The State and the Non-Public School 1825-1925
reviewed by Pearl Rock Kane - 1989
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, who introduced the Bill of Rights proposals in the House in 1789, the clause against the establishment of religion was intended to erect a wall of separation between Church and State. This first amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing equal rights of conscience to all persons and establishing the principle that all religious bodies would be voluntary bodies within the state, has fueled debates on what has come to be called the school questionchurch-state relationships and religious observance in the public schoolsfor over 150 years. Proponents of aid to nonpublic schools contend that the establishment clause prohibits Congress from establishing a single national church, but would permit aid to all religions on a nonpreferential basis. Next to desegregation, the establishment clause has brought the most cases to the U.S. Supreme Court docket. In recent years issues such as creationism, secular humanism, and tuition tax credits have intensified old controversies and brought renewed fervor to Constitutional debates.
In The State and the Non-Public School: 1825-1925, Lloyd P. Jorgenson makes no attempt to add to the litany of interpretation of the first amendment, choosing instead to dismantle one of the myths we all carry with usthat the separation of church and state was the result of the Constitution and the impact of that separation was there from the beginning of the Republic. Jorgenson does a good job of unmasking that myth by showing how long state support for denominational schools actually lasted. The first schools did not differentiate between what later came to be called public and private, and many schools had a denominational character. Education was essentially religious in purpose, and seen as properly funded by philanthropy, occasionally with the support of the state. William Penn Charter School, for example, was described in its charter as a public school, but it was founded by a private corporation composed of Quakers. The public schools of Washington, D.C., were under private control until the nineteenth century. In New York, voluntary academies were publicly supported through the 1850s (p. 5).
Jorgenson attributes our current policies to religious intolerance, not abstract principle. The book attempts to document the social, political, and economic forces that led the Protestant majority to impose their brand of beliefs on the public schools and vehemently to oppose the parochial schools. Our basic public policies on church-state relationships and religious observance in the public schools are viewed in their historical context, by the events that shaped national behavior throughout the nineteenth centurythe Common School Movement, the religious revival of the Second Awakening, and the anti-Catholic, xenophobic nativist movement.
The Common School Movement, occurring roughly during the period 1830 to 1860, was a series of state movements aimed at expanding and improving education at the elementary school level, partially or wholly at public expense. Since Protestant clergy and laypeople constituted the largest single element in the leadership of the public school crusade it was hardly surprising that they assumed a congruence of purpose between the common school and their beliefs. Leaders of the Common School Movement agreed that religious instruction was indispensable to the development of moral citizens. So as not to include the doctrines unique to one sect, they aimed at nonsectarianism, which Horace Mann defined as teaching the great common truths of Christianity. Naturally, they chose the Protestant version of the Bible to read in the public schools, but Mann offered a nonsectarian approach, to read the Bible without comment. As Tyack has pointed out, nonsectarianism implied elimination of denominational quarrels in the public schools, not elimination of religion from the schools.1
A secondary concern in Jorgensons study was the required reading of the King James version of the Bible. Bible reading was seen as the centerpiece of the schools instructional program. Protestant ministers and laypeople who carried the banner for the Common School Movement assumed a congruence of purpose between the school and the Protestant church. Majority rule on the reading of the King James version of the Bible reigned well into the twentieth century. Until the 1950s, in every state where the laws compelling Bible reading were challenged the state supreme courts upheld the laws.2
Textbooks used at the time further derogated Catholicism. The widely read Fifth Reader prepared by Alexander McGuffey included overt sectarianism. Jorgenson cites one example in the McGuffey Reader: Franciscan friars are described as persons who eat the bread of other peoples, and have no plan in life but to get through it in sloth and ignorance, for the love of God (p. 62).
While the common school was taking hold, a religious movement known as the Second Awakening was transforming American Protestantism. The Second Awakening embraced revivalism with fervor and created an American Protestantism that put greater emphasis on the internal experience of conversion than it did on theology. Revivalist leaders sought to reduce the Christian message to the simplest possible terms, paving the way for nonsectarian religious instruction in the common schools. Jorgenson assures us that by the time Horace Mann came to the educational scene, the doctrine of nonsectarianism was part of the conventional wisdom of evangelical Protestantism (p. 36).
