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Protestant School Systems - Colonial and Nineteenth-Century Protestant Schooling, Early Twentieth-Century Protestant Schooling

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Protestant schools are a small but dynamic and diverse part of the landscape of education in the United States. These institutions, which are usually much smaller than their state-controlled counterparts and depend heavily on private financing, enroll about 3 percent of all K–12 students. In 2000 approximately1.6 million students attended nearly 12,400 elementary and secondary Protestant schools (excluding pre-kindergarten and kindergarten-only schools) operated by churches affiliated with more than twenty denominations, institutions of higher learning, or groups of individuals committed to particular Protestant belief systems. These figures represent about 30 percent of the 5.2 million students in K–12 nonpublic schools and 45 percent of the nearly 27,400 private schools in the United States.

Colonial and Nineteenth-Century Protestant Schooling

Protestant schooling is not new to education in the United States. Prior to the advent of state school systems in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the rich religious diversity that characterized overwhelmingly Protestant colonial and early national America was manifested in an equally rich diversity of Protestant schools. Throughout these years, Lutherans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Moravians, Mennonites, German and Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, and Anglicans established elementary schools and academies. Even the so-called town schools of colonial New England and the quasi-public district schools and charity schools of the early 1800s were de facto Protestant schools.

The mid-1800s marked an era of intense debate and reform focusing on issues of control, finance, and curriculum that led to major changes in education in the United States. By the 1850s in the North and the 1870s in the South, states had established public or common school systems. Student enrollment shifted significantly to the free common schools, the earlier practice of distributing tax dollars to schools under private control for the accomplishment of public purposes was sharply curtailed, and nonpublic schools were increasingly cast as un-American and divisive. During the period several Protestant denominations, such as the Methodist and Episcopalian, considered establishing alternative school systems, and in the case of the latter, a number dioceses, mostly in the South, encouraged the establishment of schools. In the 1840s and 1850s, the Old School Presbyterians attempted to establish a system of schools to transmit orthodox beliefs. Although nearly 300 schools were founded, a schism bred by intersectional strife ended the experiment by the time of the Civil War. Individual churches continued to maintain schools, but with the exception of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Protestant denominations and most of their members accepted state provision of elementary schooling, though not without occasional expressions of concern about secularization of public education. They did so in large measure because nineteenth-century public schools were general Protestant schools and were thought to be a principal means to creating and maintaining a moral, disciplined, and unified Protestant citizenry. Furthermore, as Roman Catholics asked for tax dollars to support their schools and complained about Protestant practices such as Bible reading in the common schools, a majority of Protestant denominations and their members set aside their denominational differences and supported the purportedly "nonsectarian" common school.

By the end of the nineteenth century, most Protestant denominations no longer discussed the possibility of establishing an alternative to the state school system. Only the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (which was founded in 1847 with a strong commitment to Christian education and by 1897 boasted 1,603 schools with an enrollment of 89,202); the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (which operated eighty-five elementary schools in 1875, twenty-five years after its creation); the Seventh-day Adventist Church (which committed itself to a system of elementary schools in the 1890s and by 1900 claimed more than 200 schools with an enrollment of about 5,000); and the Christian Reformed Church (whose commitment to Christian schools in the Calvinist tradition was only slowly realized–fourteen schools by 1900) maintained a significant denominational emphasis on Christian schooling to preserve or protect confessional and/or cultural distinctives. Though most denominations decided not to construct alternative systems, individuals, churches, and parishes sponsored Protestant schools, including a significant number of secondary institutions. Exact enrollment figures for Protestant-oriented schools in the late 1800s are not available. A 1985 study by the scholar Thomas Hunt, however, used the U.S. census of 1890 to arrive at the following figures: Lutheran, 151,651; Methodist, 58,546; Presbyterian, 37,965; Baptist, 29,869; Congregational, 27,453; and Episcopal, 21,650.

Early Twentieth-Century Protestant Schooling

Compared to public school figures, enrollment in Protestant schools had declined markedly in the 1800s as tax-supported education became more widely available and a growing number of Protestants claimed the public schools as "theirs" and even asserted that all children, Protestant and Catholic alike, attend them. By 1900, 15,503,000, or about 92 percent of the 16,855,000 elementary and secondary students in the United States, were enrolled in public schools, while 1,352,000, or approximately 8 percent, attended private institutions. About 854,000, or 63 percent of these students, were enrolled in the burgeoning Roman Catholic institutions. Most of the rest, about 3 percent of the total K–12 enrollment, attended Protestant schools, according to Otto Kraushaar's 1972 study.

Charges that nonpublic schools were undemocratic and assertions that all children should attend schools run by the state, which had been voiced since the 1840s, as well as a rising tide of nativism in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to several efforts to restrict or eliminate Catholic and Protestant schools. In 1889, for example, Wisconsin and Illinois passed the Edwards and Bennett laws. Directed primarily at Catholic and Lutheran schools, which were heavily populated by children of German-speaking parents, the Edwards law defined a school as a place where subjects were taught in English and required children to attend school in the district in which they resided. The Bennett law mandated that all children between the ages of seven and fourteen attend a public school in the district in which they resided for at least sixteen weeks (eight of which had to be consecutive) per year. Catholics, Lutherans, and other religions joined forces to bring about the repeal of both laws within two years. The gravest threat came in Oregon in 1922 with a referendum-based law that required children between the ages of eight and sixteen to attend a public school. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters struck down the law, affirming the right of private schools to exist and right of parents to "direct the upbringing and education" of their children.

