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Walter Scott Athearn

By Jennifer Lowe & Charles Russell Gresham (posthumous)


Dr. Walter Scott Athearn (1872-1934). A master teacher and a pioneer of religious education, Athearn's chief contributions to religious education were his emphasis upon educational standards and measurements, his pioneering in community schools of leadership education, and his influence in making religious educational leadership a profession (Gresham, 1958, p. 3. Dr. W. C. Bower's comment in a personal letter). He was the first to suggest the term "Church School" be applied to the educational function of the church. He also proposed a dual system of religious education paralleling that of public education from the elementary grades to the university. While he was in Drake University, he offered the first course in religious education which was granted credit for the A. B. degree. In the thirteen years that he served at Boston University, W. S. Athearn fully demonstrated (1) that religion is a major academic discipline worthy of credit towards social science degrees, and (2) that religious education is a vocation so essential to perpetuity of both state and church as to be worthy of adequate recognition in graduate and professional training schools (Gresham, 1958, p. 24. Quotation is from a letter to Dr. Karl Stolz).

Walter Scott Athearn was featured on p. 64 of the 1926 Hawkeye yearbook as part of a section devoted to notable alumni. His photo is from the same issue of Hawkeye that was provided by David McCartney from University Archives, Dept. of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.


Family History

Walter Scott Athearn was born on July 25, 1872 in Marengo, Iowa. Gresham (1958) suggested that Athearn's pioneering spirit could only be understood by understanding his pioneering ancestors. Athearn's line of ancestors starting with Simon Athearn were English pioneer settlers who migrated to the new world and settled in Martha's Vineyard before the turn of the eighteenth century. Walter's grandfather Jethro moved the family from Martha's Vineyard to Jennings County, Indiana, in 1830, and later to Springfield, Ohio. While they were in this area the Athearn family came in contact with a new religious movement that was sweeping the frontier. This movement was widely known as the Restoration Movement; its people as "Christians" or "disciples." They emphasized freedom in Christ and a return to the simple faith and order of the New Testament. The Athearn family became affiliated with this movement; Walter's father, Elisha Sargent, became one of its lay-preachers.

Elisha Sargent Athearn followed the western trail and moved into the new state of Iowa in 1842 and located in Keokuk County. Later in 1867, he married Walter's mother Susan Elizabeth Longstreth who was also from a settler's family that manifested pioneer spirit. Walter Scott had two older brothers, William Marcus and Elisha Allen, and five younger sisters: Jennie, Minnie, Ressie, Addie May, and Eulala (Retrieved May 6, 2004, from,scott::athearn::23.html ). Since Dr. Elisha Sargent Athearn was a physician and a scholar, all children including Walter were given every educational advantage and were surrounded with books and papers. Walter had become a member of the Christian church as a youth and was a very active Christian.

Walter Scott Athearn married Florence Royalty on June 15, 1894 and had a son Clarence R. (born on 7/3/1895) and a daughter Gertrude (born on 4/16/1901). His first wife Florence passed away on June 8, 1927. He married his second wife Frances Emily Smith on September 14, 1929.

Educator Career

Early career years

Walter Scott Athearn attended Hedrick Normal High School from 1885 to 1889. Immediately after graduation he started teaching as a tutor and a grammar teacher. In 1894, Athearn was selected to be principal of the public schools at Delta, Iowa. He was commended as "a never tiring thorough Christian always laboring for the upbuilding of Education and higher citizenship" (Gresham, 1958, p. 12). His moral influence and Christian testimony made an impact in this community. His personal moral integrity and passion for purity and righteousness were manifested even in the school system.

Athearn's literary career began while he was associated with the Delta schools. He helped edit the Keokuk County Teacher , one of the most progressive school journals in the state. At the same time, he published his first book, The History of Keokuk County .

In 1899 Athearn received his Bachelor's degree of Pedagogy from Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. The next year he was elected Professor of Grammar, Physiology, and Methods in Drake. While in Drake he taught grammar, educational psychology, and pedagogy in the College of Education. He taught Buehler's grammar so well that his students constantly referred him as "Buehler incarnate." He continued in this capacity for four years. In 1902 he was selected as editor of Midland Schools , a monthly educational journal.

In 1906 he became Dean of the Highland Park Normal College. While serving as Dean of the Normal College, Professor Athearn was instrumental in the building of the largest and most up-to-date pedagogical library in the West. The library included a complete collection of standard publications on psychology, child study, history of education, educational biography, educational fiction, school administration and management, educational theory, kindergarten and primary methods, manual arts, physical education, drawing and art education, school gardening, and all other lines of educational work (Gresham, 1958, p. 16; Quoted from Athearn, W. S. (n.d). A thanksgiving bibliography . Des Moines).

During this tenure, he also undertook to build a department that would specialize in character education through the public schools. While he brooded over this matter, he came to the conclusion that a dual system of education was the only adequate solution to the problem of teaching religion and morality. Because of this conviction, he resigned his deanship and went to the State University of Iowa to prepare himself for the field of religious education. While there he came under the influence of E. D. Starbuck, professor of religious psychology and one of the pioneers in this new discipline. He also found Karl Stolz to be his staunch friend and colleague in this new field of religious education (Gresham, 1958, p.16-17). He received his B. A. in 1911 and his M. A. in 1914 at Iowa (Hawkeye yearbook, 1926, p. 64. University Archives, Dept. of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries. Athearn's majors were not mentioned in this resource. Dr. Dr. E.D. Starbuck is a professor of religious psychology and head of philosophy department ( Karl Stolz wrote a book Pastoral Psychology . Walter Scott Athearn probably was interested in the psychological aspect of religious education).

The Years at Drake University (1909-1916)

In 1909 Athearn was invited back to Drake as professor of Religious Education and Applied Psychology. In 1910, in his first year as head of the department of religious education at Drake Athearn offered the first course in religious education which could be credited toward the A. B. degree. Dr. W. A. Harper (1935) commented: "To have the distinction of offering the first course for credit in an American college in any subject is sufficient to entitle a man to recognition, and particularly if that subject grew to be one of major interest within a quarter century" (p. 7). For the next seven years at Drake, he had developed the department of Religious Education to such stature that students were attracted from all over the country.

Even though Athearn had entered this new field of "Religious Education," he still worked with the public schools. In a paper entitled Religious life and the college curriculum , he concluded,

"I want this paper to stand as a plea for the recognition of religion as a fundamental element in human character which the college is under obligation to develop both by formal instruction in class room and laboratory, and by furnishing opportunities for living normal religious lives while within the college halls" (Gresham, 1958, p.19).

Athearn was not only interested in religious education on a collegiate level, he also emphasized the situation faced by local churches. In 1911, he organized the inter-denominational Des Moines Sunday School Institute for the purpose of providing adequate training for religious teachers in local Bible schools. This institute was conducted on a junior college level, meeting one night a week for thirty weeks each year. Local leaders such as Joseph Wells, Henry Wallace, and Grace Jones were Athearn's associates in this pioneering work. In 1915 the University of Chicago Press published a book by Athearn, The City Institute for Religious Teachers , in which the details of the organization, curriculum, etc., of such an institute were set forth (Gresham, 1958, p. 19). About this time, Athearn was preparing a statement on the educational program of a church, including the integration of all its educational agencies, graded instruction, worship and expression, training of leaders, and educational supervision. Athearn himself believed that this was his "first construction contribution" to the field of religious education, since it was an "attempt to apply sound educational principles to the educational work of the local church" (Gresham, 1958, p.20; Quoted from a letter to Dr. Karl Stolz (1930, Nov. 20, p.3) in Athearn's personal file).

