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"Whosoever will, let him come": evangelical millennialism and the development of American public education.

"Henceforth, the inscription upon the temples of highest learning, as well as the common school, is to be 'Whosoever will, let him come'" said the Illinois State Superintendent of Public Instruction at the inauguration of Illinois Industrial University, later to become the University of Illinois (Board of Trustees 1868, 173). The invitation to attend the new land-grant university sounded biblical, but it was not. It was a quotation from Jonathan Edwards, the Protestant theologian who ushered in the Great Awakening in the 1740s (Edwards 1746/1959, 457). It was an invitation for sinners to repent. Why would a state officer use language that fit a revival to invite students to attend a public university?

The answer to this question lies in understanding how public education developed in America. In just one generation--from 1848 to 1868--American politicians and educators linked common schools with public colleges through public high schools in northern states. Slowly, historians have discovered the religious motives that helped establish a public educational system (Smith 1967; Howe 2002). The often-repeated Jeffersonian argument that a republic could only survive through an educated populace never found enough political traction to build schools. Whigs and Republicans, however, found a formula for educational reform based on widespread anxiety about the future (Griffin 1960; Groen 2008). To understand how a public education system to improve the citizenry became a reality, we need to review the religious role that many people expected public education to play in the future of America.


The Puritans who came to America believed a prophecy about end times in the biblical book of Revelation--that an angel would "come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season" (Rev. 20:1-3 KJV). Puritans believed that end times would consist of an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil at a place known as Armageddon, followed by the judgment of the living and dead, then a joyous and peaceful reign of Christ with a sanctified people in heaven. This sequence of events was a common understanding of the future among Calvinists in the seventeenth century.

A somewhat contrasting view became popular in the eighteenth century: After the battle at Armageddon, Christ would reign on earth for a thousand years before the final judgment. This view has been labeled postmillennialism, and its modern origin is ascribed to Daniel Whitby, a clergyman in the Church of England. In the American colonies, the Congregationalist minister and theologian Jonathan Edwards was one of several proponents of postmillennialism, but with a difference. In a series of sermons on A History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards located the present time--1739--near the end of "the present age" and before "the latter days" or the thousand year reign of Christ on earth (1774/1989). Departing from Whitby and

other postmillennialists, Edwards located the battle at Armageddon between "the present age" and "the latter days," a belief not widely held before Edwards proclaimed it (Goen 1959). Believers would have to experience spiritual warfare with the forces of Satan for 250 years before they could enter the utopia of the millennial reign (McDermott 1992). Edwards saw the pre-millennial battle progressing through a succession of victories in territories dominated by Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and "heathens" each in their turn (Edwards, 1748/1977).

Edwards' view of history was not published until after his death, but it caused quite a stir among American Protestant clergy. Edwards claimed that he could not prophesy when the overthrow of papal authority (the next significant event in history) would occur, but anyone who put a pencil to his numbers calculated that Edwards believed that this signal event would occur in 1866 (1774/1989, 412). In books published in the 1820s, Protestant divines such as Joseph Emerson (Congregationalist), Josiah Priest (Presbyterian), and Ray Potter (Baptist) adopted 1866 as the closest possible year for the advent of the millennial reign of Christ in America. In 1830, Sereno Dwight, who was Edwards' great grandson and first biographer, explained that Edwards' History had "since produced the general conviction, that the downfall of Popery and the ultimate extension of the kingdom of Christ, are far less distant than has been supposed," and the general adoption of this view "has been a prime cause, of the present concentrated movement of the whole church of God, to hasten forward the Reign of the Messiah" (1830, 246). Although Edwards did not believe that human actions could alter the pattern of God's providence, his view of history set the stage for revivalists such as Charles Finney who preached that "if the church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years" (1835/1960, 306).

