Educating the Public:
Reformed History, Commitments, and Strategies
James H. Smylie
In this paper we discuss the history, commitments, and strategies of those in the Reformed and Presbyterian family to the education of the public. We begin with a reference to the founding of the Alexander Robertson School by the Second Presbyterian Church of New York in 1789. The Second Presbyterian Church, called the Old Scotch Kirk until 1917, was organized in 1756, when Scottish members of the more English First Presbyterian Church seceded. In eighteenth-century New York, some families who could afford it educated their children at home under private tutors, while some churches maintained parish schools for congregations and also for needy children. Alexander Robertson, a Scotsman, engaged in the linen trade in the city before the American Revolution. After the war he and others raised money to repair the church, which had been used as barracks by mercenaries, and also for a parish school. The school was founded as a coeducational institution, somewhat unusual in those days, but certainly in the spirit of the era. The grateful congregation named the school for this principal benefactor. The institution which bears his name still exists under the parish minister, who has usually been born or educated in Scotland. Elder-trustees meet first to care for the affairs of the congregation and then adjourn to convene as a school board, to this day.1
The Alexander Robertson School illustrates Presbyterian concern for education. It is
altogether appropriate that we recall and review from a historical perspective the
commitments of those who number themselves within the Reformed and Presbyterian family of
churches to educate the public, and the strategies which have been explored in fulfilling
such a commitment. In doing this, we shall look at the past, covering the Reformation to
the academies of colonial America. Then we shall analyze the educational ferment of the
middle part of the nineteenth century, when those in the Reformed tradition explored
various strategies for educating the public. Lastly we shall cover how Presbyterians in
particular have attempted to enhance public education in their own time while supporting a
vigorous Christian education program in church schools of the denomination. We shall call
attention to the Christian Day Schools of the members of the Christian Reformed Church as
an alternative to the Presbyterian approach. As we recall and review this history, we
shall note the various shifts in concerns and emphases as Presbyterians have attempted to
deal with their commitment to educate the public.
I. Education for God's Glory, the Church and Commonwealth
Education for God's Glory has been a concern of those of us in the Reformed tradition since the days of John Calvin and his various followers in Geneva and elsewhere in Europe and in colonial America. It is important that we remember this legacy before moving more closely to our own time.
It is quite clear that the Reformation which took place in Geneva, and Calvin himself, left a legacy of great concern for education. We should note here that most of the leaders of the magisterial Reformation, including Calvin, were the products of Roman Catholic education in both the Christian and Classical traditions. Calvin himself was a child of the Renaissance.2 The Reformation was, as is common knowledge, based upon a rediscovery of the world of the Bible, a reaffirmation of God's sovereign grace and control of all creation and existence, a restatement and a reshaping of the Christian faith, of ecclesiastical and civil structures. Because of the emphasis upon the Bible, the priesthood of all believers, and the belief that all believers should have access to the rule of faith and life in the Bible, the Reformers of Geneva placed a stress on literacy and education. The print revolution, which had taken place at the time of the spiritual revolution, made it possible for believers to have easier access to the Bible and other literature. At the very earliest meeting of the General Council in Geneva in 1536, which abolished the mass and established the Reformation in that city, the Council established schools, opened them at no expense to the poor of the city, and made attendance compulsory. In the Geneva of Calvin, the city leaders insisted in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541 that the "youth should be faithfully instructed" (Hughes 1966:35). The only major construction which took place in the city during Calvin's life, except for roads and fortifications, was the college. Calvin made special provisions for the teacher as one of the orders of a well-maintained church and form of government, an order which proved useful among the Huguenots in France and also the Dutch (Graham 1971:151; Henderson 1962). We know, by the way, that Calvin gave considerable attention to this matter of education, and even came to the city Council once with a complaint against one student who was shooting peas in school at one of the instructors (Graham 1971:148).
It is, of course, more appropriate for us to turn to Scotland and John Knox as we celebrate the bicentennial of the Alexander Robertson School. Knox, of course, was an exile in Geneva and a friend of Calvin for a decisive part of his life. He once called Geneva the greatest school of Christ since the Apostles (MacGregor 1957; Greaves 1980). While we must remember that things have changed since Knox's day, we should note the careful attention which he gave to education as a Scottish Reformed in The Book of Discipline (1560) and in his History of the Reformation in Scotland (1584). In defining the responsibilities of the "godly Magistrate," Knox made him responsible for the education of youth in cooperation with the church. In defining the necessity of schools, Knox wrote:
Seeing that God hath determined that his Church here in earth shall be taught not by angels but by men; and seeing that men are born ignorant of all godliness, and seeing also [that] God now ceaseth to illuminate men miraculously, suddenly changing them, as that he did his Apostles and others in the Primitive Church: of necessity it is that your Honours be most careful for the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this Realm, if either ye now thirst unfeignedly [for] the advance of Christ's glory, or yet desire the continuance of his benefits to the generation following. For as the youth must succeed to us, so ought we to be careful that they have the knowledge and erudition to profit and comfort that which ought to be most dear to us, to wit, the Church and Spouse of the Lord Jesus. (Dickinson 1949:II, 295ff.)