Further, teacher training in this context was shaped by the revivalist spirit. The large numbers of teachers needed to fill the growing classrooms of the common schools were trained largely in teacher institutes by religious leaders more concerned with awakening teachers than with inculcating technical skills. Henry Barnard, who conceived of one of the institutes, described it as an educational revival agency of the most extensive, permanent, and unobjectionable character (p. 57).
The reforms of the Common School Movement were suffused with this spirit of evangelical Protestantism. This did not please the Catholic Church, which found the lack of emphasis on theology as objectionable as the earlier doctrines they replaced. To Catholics nonsectarianism was Protestantism and necessarily offensive. Moreover, Catholics questioned whether schools led by the clergy, taught predominantly by Protestant ministers or teachers trained in revival-type settings, by religious leaders, using texts written by Protestants, could legitimately serve all children. At the same time, Protestant leaders were relentless in imposing their brand of beliefs on all children. When persuasion proved ineffective, proponents of the common schools resorted to legislation, though they were not reluctant to employ brute force.
The response of the Catholics was to intensify commitment to parochial schools and to renew efforts to secure public funds for their schools. In 1852 the first Baltimore Plenary Council convened with all the bishops in the nation, to respond to the growing anti-Catholic sentiment in the schools. The Plenary Council firmly endorsed the establishment of parochial schools, at parish expense if necessary. Bishop Hughes, commenting on the required reading of anti-Catholic materials in the public schools, made it clear that religious liberty of Catholic children would be ensured only in separate schools:
We feel it is unjust that such passages should be taught at all in schools, to the support of which we are contributors as well as others. But that such books should be put into the hands of our own children, and that in part at our expense, was in our opinion unjust, unnatural, and at all events to us intolerable. Accordingly, through very great additional sacrifices, we have been obliged to provide schools, under our own churches and elsewhere, in which to educate our children as our conscientious duty required.3
Whatever dissension existed was intensified by outright discrimination against Catholics. During the decades when the campaign for schools was at its height, nativism gained in popularity, best demonstrated by the antiforeign, anti-Catholic sentiment of the Know-Nothing party that dominated the political campaigns of the 1850s. As increasing numbers of Catholic immigrants entered American shores the nativists became even more threatened by the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church. To preserve national homogeneity, the Know-Nothing party agitated for strict naturalization laws and exclusion of Catholics and foreigners from public office. Nativist propaganda, claims Jorgenson, was a major element in the resistance to using public funds for nonpublic schools, and contributed to the bifurcation of American education into public and private sectors.
A strength of Jorgensons study is that he clearly documents the bifurcation that resulted from religious fervor and anti-Catholic bigotry. At the same time, in his zeal to present the Catholic position, Jorgenson overlooks the inflexibility of the Catholics to work out a compromise solution. In her history of the public school movement in New York, Diane Ravitch provides another perspective. Ravitch points out that the Catholic clergy in New York had no intention of making the schools more acceptable. They opposed the schools with as much ardor as the Protestants supported them. Even when Catholic leaders were invited to revise the schoolbooks, they refused to collaborate, resisting any plan that would make the schools more hospitable to Catholics. Catholic priests were resolved to have their own schools.4 Jorgensons Catholic bias is clear and the study may be justifiably considered one-sided. Indeed, the title of the book, The State and the Non-Public School, may be inaccurate. There is little mention of denominations other than Catholic. Despite these excesses Jorgenson provides a well-documented study that is told with passion. The Catholic emphasis does not diminish its usefulness, considering that over half of all students attending nonpublic schools attend Catholic schools.5
The study provides an important historical context for understanding the continuing questions of religious concerns and secular authority. Recent events indicate that the broad national issues of the relationship between public schools and religious practices have never been solved. Jorgenson helps us understand why the dissension will continue, and why proponents of aid to nonpublic schools feel righteous in persisting with their demands.