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Religious Education

June 2024
5min read


Our interminable national argument about education now seems to have boiled down to the debate over school vouchers, both left and right having more or less accepted the idea that we must have “standards.” Moreover, with George W. Bush’s recent initiatives to both provide vouchers and aid “faith-based” organizations, the battle has reverted to an even older national argument. When it comes to public schools, just how far should the establishment clause of the Constitution go in separating church and state?

For all the heat generated by this issue, it is doubtful that many on either side know its peculiar and contradictory history—that is, the fact that the American public school system was begun with the express idea of providing religious instruction to all pupils. Or that our nation’s fine Catholic parochial school system came about in good part to escape forced school prayer.

The nineteenth-century conflict over religion in the schools came to a head in New York City. Then, as now, it was part of a wider battle over not just what our schools would teach, but what our nation would be. By 1840 New York was one of many states to offer a free primary, or “common,” school education, which included a “nondenominational” course of religious instruction. Of course, non-denominational meant something different then: Students would recite a few basic prayers and read passages from the Protestant, King James Bible without commentary or interpretation. This was the result of careful compromise between the myriad Protestant faiths that had long competed for American souls.

Amazing as it may seem today, no one filed a class-action suit. But there was still one little problem. Even in the America of 1840, not everyone was a Protestant. In New York City alone, there were some 200,000 Roman Catholics, a third of the city’s population, and they had serious objections to Protestant “non-sectarianism.”

Catholic parents were advised to keep their children out of the public schools lest their immortal souls be endangered; and many did, while agonizing over having to watch their children grow up in places like the terrible Five Points slums without any formal education.

Nor did it much please the new bishop of New York, John Hughes. Hughes was himself a remarkable immigrant story, a self-made man who had come to the United States from Ireland at the age of 20 in order to live in a country “in which no stigma of inferiority would be impressed on my brow, simply because I professed one creed or another.” It was a measure of both his ability and his determination that less than 20 years later he became bishop of New York.

Practical, energetic, intelligent, uncompromising, and sardonically humorous, Hughes would be a ferocious defender of both his flock and his faith. One of the first problems he tackled was what to do about the schools, though here he found himself in a quandary. He would have preferred to build a separate, parochial school system for all of New York’s Catholics, but his desperately poor immigrant parishioners were as yet unable to afford such a thing. In the meantime, their tax dollars went to funding public schools that promulgated Protestant teachings, in however mild a form.

Fortunately, the church was not alone in perceiving an injustice here, and Hughes found an unexpected ally up in Albany. William Seward, not yet 40 years old, was a first-term governor who already possessed the independent mettle that would make him one of the nation’s greatest statesmen, along with his own vision of a tolerant, democratic America.

In his annual message to the legislature in 1840, Seward proposed, for immigrant children, “the establishment of schools in which they may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves and professing the same faith.”

Seward’s speech was a bombshell—and a breathtaking political risk. New York City’s Catholics took it as an invitation to petition the Common Council, which administered the common school fund in New York City, for a small share of public monies to support their existing eight schools. Petitions followed from the Scottish Presbyterians and from New York’s tiny Jewish community for similar consideration.

The council rejected them all, and Hughes reacted by issuing a magisterial address. “We hold, therefore, the same idea of our rights that you hold of yours. We wish not to diminish yours, but only to secure and enjoy our own.” He went on to concede that if the schools could be truly neutral on the issue of religion, the church would have no objection, but since common-school history books routinely depicted Catholics as duplicitous and intolerant, such neutrality, he suggested, was “impossible.”

In an atmosphere of mounting hysteria, the whole argument reached a grand climax with a three-day debate before packed galleries in New York’s City Hall. Bishop Hughes, speaking alone for his church, opened with a three-hour address and finished with an even longer rebuttal. In between, a bevy of Protestant lawyers and clergy lambasted nearly all things Catholic for a day and a half. For all the rhetoric, more heat was shed than light, and the Common Council backed the Public School Society in refusing any funds for Catholic schools.

Seward, undeterred even though defecting Protestant voters nearly cost him the next election, made a new proposal, whereby all public education funds would be distributed by the state to individual city wards, which would then decide strictly on their own just what sort of religion would be taught in the local schools.

This early attempt at decentralization came to dominate New York politics over the following months, with at least one public meeting exploding into sectarian violence. Following the city elections of 1842, a Protestant mob attacked Hughes’s residence, smashing doors and windows, and was prevented from doing worse only by the hasty intervention of the police, the militia, and a group of Irishwomen who formed a human chain around the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral to keep “sinners off.”


By now, new state elections had made the passage of the school bill a certainty. But a key dilemma remained. What would happen to those who found themselves in a ward dominated by a different faith? Didn’t they still have some constitutional rights as individuals? The compromise that passed the legislature went a long way toward the basic shape of the public school today. A crucial amendment to the bill mandated that no sectarian religious instruction was to be offered. All public schools would now educate students in the three Rs and leave religion to the churches.

The amended bill was triumphantly signed into law by Governor Seward, and it pleased no one. Nativists swept the school-board elections in 1843 and soon ruled that reading the Bible in class was not “sectarian.” This would largely remain the case for more than a hundred years, until the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling banning organized prayer in the schools. It also served to confirm the contention of John Hughes that a truly neutral public school system was an impossibility. Out of necessity, he permitted Catholic children to attend public schools but refocused all his efforts on building up a parochial system. By 1862, two years before his death, New York Catholic schools had enrolled some 15,000 pupils, and Hughes was known as the father of Catholic education in America.

No doubt modern advocates and opponents of vouchers alike will draw what lessons they like from this nineteenth-century debate. Supporters will heed Hughes’s arguments that even supposed nonsectarianism is really sectarian and back the right of parents to give their children whatever education they deem fit, without an added financial burden. Opponents will point to the divisiveness inherent in all attempts to hand over public monies for religious instruction. Indeed, perhaps the most intriguing—and exasperating—thing about the school debate is its ability to entangle political allegiances. Should supporters of school prayer continue to back a common prayer for all in public schools or support vouchers and many different prayers? Will multiculturalists really support funding for schools run by the Nation of Islam—or the Aryan Nation?

Yet there may be a deeper moral here, beneath William Seward’s very different, pragmatic approaches, made only two years apart and both to very much the same end. Whether giving public money to Catholic schools or banning religious instruction in public schools altogether, what Seward sought above all was universal education, which he deemed necessary for forging a just and democratic society. Or, as he said regarding immigrant Americans, “I solicit their education less from sympathy, than because the welfare of the state demands it, and cannot dispense with it.”

No matter what we decide on the proper boundaries of church and state, it seems difficult to believe that we can today, any more than we could in 1840, dispense with a healthy and accessible public school system and still maintain ourselves as a strong, united nation.

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