The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral: Calvinism and the School Question

Darryl G. Hart

In 1898 when Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Reformed minister, institution builder extraordinaire, and soon to be prime minister of the Netherlands, spoke at Princeton Seminary about the virtues of Calvinism, he discussed schools in ways that may have left his listeners scratching their heads. On the one hand, Kuyper complimented his hosts for living in a country where Calvinism was still vigorous. One sign of such health was a “common school system” which began each day with Bible reading and prayer. Although such tepid religious exercises suggested a “decreasing distinctness” of Calvinistic convictions, they still reflected the genius of the American founding and its debt to the “Pilgrim Fathers who gave the United States, as opposed to the French Revolution, a decidedly Christian character.”[1] For those paying careful attention to the series of six lectures, such praise of America’s public schools was at odds with Kuyper’s remarks about Calvinism and science. In that lecture he contended that educational institutions needed to reflect distinct outlooks. Instead of implementing a common university or school system, as liberal governments in the Netherlands had tried, Kuyper argued for institutional pluralism so that Roman Catholics, Calvinists, and “Evolutionists” might have their own schools and universities. The idea of “one Science only,” Kuyper asserted, was “artificial” and its days were “numbered.” A better approach was for intellectual endeavor to “flourish in … multiformity.”[2]

As much as Kuyper and his hosts from the Presbyterian Church’s original seminary shared in their understanding of Calvinism, the Dutchman’s praise for a “common” educational system in the United States and advocacy of academic institutional diversity in the Netherlands was just one indication of differences between American and European Protestants about education. Those divergences in turn stemmed from political developments that played out differently in Europe and North America after the revolutions of the eighteenth century in the United States and France. What follows is an effort to place Presbyterian and Reformed Protestant ideas about education within a wider historical and cultural context. That larger perspective may well indicate that Calvinists, instead of carving out a distinct and high view of education, were much more dependent on the accidents of history in their approach to education. The heirs of a longer lasting pattern of church-based and church-sponsored education during the Middle Ages, the Reformers perpetuated schools that made religion central to learning. When civil governments in the modern era of liberal politics took over the responsibilities of universal education, Reformed Protestants had to adjust and they did so largely on terms set by their churches’ relationship to the national government.

The Reformation of Learning

For good reason, historians credit the Protestant Reformation with an emphasis on education that had significant consequences for the expansion of formal learning beyond the confines determined by medieval Europe. Prior to the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was largely responsible for education. After the demise of the Roman Empire, the burden for education fell on bishops and religious orders. Cathedral schools and monasteries taught the trivium and quadrivium to young men and boys mainly for the purpose of training future priests. The recovery of Roman and Greek antiquity with the Renaissance provided an alternative model of education, but formal learning remained largely in the hands of the church. The Reformation set into motion a new set of expectations for education. Protestants not only set high standards for a learned ministry but also advocated literacy for the laity so that average Christians could fulfill their obligations for Bible reading, learning catechisms, and worship in the home. For instance, John Calvin in the early stages of his reform of church life in Geneva took steps to establish an academy (the initial stage of a university) for the education of pastors and called for the institution of schools that would train boys at an early stage for future education either as clergy or civil servants. In the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541, Calvin wrote:

But since it is possible to profit from such teaching (of theology) only if in the first place there is instruction in the languages and humanities, and since also there is need to raise up seed for the future so that the Church is not left desolate to our children, it will be necessary to build a college for the purpose of instructing them, with a view to preparing them both for the ministry and for civil government.[3]

Calvin’s reforms in Geneva inspired the Scottish Reformer John Knox, who sought a similar expansion of educational opportunities for children and improved training for pastors. The Church of Scotland’s First Book of Discipline provided the rationale for the reform of the nation’s educational institutions:

Seeing that men are born ignorant of all godliness; and seeing, also, that God now ceases to illuminate men miraculously, suddenly changing them, as that he did his apostles and others in the primitive church: of necessity it is that your honours be most careful for the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this realm, if either ye now thirst unfeignedly [for] the advancement of Christ's glory, or yet desire the continuance of his benefits to the generation following.[4]

Funds for a system of schools in each parish were difficult to find at first, and Knox’s call for an improved education required using the existing institutions created before the Reformation and adapting them as much as possible. But by the seventeenth century, Scottish parliament had taken steps to provide education in each parish and to implement curricular reforms at Scotland’s universities that dovetailed with training for Protestant ministers.

