Pulling a few historical threads together. The Second Great Awakening ran from about 1790 to 1840, and was characterized by an underlying Romanticism – an elevation of feeling over thinking – and an American-flavored Postmillennialism. This period corresponds to a great awakening of fervor for public education. The theory I’m mulling over at the moment: that the public school movement is the secular arm of the Second Great Awakening, driven by the same sentiments, and holding to the same fundamental belief in the perfectibility of man.
The Blue Letter Bible , which seems a sympathetic source, describes Postmillennialism as follows:
The postmillennialist believes that the millennium is an era (not a literal thousand years) during which Christ will reign over the earth, not from an literal and earthly throne, but through the gradual increase of the Gospel and its power to change lives. After this gradual Christianization of the world, Christ will return and immediately usher the church into their eternal state after judging the wicked. This is called postmillennialism because, by its view, Christ will return after the millennium.
The postmillennialist sees the millennial kingdom as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that he would become “a great nation” and that “all peoples on earth would be blessed” through him (Genesis 12:2-3). This holy reign will come about via gradual conversion (rather than premillennialism’s cataclysmic Christological advent) through the spread of the Gospel — this incremental progress is drawn from many pictures found throughout Scripture (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:22 and Ezekiel 47:1-12).
Postmillennial optimism is also nurtured through many of prophetic psalmody. The Psalms often speak of all nations fearing Him, salvation being known among all nations, the ends of the earth fearing Him, et cetera (e.g., Psalm 2:1-12; Psalm 22:27; Psalm 67:2, Psalm 67:7; Psalm 102:15; Psalm 110:1). Another passage that well feeds this earthly optimism is Isaiah 2:2-3 in which the nations will stream to the righteousness of God.
The Postmillennialism of the Second Great Awakening rejected both the Calvinism and subsequent Unitarianism of Boston Brahmins, the fatalistic predestination of the former and the enervating total optimism of the latter. Rather, the circuit riders in their revival meetings wanted personal conversion to matter. Repentance from sins and good deeds performed in the name of the Lord were central to a living Christian faith. The Millennium of the Lord would be brought about by the conversion of more people to the (Baptist, Methodist, Latter Day Saints, etc.) Church. God was working through these Christians to bring about the righteous rule of Jesus on earth.
The key aspects here: the world could be perfected by the efforts of people, personal conversion needed to manifest itself in actions and a pursuit of – dare I say it? – social justice. In the minds of the Revivalists, this was simply the Will of God as expressed in the Book of Revelation. They were making no arrogant assumptions, they were simply being the obedient sheep of the Good Shepherd, who would prosper the work of their hands to His glory.
America, with its millions of miles of unspoiled lands, and its newly-minted government of, by, and for the People, fed the hope that the corruption and exhaustion of the Old World could be escaped. Here was a fresh beginning, here God had prepared the way for his coming. You see this attitude in the Hecker and Brownson on the Catholic side, the Revivalists on the Protestant side – and, shorn of any sectarian deity, on the part of the education reformers.
All these parties believed, to a greater or lesser extent, that the Kingdom of Heaven was obtainable here and now, that it was our sacred duty to bring it to reality, and that we had the tools needed to do it. The Revivalists had the Bible and a yearning for ‘primitive’ Christianity; the most prominent Catholic intellectuals – Brownson and Hecker – were converts from exactly this Protestant world of faith. Very few cradle Catholics lived in America until toward the end of this period.
Then you have the education reformers. Those Boston Brahmins, centered at Harvard, were (in their own eyes, at least) the apex of American and, indeed, world culture. Then as now, Harvard is the measure against which intellectual pretensions are measured. You had, then as now, a elite appalled by the fervor of the plebeians. They were horrified by Andrew Jackson and his bad spelling and grammar, and the unsophisticated Revivalists (and their offspring, the Abolitionists). By 1800, the Puritan clergy who had run Harvard for a century and a half gave way to Unitarian Universalist, then secular ‘clergy’. Scripture was replaced as the measure of orthodoxy by Hegel, Darwin, and, eventually, Marx.
Yet, they shared the dream of a perfectible society. They would perfect it by making it more like their own society. What other standard of perfection could they hold?
Colonial era schools were almost all sectarian. Nobody back then was so foolish as to imagine school could be truly secular. The most they hoped for was a ‘mere Christianity’ flavored schooling, excluding, of course, any Popish influence.
The Revolution and its aftermath put many such schools out of business. The newly formed government, and the newly liberated people, had a war to fight and then recover from and a nation to build. According to Hall, it was only after the War of 1812 that Americans were confident enough and patriotic enough to turn their attention to the welfare of the nation their children would inherit, and to the education of those children.
By this time, the Second Great Awakening was in full swing. The idea that the world could be perfected through the efforts of men was dominant. So the education reformers had to speak the language of a bright, ever-improving future, which could only come about through the proper structuring and funding of common schools.
This is just a theory for the moment. What I have called Messianic Schooling here is not – it is clear from Fichte onward, perhaps even from Luther and Melanchthon, and on through the writing on the NEA website, that the proponents of compulsory state schooling believed that they could save the world by it. Therefore, those who would opt out are not merely people with different idea and goals. They – we – are enemies of progress, peace, and, ultimately, heaven on earth. We are not reasonable desenters to be tolerated, but evil enemies to be eliminated.