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John Amos Comenius: Inciting the Millennium through Educational Reform

Department of History, Political Science, and Religious Studies, Carroll University, Waukesha, WI 53186, USA
Religions 2021, 12(11), 1012;
Original submission received: 6 September 2021 / Revised: 19 October 2021 / Accepted: 5 November 2021 / Published: 17 November 2021


Comenius is considered by many scholars to be the father of modern education, a title that he has thoroughly earned. His ideas about universal education for all children foreshadowed modern pedagogical developments, and he dedicated more than forty years of his life to reforming education and society. The question guiding this research was: Why was Comenius so dedicated to reform efforts, and why were his ideas about education so peculiar for his time? Through a review of existing scholarship and Comenius’ own writing, namely the Labyrinth, Didactic, and the Orbis Pictus, it became clear that Comenius was inspired by the millenarian ideology prevalent during the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries in Europe as well as the effects that the turbulence of the seventeenth century had on his own life. These factors also led Comenius to believe that educational reform was the key to unlocking Pansophy, which would incite the Millennium, the golden age of peace and prosperity that would precede the second coming of Christ and the final judgement of God.

1. Introduction

John Amos Comenius (1592–1670) was born on 28 March 1592, in the small town of Nivince, Moravia (Sadler 1966, p. 14). His earliest formal education was at the Latin school of Přerov, he continued his education at Herborn and finished it at the University of Heidelberg. He was then a teacher and minister at Fulnek when the Thirty Years War broke out in 1618, and he was forced into exile in 1620 (Young 1932, p. 10). In 1628 he and a large group of Bohemian Brethren joined another group at Lezno, Poland (Sadler 1966, p. 16). While in Lezno, Comenius dedicated time to writing several of his masterpieces such as his 1631 The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, the Janua, and his Great Didactic. Here the first seed of his plan for universal wisdom, which he called Pansophia or Pansophy, began to sprout. In 1641 Comenius travelled to England to meet Samuel Hartlib (Young 1932, p. 12). After his trip to England, Comenius worked in Sweden for a time, before returning to Lezno. It was during this time that he published his Orbis Pictus. In 1656, when Comenius was 64 years old, the city of Lezno was destroyed, and many of Comenius’ manuscripts were lost. He spent the rest of his life in Amsterdam where he died on 13 November 1670 (Sadler 1966, pp. 18–19). The pedagogy he crafted paved the way for modern educational practices. Comenius advocated for universal education, meaning he believed “That not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns… should be sent to school”, (Comenius [1896] 1907, p. 66). He was the author of the first children’s picture book, the 1658 Orbis Pictus. He also had a distaste for corporal punishment in schools, which was an opinion that was making inroads during this period. However, the effort he put into reforming such practices made him unique amongst his peers. These facts alone can pique a person’s interest. Comenius is well known for his educational texts, such as the Janua Linguaram Reserata and the Orbis Sensualium Pictus, as well as his reform efforts. Comenius believed that humanity was destined to regain the moral and spiritual position it had held before exile from paradise. He strove toward this goal by attempting to reform education in a way that would generate universal wisdom. Examining his Orbis Pictus and 1657 Great Didactic hints that his belief in the oncoming Millennium profoundly influenced his goal of salvation and the reforms he crafted in order to achieve it. His experience as an educator and student, his membership in the Bohemian Brethren, his exposure to the horrors of the Thirty Years War, and his involvement with Samuel Hartlib (1600–1662) and his group of reformers all greatly influenced his belief that education provided a path for salvation.
In 1829, František Palacký revived interest in the life and work of his countryman Comenius (Sadler 1966, p. 13). Since then, a wealth of research has been conducted, with the largest portion belonging to Czech scholars, such as the 1932 biography written by J. V. Novak and Josef Hendrich (Novák and Hendrich 1932). However, as more of Comenius’ work has been translated the scholarship in other languages has expanded. This research has been conducted, in part, to continue the expansion of the English scholarship focusing on this important Czech reformer. This current study also seeks to investigate the influence that Comenius’ spirituality, specifically the concept of a future Millennium, had on his pedagogy. This is because it is important to consider that while Comenius is most well remembered for his work as a pedagogue, being considered a pioneer of early childhood education (Peltzman 1998), he was also an important religious figure during the seventeenth century. Rather than treating Comenius’ pedagogy and spirituality as two separate areas of study, it will prove more fruitful to examine how they interacted and built on each other.
As stated previously, Comenius is most well remembered for his pedagogy, which is why his educational works have received the most attention from historians and pedagogues alike. Some scholars, such as Andrea Korda, study his Orbis Pictus to show the development of ideas about memory and using images in education (Korda 2020, p. 269). Other scholars praise Comenius for his continued influence on modern education (Lukaš and Munjiza 2014; Maksimović et al. 2021). There are some scholars who have studied how Comenius’ religious beliefs have permeated his works (Guseva and Rybakov 2017; Spicer 2019). However, fewer scholars have explicitly focused on how Comenius’ beliefs influenced his pedagogical work (Sadler 1966; Louthan and Sterk 1998). Sadler briefly discusses Comenius’ religious beliefs, but the majority of his book was dedicated to analyzing the universal aspect of Comenius’ pedagogy. Sadler argued that the pansophic aspect of Comenian pedagogy had been undervalued. The work of Louthan and Sterk was dedicated to examining the Slavic Protestant traditions. They discussed aspects of Comenius’ pedagogy by relating it to his religious beliefs. However, the emphasis of their work was examining his spirituality as a significant figure in the Protestant traditions of Central Europe. This article hopes to examine the spirituality and the pedagogy of Comenius in equal measure and how the former influenced the latter.
Before this paper begins in earnest the definition of millenarianism that this paper will be using needs to be established. The specifics of what the Millennium is has changed throughout history; in this paper, the definition being used is a belief that the end of the world shall be preceded by a period of peace and prosperity for Christendom. A common thread of millenarian belief is that the Millennium itself would be preceded by times of turmoil where the old hierarchies would be challenged. An important factor that Comenius shared with his teachers Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588–1638), and Johannes Piscator (1546–1625) is the belief that the Millennium had yet to begin but would instead occur at some future time.

