An acute if somewhat near-sighted critic has traced what he is pleased to call the emancipation of Massachusetts, meaning by that term a release of the commonwealth from the tyranny of priestcraft; but there is a wider and nobler sense in which this commonwealth worked out its emancipation in common with other English colonies on the Atlantic coast. Under the rapid evolution of free social and political life, the great experiment was tried and proved of detaching the church from a pragmatic relation to the state, without rendering the state less Christian or the church less vigorous. The evolution tended not to disintegrate an essential integrity, but to discriminate functions.

This separation of church and state in America is indeed one of the great landmarks in human history, but the attention of students has been directed too exclusively to the effect upon the state and the person; the effect upon the church hardly has had adequate consideration. Americans, especially, have been so greatly interested in political studies, and accept the separation of church and state so much as a matter of course, that they fail to realize that the contribution which the country is making to ecclesiastical history is quite as momentous as that which it is making to political history. Only when some conflict arises between the state and that organized body which claims, par éminence, to be the church does the citizen bethink himself of the very different conditions under which his life is led from those which prevail in England, Germany, or Italy.

The conversion of Constantine, by which the Roman Empire and the church ceased outwardly to be antagonists and began to coalesce, took place early in the fourth century. At the beginning of the tenth century the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire seemed to make organic the union of church and state. The contest between Hildebrand and Henry IV., in the last quarter of the eleventh century, marks the height of supremacy of the ecclesiastical power in this union. The next four centuries show the church outwardly appearing to strengthen its position, yet really, by the silent working of that spiritual power which inhered in it, moulding and shaping the forms of human freedom. The rise of nationality had its legitimate issue in the revolution which we call Protestantism. That name, as all students know, was not given to a revolt against the errors of the church, but to a bold assertion of national independence of the Vatican. The first Diet of Spires, in 1526, was both the register of the independence of the states in the empire as regarded allegiance to the Pope, and the starting-point whence the notion of religious freedom was to make rapid progress.

Out of the general movement which goes by the name of the Protestant revolution came the religious independence of England, the reformation of the English church, most of all in this: that it was now to be part and parcel of the English nation, and was to be the great spiritual guardian of the life of the English people. But again was set in motion on new lines that activity which had caused humanity to refuse to be bound by the swaddling-clothes of ecclesiasticism. Just as the great Elizabethan expansion of England in the fields of commerce, science, literature, and art was very intimately connected with the separation of the English church from Roman superintendence, so the Jacobean and Carolan expansion of England in colonial operations was very intimately associated with the separation of the Puritan party from a close connection with Episcopal superintendence. The revolt of the Puritans in England issued in a temporary independence, a momentary disintegration of church and state; but the formal relation was quickly restored, and the real change is to be sought in the gradual relaxation, during the generations which have followed, of ecclesiastical restrictions, as instanced in the abolition of tests and the disestablishment of the Irish church, while these releases have been attended by great spiritual advances in the church of England itself.

But the most remarkable as well as the most fruitful result of the Protestant revolution is to be seen in the condition of things in the United States. The removal of a large section of the Puritan party to New England made it possible for the ideas underlying the Puritan movement to have free exercise, and the issue is seen in such a differentiation of the functions of church and state as the world has never witnessed on so great a scale and with such promise of permanence. These ideas have had gradual expression, and they are but partial exponents of the fundamental idea of the Christian church. The founders of New England, though they were out of sympathy with the Episcopal form, had by no means reached the point where they could understand the significance of those essentially modern words, a free church in a free state. They also established a church in New England. They sought an even closer identification of the church with the state than existed in the mother country, and it was in pushing this notion of a state-church and church-state to an extreme that they demonstrated the truth that the pragmatic connection of the two is an historic incident, not an underlying and essential relation.

We have rid ourselves, in historical studies, of the crude belief that our institutions in America are the result exclusively of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of a written Federal Constitution. We are accustomed to the thought that American social, religious, and political life, as formulated in organizations and institutions, has been the outcome of an indefinite series of developing forces, and that such great advantage as we possess over European nations lies in the freedom of the conditions under which our national development has taken place. The immense advantage at the start of a virgin continent upon which to exercise our power, the absence of a marked feudal system, the preponderating influence of a race educated to the practice of political power, — all these prime favors have accelerated the movement of a development which is more sluggish in Europe because it is more embarrassed by the inert accumulations of centuries. Institutions which had been buttressed by custom, long endurance, and an intricate interdependence with other institutions, when transferred to these shores could not survive the change, and went down under the shock of vital forces.

