When preparing to speak at a Worldview Conference in Colonial Williamsburg, I came across the writings of theologian Dr. R. L. Dabney. Dabney was a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. In 1897 he published a book titled, Discussions. This book featured several essays by Dabney on a wide variety of topics. The one that caught my attention was called, Secular Education. Here he wrote about the “free school system that was ‘imposed’ upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution.”
In this essay, Dabney explains how education that is controlled by the government must eventually become totally secular. Even though many Christians of his day did not believe that this had to be the case, Dabney showed how anything but secularization of education would lead to the government sponsoring some form of religion. He presented a brilliant defense of his claim that state sponsored education must eventually be secularized completely.
The theologian went on to explain why church leaders of the day did not heed his words. Dabney wrote:
Once, in states like Connecticut, the population was so homogeneous, and the dissidents so few in number, that the dominant religion could be taught on the state’s account without any protest loud enough to be inconvenient.
At the time, Christianity was embedded deeply into the fabric of American culture. So when a common school system was developed and promoted, it was easy for the basic tenets of the faith to be infused throughout the educational process. However, in this statement the author hints that when the population becomes more diverse, there will come protests against a dominant religion being taught in a state sponsored program.
I was fascinated by Dabney’s wisdom to see that another idea used to “sell” the common school concept was impossible. We must remember that it was argued by Mann and others that it is possible to divide the educational responsibilities up between the school and the home and church. The school would teach the “academic subjects” that were simply facts with no spiritual meaning. The home and church would then be able to instill in the child the spiritual matters of religion. Here is Dabney’s take on this absurd thinking.
The only alternative is to secularize the State’s teaching absolutely, limiting it to matters merely secular, and leaving parents or the Church to supplement it with such religious teaching as they may please, or none…Let us see whether this plan is either possible or admissible. This is really the vital question.
Dabney answers his own question by writing,
True education is, in one sense, a spiritual process. It is the nurture of a soul…The soul is spiritually indivisible (the soul is a spiritual monad, an indivisible, spiritual unit without parts, as without extension)…the soul cannot be successfully cultivated by patches. We cannot have the intellectual workman polish it at one place, and the spiritual workman at another.
Why can’t we divide education up into compartments, one to teach the academics and another to teach morals and values? It is because the entire educational process is value laden and moral in its purpose. Again, I let you read his words stressing this important truth.
Every line of true knowledge must find its completeness in its convergency to God, even as every beam of daylight leads the eye to the sun. If religion is excluded form our study, every process of thought will be arrested before it reaches its proper goal.
Dabney wasn’t through. He then warned his readers what the inevitable results would be if education is secularized completely.
If in a ship the compass is broken and the pilot is blind, it is better that there should not be a great force to move her machinery. The more energetic its motion, the greater is the likelihood the ship will speedily be upon the breakers. Surely this is sufficient to show the reflecting mind that right moral instruction cannot be separated at any point, or for any time, from intellectual training without great mischief being done.
Everyone thought his warnings were unthinkable for a country that was founded on biblical truth and a strong Christian ethic. If they had another chance, I wonder if they would have heeded Dabney’s warning.
As a man, it is presumable he will act as he was taught while a boy…In the public school, a non-Christian standard alone would be given to him. He cannot be expected now to rise to any better, although he may sink to a lower standard, seeing that what was given to him earlier had no foundation under it. What is the result? Young Americans are to assume their responsibilities with pagan morals, for these are just what human reason attains without revelation from God. Will this suffice to sustain American institutions?
Then with boldness he declared,
But nearly all public men and preachers declare that the public schools are the glory of American. They [public schools] are a finality, and in no event to be surrendered. 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.
Even though everything that Dabney warned about has come true, I am amazed how many Christians still don’t heed his words. We cannot continue to give our children a secular education at school and try to overcome its influence with a couple of hours of instruction at church/home each week. Somehow, the church still thinks that the impossible is possible. Will we ever heed the words of Dr. R. L. Dabney?