Spurred by the Pierce decision (often called the Magna Carta of private schools), a brief period of prosperity, and a gradual softening of the xenophobia of the 1910s and early 1920s, nonpublic school enrollment began to rise slowly from about 7 percent of all K–12 students in 1920 to 9.4 percent in 1930, declining only slightly to 9.3 percent in 1940. During the interwar years, however, Protestant school enrollment accounted for between only 1 and 2 percent of all K–12 students.

While enrollment remained fairly stable throughout the 1920s and 1930s, reforms were underway that brought many Protestant schools closer to the public school model. For example, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the National Union of Christian Schools (renamed Christian Schools International in 1979), founded in 1920 to represent parent-governed Calvinist Christian schools, undertook efforts to upgrade teacher preparation and curriculum as well as prepare their schools for accreditation. In Missouri Synod schools, English replaced German as the primary language of instruction. Some critics, however, asserted that their schools were becoming too much like their public counterparts.

Post–World War Protestant Schooling II

Private school enrollment increased significantly between the end of World War II and 1960, the year that nonpublic school enrollment reached a twentieth-century high of 13.6 percent of all K–12 students. Although the lion's share of the growth occurred in the Roman Catholic system, enrollments in most Protestant school groups grew during these years and, in some cases, beyond. By 1961, for example, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), which at that time operated the largest "system" of Protestant schools, claimed 1,323 schools with an enrollment of 150,440. (The term system is used loosely here as the control of most Protestant schools is very decentralized with local churches or boards owning the buildings and setting policy with denominations or national and regional associations providing services, resources, and accreditation.) According to Jon Diefenthaler's 1984 study, by 1983, LCMS figures had increased to 1,603 schools and 198,061 students. During the 1990s, however, K–12 enrollments have fluctuated between 165,000 and 172,000.

The much smaller, more conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod also has maintained its historic commitment to Lutheran education. Its schools and enrollment have grown slowly from 239 and 27,448 in 1965 to an estimated 375 and 36,656 in 1999. On the other end of the theological spectrum, the congregations of the 5.1 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which was formed from a merger of three North American Lutheran bodies in 1988, operated an estimated 122 schools with an enrollment of 18,000 students in 1999. Like LCMS schools, ELCA institutions enrolled a significant minority of non-Lutheran children at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Episcopal schools operated by parishes, independent corporations, or dioceses have increased rapidly since World War II. In 1951 approximately 100 Episcopal schools existed in the United States, more than half of which were long-established boarding institutions. As a result of the increase in parish elementary schools, by 1966, 347 Episcopal schools enrolled 59,437 students. By 1981, 320 schools enrolled 76,888 students, and in 1999, 346 schools enrolled 92,466 students. Like their Quaker (Society of Friends) counterparts whose 76 broadly inclusive schools enrolled almost 19,000 students in 1999 (up from about 11,000 in 1966 and 13,000 in 1989), many Episcopal schools identify closely with the more secular, academically oriented independent school sector. More than two hundred members of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, a voluntary organization that provides support and services, also hold membership in the National Association of Independent Schools or one of its regional associations.

According to George Knight, though a relatively small denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church operated more than 5,500 schools worldwide in 1999. Following a century-long trend, enrollment in U.S. Adventist schools, which stress cooperation rather than competition and a biblical worldview, increased from 64,252 in 884 schools in 1966 to 81,507 in 1,324 schools in 1983. Since the mid-1980s, however, enrollment has declined. In 1999 the church operated approximately 1,013 schools with an enrollment of about 64,000.

Christian Schools International (CSI), which claims the Bible as explained in Reformed creeds as its organizational basis, provides services and support to Calvinist Christian schools. These schools have their roots in the Netherlands and emphasize the development of students who are capable of applying Christian principles to all realms of life. Once populated by students of Dutch descent, member schools now enroll students from a variety of ethnic and theological backgrounds. According to Peter DeBoer, though enrollment remained around 50,000 in the 1960s and 1970s, it increased significantly in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1989 CSI membership grew from 217 schools with 51,849 students to 295 schools with 87,215 students. In 1999, 395 member schools enrolled approximately 88,000 elementary and secondary students.

Though Amish and Mennonites share a common Anabaptist heritage from the Protestant Reformation, their education philosophies differ. The education of Amish children is limited to elementary schooling in basic subjects, excluding science and physical education, followed by vocational training (an approach that brought persecution until the Yoder decision of 1972 granted the Amish relief from laws that required schooling beyond the eighth grade). It is designed to prepare them for participation in a separate, nonconformist life in the Amish community. Most Mennonites, on the other hand, look to elementary and secondary schools to promote academic excellence as well as Mennonite distinctives such as peacemaking and service to the wider community. Until around 1900 Amish and most Mennonites sent their children to local public schools within their community that reflected their beliefs. Enforcement of compulsory attendance laws, increasing secularization, and consolidation prompted them to found their own schools in the 1920s through the 1940s. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that in 1999, 414 Mennonite schools enrolled around 24,262 students, while 709 Amish schools enrolled 26,473 students.