Was the church one of these institutions? Or is the church like the nation, a moral organism, which not only survives in spite of changes in organization, but has within it a vital force which is the author of these very changes? No student of the history of the United States fails to see that it was the people of the thirteen colonies who instituted the nation. With what noiseless ease, their political instincts trained and under control, they destroyed the colonial fabric, and substituted the more perfect fabric of the commonwealth; and though with the throes of labor, yet with equal certainty they erected an independent Union in the place of a dependent congeries of states. The postulate is in an inherent political power, and this is the postulate also in the church, namely, that there is an inherent spiritual power. The possibility of change, of reform, in the church and society rests on this great truth, that there is a light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and however any man, or any society, or any generation may suffer this light to be obscured by the coverings which untoward systems, education, or sentiment may produce, the light is essential, the coverings are accidental and temporary. There never is a moment when in some church, in some organization, in some human being, that ever-lasting light may not blaze forth with such incandescent fury as to burn away all the flimsy coverings which have seemed so impervious to light. The miracles of reform which have been wrought are the same as the miracles wrought by the Christ in the field of physical nature; they are the destruction of obstructions, not the creation of what did not previously exist. New eyes are not given, but the scales fall. If one apprehends the deep spiritual energy which is at work in Christianity, he may reach some apprehension of the processes by which this energy constantly is transmuting the forms of Christianity; he may be able to note the moments when the church, having existed long enough in one form to permit the expansion of the spiritual idea inclosed in it, gives way when that spirit can no longer be contained within it. Again and again does the prophecy come true, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it again;” I, because the I within the temple is greater than the temple. There was a great destruction of that temple when the church which owned the Holy Father at Rome as its one earthly head was broken and appeared to lie in fragments over Christendom, but the building again is going on. From the gathering of the Apostles after the Sermon on the Mount, that Magna Charta of Christianity, to the upper chamber in Jerusalem; from the upper chamber to Constantine; from Constantine to Hildebrand; from Hildebrand to the Diet of Spires; from the Diet of Spires to the establishment of the First Church in Boston; from that day to this year of grace, there is a series of steps which marks the development of redeemed humanity. At every stage it has been possible for the prophets of God and man to see essential coincidence with that primitive Christian society which had its presentation in the Beatitudes, or the ten-sided base of human character, and yet to look forward eagerly to a more complete resolution of all the forces of human society into that twofold relation summed up in the first and great commandment, and the second like unto it.

Freedom brings rights, and rights have their correspondent duties. The release of the church from pragmatic connection with the state means an access of power to the church within its scope as a great spiritual factor; and upon the superficial evidence of material prosperity there has unquestionably been given an immense momentum to the growth of organized Christianity in America. Whatever the future may hold for us, we may confidently aver that the differentiation of political and ecclesiastical functions in America will deepen, not lessen. In all our vaticinations, we need not consider the hypothesis of a return to an organic union of church and state. The more interesting and far more practical question relates to the independent and interdependent action of these two great organizations upon the same person, and when this question is put in the terms of education it becomes of supreme moment.

Time was, even in our own country, when state, church, and school were only three manifestations of the same organism. In the separation which has come about between the church and the state, the school has been partitioned between them, not formally, but through the operation of natural laws. Looking over the field to-day, we see a few instances of what may be termed educational independence of both church and state. The most notable illustration is Harvard University, which once was formally united to each. We see a great many illustrations in the higher and secondary institutions of a connection between the school and the church. Such are our denominational colleges and academies. The charter of Yale requires that a certain number of her trustees shall be clergymen of the Congregational order, and though the university in its expansion has risen above mere denominational lines, still it is identified with Congregationalism of the Trinitarian type; while Trinity College at Hartford and S. Paul’s School at Concord are illustrations of the most manifest association of church and school. We see also by far the largest body of educational institutions in intimate dependence on the state. Under this category come the public schools, the state academies, and those state colleges and universities which flourish especially in Western soil. Finally, we see a number of institutions which, while having no organic connection either with the state or with any one corporate ecclesiastical body, are yet openly and distinctively religious and Christian schools; having, indeed, sometimes in their articles of corporation a provision for establishing and preserving both a Christian character and an independence of any one body of Christians. Such is Wellesley College, which provides for an adherence to the evangelical type of Protestant Christianity, both in the personnel of administration and in the college curriculum.