The Second Great Awakening may have had several causes--from epidemics to economic instability to a multiplicity of religious creeds--but no cause was greater than the nervous energy created in the first half of the nineteenth century by anticipation of a spiritual battle to usher in "the millennial reign." As Perry Miller pointed out, anxiety over the future lay at the heart of the movement (1965, 21). If spiritual regeneration was the goal of the First Great Awakening, then spiritual warfare was the goal of the Second. Revivalist meetings enlisted Protestants in armies of reformers bent on improving society to cause the millennium. The battle with the forces of Satan became viewed not so much in terms of converting Jews (according to Whitby) or Catholics, Muslims, or heathens (according to Edwards) but of awakening the social conscience of Protestant Christians and converting the unchurched to Protestantism.

Not all Protestants were equally involved in religious revivals and social reforms. Only a minority of Episcopalians were evangelistic, as

were some Quakers known as "Gurneyites." Lutherans were divided. "Premillennialist" splinter groups came out of several denominations to uphold a belief in the Apocalypse concurrent with Final Judgment before the millennium, but many Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Dutch Reformed joined voluntary, interdenominational associations of evangelical Protestants bent on social reforms. Some have referred to the social influences of these associations as that of a benevolent empire, but to many Roman Catholics and others who were outsiders, they often represented a form of cultural hegemony (Griffin 1960; Wolffe 1994).

The social reform agenda of evangelical Protestants focused on missionary work, temperance, and (in the North) the abolition of slavery, but it also came to include public education. Contemporaries of Sereno Dwight such as Francis Wayland, a Baptist minister and later president of Brown University, indicated that free schools sprang from missionary work among people who could not afford schools for their children. In a sermon on The Duties of An American Citizen, he urged his fellow Americans to support educational missions (Wayland 1825). Home missionary societies formed in the 1820s and 1830s, especially to send missionaries to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin--the states of the Old Northwest.

The Northwest Ordinance specifically authorized a form of religious instruction in schools of these states. It declared that "religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government, and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged" (Northwest Ordinance 1787, Sec. 14, Art. 3). Sunday school unions, in which children received religious instruction from an interdenominational Protestant viewpoint, were especially popular and often preceded the organization of common schools in this region (Boylan 1988). After common schools were established, Protestant missionaries frequently taught interdenominational Protestantism during the week along with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

By the 1840s, the increasing demand for free schools led Horace Greeley on a lecture circuit of YMCAs in urban areas of the East. By that time, free schools for poor children that included instruction in interdenominational Protestantism had become the public schools of New York City (Kaestle 1972). Always a champion of public schools, Greeley sought to motivate his audiences of young men with the vision of a millennial mission. "Universal education! grand inspiring idea! And shall there come a time when the delver in the mine and the rice-swamp, the orphans of the prodigal and the felon, and even the very offspring of shame, shall be truly, systematically educated? Glorious consummation! morning twilight of the Millennium" (1850, 228). Greeley's idea of universal education combined the idea of a

free school for poor children with the idea of religiously zealous teachers. "Who will not joyfully labor, and court sacrifice, and suffer reproach, if he may hasten, by even so much as a day, its blessed coming" (1850, 228)? Greeley appealed to both missionary and millennialist motives to promote universal education.

Greeley's lecture contained a vision of the battle at Armageddon with the forces of Satan before the millennium came. Today, his language sounds lurid, but it eerily presaged events that would occur within the lifetime of his listeners: "Whatever evil and suffering the Future may have in store for us--though the earth be destined yet to be plowed by the sword and fertilized by human gore ... the time shall surely come when universal and true Education shall dispel the dense night of ignorance and perverseness that now enshrouds the majority of the Human Race--shall banish evil and wretchedness almost wholly from earth by removing or unmasking the multiform temptations to wrong-doing--shall put an end to Robbery, Hatred, Oppression, and War" (1850, 229). Using allusions to the battle at Armageddon, Greeley drew on the substrate of nervous anxiety about the future that was the heart of the Second Great Awakening. His goal was to excite an interest in teaching by stirring up the emotions of his listeners. In doing so, he alluded to a conflict that for many of them would become inseparable from the Civil War.

