Protestant education

The history nineteenth century education is known for the profound changes in its government organization ; and these changes affected the influence it had. Fundamental laws went into effect and new teaching methods were implemented, many of which had been thought over in the eighteenth century. Protestants were involved in those changes as they had their own specific requirements with regards to education.

An education system for Protestants

  • Bazaar in favour of the Société de l'Instruction Primaire © Société Évangélique de Genève

The Protestants wished to create Protestant schools with the help of various Biblical organizations in order to give every Protestant the opportunity of having a personal relationship with the Scriptures. The Secretary of the Society for the Promotion of primary education among French Protestants (SEIPF), founded in 1829, wrote in 1830 thatall Protestants must have the opportunity to read the Gospel, meditate and judge by themselves the sublime truth and the divine teachings that it contains” (chaque protestant puisse lui-même lire l’Evangile, méditer et juger par lui-même les sublimes vérités et les divins enseignements qu’il renferme) ; but this effort “breaks itself today against the boundless ignorance of a large section of the population” (se briser aujourd’hui contre l’ignorance absolue d’une grande partie de notre population – J.-Cl. Vinard, les écoles primaires protestantes en France de 1815 à1885, Montpellier, 2000).

School education policies

  • Ferdinand Buisson (1841-1932) © S.H.P.F.

Below is a reminder of the successive legal steps taken concerning education throughout the nineteenth century and that form the background of the action taken by Protestants.

The June 28, 1833 Act, initiated by Guizot, is an essential stage in this evolution. This act makes it obligatory for local governmental organizations to create three types of schools : a primary school in each town, an “advanced” primary school (EPS) in each county or in each town of over 6,000 inhabitants, and a teachers-training school in each “department”. The act acknowledges the free right to teach since anybody with the appropriate degree has the right to open a primary school, but all schools, whether public or private, remained under the control of town or administrative district surveillance committees. In the next few years, a body of school supervisors was created, the original “infant schools”(forerunners of today’s kindergarten schools) as well as courses for adults, which had become more and more popular, were formally organized and – last of all – girls’ primary schools could be opened. However, primary education was neither secular, nor compulsory, nor free until the 1848 Revolution when these principles were proclaimed. The Falloux Act, dating back to 1850, established the freedom of secondary education, suppressed the “Advanced” primary schools and increased the teaching prerogatives of the Church.

The education policy of the Third Republic – with Jules Ferry and F. Buisson, a Protestant, at the time superintendent for primary education (cf. the Protestants and Republican education) – established free primary education (June 1881), compulsory education for children from the age of six to thirteen, and a secular syllabus (March 1882). This meant that religious education was replaced by civic and moral education. The law establishing the separation of Church and State was voted on December 9th, 1905. As everybody knows, Protestants supported it and “unlike the Catholics, who increased the number of their schools, they had so much trust in the fledgling secular education that, with the exception of the one in Boissy-Saint-Léger, they closed their teacher-training schools and most of their primary schools” (à la différence des catholiques qui multiplient leurs écoles, ils font de confiance dans l’école laïque naissante qu’ils ferment leurs écoles normales, sauf celle de Boissy Saint-Léger, et la plupart de leurs écoles primaries – Marc Bœgner, quoted by J.-Cl. Vinard).

Many private initiatives were taken in areas that were not covered by the public system of education, such as kindergarten schools and vocational schools. These often noteworthy experiments widely contributed to the development of public education.


  • Books
    • VINARD Jean-Claude, Les écoles primaires protestantes en France de 1815 à 1885, Montpellier, 2000

Associated notes

  • Separation of Church and State

    The separation of Church and State (on the 9th of December 1905) was easy to accept for the Protestants. At last worship unions were authorised.
  • François Guizot (1787-1874)

    The life of François Guizot spans practically the whole of the XIXth century. He was born into a Protestant family on October 4, 1787 – during the Ancien Régime – and he died on...
  • Protestants and Public Education

    During the XIXth century, the July Monarchy and the Third Republic were the two significant periods of intense Protestant participation in the development of the public education system that had initially...
  • Bible Societies

    The Reformation required that every believer should be capable of reading the Bible. One of the main concerns of the leaders of re-established the Protestant Church was to make this...
  • Kindergarten schools

    In the nineteenth century, the importance of the child’s individual character was first discovered. This was mostly due to the influence of J-J. Rousseau, for whom education at its best...
  • The vocational schools

    Under the Second Napoleonic Empire, the Protestants were partly responsible for the growing number of vocational schools.
  • The training of school teachers

    From early on, the Protestant community took the initiative to train schoolteachers, both at local and national levels.
  • Ferdinand Buisson (1841-1932)

    One of the main inspirers of school legislation of the third republic, Ferdinand Buisson was a French politician in favour of laity, co-founder and president of the Human Rights League,...