2. Exposure to the Millennium

To start, it is important to examine how Comenius was exposed to millenarianism. Comenius may have encountered the idea of the Millennium growing up in the Bohemian Brethren, however, at that time the mainstream Protestant groups and Reformed communities condemned the idea of the Millennium. It was not until the second quarter of the seventeenth century that millenarianism gained support from leading protestant thinkers (Hotson 2000, p. 3). Comenius’ formal education furthered his exposure to millenarianism. Examining Comenius’ education shows that while he received occasional instruction growing up, it was not until he was sixteen years old that he received formal education at the Latin school of Přerov (Louthan and Sterk 1998, p. 10). Despite this late start, Comenius quickly impressed his teacher John Lànecký, who some sources suggest gave him the middle name Amos, as well as the Patron of the school Count Charles the Elder of Žerotín (Louthan and Sterk 1998, p. 10). His dedication to his studies led to him being one of seven students that Count Žerotín sent to the Calvinist Herborn gymnasium for further study in 1611 (Louthan and Sterk 1998, p. 10). It was here that Comenius met the two men that would have the largest influence on his chiliastic beliefs, Alsted and Piscator. Both men served as teachers while Comenius was there, and both men undoubtedly influenced the young scholar’s theology. Alsted originally believed that the Millennium had already begun by the seventeenth century and that they were rapidly approaching the final days, but by the time he published the Diatribe de mille annis apocalypticis, in 1627, he had converted to expecting the Millennium to begin in the future (Hotson 2000, p. 22). While Comenius was certainly exposed to the idea of the Millennium existing in the future during his time at Herborn, thanks to the teachings of Piscator, Hotson, whose writings informed this papers’ discussion of Comenius and Alsted’s millenarian beliefs, argues that he was not fully convinced until reading Alsted’s Diatribe (Hotson 2000, p. 26).
Millenarianism was not the only topic that impressed Comenius during his years spent studying. From his mentor Alsted, Comenius inherited a strong anti-scholastic stance as well as a drive for encyclopaedic knowledge (Hotson 2000, p. 26). The anti-scholastic attitude shows first in the Labyrinth where Comenius attacks the systems of education that were found in schools: “For no sooner did someone utter a word than someone else immediately contradicted him. There were even arguments about whether the snow was white or black, or whether the fire was hot or cold” (Comenius 1998, pp. 100–1). As well as the more methodical criticisms in his Didactic. His Janua and his Orbis Pictus show signs of his desire to compile knowledge into a simple and comprehensible format. Both sources are Latin language guides designed to teach students words and phrases that would be relevant and useful to their daily lives. A more detailed examination of his writing will be conducted later in this paper.
After three years at the Herborn gymnasium, Comenius finished his education with a year at the University of Heidelberg. Here he met the Reformed Protestant theologian David Pareus (1548–1622), who hoped to reconcile the Reformed and Lutheran communities (Mitchell 2001, p. 56). Pareus’ treatise Irenicum strengthened an ecumenical spirit in Comenius that had first been instilled by the Bohemian Brethren (Hotson 1995, p. 46). Moreover, throughout his formal education at both Herborn and Heidelberg, Comenius was influenced by several writers, including Ramón Lull of Majorea (1232 or 1233–1315) whose writings on reducing and condensing all knowledge fit well with Comenius’ encyclopaedic endeavours, Johannes Valentinus Andreae (1586–1654), Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) whose utopian book The City of the Sun joined other works, such as Andreae’s Christianopolis, that inspired Comenius’ dream of a utopian society. Campanella’s 1591 Philosophia sensibus demonstrata (Philosophy demonstrated by the Senses) impacted the value Comenius placed in sensory education. William Bathe (1564–1614), whose 1611 Janua Linguarum (The Gate of Tongues) inspired Comenius’ Janua Linguarum Reserata, (The Gate of Tongues Unlocked). Most importantly Comenius fell in love with the writings of Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626). It was Bacon’s writings that convinced Comenius that education and science were instrumental to salvation (Sadler 1966).
In Grammar Wars, Linda C. Mitchell states that Comenius believed a successful education could help “to reverse the effects of the Fall,” (Mitchell 2001, p. 54). She then observed how this idea is similar to, and probably informed by, Bacon’s goal to “reverse the effects of the Fall through the acquisition and harnessing of knowledge,” (Mitchell 2001, p. 54). An examination as to how educational reform fused with Comenius’ millennial expectations will be discussed under section four of this paper.

