The School Prayer Controversy, Part I: Origins, 1639-1925

Reverend Richard Mather, Founder of the Mather School

I have recently been reading about a group of Christians that have been given the label of “Christian Nationalist”. This seems to be a bit of a catch-all for conservative Christians in its applications. Some articles have regarded those they have labeled as “Christian Nationalists” as a great threat, even the greatest threat to democracy in America (see Blake, Graves-Simmons & Siddiqi, and Reynolds in references). I personally would be interested to know what declaring the US a “Christian nation” would mean to those who actually label themselves as “Christian Nationalist”. Does it mean someone who believes in destroying the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, embracing white identity politics, and oppressing women? For those who subscribe to what I just described, I’d say you are engaging in an atrocious reaction to the increasing secularization of society. Does it, however, mean a narrow interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, a belief that religious symbols can be allowed to be displayed on public lands, a belief that abortion is wrong and should be banned except in cases of the mother’s life being endangered, and a belief that school-led voluntary non-denominational school prayer can be allowed? If so, then you could retroactively label many, many figures in American history as “Christian Nationalists” as well as a majority of contemporary politically conservative Christians. You could even, by this definition, label a majority of Americans as “Christian Nationalists” if you go back far enough. I have a strong suspicion there is an overuse in this term and that some will use it on anyone who wants to bat back the tide of secularization over the last sixty years. My focus, however, is on a history of prayer in schools, how it fell, and what came of the backlash to its fall. To understand the history of prayer in schools, it is necessary to give some coverage to the history of public schooling.

Beginnings in Religion

The first taxpayer supported public school in what would be the United States was the Mather School established in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1639. This was founded by Reverend Richard Mather, the grandfather of the famed theologian Reverend Cotton Mather. Then the first compulsory public education law what would become the United States was passed by the Massachusetts Colony in 1647 called the “Old Deluder Satan Law”. The purpose of this law was to ensure that children would become educated enough to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.

In 1789, nearly all American citizens of the thirteen states were some sort of Christian. Catholics numbered fairly few and were the focal point of religious prejudice, a prejudice that had continued from the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Britain. Although their rights were federally protected by the Constitution, there were states that took it upon themselves to adopt a “state religion”. Massachusetts, for instance, had an official state religion, the Congregational Church (Puritans) until 1833, being the last state to drop the concept of state religion. Under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Virginia disestablished its church in 1786 with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which would serve as a basis of the First Amendment. Schooling in that time was mostly a private affair, with schools being available to families that could afford to pay for them. These schools often taught the Bible as well. However, this state of affairs would not last, and advocates for public education knew that for the nation and its economy to grow that this step would be necessary. Before the War of the Rebellion, the states all adopted public school systems of some sort, but not all were comprehensive in coverage. After the war, all children would be eligible for public schooling in Southern states.

Protestant vs. Catholic Influence in Schooling

Towards the mid-19th century, as more states adopted public education, Bible reading became a great controversy as the majority Protestants pushed King James Bible reading, and in Pennsylvania it even got violent; in 1843 the Philadelphia Board of Controllers permitted children to read from Bibles in school supplied by their parents, which was regarded by many Protestants as an effort to eliminate Bible reading altogether in public school (Ariens). The tensions resulted in anti-Irish Catholic riots on May 6-8th and July 6-7th 1844, which killed over 20 people and two Catholic churches burned. However, these disputes were not as frequent as one might think. As Bruce Dierenfield (2007) writes, “In New York State, for example, half of all district schools conducted some form of opening religious exercises, usually simple Bible reading, but rarely did such exercises provoke major disputes. Between 1865 and 1905, the state superintendent received no complaints about religious instruction from 80 percent of the school districts. Of the remaining 20 percent, only 1 out of 1,000 complaints involved religion. Why were devotions less controversial – at least in New York – after the Civil War than before? Religious minorities in New York increasingly tolerated what they regarded as an unpleasant beginning of the school day. This was so long as the devotions did not go too far” (33). Religious minorities, in other words, were considerably less activist than they would become. In many, but not all public schools, prayer was a given and teaching from Protestant Bibles was commonplace. Since Catholics at this time could not prevail on Bible policy with Protestants, they formed parochial school systems starting in 1870. However, the ruling Protestants would make sure that Catholic influence was limited.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant delivered a speech to a meeting of Union veterans and called for adopting a Constitutional amendment mandating free public schools and blocking public funds for religious sect schools, wanting public education to be “unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical dogmas” (Deforrest). King James Bible reading, since multiple Protestant sects used it, was not considered sectarian by Grant or by his Protestant Republican supporters. Rep. James G. Blaine (R-Me.) championed this amendment in Congress, but the Senate declined to ratify. Most states, however, acted and ratified “Blaine Amendments”, prohibiting funding of these schools. They were ultimately ratified in 39 states.

