Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The close association of religion with education can be seen in the Swahili word dini . Unfamiliar with either religion or education as separate activities, before the arrival of Moslem traders and Christian missionaries in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Swahili word for these "religions (of the Book)" also meant "reading." Certainly, the ability to read sacred literature has commonly accompanied the training of a qualified workforce in motivating the spread of modern education.

The separate institutionalization of education, following that of religion, however, makes a conflict inevitable, especially in religious education. For both religion and education are forms of socialization on the one hand, while, on the other hand, each at times wishes to question, prophetlike, the values of society. When, in addition, society is itself unsure of its own values, and the religious and educational systems are differentiated and yet interface, conflict is likely to be endemic. To convert the constitutional separation of church and state into a chimeric dichotomy between religion and society fails even to shelve, let alone solve, the issues involved.

The Home and Church

The bulk of the world's religious education has been communicated through what came to be institutionalized in the apprenticeship system. Children learned about life (and Life) as they learned about the world of work or the family: through watching older relations (parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members), through listening to their philosophies of life, and through consideration of their and their peers' experience against this background. Although difficult to operationalize, the regular lip service that is paid to the continuing importance of education, and not least to religious education, in these contexts and by these means, is paid with sincerity. The Jesuit maxim, "Give us a child until [s]he's seven, and [s]he's ours forever," has been quoted until it is a cliché, but that is because experience seems to suggest it is true.

Thereafter, as people move out of the "small-scale society" of the nuclear family, into the "historical" type of society, in which individual names ("John," "Mary") replace attitudinal forms of address ("Dear," "You!"), religious education likewise begins to take on specialized forms. The Christian catechumenate, originally intended for adult inquirers, has long been used primarily as a follow-up for children who have been baptized in infancy. However, the recent increase in adult inquirers, whether baptized in infancy or not, has led to the development of forms appropriate for adult catechumens, again.

Non-Roman parallels to the catechumenate have tended to prepare the baptized for confirmation. As a moment both of personal decision and of personal reception of what was done in infancy, such confirmation preparation has been seen as facilitating both an informed decision, to follow Christ, and a proper appreciation of the sacraments (Baptism and Communion) instituted by him.

The criteria of suitability for confirmation are a perennial problem. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches emphasize the divine blessing bestowed in the sacraments, and the human response subsequently. The "Reformed Churches" generally emphasize the human choice required to receive the sacraments, and the blessings received by faith afterward. Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostalists, and others have variously judged readiness for confirmation by age, or willingness to confess Jesus as Lord, or a personal testimony to grace, or particular gifts of the Spirit. It seems unlikely, however, that any foolproof criterion can be achieved in religion any more than in the rest of life.

Confirmation (and the reception of Communion) is generally administered at a later age in the reformed churches than in the Roman Catholic Church, where First Communion is often at 7 years of age. The gap between the family, as the cradle of religious education, and the church, at the time of confirmation, is often bridged therefore by Sunday school. Robert Raikes of Gloucester is usually credited with its initiation, but that is largely because the friendly editor of the local newspaper brought his work to public attention. As usual, with new and successful innovations whose "time has come," Sunday schools had numerous independent points of simultaneous origin.

Sunday and Weekday Schools

Before the development of nationwide schools, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Sunday schools were held on Sunday, not simply because they were religious but because that was the only day when the children were free from paid work. Similarly, although the motivation was religious, the activities were educational in a broader sense. They were concerned with literacy and numeracy and social education as well as with the Bible or the church or morality.

Even after the development of church, national, and board schools in Britain, the number of children attending Sunday school continued to rise, in keeping with the population, until the beginning of the twentieth century. Many Nonconformist churches also held Sunday schools for adults, as did (and do) churches in North America. Thus, although their enrollment has been falling throughout the present century (first, relative to the increasing population, but then absolutely), the numbers involved, as the century draws to a close, are still significant. Indeed, it may be suggested that, if evangelicalism and industry lie at the heart of nineteenth-century British society, so the "public" (independent) schools and Sunday schools lay at the heart of "Victorian" culture in Britain from roughly 1850 to 1950.

Just as Sunday schools originally taught technical skills such as reading and writing, so day schools in Britain held a daily assembly and taught what has been successively called Scripture, Religious Instruction, or Religious Education. Criticized by the clergy for their lack of contact with a worshiping community, criticized by the teachers for pretending that they and the pupils both possessed a knowledge and a commitment that they lacked, and criticized by the "literati" for attempting indoctrination (which was as hypothetical as it was impossible)—the assembly and lessons were, nevertheless, what most parents wanted. For, with the exception of a few Barthian clergy or agnostic teachers or humanist "literati," the British did not distinguish between the moral and the religious, or between religious education and worship. In the sphere of religion, they preferred the unitary worldview of small-scale living to the differentiated specialisms of historical (let alone, mass) society. This view was common across most of Europe and likewise, at the local level, in much of North America.

Christian "Formation"

Religious education does not, however, concern only the teaching of the faith, or education more generally, for the benefit of adult inquirers or of children in church or school. It also embraces the "further education" of those who identify themselves as Christians, the formation of candidates for the various roles (full-time or part-time) within the tradition, and (especially during this last half-century of diminishing participation in worship) assisting with programs of religious studies for students of all ages, backgrounds, and motives. Just as such activities are not confined to any one global region, neither are they confined to any one global religion. Thus, to take a single, small segment of the total range of religious-education activity, the number of "Bible schools" around the world is nothing less than "legion," as the Rockefeller Foundation discovered in the 1960s.

Education, old style or new style, has indeed long been something of a self-authenticating imperative or divinity for the religious. It has been easily justified in terms of loving God with the mind, with the Platonic absolute of truth. In recent years, however, religious, as other, education has been sufficiently instrumentalized to become the subject of census and research. This cannot produce "perfect" (i.e., mechanistic, magical) programs or methods, but it is leading to a knowledge and wisdom that can illumine the traditional tasks of spiritual discrimination (and spiritual discernment).

See also Christian School Movement, Faith Development

Edward I. Bailey


J. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1981)

R. Goldman, Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (London: Routledge, 1964)

M. Grimmitt, Religious Education and Human Development (Great Wavering, U.K.: McCrimmon, 1987)

H. Loukes, New Ground in Christian Education (London: SCM, 1965)

N. Smart, Secular Education and the Logic of Religion (London: Faber, 1968).

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