In 1911 he was appointed to the International Sunday School Association's Committee on Education. In 1913, he became chairman of the Sunday School Department of the Religious Education Association. During 1911 to 1912, while Athearn was appointed to a commission on the Sunday School within the Religious Education Association, he developed a commission report which was expanded and published as The Church School in 1914. Most leaders of religious education believed this book revolutionized the American program of religious education, changing the concept of the educational program of the church from an incomplete and independent "Sunday School" to an integrated "Church School" (Gresham, 1958, p.20). Dr. William Harper commented,

"His first book The Church School brought down on his head the criticism of the Christian Endeavor Society and other young people's society groups of protagonists, for he recommended that Sunday school and young people's society work should not be separated. It was a novel idea, but twenty years afterwards we find the Southern Methodist Board of Christian Education sponsoring that very procedure. It is too bad that The Church School is out of print. It is a book worth knowing even today." (Harper, 1935, p.7).

In the summer of 1913 he began a tenure at Columbia University as a visiting summer professor in Religious Education. In religious circles he was a member of the committee on religious education of the Disciples of Christ and served as their representative on the International Lesson Committee from 1914 to 1917.

In a sabbatical of study at Chicago University in 1915 and 1916, he studied the philosophical bases of education under John Dewey's influence. At the same time he made William T. Harris' Psychological Foundations of Education his pedagogical bible. However, it was Borden P. Bowne's Personalism that he had adopted as his personal philosophy. He also studied other works of Bowne, Dewey, Royce, and James in the effort to formulate a philosophy of religious education consonant with Christian experience (Gresham, 1958, p. 60-61; Quoted from Walter Scott's son Clarence Athearn's book, Concerning the creative approach in American education , 1926, 2.).

The Years at Boston University (1916-1929)

In 1916, Athearn was elected to become the organizing Dean of a new Graduate School at Boston University. The thirteen years at Boston University were the most fruitful years of his life. In the years that Dr. Athearn guided the School of Religious Education and Social Service, it became a national institution, attracting graduate students from all parts of the nation and from some foreign countries.

Since this school was a new venture, Athearn charted the course. He selected a well-qualified faculty. Among this faculty were individuals such as H. Augustine Smith of music education fame; his own son, Clarence, who later headed the Department of Exceptional Children Education at Columbia University's Teachers College; his daughter, Gertrude, who taught Elementary Education and conducted a children's clinic in Boston; W. L. Hanson, who, with Athearn, pioneered in the field of Measurements and Tests; and Earl Marlatt, one of the leading figures in Methodism's higher educational program.

In his report to the President and Trustees of the university about the first decade in the history of Boston University School of Religious Education and Social Service, he remarked,

"During the past ten years, religious education has found its way into many American colleges. Its status is usually one of the following subordinate positions in the academic organizations. . . In all of these cases, religious education is subordinate to some other academic or vocational interest. In Boston University, religious education is organized as an independent school and granted the same academic and professional recognition as is accorded to medicine, law, theology, and education" (Athearn, 1930, pp. 36-37).

While Dr. Athearn was putting forth effort to found and develop a great professional center for religious education in Boston, he did not forsake other emphases in religious education. While he was the Dean of the School of Religious Education of Boston, Dr. Athearn was also director of the Malden Community System of Religious Education for the first seven years of its existence. Burgess in his book Models of Religious Education comments, "His [Athearn's] model for integrating public and church education was based upon his pioneering efforts in Malden, Massachusetts. Athearn's findings, and his dreams for implementing his proposals on a national scale, were widely disseminated through his 'Malden Leaflets'" (Burgess, 2001, p.88). He was not only active in community system; he was also an active member of the Hancock Street Church of Christ, located in Everett, near Boston. This demonstrated Dr. Athearn's belief in his theory of religious education for both community and state.

By 1916 he was the chairman of the department of education in the International Sunday School Association (ISSA). As the chairman he influenced the whole thinking of the Association on educational standards and procedures. Due to his influence, they accepted his City Institute program and the whole program of a dual system of education. Athearn worked tremendously behind the scenes in making the ISSA an effective tool for promoting an adequate program of religious education for American democracy. However, the Sunday School Council of Evangelical Denominations (SSCED) felt that ISSA did not stress denominational rights enough. Therefore in 1917 SSCED began a program of competition. By 1918, war had been officially declared between denominational interests on the on hand and interdenominational interests on the other. Dr. Athearn had a passion for unity. He believed that in the program of the church the denominational and sectarian emphasis ought not to be overly-stressed. Therefore, he led in the fight for freedom and democracy and against sectarianism (Gresham, 1958, pp.30-31).

In 1919, SSCED appointed a committee to confer with a similar committee from the ISSA looking towards the consolidation of the two organizations. Dr. Athearn was appointed Chairman of a new Joint Committee on Education to prepare a report that "draw up a statesman-like educational policy and provide types of educational machinery consistent with the objectives of Protestant religious education and with genius of our democratic institutions" (Gresham, 1958, p.33. Quoted from a letter Athearn wrote to Dr. Stolz). Even though the Joint Committee had approved this report, later it was largely rejected and vitiated after the merger had become actual (Gresham, 1958, p. 34). Athearn's sense of integrity and honesty was grievously wounded by the political maneuver of a group of sectarian leaders. He declined re-election as Chairman of the Committee on Education in the new International Sunday School Council of Religious Education for the reason of "breach of faith." Following the "merger," Dr. Athearn was quietly forced out of the national limelight (Gresham, 1958).

In 1919 he was appointed director of the American religious education division of the Inter-Church World Movement. He directed the survey department, which made a survey of the religious education of an American commonwealth - the state of Indiana. During the years he was in Boston, he delivered a great number of lectures. In the years 1917-1929, Dr. Athearn wrote or edited twenty-one major volumes and contributed numerous articles to leading religious journals.

In 1929, a conflict emerged between Dr. Athearn and the president and the trustees. He felt more could be done to the department, but the University was not fully supporting his goals; and so he left . A former student made an evaluation of the situation:

"Dean Athearn's resignation was forced by the "unremitting hostility," on the part of the president of Boston University, and the lack of vision of the trustees. They saw the dollar; he saw the soul. They, the representatives of a church college, expected to make a profit on the religious education of American youth. Dr. Athearn, the friend of the students, expected that a church college would serve the youth and make it as easy as possible for them to secure the education that would enable them, in turn, to serve the church." (Locker, 1936, pp.10-11. Retrieved January 26, 2005, from ).

Right after Athearn's resignation the school lost much of its prestige. The student body decreased from six hundred to two hundred. Soon the work of religious education was shifted to the School of Education and School of Theology.