Although his rhetoric was exceptionally emotional, Greeley was not the only speaker to conduct teachers' revivals. Beginning in the 1830s and extending into the 1850s, teachers' institutes were the most available means for training new teachers. They were also conducted as the first classes taught in the new normal schools (Mattingly 1971). For a week or two in October and April throughout much of the nation, institutes met in school buildings during the day and church buildings at night, opening each day with Bible reading, singing, and prayer. They were not strictly intellectual affairs. David Page, principal of the normal school in Albany and one of the most able leaders of teachers' institutes in New York, began his lessons with an aim to awaken "the true spirit of the teacher," a spirit "that can recognize and reverence the handiwork of God in every child, and that burns with the desire to be instrumental in training it to the highest attainment of which it is capable,--such a spirit is the first thing to be sought by the teacher, and without it the highest talent cannot make him truly excellent in his profession" (Page 1847a, 10). Such language was designed to make a young person anxious if they had come for any reason other than an awakening of "the true spirit of the teacher."

Once they completed the course, they were sent to teach knowledge including what Page and others believed were the fundamentals of Christianity (1847a, 30-32). His book on the Theory and Practice of Teaching went through over 100 printings. In a letter to Page on February 16, 1847, the great nineteenth-century educational promoter, Horace Mann, called Page's treatment of moral and religious instruction "within true Protestant limits" (Page 1847b). Teachers were missionaries who, equipped with the Protestant Bible, their own education, instruction in general methods, and Page's extremely popular book, were sent to teach interdenominational Protestantism to young people, mostly in public schools.


If nineteenth-century educational reforms are viewed not as the product of a growing faith in democracy (Cremin 1951), nor in terms of a developing class struggle (Katz 1968), but with regard to hopes and fears that sprang from the Second Great Awakening, we can see a faith developing in what might be called "redemptive education." Greeley's YMCA lecture from the 1840s, for example, clearly related the vision of a better future for all people to the redemptive power of education. "True and universal education" would either directly or indirectly solve American social problems and launch the United States into a prosperous, utopian future. This idea was powerful in the nineteenth century, and its descendants remain powerful today, because they were and are believable.

The key to understanding how education could be redemptive was "universal education." In 1847, much missionary work remained to be done. The signal year of 1866 was quickly approaching. Horace Mann, Secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education, promoted universal education in his Eleventh Report (1848), marking the inauguration of an extraordinary transition in American education. In a questionnaire sent to eight educators (including his friend David Page), Mann said that he wanted them to use the opportunity of his report to "proclaim the power and the prerogatives of education to rescue mankind from their calamities," or in a phrase, the power of education to redeem society (1848, 55). More particularly, Mann wanted them to describe "how far the miseries of men can be alleviated and how far the dominion of crime can be overthrown, by such a system of education as it is perfectly practicable for every civilized community forthwith to establish" after the New England model (1848, 55). He supposed two changes from practices then current in Massachusetts: 1) that children would be under "first class" teachers, "animated by a missionary spirit in furthering the objects of their sacred vocation"; and 2) "that all the children in the community shall be brought under the forming hands of such teachers, from the age of four to that of sixteen, for ten months in each year" (1848, 57). In theory, no child would be left behind. Mann chose these two reforms because "on the present condition of things," they could "be effected without any great delay;--at the furthest a very few years being an ample allowance for the completion of such a change" (1848, 57). The social effects, not just the educational reforms, were expected to occur within a generation.

One of Mann's respondents was Jacob Abbott, a Congregationalist minister, school principal, and writer of children's books. In his response, Abbott articulated a vision of the future of America, not just of American education: "If all our schools were under the charge of teachers possessing what I regard as the right intellectual and moral qualifications, and if all the children of the community were brought under the influence of these schools for ten months in the year, I think that the work of training up the whole community to intelligence and virtue would soon be accomplished, as completely as any human end can be obtained by human means" (Mann 1848, 72). The idea that town schools--or high schools--could instill virtue along with knowledge in an entire nation within a generation was the central concept of universal education.

