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  • David Hines

95% of New Zealanders were Christian, so why did they vote for secular schools?

By David Hines, 2 June 2022

4400 words

I researched this for a submission to parliament in 2019 and was surprised to find that 11 religious options had been debated in 1877, and most of them were still relevant.

The secularity clause in the 1877 Education Act is just nine words long

“The teaching shall be entirely of a secular character”.

But in the three months of debate on the subject, faith, the Bible and the teachings of Jesus were discussed extensively …. in 11 amendments. And the reason they don’t get mentioned in the Act, is that all those amendments were rejected.

So I looked them up in the Hansard report, which is still on line, and recorded all the speeches for and against those amendments. And there’s heaps of stuff. For instance the Bible is mentioned 143 times, so that’s 143 ways they turned down the idea of reading the Bible in State schools.

I also did some homework on the speakers, so I can identify in many cases what their religion or lack of religion was.

The 11 proposals were:

1) Should the school day begin with religious observances?

2) Would readings of the Bible and Lord's prayer be acceptable if dissenting parents could opt their children out?

3) Would these readings become acceptable if the decision was made by local committees, including parents of the pupils?

4) Should history be dropped from the curriculum (because of potential religious bias)?

5) Should history lessons be compulsory

6) Should the state provide history books that were acceptable to all religions?

7) Should the state pay religious schools for the secular part of their teaching?

8) Should religious schools be exempt from paying local body rates?

9) Should Bible studies be part of the main curriculum?

10) Should school buildings be made available for religious instruction after hours?

11) Should parent committees have the power to permit religious studies for half an day per week?

So their answer was "no", to all 11 kinds of religion in school.

1. Should the school day begin with a Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer.

That was part of the original Bill proposed by Justice Minister Charles Bowen (right), who was a member of the Church of England. He said:

“When we establish a system out of the public funds, and while men differ so seriously on religious subjects as they do now, we must take care that we do not allow every schoolmaster to give such religious teaching as he may think right and suitable. Cases have occurred in which parents had very reasonable ground of complaint …

“The only way to be absolutely fair is to forbid the teachers to give their pupils any religious instruction whatever.

But then he backtracked a little. He said there was no necessity to exclude any allusion to a Higher Power

“I feel certain that it is the desire of nineteen-twentieths of the people of this country that the Bible should not be absolutely excluded from our public schools. (There’s that 95 percent, quoted right at the start of the debate.)

But Bowen said no child should be obliged to attend these Bible readings and the Lord’s prayer, if his parents objected.

This compromise was accepted by Dr James Wallis, a Presbyterian minister, who said schools should not teach Christian theology, but there should be a recognition, not a denial, of Deity and immortality. (Hansard Volume 25, page 191)

Vol 25 p223 Sir George Grey (right), was also a member of the Church of England, but he said reading the scriptures and the Lords Prayer would be an act of hypocrisy; because in many cases the teacher would not believe what he was reading and the children would soon realise this and it would be more harmful than omitting religion altogether. He said it would also do an injustice to some school masters, who may object to reading the scriptures, and could lose their jobs if they refused to do this daily Bible reading. (Volume 25 page 223)

A third Christian, Vincent Pyke, said it would cause offence to two-thirds of the population. He said:

“As a Protestant in heart and feeling, I protest against it. What is the vital principle of Protestantism? It is the principle of religious freedom, and can you have that if you force upon the people one particular system of thought.

Joseph Tole, a Catholic, said it would be unacceptable to have the Bible presented without children learning the background and which parts were more important.

Robert Stout was a rationalist and he said a large number of colonists do not belong to any church whatever. He said they have consciences and their consciences are violated if they see their taxes going to support churches which they do not believe in. (Volume 25 page 185)

So they put this idea to the vote …. not the actual words of Bowen’s Bill, but those nine words from it that remained in the bill … which said, "the teaching shall be entirely of a secular character. "

2. The second suggestion: Would Bible readings and prayer be acceptable if parents could opt their children out?

A Jewish member Samuel Shrimski (right), objected to that as well. He said the Jews would be compelled to either go to extra expense of educating their children, or send them to listen to religious instruction repugnant to their feelings. He said the opt out provision would mean the Jews’ children would be held up as targets for ridicule and the sneers of other children. That situation should be prevented so as citizens our children should grow up in one family.

