The Place of Religious Instruction in Our Educational System


By DR. NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President of Columbia University

Delivered at the Rededication of Earl Hall, November 28, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VII, pp. 167-168.

MR. Dean, My Fellow Members of the University and Our Distinguished Guests: At this hour in the history of the world this simple and dignified ceremonial is full of encouragement. Here, we are facing the future in terms of the best which the past has to offer. We are doing it in the broadest possible spirit of human sympathy and human understanding, and we are doing it in terms of faith which is adjoined to knowledge.

When Earl Hall was given to Columbia forty years ago, it was given in terms which I like to call catholic, using that word without a capital. Mr. Dodge, himself a devout and devoted member of the Presbyterian Church, provided in his deed of gift for the use of this building by organizations of Roman Catholic students or of Hebrew students as well as of Protestant students. They were all invited on equal terms to friendly and generous cooperation toward one and the same high religious aim.

In this day and generation we are beginning to forget the place which religious instruction must occupy in education if that education is to be truly sound and liberal. We seem to forget that until some two hundred years ago religious instruction everywhere dominated education; religion guided education, shaped education and selected the material for education in every part of the world—in the Orient, in Europe and in the Americas. Then began as a result of the rise of Protestantism and the spread of democracy thosesharp differences of religious opinion and of religious worship which unfortunately exhibited themselves in highly controversial form. One consequence was to lead men to turn aside from religious study and religious teaching in the attempt to avoid those unfortunate contentious differences which had become so common. Then, particularly in this democracy of ours, a curious tendency grew up to exclude religious teaching altogether from education on the ground that such teaching was in conflict with our fundamental doctrine as to the separation of church and state. In other words, religious teaching was narrowed down to something which might be called denominationalism, and therefore because of differences of faith and practice it must be excluded from education. The result was to give paganism new importance and new influence.

In my own school days the morning exercises in the public schools of my home town in New Jersey opened with the Lord's Prayer, repeated by the entire company of pupils and followed by the reading of a chapter of the Bible. There was then sung a hymn from the school hymn book, after which the children went to their several classrooms. That practice was brought to an end by the decision of the Supreme Court of the state of Wisconsin written in 1890, holding that this practice was unconstitutional because it permitted an intermingling of church and state in public schools supported by taxation. In handing down that opinionthe Court took pains to emphasize the importance of religious instruction, and pointed out that it was the duty of the family and the church to give it. It is because the family and the church have not risen to their responsibilities during this past half-century, that religious instruction has so largely passed out of education and that religious knowledge is so largely lacking among the youth of yesterday and today.

It must be remembered that after all is said and done, our country is a religious country. Every day when the Senate of the United States meets, every day when the House of Representatives convenes, the business of the day is opened with a prayer offered by the Chaplain in the one case of the Senate and in the other case of the House of Representatives. This Chaplain is a Christian minister. The same is true of both houses of the Legislature of the State of New York and of many other state legislatures. In other words, separation of church and state does not mean that we are a pagan people. It simply means that being a religious and a Christian people as well, we must also be catholic, again using that word with a small "c."

The Legislature of the State of New York has only just now passed a statute restoring the American system in the state of New York by providing that a certain time each week all pupils in a public school shall be set free to receive such religious instruction as their parents may prefer from teachers of that form of religious faith which their parents choose. This statute realizes that the United States is not a pagan people, but that it is a religious people and must have freedom of religious teaching and of religious faith. This particular system was first introduced in France when, after the political and social revolution which followed the war of 1870-71, the French Parliament in 1882 overturned the school system as then organized. In its new legislation it provided that the public school pupils should be set free on each Thursday and allowed to go to the church or religious institution or the teacher which their parents might select for religious instruction. Of course, if their parents preferred paganism, that day would be for their children a holiday; otherwise, the children would receive religious instruction in the form which their parents desired.

It is just a little more than forty years ago that I presented my views on this subject before the Sunday School Commission of the Diocese of New York, my subject being "Religious Instruction and Its Relation to Education." For the first time in years, I looked over that address today, it being printed in my volume, The Meaning of Education. I do not find one single word in the argument which I then advanced that I would change today. Conditions as they then presented themselves have become even more serious, and the solution of the problem which I offered at that time is to me even more obvious today than it was then. The fundamental thing is to remember that education is the joint product of the influence of the family, the church and the school. The school has but a very limited and a very definite function to perform. The family and the church have very considerable functions to perform which, unhappily, they are increasingly neglecting. Until the family and the church can be roused to the full height of their responsibility we cannot expect to find the youth of the land in possession of that religious knowledge and religious feeling which were characteristic of their ancestors two or three generations ago.

There is also a very curious lack in our course of college study of which I have spoken during past years. I have never known a course of instruction to be offered to undergraduates on the "Influence of Faith in Shaping Western Civilization." All our instruction is based on the influence ofknowledge—literature, science, the arts, politics. As a matter of fact, knowledge as opposed to faith had practically no influence in shaping western civilization until four or five hundred years ago. For some three thousand years civilization was shaped by faith in one of its many forms—Hindu, Brahmin, Hebrew, Christian or Mohammedan. It was that faith which guided men in their ambitions and in their social and political policies. It is only three or four hundred years since knowledge began to displace faith as a controlling influence, and we are mistaken when we look at past history to put the emphasis upon knowledge from the beginning of recorded time. This would be a very inspiring course of instruction were it to be given by some scholar, well schooled in the history of religious faith, familiar with the various religions and with some insight into the personalities which were guiding forces from century to century in Europe's civilization. The youth of tomorrow would then begin to realize that the foundations of all that we are now doing were not originally laid by knowledge at all, but by some form of that faith to which all knowledge was subordinate until the beginning of the intellectual revolution which coincided with the beginning of our modern scientific era.

In respect to all this the history of our religious life and work at Columbia shows it to have been of the most admirable and satisfactory sort. When the first charter of King's College was granted in 1754, among the Board of Governors were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rector of Trinity Church, the Senior Minister of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church (the oldest in Manhattan), the Minister of the ancient Lutheran Church, the Minister of the French Church and the Minister of the Presbyterian Congregation, these being all the churches that were then on Manhattan Island. That charter provided, at a time when religious tensions and religious feeling ran very high, that the trustees of this newly founded college should never be empowered to make and discrimination against teacher or student on account of his religious faith or his religious relationship. So far as I know, this and the very similar provision which was put into the first charter of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), founded eighty years earlier than King's College (now Columbia University), are the first charter provisions of their kind. Columbia has remained true to that tradition. So it welcomes and has welcomed students and teachers of every form of religious faith when they are honest, sincere, high-minded, genuine. We wish to avoid these unnecessary and bitter theological controversies. We look not only with dismay, but with more than that, upon the violent anti-Semitic movements which find expression from time to time among the American people and which now have been taken up in so cruel a form by despotic governments in various parts of the world. We look with dismay at those passionate expressions of ignorance which are called the Ku Klux Klan and their attack upon members and priests of the Roman Catholic Church. Both anti-Semitism and the Ku Klux Klan are an insult to democracy and a contradiction of it.

But faith—honest, sincere, hopeful—opens a door to moving forward in this new and very difficult world in which our children must live. It opens the door into that world in a spirit inspired by something more than the merely human, the gain-seeking and the temporary. It brings us, our children and our grandchildren, in touch with the eternal verities which are the only possible foundation for a civilization and a life that are worthy of human ambition and human endeavor.