PART 1: Awakening the Progressive Giant

I wrote a paper on the topic of public education for a class a couple years ago, which I am heavily excerpting from for this article. The main purpose is to explain some of the 19th Century factors that went into the whole-hog acceptance of compulsory public education, and a little bit of analysis of how to roll some of this back. Part 1 addresses the religious circumstances in the 19th Century that led to compulsory public school. Part 2 will address the secular circumstances leading to compulsory schooling. Part 3 addresses implementation of compulsory schooling and the effects on society. Part 4 will address long term effects and rolling back compulsory schooling.


The Second Great Awakening


In the early 19th century, the United States was going through a massive theological change. The nation was in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, and revivals swept the countryside. These revivals led to the growth of Methodist and Baptist evangelical denominations throughout the country. One of the doctrines of major importance in this Awakening was the doctrine of postmillennialism.

While postmillennialism is not popular in today’s church, it was a major part of antebellum Protestant doctrine.  Postmillennialism taught that Jesus’ second coming would occur after a millennium of peace and justice, which had to be initiated by the Christians. Therefore, these evangelicals worked to root out conflict and injustice, such as slavery and moral decay. The clergy found themselves walking a fine line between destroying the unity of the nation that they believed would bring a millennium of peace and justice and actually promoting that peace and justice. If they pushed too hard on slavery, it would result in the dissolution of the Union, but if they didn’t push hard enough, there would still be societal sin in slavery.

As it turned out, they could not achieve this balance, and the evangelicals largely took the side of the Union during the Civil War. Some ministers, however, condemned this secular and religious concept of America’s perfectibility as idolatry, and tried to steer those impulses toward the betterment of the Church. Although the Civil War and the friction between different ministerial factions slowed down the revivalist nature of the Second Great Awakening, it also laid the foundation for the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century.

The Social Gospel

The Social Gospel was an evolution from the postmillennialist Second Great Awakening toward the idea that churches were responsible for social action and the eradication of societal ills. This Social Gospel was not particularly theologically deep and was primarily a codification of New England liberalism with an appeal to “teachings of Jesus.” The Social Gospel was, in a sense, a mix of the prophesies of the Bible with the burgeoning public understanding of the science of evolution and its application to societal progress.

In order to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, and specifically in America, Social Gospel preachers such as Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch believed that the nation needed a spiritual regeneration. The initial push of the Social Gospel movement was government-neutral, but the movement evolved. By the second generation, which was defined by the temperance issue, the Social Gospel had come around to using government for its advantage. Rauschenbusch recognized the change that was afflicting his movement. He saw the tendency of the Social Gospel to drift away from its mooring and eventually secularize as they gained wider acceptance. He warned against the movement sagging down “from evangelical religion to humanitarian morality.”

However, despite his best efforts to prevent it, the Christian-led Social Gospel already had cracks of secularism forming. The Southern Progressives united their message with the Social Gospel being preached in the South, relying on the religiosity of southerners as a connection between faith and politics.  As those sympathetic to the Social Gospel waded into secularism through the Progressive movement, they put the Christian revival and spiritual betterment of society on the back burner.  The Progressive Era had been born, a secular manifestation of the populist energy that had been created by the Social Gospel, the muckraking labor movement, and Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting.

The Social Gospelers were one voice among many in the Progressive movement, and the Progressives’ ideas gradually transformed away from the Social Gospel due to the “irrational hatreds of certain groups such as foreigners.” This was, in part, due to a second side of the Progressive movement, the Social Darwinists.


(to be cont’d… Same Bat-time. Same Bat-channel.)