparing his dictionary. It has been observed that the Webster is “the only [secular] dictionary in the world to ‘draw water out of the wells of salvation’--to utilize God’s written word as a key to the meaning of words.”
Consider Webster's definition of conversion:
“In a theological or moral sense, a change of heart, or dispositions, in which the enmity of the heart to God and his law and the obstinacy of the will are subdued, and are succeeded by supreme love to God and his moral government, and a reformation of life. Conversion is used in Scripture in a way similar to repentance.”
A great number of Independent Baptists would do well to learn Webster’s scriptural definition of conversion and repentance and measure their multitude of empty professions by it.
Consider Webster’s definition of faith:
“Evangelical, justifying, or saving faith, is the assent of the mind to the truth of divine revelation, on the authority of God’s testimony, accompanied with a cordial assent of the will or approbation of the heart; an entire confidence or trust in God’s character and declarations, and in the character and doctrines of Christ, with an unreserved surrender of the will to his guidance, and dependence on his merits for salvation. In other words, that firm belief of God’s testimony, and of the truth of the gospel, which influences the will, and leads to an entire reliance on Christ for salvation.”
Webster concluded his definition of faith by quoting directly from the Bible (Romans 5:1; 10:10; and Hebrews 11:6).
Webster even dedicated his dictionary to God, glorifying God for enabling him to accomplish the work: “to that great and benevolent Being, who, during the preparation of this work, has ... given me strength and resolution to bring the work to a close.”
The 1828 Webster is an education in sound definitions of Bible words and biblical theology and is still a very helpful Bible study tool. It deals with every aspect of social life and morality. It is still in print, and is also available in the Swordsearcher computer program.
In 1847, George and Charles Merriam purchased the rights to Webster’s dictionary from the lexicographer’s estate. Ten years later, they hired a German scholar, D.A.F. Mahn, to edit Webster’s definitions and enlarge the work. The result was the 1859 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language. The number of words doubled to 140,000, but Webster’s religious definitions and biblical quotations were largely removed. In 1864, Noah Porter was hired by the Merriams to further enlarge and secularize the dictionary, which was published as the Webster’s International Dictionary in 1890. These subsequent editions, such as the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, are entirely secular.
“Forgotten is the evangelical and moral basis of the original edition; forgotten also are the hopes of the man who sought to establish the American nation on a firm Christian foundation for government, education, and morality” (K. Alan Snyder, Defining Noah Webster, p. 266)
Webster had a major role in founding Amherst College in 1820. One objective was to counter the Unitarian and humanistic influence of Harvard and Cambridge. At the cornerstone laying ceremony on August 9, 1820, Webster said,
“[This institution] is to second the efforts of the apostles themselves, in extending and establishing the Redeemer’s empire--the empire of truth. It is to aid in the important works of raising the human race from ignorance and debasement; to enlighten their minds; to exalt their character; and to teach them the way to happiness and glory” (K. Alan Snyder, Defining Noah Webster, p. 219).
Webster loved and honored the Bible as God’s Word.
“The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is good and the best corrector of all that is evil in human society; the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men” (Preface, Webster’s Bible).
“There is not any action that a man ought to do or forbear, but the Scripture will give him a clear precept or prohibition for it. Compared with the knowledge which the Scriptures contain, every other subject of human inquiry is vanity and emptiness” (“Scripture,” American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828).
“The first questions a rational being should ask himself, are, Who made me? Why was I made? What is my duty? ... Revelation alone furnishes satisfactory information on these subjects. Let it then be the first study that occupies your mind, to learn from the scriptures the character and will of your maker; the end or purpose for which he gave you being and intellectual powers, and the duties he requires you to perform. In all that regards faith and practice, the scriptures furnish the principles, precepts and rules, by which you are to be guided” (Letters to a Young Gentleman Commencing His Education, 1823).
“The Bible is the Chief moral cause of all that is good, and the best corrector of all that is evil, in human society; the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men, and the only book that can serve as an infallible guide to future felicity. ... It is extremely important to our nation, in a political as well as religious view, that all possible authority and influence should be given to the scriptures, for these furnish the best principles of civil liberty, and the most effectual support of republican government. The principles of genuine liberty and of wise laws and administrations, are to be drawn from the Bible and sustained by its authority” (Preface, Common Version of the Holy Bible, 1833).
“I have, in support of my opinions [on education] ... the proofs presented by inspired truth, from the beginning to the end of the Bible; that book which the benevolent Creator has furnished for the express purpose of guiding human reason in the path of safety, and the only book which can remedy, or essentially mitigate, the evils of a licentious world” (Webster, “Reply to a letter of David McClure,” Oct. 25, 1836, A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects).
Webster believed that it is impossible to have a durable free republic without good moral character as taught by the Bible and biblical Christianity.
“Our citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament, or the Christian religion” (Webster, Effect of Slavery on Morals and Industry).
“Moral habits ... cannot safely be trusted on any other foundation than religious principle nor any government be secure which is not supported by moral habits. ... Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens” (Webster, “Moral Habits,” American Dictionary of the English Language).