Thus it appears that the conditions of education as regards direct Christian teaching vary greatly. In separating church and state we have not determined under which organization the school shall be fostered, — we have left this to the operation of general social laws; but by a necessity of the very nature of the state as conceived by Americans, primary education has come to be the special charge of the state. Now the state has no formal religious character; can it then provide for the religious education of the young? And if it does not, are the schools therefore non-Christian or anti-Christian?

We have referred to the contribution which America is making to the conception of Christianity in its separation of the functions of church and state, in its heroic use of the voluntary system, in the enlargement of religious freedom. Yet no one can take note of this momentous fact without observing also the existence in the United States of an ecclesiastical power which in its history, its official utterances, and its alliances stands opposed to the interpretation of Christianity which is denoted by American Protestantism. The Roman Catholic church has thriven under the enormous advantages which our liberty has given it. No state alliance could afford it such an impetus as it has received from occupying the same privileges with other religious bodies in America. It lies within the great circle of American religious freedom, but by the very charter of its organization, so to speak, it is a protest against the life which nourishes it.

It is inevitable that in one form or another a conflict should arise between this body and American Protestantism, nor is it strange that the conflict should appear first and most emphatically in the arena of education. The theory of the Roman Catholic church makes the prime element in education to consist in loyalty to the church of God as interpreted by its tenets. The theory of American Protestant Christianity makes the prime element in education to consist in the formation of right character. Hence the former says to the child, Whatever else you may or may not learn, you shall first of all know your catechism and become familiar with the ritual of the church; the latter says, You shall learn all you can in school, but the end in view is always your character.

The Roman Catholic church has begun to put its theory into systematic practice by the general adoption of the policy of parochial schools, into which are withdrawn pupils who would otherwise receive their training in the public schools. A test through results may therefore be looked for. By their fruits ye shall know them. I do not say that the parochial schools fail to give a thorough training in character and the development of the faculties, though I hear many complaints of their inferiority to the neighboring public schools; we must bear in mind also that they collect boys and girls whose antecedents do not make the best material of them, and they deprive these pupils of contact with minds quickened by inheritance of generations of freedom. Nor do I say that our public schools necessarily produce boys and girls of a high type of character; on the contrary, those most familiar with the public schools are most sharp in their criticism of the results in this respect. What I assert is that we have the spectacle of two antagonistic systems, and that the issue will prove which of the two is more vital. In other words, we are witnessing a trial between two phases of Christianity, — the Christianity of Hildebrand and the Christianity of the American republic.

We who heartily believe in this later phase have a task before us which may well inspire us with enthusiasm. We have to convince an apparently securely intrenched church that the God whom they worship is not, as each nation of antiquity fancied, their own peculiar divinity, inaccessible to the voice of any beyond the pale. We have to build an invisible temple, whose true catholicity shall render a material assumption of catholicity ignoble and self-destructive. The church of Rome, with its compact and magnificent visible strength, appeals to our imagination, and by its apparent solidarity seems to render the opposing force of American Protestantism broken and irresolute. How insignificant, how jealous of each other, how incapable of union, appear our separate bodies of Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians! We cannot so misinterpret the issue. The opposition to this great hierarchy is not in any one of these churches or societies, nor in all of them combined. The true opposition is to be found in Christianity itself, in that larger, fuller conception of the life of God in the world which is only feebly expressed by our separate churches. The thought of Romanism is that God is manifest only in and through the Roman Catholic church; and just so far as our Protestant churches faintly echo that same notion, and say, Lo, He is here, and only here, do they stand in the same category as against the eternal idea which was manifested to the world in the Christ.

In this most interesting contest, one factor should not be left out of sight. We must not forget that the Roman Catholic church in America is itself working out a problem. No more than the rest of the world has it reached its final change, and in its edict commanding the establishment of parochial schools it is taking up a weapon of defense whose handle may prove a blade. It is working in America under very different conditions from those under which it works in the Old World. In opposing its church schools to the public schools it suffers the enormous disadvantage of being compelled to use authority and a certain extrinsic force as against a freedom which is self-determined. So long as parochial schools are mainly the imposition of an order, and not the spontaneous outgrowth of the people supporting them, they are foreign, not native, and they exist with overwhelming odds against them. They even threaten themselves, for the state is profoundly jealous of any foreign power which seems to interfere with the liberty of its citizens; and events have shown that those who are directing the policy of parochial schools find themselves at once on the defensive and compelled to use circumspection, if they wish to carry on their experiment unopposed. Let the people of any commonwealth be convinced that a church is deliberately exercising supremacy in political rights, and they will make short work of such pretensions.

