Christian and secular education


Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-198) was arguably one of the greatest 19th century theologians. He was also a Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate Army chaplain and Stonewall Jackson's chief of staff and biographer. He was a man of substance. Dabney understood that a major battle field for the hearts and minds of the next generation is fought in the sphere of education. He recognised that education cannot be done within an ethical or moral vacuum. Dabney knew that education is conducted on top of religious presuppositions. 

Education is king

"The education of children for God is the most important business done on earth. It is the one business for which the earth exists. To it all politics, all war, all literature, all money-making, ought to be subordinated; and every parent especially ought to feel, every hour of the day, that, next to making his own calling and election sure, this is the end for which he is kept alive by God - this is his task on earth."

This pastor understood the covenantal nature of education. He could see God’s multi-generational perspective of training/discipling children for Christ and His kingdom. Dabney connected the dots. He could see that a secularized education system which relies on the State would bring destruction to the family and church. State funded and controlled education grants godship to the civil government. No society tolerates multiple ultimate authorities.

Hell boy

Dabney articulated the breadth of the Gospel promise - to you and your children - well. He did not mince words. Christian parents are to give to their children a Christian education, no excuses. Dabney could see that God requires the weakest members of the covenant (children) to be trained and nurtured in the truth. And every subject under the sun relies on the truth of the existence of God. Dabney did not fall for the modern evangelical church gnosticism of sending children to religiously neutral schooling facilities that produce nice little citizens of the democratia. The goal of Christian parenting isn't raising nice little idolatrous hell boys. Christian parents are to faithfully shape their children into sharp arrows, lethal weapons of war in the hand of a warrior (Ps 127:4). Christian children must be fully discipled in the paideia (worldview) of God (Eph 6:4). Every area of their lives must be saturated with and influenced by the gospel. Their training is to equip them in the task of reconstructing societies and building civilisations upon the blueprints of the Law-Word of God, to the glory of Christ (Matt 28:18-20). All of this is accomplished through the consistent preaching and application of the gospel to all of life (1 Cor 10:31, 2 Cor 10:5).

You cannot separate education and discipleship. Education is a means of discipleship. Facts are never brutes. They are interpreted with and expressed in a worldview. Soul and knowledge cannot be segregated. Education is completely religious and is the transmission of a worldview from one generation to the next. The type of education we give our children either glorifies God or it does not. There is no middle ground. Nice worldites are not an option. How and what our kids are taught is either consistent with the truth of God's existence or it is idolatry.

rl dabney

Robert Lewis Dabney understood the Scriptures to give parents the responsibility for their children’s education. More than this, he believed that this is the most important business done on earth. It is a primary gospel issue. Christ demands parents to be faithful in how they educate their children. Secular state schools are not the playground for Christian children. Plus, Dabney had an awesome beard...listen to the man!

The below is an excerpt from his essay entitled On Secular Education. You can purchase the book here.

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On Secular Education

“To every Christian citizen, the most conclusive argument against a secularized education is contained in his own creed touching human responsibility.

According to this, obligation to God covers all of every man's being and actions. Even if the act be correct in outward form, which is done without any reference to his will, he will judge it a shortcoming. "The ploughing of the wicked is sin." The intentional end to which our action is directed determines its moral complexion supremely.

Second, Our Savior has declared that there is no moral neutrality: "He that is not with him is against him, and he that gathereth not with him scattereth abroad."

Add now the third fact, that every man is born in a state of alienation from God; that practical enmity and atheism are the natural outgrowth of this disposition; that the only remedy for this natural disease of man's spirit is gospel truth. The comparison of these truths will make it perfectly plain that a non-Christian training is literally an anti Christian training.

This is the conclusive argument. The rejoinder is at tempted; that Christians hold this theology as church members, and not as citizens; and that we have ourselves urged that the State is not an evangelical agent, and its proper business is not to convert souls from original sin. True, but neither has it a right to become an anti-evangelical agency, and resist the work of the spiritual commonwealth. While the State does not authorize the theological beliefs of the Christian citizens, neither has it a right to war against them. While we have no right to ask the State to propagate our theology, we have a right to demand that it shall not oppose it. But to educate souls thus is to oppose it, because a non-Christian training is an anti-Christian training. It may be urged again, that this result, if evil, will not be lessened by the State's ceasing to teach at all, for then the training of youth will be, so far as she is concerned, equally non-Christian. The answer is, that it is one thing to tolerate a wrong as done by a party over whom we have not lawful control, but wholly another to perpetrate that wrong ourselves. For the State thus to do what she ought to condemn in the godless parent, though she be not authorized to interfere would be the sin of "framing mischief by a law" the very trait of that "throne of iniquity" with which the Lord cannot have fellowship.