And Joseph Tole (Catholic) agreed that it would inflict an indignity on the excluded children. (Volume 25 page 234)

Edward Wakefield seemed to have been a sceptic, because he ridiculed Bowen’s reference to a Higher Power. He said the opt-out provision was the worst part of it all. The children whose parents object to Bible reading would have to stand outside in the rain till the reading is over.

(Volume 25 page 182)

The voting for the secular clause was: Ayes 39, Noes 19; a ratio of 67% (which is amazingly close to the two-thirds claimed by Vincent Pyke) So there were 67% of MPs who wanted schools to be secular. And they were talking at that stage about Bible readings and prayer in particular.

The other 32% probably did fit the image of the Churches Education Commission in New Zealand today: they regarded faith as the basis of morality, and they had also in some cases seen Christian schools in New Zealand and other countries, and did not see why they should give this up.


The reason this topic had come up; was that till then many provinces had set up religious schools, and others had set up secular schools, and they hadn’t been coping financially, so the government had to come to the party. So the Government had to decide whether to go secular, or whether to go religious, or whether to leave the kind of diversity they had already. They were in a hurry to decide, because children were running wild, and they wanted to get compulsory primary schools set up nationwide, starting in about six months.

However, that was not the end of Bowen’s Bible reading idea. Because the idea was immediately brought up again in an amendment..

3. Would Bible and prayer readings be acceptable if the decision to have them was made by local parent committees?

This was suggested by Oswald Curtis (MP for Nelson). He was an expert on this idea, because he was one of the founders of the provincial education in Nelson province for the preceding 10 years. Most of the provinces had education systems, of various different kinds, and some had religious teachings, others didn’t. (Volume 25 page 176)

In Nelson, there were local committees of parents who were allowed to choose the religious emphasis of their schools.

Curtis proposedthat the new national system of education should pick up some of these Nelson ideas, in particular leaving it to local committees to decide whether their school should be opened with reading the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer.

He agreed with Bowen that nineteen-twentieths of the people did not wish the Bible to be excluded from schools, but he said he was not at all sure that nineteen-twentieths of the people believe this should be a compulsory part of the school day. So, that’s another reason for the 95% potential support for Bible in schools got whittled down. He was aware that not even the Christians would all want religious schools.

Edward Baigent from Waimea (which was also in Nelson province said optional Bible reading worked well. But I got a massive surprise when he added he didn’t believe there was more than one of these schools where they actually did in fact read the Bible. He explained that a Nelson church of England synod two years earlier had discussed whether to include the bible in schools and their bishop said it was the duty of the clergy to see that children were taught the Bible and this was principally done through their Sunday-schools. (Volume 25 page 241)

So that is a third reason why Anglicans would not want the Bible read in schools. They believed this was the job of clergy, and Sunday schools. I couldn’t discover Baigent’s religion, but that quote suggests he may have been Church of England himself.

Vol 25 p185.9 Hugh Lusk said the Nelson arrangement was a sham, because (judging by what Baigent said) the “religious schools” they had in Nelson would be no different from the secular schools proposed in the Bill. All of them would be forbidden to give religious instruction, and he could not understand why any religious committee would want such a choice, unless they were planning to give religious instruction in some other form.

He said Auckland provincial schools had a better solution. They were secular schools, but they let churches use their classrooms for religious instruction before or after the school day.

Another attack on the Nelson compromise came from Cecil de Lautour He said it would still involve opting out the non-Christian children. And he added “I think if we cannot decide the matter in this House we have no right to ask local committees to settle it.” (Volume 25 page 201)

Edward Wakefield (right) had similar views. “The Honorable member for Nelson City proposes that we shall allow irresponsible committees to inflict the wrong which we are now hesitating to inflict. (Volume 25 page 184)

So that amendment was put to the vote and the result was: Ayes 19, Noes 35. A proportion of 65% were opposed to this arrangement, compared with 67% favouring the secularity vote.