3. Reinforcement of Millenarianism

While Comenius’ exposure to chiliast ideas during his time as a student was extensive, there were significant life experiences that reinforced the idea that the world was ending. In their book The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which provided this article with the much-needed context for the eschatological ideas of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell state that “More than any other period of European history the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were characterized by apocalyptic expectations, eschatological speculations and millenarian dreams,” (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 1). This is no surprise since millenarianism tends to spread during times of crisis (Hotson 2000, p. 3). The seventeenth century was certainly no stranger to crisis: it was a turbulent period for Europe as recurrences of the plague, coupled with religious conquest at the height of the Catholic Reformation, wars, and famines caused by crop failures convinced many people that the end was nigh. Conquest, War, Famine, and Death,1 all four of the Horsemen of the apocalypse stalked Europe. Comenius, like so many people in his day, felt the Horsemen’s presence clearly.
Despite Death being the last of the horsemen to emerge (Revelation 6:8 [King James Version]), it was the first of the four beasts that Comenius encountered. Though fatalities from plague never again reached the numbers they had during the fourteenth century, Europe-wide outbreaks continued well into the seventeenth century (Cunningham and Grell 2000, pp. 273–74). While there are several years that had aggressive resurgences of the plague, two dates stand out for this study of Comenius: the outbreaks that occurred in 1604 and 1625 (Cunningham and Grell 2000, pp. 274–75). Comenius, at that time only 12 years old, lost his parents and two of his sisters to pestilence in 1604 (Sadler 1966, p. 14). This tragedy changed the course of the young boy’s life, as he and his remaining siblings2 were separated and he lived with his aunt in Strážnice for the next four years. It is possible that he worked several jobs during this period as he says of professions in the Labyrinth “I confess, however, that I secretly attempted to pursue the first one, then another, then a third thing, but abandoned each one straightaway, for I perceived (or so it seemed to me) difficulties and vanities in each,” (Comenius 1998, p. 62). His experience in several jobs would also have aided his depiction of professions in his Orbis. Most importantly, the death of his family introduced him to serious loss at a very young age and showed him that the world had grown cruel since the Fall from Paradise. On top of his own personal tragedy, Comenius would have had access to plenty of tracts and heard several sermons explaining the suffering of the age as manifestations of God’s anger (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 13).
The next tragedy that Comenius faced was the combined efforts of three horsemen, Conquest, War, and Death. After he finished his education at the University of Heidelberg Comenius taught at the Latin school in Přerov for two years until he, at the age of 24, was made a minister in the Brethren in 1616 (Louthan and Sterk 1998, p. 11). His pastoral appointment was in the Northern Moravia town of Fulnek, he took with him his wife Magdalena Vizovská. Fulnek was a majority Catholic region, so his time there presented some challenges as he was the minister of a minority religious community and likely received opposition from the Catholics in the area (Louthan and Sterk 1998, pp. 11–12). He hints at this in the Labyrinth when he describes how the pilgrim was treated after taking a position amongst the clergy:
But looking about me, I saw some turning their backs on me. A second group shook their heads, a third glowered at me, a fourth threatened with their fists, a fifth pointed their fingers. Finally, some attacked me, drove me off, and put someone else in my place, threatening that there was more to come. (Comenius 1998, p. 134)
Despite the hostility from his neighbours, Comenius and Magdalena had a happy life together in Fulnek and had two children. Unfortunately, this peaceful scene was shattered by the start of the Thirty Years War. In 1619 the Holy Roman Emperor and Bohemian King Matthias died without an heir; the Protestants of Bohemia then elected Frederick V (1596–1632), the Elector Palatinate of the Rhine, to be the next king of Bohemia (Louthan and Sterk 1998, p. 12). However, the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II (1578–1637), a member of the house of Hapsburg, was not willing to let Bohemia slip from Catholic control. The two forces faced off in 1620 at White Mountain outside of Prague, and the Hapsburg troops were victorious. With his victory, Ferdinand II began to crack down on “all the non-Catholic cults in Bohemia and Moravia except Judaism,” (Young 1932, p. 10).
The Thirty Years War highlights how military advancements contributed to eschatological anxiety. The size of armies alone can explain this connection. In the late fifteenth century, a large army would not have exceeded twenty thousand men but by the end of the Thirty Years War, armies could number 150,000 men or more. (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 87). In slightly more than two hundred years the size of a large army had multiplied more than seven times, and these larger armies were vastly more destructive than the smaller forces that had once dominated European battlefields.
Comenius was forced to flee, his wife and two children went to stay with Magdalena’s mother, and Comenius hoped that they would be safe there. Sadly, the march of the Spanish army was followed by a pestilence that claimed the lives of Magdalena and their two children (Sadler 1966, p. 15). In Comenius’ Labyrinth, when he discusses the institution of marriage he states:
Suddenly a terrible storm struck unexpectedly, with lightning, thunder, and frightful hail… Though I also ran into a corner with them, the arrows of Death struck my three companions. Being left alone in anguish and stunned with terror, I did not know what to do. (Comenius 1998, p. 83)
The “terrible storm” that he references was the beginning of the Thirty Years War, and during this period of turmoil, the plague was commonly depicted as an arrow from Death or God (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 274) and the three companions that his main character lost represented Comenius’ family. For seven years Comenius was an exile and fugitive in his own country (Sadler 1966, p. 15), and during this time he found an outlet for his grief in writing the Labyrinth. In Labyrinth, he discusses marriage in a cynical tone that is unusual for him. It would not be difficult to imagine that his grief made him bitter for a time. He was angry at the world, and he showed it in the Labyrinth, but by the second half of the book, titled The Paradise of the Heart, his tone changes as he reconciles with his grief. He still believes the world is cruel, but now he is determined to take action.
Another important factor to the millenarian expectations of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the increased attention to astrological phenomena. While astrology had held an important position since the Middle Ages, Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism caused a renewed interest in the stars (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 73). This was also a time when astrological events “were considered to be occurring with alarming frequency,” (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 75). In 1604, a year after the great conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, meaning the two planets were visible in the sky close together, a “new star” appeared between the planets (Hotson 2000, p. 44). Comenius’ mentor Alsted took this as a sign that the beginning of the Millennium was approaching. Later, in 1618 on the eve of the Thirty Years War, Halley’s comet was seen. From an astrological perspective, Comets are almost always a bad omen (Hotson 2000). The fact that the comet’s appearance was quickly followed by the Thirty Years War, severely failed harvests, and a major outbreak of the plague (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 321) was not missed by astrologers and millenarians. Even while in hiding Comenius would have had ready access to the wealth of almanacs written examining the astrological signs and their apocalyptic meanings (Cunningham and Grell 2000, p. 76).
The conquest of his country, the destruction of his home, and the death of his family convinced Comenius that the world was approaching the end. It was through the influence of prophets and from reading his mentor Alsted’s Diatribe, that Comenius fully converted to preparing for the Millennium. When he left his country in 1628 to resettle with a group in Lezno, Poland, it was with a sense of purpose and hope that he would incite the Millennium and see Bohemia again. He would dedicate the rest of his life to these goals.

