Massachusetts established the first statewide compulsory school system in 1852. This served as the model for the rest of the United States, and every state had compulsory attendance laws by 1918. These early public schools claimed, as they do today, to provide a religiously “neutral” education for all citizens.
The “Neutral” Public Schools
This proclaimed “neutrality” can be seen in the words of Horace Mann, who became the first secretary of the Massachusetts State School Board in 1837 and is considered the father of American public education. In 1848, Mann gave the “Twelfth Annual Report of the Massachusetts State School Board.” Here are some extended excerpts from his report—and they are well worth the read:
That our Public Schools are not Theological Seminaries, is admitted. That they are debarred by law from inculcating the peculiar and distinctive doctrines of any one religious denomination amongst us, is claimed; and that they are also prohibited from ever teaching that what they do teach, is the whole of religion, or all that is essential to religion or to salvation, is equally certain. But our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible; and in receiving the Bible, it allows it to do what is allowed to do in no other system,—to speak for itself . . .
The very terms, Public School, and Common School, bear upon their face, that they are schools which the children of the entire community may attend. Every man, not on the pauper list, is taxed for their support. But he is not taxed to support them as special religious institutions; if he were, it would satisfy, at once, the largest definition of a Religious Establishment. But he is taxed to support them, as a preventive means against dishonesty, against fraud, and against violence; on the same principle that he is taxed to support criminal courts as a punitive means against the same offences . . . He is taxed to support schools, on the same principle that he would be taxed to defend the nation against foreign invasion, or against rapine committed by a foreign foe; because the general prevalence of ignorance, superstition, and vice, will breed Goth and Vandal at home, more fatal to the public well-being, than any Goth or Vandal abroad.
Notice that Mann says that the public schools do not receive taxes as “religious institutions,” as that would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The schools also do not teach "all that is essential to religion or to salvation."
Rather, Mann says the schools are a “preventive means” against crime. The system is still moral and even “inculcates all Christian morals." So while the system is not explicitly Christian or religious, Mann argues that the system still teaches Christian morality—“it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible.”
Now this is an odd claim. How can Mann say that the public school system “welcomes the religion of the Bible” when he also says the system is not a “religious institution”? He seems to be communicating the idea that the public school system is religiously “neutral”—it is not Christian but it welcomes Christian morality. Mann was trying to sell the system to Christians from a variety of traditions and denominations. So it makes sense that he wanted to portray the system as friendly towards Christianity in general.
Is the System Anti-Christian?
Mann's claim of religious neutrality was likely in response to the charge that the public school system was “anti-Christian.” Why would anyone make this charge? Not only were the public schools not specifically Christian, but there were also many Unitarians (such as Mann) involved in the system. And these Unitarians rejected many foundational doctrines of orthodox Christianity. Notice Mann’s response to the charge that the public schools were “anti-Christian”:
It is still easier to prove that the Massachusetts school system is not anti-Christian nor un-Christian . . . The Bible is in our Common Schools, by common consent . . . and if this Bible is in the schools, how can it be said that the school system, which adopts and uses the Bible, is an anti-Christian, or an un-Christian system?
Mann’s argument is weak for two reasons. First, his argument assumes that all Bible teaching is homogenous. But seeing that many leaders of the public school system were Unitarians, it is understandable that orthodox Christians would oppose the system. Traditional Christians saw Unitarianism as anti-Christian because of its rejection of doctrines like the Trinity and the need for salvation through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Unitarian Bible teaching would in fact make the schools anti-Christian.
Second, the public schools would not be allowed to use the Bible for much longer. The Supreme Court took the system’s non-religious basis to its logical conclusion by banning Bible reading in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). The very argument Mann used in 1848 to argue that the public schools were not anti-Christian (because they used the Bible) no longer works. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that the public schools of our day are in fact anti-Christian. The Bible has been removed from public schools, and along with it, the “Christian morality” of which Mann spoke.
