Secular and Religious Social Reforms

Learning Objectives

  • Explain 19th-century social reforms in terms of background, goals, and results

Social Reforms

Educational Reform

The first U.S. taxpayer-funded public school was established in 1639 in Massachusetts. Many smaller Northern communities opened “common schools” in the 18th century, where families were charged tuition, and these were later replaced with private preparatory grammar schools, which fed the Ivy League universities with educated young men. In the South, wealthy plantation families hired private tutors or sent their children to New England or overseas to be educated. Any education beyond basic primary school was mostly unavailable to the poor and working-class, particularly because children from these families were needed to work the fields or become apprentices in skilled trades and had no time or use for formal school. Some early colonies used tax money to open girls’ schools as well, but many were resistant to public education for women and so girls’ schools remained primarily private or religious through the 18th and 19th centuries. Most early universities and other institutes of higher learning were created to train ministers and slowly expanded to include professors of the arts and sciences, medical doctors, and lawyers.

In the post-Revolution era, the U.S. established tax-funded public elementary schools in all states. There was an emphasis on universal education for the sake of helping the new nation to flourish, and many if not all of the Founding Fathers supported public education. Women were encouraged to educate their children and send them to schools in order to create strong, virtuous, patriotic family units which would equate to a strong, virtuous population. Because of this attitude, public education began to include girls and young women and tried to imbue them with the education and qualities that were considered desirable, particularly during the rise of the middle-class in the 19th century. The 1840 census shows that around 55% of America’s 3.68 million school-age children (ages 5-15) attended primary schools or academies. In rural areas, communities relied on the one-room schoolhouse model, which involved a single teacher instructing students of all age groups. As the older students mastered the material, they would act as teaching assistants to help the younger children, a system called Mutual Instruction. By 1870, every U.S. state had established a system of tax-funded elementary schools.[1]

In 1837, Horace Mann became the Secretary of Education for Massachusetts. Mann wanted to implement a system of professional teachers based on the model used in Prussia. Mann’s hope was to standardize the content and instruction for all students no matter what income level or location by creating a workforce of uniformly trained teachers, who themselves underwent training at normal schools. Mann also introduced the system whereby students were sorted by age into different grade levels and progressed through the grades together, culminating in graduation with a certificate of completion. Because of this, the teaching methods changed from the mutual instruction model to a lecture model more like a university. Mann’s methods of producing educated, disciplined, conscious American citizens were extremely popular with the growing middle-class, who valued uniformity, education, and hard work and who filled many of the social positions which required extended schooling, such as lawyers, businessmen, and doctors. Historians now often refer to this educational system as factory-model education, because it created conformity using the same methods as industrial factories: standardized curriculums, top-down management, and a focus on producing results. By 1900, more than 34 states had compulsory education laws. Most required school attendance until age 14 or higher and for students to at least be able to read and write in the most basic terms.

Link to learning

The University of Pittsburgh maintains a digital collection of over one hundred 19th-century school textbooks in the Neitz Old Textbook Collection. Browse the collection and note some of the differences between the school books you used as a child and these 19th-century examples.

The author of the text for girls, Lydia Sigourney, was a prominent writer, poet, and advocate for girls’ education. She was a staunch believer in traditional separate spheres for men and women but also advocated for women to be well-read and informed so that they could influence society through their conversations and relationships.

Public Education for African-Americans and Native Americans

Those public education for Black students or Native American children did not begin in full force until later in the 19th century, let’s talk about it briefly here. In 1875, President Ulysses Grant gave a speech calling for a constitutional amendment that prohibited the use of public money to fund parochial schools. In response, Republican Congressman James Blaine attempted to pass a federal amendment banning public funding for religious education. Blaine’s amendment failed in the Senate, but individual campaigns found purchase in all but twelve state legislatures, which passed a series of these so-called Blaine Amendments over the following years. While the 19th-century push for Blaine Amendments was rooted in anti-Catholic sentiment and scare-mongering that parochial schools would brainwash children, many of these Blaine Amendments are still in effect today and prevent public funds from being funneled to sectarian schools.

While large-scale public schools for Black students did not exist until after the Civil War, there were a few northern private schools that taught Black children, including Catholic and Quaker institutions funded by private donations. In 1835, the city of Boston used funds which had been left by philanthropist Abiel Smith in his will to construct a school on Joy Street. Smith had specified that the $4,000 should go directly to educating the city’s Black children, and through the hard work of the school’s parents, eventually, the city agreed to contribute public funds. Since Boston’s school system was segregated, all Black students were sent to the new Abiel Smith School and the neighborhood around it, Beacon Hill, became a residential area for Black families in Boston. The school was closed when Boston desegregated its public schools, but is now part of the Museum of African American History and Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

Abiel Smith School.jpg

Figure 1. The Abiel Smith School, which became the first public school for Black students in the U.S., located on Joy Street in Boston.