4. The Place of Education

Comenius’ time studying at Herborn and Heidelberg, on top of his experience during the Thirty Years War, convinced him that the Millennium was approaching. However, Bacon’s writings inspired him further, to the point that if the Millennium was not going to start on its own, he would incite it himself. While his plans certainly rose to the ambitious goal of universal reform, he started with a much narrower goal. While at Lezno, Comenius balanced his duties with the Brethren alongside his job as an educator. From this experience as a teacher Comenius stated that “I began to observe the shortcomings and defects (better than ever before) of the method employed in schools,” (Young 1932, p. 26). In response to his observation of shortcomings in schools, Comenius began to write corrections to these issues to the point that “certain goodly observations of mine began to grow together as a system of didactic art,” (Young 1932, p. 26). During this time, he also began writing a Latin language guide which would eventually grow to be the Janua (Young 1932, pp. 27–28). This book stands out among other Latin language guides of the period because Comenius’ work did not start language education with a lengthy discussion of grammar rules. Instead, it began with simple Latin sentences discussing things relevant to the students’ lives with which they would be familiar. This system may be more familiar to modern students of language as the immersion model of language learning (Parry 2014, p. 49). Both his observations about the system of education and his Janua were originally written for the purpose of perfecting the Czech schools once he and the Brethren returned to Bohemia, but the governors of the school at Lezno urged Comenius to publish his Latin guide so that the rest of Europe could benefit from it as well (Young 1932, p. 27). Comenius tells a similar story with regards to his Didactic, “It was first composed in my mother tongue for the use of my people, and afterwards on the advice of several men of standing translated into Latin, in order that, if possible, it might be of universal use” (Comenius [1896] 1907, Greetings to the reader. 16). Thus, as David Parry says, “The Janua was the first book to be printed on the press brought by the Brethren to Lezno from Kralice in Moravia” (Parry 2014, p. 68). The widespread popularity of the Janua genuinely shocked Comenius as “From the learned in various lands there came to me letters giving me joy at my new discovery and in divers way encouraging me to yet bolder enterprise,” (Young 1932, p. 28).
Due to the popularity of the Janua, Comenius was able to open communication with educated figures across Europe. Many people were excited to encourage Comenius’ work, but few people held more faith in it and provided more support for Comenius’ work, than Samuel Hartlib, who would become one of Comenius’ staunchest supporters and closest friends. Hartlib was born in Prussia but settled in England after graduating from Cambridge University. Hartlib is important to this study because Comenius’ experience working with the academic society that Hartlib was forming reinforced the centrality of educational reform to inciting the Millennium. Like Comenius, he was dedicated to educational reform and was active in his efforts to encourage Parliament to take up the mission as well. In his 2007 book The Fall of Man and the Foundation of Science, Peter Harrison observed that Comenius and Hartlib were central figures in a movement to reform education and that both men were guided by eschatological ideas perhaps inherited from Bacon (Harrison 2007, pp. 188, 197). Hartlib first learned of Comenius through a copy of his Janua Linguarum Reserata, which at that point had been translated into several Eurasian languages and found a way to contact him thanks to Danial Erastus and Samuel Benedictus, two Brethren who had been sent to study in England (Young 1932, p. 33; Keatinge [1896] 1907, p. 25). Hearing from the two young scholars of how uncertain the income of the Brethren had become he included in his first letter to Comenius a “small subsidy toward my [Comenius’] livelihood” (Quoted in Young 1932, p. 35) in the hopes of encouraging and supporting Comenius’ future work. Through their continued communication he received from Comenius an early outline for his Didactic, and Hartlib shared nearly 300 copies with the intellectual community of England (Sadler 1966, p. 122). The reaction, and the support this reaction garnered, was more than Comenius could have imagined (Sadler 1966, p. 120). Hartlib recognized the pedagogical skill that Comenius possessed and repeatedly invited the Czech educator to visit London; the first of these invitations arrived in 1632 (Keatinge [1896] 1907, p. 25). However, due to Comenius’ responsibilities among the Brethren, by 1632 he had been appointed as a senior bishop of the Reformed community (Young 1932, p. 10), he was not able to make the trip until 1641 (Sadler 1966, p. 122).
Upon his arrival, Comenius was a bit disappointed when he discovered that his invitation had not been officially from the state (Mitchell 2001, p. 51) perhaps concerned that his work would not receive the level of support that Hartlib had promised. Despite this initial worry, Comenius was warmly welcomed by Hartlib, his associates, and after a short period by Parliament proper since they had not been unaware that his arrival was imminent. In fact, both Comenius and John Dury were “commended by John Gauden in a sermon to the House of Commons on 29 November 1640” (Mitchell 2001, p. 51), where he said of Comenius “The one hath laid a faire design and foundation for the raising up a ‘Structure of Truth’, Humane and Divine, of excellent use to all man-kinde, for the easinesse and exquisitenesse of attaining the true knowledge of things” (Gauden 1640). He wrote back to his community, admiring the country and praising the people he worked with stating that “They are eagerly debating on the reform of schools in the whole kingdom in a manner similar to that to which, as you know, my wishes tend, namely that all young people should be instructed, none neglected” (Young 1932, p. 65). His time in England was spent conversing with his now expanded circle of peers and sketching out his reforms. For Comenius, the trip exposed him to a host of new thinking and support for his dreams. Hartlib and his associates dreamt of founding a college dedicated to researching the physical world and implementing their reformed system of education, believing that they had found a commendable ally in Comenius (Keatinge [1896] 1907, p. 45). Comenius was grateful for the participation of others in completing his work. In his Didactic, Parliament had considered setting up such a college and had even conducted early discussions of land and salaries for the professors who would teach there (Young 1932, p. 53). Sadly, the political unrest in England, which would eventually culminate in the English Civil War, quickly captured all of Parliament’s attention. Eventually, Comenius would leave for Sweden where he was offered a position in the schools there (Sadler 1966, pp. 124–25). Even after Comenius left England, he maintained contact with Hartlib and the other members of the forming society. Even though the formation of a pansophic college had not been accomplished during his time in England, Comenius still found tremendous value in the trip. Never before had he been more certain of the role education had in his mission, to the point that he argued that if Adam and Eve had received proper education they would never have been expelled from paradise. In his Didactic he argues that:
it is manifest, from the conversation of Eve with the serpent, that the knowledge of things which is derived from experience was entirely wanting. For Eve, had she had more experience, would have known that the serpent is unable to speak, and that there must therefore be some deceit. (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 6.5)
In Comenius’ eyes, not only could education reverse the effects of the fall, but proper education could also have prevented the fall entirely.