Another respondent was Catharine Beecher, a pioneer in women's education and social reform. She had written in a Treatise on Domestic Economy that "there is a day advancing, 'by seers predicted, and by poets sung,' when the curse of selfishness shall be removed; when 'scenes surpassing fable, and yet true' shall be realized; when all nations shall rejoice and be made blessed, under those benevolent influences, which the Messiah came to establish on earth" (Beecher 1843, 35-36). Beecher, quoting William Cowper, was referring to the "day" of the millennial reign, and her vision gave women the pre-eminent role in facilitating its arrival. "The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured," she wrote. "If this be so, as none will deny, then to American women, more than to any others on earth, is committed the exalted privilege of extending over the world those blessed influences, which are to renovate degraded man" (1843, 37). In the early 1840s, Beecher was an evangelical millennialist.

In 1847, Beecher joined Mann in advocating educational reforms that would renovate society. She said that if "it could be so arranged that in a given place, containing from ten to fifteen thousand inhabitants, in any part of our country where I ever resided, all the children at the age of four shall be placed, six hours a day, for twelve years, under the care of teachers having the same views that I have, ... I have no hesitation in saying I do not believe that one, no, not a single one would fail of proving a respectable and prosperous member of society" (Mann 1848, 84). Just as Mann, Beecher believed that education could renovate society, but she did not take the opportunity to endorse millennialist beliefs. Privately, she was beginning to distance herself from Calvinism and would eventually become an Episcopalian (Sklar 1973).

In the end, Mann pitched universal education as the means to usher in what others called the millennial reign. The testimony of his eight, handpicked witnesses proved to him that if children could be thoroughly imbued with this type of education, "ninety-nine in every hundred of them can be rescued from uncharitableness, from falsehood, from intemperance, from cupidity, licentiousness, violence, and fraud" whether the source of these influences was their own nature or society (1848, 113). Mann concluded that as a result of its role in redeeming society, universal education would be the servant who would open the door to the millennial reign: "In concluding this Report, I shall not attempt to heighten the effect of the evidence and the argument which have been submitted, by any effort to describe the blessedness of that state of society, which the universal application of the reformatory agency would usher in. Such an endeavor would be vain. He who would do this must first behold the scenes, and be thrilled by the joys, he would delineate; he must borrow the language of the Paradise he would describe" (1848, 133). Even though Mann never mentioned the millennium, his quasi-religious language would have evoked the idea of a Christian millennium in the mind of every reader. Schools taught by missionary teachers and attended by all children in America during ten months of each year for twelve years--universal education--was the "reformatory agency" that would "usher" it in. Mann believed that "in universal education, 'every follower of God and friend of humankind' will find the sure means of carrying forward that particular reform to which he is devoted" (1848, 135). He envisioned high school graduates, having been reformed, going forth to reform society, renovating society in a single generation. The grand aim of the American public education system was to be the moral regeneration of American society within 20 years.

Mann's quotation from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man was both a call for unity among evangelical reformers and an olive branch to Roman Catholics, who would have recognized a line from Pope's poem on redemption as easily as the descendants of the Puritans would have recognized a line from Milton's Paradise Lost. Both poems were about a lost relationship with God, but of the two poems, only Pope's developed a vision of how to restore the relationship through heroic action:
   'Twas then, the studious head or gen'rous mind,
   Follow'r of God, or friend of human-kind,
   Poet or patriot, rose to restore
   The Faith and Moral, Nature gave before;
   Re-lum'd her ancient light, not kindled new;
   If not God's image, yet his shadow drew (Pope 1969, epistle 3).