Assuming, then, in the absence of any systematic effort to establish primary schools except on the part of the Roman Catholics, that American Christians expect to work out the problem of primary education through the agency of the state, the question may be repeated, How far is their Christianity recognizable in the school system, and what function does the church play alongside of the state in the education of the young?

We are not giving a definite and comprehensive answer when we contend that the Bible shall be read every day in every school without comment. I am not denying the value of this exercise. In the hands of a reverent, thoughtful teacher it may be of inestimable worth; but the Bible is not a charm nor a talisman, and the merely formal, perfunctory use of it in the presence of the young is mischievous and deadening. The Bible is a divine instrument, to be used wisely and rationally; not a fetich from which the divinity has fled. Least of all is it desirable to make a test of such an exercise. Happy they who can begin the school-day with their children with a message from God’s word, with the offering of the Lord’s Prayer, with some hymn of praise! Is one shut out from all this in the public school, and is the source of Christian education therefore dried? Our conception of Christianity will determine our conception of Christian education; and as education, in the last analysis, is the influence of one person on another, so Christian education is the outflow of that influence from a person who owns in his or her life the power of a Christian faith.

Mr. Bryce, in his far-reaching book The American Commonwealth, has illustrated by many examples the discovery which thoughtful men are making of the real seat of power in America. He traces the working of power through various organizations of government and society only to find it finally resident in the people. Public opinion, he avers, is the court of final appeal, and legislatures and administrations are becoming steadily more sensitive reflections of public opinion. We accept the conclusion. We perceive that the schools of the country represent the public that institutes them. The community in one place is homogeneous, religious, high-minded; its schools are expressions of its character. Elsewhere the community is honeycombed with corruption, religious indifference, a low spiritual temper; its schools will scarcely show a higher standard. Yet in the one case eternal vigilance is requisite to preserve a high ideal; in the other the aggressive force of a true Christianity may work upon the schools through the community, upon the community through the schools. A warm-hearted, large-minded Christian woman or man will transform the shady place into one of sunshine. The spread of the Christian faith is more than the augmentation of any one religious order, and its exercise is through a multitude of channels which have not a religious name. As the prime, fundamental notion of that faith subsists in a personal relation, so its development and exercise are in and through personal relations, and those personal relations extend to the entire organization of human society; nor can they stop short of that universal application. Business, government, literature, art, education, yes, the church itself, — these are all under the transforming influence of that faith which subdues kingdoms and works righteousness.

It is here that, speaking in a large way, the church has its great part to play in Christianity in America. Because the state, the church, and the school have become in a degree separate organisms, so much the greater freedom and power has the church; so much the more surely is it to penetrate the state, to infuse the spirit of its Master into the school. Withdrawn from official, perfunctory relations, with how much more pervasive force shall it establish spiritual, invisible, and healthful relations! Nay, in the very separation of the church from the school we see the precious power of the church in education. Command that the church be invested with the education of the young, and you introduce the insidious peril of formalism; you make Christian faith to be a thing of rules; you make it possible for arid religious training to take the place of the expansion of character under the force of vital Christian faith.

We cannot shut up the idea of education within the boundaries of the school-room; nor can we crowd into that room all the influences which directly affect character. In the development of modern American civilization there is a disposition to distinguish the functions of the church and the school. The church is to assume the distinctively religious education of the child; the school is to be concerned with its mental and industrial education. But in the development of spiritual Christianity, the public which is imbued with the principles of Christ recognizes no such sharp distinctions in practice. It will study to spiritualize the public schools by making the teacher’s desk the honorable goal of a devout disciple of Jesus; by using the great spiritual forces of art and literature in the formal lessons of the day, and, so far as Christian wisdom will sanction, the Bible, the prayer, and praise; most of all, by making Christian character the lever to lift the whole mass into a nobler place.

There is no short and easy road to such an end. By no system of legislation can we expect to enforce Christianity. Nor is any skillful manipulation of school committees or boards of education to secure devout Christian men and women at the head of our schools. No; the spread of Christianity in the school-room, like the spread of Christianity in the world, is by the consecration of the children of God. Our school system is like our political system. There are those who think we never shall be a Christian nation so long as the name of God is not in the Constitution of the United States. There are those who think our public schools cannot be Christian so long as they do not directly teach Christian dogmas. The answer is in the sublime words of the Master: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven;” and in education as in national life, Christianity is not a thing of names and phrases, but a real manifestation of the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.