“This Combined Secular and Religious Training”: Charles Hodge on Public Education in the Early Republic

Early Republic Protestant divines saw the implementation of a public educational system as a necessity for a healthy republican order. Charles Hodge, principle of Princeton Seminary and perhaps the most prestigious Protestant intellectual in the United States in 1850, addressed what he called in the education question in an short 1850 work. Hodge did not neatly divide religious and secular education, because the Presbyterians in the era did not admit a binary between the two concepts regarding education.

The rise of midcentury secularism broke up the Early Republic consensus on church and state’s cooperation in the United States’ educational order. There had been, Hodge wrote, “substantial agreement among religious men, as to the most essential points involved in the education question.” Hodge was “aware that the difference between the religious community and those who, in many instances, control the action of our legislative bodies in, relation to this subject, is radical and irreconcilable.” He also lamented the extent to which “many religious men, from different motives, have been led to throw their influence in favour of this latter party, who advocate the exclusion of religious instruction from our public schools.” Still, Hodge hoped and believed that as a body the “religious community” was “united and determined in their opposition to any such destructive course.”

The destructive course Hodge identified was the secularization of secondary education. Presbyterians, he stated, were united on their educational vision. The evidence was “abundant and conclusive that the great mass of our members, ministers and laymen” were “convinced “of the absolute necessity of universal popular education.” Protestant ministers were, Hodge argued, united in their belief that “education should be religious.” Hodge defined religious education as the proposition “not only that religion ought to be in some way inculcated, but that it should be made a regular part of the course of instruction in all our non-professional educational institutions.” Parents, the state, and the church had an “obligation to secure for the young this combined secular and religious training.” State, family, and the church symbiotically worked to educate the republic’s young people. The educational enterprise did not “rest on one of these parties to the exclusion of the others, but, as the care of the poor, it rests equally on all, and the efforts and resources of all are requisite for the accomplishment of the object.” Obligation “presses all these parties as to the whole work of education. One portion of the work does not belong exclusively to one of them, and another portion exclusively to the others, but each is in its sphere responsible for the whole.” Parents were bound “to provide not only for the religious but also for the secular education of [their] children,” and “the same is true with regard to the State and to the Church. Because of the “existing state of our country, the Church can no more resign the work of education exclusively to the State, than the State can leave it exclusively to parents or to the Church.”

Hodge, like most Protestant clerics of the first half of the Nineteenth Century, saw public education not as the exclusive province of the state, but as a cooperative effort between the state, the church, and parents. True public education included religion and that could not “be accomplished in the way in which [the church] is bound to see it accomplished, without her efficient co-operation.” Churches necessarily were bound “without interfering either with the State or with voluntary institutions, to provide the means of thorough secular and religious training, wherever they are not otherwise secured.” In the performance of this “great duty, the Church cannot rely on the separate agency of her members, but is bound to act collectively, or in her organized capacity.”[1]

[1] Charles Hodge, The Education Question (Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1850), 1-3.


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