In Mann's view, Pope's poem and universal education were both about redemption through the heroic action of reformers. By 1847, Mann understood that there was common ground between Protestants and Catholics on the issue of school reform, but he was unable to exploit it.

During the 1840s, tensions had increased in Boston public schools over what Protestants saw as instruction in the fundamentals of Christianity and what a growing number of Catholics saw as indoctrination in the Protestant Bible and the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments. Mann had contributed to this rift through statements that he had made in the Common School Journal (1841, 3, 6). By his overture to Catholics in 1848, Mann sought to reconcile differences that he had partially created, but by the late 1840s, American Catholicism was undergoing its own revival (McGreevy 2003). American Catholics were not motivated by millennialist beliefs, but they were developing their own educational systems, partly in response to Protestant assertiveness.

Before the legislature acted on his proposal, Mann left his position to become a Whig representative to Congress. He served two terms before he ran for governor of Massachusetts, lost, and moved to Ohio to lead Antioch College as its new president. In 1852, Massachusetts, under a Democratic governor, enacted the first statewide compulsory school attendance law in the United States. It required school attendance for children from eight to fourteen years old for twelve weeks each year, but it was rarely enforced (Philbrick 1861). It fell far short of Mann's concept of universal education.

If the argument for universal education had any impact on schools at midcentury, it was on the growth of the high school. Massachusetts had authorized high schools in 1827. By law, these schools were taught by an instructor "of good morals," met for ten months of the year, and were established "for the benefit of all the inhabitants" of a town. By 1840, only 36 percent of towns had established a high school, but by 1850, 55 per cent had done so; and by 1860, the figure was up to 67 percent (Inglis 1911, 38). From 1840-1860, the development of secondary education, more than the enactment of compulsory education laws, reflected the implementation of the provisions universal education.

The argument that Horace Mann had made in his Eleventh Report was picked up by the editor of The Massachusetts Teacher who proclaimed universal education "the grand central idea of the age" (Morgan 1851, 169). Eliminate ignorance, the argument went, and you eliminate sin. "Ignorance should no more be countenanced than vice and crime. The one leads almost inevitably to the other" (Morgan 1851, 169). The child whose ignorance would "almost inevitably" lead to sin would instead be trained up to virtue. The education envisaged was redemptive.

Mann's argument for redemptive education resounded throughout the North. The Dubuque Herald and the Wisconsin Journal of Education, for example, both trumpeted the capacity of universal education to redeem humankind from crime, poverty, and wickedness ("Educate" 1857, 12). The Ohio Journal of Education used arithmetic to argue for universal education:

The statistics of crime inform us that nine-tenths of all the criminals confined in jails and penitentiaries are deplorably ignorant.... A large proportion of the paupers sustained at public expense will be found to belong to the ignorant class.... Could the statistics of intemperance be fully ascertained, it would be found that ... those who have ruined themselves ... by intemperate drinking, have, by the neglect of the culture of their minds, been rendered unable to enjoy any other than sensual pleasures.... It can be shown that more than one-half the sickness in our country is the result of ignorance, of a want of that acquaintance with the laws of health which might easily be obtained. (Lord 1852, 59-60)

Reviews of universal education highlighted its capacity to redeem society from a plethora of evils including criminality, poverty, drunkenness, and illness. The expectations for secondary education had few limitations except the time necessary to finish the work of building schools and training teachers in redemptive education.

