Public Education in American Religious History

Charles McCrary

At the meeting of the American Society for Church History earlier this month, I participated in a panel titled “Religion in Public Schools: Church History, Law, Education, and Ethics.” The panel, which was organized by Candy Gunther Brown, built on and extended some ongoing conversations, and it was designed to encourage the study of education in American religious history and to help to set an agenda for future study. In this post, I will give a brief synopsis of the panel session, followed by some broader observations and prescriptions for the developing subfield of the historical study of religion and American education.

Mark Chancey discussed his ongoing research into the Bible in twentieth-century public school curricula, from the invention of academic Bible courses in the early twentieth century as part of the project of “religious education” to self-consciously secular post-Schempp courses (e.g., “the Bible as/in literature”) to the recent revival of academic Bible courses by companies like the Bible Literacy Project. Leslie Ribovich shared some of her early dissertation research on moral education in New York City Public Schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Educators tried to instill “nonsectarian” morals and root out delinquency as they constructed narratives of progress (evidenced by “unity”) and decline (evidenced by “tension.”) As these programs targeted student populations apparently given to tension and lacking in “civility” and “brotherhood,” the narratives and understandings of delinquency often were racialized.

I talked about what is often called the first American public school law, the Massachusetts School Act of 1647 (often known as the “Old Deluder” law) and its colonialist setting. The Act required towns to use tax revenue to set up school buildings to ensure that children were catechized and taught to read, since it is “the chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.” While most historians of education have focused on the explicitly “religious” nature of the law (because it mentions Satan), I argued that the document is more interesting as a colonialist text, written and enacted in an environment where the devil and demonic were frequently associated with “wilderness,” “ignorance,” and the “barbaric” Others of settler colonialism.

Our papers, though wide-ranging in their chronology and scope, shared a number of themes. As Sarah Barringer Gordon noted in her response, every paper focused in some way on education as a project of combatting enemies. One way to write histories of (religion and) education is to identify who these enemies are, and how educators have used schools as sites for these battles. Gordon also noted the ways that studying religion and education allows for rich histories of public/private distinctions. Public education, in many cases, has been imagined as necessary because of private failures. The 1647 act, for instance, was enacted because a 1642 act requiring parents and masters to educate and catechize their own households was neither followed nor enforced. In the twentieth-century New York schools, efforts to instill the ethic of “love thy neighbor” gained traction because of narratives of decline that lamented students’ apparent lack of such moral education at home. In both instances, instruction was designed as a corrective to the deficiencies of (often racially coded) private, unregulated spaces.

Although there is not (yet) really an identifiable group of historians or historically oriented scholarship on religion and American education, especially within the context of American religious history, scholars have touched on these topics before. The angle probably most often taken up by historians of American religion is to focus on the role of public schools in law, especially in the context of disestablishment. Steven Green has placed public schools at the center of the history of nineteenth-century church-state separation. Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption (2007) discusses anti-Catholicism in educational materials such as the New England Primer and as manifest in conflicts in the common schools. (Some of this was first published in her 2005 Church History article on the Bible Wars.) Many other historians have written about the “Bible Wars” as well, in the context of nativism, anti-Catholicism, and church-state separation. In the twentieth century, Supreme Court cases, including McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), Engel v. Vitale (1962), and Abington v. Schempp (1963), have provided data for disestablishment-centered narratives of religion and education. Indiana University recently held a conference—in which some of the participants of the ASCH panel participated—on the fifty-year legacies of the Schempp decision. Education often plays a prominent role in histories of the culture wars, including much of the forthcoming work in that area.

While disestablishment structured and continues to structure debates about the place of religion in public schools, surprisingly little work has been done by historians of religion on what actually happened in schools. This is one intervention our panel was trying to make, and I hope we can continue this line of inquiry. There is a wealth of data to be found here. We need not necessarily depart from disestablishment as a framing device, but we should push beyond it. For instance, as Mark Chancey argued, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions, Bible societies tried to “re-christianize in a Schempp-compliant way.” What did that look like? What was in the curriculum? Who was using it? What was assigned as students’ homework? Today, why is yoga sometimes considered “religious” about sometimes just about “health and wellness”? Likewise, when New York City schools moved toward “moral education” in favor of explicitly “religious education,” what changed? How exactly was morality incorporated into classes like home economics, and what were the gendered and racialized understandings that informed the development and deployment of that curriculum? In the nineteenth century, how was the Bible used in schools? What’s actually in the McGuffey readers? Questions like these should offer opportunities for investigation into new and fresh data sets for historians of American religion. Teachers, administrators, pedagogues, parents, and, of course, students are all actors that could enhance our narratives. Furthermore, these histories of religion and education can contribute insights to ongoing conversations about the public and private, race, colonialism, law, secularism, and pluralism—and how these themes inflect daily lived realities.


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