5. Comenius’ Pedagogy

This paper would be woefully incomplete without dedicating a section to Comenius’ pedagogy. This section will examine two of Comenius’ most important works: his Great Didactic and the Orbis Pictus to highlight the uniqueness of his pedagogy as well as evidence of his millenarian beliefs. As stated previously in this paper, Comenius’ work has influenced modern pedagogical developments. His ideas about equal access to education, the developmental stages of students, and the proper scaling of education to match, his theories about language education and sensory education all strongly reflect modern ideas in education. His ideas were revolutionary and many of them have found homes in the classrooms of the twenty-first century.

5.1. The Purpose of Education

The discussion of Comenius’ pedagogy shall begin with the same topic that he opened his Didactic, the purpose of human life on earth. That purpose is to prepare for the next life, or as he put it in the title of chapter three: “This life is but a preparation for eternity” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 3.0). This presents a good opportunity to discuss an aspect of Comenius’ belief that has not been explicitly addressed yet: if he believed that humanity could be saved, that may have required him to believe that humanity deserved salvation, that they could become worthy of paradise. In the first chapter of the Didactic titled “Man is the highest, the most absolute, and the most excellent of things created,” Comenius shows his humanist influence (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 1.0).
Humanism was an intellectual phenomenon present throughout the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe. It was characterized by a celebration and recognition of human excellence as well as a heavy emphasis on the humanizing power of education. This ideology was another influence that inspired the centrality of education to Comenius’ plan to incite the Millennium. In the Didactics’ first two chapters Comenius shows two major influences on his ideology from humanism, the works of Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494). In the first chapter Comenius writes how God intended for humanity that “For thy use I designed the heaven, the earth and all that in them is… I have made thee to have dominion over the works of My hands,” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 1.3). This reflects ideas that Mirandola, who Comenius explicitly mentions in his Didactic (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 15.4), had expressed in his Oration on the Dignity of Man, where he stated that humanity was the greatest of God’s creations because they alone were destined to control all of God’s other creations. Mirandola also expressed ideas similar to Plato’s concept of the three souls, one vegetative, one animalistic, and one intellectual/spiritual. Evidence of this theory is present in Comenius’ writing when he states that God said to man, “To thee alone I gave all those things in conjunction, which to the rest of creation I gave but singly, namely Existence, Vitality, Sense, and Reason,” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 1.3). In other words, while all other creatures only have one aspect such as existence (the vegetative soul), vitality or sense (the animalistic soul), or Reason (the spiritual or intellectual soul), humanity has been blessed with all three. In the second chapter, he states more explicitly that “For here we live a threefold life, the vegetative, the animal, and the intellectual or spiritual” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 2.4).
This is important to note because it gives evidence as to why Comenius believed that humanity was worthy of salvation or could be made worthy of it. It also inspired other parts of his ideology. Comenius believed that each aspect of the human soul required a unique stage of life to develop it; for example, he states that the vegetative and vital aspects of the soul are developed while in the mother’s womb (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 2.5). He later explains that there are three stages to life and that these three stages take place in “The mother’s womb, the earth, and the heaven” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 2.10) and that “The first life is preparatory to the second, and the second to the third, while the third exists for itself and is without end” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 2.11). This led to the next topic of Comenius’ Didactic and the next step in his pedagogy: the purpose of schools.
If the purpose of life on earth is to prepare for life in heaven, Comenius made the next step in saying that the purpose of schools was to aid these preparations. He believed the qualities that could be sought in this world that would have the greatest weight in the next were learning, virtue, and piety (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 4.9). Comenius also believed that the seeds of these three qualities were implanted in all humans, just as Mirandola argued in his Oration. Comenius argues that without proper education humans will not become fully realized people, saying that “We see then that all who are born to man’s estate have need of instruction, since it is necessary that, being men, they should not be wild beasts, savage brutes, or inert logs” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 6.10) and while it is important for the current life to have educated people, it is even more important for the life in heaven.