After he resigned from Boston, he visited Egypt and Palestine as chairman of the Commission on Character, Moral and Religious Education of the World Federation of Education. After returning from this voyage, he was wed to Miss Emily Smith of Washington, D. C., at Pinecliff, Colorado in 1929. (His first wife passed away on June 8, 1927.) In the fall of that year, he was employed by the Standard Publishing Company to conduct a series of Bible School conferences at the North American Christian Convention. The next two years, he wrote numerous articles for The Lookout and the Christian Standard and worked on a series of church school curricula with his son, Clarence.

In April, 1930, he developed high blood pressure and a heart condition. He was forced to rest and not do anything. In June, 1931, as soon as his doctor pronounced that Athearn was fit for a full load of work, he set off on a cruise to England. While he was in Edinburgh, he received a wire to invite him to be the President of Butler University. The inauguration that took place on February 6, 1932 was a conspicuous event. In that event Butler University also conferred upon him the honorary Doctor of Literature degree.

Butler University and Oklahoma City University

Unfortunately his relationship with Butler did not last long. On arrival Athearn insisted on Butler's fulfilling its function as a Christian university. He reorganized the undergraduate program of religion and made the School of Religion a graduate school only. In doing so, certain faculty members were dismissed; many students in the School of Religion were alienated. In October, 1933, Athearn was requested to resign. To justify the actions that he had taken and the changes he had made with respect to Butler University, Athearn published a pamphlet entitled, Dual Control of an Urban University . On June 22, 1934, he was elected president of Oklahoma City University. On August 31, 1934, President Athearn addressed the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. In this address he set before them his dream for the future of Oklahoma City University. However, before he had the opportunity to set his dream in motion, this great pioneer died with a heart attack on November 13, 1934.

A Master Teacher

Dr. Athearn, though a pioneer in the administration and promotion of religious education, was remembered as a master teacher as well (Gresham, 1990, p.58). This was due to his recognition of the importance of the teacher. He believed that "in the last analysis, the destiny of any nation is determined by the school-masters of that nation." In a letter to Dr. Karl Stolz, he said, "Classroom teaching is my joy and it has been my hope that I could be free from administrative work, which I do under protest, and not from choice. But fate has seemed to decree that I must administer a school in order to have a place in which I could teach" (Gresham, 1990, p. 59. Quoted from Athearn, W. S. (1920). World Survey: Vol. 1. American Volume . New York: Interchurch Press).

Dr. Athearn estimated that 6,650 students enrolled in his classes through the years. He had channeled many of them into the field of religious education. Laura Armstrong Athearn, Dean Athearn's daughter-in-law, acknowledged her debt to him as teacher in the preface of her book, Christian Worship for American Youth . Hulda Niebuhr, the first woman inaugurated as a full professor in McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, was influenced by Dr. Athearn in educational theory while she was studying and working with him at Boston University (Caldwell, n. d. Retrieved January 26, 2005, from ). His students collected many of his aphorisms and epigrams in a pamphlet called Athearnisms . Its dedication was "to the ongoing of the great ideals with which the vision and sacrificial service of a master teacher has, with prophetic insight and spiritual fervor, inspired the lives of students through the years" (Gresham, 1990, p.60. Quoted from Athearnisms).

At Dr. Athearn's memorial service one of his closest friends Dr. Henry H. Crane of Boston honored him:

"Dr. Athearn was a great teacher, guide, inspirer, teaching himself, not a subject, teaching truth, loyalty, courage, with that inner force which made him so potent in the classroom. The characteristics which made him what he was were not personal peculiarities. It was a spiritual achievement torn from the heart of God, and appropriated by him only after disciplining himself to match the mood of his Master.
He was a great teacher because of his mastery of his teaching work as such. He scorned any slipshod practices, exacting from himself a thoroughness and a discipline that cost him perhaps his life. He could never be satisfied with anything else than his best. The finesse of skill, the mastery of technique, were a constant challenge of inspiration to all those who touched him" (Gresham, 1990, p. 61-62. Quoted from Digest of Dr. Henry Crane's Address, Kappa Bulletin (Kappa Chapter, Boston University Alumni Association, School of Religious Education and Social Service, January 1935, 4-5).

Personal and Educational Philosophy

As early as 1920, Dr. Athearn had written: "I am convinced that the battleground in the field of religious education for the next decade will not be in the field of organization and methodology but in the field of education theory" (Gresham, 1958, p.58-59). Although Dr. Athearn did not write a single book to delineate his education theory, it is implicitly imbedded in his personal and educational philosophy, which can be gleaned from many of his writings.

Purpose of Christian education

Dr. Athearn defined Christian education, the purpose of Christian education and the task of the Christian educator in the following excerpt,

"Christian education is the introduction of control into experience in terms of Jesus Christ. And the Christian educator has but one task, and that is so to present Jesus Christ to the rising generation that every act of every day of every person will be performed in harmony with His holy will. There may be such a thing as evangelism that is not educational, but there can be no such thing as a Christian education which is not evangelical. The whole purpose of Christian education is to unite the life of the child with the life of Christ, and so lead him to be one with the Father. The Christian educator determines all his methods and selects all his material with this one end in view." (Athearn, Character Building in a Democracy , p. 119)

Religious education is Athearn's "cause" as Gresham called it (Gresham, 1958, p.18). But he did not suggest that religious education should be set over against theology, missions or evangelism. He did not consider it a substitute for any of these. He recognized that religious education was a new movement in his time. He looked at religious education as "a new method, a new instrument which the church will use in giving to people the doctrine of the church, the missionary spirit and passion, and the evangelical fervor of the soul that has entered into fellowship with God" ( Character Building in a Democracy , p.118).

He wanted to see religious education as a movement that would reconstruct theological seminaries and call church colleges to a new recognition of their responsibility to the church. He also hoped that it would build an educational program for the local church and the community. He was convinced that Christianity is the religion of whole-mindedness. Religious education must bring the whole child to God. The religious educator should make his/her constructive contribution to pedagogy and national education system. This could be seen in his national plan for a dual system of schools, both public and religious.

Religious education itself was not the purpose, but is an instrument of advancing theology, mission and evangelism. The ultimate purpose is to unite the life of the child with the life of Christ. Therefore, he prompted Christian educators, with this purpose in mind, to introduce control into experience in terms of Jesus Christ by determining all the methods and selecting all the material that would bring about this purpose.

Philosophy of religious education

With a background of training in public school teaching and educational psychology, Dr. Athearn had a question for himself, "How can the public schools guarantee the moral integrity of the nation as they now guarantee the literacy of the nation?" The answer he gave to this question is: ". . . that a system of morals which did not rest upon basic religious sanctions would be an inadequate basis for our national integrity" (Gresham, 1958, p.60). His philosophy of religious education can be seen in one of his controlling convictions enlisted in his book An Adventure in Religious Education :

"The program of a school of religious education should rest upon the conviction that religious education (1) must be deeply rooted in theistic theology and personalistic philosophy, (2) that it must be democratically organized and administered, and (3) that it must have the advantages of the scholarship, the opportunities for research, and the academic freedom afforded by a modern university of higher learning." (p.36)

What is personalistic philosophy? According to his son Clarence Athearn, "One day as he [Dr. Walter Scott Athearn] was toiling with his problem, in the Library of the University of Chicago, he came across a copy of Borden P. Bowne's Personalism . He read it through fascinated, and arose saying, 'Here is the answer to my problem'" (Gresham, 1958, p. 60-61).