That’s very similar to the original percentage against Bible reading and the Lord’s prayer. Just four MPs had changed their vote, compared with the first vote. So giving the school board the choice changed a few MPs’ minds, but not very many.

4. Should history be dropped from the curriculum

Why would you want to drop history?

The Nelson MP Oswald Curtis explained:

“Any of our books on English history which contain histories of Henry VIII. and of Elizabeth include passages which no Roman Catholic can conscientiously permit his children to read. The histories which we use in our schools are sectarian histories, Protestant histories, histories from one point of view, having no mercy whatever for the Roman Catholic faith. Now, it is not fair that we should expect the Roman Catholics to send their children to schools where they would read sectarian histories altogether opposed to their teaching.” (Volume 25 page 176)

The decisions:

Edmund Barff (Hokitika) moved that the word “History” be omitted from the list of subjects. (Volume 25 page 514)

(In parliament, then and now, if you make a negative recommendation, they vote on the positive alternative, not the negative.)

The Question was put "that the word proposed to be omitted stand part of the clause.+ In other words, that history should stay on the list of subjects taught in state schools.

The voting was: Ayes 54; Noes 6, making it 90% favouring leaving history on the list of subjects.

5. Should history lessons be made compulsory

But then there was another history amendment.

William Montgomery said “I think provision must be made so that no child shall be compelled to read certain parts of books on history when he or his parent objects.” (Volume 25 page 213)

The chairperson told him that this amendment was not necessary, but it was already part of Bowen’s Bill:

“No child shall be compelled to be present at the teaching of history whose parents or guardians object.”

Larnach moved that those words be dropped. (Volume 25 page 514)

Joseph Tole said having an opt-out arrangement for history would not be acceptable because it would deprive some students of a knowledge of history.

The question was put in the positive form: That the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the clause.

The voting was: Ayes 54; Noes 4. Proportion in favour of the opt-out provision for history remaining: 93.2%

I think that was the closest to unanimity they ever got in this debate.

6. Should the state provide history books that are acceptable to all religions?

A third twist to the history book problem was provided by Samuel Hodgkinson. He agreed that history was a problem, but he said the answer was simple….

“The way to overcome that difficulty would be, if there were some committee or Board appointed, to arrange these historical works in such a way that a fair amount of history was provided without any extreme views or anything obnoxious. For my own part, I should have no objection whatever that Dr Lingard’s history should be taught in the schools.” (Volume 25 page 25 page 202)

I thought that was the best answer. However. Hodgkinson’s idea was never put to a vote, but it came up in debate several times. One one occasion, a year later, Charles Bowen said he did think of trying to get an agreed history book that would please all religions, but he didn’t think it would be possible.

7. Should the government pay religious schools for the secular part of teaching?

Oswald Curtis spoke up for religious people again. In this case it mainly applied to Catholic schools that were already in existence.

His amendment was that groups of 25 or more householders should be entitled to set up their own schools at their own cost, with the right to choose their own books, and their own teachers and to receive a government subsidy for the secular part of their teaching. (Volume 25 page 177)

He insisted these would not be denominational schools, because they would not give any religious instruction; but their books would need to be approved by the Education Board, their teachers would need to be certified, and in other respects they would be part of the state system.

Edmund Barff, from Westland supported this idea. Westland had copied the Nelson province system. He said Catholic children would feel a sense of injury, and the result would be anything but favourable to the education of the rising generation unless these subsidies were given. (Volume 25 page 178)

William Gisborne (Totara) also supported it, and said these secular schools could give religious instruction outside normal school hours. (Volume 26 page 179)

William Fox (Wanganui) disagreed. He said this would be the thick end of the wedge of denominationalism. (Volume 25 page 234)

“The consequence of passing such clauses would be the complete introduction of that system of denominationalism which has done so much injury in the past. The Church of England and the Presbyterians would demand special schools, and it would result in this, that the State would find money wherewith the clergy would educate the children.”

