The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Religious Education

by J. S. Mills, M.A.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 662-671

[We gladly insert this article, not as expressing P.N.E.U. feeling on the subject of education; our readers are aware that our whole superstructure rests upon a religious, or more precisely, upon a Christian basis, but we are glad to be enabled to lay before our readers so temperate and lucid an exposition of the educational thought of the day, on this momentous subject. If the great body of public educators feel that religious education is outside their province, this greatest of all responsibilities is thrown back solely upon the parents. We shall be very glad to have the subject discussed in this magazine, with a view to suggesting some definite line of action for parents, whether in the way of influencing public opinion, or of giving connected definite religious teaching to their own children of whatever age.]

There have lately been many evidences that the question of religion in education, upon which Mr. Forster's Bill of 1870 * narrowly escaped shipwreck, is still unsolved, and still exciting the interest, and I am afraid, the passions of educational enthusiasts. Only the other day I discovered, among the papers left for public edification in a railway waiting-room, a small magazine containing an article on this subject. The writer insisted boldly upon the duty of restoring the teaching of Anglican doctrine to our board schools, objected most strongly to church people being compelled to contribute rates to all but secular public schools, and concluded by recommending for private devotions two "collects" embodying in the form of petition to Almighty God, the general spirit of the article.

* [The Elementary Education Act of 1870, sponsored by William Foster, made education compulsory, but brought up questions of how religious teaching should be handled.]

Such a paper represents an extreme view which, however, is probably held by many religious people. At the other extreme, represented in 1870 by the Birmingham League, we find those who hold that the objects of any scheme of national education, as indeed of the Bill of 1870, are confined to the provision of secular education, of the simple instruments of self-instruction, and to the resulting intelligence order and discipline of the masses of the people; and that as soon as the state begins to confer exchequer grants or rates upon denominational schools, or endeavours to prescribe some form of religious teaching for rate schools, religious equality in spite of illusory conscience clauses is jeopardized, and the door opened to endless and unseemly controversies. This position, which was also the original position of Mr. Forster, seems to be gaining ground in spite of ill-boding prophecies of universal heathendom and immorality.

The schemes for intermediate education in Wales at present being formulated are re-opening the whole question. The Bishop of Chester has in the interests of his own church already attacked two schemes for Cardiagan and Merioneth, seriously injuring their general efficiency in order to secure religious instruction of a definitely dogmatic nature. The London School-board has lately been agitated by a similar controversy. The orthodox champions of a denominationalism have complained that the form of religious instruction in the London schools so far from being undenominational is nothing more or less than simple Unitarianism, and acceptable to that sect alone. The same question appeared some months ago even in connection with our great public and grammar schools, when the Archbishop of Canterbury endeavoured to stimulate the Head-masters' conference into a proselytizing enthusiasm for bringing the religious instruction in our public schools into a closer identification with Anglican principles, in short, for making them strongholds and nurseries of the Establishment. All this is evidence that the problem is very far from a settlement, and contains within itself the seeds of bitter animosities and violent controversy, involving the whole principle of toleration and some of the deepest questions of religion and morals.

It is needless to discuss here the various plans for reconciling religious instruction with the general conscience. The straits to which thinkers on this question are reduced may be gathered from a proposal made by a very high authority, that the denominations among which the children's parents are distributed shall have the right of supplying each its own religious teaching in one and the same school. Of all serious proposals, this is the maddest and merriest. Imagination shrinks from conceiving the Babel of conflicting and competitive creeds resulting from such a scheme--the awful possibility of a small child being positively torn limb from limb in a theological tug-of-war. Such a proposal coming with such credentials simply illustrates the impossibility of any really satisfactory modus vivendi short of the complete secularization of our rate schools. Indeed, the only other reasonable solution of the question, which has, however, failed in practise, is that founded on the 1870 principle of Bible-reading with comments but without any insistance upon distinctive religious doctrines. The compromise of 1870 permitted what is known as undenominational teaching, but wisely declined to define exactly what that included. If people were inclined universally quieta non movere, such teaching might proceed and its beneficent influences be realized without scandal or intolerance of any kind, complete reliance being placed in the common sense of the teacher to abstain from any teaching that would transgress the spirit of the law. It is true that the permission of such teaching does constitute a grievance in the case of Jews, Roman Catholics, and secularists, who are compelled to contribute towards its maintenance--a grievance not by any means neutralized by the operation of a conscience clause. I can scarcely believe, however, that many of such persuasions would seriously insist upon their disability in the respect. The opposition comes rather from Christians of strong denominational feelings who, as I have mentioned above, look upon even such teaching as an unfair advantage to Unitarian theology, and scarcely better than a purely secular curriculum. In fact it is obviously impossible to formulate any scheme of religious teaching which shall not find its special embodiment in some single sect or other, and be consequently in this sense denominational. To eliminate Christian dogma from religious teaching constitutes in itself a dogmatic position to which a member of an evangelical denomination feels a natural and sincere objection. The Lord Chancellor expressed the more enlightened view when he demurred in the House of Lords from the "statement that what was called undenominational teaching was necessarily either antagonistic to Church teaching or antagonistic to religion." It ought, indeed, to be possible for a sympathetic teacher to convey the spirit of Christian ethics without reference to the doctrine of the divinity or of the incarnation.