In 1817, religious missionaries, in cooperation with the U.S. government, began opening residential schools in the Southeast for the purpose of “civilizing” the Native American tribes that lived there. This effort was part of the 1830 Indian Removal Act (see Religious Reforms section below), which promised funds for the education of Native children as part of the treaties which removed the tribes from their homelands. This education came mostly from residential schools and from parochial schools built on reservations. In 1824 the Bureau of Indian Affairs was founded, which included the Bureau of Indian Education. The mission of these schools was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” which involved assimilating Native children into Anglo-American culture by banning their Native languages, names, religions, music, traditions, and cultural practices. Boys at these residential schools were taught farming or industrial skills while girls were taught domestic arts. All students were taught English, forcibly converted to Christianity, and corporal punishment such as beatings and starvation were common. Many students were also subject to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by staff members.

Hopi men standing outside in prisoner uniform.

Figure 2. In 1895, the 19 Hopi men from Oraibi, Arizona pictured here were sent to Alcatraz Prison for refusing to send their children to a residential school.

The federal government slowly began to help fund these residential schools and in 1891, a compulsory attendance law authorized federal agents to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their homes if their families refused to send them to a residential school. Authorities used coercion tactics such as withholding rations and supplies to force Native families to surrender their children and some parents were even imprisoned for their opposition to the policy.  It is unknown how many children may have died from poor conditions, disease, and abuse at these residential schools, but in 2015 a Canadian commission concluded that at least 6,000 children had died in that nation’s 150 residential schools.[2] At its peak in the 1970s, the U.S. had over 350 schools with 60,000 Native children enrolled. 

Child Labor Reform

Alongside the new push for universal education, Americans also began to shy away from the idea of young children working long hours in the industrial factories which now dominated the urban North. 1836 saw the first state law regarding child labor in Massachusetts, which required children working in factories who were under 15 to attend 3 months of school per year and in 1842 the state also limited children to a 10-hour workday. In the 1870s the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded in New York with the goal of aiding victims of child abuse and lobbying for better laws concerning child labor and the Workingmen’s Party released an official resolution calling for the prohibition of children under 14 working in any industry. This was a departure from the norm in American society, where rural families needed as many children as possible to work on farms, and the urban poor needed children to work for income to feed and house themselves. This urban working-class especially struggled to deal with child labor reform, since birth control was almost non-existent and if their children were not allowed to work, they needed access to free or inexpensive child care. The first day nurseries for working families opened in Boston in the 1840s for the express purpose of alleviating the need for child labor. They were funded by private donations and were geared toward low-income families or single working mothers.

With the rise in compulsory school attendance laws came some relief for young children who had been made to work in factories. In 1883, labor activist Samuel Gompers successfully lobbied with the New York Labor Movement to end child labor in the cigar industry. In 1889 the Hull House, which provided assistance to new immigrant families, opened the first after-school care program in the U.S., giving children a safe place to stay while their parents worked. By 1892, lobbying efforts succeeded when the Democratic Party officially added ending child labor for anyone under 15 to its official platform. While true child labor reform did not gain steam until 1904 with the founding of the National Child Labor Committee, its roots can be found in the reform movements of the mid-late 19th century.

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Religiously-Influenced Social Reforms

While some social reforms were driven by economic or cultural concerns, like creating an educated and well-behaved populace, some American Christians took their religious reforms beyond the church and began to implement social reforms based on their own religious beliefs. Their ultimate goal was to create the perfect Christian society at the center of the post-millennial belief system, except that these particular reforms went beyond their own personal habits or family structures. Many Christians felt the need to reform the entire world through the introduction of Christian morality and the accompanying standards of behavior.

Missionary Reform

By devoting their time to the moral uplift of their communities and the world at large, middle-class Christian reformers created many of the largest and most influential organizations in the nation’s history. Stirred by nationalism and moral purpose, evangelicals labored to make sure their outreach extended to far-flung settlers on the new American frontier. The American Bible Society distributed thousands of Bibles to remote areas where churches and clergy were scarce, while the American Home Missionary Society provided substantial financial assistance to frontier congregations struggling to achieve self-sufficiency. Missionaries worked to translate the Bible into Iroquois and other languages in order to more effectively evangelize Native American populations. As efficient printing technology and faster transportation facilitated new transatlantic and global connections, religious Americans also began to take their missionary work abroad. In 1810, for example, Presbyterian and Congregationalist leaders established the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to evangelize in India, Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The number of Christians in these areas increased dramatically after 1800, shooting from only 1% of the faithful to 10% in 1900.[3]

The Indian Removal Act

Missionary work had first brought the Cherokee Nation to the attention of northeastern evangelicals in the early 19th century. Missionaries sent by the American Board and other groups sought to introduce Christianity and American cultural values to the Cherokee and celebrated when their efforts seemed to be met with success. Evangelicals proclaimed that the Cherokee were becoming “civilized,” which could be seen in their adoption of a written language and of a constitution modeled on that of the U.S. government. Mission supporters were shocked when the election of Andrew Jackson brought a new emphasis on the removal of Native Americans from the land east of the Mississippi River. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was met with fierce opposition from within the affected Native American communities as well as from the benevolent empire. Jeremiah Evarts, one of the leaders of the American Board, wrote a series of essays under the name William Penn urging Americans to oppose removal. He used the religious and moral arguments of the mission movement but added a new layer of politics in his extensive discussion of the history of treaty law between the United States and Native Americans.