5.2. The Scope of Education

Due to Comenius’ focus on the eternal life promised to Christians, he was not seeking to reform the schools of a single country. Rather, he wanted to bring about universal reform that would speed along the process of salvation. To achieve universal reform, there needed to be universal education. Of all of Comenius’ ideas, this is the one that sets him apart from other pedagogues of his day. His advocacy for universal education is one of the major reasons he is considered by many scholars to be the father, or even the grandfather, of modern education. He was not entirely alone in believing there should be easier access to education; as far back as 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had goals of setting up free schools (Orme 1973, p. 176), and across the Middle Ages there was a trend of education becoming incrementally more accessible (Orme 1973, pp. 182–84). However, these early attempts were met with prejudice against educating children of lower socioeconomic classes. This reaction, unfortunately, manifests anytime there is an attempt to improve access to education.
While there were reformers who agreed that boys from lower classes should have education, Comenius once again set himself apart from the rest. Comenius explicitly stated in his Didactic: “The following reasons will be established that not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 9.1). This statement does not allow misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Comenius makes it clear that he is designing a system of education for all children. The only caveat he gives is that “Let none be excluded unless God has denied him sense and intelligence” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 9.4), but he later argues that such cases are exceedingly rare. Perhaps Comenius was expecting the argument that certain difficult students were incapable of learning because “God had denied them sense and intelligence” when in Comenius’ opinion it was much more likely that the teacher lacked the skill or energy to teach the student properly.
It is worthwhile to expand on Comenius’ argument for educating both boys and girls. In his Great Didactic, Comenius matter-of-factly states, “Nor can any sufficient reason be given why the weaker sex (to give a word of advice on this point in particular) should be altogether excluded from the pursuit of knowledge,” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 9.5) he goes on to argue that “They are endowed with equal sharpness of mind and capacity for knowledge (often with more than the opposite sex)”(Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 9.5). Comenius’ belief in the capability of women shows in the Orbis Pictus as well. When Comenius discusses the moral virtues of humanity (Prudence, Diligence, Temperance, Fortitude, Patience, Justice, and Liberality) he depicts a figure embodying these virtues, and each of these figures is a woman (Comenius 2019, pp. 137–47).
It is interesting to ponder what led Comenius to have such an egalitarian outlook on education, and there is no lack of possible sources. An aspect of humanism was the belief that education humanized people; however, humanism was an elitist intellectual phenomenon and most humanists tended to believe that education would be wasted on the lower classes. This idea would not have sat well with Comenius given that his family was from the working class. The greatest influence on Comenius’ idea of universal education is likely his own experience from education. He was able to access and finish his education due to the kindness of his teacher Lànecký at the Latin school where he started his education, and of the Count of Žerotín’s recommendation which allowed him to attend the Herborn Gymnasium.
Comenius’ idea of universal education did not stop at allowing access to all, he also planned to have children be educated from infancy to university. In the Didactic Comenius outlines the four schools that would be required for universal reform. These schools were divided “based on age and acquirements” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.0) as the child grew, they would graduate from one school to the next, starting with education at home and finishing with the university. By the end of the process Comenius believed that students “may possess true learning, true morality, and true piety by the time we leave the forging-place of humanity” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.1). With the possession of these three virtues, the former students would not only be better prepared for the next life but more suited to inhabiting and improving this life.
Comenius planned that the whole period of education, “Must be divided into four distinct grades: infancy, childhood, boyhood, and youth, and to each grade six years and a special school should be assigned” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.3). He explained that the stage of infancy (infancy-6 years) should be spent in the Mother-School, the stage of childhood (7–12) should be spent in the Vernacular-School, the stage of boyhood (13–18) should be spent at a Latin-School or Gymnasium, and the stage of youth (19–24) should be spent at a University or traveling (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.3). He related starting education when the child is young to shaping wax when it is warm, “His brain… is, in the years of childhood, quite wet and soft, and fit for receiving all images that come to it. Later on… it grows hard and dry by degrees, so that things are less readily impressed or engraved upon it” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 7.5), the language he uses to describe the brain can seem a bit strange to modern readers, though it reflects the humoral theories of the health of the day (Harvey 2017, p. 166), his message is still clear. His argument is that when the student is young it is easier for them to learn and adapt their thinking, but as they age, they can become more resistant to new information and changes to their ideas. This ties into the reason why he devised four separate schools: he recognized different levels of cognitive ability in the different age groups. His explanation for this was that as students developed the span of what they could comprehend would expand. In the early schools, the content would be broad and simplified (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.5). As a child developed, the later schools would respond by changing the curriculum so “the information is particularized and exact” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.5).
Comenius’ thoughts on the developmental stages of children are fascinating. He believed that children start in a stage of developing their external senses, as they try to understand the world around them. During the next stage, the development turns inward, and the child’s imagination and memory should be the focus of education. In the third stage, Comenius believed that students were developing the ability to use their internal faculties to interpret and infer from external stimuli. In the final stage, he argues that students are ready to grapple with more abstract concepts (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.6–7). For any students of psychology, this will sound similar to the theory of developmental stages put forward by Jean Piaget (1896–1980). In fact, Jean Piaget hailed Comenius as “The founder of a system of progressive instruction adjusted to the stage of development the pupil has reached,” (Piaget 1957, p. 16). Both men believed that it was inappropriate to try to teach children something they were not cognitively ready to grapple with it. Additionally, Comenius’ emphasis on sensory learning in the earlier stages of development reveals why he wrote the Orbis Pictus for younger children. Due to his ideas of developmental stages, Comenius stated that “These different schools are not to deal with different subjects, but should treat the same subjects in different ways… throughout graduating the instruction to the age of the pupil and the knowledge that he already possesses” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 27.4).
The Orbis Pictus was written to further universal access to education, as a Latin language guide it was also specifically designed to capture the fascination of children and teach them while entertaining them. It was the first children’s picture book published in the west (Baynes 1889, p. 182), and it entertained and educated children for centuries. It furthered Comenius’ quest for universal education because it made it easier for more children to begin learning Latin in a way that was fun.

