The present temper of American education is such that prominent Christian influences at work a generation ago in the establishment of the National Education Association are now all but forgotten. Buried in scattered historical collections, however, remain irrefutable evidences that American education was founded by men of Christian idealism and character. Their conception of “world citizenship” and of the “American way of life,” to use contemporary phrasing, involved no suppression or obscuring of great Christian beliefs. On the contrary, these founders shared a vital concern for spiritual and moral priorities as integral elements of adequate schoolroom instruction.

A Century Of Activity

In 1957, National Education Association celebrated the centennial of its founding. Nearly 20,000 teachers from 48 states and outlying territories met in Philadelphia to discuss principles and problems of education in the march of freedom.

If we search the records, we can discover from the founding educators the foundations of our American education. The year 1857 was a period of social, financial, and religious depression. Abolition and secession were fanning heated passions toward the inevitable crisis. But the Spirit of God too was moving toward revival, not only in preaching and prayer, but in the rebirth of simple people like Finney, Moody, Sankey, Fanny Crosby, and of leaders in Christian education. Horace Mann, “father of American education,” was educated in the Christian tradition of New England. William H. McGuffey’s Bible-centered Readers were going into extra editions. Charles W. Sanders’ Readers were popularizing new hymns of the Church. An obscure musician, Lowell Mason, discovered by Horace Mann, pioneered in music education. Christian educators from widely separated regions felt the need for a united stand and called for a convention in Philadelphia on August 26, 1857, to form a national teachers association.

It is significant that Daniel B. Hagar, president of the YMCA and a leading Episcopalian layman of Salem, Mass., and James Valentine, a Baptist teacher-preacher of New York, wrote that national invitation. Keynote speaker was William Russell, a seasoned scholar, educated in Glasgow, brought up in the “Auld Kirk.” His address called attention to “the recognition of teaching as a career, with aim, purpose and dedication of life and talent to the moral and intellectual proposition for useful, constructive, Christian citizenship.”

As the man qualified to establish a state normal school at Lexington, Mass., in 1839—first of its kind in America—Horace Mann selected the Rev. Cyrus Peirce, distinguished alumnus of Harvard, and later of its divinity school. His Christian character in the classroom and years of fruitful educational service won him the tribute of teachers and students alike as “spiritual guide and father.” Himself “dean of American educators,” Mann was key speaker at the second convention of the National Teachers Association in 1858. He initiated many modern methods of educational development, but gave the Bible first place among the many indispensable reference and guide books.

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Zalmon Richards, first president of the National Teachers Association, was a native of Massachusetts, a graduate of Williams College and a student under Mark Hopkins. In college he led in Bible study and temperance activities, and became an active Baptist. With a strong Christian philosophy of education, he influenced schools and teacher training in both Massachusetts and New York. In 1849 he accepted a call to Columbia College in Washington, D. C., and in 1852 organized a city YMCA, and devoted time to the E Street Baptist Church, reform movements, and to saving the Union. His Christian impress remained in the formative years of the NEA from 1857 to 1899.

In William S. Bogart of Princeton, Principal of Chatham Academy at Savannah, Georgia, we find one who bore the torch of those Christian pioneers, Oglethorpe, Wesley, Whitefield, and Zinzendorf. From Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania came that great Presbyterian elder and Bible teacher, Henry Duval Gregory, who was to leave his impress on the life and Christian policies of the famous Girard College.

Outstanding and outspoken in their declarations of Christian policy in public education were men of Pennsylvania. Governor Pollock, in his inaugural address, declared the Bible to be “the Foundation of true knowledge … the Charter and Bulwark of civil and religious freedom.” James P. Wickersham, who founded the first state normal school at Millersville, and his colleague, Edward Brooks, who became Superintendent at Philadelphia, carried Christian thought into state and city schools. A glance at the School Controllers Report for 1834 reveals this significant comment: “It is to sound, practical CHRISTIAN education that we must look for improved morals, judicious industry and the maintenance of those principles upon which alone our free and happy institutions can be preserved from destruction.”

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The Modern Drift

Today our city schools present a problem and a contrast far removed from the intent of the founding fathers. In Philadelphia, for example, startling changes are seen in the school population, in faculty lists, in alumni, and in general policies.… “Minority groups” without the Christian vision, have gained control, and the results are found in the daily headlines.

To such men as John Seely Hart, great prophet-educator and president of the Central High School, distinguished men in many walks of life today look back with grateful appreciation for Christ-centered education. Dr. Hart’s story might well have been written by Horatio Alger. A sickly boy, discovered by a lady Sunday School missionary, he became a first honor graduate of Princeton College and Seminary. His preaching, his Christian character and teaching, so impressed the Philadelphia School Board that they called him to their new “School of the Republic.” From 1842 to 1858 he molded in a city school a curriculum equal to most colleges of his day. He selected a faculty of scholarly Christian men. The courses he taught in person were Bible-centered, and to every boy during those years he presented a copy of Evidences of Christianity. But Dr. Hart saw changes coming. In 1858 he resigned from the school to assume editorship of American Sunday School Union publications. He founded the Sunday School Times, and from the editorial desk for many years he called on educators everywhere to “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”

Loss Of Soul

Undoubtedly we dwell in perilous times. We note with concern in Dr. Edgar Wesley’s History of the N.E.A. since 1857 what he calls the “Lost Causes” of temperance and Bible emphasis. And when we hear from the platform and on the air the pleas of leaders for a re-emphasis of the spiritual in education, it is time for Christians to assume their responsibility to God and country and our children. This country under God must have a new birth. We are commanded to witness and to teach. Let us swell the ranks of the teaching profession, of state and national organizations. And let us begin right in the home community of parents and schools, knowing that we are living in the “Last Days” and that we have our marching orders from the Divine Teacher himself—Christ our Lord.

Albert C. Norton holds the A.M. from the University of Pennsylvania and also from Harvard, and is an active life member of the National Education Association. He has made a lengthy study of the Christian foundations of public education from state and historical society records, and from the narratives of long-established local educational associations. A resident of Philadelphia, Dr. Norton has completed more than 1000 gospel song lyrics as one of his avocations.

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