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Faith in Learning, Muhlenberg, and a Catholic Education

By Chip Prehn

William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) was the father of the church school movement in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, the 19th-century Anglican church revival gave rise to vigorous school-making initiatives. After spending some years promoting and leading public schools in Philadelphia and Lancaster, then making a thorough study of the best schools in Europe, Muhlenberg founded his first church school at Flushing, Long Island, in 1828. By 1836 it had become St. Paul’s College and Grammar School, which was celebrated for forming faith, virtue, and academic prowess in young men.

Muhlenberg understood that “there can be no such thing as Christianity in the abstract” and that Christianity, in order to be real and compelling to boys, must be practiced in one of its particular forms (The Application of Christianity to Education [1828]). For him, Church denoted the living body of Christ. He assumed that the school is the Church in its scholastic mode. The standards were set high in all it means to be a human being. But grace abounds in such a body; it is mediated in Christ to each member of the scholastic brotherhood. The standards could be set high because the community was there to help each student make the grade.

Muhlenberg passed on his educational vision to several young men and at least one woman. The woman was Harriet Starr Cannon (1823-96), founder in 1865 of St. Mary’s School and the Community of St. Mary in New York City (both later removed to Peekskill). The young men were James Lloyd Breck (1818-76), John Barrett Kerfoot (1816-81), Libertus van Bokkelen (1815-88), Henry A. Coit (1830-95), John Gadsden (1833-1902), and a few others. The disciples perfected the work of the pioneer and established some of the best schools in American history.

Muhlenberg sent Kerfoot to western Maryland in 1842 to be the founding rector of the College and Grammar School of Saint James. In 1853, when he retired as President of Harvard College, Jared Sparks (1789-1866) remarked that Saint James was preparing boys for Harvard better than any other school in the South (see W.F. Brand, Life of Bishop Whittingham [1883]). In 1867, when the University of Cambridge awarded Kerfoot the Doctor of Divinity degree honoris causa, he was known even in England as one of the great school heads in the United States.

Central to the Muhlenbergian Church school is the authority of the headmaster or rector of the school. Muhlenberg assumed that Christ was the Head of his school Body, but he believed that the immortal Head of the school required a mortal vicar who knows his duty as the final human authority in the brotherhood. We should not conclude from this discipline that the Muhlenberg-type school depends on an authoritarian regime. In fact, the schools were criticized in their day for breaking decisively with the academy tradition of tyrannous pedagogy, corporal punishment, and other ills of the scholastic tradition in the British Isles and North America. Rather, it was a practical theological principle that drove Muhlenberg and his school-making heirs to value strong leadership at the top: They assumed that a strong head of school is inextricably related to both saving faith and sound learning.

Just as saving faith depends on the simple, unadorned testimony of an authority who speaks the Word of the gospel with earnest words and an exemplary life, so the beginning of deep and sound learning depends on the trust between a student and a teacher. The student believes on the testimony of the teacher.

In 1843, Kerfoot wrote a two-part article, “Education Catholic,” on the importance of first faith in the education of children and youth. Kerfoot was not writing about a vague commitment to religion in an otherwise secular academic institution, nor of a conventional attachment to faith-based schooling. He insisted that no child in any family or school learns anything without the first faith. In order to progress in the most elementary learning, children must trust the authorized teacher, whether parent or instructor. By trusting the authorized teacher, students will begin to trust their instincts in the quest for what is true and good and lovely and of good report. Moreover, the school community in which the student lives is authentically faith-based in the richest meaning of the concept.

John Henry Newman (1801-90) had a profound influence on Muhlenberg, Kerfoot, and the other school-makers. Newman’s published works were available in the United States beginning in 1834. At both College Point and at the new Maryland school, Newman’s sermons were read to the students at Sunday afternoon vespers. Newman’s Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford were available as a complete book in 1843. In these sermons spanning the years 1826 to 1843, Newman related faith and reason in compelling and beautiful ways.

In the University Sermons, Newman was at pains to show that true faith simply accepts the testimony of others (Sermon X); accepts not-yet-proved things as real (Sermon XI); and begins with probabilities and ends in peremptory statements (Sermon XIV); and that scientific reasoning is often based on propositions and probabilities no more certain than the objects of religious faith. (T.S. Kuhn and other students of the history of scientific rationality have published work which tends to corroborate Newman’s insights about the similarities between faith-knowledge and scientific knowledge.)

Faith is really a kind of reasoning on things not seen. In both the kingdom of knowledge and the kingdom of God, greatness is shown when a person “stands his ground on his instinctive perception of truth which the many scoff at, and which seems failing” (XI.21). Muhlenberg and Kerfoot would have found Newman’s belief that faith-reasoning “is perfected, not by intellectual cultivation, but by obedience” (XII.36) a congenial thought indeed.

Newman taught that love of the messenger makes it much easier to embrace the proffered message in faith. The Muhlenberg-type school featured close relationships between teachers and students. Kerfoot wrote in the Saint James Prospectus (1842), “Experience has proved that no one qualified to have the government of boys can be impeded at all in the discharge of his duty by a becoming familiarity; and the Instructor who does not take pleasure in such a familiarity has wholly mistaken his calling.”

But the Muhlenbergian school-makers were equally influenced by Locke’s sensationalist psychology. Muhlenberg’s so-called ritualism in the chapels of his schools on Long Island owed as much to Locke’s sensationalist epistemology as to the Romantic and Tractarian energies. (Of course, the Tractarians were not Ritualists.) Let the teacher impress the student with images and sensations.

Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) uses the illustration of a boy standing at a globe with a teacher. Because the pupil trusts the testimony of the teacher, the teacher is able to impart rudimentary geography. The teacher says that the yellow, gallinaceous shape between two oceans is Africa. The boy believes the teacher, even though he knows that the continent on the map is but a painted symbol of the real continent splitting the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The boy believes the teacher and thus a building block for sound learning has been set. A kind of faith is required if the edifice of learning would be built in any child.

Kerfoot’s “first faith” is then an important insight of both true religion and academic learning. At Saint James, Kerfoot and the other teachers were anxious to educate the person to his totality, a theme Matthew Arnold (1822-88) was to take up in Culture and Anarchy (1869). Hence the necessity of an authorized and authoritative testimony for both saving faith and sound learning points ineluctably to the divine Master of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.



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