5.3. Language Education Supported by Sensory Stimulus

The two works that Comenius published that were the most successful were both Latin language guides, the Janua Linguaram Reserata and the Orbis Sensualium Pictus. The reason both books were so widely successful was because they approached language in ways that were more engaging than learning grammar rules and tables. Comenius believed that language education, and the education system in general, was flawed because schools were not following the systems that were found in nature. Comenius greatly admired the order and structure of the natural world, which he saw as one of the greatest examples of God’s brilliance, so to imitate the natural world was to imitate God. From this Comenius argued, among other points, that “All things that are naturally connected ought to be taught in combination,” and “All subjects and languages should be taught by the same method” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 19.14). He believed that language education had failed to adhere to these two standards. Namely that students learned languages without truly understanding what they were saying and were forced to learn methods that varied from school to school and teacher to teacher. Put more simply, Comenius despised rote memorization in all aspects of education but found it especially despicable in regard to language learning.
To correct these errors, Comenius argued that “Words should not be learned apart from the objects to which they refer” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 22.4). He is arguing that it is not enough to memorize the words if the students do not fully understand the meaning of what they are saying. For this purpose, he wrote the Orbis Pictus, with that book the students saw the writing first in the student’s native language under the left column, and then in Latin under the right column. Each significant vocabulary word is italicized and marked with a number, that number corresponds to a number in the picture signifying the object of the vocabulary. To give one example, on page ten under chapter six “The Air” Comenius describes the different forms that air can take first in English, “A cool Air, 1. breatheth gently,” and then in Latin “Aura, 1. spirat leniter” (Comenius 2019, p. 10) then in the picture at the top of the page, the student can see an illustration of a light breeze tagged with the number one. This provides a fun way for the students to learn the new vocabulary through their native language, which was another error of the language learning systems that Comenius worked to correct. Many traditional methods of language education did not utilize the student’s native language in learning new languages such as Latin. Comenius argued that it was “wrong to teach the unknown through the medium of that which is equally unknown” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 17.27), as would be the case if students were taught Latin with the teacher and all the books only communicating in Latin. He also disapproved of using the Latin language to further the students understanding of their native tongue, saying “For they do not want to learn their mother-tongue by the aid of Latin, but to learn Latin through the medium of the language that they already know” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 17.27). Comenius’ criticisms of language education were shared by members of the Hartlib circle, including Hartlib himself who argued that teachers needed to be familiar with both the language that they were teaching and the language in which the students were fluent (Orme 1973, p. 20).
Comenius believed that the key to learning a new language was to start with concepts and ideas with which the students were familiar. If this strategy is not used “the mind will have to pay attention to words and to things at the same time, and will thus be distracted and weakened” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 22.15). This was another reason that it was advantageous to use sensory stimuli, especially pictures, in language education. It would help reinforce the connection between the old information and the new.
When Nicholas Orme writes that Comenius “Flew in the face of tradition and rejected popular practices,” he is not exaggerating in the slightest (1973, p. 55). In general, Comenius believed that more students would benefit from education suited toward a vocational track rather than an intellectual one. This attitude extended to language; the Latin that was used in the Janua and the Orbis Pictus was more utilitarian than what was found in most Latin guides. He believed that for students who intended to undertake further scholarships at universities should certainly extend their fluency with Latin, but he believed that most students would benefit more from a working understanding of the language that would help them in any legal or business matters. Comenius recommended that the first language a student should master was their mother tongue, but then in a departure from many humanists, he stated that “Then the language that may have to be used in its [the mother tongue’s] place, I mean that of the neighbouring nation (for I am of the opinion that modern languages should be commenced before the learned ones)” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 22.9). To be clear, Comenius was not the sole humanist to place value in the vernacular. Dante Alighieri’s work the Convivio was written in Italian and defended the use of vernacular in poetry and other forms of expressive literature. What made Comenius unique was that he firmly believed that the child’s native language was central to the educative process. The reason that Comenius dedicated so much ink to language is because he saw language as the gate to the temple of wisdom. So, if humans were more versed in the language, they were closer to wisdom, and therefore closer to salvation.

