Religious Education in the U.S.
Religious schools have existed in what later became the United States since the Spanish missionary schools, and later they expanded under the influence of English Protestant settlers and missionaries. While they have been supplanted in terms of numbers by the onset of the public school in the nineteenth century, religious schools continue to serve nearly ten percent of American K-12 students. They provide an alternative educational resource for millions of American parents who either wish to reinforce the values they teach their children at home, or offer their children what they perceive to be a more challenging academic program. Evangelical Christian schools are the fastest growing segment of religious schools in the United States, though parochial (or Catholic) schools continue to educate the largest number of students. Islamic schools are becoming more popular for Muslim immigrant parents, while Hebrew schools have long been a way for Jews in America to preserve their cultural and religious identity.
ACADEMIC TOPIC OVERVIEWS
Alternative Education > Religious Education in the United States
The term religious education has several definitions. In some American circles, the term is used as a synonym for Sunday school or some other youth-oriented instruction that takes place at a religious service and typically involves lessons based upon Bible stories. This variety of religious education has existed in some form or other since the nineteenth century, when the idea was imported from England and adopted by Protestants and Catholics. One nineteenth century writer commented that Sunday school had been "well known, and in high esteem in our cities and chief country towns" in the United States since the beginning of that century ("Historical Sketch," 1865, p. 3). By 1911, there were over 15 million students enrolled in Sunday school (Herzog, Schaff & Hauck, 1911, p. 155). Americans have always had the reputation of being more institutionally religious than their European counterparts, with a self-reported weekly church attendance of about 40 percent (Robinson, 2007).
Rather than viewing religious education as something that for many American children takes place at a house of worship, we will look at it through the lens of the schools that have been established by religious organizations as replacements for public schools. The goal of the religious education undertaken at these schools, broadly speaking, is to encourage spiritual or moral development as well as intellectual development. For the more liberal religious schools, this training involves a study of global religious traditions as part of the search for a path to the individual student's greater self-understanding and compassion for others. For those schools founded by more conservative or fundamentalist sects, spiritual instruction is education designed to save students' souls.
A Brief History of Religious Education
Religious education is not unique to the United States, or even a new phenomenon. As Europe suffered -- culturally, intellectually, psychologically and spiritually -- from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., entering what later became known as the Dark Ages, virtually the only institution left to maintain law and order was the Catholic Church. As the Church confronted Germanic tribes and other "barbarians," they confronted two problems that they ended up solving simultaneously: illiteracy and superstition. They did so by setting up schools, often as adjuncts to cathedrals, to educate the people of Europe while also, in the process, evangelizing them.
As the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the primary educator in Europe, a distinction it held for many centuries. Even as education became more nationalized and more secular in its focus during the Renaissance, the Catholic Church and later Protestant groups continued to operate schools as part of what they saw as a divine mandate to spread the gospel message of salvation. For example, "The Schools of Christian Doctrine taught the fundamentals of Catholicism, and reading and writing, to a very large number of boys and girls in sixteenth-century Italy" (Grendler, 1984).
Religious Education Comes to the United States
Religious education in the United States began as an extension of such evangelistic efforts. It can be traced back to the work undertaken by Spanish Catholic missionaries who, beginning in the late sixteenth century, sought to bring literacy and the gospel message to those living in the Spanish colonies that would later become Florida, Texas, and California. As English Protestant colonists began to arrive on the eastern shores of North America, they brought with them the cultural and religious practices of their homeland. For many of the first generations of colonial Americans, who were less influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment than the generation of Franklin and Jefferson, education was a way to train the mind to see the world from the perspective of Providence.
These devout men and women were fueled by the conviction of the Protestant Reformers that an individual's choice to accept or reject the offer of eternal salvation presupposed that he or she knew what they were deciding. That meant they would need to learn to read so that the words of Holy Scripture could pierce and then soften their hearts. Often the reading lessons would be supplemented with other subjects like math and science, that would reinforce notions of beauty and order that redounded to God's glory.
Some examples of these early connections between religion and American education can be found in Delaware's first schools, which were either run by religious organizations, such as the Quakers, or were private, with public schools established later in the eighteenth century after the importance of public education was stressed in the 1792 state constitution (Dexter, 1906, pp. 58-59).
In Maryland, "Catholic missionary and parochial schools have played an important part in the educational history of the state; the first of the former, for the Indians, having been established as early as 1677" (Dexter, 1906, p. 65); other types of private schools flourished throughout the eighteenth century, despite the colonial government's attempt to encourage the creation of public county schools. Meanwhile, in North Carolina public-private partnerships created schools funded by the state but operated by churches and missionary societies (Dexter, 1906, p. 68). In Georgia, the Moravian missionaries and later the evangelist George Whitfield founded charity schools for the poor, but legislative action helped public education gain a solid foothold in the decades between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War (Dexter, 1906, pp. 71-72).
Religious Education in America's Changing Cultural Milieu
As the United States seized upon the idea of "manifest destiny" and began to push further and further west, religious schools played a key role in bringing literacy to the frontier:
Historically, both the Protestant and the Catholic churches were pioneers in the educational enlightenment of the West, their educational work originating in the field of missionary endeavor throughout the unsettled territories. Early missionary effort was first associated with the education of the Indian and the negro [sic], and later on instruction was offered to the white children in the near-by pastorate. For a number of years a large part of the instruction was of elementary grade, but, as the population of the territories or states increased, the churches soon began to enrol[l] secondary pupils within the schools (Benson, 1931, p. 782).
Because the United States was primarily a Protestant country up through the beginning of the nineteenth century, the public schools that were established to provide a free education to all children often provided some religious education as well. But as the United States became more religiously diverse, public schools came to understand that it was not politically or socially expedient to promote one set of theological beliefs over any other. Still, as millions of immigrants from Catholic countries such as Ireland, Italy, and Poland poured into the country in the 1830s and 1840s, the Catholic Church still perceived the public schools as Protestant enough to create separate Catholic schools for the children of Catholic immigrants.
Ironically, some Protestant parents were becoming convinced that the public schools were not Protestant enough. While some of these churchgoers blamed the state for a lack of spiritual concern about the children in their care, other religious writers, including one looking back from the vantage point of the early twentieth century, diagnosed the problem as one that was created entirely by Protestants themselves:
The fact that the Bible is generally excluded from the public schools of the United States, where formerly it was used as a book of devotion and instruction, is not to be attributed to a growing disregard for religion, or for the most profoundly religious literature of the world--the Hebrew Scriptures. This situation has been created by the friends of the Bible rather than by its enemies; for if the friends of the Bible could have agreed among themselves as to how the Bible should be taught in the schools, their influence would have secured the continuance of such instruction. But it came to pass that the Bible was used in the schools, not only for general religious and ethical instruction, but also for the inculcation of sectarian and theological ideas. ("The Bible and the Common Schools," 1902, p. 243)
Growing Public School Secularism
The public schools' shift away from a...
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