John Dury

The Scottish-born theologian John Dury (1596–1680) spent most of his life in a quixotic attempt to reunite the Lutheran and Calvinist wings of the divided Protestant religious tradition. His efforts encompassed philosophical writings, polemics, and personal travels around Europe, which brought him into contact with many of the leading religious and political figures of his day.

Although he had little success during his lifetime—the Lutheran and Calvinist, or Reformed, branches of Protestantism remain separate to this day—John Dury was an intellectual of wide-ranging interests whose work had implications different from those he was pursuing. Specifically, he was an advocate of universal education and believed that it could lead to a religious reconciliation of the kind he envisioned. In the words of historian H.R. Trevor-Roper, writing in Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change, it is often said that “the Protestant Reformers, either directly, by their theology, or indirectly, by the new social forms which they created, opened the way to the new science and the new philosophy of the seventeenth century, and so prepared the way for the transformation of the world.” Dury's career provides an illustration of this idea.

Came of Age in Scotland

Dury's life unfolded against a backdrop of political unrest that, in turn, had its roots in religious divisions. Also known as John Durie or as Duraeus (a Latin form of his name), he was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1596. His father, Robert Dury (or Durie), was a Presbyterian (Scottish Calvinist) minister, exiled from Scotland in 1606 after running afoul of King James VI (later James I of England). The elder Dury made his way to Leiden, in the Netherlands, where he found a Scottish congregation, a wider group of Puritans (those advocating a return to religious basics) hailing from the British Isles, and a restive community of religious thinkers and idealists. All of these groups would influence the young Dury's thinking.

Dury attended the University of Leiden and the Academy of Sedan, the latter a major center of Reformation thinking in the now-French city of Sedan. In the late 1610s he was employed as a tutor to the son of a Dutch businessman, Barthelemy Panhuysen. This would be the first of a series of posts with which Dury would support himself while traveling around Europe in hope of gaining support for his ideas. Dury eventually arrived in Cologne, in Germany, which was Catholic controlled but had an underground Reformed church attended by local members of the Walloon ethnic group; he would serve as its minister between 1624 and 1626.

Dury then traveled to Elbing (now Elblag, Poland), a mercantile city near the Baltic Sea. He made a number of important acquaintances there, in both the religious and political realms. One was the German-British writer Samuel Hartlib, a man of wide interests who helped to shape Dury's ideas about the power of education. Hartlib introduced him to John Amos Comenius, a Czech philosopher who also linked religion and education and who is considered an important forerunner of modern educational ideas. Dury also gained a powerful patron, the English ambassador Thomas Roe. Encouraged by Roe, Dury quit his regular job as an official with England's Company of Merchant Adventurers (an import-export guild) and embarked on a career as a traveling religious writer, lecturer, and negotiator, sometimes publishing his work under the name John Robertson.

Mastered Multiple Languages

For ten years, from 1631 to 1641, Dury traveled around Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, preaching the cause of unity among the rapidly proliferating Protestant sects. He learned to speak German so well that, upon returning to England, he was often taken for a German. He spoke several other languages, including French and Polish (he translated religious treatises in both these languages into English), probably Dutch, and perhaps others. During this period, Dury had some successes. He gained adherents for his ideas among the rulers of some of Central Europe's smaller states, including Elizabeth of Bohemia and Duke August Ulrich of Wolfenbüttel, the founder of a great library that impressed him mightily. Dury even gained a hearing for his ideas from the most powerful Protestant ruler of the time, Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden.

Dury returned to the Netherlands in 1642, becoming a tutor to the young Princess Mary of Orange and in 1645 working briefly for the English Merchant Adventurers. That same year he returned to England, undertaking his first marriage, to Dorothy Moore, in his late 40s and accepting a post as minister at Winchester Cathedral. From 1647 to 1649 he served as tutor to the younger children of King Charles I, a position that came to an end with Charles's execution. Although he had served the king, Dury's reputation was such that he was able to maintain his influence in the republican Commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell, which would rule England from 1649 to 1660. Dury backed the Commonwealth with pamphlets, translated Eikonoklastes, Commonwealth supporter John Milton's justification for Charles's execution, into French, and was rewarded with the post of librarian at St. James's Palace.

Advocated Educational Reform

Influenced by Comenius, Dury envisioned education as the path by which the rightness of his ideas would become clear. His 1648 book The Reformed School, with a preface by Hartlib, envisioned school systems established by Reformed Protestant communities and overseen by schoolmasters and other officials—in short, with the exception of religious control, with a structure similar to those of modern educational systems and an emphasis on proficiency in learning rather than rote method. Indeed, while Dury favored beginning and ending the school day with Bible readings, he did not support including religious education in the curriculum, preferring to avoid the transmission of religious dogma and expose children to the Bible directly. He argued for tolerance toward Jews in England, not because he agreed with their religious ideas but because he believed that education, rather than coercion or repression, was the best way to bring them to the Christian faith. Dury also published The Reformed Librarie-Keeper, perhaps the first work of library science, in 1650.

In personality, Dury was something of a happy warrior. Although there was little indication that his dream of Protestant unity would ever be realized, he never lost faith in it. He was rarely prosperous and several times turned down secure positions in order to continue his work. “Whenever we catch a glimpse of him …,” wrote Trevor-Roper, “he is in Germany, in Holland, in Denmark, in Sweden, beset with poverty, selling his father's books to buy bread, waiting in the ante-rooms of warring princes and generals, indifferent bishops, querulous theologians; he is writing on education; collecting Bacon's works for German princes or the young Queen of Sweden; interpreting the Apocalypse; counting the number of the Beast.”

In the 1650s Dury undertook diplomatic trips on behalf of Cromwell to Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. His association with Cromwell ultimately resulted in his permanent departure from his native British Isles; after the fall of the Commonwealth in 1660 and the restoration of Charles II as king, he was in a dangerous position. He traveled from place to place, writing new treatises increasingly often in French. In the words of his biographer Thomas H.H. Rae, “Dury spent the years from 1661 to 1674 in constant trouble, writing and preaching in desperate attempts to retrieve some part of his personal reputation and position, and fighting with all his powers the increasingly unfavorable attitude toward his still desired goal of church unity.”

For the last years of his life, Dury lived in Kassel, in the principality of Hesse in what is now northern Germany. Despite his increasing age, he produced several major theological treatises, among them Le véritable chrétien (“The True Christian”), published in 1676. Increasingly despondent after the death of his wife and his friends Comenius and Hartlib, Dury died in Kassel on September 28, 1680, likely feeling that his life's work had gone for nothing. Educational systems along the lines he and Comenius had sketched out, however, were promoted and implemented by others over the next centuries, often with little appreciation of where their fundamental ideas had come from.


Adamson, John William, Pioneers of Modern Education, 1600–1700, Cambridge, 1905.

Rae, Thomas H.H., John Dury and the Royal Road to Piety, Peter Lang, 1998.

Rae, Thomas H.H., John Dury, Reformer of Education, H.A. Gerstenberg, 1972.

Trevor-Roper, H.R., Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change, Macmillan, 1967.


A Puritan's Mind website, (December 5, 2016), C. Matthew McMahon, “The Life and Death of Mr. John Dury.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)