There are several things we should note about this and other aspects of education during the Reformation in Scotland. First of all, the discipline provided for universal education, regardless of social class, for the poor as well as the rich, and advancement in the system as dependent on ability, not social background or wealth. In all probability, girls were included in the educational process at the lower levels. The rich were to make provisions for the children's education at their own expense because they were able, while the poor were to be sustained by the church. Both rich and poor were to be trained for service in the church and the commonwealth. Secondly, students were to study reading and grammar, the arts, philosophy, and the tongues, especially the Latin language. Furthermore, they were to give some time to that study by which students intended to contribute to the good of the whole community in the church or commonwealth. Churches were to provide schoolmasters and schools so that the young might be nourished and brought up in virtue in the presence of one another as well as their instructors. For students of greater ability, Knox's Discipline provided for higher education. At the level of earliest schooling the greatest weakness in the requirements appears to be in the study of the classics and humanities, while the strongest emphasis seems to be placed on the teaching of the
Christian religion, the knowledge of God's law and commandments, the use and office of the same, the chief articles of our belief, . . . the true knowledge of Christ Jesus, . . . without the knowledge whereof, neither deserveth [any] man to be named a Christian, neither ought any to be admitted to the participation of the Lord's Table.
One of the provisions made in the Discipline is that which called for training in "handicraft, or some other profitable exercise," or what is clearly a more utilitarian education (Dickinson 1949:II,197; Greaves 1980:196). Apparently the General Assembly in Scotland was responsible for disciplining wicked instructors who were infecting youth with their wickedness, according to Knox in his history of the church in Scotland (Dickinson 1949:II,65-66). Thus did Knox and his contemporaries make provision for the instruction of youth.
Out of these Reformed and Presbyterian backgrounds in Europe, immigrants came to colonial America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While the problems of taming a wilderness made the educational commitment difficult, those in the Reformed tradition did not give quarter either to the wilderness or to the "Old Deluder Satan," for that matter. Lawrence A. Cremin has analyzed this educational development in his massive history American Education (1988). Douglas Sloan has narrowed the focus for us in his volume, The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal (1971).3 He traces the educational developments among the Scotch-Irish and the Scottish immigrants to this country, especially in the middle colonies and southern and western settlements of the new land. What formal education there was took place in academies organized by Presbyterian clergy who, between the founding of William Tennent's Log College at Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and that of John McMillan's academy in western Pennsylvania, founded more than sixty-five schools, some of which developed into colleges. Ministers followed patterns from Scotland. Since Presbyterians did not enjoy the patronage of the civil magistrate, they also followed the model of the dissenting academies in England and Ulster. They depended upon themselves to develop support for their schools and churches, prebyteries, and synods, sometimes with the help of local civic leaders who were concerned for education. In turn graduates of these institutions began their own schools (Sloan 1971:55ff.) Originally organized to prepare young men for the ministry, these schools trained others for service for vocations other than in the church.
Samuel Finley started a boarding school at Nottingham. At Nottingham religion formed
the basis of the curriculum. Students had to study the Westminster Confession and
memorized the Shorter Catechism. They listened to Finley's sermons and had to express them
in their own words. They heard lectures on the evidences of Christianity. They studied
languages, Greek, Latin, English, the classics, logic, arithmetic, geography, and some
geometry. Students also had to work on the farm, considered "practical
agriculture," which provided moral and physical exercise along with food. Education
was broad in order to prepare young men for the professions, but also to provide
dissenting ministers with knowledge and skill to have more than one occupation. At least
one student, Benjamin Rush, complained that at a country school distractions such as
"hunting, gunning and the like" overcame the desire for learning (Sloan 1971:62;
Beam 1915; Turner 1951). Finley also believed that his students ought to have an
experiential knowledge of God. In the eighteenth century American Presbyterianism was
rocked and divided by a dispute over whether it was unhealthier for the church and
commonwealth to have an unconverted or an uneducated ministry--and citizenry, for that
matter. In settling this dispute, Presbyterians decided it was better for Presbyterians to
be both educated and converted, to know the grace of God as well as God's work of creation
and providence (Smith 1962:56-79; Sloan 1973). Thus on the basis of the Reformation
background and its developments in Geneva, in the British Isles, in colonial America, the
Reformed, including American Presbyterians, carried out their commitment to education, and
explored various strategies to do that. They continued to do so into the nineteenth
II. Testing Educational Strategies in the Republic
The Alexander Robertson School was started after the American Revolution and the writing and ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America. Presbyterians and other members of the Reformed family faced new challenges of education in a new nation. Beginning in the latter part of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, Presbyterians examined commitments and tested strategies having to do with education in the Republic at the creation of which they participated. As Cremin (1988) has indicated in his study of American educational history, for a free society under a free government Americans invented a large number of educational enterprises. Presbyterians brought to this challenge not only the legacy from their European past, but also from their belief that a republic needed a citizenry as well as a ministry which was literate, not only in the liberal arts but also in religion, preferably converted and with sensitive consciences. Americans began to explore educational possibilities, develop the common school and a whole range of voluntary societies for the education of the public, for example, the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Sunday School Union, and organizations to support education at various levels (Cremin 1988; Meyers 1972; Kennedy 1966). It is not our purpose to review this period thoroughly. I do wish to call attention to the debate among Presbyterians over their responsibilities for education and their support of public and/or parochial schools for the education of the republic. This story has been well told in considerable detail by Lewis Sherrill in Presbyterian Parochial Schools, 1846-1870 (1932); it may also be traced in denominational periodicals.
