On April 6, 1714, a grand jury in Boston presented a series of charges against a number of individuals and entities. Many of the offenses were exactly what we would expect from a group of 17th century Puritans: “Richard Hancock of Boston for Selling Drink without license sundry times since last Session,” “Seth Smith of Boston for allowing unlawfull gaming,” “Nathaniel Ford of Weymouth for nott attending the publick worship of God,” and—a hat tip to Nathaniel Hawthorne—“Hannah Hall of Boston for fornication.”
One of the charges explains why this single-page manuscript came to Hingham, to be preserved in our archives: “the Town of Hingham for not keeping a school according to law.” This offense, as it turns out, is as characteristic of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans as the others charged on that day.
Education was very important to the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first public school in this country, Boston Latin School, was established in Boston in 1635, and the nation’s first university, Harvard College, was founded in Cambridge the next year. In 1642, Massachusetts passed a law requiring parents to ensure that their children could read English or face a fine.
This concern with education grew from the very roots of Protestant theology: the belief that Christian laity had the right–and a duty–to read the Bible in the vernacular and participate directly in the affairs of the church. These fundamental goals are explained explicitly in the preamble to Massachusetts’ 1647 statute, sometimes called “The Old Deluder Satan Act,” that shifted the responsibility of education onto the growing towns:
It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these later times by perswading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the Originall might be clowded by false glosses of Saint-seeming deceivers; and that Learning may not be buried in the graves of our fore-fathers in Church and Commonwealth, the Lord assisting our indeavors: it is therefore ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof;
That every Township in this Jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty Housholders, shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the Parents or Masters of such children, or by the Inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the Town shall appoint. . . .
And it is further ordered, that where any town shall increase to the number of one hundred Families or Housholders, they shall set up a Grammar-School, the Masters thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the Universitie. . . .
Hingham town records reference schoolteachers and a school building as early as the mid-1600s. According to Francis Lincoln’s chapter on education in the 1893 History of the Town of Hingham, the increasing size of the town led to disagreements as early as 1708 and 1709 over where the school should be held. Second Precinct—later Cohasset—wanted a rotation, so that school would sometimes meet in its area, as did “Great Plain”—South Hingham. But there is no suggestion that HIngham’s school was ever closed. Indeed, in a comprehensive list of the schoolmasters in Hingham from 1670 on, Lincoln reports that Jonathan Cushing was the schoolmaster from 1712-1713, after which the 1712 Harvard College graduate became the minister in Dover, New Hampshire. Twenty-year old Job Cushing, Harvard College Class of 1714 succeeded him, remaining four year before becoming the first minister of the Shrewsbury church.
Perhaps there was a lapse while the Town waited for Job Cushing to graduate. There may have been complaints. 17th century grand juries could “present” charges based on their own knowledge and did not, as today, have to wait to be asked to hand down an indictment. Was a disgruntled Hingham parent on that grand jury? Perhaps we will learn more as we continue to dig through the archives.