(In honor of the beginning of another school year)
Have you ever tackled a long-term project that lasted five or ten years? How about twenty years?
And as part of that undertaking, did you learn twenty-eight languages?
Few if any of us could answer yes to those questions. But at least one person of history could: Noah Webster (1758-1843).
Webster was a student at Yale during the Revolution. But he left school twice to fight in battle. Upon graduation he became an attorney and a schoolteacher. It was the latter position that prompted him to write textbooks for many disciplines, including: spelling, grammar, history, geography, government, agriculture, economics, meteorology, medicine, zoology, and morality. (Whew!) He earned the title, “Schoolmaster of America”, as a result of advancing education in the fledgling country.
And then, of course, there is his iconic dictionary, the project that took twenty years to complete. As part of his research for that volume, he learned the twenty-eight languages mentioned above, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit. Webster also traveled to England and France in order to access ancient works in their libraries that were not available in America.
Once completed, Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language contained 70,000 words. Not only were the etymology, pronunciations, and definitions included for every word, he added a sample sentence of how each word should be properly used. Many of his examples came from the Bible.
Webster also dedicated the work to God: “To that great and benevolent Being…who has sustained me…and given me strength and resolution.”
As if all those textbooks and a meticulously researched dictionary weren’t enough for one lifetime, Noah tackled yet another project, a modern-language Bible. This volume he was able to complete in just five years, taking advantage of all he had learned about words while developing the dictionary.
Why did Webster feel another translation of the Bible was warranted? He explained in the preface to his Common Version of the Holy Bible (1833):
“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 [happiness].”
No doubt there are many who would refute those remarks by saying, “That’s just one man’s opinion.”
But when, for example, the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule are applied, who can argue that society does not benefit?
Noah Webster also credited Christian principles for the civil liberties enjoyed in the world:
“Almost all the civil liberty now enjoyed in the world owes its
origin to the principles of the Christian religion…the religion
which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and
His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence;
which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and
a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to
this we owe our free constitutions of government.”
(from Webster’s History of the United States, 1832)
Again, can it be argued that a religion which encourages humility, piety, benevolence, fairness and equality is bad for society?
It is for these reasons Webster believed that a Christian education was beneficial:
Any system of education…which limits instruction to the arts
and sciences and rejects the aids of religion in forming the
characters of citizens, is essentially defective. 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.”
(from a letter to David McClure, October 25, 1836)
Webster also gave this advice to civic students which is appropriate for every citizen:
When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for
pubic 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 (Exodus 18:21).
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; the rights of the citizens will be violated or
(from The History of the United States, “Advice to the Young”)
As we begin the countdown to Election Day, 2016, I find Noah Webster’s advice to be just as applicable today as it was then.