While many Presbyterians were involved in educating the people in the growing system of common schools and believed they could nurture citizenship and Christian faith at the same time, others became increasingly troubled about the directions in which things were going in the 1830s and 1840s. So in churches and ecclesiastical courts, in church newspapers and magazines, a debate about the nature of education began. For example, to whom did the responsibility for education belong--to the family, to the church, or to the civil magistrate? How was it Presbyterians were to preserve their identity in an increasingly pluralistic society? Presbyterians reacted to the developments championed by Unitarian Horace Mann, who frightened some of them because of what they thought was indifference to what was important about Christian faith. Presbyterians reacted to the arrival of Roman Catholic immigrants and the establishment of the Catholic parochial system. So some Presbyterians began to organize parochial schools to educate Presbyterians as Christians as well as citizens (Sherrill 1932:2ff.).4 The General Assembly itself approved such a development for a time.This development may be traced in the periodical edited by Cortland Van Rensselaer, corresponding Secretary of the Board of Education, and entitled Home, The School and the Church; or the Presbyterian Education Repository, beginning in 1850. James Waddel Alexander (1850) wrote the report which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1846 and was commended to the churches for implementation.
Alexander recalled Calvin and Knox as forerunners of Presbyterian concern for education. He described not only the school system supported by the state in Scotland, but also that of the Free Church of Scotland, which system was apparently thriving on resources provided on a voluntary principle by congregations. Coming to this side of the Atlantic, the author called attention to the mounting dangers of Universalism, Socinianism, Roman Catholicism, ritualism, and enthusiasm blowing in the American wind. He suggested the common school system could "teach no higher morals or religion, than what may be called the average of public morals and religion." Therefore Presbyterians should resist the "platitudinary encroachments of the age," and provide for young people an "Education for Christ" in Christian schools, "of respectable literary and scientific character, in every congregation." (Alexander 1850) These would also help produce a much needed educated ministry as well as citizenry. Alexander was aware that education should be provided for those who could not afford it as well as those who could, but he was unable to resolve the financial problems arising from his proposal in this report. Alexander concluded his appeal with positive recommendations to the General Assembly and also an allusion to the success of the parochial school attached to the Scotch Presbyterian Church in the city of New York as a model for other congregations (Alexander 1850:64). Between 1846 and 1870 Presbyterians founded 264 schools, according to Sherrill's account, which offered religious instruction in a systematic way, but tended to duplicate the curricula of the better public schools. Van Rensselaer and other influential leaders, such as Charles Hodge and Samuel Miller, supported this move, holding that the church and the family and not the state had the primary responsibility for educating children (Van Rensselaer 1853; Hodge 1854). The Board of Education of the denomination gave considerable time to training committed Christian teachers as instructors of these schools.5
Other Presbyterians, notably Robert J. Breckinridge of Kentucky, raised serious objections against this new venture in education.6 The Kentucky minister and educator argued his case on the floor of the General Assembly, and also in such articles as "Denominational Education," which appeared in the Southern Presbyterian Review and in pamphlet form during debates (Breckenridge 1849). His chief argument was one which may be traced back to the spirit of Calvin and his followers, applied to the American scene. Namely, as Christians and American citizens, Presbyterians should resist the temptation to withdraw from society as sectarians, behave like Calvinists, become deeply involved in education, and try to control it. The whole spirit of the age and the nation was in favor of public schools. The movement could not be resisted by the churches. Churches, however, could help to direct the movement and give public education as Christian a character as possible. Presbyterians, holding power disproportionate to their number, should be in the forefront of the development of public education to benefit from it as well as give leadership to the common school. He further held that because of the diversity of denominations in the United States, it would be impossible for each church to develop its own schools. It would be disastrous for the public schools if Christians were to separate themselves in isolated systems from the common schools of America. Furthermore, Breckenridge held that Presbyterians did not have the financial resources to build and sustain such a parochial system (Mayse 1974:452). While Alexander, Hodge, and Van Rensselaer argued defensively that Presbyterian children had to be protected from the winds of false doctrine and acids of modernity, Breckenridge seems to have argued aggressively that Presbyterians were called to give leadership to the society. Education was the primary responsibility of the civil magistrate who was to be helped and supported by families and churches. Breckenridge also believed that public schools would and should be leavened by the presence of Christian teachers and students. He did not want to sacrifice "all hope of the general education of mankind, upon the altar of sectarian bigotry and cant" (Mayse 1974:465-467).7 Breckenridge was supported by notable Presbyterians such as James Henly Thornwell. He gave an example to other Presbyterians by serving as Superintendent of Public Instruction in Kentucky for six years and by laying the foundation of that system. As Superintendent, he argued for the use of the Bible as a textbook in public education and gained support for the schools in this way by using the "cheapest and best of all books" (Mayse 1974:463-464, 475).
By 1870 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America had officially abandoned the proposal which it had adopted by 1846. Most Presbyterians had been in the public system, and followed the lead of Breckenridge in giving support and leadership to the common schools. The parochial school experiment failed for a number of reasons. At one level, it had been hastily conceived and launched, without adequate provision for teaching staffs and financial backing. The proposal had been made by a relatively small group in the denomination. They were not persuasive, and the General Assembly had no constitutional means of requiring each congregation to organize parochial schools. Only about eight-tenths of one per cent of all Presbyterians ever attempted to form such schools (Sherrill 1932:169ff.). At a deeper level, the advocates of the parochial school, while arguing that they were, indeed, educating the public, nevertheless asked Presbyterians to do something which was contrary to a deeply ingrained Reformed tradition, namely, to abandon responsibility for the education of all citizens, and thus to contribute to the public good (Sherrill 1932:179-180). Of course, Presbyterians found it more comfortable to support education because Bible reading and the Lord's Prayer provided religious dimensions of that education. At the same time they joined others in denying the Roman Catholic parochial school system public tax support. Indeed, the public school became an aspect of Protestant mission to the nation to foster its unity. Support of the system and participation in it turned into a badge of patriotism (Michaellsen 1970:118).