Hodgkinson also saw this as denominationalism very thinly disguised. (Volume 25 page 203)

The vote was: Ayes 18; Noes 31. The proportion opposing the Curtis package was 62.4%. Just under two thirds of the MPs were against state funding for religious schools (that gave no religious teaching)

Which is a bit less than the numbers opposing Bible readings in school. Obviously there was some sympathy with the Catholics, who had provided a lot of education in the past.

8. Should religious schools pay local body rates

Robert Stout proposed a new clause saying that no rates shall be levied on any lands or buildings used for public school purposes.

Then Dignan, who was a Catholic, moved an amendment, that the word “public” be removed, so Church schools would at least get a bit of help with their costs.

The question was put that the word proposed to be omitted stand part of the clause.

The voting was Ayes 39, Noes 13. The proportion in favour of the original Stout recommendation was 75%.

I must admit that by this stage in the debate, I was starting to feel sorry for the Catholics. They had been hammered already, and this was just rubbing it in. Having decided to go secular, Parliament was in a mood to go totally secular.

Then here was another win for the secularists.

As still happens today, there is a final vote on the entire Bill, called the third reading. after all the amendments have been hammered out.

The voting was: Ayes 43, Noes 16. The proportion in favour of the Bill was 74%, which was quite a bit higher than the original secularity vote.

So this vote included MPs who opposed the secular bits, but were good losers, and were still keen to start this new education system, because for the first time education would reach all the children in New Zealand.

Those who supported the Bill included Baigent, Curtis and Dr Wallis, all of them supporters of religion in various ways. So it was a very solid final vote.

But there were some more legal twists

Just after the third reading there was a vote of no confidence in the government. They didn’t go to an election, they just lined up the same MPs in different alliances, with a different ministry and different policies..

The new ministry was sworn in, led by premier Sir George Grey (who you remember was an Anglican who didn’t favour Bible readings in school). Robert Stout was also in the new cabinet. So was the Catholic leader Sheehan. (Sheehan was regarded with horror by a number of other Catholics.)

So it wasn’t surprising that the new government decided to keep the Education Bill that the old government had help create.

In fact there was a beautiful clash during the no confidence debate.

The rebels were claiming that the old government hadn’t achieved anything over the past year.

But the old government argued … the Education Bill was our greatest achievement.

And the new government members said … it was a terrible bill, but our changes made it a good one.

So there really was strong cross party support for it. Both parties wanted to claim the credit for secular education.

The next hurdle was the Legislative Council

The council was about to debate the Bill when the government crashed, and they had to wait a few weeks for new government to settle in.

The Legislative Council was more religiously conservative than the House of Representatives, and they came up with four amendments.

Their first amendment was:

1B. Should the Bible should be read daily, after the opening of the school.

This was very similar to Bowen’s first Bill except that there was no suggestion of the Lord’s Prayer being used. And it added that the Bible should be read without comment.

And it was lost by 17 votes to 11. I have numbered this 1B, because it raises most of the same issues.

9. Should Bible reading be part of the regular curriculum

This was lost by 17 votes to 11, same as in the previous amendment.

10. Should school buildings be available after hours for religious teaching by ministers of religion

No child to attend unless with the written consent of parent or guardian.

This was won by 14 votes to 13. So that is the first victory in this whole debate, for a bit of religion

I think even some atheists today would have no objection to that.

11. Should school committees have the right to set apart half a day of every week for religious instruction?

This would have been a huge chunk of religion in schools. In fact it was the first formal proposal for religious instruction at all. They must have been absolute religious nutters. It would have made religion a major part of the curriculum. They would only be allowed to teach children from their own churches.

It was lost, by 11 votes to 12.

7B. Should householders be allowed to set up their own religious schools and claim government subsidies.

I have numbered this 7B because it is exactly what Owen Curtis had moved – and lost – in the House of Representatives.

