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The Government’s Christian Schools (1827)

The November 24, 1827, Report from the [U.S.] Office of Indians Affairs included a table of government expenditures for Native-American schools, including $400 for Wyandots in Ohio and $150 for Quaddy in Maine.1 The recipients of these funds were, respectively, the Methodist Society and the Society for Propagating the Gospel.

By the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court had rendered this sort of expenditure unthinkable. Writing in the 1947 “Parochial School Bus Transportation Case” (Everson v. Board of Education), Justice Hugo Black interpreted the First Amendment to say

Neither [state nor federal government] can pass laws which . . . prefer one religion over another . . . No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion . . . In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion was intended to erect a “wall of separation between church and State”. . .2

Though the “wall of separation” language was Jefferson’s, Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers did not construe the “wall” in such absolute terms. From the Northwest Ordinance of 1787,3 up through the presidency of Jefferson himself, the Founders were glad partners with the churches in Indian education.

In his February 8, 1822, report to the House of Representatives on “Condition of the Several Indian Tribes,” President James Monroe listed the government’s agents for helping the Indians, including the Missionary Society of New York (to the Seneca); the Hamilton Baptist Missionary Society of New York (to the Oneida); the Moravians (to the Cherokee); the Cumberland Missionary Society (to the Chickasaw); the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions (to the Miami); the United Foreign Missionary Society of New York (to the Osages). Regarding the Chickasaw, the report said “that the children have been orderly and attentive to their studies, and particularly so to moral and religious instruction.”4

Later reflecting on this policy in his annual address to Congress (Dec. 2, 1828), President John Quincy Adams observed it “was our policy and our duty to use our influence in converting [the Indian tribes] to Christianity and in bringing [them] within the pale of civilization.” He went on to speak of the good fruit “of teaching them the arts of civilization and the doctrines of Christianity.”5

Church/State issues are challenging, and fine tuning the proper policy can draw believers into sharp dispute (as over the 2003 case of Judge Moore and the Decalogue monument in Alabama). All parties concerned need to bring their best thinking to the table. It is essential that this thinking not be clouded by the fiction that an absolute “wall of separation” is an historical reality. This is demonstrably false. From the beginning, America’s Founders held Christian doctrine in high regard and even acted to advance and honor it for the sake of civilization.


The OIA report, with appendices, is reprinted in Robert L. Cord’s Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 72-79.


Ibid., 109.


Which said, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of learning shall forever be encouraged.”


Monroe’s report, with appendices, is reprinted in Cord, 63-70.


Cord, 71.