The Unitarian Dream
In spite of the criticism, Horace Mann thought quite highly of the system he was propounding. Listen to his optimism about the public school system:
Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School, improved and energized, as it can easily be, may become the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization. Two reasons sustain this position. In the first place, there is a universality in its operation, which can be affirmed of no other institution whatever. If administered in the spirit of justice and conciliation, all the rising generation may be brought within the circle of its reformatory and elevating influences. And, in the second place, the materials upon which it operates are so pliant and ductile as to be susceptible of assuming a greater variety of forms than any other earthly work of the Creator. The inflexibility and ruggedness of the oak, when compared with the lithe sapling or the tender germ, are but feeble emblems to typify the docility of childhood, when contrasted with the obduracy and intractableness of man.
Mann is claiming that the public school system may become “the most effective” and beneficial “of all the forces of civilization.”
Why such a bold claim? Mann gives two reasons: (1) The system is universal; and (2) Children are malleable. It is hard to argue with Mann’s reasoning as to the effectiveness of the system. However, there is good reason to doubt Mann’s claim as to the system being beneficial (or “benignant” as Mann says). An education system separated from religion is dangerous. And Mann's concept of such a system fails to understand the significance of religion and worldview in relation to education.
Mann says the public school system would be “the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization.” So we must ask—does Mann believe the school system to be more beneficial than the church? It appears Mann’s answer is “yes.” In fact, this was the great Unitarian hope. And it was founded on their rejection of the Calvinistic view that human nature was inclined towards sin. Instead, the Unitarians believed that humans, particularly children, could be molded to be good through proper training and education. The key error here is that they believed this could happen apart from the gospel and the grace of God.
The timing of the creation of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1837, is of significance in understanding the Unitarian dream. It was only four years earlier, 1833, that the Congregational Church was still the established church of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (and the church was receiving state funding to pay its ministers and expenses). So Massachusetts abolished its state church and within four years adopted a state school system that was funded by state taxes rather than just local taxes. And it was Unitarians, such as Horace Mann, who were behind the creation of this system. This is not a coincidence. The Unitarians had created a new “state church” that would educate every child in the community so as to perfect humanity and rid the world of crime. America’s public school system was therefore initially based on the utopian theology of Unitarianism.
The Immorality of the System
What is interesting is that though Mann endorsed the public school system, he also made comments that condemn the coercive nature of such a system. These comments are made in reference to taxation:
But if a man is taxed to support a school, where religious doctrines are inculcated which he believes to be false, and which he believes that God condemns; then he is excluded from the school by the Divine law, at the same time that he is compelled to support it by human law. This is a double wrong. It is a political wrong, because, if such a man educates his children at all, he must educate them elsewhere, and thus pay two taxes, while some of his neighbors pay less than their due proportion of one; and it is a religious wrong, because he is constrained, by human power, to promote what he believes the Divine Power forbids. The principle involved in such a course is pregnant with all tyrannical consequences . . . Again; it seems almost too clear for exposition, that our system, in one of its most essential features, is not only, not an irreligious one, but that it is more strictly religious than any other which has ever yet been adopted.
Mann himself says when is man is required to pay taxes to support a school “where religious doctrines are inculcated which he believes to be false” that this is a “double wrong.” It is a political wrong because “he must educate his children elsewhere, and thus pay two taxes.” And it is a religious wrong because “he is constrained, by human power, to promote what he believes the Divine Power forbids.”
To this we can only say amen. Forcing Christians (and others) to pay for a system they believe God condemns is “pregnant with all tyrannical consequences,” just as Mann claims. However, Mann contradicts himself here. He is insistent that his school system is “religious,” but then says no one should be forced to pay for the system if he has religious objections to it.
Mann is correct that the system that he propounded was religious. It was in his day, and it still is today, though of a different kind. Mann’s intention was a Unitarian school system that taught a watered-down form of Christian morality. That vision has not come to fruition, as the public schools have morphed into a fully secularized system that breeds all sorts of immorality.
But let us make one thing clear—America’s public school system today is religious. It teaches gross idolatry and trains children in an atheistic and materialistic worldview. The irony here is that Mann’s own words—those of the founder of the system—can be understood to condemn the modern system as “tyrannical.” Christians are forced to pay for and support a system that goes against everything we believe.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Thinking Biblically About Education: Why Parents Should Abandon Government Schools and Take Back Control of Education.
 Horace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report of the Massachusetts State School Board” (1848) in The American Nation: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2008), p. 248.
 Ibid., p. 250.
 Ibid., p. 251.
 Ibid., p. 249.