Gresham (1958) explained in his dissertation, Walter Scott Athearn: Pioneer in Religious Education ,

"The "personalist" begins with theism, the positing of a personal, Supreme Being. Bowne says that any being, finite or infinite, "which has knowledge and self-consciousness and self-control, is personal; for the term has no other meaning." Therefore, "complete and perfect personality can be found only in the Infinite and Absolute Being, as only in Him, can we find that complete and perfect selfhood and self-possession which are necessary to the fullness of personality" ( Personalism [Boston: Houghton-Mifflin and Co., 1908], 266). (p. 62)

Tributes to a Great Educator

A poem by Hi Doty, Sports Editor of the Oklahoma City University's newspaper, The Campus:

He came with shining swiftness through the mist
of bitter years, and where before had been
Uncertainty, he pointed out a way
And we moved upward.
As suddenly, as swiftly as he came,
His brave heart flickered - flickered,
God smiled and waved a welcome hand
And he was gone.
and here are we. Remember
He pointed out a way. (Gresham, 1958, p.55).

A letter by the Board of Trustees of Oklahoma City University to Mrs. Athearn:

"The prophetic voice is stilled, yet the message voiced, championed and lived, cannot be silenced. He and his powerful influence, through his spirit, his writings, and persons he has taught and inspired, through his family and friends, will stride down the years a growing influence.
Clear and inclusive thinker, aggressive and far visioned leader, indefatigable worker, loyal champion of great principles, staunch friend and Christian - in five short months, he has won an enviable place in the lives of the faculty and students, in city and state, and in our hearts" (Gresham, 1958, p.56).

Works Cited

Most of the biographical information in the article comes from Gresham, Charles Russell. (1958). Walter Scott Athearn: Pioneer in religious education .

  • Athearn, W. S. (1924). Character building in a democracy . New York: Macmillan.
  • Burgess, H. W. (2001). Models of religious education . Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House.
  • Caldwell, E. F. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2005, from
  • Gresham, C. R. (1958). Walter Scott Athearn: Pioneer in religious education . Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.
  • Gresham, C. R. (1990). Walter Scott Athearn: Master teacher. Christian Education Journal , 10(3), 57-62.
  • Gresham, C. R. (1991). Boston revisited: A philosophy for Christian education. Christian Education Journal , 11(2), 87-100.
  • Harper, W. A. (1935, July). The passing of two pioneers. Religious Education , 30(1), 6-9.

Contributions to Christian Education

Pioneering in Educational Standards

Dr. Athearn's rigorous work in the public schools (8 years as a teacher and superintendent, 5 years as a Dean of the Highland Park Normal College) has prepared him to be a leading exponent of high standards for the educational program of the church. In his book The Church School , he took advantage of the scientific research of general psychology and applied to religious pedagogy. On the one hand, he maintained his belief that every child is God's child from the beginning, capable of growth and unfolding until he "attains unto the perfection of the Father." On the other hand, he adopted Horace Bushnell's thesis of Christian Nurture that "the child is to grow up a Christian and never know himself to have been otherwise" (Athearn, 1914, p. viii). Therefore, he designed a threefold program of instruction, worship, and expression based on the two functions of the church school: (1) to develop intelligent and efficient Christian lives consecrated to the extension of God's kingdom on earth, and (2) to train efficient leaders for all phases of church work (Athearn, The Church School , p.1). This program was devised on a graded basis, with all departments participating in all three activities. The standards set forth in this work are high. In his own evaluation on The Church School , he wrote,

"This changed the emphasis from Bible School and Sunday School to Church School. It launched the departmentally graded school and put the office and title of Director of Religious Education for the first time into the vocabulary of religious education. It is my personal belief that this report and book have almost completely revolutionized the American program of religious education" (Gresham, 1958, p.140).

Dr. Paul Vieth wrote in his book The Church and Christian Education that the publication of The Church School crystallized the growing idea of graded teaching (Gresham, 1958, p.140).

The Indiana Survey of Religious Education , which was published under Athearn's editorship, emphasized standards in the local church school. It involved the areas of individual accounting, curriculum, organization and administration, teachers and officers, supervision of teachers, finance, building and equipment, cooperation of the Sunday School with the religious education of the community, educational organizations for children and young people, organized classes in the Sunday School.

Pioneering in Teacher-Training in the Church School

In 1917, he wrote another book The Organization and Administration of the Church School as a text for training course for teachers. This was one of the first contributions to better organization in the church school. In it he not only emphasized standards for the local church school he also stressed standards in teacher-training. He commented that society protects the land, justice, the school-room from unskilled tenants, untrained jurists, and the charlatan; however, "the souls of children have been left unprotected from malpractice at the hands of well meaning, but untrained workers in the field of religious education" (Gresham, 1958, p. 144-145). He called this spiritual malpractice and warned the readers that "the pious, well-meaning, church-school teacher may ignorantly pull up by the roots and destroy the very elements which enable the soul to bring forth the fruits of the spirit" (Gresham, 1958, p. 145). The principles, standards, organization, and program of the first community training school he instituted in Des Moines later became a model adopted by the International Sunday School Association. Dr. Athearn continually impacted the field in the pages of Religious Education , the official journal of the Religious Education Association. He almost single handedly brought about a revision of the teacher-training standards of the day.

Dr. Athearn not only impacted the educational standards and teacher-training on the level of local church and community; later in 1919 he also impacted national standards when he delivered the Merrick Lectures at Ohio Wesleyan University. These were published in 1920 under the title, A National System of Education . In this book he addressed three needs: the need for an adequate philosophy of education, the need for the development of a professional spirit among educators, and the need for a clearly outlined program for the organization and administration of secular and religious schools in a democracy (Gresham, 1958, p. 153).

Pioneering in Making Religious Education a Profession

In a personal letter to Dr. Karl Stolz, Dean of Hartford School of Religious Education, Athearn said,

"Two dominant but unified affections have determined every act of my life: (1) love of my family; and (2) love of my cause. For more than a quarter of a century myself and my family have sought by every possible means at our disposal to (1) convince the American people of the necessity of building a comprehensive system of religious education and (2) to train a competent leadership to organize and direct an educational program of this character" (Gresham, 1958, 182).

Athearn's efforts in building up the American system of religious education were based on his belief that religion is to undergird the moral sanctions of all the people. In order to achieve his cause he believed that, "the securing for religious education of the scholarly and research advantages offered to other fields of learning and service by the modern university and the great professional and technical schools" (Athearn, 1930, p.125), was the first step.