“I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence” (Webster’s letter to James Madison, Oct. 16, 1829).
“God has provided but one way, by which nations can secure their rights and privileges: by obedience to his laws. Without this, a nation may be great in population, great in wealth, and great in military strength; but it must be corrupt in morals, degraded in character, and distracted with factions. This is the order of God’s moral government, as firm as his throne, and unchangeable as his purpose; and nations, disregarding this order, are doomed to incessant internal evils, and ultimately to ruin” (Noah Webster, Instructive and Entertaining Lessons for Youth, 1835).
“In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed. ... No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people” (Preface to The American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828).
“God is the supreme moral Governor of the world he has made, and as he himself governs with perfect rectitude, he requires his rational creatures to govern themselves in like manner. If men will not submit to be controlled by His laws, he will punish them by the evils resulting from their own disobedience” (Webster, “Reply to a letter of David McClure,” Oct. 25, 1836,” A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects).
Noah Webster believed that it is necessary to elect righteous men to positions of authority.
“When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers just men who will rule in the fear of God. The preservation of a republican government depends on the faithful discharge of this duty; if the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made not for the public good so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizens will be violated or disregarded. If a republican government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the Divine commands and elect bad men to make and administer the laws. ... When a citizen gives his suffrage [his vote] to a man of known immorality he abuses his trust; he sacrifices not only his own interest, but that of his neighbor; he betrays the interest of his country” (Noah Webster, Letters to a Young Gentleman Commencing His Education, 1823).
Webster taught that moral discipline must be taught to children, and that education divorced from Christian training is “defective.”
“The foundation of all free government and all social order must be laid in families and in the discipline of youth. Young persons must not only be furnished with knowledge, but they must be accustomed to subordination and subjected to the authority and influence of good principles. It will avail little that youths are made to understand truth and correct principles, unless they are accustomed to submit to be governed by them. The speculative principles of natural religion will have little effect, or none at all, unless the pupil is made to yield obedience to the practical laws of Christian morality; and the practice of yielding such obedience must be familiar, and wrought into habit in early life, or the instruction of teachers will, for the most part, be lost on their pupils. To give efficacy to such a course of education, the pupil must believe himself to be accountable for his actions to the Supreme Being, as well as to human laws; for, without such belief, no dependance can be had upon his fidelity to the laws, when urged to violate them by strong passions, or by the powerful temptations of present advantage. The experiment of the whole world evinces that all the restraints of religion and law are often insufficient to control the selfish and malignant passions of men. And any system of education, therefore, which limits instruction to the arts and sciences, and rejects the aids of religion in forming the character of citizens, is essentially defective” (Webster, “Reply to a letter of David McClure,” Oct. 25, 1836,” A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects).
Webster died in May 1843 at age 84. His son-in-law described his death as follows:
“He spoke of his long life as one of uniform enjoyment, because filled up at every stage with active labors for some valuable end. He expressed his entire resignation to the will of God, and his unshaken trust in the atoning blood of the Redeemer. It was an interesting coincidence, that his former pastor, the Rev. Mr. Stuart, who received him to the church thirty-five years before, had just arrived at New Haven on a visit to his friends. He called immediately, and the interview brought into affecting comparison the beginning and the end of that long period of consecration to the service of Christ. The same hopes which had cheered the vigor of manhood, were now shedding a softened light over decay and sufferings of age. ‘I know in whom I have believed,’--such was the solemn and affecting testimony which he gave to his friend, while the hand of death was upon him,--‘I know in whom I have believed, and that He is able to keep that which I have committed to him against that day.’ Thus, without one doubt, one fear, he resigned his soul into the hands of his Maker, and died on the 28th day of May, 1843” (Chauncey Goodrich, Introduction to the American Dictionary of the English Language, 1849 edition).
The loss of Webster’s materials from America’s educational system reflect both a religious and a political apostasy, because politics is a reflection of religion and philosophy.
“Tragically, as Webster’s speller disappeared from American classrooms, the philosophy that sired it also began to vanish. Unlike the books that replaced it, Webster’s speller did not teach children only to spell and read. It taught them to embrace their nation and their nation’s political system. For more than a century, Webster’s speller unified millions of children of different nationalities, races, religions, language groups, and political systems by teaching them the common language of America. For a brief moment each day in every American school, the speller bonded them in a common family, with one moral code and one political philosophy, based on love of country and the common good. Webster’s ‘national language’ was their ‘band of national union.’ Ironically, two centuries after he first published the speller, bilingual education and multicultural education have replaced Webster’s system of education in many American schools. English as a second language often takes precedence over English as a first language. Instead of national unity, many schools promote cultural differences and rank ancestral tongues alongside the language of the United States. The net result has been the creation of a huge new nation within the United States--a nation whose children are growing up semiliterate in both English and their native tongues and who are developing little or no love or allegiance to their new land. As the dissimulative purveyors of multilingualism divide the nation culturally under the banner of individual liberty, they will all but surely divide the nation politically and provoke anarchy, as their predecessors have done throughout history” (Harlow Unger, Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot).
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