Since the mid-1960s, when Lutheran, Calvinist, Episcopal, and Seventh-day Adventist schools dominated this segment of private education, fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants and their churches, few of which are members of "mainline" denominations, have been establishing alternatives to public education that are often referred to as independent Christian day schools. As many as 150 of these institutions were founded between 1920 and 1960. It was not until the 1960s, however, that disenchantment with the ongoing secularization of state schools, a resurgent evangelical faith, and, in some cases, fears related to desegregation sparked the rapid increase in the number of these schools, all of which profess centrality of Jesus Christ and the Bible in their educational endeavors and attempt to inculcate a Christian worldview, but are quite diverse in facilities, size, and ethos. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that approximately 10,000 Christian day schools were founded between the 1960s and 1990s, most of which were racially integrated by the end of the century. Furthermore, in the 1980s and 1990s a small but growing number of these schools were established by and for African Americans. In 2000 enrollment in Christian day schools, most of which are affiliated with either the Association of Christian Schools International or the more conservative American Association of Christian Schools, exceeded 1 million.

As is the case with Christian day schools, Protestant schooling as a whole is a diverse segment of education in the United States. Some schools endeavor to transmit orthodox beliefs, some to evangelize students, some to promote academic excellence, and some to craft Christian citizens. Despite their differences, however, most Protestant schools face at least three questions in the early twenty-first century. First, how will they remain affordable to their middle-class clienteles, not to mention poor families? Second, how religiously pluralistic can schools rooted in particular theological traditions become before they lose their identity? Finally, how will Protestant schools respond to the availability of tax dollars for private education expenses? Given the nature of Protestant schooling, responses will likely be many and varied.


CARPER, JAMES C. 2001. "The Changing Landscape of U.S. Education." Kappa Delta Pi Record 37 (3):106–110.

CARPER, JAMES C., and LAYMAN, JACK. 1995. "Independent Christian Day Schools: Past, Present, and Prognosis." Journal of Research on Christian Education 4 (1):7–19.

CARPER, JAMES C., and LAYMAN, JACK. 1997. "Black Flight Academies: The New Christian Day Schools." Educational Forum 61 (2):114–121.

COOPER, BRUCE S., and DONDERO, GRACE. 1991. "Survival, Change and Demands on America's Private Schools: Trends and Policies." Educational Foundations 5 (1):51–72.

CURRAN, FRANCIS X. 1954. The Churches and the Schools: American Protestantism and Popular Elementary Education. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

DEBOER, PETER P. 1993. "North American Calvinist Day Schools." In Religious Schools in the United States, K–12: A Source Book, ed. Thomas C. Hunt and James C. Carper. New York: Garland.

DIEFENTHALER, JON. 1984. "Lutheran Schools in America." In Religious Schooling in America, ed. James C. Carper and Thomas C. Hunt. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

FORBES, DAVID R. 1993. "Episcopal Schools." In Religious Schools in the United States, K–12: A Source Book, ed. Thomas C. Hunt and James C. Carper. New York: Garland.

HUNT, THOMAS C. 1985. "Episcopal Schooling: A Time for Reconsideration." NAES Journal 1 (2):11–21.

JORGENSON, LLOYD P. 1987. The State and the Non-Public School, 1825–1925. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

KAESTLE, CARL F. 1983. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools in American Society, 1780–1860. New York: Hill and Wang. KASHATUS, WILLIAM C. 1993. "Seeking the Light and Nurturing the Intellect: A Brief History of Quaker Education in America." In Religious Schools in the United States, K–12: A Source Book, ed. Thomas C. Hunt and James C. Carper. New York: Garland.

KNIGHT, GEORGE R. 1993. "Seventh-day Adventist Schooling in the United States." In Religious Schools in the United States, K–12: A Source Book, ed. Thomas C. Hunt and James C. Carper. New York: Garland.

KRAUSHAAR, OTTO F. 1972. American Nonpublic Schools: Patterns of Diversity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. Private School Universe Survey, 1999–2000. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters. 1925. 268 U.S. 510.

SHERRILL, LEWIS J. 1932. Presbyterian Parochial Schools, 1846–1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

STEINER, DONOVAN D., and MULLET, JUDY H. 1993. "Amish/Mennonite Schools." In Religious Schools in the United States, K–12: A Source Book, ed. Thomas C. Hunt and James C. Carper. New York: Garland.


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over 6 years ago

I am from Antananarivo-Madagascar. I would like to meet through internet reformed protestant secondary and high schools. I would plan to link american reformed protestant secondary and high schools with malagasy ones. I view such process as exchange of experience between reformed protestant schools.

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I remain,

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Dr. Ravalison