How Children Were Taught in the Early Church and Why It Worked

Taking a number of rough country boys, he cast them into the crucible of instruction for a spiritual life. He taught them the Holy Scriptures, and rubbed off their minds the rust of evil habits, by the heat of divine love . . .

Consider the earliest centuries of the Church, before the conversion of Constantine, prior to the First Council of Nicea. During the first three centuries of Christianity, how did the Church raise up children in the Faith?

The Church has always recognized that children think differently from adults. In Holy Scripture, the Apostle Paul recognizes this principle by saying, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child" (1 Corinthians 13:11). 

Children have a different way of thinking and understanding. Therefore, children’s education should be tailored to fit their needs. In the 2nd century, Origen made this same observation:

it is appropriate to children that some things should be addressed to them in a manner befitting their infantile condition, to convert them, as being of very tender age, to a better course of life (Contra Celsus, chapter XVI)

That does not mean that we replace doctrinal teaching with something the kids think is “more fun”. Nor does it mean that we forego Scripture memorization in favor of pizza parties. But it does mean that we need to approach their training with a sensitivity to the uniqueness of youth.

During the first three centuries of Christianity, the Church had to wrestle against persecution from every quarter. On multiple occasions, Christians were violently persecuted and murdered at the hands of the Jews.  During this same period of time, Christians were also frequently persecuted and slaughtered by officials within the Roman Empire.

Under those circumstances, it was hardly feasible for the Church to set up any system of formal religious education, accessible to the general public. They could not continue their early practice of teaching children in synagogues, because the Jews had cast them out. And they could not advertise Christian schooling to the general public without raising the ire of Rome.

St. Gregory the Illuminator

Thus, for the first few centuries, the catechism of both children and adults remained largely an underground affair. 

Christians were not widely able to build public Church buildings during the first three centuries, so we should not be surprised that they were similarly unable to build church schools. Eventually, though, the Church would be granted freedom. Once that happened, how would she approach the education of her children?

In the year 301, Christians in the Roman Empire were still living under the threatening shadow of Diocletian’s imperial persecution. This was over a decade before Constantine became a Christian, 24 years before the First Council of Nicea, and 79 years prior to the date when the Emperor Theodosius would officially declare Orthodox Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. 

At this early date, God used St. Gregory the Illuminator to convert the kingdom of Armenia to the Gospel, establishing it as the first national church in history. And one of the Church’s first orders of business was to establish Christian schools throughout the nation:

And he [St. Gregory] advised the pious king, who was on intimate terms with him, to establish schools from place to place, with fixed incomes, and to command that in every district the children should be gathered together and instructed in the pious writings of wise and good men.

And taking a number of rough country boys, he cast them into the crucible of instruction for a spiritual life; he taught them in the Holy Scriptures, and rubbed off their minds the rust of vice and of evil habits, by the heat of divine love.

And from that time such was the eagerness of some to withdraw from the habits of their fathers, in order to devote themselves to God’s service, that they might say, “I have forgotten my people and my father’s house.”

Then the good king, having taken upon himself to do so without delay, commanded that in the several provinces and districts of his kingdom young children should be gathered together according to St. Gregory’s directions, and be brought to school; to be taught letters by faithful and wise teachers set over them.

Besides this, he directed that the children of the foul race of heathen priests be also brought under the same instruction; and he fixed the amount paid for it. He ordered them to be divided into two classes, the one to be taught Syriac letters, the other Greek writings.

They were taught to read books, and profited in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, in the writings of the Holy Fathers, and the canons of the Holy Church. And it was marvelous to see how those, who in a short time before were empty, worldly, and rough, soon became spiritual, attentive to the Word of God, instructed in the writings of the Prophets and of the Apostles, and inheritors of the Gospel; and how, by the grace of Christ, they became skilled in all the commandments and precepts of God.

. . . After the chief schools of every province were built, other smaller ones were also established in every city, through the Patriarch’s forethought, and by command of the pious king; and in them were trained in every quarter youths who showed disposition for letters, from among whom should be chosen, some to be clerks, and others to be employed in some kind of service. And when the Illuminator went about preaching in cities and towns, those whom he exhorted sent their children to schools thus established, in order to be taught.

(Vartabed Matthew, The Life and Times of St. Gregory the Illuminator: the Founder and Patron Saint of the Armenian Church, pp. 299-302)

St. Gregory the Illuminator is one of the Church’s great missionaries. He was instrumental in converting Armenia to Christianity, and also in converting the neighboring countries of Georgia and Albania.

Not only did he establish schools for the Christian education of Armenia’s many children, he also made sure that his own children were raised up in the Faith. His son Aristakes became a bishop who attended the First Council of Nicea in the year 325.

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