The development of secondary education in the Midwest was behind its development in Massachusetts, but it began as public educators advanced arguments for "union" or graded schools. In its simplest form, union schools combined two one-room district schools so that one teacher could instruct on the primary level and the other on the secondary level. Ohio's first public high school opened in Cincinnati in 1829. Before 1848, Ohio recognized only six other graded schools, but by 1857, there

were 80 and by 1863, there were 175 (Smyth 1858; Smyth 1864). Michigan and Wisconsin followed suit. Michigan had only three public high schools in 1853 (in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Battle Creek), but in 1859, there were 50, and by 1863, there were 124 (Shearman 1853; Gregory 1860; Gregory 1863). Wisconsin's first public high school was established in Kenosha in 1851, but by 1860, there were 45 graded schools, and by 1863, there were 120 in rural areas alone (Draper 1858; Pickard, 1860; Pickard 1863). Early reports were fragmentary, and instruction in the graded schools often fell short of bridging the gap between elementary schools and college. Preparatory departments of colleges continued to flourish. Nevertheless, the results for Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin are comparable. Before 1850, public high schools in the Midwest were so few that they could be described individually. By the Civil War, these states boasted so many that they had to be tabulated.

The arguments for free high schools and for redemptive education were contemporaneous and correlated. As superintendents annually revealed in their accounts of attendance, their expressed concern was to put every child in school for as long as childhood could conceivably last, both for the good of the child and for the good of society. Wisconsin is an example. In his superintendent's report for 1858, Lyman Draper noted that in 1848, less than half of the children in Wisconsin (ages 4 to 20) were attending school. By way of contrast, in 1858 two-thirds were attending school. That was progress; nevertheless, "nearly a hundred thousand children in Wisconsin [are] growing up in ignorance, fit subjects for crime and misery, and fit candidates for the penitentiary! It ought not so to be" (Draper 1858, 6). One of the main objectives of "universal education," said a superintendent of Chicago schools, was "to remove the danger of having an uneducated and vicious class of persons constantly growing up, to prey upon society" (Wells 1858, 138). By universal education, superintendents meant redemptive education.

The capstone of the system of redemptive education became the land-grant university. Although authorized by an act of Congress named after Justin Smith Morrill, then a member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, the bill authorizing land-grant colleges was inspired by Jonathan B. Turner. An educator and agriculturalist from Illinois, Turner proclaimed that higher education designed for the working class would prepare the way for "the millennium of labor," by which he meant that it would elevate the status of labor and reverse God's curse of toil on mankind for the millennium to come (Turner 1855; Smith 2004). Turner was a visionary who believed in the power of education to redeem society. In 1857, Morrill was chosen to introduce the land-grant college bill because he was a Republican from the East. It passed both Houses, but it was vetoed by President Buchanan in 1859. A revised version was introduced after the departure of secession Democrats, and it also passed both Houses. Abraham Lincoln signed it into law in 1862.

By the advent of the Civil War, the children of the Second Great Awakening, who were also the friends of redemptive education, had become leaders of public education in the United States. They advocated a system of schools that was designed to redeem a nation from sinfulness and to reestablish a privileged relationship to God. Many of the early public high schools of the nation were built to prepare "whosoever will" for a paradise on earth that lay in the not-too-distant future, when in millennialist prophecy, wars on earth would end.


If we view the Civil War through the eyes of northern evangelical millennialists, we see it as the battle at Armageddon between the sanctified people of God and the forces of Satan (Tuveson 1968; Moorhead 1978). This message came from northern pulpits, and it spilled into education. Teachers on the home front were led to see themselves in a pitched spiritual battle to establish redemptive education.

While today educators might laugh about "stamping out ignorance," in the 1860s, the rhetoric of northern superintendents and teacher associations was bellicose and at fever pitch. In Wisconsin, Josiah Pickard was elected superintendent in 1860, replacing Draper. Pickard was a Republican and deacon in a Congregational church. His report for 1861 expressed his "hope that while the teachers of this State are largely represented in the conflict with traitors, those who fill their places here, will not be less courageous or less successful in the contest we are waging with ignorance, the principal ally of treason, and with an undue love of power, the mother of traitors" (1861, 11). The war in the schools against ignorance and bullying, which he viewed as redemptive, was developmentally related to the war against the South, where rebellion had grown unopposed. Pickard echoed the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of New York who said, "the sentiment of our people is deep and abiding in the necessity for prosecuting the war against ignorance, with no less energy and force than we prosecute the war against the rebellion" (1861, 49). The wars were parallel and developmentally related.

