In the last three blogs, I have provided a brief overview of Christian education in the extended history of the church. Throughout the centuries, the education of children and youth was, to say the least, a top priority for the church! Yet, in spite of centuries of tradition, the American church began to abdicate this sacred responsibility to the state in the mid to late 1800’s. How could this happen?
In the years following the Revolution, America began to experience rapid population growth as a result of the western territories being opened and scores of immigrants arriving from Europe to settle these vast spaces. Along with the expansion of its population, the nation grew in its diversity of nationalities, languages, religious backgrounds, and cultural heritages. Many in civic leadership recognized that a national, standardized system of education could be instrumental in helping to meld this increasingly diverse population into a new, unified nation.
An example of this mindset is reflected in the Northwest Ordinance, an act passed by Congress in 1787 setting guidelines for the northwest territories eventually becoming states. Congress recognized the importance of education in this process. Article III states: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Notice in these words the Reformation emphasis both upon a universal education for all children as well as a recognition that the educational emphasis on Christianity (Religion) was considered essential to the well-being of this new nation.
This, along with other motivators, was a primary impetus behind the notion of “free” public schools sponsored by the state. However, it is noteworthy that there was a common assumption based upon the then Christian consensus in the larger society, that a primary function of these public schools was to teach children and youth the fundamentals of Christian faith and values.
But there were those deeply concerned about the church abdicating to the state its God-given responsibility for the instruction of children. A. A. Hodge, a deeply respected Princeton theologian, warned:
I am as sure as I am of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, which this sin-rent world has ever seen” (A. A. Hodge, Popular Lectures on Theological Themes; Presbyterian Board of Publications; Philadelphia, 1887; p. 283).
Hodge was quite prescient, understanding that the then Christian consensus in larger culture could quickly shift, and that if Christianity was largely removed as a primary goal of education, it would drive a fundamental shift in national values.
Ironically, the National Education Association (NEA), founded in 1857, echoed Hodge’s concerns:
… if the study of the Bible is to be excluded from all state schools; if the inculcation of the principles of Christianity is to have no place in the daily program; if the worship of God is to form no part of the general exercises of these public elementary schools; then the good of the state would be better served by restoring all schools to church control.
National Education Association 1892
What a remarkable statement! I use the word “ironically” above because the present NEA secularist philosophy would cause its founders to roll over in their graves!
But, here we are! And it does not take a rocket scientist to appreciate how secularist, state sponsored education is largely responsible for shifting America away from its Christian heritage to its current secularist mindset. When the church abdicated its responsibility to the state in exchange for a “free,” universal education, it opened the door to the great devastation of values we see today in America. What was free has come at great cost!
In the larger scope of church history, C. B. Eavey makes a simple observation: “So long as the church continued this practice of teaching the Bible it thrived, but when it neglected its teaching function it declined in spiritual life” (C. B. Eavey, History of Christian Education; Moody Press, Chicago, ILL, 1971; p. 189.
What will it take for the American Church to awaken and reclaim its divine mandate to make disciples not only of all nations, but, first and foremost, of our own children? History teaches us that this cannot be done apart from a full-throated, systematic program of Christian education.