Together with his brother, a Presbyterian educator from Ohio named William McGuffey (1979) provided Eclectic Readers to teach religion, civics, and service of students in the commonwealth and church.8 It should be noted that some people, including Presbyterians, were already challenging the assumption that it was proper to include Bible reading and other religious instruction in the public schools. A Presbyterian elder, Judge Stanley Matthews, was a lawyer for the Board of Education in Cincinnati when the elimination of such practices was protested in the courts. Matthews declared that anything like a "broad Christianity," as the minimalist approach to religion was called, was "broad humbug." He declared himself a "Calvinist Protestant." He claimed that his religion could "stand on its own two legs," and if it could not "then it ought not." He was opposed to the support of religious practices in schools by law. Of course, it would take almost one hundred years for the federal courts to follow the lead of Cincinnati and prohibit such practices (Michaelsen 1970:101). During these years, Presbyterians along with other Protestants coopted the Sunday School to supplement what was done in public education and through the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. By the end of the century the Sunday School was big business, presided over by some of America's leading citizens, for example, Benjamin Harrison and John Wanamaker, both heavily involved in the movement and both Presbyterian. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Mark Twain (1875) may not have amused Presbyterian supporters of the parochial school, but he may have given them an opportunity to point out that the Sunday School, as it was constituted, did not provide means to educate young people adequately. Tom Sawyer was in line to win the Bible memory contest, and before giving a copy of the Bible as a prize to Tom, the Judge wanted to show off the young scholar. "Who," the Judge asks Tom, "were the first two disciples of Jesus?" To which Tom replied, "David and Goliath," much to the chagrin of the superintendent and other adults (Clemens 1875:46).
Another significant aspect of Presbyterian educational history deals with various American minorities, for example, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans. While the denomination terminated its official support of a parochial school system for its members, its agencies developed and maintained into the twentieth century a system of parochial education as an aspect of its mission work. The story has been told by Clifford Merrill Drury in Presbyterian Panorama (1952), a 150-year history of Presbyterian national missions. The "great object" of mission work, according to denomination manuals of the 1840s, was to "assist in making known the Gospel, for a witness unto all nations." To achieve this purpose Presbyterians sent out missionaries to preach to Native Americans and Mexican Americans and to organize and preside over churches until such time as a ministry from among these people could be trained. This involved therefore the organization of schools to "civilize" as well as Christianize the "heathen." So the denomination took over Spencer Academy of the Choctaw Council in Oklahoma as early as 1846, and later founded both Menaul School, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Allison-James in Santa Fe, among many others, to give to the children of Native Americans and Mexican Americans an education. The penultimate goal of schools such as these was to produce ultimately a "civilized, self-supporting people, prepared to take upon them the duties of full citizenship" as American citizens.
On the one hand, Presbyterian mission strategists offered, along with religious instruction, vocational training in these schools, practical knowledge of farming, mechanical arts, home economics, to prepare students to survive. On the other hand, the educators offered academic courses. In addition to learning the "three Rs," the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and McGuffey's Readers, they studied history, geography, algebra, physiology, and chemistry, so that they would have as good an education as many whites received. It should be noted that Presbyterians competed with other denominations for government funds for the support of these schools and depended on such support, as well as mission contributions, for their viability. As the public school system grew and the mission schools were phased out, in one area of the country, New Mexico, local Presbyterians brought suit against the Roman Catholic Church to prevent public funds from being paid to the members of religious orders. The Protestants supported the public education system free from sectarian control (Coleman 1985; Brackenridge and Garcia-Treto 1987).
Presbyterian education for African Americans began in earnest after the Civil War and was carried on in the South, especially, by Presbyterians of the North, often in cooperation with other northern denominations (Drury 1952:155-156). Agencies of Missions for Freedmen sprang into existence, and developed, among other approaches, and educational program. Leaders realized that in order to spread Presbyterianism among blacks, Presbyterians had to offer African Americans an education. In an Annual report of 1866, the Committee of Freedmen of the Old School Presbyterians listed priorities:
There must be the organization, first of the family, then of the school, then of the church, among this people; and for some time the Minister must not only organize but teach; he must leave the pulpit, and go to the cabin and the school room, and spend his time teaching young and old the alphabet and child's catechism. (Murray 1966:170-177)
Very often, as in the case of schools for Native Americans and Mexicans Americans, the teachers for freed children were women. Missionaries from the North associated with their students in a way which made many people in the South angry with this attempt to educate former slaves.
Presbyterians established numerous boarding schools in which black students lived together. According to one report, the purpose of these schools was to teach every phase of life, raise the standard of living, instill the ideals of sanitation, improve the condition of health, and express the love of Christ, as well as spread general knowledge, perhaps the dormitory is a more important factor in the work of the school than is the laboratory. Here it is that students live. Here it is that habits of neatness and orderliness are definitely built up (Parker 1977:29).