And in the Legislative Council this proposal was won by 13 votes to 12. So that would have been a major victory for the religionists, if just one of those members had crossed the floor.

These two successful recommendations should have been referred back to the House of Representatives, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

7C. The bill about state religious subsidies mysteriously disappeared from the agenda.

It was never discussed by the House of Representatives

10.B The recommendation about schools being allowed to include religious instruction after hours

This was rejected.

1.c Should the school day open with a reading of the Lords Prayer?

This idea was rejected by the House of Representatives, but it had never been recommended by the Legislative Council. It seems this may have got amended by some clerical error from the real Legislative Council reading about the Bible being read, or maybe the Hansard report had been wrong.

Catholic parents nationwide boycotted them.

The new education system began in 1878 but was boycotted by Catholic parents.

This worried the MPS so much that they reopened the issue of state aid to church schools about July 1878 as I recall, It was called the Education Amendment Bill. But the debate took a much more bitter form:

Time stops me telling this in detail but the strongest views, as it seemed to me were:

a) People on both sides conceded that history books were biased. But nothing was done about it..

b) It was claimed that the the reason people wanted separate history books was that they wanted to import the Catholic-Protestant rivalry that had led to violence in Ireland. Members were shocked to find this hostile undercurrent that had never emerged in 1877.

c) The Catholic MPs made very little comment about their views during the debate, but one Catholic Sheehan, who spoke up in 1878 said it was not about a conscience issue, it was because the Catholics and other clergy, wanted to bolster their power. He said it was the clergy who mainly felt that way, not the lay people.

c) However, a C of E speaker said the Church of England was largely resigned to secular education; they were not planning to build a string of Anglican schools nationwide. So it was mainly a Catholic issue, and not even all Catholics supported it.

The debate spread over another year, ending without a vote, but the Bill being dropped off the order paper.


  • Our schools were secular because about two thirds of the MPs wanted it to be free of religious discrimination, and didn’t want to impose their own beliefs on others.

  • They believed that the proposed opt out system would lead to bullying.

  • They recognised that ordinary secular teaching can’t help teaching about religion to some extent, and what happened over history was only the tip of the iceberg. It could also affect science, because some people would believe science was opposed to religion.

  • The Education Bill debate 1877 was not driven by religious bias. Catholics and protestants had different views, such as Catholics opposing the reading of the bible. They thought it should be part of a wider lesson explaining what it meant. But nearly all of them respected other peoples rights including the rights of Jewish and atheist minorities.

  • So Overall it was a civil rights decision, rather than a religious argument.

  • And it shows how far we have fallen away from this highminded decision. We still have schools which are promoting Christianity by Bible lessons and prayers. We still have bullying because of children being opted out. And we still have biased lessons about religion when it is part of the ordinary curriculum, such as history lessons

Later religion in schools milestones

The Education Act 1964 retained the secularity clause of 1877, but it provided a loophole in s78 for religious instruction and religious observances.

The EA1964 (s 79) provided that religious observances and instruction could be safeguarded by providing an opt-out clause

The EA1964 also included a provision that these activities would be acceptable if they were conducted while the school was closed.

The Private Schools Conditional Act 1975, allowed for subsidies to be granted to religious and other schools with a special character. It was provided that the schools would teach the general (secular) curriculum, but also provide additional activities according to their own charters.

The 1989 Education Act did not address the issue of religion explicitly at all. However it gave greater power to school boards to reflect the ethos of their communities.

Ministry Of Education guidelines 2006. The MOE published these, intending to implement them later. It said:

If religious instruction and observances were offered they would be effectively fenced off from the secular life of the school; they should be outside normal school hours.

All whole of school instruction or observances should be discontinued or avoided, because students may feel indirect pressure to participate through peer influences.

On 3 September 2006, two Anglican archbishops issued a press release saying the guidelines would prejudice the rights of parents to shape their children's spirituality and values.

The MOE responded the same day, scuttling the guidelines, saying this was probably an issue that doesn't affect the vast majority of schools.

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