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The War that Wasn't: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900

reviewed by Chara Haeussler Bohan - 2006

coverTitle: The War that Wasn't: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900
Author(s): Benjamin Justice
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791462110, Pages: 285, Year: 2005
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Benjamin Justice boldly challenges the religious warfare thesis in his beautifully written and carefully researched book, The War that Wasn’t: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900.  In a comprehensive analysis of the common schools in New York State before the turn of the twentieth century, Justice successfully argues that compromise, rather than conflict, dominated religious concerns in the common schools of the time period.  Indeed, common schools were “common to all” including people of increasingly diverse religious affiliations.  Justice finds that the democratic tradition out of which American public schools originated led to locally crafted, democratically engineered solutions to religious differences extant in common schools.  Justice also challenges the prevailing idea that religious concerns dominated the common school curriculum.  He argues that religious exercises were perfunctory and generally limited to rote, opening drills at the beginning of the school day.  Justice’s novel analysis is worthy of careful examination, especially for historians of education familiar with the warfare thesis which has dominated historical interpretation for the past century.

Indeed, Justice provides detailed evidence to bolster his innovative interpretation of religious conflict in New York State common schools.  He divides his investigation into three parts.  First, he examines the origins of common schools in the United States.  Because these public schools were centers of community and democratically constructed, Justice believes that compromise rather than conflict was a more typical mode of operation for most common schools.  Second, he examines religion in district schools.  District schools existed in rural and suburban areas and comprised the vast majority of schools in the post-bellum era.  Third, he researches religion in urban schools in New York State’s major cities; New York, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Albany, and Rochester, as well as some smaller cities (p. 142).  Justice concludes by noting that the relationship between New York State and its public schools had fundamentally changed by the beginning of the twentieth century.  The era of localism and laissez-faire policy ended as progressive education reform began to dominate national and state education policy (p. 219).  

In analyzing the origins of the common school movement, Justice’s footsteps initially follow a familiar path.  He recounts the role of the founding fathers, such as Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson, in establishing the new nation, including its schools.  He reminds readers that these men also proposed “a high wall of separation” between church and state (p. 20).  In New York, common schools were established under the direction of Governor George Clinton, but Justice claims that the system initially failed because schools were poorly funded (sound familiar?).  By 1816, however, there were early signs of growth, and the number of schools and students tripled in the ensuing fifteen years (p. 29).  In a sharp turn off the well-trodden path, however, Justice demonstrates that the Second Great Awakening, which began in revivalist upstate New York, corresponded with a “sharp decline in church control of mass education” (p. 35).  By examining data from the Annual Reports of the State Superintendent of Common Schools of the State of New York, he reveals that Bible use in the classroom never reached more than one-third of the towns in the state in the early to mid-1800s, and he demonstrates that Bible use in the classroom declined by sixty percent in the decade from 1830-1840.  In fact, Webster’s Spelling Book was the most popular classroom textbook by 1840.  Furthermore, he notes that local school governance remained the dominant mode of operating common schools in the post-bellum era, despite the massive growth of public education.  

In the second section of The War that Wasn’t, Justice examines the role of religion in New York State’s rural schools, which until the 1880s, enrolled the majority of the state’s children.  He explores the role of the district system with respect to boundary disputes, voting, and taxes.  Interestingly, these three issues remain common areas of contention in many local school politics today.  In addition, Justice investigates the use of the schoolhouse facility for after hours religious purposes and finds that use of the building often became contentious as a tax issue, not a religious issue.  For example, common complaints that local school board trustees faced included wear and tear on the building, damage to district property, and theft of district firewood (p. 98).  Justice also examines the role of religious exercises in the curriculum.  Although approximately half of all district schools by the late 1800s conducted some form of religious exercises, he found that these practices were not controversial.  Indeed, less than one in 1,000 complaints to the State Superintendent concerned religious exercises (p. 109).