But there will always be plenty of people to agree with the marquis of Salisbury: "What was the teaching of undenominational education to children?" he asked in the same debate. "If they got rid of the ugly word and looked at what the facts were, it meant teaching without any dogmatic statement to which any body of religious persons could object. Therefore what it meant was teaching without teaching the divinity of our Lord. Religious teaching was not possible in that hypothetical way. They could not play fast and loose with the deepest religious convictions of the human mind, and it would be better to utterly abandon the idea of any attempt at religious education, if the only conviction was to leave out the fundamental doctrine upon which all religious feeling and knowledge must ultimately turn. The notion that there was a religion from which all that men differed about could be expunged and in which there should be left only that in which all men were agreed, was the shallowest and silliest chimera that had ever occurred to the brains of politicians."

There is, of course, a good deal to be said for this. For what is that unique and essential feature in Christianity which makes people insist so strongly on some form of religious instruction in our schools? It is that its moral precepts come not so much as a reasoned ethical system claiming an intellectual assent, but rather as the revealed will of God demanding implicit and unquestioning obedience.

"He spake as One having authority and not as the scribes." Now, the basis of this authoritative and unique position of Christian ethics is that very doctrine of the Divinity which as distinctive of particular denominations it is forbidden to teach in our rate-supported schools. I have no doubt that the doctrine is tacitly assumed by most teachers who are responsible for religious instruction; but that tacit assumption in itself constitutes a grievance, as the doctrine is denied by the Unitarians, a numerous and highly cultivated body of men--to say nothing of those who diverge still further from the orthodox faith, and rightly object to be rated for the support of a creed from which they entirely and sincerely dissent. The only solution of the question, I am convinced, is the complete secularization of our board school curriculum. The state has no right to impose a universal tax and apply it in part to a propaganda, however generous and tolerant, which is disapproved by any section, however small, of the taxpayers.

This proposal, obviously just in the eyes of many people, is regarded by others with the utmost dismay, as a deliberate endeavour to undo all that has been hitherto effected in the evangelization of the masses. The State, we are told, that forbids religious teaching in its schools, sets its seal of approval upon atheism and vice. The result of such a retrograde step will be a flood of heathendom and iniquity against which our Churches and Sunday-schools will contend in vain. Morality is useless unless touched by religious emotion; destroy the State support of religion and you shake the very basis of the social fabric. I am very far from questioning the moral advantage or even the necessity of a religious belief, or the superiority of the type of character realized by a devout Christianity to any other. But surely some conception of morality, some sense of a moral ideal existed in the world before the birth of Christendom. The morality of the Stoic erred, if at all, not in laxity and indulgence, but in the unpracticable loftiness of its standard and the excessive severity of its discipline. I need hardly refer to such a book as the "Enchiridion of Epictetus," an author undeservedly neglected in the spirit of this unreasonable contempt for uninspired moral teaching. Such a passage as the following, chosen at random from that book, speaks sufficiently for what I mean:

"Unhappy man! That bearest about with thee a god and knowest it not! Thinkest thou I speak of some god of gold and silver and external to thee? nay, but in thyself thou dost bear him, and seest not that thou defilest him with thine impure thoughts and filthy deeds. In the presence even of an image of God thou hadst not dared to do one of those things which thou dost. But in the presence of God himself within thee, who seeth and heareth all things, thou art not ashamed of the things thou dost both desire and do, O thou unwitting of thine own nature and subject to the wrath of God!"