The Problem of State Schools

Because the Reformation was magisterial—meaning it relied on the support and patronage of civil authorities—the educational programs for which Protestants called were also heavily dependent on the approval and funding of the state. In fact, the experience that governments in Protestant nations gained from the Reformation’s expanding educational opportunities led by the nineteenth century to the creation of state-run educational systems designed more for national unity than for religious fidelity. After the French Revolution as European governments centralized and consolidated social affairs for the sake of strong national identities, public education became an important vehicle for nurturing a unified citizenry. On the one hand, the expansion of state control of schooling brought more children into the system and so increased literacy. On the other hand, religion became a potentially divisive matter. In which case, national school systems might still include religion but did so in generic ways that included Christian morality without theology. In other words, state control of education inevitably involved a weakening of overtly Christian teachings and practices.

Examples of state involvement in education varied but also indicated the dilemma that Reformed Protestants faced after having been stakeholders in the early modern reform of schooling in the West. In a nation such as France, at one end of the spectrum, the ideology of the republic was hostile to religion and so state schools removed any vestiges of church influence. In Scotland the demands of a modernizing economy and politics required a gradual abandonment of the old parish model of local schools and the adoption of a public system in which religion supported national ideals. Churches responded by turning to voluntary institutions such as Sunday schools where children might receive a religiously based education. In the Netherlands, the state adopted a liberal system of education that included a bare minimum of Christian influence designed not to offend either Protestants or Roman Catholics. Abraham Kuyper protested this “neutral” educational system and advocated instead a pluralistic model where parents might receive state funding for schools true to religious convictions—Roman Catholic schools for Roman Catholics, Calvinists schools for Calvinists. In the United States where political institutions were weak and decentralized, public schools often served community interests instead of a national agenda. Even so, the public school system involved the assimilation of children to American ideals about God and virtue; as a result, common schools included prayer and Bible reading in ways that seemed too Protestant for Roman Catholics. School controversies in the 1830s and 1870s led some bishops to implement parochial school systems for Roman Catholic children. Some American Presbyterians also entertained the idea of establishing a system of church schools out of frustration over the thin character of religious instruction in the common schools. Not until the 1960s, however, when the US Supreme Court ruled that prayer and Bible reading in public schools were unconstitutional, did the bulk of American Protestants become alert to the kind of arguments that Abraham Kuyper had made about the problems of a state-run education devoid of religion.

Who Is Responsible for Education?

Christians from a variety of backgrounds often look at school curricula or daily school exercises for religious elements to discern whether public schools are congenial or hostile to faith. Often missed, however, is the much more basic and equally difficult question of who is responsible for educating children. If the state does not take the lead for education, if schooling is in the hands of churches or families, will schooling be divisive and upset a shared understanding of public life? Will such an education even contribute to inequality as families send children to schools according to available financial resources? But what is a state-sponsored education supposed to do with religion? Especially in a religiously diverse environment, excluding questions about faith that could readily cause disagreements both in the classroom and at parent-teacher meetings, looks like a plausible alternative. But if religion is important at least to cultivating the morality of students and as a piece of historical development, how can schools meaningfully exclude religious perspectives and subjects?

For a century or two after the Reformation, when churches and civil authorities cooperated in a common enterprise, such questions were not pressing. But since the expansion of religious freedom and public education with the modern state after the political revolutions of the eighteenth century, such questions have haunted considerations of primary and secondary education. What individual Christians, families, or churches may decide about such matters is of course impossible to predict. But looking beyond the curriculum or religious exercises during the school day to much more basic theological and political reflections about who is responsible for education, as Abraham Kuyper communicated to his American audience at Princeton, may help to clarify what is at stake in these difficult decisions.


[1] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 14–15.

[2] Ibid., 141.

[3] Calvin quoted in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, ed., “1541 Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” in The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 41.

[4] From “The Book of Discipline” (1621) reprinted in John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (New York: Revell, 1905), 382.

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, January 2016.

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Ordained Servant: January 2016

Education among the Reformed

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