Like millions of other Americans, you may have watched this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee on television. The Bee is a tradition dating back to 1925, and has participants from around the world. This year there were 273 spellers speaking 102 different languages besides English.
As John Murray wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Given this amazing diversity united under one language, the author of America’s first dictionary and the originator of uniform spelling in America (which makes the Bee possible!) would be proud.”
Murray is of course referring to Noah Webster, “to whom the [spelling] Bee owes its official dictionary, ‘Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.’”
You may never have given Noah Webster a thought while watching the spelling bee, but Murray (who, by the way, is a graduate of our Centurions program) is right to credit him with making it possible—and with so much more than that.
The thing worth remembering about Noah Webster is that, unlike many today, he wasn’t interested in learning just for learning’s sake—or even for the sake of having a good career and achieving prosperity. Over the course of his life, Webster came to believe that education had a higher, nobler purpose.
When Webster created the American dictionary, one of his foremost goals was to help create “a national language” as “a band of national union.” It would help teach the new nation self-respect. And in addition to helping to shape the United States Constitution, he also helped set up the country’s educational system and fought against slavery.
But Noah Webster wasn’t just a patriot. In his 50th year, he became a devout Christian. And from that time on, he was dedicated to furthering the cause of moral and spiritual education as well as academic education.
For many years, copies of Webster’s dictionary actually contained an account of his conversion to Christianity. Whereas his Blue-Backed Speller, published in 1783, had been devoid of sacred references, his 1828 dictionary was full of them.
As Murray writes in his article, “The context sentences used for his word entries were more often than not taken straight from biblical verse. For example, one of his definitions for ‘truth’ stated: ‘Jesus Christ is called the truth. John xiv.’” The former freethinker had come to believe that education was “useless without the Bible.”
As a result, Webster’s work had an eternal impact upon generations of students. As John Murray tells us, “Of the man known as ‘The Schoolmaster of Our Republic,’ editors often wrote above his picture, ‘He taught millions to read, but not one to sin.’”
You couldn’t ask for a better epitaph than that.
So the next time you watch a spelling bee, or use a dictionary, or help a child with his or reading, take a moment to think about the true purpose and value of education.
As Webster knew so well, though many of his countrymen have forgotten it, we learn not just to benefit ourselves our even our country, but to better understand and serve our God.