Surely none of us, even of those holding the strictest views on inspiration need be ashamed to take to himself the moral suggestion of such words. I do not intend to discuss the old academical question "whether virtue can be taught." I am quite sensible how little the mere reasoning faculty can do for us apart from the supports of instinct and emotion, and how impossible it is to make people good by ethical demonstration. But surely it is not a hopeless task to teach the broad principles of social morality, or to show the rational basis which supports the fundamental precepts of the Decalogue.

Those who attended the last annual meeting of the Parents' Educational Union will remember that Prebendary [Robert] Eyton insisted upon the duty of teaching children not only the distinction between right and wrong, but something of the why and wherefore of the distinction, and the social results that would follow a disregard of it. Mr. [Arthur] Acland has already done something in this direction by including in the Evening Schools' Code a course of study in the duties of citizenship, and there is no reason why some such study should not take the place of our impracticable religious instruction in the Board School. There is, however, nothing to justify the morbid fear that the whole fabric of social morality will fall with the abolition of our school board religious teaching--that murder, theft, and adultery will become fearfully rampant, and society destroy itself in a universal mélée.

"Atheism," says Lord [Francis] Bacon, "leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation, all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue though religion were not." Surely these deterrents may be relied upon as some safeguard even if we admit, as we are by no means bound to do, that the secularization of our schools would result in a great spread of atheism.

But it may be asked--Is there not something unreasonable in this entire exclusion from the school-curriculum of a book which has had more influence than any other upon human progress, and is quite uniquely adapted for purposes of early education? I admit that to exclude, say English history, from any course of elementary study, would be unreasonable and absurd. But have we not one whole day among the seven devoted to the study and teaching of the Bible? Are there not religious organizations without number--Pleasant Sunday afternoon societies, Sunday schools, Bible societies, in addition to the ordinary church and chapel services--all of which have one object--the wider diffusion of spiritual teaching?

The Bible, therefore, in this respect stands upon a different footing from the other subjects of paramount educational importance. We may rely with confidence upon the above-mentioned agencies and upon the energy of christian workers in general, to supply any need which may result from the suppression of religious teaching in the day school. It is true an immense improvement would have to be effected in our Sunday school teaching, which I am told by a superintendent of one of our largest schools of this kind is grossly inefficient.

But surely the enthusiasm for religious education which has been so abundantly manifested in the discussion of the political question, may be relied upon for the reform of all such deficiencies.

I have hitherto discussed the question in its relation to rate-supported schools only, but what I have said applies a fortiori to voluntary schools. Twenty years ago Mr. John Bright maintained that the denominational system must in the main be a church system. On this ground he opposed the increase of the grant and Mr. Forster's bill in general. "It was a bill," he said, "to encourage denominational education, and when that was impossible, to establish board schools. It ought, in my opinion, to have been a bill to establish board schools and to offer inducement to those who were connected with denominational schools to bring them under the control of the School Board." It may be objected of course that the grant is not confined to church schools, but is shared in proportion by the voluntary schools of every dissenting sect. But two considerations seriously qualify this apparent equality. In the first place, the Church of England reigns supreme throughout the country districts. The local magnates, the squire, the clergyman, the wealthier classes, are all Anglican in sympathy. The National School is the only school. The conscience clause, even when used, gives a prominence and emphasis to a child's dissent, which many a parent in isolated districts hardly cares to risk.

I visited lately a school in a small Warwickshire village, the population of which included a large dissenting element. There was, however, no Nonconformist school, and at the national school no advantage whatever was taken of the conscience clause. The cause of this inoperation of the clause was not, I suppose, that the dissenting parents, who supported a chapel in the village, were not conscientiously averse to the very distinctly Anglican form of religious instruction in the school, but that they shrank from the emphatic expression of their dissent which the use of the clause would have entailed, and also perhaps from the loss of the four or five hours school attendance per week which the religious teaching absorbed. The same school afforded me some evidence of the intensely and distinctively denominational nature of the religious instruction in Anglican schools. The carefully graduated lessons included, with Bible teaching, a systematic course of the liturgy and catechism, all, of course, subject to the vigorous supervision of the diocesan inspector, and I was surprised to find that on Wednesday mornings during Lent, the whole school was marched up to the church to be still further established in Anglican principles.