While the curriculum in these schools had a religious orientation, blacks learned their
reading, writing, and arithmetic in order to become leaders in the denomination, in the
African American community, and in the society. Presbyterian institutions began industrial
education following the lead of Booker T. Washington in the 1880s. As late as 1916 the
United States Bureau of Education listed 160 schools in the South under Presbyterian
auspices, many of them parochial, some classified basically as Sunday Schools. While
African Americans were not forced to become Presbyterian, they had opportunities to do so.
Such denominational schools dominated black secondary education in the South until after
World War II. Beginning in the 1930s, Presbyterians were forced for financial reasons to
liquidate many of these schools. With Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
(1954), they have supported the desegregation of American schools, although members have
not always been unanimous about denominational stands on this matter of education of
III. Supporting Public Education, Sunday Schools, and Christian Day Schools
Since the nineteenth century, then, most Presbyterians have been supporters of the public school system and some system of Christian education in churches. In recent years a number of problems have emerged in an increasingly pluralistic society. While Cremin has reviewed these years in his massive treatment of American education and in his monograph, The Transformation of the School (1961) there is no good monograph which covers the Reformed tradition in this period similar to the volumes of Sloan and Sherrill. During these years of the twentieth century, those in the Reformed tradition have had to face some serious problems. At the turn of the century, we faced the promises of Progressivism, the development of a Common Faith in the nation, and changes in the public schools, especially in terms of educational methodology. We should note that Presbyterians and other Protestants had to deal with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which spilled over into educational debates. For example, William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian elder, was considered "Boobus Americanus" or "Homo Boobiens" for his part in the Scopes trial over teaching evolution in schools in 1925. The Reformed community in general and Bryan's own Presbyterian Church did not follow its illustrious orator and Sunday School in this matter. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church refused to make him president. Beginning in the 1950's and thereafter we had to face the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), and the desegregation of American life, at which time those in the Reformed tradition generally accepted the challenge to educate all of America's children in desegregated schools. Some, especially in the South, resisted and established segregated institutions. We also had to face the Court's decisions, Engel vs. Vital (1962) and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp(1963), among others, and what some people call the desacralization of the public schools. The Court's opposition to the use of a so-called non-sectarian prayer and the use of Bible reading as part of opening exercises in public schools cut out the last religious vestiges of the Common School which Breckenridge had championed in the nineteenth century. These shifts in the American educational scene led Presbyterians, on whom I wish to focus here, to reaffirm responsibility for educating in the public school, while at the same time taking more seriously the Christian education in a more creative way in church Christian education programs. In the meantime, the Christian Reformed Church continued to maintain and support Christian day schools which we shall mention as a contemporary Reformed approach to educating the public (Oppewal 1963).
In general, Presbyterians took the desegregation and the desacralization of the schools in stride, although in the South these national directions spawned the creation of some separated academies among Presbyterians. In a report entitled The Church and the Public Schools (1957), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America adopted an official stand on education.9 Under the leadership of such persons as Paul Calvin Payne, Eugene Carson Blake, and Elwyn Smith, the denomination issued this 11,000-word document giving the members of the denomination guidance on the important subject. The church reaffirmed its support of public schools as the best means of teaching and preserving the "basic values of a free people." This was an affirmation of the intrinsic worth of all children and the search for truth in an unfettered manner. Such a position did not mean that Presbyterians were to refrain from "sound and constructive criticism" of the system or any other institution. The report conformed to the long Reformed tradition of support for universal education. Such a system promoted appreciation for our likenesses and differences in a pluralistic and democratic society. The Reformed tradition did not involve "cloistered living." Therefore Presbyterians should participate in this enterprise characteristic of a free society with limited government. The denomination did not agree with those who held that the public schools were becoming "godless." A public school's climate is determined, the report suggests, not by the reading of Bible verses or the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, but by the attitudes and values of the community in which a public school is located. Many public-school administrators, teachers, and pupils are devoted Christians and members of churches and other religious institutions. Those who called the schools "godless" indicated not only their dissatisfaction, but also their naivete about what does and does not make a school religious in character and value. The denomination supported religiously motivated educators, and encouraged them to enter the public school and to create there a climate which would be favorable to the teaching about religion. They would provide the possibility for children to preserve their own private beliefs and make their own private decisions about their religious faith and life.10 With regard to private schools, the denomination upheld parental rights to organize them, but reminded them of their responsibility as Christians to help provide sound education "for all other children in the community." The denomination expressed its concern about the dangers of withdrawing support of the public schools. It opposed "unalterably" the use of public funds to support independent or parochial schools.11 It went on to encourage released-time religious education and weekday nurseries and kindergartens, provided teachers for these efforts were as well prepared as were public school teachers. Thus Presbyterians joined many other Protestant denominations in the continued support of public education.12 In an official statement adopted by the United Presbyterian Church entitled Relations Between Church and State (1963), members covered a variety of issues, supported Court decisions on the prayer and Bible reading, and reaffirmed support of the public school system.13
