IT would be quite impossible to exaggerate the importance of the subject about which this chapter concerns itself. Whether one thinks of the future of the individual, of the nation, or of the Church, it is equally clear that on the character of those who now make up the youth of our country its destiny for weal or woe must depend.
In the earlier and simpler days of our national life, when the population was comparatively small and homogeneous, there was no anxious question of Christian education. All the influences that played upon the child's formative years--the home, the Church, and the school--were, speaking broadly, religious influences. The Colonial days and those which succeeded them were marked by a quiet but earnest piety. Those who laid the foundations of our national life were deeply religious men. The homes of our forefathers were generally religious homes where church-going and family prayer and Bible-reading and Christian schools were to be expected naturally and as a matter of course. But all this is now changed. The public school supported by the state provides for the elementary education of the child, and that is supplemented by the state university, where the demands of his academic life are met. Our country has grown from a couple of millions of people, fringing the eastern borders of the Atlantic states, to a population of over ninety millions. It is estimated that each year at least a million foreigners are added by immigration. Already a large percentage of our total population is comprised of those who have been brought up under different social, political, and religious customs from our own. Millions of these are children of school age. But it has been decided by the highest judicial authority that, as our Constitution guarantees perfect liberty of conscience to all in the exercise of their religious rights, it is not lawful that Christianity or any other religion shall be definitely taught in our public schools. The same principle forbids any undue emphasis on religion in the curriculum of our state universities. One result of this interpretation has made it unlawful even to have the Bible read in the public schools of some of our states. This does not mean that the states or our system of public education are opposed to religion, but simply that in justice to that religious liberty so carefully safeguarded by the Constitution it has been decided that public schools supported by the government shall not definitely teach religion. It is obvious that in a school composed of children whose parents are conscientious Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Agnostics, any elaborate system of dogmatic religious teaching might be deemed an injustice and arouse opposition.
Of course, where people do not like the non-religious character of state-supported schools and colleges there is sometimes the possibility of establishing a private or parochial school to which their children can be sent. This is often resorted to by Churches, and especially by our Roman Catholic brethren. But this method of relief is expensive, and especially so when taxes must be paid to support the public schools as well as those established by the parish. It has been suggested from time to time that entire justice could be meted out to all concerned, and the principle of fair play amply conserved by the state, if the children in our public schools could be instructed in religion one hour daily by their pastors or other duly authorized teachers. It is reported that some such plan has been tried and is working successfully in other countries. With us in America it is evident that the overwhelming majority of our children are not receiving any adequate instruction in religion in the public schools for the reason above stated.
If they are to be systematically taught, therefore, under present conditions the only hope of accomplishing it is to look to the home and the Church. Let us then consider the function of these two divinely ordained agencies as related to the Christian education of our youth.
It is interesting, as bearing upon the importance of the whole subject of religious education, to know that our late General Convention created a central Board of Religious Education to which has been committed the whole subject.
It will be the province of this Board to concern itself about the education of our youth in religious matters, not only through the Sunday-schools, but also in the secondary schools--the day schools--as well as colleges and universities of higher learning.
Let us now turn first to the home. A wise Roman Catholic Bishop is reported to have remarked on one occasion, "Give me the control of the child for the first seven years of its life, and I care not greatly to what influence it is exposed thereafter." Such a statement reveals at once an intimate knowledge of human nature on the part of the prelate, and also a most exalted and worthy conception of the vital importance of the home in molding character. Without question, it is during the tender and susceptible years of early childhood, while the mind and heart are open to receive impressions, that the deep foundations of an abiding character are laid. What a blessing, then, to the boy or girl to have in the father and mother, its natural guardians and protectors, the wholesome influence, by word and example, it needs! Given the right kind of home, the proper parental control, and the problem of the child's Christian education is settled. But here is where there is so often a lamentable failure. If parents have little or no sense of responsibility and are themselves without religious convictions and a positive faith to govern and sustain them, the child is robbed on the very threshold of life of that which should be its greatest blessing.
As are the parents, so are the children, not only as to personal religion, but as to all other motives that enter into the development of character. The solution of the whole problem of the Christian education of our youth, it is plain to see, is wrapped up in that of having homes where they are brought up in the love and fear and knowledge of God. In too many homes there is a tendency to shift the responsibility of Christian teaching to the Church and Sunday-school. As a matter of fact, no amount of Sunday-school instruction can counteract the baneful and deadening effect of a home where the parents habitually disregard and set at naught the sanctions, guidance, and authority of religion. Example is so much more powerful than precept that one is tempted to despair of a child's future who must start out in life without the help and inspiration of a Christian home. Parental influence and example are so potent that where it is exercised in creating an atmosphere of love and reverence for holy things, and the habit of church attendance, it rarely fails in its object.
