Anglicans and Education in the Early Republic

Changes in education remain among the most significant alterations in intellectual life in the United States. The growth of colleges and universities from primarily liberal arts and religion institutions into credentialization bodies chiefly aimed at procuring potential employment for students has continued apace since 1945. Protestants have largely followed those trends in their decisions to educate their children.

Education in the Colonial Era and the Early Republic remained overwhelmingly religious in character. Religious education sustained the massive rise in literacy that distinguished eighteenth century British North America from the rest of the Western world. Industrialization brought the first substantive changes to education in the nineteenth century United States. Early trade schools existed alongside generally Christian liberal arts colleges, most of which were governed by and sponsored by Protestant denominations.

Episcopalians were among the Protestant bodies that encountered educational change in the Early Republic. The rise of the market economy and the presence of vocational schools elicited concern from bishops and rectors who feared parents would neglect catechesis and Bible classes in favor of education merely committed to vocational prosperity. Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, the rector of Grace Church in New York City and a future bishop, warned parents about the perils of prioritizing vocational training over religious education. “How differently,” Wainwright told his congregants, “are you instructed in the world. There you learn that advancement in the present life is to be the all-important object of attention.” Secular education taught parents that they were “to bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the teachers of useful and ornamental accomplishments.” This worldly education regime told parents that they “must assiduously prepare them to make their way in society, and you find those esteemed the most successful and enviable parents, whose children obtain the largest portion of worldly honours and emoluments.”

Wainwright countered that religious education was broad-based and able to encompass some aspects of what was sometimes associated with vocational education. Religion never remained merely spiritual. Episcopalians “must not… fall into a common error and consider religious education as in every sense opposed to that discipline which prepares an individual to act well his part in social life.” Religious learning did not obliterate vocational attainment. Religion, Wainwright argued, was “the best ground-work for all the substantial acquirements, and all the graces of life.” Erudition, knowledge, and accomplishments “set forth religion, and make it appear comely in the sight of men.”

Religious education’s focus on the liberal arts in the Early Republic led to what early twentieth century Americans have often termed being a well-rounded citizen. Religion, said Wainwright, “will prepare the way for every other kind of discipline, and will almost ensure its success.” Children educated in religious subjects “will be dutiful and affectionate.” When parents were “summoned to relinquish… guardian care, you may leave them in the full assurance that the principles you have instilled into their youthful minds will exert a most salutary influence over their characters.” Religious teachers will have made children “virtuous and respected, and happy to the utmost extent permitted in this probationary state of being.”

Protestant educational commitments in the Early Republic have often been seen as reflexively conceding the liberal arts to the vocational necessities of the new industrial order. Wainwright’s sermons on education show significant pushback. More work on the history of education undoubtedly will offer a fuller picture of explicitly Protestant education in the nineteenth century United States.[1]

[1] Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, Sermons Upon Religious Education and Filial Duty (New York: E.J. Swords, 1829), 12-15, 27.


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