5.4. School Discipline

Many scholars have claimed that Comenius was completely against the use of corporal punishment in school. While this would be incredibly impressive given the time period, it is not completely accurate. Very early on in the chapter dedicated to the discipline, Comenius states that “Now no discipline of a severe kind should be exercised in connection with studies or literary exercises, but only where questions of morality are at stake,” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.4). When it came to matters of learning and education, Comenius forbade the use of corporal punishment. He argued adamantly that if lessons were properly prepared, most students would naturally be attracted to learning, and that “Indeed, by any application of force we are far more likely to produce a distaste for letters than a love for them” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.4). If some discipline was required for educational purposes, he advised that “Sometimes a few severe words or a reprimand before the whole class is very efficacious, while sometimes a little praise bestowed on the others has great effect” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.5). However, when it came to moral infractions, Comenius believed that physical discipline was more appropriate, but only after other forms of discipline had failed. Comenius listed moral infractions as
  • The case of impiety of any kind, such as blasphemy, obscenity, or any other open offence against God’s law.
  • In the case of stubbornness and premeditated misbehaviour, such as disobeying the master’s orders, or the conscious neglect of duty.
  • In the case of pride and disdain or even of envy and idleness; as, for example, if a boy refuse to give a schoolfellow assistance when asked to do so. (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.6).
It is noteworthy that Comenius did not list being a bad student, meaning a student who struggles with the content or has difficulty focusing, as a moral infraction. Commonly during this period, students who were not motivated to learn were seen as morally corrupted by the sin of sloth. Comenius’ system of discipline starts with gentle remedies, only using violence as a last resort. The first stage of correcting or preventing moral infractions is giving examples of proper conduct that the students can imitate, and the teacher “should point to himself as a living example” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.9). If modelling proper behaviour does not prevent troublesome actions then the teacher was advised that they may “Employ advice, exhortation, and sometimes blame” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.9). However, Comenius warned that care should be taken to ensure that the student understood that the discipline was intended to help them and came from a place of care. In the unfortunate event that neither of the previous methods worked, Comenius advised that “If some characters are unaffected by gentle methods, recourse must be had to more violent ones, and every mean should be tried before any pupil is pronounced impossible to teach,” however Comenius is quick to state that “We should take great care, however, not to use these extreme measures too readily, or too zealously” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.9). Comenius was only too aware that most teachers in his day were always ready and willing to use the rod. Comenius sums up the chapter on discipline with the note that “This training of the character can only be accomplished in the above-mentioned ways: by good example, by gentle words, and by continually taking a sincere and undisguised interest in the pupil” (Comenius [1896] 1907, chp. 26.10). While Comenius was not the champion against physical punishments that many modern readers may have hoped, he still took a bold stance against a deeply rooted aspect of the institution that was often hated but seldom challenged.

6. Conclusions

Comenius has been titled as the father of modern education, and the evidence provided in this article shows no reason to dispute this designation. He has fascinated historians and pedagogues alike in the years since his work has resurfaced. When first learning of Comenius, many people wonder why his ideas reflected modern thoughts on education, and why he dedicated more than four decades of his life to reform efforts. This study suggests that he was trying to incite the Millennium, that golden age that would herald the second coming of Christ and end with God’s final judgement. As stated previously in this article, Comenius fully converted to millenarianism due to his teacher Alsted’s Diatribe. He later worked with the Hartlib circle, a group that Harrison has argued was inspired by Baconian thought and eschatological ideas (Harrison 2007, pp. 188, 197). This group believed that their efforts would be part of a great reformation that would incite the millennium. Comenius added to these efforts his plans for educational reform. In his A Patterne of Universall Knowledge, Comenius stated that there would be “a multiplication of knowledge and light at the very evening of the world Dan. 12.4 Zach. 14.7… therefore… let us endeavour that this be promoted” (Comenius [1642] 1651, p. 65). Comenius’ belief in the Millennium and the belief that it could be incited through human effort would explain the forty years he dedicated to reforms. From this perspective, if he and his colleagues could incite the Millennium it would bring an end to the senseless slaughter of war, to the religious conflicts that wracked Europe, and to the terrible diseases that claimed so many of his family. Alternatively, even if Comenius did not believe that his efforts could incite the Millennium, his belief that the Millennium was coming would have still lit a fire within him. His work would have been done while hearing the proverbial clock ticking down the seconds until the world ended. Through this lens, his determination can be seen as a man racing against the clock to prepare the world for God’s final judgement. Either way, Comenius’ eyes were on the future while he worked in his present day. He never gave up on his dream of Pansophia; even on his death bed he asked his son-in-law and close personal assistant to publish his final collection of pansophic works (Sadler 1966, p. 19). He was not able to incite the Millennium, but four hundred years after his birth, his ideas about education have found homes in the modern world. He is the father of modern education, and though the Millennium and the end of the world did not occur, the world that is still here will hopefully continue his mission of universal wisdom.


This research was funded in part by a Pioneer Scholars Grant from Carroll University.


Scott E. Hendrix for assistance. Carroll University, Todd Wehr Memorial Library Staff for processing Interlibrary Loan requests in a timely and efficient manner. The Carroll University Pioneer Scholars Program for financial support.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


This iteration of the Four horsemen of the apocalypse was common in the early modern period and would have been the version with which Comenius was most familiar. This depiction was also brought to life in startling detail by Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) 1498 woodcut The Four Horsemen, from the Apocalypse. See Jennifer Spinks and Charles Zika. 2016. Introduction: Rethinking Disaster and Emotions. In Disaster, Death and the Emotions in the Shadow of the Apocalypse, 1400–1700. Edited by Jennifer Spinks and Charles Zika. London: Springer, pp. 1–18 (Spinks and Zika 2016).
Sources differ on whether Comenius had three or four sisters.


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