“An Important Discussion” The American Sentinel 5, 6, pp. 41-43.

February 6, 1890

MONDAY evening, January 13, at the annual meeting of the Presbyterian Union of New York City, annual meeting of the Presbyterian Union of New York City, there was a discussion upon the question, “To what extent, if any, should religion be taught in the public schools?” Dr. Josiah Strong, secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, and Dr. David G. Wylie, argued in favor of religion in the schools; Doctors D. H. Greer and Howard Crosby argued against it. It was an interesting discussion. Dr. Strong led. He began by criticising the Roman Catholic position. He said that position is to be regretted but not to be wondered at. The object of the public school is to make good citizens; the object of the parochial school is to make good Catholics. The removal, therefore, of the Bible from the public schools as a concession to Catholics would be a needless sacrifice, because the primary object of Roman Catholic teaching is the Roman Catholic religion, and any school in which that is not taught is not acceptable to the Catholic Church. In answer to the Roman Catholic call for the division of the school fund, he said it would probably destroy the public school, and would certainly violate the principle of the entire separation of Church and State. He argued that the public schools are not Protestant because distinctive Protestant doctrines are not taught.

Now it is certainly a distinctive Protestant doctrine that the Bible, without note or comment, is the Word of God. And when Protestants insist that the Bible, without note or comment, shall be read in the public schools, and the Protestant Bible at that, and then claim that the schools are not Protestant, and that no distinctive Protestant doctrine is taught there, is to be guilty of a casuistry that stultifies every one who makes such an argument.

The speaker next turned his attention to the “secularists.” He said: “The secular theory is built on a wrong application of a right principle. The right principle is the entire separation of Church and State, while the wrong application of the principle is a failure to make a distinction between the Church and religion. There must be a separation between Church and State, but there must not be a separation between religion and the State. Our Government is, and always has been, religious. The principle of separation between Church and State forbids sectarian teaching in the public schools; but the principle of the union of religion and the State does not forbid undenominational religious instruction.” But he did not tell how the State was to discover what is undenominational.

He said, “Self preservation is the first law of nature. If the State has a right to exist, it has the right to do whatever will perpetuate that existence.” This is not a valid argument at all. It bears the blemish of the whole National Reform system; that is, that the State is an intelligence separate from the people who compose it. If the State were an individual, as really as is any individual person, then this argument might be allowed. But the State is no such person. The State has a right to exist simply because it is impossible for it to do otherwise. The State cannot commit suicide; the State exists in the nature of things as the result of the existence of man in society. In the sense in which the words were used by Dr. Strong, the State has not the right to do whatever will perpetuate its existence. Because, especially in religious things, what seems to the State necessary to perpetuate its existence, is often only a cruel, unmitigated tyranny. And even then it is doubtful whether the existence of the State is perpetuated thereby. In the early [42] days of Christianity, the Roman State considered its existence to be in danger. It decided that as the State had the right to exist, it had the right likewise to do whatever was necessary to perpetuate that existence, and that it was, therefore, necessary to put a stop to Christianity. It therefore punished with many untold torments, even unto death, the profession of Christianity. Without entering upon the question as to whether the existence of the Roman State was perpetuated or not by such proceedings, it is certain that the Roman State had no shadow of right to do to Christianity what it did. This, we are persuaded Dr Strong himself will concede because, assuredly he cannot justify it without condemning Christianity; but in conceding this, his whole argument is gone. The truth and the sum of the whole matter is, that with religion the State can have nothing to do whether professedly to perpetuate its existence or not.

The speaker further argued that “the State must teach fundamental religious truths because it is good for the State. The State cares nothing about another life.” But the State cannot teach religious truth, fundamental or otherwise, without having to do with another life. Religion relates primarily to the recognition of God and another life.

Next he argued that it is not so much preceptive instruction that is required as it is practical. He said, “The lying of children in this country is not because of a lack of knowledge of how to tell the truth but because of a lack of will.” But he did not attempt to tell how the State is to create in the mind of a child the will to tell the truth when the disposition is there to tell a lie instead.

In answer to the suggestion that the children be taught religion in the home and the Sunday-school, he inquired; “How are all those children to be got into the Sunday-school? And, as they cannot readily be got into the Sunday-school, how are here children to he taught reverence for God, for man, for woman, and for law. There is little reverence and therefore little authority in the American home—except that of children over the parents. In the school is where the State can touch children with a moulding hand, and if reverence is to be taught who shall do it if not the State?”

Throughout his speech, the Doctor seemed to have forgotten entirely that there is such a thing in the world as the Church. Certainly these defects exist which he has named. There is sore need that religion and reverence and authority all should be taught. But so far as his speech went he could discover none but the State to teach these things. But it is impossible for the State to teach them; and the task of teaching these things was never committed to the State by the Source of all authority, religion, and reverence. Is it true that the Church has so fallen from its place and so far lost the true idea of her mission as not to be worthy of consideration in such a question as this so that the only alternative is to have the State to do it?

He argued that the question as to what, and how much religion should be taught, “should be settled by a local authority;” and “especially in the cities great care must be exercised and a middle course pursued between secularizing and Protestantizing the schools.”

Dr. Strong was followed by Dr. Greer, Episcopalian, rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City. No synopsis can do any manner of justice to Dr. Greer’s speech, and it was impossible for us to obtain a verbatim report. It was an overwhelming rejoinder to Dr. Strong, and at the same time a masterly assertion of immutible [sic.] principles both Christian and American. In answer to Dr. Strong’s attempted distinction between the Church and religion, he said: “Such a distinction is impossible. The introduction of religion into the public schools is the introduction of the Church into the public schools, and is, therefore, a union of Church and State. The distinction is further attempted upon the question of religion, that it is not dogmas of faith, but fundamental truths of religion, that is to be taught. But how shall religion be taught without dogmas? It may be taught without some dogma in which you do not believe; but it cannot be taught without some dogma in which you do believe. We cannot conceive of a church without doctrine. And religion cannot be introduced into the public schools unless it is doctrinal in the sense of being definite, positive, and precise. To speak of the Church without doctrine is to talk of daylight without the sun, of an effect without a cause.

