Christianity, Education, and Secularism in 1900 America

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, secularization in Western intellectual and political life led to policy changes in education, particularly in France and in the United States. The American republic’s commitment to a disestablished federal religious regime was not challenged, but religious Americans reacted against attempts to secularize education. In 1905 the pastor of Brooklyn’s Central Presbyterian Church, John Fleming Carson, noted that the “demand to have the name of Christ and all references to Christ as the Saviour of mankind eliminated from text books and songs used in the Public Schools of New York City” inaugurated “a storm of protest from Christian citizens.” Carson joined in the protests, speaking at a variety of venues and writing a pamphlet on secularism and Christianity in the American republic.[1]

Protests over secularization in education were not new to the United States or to New York City. In the Nineteenth Century the city’s Roman Catholic hierarchy registered their dissatisfaction with the seemingly secularist impulse governing the city’s schools. In 1840 John Hughes, Roman Catholic coadjutor bishop of New York City, lamented that “the Public School System of the City of New York, is entirely favorable to the sectarianism of infidelity, and opposed only to that of positive Christianity.” Was it the wish of New York’s citizenry, the archbishop asked, “that infidelity should have a predominancy and advantages, in the public schools, which are denied to Christianity?” Was it the wish of New Yorkers “that your children should be brought up under a system of education so called,” that would eventually “detach them from the Christian belief which you profess, whatever it may be” and lead them to “initiation into the mysteries of Fanny Wrightism, or any other scheme of infidelity which may come in their way?” Were parents willing that their “children, educated at your expense, shall be educated on a principle antagonist to the Christian religion?” If New Yorkers continued their educational regime as it was, they would “have the toil and labor of cultivating the ground, and sowing the seed, in order that infidelity may reap the harvest.” [2]

By 1907, Protestants joined Roman Catholics in anti-secularism crusades once it became obvious to them that secularism was actively warring on historically religious social and political commitments, and not merely synonymous with Protestant anticlericalism or disestablishmentarianism. John Carson celebrated democracy and disestablishment which he believed were foundations of the American Union. “From the beginning the policy of the Republic has been the absolute separation of Church and State. This is the outgrowth of the spirit of democracy which controlled the founders of the Republic.” Democratic and disestablishmentarian America, however, still rested on a religious foundation. The first American colonists, argued Fleming, “fled from the tyranny of the Church, and were ever resolved to oppose every State interference in their religion. But they never proposed to divorce the State from religion.” The Founders “would not tolerate the union of Church and State, but neither would they tolerate an un-religious State.” The ultimate genius of the Republic “is and ever has been opposed to any State recognition of ecclesiasticism, but it is equally opposed to secularism.” That same genius denied “that the Divine foundation to human society is to be found in the church,” but it repudiated “with even greater vehemence the theory of secularism that there is no Divine foundation to human society. Without such a foundation the State cannot abide. Civil society rests upon religion. It is the condition of national perpetuity and progress.”[3]

Protestant thought in the United States during the early Twentieth Century deserves additional scholarship that is focused on political and natural theology of the era. The soteriological battles that led to the Fundamentalist-modernist controversy are important but Evangelical historiography would be well-served to broaden its focus in order to more fully understand this complex era.


[1] John Fleming Carson, Is the American Republic a Christian State?: A Study of the Sources of the Republic and Its Historic Development and the Teaching of Both as to the Christian Features of National Life (New York, 1907), forward

[2] John Hughes, “Address of the Roman Catholics to the Fellow Citizens of New York,” in Lawrence Kehoe ed., Complete Works of the Most Rev. John Hughes, Archbishop of New York Vol. 1 (New York, 1866), 59; Fanny Wright was a prominent Freethinker, utopian reformer, socialist, and feminist of the Nineteenth Century

[3] Carson, Is the American Republic a Christian State?, 22-24.

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