On a typical weekday in the U.S., about 50 million kids are in public school all around the country. You can thank mandatory education laws and a robust public school system for that. But how did the United States achieve compulsory education for all, anyway? The roots of the practice might be older than you think—and the laws that got the country on the road to mandatory education have a weird connection to Satan. Yes, Satan.
It all started in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a settlement of Puritans who emigrated from England. The settlers were part of a “great migration” of Puritans—about 20,000 total—who flocked to New England between 1629 and 1640, driven by a desire to lead pious lives and worship freely. Their religious practices were stern and fervent; as one historian writes, “Puritans lived in a constant state of spiritual anxiety, searching for signs of God’s favor or anger.”
One particular worry was Satan—the dark lord capable of leading humanity astray through distractions, deceptions, and any number of temptations. “Satan hath his Mysteries to bring us to Eternal Ruine,” wrote Puritan minister John Hale in a typical anti-Satan screed. “Mysteries not easily understood, whereby the depths of Satan are managed in hidden wayes.”
Every aspect of life in the new colony reflected the Puritan’s preoccupation with the devil’s doings. Massachusetts Puritans enacted strict laws based on their values, and focused on community members’ shared responsibilities to their faith and to each other. Special attention was paid to the moral and educational development of children, who were expected to be obedient and submissive…