From northern pulpits as well as in northern schools, the South was often identified with ignorance. Henry Beecher, Catharine's younger brother, became a popular Congregationalist minister who concluded that "the great mass of the white men in the South are profoundly ignorant, and must remain ignorant ... Where there is a system of enforced ignorance that deprives four millions of men of knowledge, you cannot have a system of forced intelligence that shall diffuse knowledge among the remainder of the population, as the free schools of the North do among our population" (1863, 323-24). Beecher asserted that universal education was incompatible with "a legalized system of ignorance." He further believed that the expense, destruction, and desolation that accompanied the Civil War were divine punishments to a nation that had allowed slavery and systemic ignorance to exist.

In Henry Beecher's view, the accompaniments of war were the "deep and bitter trials" through which the nation would have to pass before a bright, millennial future, "a day that when it shall once have arisen on this continent, shall know no setting,--a day of Christian liberty, the harbinger of universal freedom to a world regenerated" (1863, 338). If the Civil War were the battle at Armageddon, victory in it would bring "Christian liberty" from sin. The advent of universal freedom was to the evangelical abolitionist what the advent of universal education was to the educational reformer, a signal that the long-awaited millennium had arrived.

Beecher was not alone in his vision of a glorious postwar era. Julia Ward Howe, who was both a friend of his and of Horace Mann, wrote a poem that became perhaps the most popular marching song of all time, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." In it, she described the war in 1861 through millennialist language (McKenna 2007). "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:/ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;/ He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:/His truth is marching on." The poem begins as a witness to an apocalyptic present, but it ends with a sixth verse that envisions a glorious future: "He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,/He is wisdom to the mighty, he is succor to the brave,/So the world shall be his footstool, and the soul of Time his slave,/Our God is marching on" (Howe 1899, n.p.). The sixth verse portrays a glorious future that is imminent but not yet present, a vision of the quickly approaching millennium.

Educators foresaw a similar future. John Gregory, a Baptist minister and Republican, was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction for Michigan in 1858. In his superintendent's report for 1863, he said, "In the great future of national growth and power which begins already to rise sight above the battle-fields, how much shall we need to work with a double energy and zeal these agencies by which alone the people can be lifted into some sort of equality with their destiny, and the national conscience made equal to the control of the national career! If our land shall escape the fate of the republics of the old world, it must be through the aid of a christian [sic] civilization made prevalent and powerful by the aid of universal education" (1863, 74-75). By "these agencies," Gregory meant the public schools. They were the means by which a Christian civilization was to be made "prevalent and powerful." The means by which schools were to accomplish this task was universal education.

By the time of the Civil War, the teachers who accepted this missionary responsibility were mostly young women. Both during and immediately after the war, an estimated 10,000 teachers enlisted in missionary societies to go south to teach freed blacks and poor whites under the protective oversight of the Freedmen's Bureau of the War Department. A catalog of the names and addresses of over 1,000 of them reveals that the ratio of women to men was four to one (Swint 1967), about the same as in the public schools in the North immediately after the war. The stereotype of a young female teacher enlisting as a missionary to go south "armed with a

Bible and spelling book" was partly true, but women were also active in organizing the work due to their developing view of themselves as change agents (Slaughter 1869; Faulkner 2004). Some would later become leaders in the women's suffrage movement.

By the late 1860s, private funding for the crusade to establish universal education in the South began to disappear as contributions for home missionaries diminished. Further, teachers from the North often experienced rejection by southern whites. With reduced missionary funding and the absence of support from local white congregations, many missionary teachers returned home disillusioned. By 1872, Congress stopped funding the Freedmen's Bureau, ending the missionary teachers' source of protection and logistical support (Swint 1967).

