The Transformation of a Word

Dana Street2

Dana St. Primary School, Ballarat. Built in 1856. (Source: Wikimedia)

We all know that the meaning of words can change over time.  Words such as gay and cool are used in ways not contemplated one hundred years ago.  Historians need to be aware of this when reading old texts.  In my research of the  education debates in the Australasian colonies from the 1860s to 1914, I had to understand what the word ‘secular’ meant at the time.  It is much more complex than I would have ever imagined.  The word ‘secular’ has not just changed – it has undergone an extraordinary transformation.

For many people in history (and in many cultures today) religion permeated every aspect of life.  Religion in the West used to be an integral part of the public sphere and the source of education.  For those living in the west before modern times, it was difficult to conceive the thought of living life without religion (Fitzgerald, pp 211-214, 219).

The word ‘secular’ was used before modern times but in a very different way to how we use it today.  Fitzgerald gives the example of its use in the Catholic Church to distinguish ” ‘the religious’… monks, friars and nuns…” from “the secular clergy” (Fitzgerald, p 220). When I first read Fitzgerald’s work my head spun.  We would never describe priests as being secular today!  The word ‘secular’ at this time meant something completely different to the ‘non-religious’ meaning we attribute to the word today.  The words ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ were not opposites at this time.  They were used to reflect different religious statuses in a totally religious world (pp 220, 223).

This is all very challenging for the modern Western reader.  Fitzgerald alerts us to the subconscious assumptions that we make when thinking of these words which we could unwittingly bring into our reading of early modern texts.

The meaning of the word ‘secular’ has clearly changed from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the twenty-first century.  How did people use the word during the era on which I have done most of my research – the 1860s to 1914?

Victoria introduced an education act in 1872 which sparked a heated debate concerning, in part, the meaning of the word ‘secular’.

The Act stated:

In every State school secular instruction only shall be given and no teacher shall given any other than secular instruction in any State school building and in every school used under this Act… four hours at least shall be set apart during each school day for secular instruction alone… but nothing herein contained shall prevent the State school buildings from being used for any purpose on days and at hours other than those used for secular instruction.

s 12, The Education Act, 1872, in Austin (1963), pp 237-8.

But what did the word ‘secular’ mean?  It was not defined in the Act.  Richard Ely has argued that in this usage, the word ‘secular’ meant the exclusion of the teaching of religion (Ely p 49).  This is indeed what occurred in Victorian schools. No religious instruction was taught by teachers or clergy in the aftermath of the 1872 legislation until the twentieth century.  The authorities even went to the extent of editing school readers in the 1870s to remove offending religious references (Gregory, pp 172-4; Austin 1972, pp 242-3; Macintyre, p 154).  So it looks like the Victorians of the 1870s used the word ‘secular’ much as we do today.

However if we dig deeper a different perspective emerges.  This is what students were reading in 1891:

It is by the rain and the sunshine that God makes the corn to grow and the fruit to ripen.
Then let us never see a plant,
Or blossom on a tree,
But we shall think how good God is,
And ever thankful be.

The Royal Readers:  Second Book, (London:  Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1891), p 19.

Passages such as the one above remained in the readers despite the fact that they were edited to remove references to specific religions (Gregory, pp 172-4). The content of this book and many other readers used in Victorian state schools at this time have many passages that today we would regard as religious.  Yet these books were used in a school system that was loudly proclaimed to be secular.  So what did Victorians in this era regard as secular?

Robert Ramsay was the Minister of Education who supervised the editing of school readers.  In response to a suggestion that references to God be removed from the school readers, Mr Ramsay said that if this occurred it “would mean secularism run mad”.  He added that “if the Education department carried out such a course, they would not be acting in consonance with the feelings of the country” (The Argus, 21 Jan 1876, pp 9-10).  Thus public opinion governed the extent of the editing and Ramsay felt that public opinion was on the side of retaining references to God in the school readers.