In this same period when we were reaffirming support of the public educational system, Presbyterians began to take more seriously another very closely held position, namely, that the family and the church were responsible for the Christian nurture of children and adults. In the 1930's and early 1940's some Christian educators came to the conclusion that the Sunday School as it was then operating was inadequate for the educational needs of Presbyterians (Kennedy 1957). The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America reassessed its Christian education problems and mounted an extensive and expensive program to develop what became known as the Faith and Life Curriculum. Later the Presbyterian Church in the United States developed its Covenant Life Curriculum along some of the same lines in order to develop a more literate constituency (Kennedy 1980). These curricula, especially that of the Faith and Life, were indebted to the Neo-Reformation movement which is associated with Karl Barth, and also with the curriculum director, James Smart. In Basic Principles: Christian Faith and Life, A Program for Church and Home, the Presbyterian educators emphasized several main points. These included the unique place of the Scriptures in the Christian community and the necessity for Christians to engage in critical Bible study; the importance of the Christian community as a historical and confessional one, as a fellowship in which teaching is an indispensable function; the importance of commitment to active discipleship and mission as a goal of the Christian proclamation and teaching; the immediate importance of God's activity through the Holy Spirit in communal and individual learning experiences in the church. Moreover, these principles emphasized the importance of the teacher in the whole process and of the need to upgrade the prestige of the teacher in the church (Kennedy 1980). Smart (1954) worked out some of these ideas more thoroughly in The Teaching Ministry of the Church. Thus the church attempted to bring together in one curriculum the Bible, the historic confessions of the church, experiential faith and life-centered learning. The leaders of this new curriculum developed a wide range of study materials, books, magazines, beautifully illustrated for individuals, home, and the church. The Faith and Life curriculum demanded a great deal of teachers in church and also parents in home. When the Covenant Life Curriculum was developed for the Presbyterian Church in the United States, far more attention, it seems, was devoted to conditioning parents and teachers for their new role in the educational program of the church. To begin this curriculum, adults spent one whole year studying William Bean Kennedy's Into Covenant Life (1963) to understand the responsibilities the church expected its members to assume as they took its own educational responsibilities seriously. Students in the Covenant Life Curriculum were to study the Bible, theology, church history, and Christian ethics, in a round of courses over a period of years, to develop Christian maturity. Kennedy, it should be noted, mentions as one of his case studies about the Christian responsibility to support desegregated public schools as a way to provide education for all. It is not our purpose here to describe the results of these ambitious plans. While the curriculum has changed over the years, the emphasis on the church's responsibility to train its own adherents has not.
For understanding, another Reformed and highly self-conscious approach to the education of the public, we turn to members of the Christian Reformed Church in this country (Oppewal 1963; Oppewal and DeBoer 1984). As American Presbyterians were abandoning their parochial schools in the 1870's, Dutch immigrants were building a small parochial system, beginning in the 1850's and continuing to this day. Drawing upon the Reformed tradition going back to Calvin and the Calvinist world-view of a remarkable theologian-politician, Abraham Kuyper, these Dutch also took seriously the need for education especially of their own children in their Christian Day Schools. The basis of this system has been the Calvinist-Kuyper emphasis upon the all-encompassing sovereignty of God, a God who calls on the Christian to embrace all spheres of life as a concern. The Dutch maintained that the family--not the civil magistrate, not the church--is responsible for educating children. From the very beginning, laity have controlled these Christian day schools. The goal of such education is to integrate a Christian world-view into every aspect of the schools' curriculum, and to prepare students for living a Christian lifestyle in contemporary society. While the church is not closely tied to the administration of these schools, the ethnic and denominational origin of them gives them a highly Calvinistic flavor. Very early, the educators made provision at Calvin College, and later at Dordt College, for the training of teachers for these institutions. And they organized the National Union of Christian Schools in 1920, now the Christian Schools International since 1979, in order to coordinate and share goals and ideas about the challenge of education. The magazine, Christian Home and School, indicates the importance placed upon the family in this educational process. While the Christian Reformed Church does support these schools, the schools do have financial difficulties. School leaders are frank about seeking tax support to ensure their viability. In other words, supporters of the Reformed schools would like their share of the tax dollar (Oppewal 1963:79). Oppewal, Professor of Education at Calvin College, warns of certain perils of these institutions. The stress on narrowly defined Christian Reformed doctrines and history in the Christian Schools does not represent the full sweep of Christian faith and life. The homogeneity of the boards of the schools, ethnically, ecclesiastically, and in terms of socio-economic class, tends to rob students of a view of the rich pluralism of the world today. Moreover, Oppewal (1963:58) fears that the narrow parochial base may keep the schools from expanding in the future from its present size. A recent count listed 382 schools with 3,844 teachers and 74,541 students. This brief reference to the Christian day school movement reminds us of the fact that Calvinists have adopted a number of strategies for educating the public since the time of the Reformation.
