"Go ye into all the world and make disciples... teach them to observe everything I have commanded you... and heal the sick."
- Matthew 28:19-20, et al
As our children return to school and voters enter another election year, a recent reminder from the North Georgia Conference of Methodist Churches that members refrain from using their pulpits to advance a particular political candidate or opinion " or risk losing their non-profit status" reminds me again that we are living in far different times from those of Jesus' "Great Commission."
Coupled with the furor Congress or the president attract every time the words "faith-based initiatives" come up for discussion, I thought it might be well to consider a time in America, the world and right here in Columbia County when such letters were unnecessary, and such furor reserved for other things.
Perhaps you've seen the Christmas card picturing an empty landscape and the thought-provoking verse, "If I had not come." Within the poem is a list of institutions - hospitals, schools, charities - that might not exist if Jesus had not come to the world, and none of his followers had obeyed his farewell instructions to "preach, teach, and heal" wherever they happened to live or go.
For most of history, these three professions were intertwined. As early as 3,000 BC, Egyptian students attended temple schools whether they were studying to be priests, builders or political leaders. Early education in India and China was based on religious thought - Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. - no matter what other subjects were being taught, and philosophy and religion also dominated the curriculum in Greece and Rome.
When Europe entered the Dark Ages education entered a period of decline, but what schooling continued took place in monasteries. During the Middle Ages, which ushered in the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, most formal education was provided by the church. Great universities, like Oxford and Cambridge in England and the Sorbonne in Paris, arose in this era. And besides reforming the church, Martin Luther and John Calvin also urged the state to establish an education system. Because the Catholic Church also shared this view, the Jesuits established the "Society of Jesus," an extensive education system for the poor.
The first schools in America were faith-based, too. Just 20 years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts decreed that all children be taught "to read and understand the principles of religion and the laws of the country." Harvard and Yale, established by the Puritans primarily to train ministers, became the only New England institutions of all higher learning until the mid 18th century, and in 1693 Virginia's College of William and Mary was established "for the sustenance of Anglicanism" in the colonies.
Nor was Columbia County, Georgia, an exception to the early union of church and education. The county was hardly formed before the Rev. Moses Waddell, a young preacher-turned educator from North Carolina, established Carmel Academy on the banks of Kiokee Creek. And as late as the mid-1900's, there were still little, one-room schoolhouses on church property all over the county.
Space doesn't allow a similar chronicle of the healing portion of the Biblical "Commission," but it wouldn't take long to discover that a great many American medical institutions were also founded by the church, and any institution beginning with "Saint," as in Augusta's St. Joseph Hospital, retains its faith-based connection to this day.
In a day of forgotten beginnings and the irrelevance of the church in the minds of an increasingly secular nation, those proponents of turning the clock back for even a slight reunion of church and school or state may need an extra thick "shield of faith" (Ephesians 6:16) to ward off the arrows hurled from those for whom the mere mention of allying the church with any state institution fills them with terror. Perhaps teaching and healing did sit under the ruling thumb of a preaching church too long.
But considering the cost of medical care, the plight of our inner cities and the rising cost and declining state of education across the country today, prohibiting prayer and any mention of God in the classroom, and forbidding qualified faith-based institutions from offering the government a helping hand, fills me with terror, too.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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