The History of Education: The American Educational System, Common School Period (Catholic vs Protestant Education)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 31st in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

The rapid industrialization of the new United States offered many opportunities, and that led to a wave of immigrants eager to take advantage of them. From 1830 to 1850, over a million Catholic immigrants landed on the eastern seaboard, settling in the large urban areas where both work and housing were abundant. The Catholics, though, had come to a country controlled by Protestants, and the difference in religious belief resulted in prejudice and discrimination against the Catholic minority. This discrimination eventually led to the establishment of the Catholic school system, which survives to this day.

The prejudice against Catholics was most evident in families with school-aged children, because religion was a focal point of education at this time, and the Protestants, led by the Puritans, were in firm control. The public schools used the King James version of the Bible, which the Catholics strongly objected to because they didn’t accept the teachings of the Protestant church or their schools. They requested that Catholic type bibles and prayers be adopted, as well, but they were denied outright. If a Catholic child wanted to become educated, they were forced to become more Protestant.

The Catholics feared that, if their children went to public school, they would see a loss of support for their church. Add to that the Catholic-run Baltimore Council prohibited Catholics from attending such schools, from using the Protestant bible, and from singing sectarian hymns. That left them with only one option: to develop a parochial school system. But setting up the schools required money.

New York Governor William H. Seward and Bishop John Hughes of the New York diocese were both active in the ensuing controversy over Catholic schools. The governor agreed to use public funds to help parochial schools, and the bishop would no doubt have accepted this offer. However, the Common Council, supported by the Protestant churches, rejected it out of hand.

The New York controversy was tame compared with what happened in Philadelphia. Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick requested that Catholic children be permitted to read from the Douay Bible instead of the King James Bible. The school board agreed, but Protestant advocates and newspapers vehemently disagreed. Discrimination against Catholics escalated, with riots, the burning of Catholic churches, and several deaths recorded.

At the same time, the Supreme Court of Maine was deciding the case of Donahoe v Richards. The Court ruled that a school board had a legal and constitutional right to expel a child from school for refusing to read the version of the Bible used by the school.

Eventually, the Catholics found the money to establish their own parochial system, and it has proved a resilient option to those opposed to the practices and policies of public school systems.


Next week: Compulsory Education


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.

To read part 30, Common School Period, McGuffey Readers, click here.



[1] Kern, Julie. (June 15, 2004). “Catholic Schools.” The History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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