Members of the Reformed and Presbyterian family care about and have contributed to the education of the public, of their own children and the children of others. Presbyterians have committed themselves to the support of public schools and their own church schools for such education. The Dutch have developed their own Christian day schools to accomplish this purpose on a smaller but more concentrated scale. The reference to the Christian Reformed approach to education raises a problem which Presbyterians and other Christians should note. It has to do with their confession about God's sovereign grace and the unity of education. Education is compartmentalized in modern life. Presbyterian church historian James Hastings Nichols (1958) brought this problem up in an essay entitled "Religion and Education in a Free Society," in Religion in America.14 In this essay Nichols took a strong stand, insisting that the Christian, not simply the Calvinist or the Presbyterian, has "a responsibility to contribute to a general education for all citizens of whatever faith and no faith." One of the Christian's "civic responsibilities is the public school." He then places some limitations on the claims of various institutions with which we may be affiliated, and suggests that what the churches should ask of the public school is not to provide an integrated education but "precisely an unintegrated education," in order that the students, influenced by the church as well as the public schools, can make their own integration of learning and life on the basis of the influence of various institutions. Thus the schools should help a "continuing dialogue" about the nature and destiny of human life. In this dialogue the Christian should be a vigorous participant. To this end, Nichols (1958:156-157) even urged that public schools be expected to teach about the great historic religions objectively, something the Supreme Court has not prohibited.This is a problem with which those in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition will continue to wrestle.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a reunion of the Presbyterians who divided at the time of the Civil War, continues to alert its members to the needs of educating the public in such things as multicultural and multilinguistic experiences. In 1987, the denomination adopted A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education (1987) as its statement in support of public education today. Still stressing the "education of the public" as a "responsibility of the whole society," the governing body reminds readers of the importance of the combination of home, church, public school, and even the whole community in the process. It warns against privatism, and affirms that education takes place best in a pluralistic and ideologically open setting in public schools. It urges a restored sense of public ownership of schools, of equality and excellence in education, the restoration of public school teaching as a Christian calling, and improved public funding of the public schools, among other things. The denomination reasserted that it is the church's responsibility to contribute to the process of educating the public by giving their own children religious instruction and literacy, and thus furthering their educational development to the fullest. Thus members of the Reformed tradition tried to take seriously the warnings of A Nation at Risk (1983) which stimulated this denominational paper in the first place.15
We have traveled rather quickly from century to century, from Geneva and Scotland of the Reformation to colonial America, and then through the nineteenth century into the twentieth without taking enough time to explore this past. We have seen how Calvin and Knox, drawing upon fresh biblical and theological insights in the Reformation for their educational policies, supported the education of all citizens for more mature participation and leadership in the church and commonwealth. Both of these Reformed patriarchs were concerned for education and held that both the civil magistrate and the churches as well as the family were responsible for religious and secular education. The curricula of the seventeenth century indicate this. In this eighteenth-century American wilderness those in the Reformed tradition took education seriously. The Puritans did in New England. Coming later, Presbyterian ministers (although not part of establishments on this side of the Atlantic) started academies and colleges to train ministers and others, many of whom became leaders of colonial America. As the nation grew, citizens, including many in the Reformed tradition, supported a system of common schools. This system carried on some religious exercises which made them acceptable to Protestants, while at the same time, the growing Sunday School Movement helped them with Christian education in their own churches. Some Presbyterians during the middle part of the nineteenth century experimented with a parochial system because they were concerned about dangers to the religious faith and life of the children in a society growing more and more complex. Others believed that Presbyterians should throw their influence and energies into a public system for the education of all of America's children. More recently Presbyterians have defended as well as supported the public school system on the basis of the Reformed heritage and they have made a reaffirmation of responsibility to educate the public while at the same time assuming responsibility for the Christian education of their own children. Adherents of the Christian Reformed Church have offered another option for their own co-religionists, as well as others, by organizing and controlling the educational process in Christian day schools. In this paper and in this brief review we have just touched upon a history about which we need to know more as those who share a common Reformation legacy.
This presentation mentions some of the challenges which Presbyterians face with regard
to the strategies adopted in fulfilling their responsibilities in various ways. On the one
hand, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has committed itself to participate in the public
school system. It has, over the past few decades, continued that support, although some of
the very practices which made the common school acceptable in the nineteenth century, for
example, Bible reading and some form of prayer, have been eliminated by Supreme Court
rulings. Perhaps some Presbyterians were reassured some time ago when a character in Peanuts,
sitting at a desk in school, sighed something like this: "As long as the teacher
gives history examinations, there will be prayer in the public schools." The
denomination has assumed the responsibility of motivating members to participate in the
system at various levels as an aspect of their Christian responsibility and vocation.
Furthermore, it has also argued that it has the responsibility for the Christian education
of its youth, a responsibility which cannot and should not be fulfilled in the public
system by some rather superficial formal practices. It has not been uncritical of the
system, and it has argued that ways of teaching about religion in a non-prejudicial way
can and should be found. This is a program that has not been precluded by the courts. The
church has had to develop various strategies over these years to educate its own children
in Christian faith and life, and it has been engaged in continual debates over the
effectiveness of these attempts in the midst of all the distractions of modern life.
Members of the Christian Reformed Church have built a parochial system over the years,
succeeding where some nineteenth-century Presbyterians failed. While they educate their
own children, they may do so, according to some supporters, in a somewhat narrow
educational environment. They may neglect an aspect of their Reformed tradition, at least
as it goes back to persons such as Calvin and Knox, namely, an obligation to participate
in the education of all the children in the commonwealth.
Alexander, James W. 1850. "Report on Parochial Schools to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, 1846." Home, the School, and the Church; or The Presbyterian Education Repository I:57-65.
Beam, Jacob Newton. 1915. "Dr. Robert Smith's Academy at Pequea, Pennsylvania." Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society VIII (December, 1915): 145-161
Bouwsma, William J. Bouwsma. 1988. John Calvin, A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brackenridge, R. Douglas, and Francisco O. Garcia-Treto. 1987. Iglesia Presbiteriana: A History of Presbyterian and Mexican Americans in the Southwest. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press.
Breckenridge, Robert J. 1849. "Denominational Education." Southern Presbyterian Review I (July, 1849):1-19.