Justice’s final section explores religious controversy in urban schools in New York State.  Urban schools differed significantly from rural counterparts, and often faced unique circumstances.  Justice describes the growth of urban school systems after the Civil War and provides a chronological narrative of urban public school policy towards religion.  In the urban setting, more discord over religion is revealed, particularly in New York City and Long Island City.  Of course, these large cities experienced massive Irish and German immigration, and these nationalities were largely comprised of people of the Catholic faith.  Immigration created religious diversity in cities that often did not exist in homogeneous rural towns.  Tensions in schools existed over anti-Catholic bias in textbooks, reading of the King James version of the Bible instead of the Douay Bible, and teacher selection.   Thomas Nast’s famous cartoons in Harper’s Weekly (pp. 167-169) exposed anti-Catholic sentiment, but Justice claims Nast exaggerated religious conflict.  In fact, Justice finds that city school boards developed a variety of strategies for handling religious pluralism, and these methods demonstrate the power of local, democratic solutions to religious diversity.   Unique solutions even included the temporary funding of parochial schools.

The War that Wasn’t explains how peaceable adjustments characteristic of local public school policy towards religion in the late nineteenth century ended with the advent of national progressive education reform.  Justice argues that public school policy was a fundamentally different process in the late 1800s that retained strong democratic, local control (p. 227).  He also explores implications for current public school policy towards religion and contemporary rhetoric around voucher programs and recent Supreme Court decisions with respect to religion in schools.  He effectively demonstrates that compromise, not conflict, dominated religious concerns in the common schools of New York State in the late 1800s.


The War that Wasn’t makes a significant contribution to the study of religion and education history, primarily because the author challenges common interpretations of the role of religion in common schools.  Elwood Cubberly (1934) initially characterized battles over religion in public school history in his work Public Education in the United States.  More recent education historians, such as Diane Ravitch (1974) in The Great School Wars and Warren Nord (1995) in Religion in American Education, have supported the interpretation of a polemical debate over religion in public schools suggested by the “warfare thesis.”  Justice offers evidence from one state to demonstrate that compromise, more than conflict, dominated religion in public school discussions.  Of course, to strengthen Justice’s innovative interpretation, additional state education histories must be analyzed.


A shortcoming of Justice’s analysis is the limited post-bellum timeframe.  Religion dominated colonial educational practices much more so than it did in the late 1800s, so conflict over religion in the curriculum may have occurred more gradually, over a longer period of time than Justice’s timeframe indicates.  Furthermore, Justice cites a lack of complaints to the State Superintendent as evidence that religion was not as controversial as many believed.  However, disputes over religion in public schools may have often remained local concerns – just as Justice suggests that compromise and control remained local.  Rural communities often did not have newspapers, so Justice relies solely on appeals to the State Superintendent for his analysis.  Cities, such as New York, often had several newspapers in the late 1800s as they were a primary form of mass communication.  As Justice demonstrates, the debate over religion was sometimes contentious in urban areas.  Polemical debate may have also occurred in rural areas, but a dearth of evidence exists to support either interpretation.

Finally, Justice argues that Bible use declined precipitously in the common school curriculum by 1840, as Webster’s Spelling Book (c. 1800) was the most popular textbook.  Of course, many of the lessons in Webster’s Spelling Book (1made reference to religion and had strong, Protestant overtones.  For example, table XVIII, lesson one, of an early 1800s version of Webster’s Spelling Book reads:

MY son, hear the counsel of thy father,

And forsake not the law of thy mother.

If sinners entice thee to sin, consent thou not.

Clearly, the Bible was not the only manner in which students learned religious lessons in common schools.

Regardless of these minor shortcomings, Benjamin Justice’s The War that Wasn’t: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900 provides an original interpretation of the role of religion in American public schools and offers bountiful evidence to support this new analysis.  Justice is to be commended for the contribution he has made to religion and education history.  Simply put, the book is a must read.


Cubberly, E. P. (1934). Public education in the United States: A study and interpretation of American educational history. San Francisco: Houghton Mifflin.

Nord, W. A. (1995). Religion and American education: Rethinking a national dilemma.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ravitch, D. (1974). The great school wars. New York: Basic Books.

Webster, N. (c. 1800) The American spelling book. Wilmington: Bonsal & Niles.  Accessed at http: www.merrycoz.org/books/spelling/SPELLING.HTM

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 96-100
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12074, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:21:50 AM

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About the Author
  • Chara Bohan
    Baylor University
    E-mail Author
    CHARA HAEUSSLER BOHAN is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Baylor University. Her research interests include education history, women’s studies, and social studies curriculum. She has contributed to journals such as Theory and Research in Social Education, The Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, Social Studies and the Young Learner, and Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue. She authored Go to the Sources: Lucy Maynard Salmon and the Teaching of History, and co-edited a primary source compilation of education documents, Readings in American Educational Thought: From Puritanism to Progressivism.
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