Religious Education Association

views updated


The Religious Education Association (REA) was founded in 1903 as part of a larger progressive movement to improve education in the United States. The background to the movement was the alliance that had been formed in the 1840s between the common (public) school and the Sunday school. Major social and economic changes at the end of the nineteenth century brought increasing doubts about the effectiveness of the Sunday School. Many Protestant leaders saw the need for a realignment of efforts.

The main leadership in founding the REA was provided by William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago. The intellectual leader of the movement was unquestionably George Albert Coe. The first meeting of the REA brought together 400 college presidents, political leaders, church administrators and religious thinkers. The keynote address was given by John Dewey on the importance of the new field of psychology. This first meeting generated great optimism that the time was ripe for educational change. The REA had three ambitious aims: 1) To create cooperation among Catholic, Protestant and Jewish educators in the United States and Canada 2) To bring the teaching of religion into the public school 3) To professionalize church education in the local congregation.

In this same decade, the national catholic educational association was founded, a sign that the Catholic church had reservations about the REA. Only a few Reform Jews became active members of the Association. Most Protestants, especially the Evangelicals, did not join. As a result, the REA became mostly identified as a liberal Protestant organization.

The REA has never really flourished even while it continued to hold national conferences. Its most notable achievement has been the journal Religious Education which has been continuously published throughout the century. The hope to professionalize church education was frustrated by the Depression of the 1930s. The viability of a church position called Director of Christian Education suffered a setback from which it has never recovered in most denominations. In addition, the theological shift in Protestant theology after the Second World War called into question the liberal aims of religious education. In the public school, Bible reading and the recitation of the Lord's Prayer continued until the 1960s, but any attempt to introduce religious instruction faced formidable opposition.

The REA received a big boost in 1965 with the entrance of large numbers of Roman Catholics. The largest national conferences of the Association occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and there were also regional conferences. At that time a related organization, the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education, was founded. Although APRRE evolved from within the structure of the National Council of Churches, it has functioned as a professors' section of the REA, contributing to the journal and co-sponsoring national conferences.

Compared to many Catholic and Evangelical organizations, the REA always had a small membership that continues to provide an ecumenical setting for educational discussion and the hope of greater cooperation among religious groups in the future.

Bibliography: g. a. coe, A Social Theory of Religious Education (New York: 1920). s. schmidt, History of the Religious Education Association (Birmingham: l983).

[g. moran]

About this article

Religious Education Association

Updated About content Print Article