The United States was, although not officially a “Christian nation”, was deeply so in tradition, customs, values, and education. Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer even affirmed that the United States was a “Christian nation” in the Supreme Court decision Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892), writing, “These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation” (143 U.S. 457). He even wrote a treatise on the subject in 1905, The United States: A Christian Nation. However, the 20th century would be a time of tremendous change, in the United States and the world. Courts in the 19th century upheld King James Bible reading, but there was one state, however, that gave a glimpse as to what would happen in the 20th century. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in State ex rel. Weiss v. District Board (1890) that King James Bible reading “without restriction” was sectarian and thereby unconstitutional (Ariens).

Efforts at Compulsory Schooling and Religious Indoctrination

Although the controversy surrounding religion in schools seemed temporarily, if imperfectly, resolved by 1900, further efforts would begin during the Progressive Era. In response to socioeconomic changes and immigration as well as inspired by the release of the film Birth of a Nation (1915), the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was established. The organization was in addition to being bigoted on the lines of race and religion, avowedly Protestant. As part of the anti-Catholicism of the organization, they would go considerably beyond mere prayer and Bible reading at the beginning of the school day and actively sought to destroy private Catholic schooling.

Such a policy manifested in Oregon when a proposal for mandatory public schooling won 53% of the vote in 1922, the law which required children between ages 8 and 16 to attend public school with exceptions based on “age, health and access to a parent or private teacher” (Bunting). This would serve to shut down private Catholic schools in the state and force Catholic students into education with Protestant Bible reading and prayer. This policy went directly against education reformer Horace Mann’s view on public schools, “[T]he education of the whole people, in a republican government, can never be attained without the consent of the whole people. Compulsion, even though it were a desirable, is not an available instrument. Enlightenment, not coercion, is our resource” (Murphy). Fortunately, the law was thwarted before its start date by the Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), in which mandatory public school attendance was unanimously ruled unconstitutional. Justice James McReynolds, the majority opinion author, wrote, “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only” (Bunting). The decision remains good law to this day, and the second Klan saw a major decline starting that year, with The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan shuttering in 1944.

Ultimately, public schooling was seen both as a way of advancing industrial growth and development but also for the spreading of Protestant morality. This can explain why conservatives used to be the big supporters of public schooling. However, schools would start to move away from a Protestant underpinning and conservative troubles with public schooling grew.


143 U.S. 457.

Ariens, M.S. (2012, August 23). Religion in Nineteenth-Century Public Education. Civil liberties in the United States.

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Blake, J. (2022, July 24). An ‘imposter Christianity’ is threatening American democracy. CNN.

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Bunting, R. Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). Oregon Encyclopedia.

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Deforrest, M.E. (2003). An Overview and Evaluation of State Blaine Amendments: Origins, Scope, and First Amendment Concerns. Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 26.

Dierenfield, B.J. (2007). The battle over school prayer: how Engel v. Vitale changed America. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Graves-Fitzsimmons, G. & Siddiqi, M. (2022, April 13). Christian Nationalism Is ‘Single Biggest Threat’ to America’s Religious Freedom’. Center for American Progress.

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Christian Nationalism Is ‘Single Biggest Threat’ to America’s Religious Freedom

Murphy, R.P. (1998, July 1). The Origins of the Public School. Foundation for Economic Education.

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Reynolds, N. (2023, February 9). A Powerful Minority, Christian Nationalism is Democracy’s ‘Greatest Threat’. Newsweek.

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Vile, J.R. (2009). Established Churches in Early America. The First Amendment Encyclopedia.

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