UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Protestant Christian morality and the nineteenth century secular and non-sectarian British Columbia public school system Townsend, Joan Helen


British Columbia has long been considered the only province in Canada to have had a single non-sectarian public school system from Confederation to the present. This assertion appears to be confirmed by a study of legislative acts and strictures against denominational teachings. It is also true that no overtly denominational schools received aid from public funds except for a brief period in the earliest days of the Vancouver Island colony. When this system is examined more closely, however, it appears to be more Protestant Christian than non-sectarian. First, when the Bible was read the system used the Protestant, or King James, version. Second, from 1872 to 1876 it authorized Protestant Christian prayers, from 1876 to 1882 it allowed the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments, and permitted the Lord's Prayer alone throughout the rest of the century. Third, it condoned interchangeable use of the same premises for worship and for schooling. Fourth, it named clergymen as official visitors to the schools. Fifth, it invited Protestant clergymen as honoured guests, honourary members, and frequent speakers to meetings of the Teachers' Institutes. Finally, it charged its teachers to inculcate the "highest morality" while omitting any explanation of the phrase. Thus confusion surrounded the term "non-sectarian." To some it was synonymous with "non-religious" but to others it meant "non-denominational," or religion without sectarian doctrines. In 1872 the Board of Education accepted the latter and authorized prayers for use in the schools. Changes in the School Act of 1876, however, emphasized the former meaning. This act added the word "secular" to the non-sectarian clause, barred clergymen from holding official positions within the school system, and limited prayers to the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments at the option of local trustees. Ambiguities were not eliminated by these changes as arguments then raged over the meaning of "secular." Legislation and public opinion in general interpreted the word as "non-religious" while some teachers and commentators defined it as "non-denominational." During the 1880's public opinion began to demand the re-introduction of religion into the public school system to counteract a perceived immoral society and provide a solid moral base for the youth of the province. Legislation in regard to the secular and non-sectarian clause, however, remained unaltered during the rest of the century, nevertheless, growing public acceptance of the school system, with a corresponding decline in denominational school popularity, indicated that a majority of parents were generally satisfied with the system. Possibly due to their continuing influence, most of the Protestant clergy also appeared to be in accord with the public school system. Their acquiescence was no doubt enhanced by the knowledge that Protestant Christian doctrine was being taught in the public schools by the Canadian Series of Readers and the W. J. Gage & Co. Educational Series. In addition, all the texts in these series considered Christian morality as the highest form of ethical behaviour with all other virtues following from this conception. In view of the influence of the Protestant clergy and the textbook teachings, the British Columbia school system remained Protestant Christian rather than secular and non-sectarian. Public funds, therefore, were used for the benefit of one branch of a particular religion while being denied to adherents of other denominations or faiths whose conscience made it mandatory for them to educate their children in separate schools. In this respect the British Columbia school system developed differently from that of Ontario, and from those of other provinces, which admitted the sectarian nature of their schools and provided for minority education in a separate system.

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