History of Dutch Reformed Education in America

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In recent weeks, we have looked at the history of Christian education from a fairly broad perspective (see this most recent post). Today I’d like to focus in on how education played out in Dutch Reformed circles in America. I am basing this discussion primarily on the chapter entitled “The Roots of the Calvinistic Day School Movement” from Donald Oppewal’s book A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011; see also this earlier post on Oppewal). Though no date is given, this article seems to have originally been published around 1960 so it is not the most up-to-date and does not, for instance, take into account the modern homeshcooling movement which would then have been in its infancy at best.

A particular interest of Oppewal’s, and a topic he returns to throughout this book, is where educational authority resides. In an earlier chapter, he laid out three possible models of authority: individualistic, collective, and pluralistic. In the individual model, authority for education rests in each parent (or couple, one would assume). In the collective model, there is one body that controls education, usually the state but in various times and places perhaps the church. In the pluralistic model, there are multiple sources of authority within one society so that the state may run schools but churches may also do so and presumably parents may choose to homeschool as well (pp. 5ff) [1]. Oppewal’s contention is that it is this last, pluralistic model which best fits a democratic society in which minorty views are still valued as integral to the overall political process (p. 93).

In looking at how Calvinists from the Netherlands and their descendants structured their schools, the issue of authority is again key. Many of these people orginally emigrated to the United States in 1847 specifically for educational reasons. They sought to educate their children apart from state control.  As new groups came, so did new ideas. Beginning around 1870, a new Calvinistic revival under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper brought the concept of sphere sovereignty. The basic idea is that God has given authority in various areas to various institutions each of which answers to Him. Thus the state has authority in certain areas but the church in others. Education was considered a separate sphere, subject to neither the state nor the church. The end result was that the school was seen as a separate institution, subject to neither, but under the control of a parent collective (pp. 100-101).

In 1857 the Christian Reformed Church seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church in America. Their concern was for doctrininal purity. With this came a suspicion of the world and an interest in establishing church-run schools. Kuyper’s influence was also felt, however, and there was always a tension between parochial (church-run) and parent-run schools. Closely tied to the issue of authority was the matter of creeds. Those who favored parochial schools tended to require schools to adhere to strict confessional standards. Those who favored independent schools argued for a more broadly-defined reformed base not tied to the historic confessions. Covenant theology was also used as an argument on the church side. The line of thinking being that as children were included in the covenant and therefore in the church’s ministry, their education was the church’s concern (p. 170).

There were reasonable arguments on both sides. Church leaders feared that without direct oversight the schools would stray theologically. Church support also often meant financial support (which anyone affiliated with a Christian school knows is no small isssue). On the other side Church schools tended to be insular, excluding even other reformed believers and becoming no more than a means of perpetuating the denomination. Another side effect of the parochial school model is that it tends, for better or worse, to make Bible knowledge the main element of education (p. 165) whereas an independent school tends toward a broader curriculum. Oppewal makes clear that he comes down on the side of the independent school:

“In order to bring a distinctive witness the Calvinistic school system must be free to fulfill its own calling, free from any church, free from the state, free to be a school first, last, and always.” (p. 115)

While Oppewal’s main focus is on schools in America, he touches briefly at the end of the volume on the Dutch reformed tradition in other countries. In addition to the United States, Australia, Canada, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic all adopted the parent-controlled school model. With the exception of Canada, the schools in each of these countries were founded by Americans, not directly by Dutch immigrants. For different reasons, reformed schools independent of  state control were not able to be maintained in either the Netherlands or South Africa (p. 253).

I like how Oppewal frames the issue of authority. It gives us clear categories in which to frame our discussion. I am not from a Dutch reformed tradition but have come, after being converted as an adult, into a historically Scotch-Irish church. I had not heard the term “sphere sovereignty” but it seems quite akin to a concept I am more familar with, the Messianic Kingship of Christ. Underlying both is the idea that Christ, to whom all authority has been given, delegates some of that authority to various human institutions. Thus the state has its role and the Church has its role. Where the school fits in is an issue which we seem unable to escape. Some seem to name the school as its own authority, on par with Church and State. As I have said before, I am uncomfortbale with this as the school is never named in the Scriptures. Parents are given authority for education and Oppewal at least speaks of the schools as being parent-controlled. The question he doesn’t answer is why this institution is necessary. As we saw when we looked at D. Bruce Lockerbie there are always compromises. When one utilizes a school, one gives up some degree of control over the education of one’s children. Any school then must answer questions about how exactly it will be conrolled and what degree of influence individual parents will have.


[1] My understanding from a Dutch friend is that this is how schooling works in the Netherlands today. Any group may establish a school and the money follows the child.  My friend was able to use a reformed Christian school, but homeschooling was a completely foreign concept.

One response to this post.

  1. […] « History of Dutch Reformed Education in America […]


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