Things That Aren’t on Enough Church-State Syllabi: Part III — Federally Funded Evangelism

Colonel Johnson of my last post was not only center stage for the country’s first big law and religion debate, he was also in the middle of the most amazing non-event in American church-state history.  Running short of cash, Johnson turned his Kentucky property into the site of one of the many federally-funded boarding schools where young Native American boys would be “Christianized” and “civilized.”  Every presidential administration from George Washington until the 20th century had some sort of effort to “civilize” the Indians, with James Madison helping to launch the school project.

Johnson partnered with the Baptist General Convention for Missionary Purposes, since the schools were invariably run by missionary organizations.  At one point, the War Department complained that the Kentucky Colonel’s school wasn’t properly recognizing the Sabbath.  After becoming famous for his reports decrying any federal cognizance of religion – especially relating to the Sabbath – what did he do?  He wrote to the Baptist minister running the school to complain about the apologies he had to make in Washington.  Johnson promised that these “irregularities” had been corrected, and the War Department would get the full Christianizing benefits it was paying for.

Isn’t it remarkable that this civilization process endured for a century without any church-state controversy?  Even President Grant, famous for his speech about keeping church and state “forever separate,” awarded control of part of the federal Indian agency to the Society of Friends, saying, “If you can make Quakers out of the Indians it will take the fight out of them.”

Church-state issues didn’t arise until late in the 19th century, when Catholic schools ended up with the lion’s share of the $3.8 million annual budget.  Only then did all the previous Protestant beneficiaries decide to call for an end to funding “sectarian” schools.  An interesting account is in R. Pierce Beaver, Church, State and the American Indians (1966).

It seems to me that we simply can’t talk about 20th century school-aid cases without paying attention to this remarkable history.

Don Drakeman

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