Athearn saw the threatened moral breakdown in the national life at his time. His leadership in the training of leaders in the field of religious education began at Drake University. As mentioned on page 4, in 1910, he taught "the first course in religious education that was granted credit toward a liberal arts degree, and established the first academic department in this subject in an American college. . . " In 1915 he "conducted the first survey of religious education the colleges of America. This survey of 300 American colleges revealed the fact that 67 of them offered an average of 5 1/3 course each in English Bible and literature, and 38 of them offered an average of two courses each in religious education". (Athearn, 1930, p.126). Dr. W. A. Harper (1935) wrote in his paper, "Twelve years later, I discovered in a survey of the same field that 239 institutions had separate departments of Bible, 72 separate departments of religious education, and 218 had combined departments, a total of 468 institutions, with 1273 professors, offering 3,816 courses, valued at 10,868 semester hours, enrolling 82,518 pupils, with current budgets totaling more than $3,000,000. Athearn had evidently introduced a vital subject into the American academic curriculum" (p. 7). His volume, An Adventure in Religious Education , is the major source of information regarding Athearn's leadership in professional and academic training in religious education in the years he served as the Dean in Boston University.

The influence of the school can be seen from the statistics that Dr. Athearn recorded in this book. The enrollment of the school of Religious Education and Social Service of Boston University under Dr. Athearn's direction had grown from 105 in 1918-1919 to 607 in 1927-1928. Approximately 3,500 different students pursued regular courses in this school during the first ten years of its history. This school sent out into professional and voluntary Christian service 1,637 different persons. These students have found their way into forty-five States of the Union, the District of Columbia, and eighteen foreign countries.

His Effort in Uniting Churches in Religious Education

"Dr. Athearn had a passion for unity. . . His whole program for religious education of a community paralleling the public school system was based upon this basic idea of unity. . . He pled for full, inter-denominational cooperation" (Gresham, 1958, p.81). He believed, "A school exists for its pupils. The three essential elements in a school are (1) pupils, (2) a teacher and (3) a curriculum. Buildings and equipment, organization and overhead supervision are all conditioned upon the amount and character of their service to these three essential elements" (Athearn, 1924, p.77). He saw the rapid expansion of the supervisory machinery in the field of religious education, which caused a certain degree of friction between the various groups of workers on the different supervisory levels of the Sunday School Association. He thought the problem to be considered is how to organize these schools and how to supervise their teachers in such a manner as to secure the largest educational values to the pupils. He saw that the most annoying conflict of interest was between the denominational and non-denominational agencies. He commented,

"The parochial emphasis of the Catholic church is now being adopted and actively promoted by several Protestant sects. The struggle of the sects to control the agencies of interdenominational cooperation officially, by crushing out non-denominational agencies, ends in a struggle among the sects for the denominational control of the interdenominational agency" (Athearn, 1924, p. 84).

He argued,

"When parochial or sectarian control is carried down to the community organization of cooperative work in religious education it reveals all the weaknesses which led the Protestant churches to abandon the parochial school system and join in the support of the public schools. This method (1) places the balance of power in the hands of the strongest denomination and limits the development of the minority denominations; (2) makes it difficult to guarantee the teaching of the body of common matter essential to the spiritual homogeneity of the community; (3) lowers the level of efficiency of Protestant religious schools by dividing their resources and (4) condemns the children of minority denominations, and of small, rural or suburban churches in the stronger denominations to inferior opportunities for religious education" (Athearn, 1924, p.85).

And he suggested,

"[I]t is possible to organize a community for cooperative work in religious education on a non-sectarian basis in such manner as (1) to place the resources of all churches at the service of each church; (2) to preserve the integrity of the small church and of the minority denominations; and (3) to guarantee the maximum of efficiency to all churches without sacrificing any legitimate denominational interests (Athearn, 1924, p. 86).

However, Dr. Athearn was not successful in convincing the denominational leaders. His ideal of uniting religious education has never been developed. "As late as 1934, just a few months before his death, he manifested this continued interest in Christian unity in a letter to Dean Joseph A. Todd of the Indiana School of Religion, Bloomington, Indian" (Gresham, 1958, p.82).


Dr. Walter Scott Athearn's belief in "religious education has to be religious" had urged him to criticize the liberal philosophy of pragmatism, positivism and instrumentalism. On the other hand he also exhorted Biblical scholars not to apply scientific methods to textual criticism in order to bolster up their conclusions with current philosophies which have direct materialistic implications (see Excerpts from Publication section) (Athearn, 1924, pp. 120-123). Burgess (2001) comments in his book,

"Athearn was a severe critic of many tenets of the religious education movement and, thus, of the liberal theological model that was at its heyday during his most productive years. He does not always employ classical liberal terminology in his writings, thus his books do not clearly represent the liberal theological model at all points. Nonetheless, he optimistically set out to activate a number of key liberal principles under the banner, "A Free Church within a Free State" (p.88).

Yet, his optimistic outlook maintained his insistence on unity among churches and his devotion to character building in religious education. His idealistic view of "A Free Church within a Free State" under the principle of "the separation of church and state" prompted him to campaign for a national dual system of education. Probably because of his idealistic views of person, he had often been frustrated by both his liberal and parochial contemporaries. Without his optimistic outlook, his idealistic view of person, and his heart for his religious belief, Walter Scott Athearn could not have become the pioneer of the field of religious education that he was.

Works Cited

  • Athearn, W. S. (1914). The church school . Boston: Pilgrim Press.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1924). Character building in a democracy . New York: Macmillan.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930). An adventure in religious education . New York: The Century Company.
  • Gresham, C. R. (1958). Walter Scott Athearn: Pioneer in religious education . Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.
  • Harper, W. A. (1935). The passing of two pioneers. Religious Education , 30(1), 6-9.



  • Athearn, W. S. (1887). A history of Keokuk county. Keokuk, Iowa: Keokuk County News.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1905). The English sentence. Des Moines: Midland School Publishing Company.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1914). The church school. Boston: Pilgrim Press.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1915). The city institute for religious teachers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1917). The organization and administration of the church school. Boston: Pilgrim Press.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1917). Religious education and American democracy. Boston: Pilgrim Press.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1916-17). The Malden leaflets: Vol. 1. Religious Education and American Democracy. Vol. 2. The Correlation of Church Schools and Public Schools. Vol. 3. A Community System of Religious Education. Boston: Pilgrim Press.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1920). A national system of education. New York: George H. Doran.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1920). Standards for city church plants. New York: Interchurch World Movement of North America.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1920). The Malden survey: A report on the church plants of a typical city. New York: Interchurch World Movement of North America.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1921). An introduction to the study of the mind. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
  • Athearn, W. S., Eveden, E. S., Hanson, W. L., & Chalmers, W. E. (Eds.). (1923-4). The Indiana survey of religious education: Vol. 1. The religious education of Protestants in an American commonwealth. Vol. 2. Measurements and standards in religious education. Vol. 3. Religious education survey schedules. New York: George H. Doran Co.
  • Athearn, W. S. (Ed.). (1924). The master library: Vol.1. Leaders of olden days. Vol. 2. The book of the kingdom. Vol. 3. Heroes and heroines. Vol. 4. The living wisdom. Vol. 5. Songs of the seers. Vol. 6. Everyday life in old Judea. Vol. 7. The perfect life. Vol. 8. Pioneers of the faith. Vol. 9. Using and teaching the Bible. Vol. 10. My best book. Cleveland: The Foundation Press.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1924). Character building in a democracy. New York: Macmillan.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930). An adventure in religious education: The story of a decade of experimentation in the collegiate and professional training of Christian workers. New York: The Century Company.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1932). The minister and the teacher: An interpretation of current trends in Christian education. New York: The Century Company.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n.d.). A thanksgiving bibliography. Des Moines: Highland Park Normal College.

