A Brief History of American Public
Schools and Religion
AS WE HAVE SEEN, although American public schools have continually aimed to educate children to be moral persons and good citizens, the place of religion has undergone a fundamental shift: from colonial times to the mid–twentieth century, primary and secondary education became increasingly public, universal, and secular.
Here we consider the growth of public education in the United States, looking at the complex motivations of the innovators of the public school movement, at the “nonsectarian” religious teaching and devotions in which those schools engaged, and at the schools' growing secularity in the late nineteenth century. History cannot solve our present problems, but it offers a context in which to understand them.
This chapter also traces major Supreme Court cases and doctrines, which later chapters analyze more closely. Since 1947, Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution's religion clauses have set sharp limits on religious teaching and practice within public schools; but these decisions leave open crucial issues of educational policy and constitutional judgment.
Education in the early American colonies was almost entirely private and substantially religious. In 1647 Massachusetts adopted an “Old Deluder Satan” act requiring tax-supported town schools, but throughout the other colonies “formal schooling was typically a mix of private academies and local denominational religious schools.”1 By the latter stage of the eighteenth century, Stephen Macedo writes, the “profound democratic currents that fed the American Revolution greatly increased the concern with popular enlightenment.”2 Noah Webster urged that