The argument for allowing Native Americans to remain was predicated on their conversion to Christianity and adoption of Western cultural ideals. It was similar to the argument that enslaved people who converted to Christianity should be freed and it allowed missionaries to ignore the plight of those tribes who adamantly refused to convert and to focus on the success of those who did. They used this success to push for further missions and to establish a larger presence in Indigenous communities. Tribes who refused to give up their cultural identities were labeled “hostile” and were targeted for more aggressive removal policies, resulting in dozens, if not hundreds, of localized conflicts between the U.S. government and various tribes which were labeled The Indian Wars.

the Indian wars

Although “The Indian Wars” refers to any of the conflicts between settlers and Native Americans between 1609 and 1924, the wars fought during the mid-19th century have a special significance. The U.S. was expanding quickly, having obtained vast swaths of new territory with the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War. The only thing that stood between the new nation and full control of this territory was the tribes who already lived there. East of the Mississippi, the U.S. fought two Seminole Wars, the Creek War, the Winnebago War, and the Black Hawk War against tribes who occupied southeastern states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. These conflicts resulted in the Trail of Tears, where more than 12,000 Native Americans of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes died on forced marches to reservations in western states.

West of the Mississippi, the U.S. fought more than 25 small wars against tribes like the Comanche, Apache, Navajo, Yuma, Ute, Sioux, Yakima, Nez Perce, Hualapai, and the Crow, among others. One of the final conflicts of the 19th century is referred to as the Ghost Dance War, which culminated in December 1890 with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, where U.S. troops slaughtered 300 unarmed Lakota Sioux, mostly women, elders, and children. Watch this video below to learn more about the Sioux Wars, the Ghost Dance, and the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Christian Political Activism

Anti-removal activism was also notable for the entry of ordinary American women into political discourse. The first major petition campaign by American women focused on opposition to removal and was led (anonymously) by Catharine Beecher, the daughter of prominent minister Lyman Beecher, between 1829 and 1830. Beecher was already a leader in the movement to reform women’s education and came to her role in anti-removal campaigns through her connections to the missionary movement. Inspired by a meeting with Jeremiah Evarts, Beecher echoed his arguments from the William Penn letters in her “Circular Addressed to the Benevolent Ladies of the U. States,” which called on women to petition the government to end the policy of Indian removal. She used religious and cultural arguments to justify women’s entry into the political discussion since it was generally believed that women were more compassionate and morally fit than men and that they could “soften” men toward certain causes. Beecher used this to her advantage by arguing that women should be involved in issues that dealt with questions of basic morality since they possessed a superior moral compass to men. This effort was ultimately unsuccessful but Beecher and her fellow activists were instrumental in introducing the kinds of arguments that eventually allowed for women’s political activism.

Try It: Short answer


Blaine Amendments: state constitutional amendments passed in the late 19th century that prevented public funds from going to religious schools of any denomination

factory-model education: an education model where students are divided into classes by age, curriculums are standardized, and all students move into the next grade together and graduate together

The Indian Wars: a series of small wars between the US and various Native American tribes, fought mostly in the 19th century as American settlers began to push west and met resistance from the tribes living on the land; these early wars resulted in the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and wars after the Act passed were almost always a direct result of it

mutual instruction model: a model of education where children of different age groups are put together, usually in a one-room schoolhouse, and older students assist with teaching younger students the material that they have already mastered

normal schools: an early name for special schools that were created to train teachers, making them professionals rather than simply hired

parochial schools: religiously-affiliated grade schools

residential schools: boarding schools usually run by Catholic or Protestant missionary organizations in the 19th century, whose purpose was to take Native American children away from their tribes in order to assimilate them into Anglo-American, Christian culture by banning their Native languages, customs, names, and religions

  1. Brickman, William W., and Francesco Cordasco. "Paul Monroe's Cyclopedia of Education: With Notices of Educational Encyclopedias Past and Present." History of Education Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1970): 324-37. Accessed July 7, 2021. doi:10.2307/367527.
  2. Nick Estes. “The U.S. STOLE Generations of Indigenous Children to Open the West.” High Country News – Know the West, October 14, 2019.
  3. Paul E. Pierson “Why Did the 1800s Explode with Missions?” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church. Christian History, October 1, 1992.