We are not disposed to place the entire burden of responsibility for the child's future on the home, but in the last resort it rests there rather than at the door of the Church, for the highest benefits can never come to the individual from the public worship of the Church unless a wholesome environment in the life of the family accompanies it. Besides this, but a small part of the children of our country attend church or Sunday-school; and if all attended, a lesson of an hour in seven days can produce no deep or lasting impression.
So much for the home! Now as to the function of the Church in Christian education. It is an encouraging fact that a marked advance has been made in the methods of Sunday-school instruction, teacher-training, courses of study, and all the helps that go to give efficiency and secure the best results. It is also true that there are many excellent secondary schools for boys and girls under the control of the Church where the utmost care is taken not only to impart religious knowledge, but to set an example of bright, happy, and useful Christian living.
Moreover, through the efforts of the Church, supplemented by the Student's Volunteer Movement and the Young Men's Christian Associations, there is no college or university in our land where young men and women are not within reach of Christian influences and the privilege of public worship. There has been a great awakening in religious affairs in our universities, manifesting itself not only in increased attendance at Church, but in the formation of missionary organizations, Bible classes, and other forms of religious activity, while frequently men are offering themselves as volunteers for the mission field.
We cannot be too grateful for the enormous advance of the cause of popular education which has marked the last half-century in our national life. Within that period there has been organized our great system of public schools, in which free elementary education is offered to all; there have been established in cities and towns free high schools, in which secondary education is given to those who desire it; the states have founded and endowed for men and women universities which are rapidly widening their scope and increasing their effectiveness. Such progress has never been equaled in the history of any other people. We have founded, also, free training-schools for teachers all over the Union, and in our native white population illiteracy has almost disappeared. Nowhere else is there such popular faith in education, such willingness to be taxed for the building and maintenance of schools. In scientific and technical education, agricultural and industrial education, we are making genuine and rapid progress. The aims and ends of practical education appeal to us with irresistible force. They have created our ideals. "We regard education," says Daniel Webster, "as a wise and liberal system of police, by which property and life and the peace of society are secured." Here is the paramount fact; both the school and the Church are in our eyes too often regarded as a superior kind of police. The highest good, therefore, in the popular mind is property and the peace of society. But, after all, this is a narrow and purely utilitarian conception of true education. Only those who look above and beyond property and the peace of society and strive in all earnestness to live in the infinite and permanent world of truth, beauty, and goodness can hope to rise to the full height of a noble manhood. True education is the symmetrical development of the whole man--body, mind, and spirit. The man whose intellectual faculties are sharpened and strengthened at the expense of his moral and spiritual powers cannot be a worthy member of society. He may, indeed, be the more dangerous to the community by virtue of his shrewdness and cunning. A moral degenerate is a greater menace because of his education. Religion and virtue are the most essential elements of humanity, and they can be taught; but they are the most difficult things to teach, because those alone in whom they are a life principle, bodying itself in a character which irresistibly inspires reverence, love, and devotion, can teach them. This is a truth of universal application; for whenever there is a question of educational efficiency and progress the primary consideration is not methods, not buildings, not mechanical agencies of whatever kind, but a living teacher. Whatever is a vital element of his being, whether it be religion or virtue or esthetics or scientific proficiency, that thing he can teach; and in the highest and best sense he can teach nothing else. We can teach what we know and love to those who know and love us. The rest is drill, and must be more or less mechanical.
Hence it is that with all the blessings that come to us through our admirable system of public schools care should be taken that so far as possible the teachers under whom the young are placed should be men and women of high characters, persons whom the children can reverence and respect. To this end they should be teachers animated by the religious motive. Such teachers, without consciously attempting to teach religion, will inevitably generate a religious atmosphere in the school-room and will exert an influence morally purifying and uplifting.
All this means that the future stability and character of our national life depend on the molding and training of the young and inspiring them with high ideals. It means that parents should awaken to their responsibility in making the home the sanctuary of truth and virtue and unselfishness. It means that the Church should arouse herself and devote her energies unremittingly to instilling into the hearts and minds of the young the abiding truths of religion, and that in all our schools and colleges and institutions of learning of whatever sort only those should be employed whose personal influence tends to deepen in the young a sense of the nobility of life and to give them a vision of personal responsibility and service to their fellow-men.
Christian education issues in Christian character. Christian character is the most vital social influence and the most enduring bond. It is this that has created whatever is best in our national life; it is this that must foster, sustain, and develop the individual and the family, the Church and the state, if we are to preserve and increase our rich inheritance and hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God in ourselves and in the world around us.