I am not by any means out of sympathy with these principles. I am simply stating what I have observed and endeavouring to discuss impartially the political question. The dissenting sects possess as a rule no distinctive creeds or formularies. The religious instruction in their schools therefore approximates far more closely to the undenominational type permitted by the Department in board schools. Indeed I was lately surprised to find that in one of the best and largest of our Nonconformist schools no religious teaching whatever was given. For these reasons, Nonconformists and people of no religious creed naturally object to the public support or assistance of a denominational system, which results in such an advantage to the doctrines of the Established Church. The Free Education Act has intensified the grievance. Not content with simply encouraging the voluntary school, the State has stepped into the place of the original voluntary supporters to the extent of a fair average fee grant for each scholar. No wonder, then, if we find the Radicals formulating and insisting upon the principle that public control shall accompany public money. There is no other principle on which we can safely rely. The State refuses to recognize inspection in the religious part of our school teaching. Let her therefore see that the money she grants shall be confined to the secular instruction for which alone she has assumed and can assume responsibility.

It is not difficult to foretell the course of educational reform. The above principle will be established. Public money will everywhere be brought under public control. The nonconformists, I fancy, will raise a few objections and will without reluctance merge their schools in the general school-board system. But what about the national schools? Will the voluntary contributors continue their support and endeavour to maintain the voluntary position of the schools for the sake of a religious instruction, from which all distinctive colour has disappeared? There can be no doubt that the rigid enforcement of public control will result ultimately in a uniform school-board system throughout the country, and the complete secularization of the instruction will, I believe, very soon follow.

It is sometimes said that teachers themselves would be the strongest opponents of the abolition of the religious lessons. They would lose their chief opportunity of spiritual and moral influence. I have no doubt that many teachers of strong religious feeling would very strongly oppose the change. But we must remember that it is those very teachers who lay such stress, honourably and sincerely enough, upon the necessity of religious instruction, who are likely to transgress the limit of strictly undenominational teaching prescribed by the department--and we must also remember that a sympathetic teacher may quicken the driest and most perfunctory lesson of the day by the magnetic influence of his personality; and that this indirect and spontaneous influence is perhaps as fruitful as the special moral instruction of the hour deliberately devoted to it.

We are apt to underestimate the immense social advantage of the mere discipline of our public schools. With the enormous growth of an industrial population, massed in large towns, compulsory school education became indispensable.

One shrinks from imagining what would be the state of our streets to-day under a purely optional system. The moral and social benefits of bringing our children from early years under a regular discipline, of enforcing upon them habits of obedience, cleanliness and punctuality, quite apart from the positive instruction they acquire at school, are simply inestimable, and I am sure we may rely upon this discipline alone if not for an increasing spiritual goodness among the lower classes, at any rate for a more and more orderly and unquestioning performance of civic duty.

I must, in conclusion, say a few words about the religious instruction given in our secondary schools. Any attempt such as was recently made by the Archbishop of Canterbury to give a more distinctly Anglican tendency to such instruction can result in nothing but angry controversy and perhaps ultimately in the complete secularization of these schools also. For here, too, are sleeping dogs that may easily be awakened. Many of our schools, conducted on Anglican lines, are largely supported by nonconformist parents, and include in their teaching staffs masters of every shade of religious and nonreligious belief. I have known, for instance, a devout Roman Catholic and a pronounced secularist on the same staff and of course taking part in the religious instruction of the school. Such an arrangement is very right and proper and will proceed efficiently and quietly so long as not questioned and disturbed. A master of average common-sense may be safely trusted not to emphasize his own private creed so long as he is not compelled to emphasize somebody else's. Difficulties no doubt arise. A man, for instance, may personally question the credibility of the Old Testament miracles, and may doubt when teaching, say, from the chapter that relates the miracle in the valley of Ajalon, how far he is bound to disguise his opinions in the conduct of his class, or in his replies to the provocative questions of a curious or precocious boy. We must rely upon the sense and conscience of the master. I am convinced there is no intermediate course between the widest tolerance and most generous trust, and the complete secularization of our great schools on the ground of the impossibility of devising any type of religious instruction, which shall be equally acceptable to every individual of a highly heterogeneous public. I cannot expect to carry with me in these opinions a majority of the readers of the Parents' Review--if however I shall have succeeded in arousing discussion on an all-important question, I shall not consider this short paper entirely unfruitful.

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