The Necessity of Christian Education for Secular Society: Bishop Otey’s Sermon at General Convention, 1859

Nineteenth century Protestant presumptions about the relationship between Christianity and education relied on a division between that which was churchly and secular, not on a paradigm that divided the secular and the religious. This distinction was vital because it is a taxonomy that allowed Protestants in the Episcopal Church to fully support constitutional disestablishment while simultaneously arguing that religious education was a benefit to Christians and also to yet irreligious Americans. James Hervey Otey, first Episcopal bishop of Tennessee, championed the importance of Christian education throughout his prelacy and proved one of the most important creators of Episcopal education in the South. Best known for founding the Episcopal college at Sewanee, Otey also established schools at parishes across Tennessee and the South.

Bishop Otey pushed the national Episcopal Church to prioritize education and particularly Christian education. At the church’s General Convention in 1859, he used his sermon—later published as Christian Education—to emphasize the societal benefits of Christian education. Few other topics, argued Otey, could “more fitly claim the serious consideration of a Christian assembly, or the anxious reflections of American citizens, or the deep and pious thoughts of the right reverend fathers, ministers and brethren composing this council of the church” than the importance of Christian education. “This is not a subject, which may or ought to awaken interest, only in the bosoms of Christian parents. Its range is wide enough to embrace all the families of the land.” Christian education’s influence extended “to many other interests than those merely of domestic life. It is the boast of our countrymen, that their social well-being is not dependent for its source nor for its continuance on the circumstances which may surround an individual.” Just because someone wasn’t religious did not mean they shouldn’t received a Christian education.

Societal change and the quixotic nature of humans in general formed the chief reason why Christian education needed to be given to American children. Christianity alone offered a metaphysic enduring enough to withstand societal change. “Many of us” he told his fellow bishops, “will probably live to see the sceptre of our civil condition transferred, and the destinies of this nation, social and religious, intellectual and moral, public and individual, pass into the hands of the little beings whose minds are now occupied with the toys of childhood.” There was, however, not guarantee that the present generation of children would be virtuous republicans as adults. “The next race of the sovereign people may be as degenerate as the successor of an absolute monarch.” History in the form of the Roman Republic and the French Revolution offered a warning to Americans on the inherently unstable nature of republican societies.

The voice of history proclaims the grave and impressive lesson, that the glories of republics have been evanescent—that their energies have become effete and languid, in the transmission through fewer generations than those of some hereditary dynasties. They seem to resemble those vegetable productions which bloom more magnificently, and bear a richer fruitage, but arrive at earlier decay and decrepitude. How shall we, on whom the care of ours is now incumbent, maintain the vital principle with undiminished healthfulness and vigor, that it may flourish for us, and for those who follow after us? There is but one method, and that method is obvious; it is easy, and it is secure, if faithfully pursued.

James Hervey Otey, Christian Education: A Sermon Before the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church United States of America at Saint Paul’s Church the city of Richmond on Wednesday, October 5, 1859, pp. 6

“Here,” Otey reminded the bishops, “within our reach, under our almost unlimited control, and in a ductile state, is the very material on whose shape the stability of our institutions must depend.”

Schooling, under largely Protestant control, was the material that gave institutions stability through Christian philosophy and religious principles. “The alternative is before us either to leave that material to be moulded by external circumstances highly unfavorable, or to give it form by that plastic touch of education, whose moral impress the droppings of time can never efface, nor any stroke of accident destroy.” He quoted the aphorism that “The child is father to the man.” Foundations of character and destiny “of every individual element of that rational multitude whose mind will sway the world of thirty years hence, will be laid permanently and indestructibly before it has attained the twelfth year of its being.” By the time a child turned in to a teenager, they would either be educated as a Christian, or they would be educated as something else. “Subsequent influences may strengthen or impair that foundation, but they never can displace it.” Bishop Otey rejected the notion that “the characters of men” resulted “from their own investigations: the patterns are not selected and approved by a mature judgment: they are formed by the combined development of those associations and sympathies of childhood, from whose abiding influence no reasonings or efforts of mature years will ever entirely emancipate them.” The choice for the Episcopal Church was clear, warned Otey. “You must communicate, or you must withhold from that wave of human society which follows after you, and will soon rise in your place, those principles whose infusion will make it pure, and whose absence will cause it to spread bitterness, corruption and desolation wherever it rolls.”

The belief that God could be taken out of education worried Otey. Such presumptions, warned Otey, were “prevalent and dangerous.” Unless this anti-religious trend was “very soon checked, this nation will in a few years be made lamentably, mournfully and woefully sensible.” Dechristianized education was, Otey noted, “advocated sometimes explicitly and often impliedly by men who are set as watchmen for the defence of society from the incursions of moral and religious evil; and yet it virtually admits the claims of infidelity.” These assumptions were “precisely the principle which was preached by skeptics of the last century, and was in truth the fruitful parent of that direful progeny of evils which the world witnessed in the excesses and horrors of the French revolution.” [1]


[1]James Hervey Otey, Christian Education: A Sermon Before the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church United States of America at Saint Paul’s Church the city of Richmond on Wednesday, October 5, 1859 (Richmond, VA: Enquirer Book and Job Office, 1859), 5-7, 12.

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