Chapters in Books

  • Athearn, W. S. (1915). Contributions of psychology and pedagogy to the work of the Sunday school. In McFarland & Winchester, Encyclopedia of Sunday Schools and Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1920). Religious education: The nation's light. In World Survey, American Volum (pp. 200-240). New York: Interchurch World Movement.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1923). An introduction to the study of the mind. In Teaching the Teacher (pp. 147-179). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.


  • Athearn, W. S. (1902-1907). Editorials. Midland Schools. Des Moines: Drake University.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1910). The responsibility of the school toward the family. Religious Education, June.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1911). Religious life and the college curriculum. Drake University Record, 8(5).
  • Athearn, W. S. (1912, April). Religion as a liberal culture subject. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1912, June). Leadership through the organization. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1913, May). Standardizing the church school. Biblical World.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1913, August). Music and art in the bible school. Drake University Record.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1913, December). Religion in the curriculum. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1914, December). Teacher training standards. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1915, APril). Training religious leaders. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1915, August). The city Sunday school institute. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1915, October). Religious education in American colleges. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1915, December). The religious education of a democracy. Proceedings of the Illinois State Teachers' Association, 61-63.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1911-1915). Bulletins of Des Moines (Iowa) Sunday School Institute.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1916, April). Religious exercises in public schools. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1916, June). Teachers for week-day religious schools. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1917, August). Fundamental principles in the Malden plan. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1917, August). The place of the church college in a system of religious education for the American people. The Christian Standard.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1917, October & November, 1918, January & February). The social project method. Pilgrim Magazine.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918, February). Community organization. Religious Education, 18-22.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918, September). Organized to defeat democracy. The Christian Standard.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918, October). The organization of religious education within the community. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918, December). Democracy in religious education. The Christian Standard.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918). The educational policy of the International Sunday School Association. Educational Bulletin, 1.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918). Making democracy safe for the world. Educational Bulletin, 2.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918). The organization of religious education within the community. Educational Bulletin, 4.
  • Athearn, W. S., & Honline, M. A. (1918). An annotated bibliography of texts and reference books for community training schools. Educational Bulletin, 6.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918). Suggestions to directors of community training schools of religious education. Educational Bulletin, 7.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1918). International standards for community training schools of religious education. Educational Bulletin,8.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1919, January). Types of control in religious education. The Christian Standard.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1919). Sex segregation in religious education. Graded Sunday School Magazine.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1919). Religious education and democracy. Educational Bulletin, 1.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1920, June). The history, progress and present status of the survey of religious education by the American religious education survey department of the Interchurch World Movement. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1920, February). Talking points for religious education. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1921, May). The protestant church and the public schools. Congressional Record.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1921, December). What is research in religious education? Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1922, February). The organization of protestant Christian education in the United States. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1922, February). The Malden plan. Religious Education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1922, February 22-24.). Training of specialized staff leadership. Proceedings of the Council of Cities of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Buffalo, N. Y.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1922, August). The outlook for Christian education. Boston University Bulletin.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1922). Protestantism and democracy. Addresses and Proceedings, National Educational Association of the United States, 517-521.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1922). The Indiana survey of religious education: Summary and recommendations. New York: Committee on Social and Religious Surveys.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1923). The devil's month in America. The Church School, 4, 488.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1916-1923). Bulletins of Malden Council of religious education.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1924, April). Boston University and the training of lay leadership for the church. Boston University Bulletin.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1924, April). A centenary educational project for the New England area. Boston University Bulletin.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1925, February). Crime prevention. Industry.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1925). Standardizing religious education as a profession [Brochure]. Boston: Boston University.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1926). The Indiana survey. Religious Education, February, 113-121.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1926). Protestantism's contribution to character building in a democracy. Boston University Bulletin, December.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1927). The preparation of teachers for character education. Proceedings of the Second Biennial Conference of the World Federation of Education Associations, August.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1927). Correlation of the educational programs of the church and state. Religious Education, September.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1928). The history of Boston University School of Religious Education and Social Service. Boston University Bulletin, June.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, August 4). Our bible schools are small. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, August 18). We are a people of small schools in small churches. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, August 25). Church school leaders almost invariably place their ministry among their problems. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, September 1). That great-hearted, nobleman, the bible school superintendent. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, September 8). How Dr. Athearn is preparing for his Canton conferences. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, November 3). What shall we teachers teach? The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, November). What the church owes its teachers. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, November 17). What the church owes its teachers (concluded). The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, November 16). The bible school situation. Christian Standard.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, November 24). The child, the church, and the state. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, December 1). The hand of the law finds a criminal where the hand of the teachers were withdrawn from a delinquent. The Lockout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, December 22). At what age did you join the church? The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929, December 29). Three billion dollar thefts predicted. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1929). New year meditations and resolutions of a church school teacher. The Outlook, 7.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, January 5). What! Boys and girls in one class? The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, February 9). What's on the program? The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, January 19). How to organize and conduct a teacher-training class. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, February 16). Easy? Not the superintendent's task! The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, February 23). Bible school children must behave. The Lookout
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, March 2). Church buildings "Are not what they used to be." The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, March 30). Money - Whence? Whither? The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, April 6). Organization for instruction, worship and service. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, September 27). Statesmanship in education. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, October 18). Shrines of religious freedom. Christian Standard.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, October 25). America's struggle for religious freedom. Christian Standard.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, December 14). The white house conference. The Lookout.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1931, May 17). Educational theory and the curriculum (two parts). The Lookout, 24.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n. d.). Religion at the heart of the Christian university. Indianapolis: Author.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1933). Dual control an urban university: Being the report of Walter Scott Athearn as president of Butler University from July 7, 1931 to October 28, 1933 [Pamphlet]. Indianapolis: Author.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1934). Christianity and democracy on the university campus. Oklahoma City University Bulletin, 24(9), 1-3.

Reports, Speeches and Other Writings

  • Athearn, W. S. (1908, December 27). Resolutions for 1909. Unpublished typescript.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1914, January). A new year's letter to the Sunday school workers of Des Moines [Brochure].
  • Athearn, W. S. (1930, November 20). Autobiographical letter, to Dr. Karl Stolz, Hartford School of Religious Education. Unpublished typescript.
  • Athearn, W. S. (1932, June). Butler University - its history and its ideals. [Brochure].
  • Athearn, W. S. (1934). You have just begun your life as a college student. Unpublished mimeographed letter.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n.d.). Cradle Roll Aim. "To place the sheltering arm of the church around the little ones in the house..." Unpublished manuscript.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n.d.). Final Test Questions, in the study of The Mind We Teach. Unpublished typescript.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n.d.). The honor of the church. Unpublished manuscript.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n.d.). Malden Grade Schools. Unpublished typescript.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n. d.). Ten study commandments. Unpublished typescript.
  • Athearn, W. S. (n. d.). The universal has an intrinsic meaning which one ought to perceive and enjoy. Unpublished manuscript.