Ramsay explained that the reason for editing the readers was to remove passages which may have upset the Jewish community (The Argus, 18 Oct 1878, pp 9-10).  Those passages on which Christians and Jews disagreed were targeted for removal however it appears that those passages on which the religions agreed, passages such as the one above which referred to God, were retained as the religious communities which were politically significant at the time could agree with them.

“The great object of the department”, said Ramsay, “should be not to teach dogma, but a high moral tone.”  He did not specify what type of education would produce a “high moral tone”, but fellow member of the Victorian lower house and former teacher, Mr Sergeant, gave his view.  “… what was moral must be religious” declared Sergeant to the sounds of “Hear, hear” from fellow legislators.  “If they taught the children what was right”, he argued, “they would teach the fundamentals of religion”.  Again the words “Hear, hear” could be heard in the chamber (The Argus, 18 Oct 1878, pp 9-10).

This was a society in transition, they wanted to rid the schools of ‘sectarian’ dogma and disputes, but the legislators found it difficult to conceive of education without moral fervour and the Creator was regarded as the source of morals.  Historian, Denis Grundy, argues that the word ‘secular’ was not defined in the legislation in order “to avoid the danger of taking a stand that might have seemed anti-religious” (Grundy, p 95).

I have shared some small snippets in a complex and long debate in Victoria.  and skated over the surface of the issues surrounding the use of the word.  There are other aspects of the debate that I have not covered, such as the Protestant/Catholic dispute which was an important factor in the debates about secular education.  Neither have I considered the possibility that there were a number of different interpretations of the meaning of secular at the time.  We also need to be alert to the use of the word ‘secular’ as a rhetorical device used to advance various political positions.

The bottom line is that this shows how careful we need to be when reading historical texts to ensure that we read them as they were intended to be read, and not with a 21st century interpretation.


  • Austin, A G, Select Documents in Australian Education 1788-1900, (Carlton, Melbourne:  Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, 1963).
  • Austin, A G, Australian Education 1788-1900:  Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia, (Carlton, Vic:  Sir Isaac Pitman (Aust) Pty Ltd, 1972).
  • Ely, Richard, ‘The Background to the ‘Secular Instruction’ Provisions in Australia and New Zealand’, ANZHES Journal, 5, no. 2 (Spring 1996), pp. 33-56.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy, ‘Encompassing Religion, privatized religions and the invention of modern politics’, in Timothy Fitzgerald, ed, From Religion and the Secular:  Historical and Colonial Formations, (London:  Equinox, 2007), pp. 211-240.
  • Gregory, J S, Church and State, (North Melbourne:  Cassell Australia, 1973).
  • Grundy, Denis, ‘Secular, Compulsory and Free’:  The Education Act of 1872, (Carlton:  Melbourne University Press, 1972).
  • Macintyre, Stuart, A Colonial Liberalism:  The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries, (South Melbourne:  Oxford University Press, 1991).

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5 thoughts on “The Transformation of a Word

  1. My understanding is that the political idea of secularity arose from the situation in which churches founded such institutions as hospitals but only for their members. The government eventually made an agreement with them that they would provide public services for everyone regardless of which church or religion they came from. So secularity seems to have come from an idea of ‘common to all religions’ rather than separate from religion, as today. Of course today’s sense doesn’t make any sense because, when applied to a democratic government, it implies that a person with a religious point of view cannot participate in democracy, an oxymoronic viewpoint.


    • It would take more than a lifetime to read and digest everything pertaining to the changing meaning of ‘secular’ over the ages. I have not come across that hospital issue in my reading. Certainly the legislators and education bureaucrats in the Australian state of Victoria during the latter part of the nineteenth century did seem to use the word ‘secular’ to mean that which was common to all religions.


      • Yes, I am trying to remember something I read about the origins from the inter-church power play in England some centuries ago. It also reminds me that in regard to the ‘Irish Problem’ the phrase ‘secular problem’ was bandied, again a reference to inter-religious.


      • Yes, this is an issue that the west has been grappling with since the religious upheavals that spawned the Protestant churches. When I get a chance I would like to explore the approach that India has adopted on this issue.


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