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War That Wasn't, The

Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900

Benjamin Justice

Publication Year: 2005

Historians of religion and public schooling often focus on conflict and Bible Wars, pitting Catholics and Protestants against one another in palpitating narratives of the embattled development of American public schooling. The War That Wasn’t tells a different story, arguing that in nineteenth-century New York State a civil system of democratic, local control led to adjustments and compromises far more than discord and bitter conflict. In the decades after the Civil War, New Yorkers from rural, one-room schools to big city districts hammered out a variety of ways to reconcile public education and religious diversity. This book recounts their stories in delightful and compelling detail. The common school system of New York State managed to keep the peace during a time of religious and ethnic pluralism, before sweeping educational reforms ended many of these compromises by the turn of the twentieth century.

Published by: State University of New York Press

The War that Wasn’t

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pp. iii


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pp. vii

Tables and Figures

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

On the western edge of the Stanford campus lie the Santa Cruz Mountains, a verdant tumble of hills stretching from South San Francisco to San Jose. Those hills hold back the Pacific...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Tolkien was a scholar of languages and literature, but he could well have been speaking of history. As long as the story remains central to the craft of history, conflict will live at the heart of historical writings. As a narrative strategy, a rousing plot will woo readers to the otherwise...

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1. Explaining the History of Religion in Public Schools

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pp. 1-16

In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans in the northern United States created an unrivaled system of mass education: publicly funded, democratically controlled, and largely secular “common schools.” This movement rested on the twin suppositions that neighborhood...

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Part 1. Origins of the Public School “System”

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pp. 17-18

Today when we talk about the public school “system,” we use the word to describe the interconnected nature of public schools—individual institutions that are part of a larger organizational scheme. Thus parents boast that their local school system is excellent, and...

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2. Democracy Trumps Theocracy: The Civil Origins of the Common School System in New York

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pp. 19-44

Understanding the workings of the common school system after the Civil War requires looking to its foundation decades before. The tangled relationship between religion and nineteenth-century common schools stemmed from the late eighteenth century—from...

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3. Religion in Post-Bellum State and Local School Governance

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pp. 45-66

In 1876, Mr. B. T. Sheldon of Hyde Park, Dutchess County, wrote to State Superintendent Neil Gilmore in an indignant mood, with a rough hand....

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Part 2. Religion and District Schools

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pp. 67-68

Like the rest of the country at the close of the Civil War, New York State remained predominantly rural. And until the 1880s, district schools (meaning nonurban schools) continued to enroll the majority of the state’s children and employ the majority of the state’s...

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4. Politics, Religion, and District Schooling

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pp. 69-88

In Part 1, we saw that the district system—originally designed to replace ecclesiastic and private control of schooling with a mass, civil method of managing public schools—centered on democratic control at the local level. After the Civil War, districts continued to act on...

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5. Religious Use of the District Schoolhouse

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pp. 89-106

While the district school system contained most religious disagreements at the local level, it did not eliminate discord, nor did it prevent a small number of districts from filing religious complaints, formal and informal, to the State Superintendent. These complaints fell...

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6. Religious Exercises in District Schools

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pp. 107-140

Religious instruction is probably the oldest and most enduring curricular issue in American education.1 As we saw in chapter 1, the New York State Legislature engaged the issue directly in the early nineteenth century when it created a civil system of mass education...

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Part 3. Religion and Urban Schools

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pp. 141-142

The previous chapters have explored religion in rural and small-town district schools in terms of process, using a patchwork quilt of evidence from appeals and letters to describe broad trends in New York’s 11,000 district schools. This section on urban schools also examines...

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7. Local Control, Religion and Urban Schooling

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pp. 143-156

“Probably no two cities or localities in the State conduct their schools on the same plan,” observed the superintendent of Auburn schools in 1878. “Each locality determines its own methods, selects its own teachers, and textbooks, in fact, makes its own schools. More than...

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8. Religious Exercises in Urban Schools

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pp. 157-188

The great ethnic and religious diversity of city school systems challenged the idea that common schools could be common at all, particularly when it came to religious exercises. How did a secular, civil system handle diversity of piety in city schools? First, urban school religious policy followed no single pattern but included a variety of approaches to the...

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9. Public Funds for Religious Schools

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pp. 189-218

The strongest post-bellum challenge to the common school system came in cities, and came over the issue of public funding for church schools. Since Catholic and Protestant confrontations over the Free School Society’s control of public funds in New York City...

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10. Conclusion: Explanations and Implications

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pp. 219-228

By the early twentieth century, the relationship between the state of New York and its public school districts had changed dramatically. The State Superintendent spoke openly against the use of the schoolhouse by religious organizations, refused the state’s traditional protection...


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pp. 229-274

Bibliography of Primary Works Cited

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pp. 275-280


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pp. 281-285

E-ISBN-13: 9780791484463
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791462119
Print-ISBN-10: 0791462110

Page Count: 299
Illustrations: 12 tables, 11 figures
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Church and education -- New York (State) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Church and state -- New York (State) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Religion in the public schools -- New York (State) -- History -- 19th century.
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