It is objected again, that if the State may govern and punish, which are moral functions, she may also teach. If we are prepared for the theocratic idea of the State, which makes it the universal human association, To Jlav of human organisms, bound to do everything for society from mending a road or draining a marsh up to supporting a religion, then we can conclude thus. But then consistency will add to State schools a State religion, a beneficed clergy, a religious test for office, and State power wielded to suppress theological as well as social error. Again, while secular ruling and punishing are ethical functions, they are sufficiently grounded in the light of natural theism. But teaching is a spiritual function—in the sense denned – and for teaching beings fallen, and in moral ruin, natural theism is wholly inadequate, as witness the state of pagan society. Christian citizens are entitled (not by the State, but by one higher, God) to hold that the only teaching adequate for this fallen soul is redemption. But of this the State, as such, knows nothing. As God's institute for realizing secular justice, she does know enough of moral right to be a praise to them that do well and a terror to evil-doers.

The most plausible evasion is this: Since education is so comprehensive a work, why may there not be a "division of labor?" Let the State train the intellect and the Christian parent and the Church train the conscience and heart in the home and the house of worship. With this solution some Christians profess themselves satisfied. Of course such an arrangement would not be so bad as the neglect of the heart by both State and parent.

Points already made contain fatal answers. Since conscience is the regulative faculty of all, he who must not deal with conscience cannot deal well with any. Since the soul is a monad, it cannot be equipped as to different parts at different times and places, as a man might get his hat at one shop and his boots at another; it has no parts. Since all truths converge towards God, he who is not to name God, must have all his teachings fragmentary; he can only construct a truncated figure. In history, ethics, philosophy, jurisprudence, religious facts and propositions are absolutely inseparable. The necessary discipline of a schoolroom and secular fidelity of teachers call for religion, or we miss of them. And no person nor organism has a right to seem to say to a responsible, immortal soul, “In this large and intelligent and even ethical segment of your doings you are entitled to be godless.” For this teaching, State must not venture to disclaim that construction of its own proceeding to its own pupil. That disclaimer would be a religious inculcation!

But farther: Why do people wish the State to interfere in educating? Because she has the power, the revenues to do it better. Then, unless her intervention is to be a cheat, her secularized teaching must be some very impressive thing. Then its impression, which is to be non-Christian, according to the theory, will be too preponderant in the youth’s soul, to be counterpoised by the feebler inculcation of the seventh day. The natural heart is carnal, and leans to the secular and away from the gospel truths. To the ingenuous youth, quickened by animating studies, his teacher is Magnus Apollo, and according to this plan he must be to his ardent young votary wholly a heathen deity. The Christian side of the luminary, if there is one, must not be revealed to the worshipper! Then how pale and cold will the infrequent ray of gospel truth appear when it falls on him upon the seventh day! In a word, to the successful pupil under an efficient teacher, the school is his world. Make that godless, and his life is made godless.

If it be asked again: Why may not the State save itself trouble by leaving all education to parents? The answer is, because so many parents are too incapable or careless to be trusted with the task. Evidently, if most parents did the work well enough, the State would have no motive to meddle. Then the very raison d’etre of the State school is in this large class of negligent parents. But man is a carnal being, alienated from godliness, whence all these who neglect their children’s mental, will, a fortiori, neglect their spiritual, culture. Hence we must expect that, as to the very class which constitutes the pretext for the State’s interposition, the fatally one-sided culture she gives will remain one-sided. She has no right to presume anything else. But, it may be asked: Is not there the church to take up this part, neglected by both secularized State and godless parent? The answer is, The State, thus secularized, cannot claim to know the Church as an ally. Besides, if the Church be found sufficiently omnipresent, willing, and efficient, through the commonwealth, to be thus relied on, why will she not inspire in parents and individual philanthropists zeal enough to care for the whole education of youth? Thus again, the whole raison d’etre for the State’s intervention would be gone. In fact the Church does not and cannot repair the mischief which her more powerful, rich, and ubiquitous rival, the secularized State, is doing in thus giving, under the guise of a non-Christian, an anti-Christian training. It is also well known to practical men that State common schools obstruct parental and philanthropic effort. Thus, parents who, if not meddled with, would follow the impulse of enlightened Christian neighbors, their natural guides, in creating a private school for their children, to make it both primary and classical, now always stop at the primary. “The school tax must be paid anyhow, which is heavy, and that is all they can do.” Next, children of poor parents who showed aspiration for learning found their opportunity for classical tuition near their homes, in the innumerable private schools created by parental interest and public spirit, and kindly neighborhood charity never suffered such deserving youths to be arrested for the mere lack of tuition. Now, in country places not populous enough to sustain “State High Schools,” all such youths must stop at the rudiments. Thus the country loses a multitude of the most useful educated men. Next, the best men being the natural leaders of their neighbors, would draw a large part of the children of the children of the class next them upward into the private schools created for their own families, which, for the same reason, were sure to be Christian schools. The result is, that while a larger number of children are brought into primary schools, and while the statistics of the illiterate are somewhat changed, to the great delectation of shallow philanthropists, the number of youths well educated in branches above mere rudiments, and especially of these brought under daily Christian training, is diminished. In cities, (where public opinion is chiefly manufactured) high schools may be sustained, and this evil obviated so far as secular tuition goes. But in the vast country regions, literary culture is lowered just as it is extended. It is chiefly the country which fills the useful professions—town youths go into trade.