“But it is said that nothing denominational shall be taught, but only those points in which all Christians are agreed. Who will tell us what these points arc in which all Christians are agreed? Is it the infallibility of the Pope? Is it the divinity of our blessed Lord? ‘The doctrine ofGod,’ you say. What God? And what kind of a God is it in which all Christians are agreed? Is it a God who proposes to save men through the purifying processes of pergatorial fire, or is it a God that proposes to have all men without any fire at all? Is it the God in which the Unitarian believes, or is it the God in which the Trinitarian believes?

“But it is asked, ‘Should not the Bible be read?’ The mere reading of a few words from the Bible from day to day is not of such a positive sort of religious instruction as yet to have excited any special conflict. In the event of a conflict, which is easily possible, the State to be consistent would have to prohibit even the reading of the Bible in the public schools. Here also the question arises, What Bible? Is it the Bible that says ‘repent,’ or is it the Bible that says ‘do penance?’ Is it the Bible that says ‘immerse’ or is it the Bible that says ‘baptize?’ Is it the Bible that contains the Apocraphy, or is it King James’ version?”

“The question of the reading of the Bible in the schools might become a burning question, and the State would then have to decide what Bible should be read. And as soon as the State does that, then some denomination will secure political control in its own interests, as is the case with Mormonism in Utah to-day. But it is said that this makes the schools ‘godless.’ This cry is more rhetorical than true, and, to many, sounds worse than it is. It might be brought with equal propriety against those schools which teach only business and penmanship, and schools of mechanics, and of arts. These are in the same sense godless. But they are not ungodly. They are godless because they are schools with a definite purpose in view, which purpose is not the teaching of religion. That purpose is followed without reference to religion. Not that those who give instruction there are atheistic or irreligious men, but because those schools do not exist for the purpose of giving instruction about God or about religion.

“The Church can best do its work when it does it without any connection with the State. The State can best do its work without any connection with the Church. This is the theory to which we are committed by the Constitution. Let the Church arise to an apostolic faith; let her be inspired by an apostolic zeal; let her be fired with an apostolic zeal; let her be clothed with apostolic power; then she can face the world as the apostolic church did, and by force of character can influence the State and the school vastly more than it would be possible to do with all the power and machinery in the State at her command. By this means it is possible for Christians to make Christianity so dominant that nothing but Christian personality will influence the public schools. It is not the reading nor the reciting of a set form of words that makes truth effective; it is the character, the living personality that is behind the words. The schools are here for everybody and for every class. The schools must be kept broad and comprehensive, and must not be encroached upon by any religious body upon any pretext whatever.”

Dr. Wylie was the next speaker. He is a thorough-going national reformer. After speaking in opposition to the Roman Catholic theory, he denounced the secular theory as “atheistic,” and then argued for a religious State at once. A goodly portion of his argument was also an appeal to sentiment and was simply a begging of the question.

Dr. Crosby’s speech was rather a summing up then a decided argument and was quite brief. Of this speech we were able to obtain quite a full report. He said:— [43]

“We have been subject of late to an educational craze in which we have forgotten and overrun the limits of American principles, both in the matter of attempting the teaching of religion by the State and of teaching the higher sciences by the State, with both of which, in my opinion, the State has nothing to do. It has no right to be teaching the higher education. The best thing that could be done with the Normal College—and I hope President Hunter is here to hear me—would be to turn it into a grand central police station. The best thing that could be done with the College of the City of New York—and I wish General Webb was here—would be to turn it into a prison for boodlers. I think we have no more right to instruct freely the children of all citizens in the higher mathematics and the calculus and philosophy than we would have to tax the people to give each child a thousand dollars to set him up in business. And on the same democratic, American principle I think that half of what is done in the public schools could be done away with. The only argument for schools established by the Government at all is to make citizens able to understand what our Government is. In other words, we should only teach children in the public schools to read, to write, to cipher, and to know what the American Constitution is. That should be the entire curriculum in the public schools. Beyond that we have no right to go.

“We have got into an educational craze in this matter, and the way to get out of it is to limit the work of the State to where it belongs. We should no more expect to teach religion the public schools than to teach it in a mechanics’ institute for the learning of a technical trade. We have many excellent organizations for benevolent work that are not concerned with the subject of religion. Are these benevolent institutions atheistic or irreligious? It is not the business of the State to teach religion. It is the business of the Church. The State teach religion? I want the State to get a little religion first. Of course, if we are to have religion taught by the State in this democratic country, we shall have it taught by the local government. We cannot take a single step in the teaching of religion without injury. We have no right in this country, which invites all persons of all creeds, to set up one of our religious notions as against the religious notions that any one else may honestly hold. Just as far as we do it just so far we encroach on the stability which is the basis of our Government.

“The State has no right to go further than to teach the simplest branches of education. The whole curriculum can be gone through with in three years, and when we limit public education to that, we shall solve this problem which has been agitating, and is agitating us, and will continue to agitate us. We must learn that in our public schools we must recognize the rights of all.”

There were about two hundred and fifty or three hundred people present, and although there were quite a number who were in favor of the idea of religion in the schools, it was easy to see that the great majority were decidedly against it; which, we were very glad indeed to see. There is one point, however, that is of considerable importance. Dr. Strong is secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of America. He is fully committed to a union of Church and State, and, as far as in him lies, he commits the Alliance with its influence and its methods, to the same things wherever he can.

A. T. J.

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