Excerpts from Publications

Athearn, W. S. (1914). The church school . Boston: Pilgrim Press.

"The teaching act must include both instruction and expression. It is now generally believed that all consciousness is motor - that nothing comes in through the senses that does not tend to pass out through the muscles. Not only do bodily acts follow upon consciousness, but each act performed reacts upon consciousness, "carrying with it a sense of reality and a feeling of appropriation and possession." The reaction from the physical expression makes the act real. In the works of Stratton, "The feeling of what is occurring in our veins and muscles rolls back upon the mind and gives the mental state definiteness and 'body.'" In other words, an object ceases to be "foreign" and becomes a part of one's self as soon as it has passed into his consciousness through the motor process. It is then vitally a part of the actor." (p. 3)
"God will be a "foreigner" until some act of prayer, or worship, or service makes him a part of the self. "Faith apart from works is dead," and "If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching" seem to recognize the connection between activity and belief. We not only learn to do by doing, but we also learn to know by doing.
A sense of reality and identity with the self will only attach to those facts which have been dynamically acquired. Children may come to know about God from verbal memory of facts and precepts, but children who are really to know God as a personal presence, in whom they are to "live, move and have their being," must do something with God. They must use him in the performance of their daily tasks. The sense of the presence of God thus acquired will give the mystic's assurance of reality which logic and argument can never overthrow." (pp. 4-5)

Athearn, Walter Scott. (1924). Character building in a democracy . New York: The MacMillan Company.

"Evangelism had and has for its objectives the bringing of individual souls into a conscious, personal relationship with God, and securing the individual's glad acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. This is precisely the objective of Christian education. Christian education is the introduction of control into experience in terms of Jesus Christ. And the Christian educator has but one task, and that is so to present Jesus Christ to the rising generation that every act of every day of every person will be performed in harmony with His holy will. There may be such a thing as evangelism that is not education, but there can be no such thing as a Christian education which is not evangelical. The whole purpose of Christian education is to unite the life of the child with the life of Christ, and so lead him to e one with the Father. The Christian educator determines all his methods and selects all his material with this one end in view." (p. 119)
"Pragmatism, positivism and instrumentalism in philosophy, combined with mechanistic and behavioristic psychology in the midst of an age that has deified force, furnish both soil and atmosphere in which there can grow a pedagogy which reflects the spirit of the age and the philosophy which has either produced it or grown out of it. The materialism of the age has affected religious education in two ways: first, Biblical scholars who wish to apply scientific methods to textual criticism have in some cases thought it necessary to try to bolster up their conclusions with current philosophies which have direct materialistic implications. In doing this they have followed the example of popular writers on sociology and ethics who regard these great fields as merely aspects of biological evolution. When those who hold to what we know as to the historical interpretation of the Bible defend their theory of interpretation by the use of materialistic philosophy, the Bible ceases to be a book of religion and becomes merely a compendium of ancient literature. When God ceases to be a person, infinite in intelligence, in goodness, and in power, who is the groundwork of all experience, - then Christ loses His meaning as a religious influence; that is to say, the denial of the objective reality of a personal God, leads directly to the denial of the deity of Christ. The defining of religion in terms of humanity, as is current in our day, is a positivistic position which deprives Christ of peculiar religious significance. "Religion," says positivism, "is the recognition of and the pursuit of social values." Interpret the Bible in the light of this definition, which identifies religion and democracy, and you will take out of it the elements essential to our Christian faith. Historical interpretation in the hands of a materialistic philosopher causes the Bible to lose its religious dynamic; but historical interpretation in the hands of a personalistic philosopher gives to the Bible religious dynamic and power manifold greater than it could possibly have in the hands of the literalist. The attacks from conservative churchmen against historical criticism should have been leveled not at the method of interpretation but at the materialistic philosophy of the interpreters. The same method in the hands of men with personalistic philosophical views yields spiritual power and preserves the great and essential elements of our Christian faith. The historical method of Biblical interpretation is worthy of a more scholarly defense than materialistic philosophy can give it.
Second, a few influential writers have brought religious education much unjust criticism through the use or advocacy of pedagogical methods based on pragmatic philosophy and behavioristic psychology. In its desire to be up-to-date and thoroughly abreast of the times religious pedagogy has borrowed from current public school pedagogy and the good name of a great movement has been placed in jeopardy because its advocates have borrowed form the wrong sources. Here, again, the friends of Evangelism should not criticize a whole movement for the mistakes of a few leaders who have not gone deeply into the philosophies that underlie their borrowed pedagogy. A pedagogy based on materialistic philosophy and psychology will be non-evangelical; a pedagogy based on a personalistic philosophy and what Professor Woodbridge calls a dynamic psychology, will be evangelical. The issue here is not the evangelical versus the non-evangelical; it is, rather, personalism versus materialism.
The application of the scientific method to religious phenomena has much to offer to religion if it is remembered that there are fields of knowledge which cannot be fully surveyed by the use of the categories of physical science. There are men who analyze prayer - separate it into its various psychic atoms and then deny that prayer has any distinctive entity. It would be as logical to analyze a drop of water into atoms of hydrogen and oxygen and then deny the existence of water or claim that water as such had no objective reality. It needs to be made clear that all reality can not be put into the scientist's test tube. Christianity implies the truth of certain metaphysical and ethical theories and the untruth of others. To scientific methods there should be added that insight and the outlook of metaphysics. Current psychology of religion needs the corrective of a sound philosophy of religion." (pp. 120-123)

Athearn, W. S. (1932). The minister and the teacher: An interpretation of current trends in Christian education . New York: The Century Company.