The actual and consistent secularization of education is inadmissible.

But nearly all public men and divines declare that the State schools are the glory of America, that they are a finality, and in no event to be surrendered. And we have seen that their complete secularization is logically inevitable. Christians must prepare themselves then, for the following results: All prayers, catechisms, and Bibles will ultimately be driven out of the schools. But this will not satisfy Papists, who obstinately—and correctly were their religion correct—insist that education shall be Christian for their children. This power over the hopes and fears of the demagogues will secure, what Protestants can-not consistently ask for, a separate endowment out of the common funds. Rome will enjoy, relatively to Protestantism, a grand advantage in the race of propagandism; for humanity always finds out, sooner or later, that it cannot get on without a religion, and it will take a false one in preference to none. In-fidelity and practical ungodliness will become increasingly prevalent among Protestant youth, and our churches will have a more arduous contest for growth if not for existence…

Is the direction of the education of children either a civic or an ecclesiastical function? Is it not properly a domestic and parental function? First, we read in holy writ that God ordained the family by the union of one woman to one man, in one flesh, for life, for the declared end of “seeking a godly seed.” Does not this imply that he looks to parents, in whom the family is founded, as the responsible agents of this result? He has also in the fifth Commandment connected the child proximately, not with either presbyter or magistrate, but with the parents, which, of course, confers on them the adequate and the prior authority. This argument appears again in the very order of the historical genesis of the family and State, as well as of the visible Church. The family was first. Parents at the outset were the only social heads existing. The right rearing of children by them was in order to the right creation of the other two institutes. It thus appears that naturally the parents’ authority over their children could not have come by deputation from either State or visible Church, any more than the water in a fountain by derivation from it’s reservoir below. Second, the dispensation of Divine Providence in the course of nature shows where the power and duty of education are deposited. That ordering is that the parents decide in what status the child shall be-gin his adult career. The son inherits the fortune, the social position, the responsibility, or the ill fame of his father. Third, God has provided for the parents social and moral influences so unique, so extensive, that no other earthly power, or all others together, can substitute them in fashioning the child’s character. The home example, armed with the venerable authority of the father and the mother, repeated amidst the constant intimacies of the fireside, seconded by filial reverence, ought to have the most potent plastic force over character. And this unique power God has guarded by an affection, the strongest, most deathless, and most unselfish, which remains in the breast of fallen man. Until the magistrate can feel a love, and be nerved by it to a self-denying care and toil, equal to that of a father and a mother, he can show no pretext for assuming any parental function.

But the best argument here is the heart’s own instinct. No parent can fail to resent, with a righteous indignation, the intrusion of any authority between his conscience and convictions and the soul of his child. If the father conscientiously believes that his own creed is true and righteous and obligatory before God, then he must intuitively regard the intrusion of any other power between him and his minor child, to cause the rejection of that creed, as a usurpation. The freedom of mind of the child alone, when become an adult, and his father’s equal, can justly interpose. If this usurpation is made by the visible church, it is felt to be in the direction of popery, if by the magistrate, in the direction of despotism.