Clemens, Samuel. 1875. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917.
Coleman, Michael C. 1985. Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837-1893. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi
Cremin, Lawrence A. 1961. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957. New York: Random House.
__________. 1988. American Education. New York: Harper & Row.
Dickinson, William Croft, ed.1949. John Knox's History of the Reformation in Scotland. 2 vols. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons.
Drury, Clifford Merrill. 1952. Presbyterian Panorama: one Hundred and Fifty Years of National Missions History. Philadelphia: Board of Christian Education.
Graham, W. Fred, 1971. The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press.
Greaves, Richard L. 1980. Theology and Revolution in the Scottish Reformation Studies in the Thought of John Knox. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Henderson, Robert W. 1962. The Teaching Office in the Reformed Tradition: A History of the Doctoral Ministry. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Hodge, Charles. 1854. "The Education Question." Home, the School, and the Church V:90-119.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe, ed. and trans. 1966. The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kennedy, William Bean. 1957. The Genesis and Development of the Christian Faith and Life Series. Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University.
__________. 1963. In Covenant Life Teacher's Book. Richmond, Virginia: The CLC Press.
__________. 1966. The Shaping of Protestant Education: An Interpretation of the Sunday School and the Development of Protestant Education Strategy in the United States, 1789-1860. New York: Association Press.
__________. 1980. "Neo-Orthodoxy Goes to Sunday School: The Christian Faith and Life Curriculum." Journal of Presbyterian History 58:326-371.
Lynn, Robert W. 1973. "Civil Catechetics in Mid-Victorian America: Some Notes about American Civil Religion, Past and Present." Religious Education 68:5-27.
MacGregor, Geddes. 1957. The Thundering Scot: A Portrait of John Knox. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Mayse, Edgar Caldwell. 1974. Robert Jefferson Breckenridge: American Presbyterian Controversialist. Ph.D. Dissertation, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia.
Maxson, Theron B. 1965. "Religion in the Schools: A Presbyterian's View." In America's Schools and Churches: Partners in Conflict, edited by David W. Beggs III and R. Bruce McQuigg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
McGuffey, William. 1879. McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader. New York: The New American Library, 1962.
McNeill, John T. 1954. The History and Character of Calvinism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Meyers, D. H. 1972. The Instructed Conscience: The Shaping of the American National Ethic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Michaelsen, Robert. 1970. Piety in the Public School. London: The Macmillan Company.
Murray, Andrew E. 1966. Presbyterians and the Negro--A History. Philadelphia Presbyterian Historical Society.
Nichols, James Hastings. 1958. "Religion and Education in a Free Society." In John Cogley, Religion in America: Original Essays on Religion in a Free Society, edited by John Cogley. New York: Meridian Books, Inc.
Oppewal, Donald. 1963. The Roots of the Calvinistic Day School Movement. Calvin College Monograph Series.
_________., and Peter P. DeBoer. 1984. "Calvinist Day Schools: Roots and Branches" In, Religious Schooling in America, edited by James C. Carper and Thomas C. Hunt. Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press.
Parker, Inez Moore Parker. 1977. The Rise and Decline of the Program of Education for Black Presbyterians of the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1865-1970. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press.
Sherrill, Lewis Joseph. 1932. Presbyterian Parochial Schools 1826-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sloan, Douglas. 1971. The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal. New York: Teachers College Press.
__________., ed. 1973. The Great Awakening and American Education: A Documentary History. New York: Teachers College Press.
Smart, James D. 1954. The Teaching Ministry of the Church. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Smith, Elwyn Allen. 1962. The Presbyterian Ministry in American Culture: A Study in Changing Concepts, 1700-1900. The Westminster Press.
Turner, J. D. Edminston. 1951. "Reverend Samuel Blair, 1712-1751." Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society XXIX (December, 1951): 227-236.
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the School, and the Church IV:25-39
1. Pamphlet, The Alexander Robertson School, 3 West 95th Street, New York, NY 10025.
2. For background on Calvin and Calvinism, see McNeill 1954 and Bouwsma, 1988.
3. See Sloan 1971, especially 36-72, and chapters on Francis Alison, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Stanhope Smith.
4. Sherrill (1932) suggests that Presbyterians expressed concern at the highest levels of the church as early as the General Assembly of 1799 when that body warned against "vain and pernicious philosophy" coming to America from Europe.
5. See, e.g., "The Good Teacher, " Home, the School, and the Church I (1850). 46-56.
6. See references in Sherrill (1932) about Breckenridge; also Mayse 1974:447-478.
7. Moreover, Breckenridge argued that the parochial system in Scotland had not saved the Kirk from "heretics and formalists."
8. See Lynn 1973.
9. An Official Statement, The Church and the Public Schools, approved by the 169th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: Board of Christian Education, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., June, 1957).
10. The Church and the Public Schools, 14-16.
11. The Church and the Public Schools, 17-19.
12. The Church and the Public Schools, 20-22.
13. "Religion in the Schools?" Social Progress 51 (December, 1960): 3-45.
14. See also Maxson 1965.
15. Pamphlet, A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education, adopted as a resolution by the 199th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1987, 3-18. See also "Education and Inclusion: A Report on The Church's Ministry in School Desegregation and Bilingual and Bicultural Education," in Minutes of the General Assembly of The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Part I, Journal (June 21-29, 1977), 625-629).
This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.