Flipping Horace Mann: How America’s Public School Pioneer Felt About Religious Instruction

Horace Mann Founder of Free American Public Education“No person, then, in the whole community, could have been more surprised or grieved than myself at finding my views in regard to the extent and the limitation of religious instruction in our public schools attributed to a hostility of religion itself, or a hostility to the Scriptures, which are the “lively oracles” of the Christian’s faith.” (1)

Horace Mann, the pioneer of American free and public education. penned these words as part of an extensive “secretarial” report to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1848.

Mann had battled for twenty years in his Massachusett’s public schools…over religious instruction.

But what many misunderstand today is Mann never argued against religious education in public schools. Rather, he preached against teaching one particular sect’s doctrines above all others. To understand Mann’s comments in 1848, we must remember Massachusetts was colonized by a specific Protestant religion (Puritan). This was not an uncommon rule for nearly all the states. Pennsylvania was Quaker. Virginia was Anglican. Rhode Island was Baptist. Georgia was Methodist. Maryland was Roman Catholic. Consequently, these colonies grew to favor and legally adopt their specific forefather’s doctrines as their state’s religion of choice.

This explains why the “united” States of America originally constituted beneath a banner citing freedom of religion.

The national Congress could not create a federal religion like each state had in place at our founding (because no state would’ve agreed to that idea!). Ironically, once federal “freedom of religion” (not “freedom from religion” as secularists today argue) was established, many states corrected their own constitutions in the early 1800s. For example, in Mann’s Puritan/Pilgrim Massachusetts…

  • Until April 21, 1821, the test of eligibility for public office was swearing an oath to believe in the highly sectarian, state-sanctioned Protestant (Puritan) religion.
  • Until March 10, 1827, all Massachusetts schools used their classrooms to proselytize children in the Protestant beliefs of their Puritan forefathers (even if the parents were not believers in that brand of Christianity themselves).
  • Until November 11, 1833, every Massachusetts citizen was taxed (by its constitution and laws) to support the Protestant religion, even if the taxpayers were of the Catholic, Muslim, or another faith.

It was within this Massachusetts religious context that Horace Mann worked tirelessly to reform “common” or public schools to be non-sectarian.

The problem wasn’t religion or even Protestant religion, for Mann. The problem was a specific brand of Protestant religion–once sanctioned by the state of Massachusetts as the only true religion.

One of the great myths propagated today about Horace Mann–by both the Christian and secularist–is that Mann desired to create a purely secular school, but that’s not true. In fact, it’s patently false. In 1827, the state of Massachusetts prohibited any sectarian education. The State wasn’t against teaching the Bible or its values, but rather promoting and proselytizing one sect or brand of Christianity exclusively. And there was reason to be concerned.

In Mann’s tours of his states’ schools, even twenty years after the prohibition of sectarian education, Horace still found “theological libraries,” and “oral instruction as strictly and purely doctrinal as any every heard from the pulpit or from the professor’s chair.”(2)  Mann even discovered that a catechism (devoted to propagating one particular sect of Christianity) was secretly being distributed among Massachusetts schools. Many schoolmasters refused to meet with Horace, even accept his offers for “needed assistance.”

Despite these religious power plays, Horace Mann still believed in using the Bible as a text to teach morals, values, history and other subjects.

In fact, he retained his own congregationalist Christian belief despite severe opposition from the religious people within his state. Mann wrote: “[In] regard to all affirmations or intimations that I have ever attempted to exclude religious instruction from  school, or to exclude the Bible from school, or to impair the force of that volume…always have been, without substance or semblance of truth.”(3)

“…That our public schools are not theological seminaries, is admitted. That they are debarred by law from inculcating the peculiar and distinctive doctrines of any one religious denomination amongst us, is claimed…” Mann continued, “But our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals, it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible; and, in receiving the Bible, it allows it to do what it is allowed to do in no other system,–to speak for itself.”(4)

Horace Mann was no secularist and never advocated for a purely secular education.

To the contrary, he valued the Christian life and appreciated the Bible for its source of positive and productive morals, values and principles.

And until the 1950s, in a post-WW2 American culture, these Christian values and Biblical morals were taught widely in America’s public schools. However, in the early 1960s,, a left-leaning S.C.O.T.U.S. (without legal precedent) initiated the erasure of religion in our public schools by offering its “opinion” regarding removal of prayer (1962) and Bible reading (1963). The age of secular public schools was now in session.

It makes you wonder what Horace Mann would think of his public schools today? What would he think of a learning culture that has devolved into chaos, disrespect, violence, abuse and apathy?

What we see today is nothing more than the fruit of a secular school system that produced a secular graduate and citizen. Schools are just a microcosm of wider society. Do you like what you see? Would our Founding Fathers approve? Would Horace Mann endorse it?

Perhaps we should give Horace Mann the last word: “Again: it seems almost too clear for exposition, that our system, in one of its most essential features, is not only not an irreligious one, but that it is more strictly religious than any other which has ever yet been adopted.”(5)

 

 

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  1. Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Board of Education: 1845-1848 by Horace Mann (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1891): 309. Downloadable at Google Books.
  2. Ibid., 307.
  3. Ibid., 311.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 314.

1 Comments

  1. Dan Susie Miller on October 17, 2023 at 6:19 am

    So cool to learn truth about our history almost every day! Thank you

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