It may be said that this theory makes the parent sovereign, during the child’s mental and moral minority, in the moulding of his opinions and character, whereas, seeing the parent is fallible, and may form his child amiss, there ought to be a superior authority to superintend and intervene. But the complete answer is, that inasmuch as the supreme authority must be placed somewhere, God has indicated that, on the whole, no place is so safe for it as the hands of the parent, who has the supreme love for the child and the superior opportu-nity. But many parents nevertheless neglect or pervert the power? Yes, and does the State never neglect and pervert its powers? With the lessons of his-tory to teach us the horrible and almost universal abuses of power in the hands of civil rulers, that question is conclusive. In the case of an unjust or godless State, the evil would be universal and sweeping. Doubtless God has deposited the duty in the safest place.

The competitions of the State and the Church for the educating power have been so engrossing that we have almost forgotten the parent, as the third and the rightful competitor. And now many look at his claim almost contemptuously. Because the civic and the ecclesiastical spheres are so much wider and more populous than his, they are prone to regard it as every way inferior. Have we not seen that the smaller circle is, in fact, the most original and best authorized of the three? Will any thinking man admit that he derives his right to marry, to be a father, from the permission of the State? Yet there is an illusion here, because civic constitutions confer on the State certain police functions, so to speak, concerning marriage and families. So there are State laws concerning certain ecclesiastical belongings. But what Protestant concedes there-from that his religious rights were either conferred, or can be rightfully taken away, by civil authority? The truth is, that God has immediately and authoritatively instituted three organisms for man on earth, the State, the visible Church, and the Family, and these are co-ordinate in rights and mutual independence. The State or Church has no more right to invade the parental sphere than the parent to invade theirs. The right distribution of all duties and power between the three circles would be the complete solution of that problem of good government which has never yet been solved with full success. It is vital to a true theory of human rights, that the real independence of the smallest yet highest realm, that of the parent, be respected. Has it not been proved that the direction of education is one of its prerogatives?

But does not the State’s right to exist imply the right to secure all the conditions of it’s existence? And as parents may so pervert or neglect education as to rear a generation incompetent to preserve their civil institutions, does not this give the State control over education? I answer, first, it is not even a pre-text for the State’s invading the parental sphere any farther than the destructive negligence exists, that is, to stimulate, or help, or compel the neglectful parents alone. Second, precisely the same argument may authorize the State to intrude into the spiritual circle and establish and teach a religion. But the sophism is here: It is assumed that a particular form of civil institutions has a prescriptive right to perpetuate itself. It has none. So the American theory teaches, in asserting for the people the inherent right to change their institutions. Did our republican fathers hold that any people have ever the right to subvert the moral order of society ordained by God and nature? Surely not. Here then is disclosed that distinction between the moral order and any particular civil order, so often overlooked, but so eloquently drawn by Cousin. So far is it from being true that the civil authority is entitled to shape a people to suit itself; the opposite is true, the people should shape the civil authority.

It is a maxim in political philosophy, as in mechanics, that when an organ-ism is applied to a function for which it was not designed, it is injured and the function is ill done. Here is a farmer who has a mill designed and well fitted to grind his meal. He resolves that it shall also thresh his sheaves. The consequence is that he has wretched threshing and a crippled mill. I repeat, God de-signed the State to be the organ for securing secular justice. When it turns to teaching or preaching it repeats the farmers’ experience. The Chinese Government and people are an example in point. The Government has been for a thousand years educating the people for it’s own ends. The result is what we see.

Government powerfully affects national character by the mode in which it performs its proper functions, and if the administration is equitable, pure and free, it exalts the people. But it is by the indirect influence. This is all it can do well. As for the other part of the national elevation (an object which every good man must desire), it must come from other agencies; from the dispensation of Almighty Providence; from fruitful ideas and heroic acts with which he inspires the great men whom he sovereignly gives to the nations he designs to bless; chiefly from the energy of divine Truth and the Christian virtues, first in individuals, next in families, and last in visible churches.

Let us suppose, then, that both State and Church recognize the parent as the educating power; that they assume towards him an ancillary instead of a dominating attitude; that the State shall encourage individual and voluntary efforts by holding the impartial shield of legal protection over all property which may be devoted to education; that it shall encourage all private efforts; and that in its eleemosynary [almsgiving] character it shall aid those whose poverty and misfortunes disable them from properly rearing their own children. Thus the insoluble problems touching religion in State schools would be solved, because the State was not the responsible creator of the schools, but the parents. Our educational system might present less mechanical symmetry, but it would be more flexible, more practical, and more useful.”

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