"After three quarters of a century of the exclusion of formal religion from the public schools we have reached a time when the lowest rate of general illiteracy in our nation's history is matched by the highest rate of spiritual illiteracy. Many citizens see in the mounting crime rate an evidence of the failure of a system of public education which has not given adequate place to religious teaching. Others see in the present situation direct evidence that the church, and not the state, has failed as a teacher of morality and religion.
It is not strange that two extreme positions are finding advocates at the present time. One group of citizens charge the removal of formal religious teaching from the public schools with the lowered moral tone of society, and demand the reversal of our American policy either by the introduction of religion into the public schools or by the placing of both secular and religious education under private control.
A second group of citizens believe that the church has shown itself to be incompetent as a teacher of morality, that the state can no longer wisely leave the developing of the moral integrity of its citizens to church auspices, and therefore the public schools should assume the whole burden of character formation on a non-religious basis, feeling no sense of partnership in the future with the educational agencies of organized religion.
The rapid development of character-education programs in the public schools, together with the widespread growth of naturalistic humanism in both secular and religious schools are interrelated agencies which tend to deny to religion any valid and essential contribution to character education.
The ethical-culture movement which now seeks to direct character-education activities in our public schools, boldly asserts that it is possible so to sensitize the intelligent citizen in respect to his duties and responsibilities as a citizen that the religious sanction is no longer necessary to the perpetuation of the democratic state. It is significant that the literature in the field of character education, which has appeared in such abundance during the past few years from the pens of both secular and religious educators, is comparatively free from religious influence. In fact, the training of this school of modern humanists, while definitely positivistic in its philosophical implications, has omitted any serious study of metaphysics, ethics, logic, and the history, philosophy, and psychology of religion. But, whatever its preparation for leadership, an aggressive group of naturalistic humanists is now profoundly influencing the character-education programs of the American public schools, and their curricula and technique are being taken over, almost unchanged, into the educational programs of many evangelical Protestant denominations whose leadership seeks "modernism" and "up-to-date-ness" by the process of imitation.
Between these two groups stand, I believe, the rank and file of the thoughtful citizens of the nation. This third group, while nonplussed, and taken unawares by the aggressive propaganda of the ethical culture movement, reaffirms our historic American position of the separation of church and state with all of its implications for secular and religious education. It insists that the public schools, unaided, can not guarantee the moral integrity of the American people; that the religious education of the American people can not be achieved as a mere by-product of tax supported schools. This group agrees with the second group that the social sciences, rather than the physical sciences should be the core to the curriculum of the schools of the democracy, but it insists that ethics is the heart of social science, and that religion is the heart of ethics. Therefore, this group insists that any teaching of social science from which religion has been omitted will be empty, shallow, and unfruitful. But religion which can give meaning and value to ethics, which is the heart of the social sciences, around which the modern school is being erected, can not be taught by the tax-supported schools. If the state is to shut religion out of the public schools, the church must find a way to give a vital religious experience and education to every child of the nation in order that the ethics that gives meaning to the social sciences in the schools of a democracy may be permeated with religious content and insight. If this can be achieved there can be built here a Christian democracy.
But regardless of the contribution of religion to morality, the task of developing the spiritual lives of the citizens of a democracy is so essential to the welfare of individuals and society that it cannot with safety or justice be relegated to an unimportant or secondary place in the educational program of a nation. The state must deal justly with this dominant and all pervasive spiritual nature of its citizenship." (pp. 55-60)

A Statement in Zion's Herald, December 3, 1930

"There is a devotion which is loftier than loyalty to the world, and that is devotion to the world that is yet to be;
There is an honor which is greater than mere acquiescence, and that is the honor of a man to his mission;
There is an integrity which is nobler than serving well, and that is the integrity which will not betray its soul's most eloquent dream!" (Gresham, 1958, p. 42)

Dr. Athearn's Religious Faith Expressed under the Title "The Power of the Church"

I believe that I exist.
I believe that I exist in a complex world of persons and things.
I believe that I am not my body; I am Spirit.
I believe that I am a social being, - made for communion and fellowship with other persons. I am subject and object. I am union of subject and object. I am a triune being.
I believe the world of persons and things was created by a personal God. Physical and moral law, etc.
I believe that I am like God. A creator, a son of God, etc.
I believe that I am an irreplaceable entity in the universe of persons and things.
An immortal being - birth and death are incidental in the life of the Soul. A Christian can stand anything that can happen to him - an eternity in which to achieve my purpose in the world.
Like God, I have free will.
This may cause sin. All sin is caused by man's will, not by God's will.
I can will to do God's will and thus bring joy and peace.
If I do God's will I am saved.
I believe man broke God's laws and became lost and bewildered and that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to show all men how to obey the Father's laws; how to do the Father's will. Those who know Me will know the Father.
I believe that I, an immortal person, can commune with God, the Father - that prayer is a real union of the mind of God with the mind of man.
I live in a community, - family state, nation. (Territorial) I associate my spirit with other spirits for the purpose of fostering the spiritual life, - to live the eternal life now.
A church is a little community of religious persons, whose purpose is to cause all the people of the larger community to obey the laws of the smaller community. A church fosters the religious life.
When the little community absorbs the larger community the Kingdom of Heaven will have come upon the whole earth, - until a new baby is born and it will need to be taught to do the Father's will.
The church is a divine agency for the building of God-like personalities. It binds together the immortal souls of all the ages into a great family of God. The church is an immortal city in which immortal souls have eternal citizenship. Against this church the gates of hell shall not prevail." (Gresham, 1958, p. 86-87)

Works by Dr. Athearn

Athearn, W. S. (1914). The church school . Boston: Pilgrim Press.

Athearn prepared this book for the purpose of meeting a demand for textbooks in the then newly developed field of religious education. He attempted "to give religion the advantage of the scientific research that has done so much to increase the efficiency of secular education (p. viii)." The book is prepared in the process of answering many requests for details of organization and nature and content of curriculum of the church school that suited to the various developmental periods of unfolding childhood. It considers the function, organization and administration of the church school in general.

Athearn, W. S. (1924). Character building in a democracy . New York: Macmillan.

In response to the indisputable evidences of the rapid growth of spiritual illiteracy in his time, Athearn believes, "Unless democracies learn how to build those fine ethical qualities which undergird the virtues of their citizens they cannot endure" (pp. vii-viii). This book, originally in lectures, is addressed in such a manner that will give the average layman a general view of the varied tasks that must be performed by the American people if they are to build a Christian citizenship which can sustain our democratic institutions. It is also "to interpret to the non-professional layman, ideals, methods and problems of those educational leaders who are seeking to use the educational method as an agency for building the Kingdom of God (Gresham, 1958, p. 249)."

Athearn, W. S. (1930). An adventure in religious education . New York: The Century Company.

"This is Dr. Athearn's defense of his program of administration at the Boston School of Religious Education and Social Service (Gresham, 1958, p.250)." Athearn states his two foldpurpose in preparing this report in the preface: "one was to inform the officials of a particular institution regarding the work of one of its departments; the other was to preserve the results of a decade of educational experimentation in the cultural and professional training of Christian leaders, for the guidance of educational administrators throughout the nation who are dealing with kindred problems" (p.vii).

Athearn, W. S. (1932). The minister and the teacher: An interpretation of current trends in Christian education . New York: The Century Company.

In the preface, Dr. Athearn clearly states the audiences, the purpose, and the structure of the contents of this book. It is addressed to Christian ministers and Christian teachers. It seeks to interpret contemporary trends in American education and develops a constructive program of Christian education. It also sets forth the theory of education which Protestantism has championed for the democratic state, and shows how the state and the church, recognizing fully the educational implications of the separation of church and state, may cooperate in the education of citizens.

Other Resources

  • Armstrong, L. M. (1928). A bibliography of the educational publications of Walter Scott Athearn . Boston: Boston University.
  • Athearn, Walter Scott, 1872-1934 . Retrieved May 6, 2004. from .
  • Athearnisms: A collection of words of wisdom and inspiration of a great teacher . (1928). A Former Student.

Author Information

Jennifer Lowe

Jennifer C. Lowe is a Ph.D. student in Educational Studies, Talbot Theological Seminary, in La Mirada, California.

Charles Russell Gresham (posthumous)

Dr. Charles Russell Gresham was unable to complete this entry before his death. Jennifer Lowe completed the entry utilizing her own research and Gresham's work, with permission from his wife Ruth.