The supposedly fateful year of 1866 came and went with no signal change. Nor was there following it a golden age--except for profiteers. Mark Twain soon renamed the postwar era the "Gilded Age," ridiculing anyone who believed that the "latter days" had arrived as prophesied a decade earlier (Clemens and Warner 1873). Many Protestants began to accept reform goals in their own right, without millennialist motives. Most of this shift occurred within a generation as the children of the Second Great Awakening resigned or retired from their positions of power and influence. The suddenness of the change suggests what social psychologists call a "cohort effect" caused by the ascendance of a new generation, which was subject to early influences that differed from those of their predecessors.

In the eyes of Protestant youth at mid-century, the foundation of a national educational system from 1848 to 1868 was a testimony to extraordinary human effort and not a plan that was manifestly divine. What undermined redemptive education more than any competing ideology was a belief in the power of people to change their environment. The Second Great Awakening, which was formative in the outlook and identity of the mid-century generation of adult evangelicals, did not motivate their children. The youth of the 1850s and 1860s did not experience the anxious channeling of energy and narrowing of vision that their parents had experienced some twenty years earlier. What they saw was the efficacy of their parents in promoting social change. Their own approach to educational reform would differ from their parents' frenetic efforts to turn the wheel of progress faster. Instead, the new generation would seek to consolidate and complete the public educational system without regard to an approaching end time. Eventually, postmillennialism would transform into a secular belief in progress (Quandt 1973; Marsden 1994).


It made sense to the adult audience at the inaugural of Illinois Industrial University for the superintendent of Illinois' public schools to use an invitation to sinners: "Whosoever will, let him come." Public education in 1868 was still seen by many people as redemptive. Many people still believed that education beyond elementary school could restore mankind to a privileged relationship with God within their own lifetime. As the century grew to a close, however, few people believed that public education had this power. Indeed, what today may sound like an oratorical flourish at the end of an antebellum speech or sermon was once an appeal that evoked pious fear and provoked listeners to action, whether to give of their means, their votes, or their lives in support of public education.

Some historians today prefer a political or an economic explanation for the development of the public high school in the United States. The political argument was proposed by Thomas Jefferson and was used by many politicians, including Horace Mann, to advocate for public schools. It argued that educating the populace secured a democracy, but there is little evidence that this argument was successful in building a public school system. The argument was more persuasive during Jefferson's lifetime, and in support of basic literacy, than it was in 1840, when democracy was secure and the literacy rate among whites was by some estimates ninety percent.

The economic explanation for the development of high schools claims that factory owners foresaw the financial benefits of a well-trained workforce, so they supported the construction of high schools to train children for industrial occupations. Significant evidence supports this explanation, but in light of the missionary origins of public education, and of what many educators and friends of public education said about their mission, this argument is insufficient to explain what happened. A mixture of motives led to the development of the American public school system. Political and economic motives were part of the mix, but so were religious motives that stemmed from evangelical millennialism.

Redemptive education is no longer with us, but we can see its modern descendants in educational policies that are designed to improve the United States through its public school system. Perhaps No Child Left Behind is the clearest example of a reform program in our time that was motivated by anxiety about the future. Its origin lay almost twenty years earlier in the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform and the invitation for support from "all who care about the future" (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983). Like nineteenth-century educational reforms, NCLB sought to channel anxieties about the future to motivate transformative changes in educational prac tices. Unlike those earlier reforms, NCLB was motivated by international economic competition. America appeared to be losing ground within the global marketplace. If the efforts to establish the public high school in the nineteenth century have a lesson for the future, it is that anxiety about a nation's future attaches to education. If strong enough, that anxiety can motivate widespread educational reforms in the context of its time.


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John Wakefield

University of North Alabama

John F. Wakefield, College of Education, University of North Alabama, 1 Harrison Plaza, Florence, AL 35632, (T) 256-765-4482, (F) 256-765-4159, Email:
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Date:Jan 1, 2012
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